The Regimental System

By: Captain Michael M. O'Leary, CD, The RCR

Many military authors have addressed the Regimental System, from many varying points of view. (i) But few authors treating the subject have been able to definitively establish what the Regimental System is, or what elements make it a truly valuable attribute of a modern army. Most often these articles confuse the regimental system with the existence of a specific organizational or unit structure, such as the Canadian Army’s named regiments.

"Every trifle, every tag or ribbon that tradition may have associated with the former glories of a regiment should be retained, so long as its retention does not interfere with efficiency." - Col. C. Walton (1894)

It is likely that most officers in the CF have little or no comprehension of the context of the Regimental System. In fact, it is arguable that our current mechanism for progression and career development precludes any readily accessible means to acquire an understanding of the Regimental System except through intensive personal study well outside the normally offered curricula of Course Training Plans and OPDPs.

While perhaps having done enough reading to achieve this degree of cognizance, this author would be hesitant to proclaim full awareness of every contextual facet of the Regimental System. Most observers, however, treat the Regimental System as the blind men did the elephant, assuming the small part they perceive, or choose to perceive, is representative of the whole.

We are led, as young officers and soldiers, to believe in the sanctity and strength of the Regiment. (ii) But those who so instruct us seldom portray the regiment within its relative position to greater organizations. The regiment is a key focus in the training of new soldiers of the combat arms, but that regiment lies within an Army, and that Army is part of the Canadian Forces. The regiment, while important to us from our own focussed viewpoint, is merely one of many small building blocks that make up the Army.

The Canadian Forces, in its turn, is an institution of the Canadian people, mandated by the Canadian government, and entrusted with the military history, honour and capability of our nation. We must accept that to uphold the honour of one’s regiment requires that one ensures that no embarrassment accrues to the Army, the Government or the people of Canada by our actions. It is more proper to ignore an insult to one’s regiment than to risk embarrassment of those greater institutions for which we stand.

If we look at some of the ‘incident’s’ which have occurred in recent years, we see episodes where soldiers or officers, in thinking they were upholding Regimental ideals (of toughness, playfulness, etc.), were in fact undermining Canadian ones. This skewed sense of the importance and place of regimental ideals in the Army has resulted in some circles perceiving a threat to the Regimental System, through the possibility that some regiments may be disbanded, amalgamated or re-roled in a future Army reorganization.

‘Keep your hands off the regiment, ye iconoclastic civilian officials who meddle and muddle in Army matters' - Wolseley (iii)

We tend to hold the collective memory and history of our named regiments highly, proclaiming that the regiment as it stands today on the parade square or armoury floor is the living embodiment of what has gone before. We hear these voices protest that to eliminate any regiment is to undermine its memory and to cast slight upon the past members and the honour of their service deeds.

But is this truly so? Does the Association for the 56th Tank Transporter Company of the Royal Canadian Army Service Corps consider its unit’s wartime history to be less of a contribution to our nation’s history because the unit no longer exists in the Order of Battle? Yet their feelings of fraternal belonging remain so strong they continue to have reunions 55 years after the conclusion of ‘their’ war. What of the numbered battalions of the CEF, raised for divisions that were not formed, then disbanded and their troops sent to other battalions? Were they less worthy, or merely the victims of consequence of service requirements? Many regiments of the Canadian Army have been disbanded, re-roled, demobilized or amalgamated, most often under honourable circumstances. Were these based on the considered decisions of our Headquarters and political masters, or are they to be considered simple victims of less energetic Regimental associations? Should any regiment’s continued survival be primarily dependent on the degree of activism of its supporters?

To enter the fray with the sole objective to save one’s own Regiment through an era of Army reorganization, perhaps at the expense of a stronger Army, is to set aside the soldier’s higher moral obligations.

The continuance of the regimental system, in and of itself, is not sufficient justification to defend the continued existence of any particular regiment. Disbandment, amalgamation, or re-roling of one or more regiments does not threaten the existence of the regimental system. The regimental system and regiments themselves are not, nor should they be, considered synonymous entities. Regiments are an organizational entity. The regimental system is a mutually supportive personnel management structure that emphasizes a sense of belonging (in our collective military experience, to a military unit structure) (iv). Though symbiotic in nature as we have become accustomed to them, regiments or a variation of the regimental system can each exist without the other.

Soldiers are taught to and many eventually come to believe that their regiment is the embodiment of the Regimental System. Perhaps that is an inverted view. Which came first, the regiment, or the regimental system? – the chicken or the egg? Does a regimental system propagate intense loyalty in regimental soldiers, or do soldiers, trained, perhaps fought, together, create a loyalty and collective honour which propagates a regimental system?

What, in fact, is the regimental system? And does it apply only to named regiments of the combat arms?

The essence of the regimental system is that no decision is taken except that it is for the good of the regiment. In a purely altruistic sense this approach protects the regiment from dishonour and, by extension, the army and the nation. One thing only is sure, any discussion of the regimental system will usually offend more readers or listeners than it will appease. The need to maintain "the regimental system" and the many attributes of regimental service in which it is upheld in defence are all too often selected by the personal preferences of the defender.

The British army for centuries has been recognized as a highly successful socializing institution for recruits drawn from a wide array of social, racial and ethnic backgrounds. In the British case, this phenomenon appears to be related to the sense of belonging to the "regiment." (v)

The Regimental System is commonly considered to have reached its evolutionary pinnacle in Britain during the Victorian era. Keep in mind, however, that this was the army that, through ignorance, nearly defeated itself logistically in the Crimea, and, through arrogance, saw a battalion of Regulars, with sundry reinforcements, be butchered by "savages" at Isandhlwana. And these are not necessarily unique blunders of an Army that we declare to be our basic model for Regimental proficiency. The most modern equivalent of Regimental Reading Rooms cannot protect our soldiers from a system that sold commissions and, after abolishment of the purchase system, also promoted officers solely on the merits of their father’s service.

