The Minute Book
Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Regimental History is Social History
Topic: Commentary

Regimental History is Social History

Many researchers and authors, when studying the history of a regiment, tend to focus on periods of conflict. This conflict studies approach places an inordinate focus on the actions of the regiment in wartime, often to the exclusion of other aspects of the regiment. Similarly, the long tradition of such focus on "special events" in examining our own regimental histories tends to minimize the equal importance of recording the normal routines of regimental life both during and between periods of intense activity.

But a regiment is a sum of all its parts, and battlefield actions, while inarguably important, are only one part of a much broader, and richer, whole. While one slice of a regimental history is definitely conflict studies, the overall study of a regiment is a much broader social history.

The enduring character of a regiment is based on how it perceives itself, and how it is perceived by others. The roles and attitudes adopted by a regiment in peace and war, as well as the slings and arrows directed at a Regiment and its reputation, with good or ill humour, are as important to understand as its list of Battle Honours. Take, for example, the Canadian Army's two English-speaking Regular Force infantry regiments; The Royal Canadian Regiment (The RCR) and the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI).

The RCR began in 1883 as the Infantry School Corps, with the expressed purpose of being formed to maintain Schools of Instruction for the training of Militia officers and non-commissioned officers. In this role, The RCR, both institutionally and in the actions of individuals, became the strict schoolmasters of the Army. Their responsibility to teach others "by the book" and to correct those who strayed from the doctrinal path as they came from diverse home units to the Royal Schools. The reputation to be sticklers for detail, referenced even by the Regiment's motto to "Never Pass a Fault" are deeply embedded in the attitudes that many in the Regiment hold to; adhering to known courses of action and proven procedures that will not create confusion when time does not allow for thorough preparation of new options. This institutional desire for stability, however, is often interpreted as inflexibility. Conversely, the many adherents of "flexibility" above other options attempt to follow so many different paths, that to a stereotypical Royal Canadian they can seem to be embracing chaos without concern for compatibility of procedure or repeatability. From its earliest roots, The Royal Canadian Regiment has maintained at least a vestige of this stabilizing attitude, even while keeping pace with the Army's evolution over more than a century and, despite the Regiment's accomplishments in recent decades, it's reputation as described by others often reflects the strictest perceptions of its original role.

The PPCLI, in comparison, have taken a very different path with regard to their origins and reputation. They were created in Ottawa in 1914, formed by the targeted recruitment of ex-British Army soldiers, many of whom had seen active service in the Imperial Army. In fact, the regimental history (Williams, pg. 7) states that the first recruiting posters advertised that "Preference will be given to ex-regulars of the Canadian or Imperial Forces; or men who saw service in South Africa." From that beginning, the PPCLI saw themselves as a very British regiment. They started their service in France during the First World War in the 80th Brigade of the British Expeditionary Force, and only joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) in late 1915 when the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division was formed. Brigaded with The RCR in the 7th Canadian Infantry Brigade, the old soldiers of the two regiments probably had much more in common with each other than either did with the many new recruits of the CEF. Three years later, with the rate of reinforcements delivered by the CEF throughout the war, there was probably little difference between the two units by late 1918, except for those attributes maintained by old and new traditions in the ranks of each.

After the First World War, both The RCR and the PPCLI were maintained as active regiments in Canada's Permanent Force, with each being assigned company stations to continue the role originally played by The RCR before 1914. The RCR re-occupied stations in central and eastern Canada, while the PPCLI went west, where it underwent a metamorphosis. While it may have been expected that the PPCLI would evolve to be more like that of The RCR, given the parallel roles they filled in the years between the World Wars, that didn't happen. The RCR, and its reputation, returned to their roots, and their reputation as sticklers for detail was sustained. The PPCLI blazed a new path and built a reputation for doing so. Despite taking on the training role, the PPCLI, probably in large part through the change in their recruiting base, of those attracted to the West, coupled with a force of regimental will to set themselves apart, successfully remodeled their own reputation. Both internally and as perceived externally, they changed dramatically, into a self advertised regiment with a western maverick attitude, filled with bold soldiers unafraid to live up to the spirit of that heritage.

Ask a "Patricia" to compare the Regiments, and you will hear of the Royal Canadian's tendency to follow the manual, perceived as seldom seeking a new path, and to uphold themselves as the stable defenders of tradition (of course, they will probably use a variety of very different descriptive terms). Ask a "Royal Canadian" the same question, and the reply will emphasize their own Regiment's stability, with a comparative description of the Patricia's impetuousness and overt readiness to change the rules. But put the officers, non-commissioned officers and soldiers of the two regiments together on a task and, after getting past their cultural differences they will find themselves not that far apart on the desire to efficiently execute the mission or in willingness to forge new options as the situation demands.

Regimental reputations and stereotypes are as much forged in peacetime as they are on the field of battle. The culture of a regiment is a unique combination of its own perception of self, its recruiting base and serving personnel, and the traditions and memories it maintains, most significantly those maintained in the enduring oral narratives that form the basis of internal cultural understanding in a self-propagating manner. In understanding these cultural evolutions, and their place in the social history of regiments, we gain a better understanding of who our nation's soldiers are, and how they perceive themselves and each other as they serve our nation, in peace and war.


The Senior Subaltern

Posted by regimentalrogue at 12:01 AM EDT
Updated: Wednesday, 14 August 2013 2:19 AM EDT

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