Saturday, February 2, 2019

Vestigia militaria

I just finished Andrew Gordon's 1997 The Rules of the Game.

It's a fun read, and does a good job of taking a deep dive into the command culture of the Royal Navy that had such a big effect on the actions of 31 MAY 1916. For what it's worth, Gordon is a "Beatty man" as opposed to Robert Massie, whose Castles of Steel made researching the Scarboro Raid (and the career of HMS Warspite) so entertaining.

Gordon's main point is that the long peace after Waterloo created a culture of rigidity within the RN that was wrapped up in the idea that the fleet actions were supposed to be centrally directed by the admiral in command through strict adherence to maneuvers effected by signals.

That knowing the minutia of the Signal Book became a substitute for understanding what a modern U.S. officer would call the "Commander's Intent". Gordon details actions at Jutland - in particular the Fifth Battle Squadron and its commander, RADM Hugh Evan-Thomas - that demonstrated that this lack of understanding resulted in a lack of initiative, and intelligent actions or reactions to German maneuvers, that cost the RN ships and lives.
I won't go further into Gordon's work except that it's definitely worth a read (as is Massie's, and his earlier volume, Dreadnought, as well).

Here's the utterly different thing, though, that generated this post.

An Army pal of mine recently sent me a link to something about the 3rd U.S. Infantry. Y'know, the guys who do the whole "guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier" and put on the military shows at Arlington and elsewhere? And I'll be the first to admit that as an old NCO and drill sergeant I'm always impressed with the 3USI's showmanship at square-bashing, and how pretty their sliding manual-of-arms looks. It's a sergeant thing, sorry, and there's no real excuse or explanation for it; it's the military version of being a "furry".
But as I was watching the video
(and I have to say that the Army blue overcoat sure is purty. I got in just as the Army 86ed the khaki summer-weight Class A uniform, the last really sharp-looking formal dress we had. After that it was all the hideous AG44/344 polyester abomination and the dreaded "black sack" overcoat that made you look like a Baloney Joe's wino shuffling down to the dumpster for a snack...)
I couldn't help thinking what a beautiful utterly useless military skill all this drill and ceremony is.

Short of falling in and marching from one place to another...what's the point? It's a sort of armed tea ceremony; gorgeous, yes, but completely for show and dressup. For the working day you suck down your tea from a travel mug and move out smartly.

And that's what led me back to Gordon and Jutland.

Because in 1916 the notion of "shiphandling" - whether individual captains and their crew, or flag officers directing squadrons - was literally a matter of life and death. Gordon points out the horrific nightmare of the Fifth Battle Squadron's turn "in succession" under German gunfire that put every ship at exactly the same location as it went through a slow 180-degree roundabout, giving the fire direction officers of the Hochseeflotte the equivalent of a free header.

They knew exactly where to put their projos minutes before the British battleship arrived. It's a tribute to luck and the sturdy construction of the Queen Elizabeth-class that none of the Brits ended up as a crap-ton of their battlecruisers did, as homes for North Sea groundfish and hazards for trawl-nets.

But now?

Aircraft and missiles have made the possibility of a mass fleet daylight gun action utterly impossible.

Individual ship captains and their bridge staff still need to be good at shiphandling. And flag officers still need to know how to arrange and move their squadrons. But that sort of "line-ahead-to-line-abreast" dance? It seems to be as utterly archaic and vestigial a skill as the ability to file from the left or move from column to line does for a modern infantryman.
No higher purpose here, just the rumination that time and tide changes things that we think of as immutable.

Had you told an infantryman of 1850, or a naval officer of 1916, that the skills that were essential to their profession would be as dead as the dodo in a century they'd have thought you were nuts.

But they were, and here we are.


  1. Really interesting.

    One of the great things about Nelson was his ability to develop commanders that knew his intent and could act with initiative. Actually that's a mark of all great commanders.

    Not sure if you've seen it, but the recent report about the US Navy's spate of collisions is pretty sobering. If the Navy is having systemic issues with ship-handling 101, you have to wonder what other skills have atrophied.

    As for the ceremonial functions, I'm not sure how it works now or in the Army, but in the Navy the people in ceremonial units were recruited in boot-camp. They'd do a tour with an honor guard somewhere and then get sent out to the fleet. Some would eventually go back as NCO's and SNCO's to lead those ceremonial units as a shore tour before, again, heading back out to the fleet.