A central attribute of the Regimental System was a coordinated arrangement of regional affiliations (county regiments, etc) and internalized regimental structures for recruiting and training. It is generally ignored that these "strengths" were primarily bureaucratic penny-pinching; the minimization of Army level administration by capitalizing on historical willingness of the titled gentry to personally raise regiments for their King (or Queen) and to avoid the national expense of training systems, soldiers’ dress, etc.

The Regimental System has been a mainstay of the British Army for centuries, and Canada’s Army adopted it from that source. Interestingly, there is no clearly defined alternative. If the military and social structure of Britain had chosen to thwart the evolution of the Regimental System, what was the alternative?

We in the Canadian Army proclaim ourselves, perhaps not in such direct terms, to uphold the traditions and customs of the Victorian British Army and what we contend are historical precedents of the regimental system. I would contend however that there's never been a pure regimental system.

Before and during the Victorian era, the honour of a regiment historically hinged upon that collective mirage of the individual personal honour of the regiment’s officers. (The men, after all, were "the scum of the earth," having joined the army to escape the bailiff or an even more abysmal civilian life.) Consider how select regiments were perceived to have held higher honour, by virtue of their respective social standing, for those who served with them, based upon a preference for service by the nobility, their placement in the order of battle, or the location of their service. Even, perhaps, the opulence of the regimental dress. (vi)

Reasons for joining aside, the conduct of the Regiments’ officers remained under scrutiny because of their interdependence for maintenance of mutual and individual honour. Consider what might happen when an officer committed an ethical offence, which may or may not have been related to his military service. Colonels cashiered or transferred officers who had been perceived to have dishonoured themselves, not to protect the honour of the regiment, but to distance themselves and their other officers, some of whom may have had higher social standing than the Colonel himself, from any hint of contamination through association. This aspect of Regimental life, while it first appears to be for the good of the regiment, was often quite selfishly motivated. A very capable officer could as easily be transferred because of a perceived social slight, such as the social status of his mother, as for the actual commission of an ethical offence.

The Regimental system was also marked, perhaps ‘scarred’ would be a better term, by the business of maintaining the regiment. Unscrupulous Colonels would enrich themselves at the cost of their men’s equipment, provisions and accommodation. But for many decades no official notice of such improprieties took place, for the [British] army saved itself the expense of a bureaucracy to establish and maintain a standardized national system.

The regimental system, in its earlier guises, never had the welfare of the men at heart, It was centred on the preferences and ethics of the Colonel, the officers he permitted to purchase into his regiment, and the social life in which they partook. Officers took little notice of the daily life of the men, and the men simply never dared to intrude upon the social level of the officers. (vii)

Our application of the Regimental System is a shadow of its stronger iterations. Once the refuge of petty tyrants playing at soldier and ordering their subordinates about, it evolved to a highly structured Army organization within which the Regiment dictated all aspects of the soldiers’ life except in which wars he fought. It is now the refuge of self-proclaimed Regimental soldiers attempting to thwart further erosion of their perception of the System. But when is this defence correct?

Many writers presume that the alternative is a mass recruiting system and individual augmentation to units (regiments) without regard to prior affiliation. They envision the worst example of this available short of outright conscription – the US Army in Vietnam, a recognized, and subsequently corrected, flaw-ridden system. Perhaps the unspoken fear is that Scott Taylor (viii) and Peter Newman (ix) will arise as the Canadian Army’s Gabriel and Savage (x), compiling their no-doubt extensive notes into a Canadian Crisis in Command.

And yet we conduct mass recruiting through anonymous Recruiting Centres with no vested interest or affiliation toward any Regiment, or even any Service. Most probably, the average recruit joins the CF, and may even proceed through their recruit training, without actually speaking with a member of the trade (or Regiment) for which they are destined. We no longer even have distinct Combat Arms depots, battle schools or training centres.

The average young soldier or officer applicant knows nothing of a regimental system. An anonymous telephone call from a Recruiting Centre might tell him/her that he/she has been selected for service in a regiment thousands of miles from home, the name of which they have never heard. Unless his (or her) father served in the regiment, few recruits enlist to join any conception of an existing regimental family. In this day, the majority of recruits join for employment, not necessarily unlike their British antecedents. They learn of the Regiment after they are already in it. (xi) The impression of the regiment that they receive is the one the existing regimental hierarchy packages and delivers to them at a stage in their careers when they are susceptible to suggestion, striving to please and attempting to fit in, whether from a psychological need to do so, or simply to avoid the instructors’ ire. And certainly no regiment maintains a ready record of its defeats, debacles, or embarrassments. No regiment ever played a bit part in its own regimental history, no matter how minor a footnote they may be granted in Stacey’s (xii) works.

But the old guard Ÿ the Honouraries and active Veterans Ÿ knows not these new recruits at this stage, unsure and uninitiated. In their movements through the Regimental lines the old guard meet soldiers fully inculcated in the Regiment’s lore and superstitions. They see a strong soldiery attired in the Regimental regalia, performing well-rehearsed movements and answering the traditional "Any complaints?" with a confident "No, Sir!," whether delivered in awe of the Regimental presence, or fear of the Sergeant-Major loitering nearby with his pace stick held threateningly in full view. As sure as there are no atheists in foxholes, there are no detractors of the Regiment on a regimental parade.

Does a course curricula requirement to learn a Regimental catechism by rote serve as a Regimental indoctrination? What critical degree of knowledge can be considered enough? For a young recruit, does a list of regimental awards and decorations truly encompass and deliver a sense of regimental pride and courage? In a sense, is this not little more than a brain-washing technique? If we were to accept the most recent Canadian Forces approach to a hierarchy of loyalty – to the CF, then the Army, then the Regiment – then should we not begin with instruction of the Army’s place in our history, then allow instruction of the Regiment’s role? Would a comprehensive tutorial on the Canadian Army’s history be out of place in any new recruits’ training? I would think not.

