The multi-battallion regiment: an old concept with a new relevance Willem Steenkamp, Citizen Force Officer and former member of the State President`s

The Multi-Battalion Regiment: An Old Concept with a New Relevance

Willem Steenkamp, Citizen Force Officer and former member of the State President`s Council

Published in Monograph No 1: Get on Parade, February 1996


At a time when the South African Defence Force is being cut back and reorganised, it is worth asking: has the time not come to consider the classic multi-battalion regiment as a means of constructing a viable, cost-effective and affordable new SA Infantry Corps (SAIC)? Innovative thought on this subject seems to be lacking, with most attention being paid to adapting the existing infantry force whether by plastic surgery or amputation to fit a new situation.

It could be argued that what the South African infantry actually needs is not cosmetic surgery but something rather more radical call it `constructive iconoclasm` involving not just the shattering of certain pillars of conventional wisdom, but the simultaneous resurrection of others that have long been gathering dust on the back shelf of our military development process. If so, one of the icons that may well be worth resurrecting is the principle of the true multi-battalion infantry regiment (the reasons for the word `true` will become apparent below).

There is nothing mysterious about the true multi-battalion regiment. In fact, the Oxford Illustrated Dictionary`s succinct definition an "army recruiting and training unit with permanent depot and often local name, consisting of a varying number of battalions ..." provides as good a point of departure as any other. What makes it particularly relevant to the new South Africa is the fact that the concept has lived on up to the present day the most striking proof possible that its virtues are as valid in these days of mechanised warfare as they were when infantrymen wore pipe-clayed belts and carried their regimental colours on to the battlefield.

South Africa is one of the few militarily developed countries of the Commonwealth in which the concept has never taken root. As a result, few military men in this country realise that a true multi-battalion regiment is not just a regiment with more than one battalion. It is actually a philosophical concept that has been turned into an eminently practical mechanism, designed to foster a defence force`s operational capability on both the micro and macro level. The success of this mechanism is evident from the fact that it survives in unaltered form elsewhere, despite more than a century of bewildering change in weaponry and equipment, the nature of warfare, and the internal organisation of fighting units. It remains the basis of the traditional British regimental system.

The phenomenon of regiments strongly linked by name and location to their local communities a basic requirement for a true multi-battalion regiment is nothing new in South Africa, at least in the Part-Time Force (PTF). Yet the true multi-battalion infantry regiment is all but unknown in the SANDF, and this fact has given rise to a basic misunderstanding of the concept in the South African Army. Ironically, the closest South African equivalent is the Commando Group, directly associated with the Dutch settlers and not the British colonies.

The SA Army, like all British-descended armed forces, customarily uses `regiment` to denote battalion-equivalent units of the SA Artillery, the SA Armoured Corps and the SA Engineer Corps, but in the case of the infantry the term seems to be used quite differently in the full-time and part-time forces. There are no regiments as such in the Permanent Force (PF) infantry, only a variety of numbered independent battalions (the last named PF unit, the Cape Corps, was rechristened 9 SAI about three years ago), whereas in the PTF both the Citizen Force (CF) and Commando (Comdo) organisations are strongly orientated towards single-battalion regiments, with names linked to their communities or home areas.

These factors have led to the belief that the term `regiment` is not necessarily applicable to a battalion-size infantry unit; that the habit of various PTF infantry units of referring to themselves as `regiments` is based on rather uncertain grounds; and that the term is now inappropriate as regards the naming or creation of future units. However, there is a definite difference in meaning between the two terms. In the infantry, a battalion is not a substitute for a regiment but complementary to it. This misconception has been abetted by American and Russian usage, in which an infantry regiment denotes a specific operational organisation that is more or less equivalent to a small brigade. In this usage, battalion is also an operational term indicating size a single unit. For better or worse, however, the SA Army is not organised along American or Russian lines and is locked into the Commonwealth, whose armies are modelled on the British pattern. This implies two things: first, that the British-style regimental system is entrenched in the SA Army, and second, if this is so, there is an obligation on the military to exploit the value and potential of this system to the maximum.

Given the far-reaching influence of the British Army the model for most of the Anglophone world the SA Army`s historical failure to adopt a true multi-battalion regimental system is inexplicable. There are several reasons for this, but they all relate to past circumstances; this being the case, the appropriate question to ask is whether they are still applicable at a time when South Africa`s infantry force is about to undergo radical reconstruction.


The roots of the multi-battalion regimental system were planted by Edward (later Lord) Cardwell, British Secretary of State for War between 1868 and 1874. Cardwell`s name is almost forgotten today, yet after 120 years the contribution he made to the development of the regimental system continues to be felt throughout the Commonwealth.