    Another thing that always stuck in my craw is all the bands. In Air Force social media circles a few years ago there was a huge hub-bub about it and I think some bands were cut after it was revealed they were higher up on the airlift priority list than any reasonable-thinking person would expect.

    1. Andy -

      Like the Navy's ceremonial units, the Marines do something similar. Although I am not sure they are recruited out of boot camp. But there is a certain small subset of us jarheads that the rest of us term as "Hollywood Marines".

      They usually do a tour with '8th & I' at Marine Barracks in DC across from the Washington Navy Yard. Kind of like FDChief's 3rd Infantry doing ceremonial functions in and around the DC area, plus security at Camp David and other designated locations. They all are typically six foot one inch, slim, with rugged but handsome faces. Then they go to the FMF with their short, ugly, raggedy-assed brothers like me. But even in the FMF they get steered toward jobs where they end up in funeral details, honor guards, or show-and-tells with the public.

      As senior NCOs many of them go on to Recruiting Duty or other duties that interact with the public.

  2. In Canada, we don't have a lot of purely ceremonial stuff. We do have the GGFG's Ceremonial Guard complete with bearskins on Parliament hill, which is mostly a reserve unit and makes a great summer job for interested college kids. The Air Force also has the Snowbirds flying team.

    However, as to drill, my RSM always said "The purpose of drill is to establish in the individual solder that sense of instinctive obedience which will allow him to perform his duty at all times."

    Dunno if it actually works.

    1. That’s our line in drill sergeant school, what we tell joe and molly. We know it’s bullshit, but they don’t know enough to argue.

      The reality is that, beyond the basics, it’s really just a military kink. It’s our version of a foot fetish, or a furry; it just some weird thing we like because it looks cool, or it gives us a geeky kind of special.

      Frankly, I think we’d be better off if we took the two weeks in BCT we spend square-bashing and take one day; teach ‘em how to salute and the rest positions at the halt, sling and inspection arms, and how to move in tactical formation - that is, 10 meters apart on either side of the road. There’s no reason for a combat troop to prance around in close order.

      That’ll happen when you see a donkey sailing majestically overhead...

  3. Gordon discusses Nelson’s “band of brothers” style extensively, in particular noting that the widespread use of signals was a substitute for the conviviality of Nelson’s table, and that it was accepted because the process of rowing to the flagship was such a PITA.

    Another of the points he makes is that in the 1890s there was a group of rebels against all this signaling led by George Tryon, and that the 1893 collision of HMS Victoria with HMS Camperdown that was caused by Tryon’s orders was used to discredit Tryon’s “TA” initiative-centered ideas.

    I recall that the blogger “John Q Public” constantly ranted about some sort of USAF show group that he characterized as this appalling waste of resources that the regular joes and mollies thought ridiculous but that the AF brass just luuuurved. Dunno whatever happened w that, but, yeah. The fact that some joes were on their fifth Middle East deployment while there are people at the Oregon Guard STARC who have NEVER deployed should have been more of a scandal than it was...

  4. 1] Agree about ceremony.

    2] But not on drill. Call me old school, or old brokedik, but I have to agree with AEL's RSM. To misquote Gordon Gekko: 'Drill is good!" And that goes for ships, planes, & tanks as well as individuals in a platoon. I hated it when I had to do it and called it chickenshit. But even then I understood the need for it.

    3] What is a 'furry'?

    4] Nelson's victories depended on much more than his commanders knowing of his intent and acting with initiative. They were critical yes. But gun drill, seamanship, damage control, and discipline in the RN at the time was superior to anything the other side had.

    5] Most bandsmen in infantry divisions that I am aware of used to have a secondary duty as infantrymen. Typically though their duty was providing security for the command post or for convoys, or special duty teams, or VIPs. May not be true nowadays?

    1. In the Air Force "Musician" is an MOS/Career field - ie. a full-time military job.

    2. During the Gulf war, the 1st Mar Div's Band were press-ganged into the Division's security force, as an adjunct methinks. Their SNCOIC was the Rifle Range firing line honcho, and a very good one at that.

    3. Eddie -

      You have to wonder how a musician would not go tone deaf after spending months and years of time on a rifle range.

    4. > 3] What is a 'furry'?

      I'm gonna suggest going into incognito mode before typing a google search. People have weird kinks and that is a particularly "interesting" community.

  5. Thing is, there’s better, and more useful ways to instill prompt obedience to orders than drill. Tactical or battle drills, or crew drills and exercises serve much the same purpose while teaching genuinely useful combat skills. Relearning 18th Century close order drill? Not so much.

