Where was Gen Sir Peter Wall when his men needed him?
The head of the Army should have shown moral courage and made a stand against these cuts
DAVID CAMERON has disbanded 17 major army units and sacked 20,000 soldiers in the middle of the deepest recession in modern history. Thanks Dave!
But let's not bother with the Etonian Ted Heath. He didn't even have the courtesy to attend the debate in the House of Commons. To be fair, Defence Secretary Philip Hammond put in a confident performance easily seeing off attacks from Labour. More surprisingly, he got an easy ride from the many ex-military men on the Tory backbenches – no more than token resistance.
Five infantry battalions and two armoured regiments were sent to the Cameron/Hammond knacker's yard, including Second Battalion, The Royal Welsh - the direct lineal descendants of the garrison at Rorke's Drift. The Zulus couldn't do it but well done, Dave!
Nick Carter, the cerebral Greenjacket general who was given the hospital pass of designing the new Army, has actually come up with a good plan given the cards he was dealt.
He has divided British land forces into two parts: "reaction forces" at high readiness – an airborne brigade, a marine brigade and an armoured brigade - "adaptable forces" not at immediate notice to move, but able to deploy in a second wave once the nature and duration of any conflict becomes apparent.
Building on their exemplary record in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Territorial Army and other reservists will be fully integrated into the force expected to provide 10 per cent of the manpower of reaction forces and up to 30 per cent of any adaptable force formation deploying on operations.
Sadly, there are two major snags – one strategic and one human. Despite enhancing the role of reservists the cuts leave the army too small – below the critical mass it needs to be able to expand quickly in a national emergency of some unpredictable kind. And the re-organisation means a fifth of our current soldiers will be made compulsorily redundant in the next five years – nearly all of them veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan thrown onto the scrapheap in the teeth of a recession. Neither is acceptable.
General Carter cannot be blamed. He is subordinate to the Chief of the General Staff and it is not for him to challenge his riding instructions. Orders are orders. But the professional head of the army, Chief of the General Staff General Sir Peter Wall KCB, CBE, ADC, occupies a completely different position in the hierarchy. He could have kicked up a fuss but didn't. Hammond said as much on the floor of the Commons yesterday.
On Armed Forces Day in Plymouth, Cameron and his hangers-on were given the bird by an elderly couple who objected to being moved on from their prime viewing spot for the sail-past of HMS Argyll in which their son was serving. Cameron later ran into trouble at a Plymouth café where he seems to have forgotten the rigid conventions of the English queue.
In contrast, General Wall does not seem to have sought, let alone secured, any concessions from the Cameron-Hammond bean-counters. Even if he agreed with the overall thrust of the reforms he must baulk at the politicised result. Cutting well recruited English and Welsh County regiments in order to protect poorly recruited Scottish ones is a purely political measure not a military one. General Wall should have refused to go along with it.
Despite previous decisions made by the government, General Wall could also have taken a stand about the size of the regular army. It would have been easy enough to insist on a 100,000 minimum regular strength. Strong public support would have forced a Cameron U-turn in no time. At the very least he should have insisted on an extended timetable for the compulsory sacking of 20,000 of his comrades. Bob Crowe would have given it a go but not Sir Peter Wall.
The contempt with which his immediate predecessor, General Lord Dannatt, is held by the rank-and-file should serve as warning. Dannatt, a fine soldier, decorated as a young officer during the Ulster Troubles, threw in his lot on retirement with the Conservative Party as an adviser to Dave in Opposition. He hoped to be a defence minister and received a Conservative peerage in exchange, flouting centuries of political impartiality by senior soldiers.
The Royal West Norfolk Golf Club which he was about to join were so appalled they considered blackballing him. He now sits as a cross-bencher but he gave Cameron's Tories vital top-cover in the run-up to the 2010 Election. The same Tories Dannatt took a political peerage from have now eviscerated the army he said he loved, including his own regiment The Green Howards.
According to the account in St Matthew's Gospel Judas ultimately gave back the thirty pieces of silver through shame. Don't expect Dannatt to give up his peerage.
As a senior officer General Wall has not been called upon to display the physical courage that has become the hallmark of British troops in Afghanistan. But he could display moral courage if he so wished. Like the old couple and the café waitress in Plymouth, he should tell Dave and his colourless apparatchik Philip Hammond to get stuffed.