Our Regular Force regiments have only a residual regional affiliation for recruiting. A recent Infantry course at the Training Centre in Meaford had candidates from hometowns ranging from Newfoundland to British Columbia, representing seven provinces. The claim of Reserve Force units to have maintained geographic regimental affiliation for its own value to the Regimental System is unfounded. The enrolment of recruits from limited and long-standing geographic areas, as a function of Reserve Force recruiting, is driven more by the limited mobility of the target recruiting audience than by any innate desire on the part of the recruits to serve a local Regiment out of familial pride. (xiii)

What force does attract and retain the soldiery? How can we claim it is regimental pride when only a small fraction come from military families, and often there is no awareness of Regimental systems before entering the Recruiting Centre. Is it service to Canada? Or is that just a vague generalization easily edited as television news sound bites. Is it employment? Our more recent recruiting efforts have stressed pure employment opportunities over ‘Service’. Or is it the career opportunities? Opportunities do exist for career advancement and ongoing challenge for those that want it, but there is also a comfortable structured lifestyle for those psychologically wired for hierarchical conformity.

Reserve Force combat arms proponents of the Regimental System often claim that the Regimental System is the fundamental mainstay of their units, that without this paternal matrix, soldiers would "vote with their feet" and leave the unit. (xiv) An interesting point of view when the average reserve unit has historically been forced to recruit 20-30 new soldiers each year to maintain a single sub-unit’s strength. By comparison, Regular Force combat arms units of up to 600 personnel receive 30-60 new soldiers annually. Also, one must wonder about the Combat Service Support units of the Reserve Force, what amazing secret weapon do they wield in absence of an overt "Regimental System."

Historically, any familial feeling which troops developed toward the regiment was to exercise a psychological need to belong. They associated with their primary group, the company or half-company, and the regiment by extension not so much as a discrete entity of itself, but simply as a differentiation from those soldiers of other regiments. They belonged to their regiment because they knew no other after years of literal bondage to the colours. They fought for their regiment as fiercely against fellow regiments of their own army in public houses or on the sports field (xv) as they might against a declared enemy in armed conflict. The honour they defended was their own, for any slight against the regiment, whether by insult or by fire, was to damn their own courage. They would have cared as little about their officers’ personal honour and prestige as those officers did of theirs.

What sense of a regiment’s history serves to carry it forward in battle? Did the 52nd Battalion, CEF, fight less well than did The Royal Canadian Regiment at Vimy Ridge in 1917? They both carry the battle honour, one still to this day, the other in memory only, yet one Regiment dated from 1883, the other merely from 1915. In a conflict with high attrition rates, rapid replacement of personnel, and little time to inculcate drafts in any Regimental sense, how can one argue that the regimental system significantly contributes to the regiment’s conduct in combat?

Enough works have focussed on man’s motivation in combat. S.L.A. Marshall established, certainly to his own experienced mind, that men fought not for a regimental ideal, but for and within the primary group, whether that be a battalion, company, platoon or section. (xvi) And the intensity of the fight and prevailing attitudes prior to and during the current combat may shift the consideration of that group up and down the organizational scale.

Canadian reserve units have a unique view of the Regimental system and their own developed sense of belonging to a regiment rather than to a subordinate primary group. When a unit parades 100-150 strong, a few years service will ensure that any soldier knows every other unit member, barring the new recruits each year. This familiarity breeds a sense of belonging to The Regiment – even when its strength against wartime establishments is that of a company. At a wartime strength of 600-1000, it is not possible for many of the members of such a unit to have the opportunity to know many outside their own company well, particularly when the operational tempo rises. As the horizon of acquaintance decreases (in an organizational context) the individuals’ feelings of affiliation to a primary group returns to the same span – 100-150 men (a company), or even to the platoon or section level. This also occurs when combat reduces the horizon of perceived and actual support, in both senses: fire and moral.

In a similar context, with peacetime soldiering, long service in a Regular Force unit with low (peacetime) attrition, a soldier may actually achieve familiarity with most of a battalion’s members. A few inter-company postings over an initial career length of 10-12 years will ensure this sense of "Regimental" or unit-level belonging. But on active service, with combat attrition and the higher rate of mobility of, in particular, officers as the system strives to maximize variety of service experience, the virtual horizon of individual familiarity drops quickly.

At any time, but especially when the individual battalions of a regiment (or companies of a battalion) are dispersed in widely separated garrisons, one’s impression of ‘The Regiment’ is what one is familiar with. The other battalions (companies) seldom actually intrude upon one’s conscious considerations. In this manner, the soldier’s sense of belonging to the battalion is interpreted as a Regimental affiliation.

The perception that soldiers do, or must, perceive the regiment as their primary group is an invention of the regimental system. The soldiers belong to and defend their primary group; it is the Regiment that presumed that this primary group should be the Regiment itself.

One aspect of regimental life that is commonly misinterpreted is the role of sports. Sports may take the role of a fitness and bonding activity, or they may be a mechanism to promote and highlight competitiveness. Sports for fitness, conducted by junior officers or NCOs, are an ideal mechanism for soldiers to learn to work together, to expand their awareness of one another’s personalities and reactions, and to improve overall levels of fitness. This works particularly well when the activity and intensity support the general interaction without creating internal segregation by skill or experience levels.

Intramural sports programs, where the soldiers of platoons and companies compete within the unit, can be healthy. This develops primary group pride, but must be established to ensure that every soldier contributes to collective victories, or shared responsibility for losses. When a varied selection of activities allows every soldier to participate, than the sporting program, taken collectively, becomes the primary group strengthening exercise, not any one sport in itself. (xvii)

When the attraction of ‘winning’ begins to overshadow the values of wide-spread participation and associated primary group benefits, then sports can actually become a corrupting influence on the Regimental System. It is a false premise that unit sports teams necessarily contribute to unit pride. When team members are removed from field training, or excused other work, for practices and games, the shared experience test for developing Regimental esprit de corps is failed. Other soldiers now must bear the additional responsibility and work caused by the departure of team members, who may well be seen as pampered prima donnas by peers who may be better soldiers, but less skilled athletes. Victory in inter-unit sports competitions may bode well across the Brigade Commander’s conference table, but it means little in the men’s mess.

