A Defence of Close-Order Drill (1934):
A Reply To "Modern Infantry Discipline"

By Major M. K. Wardle, D.S.O., M.C., The Leicestershire Regiment.
Journal of the Royal United Service Instutution, Vol. LXXIX, Feb to Nov, 1934

In "Modern Infantry Discipline," in the last number of the Journal, "A Field Officer" argues with such an air of sweet reasonableness that his kindly strictures upon us reactionary pedants, who believe in close-order drill for our infantry, seem moderate and restrained. If his arguments are sound, we surely deserve far harsher treatment. But, though much that he writes is true enough, and some of it admirable, his main arguments are based on a collection of so many fallacies that one hardly knows where to begin attacking them. Let us, however, enumerate a few of them in the order in which they occur, before giving our own views on the value of close-order drill.

Throughout the whole of his article "A Field Officer" appears to labour under a general confusion of the great fundamental task of making the soldier's soul, if one may use the expression, of turning the civilian into the sort of man we need in the infantry, with the particularized task of teaching him how to fight, of teaching him the use of his arms, and the day's fashion in tactics. The task of turning a man into a good foot-soldier is one of fundamental principles: the task of teaching the fighting man how to fight is one that must vary with every development of weapons, tactics, and the general science of war.

Fallacy No. 1.—"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 … to make the troops mentally attuned to their new tasks instead of handicapping them in the execution of those tasks." This leads "A Field Officer" to the argument that the best way of making a soldier the sort of man who will excel in fighting singly or in pairs is to give him no close-order drill, but simply to train him in the actual work that he will be called upon to do in battle. The whole question is thus begged in the assumpation that a man, trained both in close-order drill and in open field-work, will cling to the one and fail in the other. Yet, the wider the dispersion imposed on us by the methods and weapons of modern defence, the greater is the need for cohesion and team spirit. Because it is harder to remain part of a team, in spirit and action, when widely dispersed and under lessened supervision, it is more than ever necessary to grind the spirit of unity in common effort into the very heart of the man. Discipline, in short, has its eye on the kind of man we are to make: tactical training on the use we are to make of the made man. This assumption, that troops that are good at close-order drill are harder to teach initiative and open field-work than are those who are not grounded in close-order drill, makes one wonder whether "A Field Officer" is an infantryman at all, so divorced is it from common experience. In support of it he quotes the monk, as requiring "a different discipline" from the sailor or the tradesman. Had he gone a little deeper he would have found that the monk—as, for instance, in the Order of the Benedictines—is given a common five years' grounding, irrespective of whether he will ultimately be ordered to become a schoolmaster or a missionary. He is given, in fact, five years of "close-order drill" before he is allowed to undergo special training for any "field work."

Fallacy No. 2—"First, there was the 'back to 1914' movement." Indeed we have all groaned under the lash of the reactionary and the bonds of the bone-headed far too often since 1919—and even during the war, and before it. They are the poor in spirit, and, like other worthier poor, are always with us. But Lord Haig's dictum, quoted by "A Field Officer," is sound enough, if not misread. [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).] He was not advocating a reversion to particular pre-War practices that had been found unsuitable, such as that of building up a thick firing line in the hope of thereby maintaining the maximum fire weight of a man a yard, whereby a prolonged fight might gain the superiority that would make the assault possible. Back to the 1914 regimental spirit of officer and man, with its cohesion and comradeship; back to the personal leadership, the high discipline combined with free and ingenious initiative, the fine care of his men, that characterized the best regimental officer of thataday; and to the devotion and determination that were the fruit of their qualities, among their men. "Back to 1914," indeed,—is it heresy to say that the Expeditionary Force of 1914 was the finest we ever put into the field ? But not back to tactical methods that date themselves as those of 1914: "A Field Officer" cannot here be acquitted of setting up a stuffed figure to tilt at. It was not the training of the army of 1914 that was at fault; it was the rigidity of the Higher Command that failed to adapt to new conditions an instrument well suited and conditioned for such adaptations and development. But that is another story—l am not advocating years of close-order drill for Generals. I do not think they ought to be trained like Benedictine monks.

Fallacy No. 3.—"Then there is the Tattoo complex." The staging of old-time battles does not teach any soldier, nor, it is to be hoped, any civilian above the age of 15, that the tactics enacted on the arena are those we ought to use to-day. But such spectacles may show how the military virtues of comradely cohesion, "team-work if you will, devotion and courage have faced difficulty arid danger in other days, and they help to build up an appreciation of continuity and inheritance from the past." Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us" is their spirit. Of course, in this complex and difficult life we lead, we may make the mistake of giving too much time, and too many troops, to such pageants: and yet anything that brings the nation and its army closer together, and heightens the sense in each of common history and fine traditions, and of the strange call of the drum throughout the ages, is not to be lightly given up.

