The Case for the Regimental System

Lieut.-Colonel B.E. Fergusson, D.S.O., O.B.E., The Black Watch
Journal of the Royal United Services Institution, Vol. XCVI, February to November, 1951

"It will be a sad day and an evil day for the British Infantry if the reformers succeed in weakening or destroying the regimental tradition."—field-Marshal Earl Wavell, 1950.

British Army (Infantry Reorganisation)

In view of the great traditions and fighting records of the various infantry regiments, however, it has been decided that the regimental system shall remain as a feature of the postwar Army. To achieve greater flexibility in the flow of reinforcements in war and to overcome difficulty of posting in peace, it is proposed to group the regiments into 15 separate groups based on territorial or traditional affinity. For the purpose of enlistment, the group will now become the corps in place of the regiment and the Royal Warrant will be amended accordingly. However, wherever possible, soldiers will be posted to battalions of the regiments of their choice. - HC Deb 24 October 1946 vol 428 cc38-44

Recent communications in the Journal have dealt with the Group System as if it had come to stay. The first (to which the author did not put his name) praised it and demanded support for it; the second described it as "the lesser of two evils"; the third, which was also under a pseudonym, reinforced the first. Propaganda for the Group System has been intense and skilful, as these articles show. It is time that infantry officers realized that the threat of a Corps of Infantry as the only altemative to the Group System is false. Lord Wavell was bitterly opposed to both, and was engaged at the time of his death, and for three years before it, in striving for a return to the Regimental System. He was making headway; but now that his powerful voice is stilled, we must champion ourselves.

Nobody likes the Group System. I think we must accept it in war, although every effort should still be made to replace casualties from the regiment that has suffered them. The Group System should be regarded, as a certain General put it some months ago, as "a system of support trenches to which we were forced to retire, and from which the time has now come to counter-attack." It was framed by General Wimberley towards the end of the War; he was an infantryman and he did his best; he did well to hold up the penetration where he did.

The Infantry remains the first line of any army. Future developments may alter its status; but the ultimate object of every arm to-day is to put the Infantry on to its objective whether that be the next hill, the next river-line, Berlin or Tokyo. In the later stages of a war, when the tide is flowing with you, it matters less how your battalions are made up. In the initial stages it matters a great deal. Hotch-potch battalions made up by cross-posting could not have acquitted themselves so well as ours did in the days of the defiles—1940 in France, 1940-41 in the Middle East. Battalions in those circumstances must sustain defeat and win experience without loss of morale; and they cannot do that without drawing on the last breath of pride and tradition. Everybody who has taken part in such fighting knows that.

Those battalions, especially in France, were largely made up of reservists. These men came back from civil life into their own niches in their own regiments, among their old comrades. How would they have borne themselves under the Group System? \Ve also know that during the Korea crisis reservists were sent to regiments of different Groups and even of different Countries. How has that worked?

It is claimed that only the Group System has made it possible to maintain at full strength battalions which have been on active service since the War. Yet outside the Brigade of Guards (who have avoided the Group System) no effort has been made to draft by battalions instead of individuals. This point we will consider later. If there have been difficulties in finding full-strength battalions for Palestine, Malaya and Korea, it is because, in pursuit of the policy of the "balanced army," we forgot that the supreme need of the Army between wars, in Imperial Policing, is for infantry. With the disappearance of India as a Country to be garrisoned, our need for infantry was admittedly reduced, and there was no longer a requirement for sixty-four regiments, each of two battalions. The total number of battalions was therefore divided by two, in order to avoid the distasteful business of making an invidious selection of which regiments were to lose one battalion and which to retain both. As a result, the individuality of all the regiments is now in danger.

Within a regiment, the capabilities of every officer, n.c.o. and man are fully known. Under the Group System, the control of these individuals passes to various outside authorities, and such things happen as these. A warrant officer with a bad record in battle was ordered to his own regiment as its regimental-sergeant-major, although it was known throughout the regiment that he had only escaped a court-martial because of casualties among the witnesses. An officer reported on by his own regiment as unfit to command a company was sent to another in the same Group with orders that he was to be given another trial as a company commander —despite the fact that his own regiment, which had known and liked him for more than fifteen years, had reluctantly reported on him adversely. Neither of the incidents could have happened under the old dispensation, when a regiment was recognized as the authority on its own people, and its evidence as to their capabilities was accepted.

During the last war, the 2nd Battalion of my regiment, more fortunate than most, managed to keep itself "pure" throughout, despite heavy casualties in Crete, Tobruk and as "Chindits" in Burma. These losses were replaced by direct drafting from home, of men nominated by the Depot from training battalions. That was in war: yet now, in peace, a battalion commander must go through three separate hoops to get one individual private soldier out of Scotland to Germany. A year ago a man wanted for my Intelligence section, because he spoke German and Flemish, was sent instead to another regiment in Hong Kong, despite my having asked for him twice by name: the reason given me was that "there was no theatre demand for him." This was at a time when my own battalion in Germany had just been affiliated to a neighbouring flemish one. This, although an especially ludicrous case, is just one of many. Our Record Office strives to be helpful, but it is trussed hand and foot by remote and unidentifiable authority.