With regiments, as with other organizations, there is a weakening of the greater body politic through the isolationism of individual parts. This occurs for dispersed battalions or companies (or squadrons or batteries) of a Regiment. This tendency may be evidenced by an increase in presumed authority by the separate elements or a divergence in common customs and tradition (the evolution of ‘quirks’). Members of the disparate parts eventually come to see themselves as belonging more to their component part than to the whole, thus creating a sense of primary group which actually subdivides the organization’s considered ideal. Once the sense of unit pride extends to embrace these quirks as fundamental and necessary to establish and maintain the differences between elements, than the sense of The Regiment in the context of the regimental system is lost.

In the late 1980s, the Royal Canadian Regiment identified the pervasiveness of such a trend and a conscious effort was made to post officers returning to Regimental Duty to a different battalion than the one(s) in which they previously served. By 1990, the most of the First Battalion’s senior staff had previously served in the Second Battalion and were, therefore, unknown to the majority of the battalion’s NCOs and the rank and file. In this situation, a well-meaning initiative backfired at the most basic level, the troops’ perception of the sanctity of their own Battalion (which was, of course, their limits of perception of Regiment) and, therefore, their morale. Proposed changes to the battalion’s organization or procedures were unhappily maintained to be an attempt to create a carbon copy of the Second Battalion in London. Too much of a good thing? Too late in application? Perhaps.

In contrast, consider the tension that can exist between members of different components of the same regiment when they share a garrison. When the Black Watch Depot (xviii) was in Aldershot, Nova Scotia, a brawl would quickly ensue if a soldier walked to the wrong end of the canteen H-hut (xix) after buying his beer. Such an intrusion on one battalion’s space by the other’s soldier was an affront that could not be overlooked. And few active Regiments on the Order of Battle could have claimed a greater Regimental spirit, yet within the Black Watch’s own ranks no such fraternal emotion existed between the battalions, the separate members of which few outsiders might have distinguished.

To diminish the effects of organizational erosion caused by dispersion, organizations (and armies are notable for this) develop reams of regulations and correspondence to establish and enforce commonality. This directed commonality may be with regards to dress, administrative processes, or operational procedures (SOPs) (xx). Efforts to combat this entropic decline has, in recent years, given rise to standardized army Field SOPs to replace the many and disparate brigade and battalion SOPs which had been so prevalent, and as commonly ignored in detail. SOPs, however, are only as effective as the degree of respect and adherence given them by each component.

The Canadian Airborne Regiment, in creating and maintaining an exclusionist ‘aura’ which contributed to its own demise, established such an intensity in the sense of belonging to the Regiment that it had displaced any proportional sense of value in belonging to the Army itself. The British Army, in its classical representation of the Regimental System, did not foster such disparity. The British soldier traditionally carried a very strong sense of his nationality with him throughout the world. They were Britons. They represented their sovereign, on whose empire the sun never set. They were soldiers of the British Army, staunch and undefeatable in the end, who stood stolidly against the Empire’s foes. Lastly, but not less loyally, they were soldiers of their regiments. Perhaps it is because they might be poorly treated at the hands of the Regiment, particularly in comparison to their view of the officers’ privileges that this sense of a higher ideal flourished. To endure suffering, whether marching toward or in combat with one’s enemies or at the hands of one’s own commanders, a soldier needs some degree of belief to sustain him. Regardless of its origins or means of being sustained, a proportional sense of belonging to the Nation, the Army and the Regiment were all maintained in balance that fit the soldiers’, the Army’s, and the society’s expectations and requirements. (xxi)

Regimental spirit and tradition can be a powerful factor in making for good morale, and must be constantly encouraged. But in the crisis of battle a man will not derive encouragement from the glories of the past; he will seek aid from his leaders and comrades of the present. Most men do not fight well because their ancestors fought well at the battle of Minden two centuries ago, but because their particular platoon or unit has good leaders, is well disciplined, and has developed the feelings of comradeship and self-respect among all ranks and on all levels. It is not devotion to some ancient regimental story that steels men in the crisis; it is devotion to the comrades who are with them and the leaders who are in front of them. - Field Marshal Montgomery (xxii)

The Regimental System is only truly embodied in the sprit of belonging imbued by service with other soldiers working toward common goals. As long as each member fully understands that those unit goals are subordinate and inclusive to those of the Army, and the Army’s in turn to those of the nation, then the Regimental System continues to be a viable article. The "Regimental System," as an ill-defined entity, is not a valid argument in itself to continue outmoded and inefficient practices. If such arguments were valid, we would still be conducted basic infantry training courses at Wolseley Barracks in London, Ontario, and wearing battle dress (for who could imagine maintaining a soldierly appearance in a baggy set of combats and matte black boots?).

Take a moment and mentally strip away the much-acclaimed trappings of the Regimental System. The badges, buttons and titles are merely signs of belonging to a group, intrinsically of no more importance than a revolutionary’s armband. Battle honours signify only the past doings of a Regiment, not its current ability. Besides, is a Regiment without battle honours any less a Regiment? The 19th Century role of Colours has been replaced by GPS determined, crypto-encoded frequency-hopping radio reporting of location both within and by units. Beyond that Colours are an archaism, a moth-eaten rag on a worm-eaten pole, brought forth only for increasingly infrequent ceremonial occasions. Except, of course, for the Artillery, who serve their Colours.

Buttons, history and flags do not in themselves impart or generate unit pride. They expand the scope of objects and knowledge toward which this pride might be exhibited in their ritualistic care or display, but they are mere decorations. As the post-Vietnam, reformed American Army has shown, a soldier can exhibit pride just as fiercely in belonging to the "3rd of the 145th Infantry" as he or she might in the "King’s Own Royal Peninsular Grenadiers."

