“Oh sergeant is this the adventure you meant
When I put my name doon on the line
All that talk of computers and sunshine and skis
Oh I’m asking you sergeant where’s mine?”

Billy Connolly, ‘Sergeant, Where’s Mine?’, 1974. 

Up to the early part of this century the Green Howards had been one of only 5 remaining line infantry regiments in the British Army who had not been merged into another unit. In June 2006, however, they were amalgamated with the Prince of Wales Own Regiment of Yorkshire and the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment to form the Yorkshire Regiment. With the Green Howards forming the 2nd Battalion of this new unit. 

The Green Howards had first been raised in 1688 in support of William of Orange’s invasion of England to preserve Protestantism. They became one of the British Army’s oldest line infantry regiments, but, in its early days, the unit served under the Saint George’s Cross for the Kingdom of England. During this time the Green Howards served in Ireland, Jamaica and was part of an expeditionary force in the West Indies and Newfoundland. It also saw action against France during the Nine Years’ War, most notably at the battles of Steenkerque and Landen and during the Siege of Namur in Belgium.

From 1707 to 1800 the Green Howards served the Kingdom of Great Britain under the first Union flag, after the Acts of Union on 1st May 1707 that united Scotland and England. During this time the Green Howards were based in Scotland for a period and recruiters were ordered to exclude all ‘Jacobites and Irish Papists’. The unit fought at the battles of Rocoux, Lauffeld and became part of the Gibraltar garrison. It also took part in the Seven Years’ War against France and fought against the revolutionary forces in the America War of Independence, as well as seeing action in India at the Siege of Seringapatam during the Fourth Anglo-Mysore War.

From 1801 the Green Howards, under the Union Jack, served the United Kingdom in Nova Scotia, Malta, Egypt, South Africa, the Crimean War, and various parts of India and Ireland. During WW1 the regiment fought on the Western Front, the Gallipoli Landings and in Egypt, winning 12 Victoria Crosses (VCs). At the end of WW1 the Green Howards were ordered to serve in northern Russia to support the White Russians against the Red Army.

During WW2 the regiment won another 3 VCs, served in India, Burma, North Africa, Italy, the Normandy Landings, France, Holland and Germany. Post WW2 the regiment served in Malaya, Libya, Suez, Cyprus, Hong Kong, Belize, Bosnia, Kosovo, the First Gulf War, Afghanistan and Northern Ireland:

First raised in 1688 to support King William III, the Green Howards then travelled with him to Ulster and fought for him at the battle of the Boyne. In 1988, 300 years later, units from the Green Howards were still doing tours-of-duty in the north of Ireland. In nationalist areas of Northern Ireland, from 1969, young men and women had grown up knowing nothing else but armed soldiers and police on their streets, ‘wriggly-tin’ military forts close by, army lookout posts on every high building and helicopters constantly in the sky.

The harassment and repression they suffered did not defeat them, however, but, in the end, only fuelled their resistance. Some soldiers, on the other hand, found that the contradictions inherent in their situation – and the claustrophobic atmosphere inside their forts – were too much to bear. Ironically, many of the troops came from urban or country areas back in Britain, not unlike the territory they now patrolled and tried to dominate.

The young soldiers inside the army forts and the people in the nationalist areas outside had much in common, as often they watched the same TV programmes, cheered on the same football teams and listened to the same pop songs. The Beatles were a world-famous music group in the 1960s and, after they broke-up, two ex-members of the Beatles, both from Liverpool and with an Irish grandparent, protested about events in Northern Ireland in their own ways. In August 1971, John Lennon and Yoko Ono joined an anti-internment march through London, with Lennon displaying a ‘Red Mole’ newspaper with its headline: ‘For the IRA – Against British Imperialism’, emblazoned across the front page.

After the Bloody Sunday killings in Derry in 1972, Lennon wrote ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ and ‘The Luck of the Irish’. That same year, another ex-Beatle, Paul McCartney, released ‘Give Ireland Back to the Irish’, but the record was banned by the BBC. It still made it to number sixteen in the British charts, however, and reached number one in Ireland and Spain:

These were indications of opposition to the conflict in the land across the sea and indicates it was not always a popular war in Britain. With opinion polls consistently showing that a majority of the British people were wanting to see the withdrawal of their troops from Northern Ireland. Opinion polls finding majorities in favour of 
British withdrawal includes: MORI, September 1971, 59%; Gallup, December 1975, 64%; Gallup, February 1977, 53%; Gallup, September 1978, 55%; Marplan, April 1981, 58%; MORI, May 1984, 53%; MORI, January 1987, 61%; MORI, March 1988, 50%; Harris, December 1989, 51%.

During and after the H-block prison hunger strike in 1981, republican wall paintings appeared all over nationalist areas. Often painted by local youths with the support and encouragement of their community. As public manifestations of cultural resistance, the murals obviously had an effect on the soldiers, because in 1988, men from the Green Howards while serving in the Creggan area of Derry painted their own wall painting inside the gates of their fort.

Republican murals were often dedicated to Óglaigh na hÉireann – which means the Irish Volunteers, or the IRA in English. The Soldier magazine printed a photo of the Green Howards’ mural, which had copied the republican ones and was captioned: ‘Óglaigh na hHowards’:

In Britain people often live in areas where large advertisements make statements in efforts to sell various products. Sometimes, someone will sneak out at night and blot out, or alter, a message because they find it offensive. In Northern Ireland soldiers and policemen on night patrol often carried paint or acid ‘bombs’, or other devices, to try to destroy the republican murals under the cover of darkness.

This gives a clue to the true balance of forces in both these places. In Britain the state was usually in control and its advertisements could only be sabotaged covertly; in nationalist areas in Northern Ireland the message of the murals while anti-establishment was approved by the locals. So, there it was the state upholders of law-and-order who had to sneak out at night in attempts to destroy them. While the sheer concentration of soldiers and police could physically dominate any nationalist area, the Security Forces were non-starters in the battle for the ‘hearts-and-minds’ of the people.

Recruitment & Training

In February 2020, the Ministry of Defence (MoD), released new figures that revealed the cost per individual going through basic training at the Army Training Centre in Pirbright:

“The course at the Army Training Centre is 14 weeks long – the shortest basic training course for regular soldiers. The average cost of basic training for a soldier who passes is just over £38,000, with that cost being made up of the following, per trainee:

  • Manpower: £16,200 This is the most costly expense to the British Army when transforming recruits into soldiers, and is described as “direct and indirect manpower costs” for both military and civilian staff.
  • Trainee salaries: £9,000 The second-largest outlay is paying the trainees themselves. Each Army recruit undergoing the basic training course in Pirbright earns £9,000.
  • Infrastructure: £8,000 The third largest cost per trainee soldier goes towards their accommodation and training facilities.

