Modern Infantry Discipline (1934)

Modern Infantry Discipline (1934)

By a Field Officer.
Journal of the Royal United Service Institution, Vol. LXXIX, Feb to Nov 1934

In every profession there must exist a discipline, the form of which will vary according to the requirements of that profession: thus the discipline of the monk differs widely from that of the sailor or tradesman. But each form of discipline is or should be equally effective when applied in its proper sphere: so it is that the discipline of soldiers, if it is to be the servant and not the master, must vary according to the duty the soldier has to perform in war. The discipline of the Pomeranian grenadier is useless when skirmishing tactics are required: cavalry discipline may be unsuited to dismounted units, while the discipline of a mechanized unit will vary from that of horse or foot without being in any way its inferior. Consequently, when tactics change or, in other words, when the soldier's task in war is altered, there must automatically arise a need for modification in the system of his discipline in order that the type applied may be such as is best calculated to make the troops mentally attuned to their new tasks instead of handicapping them in the execution of those tasks. This problem confronts us now.

Fifteen years have passed since the end of the Great War, and at such a distance the fundamental changes in infantry tactics brought about by the War are to be seen with far greater clearness than they were in the years immediately following the Armistice.

Those changes are many, but, in so far as the infantry is concerned, the principal one is the final abandonment in the attack of linear tactics and big battalions with relatively weak support by fire, in favour of an overwhelming superiority of fire as an essential condition for success, the numbers of assaulting infantry being kept as low as possible, consistently with the occupation of the ground won. In other words, infantry no longer wins battles but confirms the ground won, and the lines of charging infantry so familiar and so victorious on every battlefield, from Blenheim down to recent times, have become a thing of the past. The first warning of their doom came in South Africa as far back as 1899; their death knell was sounded on the Aisne, and their fate sealed at Passchendaele. Soldiers and politicians alike agree that neither a regular nor a citizen army must ever again be subjected to such fruitless losses or committed to an undertaking which, against the weapons of a modern defence, can only result in moral and physical defeat.

Of late so much has been written about the fire plan that the foregoing might be obvious enough to all serious students of infantry training had not certain influences been at work since the War, which have tended to divert attention from the problem, both in its tactical and its psychological aspect. It will be well to examine them briefly.

First, there was the "back to 1914" movement. In Sir Douglas Haig's last despatch we find the statement that the soundness of pre-war training was amply proved by the course of the War. [Footnoted: "Then followed the experience of the Battle of the Somme … which showed that the principles of our pre-War training were as sound as ever … the longer the War lasted the more emphatically it has been realized that our original organization and training were based on correct principles. The danger of altering them too much to deal with some temporary phase has been greater than the risk of adjusting them too little."—Sir Douglas Haig's final despatch, para. 21 (p. 345 in Boraston's edition).] When we come to compare the Infantry Training and Field Service Regulations of 1914 with the corresponding manuals of to-day which, like the intervening editions, must have been based on the experience of the War, the statement seems surprising enough; but surprising or not, it must have been hailed with delight by the survivors of the pre-War days, who in 1919 found themselves engaged in reforming the infantry battalions of the British Army.

Let us recall the position; a very considerable proportion of those pre-War officers, to say nothing of the warrant and non-commissioned officers, had had the misfortune early in the War to be taken prisoners or to be so badly wounded that they did not return to the battlefield at all; others were taken for staff and training duties. In short, through no discredit to themselves, they had taken a small enough share in the actual infantry fighting, which by the end of the War was being carried on by the younger officers and officers promoted from the ranks, who formed the bulk of the junior officers doing regimental duty in 1919. The situation of the average infantry battalion at that time was one of great confusion—tactical, administrative and, it must be said, social; for who could say whether the standards of living maintained by the officer class before 1914 could be or ought to be maintained in the changed post-War conditions, more especially when the post-War boom began to collapse. For the preeWar, and therefore senior, officers the problem was psychological and it is not unfair to say that their reactions to it were, speaking generally, psychologically normal. "Back to 1914" was the cry. "Back to the training we understood, the system we understood. We have Sir Douglas Haig's own authority."

And so, though the tactical doctrines of 1914 could not be resurrected in their entirety, the psychology of post-War training was based, no doubt to a certain extent unconsciously, on the psychology of the training required to lead unbroken lines of men, men from whom education and initiative were neither forthcoming or required, up the slopes of Ramillies, down the slopes of Waterloo, over the plains of Omdurman or across the cornfields of the Aisne.

