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Territorial Army

Volume 474: debated on Tuesday 1 April 2008

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Michael Foster.]

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the formation of the Territorial Army—an organisation in which many hon. Members have been proud to serve over the years. It is therefore a fitting time and place to pay tribute, and give thanks for their dedication and service, to all those men and women who have served as members of the Territorial Army in the past 100 years.

The modern Territorial Army was formed on 1 April 1908, thanks mainly to the efforts of the then Secretary of State for War, Richard Burton Haldane. He ultimately combined for the first time militia and volunteers—both reserve forces, but organisations with different characters and traditions. However, the origins of today’s TA stretch back long before 1908 and there remains an essential continuity, which links today’s Territorials with those of the past. As both a Member of Parliament and a member of the TA, I need look no further than the plaques in the Chamber to be reminded of the ultimate sacrifice that my predecessors made. However, what links generations of Territorials more than anything else is the concept of being volunteer—a role that is part hobby, part job, but crucially a mindset of public service and being prepared to serve Queen and country.

We are celebrating the achievements of those men and women—those volunteers—today, but we must also learn the lessons of the past. Looking back at the challenges that faced Haldane in 1908 when the modern TA was formed, the parallels with today, when yet again we find our reserve forces subject to review, are striking. Today, it is easy to forget that, as an island nation, historically our biggest fear has always been invasion. Although there is still great debate about the origins of the first auxiliary forces, many point to the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, where all able-bodied freemen built fortifications, repaired bridges and undertook military service in the fyrd—the old English word for “army.” The principle of freemen bearing arms in defence of the community was enshrined in successive mediaeval statutes, followed by the first so-called militia statutes in 1558.

Will my hon. Friend pay tribute to the mother and father of all Territorial Army regiments, the Honourable Artillery Company—whose commanding officer, Major-General Simon Lalor, is, I am delighted to say, now the commander of all Territorial reserve forces—as the inheritor of all that the middle ages did for our Territorial services?

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Of course, I pay tribute to the Honourable Artillery Company, although I would debate with him whether it is the senior regiment. I shall deal with that shortly. Indeed, there is much debate in the TA about the oldest regiment.

The militia was always an institution of state and implied a distinct element of compulsion for at least a section of society. Indeed, Professor Richard Holmes describes the militia as

“a draft finding body for the Regular army, its ranks filled by men without serious employment”.

With the creation of the new militia after 1757, militia service was, in effect, a tax on manpower, with each county raising a quota of men, found by compulsory ballot on the basis of its total male population. If balloted, a man would serve for three years on average and undertake several days’ training each year. Apart from the ballot and lack of “volunteering”, the similarities with today’s TA are obvious. Indeed, while strictly volunteers, the Royal Monmouthshire Royal Engineers (Militia), currently commanded by Lt Colonel Alistair Cooper, remains the senior unit in the modern Territorial Army.

During times of war, the militia was used for permanent service, as happened during the American war of independence, and the Napoleonic and Crimean wars—a practice that continues today and is made somewhat easier following the Reserve Forces Act 1996. Let us consider, for example, 100 Field Squadron from the Royal Monmouthshire Royal Engineers (Militia), which mobilised during the second Gulf war, or, indeed, the three formed units currently on active service in Afghanistan and Iraq. That history of “mobilising” formed units of men in times of national crisis has formed much of the reserve force ethos—the concept of training and fighting together that runs deep through any regular or TA soldier’s psyche.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way in his excellent speech. He mentioned the three formed units in Afghanistan. Does he agree that, although we all welcome the reserve forces study that is being conducted and has excellent terms of reference, there is a concern about the one document that came out separately, which said that almost all Territorials who have been called up recently were individual augmentees? Formed units are important in the thinking of those who join the Territorial Army.

My hon. Friend make a valuable point, which is also why so many in the TA are concerned about the increasing trend towards the mobilisation of individuals to fill gaps in Regular units. Although there is a general acceptance that individual replacements will always be required to support the Regular Army, equally there is unease at the prospect of an end to the mobilisation of formed units, to which my hon. Friend rightly referred, leaving the TA as little more than a militia. I hope that the Minister will bear that point in mind when he ponders the results of the review, which are due later this year.