Other outlays include £1,900 on clothing for recruits, administration costs of £1,800 and £800 on infrastructure. When it comes to hitting the mark, each trainee will go through £400 worth of ammunition during the 14-week course.”

No figures were given for recruitment costs and these can sometimes be very high. At other times, driven by waves of patriotism and propaganda, like 107 years ago for instance during the build-up to WW1, there was a rapid escalation of recruiting under Lord Kitchener to provide the cannon-fodder for the brutal trench warfare. Strong pressure was exerted on young men to join-up, which extended into popular entertainments, like the Music Halls:

Two years later, one the first day of the Battle of the Somme, these recruits suffered 57,470 casualties, including 19,240 killed, the worst day’s result in the history of the British Army. Five months later, after bad weather had ended the Somme offensive, very little ground had been gained but British casualties had mounted to over 420,000. General Douglas Haig, the British Commander-in-Chief, called it the ‘Great Push Forward’, while the rank-and-file soldiers named it the ‘Great Fuck Up’.

Closer to our own time, about 45 years ago, the Army was in need of recruits again, because of Northern Ireland. On June 3rd 1974, the ‘Daily Mirror’, which claimed ‘Europe’s biggest daily sale,’ had stated about Northern Ireland that: ‘Britain must face the most sombre option of all – to pull out the troops and abandon sovereignty’.

A few days previously the London ‘Evening Standard’ had carried the front-page headline, ‘Ulster: Back-bencher makes a startling claim – HALF LABOUR MPs WANT TO PULL OUT.’ In the face of mounting casualties, it was also evident that many of the soldiers were fed up with their role in Northern Ireland. More than 200 British soldiers had been killed and many more maimed.

It was also in 1974, that Billy Connolly released his ‘Cop Yer Whack for This’ album, which included the track ‘I’m Asking You Sergeant, Where’s Mine’ (later shortened to ‘Sergeant, Where’s Mine?’).

Before he became a star, Connolly had joined the Territorial Army, while working in a shipyard. He therefore understood the impulses that could draw working class youngsters into joining the army.

On ‘Cop Yer Whack for This’ Connolly introduced ‘Sergeant Where’s Mine’ by stating:

“I wrote this song a wee while ago after seeing a documentary on television. It was about Ulster and the children in Ulster, being in a terrible state with the war being on, and the soldiers in Ulster, being in a terrible state trying to cope with the kids and fight a war that they don’t know what it’s all about. After I saw it, about a fortnight later I was walking along Sauchiehall Street and I came to the Army Information place. I was looking in the window – you know, where all these young guys join the Army – and there was all these pictures of computers and discotheques and things, and soldiers enjoying themselves, but there was nae deed bodies in the window. And I thought, O Aye. So, this is a wee song I wrote after seeing these things.”

Inspired by the happenings in Northern Ireland, the song speaks from the point of view of a wounded soldier and makes ironic reference to British Army recruitment advertisements of that era. These showed recruits having a grand time in exotic places and enjoying sporting activities such as skiing:

Due to the situation in Northern Ireland, many of the existing troops, including some who had become NCOs, were beginning to leave the army in large numbers. With several either purchasing their discharge, or refusing to re-enlist. This was causing severe manpower shortages and new recruits to fill the gaps were proving hard to attain.

So, expensive recruitment campaigns were undertaken and questions were asked about this in the Westminster Parliament, with the following reply being recorded in Hansard:

“£26 million was spent on recruitment last year [1976]; during this period there were 40,243 recruits – an average of £654 per recruit was thus spent … Of this £1,050,000 was spent on press ads for officers; 2,135 were recruited in this period, an average of £500 per recruit.”

[Hansard, 2nd May 1977].

Taking in the rate of inflation, the outlay on recruitment would be considerably more today. So, if all the costs are added-up, of recruitment and training, the making of a soldier is a costly business. With the MoD and army units requiring an end product that they consider fit-for-purpose.

Wars That Go On & On & On

In Britain, the story of the recruitment, training and use in wars overseas of armed combatants has a long and difficult history. Over four hundred years ago, towards the end of the first Queen Elizabeth’s reign there was a rebellion against her rule in Ulster. Charles Blount, Lord Mountjoy, was made the English lord deputy of Ireland and engaged in a ruthless ‘scorched earth’ policy against the rebels.

Men, women and children were put to the sword, villages and homes were burnt and all the food, crops and cattle destroyed. Many more Irish people died from the resulting famine and the starving survivors were unable to carry on fighting. Sir Arthur Chichester sent this dispatch to Mountjoy about his operations at Lough Neagh:

“We have killed, burnt, and spoiled all along the Lough … in which journeys we have killed above 100 people of all sorts … We spare none of what quality or sex soever, and it hath bred much terror in the people … The last service was upon Patrick O’Quin, whose house and town was burnt, wife, son, children and people slain …”

The Irish were defeated at the battle of Kinsale in 1601 and the rebellion gradually ended. The modern military historian, Correlli Barnett, wrote about Mountjoy’s campaign:

“In three years the rebellion, smouldering since 1593, was stamped out. The methods employed by Mountjoy have never been bettered; indeed their pattern has been repeated by European troops all over the world to this day.”

[Britain and Her Army 1509-1970, by Correlli Barnett, Penguin Books, 1970].

Mountjoy also introduced other tactics that were to find an echo right up to the present. He trained some of his men to operate in small groups to chase and harass the Irish who were using a highly successful form of guerrilla warfare against his superior but static forces:

“He harried them [the Irish] with light flying columns which were their equal in mobility. His mobile operations pivoted on a mesh of fortified towns and new forts which the rebels could not take.”

[Britain and Her Army 1509-1970, by Correlli Barnett, Penguin Books 1970].

Some of these fortifications were in similar places to the forts that were erected across Northern Ireland from 1969, from which British soldiers were operating, in a way parallel to Mountjoy’s troops, four centuries later. Another issue that remains the same is that the cost of war is laid most heavily upon the poorer sections of the home population. Under the first Queen Elizabeth’s administration, as more and more money was required to pay for the continual war, higher and higher taxes were set:

“The cost of English operations in Ireland reached staggering dimensions. Before 1585 Elizabethan finance could claim impressive achievements. Throughout the last decade and a half of Elizabeth’s reign, the situation deteriorated with the principal problem being the nearly £2 million spent on Ireland. Even with the level of expenditure, Ireland was only conquered not pacified.”

[The Problem of Ireland in Tudor Foreign Policy 1485-1603, by William Palmer, The Boydell Press].

