I’m not given to religious quotes and—lest any reader fall under the delusion that your humble scribe has gone all pious in his dotage, the only reason I know the verse in the title is from as eloquent an anti-war film as you’re likely to see—Breaker Morant, Bruce Beresford’s 1980 gem about Australians in the Boer War.
One extremely effective anti-war policy is to have no army at all—such as Costa Rica pursues and with some success. Outside observers of British military deployment might be deceived into thinking we were pursuing the same policy, now that another round of cuts—this time 5,300 personnel from the Army only—was announced this week from the Commons despatch box. Yet another faceless minister no-one remembers seeing before waded through the thankless task, ostensibly to prove his mettle under adverse circumstances but actually so that Hammond didn’t have to.
Details of the total cuts to the Army by 2020 are available on the Army’s web site. Even if you’re a pacifist, it makes for sad reading if you want your country (however you define that) to play its part in joint security in the world. Stuart Crawford, a retired Lt. Colonel for whose military opinion I have much respect, had a piece in the Hootsmon in which he dispelled any myth that this had to do with a more sensible defence posture (rather than desperately saving money) as claptrap.
Stuart made comparisons with the British Army of yore, observing that the ‘new’ Army of 82,000 would be smaller than pre-Crimea or the ‘Old Contemptibles’ sent to war in 1914 and who so effectively dislocated von Kluck’s pivot through Belgium at the cost of horrendous casualties, among them my grandad. His point is that there would be no ‘depth’ to our forces: one good engagement with substantial casualties and there might be no army at all.
But it is rather worse than that. Comparisons with 1850 or 1914 are barely tenable. In either case, the structure of the army was far simpler. Over 80% of soldiers were infantry, with most of the rest cavalry and artillery. Logistics, signaling, catering and the like were primitive. Armour, transport, air, electronics, etc were non-existent. Prince Harry’s Apache gunship, on which troops on the ground in Afghanistan relied for serious firepower support, was pure science fiction.
“Casualties in the 120,000-strong BEF between 14 October and 30 November were 58,155, the majority of whom were infantry. Of the eighty-four British infantry battalions at Ypres on 1 November, eighteen had fewer than 100 men, thirty-one fewer than 200 men, twenty-six had fewer than 300 men, and only nine exceeded 300 men.”
With extensive overseas expeditions in WW1 and WW2 as precursors to the kind of overseas spats that Britain has engaged in since, the logistical ‘tail’ of any troops on the ground at the ‘sharp end’ has grown until there are now, of necessity, more soldiers operating radars, flying drones, cooking lunches, servicing ‘copters, testing equipment, etc than at the front doing any shooting.
Add in the fact that heavy tanks, SP artillery, heavy lift transports, while all part of British Army inventory, have no role to play in any of the brush wars it has fought since Suez. From Falklands through Yugoslavia to Afghanistan such expensive gear has been no more use than the Trident submarine fleet. What we have always needed (and never had enough of) is trained infantry.
In total, 23 Regiment-sized (in anyone else’s parlance battalion-sized or about 600 troops) units will be disbanded—in Armyspeak ‘removed from ORBAT’. They are spread over all the Corps and include two tank, one artillery, four logistics and four engineer units. But the biggest lump is loss of six infantry units—equivalent in size to the entire Scottish Army (when we go indy and have one).
It also means that the 32 serving active infantry battalions, augmented by three Parachute, two Gurkha and a couple of RM Commando battalions, all trained for special types of warfare but usable as regular infantry at a pinch, will be reduced by a third. Put in other terms, the 24,700 soldiers currently in the infantry arm will reduce by about 4,000.
Add in the fact that any infantry battalion (nominally ~720 soldiers) has a HQ company full of drivers, clerks and general non-coms, plus three companies each with heavy weapons sections that lug mortars and machine guns around for local fire support and there are fewer than 500 real infantrymen who went in with cold steel on Mount Longdon or are patrolling various village streets in Helmand.
This piece is not meant to disparage British infantry, nor their training or capability. But superb training, kevlar helmet, plentiful support or no, they are each just a man (unlike the Israelis, the British don’t let women serve in the infantry) and, as such, vulnerable. When the Argentine Air Force caught Sir Galahad with its trousers down in Bluff Cove in 1982, over 300 Welsh Guardsmen died, despite superb élan.
It is foolish for the MoD (under prodding from the Tories) to claim that we can thole such reductions and still be a world power with forces to quell global hotspots as the Paras did in Sierra Leone a decade ago. The people on the overstretched front line in Helmand are doing a brave but impossible job. It would not take a serious deterioration in the situation there for casualties to rise to untenable levels. The idea that we can dispose of six front line units that are the ONLY type of units to sensibly deploy in similar terrorist powder kegs and then rattle our sabre about threats from Mali and Algeria verges on the delusional.
Our armed forces should not be forced to make up for politicians’ shortcomings, nor provide the cover for politicians’ chest-butting overambition. But loyalty demands that they obey—but at what cost to their deserved sky-high reputation, not to mention morale?
“And thine enemies shall be those of thine own household.”