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A Military Miscellany
The Combined Wit and Wisdom of the Armed Forces
By Jeremy Archer, Matilda Hunt
Elliott and Thompson LimitedCopyright © 2013 Jeremy Archer
All rights reserved.
Language and Lore
Those who have served would doubtless agree that military service is much more than a job; it is a way of life. As generation has succeeded generation, the language, culture, customs, standards and sense of belonging have developed in subtle – and unsubtle – ways, particularly when the survival of the Nation was in doubt. The funeral of Baroness Thatcher, which took place in St Paul's Cathedral on Wednesday, 17 April 2013, provides a fine example of connection, continuity and a sense of belonging: Garrison Sergeant-Major Bill Mott, Welsh Guards, was the conducting Warrant Officer while his younger brother, Major Nick Mott, Welsh Guards, was the Officer in Charge of the burial party. In the sections that follow I have explored some of these threads.
In Soldiers (London: HarperPress, 2012), his splendid tour d'horizon, published soon after his untimely death, Richard Holmes, for whose support and encouragement over the years I am extremely grateful, wrote that 'adding acronyms stirs that alphabet soup which itself contributes to a military sense of identity by helping form a language all but impenetrable to outsiders'. Having spent ten years in the Army myself, some eminently practical military advice has become hard-wired into my brain, often in the form of acronyms beloved of non-commissioned officer instructors:
KISS 'Keep It Simple, Stupid'
CLAP 'Clearly, Loudly, As an order, with Pauses'
EDI (with particular reference to teaching) 'Explanation, Demonstration, Imitation'
OCD 'Order, Counter-order, Disorder', which, although it has similarities, should not be confused with its contemporary civilian counterpart, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
CAKE refers to the British Army's principles of battle procedure:
C Concurrent activity
A Anticipation at all levels
K Knowledge of the grouping system
E Efficient drills for the receipt and issue of orders
Before his brave Zulu warriors crossed the White Umfolozi River on 17 January 1879, King Cetshwayo's instructions were: 'March slowly, attack at dawn and eat up the red soldiers.' This philosophy can be distilled into a rather more simplified and direct form of CAKE: 'Chase, Attack, Kill, Eat'.
This may go some way towards explaining why the Zulu impis triumphed at the Battle of Isandlwana on 22 January 1879, as the British Army's cake rapidly turned to crumbs.
* * *
Next come the Seven Ps, which must not be confused with T. E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom: 'Proper Planning and Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance'.
Since examples are always useful – and help imprint such things on the consciousness – I have chosen the Battle of Spion Kop, fought on 23/24 January 1900 between the Ladysmith relief force, commanded by General Sir Redvers Buller, and the Boers besieging Ladysmith, under the command of General Louis Botha. Buller delegated responsibility for the seizure of Spion Kop, a commanding feature in the centre of the Boer line, to Lieutenant General Sir Charles Warren, who had rejoined the Army ten years earlier, after failing to apprehend 'Jack the Ripper' when he was Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police.
A commendably bold and original plan of attack on Spion Kop – later described by John Atkins, Manchester Guardian correspondent, as 'that acre of massacre, that complete shambles' – failed disastrously, after a series of seven almost unbelievable omissions and errors on the planning and preparation front:
* Although it is a well-worn military maxim that 'time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted', there had been no reconnaissance, either of the approach routes or of the summit itself, beyond that carried out by Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Thorneycroft, through his telescope. No scouts or patrols had penetrated the defences or established the best approach routes for a night march and assault, that most difficult of military operations.
* While artillery was viewed as a key weapon by both sides, 4th Mountain Battery, stationed some way behind the British front line, never received the order to accompany the assault group, as had been intended.
* As the column of some 2,000 men embarked in the dark on their precipitous climb to the summit of Spion Kop, no one remembered to order the soldiers to pick up a sandbag each, although sufficient sandbags had been made available.
* Just twenty picks and twenty shovels, carried up in stretchers by the Royal Engineers, were available to dig trenches for the assault group. Thirty years earlier, Sir Garnet Wolseley had written that 'The Regimental Entrenching Tools to accompany a battalion of infantry in the field are as follows: one hundred shovels, 10 spades, 60 pickaxes, 16 felling axes, 2 four-feet and 2 five-feet crowbars. These will be packed in one light waggon, and officers commanding battalions will be held responsible for their safety.'
* Although the battle was fought under the harsh glare of the African sun, the soldiers carried just one water-bottle and one day's field rations each. The officers later searched desperately for the section of water carriers in the darkness – but they were nowhere to be found.
* The trenches were sited in the middle of Spion Kop, rather than on the forward slope, or on the rear of the feature, as the tactics manual recommended. The result was that the British were unable to cover the dead ground, up which the Boers advanced, while being vulnerable to enfilade fire, from either flank.