Taxes, Wars & Conscription

In times of peace Elizabeth’s regime had governed with a manageable budget, but the wars with Spain and in Ireland drastically increased military expenditure – draining the economy and leading to higher and higher taxes. As usual, the English poor had little to gain and much to lose by these wars and conquests, as the burden of taxation fell most heavily on them:

“Government commitments were continually extending – in the maintenance of law and order, the subjugation of Ireland, the maintenance of the navy. Costs were also going up in traditional spheres of expenditure – muskets and cannon were replacing bows and arrows, ships were getting bigger, the civil service was expanding … Till 1588 Elizabeth’s normal revenue was of the order of £250,000 a year … In the four years 1599 – 1603 the Irish war alone cost £1,131,000 … Under Elizabeth, as earlier, taxes were voted almost without question in time of war. ‘The poor are grieved by being overcharged in taxation’, Fulke Greville said in 1593. ‘If the feet [i.e. the poor] knew their strength as well as we know their oppression, they would not bear as they do’.”

[Reformation to Industrial Revolution, by Christopher Hill, Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1967].

Rising taxation was not the only demand that the wars made on the poor. Because increasing numbers of combatants were required for the various conflicts, invariably, the mass of rank-and-file soldiers came from the ordinary people. So, men and youths were rounded-up and forced to serve:

“105,810 men were impressed for service in the Netherlands, France, Portugal, and Ireland during the last eighteen years of the reign [Elizabeth 1] … It was conscription for Ireland after 1595 that aroused the greatest resentment. In 1600 there was a near mutiny of Kentish cavalry at Chester during the summer as they travelled to Ulster. The drain of manpower was relentless; between 1591 and 1602 about 6,000 Kentish men were impressed at a time when the county’s total population was no more than 130,000.”

[Tudor England, by John Guy, Oxford University Press 1990].

Armies were gathered up from all over England and the recruits were usually harshly treated, poorly supplied and fed, and paid very little – if paid at all. Even before they reached Ireland, many of the soldiers expressed their resentment by proving troublesome. For example, towards the end of 1596, in Bristol 800 soldiers were waiting to be shipped to Ireland:

“The troops, waiting in Bristol for a favourable wind, ‘were so unruly that the citizens could not pass the streets in quiet, especially in the night, so that many frays took place, though the soldiers had still the worst’.”

[The Landscape of William Shakespeare, by Michael Justin Davis, Webb & Bower 1987].

Once in Ireland the soldiers often took their frustrations out on the native Irish, whom they hunted down and slaughtered like wild animals. Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, and a close friend of Queen Elizabeth I said about the fighting: ‘Moderately conducted wars should be used against civil and expert men, but savages … are only by force and by fear to be vanquished’. This brutal attitude was also to be adopted for the use of European troops in colonial situations all around the world.

In England, this was the first of many overseas conflicts undertaken in the interests of the rich, but with the troops coming mainly from the poor. Many of these soldiers died from illness and fever in the wetland bogs and dense forests as well as from the ambushes and raids of the Irish. Most did not want to serve in Ireland and often tried to evade the wars:

“Ireland was not popular with the English soldiers: those who could, deserted before they embarked, while their officers found numerous excuses for returning to England on important private business.”

[Britain & Her Army 1509-1970, by Correlli Barnett, Penguin Books 1970].

Today, over 400 years later, similar problems of recruitment, taxes and wars still exist. There were 350 years between the reigns of the first and second Queen Elizabeth, but during both the cost of ‘The Troubles’ in Ireland were extensive. Like it was under the first Queen Elizabeth, during Operation Banner from 1969-2007 under the second Queen Elizabeth, it was the British taxpayers who paid for the on-going conflict.

In 1992-93, the subvention to Northern Ireland was £3.3 billion (this was the figure for public spending in NI over and above what NI raised itself in taxes). This figure included the costs of the police and prisons, but did not include the costs of the Army. The cost of the Northern Ireland commitment for the British Army was estimated for 1993 to be £405.6 million.

In the same year, 1993, the Labour Party MP, Tony Benn, issued this statement: ‘I asked the House of Commons research department to calculate the total cost of the [Northern Ireland] emergency and, at current prices, the cost of the war has been £14.5 billion’. [Statewatch, Nov.-Dec. 1993].

National Service to ‘The Professionals’

After the end of WW2 the Armed Forces of Britain had still required large numbers of personnel to police the Empire. So, the National Service Act from WW2 was extended, which filled military units with young recruits:

Unlike the regulars with whom they served, however, National Servicemen had been ‘called-up’, not volunteered – and many did not want to be there. The military command were also unhappy with the call-up – to them it had often meant ‘indiscipline’, ‘a lack of commitment’ and ‘educated agitators stirring things up’. So, National Service was ended in the early 1960s, and the Armed Forces were returned to non-conscript, elite ‘professional’ units:

Costly enlistment campaigns were then set in motion, with Recruitment Centres opening on many high streets. Glossy ads appeared, which ignored the dull and dire parts of military life, with fun and sporting activities featuring instead. The Army was tagged ‘The Professionals’ with the vocation glamorised – all in efforts to encourage the youth of the country to join-up:

Anxious to recruit school-leavers with little, or no, experience of work in civilian life, the recruiting sergeants of those days hooked the young potential soldier with themes like ‘Adventure’, ‘Sport’ and ‘Travel’. Economic conscription played a part as usual too, as Chris Byrne, an ex-Royal Marine, explained:

“I joined up because I had no education or qualifications, and where I lived in Essex there wasn’t much work available. I knew others who had joined up, so I decided to follow them. I joined up as a Junior Marine when I was sixteen. I wanted a bit of excitement, a bit of travel, to be tough, to be something – rather than just be nothing outside.”

[British Soldiers Speak Out on Ireland, IOI, 1978].

The Royal Marines have a long history, with the regiment being recruited, trained and deployed by the Navy. During the 16th and 17th centuries a number of European countries, like Spain, Portugal, Holland and France, had established nautical fighting units. In 1664 an English naval infantry Maritime Regiment was formed, which became known as the Admiral’s Regiment.

Aboard Royal Navy ships the Marines helped to maintain the rule of the ship’s officers and engaged with enemy vessels in both defensive and offensive actions. Later, from the expansion of empire, the Royal Marines served as an amphibious infantry invasion force. Making many landings across the globe and fighting in Europe, Australia, the Caribbean, North America, China – as well as the Crimean and Napoleonic Wars.

During WW1 the Marines won 5 Victoria Crosses, landing at Gallipoli, Zeebrugge as well as serving on the Western Front. They also were part of the allied intervention in Russia in 1919, during which there was a Royal Navy mutiny against this deployment. In WW2, in the course of which Commando units were formed, the Royal Marines served in Norway, Madagascar, Crete, Dieppe, North Africa, Italy, D-Day, France, Holland, Germany and Malaya, Singapore and Burma, winning another Victoria Cross.