True volunteer forces, as opposed to militia, first appeared in the 1650s. They continued to be raised at times of great emergency, being composed mainly of volunteer infantry and mounted volunteer units known as the yeomanry. Those forces attracted men with a stake in society, prepared to do their bit in a national emergency but less eager to imperil careers unless they were sure that such an emergency existed. It is perhaps those volunteers who have the strongest direct link to the ethos of the modern TA, not only in spirit, but in practice.

Let us take E Company, 7th Battalion the Rifles, formerly the Rifle Volunteers, which is based in my constituency and that of my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne), who continues to hold a commission in the Royal Mercian and Lancastrian Yeomanry. I continue to feel that the TA is a broad church, containing both those who are happy to volunteer for the odd operational tour and those who are content to accept mobilisation when necessary, but feel that the Regular Army should be able to cope with its day-to-day demands without them. As Professor Holmes rightly says in his introduction to “Territorials”, the book by Ian Beckett published today as part of the 100th anniversary celebrations:

“If we fail to offer the young and the bold the chance of operational service they will lose interest and, at the same time, the TA cannot justify its cost if it does not make a practical contribution to an over stretched army”.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the TA provides important intangible benefits by acting as a bridge between the armed services and the civilian population, which has very little knowledge of the armed services, and by adding vital skills to many employers up and down our country?

My hon. Friend makes an incredibly valid point, which I intend to discuss shortly.

Those older, longer-serving members of units are the elements that give the TA its strongest links with civil society. Although I have met nobody who has suggested that a soldier who is not prepared to be mobilised should stay in the TA, it would be equally wrong to regard the TA simply as a ready reserve of individual replacements. To do so would be a return to the militia tradition and—in the opinion of many, including me—a grave mistake.

The TA has a powerful role to play, with its link to civil society. The greatest challenge posed to the Army at the beginning of this century is not military defeat, but being fundamentally misunderstood by the society upon whose support it ultimately relies. That is precisely why it is essential that, as fewer and fewer members of society have any military connection, the geographical footprint of the TA be maintained.

Is my hon. Friend delighted that Mr. Speaker himself is here for this debate, recognising the role of the Scottish TA? “Recognising the Opportunity”, the useful report by the all-party reserve forces group, spells out—Richard Holmes himself says this—that the Territorial Army is a reserve for use, not simply for show.

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point and he is absolutely right.

Unlike today, at the turn of the 19th century it was military failure—in the South African war—that provided the catalyst for the reforms that led to the creation of the territorial force that we know today. At the time Britain’s was the most powerful empire in the world and there was little expectation that the potential reserve of military experience represented by the militia, yeomanry and volunteers would be called upon. However, after three successive defeats in the “black week” of December 1899, many were called upon. The eventual British defeat by the Boers in 1902 was blamed in part on the poor quality of reserve forces thrown into battle, ill equipped and under-trained. That simply underlined the desperate need for a review not only of the Regular Army, but of the organisation and training standards of the reserves.

The subsequent royal commission, which was set up to review the minimum standards of efficiency required of militia and volunteers, met considerable resistance, not least from Opposition MPs who were also volunteers. However, in 1906 a new Government took office and Haldane was appointed Secretary of State for War. Driven by a desire to make Britain ready for the continental war that many foresaw, regulars and auxiliaries alike were reshaped to produce an expeditionary force that could be sustained in the field. I fear that history is repeating itself, as behind it all remained the Treasury demand for greater military economy and the placing of a ceiling on military expenditure.

At that time, referring to Haldane’s explanation of the scheme to the House, Leo Amery, an Opposition politician, remarked that

“he explained at terrific speed, but with a great suavity, that the more battalions and batteries he scrapped, the stronger he made the army”.

Call me cynic if you will, Mr. Speaker, but having sat through our latest armed forces review, that all sounds painfully familiar. When the Minister responds, as well as rightly praising the role of our reserve forces, he may like to spend a few moments outlining the terms of reference for the latest review and, perhaps crucially, confirming that unlike Haldane 100 years ago, the drive for military economy is not his principal concern.

None the less, Haldane had a wider encompassing vision: he wanted to create out of the auxiliaries a real national Army formed by the people who would weld a new unity of Army and society—an aspiration as valid today as it was in 1908. I hope that that aspiration will be at the forefront of the mind of Major-General Nick Cottam, the officer charged with the latest reserve forces review, which—I am sure this is no coincidence—starts today.

