A century of sacrifice
John Hutton's remarkable book "Kitchener's Men," about Barrow’s citizen battalions during the First World War, was reviewed here some weeks ago by Keith Simpson. All the units showed bravery and commitment but, reading the book, I was struck by how much better the area's solitary TA Battalion performed, compared with the hastily recruited service (or ‘Kitchener’) battalions. They won, for example, all the three local VCs. Haldane's 1908 vision of a Territorial Army was vindicated in blood. Yet it was almost strangled at the onset of operations by the Army Board and Field Marshal Kitchener, who derided “This town clerk’s Army." The War Office chose instead to focus resources on building up service battalions of the Regular Army. Despite this, the TA went on to provide two fifths of combat units and win an astonishing 71 VCs.
Recently, the TA has made a disproportionate contribution to operations. Now a much smaller force, barely a quarter of our total Army, reservists provided, at their peak, 1/5th of forces in Iraq and 1/8th in Afghanistan. Eight Territorials have given their lives in those theatres and many have been wounded, often facing even greater difficulties accessing medical care than their regular counterparts.
At the end of World War 1, the Army Board proposed that we disband the Territorial Army to focus on the expeditionary capability underpinning our imperial commitments. Fortunately, Winston Churchill, briefly serving as Secretary of State for War, blocked In the same way, many in MoD argued at the end of the Cold War that the TA was redundant, as we returned to an expeditionary philosophy. Nobody is arguing that today.
Unfortunately, however, with the Regular Army shamefully undermanned, TA units have been stripped of their junior ranks to backfill regular units on operations. Of course, reserve organisations must sometimes provide augmentees. Nevertheless, with officers and senior NCOs in some units offered only second rate staff jobs rather than an opportunity to take to war the men and women they work hard to train, fewer are willing to make the sacrifices of TA command. In contrast, recent deployments in Helmand including companies from the Londons and the Rifles, a Sapper troop from 131 Commando Squadron and several TA field hospitals show what the TA can achieve.
Comparison with other English-speaking countries, which, like us, have had no recent conscription, is interesting. Volunteer reserves are a much higher proportion of their Army, a little under half in Australia and Canada and over half in America, including 3/5ths of their infantry. With the heavy cost of providing pay, pensions and long overdue upgrading of accommodation for Regulars, reserves offer a much cheaper way of providing spare capacity.
Connection with civil society matters too. History offers no example of a major democracy sustaining quality armed forces for a long period without either conscription or a substantial volunteer reserve, ensuring that some civilians get military experience. This is not just a matter of representation but participation. While some regular officers still query the need for Territorials to have opportunities to serve in companies, or even sections, the Americans regularly deploy the National Guard in brigades.
Understanding how to organise reserve service involves certain principles and characteristics of volunteer organisations which hold true for political parties, religious groups, sports clubs and charities. Those serving must feel valued by the community at large, respected by their professional colleagues and, crucially a volunteer’s role must fit into a comfortable triangle with the main job and family life.
A combination of too many demands and too little recognition has led to a manning crisis in the Territorial Army worse than that in the Regulars. The Government is conducting a tri-service review of reserves, with an able team and good terms of reference. Volunteer reservists are waiting to see whether the reforms needed, in training, command opportunities and recognition will emerge, offering a settlement for the 21st Century.
Julian Brazier is co-chairman of the All-Party Reserve forces Group. He served for 13 years in the TA, including five as an officer in 21 SAS (Artists).