So training season has succeeded training season, with no prospect of a major war till the next generation, and the conditions of peace-time training have carried on the work begun in 1919. It is only at certain limited seasons of the year, namely in the periodof about six weeks in all devoted to battalion and higher training, that all arms are exercised, in co-operation; for the rest of the year the battalion, and more particularly the rifle company, is left to its own devices, yet it is at the same time encouraged to arrange realistic training to the exclusion of imaginary weapons and forces, and this leads naturally to the staging of situations in which rifle companies are given tasks which they are capable of undertaking without co-operation by other arms; the tasks of semi-civilized warfare, internal security or the fringes of modern battlefield, but in the nature of things not of the main battle.

It is indeed a rare enough sight to see any rifle company training at home which is more than a skeleton formation, for many causes have operated to divert not only men but also attention from this Cinderella of the battlefield. Mechanization, wireless and the like have claimed the time of the higher authorities; the machine gun, mortar, anti-tank platoon and intelligence section have priority within the battalion, so the result is that, as one skeleton formation looks vastly like another, the change in tactics required of the rifle company has been far from obvious at first sight.

Then there is the tattoo complex. The psychology of the tattoo is worth more than passing notice, but when it is recalled that the tattoo ground approximates in size far more closely to the old-fashioned battlefield than to the modern, it will be evident that old-fashioned battles will usually have to be staged in preference to scenes from modern war. Add to this the spectacular effect of the old-time uniforms and drill movements, and the extensive grip which the tattoo has on three out of four big commands at home, and it will be seen how strongly the influence of tattoos operates in a backward direction : not indeed to 1914, but to periods earlier still.

It is well to take stock of this state of affairs, for everything has combined to divert attention from the changes in infantry tactics brought about by the War, and to base our post-War infantry training on pre-War psychology.

The next step is to investigate this pre-War psychology. Even in the 1932 edition of Infantry Training, Vol. I, we are told that the first and quickest method of inculcating discipline is close-order drill, which is here, as elsewhere in the manual, sharply distinguished from the drill incidental to physical training. This matter of close-order drill lies at the root of the whole problem, for it is the clue which takes us straight back to the origins of the standing Army, the New Model Army, from which the armies of Marlborough, Wolfe and Wellington descended in unbroken line. Those armies fought in close linear or column formations and on relatively small battlefields. The formations and the evolutions necessary to adopt or change them on the battlefield are the precursors of our close-order drill movements of to-day: column, line, and the turns and wheels necessary to assume the several varieties of each formation. It was, therefore, logical and natural that the training of those days should be directed to the perfection of the movements which the army was required to adopt on the battlefield; the march past in line was a test of the unit's mastery of its battle formation, no less and probably no more.

Here then is the issue. Despite the disuse of linear tactical formations on the battlefield, we still continue to practise them as a means of training for modern war. Why is this so? Warfare was no new thing when Cromwell trained his New Model Army, but there is no record that Cromwell practised the manoeuvres of Hastings or Agincourt as a means of instilling discipline. Sir John Moore relied for the discipline of his newer model army not so much on the standard drill of David Dundas, but on the more modern light infantry drill developed from it. [Footnoted: "He saw that the drill of David Dundas was antiquated though new "; Fuller—Sir John Moore's System of Training, p. 224. Moore's training was based on the drill of Dundas, but Dundas' drill movements were, of course, used in battle by the infantry 0f the line of the day.]

What then are the grounds on which Close-order drill can be defended as the most suitable basis for the discipline and training of the infantry in 1934? Let the supporters of close-order drill argue as they like: they cannot dodge the plain fact that in order to produce the soldier trained for the requirements of the 1934 battlefield they find themselves advocating that as an essential preliminary he should be grounded in the admittedly obsolete tactical formations of 1734. Nor, when their attention is called to it can they fail to be struck by a development of close-order drill which presents a remarkable military paradox, the complete dissimilarity between our ceremonial and tactical organization: in battle we clamour for fire power; in conference we pay tribute to it; on parade we hide away our fire power, the machine and Lewis guns, as if we were ashamed of them, and parade as four companies of cannon fodder. And echo answers, Why?

Let it be conceded that there are many arguments in favour of close-order drill, and let it not for a moment be disputed that it has in the past proved an excellent method of instilling discipline. Close-order drill is still required to enable infantry to be moved from place to place, off the battlefield, in an orderly manner, so long as any infantry move to war on their feet, but for no other purpose, and if this is so column of route will suffice.

This is not the place to discuss the requirements of the Brigade of Guards in the matter of close-order drill, but the argument has been advanced that infantry of the line must be proficient in it so as to be able to take the place of a Guards battalion in London; this argument may be countered by the argument that if a line battalion can learn club swinging or the pike exercise for a tattoo to perfection in three months, it could do the same with guard duties.

