Category Archives: Korean War

The making of the British Army – Allan Mallinson

The Making of the British Army - Allan Mallinson

The Making of the British Army - Allan Mallinson

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.

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Filed under Army, Book of the Week, cold war, Falklands War, Iraq, Korean War, Napoleonic War, World War One, World War Two

Victoria Cross Heroes: The Battle of the Imjin River

Survivors of the Glosters stand on the Imjin river

Survivors of the Glosters stand on the Imjin river

Certain battles come to have a defining influence on the armed forces out of all proportion to their size, for many years later. The battle of the Imjin river is just one of these.

During the Korean War in April 1951, The North Koreans – with heavy Chinese Communist support – launched a strong attack on UN positions near the Imjin river, just north of Seoul. The sector was defended by the 29th Infantry Brigade, with a Belgian Battalion under command. This relatively tiny force held their positions for over 2 days, against overwhelming opposition. Although many were killed or captured, their actions did much to blunt the Communist offensive. Not only did it have a tactical and strategic influence, but also a moral one. The heroic stand on the Imjin river captured the world’s imagination.

In particular the stand of the 1st Battalion of the Gloucestershire Regiment – the Glorious Glosters – has come to have a huge legacy on the traditions of the British Army. Not because they were SAS, or Paras, or Marines, but ordinary line infantry, young men from a peaceful country recruiting area, many of them national servicemen. It showed what ordinary people are capable of when making a stand.

The Glosters CO, Lieutenant-Colonel James Carne, was awarded the VC. Although he had won a DSO in the second world war, he was seen as an average officer at best. However during the battle he moved constantly amongst his unit under heavy fire, and twice personally led assault parties to drive the enemy back – a tactic H Jones would employ at Goose Green. He was eventually captured and subjected to brutal treatment in captivity, including being drugged and forcefed communist propaganda.

Lieutenant Phillip Curtis, of the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry but attached to the Glosters, had learnt of the death of his wife just before the battle. He went on to charge an enemy machine gun post alone. Not once, but twice, even after being wounded the first time. He was killed yards from the position, and was awarded the VC. His story is certainly not the only one where a soldier has reacted to personal loss by disregarding their own safety.

Among the other British officers decorated was Captain Anthony Farrar-Hockley, who was awarded a Distinguised Service Order. He had originally enlisted as a Private in the Glosters in second world war, whilst underage. After earning a commission and serving with the Parachute Regiment in Greece, he spent two years as a prisoner after the Imjin battle. He went on to command Allied Forces Northern Europe, retiring as a General.

The Battle of the Imjin river deserves a place in British military history alongside Waterloo, Rorkes Drift and Arnhem as examples of how soldiers know what has gone before them, what their forefathers have done, and what they are capable of doing themselves. In an army which places tradition higher than any other, these are valuable stories indeed.

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Filed under Army, cold war, Korean War, victoria cross