"The soldier's is the trade;
In any wind and weather.
He steals the heart of maid
And man together…

But down the distance they,
With dying note and swelling,
Walk the resounding way
To the still dwelling." —(A.E. Housman.)

In fact, there is something in soldiering that gets into the blood—and it can be there without the least drop of militarism, and with a wonderfully heartening effect on the whole constitution. The "Tattoo problem" for the trainer of troops is simply one of economy, of learning to get more value out of Tattoos whilst reducing the effort they entail.

Fallacy No. 4.—That those who believe in close-order drill are "advocating it, as an essential preliminary" to training the soldier for the requirements of the 1934 battle-field, "he should be grounded in the obsolete formations of 1734." It is argued that Cromwell did not use the drill of 1066, "and all that," to create the New Model Army. How wise he was! Yet, if Harold had enjoyed the opportunity of using the close-order drill of the New Model Army for a preliminary training of his Saxons, he might have won the Battle of Hastings. They might then at least have had the discipline to refrain from the fatal break from their stockades before the feint of the Norman cavalry. The truth is that, at all periods, the best methods should first be used for making the soldier into a disciplined fighting man, and that it is a matter of coincidence whether the tactical training of the times bears any marked resemblance to these methods or not. Tactical formations change rapidly; man but slowly.

Fallacy No. 5.—"In close-order drill … 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 under standing of the object the commander wishes to achieve." This is sheer mis-statement—or else the writer has in mind some other kind of close-order drill than that laid down for, and explained to, the British Army in Infantry Training. Bad drill and drill not understood can, alas! be seen all too often. The effect of good close-order drill is, on the contrary, to train men to place themselves, in an attitude of the greatest physical and mental receptivity and alertness, at the unlimited disposal of their commander, and, by the skill and solidarity with which they execute his commands, develop a feeling of corporate endeavour and fellowship with their commander and their comrades in the united effort to produce drill so good that it becomes a thing of beauty, a source of mutual satisfaction, an expression of military pride, and, in short, a form of disciplined self-expression: a military work of art. It has, indeed, the spirit of the morris dance, and it has survived the morris dance just because it has continued to be a natural expression of real feelings. There are many things that should have given "A Field Officer" pause in assuming too rashly that close-order drill is antipathetic to the development of loose-order field virtues. One cannot suppose him ignorant of the fact that the Gurkha, than whom we have no better individual stalker and scout in the Indian Army, and to whom British soldiers have often been attached to learn the freer kinds of field work, loves close-order drill and excels at it. So much so that his company officer can give him no greater pleasure than to take him out on the barrack square and drill him for an hour or two. If they can get no one else to drill them, Gurkha recruits will even go out in their brief spare time and drill each other. This is not an exaggeration; I have often seen them do it. In the same way the African riflankeman's idea of Heaven is to be drilled by a white officer for a couple of hours in a blazing sun. The explanation is simple : men of martial races, who by nature and inheritance are fighting men, know instinctively and by experience that they get a kick out of close-order drill, the thrill of corporate effort that is at the heart of all good soldiering. Close-order drill has been proved to produce more directly and more rapidly than any other means this pride in cohesion. That is not to say that other things should be sacrificed by any disproportionate use of it.

Fallacy No. 6.—"The success" of the Dominion troops in the Great War "was in a great measure … due to there having been no time available to impose on them a training of unreasoning obedience in close formations." I have seen a very serious traffic block during the first Somme battle due solely to the lack of such training in a splendid Australian unit. The idea of the superiority of the free-minded amateur over the hidebound trained soldier is attractive, but the facts, as well as reason, are against it. The successes of "undrilled" troops against "drilled" ones have always been explicable by superior leading, a burning national cause that the regulars did not possess, or some other reason that has, by its special and unusual force, temporarily overcome the lack of disciplined training. Even so, for every example of the triumph of "undrilled" troops that can be quoted, a score could be adduced of the triumph of well-drilled against overwhelming numbers of less disciplined troops. There are no irregular troops who would not be finer instruments of war were they to be adequately trained in close-order drill. One of the chief and most important differences between the two is the greater resiliency of regular troops. Germans, French, and ourselves all found in the earlier stages of the War, when pre-War regulars were still in the field, that the regular troops recovered from heavy casualties and were fit to be used again after a much shorter interval of rest and reorganization than was required by the purely War-trained troops. Rest, clean billets, good hot food, baths, clean clothes, and close-order drill were the first agents in this rehabilitation. The American troops, too, had the special virtues of our Dominion troops, even to their lack of "training in unreasoning obedience in close formations"; yet they were no more successful.