Next comes the question of drill as teaching obedience. This is a common and, at first sight, a very powerful argument in favour of close order drill, but let us look into it more closely. In close-order drill and similar exercises the effect is to produce, exactly on the word of command, some simultaneous physical action on the part of those under command, without necessarily any understanding of the object the commander wishes to achieve by ordering the movement in question to be carried out. Two hundred years ago this was a tactical requirement; the implicit obedience and the unquestioning reaction to the commander's voice were essential, not only because every man was required to move shoulder to shoulder so as to preserve an unbroken line, but because the average soldier was neither sufficiently intelligent or sufficiently trustworthy to make any alternative system possible.

What is the case to-day? In the first place, simultaneous movements by more than a pair of men are hardly ever necessary on the battlefield where, notwithstanding the principle of concentration of force, the dispersion of individual men is required. "Bunching" on the battlefield improves the targets for the automatic weapons of the enemy and, therefore, increases the expectation of casualties: "bunching" on the training area is justly condemned for this reason; therefore, when training infantry for battle one must teach them not to bunch; that is, never to move shoulder to shoulder. The gregarious instinct being as strong as it is, such training is bound to be a difficult matter. How then are we to defend any system of training for modern war which is founded upon squad drill.

Next there is the question of education. It is a subject of pride in the nation and in the Army that our standard of education is so vastly higher than it was a hundred years ago. Let us consider whether we, in the Army, make full use of this superior education and intelligence; whether, when possessing this invaluable asset, is it necessary to put our recruits through a course of training which aims at producing an unthinking physical reaction to a word of command in order to make sure that whether or not they understand, they obey?; and what is the value of such obedience on the modern battlefield? There is proof of this in every war since the French Revolution. Often the laurels have gone to undrilled but intelligent and well-commanded troops when they have appeared on the battlefield. The experience of Valmy has been followed by innumerable instances in the American Wars, the South African Wars, and the Great War in respect of the Dominion troops. The success of these last was not merely due to the presence of a large proportion of men whose lot had been cast in the country and not in the towns; in a great measure, it may be argued, it was due to there having been no time available to impose on them a training of unreasoning obedience in close formations. This is admittedly a contention very difficult to prove; but surely the evidence is strong enough to warrant experiments in this direction: not merely superficial efforts to inject "warcraft" or alertness on the battlefield into an unsound body of training which bears no direct relation to modern tactics; but experiments designed to eliminate such preliminary training which begins by discouraging a recruit from thinking independently, and if carried out intensively ends by destroying his self-confidence and readiness to act on his own, those very characteristics which made our Dominion soldiers such doughty fighters in the Great War.

The next thought which will no doubt occur will be the intense unpopularity which such views would meet among the general body of infantry non-commissioned officers. There is here a very real obstacle to reform, and it needs serious examination.

It is the practice in the British Army to invest warrant and non-commissioned officers with a full measure of responsibility in peace—a most necessary practice, seeing that from peace-time N.Co.Os. will come a large proportion of officers in any future large scale war. It is curious, then, that there should be reluctance on the part of such men to experiment with any change which may lead to greater efficiency on the battlefield. Yet the answer may be a very simple one. Peace-time soldiering is an actuality: war a distant prospect. Every N.C.O. worth his salt, unless he is aiming at a commission in peace or at some trade or administrative employ, aspires to become Regimental Sergeant-Major. Now consider the relative importance of the Regimental Sergeant-Major in peace and in war. In peace he exercises in practice a large measure of direct control over N.C.Os. in parallel with the recognized chain of command, much as the head of a service exercises control over representatives of his service in lower formations. He is king of the barrack square; drill and routine duties are his province, and he is judged by his performance in these directions. Training for war is not his responsibility. The more training is carried out, the less important becomes his position in peace, and in war the more fighting there is, the less part he plays, for his war employment in charge of the S.A.A. supply is utterly out of keeping with his status as a first-class warrant officer. Therefore, the more drill and routine loom large, the more authority he wields; being human he is unlikely to advocate any proposal for changes which will reduce his authority and, being also human, the junior N.C.Os. who are striving to emulate him successfully, and so in time succeed to his place, will give him their full approval and moral support if he takes up such a position. He is, in fact, a chartered reactionary and, from the point of view of this argument, a devil's advocate wherever he goes.