If one considers the implications of the reforms instituted by Cardwell and carried through by his successors, it would be fair to say that he deserves a place in the pantheon of great military reformers headed by Prince Maurits of Nassau, whose 17th-century `Staatsleger` was the basic model for almost all the armies of the modern world.

Cardwell was the first man to make systematic use of multi-battalion regiments, and the link between such units and their communities, for the purpose of enhancing operational efficiency and producing a complete military system that was both affordable and flexible enough to satisfy very different requirements.

Cardwell`s genius lay not only in his innovative thinking, but in his ability to identify the useful parts of the extremely flawed system he inherited and adapt them for his purposes, despite frenzied objections by reactionary elements in the military.

An essential ingredient of his success was his objectivity; belonging to neither a pro-army nor anti-army clique, he was not hobbled by prejudices and could give full rein to attaining his purpose, which was to forge an army that was capable of maintaining the nation`s security. The multi-battalion regiment, as we know it today, and its concept of the regiment as the philosophical component of the infantry did not start emerging clearly until 1871, midway through Edward Cardwell`s term as Britain`s Secretary of State for War.

Cardwell was faced with a number of problems. Britain`s imperial interests were expanding in various parts of the world, and required military muscle. At the same time, a new European military power was emerging: Prussia, with its formidable mix of superb regular soldiers and hundreds of thousands of well-trained and disciplined conscripts and its naked desire to play a larger role in world affairs, on the continent and further afield. To undertake the onerous task not only of garrisoning Britain`s outposts and protecting her interests on a day-to-day basis, but also of providing her with the means of defending her own soil, should the need arise, Cardwell had a large but chaotic and often illogically organised land force, which in structure and outlook had barely changed since the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. The British Army was the product of two centuries of improvisation, resulting from regular cycles of hasty expansion when war threatened, and equally hasty cut-backs after hostilities had ended.

The Regular (professional, full-time) Army consisted of 91 regiments of one battalion each and 25 regiments of two battalions each, with each regiment independently organised and administered through the office of a commander-in-chief. Backing them up were a paid, part- time Militia and a further part-time element consisting of the organised units of Volunteers (infantry) and Yeomanry (light cavalry and mounted infantry). While formidable on paper, this army was in reality cost-inefficient, unwieldy and poorly suited to Britain`s burgeoning external interests, and possessed almost no depth (thanks to a policy of lifetime enlistments, the trained reserve amounted to only 3 117 men nationwide).

To make it worse, the Militia was of doubtful utility controlled by the lords-lieutenant of the various counties, it was designed strictly for internal security and home defence while the Volunteers and Yeomanry more or less went their own way, and were anything but uniform as regards organisation or level of training. Cardwell was also aware that there was no question of emulating the Prussians and the French by using conscription and compulsory reserve service as a method of building a trained reserve. Unlike the Royal Navy, the British Army had not used `pressed` (forcibly enlisted) men since feudal times but had always relied on volunteers, even in the worst days of the Napoleonic wars although many a convicted felon had decided to `go for a soldier` upon being given the choice between enlisting or going to jail.

Yet another complicating factor was that its commander-in-chief, the deeply conservative Duke of Cambridge, and a large proportion of the regular British Army held that what had worked against Napoleon in 1815 was good enough for any present enemy. Cardwell knew that this was not so, and that while there was little doubt about the spirit and steadiness of the British fighting man, these could not be fully exploited because of the lack of rational, innovative thought in the command echelon of the land forces. Cardwell could not rid himself of the Duke of Cambridge, who was not only a cousin of the queen but enjoyed strong support within the army (his devotion to which could not be doubted, reactionary though his mindset was).

At that stage the chain of command between the army and parliament was a grey area, not to be clarified for many years to come. At the same time, there was no doubt about parliament`s ultimate authority, and Cardwell therefore decided to reshape the army by means of legislation rather than converting the Duke of Cambridge to his way of thinking. A man of fortitude, he realised and accepted that changes such as he believed were necessary would bring on him the wrath not only of the duke but of legions of senior officers who shared their commander-in-chief`s views.

Cardwell`s point of departure was that every available asset and method had to be used in a systematic, calculated way to achieve certain aims some short-term, others long-term such as economies of scale, stimulation of recruiting, and the creation of an affordable defence machine which could be brought to life in a national emergency. To achieve these aims he prepared plans that, as the military writer David Ascoli has remarked, represented `a revolution in the anatomy and structure of the army`. His main thrusts centred on three aspects, all closely related.

Personnel reforms
: To do this, he identified the lifetime service enlistment for other ranks and the purchase of commissions by officers as areas for special attention.

: Cardwell believed that recruitment could be systematised by linking regiments to specific communities. This was not a new idea the Duke of Cumberland had proposed such a system as far back as the mid-18th century, but had found no takers; in 1782 such a linking was ordered but did not fully succeed, since many regimental commanders paid only lip service to the order and 12 of the older and more distinguished regiments were exempted from it. Cardwell saw the value of the concept, and was determined to apply it in forceful fashion.

