The Regimental System in the British Army

Much of why I enjoy writing about the British Army is because it has such a colorful history, and is steeped in tradition.  One of the most fascinating and distinguishing characteristics of the British Army is the Regimental System.  Some consider this system obsolete, and it has certainly faced challenges in recent years.  Nevertheless it is the primary source of the Army’s esprit de corps, ceremonial color, and connection to the past.

Great Britain is a much more regionalist country than the United States.  The United Kingdom contains within its borders an astonishing variety of accents, cultures, and traditions.  Historically, the infantry regiments were based geographically.  English regiments were based on the traditional counties, while Scottish regiments were based on the ancient clans, again with designated recruiting areas.  Soldiers in the same regiment were all from the same part of the country, with common backgrounds and experiences.  This has typically made it easy for soldiers within the same regiment to bond with each other.

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Victorian memorial window to the Border Regiment at Carlisle Cathedral.  Before amalgamation, the Border Regiment was the traditional infantry unit of Cumberland (now Cumbria).  Photo by the author’s spouse.

While it is common for officers to change units, it is rare for British enlisted soldiers to transfer regiments.  In the days of muskets and sabers, soldiers enlisted for life.  Therefore, once a man became a soldier, he served with the same men until killed or invalided out of the Army.  The same group of soldiers lived, worked, fought, and died side-by-side for decades.

The Royal Navy has always been popular with the British populace, but this was not true for the Army.  Historically, officers came from the aristocracy, but the enlisted men (the “other ranks”) came from the dregs of society.  Recruiting sergeants enticed the desperate poor with stories of excitement and plunder; magistrates would often offer Army service as an alternative to prison.  The Duke of Wellington believed that strict discipline was essential to prevent the common soldiery from descending into a lawless mob.  British society therefore distrusted and disliked soldiers, at least until the 20th Century and its massive conscript efforts during the World Wars.  Soldiers therefore learned to turn to each other for friendship and comfort.  One cannot really understand Kipling’s “Tommy” without this background.

These factors combined to make a soldier’s regiment very like his family.  Brigades and divisions are fighting formations, but it is the regiment which gives a soldier his pride.

The regiments were originally numbered, in order of their founding.  Most regiments took on an unofficial name, normally for the county where they were based, but sometimes for another distinguishing characteristic.  During the middle of the 18th Century, many regiments were known for their commanding officer.  For example, both the 3rd and 19th Regiments were commanded by colonels named Howard; to distinguish between them, the 3rd became known as The Buff Howards, and the 19th were the Green Howards, taken from the facing colors on their jackets.  In the late Victorian period, the numbers were abandoned and the names were formalized; the Green Howards kept their name, and the 3rd became the Royal East Kent Regiment (“The Buffs”).  The 42nd was always known as The Black Watch, possibly for the dark colors of its tartan, but other theories exist as well.

Buffs Drums

Regimental drums of the Royal East Kent Regiment (The Buffs) on display at the Canterbury City Museum.  Photo by the author.

The traditional regiments commemorated their great victories, and each celebrated its own unique Regimental Anniversary, based either on its founding or its most famous battle.  Battle Honours* were granted to the regiments involved in the campaign, and were emblazoned on each regiment’s Colours*, or flags, as well as on the bandsmen’s drums.  The Colours were carried into battle; when they inevitably became too damaged for continued use, they would be retired to a church or cathedral close to the regimental headquarters, and the Monarch would issue new Colours.  New recruits were taught the importance of their regiment’s history and past glories, and were instilled with a sense of duty to carry on its honor and traditions.

Wiltshire Colors Salisbury

Retired Colours of the Wiltshire Regiment that have been laid up at Salisbury Cathedral.  The oldest are merely scraps that have been preserved and attached to a mesh background.  Photo by the author.

Each regiment had its own unique items of dress, many of which changed very little over the centuries.  Perhaps the most obvious symbol is each regiment’s distinctive cap badge, but there were other unique items, as well.  The Gloucestershire Regiment wore a secondary badge on the back of their headgear in memory of when their forebears fought back-to-back at the Battle of Alexandria in 1801.

Border Badge

The cap badge of the Border Regiment.

In the early days, most regiments only contained one battalion, and the terms could be used almost interchangeably.  As the Army evolved and the British Empire expanded, it became common for each regiment to have two battalions; one would serve overseas, while the other remained in Britain to recruit and train.  This system was formalized during the Victorian period.  During the massive conscription efforts of the two World Wars, most regiments grew as large as ten or more battalions.  With much of the Empire lost during the 1940’s and 50’s, there was much less need for the overseas garrisons that had once been the Army’s primary function.  Britain’s military focus turned to its commitment to NATO, and the country’s economic situation after the World Wars required spending cutbacks.  The government significantly reduced the size of the Army, and as a direct result, began consolidating many of the traditional regiments.

