Fears over armed forces morale and the Defence Review

Portrait of Sir Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Well...

Wellington: he 'got' morale (Image via Wikipedia)

I’m very selective over what I post relating to the SDSR nowadays – otherwise we all run the risk of SRSD-itis, and in any case, a Defence Review where the MOD is a bystander is pretty dubious. But there is a very interesting report in today’s Portsmouth News that I wanted to comment on, and draw on some historical parallels. The funny thing is, the letter that the article is based on is slightly dubious – apparently written by a ‘senior naval officer’, the individual concerned is currently at sea – so no higher than a Captain, and considering only the Carriers, Landing Ships and some destroyers are commanded by Captains, and few of them are at sea, it looks like its someone who is a Commander of below. Not too senior then.

Morale is possibly the most unquanitifiable resource that any armed service can possess. You cannot buy it (well, not in a bottle anyway), and you cannot measure it by any accountant-friendly matrix. But it wins battles, and a lack of it loses battles. Yet all too frequently, it doesn’t feature at all in planning, or in debates.

Admiral of the Fleet Viscount Andrew Cunningham‘s quote before Taranto that ‘ it takes a day to lose a battle, but hundreds of years to build a tradition’ shows how hard morale is to build, and how quickly it can be shattered. You cannot say, ‘I am going to improve morale’, you have to actually do things to lift it, and it doesnt happen overnight. Look at the oft-quoted Japanese Commander, who decreed to his troops that ‘beatings will continue until morale improves’.

With the Duke of Wellington in command in the Peninsula and at Waterloo, the British Army knew that it had a gifted commander who was on top of his game, and was not going to squander their lives needlessly. Which does wonders for morale – men are more likely to fight well if they know their Generals are good, if they think they have a chance of winning, and most importantly, if they have a good chance of surviving. The same principles could be applied to Marlborough as well as Wellington.

There are some tragic examples of how things can go badly wrong when morale is ignored. Whilst much has been written in the ‘Lions led by Donkeys‘ debate about the Western Front, it would be hard to argue that British Generals in 1914-18 were overly concerned with their men. Its also probably the time in British military history where there was a bigger gulf in understanding between field officers upwards and the rank and file. Living and fighting in miserable conditions, in a war where the men knew very well that the commanders were struggling, could more have been achieved if the men had simply been treated like human beings? It is hard to know for sure, but it cannot have hurt.

The men who commanded the British Army in the Second World War were the platoon, company and battalion commanders of the previous war. As junior officers on the western front they had very much shared the hardships of their men, and most of them came to despise the Generals who had commanded them. Men such as Montgomery, Slim and Horrocks showed a strong concern for their men. Montgomery expressed an opinion that if you want men to risk their lives for you, then you owe it to them to explain exactly WHY. Slim of course was from very humble beginnings himself, having served as Private in a University Cadet unit. Horrocks was famously incredulous when he discovered that the Americans were not giving their men hot meals in the Ardennes. Men fighting in the snow need and deserve a hot meal first, he told them. On the other side of the coin, Generals who had little regard for their men were not liked – Ivo ‘Butcher’ Thomas, for example.

But bringing thinking back to the Royal Navy, the RN is possibly the most prominent example of how an armed service, morale and national identity are inherently intertwined. Rule Britannia, Heart of Oak, Nelson, Victory, Trafalgar… the Navy might not have the vast numbers of ships any more, nor the frequent opportunities to use them, but the tradition is still there. Look at the Falklands… Commander Chris Craig taking HMS Alacrity through Falkland Sound, HMS Coventry and HMS Broadsword on picket duty off West Falkland, and Captain John Coward of HMS Brilliant. They are the descendants of Drake, Rodney, Vernon, Hawke, Howe, Nelson, Collingwood, Cochrane, Jellicoe, Beatty and Cunningham.

Yet, if you gut that sense of tradition, and the feeling of being part of something special, you lose a vital resource that has been built up over hundreds of years, and once thrown away, is lost forever. Morale.



Filed under Army, debate, defence, Napoleonic War, Navy, News, Royal Air Force, World War One, World War Two

16 responses to “Fears over armed forces morale and the Defence Review

  1. Sadly it means sweet FA to the bean counters.

  2. x

    Didn’t read it; past caring. 😉

    Did you mention Red Ed’s new defence shadow? Another competent heavy hitter with deep political experience and knowledge of the portfolio, not.

    (Only jokin’ JD…….)

  3. x

    How many 4 ringers are at sea at the moment? Not many me thinks…….if at all.

    (There was a sad time when I would have known the answer to that type of question.)

  4. Labour have a defence shadow? Who?

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