`Large` regiments: Cardwell was determined to systematise the existing regiments` old loose habit of creating and disbanding second and even third battalions as the occasion demanded. The first prominent appearance of this phenomenon had been in the mid-18th century, when no less than 15 infantry regiments had responded to immediate requirements by raising second battalions only to have them either disbanded or reformed as new single-battalion regiments when the need had lessened. The existing 25 second battalions Cardwell had inherited had all been raised in 1857 and 1858 by the most senior regiments, in the wake of the Indian Mutiny.


In 1870 Cardwell launched the first of his reform measures, the Army Enlistment Act, which abolished lifetime enlistments in the Regular Army and limited maximum full-time service by other ranks to 21 years, to be achieved by short-term enlistments consisting of a certain period on full-time duty, followed by another period on the active reserve (in its final form, each enlistment consisted of seven years with the colours and five on the active reserve). The aim of this act, apart from lowering the median age and eliminating the deadwood that results from long-term enlistments, was to create within a relatively short time an adequate reserve of about 80 000 ex-regulars who could be recalled to the colours in times of emergency.

This was followed in 1871 by the Regulation of the Forces Act, which not only abolished the notorious commission purchase system but transferred control of the Militia from the county governments to the War Office. While they were important developments, these two acts were merely the precursors of a drastic and controversial localisation scheme which was to have far-reaching consequences, up to this day.

The localisation scheme divided Britain into 66 Brigade Districts (later renamed to Regimental Districts), based on county boundaries and population density. Each district had a Regular regiment composed of two battalions of the former independent regiments either two of the old single-battalion regiments, or battalions of the few existing two-battalion units two local Militia battalions, and various Volunteer units. All these units were grouped around a permanent regimental depot, serving as an administrative headquarters and basic training centre.

Cardwell brooked no opposition, despite intense resistance by diehards in the military, and applied the scheme to the entire British Army (of all its regiments, only the Cameron Highlanders remained a single-battalion entity whether through `pull` or more legitimate factors is not known until it too succumbed in 1897). His idea was to create a series of regimental entities that would provide adequate full-time manpower for service at home and abroad, while simultaneously building up a ready reserve and also nurturing a part-time component capable of providing a second-line force in a national emergency requiring a rapid expansion of the armed forces.
The scheme was adopted in spite of the diehards` protests, as none of them could table an alternative with the same sterling advantages. Firstly, it was economical of both men and money. Secondly, it stimulated recruiting. Thirdly, it provided desperately needed flexibility, because it was adequate for peacetime needs but also allowed rapid controlled expansion in time of war.

A change of government put Cardwell out of office in 1874, but his reforms stayed in place despite attempts from the Regular Army to abolish them and return to the comfortable and familiar old post-1815 situation. Within a few years Cardwell`s party was back in power, and the diehards suffered a permanent defeat when the new Secretary of State for War, Hugh Childers, not only quelled all back-to-1815 initiatives but also decided that Cardwell had in fact not gone far enough. The result was General Order 41 of 1 May 1881 which created a network of four-battalion Regular regiments in England, Scotland and Wales, and five-battalion regiments in Ireland. Each of these regiments was linked by headquarters location and territorial name to its `Regimental District`, as Cardwell`s `Brigade Districts` had now become.

As in the case of Cardwell, Childers`s reforms endured despite attacks and foot-dragging on the part of the military diehards, and in 1903 Lord Esher took the next evolutionary step, largely as a result of the bloody nose the British Army had received from the Boers during the Second Anglo-Boer War of 18991902. Esher was concerned mainly with home defence; his contribution was three recommendations, which were accepted. These called for the abolition of the post of Commander-in-Chief, who would be replaced by a Chief of Staff; the formation of a Committee of Defence, chaired by the Prime Minister; and the formation of an Army Council, chaired by the Secretary of State for War and made up of four military and three knowledgeable civilian members.

Although unlike Cardwell Esher was not directly concerned with reforming the structure of the army itself, his recommendation that the post of Commander-in-Chief be abolished meant the elimination of a stumbling block that had hampered Cardwell`s predecessors and successors, and for the first time clearly defined a principle which until then had lacked definition namely the total control of parliament over the armed forces. In essence, it meant that after more than two centuries the army`s ability to prevent, retard or water down reforms proposed by parliament had ended.

From now on, the government of the day was in total and undisputed control of the British land forces. In 1906, after Esher`s changes had had time to take effect, the structural reform process initiated by Cardwell more than 30 years earlier was completed by another civilian visionary, Richard Haldane.

