Mr. Kipling’s Army

Some years ago I read A Perfect Mess, a delightful book that sought to demonstrate the blessings of individuality in business and life.  The book centers on the basic idea that creating uniformity in how people work, process, and store information, though it looks efficient, will in fact harm the bottom line for 2 main reasons:

  • Acquiring the time and means to store information takes more time and money than we might think, and
  • It forces everyone into a mold few people (except the fussy bureaucrat) work well within.

The authors cited the real-life example of two newsstands on the same New York street.  One store had all the modern accoutrements, such as computer reordering systems, a large selection, beautiful decor, and a helpful staff.  The other was a father-son operation that had less of everything.  But only the father-son store stayed in business.  All that selection, decor, staff, and computer systems came with a steep price tag.  Somehow the poorly-lit, somewhat ramshackle father-son operation worked just fine.

I thought of A Perfect Mess reading the similarly entertaining Mr. Kipling’s Army by the pre-eminent military historian of the Victorian era, Byron Farwell.  Certain things about the British army of this period seem almost impossible to believe.

For one, no one commanded the army.  By this, I don’t mean that no one person commanded the army, I mean that no agreement existed as to whether or not the Crown or Parliament commanded the army.  No “Joint Chiefs of Staff” existed.  Different people commanded different sections of the army, but at root the army had no unity of command.

The practice of purchasing army commissions continued long into the 19th century, which allowed anyone with enough cash and enough desire to immediately assume the rank of Lt. Colonel.  True, some disagreed with this practice. But it had numerous supporters, among them, the Duke of Wellington, who argued that the purchase of commissions gave the upper echelon of officers a direct stake in the well-being of the army/country.

Furthermore, various physical handicaps had no bearing on one’s ability to serve.  Some generals could not hear.  Some could not walk.  Some could not even see, being legally blind.  No one seemed to mind.

The army never grew even close to the size of armies in other European countries such as Prussia and France.  But this same “pint-sized” army was also spread out further over the globe than the military of any other country at that time.

Despite all this, none can doubt that the British army of this period did more with less than anyone else.  Quite simply, they were an enormously effective force, and between 1815-1914, more effective than anyone else.*

Farrwell offers no direct answers to this seeming paradox, but he packs the book with so many choice nuggets that one can begin to answer the question for themselves.  A key feature of the British army in this period would surely be regimental pride and identity, though not, as we might expect, army pride and identity.

The numerous regiments had their own uniforms, customs, mascots . . . a unending list of distinctives.  Sometimes these distinctives included actual violent rivalries with other regiments, but no matter.  If the British had one sacred guiding principle in this era it amounted to this: Do not mess with regimental traditions.  They tolerated almost anything not to violate this sacrosanct dictum, including actual criminal behavior by some soldiers, i.e., “Smashed shop windows at Blenheim Square?  And today is the third Saturday of March?  Pay no mind, that’s just the boys of the 10th Essex.”

The British may have gone too far with their one sacred principle, but they chose well.  Various testimonials abound at how the accretion of tradition and custom built a very strong sense of unity and identity within each fighting line.  The Romans (another effective army!) did something similar for much of its history, grouping soldiers as much as they could by village.  You fought next to those you lived with.  Almost every officer hated getting pulled from regimental ranks into a staff job.  Parting with the regiment meant parting with family.

Armies get their modus operandi, hence their effectiveness, from the societies that create them.  When a natural meshing occurs between army and society, the armies will have much more power because they will have more confidence, consciously or not.  Military action has a greater chance of meshing with society at large, which again adds to the effectiveness of military action.

The British did this brilliantly, whether they realized it or not.  The 19th century in England saw a curious blend of aristocracy and democracy.  The power of the monarch and the House of Lords all underwent a steady transformation towards more democracy, but a strong aristocratic flavor remained.**  Even the “defensive” dress (as brilliantly put by Lord Clark in his Civilization series) of the middle and upper-middle class showed an aristocratic motive to distinguish themselves from the masses.  Chesterton’s early 20th century work  The Club of Queer Trades delightfully pays homage to the British mania for clubs at the turn of the 20th century.

The British saw to it that each regiment was its own club, its own mini-aristocracy with its own traditions, dress, and way of life.  Anyone in a regiment would immediately become part of a mini-society that would give them a holistic identity apart from the rest of society.  As even our modern political scene teaches us, people will fight hard to maintain their sense of identity.

All of this should make us ponder our current situation.  I remember reading an article some time ago that mentioned that over the last 10 years the military has seen a huge spike in those hoping to become snipers.  Maybe this is the result of video games, but maybe not.  Military movies for decades focused on the heroism of the average Joe.  Now our movies and many of our military operations focus on our special forces, a kind of aristocracy within the military at-large.  And yet, our country may be moving in a more populist direction.  If so, this would put some tension between our military and our society which in theory could damage its effectiveness.

Or, possibly what we think is populism is in fact an extension of a kind of hyper identity awareness.  We do see a rise in the role of personal identity with issues surrounding sexuality and gender, and perhaps race as well.  If this is correct, then our military and society may be moving in a more feudal/aristocratic direction, not in the sense of having a defined upper class by birth, but by the segmenting of “Society” into multiple different smaller societies and interest groups.

Or perhaps its instead some weird combination of things, as may often be the case with American history.


*For now we will leave aside the moral aspects of their military adventures.

**Barbara Tuchman discusses this aspect of English life at this time vividly in The Proud Tower.






Aristocratic Age

Spit and Polish v. Drill

Link to sp. forces