Two-hundred years ago this year, Allied forces led by the Duke of Wellington brought peace to Europe after more than twenty years of Revolutionary anarchy and Napoleonic conquest, a peace that lasted for an impressive four decades. For a continent scarred by centuries of constant conflict, this was no mean feat. It could be argued that Waterloo was the foundation stone of the British Army’s revered reputation; the Navy already had it, and now the foot-soldiers of what was poised to become the most powerful nation on the planet had it too.
Fast forward to the twenty-first century, through two costly and controversial foreign wars, and the British Army is not only low on morale, but increasingly low on numbers. The most recent plans to reduce the armed forces by 2020 include the proposed redundancy of 20,000 troops, 6,000 Navy personnel and 5,000 RAF personnel. It could be said, purely in terms of self-defence, that the cuts to the Royal Navy are potentially the most damaging of all to an island nation; protecting the country with a ring of naval steel around its coastline has traditionally been the top military priority, though since the Battle of Britain 75 years ago any real threat is more likely to come from the air than the sea. Then again, naval vessels are handy for ferrying soldiers to whatever part of the world they’re wanted, not to mention providing valuable refuelling platforms for RAF planes during overseas wars.
The parliamentary vote not to put British boots on Syrian soil, one Ed Miliband is happy to take credit for, may have been celebrated by many as a wise move in avoiding another Iraq or Afghanistan, but in retrospect it can be viewed as a sober acknowledgement that the British Army will not be in a position to participate in the kind of conflict Syria could have become for western forces. Put bluntly, soldiers get killed in wars, and every dead soldier needs replacing; if a war drags on for as long as the two the British Army have been involved in this century did, a regular supply of fresh legs is required; and if the numbers have been depleted by cuts, the well will eventually run dry.
At Waterloo, opposing troops looked each other in the eyes, the way soldiers always had done; if you fought an enemy, you literally fought him, either on foot or on horseback. Cavalry charges may look magnificent in paintings and on the big screen, but can any of us really imagine the impact of two densely packed lines of huge bloody horses slamming into each other whilst their riders wielded their sabres to slash at every enemy uniform in sight? Around 22,000 Allied troops were either killed or wounded at Waterloo, whereas Napoleon suffered the loss of between 24,000 and 26,000. The numbers are almost incomprehensible; the carnage the day after almost inconceivable.
The increasing advance of technology in warfare, which really came of age during the First World War, with the introduction of the tank and aerial bombing (not to mention chemical weaponry), gradually drew a distance between opposing armies, one that has continued to grow in the hundred years since. Today, the money saved on training troops is largely being diverted into the defence industry, independent of military control and one that relies on the appliance of science to conflict, rendering the traditional battlefield virtually redundant.
If drones providing long-distance annihilation at the flick of a switch are the way of warfare in the twenty-first century, then it makes economic sense to invest in the technology that enables them to be the modern equivalent of a cavalry charge. On one hand, this could be seen as a positive move, in that less ‘cannon-fodder’ will be required, thus less lives will be lost (at least non-civilian ones, anyway). But where does this leave the men who have sacrificed lives to ensure the job they’ve been sent to do is done? Are they even necessary in an era that seems to be drifting closer to conflict becoming a non-contact sport? When one considers the demoralising cuts inflicted upon the armed forces over the last five years, it would appear not.
Pay freezes have also played their part in the unsteady nature of a military career these days; one could be cynical and regard the drive to incorporate more reservists into the Army at the expense of regular personnel as the worst kind of cost-cutting exercise, giving us part-time forces on the cheap. Or is it essential that a landmass as small as ours has to have a large standing army? After all, we are no longer committed to the plethora of peace-keeping missions that once justified the numbers, whether in former colonies or even on our own doorstep in Northern Ireland. The rare failure to fall in line with American intentions that was the non-campaign in Syria meant that we could no longer be relied upon to play our part in the world police force either; so what purpose do our armed forces serve these days?
Back to the Napoleonic Wars, the enduring reputations of the British Navy and British Army that grew from game-changing victories at Trafalgar and Waterloo were ones that were enhanced by two World Wars a century later, damaged somewhat by Suez and Ulster, revived by the Falklands and the First Gulf War, and experiencing a more ambiguous outcome in Iraq and Afghanistan. These reputations, if measured by bravery alone, were largely justified. And what cuts to both Army and Navy fail to take into account is just how intertwined civilian history and military history are to the people of this country.
On a basic personal level, the armed forces have been the constant gardeners of our family trees. We all have fathers, grandfathers or great-grandfathers who served in conflict. Their stories are our stories, part of the shared hand-me-downs that constitute our collective DNA as a nation. People don’t refer to the Army as ‘our boys’ for no reason. They may be engaged in wars we don’t agree with, but we cannot dispute their guts and their willingness to undergo experiences most of us will thankfully never endure because they believe what they are there for is a just cause. The questionable moral motivation of politicians who are ultimately responsible for sending troops to some far-flung foreign field shouldn’t – and mostly doesn’t – transfer blame onto the shoulders of the soldiers; they are only obeying orders, of course, and doing what they’ve been trained to do.
It’s no wonder so many civilians have been appalled by the treatment troops have received courtesy of the cuts – one minute, braving enemy fire and the next, being served with an effective P45. And the level of care dished out to the ones who returned home either mentally or physically damaged has been little short of disgusting. The people of Britain have taken it personally for the reasons already given, though the strong feelings for the forces in this country don’t appear to register with the bodies who have both asked these men to do their duty and have thanked them for doing so by directing them to the dole queue.
From the sword to the musket to the cannon to the machine-gun to the atom bomb and to the drone, the weapons of war change; but the men of war don’t. That’s worth bearing in mind when informing a soldier, sailor or airman his country no longer needs him.