At first glance Haldane was unfit for the post of Secretary of State for War. An academic and man of peace, he was given the task because the newly elected government, a strongly pacifist and anti-military one, had found that no one else was willing to take the job. Haldane approached the task of restructuring in a straightforward and academic fashion by asking one fundamental question: What is the purpose and function of the British Army? It was a question no reformer not even Cardwell and Childers had bothered to ask or answer before, and it had certainly not been asked by the soldiers themselves.

Haldane`s answer to his own question was that the British government had to have the military capacity to police the empire beyond the seas, and also to respond instantly and coherently to a threat to its own soil capacities it had never had in the past, resulting in wasteful, often ineffective crisis management. These requirements had not changed since Cardwell`s time. What had changed were the priorities. Since Cardwell`s time, the imperial colonies and territories had acquired substantial home-grown armed forces, and the empire itself had expanded more or less as far as it could; preparations for a possible war against a European enemy now took precedence. But all this had to be accomplished within the framework of two immutable limitations. Firstly, neither the nation nor his party would countenance conscription. Secondly, they would not be willing to pay for a standing army as large as those of Prussia and France.

Haldane`s response implemented between 1906 and 1912 was a policy focused on five objectives, which derived from both the Cardwell-Childers reforms and those of Lord Esher. They were:


It was a masterly system, comparatively simple in structure and yet geared, even measured against today`s standards, to achieve the maximum results with the minimum of expenditure.
It was a simple but efficient system. It would not be going too far to say that it was thanks to the Cardwell-Childers-Haldane system that Britain was able to mount a credible military effort against Germany when World War 1 broke out, within two years of the scheme`s completion. The savage initial fighting proved how accurately Haldane`s calculations had been: his only slip, as combat experience showed, was the unduly high proportion of cavalry, a hangover from Britain`s experiences at the hands of the ultra-mobile Boer commandos during the 1899-1902 War. The BEF, a body of superb professionals, held its own for long enough against the Germans` larger forces, and within less than two months the Territorial Army had been trained up to scratch and was in action (the first of its units to smell powder was the London Scottish, then a Cardwell-style part-time component of the Gordon Highlanders).

Both the existing BEF and the TA, the core force, suffered terribly, but they helped prevent the Germans from winning the mobile phase of the war and thereby thwarted any chance of a quick, surgical strike to victory. In addition, hundreds of temporary `service battalions` were raised with comparatively little effort by increasing the number of battalions in each regiment, their basic frameworks consisting of experienced personnel drawn from the existing Regular and part-time components of the regiments, as well as ex-Regular reservists. The scale on which these so-called `Kitchener Armies` was raised can be seen from the fact that by 1918 the British Army`s oldest Regular regiment, the Royal Scots (the First of Foot), had given birth to no less than 32 service battalions.

The structure Cardwell and his successors created, although often adapted and modified to suit changing circumstances, lasted long after their lifetimes. When the BEF landed in France in 1940, a portion of it was manned by part-time units of the TA that Richard Haldane had created for just such a purpose 30 years earlier. In fact the Cardwell-Childers-Esher-Haldane structure exists to this day, albeit in modified form.
A careful process of amalgamation and consolidation has resulted in the formation of a relatively small number of multi-battalion regiments, each with its own cluster of part-time units, providing greater coherence of training effort and savings on maintenance and facilities. The process by which the present dispensation was reached is not within the scope of this discussion. However, it is worth mentioning that for the most part it was not conducted by sweeping edicts from on high. The army top command set the guidelines and steered the process, but to ensure that the unpleasant task was carried out in the most efficient and painless way, the regiments themselves were given wide scope to hammer out the finer details in the course of consultation and negotiation.

Often this was done with great delicacy, not unmixed with a healthy regard for possible future contingencies; when the famed Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) opted not to be amalgamated in 1968, it was reduced to a total strength of one TA company but allowed to retain its number on the active list. This meant that the Cameronians did not die but went into suspended animation, its continuity and identity intact and ready to be resurrected if ever there was a call for its services again. The respect for regimental history and continuity shown in the case of the Cameronians is worth remembering in the new SANDF, as many existing CF and Comdo units may face this fate.

The physical changes wrought by Cardwell and his successors have been spelt out in the preceding passages. What might not be quite as evident is the regimental philosophy that developed as part of those changes. Before Cardwell`s reforms, there was little philosophical difference between a regiment and a battalion, since most regiments were of single-battalion size. Post Cardwell, however, the concept of `regiment` changed forever. The regiment was now more a way of life than an expression of size, since the number of its battalions could and did vary in accordance with several factors. Without being fanciful, one could say that the regiment became the heart of the overall corpus, while the battalions were the regiment`s fists. Besides being philosophically precise, the multi-battalion system was also a very practical one, since it allowed a relationship between the various components of a regiment which was both strong and flexible. All components of the regiment wore basically the same badges and uniforms and shared the same general traditions.