Fallacy No. 7.—That the need for supervision in the Army, on routine duties, etc., comes from "a wrongly conceived discipline," and an absence in the soldier of the self-respect and pride in his calling possessed by his civilian counterpart. Has it occurred to those who argue in this way—and there are many such besides" A Field Officer"—that in the nature of things we lack, in the Army to-day, the system of ferocious punishment for "minor offences" that is in vogue in industry? To take "A Field Officer's" own example of the delivery of coal by an Army vehicle and fatigue party side by side with a civilian cart whose driver is either alone or helped by a single man. Let us pass over the impropriety of taking it for granted that too many men are detailed for the fatigue party and that the section commander does no work, whereas in a well-run company the right number of men would be sent, under their own section commander or one of the section answering for him, and both men and leader would work, cheerfully and efficiently, as a corporate body. Let us suppose rather that the soldier slacks at his job, and that the civilian, through slackness or perhaps for some perfectly good reason, takes longer over his than his employer thinks reasonable. The soldier would get a couple of extra working parties, or his leader a reprimand. But the civilian? He would lose his job. At a blow—and sometimes for a first offence—the man's livelihood would be swept away and the greatest hardship inflankicted on his whole family, had he one, while a far worse punishment than the actual loss of pay would be likely to fall on the man himself by the loss of self-respect and of the respect of his family, that almost always follows on a man's being thrown out of work through his own fault. The constant dread of loss of his job, in fact, makes comparisons between soldier and working man impossible. No doubt the humane methods of the Army could not be applied to civil labour; it would cost the employer too much to provide the supervision that would become necessary. But how much better if they could be applied, and if the working man's pride and enthusiasm could be roused so that the ferocious punishment of discharge need be used, as in the Army, only in extreme cases! But, of course, there is general room for much improvement in the Army in the whole matter of routine duties and fatigues—the remedy, however, lies in the hands of every commanding officer and company commander. Such duties can be made an excellent form of military training, not only in the development of the junior leader's powers of command, but in economy of labour and in working without supervision.

Fallacy No. 8.—That physical training is a "better basis of discipline" than close-order drill. Physical training, if done regularly and in the right way, can confer physical fitness, increased mental and bodily agility, brightness and alertness of mind, and a general access of liveliness, balance and well-being. For these reasons it is an admirable companion for close-order drill, which fosters cohesion, soldierly pride and esprit de corps—in a word, discipline. The two do not conflankict, nor can one replace the other. It is as absurd to set one against the other as it is to confuse close-order drill with tactical training. There are other statements in "A Field Officer's" article that call for correction—for instance, that it is usual to object to troops getting dirty on training when tactical action calls for it; that there is no attempt to practise troops in acting on impromptu orders; that it is considered better to fail in the "right" way than to succeed in the "wrong." If these things are so in some companies—and, of course, they are—it is much to be regretted; but it is not just to blame any system but that of the company commander concerned. He sins against the light. Then there is the question of the "drill-mindedness" of that "chartered reactionary," the Regimental Sergeant-Major, and the consequent wrong-mindedness of all the junior N.C.O.s, which shock "A Field Officer." Let experience speak : and it is the universal experience of infantry officers that, if the R.S.M. is a good one, he is worth his weight in gold. His fine attitude of absolute loyalty to his officers, his soldierly bearing and deportment, his creation of a happy sergeants' mess and maintenance of a good tone therein, and his general inflankuence on the smartness of the battalion, need only contrasting with what soon obtains when he lacks these qualities in any marked degree, to dispose of any case against his usefulness. In training and in war he may well be given the control of the defence of battalion headquarters, in addition to his duties with the ammunition reserve, as "A Field Officer" usefully suggests—it is merely a matter for the commanding officer. But, even without this, a good R.S.M. is invaluable in war, in the vital task of restoring in the least possible time those military virtues that suffer after heavy losses and large reinforcements.

If I have carried the reader with me in this review of the fallacies on which "A Field Officer" bases his argument for the abolition of close-order drill, there is little more to be said. It may not be out of place, however, to state the position of close-order drill from the point of view of an infantry company commander who has been that for a long time—far too long in his own opinion. This view is based on experience only, irrespective of Army manuals.

