Dr Lee Rotherham is an author, historian and political campaigner, who has served as a TA reservist on three overseas deployments. He is on the Approved EU Candidates List.
Many years ago in my university days, I taught English at a
French school. One day, one of my friends popped round dressed as a French
marine, the consequence not of a fancy dress party but of having just received
his conscription call up. He proudly talked us through the various aspects of
his uniform. “And this,” he surprisingly concluded, drawing our attention to
some piece of bright cord, “is to remind us that we lost the Battle of
What triggered this flashback was recently randomly coming across
two snippets. The first was encountering a piece by Lieutenant-General Sir
Robert Baden-Powell, hero of Mafeking, founder of course of the Scouts and a
respected teacher of fieldcraft, not least due to his successes in training the
veldt-savvy South African Constabulary. In 1914 he penned a little pocket
manual for the recently-mobilised called Quick
Training for War. In it, he offers a number of intriguing anecdotes,
including the following;
"I once had the interesting
experience of having a talk with the present German Emperor regarding the
relative value of the different arms in the field; and His Majesty said, “You
will observe that I put the infantry in the front line on parade, while the cavalry,
artillery, engineers and train come in the second line. The infantry take the
place of honour, since, by virtue of their armament and action, it is the
infantry who win the battles; the remainder are their servants.” I cordially
acquiesced in the Emperor’s statement; but then he turned on me and put me a
“poser,” “Why, then, do you in England put the artillery in the place of honour
on the right of the line, the cavalry next, and then the engineers, and lastly
the infantry?” I was rather at a loss for an answer, and blurted out the first
idea that came into my head. I said, “I suppose it is that we place them in
alphabetical order,” and this answer greatly pleased His Majesty, if one could
judge by the chuckling which lasted for some time afterwards."
The theme of national idiosyncrasies was then swiftly
bolstered on reading an email sent out by a particular army unit’s association
newsletter. The quote of the month related to one Major General Sir William
Erskine, of whom it was said to Wellington by Horseguards,
"No doubt he is a little mad at
times, but in his lucid intervals he is an uncommonly clever fellow; and I
trust he will have no fit during the campaign, though he looked a little wild
as he embarked."
Erskine, the newsletter adds, had been confined in a lunatic
asylum twice and was extremely short-sighted – he had to have the position of
the enemy pointed out to him on occasion. His tactical skills were also
limited; at one battle, he sent all of his troops in the wrong direction. The
general’s final words were reportedly, “Now why on earth did I do that?”
uttered from the pavement after he had thrown himself through a window.
These and a thousand other fascinating anecdotes, told in
military museums up and down the land, demonstrate the individuality of a
nation’s armed forces. That applies particularly in the UK thanks to the
regimental system, where descendants of units still remember for example that
the Lincolnshire Regiment’s facings were of yellow (whence perhaps
“Yellowbellies”), or that such-and-such a company stood firm in the maelstrom
and gained an imposing battle honour.
These aspects of diversity are (Erskine aside) strengths. A
unit’s proud identity encourages those who have inherited the mantle to bear it
well and pass it on unblemished.
However, there is a concern over modern developments.
NATO exists to provide mutual support up to and including
collective defence. It has led to a measure of harmonisation of standards,
particularly of equipment, and to some extent of training, management and
processes. This makes sense, particularly where there is a heavy reliance on
capabilities provided by foreign units. Or to put it another way, if you can’t
radio the Americans you can’t ask them to bomb the right hill or refuel you when
you get back. But the process is driven by both logic and logistics.
EU military integration, however, is a different matter. In
the past I have written about how this in contrast has
been driven on by political aspirations. A glance at the timeline demonstrates that the
inevitable end direction is an integrated military, backed by a military
industrial complex organised along continental lines rather than the strategic interests
of any individual member state. Under Lisbon, advanced cooperation also now has
to take place “within the Union framework”, limiting bilateral and
intergovernmental cooperation and pushing Brussels to the fore.