At the same time, however, each battalion also maintained a distinctive personal identity. It had its own colour, bearing only the battle honours that it had earned, and its uniform and usages usually varied slightly from those of the other components of the regiment. All were part of the same family, and inter-battalion transfers were common; this last was an important factor, given the British Army`s heavy emphasis on the `mother unit` concept, which to this day makes infantrymen reluctant to transfer to other regiments. Last but not least, the arrangement encouraged a healthy spirit of competitiveness that could but enhance overall operational efficiency.

Operational efficiency was also fostered by yet another factor which was built into the multilayered system devised by Cardwell and refined by his successors. The Regular components made an effort to look after their part-time equivalents, not only for reasons of regimental sentiment but also because it was obvious that by helping their Volunteers to achieve maximum efficiency, they were also helping themselves by laying a solid foundation for any future emergency. As a result the British part-time soldier has always received much more care and attention than his South African counterpart. Every British part-time battalion receives top-of-the-line equipment, and has instructors and staff personnel permanently seconded from its Regular equivalent. Naturally, given the disparate nature of the British Army (both Regular and Territorial), there were variations in a number of cases. For example, some TA units (such as the London Scottish) maintained their own particular identities within a direct regular affiliation, but their strong sense of affiliation with their mother units served the same purpose.


In the main, the Cardwell system and its benefits passed South Africa by; this country has seen few real multi-battalion regiments, and those few did not come about as a result of long-term strategic planning of the type behind Cardwell`s reforms. With hindsight it is possible to identify several reasons, rooted in the circumstances prevailing at the time, why this was the case.

In late 19th century South Africa there were almost no full-time combat regiments. Assured of the protection of the `imperial umbrella` with its British garrisons, the crown colonies of the Cape of Good Hope and Natal required little full-time domestic muscle besides their paramilitary gendarmeries (the Cape Mounted Riflemen and the Natal Police), which fell under police legislation in peace time but passed into military control in wartime. If these proficient but thinly spread forces full-time police and British garrison units required reinforcement, the colonial governments called on their part-time Volunteer regiments and/or raised hostilities-only levies of all races, in pre-Cardwell fashion.

The situation was more or less the same in the two Boer republics. Their full-time forces each consisted of a small artillery regiment and a more or less paramilitary police force; in times of emergency the republics called up their commandos for compulsory service, or raised hostilities-only levies. Instead of the imperial umbrella, they relied on their commando riflemen`s fearsome (and well-deserved) reputation as daring fighters who were not afraid to tackle numerically superior enemies usually beating them.

Other reasons for the lack of structural reform included government parsimony as regards spending on the full-time units; the nature of the volunteer regiments, which were run like exclusive men`s clubs; and the lack of eligible manpower (ie white males), although some regiments were willing to ignore the colour bar, and the Boer republics did not hesitate to call up people of mixed race for commando service. The lack of manpower was aggravated by the fact that many employers were unsympathetic to their employees` part-time soldiering. As a result, the Cape and Natal persisted with the wasteful method of maintaining single-battalion regiments in peacetime and hastily raising hostilities-only levies of all races in time of need.


The few examples of South African multi-battalion units in what would be known today as the `statutory forces` are generally to be found in the 20th century.

The largest was the South African Mounted Rifles/Zuid-Afrikaansche Bereden Skutters, a Permanent Force unit of the early post-Union era (1913-20). The SAMR consisted of five regiments (actually battalions) of mounted infantry some observers wrongly classify the SAMR as cavalry, whereas in fact its men were trained, organised and equipped to ride into battle but to fight mainly on foot. All members of the SAMR wore similar badges and uniforms, including the 1st Battalion, which traced its origins back to the famed `colonial` Cape Mounted Riflemen and wore uniform distinctions to mark its descent. The SAMR`s various battalions performed yeoman service during World War 1, but all except the senior battalion were disbanded in 1920. The latter lasted until 1926, when it too disappeared from the scene, although 4 Artillery Regiment has direct continuity with it and is in fact the oldest unit in the PF (and SANDF), with seniority going back to 1853.

The line of continuity starts with the formation of the Frontier Armed and Mounted Police (FAMP) in 1853, which acquired an Artillery Troop in 1874. In 1878 the FAMP, Artillery Troop and all, became the Cape Mounted Riflemen. When the CMR was disbanded in 1926, the Artillery Troop was spared and located at Potchefstroom, where it underwent many changes before becoming 4 Artillery Regiment.

A small number of infantry units of the CF have had second battalions at various times during the past 85 years. South Africa`s opportunity to embark upon multi-battalion regimental systems came from the 1950s onwards, when there was an unprecedented expansion of both the full-time and part-time force. It did not happen, however, and once again several reasons can be identified.