Post WW2, the Marines served in Korea, Malaya, Suez, Cyprus, Malaysia, Tanzania, the Falklands, the Gulf War, Iraq, Afghanistan and Northern Ireland. In the 16th century, under the first Queen Elizabeth, many of the poor in England had been conscripted and sent to kill and die in Ireland. After 1969, four centuries later under the second Queen Elizabeth, this was still the destination for many of those who were recruited, because they’d responded to adds like this:

At the end of 1972, the magazine ‘New Society’ carried out a survey of the 100 British soldiers killed in the Northern Ireland between January and November of that year:

“77 were privates, of whom 47 were twenty-two years or under when killed. Only six came from the seven largest cities of Britain, whilst most were from market towns in the West country, the Fens, or small industrial centres in Lancashire, Tyneside, Scotland or Wales. On average it was the less educated boy who has to leave home to have a hope of employment who joins the British Army.”

[New Society, Dec. 1972].

Recruiting from deprived areas – a sort of de facto economic conscription – also enabled the MoD to target their choice of potential soldiers like Frank Gilchrist:

“He was born in Pilton, Edinburgh, and grew up on a working-class housing estate that was ‘a bit like the Gaza Strip’. School held few attractions for him and after several bouts of truancy the 14-year-old Gilchrist was sent to a ‘special school’ that was ‘one step away from borstal’. Frank’s career prospects were not exactly bright. He left without taking ‘O’ levels and opted for the job of trainee milkman, aged 16. ‘Then I saw an advert on television – join the army and see the world. It seemed great’.”

[Morning Star, 14th Feb. 1989].

Youths with a low educational background were targeted, ones who were ‘uncontaminated’ (by civilian life) and easier to mould into the type of soldiers the system required. They were also deemed unlikely to question their training, or orders. It was also thought that those who did become disaffected, would have difficulty articulating their grievances, or organising protests.

John Arden (1930-2012), who was described as ‘one of the most important of the British playwrights to emerge in the mid-20th century’, served 18 months of National Service in the Army a few years after the end of WW2. Later, in the early 1970s, when the veteran was a successful dramatist, he wrote about some soldiers he’d just encountered during a journey:

“I travelled recently on the Irish Mail train from Euston to Liverpool. In the long open carriage was a group of very young ‘skinhead’ soldiers, in full battle-gear, on their way to the Belfast ferry. Nearly every passenger in that carriage was obviously Irish, from their speech. The soldiers sat in a mute savage huddle, their eyes twitching to follow the movements of each man who passed them on the way to the toilet or the buffet-car. For them, it was clear, the Falls Road began in Euston Square. I have said these boys were ‘skinheads’: their haircuts were civilian and cultic, even though they wore uniform. What is a ‘skinhead’ but the most alienated and rancorous product of our present state of industrial opportunism compounded by induced unemployment? The rejects join the Army; already disturbed, they are inducted into an already lunatic system.”

[All Bull: The National Servicemen, Quartet Books 1973].

Once signed-up recruits have to take an oath-of-allegiance to the reigning monarch. They are then tied to a binding contract, which can often be many years in length. After which, their first order is to report to an Army barracks to undergo basic training.

Basic Training & Indoctrination 

Basic Training is the initial period of the recruit’s rite of passage into their designated unit. It is used to rid the rookies of ‘Civvy misconceptions’; mould them into the Army’s way of thinking; insert a military sense of purpose and ensure they are capable of bonding with their fellow soldiers. Surgeon Commander Morgan O’Connell, then a Navy psychiatrist just back from the Falklands War, explained the process to journalist Polly Toynbee:

“Yes, we indoctrinate them in the forces. Otherwise they wouldn’t fight. That’s why we cut their hair the same, make them wear the same uniform, make the same salute, and march together. We indoctrinate them in order to enhance group cohesiveness. That’s how you get people to fight.”

[Guardian, 1st Nov. 1982].

One of the worst things you can do as a civilian is to kill another human being, which most people would not want to do anyway.

The military, however, has to train recruits to do exactly the opposite, because any effective army is a killing-machine. The ‘Doctor Who’ series on TV often features automated robots called Daleks, who when ordered to ‘Exterminate’, always reply: ‘We obey!’

Much of the training soldiers receive is intended to make them act the same as the Daleks, by blindly follow orders – even to killing another human being – if ordered to do so. As experienced NCOs hammer the recruits into line, basic training is modified from time to time, but its key elements have altered little over the years. The following is an extract from a book about National Service:

“The shock of the first couple of days was intentionally brutal. The new recruits would usually be met at the station, given food reasonably soon after arrival at the camp, and provided with the means to write and say they had arrived safely. But these were virtually the last kindly acts for eight to twelve weeks in a system of basic training designed to suppress individuality, restrict freedom in every possible way, install instinctive obedience without question of any kind, increase physical fitness, and generally so depress the conscript into a common mould that he would instantly serve the force’s purposes in anything that it asked him to do: to the point of killing fellow human beings, or of offering himself to be killed. The forces had learnt how to train men quickly and intensively in the Second World War; the absolute necessity of training them to this zombie-like state had been taught in the trenches of the First, when an order over the top to almost certain death had to be obeyed instinctively or it would not have been obeyed at all.”

[All Bull: The National Servicemen, from the introduction by B S Johnson, Quartet Books 1973].

Many potential recruits are attracted to the army by the macho image that many of the regiments portray, as ex-marine Chris Byrne said:

“The image of the services, ‘disciplined’, ‘tough’ and ‘professional’, was very attractive … It’s a very masculine atmosphere … you get a lot of crap about how they are going to separate the men from the boys … The pressure is on you to stick it out and get through the training because you want to prove yourself to your mates.”

[British Soldiers Speak Out on Ireland, IOI, 1978].

Early on, the rookies will be introduced to physical pain and violence and this can occur in various ways. One of the initial tests for recruits for the airborne infantry and other elite units is called ‘milling’, during which the novices are ordered to fight each other for a set period. Each pair are issued with boxing gloves and instructed to punch each other’s heads as furiously as possible for one minute:

The Army claims that milling is: ‘A test of courage, determination and raw fighting spirit’. The guidance instructions specify that: ‘No ducking, parrying or other boxing defence moves are allowed’ – and if a trainee is floored, or has his nose flattened, the blood is wiped away and the bout continues. The contestant who shows the most ferocity wins the contest, but, win or lose, the recruits are expected to show sustained aggression and will be rejected by these elite units unless they do so.

Much time is spent on ‘square-bashing’, learning the drills for parades. All the recruits have to coordinate their actions until the squad marches as one and this is usually done under angry threats and punishments handed out by the training NCOs. Back in the barracks bullshit takes over, with all the issued kit being required to be ironed, shiny and bulled. Rooms, lockers, beds and bathrooms are constantly being inspected – all of which is done under a strict code of petty and often absurd regulations.