    My thoughts are that every military organization that wants one should have one of these pretty toy soldier units. They’re fun to watch, good for PR, and a living link to the past. But I don’t see the value in devoting the level of time and effort into them that we do now...

  6. In order;

    People who get their kicks from dressing up in funny animal costumes. It’s...deeply odd.

    No question that technical competence was critical. The question of putting that skill where it could be decisive, tho? That was what was lost between 1805 and 1916.

    The only outfit I served in that had a full-time band was the 82nd, and the band pulled security for Division HHC in the field. Dunno about anywhere else.

  7. Oh, that rifle drill isn't useless.

    The German government had finally decided in the 1950's to pay the Askari (East African soldiers employed by Germany up to 1918 or 1919) their overdue salaries.
    It sent a bureaucrat to do this, and he publicly invited the Askaris to come. Many appeared, but there were no useful papers. He decided to demand that they present the German rifle drill to him. All of them did it after about 35 years, and all of them were paid. Their NCOs sure had drilled that drill into their brains - and in the end it wasn't useless.

  8. I am NOT suggesting we return to the system of Inspecteur Général Jean Martinet. Nor am I advocating for the precision close order drill used in ceremonies - what we used to call "flower shows". However I do believe that some basic close order drill provides a psychological foundation for teamwork. Turning me-me-me prima-donna recruits into team players. Drill compensates for a tendency in battle to degenerate into an undisciplined melee or indivdual dueling. Without that foundation all your tactical or battle drills, or crew drills and exercises are impossible. Plus it is too late in the game to instill prompt obedience during exercises or battle drills.

    Animal costumes? I need to get out more.

    1st Mar Div band took their turn manning the barbed wire in Viet-Nam. Some called them rear-echelon-pogues, but IIRC at least three were KIA. Maybe more? And I understand that during 2004 bandsmen provided security detail for EOD teams in Fallujah.

    1. My issue with all this D&C is that it takes up a crap-ton of time in what is a limited amount of training time to begin with. Roughly two to three weeks of the ten-week BCT POI are dominated by instruction in close-order drill. That, and the importance of drillfield smartness runs through the whole POI.

      What I'd like to see is more emphasis on tactical commonsense and less on square-bashing, and I say that as someone who taught all that square-bashing (and I was a good teacher; my platoons regularly won the D&C competitions typically run near the end of the BCT cycle).

      Yes, the joes and mollies need to know how to fall in and march from place to place. They need to know how to perform the basics of the manual of arms (tho IMO there's no real need to know more than order arms, present arms, inspection arms, and sling arms. If the platoons want to do fancy sixteen-count-manual-of-arms stuff they can learn that on their own time after training hours.

      But we teach them a crap-ton of fancy marching and close-order tricks that could be better spent learning actual 21st Century military skills. Hey, I love tradition, too...but when you have a necessarily-limited time and budget I'd suggest concentrating on things of actual value.

    2. I'm not talking about tradition. And I love 21st Century military skills also. We definitely need to spend more time on that. But when you have that limited time and budget in boot camp, I'd suggest concentrating upfront on the ABCs instead of sentence structure and essay composition.

    3. But these aren't really "ABCs". They're more like teaching Joe Middle English. Nice to know, no longer really relevant.

    4. That needn't worry. There's no more likelihood that the U.S. or any other army will stop teaching their intake square-bashing. It's baked into the pie.

      The thing about that, though, is that you'd be horrified to learn how the instructors teach these things. The official drill sergeant school POI is centered around something called "formats", which are rote blocks of instruction that the prospective hat must memorize and recite perfectly to pass. Every drill movement, every formation has a format, and they simply have to be memorized and parroted. As much as the whole 18th Century uselessness of all that close-order drill it was realizing that the central core of the training of the people who TRAIN the trainees is based not on any sort of intelligent understanding or thinking but simply blank-faced rote memorization that made and makes me question that value...

    5. I also question the value of rote memorization. But ABCs are NOT irrelevant arcana. We will just have to agree to disagree on that. Hell, even the so-called Mongol hordes used drill for their revolutionary form of war. Their highly disciplined cavalry formations did a lot of square bashing and could turn on a dime.

    6. But even the Mongols fought in relatively close - yes, more open than a lot of the European and Middle Eastern and Indian armies they beat - formation, and required a tactical drill to deliver their bowfire effectively.

