“Tradition, where it turns its eyes resolutely towards the past with too much insistence on the old and too rigid a dislike of the new, can have a strong effect by discouraging progressive thought and change.”1
Whilst this is undoubtedly true I was saddened to learn that my old regiment – the 9th/12th Royal Lancers (Prince of Wales’s) – is to be one of the 17 major units lost in the latest defence cutbacks.
It seems that following another posting to Afghanistan there will be an opportunity to celebrate our Tercentenary before being merged with the Queen’s Royal Lancers. The new regiment is likely to be called The Royal Lancers.
Obviously, it goes without saying, that the Government needs to make savings, but I can’t help wondering whether these latest cuts are going to cause more damage than good.
When I was commissioned into the 9th/12th Lancers in 1976 there were three Lancer regiments in the Regular Army:
a) 9th/12th Royal Lancers (Prince of Wales’s);
b) 16th/5th The Queen’s Royal Lancers, and
c) 17th/21st Lancers.
With the four Hussar regiments (now there are two) we were traditionally known as Light Cavalry – as opposed to the “Heavies” for example the Household Cavalry and the Dragoon Guards. Our rôle always used to be as lightly-armed troops operating in front of the main force. We specialised in reconnaissance, screening, skirmishing, raiding, and most importantly, communicating. As such (rightly or wrongly) we regarded ourselves as the elite, a unit where independent and quick thinking was required and where we weren’t too bogged down by rigid protocols. (Of course, this sometimes led to the occasional difficulty when working with some of the stuffier regiments, who might have found us somewhat ‘cavalier’ for their liking). When I was serving, in the 1970s, the Cavalry tended to be either Armoured Reconnaissance, in light armoured vehicles, or Armoured, in main battle tanks.
Above all, we felt very much that we were the successors to a long and noble tradition and were determined to uphold it.
9th/12th Royal Lancers (Prince of Wales’s)
The two regiments that formed my own unit had been amalgamated in 1960. By all accounts it had been a happy union of two regiments with a very similar history and outlook. Certainly by the time that I joined them their original identities had successfully merged as one – our uniforms and traditions being a blend of both.
Both regiments traced their history back to 1715 when they were raised as cavalry regiments to put down the Jacobite Rebellion in Scotland. Since then both had been involved in most British military campaigns until their amalgamation.
With our nickname of the Delhi Spearmen we were very much aware that for their actions in the Indian Mutiny the 9th Lancers had been awarded twelve Victoria Crosses, more than any other cavalry regiment. They were described by an ally as:-
“The beau ideal of all that British Cavalry ought to be in Oriental countries”.
We knew of Colonel Frederick Ponsonby2, who commanded the 12th Light Dragoons3 at Waterloo. He was wounded and unhorsed in a melée by French lancers, sustained incapacitating wounds to both arms, a severe sabre blow to the head and suffered a lance thrust which pierced his back. He survived in this state, lying in the open, from around 2:30 pm on the 18th June to 8:00 am the following morning before being taken for treatment.
At meals in the Mess one would look up at terrifying images, such as the lance against lance charge carried out by the 9th Lancers in 1914 and wonder if one would have had the courage to lead ones troop in such an action.
Also looking down on us, as we gathered for drinks before dinner, was a portrait of Sir James Hope Grant, of the 9th Lancers. In the George McDonald Fraser novels Flashman describes Grant as being one of the most formidable soldiers of his day and the deadliest fighter alive as well as being an eccentric and ‘unnerving’ character.
One also knew of Francis Octavius Grenfell who won his VC in the opening months of the First World War. Some of the fathers of serving officers had had distinguished records in the desert or in Italy during the Second World War and one would meet them and others who had served with them, at regimental reunions. One felt that one belonged to a tight-knit family. It’s nice to think that on active service we were fighting for Queen and Country, but in truth it was for the regiment.5
In short, everywhere one looked one was set an example. Not only was one proud of belonging to a unit with a fine tradition, but one wanted to have the best troop and belong to the best squadron within the regiment. This competitiveness ensured that standards were high.
I firmly believe that the constant diminution and paring down caused by successive defence cuts will have the effect of reducing the strong regimental traditions that the British Army has been known for and which have been one of its strengths. An amalgamation of two regiments one can tolerate, but not six – it becomes meaningless.
I wonder how much thought has been given to the consequences of making so many soldiers redundant. Where are they and their families going to live? Will they be given any priority on the housing ladder? What about schooling? Are there sufficient places for an influx of children? I know how useless I felt when I left – still a bit shaken up after Northern Ireland and ill-prepared for civilian life. It took a while for me to settle down. Goodness knows how those young men and women who will have seen very much worse and who may be even less well equipped for integration are going to cope.
It appears that in order to cope with the extra demands that will be placed on the Regular Army there will be a greater dependency on the reserves. The Territorial Army is to be expanded significantly. It will be doubled in size to 30,000 and given equivalent training and equipment to the regulars.
However, how will so many new reservists be recruited and how will employers be encouraged to release key individuals for lengthy periods of duty? Can the Army reach out to the ethnic minorities, for example, without whom these ambitious reserve targets may not be achievable?
Here again, I have experience of having served in the Territorial Army and also of being an employer. There is no doubt that many reservists are (almost by definition) very competent people. The sort of people who willingly take on extra responsibility and have great reserves of enthusiasm and initiative. These are the kind of people who would normally be an asset to whichever company or organisation they might work for in their civilian capacity. However, the very qualities which make them ‘twice a citizen’6 means that their absence would be felt heavily by any small employer.
I spent ten years as a reservist in The Artists Rifles and had the pleasure of working with some of the finest soldiers (part-time or otherwise) of my sixteen years in and out of uniform. I was fortunate in working for my small family firm at the time and had a long-suffering father (and wife!). However, although I hugely appreciate the strengths that a reservist might have, as an employer I would be very reluctant to lose a key member of staff for long periods of time. To be blunt, we couldn’t afford to employ a reservist nowadays. There might be sufficient slack in a large company, but in one like mine, with four members of staff we would very soon go to the wall.
Perhaps, rather than monkey about with 300 years of history and an efficient fighting unit the Government might pay heed to Toby Young’s words:
“A better plan would be to cut some of the fat in Whitehall instead. At present, 23,500 officials are employed by the Ministry of Defence to work on “procurement”.
To give you an idea of just how unnecessary that is, the state of Israel employs just 430 officials to do the same job, in spite of having an almost identical annual procurement budget.”7
1 Lieut.-Colonel R.J.A. Kaulback, D.S.O., “The Regiment”, Journal of the Royal United Service Institution, Vol. XCI, February to November 1946.
2 One of whose descendants was also a young officer in the regiment in the 1970s.
3 In 1816 the 12th Light Dragoons were renamed the 12th (The Prince of Wales’s) Regiment of (Light) Dragoons (Lancers).
4 This depicts the charge of a squadron of the 9th Lancers against the Prussian Dragoons of the Guard at Moncel on the 7th September 1914. This was Cavalry action in the First World War when cavalry charged with both sides at full gallop. The 9th Lancers casualties were 3 killed and 7 wounded compared to heavy losses suffered by the Prussian Dragoons.
5 It must be pointed out that I do now serve Her Majesty The Queen in another fashion.
6 Winston Churchill first coined the accolade `twice a citizen’ as a measure of the value of military reservists who served the national interest in both civilian and military capacities. R Pengelley, `Twice a Citizen’, International Defence Review, Vol 28 no 8, 1995, p 1.
7 The Sun Online edition, July 2012.