A primary reason was an initiative launched in 1948 by the new Minister of Defence, F C Erasmus. One of Erasmus`s aims was to level the playing-fields to use a 1990s phrase in the Union Defence Force, which was strongly British-oriented in usages, structures, uniforms and nomenclature (for example, of all the CF regiments, the only Afrikaans-oriented ones were six battalions that had been raised in 1934). Unfortunately this developed from an attempt at affirmative action into a politically tinged purge of the UDF, soon to be renamed the South African Defence Force. The various Commando units, previously `Skietverenigings`, were later classified as Type A, B or C independent Commandos and continued as single-battalion or small independent units. At the same time, the Afrikaans-oriented single-battalion regiments founded in 1934 underwent at least one change of name and sometimes more. An early victim was the renowned Middellandse Regiment, which became Regiment Gideon Scheepers in 1954.

In 1960 there was another wave of name-changing; Regiment Gideon Scheepers became Regiment Groot Karoo, and three regiments named after famous Boer generals Regiment De La Rey (given its 13 World War 2 battle honours, the most celebrated of the 1934 battalions), Regiment Louw Wepener and Regiment De Wet were inexplicably renamed Regiment Wes-Transvaal, Regiment Oos-Vrystaat and Regiment Noord-Vrystaat. After strenuous efforts, Regiment Wes-Transvaal, Regiment Oos-Vrystaat and Regiment Noord-Vrystaat regained their honoured names, but Regiment Groot Karoo`s original name, Die Middellandse Regiment, has remained in official limbo.

In addition, various new conventional infantry units (almost all single-battalion units) and large numbers of commando units were set up; in the early 1980s this initiative resulted in the birth of a substantial sub-class when various 1960s-vintage urban commando units were freed of their home areas protection role by being transferred to the CF. Since they shared the same general areas both with one another and with older units, they were ideally situated at the time of their transformation to become part of multi-battalion regiments, but this did not occur. Some of these battalions have opted for a traditional approach (such as the Cape Flats Commando, which turned itself into the Cape Light Infantry), but they have not been encouraged to do so and are subject to various rules as regards insignia and uniform distinctions which make it difficult for them to emulate their `traditional` (ie pre-1940) predecessors.


It must be clearly understood that multi-battalion regiments only work properly if the conditions are suitable. This can be seen from the cases of two of South Africa`s scanty multi-battalion CF regiments, as opposed to the co-operation existing in Comdo groups.

Barring the now vanished SA Mounted Riflemen, the most successful example of a local multi-battalion regiment is the Transvaal Scottish (TS). The TS started off as a single-battalion regiment in 1902, formed a second battalion in 1914, disbanded it in 1920 and then reformed it in 1936, adding a third battalion in 1939. The structure endured for a considerable period after World War 2, although the 3rd Battalion was converted in 1948 into the only Scottish artillery unit in South Africa`s military annals. The 1st and 2nd Battalions were amalgamated in 1954, but were separated again in 1970 and survive to this day, although the 3rd Battalion was disbanded in 1960. In a way the Transvaal Scottish is very much in the Cardwell spirit of the multi-layered regiment, since the 1st Battalion is trained for conventional warfare and the 2nd Battalion for light motorised/counter-insurgency duties.

The other side of the coin is represented by Regiment Westelike Provincie (RWP), one of the 1934-vintage Afrikaans-oriented units, which underwent considerable identity trauma between 1951 and the mid-1970s. RWP was renamed Regiment Onze Jan in 1951; in 1960 its name was changed to Regiment Boland, a situation which was to endure for 14 years. It acquired another battalion in 1972, the 1st Battalion being headquartered at Paarl and the 2nd Battalion at Worcester.

In the meantime the 1st Battalion had been fighting a dogged battle to regain the original name. This succeeded in 1974, and the two battalions became independent units. The 1st Battalion became Regiment Westelike Provincie, based in the Cape Town area, while the 2nd Battalion retained the designation Regiment Boland. To this day RWP and Regiment Boland wear similar cap-badges, thanks to their former association, but that is all. They are separate units in every sense of the word even to the extent that RWP is now classed as a `traditional` regiment, while Regiment Boland is not.

The Regiment Westelike Provincie/Regiment Boland episode should be seen as a cautionary tale. The mere act of forming second or even third battalions is not enough to achieve the primary purpose that was so clearly understood by Cardwell and his successors; those battalions must be located in reasonable proximity, so that they can interact with and support one another. In a nutshell, they must share the same regimental area. The distance, in every sense, between Paarl and Worcester was simply too great for mutual support, and the battalions differed fundamentally in terms of corporate culture, since 1 Regiment Boland (later RWP) was an urban unit and 2 Regiment Boland was strongly rural in nature. Thus the split was a natural one that rectified an unnatural situation.

