In Praise of Infantry

Field-Marshal Earl Wavell

First published in "The Times," Thursday, 19th April 1945

MY attention was lately called by a distinguished officer to the fact that, whereas in official correspondence and in the Press it is the practice always to use initial capital letters in referring to other arms of the service—e.g. Royal Armoured Corps, Royal Artillery, etc.—the infantry often suffered the indignity of a small "i". My friend wished to adopt the usual method of an Englishman with a grievance and to write to The Times about it! But he proposed to do it vicariously, through me. Hence this article. I had not, I admit, noticed the small "i" myself, nor would it have worried me greatly if I had. But I do feel strongly that the Infantry arm (with a capital "I") does not receive either the respect or the treatment to which its importance and its exploits entitle it. This may possibly be understandable, though misguided, in peace; it is intolerable in war.

Let us be clear about three facts. First, all battles and all wars are won in the end by the infantryman. Secondly, the infantryman always bears the brunt. His casualties are heavier, he suffers greater extremes of discomfort and fatigue than the other arms. Thirdly, the art of the infantryman is less stereotyped and far harder to acquire in modern war than that of any other arm. The role of the average artilleryman, for instance, is largely routine; the setting of a fuse, the loading of a gun, even the laying of it are processes which, once learnt, are mechanical. The infantryman has to use initiative and intelligence in almost every step he moves, every action he takes on the battle-field. We ought therefore to put our men of best intelligence and endurance into the Infantry.

Yet the Infantry in peace or war receives the lowest rates of pay, the drabbest uniforms, sometimes even the least promising of recruits; most important of all, it ranks lowest in the public estimation and prestige. This is all wrong and should be set right by methods more important than a capital I.

In all the long history of war on land the front-line fighting man, whose role is to close with the enemy and force him to flee, surrender, or be killed—the only method by which battles are ever won—has two categories only—those who fight mounted—once the Knights-at-arms, then the Cavalry, now the Royal Armoured Corps—and those who fight on their feet—the inevitable, enduring, despised, long-suffering Infantry (with a very capital I). Artillery, Engineers, R.A.S.C., and the like simply handle the weapons and equipment which Infantry have from time to time discarded, when they found that they encumbered their mobility and lessened their power to perform their primary role of closing with the enemy. The cannon, bombard, or what-not, when first introduced was an infantry weapon; when it impeded mobility it was handed over to second-line men, to support the Infantry. Similarly with other weapons and devices.

So that the real front-line fighters, mounted or dismounted, are the men who should receive such panoply and glamour as are accorded to this dreary business of war. The mounted men have always had it—prancing steeds, glittering uniforms, sabretaches, scimitars, dolmans, leopard-skins, and the like in the old days; the imposing clatter of tanks and smart black berets in these sterner days. But the infantryman who bears the danger, the dirt, and the discomfort has never enjoyed the same prestige.

In peace, the Royal Armoured Corps, the Artillery, the Engineers all had Inspectors to look after their interests. The Infantry had to content themselves with a humiliating asterisk in the Army List and a footnote which explained that the Director of Military Training (who was sometimes a gunner or engineer) also acted as Inspector of Infantry. The Royal Armoured Corps had a centre at Bovington, the Artillery at Woolwich, the Engineers at Chatham. But the Infantry were homeless. There was a Cavalry Journal, an Artillery Journal, an Engineer Journal, but no Infantry Journal. I understand that it is intended to repair these omissions after the war.

But I believe that what the Infantry would appreciate more than anything is some outward and visible symbol. No one grudges the parachutist his very distinctive emblem, but the infantryman is, I will maintain, subject to greater and more continuous, though less spectacular, risk than the parachutist, and should certainly have an emblem. What it should be I must leave to others—a rampant lion, crossed bayonets, a distinctive piping?

It can surely not have escaped notice that nearly all our leaders who have distinguished themselves in this war have been infantrymen—Field-Marshals Dill, Alexander, Montgomery, Wilson; Generals Auchinleck, O'Connor, Platt, Leese, Dempsey, and others. Last war was a very static war, but there was a fashion for cavalry generals; in this war infantry generals have shown that they can move as fast as any.

So let us always write Infantry with a specially capital "I" and think of them with the deep admiration they deserve. And let us Infantrymen wear our battle-dress, like our rue, with a difference; and throw a chest in it, for we are the men who win battles and wars.

I will conclude with a story which was told me some ten years ago by General Gouraud, a great fighting French general of the last war, who was then Governor of Paris. He was dining with three British generals, of different arms of the service. He told us the following as current in the French Army to illustrate the characteristics of the three principal arms:—

"The general gives an order to the infantryman. The infantryman, being rather stupid, does not well understand what the general wants, but goes out and engages the enemy.

"The general gives an order to the artilleryman. The artilleryman understands it perfectly, but being much cleverer than the general goes and does something quite different.

"The general gives an order to the cavalryman. The cavalryman smiles politely and goes off to water and feed his horses."

We all assured him that things were arranged differently in the British Army!

- Field-Marshal Earl Wavell, The Good Soldier, 1948