Regimental Tradition in the Infantry of the Line

By Major C.E. Jarvis, Honourable Artillery Company (late 1st King George V's Own Gurkha Rifles)
Journal of the Royal United Services Institution, Vol. XCVI, February to November, 1951

There appears to be a general uneasiness about the present organization of the Infantry of the Line, exemplified yet again in "The Brigade Group and Regimental Tradition" which appeared in the Journal of August, 1950. The author, "Judas," made many illuminating and valuable remarks and suggestions but seemed uncertain whether, under modern conditions, tradition has any real value or not. Just in case it has, one feels, he comes rather grudgingly to a compromise solution of the problem. The present writer therefore proposes to examine in more detail the essential qualities of tradition and the general principles upon which it is based, with the Object of establishing its value and its importance as a factor which cannot, without danger, be ignored in the consideration of any changes in the present organization of British Infantry.

The Value of Tradition

A large volume might be written on this subject: if we confine our consideration of it to the value of regimental tradition in promoting the efficiency of infantry in battle, it is suggested, in the first place, that it is unsound to reject the Opinions of experienced officers who have commanded troops under active service conditions: as evidence such opinions have considerable cogency, for they are based on first-hand knowledge and are often in agreement. Nor should they be dismissed because they are not supported by logical exposition: men of action are sometimes inarticulate, and in any case the beliefs that are most strongly held and acted upon in the affairs of life are often those which are the most difficult to justify in reasoned words. Thus a father may find it difficult or impossible to explain why, for instance, he would like his son to have a classical education; but he will spend considerable effort and money to ensure that he does.

"The British are not an imaginative race by nature," says "Judas": this is a controversial statement indeed; but even if it is admitted, it surely cannot be maintained that we are not, as a race, traditionalists. Anyone who looks about him in a business centre in almost any town will probably see at one glance some such announcements as "Established 1726," "Founded 1660," "This Inn was rebuilt in 1544" and "The Oldest wine house in——." British people, it seems, find something to comfort them in such evidences of stability and continuity: they feel that what has lasted a long time must have some inherent virtue and vitality and therefore is probably worth perpetuating. It should be noted at this point that a love of tradition should not be confused with a sound historical knowledge, in which the English, at least, are notoriously deficient. An undergraduate member of an ancient college or a student of an Inn of Court probably has the flimsiest idea of the history of the society of which he has become a member: none the less he unconsciously imbibes its traditions and influence and is likely thereby to become in some degree identified with the other members of it, and gain confidence and pride in that association. fiimilarly it takes an expert in military history to understand the strategy and tactics of the Waterloo campaign: but any private soldier can be fortified by the knowledge that his regiment was at the battle, if he understands nothing more about it whatever.

If it be admitted then that the British find pleasure, and even perhaps some moral profit, in their traditions, it seems likely that British soldiers too will tend to prize the military traditions they have inherited. More particularly, the soldier's trade is a dangerous one, especially the infantry soldier's; any man who is to face danger and death must be in some way built up and fortified before he can be confident that he will not flinch from that stem assignment. Saints and martyrs have in themselves enough spiritual toughness and faith to be able to endure without human aid; but the ordinary man, it is suggested, needs to feel that he is one of a specially chosen and selected company, membership of which at once inspires him to the utmost of which he is capable and reassures him that his comrades too are of the same high quality. It may be further suggested that such a consciousness of belonging to a corps d'elite may be induced in four main ways:—

(i)     By selection. Thus the commando raider or the airborne soldier knows that he and his fellows have passed a rigorous physical test and have emerged successfully from a period of intense and exacting training and testing. He is confident that having endured so much nothing can defeat them.

(ii)     By Obvious differentiation. This explains why the Royal Navy has no need to try to maintain "crew spirit" (if that is the equivalent of regimental tradition): every rating knows that simply by being a seaman he is a different kind of person from a mere landsman, and, because he has mastered an element which the latter instinctively dreads, a superior one: and so are all "they that go down to the sea in ships" along with him.

(iii)     By technical attainment. Here again the Royal Navy scores, and so do the Royal Regiment of Artillery and the Royal Engineers to both of whom still accrues the prestige due to a "scientific corps": every gunner and sapper knows that he is a skilled man to whom, as to his companions, delicate instruments and weapons of precision are entrusted.

(iv)     By membership of an organization which has its own strongly marked and characteristic habits, standards, codes of behaviour, even a distinctive dress, in a word, its traditions, in which the individual can share and take pride.

It follows that while those in any of the first three classes often enjoy the advantages of the fourth as well (a member of the King's Troop, R.H.A., is an example of a soldier who can be included in all four) the infantry soldier must depend entirely upon the fourth, for it is all that he can hope for. Whatever laudatory things important people can find to say, especially in war-time, about the infantryman, it must be admitted that he is what is left over when all the experts, scientists and intellectuals have been taken away, and, while everyone else who is employed in the fighting Services is some sort of specialist, the infantry soldier is a Jack of All Trades if ever there was one: though he has certainly shown a remarkable aptitude for mastering them successfully.

It is for this reason that the infantryman, and particularly the infantry officer, sets far greater store by tradition than do members of the other arms; it is a sound instinct which makes him insist upon the differences which distinguish his regiment from others, even if he seems thereby to attribute undue importance to minutiae of dress, drill or deportment. Upon precisely such details is founded the conviction of the foot soldier that he is indeed one of the Elect.

History suggests that the British Infantry may fairly claim to be second to none in staunchness and fortitude in battle: until recently at any rate regimental spirit was the characteristic feature of that Infantry, every member of which was determined that his regiment should hold its ground regardless of what its neighbours might do. Is it too paradoxical to claim therefore that the success of British Infantry has been based upon the principle "Divided we stand"?

