The Necessity of Cultivating Brigade Spirit in Peace Time

(A Lecture delivered to the officers of the 25th Infantry Brigade at the 1927 Camp, Long Branch, Toronto)

By Colonel A. T. Hunter, V.D., LL.B., R. of O.
Canadian Defence Quarterly, Vol. V, Oct 1927 to Jul 1928

Suspicion of other units and sullen dislike of the staff amount in the Canadian Militia to something like paranoia. Get cured.

The song, popular at all messes, "Where are the boys of the Old Brigade?" contains two very intimate suggestions; one, that the spirit of a good brigade is something rare and valuable, and the other, that good brigades are uncommon and their personnel apt to become scarce.

Nevertheless, among all worth-while nations, history tells us of the exploits of good troops brigaded in greater or smaller numbers. But the good brigade was never accidental. Whether it was the little Spartan brigade at Thermopylae, or the ten thousand Greeks whose General Clearchus asked the surrounding million of hostile Persians—"Who will dare talk of peace to the Greeks before they have breakfasted?" or the Tenth Legion of Julius Caesar, or the Ironsides of Cromwell, or the Light Division that Sir John Moore trained on the site of our Canadian Camps, at Shorncliffe, there was always present a marvelous spirit which in the small world of athletics is called Team Play, and in the greater world of war is called, Battle Discipline.

It will also be found that one chief contributing element to this battle discipline was the confidence given by a preliminary hard grinding in drill and duties plus that superb feeling of invincibility that comes from repeated success in the field. And generally we may add to this, that there is either the presence or tradition of some great personality.

Thus, originally the Roman militia was like our militia before the War, a hit-and-miss, sometimes effective, sometimes defective, amateurish institution. Then there arose one, Caius Marius, a tremendous personality, and did things that became traditions; so that for centuries the Roman Legion became the symbol and manifestation of invincible military power, and all the great generals—Lucullus, Pompey, Caesar, and Mark Antony, and their successors in renown—strutted into history wearing the stage properties of Marius.

Lacking the impulse and the glamour of personality a brigaded force may appear dimly in history, doing excellent and never-slacking duty, but failing to catch the imagination. Such a force was Sykes' Regulars in the American Civil War. It never slumped and never hit the high spots; was merely there and stayed there when it was needed.

That American Civil War will again be closely studied by all military students when we get through discussing whether von Kluck was responsible for buckling the German line at the Marne, and whether the strategy of Lloyd George and Winston Churchill was not preferable to that of Earl Haig. Among the Civil War relics are some outstanding instances of the enormous power of the brigade spirit; but the presence of the spirit was never accidental. The heroism of Pickett's charge at Gettysburg was not accidental. For Pickett's Division was Longstreet's old division, the nucleus of which was the brigade which Longstreet was observed by one writer before the first battle of Bull Run manoeuvring with great confidence and precision. With this brigade he met the attack of the kudos-grabbing General Tyler and slapped him about so briskly that not only during the rest of the affair at Bull Run, but until the final affair at Appomattox there remained with the Southerners an over-weening feeling of superiority. Thus the presence of a strong personality to lead a brigade into action at its first blooding made hitherto green troops into a body as redoubtable as a Roman legion.

Again, in the last Shenandoah Campaign, when Jubal Early was retiring before the superior forces of Phil Sheridan, it happened at fisher's Hill that a flank was not guarded, so that the portion of the Southern Army which was commanded by General Gordon, was pounded to pieces, and completely disintegrated. Nevertheless, so great and resilient is the brigade spirit that within less than a month these disintegrated troops turned about at Cedar Creek and so mauled the splendid Sixth Army Corps that it was only Phil Sheridan's famous ride that saved the Northern Army from absolute disaster. But this resilience of the brigade spirit was not accidental. For Stonewall Jackson had left a tradition that for all time will govern operations in the Shenandoah Valley, and looking over the shoulder of every man in Gordon's command was the spirit of a great personality.

The tradition of Sir Isaac Brock has rather spoiled us Canadians because we think we can again, almost without training, spring to arms and repeat his marvelous amphibious expedition to Detroit. But Sir Isaac was a great personality and we cannot calculate on great leadership. Neither on the other hand need we fear such leadership as in 1866 when they sent the infantry to the front in advance of the cavalry. We can calculate on leaders with a reasonable share of military commonsense, and it is up to the rest of us to give them brigades that will stand the gaff.