The main task of this early trainings is to integrate recruits into the army system and ensure they obey orders instantly. In the old days, flogging and other extreme forms of punishment were used to keep soldiers in line, but with corporal punishment no longer an official option, todays recruits are encouraged to dish out unofficial verbal and physical punishments to ‘lazy’, ‘dirty’ or ‘awkward’ members of the squad. With all the squad being punished collectively for one members bad results, or mistakes, this can end in extreme forms of retribution being handed out behind closed doors.

Another feature of training is the crude verbal taunts, usually sexual in nature, directed at the newcomers. At first, recruits are intimidated and shocked by the physical training and the bawling out by the NCOs. But later, many will start to use such terms themselves and giggle when this treatment is dished out to others.

Sometimes, basic training can get out of control, an example occurred between 1995 and 2002, when, on four separate occasions, young soldiers were found dead at a training barracks in Surrey. Recruits Sean Benton, Cheryl James, Geoff Gray and James Collinson all suffered gunshot wounds at the Princess Royal Barracks at Deepcut. Benton was found with five bullet wounds to his chest:

The inquests, which took place amid allegations of bullying and extreme abuse at Deepcut, returned three open verdicts and one of suicide. Further claims were made regarding the brutal training regime at the depot, including about sexual assaults – including rape – of female recruits:

“Senior army officers presided over a ‘catastrophic’ failure in their duty of care towards recruits, an influential Commons committee will reveal tomorrow. Following a major inquiry into abuse allegations in the army, the entire chain of command will be strongly criticised in a report by the Commons defence select committee. It will recommend the introduction of an independent complaints body to investigate abuse claims.”

[The Observer, 13th Mar. 2005, by Mark Townsend].

Despite various police and judge-led reviews, the circumstances around the training methods and deaths at Deepcut still remain hushed-up and obscured. Every time an incident like this happens the MoD will get a serving, or former, high-ranking officer to rush out a statement deploring ‘the excesses’ and saying ‘changes must, and will, be made’. But the incident will be covered-up – and then, after a while, it will all happen again – leaving the families of the victims a long and hard fight for truth and justice.

Disconnection From Civvies

Ironically, one of the first category of people soldiers learn to despise are the nation’s civilians, who the army are supposed to be defending. This applies to both the rank-and-file and officers. A former Commandant at Sandhurst used to begin his opening address to new officer cadets by saying:

“Gentlemen, congratulations on adopting an honourable calling. When one looks about at the general dross that characterizes civilian life today, one can rightly regard oneself as fortunate to be shot of it.”

The army spends much time and energy creating a new soldier from the raw recruit and a part of this involves removing civvy values and inserting military ones. So, a disconnection is encouraged, with ‘Pond-life’ and ‘Lizards’ being some of the expressions that soldiers are taught to use about ‘Civvies’. Across the army, however, the most used abusive term is ‘Civvy-cunts’.

Dividing the population from its combatants has a long history. Until 1793, when Britain joined the war against revolutionary France, troops stationed in England were billeted among the people in houses and inns. It was fairly common then for soldier to side with the people and government agents repeatedly told of the links between those serving in the Army, or Navy, with protest movements and even revolutionary groups.

In 1795, for instance, soldiers were reported to be ‘abettors of food rioters’ in Devonshire and in 1800 the Oxfordshire Blues were thanked by the people of Nottingham for their sympathy for the rioters. In 1816 a Home Office informant said he heard a soldier tell his friends in a pub in Rowley about a letter from his unemployed father who was starving with his family: ‘Charging him if any riot took place in this country for want of work not to hurt none of them. But if compelled to fire, either to fire over their heads, or to shoot the Tyger that gave the order, and to persuade all his comrades to do the same’.

The only barracks then were in garrison towns and fortresses, but Pitt, the Tory Prime Minister, who began arguing for a policy of covering the manufacturing areas with barracks, said:

“The circumstances of the country, coupled with the general state of affairs, rendered it advisable to provide barracks in other parts of the kingdom. A spirit has appeared in some of the manufacturing towns which made it necessary that troops should be kept near them.”

[Parl. Debates, House of Commons, Feb. 22nd, 1793].

In another debate, a few years later, the building of barracks was put forward as a means of isolating the soldiers from the people:

“The Government should act on the maxim of the French comedian: ‘If I cannot make him [the people] dumb, I will make you [the soldiers] deaf’.”

[Parl. Debates, House of Commons, April 8th 1796, speaker W. Windham].

One hundred and fifty-five new barracks were built by 1815, most were damp and cold with overcrowded living conditions for the soldiers. Life for recruits was to be as harsh and brutish as the buildings in which they were billeted:

“Once he had taken the Queen’s shilling, the recruit was tamed and cowed into submission by savage drill and remorseless bullying by non-commissioned officers, and the process of “breaking” men, often of poor physique and low health standards, coupled with unhealthy living conditions, gave the army a death-rate many times higher than that of the civilian population … The common punishment for even the smallest misdemeanour was “pack-drill,” often imposed so ferociously and for so long that the victim was reduced to a state of complete exhaustion … Deserters were flogged and then branded with gunpowder massaged into the flesh to ensure that the letter ‘D’ remained indelible.”

[Colonial Small Wars 1837-1901, by Donald Featherstone, David and Charles 1973].

The use of barracks, coupled with the cruel discipline and indoctrination, helped to separate soldiers from the feelings of the population. The Army now proved to be an effective instrument for the suppression of popular movements at home. The historian, Professor George Rudé, looked at over a century of popular protests and their suppression by the state forces:

“From my (no doubt) incomplete and imperfect record of the twenty odd riots and disturbances taking place in Britain between the Edinburgh Porteous Riots of 1736 and the Great Chartist demonstration of April 1848, I totted up the following score: the crowds killed a dozen at most; while, on the other side, the courts hanged 118 and 630 were shot dead by troops.”

[Paris and London in the Eighteenth Century, by G. Rudé, London 1970].

The Regimental System

The regimental system in the British Army is archaic, but, from time to time, modifications have happened. The modern setup can be traced back to the Cardwell Reforms in the 1870s, which strengthened the links between the officer-corps and the government as well as recommending innovative procedures and logistics. The linked-battalion system would see one of a regiment’s battalions away on Imperial duty while the second unit remained in Britain.

The system, installed during the Victorian expansion of territory, affirmed the British Army’s primary role as the guardian of the Empire. Other Western countries had also carved out colonial empires, however, in the rest of (landlocked) Europe the primary role for most national armies was to provide a defence from any external threat. Conventional warfare was the normal function, with colonial duty, entailing more irregular forms of warfare, tagged on.