Today, the Army is at its smallest size, with the fewest regiments in its history.  The five regiments of Foot Guards remain and still perform their famous ceremonial duties and official function as the Monarch’s bodyguard.  Despite the common misconception, they are battle-ready soldiers who rotate their duties; when not in their scarlet tunics and bearskin hats, they wear modern camouflage and equipment, and are often amongst the first units chosen for combat overseas.

Gren Guard London

A young Guardsman of the Grenadier Guards.  Most tourists mistakenly think of the Guards as “toy soldiers” who only perform ceremonial functions, yet the Grenadiers have recently seen combat in both Iraq and Afghanistan.  Photo by the author’s spouse.

Today’s regiments do their best to maintain the traditions of their forbears.  The Royal Regiment of Scotland has four regular battalions, two battalions of reservists, and one company dedicated to ceremonial duties.  The regular battalions retained the names of some of the earlier regiments that were amalgamated into the new formation, including the Black Watch and the Royal Highland Fusiliers.  The Highlanders, the new unit’s 4th Battalion, represents the Seaforths, Gordons, and Camerons.  Another example is The Princess of Wales’ Royal Regiment, named in honor of the late Diana, Princess of Wales.  The regiment represents the entire southeast of England; their cap badge incorporates a dragon to represent The Buffs, a heraldic rose to represent The Hampshire Regiment, and ostrich plumes in honor of the Princess.

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Cap badge of the Princess of Wales’ Royal Regiment

New regiments were created during World War II, such as the Parachute Regiment and the Special Air Service.  While they have not had the centuries of tradition to fall back on, they were quick to adopt their own traditions and “tribal” items.  A very famous example is the maroon beret of the Airborne Forces.  Most modern regiments have several types of headgear, depending on the level of dress:  a khaki beret for the field, a peaked cap for Number 2 Dress (similar to the old service dress), and a type of headgear for full dress dating to Victorian or even Regency times, such as a fur busby or a polished-steel helmet.  By contrast, the men of the Parachute Regiment only wear their distinctive maroon berets.  Even though historians often think of the Parachute Regiment as a newer unit, because of all the consolidations, it is now the oldest unamalgamated regiment in the British Army.

*While I normally write with American spellings, these terms seem more appropriate in British English.

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Film Review: A Bridge Too Far

My two greatest passions are writing, and studying British military history; the purpose of this blog is to help me express both interests.  While I am fascinated by the entire history of the British Army, my particular focus is on the Airborne Forces during World War II.  It should not be a surprise, then, that one of my favorite films is A Bridge Too Far.  If anything, the only surprise is that it has taken me this long to write about it, although I have referenced it in some of my earlier articles.

A Bridge Too Far tells the story of Operation Market Garden, and provides an excellent introduction for anyone unfamiliar with the subject.  Market Garden was a massive undertaking; three airborne divisions were to take bridges over the various rivers and canals of the Netherlands, with an entire corps sent as the ground-based relief column.  The battle raged for nine days in September 1944.  A Bridge Too Far gives a good overview of the significant events of this enormous, complex operation in the course of a three-hour movie; that is no small feat.  While it shows the overall “big picture”, it also shows something of the personalities of many of the key personnel involved, from generals down to enlisted men.  Despite the scope of the film, the human element is always very much present.

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An early scene from A Bridge Too Far, in which a photo-reconnaissance Spitfire flies over the Dutch countryside.

The film was released in 1977, the same year as the original Star Wars.  While the one film broke new ground in special effects, the other used traditional techniques, but on an epic scale.  I like to think of Bridge in terms of “what you see is what you get”.  The filmmakers used eleven C-47 aircraft and dropped 1000 parachutists, including paratroopers from the British and Dutch armies.  They used as many real tanks, half-tracks, jeeps and scout cars as they could get their hands on.  They filmed on location in Holland, using the actual battlefields whenever possible.  Nijmegen Bridge in the film is the actual Nijmegen Bridge.  While Arnhem today looks nothing like it did during the war, the town of Deventer makes an excellent substitute, and its bridge over the Ijssel closely resembles the Arnhem road bridge at the Lower Rhine.  This was the first film to put the actors and extras through a “boot camp” to give them the right military attitude and bearing; this is now standard practice with war films.  Several of the key officers portrayed on screen served as consultants and advisors for the film.