Does my hon. Friend recall that General Dannatt has said that we now have one Army, which encompasses the Territorial Army and the regulars, so does he agree that if there is one Army, TA recruits should be treated the same as the regulars—for example, as far as insurance protection while on active duty is concerned? At the moment, TA members have to pay a third more than regulars and receive a third less benefits. Surely they should have equal treatment?

My hon. Friend makes a very powerful point. Speaking as someone who has been mobilised on three occasions, I firmly believe in the one Army concept. I am unsure about the details of my hon. Friend’s point, but if that is indeed the case, it sounds as though it needs to be sorted out, as it is simply unacceptable. The relationship between the Regular Army and the Territorial Army has been a problem for many years. It goes back to the first world war, which I was about to come on to before she intervened.

More than 100 years ago, despite limited opposition and with a few compromises, the Territorial and Reserve Forces Act was finally passed in 1907, but its real test was seen at the outbreak of the first world war. The initial establishment was to be 314,000, but that proved to be highly optimistic. The combined hostility of elements of the Regular Army and employers and unions alike meant that by 1914, at the outbreak of war, the Territorials had fallen a long way short of Haldane’s original vision.

Alas, as the years have passed, that appears to have been a common theme. Whenever a review of the TA has been carried out—be it as a result of the strategic defence review of the late 1990s, when the TA failed to get up to its establishment of 44,000, or, indeed, as recently as last year, when the National Audit Office reported that the TA was operating at some 16 per cent. below the new lower establishment of 36,000—the TA always ends up under strength. That is a lesson that we must learn; I hope that the current review will not fall into the same trap yet again by planning to cut TA numbers to a level that, as a result of over-weeding, we are destined to fail to achieve.

My hon. Friend is making a powerful case for the importance of the Territorial Army. In looking at those numbers, does he agree that it would be wrong to include the officer training corps in the TA numbers, even though it is part of that empire? Will he pay tribute to the works of the officer training corps? I certainly would not have joined the Regular Army had I not gone through the OTC, which establishes an important bridge between those who may not go into the armed forces, but go into employment and then find employees under them who want to participate and go away for a period with the TA?

Absolutely. As a former member of both Cambridge and Oxford officer training corps, I know how important a part it played in my training. Although the OTC plays a very important role, it would be wrong to suggest that many of these officers, being group B officers, can be deployed on operations.

One area where lessons definitely have been learned from those early years is improved relations with employers. In recent times, the organisation Supporting Britain’s Reserves and Employers—otherwise known as SaBRE—has done much to engage employers and promote the benefits of employees belonging to the reserves and acquiring transferable skills such as leadership, self-confidence and initiative.

Throughout the 100-year history of the modern Territorial Army, whenever they have been asked to do so, the men and women of the TA have stepped up to the mark. In August 1914, at the start of the great war, the British, having been distracted by the Irish home rule crisis, had the least time to react of any of the participants in that war. The assumption that no Territorial unit would proceed overseas until after six months’ training was scrapped almost instantly. Despite the prejudices and distrust of the “amateur” soldiers by some, not least Kitchener himself, it was Territorials who were deployed to “fill the gap” on the western front, with the first unit to be sent to France, the 1/14th London Scottish, being dispatched on 16 September 1914.

In numerical terms, the eventual contribution of the Territorial Force to the war effort was considerable, with 318 battalions and 23 infantry divisions serving overseas, and when voluntary enlistment ended in December 1915, some 725,842 men had enlisted in the Territorial Force since August 1914. During that war, 71 Victoria crosses were won by members of the Territorial Force, the first by Second Lieutenant Geoffrey Woolley on the night of 20 April 1915 on Hill 60 at Ypres.

The willingness of Territorials to be mobilised at times of national emergency has been a feature throughout our history, and the response of the Territorials to the outbreak of the second world war was similar to that seen for the first, when, as war clouds loomed over Europe in the early months of 1939, the Government authorised the “duplication” of all Territorial Army units, thereby doubling the size of the TA.

The TA today is very different even from the one I joined in 1990 at the end of the cold war years. Once again, mobilisation is the norm, with members of the TA being involved in all of the major recent conflicts—Kosovo, Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan. Indeed, the equivalent of 21 battalions has been mobilised to support operations in Afghanistan and Iraq in recent years. It is equally fair to say that the chaos that accompanied earlier mobilisations has been largely removed with the establishment of the reserves training and mobilisation centre—RTMC—at Nottingham, a dedicated facility designed for an annual throughput of some 3,600 soldiers, with some 200 at any time.