* There was a catastrophic breakdown of communications, to the extent that, after the column commander, Major General Sir Edward Woodgate, had been mortally wounded by shell-fire, no one was quite certain who was in command on the summit of Spion Kop itself. In the darkness and confusion, no oil could be found for the signalling lamp – and so the British withdrew, as the Boers had already done – leaving the latter to reoccupy the peak the following morning.
Two hundred and forty-three British officers and men died within that 'acre of massacre' and their bodies still lie in the pathetically inadequate and ill-sited main British trench. The majority of the British troops who fought – and died – on Spion Kop were from the Lancashire Brigade. Although Woolwich Arsenal's Manor Ground was first referred to as 'the Kop' in 1904, the new open-air embankment at Anfield, home of Liverpool Football Club, was given that name two years later – and still proudly bears it today.
The Defence of Duffer's Drift (London: William Clowes, 1904) by Captain Ernest Dunlop Swinton, Royal Engineers, was first published in the United Service Magazine in 1903, less than four years after the Battle of Spion Kop. A notably innovative thinker, Major General Sir Ernest Swinton, as he became, deserves much of the credit for the development and adoption of the tank during the First World War. Among other things, he wrote the first tactical doctrine for armoured warfare. The Defence of Duffer's Drift is a highly informative and educational stage-by-stage analysis of how a subaltern's defensive measures gradually evolve, through his experiences in six unsettling dreams. It echoes the wise words of Sir Garnet Wolseley, who wrote in The Soldier's Pocket-Book for Field Service (1869): 'Tactical instructions should begin with the company officers learning to handle their fifty or one hundred men as an independent body without supports, when called upon to perform some of the very minor operations of war.'
In 1949, Field Marshal Earl Wavell, himself a veteran of the Second Anglo-Boer War 1899–1902, wrote a foreword to a new edition: 'If the up-to-date young officer asks scornfully what he can possibly learn from the tactics of the Boer War nearly fifty years ago, I can only advise him to read and then inwardly digest some admirable precepts of common sense ... If after studying this little work, an officer decides that he has learned nothing, I can only recommend him to apply for employment in an Administrative branch of the War Office; for he will certainly be a danger to troops in the field.' I gave a copy to my brother, as he embarked for the First Gulf War, as a Staff Captain with 7th Armoured Brigade, the 'Desert Rats'.
Then there are the Seven Ss, all of which relate to camouflage and the things that a sniper, for example, should think about, in order to avoid giving away his position:
Shape; Shine; Shadow; Silhouette; Spacing; Skyline; Sudden movement
I was amused recently, while attending a seminar on 'chalk stream trout tactics', that the speaker, who had served with the Royal Engineers and the Royal Marines, used the same acronym to remind his audience how best to approach their prey.
* * *
There are also, thankfully, acronyms of the more humorous variety: in On the Psychology of Military Incompetence (London: Jonathan Cape, 1976), Norman Dixon rather primly describes his 'directly instinctual' human activities – FFR – as 'Feeding, Fighting and Reproduction'. When I was serving, FFR meant either transport which was 'fitted for radio', or which was deemed 'fit for role'. In Norman Dixon's example, it was the 'R' that caused all the problems.
While the VC is one of the rarest and is certainly the most highly regarded gallantry award of all, VD (venereal disease) was much more common – and caused real problems in both world wars. Penicillin was first widely used during Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily, which commenced on the night of 9/10 July 1943. On 29 August 1943, the War Production Board granted nine pharmaceutical companies a licence to manufacture penicillin and, with the ratio of sick to wounded running at an unacceptable ratio of almost three to one during the Italian Campaign, its use was soon sanctioned for the treatment of VD. According to the history of the Royal Army Medical Corps, 'the wastage in men was greatly reduced'. Three years earlier, prior to Dunkirk, Major General (later Field Marshal Viscount) Bernard Montgomery had issued an order concerning how to prevent VD amongst British soldiers, which prompted a marvellous piece of doggerel, written by 'Cupid', who was serving with the Royal Corps of Signals:
The General was worried and was very ill at ease,
He was haunted by the subject of venereal disease;
For four and forty soldiers was the tale he had to tell
Had lain among the beets and loved not wisely but too well.
It was plain that copulation was a tonic for the bored,
But the gallant British Soldier was an Innocent Abroad;
So 'ere he takes his pleasure with an amateur or whore,
He must learn the way from officers who've trod that path before.
No kind of doubt existed in the Major General's head
That the men who really knew the game of Love from A to Z
Were his Colonels and his Adjutants and those above the ruck,
For the higher up an officer the better he can f — k.
The Colonels and the Majors were not a bit dismayed,
They gave orders for the building of a Unit Love Parade,
And the Adjutants by numbers showed exactly how it's done,
How not to be a casualty and still have lots of fun.
The Adjutants explained that 'capote' did not mean a cup,
That refreshment horizontal must be taken standing up,
They told the troops to work at Love according to the rules
And after digging in to take precautions with their tools.