Now if his duties could be so rearranged as to give him more scope on the battlefield, the result ought to be a change of interests in peacetime. What can be done? He must in any case be rescued from the doldrums of ammunition supply, and given a war appointment appropriate to his experience. If used on intelligence duties at battalion headquarters the intelligence officer could be freed for reconnaissance or liaison; the defence of headquarters demands more attention in these days of armoured vehicles and aircraft than was ever needed in more olddashioned days when the thin red line held firm; command of the anti-tank platoon is not an impossibility, while in peace he could certainly be used on the tactical side of section leaders' courses. His actual duty is a matter of detail, but the essence of the argument is clear: make tactical training a business proposition for the Regimental Sergeant-Major, and a change of heart will follow as a natural consequence.

Mention of the sergeant-major leads us on from close-order drill to the closely allied question of routine duties, which nearly always start from a parade on the square. Go round any infantry barracks on any afternoon, and likely as not you will see one or two men carrying out some perfectly straightforward task such as ridding some part of the barracks of a few weeds, watched by a non-commissioned officer faultlessly dressed but himself doing nothing at all. The men have been given a task which must be perfectly clear. If they want to do it, they can do it, whether or not they are being "supervised." If they were doing piecework in civil life there would be no question about their being set on to the work by the foreman, i.e. the N.C.O., and left alone to do it. It would be uneconomic to adopt any other method. But in the infantry the foreman is found not working himself but watching the men to make sure that they do it. Leaving out the economic aspect with the passing comment that such a method is directly opposed to the principle of economy of force, let us see what is the effect of such methods on discipline: an unsatisfactory one to say the least.

It is on record that in a lecture at the Staff College shortly after the War a prominent railway official said that there was no real discipline in the Army. Elaborating his thesis to his astonished hearers, he explained that in the railway world a ganger or Signalman went on and off his duty at the appointed times and did his work in between because it was his business to do it, and that as he was proud of his calling as a railwayman he required no supervision in his work, whereas the soldier had apparently so little self-respect or pride in his calling that he could not be trusted to do what his social equal the railwayman did unfailingly as part of his daily life.

Now let us look at a coal delivery in the married quarters; here there may be an army vehicle and a civilian coal merchant's vehicle delivering coal side by side. The former has the driver and the traditional "one N.C.O. and four men," the latter the driver and at most one other man. What a comment on our present system! What incentive is there for a man to cultivate self-respect under such conditions, and what wonder that the lines of the troops' song run:—

"The more we do, the more we may,
It makes no difference to our pay."

One has only to employ the average soldier away from Supervision to find that he will avoid doing anything which he thinks can be left undone without getting found out, so much so that this attitude of mind is known to civilians as "old soldiering." And here we come to another very serious result of a wrongly conceived discipline. The commandant of one of the Army Vocational Training Centres who devotes much time to interesting the army at large in the resettlement of the soldier in civil life is often heard to explain how it is necessary when men arrive at the Centre to train them to be civilians, or in other words to set to their work at the proper time without the uneconomic parades, roll calls and supervision, and to do their job for the job's sake. [Footnoted: This clearly is the corollary to "playing the game for the game's sake," but for some reason we do not hear so much about it in the infantry.] All to the good, but can we do otherwise than regard this state of affairs as a condemnation of a system which takes a man from civil life and in six years and a half has so unfitted him for it that a special course of disciplinary training is required to enable them to derive full benefit from his vocational training proper.

No doubt if a change of system was made even in the best of units the first fruits would be unfinished work, absence and the minor delinquencies which go in the army by the name of "crime." But could not at the outset both units and higher formations face a certain amount of these shortcomings, if the result is to be a discipline more akin to modern discipline in civil life and a saving in duties which will make more N.C.Os. available for training?

The effect of the present system on the N.C.Os. is that the N.C.O. who is not a tradesman or an athlete not only does no manual work, but spends much time doing nothing but look on, at work and at play. Now as nine N.C.Os. out of ten return like the private soldier to manual work in civil life, this is the worst possible form of training for them. One last word. It will often be noticed that when a N.C.O. is told to make his men do some task he appears incapable of doing it unless he is allowed to begin by forming up his men two deep, and then marching them off to the right. There appears to be some "loss of face" in giving the men an order in plain language and telling them to go off in their own time and do it; yet if the object be to do a job, surely the only thing which really matters is that the job should be done in the best way and the shortest time. Doing the thing wrong in the right way cuts no ice in civil life.