The concept worked in the case of the Transvaal Scottish because both battalions were and are located in the same area (Johannesburg and environs), and although they have separate battalion headquarters they share one regimental headquarters complete with a magnificent museum. The fact that a third battalion existed for 21 years and was then disbanded for extraneous reasons reinforces this view. The Transvaal Scottish has been a very good example of a Cardwell-style regiment on the South African pattern. Any of the Commando Groups, all organised on a geographical basis, all doing the same task and undergoing the same training, all working in their own area, are far more likely to co-operate well than CF units that might live cheek by jowl with each other, but operate and train separately.


Since the 1950s the trend has been one of fragmentation the complete antithesis of the Cardwell-Childers-Haldane philosophy. The small number of second battalions that appeared resulted from either regimental initiatives or by pure happenstance, in response to local requirements. As noted above, the multi-battalion regimental system is a dead letter in the PF infantry, which is based on independent numbered battalions; the CF and Comdos still have named units, but a second battalion is a rare exception rather than the rule. Therefore, what the SAIC has is an ad hoc mixture:
In part this schism is also the result of the fact that the PF has always tended to be largely an administrative and training force, whereas the part-time service has been a functional one, geared for one purpose only, namely operations.

The post-April 1994 government has thus far acted with commendable restraint. There have been no purges and no undeclared wars; the emphasis, as far as both the full-time and part-time forces are concerned, has been on maintaining the status quo. Dynamic lateral thinking is required to ensure that what is good from the past serves as the launching pad for building the new defence force. However, from whatever angle the situation is viewed, the multi-battalion regimental structure and its virtues are almost unknown in South Africa, except in the present Comdo system. A strong case could be made that it should be systematically introduced and expanded, as the new defence force reinvents itself.


These matters need to be addressed earnestly and thoroughly, as part of the recently announced defence review. Large-scale reform and rationalisation of both the full-time and part-time forces are not only overdue but inevitable. The question is how it should be carried out; army planners should not hesitate to take a hard look at the Cardwell-Childers-Haldane reforms and see if they are relevant to our present situation. While the reforms were designed for another time and another country, some of their basic principles are valid in the current evolution of the SAIC, particularly its large part-time component. The Cardwell solution is, after all, the foundation of the British regimental system and is internationally recognised as a basis for high standards of efficiency, loyalty and dedicated service.


Role confusion

There is confusion about the role and function of the SA Army in 1996. In 1870, Cardwell`s problem was to place the British Army on an affordable peace-time footing, which would allow it to carry out its normal tasks of policing the empire while at the same time being capable of dealing with an undefined European aggressor. In 1996 the SA Army must also maintain its basic capability against an undefined future aggressor, while at the same time performing peace-time duties ranging from aiding the civil power to (potentially) serving outside its borders on United Nations-sponsored peace-keeping tasks all within the parameters of tight budget constraints.

Clarifying the modern SA Army`s role and function is a matter outside the scope of this discussion. Only one observation deserves to be made in this regard. It is quite obvious that Haldane succeeded in formulating a successful conclusion to the Cardwell-Childers-Esher reform process because he, like his predecessors, was not part of any interest group, either military or political; this was despite the fact that, like them, he was a political appointee. As a result he was able to take a largely objective view of the past, present and future and marshall his thought processes accordingly. At this stage, planning of our future military structures tends to be tactical and short-term (integration, rationalisation) rather than strategic and long-term.

No conscription

One of Cardwell`s basic guidelines in planning the new British Army was that there was no question of introducing conscription, as in the Prussian and French armies. The modern SA Army is in the same boat; the power to conscript might be carried over into the new Defence Act, but it is unlikely to be implemented except in extreme emergencies, and it certainly cannot be used as a basis for planning a new part-time force.

Lack of depth

Like Cardwell`s 1870s British Army, the SA Army`s full-time combat component in 1996 lacks depth, for somewhat similar reasons. Some members of the PF are lifetime appointees, performing staff or administrative tasks of one kind or another. Most of the 20 000 or so full-time junior soldiers in combat musterings are on short-term enlistments, but the short-term service scheme appears to be focused mainly on the provision of manpower for immediate needs. As a result, the creation of an organised ready reserve of trained ex-regulars enjoys a low priority, and former short-term servicemen simply disappear into the Reserve a nebulous reservoir containing members in no specific organisation, whether they have actually undergone regular full-time military training/service or not.