The acting is excellent.  Dirk Bogarde portrays Lt. General “Boy” Browning as bristling with confidence, yet his eyes somehow convey his deepest doubts and fears.  Anthony Hopkins as Lt. Colonel John Frost shows massive calm and stoicism despite the chaos surrounding him.  Edward Fox has stated that portraying Lt. General Brian Horrocks was one of his favorite roles.  Many of the actors have a strong physical resemblance to the historical figures they portray.  Maj. General “Roy” Urquhart was unfamiliar with Sean Connery prior to the film, but his wife and daughters were thrilled with the casting.

Connery

Sean Connery as Maj. Gen. Roy Urquhart, talking to his signals officers.

The cinematography is outstanding, and Richard Attenborough’s direction is simply brilliant.  The ground battle begins with a rolling artillery barrage, followed by the advancing tank column.  When the tanks hit resistance, an air strike is called; the cameras follow the aircraft as they swoop in from behind the ground column.  This sequence is visually stunning; one could call it beautiful if it weren’t for the explosions, the carnage, the horror of war.  The failed German dash across Arnhem Bridge on the second day of the battle is equally spectacular; in fact, John Frost wrote that watching that sequence was more exciting than being there for the real event.  I first became familiar with this film on “pan and scan” VHS copies.  The epic scale and magnificent cinematography of this motion picture really benefit from modern DVD recordings and widescreen televisions, although I must confess that I have not seen it on Blu-Ray.

I have very few criticisms of this film, but of course, no motion picture is perfect.  There is too much reliance on composite characters.  For example, one of the most memorable characters is Major Harry Carlyle, yet no such person was at Arnhem; the character was based primarily on Major Digby Tatham-Warter, but also performed actions by Lt. Jack Grayburn, VC.  On that point, there were five Victoria Crosses awarded for the Battle of Arnhem, but none of the recipients are named in the film, although some of their actions are hinted at.

There are several key parts of the operation that the film ignores or glosses over.  There is also a subplot involving James Caan that, while interesting, does little to help the overall progress of the story; I have been known to fast forward through the entire sequence.  I love the fact that the film shows real paratroopers jumping out of real Dakotas, but I never understood why the filmmakers had the planes painted a dusty yellow instead of the correct olive green.

Even the title itself is problematic.  At the end of the film, Dirk Bogarde, as General Browning, states, “we were trying to go a bridge too far”, referring to Arnhem, the farthest objective.  Cornelius Ryan was so captivated by this statement that he named his book after it, and the title carried over to the filmed adaptation.  However, current historians believe the statement is apocryphal, that is, Browning probably never said it.  After all, the operation was not just a thrust to gain territory in Holland; the entire point was to get across the Rhine, outflank the Siegfried Line, and invade Germany itself.

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The defense of Arnhem Bridge as shown in A Bridge Too Far.  This sequence was filmed in the town of Deventer, on the river Ijssel.

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The actual Arnhem Bridge; photo taken shortly after the battle.

I tend to nitpick this film because I have read more about the Battle of Arnhem than any other event in history.  However, if it had not been for A Bridge Too Far, I may never have studied Market Garden as intensely as I have and learned as much on my own.  If not for this movie, I may never have started reenacting as 1st Airborne, or been inspired to visit Arnhem itself, which I did in 2003.  Overall, I think it is one of the best motion pictures ever made about World War II.

Postscript:

I just watched the film again, and thought I should add a few comments.

Part of the decision behind 1st Airborne’s drop zones being so far away from Arnhem Bridge (about eight miles) was to avoid the enemy anti-aircraft batteries defending the airfield at Deelen.  Ironically, the take-off scenes in the motion picture were not filmed in England, but at the Deelen airfield.

The first few times I watched the film, I thought Ryan O’Neal was far too young to portray a general.  It was only later that I learned the officer he portrayed, Brigadier James Gavin of the 82nd Airborne, was only 37 during Market Garden.  A month later, upon promotion, he became the youngest major general in the US Army.

The film conveys the idea that a major factor in 1st Airborne’s problems at Arnhem lay in the breakdown of radio communications; this was certainly described in Cornelius Ryan’s original book.  While this may have come as a surprise to 4th Parachute Brigade and perhaps even Divisional Headquarters, this was nothing new to the more experienced 1st Parachute Brigade.  They had experienced similar problems in North Africa and Sicily, and anticipated them for Arnhem.  Lt. Col. Frost’s use of his hunting horn seems like a silly affectation in the film, but in reality, Frost and his officers had developed signals on bugles and whistles to convey simple messages on the assumption the radios would fail.

For related articles, please see the following:

Film Review: Theirs is the Glory

2nd Parachute Battalion – The “Mepacrine Chasers”

Major General John Frost

Thoughts on Market Garden