The trapping of a regiments are often offered up as proof of the strength of the system in the hearts of the regiment’s soldiers. This is mere vanity, individual and collective. Man is human, he becomes attached to little things in life, the buttons and badges issued him by a surly quartermaster become the symbols of his belonging. But that belonging may not be to the 48th Highlanders, as much as it is to 2 Platoon, A Company, of that unit. Similarly, with practice, the simple routine of preparing one’s uniform assumes a comforting aspect of its own. It is the ritual of getting ready to be with one’s primary group, an act of mental and physical preparation. And any style of unique dress is readily affected, not because men necessarily need to belong to a regiment, but because human vanity is pervasive. (xxiii) How else might one explain how a teenager in the year 2000 might be persuaded to stroll a Toronto street in a kilt?

Once the veneer of decoration is removed, what elements of the Regimental System remain? How is it, if the regimental system is so strong, that situations may arise in which a soldier, NCO or officer might embarrass the Army, while believing that he is upholding Regimental tradition or honour?

An underlying aspect of regimental life remains the political intrigue wielded by those who survived to achieve high standing (if not necessarily high rank) within the Regiment. The potential has always existed for the presence of a sense of paternalistic control by senior officers that can, in a careerist bureaucracy, be perceived as wanton patronage and nepotism. When a career manager proclaims that there are no separate regimental merit lists, it evinces a chuckle but also reflects an official policy on decreased Regimental control when the opposite appears to be true in practice. Contrarily, we are all equally aghast when some Regimental member sent to purgatory by Regimental influence reappears some years later with undue career momentum, having received Outstanding PERs from a reporting officer from another Corps or Service. Regimental influence in a system that does not admit that it exists as a driving factor can create imbalances as surely as it may claim to minimize them. Then again, no one has ever upheld the Regimental System as a meritocracy.

Those who survive the Regimental System generally fall into select groups. Those who serve in wartime come by their Regimental loyalty honestly, they recall the camaraderie tempered by shared experience and even loss of comrades in combat. Notably, for many, this is without the contrasting emotions of peacetime internal regimental politics.

During peacetime, however, the situation is much more complex. When the system is true, the survivors are those that persevered through honest dedication and loyalties to a higher cause, i.e., an open readiness to protect the Army through correct regimental behaviours. When the system becomes corrupted by bureaucratic hierarchism, those that survive are the Regimentally chosen (often known colloquially as ‘streamers’), and those that blandly fit the expectations of the hierarchy itself. The attributes of being a streamer, or a place-holder, however, are seldom overt characteristics. Often the subject may remain unaware of the root cause of the momentum of their regimental career. Keep in mind also that such success may less be measured by regular promotion than by garnered respect within the Regimental family and associated career protection, particularly for those regimental stalwarts who have peaked professionally but can be trusted to preserve the status of the regimental hierarchy. (xxiv)

One fundamental weakness in the Regimental System is the tendency for the creation and growth of cliques. Less evident in the 19th Century, when regimental staff might change little in a decade, malcontents and those perceived not to fit were quickly ushered out of the Regiment, never to return. In this manner a consolidated Regimental front was maintained. When an Army bureaucracy dictates personnel management and career requirements increase mobility in and out of regimental appointments, it opens the door to the formation of cliques. Cliques occur when senior regimental officers, often those no longer subject to service in line appointments, sustain a (usually personal) controversy and begin to gather and even to recruit allies among their subordinates. When cliques form, decisions of regimental import, like the appointment of commanders may be driven by clique loyalty rather than by the good of the regiment. This approach may also be subject to the alternative option of a course of action, or appointment, being taken simply because it accrues no perceivable advantage to the competing cliques.

The most important characteristic of a traditional regimental system is an altruistic approach to decision-making. Every action, whether it be that of an individual or a leader for a group, must be weighed against those standards of trust and respect through which we expect that each service member will protect the Regiment from embarrassment. And in doing so, will also, automatically, ensure that no embarrassment is caused the Army as a whole.

Unfortunately, such an altruistic approach to regimental matters is increasingly unlikely in an era where the careers of officers are trapped in a highly refined atmosphere of bureaucratic hierarchy. Where obedience (to a superior who may be self-serving) and loyalty (to a Regiment/Army/system) are as readily confused in everyday activities as in annual performance evaluation reports.

The creation and maintenance of loyalty to one’s Regiment is considered a strength of the Regimental System. But our Army’s current standpoint that a service member must have loyalty to the Army above and before one’s own regiment also indicates a misunderstanding of the Regimental System. Fallout from the Somalia Inquiry, this expectation is intended to avoid future scandals whereby an officer, NCO or soldier might bring discredit upon the Army while ostensibly upholding the perceived mores of their Regiment.

Why has this distinction not been considered necessary in the past? Because, properly approached by service personnel, there is no conflict. Loyalty towards one’s Regiment and protection of the honour of the Regiment has always reflected favourably upon the Army as an entity. Historically, within the British Regimental System, no fault was more immediately damned and punished than to bring dishonour upon The Regiment. By this means, each Regiment protected the honour of the Regiment within the Army, the honour of the Army, and by extension the monarch (or, as in a Constitutional Canada, the nation, her government and her people). (xxv)

This sense of honour, historically perceived to be the domain of the officer, was not learned at the CO’s mess table, or at the adjutant’s elbow, it was that self-same sense of honour that carried each and every gentleman throughout his life. These gentlemen, in turn, applied their sense of honour to Regimental concerns on receipt of the Queen’s (or King’s) commission. Most certainly, this concept of honour was not a virtue that was held only by military regiments. It is, however, an increasingly unfamiliar concept in our present society and poorly understood by most for its nature and the value it can accrue and maintain within a military context. There was no thought to teaching the officers of the 19th Century about ethics, for gentlemen simply conducted themselves appropriately within society and to hold a Commission was simply to have expanded one’s circle of acquaintances (while accepting some attendant responsibilities which didn’t really interrupt one’s social life). This is not to say that those officers never committed acts which might be today considered unethical, but, for the most part, they were appropriate to the day, its societal expectations and the allowances of a class-structured society.