In island Britain the main defensive role fell to the navy, leaving the army relatively free to concentrate on the task of conquest and subjugation overseas. The linked-battalion system allowed regiments a flexibility for individual units to develop their own techniques and procedures for waging colonial warfare and also ensured there was, throughout the army, a shared experience of such methods. The second battalion, stationed at home, was handily available to use a refined version of this type of warfare against any internal threat.

Today, the regimental system pushes ‘military values’ that encourages ‘loyalty’ and requires ‘obedience’, while promoting competition within the army structure. All of which is thought to help bind the soldiers to their particular units:

“Individual soldiers identify with this unit of 500 or 650 men [armoured regiment or infantry battalion] as their tribe or clan (tribe, clan and family are all words frequently used by the Army to describe its regiments) … units generally have an affiliation with a specific part of the United Kingdom (especially for recruitment purposes) … There is a corpus of sacred history, a hoard of sacred possessions (e.g. the paintings and silver of the officers’ mess), a special dress code (e.g. the scarlet tunics and bearskins of the Guards), a totem (usually called the colours), and a rigid hierarchy within which an individual’s place is clearly known to himself and others …  The individual, commissioned or not, enters the regiment after the rite of passage of training and must then undergo a period of semi-official apprenticeship or probation … the origins of hierarchy are often perceived as feudal, with all members being categorised as officers, non-commissioned officers or other ranks (similar classification being applied to their dependents as well), and with the social organisation and practice of the regiment generally mirroring that of ‘Old England’ (or Scotland or Ireland), an attractive mythical land to which a living link is maintained through the person of the sovereign.”

[A New Model Army, by Michael Yardley and Dennis Sewell, WH Allen and Co, 1989].

In the ‘Professional’ Armed Forces of Britain today, basic training, as well as building recruits physically and developing combat skills, is also used to strengthen the rookies reasons and will to fight. This is then expanded within the regimental system, to ensure all within the various units have lost their last vestiges of individuality – and have become cogs in the military machine.

Those who chose a military life will find competition being introduced at every turn, with your training squad being posited as better that the other training squads – and you will be told it is up to you to make good that boast. Your eventual unit – ‘The Regiment’ – however, is simply the best and you are encouraged to believe that everything it has done, or will do, is ‘honourable and glorious’. You can, and will, look down on all the other military units, however, just like the Paras, who regard themselves as a special-elite and call all other soldiers ‘crap-hats’.

After passing basic training and joining their regiment in its barracks, new recruits find they have to earn the respect of the veteran soldiers – and show they are worthy of joining ‘The Regiment’. But many ‘sprogs’, or ‘rookies’, often find they are at risk from their fellow soldiers during unofficial initiation ceremonies, called ‘beastings’. To which those in authority usually turn a blind eye:

“A young soldier told yesterday of his ordeal during a ‘beasting’. A nightmare initiation ceremony for recruits to the King’s Own Scottish Borderers … The 20-year-old recruit told the court (martial) that after an evening’s drinking in a pub in Colchester, where the First Battalion was based until March, he had gone back to his room to sleep. He was wakened by [soldiers A and B], who put a motorcycle helmet on his head and told him to mark time naked beside his bed. ‘I didn’t do it fast enough, so I was hit on the head’, said Private Guthrie. He was marched naked to another room where, before a group of privates who included the accused, the initiation began. Guthrie said [soldier C] tied a string round his private parts, and attached it to his right ankle. Then he was forced to mark time, despite intense pain, until the string snapped. Next, said Guthrie, he was indecently assaulted with a broom handle as he bent over a table. And then, he claimed, he was burned three times on the private parts by [C] using a hand-made flamethrower – an aerosol can and a cigarette lighter. Next, Guthrie told the court, he was forced to perform a sex act while colour photographs were taken. And finally, he was put into a mattress cover, punched and kicked, and dropped through a window about 20 feet to the ground, where he was forced to crawl through the snow.”

[Daily Record, 28th Oct. 1987].

Excessive drinking often plays a part in incidents like these, but a drinking culture can emerge in any organisation, especially if it has a macho-male tribal ethos. Some football clubs, for instance, believed in the mantra: ‘Those that drink together – win together’. The drinking culture encouraged in some army regiments, however, is mega – compared to anything in Civvy Street.

Binge drinking in army units is usually well hidden and only comes to light after something bad has happened, like the tragic events at the Deepcut training barracks:

“The Army must rein in its heavy drinking ethos and tackle its ‘overly sexualised culture’, the Chief of the General Staff has admitted to MPs. Gen Sir Nick Carter said he would use his time as head of the services to ‘fundamentally change’ Army culture, to ensure parents felt able to entrust their sons and daughters to a career as soldiers.

Sir Nick spoke days after an inquest into the death of Pte Cheryl James at Deepcut barracks criticised the sexual atmosphere and binge drinking at the notorious Surrey base.”

[Telegraph, by Ben Farmer, 14th June 2016].

Binge drinking and beastings, however, are usually condoned because these practices are considered to be helpful in creating bonds between new and veteran soldiers. Beastings are regarded as a part of a recruits probation and are also thought to be ‘character forming’. Officers have been known to have indulged in similar activity towards their men – and within their own ranks:

“Beer glasses were thrown as officers watched the general election on television after a regimental dinner in the mess at Bulford army camp, Wiltshire. The party continued after midnight, fuelled by beer and apple-brandy schnapps. When one result for the Labour Party was declared, Lt X broke a window with his hand. Mess steward Private Richard Downs, aged 19, complained about the damage and Lt X allegedly told him: ‘You are here to serve officers and not to tell us what we can’t do’. He pushed Pte Downs off his chair and punched him as he lay on the floor. Later, with Lt Y, he burst into the room of sleeping Second Lieutenant Richard Breary and asked him to toast the Tory success. He refused, and the pair grabbed him in a headlock and punched him in the face and on the back. He suffered a black eye, blurred vision, a suspected broken nose and a cut lip …”

[Guardian,18th Sept. 1992].

The Pull of Military Life

While the Green Howards were one of the army’s oldest regiments, the Parachute Regiment (Paras) is one of the youngest. As an airborne infantry regiment, they were first raised in 1940 to take part in WW2, serving in North Africa, Italy, the Normandy Landings, France, Holland and Germany. Post WW2 the Paras served in Palestine, Suez, Cyprus, Borneo, Aden, Northern Ireland, the Falklands, Kosovo, the Balkans, Sierra Leone, Iraq and Afghanistan.

