The British Army, which can traces an almost unbroken lineage back to the days of Cromwell, often appears to outsiders as a curious institution. Why is the Navy the ROYAL Navy, and the Air Force the ROYAL Air Force? The answer is inherent in the Army’s culture – the Regiment is the primary loyalty in the Army, and the Army has for hundreds of years evolved to become a confederation of regimental tribes.
Allan Mallinson’s book is not a quick read. But then, the development of the British Army has not been a quick process. Several regiments in the modern Army can trace their lineage back to Cromwell’s New Model Army.
The story of the British Army is one of hard-won military experience. Of campaigns on all continents, in defence of Empire and against tyranny. Yet British culture has almost always placed the Royal Navy in the ascendancy. As an island nation the Navy defends us. With a strong Navy, the need for an Army is minimal, or so naval advocates have argued time and time again. The Army is a bullet, to be fired by the Navy.
So for many years the Army found itself fighting small, colonial wars around the globe, punctuated by rare forays onto the European mainland. But for the most part, at least until the twentieth century, the British Army was not a major factor in British defence planning.
What stands out most of all, is that often the British Army has managed to exert an influence out of all proportion to its size. Why? For one, apart from during and immediately after the two world wars, it has overwhelmingly been a volunteer force. Smaller than most continental Armies, never the less this small, volunteer ethos has continually led to the British Army having a stronger discipline, better training and professionalism. Over time, particular in the past 50 years, the Army has come to have a stronger identity, and a stronger grip over its constituent parts.
The British Army is also one in which people and events have always had an impact way beyond their time. Leaders such as Marlborough and Wellington still influence young army officers today. In particular, valiants stands at Waterloo, Rorkes Drift and Arnhem have a powerful motivational effect on officers and men alike. As Mallinson so aptly tells us, at Goose Green in the Falklands, one 2 Para officer told his men two simple words: ‘remember Arnhem’.
The Army is undergoing a period of change once more: it is engaged in a savage fight against a formidable foe in Helmand province. This is taking place against a background of continual defence cuts and reforms, with many famous old names disappearing as local regiments become increasingly regional in make-up. This might dilute local loyalties, but still I suspect it is easier to feel loyalty to a name than a number. Perhaps for the British Army more than any other, heritage makes it what it is. From the shining examples of victories – and defeats – to the uniforms, names, museums, quirky traditions and pomp and pageantry, history oozes out of every pore.
To try to understand the culture of the British Army, especially from the point of view of someone looking in from the outside, is no easy task. It was once said that an Army should be a mirror of the society that it comes from, but it is much more complicated than that. To explain the history of the British Army by simply charting battles and campaigns is not enough. This book by Allan Mallinson, although by no means an academic text, brings a complex story up to date. Although he is himself an ex serving soldier, his writing is refreshingly free of the ‘old boys’ style where old officers are respected regardless of their achievements – or lack of – and where officers live in the past, with no eye on the future.