The graphs of regular recruiting have been growing more depressing year by year. The fall has been arrested and a rise shown as a result of the recent increases in pay. We must realize that unless the scales of pay continue at the same rate as those in other employments we shall eventually be back where we were. In other words, we must not now assume that all our troubles are over because of the pay increases. Nor are the best potential soldiers necessarily attracted by a good rate of pay. Important though it is, the paybook is not the incentive which appeals to the best type of soldier; and if we come to look on pay as being the best incentive of the lot, we shall go wrong. No doubt we should get a lot of'recruits if we proclaimed a twelve-hour week, but they would not be the best recruits. The one incentive which is never examined in these days is the restoration of the Regimental System.

A regular on enlistment, and even on re-engagement, has to sign a declaration that he is willing to accept transfer to any corps. At one time we were consoled by an announcement that this rule would be incapable of abuse, in that such transfers would only be made in exceptional circumstances and with the permission of the Army Council. The elation which this seeming triumph called forth for a moment quickly died when it was discovered that transfer within the Group did not count as transfer from corps to corps, a reservation which rendered the undertaking worthless.

Early last year I was ordered to transfer three regular sergeants to another regiment in the Group. I was tempted to send three duds; but in the end I sent two good ones and one who was mediocre. One of the former immediately refused duty, stayed in his married quarters and refused to come to barracks. He was persuaded in the end to come and see me, and I reasoned with him. He took the line that he had enlisted in the Regiment in the steps of his father, and that he would never have re-engaged if he had realized that he might, in fact, be required to transfer. He was persuaded to go in the end. Within two months he and the other good sergeant had bought themselves out of the Army, leaving the mediocre one in the Army alone of all the three.

What a stimulus for recruiting! If it is said: "Yes, but after all he had signed that he was willing to be transferred at need," then it is my duty to point out that clause specifically and with emphasis to every potential recruit, and to every n.c.o. and man wishing to re-engage. Otherwise I shall have made myself guilty of a confidence trick.

The increase in recruiting which has followed on the new pay code has not been reflected in an increase of extension of service among senior n.c.os. They are still going out of the Army, partly because they have no guarantee that they can stay in their regiment, and partly because of another grievance. On the heels of the Group System has come the new promotion roll, a common seniority roll for all the regiments of the Group. If there is a vacancy for a colour-sergeant, a C.O. cannot as of old promote the senior deserving sergeant of the regiment; the Record Office selects one; and the odds in a Group of six regiments are five to one against his being a man of the same regiment. The Record Office, to be sure, has some discretion, and can juggle a bit between regiment and regiment if so inclined; but the system if rigorously applied gives no loophole, and can change the identity of the sergeants' mess in a few years. Men may find themselves spending three-quarters of their service away from the regiment of their birth or choice; and young officers who have lately joined from Sandhurst tell me that efforts are made there to persuade them that this is now the normal practice.

Before the War, we would march from time to time through the regimental area, and collect enough would-be recruits to enable us to pick and choose among them. To-day that damning clause about liability to transfer makes it dishonest to entice men into the Regiment; yet its cancellation and the restoration of the Regimental System is the one stimulus to recruiting which the authorities refuse even to discuss. Why is this rule sacrosanct from challenge or experiment? If I were allowed for one month to restore the old security and suspend this clause, I would get a hundred men in that month from the regimental area alone, even at this time of full employment.

The same remarks apply to officers. Hitherto the tradition of service among those circles from which officers have been drawn in the past has been strong enough to induce the rising generation to take a chance, in the hopes of better times, and to join the parental regiment. But high water has been reached, and the tide is beginning to turn: I have heard of three young National Service officers in two months who have declined to follow their fathers' profession because of the liability to transfer. I am not sure that they are wrong: for in six months I have had six officers removed from me compulsorily to other units; and of these six, three were born in the Regiment; a fourth is an Australian who asked to join us just after the War, never dreaming of this liability; and a fifth had a brother killed in the Regiment. All these consider themselves, and with reason, victims of a breach of faith.

The nation still pays its officers scantily; it has done so for a long time; but in the past it offered them continuous regimental and community life as compensation for inadequate pay. An officer who elects and is chosen to serve in the Loamshires joins to serve in the Loamshires, and not in the Clayshires, and certainly not just in any regiment of the Heptarchy Group. The point is often made that the Gunners and Navy get on very well and make irnperishable history under a system comparable with the Group System. Coming from a regiment which owes so much to both gunners and sailors, and which has been nobly supported by both in many campaigns over many generations, I cannot dissent from that; but I wish I had five pounds for every time that I have heard officers of the Royal Regiment and the Royal Navy lament that they had not something more nearly akin to our Regimental System. I have had a fair amount to do with American infantry, and a great deal more to do with French: both are envious, and incredulous when told that our system is in danger.

