Drill and Discipline

By Major-General J.H. Beith, C.B.E., M.C., Director of Public Relations, the War Office. Journal of the Royal United Service Institution, Vol LXXXIV, Feb to Nov 1939

[This article has been written as the Foreword to a new Manual of Drill, which is in course of preparation.]

An Army in action is a machine, and if a single cog gets out of place the machine suffers. If too many cogs get out of place, the whole machine may begin to miss and falter, and perhaps break down altogether. Therefore it is of vital importance that our army machine, upon which the safety of our soil largely depends, shall be assembled and maintained with infinite care, and be composed of sound and fully tested material. Brains and experience design and assemble that machine, but it is discipline which holds it together; and if the discipline be sufficiently thorough, no exposure or rough usage is going to put the machine entirely out of action.

But first let us be quite clear in our minds about the word discipline, because in military parlance it has two meanings: First, the degree of compulsion required to control a soldier's behaviour in his daily life; and, second, the measures required to school that soldier into a perfect fighting unit. Discipline of the first kind is of course as important as ever. Smartness off and on parade; saluting and general turnout; these are still vital to the credit and good name of the Regiment; but with the spread of modern education, and the increase in intelligence of the British soldier, they are perhaps easier of inculcation than formerly. But the need of discipline of the second kind is greater and more urgent than ever before in our history, for the following reasons.

The essential tactics of warfare do not change. They consist in the main of shock-action, whether the shock be administered by an infantry attack or a cavalry charge or an advance of tanks; supplemented by missile action, whether the missiles be discharged from a cross-bow, a Lee-Enfield rifle, or low-flying aeroplane.

Before the days of intensive artillery and rifle fire, men fought in close order. This made battle discipline a simpler matter than to-day, for an officer was able to keep his men under personal control; and the men themselves, when they went into action, enjoyed the feeling of mutual moral support which comes from physical contact with a comrade on either side—a situation in which it is much easier to be valorous than in the comparative isolation and loneliness of an advance in open order. That is why battle discipline to-day is going to be more difficult of achievement than ever before, because troops in future are going to live in what may be called perpetual open order. No close ranks, no attacks in mass, nothing but wide deployment with small, detached, highly mobile units taking their own line and employing their own initiative. Direct control of these will in many cases be impracticable, which means that each sub-unit, however small, must be so thoroughly trained as to be able to discipline itself—in many cases himself! Sub-units isolated from their comrades must learn 'to press on and not wait for orders; the unsupervised despatch-rider or truck driver, confronted with a barrage, must learn to resist all temptation to halt or take cover. Such virtues can only be acquired by perpetual discipline of body and mind.

There is no substitute for discipline-least of all blind, unregulated courage. This being so, how is discipline to be achieved and maintained under modern conditions of stress and strain? The first and obvious reply is that such discipline can be maintained by very thorough instruction in the use of all of our new weapons of offence and defence, and assiduous practice in the new formations and tactics which their use entails. Plainly, the more familiar a soldier can make himself with what may be called the technical routine of war during training and manoeuvres, the more efficiently he will comport himself when submitted to the test of actual battle.

Agreed; but this is not enough, nor half enough. The trouble about all manœuvres, however arduous and testing, is that they are conducted under peace conditions. There is no actual danger in them, and therefore they can never inculcate the one quality which really matters, steadiness and initiative under fire, especially such fire as a soldier is liable to encounter to-day. That quality does not necessarily go with proficiency in the use of ground or skill in the handling of weapons. It is a quality which stands apart by itself, and must be acquired (if it is not inborn and it seldom is) by a special process of training.

The Elements of Discipline

There is no secret about the method of that training: it is simplicity itself, and at first sight appears to bear little relation to the complicated tactics of modern battle action. It consists merely in methodical and whole-hearted performance of the routine drill of the barrack square, varied by physical and musketry exercises. This training should be long and thorough, and should extend to comparatively trifling details, because beneath its flat and perhaps unpromising surface lie the roots of soldiering, which are these:—

(a)     The soldier's pride in his own personal smartness and efficiency, and in the unit to which he belongs. Many a time in the history of our Army pride of Regiment alone has steadied men in a tight corner.

(b)     Instinctive ability both to obey and to command. The soldier is always doing one or other of these, and intensive drill is the best method of accustoming a commander to impress his will upon those under him, and them to obey instinctively and smartly.

(c)     Adaptability. A soldier must instantly be ready to take orders from his commander of the moment, however frequently the hazards of battle may transfer that command; and be equally ready to take command himself should occasion arise.

(d)     The sense of Order and Discipline. This enables troops to be assembled and maneuvred rapidly and without confusion at moments of emergency.

(e)     Resiliency, or quick power of recovery, which restores the morale of disorganised troops in the shortest possible time.

(f)     Physical and mental endurance, which enable a soldier, however desperate the situation, or however exhausted he may be, to carry on far beyond the limits of his normal strength and courage.

In fact:—

"If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew To serve your turn long after they are gone; And so hold on when there is nothing in you, Except the will that says to you, 'Hold On !'

Such are the qualities of the true soldier; and experience has proved that they are best and most lastingly ingrained by simple routine exercises in the elements of soldiering, continually and patiently repeated. So trained, a soldier will be able, whatever the danger and distractions about him, to concentrate steadily on his duty, whether it is to lead, or follow, or act upon his own initiative. Then it is that he will appreciate the value of his early and, at times, perhaps ruthless training, for it will have made him a keen, flexible and fully tempered instrument. In most of the countries of Europe where universal military service is an acknowledged obligation of citizenship, the rising generation is submitted to physical and mental discipline from its earliest youth. Consequently, when a young man enters upon his period of military training, he is already in essence a soldier: and yet he is invariably submitted to at least three months of the drill-discipline just described. How much greater, then, is the need in this country of ours, which imposes no form of such discipline upon our youth at all, for grounding young soldiers in these, the elements of their calling—elements which, though simple in themselves, produced the British soldiers who formed those stubborn squares at Waterloo, and kept the long, tenuous, sorely-pressed line intact at First Ypres.