Daily Archives: 14 August, 2010

Review of the MoD – welcome news?

Credit where credit’s due, I find it hard to argue with Liam Fox’s announcement yesterday regarding reforming the MoD. And I never thought I would find myself agreeing with a Conservative Defence Secretary!

It’s long been one of the worst kept secrets in Britain that the MoD has become a bit of a monster – employing thousands of people, multiplying all the time in terms of managers, departments and committees, losing track of its own finances, making a hash of procurement and generally losing sight of what its there for. Its noticeable that during the many Defence Review’s over the past 50 or so years, the armed forces themselves have been hammered repeatedly, while the Ministry itself has sat untouchable on a pedestal.

Working in local government, I can kind of see what the problem is, only my experience is obviously on a much smaller scale. I get the feeling that the response to any problem over the past few years has been to appoint another manager, ending up with layer upon layer of ‘non-jobs’, people who are there building their own little empires but adding very little value to the bigger picture.

Its my opinion that if you work for any public sector organisation, you need to never lose sight of why you are there. In the MoD’s case, it is to equip and support our armed services. But there are plenty of cases of MoD mandarins losing the plot with senior officers because their decisions did not fit in with their precious process management. The dog should wag the tail, not the other way round. When you add in a New-Labour style obsession with publicity and Stalinist control, its no wonder that the MoD has become so unfit for purpose.

Stories abound of the MoD spending millions on swanky new officers and modern art installations, while servicemen’s barracks are in a dilapidated state and men were going to war with inadequate equipment. OK so its an oft-quoted cliche, but that sort of thing should be anathema to the MoD. The culture of the organisation needs to change – civil servants are there to serve the country (the clue is in the name), and in the MoD, they can best do that by supporting the forces, not treating them as an inconvenience that mucks up their nice neat plans.

The intention with scrapping the old Admiralty, War Office and Air Ministry back in the 1960’s was to bring Defence and the armed forces together, kicking and screaming into the modern age. However after the initial forming of the MoD – which was traumatic enough – it seems that no-one had the stomach to push for further reforms. Although there has been a growth of jointery in recent years as the result of cost-cutting, there is still a feeling of the three services always squabbling against each other, and the Treasury happily shafting everyone.

Dr Fox also mentioned the possibility of reforming command structures within the armed forces themselves. If units are to be cut and equipment is going to be scrapped, and even the MoD itself is going to be reformed, it is hard to see how the senior officers can escape. I’ve thought for a while that the armed forces do seem a little top heavy with Admirals, Generals and Air Marshals – isn’t it slightly strange how we have more Admiral’s than major surface warships, for example? While the forces themselves have shrunk since the end of the Cold War, command structures and senior posts have largely remained the same.

The thing is, the heads of the individual services are so disempowered nowadays, as all spending and decision making is made by the MoD and the politicians, that they are effectively just advisors. Operations come directly under the Chief of Defence Staff, through the Permanent Joint Headquarters. Each service also has a Commander-in-Chief just below the overall Chief, so with the expected shrinkage of the forces we might see these two levels of post merge. And how many senior officers do we have who are in posts such as ‘Vice Deputy Chief of Procurement (Shoelaces)?

It might just makes the forces more efficient – less people, less links in the chain, less complicated. The idea of reforming the MoD into three pillars – policy and strategy, armed forces and procurement and estates – does seem to me to be a step forward from what at present is a grossly untidy situation. I know a lot of people will deride these reforms as cuts, and of course they are, but root-and-branch overhaul has to be better than salami slicing.

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1st Hampshires in the Great War – Christmas and New Year on the Somme

For their first stint back in the front line since the grievous losses on 23 October, D Company was in the front line, C Company in support, and A and B Companies were in reserve. The Battalion’s front line was about 500 yards long, and opposite St Pierre Vaast Wood. This tour of the front line also saw a new rotation of companies. Instead of all of the Battalion being in the line for the duration and having other Battalions in reserve, the Hampshires held a shorter front, with Battalions rotating between front line, support and reserve every day. This caused less strain on the men by lessening the time they were in the front line for any continuous period, and also gave newer soldiers a chance to gain experience gradually.

The 1st Hampshires were relieved on 23 December 1916 by the 1st Somerset Light Infantry, after four days in the front line. After marching to Maurepas the next three days were spent carying out fatigues, including on Christmas Day. The Battalion were in the front line again on 27 December, relieving the 1st East Lancashire Regiment. A similar routine of rotating Companies was once again carried out. This was a very short tour, however, for on 29 December the 1st Hants were relieved by the 2nd Middlesex Regiment. After once again marching back to Maurepas, lorries took the men the rest of the way to Bray. There the Battalion worked on making its camp habitable, including building roads and paths. The day before New Years Eve a draft of 132 reinforcements arrived.

The first page of the War Diary for 1917 records that the first week of January was spent in a ‘plucky attempt’ at training in spite of very poor conditions. The camp now had a road into it, and chalk paths round the huts. Training was mostly limited to musketry and gas helmet training. A regimental course was set up for training men in using the Lewis Light Machine Gun. Due to operational commitments on the actual day, the 4th Division celebrated Christmas Day on 7 January 1917, putting on a good dinner but in a typically british manner the War Diary bemoans the lack of plates or glasses.

The next week was again spent on training, until 15 January when the Battalion marched to huts in Curlu. This camp was much better than the one at Bray, consisting of small huts with a capacity for 25 men each. Training was impossible, however, due to a heavy fall of snow. Therefore time was spent improving drainage and building cookhouses.

On 20 January the Battalion relieved the 1st East Lancashire Regiment in the front line. D Company, however, remained in Curlu and was attached to the East Lancs. The front line was around 500 yards long, and about 500 yards east of Bouchavesnes, which itself was three miles north of Peronne. Rations had to be carried 5 miles from the nearest road – a significant logistical undertaking. The front line was exposed, as the enemy occupied higher ground. The front line does seem to have been relatively quiet during this stage of the war, however; the Germans limiting themselves to the odd shell and the odd sniper.

On 24 January the 1st Hants were relieved by the 1st East Lancs, and went back tot dugouts in Clery or camp in Curlu. No work could be carried out while the men were out of the line, as the ground was so hard. The Battalion were back in the front line again on 28 January, and again the Battalion practised a roulement of Companies. On 1 February the Hampshires were relieved by the 1st Kings Own Regiment, and marched back to camp near Suzanne, the last Company arriving just before 6am on the 2nd.

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