Lest hostile readers think the title too flippant, let me start by assuring any reader of my respect and gratitude for all those who put themselves in harm’s way on behalf of the rest of us. Previous generations of my family have done their bit—my grandad was separated from half a leg while contesting Ypres with 2nd Bn Scots Guards and my dad toured North Africa and Northwest Europe as a driver with 44th RTR in 4th Armd Bde. I am especially grateful that this European corner of the world has become a saner place and to be the first generation not called on to serve my country.
For, necessary as armed forces may be, they represent an instrument of exercising what von Clausewitz described as “diplomacy by other means“. I admire but do not subscribe to either Iceland’s or Costa Rica’s approach, which is to eschew armed forces at all. Harry Truman’s dictum: “Walk softly…and carry a big stick” appears to me the more sensible approach.
Every since the English Navy played merry hell with the Spanish Armada, this island of Britain has been a force to be reckoned with on the world stage. That has been effected by a skilled Royal Navy that protected British maritime trade, that in turn dominated global commerce from then until a century ago. This allowed a smallish but highly professional Army to conquer the famous ‘pink’ fifth of the globe and police a population far more numerous than Britain itself. The resulting apogee was prosperous Edwardian Britain.
The Armed Forces and those who served in them do deserve recognition and respect but the modern egalitarian, meritocratic Forces contrast with those that built the empire. For much of the time, officer commissions were awarded on the basis of class, bribery or both. This made the lives of squaddies and tars dependent on the whim of whoever they were landed with as commanders.
Some like Wolfe and Nelson learned their trade and valued their men but this is the origin of the British Army’s reputation elsewhere of ‘lions led by donkeys‘. Loss of half the 700 men of the Light Brigade at Balaklava in 1854 or the 4,500 troops wiped out in 1842’s retreat from Kabul or 1,300 men overwhelmed by Zulus at Isandlwana in 1879 can all be attributed to command incompetence. Thankfully, the Royal Navy was smart enough to realise that the admiral on the spot needed to form accurate opinions and choose well among options with advice days or weeks away and trained accordingly.
But well led or no, empire-building came at a cost. Until the mid-19th century, men were press-ganged into the navy and flogging was common discipline. This blog earlier published a map showing how bullying Britain became, invading most of the current 200 countries at one time or another and putting down local resistance to the Raj with brutality—as in Amritsar in 1919, when troops under Brig. Gen. Dyer opened fire on 10,000 unarmed protesters hemmed into Jallianwallah Bagh, killing 379 and wounding over 1,200. The House of Lords praised his action, and a fund was raised in his honour.
However, the worst aspect of military operations down the ages has been the relative incompetence with which British forces have been equipped and led. Cheapskate politicians are not a new phenomenon: hapless Government troops at Killiecrankie in 1689 could not remove the plug bayonet in time to fire their weapons before a horde of screaming Highlanders were cutting them down. It took a century to adopt the slotted bayonet that allowed the musket to be fired with the bayonet still attached.
Whether in tactics of weapons, Britain has relied on the sheer doggedness of its trained men to overcome opposition. In the American Revolution, nicely lined-up redcoats were shot down by skilled hunters; 120 years later the same happened at Spion Kop, Modder River, Magersfontein. At Coronel in 1914, Craddock’s ancient armoured cruisers (and 1,570 men) were faced by Spee’s modern ones—and sunk; 27 years later the much-vaunted but under-armoured HMS Hood faced the modern Bismarck—and blew up with the loss of all but three of her 1,433 crew.
Unfortunately, as Britain’s power waned, this effect intensified during the ‘good’ wars of the 20th century. The first (of our four to date) invasions of Iraq in 1914/16 was mishandled with losses over 4,000. The Admiralty took its sweet time to organise convoys against the U-boat menace in 1916, causing much unnecessary loss of merchant navy life—and entered WW2 making the same mistake due to having almost no escort vessels. They tried to compensate by sending carriers on a fool’s errand of ‘hunting’ U-boats; they gave up when HMS Courageous was sunk by the sub she was ‘hunting’ (U-29) with the loss of 519 lives.
Such mismanagement was not confined to the Admiralty. In 1939, the RAF’s light bomber force was equipped with the Fairey Battle. Ten squadrons were sent to France in time for the German invasion; they lost 99 (~70%) of the slow and under-armed aircraft in the first week. At the same time, the British Army’s cavalry tradition demanded light, fast ‘cruiser’ tanks. When these came up against the Afrika Korps panzers in 1941, they were regularly and roundly trounced—not just because they were outgunned and under-armoured but because they were employed in wild cavalry-style charges. The Germans dug-in AT guns included the venomous ’88’ AA gun that could destroy such tanks at five times the range at which any British tank gun was effective. The British did have a 3.7″ AA gun but doctrine forbade it being used in the AT role. The ever-efficient Wehrmacht had no such scruples.
Despite having invented the tank throughout WW2, British tank and anti-tank equipment was consistently second-rate and set a precedence for post-war equipment. Fighting Kenyan Mau-Mau or Malayan communists in the 1950s caused casualties for the lack of armour on patrol vehicles. This was STILL the case in the last decade in Afghanistan with vulnerable Land Rovers replaced by overweight Mastiff until the Foxhound patrol vehicle came into service late on. And it’s not just the Army—the Navy has no patrol boats with the clout and speed of the Finnish Hamina class; the RAF has no long-range maritime patrol craft at all (pretty dumb for an island with supposed global pretensions).
Despite the third-biggest defence budget on the planet, for the last century, Britain has kept up the pretence of being a global power, of ‘punching above its weight’ of being able to rough it in the playground with the big boys. By insisting on a global role that requires nuclear submarines (probably the most useless weapon we have ever deployed) and full-scale aircraft carriers, one glance at the Chinese or Russian armed forces—let alone the sole superpower with its dozen carrier task forces—tells anyone we are no longer big league; not only do we have no business throwing our weight about but we can’t afford it.
So, by all means honour all those who serve or who have served in our Armed Forces, especially those who made the ultimate sacrifice. Whether you include the desk-jockeys of the MoD is another matter. But the present collection of odd ships, merged regiments and misfit aircraft is a shilpit remnant of once-glorious tradition that is long overdue for reduction to a regional power. Far from securing peace around the world, our intruding into other people’s time zones with a shadow of the authority that the Victorians once wielded, incomplete, unbalanced Armed Farces as we have today actually lose Britain friends and provoke setbacks like 7/7 or British recruits for Isis or the Taliban.