The combination of national forces at, say, EU divisional
level may of course preserve the lighter quirks of our regimental system. Such a
policy was indeed mooted in the ‘Fifties as a way to absorb the new Bundeswehr,
though tellingly it was rejected at the time by French parliamentarians. Under
such an order of battle, Mess rules and port-passing protocol would not change.
But top level integration such as is increasingly on the cards impacts far more
subversively and more lethally. Participating even marginally in
Eurocorps-style integration would over time bring a far broader devastation to
our military ethos, percolating from the top down. It certainly puts at risk
our genuinely privileged access to the Pentagon, and to the US defence
procurement establishment. It also means signing up to an integrated European
defence structure for politicians in Brussels to plan wild interventions on a
scale greater than any actual capability; there wouldn’t be boots on the ground
in sufficient strength to provide adequate force protection, let alone
protecting the local civilians. The EU across the board is a threadbare
substitute for NATO, for all the latter’s faults.
Why is this an issue for us today? Because of two new
The first is that the Defence Secretary, Mr Hammond, has
been outed as one of those Cabinet members who purportedly would vote to leave
the EU if a referendum were to take place tomorrow. The reporting may be
accurate, or perhaps more of a 45 minute claim. But there is a way of knowing
truth from Maskirovka.
The UK is currently signed up to the EU’s Defence Agency.
Ostensibly this is a harmless and commonsensical tool for getting (supposedly) cheap
procurement. But a review of its track record, from Quadrilateral Defence
Agency through OCCAR to its position in the EU treaties today, demonstrates quite
clearly that it is an instrument of military integration. It doesn’t need to
exist for countries to team up to work together on joint projects. It does need
to exist in order to rationalise defence industries, with capability being shut
down and divvied up across the EU. Its role after all includes defining that very
European capabilities and armaments policy.
A simple test of the Secretary of State’s European
credentials, and of the Government’s, can be made by withdrawing from this
integrationist institution. The logic for walking away is succinctly set out elsewhere
by a former insider to the debate. I am inclined to suspect, looking at the
list of the department’s ministers, that the proposal could be reviewed
rationally and dispassionately across the team. Handily I also suspect it would
be likely also to gain approval from their predecessors, including the one Liberal
Democrat in a position to comment from experience. Former Defence Minister Sir
Nick Harvey was after all one of only two Eurosceptic Liberal Democrat MPs to
support Bill Cash’s Private Member’s Bill way back in 1996, calling for a referendum
on the UK renegotiating its membership terms to better keep out of a federal
Europe (how these issues come around again).
The second development may be more of a surprise to readers.
It would be jumping the gun slightly to call it just yet “building the EU
Sandhurst”, but the intent is again clear and the foundations are being
metaphorically cemented. The idea of the EU being involved in training military
officers has been around for a couple of years, but to date has been limited to
sending a bloke with a memory stick and a few courses of Death by Powerpoint.
The objective now is to
set up an EU military training establishment. The current model falls short
of a West Point on the Yser, since the European Security and Defence College
(ESDC) will be launched in network form. But the Bramshill example shows how
these things develop: after only a few years in place, moves are today afoot to
shunt the EU Police College into the Europol establishment and beef it up. It’s
also quite clear from the ESDC mandate that part of its mission is about
building up an “alumni network”, and getting High Level people seeing each
other as partners of choice. Once again, the EU will gradually build from the
top while the ordinary footsoldiers look on and despair.
The driving ambitions of the founding EEC member states were
largely based on the military ghosts of their immediate past. Today, no one
really fears what the Luftwaffe might get up to, and panzer commanders wear
pink berets. Yet we as a nation find ourselves already signed up to the
progressive framing of a common defence policy, intended to lead in time to a
common defence. By pulling out of the EDA, and restricting UK participation in
the ESDC to just turning up for courses of practical and demonstrable benefit,
ministers can send another small but important message about how they see the
UK’s role in an increasingly integrationist EU. That of course means diversity
for the regiments, but also more crucially separateness in command.