But that sense of honour which the officer was expected to have has evolved over the past hundred years. It has changed in context and intensity, for no longer does one officer challenge another to a potentially fatal (or at least illegal) duel over a perceived slight. (xxvi) As described by Christopher Duffy, the role of honour has changed along with the matrix of western society:

"The ancient cult of honour, in all its complexities, gradually crumbled in face of the assaults of the industrial age. The ground that was once the preserve of the principle of honour has since been invaded by nationalism, political ideology or religiously based morality. Honour, which had once been the concern of the individual, now refers to loyalty to the group and the state. It is now tolerable for an officer to ignore an insult, but scarcely thinkable that he should let down the men for whom he is responsible." (xxvii)

NCO’s and soldiers have also historically protected the honour of their Regiments, at least as they perceived it. This defence was generally executed with considerably less formality and decorum than their officers might employ, and was often in response to direct insults by outsiders. In this case the Regiment as a paternal organization was defended, but the readiness to invoke an appropriate response was pursued with no less fervor or dedication than would one of the Regiment’s officers. With the demise of class based societies in the western world and no real societal distinction between the officer and soldier, allowance for varying levels of conduct have diminished. Especially when each and every action of each Regimental member might become a headline news story, it is even more imperative that care be taken to ensure that no activity or utterance bring discredit upon one’s Regiment, or, by extension, the Army.

We should, perhaps, be more concerned with discovering if a "sense of honour" is a learnable thing, or if some compensatory approach to duty is necessary. There may be "honour among thieves," but it is only to mutually protect the society of bandits, not to uphold their standing within the community at large, for they have no concern for the general opinion. The honour of a service member, however, must approach the Victorian ideal, it must not only uphold the Regiment, it must also ensure that the Regiment imparts no dishonour to the Army or to the nation as a whole.

The desire by devotees of the Regimental System to justify its strength through the success of their own regiment has risen to the rise of myths and beliefs about regiments that do not necessarily stand up to scrutiny. Most common among these are the many claims of age of units. By definition, the origin of a unit is based upon its date of authorization within the Militia of the Dominion of Canada, or latterly, the Canadian Army. Based on this, the majority of Canadian Army units can trace their lineage back to the early or mid-1860s.

Formal and recorded changes in title, amalgamations and changes of role do not disrupt a unit’s lineage where age is concerned. Disbandment does. Many units were formed from disparate local companies of militia, being formed for the first time in nationally authorized regiments or battalions. Before this combining by General Order, there is no justification to claim prior heritage as a regiment.

Another great and often perpetuated myth is the degree of participation by the Militia in the First and Second World Wars. A simple comparison of Reserve strength figures prior to each war to the numbers deployed overseas in 1914 and 1939 quickly dispels this claim. The number of trained personnel in the Canadian Militia for the year 1913-14 was only 57,527 (xxviii) while the Canadian Expeditionary Force saw a total of 628,462 Canadians in its service. (xxix)

While a better case may be made for the participation of the Militia in the mobilization of 1939, (xxx) their role was as often to form local defence units as it was to help generate battalions for the Canadian Active Service Force. Granatstein notes that "the Permanent Force had only 4,261 all ranks in mid-1939, every unit being under strength." (xxxi) The Militia saw another 46,251 train in 1938-39. (xxxii) So who, exactly, were the other men and women that made up the wartime strength of the Canadian Army, which saw the service of 730,625 (xxxiii) soldiers and support personnel, in Canada and abroad, during the Second World War. They were Canadians, not the Regular Army of pre-war years, and equally not the Reserves to the degree some would advocate. They were Canadians, most of whom had given little thought to Army service before 1939.

The pre-war Second World Army, Permanent Force and Militia combined, may have provided a core of instructors and the poor expertise that their funding and training up to 1939 had permitted them to acquire, but it did not, as a discrete element, go off and ‘win’ any battle or war. How many pre-war reservists chose to remain in the Second Battalion in Canada, than to volunteer for the regiment’s First Battalion destined for overseas duty and eventual combat? The influx of civilians, inculcated as swiftly in the application of violence as in the appropriate Regimental propaganda when time permitted, affected both Regular and Reserve units in the order of battle. And the Regimental spirit of those almost half-million overseas participants is undoubtedly stronger in hindsight than it ever was at the time of their recruitment and initial training. Particularly when the chequered pedigree of many of our Army units is considered, (xxxiv) what strength of Regimental pride based on corps can be claimed as responsible for good service when a unit may have re-roled two or more times during the war.

The old guard, well imbued with Regimental spirit, looks back on its more favourable memories with fondness. Fading memories, not necessarily limited to the aged, are bolstered by oft retold and well burnished tales told at Mess. Regimental historians write lengthy tomes upon the courage, honour and victorious gentlemanly conduct of all the Regiment’s members. The more embarrassing anecdotes seldom find their way into works compiled by friends of the Regiment (or at least those in its pay), those that are will most often be braided into the whole as an amusing interlude or the sad tale of a lost sheep. (xxxv) Those who have succeeded in Regimental life, either through career success or simply lifelong career stability, consider the Regiment to be comfortable surroundings. Those who have disappeared from the Regimental rolls over the decades bear little thought, except, of course, those who fell in its service. The Regiment, and those who have survived its capriciousness over a long career, form a mutual protection society, the Regiment has looked after them therefore they shall look after the Regiment.

On joining, a young soldier or officer is motivated by a desire to please and need to be accepted. Willingly, all tales of Regimental import are accepted at face value. Regimental pride is developed, less through an understanding of the regiment’s values and mores, than through a relative ignorance of those of the remainder of the army. One would never dare ask: "If our Regiment is so good, and the others so bad, why do they remain on the order of battle?" To do so would be to greet a stony silence, or a brusque issuance of more mindless work to take one’s attention away from such frivolous comparisons. Why indeed, our Regiment is better because it is the one we belong to! And so, the minds of the young are molded as surely as they might be in a secret CIA experiment, molded to believe in the intellectual, ethical and courageous dominance of one’s own regiment over and to the exclusion of all others.