Now the General is happy and perfectly at ease,
No longer is he troubled with venereal disease,
His problem solved, his soldiers clean (their badge is now a dove),
He has earned the cross of Venus, our General of Love.
It is unsurprising that the authorities held strong views on 'directly instinctual' human activities in Nazi Germany. For women, it was the Three Ks: Kinder, Küche und Kirche (children, kitchen and church). To that end, membership of the Bund Deutscher Mädel, or the League of German Maidens, became compulsory on 1 December 1936. The National Socialist Women's League, or NS-Frauenschaft, which espoused these views, was the women's wing of the Nazi Party.
* * *
In military parlance, SITREP stands for Situation Report. 'Send SITREP, over,' was regularly heard on British Army radio networks. During the Second World War, US servicemen and -women introduced a completely different – and rather refreshing – take on SITREPs. In order of increasing seriousness, here is a selection of US SITREPs:
SNAFU Situation Normal; All Fucked Up
SUSFU Situation Unchanged; Still Fucked Up
FUMTU Fucked Up More Than Usual
TARFU Things Are Really Fucked Up
FUBAR Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition
In the British Army, the code name 'mushroom' means a watch-keeper in one of the many headquarters, whose job it is to monitor, transcribe and facilitate traffic on the radio networks. In the trade, mushrooms are invariably known – not entirely inaccurately – as KIDFOS or 'Kept In the Dark and Fed On Shit'.
This reminds me of a rather good story, which underlines just how tedious life could be for a KIDFOS. In the autumn of 1983, I was the Regimental Signals Officer of the 1st Battalion, The Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters Regiment, but had been loaned to Brigade Headquarters as a watch-keeper for Exercise Eternal Triangle, the final divisional exercise of the year. We were on radio silence, which meant that there was absolutely nothing to listen to anyway. Whenever a transmission was made, the Clansman radio 'pressel switch' was depressed and there was a squelchy sound. We heard that noise, just before a soft voice said: 'Are there any other friendly teddy bears out there?' Fifteen minutes later, it happened again: 'Are there really no friendly bears out there?' Provoked beyond endurance, the Divisional Commander snapped back: 'Hello all stations, this is zero, we are on radio silence – repeat, radio silence – out.' After a respectable interval, the first, now rather plaintive, voice said: 'You're not a very friendly teddy bear, are you?' The whole company of KIDFOSes fell about laughing – and the culprit was never identified.
My introduction to cavalry radio procedure came during a battle group exercise on Soltau Training Area in northern Germany, written and controlled by The 5th Royal (Inniskilling) Dragoon Guards, otherwise known as 'the Skins'. It was an advance to contact by armour and mechanised infantry. On the operations map, there was a series of report lines, the code names of which were given over the battle group radio net when each line had been successfully consolidated. In order to make things more fun – and perhaps provide greater incentive to the participants – the report lines had been arranged in a suitably seductive manner: 'stilettos', 'stockings', 'garters', 'skirt', 'blouse', 'brassiere', 'panties' – before we finally reached the objective. Even the Cold War had its hotter moments!
Maps, such as those in the previous tale, were frequently protected with something called 'talc', on which one could then write, using Chinagraph pencils. It has only recently been pointed out to me that, in typical Army fashion, TALC stands for 'Training Aid, Linoleum, Clear'. I always wondered – but never had the courage to ask.
Although unrelated to acronyms, it seems a pity not to include two enduring memories of an Op Banner tour in Northern Ireland in early 1979. One of my section commanders was Corporal 'Yogi' Johnson, the origin of whose nickname is lost in the mists of time, although he certainly was a bit of a joker, like Yogi Bear. We were stationed in the old Grand Central Hotel, Belfast, a much-bombed building which the British Army had first taken over in 1972. 'Yogi' Johnson had two notices pinned to the walls of his shared room. One read 'Be Alert: the Army needs Lerts'; the other read 'When on patrol, don't walk, boogie'. With that attitude and sense of humour, a four-month operational tour flies past surprisingly quickly. In the mid-1980s the Grand Central Hotel was demolished to make way for Westfield CastleCourt shopping centre.
* * *
One of the most testing phases of warfare is that which takes place in villages, towns and cities, where obstacles and cover work to the defenders' advantage. This was known as FIBUA, or 'Fighting In a Built-Up Area'. Soldiers often refer to it, irreverently, as FISH & CHIPS or 'Fighting In Someone's House and Creating Havoc in Public Spaces'.
NAAFI stands for the 'Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes', which was founded in 1921 to run recreational establishments for the British Armed Forces and to sell goods to servicemen and -women and their families. Inevitably, over the years, it has acquired some irreverent nicknames, including 'Never 'Ave Any Fags In', 'Not Anywhere Around the Falkland Islands' and 'No Ambition And Fuck-all Interest'. On 23 January 1959, The Spectator published a rather splendid clerihew:
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Table of Contents
ContentsForeword by General Sir Peter Wall,
Language and Lore,
In Their Own Words,
Music and Songs,
Things to Remember,