There remains a concern, however, that the TA is being overused, and while keen to serve, many members—some now being mobilised for their second or third tour of duty—are hesitating at the prospect of being asked to sacrifice their primary career for their second. The TA is not a militia, but a volunteer force, but increasingly, month by month, it is being used as a militia and, ultimately, I fear that this will prove to be a major mistake. Basil Liddell Hart once described the TA as:

“One of Britain's hardiest plants”,

but it would be rash to assume that the plant is as hardy as it once was. A Territorial “volunteers” every time he or she reports for duty and seeks challenge, backed by organisation, resources and commitment. Starve the TA of these and the plant will wither.

The TA has a proud history of service to our country, and today of all days it is right that this House should celebrate its 100th anniversary, and the service of those brave “volunteers”. They have given much over 100 years of service, and all they ask in return is that, for once, we learn the lessons of the past.

I congratulate the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) on securing this debate, and I thank him for giving me the opportunity to address the House on a day of great significance for the Territorial Army. I also offer my thanks to the hon. Gentleman for his long service as a member of the TA, which I know has included time served on operations. I also thank other Members present who have served in the armed forces or the TA for their service. I do not think there is a single current Member of this House who is not known as a strong supporter of the armed forces, and I am pleased there is such a good turnout in support of this important debate. My late father-in-law, Thomas Cassidy, was a sergeant-major in the TA, and I remember how important the TA was to his life and his family. Therefore, I am steeped in the TA tradition and in the importance that people who have served in it attach to it.

I join the hon. Gentleman in congratulating the TA on its 100th anniversary. As he mentioned, the first TA units were formed 100 years ago to the day, following an Act of Parliament in the previous year. In reality, however, this was merely a continuation of a long tradition of part-time military service in Britain: from the militia, which dates back to the early 16th century and from which a number of present day TA units can trace their ancestry, to the London trained bands that fought with the parliamentarian Army in the civil war, and the Yeomanry formed during the Napoleonic wars to bolster home defence, which served with distinction during the Boer war.

The reforms of the first years of the 20th century, led by the Liberal Secretary of State for War, R.B. Haldane, made a number of significant structural changes to the country’s regular and reserve land forces. Among the most significant of them was the fusion of the Army’s various non-regular forces into the Territorial Force, which we now know as the Territorial Army.

It was not long before the wisdom of these reforms was confirmed. The Territorials went on to fight with distinction alongside their regular counterparts throughout the first world war, playing a vital part in holding the line against the German advance in the initial stages of that conflict, and at the end leading to the breach of the Hindenburg line in 1918.

Since those early years, the Territorial Army, like the Army as a whole, has been in a continual state of evolution, adapting to reflect changes in the threats faced by this country, changes in technology, and changes in our own society. Through that process, it has continued throughout its first 100 years to play a fundamental part in the defence of the nation, notably during the second world war when it was mobilised and its units were absorbed into the Regular Army.

In recent years, the Territorial Army has assumed an even greater importance. Under the “one Army” philosophy, regulars and Territorials serve on equivalent terms. They are trained, equipped and deployed in many of the same theatres, and they share the same risk. The Territorial Army is now the reserve of first choice, deploying in significant numbers wherever the Regular Amy is engaged; since 2003, some 15,000 Territorials have deployed on operations. We must not forget the sacrifice they have made. Sadly, since 2003 eight Territorials have died on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and since the end of world war two, 336 have been killed on duty. Our thoughts tonight must also be with their families as we mark this centenary.

Arguably, the Territorial Army is now as crucial to overall military effectiveness as it has been at any point in its history. The sheer scope of roles it fulfils, which range from engineer, infantry, medic and logistician to driver and linguist, is evidence of just how vital its expertise is to today’s Army. Indeed, earlier today, the Chief of the General Staff said:

“It is difficult to imagine how the Regular Army could meet its present commitments without the combat capability and professional support provided by Territorial soldiers”.

It is partly against that background that the Secretary of State announced to the House two weeks ago his intention to set up a review to examine how our reserve forces, including the Territorial Army, should be most effectively configured, structured, equipped, located and trained for current and future defence needs. Although we are satisfied that our existing policy on the reserve forces is sound, we need to take stock of how they have been employed on current operations and consider their potential use in other roles related to projected requirements. We also need to consider issues such as the scope for greater integration into regular forces, and how we can better capitalise on the vast range of civilian skills that the reserve forces possess. There is widespread support among the services for the review, which will be conducted transparently and inclusively, and will involve consultation with a broad range of interested parties. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the review is not based on the drive for military economy; it is a strategic review to examine how the reserves’ contribution to defence can be optimised to meet current and projected requirements.