      I'm not sure how that translates into standing an arms length apart and practicing right-shoulder-arms.

    7. In any case, I added Gordon's book that you recommended to Eminent Readables. And regretfully downgraded the poor old 'Drillmaster of Valley Forge'.

    8. Wait, whut? Drill instruction in the USA is memorised? In Canada, the lessons were hand crafted. I could tell that because of the lovingly prepared insults and tuned followup lessons based on whatever mess we made of the previous lesson.

    9. Ael -

      Ditto here. I believe FDChief was speaking of Army Drill Instructor School. Although I am not sure what the "format" is that he said required memorization. DI school at Parris Island mainly emphasizes command voice & cadence development, recruit safety, and physical conditioning. The only rote memorization was the same ditties they needed to get the recruits to memorize. For example: safety rules and conditions on the rifle range, general orders, lifesaving steps, characteristics of the service rifle, etc. Stuff that should have been committed to memory years previously. At least it was that way. Now, who knows?

  9. Sven -

    Many of German East Africa Askaris may have learned the manual of arms on Enfields which they captured from the Brits by the thousands. Fought and beat not only the King's African Rifles but also Belgian and Portuguese troops. I have an old copy somewhere of Edwin Hoyt’s book on von Lettow-Vorbeck and his Schutstruppe. But would like to get a copy of Lettow-Vorbeck’s original memoirs.

    1. It was a very "Long March"-style campaign with some partisan activity elements after the amphibious landing battle.
      The original book was published in 1920 ASIN: B004IS1ZVI

      You should be able to get some English book on the campaign through interlibrary lending.

  10. With all my bitching and griping about drill and military bands I neglected the bigger point. The premise in Andrew Gordon’s book and Andy’s comment are correct. Initiative by a local commander during battle should not be overridden by some distant and out-of-touch flag officer - or by the White House or the Puzzle Palace. We witnessed that in Viet-Nam where initiative by commanders on the ground was deliberately neutered. McNamara, like RADM Hugh Evan-Thomas in Gordon’s book, thought he knew best. Ditto for Westmoreland. In reality it was just the reverse, they knew little if anything of the situation. Both DoD and MACV were too far back from the fight to understand what was going on. They observed the war on two dimensional maps and apparently never understood the critical aspect of steep karst topography or of dense vegetation whether it was triple canopy or fields of eight-foot high elephant grass.

    The same fractured principle filtered lower when division and regimental commanders dictated movements of individual platoons.

    Both Gordon and Andy have the right idea IMHO. The real 'vestigia militaria' should be the kind of rigidity that leads to a 'lack of initiative'.

    1. I starting to see initiative under attack in my last few years in the AF reserve. It started with admin stuff - proscribing, in the worst bureaucratic way, so much crap and then piling more crap on. Fortunately, most of that went away when downrange (but preparing to deploy - holy shit there are pages and pages of boxes to check), but the creeping bureaucracy and mandates from HHQ were a constant problem at home station. Particularly for a reserve unit where a traditional reservist only has 38 days of duty time. When I left, 2-3 of those days were devoted to things like sexual harassment, bystander intervention and other types of social awareness training of dubious effectiveness. Compliance is tracked in an online system, so HHQ can track a unit's compliance in near-real time. This, quite obviously, perverted the incentives for commanders and shit always runs downhill.

      Christ, thinking about it again reminds me how glad I am that I'm retired.

  11. One of the most fascinating bits of the Gordon work is his extensive discussion of a now-forgotten incident, the 1893 collision of HMS Victoria and HMS Camperdown during an otherwise unremarkable Mediterranean Fleet exercise that resulted in the sinking of the former.

    The reasons this was of historical importance was that Victoria was the flagship of VADM George Tryon, commander of the Mediterranean Fleet. At the time Tryon was the most influential of a group of senior RN officers who were trying to convince their peers that the sort of top-down, signals-heavy, follow-the-leader battle management that the RN had adopted was unworkable in actual combat. Tryon had circulated several letters and issued battle instructions to the Mediterranean Fleet that centered around what he called the "TA" system, from the single flag hoist - the letters T and A - that meant that the individual captains were supposed to 1) generally conform to the flagship's actions without signals, and 2) act independently without orders to put their ship in the best position to endanger the enemy.