It’s time to define and establish a common understanding of the concept and role of the Regimental System in the Canadian Army of 2000 and beyond. We must be prepared to completely and honestly divest ourselves of any historically perceived aspects of the Regimental System which do not support current Army missions. Some things will remain, some may go, to many observers, the outward signs of our Regiments may never change. But it is time – it was once unthinkable not to carry Colours in combat, for they were the embodiment of the Regiment’s history and honour. The Regimental System got over that too.

As young officers and soldiers we are told to believe in the stability of the Regimental System. As the Army has taken away many of the traditional powers of the system, our Regiments have been reduced to defending the remaining overt symbols; protecting the Regiment’s version of the Regimental history and supporting the Regiment at the kit shop until every object we own down to the ice bucket containing the ice we place in our straight soda water is emblazoned with the Regimental crest. The concept of "The Regiment" is much broader and less tangible than might be assumed from the traditionally perceived degrees of authority presumed to be held by Regiments but no longer supported by the Army. Further, Regimental esprit, per se, cannot be said to be embodied in the remaining Regimental trappings.

"Every trifle, every tag or ribbon that tradition may have associated with the former glories of a regiment should be retained, so long as its retention does not interfere with efficiency." (xxxvi)

As Regimental soldiers, we need to regain an understanding of The Regiment as an entity, as an equitable familial structure, and build this into a definitive notion independent of (but necessarily without) decoration. After all, S.L.A. Marshall was quite clear when he determined that soldiers, in the final decision, fought not for country, or for Regiment, but for that small band of brothers with whom and for whom they might have to shed their blood. That is the character of the Regiment at its core. It is not the simultaneous bashing of a hundred boot-heels in response to the stentorian tones of a Regimental Sergeant-Major, it is not the forgotten origins of the silver in the Officers’ Mess, and it is not the dusty retired Colours laid up in the Regiment’s chapel. The Regiment is that quiet spirit that lives in the breasts of men who decide to serve, and, if necessary, are prepared to lay down their lives for their country and the beliefs for which that nation stands. It is also soldiers’ collective discipline and willingness to uphold those ideals through their personal conduct each day, because they understand the "idea of the Regiment …" (xxxvii)


i.      A notable recent example of articles on the Regimental System is to be found in the Armour Bulletin, Vol. 32, No. 1, 1999

ii.     Once more, there are two sorts of discipline, distinct in principle although sometimes they may overlap in practice.

The one is born in coercion and sets the soldier outside the ring of homely sentiment which surrounds the ordinary citizen from his cradle to his grave. ... Coercive as the old discipline may be, it by no means despises the moral factor. It tries to make a religion out of something very near and real, yet, at the same time, high, intangible, romantic -- the Regiment! ...

The other sort of discipline aims at raising the work-a-day virtues of the average citizen to a higher power. It depends:

(1) Upon a sense of duty (res publica).

(2) Upon generous emulation (force of example).

(3) Upon military cohesion (esprit de corps).

(4) Upon the fear a soldier has of his own conscience (fear that he may be afraid). - General Ian Hamilton, G.C.B., The Soul and Body of an Army, 1921

iii.     Quoted in Byron Farwell, Queen Victoria's Little Wars, 1972

iv.     In this context, is any major sports franchise with its players, support staff, owners, financial backers and fans any less intense about its sense of belonging and partisan loyalty to "the team"?

v.      Gabriel, Richard A. and Savage, Paul A., Crisis in Command, Mismanagement in the Army, 1978

vi.     This attractor, however, was often more indicative of the generosity or vanity of the Regiment’s Colonel than for any other cause.

vii.     As late as the First World War, the concept of the "gentleman-ranker" was still an eccentric though acceptable role.

viii.     Scott Taylor, controversial editor of Esprit de Corps, a Canadian Military magazine which inordinately focuses on public attacks on the Defence system without balanced reporting of initiatives or effective, affordable counter-proposals.

ix.      Peter C. Newman is one of Canada's leading authors with over 19 award-winning books to his credit. He is a contributing editor at Maclean's and specializes in studies of business and political power, and how it is used and abused in Canadian society.

x.      Richard A. Gabriel (Major, US Army Reserve) and Paul L. Savage (Lieutenant Colonel, US Army, retired) wrote the pivotal general release analysis of the collapse of morale and performance of the US Army officer corps during the Vietnam War era: Crisis in Command (New York, Hill and Wang, 1978).

xi.      A sense of belonging to the Regiment is inherently a learned attribute, it is not necessarily anticipated through a geographic affiliation with a Regiment. – "New recruits quickly became part of their regiments. They not only accepted new hat badges and the accoutrements that identified them as part of the regiment, but they also learned its traditions and acquired its attitudes, mannerisms and regimental pride." – Major General (Retd) Clive Milner, OMM, MSC, CD, Keynote Address, The Regimental System, Armour Bulletin, Volume 32, No. 1, 1999

xii.      Major (later Colonel) C.P. Stacey was appointed Historical Officer, General Staff, at Canadian Military Headquarters in London on 11 October 1940. His task, as conveyed to him by Lieutentant-General H.D.G. Crerar, Chief of the General Staff was "the collection and preparation of material for future use of the official historian and the placing on the record of historical material not otherwise recorded or available." - C.P. Stacey, A Date with History: Memoirs of a Canadian Historian, (Toronto: Deneau, 1982)

xiii.     "The Regimental System was devised at a time when the population was less mobile than it is today. It was not uncommon for a person, even up to the 1950s, not to travel more than 30 miles from his home in his entire life, and joining the local regiment was the obvious thing to do." – WO1 BM Shaw, The Demise of the Regimental System and the Reorganization of the Infantry, British Army Review, No. 116, August 1997 (Reprinted in the Armour Bulletin, Volume 32, No. 1, 1999)

xiv.      See LCol Murray, The Regimental System – A Reservist’s View, Armour Bulletin, Vol. 32, No. 1, 1999