The ‘Aden Emergency’ (1963-67) was typical of the conflict situations after WW2 to which British troops were sent on tours-of-duty, during the run-down of empire:

For some of the recruits coming into Britain’s Armed Forces there occurs a lifetime love of military life, with ‘the Regiment’ (or its equivalent) playing an ongoing and dominant part in their life. For others, disillusion will gradually set in, often about aspects of life in the forces – and/or the gulf in truth between what you are required to do and how that is presented, or reported in the media. This is what happened to a Yorkshire miner, who joined the Paras and later described his tour-of-duty in Aden in the 1960s:

“Towards the end of Britain’s corrupt rule in Aden, a colony in the Persian Gulf, I got off the aircraft at RAF Khormaksar. A miner’s son, an ex-miner myself, I had crossed a gulf to become an NCO in one of Britain’s crack units. The previous weeks had been taken up in a propaganda blitz on us, as we were indoctrinated into a racist frame of mind in order to be able to put down a nation of ‘ungrateful wogs’ who were biting the hand that fed them. I am ashamed that the lot of us fell for it. After a week of acclimatisation work, consisting of running up and down jebels (hills) and kicking around the Arab camp employees as practice, we were ready to be turned loose against an unsuspecting population. The form of deployment at that time was six weeks of internal security duties in Aden Town, followed by a 12-week tour upcountry in the Radfan Mountains containing the confederate Arabs. The first thing we were thrown into was the introduction of complete British control, when it was discovered that the people of Aden actually wanted an end to the rule by the State Emirs and a start to democracy. The government was deposed and the rule of force began.

As an NCO I was given a section of men, a landrover for patrol and a 007 licence. Arabs were to be roughed up when searched at roadblocks so they could be shown who was boss. ‘It’s the only method they understand’, we were told. The natives naturally enough resented this and demonstrated. The ‘bloody wogs’ actually had a trade union and started a dock strike. So we now became strike-breakers, protecting the troops and scab Arabs who were drafted in to break the strike. After the people had been starved and threatened and the leaders had been arrested and lodged at Al Mansura, the political prison, the workers reluctantly returned to work. Our unit was praised for the tough no-nonsense stand it had taken. This included the arrest of one of the instigators, who must have been an ‘extremist’ as he was a militant trade union leader. We took him at a reasonable time – about two in the morning – as I kicked the door down and dashed into the hovel to be met with the sight of about 12 people sleeping in a room that measured about 12 feet by 20. Oh, you could see by this luxury that he was financed by ‘Chinese Gold’. After all, he had an orange box for a bedside locker. He actually had the gall to draw himself up to his full height of 5 feet 2 inches and demand to know what right I as a British soldier had to break his door down. However, dragging him downstairs so that his head bounced on every step soon quietened him.

After these heroic deeds we were posted up-country for a rest, which consisted of keeping the Arabs there in line. There were two camps at Dahla. One was the British camp, about a mile from the town on the slopes of Jebel Jihaff, and about 400 yards away was the Arab camp, manned by the Federal Army. There was a permanent curfew from dusk to dawn. After 6pm there was a fireworks display from the machine guns, mortars and cannon in the British camp and the artillery in the Arab camp. This was supposedly to register the bearings for recorded night targets but was more in fact to ‘show the flag’. Quite a number of shots strayed into the town in order to reinforce this. However all this never seemed to deter the ‘terrorists’. In fact most nights, even though we sent out ambush patrols, they usually reminded us that they were still around by firing Swedish rockets and British 84mm mortars at us. The armaments firms recognise both sides when the price is right.

Our tactics was to send sweep patrols up the wadis (valleys) to flush out the ‘terrorists’ during daylight hours. This was not very successful, since most of the population were anti-British. It was on one of these patrols that the truth of what we were doing started to come through. We had marched through the night to occupy a high Jebel ready for a sweep the next morning. As we were a small party of around six men, being unobserved was the main task. Just before daylight we turned a corner and came face to face with an early rising local Arab camel dealer out to check his herd. We grabbed him and then debated what to do with him. I was the most adamant of the party, wanting to cut his throat. My men agreed with me and I volunteered to do it. The one voice against, fortunately, was a young officer, just out from Britain who was along for the ride. But new or not, he had a pip on his shoulder that made him superior to me. The lucky camel dealer had a day’s outing with the British Raj instead.

Back at base with the pressure off me, I started to think about the incident. I, an ex-miner, the son of a miner, had actually had a knife out and was going to cut an innocent man’s throat just because he had seen us. I had shot men in ambush, but this was different. I was becoming as corrupt as the fat Emir we were keeping in power. Just around the corner the artillery were firing white phosphorus shells. In normal circumstances these are used to provide smoke for cover, but phosphorus burns when exposed to air and when any gets onto human flesh it continues to burn unless the flesh is kept under running water. These shells were fired as an airburst so that it descended like rain on anybody below. And there is not much water in a desert.

Back in Aden itself things were hotting up and the dirty tricks department were in the thick of it. Although the Al Mansura district was sewn up tight, one night a bomb exploded at the house of a local political leader who was against the British troops. His wife, son and three local policemen were killed in the blast. The only vehicle reported to being in the area that night by the soldiers was a Landrover carrying men from the SAS and the Army Special Branch. A few nights later, when four Arabs were spotted carrying weapons, a gun battle lasting 15 minutes occurred – until a message came over the radio to cease firing as they were friendly troops. When the smoke cleared it was discovered that they were SAS men dressed as Arabs.

I wasn’t sorry to leave Aden as my attitude was coming to question with the ruling caste of the Army. Nor was I alone, for when the BBC came around and asked the soldiers, ‘If you were killed while serving in Aden what would you have died for?’, only the few bucking for promotion said, ‘We were protecting the locals from terrorists’. The great majority had a simple but honest answer: ‘£10 a week’.”

[British Soldiers Speak Out on Ireland, IOI, 1978].

A repeat of these experience, but in different times and places, is what lies in store for most of those recruits who have just survived and passed their Basic Training. After which, they are then posted to their regiments and in their heads a growing disconnect will have occurred between the civilian values they had arrived with – and the military mind-set that has now been inserted. This will be deepened further after they join ‘the Regiment’ to continue with their military career and they begin to experience tours-of-duty in current conflicts themselves.

The Regimental System, Conflicts & Getting Out

If you look at the history of the Green Howards you will see that the unit was formed four centuries ago to take part in a dispute internal to political events in England. After successfully supporting King William and his ‘Glorious Revolution’, however, almost continuously ever after the regiment was used in disputes and wars in other people’s countries. These were often occurring in circumstances that the soldiers did not fully understand, with the engagements often being inaugurated to help rich men get richer.

In these conflicts the military system takes over, despite what the population back home are told about the operations of their troops. Julian Assange and WikiLeaks exposed the way the excesses of the US military machine are carried out in far off wars. In Afghanistan and Iraq, they showed the way modern helicopter gunships operate against civilians, including the killing of two journalists and other non-combatants in Baghdad:

Inside todays British Armed Forces there will always be a few of the officers, NCOs and the rank-and-file who will begin to have doubts about their military system and its mores and the conflicts they have been thrust into. They might start to question what they are ordered to do, or sometimes rail against the excesses. Some began to consider if they still want to do the job and look for ways to leave the services, either by buying themselves out, going absent without leave (AWOL), or applying for conscientious-objector status. 