It is therefore clear that as the Territorial Army celebrates its first 100 years of service those associated with it have every right to look back with pride on past achievements and to look forward with confidence to a future that will continue to see the Territorial Army operating at the heart of this nation’s armed forces.

As the House is aware, a number of events are planned this year to mark this significant milestone, under the TA100 banner. The Defence Secretary and the Chief of the General Staff formally launched the season of celebrations this morning at the Tower of London. Synchronised regional events in the nation’s capitals of Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast were incorporated in that. Looking ahead, there will be a reception at the National Army Museum on 3 April, to which a number of hon. Members have been invited, and a service of thanksgiving at St. Paul’s cathedral on 15 May. The centrepiece of the commemorations will be a pageant on Horse Guards parade on 21 June, followed by the national reception in St. James’s palace that same evening. There will also be a garden party at Buckingham palace on 10 July, and a parade and service at the armed forces memorial at the national memorial arboretum on 13 September. Those events will be supported by a range of regional and local celebrations continuing throughout the year until Remembrance day.

Our aim is to maximise opportunities for the general public to become involved in those events, and to that end a website has been launched carrying further details on the Territorial Army and its centenary. We should not forget, of course, that this is also the centenary year of the reserve forces and cadet associations, which play a very important role promoting the volunteer reserve forces of all three services within the community. I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate all the reserve forces and cadet associations on this their landmark year.

Would the Minister be so kind as to address the concern over formed units and the fact that we seem to be moving towards mobilising individuals to placements in the Regular Army rather than mobilising formed units? Does he anticipate that we will continue to mobilise formed units as well as individual placements?

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman understands that in the review it is very important to consider our future needs, our capabilities and how we should use the role. Let us have that review. I am sure that he, like other hon. Members, will contribute to that process. I recognise the importance of what he has said. Of course, I have been to Iraq and Afghanistan and have talked to Territorials and reserves and so I understand the importance of that point. The review is very important—

If hon. Members do not mind, I am stuck for time. If I have some time at the end, I will give way, but I want to get a number of points on the record.

We should not forget that Territorial soldiers are to many the face of the British Army. That is an important point. I always remember the visibility of the TA when I was a child, because of my family connections. It is important to remember that to many the TA is the face of the British Army and of the other services, too, in a society that has become increasingly isolated from the hard realities of military service, despite the exposure that operations receive in our 24-hour news culture. Of course, we are looking again at how we can improve recognition. We have an important role to play in that. The Territorials’ personal experience of service, when it is shared with workplace colleagues, family and friends, helps to bolster the understanding of the vital role played by the Army and the special ethos and culture that it possesses.

It is also important in this year of commemoration to remember those without whose support the concept of part-time military service would be unworkable. I mean, of course, the partners and families without whose tolerance and understanding our Territorials could not play their full part in the Army. I pay tribute to those families.

I want, too, to acknowledge the crucial supporting role played by employers. We have an ongoing debt of gratitude to the many enlightened employers—I am glad to say that most of them are—from small businesses, multinational companies and public sector organisations. They understand that the benefits of service in the Territorial Army cut both ways. People bring skills learned in the civilian workplace to bear in a military context, and the service provides high-value personal development for employees in areas such as leadership and motivation. We should never forget the benefits that serving in the armed forces bring to civilian life, too. I pay tribute to those employers.

I want to conclude by paying tribute to the Territorials, past and present, for their magnificent contribution to our national security and for their sacrifice, about which we heard just a short time ago. TA100 is an excellent opportunity for the whole nation to recognise the distinguished role played by the Territorial Army over the years and to say thank you to the 35,000 men and women who serve and who are so vital to our defence effort at home and overseas.

If the Minister is coming to the end of his speech, may I say that the way in which he has approached the debate would make him a great recruiting sergeant for those who are in the Territorials and those who want to join?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for those kind comments.

It is appropriate that as a mark of the esteem in which the Territorials are held that Her Majesty the Queen has graciously agreed to be the patron of TA100 and has written a personal message to every serving member, offering her congratulations on the Territorial Army’s centenary.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-seven minutes to Eleven o’clock.