In the training of troops for war, it is essential in the first place to be clear about the sort of man it is desired to produce. In the British infantry the emphasis necessarily falls more heavily on certain points than in other arms and armies; but I do not believe that the qualities that are the groundwork of good British infantry in 1934 are any other than they were in 1334, or 1734, or 1834. They are, and surely always have been:—

(1)     Physical fitness, that will make it possible for the man to answer the demands made upon him;

(2)     Steadfastness, that will enable him to endure fatigue, hunger, cold, heat, hardships and deprivations of all kinds, and fear, to the end;

(3)     Confidence in his leader's character and military efficiency, so that he will be immune from the insidious inroads of distrust and uninformed criticism;

(4)     Pride in the efficiency of his platoon, company, and battalion, and in the certainty that they will do their duty under all possible circumstances, and in the knowledge that they have done so in the past;

(5)     Obedience, by which he embraces the intention of his leader as his own objective, to be attained by the exercise of every faculty, of courage, knowledge, or initiative, that he possesses, in co-operation with the rest of his sub-unit;

(6)     A sense of solidarity with his leader and comrades, by which it becomes as impossible for him to fail them, as it is inconceivable that they should fail him.

These are the military virtues for the British infantryman. But a man might be born with most of them, and acquire the rest, and yet be untrained to arms. There remains, in short, to exercise him in the use of the weapons of his time, to accustom him to work within the existing organization, and to teach him to manoeuvre in accordance with the tactics of the day. In the inculcation of these fundamental military virtues close-order drill is the quickest and most effective way of providing the essential groundwork. Though all other available methods of developing these virtues should be used as fully as possible, a high standard of close-order drill may most readily be made the synthesis and result of a high military spirit, as well as an indication of progress that is being made. Close-order drill, properly carried out, should indeed be a sort of sacrament of soldiering, an outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual grace of a right relationship between the leader and the led, the leader making clear demands in a correct, confident, and military manner, while his subordinates strain every nerve to carry out his orders with the utmost exactitude, to the attainment of a common sense of a difficult task perfectly performed. To suggest that a high standard in close-order drill tends to make troops less easy to train in meeting sudden and unexpected situations, and in working dispersed and without supervision, is against all experience. "Bunching," which "A Field Officer" attributes to training in close-order drill, is, on the battlefield, a phenomenon that has its roots in far more fundamental psychology than a stupid failure on the part of the troops to understand the object of such drill. When ever the mind begins to fail, through fear or any other cause, one of the first symptoms is its tendency to seek support outside itself. While the soldier is still striving to force himself to do what he knows to be his duty, and long before he reaches the point of seeking relief from the strain of fear by giving way to inaction or flankight, he goes through this need for seeking the support of propinquity to his fellows, and of the ' personal leadership of his commander. Under modern conditions, where the section is often, at the most trying times, and under increasingly terrible fire, more or less isolated, this tendency must be especially strong. The need for personal leadership becomes proportionally greater, from the very causes that render it less practicable. In such circumstances the spirit that close-order drill inculcates is of the utmost valuewand may at times be our only means of extending the support of leadership to our men in their hour of need. It is the spirit of cohesion, the swarm spirit that is at work amongst bees—an instinctive knowledge of solidarity, irrespective of intervals of space between bee and bee, or between man and man, or section and section. It is indeed a mystical support, but common rough men can partake of mysteries if they be conveyed through intelligible symbols—such as close-order drill. One more example. Anyone who has, like the writer, found himself faced with the task of restoring to a state of efficiency a company that had got into a really bad condition will surely agree that the prescription is somewhat as follows:—a careful overhaul of the messing, great activity in all the men's games, plenty of work, in which interesting field training and physical training should play a great part, the imposition of a verv high standard in barrack routine, and the special instruction of the N.C.Os in leadership, the whole structure being made coherent in a steady and progressive course of close-order drill. To abandon close-order drill would indeed, as "A Field Officer" pleads, be only an experiment. But what harm it would do, before necessity drove us to restore it to its essential place as a fundamental part of the training of the infantry soldier!

Let us sweep away anachronisms, and let us learn avidly of psychology and modern science to use troops in the most economic, effective, and "modern" manner in the complexity and immensity of modern war: but do not let us abandon our traditional thoroughness in tempering the steel from which we are to fashion our modern tools. War remains war—at last the strain comes to rest on bedrock, and is seen to be still based on the simple military virtues of the common fighting man. In the English soldier we have a fighting man second to none in the history of the world. New methods of fighting may be learned, and must be learned; but the fundamental qualities that will win the next war are those that won at Thermopylae—courage, cohesion, discipline, devotion. The close-order drill of the Spartan army was—Spartan. It is not a "change of heart" we want, as "A Field Officer" maintains; it is the old heart, built up in the old way. But we often need a change of head. We need, not less fine feeling, but more clear thinking.

The typical organic disease of armies springs from a dissociation between the higher command and staff and the fighting man. Let us guard against that, guided by the lessons of the last half century. If we fail in a future war, it will not be because we do not know how to make soldiers, but because we have forgotten how to lead them.