Service personnel who desert, are liable to be caught and punished with a sentence in a military prison. Getting out legally usually proves to be problematic, as the services does not readily want to lose experienced regulars. Obtaining a discharge, especially on conscientious grounds, is a long and hard process, even for an officer, as Captain Mike Biggs discovered:

“There is a means whereby you can get out of the army on grounds of conscience, but the army doesn’t go parading that around. They never told me I could get out on grounds of conscience, even though I was asking to go out because of Northern Ireland and because of my values. It was only by going to an external source that I found out that the army had a means whereby conscientious objectors could go out. I was charged for refusing to do my work on grounds of conscience. They delayed a decision on my case. They employed all the normal psychological things that they do employ when someone tries to go out on grounds of conscience. Obviously, it’s not very good publicity for a soldier or officer to go out on grounds of conscience. Far better if he buys himself out, or he goes out because he goes AWOL, or deserts.”

[BRM Radio, Birmingham, 9th Aug. 1979].

The rank-and-file could expect an even harder time, so many just gritted their teeth and soldiered on. There was often a large increase in charges for petty offences, however, before and after a tour-of-duty in Northern Ireland. As ex-Royal Marine Chris Byrne, who was sent to a military prison for being AWOL, said:

“After Northern Ireland I was beginning to develop pacifist and anti-military views and my tour in Cyprus when I saw that we were not there to protect human lives but only British military interests and NATO missiles trained on Russia strengthened this. I finally decided I had to get out. I went home to London without leave to think things out and when I was picked up and charged with being AWOL I was slung in jail and court-martialled for desertion. I spent three and a half months in Colchester prison and it was an interesting experience looking back on it. The type of people I met in Colchester were, much to my surprise, mostly people who were not in fact criminals. The reasons why they were in Colchester were things that in civilian terms were not criminal offences; absences, refusing to obey certain orders and things like that. One of the surprising things was the amount of people actually in Colchester for desertions and absences and the way the prison population had increased over the period that the British Army had been in Northern Ireland. I concluded from that that sending soldiers continually back to Northern Ireland has obviously some effect on this and I think that a lot of dissatisfaction with service in Northern Ireland is manifested by drunkenness, petty offences, absences and desertions and things like that and I think this is one of the reasons the prison population went up.”

[British Soldiers Speak Out on Ireland, IOI, 1978]. 

Lance Corporal Kevin Cadwallader also went AWOL rather than face another tour-of-duty in Northern Ireland. After deserting to Sweden, he said:

“I came to Sweden for asylum because of Northern Ireland. I do not think that what is happening there is very good. As I see it, there must be a simpler way of ending the fight without more people being killed. So, I have left rather than fight in something I think is wrong.”

[Peace News, 8th June 1973].

Other soldiers who had fled from the army went AWOL in Britain. Like Terry, a deserter from the Royal Artillery in the early 1970s, who was interviewed by ‘Time Out’ magazine, while he was on the run:

“At 15 it seemed to appeal to me – it seemed to offer more and regular pocket-money and when I re-joined for a further six years I was still hung up on money and I hadn’t given any serious thought to whether the army was the right place for me … In the army I was trained to kill and to cope with riots. About 8 or 9 weeks into your training you’re shown human targets on the rifle range and you’re told to shoot for the centre of the target to achieve maximum damage. You’re not taught to injure someone so they can’t escape arrest – you’re just taught to kill … Any non-essential violence I disagree with completely and I call the army’s violence in Ireland non-essential … Since I deserted I’ve been worried and depressed because the army gets you into their routine, so you don’t have to think for yourself. I’m used to walking into the mess hall, for example, getting a meal, eating it and leaving the plates and cutlery for someone else to wash. The army tells you to stop thinking for yourself. They don’t like people thinking for themselves – that’s why they lay everything on for you. The only thing a soldier does for himself is once a month wash his civvies at the launderette. I want to say the best of British luck to any army deserter who may read this. Second, to those people thinking of joining – don’t do it. My message to anyone already a soldier is that I am a lot happier out of it.”

[Time Out, 7th -13th April 1972].

 Postscript: Help Make the UK a Neutral Country

Veterans For Peace UK is a voluntary and politically independent ex-services organisation of men and women who have served in conflicts from WW2 through to Afghanistan. As a result of our collective experiences we firmly believe that: ‘War is not the solution to the problems we face in the 21st century’.

We are not a pacifist organisation, however, as we accept the inherent right of self-defence in response to an armed attack. So, VFP works to influence the foreign and defence policy of the UK, for the larger purpose of world peace. We are working to restrain our government from intervening, overtly and covertly, in the internal affairs of other nations. In order to achieve this goal, we are seeking support, across the political spectrum, for the UK to become a permanently neutral country.

In this video you can see some VFP members and hear their voices:


Information compiled and written by VFP member, Aly Renwick, who joined-up aged 16 and served for 8 years in the British Army from 1960-8. His books are available from the VFP Shop:

See VFP founder, Ben Griffin, on the making of a British Soldier:

The film ‘Home Soldier Home’ (1978, 40 mins 16mm) is a film in which ex-soldiers speak about their experiences of the policing of the North of Ireland, in British colonies and back in Britain, intercut with extensive footage of the army in action in Belfast, Aden, Kenya and Aden. It argues the case that the ‘professional’ military is open to right wing political manipulation:

The film ‘War School’ reveals the ways in which the British government and armed forces are using a series of coherent and targeted strategies to promote military values to the British public and entice its children into joining the forces. See the trailer:

The Story Behind the famous murals of Belfast – Amazing Murals & History in Belfast by Bill Rolston: ‘Northern Ireland’s streetscape has long been coloured by the Troubles and no more so than by its distinctive murals, the first of which was painted in Belfast in 1908’:  

BLACK WATCH by Gregory Burke (154 mins). A BBC TV production of the National Theatre of Scotland’s performance of this play, which was based on interviews conducted with veterans who served in Iraq. This is probably the nearest any civvy audience in the UK will get to the reality, including the tribal machinations of the soldiers, of a famous British Army regiment in a far-off war:

WikiLeaks – public enemy Julian Assange | DW Documentary, is about Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, who were subjected to harassment, threats and intimidation for exposing the reality of US military operations:

1 Comment

  1. Neil Kelly says:

    Great article – very interesting, although I’m sure a lot of this rings very familiar bells with VfP members.
    I remember, around the time just before I joined up in 1975 or 76, there was a double page recruitment ad in the centrefold of my mum’s Daily Telegraph. It showed a picture of a pair of army boots with the caption, “These boots won’t make you tougher, or stronger, or more resourceful, or more attractive to women……. But the life that goes with them will!”

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