The value of regimental tradition also appears in its effect upon leadership. Here again the commander of the more technical arms has an advantage; the most important part of his task is the application of principles, scientifically established and agreed upon, to a given situation which may indeed be affected by the fact that it occurs in time of war but is not radically altered thereby. Thus, in peace or war, it takes very little time for a seaman with any experience at all to sum up a new Captain: simply by observing the way he shapes he will very soon gain confidence that his commander is among those who can claim with truth, "I never run a ship ashore." Similarly it is very soon clear whether a commander of artillery or engineers is technically competent. But the command of infantry in action is far more closely allied to an art than to a technique: it consists of the application of principles, it is true, but these principles are profoundly modified by the individual commander's View of the way to apply them, in fact, by his personal character. Thus a thrusting Irishman may attack with three companies up, while a cautious Scot may prefer to commit only one company at the outset: both may succeed admirably, but it is probable that neither will have much success at all unless he has somehow gained the confidence of his men before the battle, so that every soldier will go "all out" without anxious fears of something going wrong. Such confidence is based on knowledge, and knowledge is more easily and quickly acquired if both leader and led are on the same metaphorical "wave-length" as the result of a common military culture and upbringing based on shared traditions. A commander of outstanding personality can "get himself across" in any event, but even he will have to overcome that feeling of hostility and mistrust which always meets a stranger: the existence of this time-lag may be of vital importance when a commander takes over just before or even during a battle.

The Problem

If the influence of regimental tradition, particularly in the case of infantry, is admitted, it is clear that it, is an asset to be fostered and encouraged provided that the soldier, as a general rule, can start and continue his military career as a member of the same regiment. But if the system involves the probability of transfer from one regiment to another of the individual soldier, not as a volunteer, but simply because of the requirements of a situation over which he has no control, then regimental tradition is just as obviously only going to prove a liability.

This will be true in the highest degree of British soldiers, for centuries of history have had the effect of teaching us as a nation the virtue of a sceptical outlook, and notably the avoidance of any form of self-glorification or boasting, for

"This is the state of man; to-day he puts forth
The tender leaves of hope; to-morrow blossoms
And bears his blushing honours thick upon him;
The third day comes a frost, a killing frost, …"

(Shakespeare, Henry VIII, Act III.)

Yet it is only human for one who is proud to belong to some perhaps ancient and honourable institution, be it a college, society, firm or regiment, to need some outlet for his pride: and this is often found to take the form of depreciatory references to a rival or neighbouring institution of the same sort. This attitude is harmless enough in most other cases, but it will have highly demoralizing results when a soldier who has learnt the splendid traditions of his own regiment suddenly finds himself transferred against his will to another of which he knows, if anything, very likely the worst. It is probable too that such a transfer will take place on one of three most inopportune occasions:—

(i)     In peace-time, when the unit to which the transfer is made has for some reason suffered an unexpected loss of numbers; in its weak state it will be compelled to absorb a large number of unwilling strangers and will find its own spirit considerably diluted as a result.

(ii)     On the outbreak of hostilities, when a unit is moving to the front and is hastily made up to strength by drafts collected from the nearest available units, which are thus in their turn depleted.

(iii)     In battle, after a unit has met with unusually heavy casualties, and is thereby very possibly suffering from a decline in confidence and morale. Soldiers posted to such a unit from outside will find their worst forebodings justified.

With these possibilities in mind it is easy to see why a certain school of thought advocates scrapping the Regimental System and the formation of a Corps of Infantry. Administration would perhaps be rendered easier thereby, but if there remains any likelihood of regimental tradition containing so great an intrinsic value as has already been suggested, such a policy will run the risk of depriving the foot soldier of something so essential that he will only be comparable to a sailor without a ship or an artilleryman without a gun.

The Solution

The ideal solution of this problem must surely be one which makes the utmost use of all the advantages we already possess, and blends them into some system which will as far as possible ensure their continued existence. The formation of a Corps of Infantry would not in fact achieve the end to which it is directed, for it would have to be divided into sub-units whose members would immediately begin to evolve their own esprit de corps and would be equally disgruntled and depressed at being transferred elsewhere.

It seems clear that the main weakness of the present system is the existence of single-battalion regiments which lack the numbers and the flexibility to keep themselves maintained up to strength from within their own resources. Hence "Judas" proposes that Brigade Groups, formed out of battalions of various regiments which compose them at present, should be re-named Regiments and should presumably function very much like certain four-battalion regiments which existed under the Cardwell system.

Such a system would indeed provide the numbers required, but its weakness is that the Brigade Groups have at present no traditions at all. They have never existed as fighting formations but are synthetic products devised for training purposes with the object it seems of keeping as many battalions in nominal existence as possible. Nor, it is suggested, can Brigade Group traditions be manufactured by making a composition "of those aspects of the various regimental traditions which could conveniently be amalgamated." Traditions cannot be thus arbitrarily amalgamated by selection.

It is submitted therefore that our infantry traditions have such a great intrinsic value that they must be preserved in any re-organization which is intended to promote efficiency in battle. These traditions started and developed as regimental traditions, and it appears therefore that a true Regimental System should be restored. Once again we are learning the old lesson that infantry is the arm which Wins battles, and that victory can only be assured by our having "enough of it." It is to be hoped therefore that the Infantry will regain its preponderance in numbers in our Army, and that it will again be possible to organize the Infantry of the Line in regiments composed of at least two battalions each. If not, it is suggested that we must face the disagreeable necessity of the disbandment of certain regiments at present in existence; only thus could the remainder be restored to such a numerical strength as is required, in modern conditions of peace or war, to support, vigorous and unimpaired, the regimental traditions which we have inherited from the past.