The necessity for ensuring adequate depth in the Full-Time Force (FTF) has not received serious attention during the past 25 years, because during that time the national service system ensured an endless supply of well-trained and experienced white personnel who not only satisfied the defence force`s lower-level manpower requirements but were subject to an extremely long part-time obligation. Now that national service has been abolished, this situation has changed completely, but no adequate substitute has yet been evolved. As a result the PF presently has the worst of both worlds life-time employment pulling in uneasy tandem with a short-service scheme which does not coherently provide for future emergencies. It is not enough to ensure that there is an adequate number of bodies on active duty; personnel policies must be designed to allow the build-up of an adequate and organised reservoir of inactive but available manpower, particularly reserve manpower for the FTF. This is something totally different to the part-time units.

This situation is aggravated by the PF`s long-standing policy to segregate the full-time and part-time forces; unlike other defence forces, it is rare to see full-time and part-time personnel serving in the same unit, or even to have units of the two components serving in the same formation. As a result, the two components have virtually no experience of serving side by side in either a unit or individually. An added complication is that the priority given to integration of the PF has obscured the requirement of co-operation between part-time and full-time elements.

The situation as regards manning of the PTF (namely the CF and Comdos) is hardly better. At present there are few details about planning in this regard; PTF manning policy at present is the so-called Voluntary Military Service scheme (VMS), in terms of which volunteers are recruited for 12 months` full-time service, followed by a part-time training obligation extending over several years. This scheme has serious defects, including the following:
This is an extremely important matter. The recruiting and training methods adopted for new recruits will determine the future of the PTF. Given improved conditions of service, it is possible that the PTF will be able to coast for several years on men trained under the old system. But after that it will have to stand on its own feet.

There is another aspect to the question of depth. In the past the SA Army`s command echelon has taken the view that part-time force strengths and structures should be based on the amount of equipment available for a particular task. Those opposed to this view take the position that trained, available manpower is more important than equipment and that to tailor trained manpower to the available equipment leaves no depth; also that while there is certainly not enough equipment to maintain a larger conventional force than at present, there is enough training equipment available to allow every existing infantry unit to be trained in a primary parachute or mechanised role. The point is made that doing so would allow maximum built-in flexibility, as a unit trained for modern mobile warfare could be temporarily converted for counter-insurgency, internal-security and peace-keeping tasks while the reverse is not true, and that the training of infantrymen for modern war should not be limited by the numbers of aircraft or Ratels expected to be available to carry them into battle.

Lack of coherence

Like Cardwell`s army, the SA Army of 1996 thanks to 30 years of border war, internal unrest, the national service system, the integration of forces and a change of roles due to a changing international situation and SA`s international re-entry is a mass of full-time and part-time single-battalion regiments (with the lone exceptions mentioned), embodying all the disadvantages of 1870.


Recruiting is a problem in the modern SA Army, although it differs slightly from that faced by Cardwell in 1871. The PF has too many recruits (thanks to the integration of forces), while the PTF is likely to have too few, unless it can offer attractive conditions of service. An alleged aggravating factor is that, generally speaking, there is no culture of part-time service among blacks. This factor is much spoken about, but there does not seem to have been any serious research into its validity or gravity, or ways of resolving such problems, if they actually exist.

Unique problems

Problems afflicting the modern SA Army that did not apply in the British Army in Cardwell`s time can be defined as follows:

Overall size

It is common cause among all military-security planners and thinkers that the SA Army both full-time and part-time is far too large. Judging by likely financial constraints, the country will probably be able to afford a PF of about 75 000 uniformed members, plus a PTF, during the next decade. Given South Africa`s geographical location, its far from settled internal situation and its likely role as virtually the only force for stability in Southern, Central and East Africa, this is a small force. At the very least, there should be two or preferably three part-time servicemen for every full-timer, which would not only provide the country with a substantial and instantly mobilizable citizen army but would also allow continuous `trickle employment` in the PTF without subjecting it to the sort of stresses caused by its brutal over-use during the 19751995 period.

A 150 000-man PTF would be an economical proposition; few people realise just how cost-effective such a force is. At the apogee of the old SADF, 87 percent of its total personnel strength consisted of part-time service people of the CF and Comdos, almost all in combat or combat support units. This cost a mere 2,2 percent of the entire defence budget. The provision of an adequate and employable FTF Reserve organisation would also be most cost-effective, and would round off the numbers needed by providing a `ready-to-use` complement to the FTF.

It is quite clear that considerable rationalisation will take place in the process of reforming the PTF. There are far too many units, they are too unrepresentative of the country`s population, and they are not evenly distributed, being located mainly in former `white` residential areas. The money previously spent on the PTF was too little, largely, of course, as a result of low pay and virtually no perks, and this will not be possible with an all-volunteer part-time force. However, about 6 percent of the defence budget will probably be adequate to maintain a PTF of adequate size.

Diffuseness of structure

There is a school of thought which believes that the present structure of the field army in terms of which the conventional land forces are organised into formations controlled directly by the Chief of the Army, w

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