Terence Blacker: The potency of belonging

A regiment's strength lies not in its names and colours, but in its men and their families

Friday 02 December 2005 01:00

There is probably not a computer game called Whitehall Warrior, in which players can deploy troops in battle from the safety of their own rooms, but more snappily entitled army games seem likely to be popular this Christmas. Soldiering - sofa-soldiering, that is - has become quite the thing of late. Television has allowed us to be embedded with our boys in Basra or to gloat as the reality TV saps of the moment are subjected to paramilitary discipline in Survivor or Boot Camp. The continued success of the Andy McNab style of commando thriller has confirmed that traditional male fantasies of comradeship and killing foreigners are alive and well in book form, too.

Events in the real Army tend to impinge only marginally on these stay-at-home versions. When a couple of squaddies, naked and muddy, are filmed knocking hell out of one another in front of their fellow soldiers, including NCOs, the civilised world shudders in distaste, preferring not to think too much about the connection between military effectiveness on the one hand and brutal training or initiation rites on the other.

As for the question of the merger of six Scottish regiments, recently given the royal assent and this week the subject of a petition of protest which bore 150,000 signatures, there is a general bewilderment about the fuss it has caused. Surely in 2005, the thinking goes, soldiers should be able to operate without the crutches of history and tradition. So what if the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, the King's Own Scottish Borderers, the Royal Highland Fusiliers and other famous names are rolled into one big Royal Regiment of Scotland?

Although I was raised in an Army family, surrounded by the paraphernalia of regimental life, the emotional bond of being part of a particular military unit, with its own colours, insignia, motto, and past was something of a mystery. More than mere loyalty, being part of a regiment seemed to involve a style, a way of doing things, which was as emotional and social as it was military. Growing up irredeemably civilian and distrustful of teams, I found it all rather alien.

It has become less mysterious - and the fuss surrounding the disbandment of the Scottish regiments more understandable - largely thanks to the kindness of an Independent reader, Michael Graham. Sixty years ago, Michael was serving in the 23rd Hussars, a regiment in which my father was second-in command. Reading last year an article I wrote for the anniversary of the D-Day landings, he sensed that I had unresolved questions about that time, which my father had steadfastly not discussed with his family. The 2005 Remembrance Day weekend was to be the last ever reunion of the men of the 23rd Hussars. It would be held in Bridlington, where the regiment had trained before embarking for Normandy in 1944, and Michael asked me along.

It was a memorable and moving experience, full of small, personal surprises. Supper, speeches and a singalong on Saturday night were to be followed by the last ever Remembrance Sunday attended by the veterans together, the last time they would gather to lay a wreath on the regimental memorial, the last Last Post. Although it was sombre occasion, it was also commendably cheerful and mostly dry-eyed.

As the drink and conversation flowed on Saturday night, I discovered that few of those present - none, in fact - were as reluctant to discuss the events of 1941 to 1946 as my father had been. The experience of an unusual group of men, brought together and tested to the limits of courage and endurance by war, came to life in their stories, and how they told them, in a way that history books could never quite manage.

I began to appreciate the potency of belonging. Before Bridlington, my perspectives on regimental life were second-hand and half-understood. There were the valiant lads who fought for our freedom all those years ago and whose generalised heroism has somehow blurred their individuality over the years. There was the regiment of social occasions, a network of lifelong Army friends. Finally, there were the brave old men who gathered in diminishing numbers to remember the dead.

As that evening wore on, the veterans seemed to become not more of a unit, but less, reverting to their regimental personae of so long ago - modest, anecdotal, crotchety, jokey, self-important, loquacious. There was no regimental view of anything, really. One person's hero of 60 years ago was, to the next man, a bloody medal-chaser who put his men in danger.

They were as freely themselves as members of any other generation would be, but the unit which held them together also united their families. Among those who will miss the passing those reunions is the son of a man killed in the last engagement of the war, for whom the regiment provided a family connection.

The relevance of the 23rd Hussars to the debate about the six Scottish regiments lies in the fact that, in an important sense, it is the very antithesis of them. When it was formed in late 1940, it was an entirely new unit; when it was disbanded in 1946, its history was simply that of the previous five years. It had existed and flourished without tradition or past.

The fate of regiments matters more than those of us on the outside might imagine, but their reputation and strength lie not in their names or colours but in the men and families that are serving in them today.


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