    As you can imagine, this was enough to generate a storm of criticism from the sort of officer that Gordon terms "authoritarian" (in which category, BTW, he includes Jellicoe, the OC at Jutland...) who stated that this was simply an invitation to chaos and defeat in detail. Tryon and his supporters insisted that the basis of this was a prior-to-opening-fire meeting of minds on the Nelsonian model of the captains and their executive staffs that would allow the fleet to maneuver effectively whilst still supporting one another. It also referenced mike's point about the superior technical skills of the RN; that this flexibility would allow the fleet as a group to bring it's individual and crew skills to bear quickly and at the decisive point.

    But the collision slammed the door on this potential reform, because it was the result of a bizarre mistake on Tryon's part. He was, oddly for an officer who wanted more initiative from his subordinates, a gruff and difficult-to-approach sort of guy. The maneuver he ordered (it's well detailed here: was clearly dangerously impossible. But his reputation as an unapproachable genius meant that none of the subordinates questioned the order or refused to execute it, and as a result half the crew of Victoria, including Tryon, went down with the battleship.

    The "why" of the thing has never been satisfactorily explained. The problem was pretty obvious; the two lines of ships were closer together than the turning radius of the ships themselves, so the maneuver would inevitably result in, at least, the danger of collision. Did Tryon simply forget that? Was he in the throes of some early-stage dementia (some letters he had written not long earlier suggest that he might have been, tho apparently he was a notoriously incoherent letter-writer...)?

    The court of inquiry whitewashed everyone, but the big picture result was the shutdown of the reform movement and the continued reign of the "authoritarians" that resulted in several of the missed opportunities as Heligoland Bight, Dogger Bank, and Jutland.

    1. Per Wikipedia, Jellicoe was aboard the Victoria and survived the sinking. He was a young O-5 Commander at the time. Perhaps that is why he was so engrossed in tight top-down control. It seems though he repeated Tryon's mistake at Jutland where at times he had no idea where the German ships were, even though British ships were in contact.

      I have to wonder though whether the fault lay elsewhere than with Tryon. The Victoria's Captain had a year earlier run her aground. He was absolved of all blame during the court martial. But then he was the son of an Earl and was dating Queen Victoria's granddaughter. Was there any undue royal influence on the officers of the court? And I'm sure it was easier to blame it all on the dead guy.

      But Tryon rightfully deserves blame. The buck has to stop somewhere.

    2. Supposedly the maneuver was Tryon's own idea, and Gordon details how several of his staff had questions but shied away from confronting him directly. RADM Markham was aboard Camperdown and delayed answering the signal ordering the execution of the maneuver until Tryon send a followup signal giving him shit about the delay.

      Supposedly a lot of the officers involved assumed the Tryon was up to something and would give an order changing course...or the last moment.

      Bourke (the captain of Victoria was certainly culpable; Tryon's own instructions as well as Admiralty regs put the burden on a ship's captain to put the safety of his ship first (in peacetime). Even after the collision became obvious from the ships' courses he refused to reverse his engines until Tryon gave him permission.

      The court was a deliberate whitewash, so it's no shock they gave Bourke a pass. Hell, they failed to indict Tryon for the error, either. Ironically, Markham got the blame, and his career was pretty much shot after that. It should have been, mind. He should never have let it happen.

      But the culture of unquestioning obedience had sunk too deep.

  12. I read the Navy Times writeup of the most recent collision off Sasebo (IIRC...) that painted a pretty grim picture. Overtasked, undertrained bridge crew, a CO and XO who appeared either incompetent, indifferent, or both...damning of the chain of command all the way up to the Fleet CINC. Scary, if you were just a regular swab counting on your captain to bring you back sound.

  13. The TRADOC Drill Sergeant POI (and the Army version is a “drill sergeant” as distinct from a USMC “drill instructor”, as the DI will quickly and indignantly remind you!) based all the initial, formal instruction for the drill and ceremony and physical training on a set of rote presentations (“formats”) that - to get your hat - had to be delivered verbatim, word-for-memorized-word. The goal was to make every drill sergeant a carbon copy of every other and every joe get latter-identical instruction on how to perform “port arms” or do the sidestraddle hop (jumping jacks for you non-GIs...).

    Once the initial robot class was delivered the DS had room to actually teach, but the initial block of instruction had to be straight out of FM 22-5, word for word.

    The thing the Army doesn’t talk much about is that after the initial three or four weeks the drill sergeants don’t do much actual training. Specialized “committee groups” teach the technical stuff; marksmanship, commo, first aid...for a big chunk of the middle of the BCT POI the hats wake joe up, deliver him to the committee group, then collect him after class to feed him and tuck him in...