Lastly there is the bearing which dress has on discipline. [Footnoted: In 1799 General John Money perceived that good dressing and good discipline did not go together, when he noted that in the American War of Independence the French "perceived the undisciplined peasantry holding in check the best-dressed regiments in the British service."—Open letter to the Hon. William Windham, quoted by General Fuller, "British Light Infantry in the XVIIIth century," p. 204.] A sloven in any walk of life is likely to be a bad man at his trade, but there are many trades at which a man cannot be expected to work properly in clean clothing. Mechanization is bringing this home to the Army, but there is still, or was until very recently, a prejudice against any body of infantry coming home dirty from training. Just as the modern mechanic works amid oil and grease and the farm hand in the byre and the midden, so the modern infantryman works in the mud and dust of the battlefield and goes like the serpent on his belly. Yet again the change in infantry tactics has to be emphasized, for in the days when our present drill was evolved the infantryman did his fighting standing up. The questions of personal cleanliness and of clean clothes at work are entirely separate, as the Royal Tank Corps has long since realized; the former is the indispensable adjunct of the disciplined soldier; insistence on the latter not necessarily so; more often it represents a departure from the principle of maintaining the objective, in that it diverts attention from the essential use of ground to the non-essential freedom from mud and dust.

So far every argument which has been put forward has been directed against some existing practice. It remains to mention one branch of Army training the results of which are wholly good, and in which the system is well adapted as the basis of any experiment in a new discipline: physical training, designed according to Infantry Training, Vol. I, to develop strength, mental and physical agility and capacity for work. What more is required? Which is the better basis of discipline: the rigid formations of close-order drill, with its suppression of independent thought, and the resulting habit of "waiting for the word of command," or the man who is trained to be mentally agile and "get on with it." It is no accident that the present leaders of Germany and Italy, engaged in reforming the discipline of a nation, have made such a feature of physical training for youth as the basis of a conscious and intelligent discipline.

In the foregoing lines, then, it has been argued that while the training and organization of the infantry have undergone fundamental alterations in the last two hundred years, and the educational qualities of the infantry recruit have changed out of all recognition, no adequate changes have taken place in the character of our discipline which, as a result, is no longer as it stands entirely suitable as a basis for training modern infantry for modern war. Yet this is not surprising, as all changes in tactics and organization begin as experiments, and it is not reasonable or wise to meddle with a discipline of proved soundness merely because an experiment in another direction is in progress. So the years have gone on, and the old discipline, based on close-order drill, stretched and strained to meet the new conditions; attractive arguments have been put forward in its favour, and the Army has been invited to believe that the system, and especially the practice of close-order drill with its sentimental connexion with past victories, confers a moral advantage on the modern soldier, although the evolutions themselves no longer have any connexion with modern battle. The excellent practices of the XVIIIth century have, in fact, become our principles of to-day.

Let us put sentiment aside and realize the danger, in the Army as in every other walk of life, when we mistake old-established practices for eternal principles and find ourselves in situations never contemplated by the originators of those practices. Let those who are prepared to argue in favour of close-order drill and clean clothes look over their

arguments again and see whether they are arguments based on the requirements of modern battle and the advantages of modern education and developed forward from these, or whether they are developed back ward from the supposed need to maintain our present institutions intact. The argument that things are very well as they are is bound to be raised in the face of every reform, and is never one which can be accepted by itself as being valid against a change. The whole series of reforms, from Cardwell to Haldane, which now have their place among the household gods of the Army were made in the teeth of such arguments; the histories of such organizations as the Machine Gun Corps are instances of their power indeed, but not of their soundness.

Army discipline may in fact be likened to a piece of excellent old-fashioned machinery in some factory, admirably designed in accordance with the ideas of the times, which has given splendid service and is in working order despite its age, but which, sentiment notwithstanding, must be replaced by something more up to date if the factory is to keep its place in an industry catering for conditions not as they were but as they are. What is to be done? There can be no question of any sudden and violent change in our methods, even if it were necessary: it would be as rash as for a man climbing a ladder to let go with both hands at once. But surely we can experiment as we have done with our organization and equipment when it has been necessary to put opinion to the proof. Is it too much to ask that trials should be made with a View to maintaining discipline on some other basis than squad drill, to the abandonment of needless supervision and to giving the warrant officer a more direct business interest in training for war than he has at present.

This is not the place to put forward elaborate schemes, for what is required before any change of regulations is a change of heart, which cannot like changes in war material be promulgated in Army Orders; if public opinion changes in the Army, the framing of new regulations and their application becomes an easy matter. It may be that the case for a change has been based on faulty arguments: if so, the champions of the existing order will not be slow to expose the fault. No harm will be done: the sergeant-majors can carry on, and the troops go on "waiting for it." But if, as the writer believes, a case has been made out for a more modern infantry discipline, then our minds should be directed to a search for methods better attuned to the spirit of the age and more closely related to the demands of modern battle. And it is high time that the search began in earnest.