In the last War Canada has not been without some glory of the brigade spirit. I read not long ago an account given at some military meeting of the passage of the Canal du Nord and particularly the violation by the 1st Division (Old Red Patch) of all tactical rules. For no tactician will calculate on moving troops to a flank under fire. But the 1st Division developed an amazing capacity to move in any direction under fire and performed its manoeuvres not under the compulsion of the enemy, but in accordance with designs previously concerted between Generals Currie and Macdonell. Here we had an instance of a division that showed a brigade spirit of the finest temper, and were it not for the Canadian rule that we never speak well of a fellow Canadian until he is dead, I might add something favourable about the personalities of the two generals. But what struck me most in reading this account was that, in the discussion that followed, a British general warned those present that they must not calculate on being able to do such things as were done at the Canal du Nord, for it was very unlikely that they would ever have the quality of troops with which to attempt such things.

Let us follow this line of thought. The spirit of the 1st Canadian Division in September, 1918, was not a sudden or accidental creation. The original attestation papers of the division were signed in September, 1914. Something may be done in four years with troops, especially when they begin with old soldiers and old militiamen.

But to understand the growth of this spirit let us go back to 1914 and 1915. Take for example the 4th Battalion with which some of us are familiar and which had the honor of leading off at the Canal du Nord. This battalion arose out of the birth-pains of Valcartier when they organized and re-organized battalions every three hours. When the 4th was first constituted, it comprised contingents from some thirteen different regiments, each of which was the best regiment in the Canadian militia, and whose representatives at Valcartier and Salisbury Plain looked with the hard eye of suspicion on every other contingent. There was an exception. The York Rangers and Simcoe Foresters fraternized. A campaign together in 1885 in the North West had made a sort of tradition of friendliness. But it took a campaign to do it. When entraining for the North West they did not venture to put the York Rangers and the Simcoe Foresters on the same train. In 1914 this pleasant spirit of the lone wolf was pretty general in all our battalions and was gradually assuaged and ironed out. After a while they developed a true battalion esprit-de-corps. But the brigade spirit came later. No one will contend that there was an operative brigade spirit in the first brigade on June 15, 1915, at Givenchy: it came later, and then the divisional and corps spirit.

But note this little thing. The wisdom of our statesmen saw to it that corps, division, brigade and battalion of that magnificent Canadian overseas force should be utterly, irrevocably and damnably dispersed and blown asunder. Speaking as militiamen, we may treat the men who fought in the Great War as our ancestors, because for operative purposes of the militia, they do not exist. All that is left of them is a grand tradition. You active militiamen have the fun and responsibility of starting anew to build up a Canadian force for its next emergency.

But in any operations big or little on this continent mark this difference from the Western Front. Instead of a division occupying a frontage of fifteen hundred yards it will be trying to make good a territory the size of Belgium. Instead of a group of armies sent to strike a blow you will find yourself in a brigade group asked to do Napoleonic things. God pity you then, if you have not a brigade spirit!

All our disturbances inside Canada or on its frontier have come like something dropped from the roof. Nothing in the morning papers, and the bugles sounding through the streets in the evening.

You had better start now if you want a brigade spirit when something drops.

The first steps are mental and moral. Divest yourselves of that parochial, lone-wolfish jealousy that makes it so difficult to get Canadian battalions to fraternize. Also divest yourselves of that chronic hatred of staff officers. Staff officers are not all high-brow aristocrats; they attend to a lot of homely things without which the battalions would suffer-homely things, such as supplies and billets and drinking water and latrines.

Suspicion of other units and sullen dislike of the staff amount in the Canadian Militia to something like paranoia. Get cured. Having cleared your brain of these notions, then devote part of your military thinking to combined operations and in particular to thinking how you could best use and co-operate with the various elements that would likely go to make up a brigade group.

For example, there are the machine guns. These are not merely an infantry weapon; they are well named "flapper Artillery" from their great capacity for sudden and impertinent annoyance. Unless in your military thinking you leave a space for the machine-gunner he might as well be left at home. It is true he can make a barrage over your heads, but it is only a flapper barrage, silly and wasteful. You must leave space somewhere in your line for the direct and withering impudence of machine gun fire to reach the enemy, without having to shoot a lot of thick-headed infantrymen on our own side.

You must study in peace time liaison with the gunners, and the true use of engineers, which, by the way, is not to save your men's lazy backs by digging their trenches for them.

If you want a brigade spirit you must intensively cultivate it in peace time and the presence of the spirit will manifest itself by war-games among officers, cribbage-games among sergeants and a genial spirit of festive fraternalization in all ranks.

But, if in our next emergency this brigade spirit shall be lacking, if we continue our mania of parochial jealousy and suspicion so that the men from Brantford will not take the orders of an officer from Guelph and so that the regimental officers will try six ways of evading before obeying the orders of the staff, and so that we curse instead of co-operating with the air-force, the gunners, the machine gunners, the Lewis gunners, the engineers and all and sundry except our own battalion, and generally curse about half of that for good measure, then undoubtedly we shall go into action with the pride that springs from the knowledge that the infantry is the one great indispensible arm of the service, and we shall come out again looking in literal truth like what we have been called, the P.B.I.—the poor bloody infantry.