At this point, in clubs and places where they argue, the opposition says: "All that you say is very well; but what is your alternative solution in this year of grace?"

Three years ago, General Hakewill-Smith, himself the Colonel of a regiment and a former Director of Organization in the War Office, put up an alternative plan. The basic idea was that drafting should be by battalions instead of by individuals. Let us say that the foreign tour should be stabilized at three years, instead of at six as before the War—a good idea. Of a Group of six regiments, three are normally abroad. "A" Battalion is due home next year, "B" the year after, "C" the year after that; "D" relieves "A," "E" relieves "B," "F" relieves "C." "D," due to go abroad next year, is open to recruiting, and recruits heartily throughout its own and the neighbouring regimental area; and when it sails, it sails 20 per cent. over strength. Thereafter it is closed to recruiting except for men with extraordinary claims upon it. When "A" comes home, having been relieved by "D," it too is closed except for close kin, and is allowed to run down to 60 per cent. or less of its strength. Meanwhile, "E" is gradually building up towards the 120 per cent. of its establishment that it will need to relieve "B" when its turn comes to go abroad, the year after next. Special provision can be made for those men whose time will expire during the foreign tour. (It is odd, incidentally, that the Regimental System, which was never imperilled in the days when trooping was done by means of sailing vessels, should be challenged for the first time when communications are easier and quicker than they have been in the whole history of mankind.)

This scheme, refined and adapted as necessary, would preserve that identity of regiments which we are in danger of losing, and that identification of regiments with districts which has helped not only recruiting but staunchness in the field for so long past. But I am told that it received little or no support in the War Office. A few months before his death Lord Wavell wrote : "A regiment is more than a mere organization; it is in truth a family, with its ancestors and descendants, its pride and its possessions, and through all its vicissitudes a strong sense of community and continuity." Only an infantryrnan who has absorbed this experience could know what a priceless right is being disposed of, when the dissolution of regiments is being connived at, or encouraged.

An alternative to the Hakewill-Smith plan was used by the Brigade of Guards in Palestine after the recent war. To overcome financial objections to trooping by battalions at that time, complete companies were sent out at regular intervals throughout a year's trooping. When the battalion being relieved had acquired a majority of companies, including the headquarters company, from the home battalion it assumed the home battalion's number; and thus the changeover was effected in the course of a year or so. This system presupposes either a reversal to two-battalion regiments, or a system of linked battalions, and the Hakewill-Smith plan is greatly preferable; but this at least is better than the Group System.

The profession of arms demands efficiency; its organization cannot afford to fall below the standard of sensible business method. But fighting, the ultimate object of soldiering, demands something more than the methods of Selfridge's or Harrods.

Only infantry officers are qualified to express opinions on this subject. It is probable that many who support the Group System are used to difficult recruiting districts. I am fortunate, in that I belong to a regiment with an ample and willing recruiting area, and have served with it both in peace and in battle, and also in inter-war campaigning; I know what we stand to lose if the Group System becomes permanent. During the last two and a half years I have seen something of the effects of the Group System on those regiments which have not been lucky enough to resist its inroads; there has been a slackening of the regimental bond which will make itself felt, I am sure, in the opening battles of any war into which we may be plunged.

The machinery which runs the human side of the Army has been greatly elaborated since the War. We have now a host of departments which we did not have in 1939—Personnel Selection, and Echelons, a Directorate of Manpower Planning. It is odd, therefore, why the human touch and the value of tradition cannot be made to run side by side with modern requirements, despite the difficulties in certain areas under modern conditions. We do not want beery old recruiting sergeants, with ribbons in their bonnets: we do not want glamorous posters and advertisements in the newspapers and on hoardings. We want young, smart and contented n.c.o.s going on leave and saying that their regiment is the finest on God's earth; join it and grow old in it. Much has been done in various directions for the Army since the War; but the preservation of the Regimental System is basic.

We want infantry which will be happy and contented in peace, and which will go into war under the best auspices with the highest possible self-confidence and esprit de corps. It must consist of officers and men with no feeling that they can be posted here and there as mere "bodies" with orders and numbers attached. They must have the feeling that their pride in their regiment is sympathized with and supported. They must be able to draw inspiration from the continuity of their regiment with their countryside or family or both, and have a close affinity with the men who make up their Territorial battalions. Lastly, they must realize that if, in the exigencies of war, "grouping" comes, it will only be because it is inevitable as a war-time measure.