Magazine article The Spectator

'Boots on the Ground: Britain and Her Army since 1945', by General Sir Richard Dannatt - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Boots on the Ground: Britain and Her Army since 1945', by General Sir Richard Dannatt - Review

Article excerpt

It's not immediately obvious, but the silhouette on the dust jacket -- soldiers advancing in single file, on foot ('boots on the ground') isn't one squad, but five soldiers from different campaigns.

From left to right, first comes the British infantryman of the second world war; next is a 'jock' from (I think) the Korean war; then a jungle fighter from the Malayan Emergency or the Borneo 'Confrontation'; then, unmistakably, the long-suffering foot soldier of Operation Banner, the 38-year counter-insurgency (or police action, no one ever quite knew which) in Northern Ireland; and finally, the technology-festooned warrior of Iraq and Afghanistan. Each is a little more erect, a little taller, than the one before, like those profiles of the ascent of man from ape.

The text, however, suggests as much continuity as change, bringing to mind what Ludendorff wrote in his 1919 memoirs: 'In the end of ends, the infantry is the deciding factor in every battle.' Montgomery said the same in 1945. Richard Dannatt is in effect saying it too. Surveillance technology and the ability to strike from the safety of distance may be changing the face of warfare, but in the end of ends it boils down to the old story -- boots on the ground.

Dannatt tells that story with pace -- 'crisply' says one of the puffs on the jacket. 'Corrections will, of course, be made in subsequent editions,' he writes, in the clipped way of a military briefing. The humour --by turns dry, rueful or soldier's black -- will doubtless be a shade unsophisticated for metropolitan tastes; but the army is still necessarily a world apart, and its way of speaking (when intelligible at all, which it too frequently isn't, though it certainly is in Dannatt's book) is that of a more straightforward world. Indeed, unless the army had been another world it could not have done what it did during National Service (1945-1960), the only time in the nation's history that conscription has obtained in peacetime. National Servicemen kept the Red Army the right side of the Inner German Border, and safely decolonised a large part of the world.

To an extent, the figures tell their own story. In 1945 there were 2.93 million pairs of boots on the ground; in 1960, 258,000. In 1992, with the end of the Cold War, they were reduced to 145,000 pairs (excluding the TA), and by 2001 the number had dropped to 110,000. Now there are just over 80,000, about 10 per cent of them filled by women's feet. …

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