xv.      The commanders of the 2nd, 3rd and 4th Divisions objected strenuously [to a proposal to resort personnel according to physical and psychological testing profiles]. The Canadian Army was modeled on the British system of distinct regiments, raised in specific areas of the country. While functionally the same, each Canadian infantry or tank battalion was the active component of a regiment with a treasured historical tradition and battle honours dating back to at least World War I. Each regiment treasured its distinctive dress and customs and its regimental lore. The army sports program, a vital part of training, began with competition between the companies or squadrons, but the best men competed for the regiment and became local heroes. Group identity and loyalty were based on these traditions. - Terry Copp and Bill McAndrew, Battle Exhaustion; Soldiers and Psychiatrists in the Canadian Army, 1939-1945, 1990

xvi.     See S.L.A. Marshall, Men Against Fire, 1947

xvii.     The best examples of this the author has seen were the brigade winter games of 5e Groupe-brigade mecanise de Canada during the winters of 1984 and 1985. For these years the slate of sports included events that required little particular expertise, balanced with a few months opportunity to practice basic skills. Teams for each sport were selected at random from each unit’s nominal role, thus minimizing the effect of ‘jocks.’ The efforts of every soldier bore equal weight toward unit victory.

xviii.     The recruit training Depot of The Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) of Canada was in Camp Aldershot in Nova Scotia from 1953 to 1970.

xix.       A Second World War style of camp building. Wooden framed, it featured two long open barracks connected in the centre by a common ablution and washroom area, forming an "H" outline as viewed in plan. Even in 2000, a few of these structures remain in the Land Force Atlantic Area Training Centre facility at Aldershot.

xx.       Standing Operating Procedures

xxi.      While that sense of belonging was pervasive, it must also be realized that the practical application is another matter. There were regiments which could not be billeted near one another, for the risk of uncontrollable brawling and violence was too great. Alternatively, there were battalions of different regiments which held one another in such great accord that they were closer in state of mind and principle than any two battalions of the same regiment. Such mutual respect was usually gained by shared experience in battle, a situation which battalions of the same regiment seldom experienced in Britain’s Victorian army.

xxii.      Quoted in the Canadian Army Journal, Vol 1, No 6, 1947/48

xxiii.      "The better you dress a soldier, the more highly he will be thought of by women, and consequently by himself." - Sir Garnet Wolseley, quoted in "How Not To Do It"; A Short Sermon On The Canadian Militia, 1881

xxiv.      See Laurence J. Peter & Raymond Hull, The Peter Principle, 1969

xxv.       Reiteration of this concept is not new, as the following example sets out: Loyalty: (a) Own regiment or corps. An officer must never run down his regiment or corps in the hearing of outsiders. This is being disloyal. (b) Any other unit with which he may serve. An officer may have to serve in other units than his own and his behaviour should be the same as in his own unit. (c) Courtesy to other regiments. Esprit de corps must not tempt the officer into running down other regiments; it is bad manners and does harm. A junior officer should keep his opinions and criticisms to himself until asked for them. (d) The Army. Every officer must be careful not to decry the "Army" in the presence of civilians. There is a tendency to criticise the "powers that be" and, in particular, the "War Office" for any unpopular aspect of Army life. Such criticism is generally based on ignorance of the true facts and unjustified. In any case it is bad for the Army and achieves no useful purpose. - Customs of the Army, The War Office, February, 1956

xxvi.      "It is difficult at this remove to appreciate the strength of the social pressure which compelled otherwise rational, intelligent men to fight duels. No individuals could less afford to ignore reflections on their honour, bravery or breeding than the officers of the Army and Navy. ‘A soldier's honour is as sacred as a woman's virtue … you can form no idea what trifles lead to among soldiers,' wrote George Simmons." (Footnoted: A British Rifleman) - E.S. Turner, Gallant Gentlemen; a portrait of the British Officer 1600-1956, 1956

xxvii.      Christopher Duffy, The Military Experience in the Age of Reason, 1987

xxviii.      C.P. Stacey, The Military Problems of Canada, 1940, this same volume notes that:

"No attempt whatever was made to use the Militia as such for service abroad. This might conceivably have been done under the provision of the Militia Act which ran (and still runs):

‘The Governor in Council may place the Militia, or any part thereof, on active service anywhere in Canada, and also beyond Canada, for the defence thereof, at any time when it appears advisable to do so by reason of emergency.’

The official view in the beginning, however, was that the force to be sent abroad should be on a purely voluntary basis and it was organized as a Canadian Expeditionary Force distinct from the Militia, though it was raised through the agency of Militia units and largely from Militia personnel.

xxix.      Ibid. "… of whom 424,589 went overseas and 60,661 did not return."

xxx.       See George F.G. Stanley, Canada’s Soldiers 1604-1954, The Military History of an Unmilitary People, 1954

xxxi.      Granatstein/Morton, A Nation Forged in Fire, 1989

xxxii.      Desomd Morton, A Military History of Canada, 1985

xxxiii.     Ibid.

xxxiv.     For example, the Prince Edward Island Regiment has its origins in the ‘Prince Edward Island Highlanders’ (organized as the Queen’s County Provisional Battalion of Infantry in 1875), the ‘28th Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment’ (organized as the Prince Edward island Provisional Brigade of Garrison Artillery in 1882), and the 17th (Reserve) Armoured Regiment (Prince Edward Island Light Horse) (organized as "L" Squadron Prince Edward Island Mounted Rifles in 1902). See The Regiments and Corps of the Canadian Army, Prepared by the Army Historical Section, 1964

xxxv.     "Clearly the military historian needs to beware in reading the regimental reports where the reputations of officers as well as their men are involved." - Geoffrey Regan, Fight or Flight, 1996

xxxvi.     Colonel Cliford Walton, History of the British Standing Army, 1660-1700, 1894

xxxvii.     The film "Tunes of Glory" (1960, Oscar won for Best Writing in a Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium, novel and screenplay written by James Kennaway) effectively illustrates many aspects of a dysfunctional Regimental family and the damage that can be caused. The main character, Colonel Jock Sinclair, played by Alec Guinness, comes to realize what his long service in the Regiment, as soldier and officer, in wartime and peace, had not taught him: that the concept of the Regiment is much stronger, and much more important, than the Regiment itself.