The Territorial Army: more than a manpower reserve?

In recent years the operational demands placed upon the Territorial Army have moved beyond what would traditionally be regarded as defence of national interest. This growing reliance on the Territorials as a manpower reserve for the regular army is related to their declining traditional significance as an organisation for the projection of military values in society.

By Professor Ian Beckett for

In 1932 Basil Liddell Hart wrote that the Territorial Army had ‘proved one of the hardiest of British plants’ since it operated ‘in financially stony soil, without even being watered by morale encouragement’. Little has changed.

Historical context

The creator of the Territorial Force, R B Haldane, envisaged an amalgam of what might be termed the militia and volunteer traditions, preserving the (often compulsory) military aspects of the militia tradition in terms of a force capable of both supporting and expanding the army, and the social and political aspects of the volunteer traditions in terms of welding the unity of army and people. The new County Territorial Associations would have the role not only of raising and administering the Territorial Force but also promoting military values. Upon mobilisation, the Territorials would garrison naval ports, replace regular garrisons and provide defence against enemy raids and, after six months’ training, they would be themselves ready for overseas service.

In 1908, political compromise during the passage of the legislation resulted in the entire emphasis of the Territorials being switched to home defence only. Haldane was left simply hoping that sufficient Territorials would take the so-called Imperial Service Obligation to go overseas in the event of war. It could be argued, therefore, that far from a merger of the militia and volunteer traditions, what Haldane actually got was a reorganised volunteer force rather than a reorganised militia that would have suited the regulars far more.

The relationship that ensued between Territorials and regulars was often uneasy and, when resources were scarce, it was always likely that competition would be enhanced still further. On actual operational deployments, however, there has always been a substantial decrease in antagonism and a substantial increase in mutual respect, not least in Iraq and Afghanistan. The TA, as it became in 1921, was accorded a low priority amid the dire financial situation of the inter-war years, its numbers falling to 128,000 in 1932. Rapidly changing threat perceptions in the post-war world led to further substantial reorganisations and reduction, not least between 1965 and 1969. At least the new force established in April 1967 bore the title of Territorial and Army Volunteer Reserve (TAVR) when the architect of the cuts, the then Major General Michael Carver, had wanted it simply named the Army Volunteer Reserve. TAVR was down to just over 47,000 by March 1970. Carver remained unrepentant and, as Chief of the General Staff in July 1972, announced what became known as the one-army concept: ‘When we talk about the Army as a whole, it is a good thing to remind ourselves that, in spite of many different outward appearances – and some minor differences – we are one army – regular, reserve and volunteer reserve’.

In effect, increasingly, the one-army concept has re-established the militia tradition. The Conservatives restored some cuts after 1970 and in the more positive climate of defence posture under Mrs Thatcher the TA regained its title in 1982. But, in the wake of the collapse of communism, global depression and escalating costs on major defence equipment projects, the perceived ‘peace dividend’ was to bring reduction once more. Wider cuts in the regular army necessitated filling the gaps, notably in specialist areas, with Territorials.

New terms of mobilisation

The most fundamental change since 1908, however, came with the Reserve Forces Act of May 1996 with the new power to call out the reserves by order of the Secretary of State for Defence in circumstances well short of those required by Queen’s Order. The first significant use of the legislation was in 2001-2002 when a number of Territorials were called out for service in support of operations in Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11. The legislation was then again invoked for the Second Gulf War in January 2003 and, subsequently, for operations in Afghanistan.

It should be noted that, while the TA is now considered the ‘reserve of first choice’ ahead of regular reservists, there has been significant criticism of the treatment of Territorials in areas such as mobilisation, health care and after-service welfare support. Moreover, a regular army, itself short of manpower and stretched to the limit, has favoured what might be regarded as cherry picking of Territorial junior ranks to fill gaps in the regular order of battle. In many ways, it is a reversion to the function of the militia prior to 1908, seeing the TA as primarily a manpower quarry and an institution shorn of its wider social significance.

Declining social significance

Auxiliaries always transmitted military values to society and were far more visible to society than a small regular army. Undoubtedly the Territorials performed this role at least until 1939 though their role was then naturally circumscribed by the greater national mobilisation in the two world wars and the continuation of national service to 1963. Whether the TA has done this since 1963 is debateable though the government still defined the role in 1998 as providing a ‘basis for regeneration while at the same time maintaining links with the local community and society at large’. Rather similar language appeared in the ‘Future Use of the UK’s Reserve Forces’ paper of February 2005 and the Strategic Review of Reserves, published in April 2009, also suggests that the reserves are to ‘be used more effectively to connect with the nation’.

But familiarity with military service has declined sharply. There has been more visibility in terms of media coverage of conflict but, tempered by perceptions of political deceit, reaction to contemporary conflict is often less a ready acceptance of the application of military force than a desire to avoid it altogether. Allied to the declining perception of the value of military force, the footprint of the TA within local society is now so reduced in comparison to the ubiquity of the presence even into the 1960s that it is difficult to envisage how it might truly recapture a central role in the projection of military values and the civil and social benefits still envisaged. There are now just 341 remaining TA centres often relocated to the peripheries of communities and, though the Strategic Review of Reserves acknowledges the need to restructure the TA estate on a national and demographic basis, it noticeably values ‘well directed and co-ordinated activity’ above the ‘geographical footprint’.

Beyond the traditional boundaries

The difficulty has been exacerbated by the 1996 legislation. Moreover, the 1998 Strategic Defence Review defined a new mission for the army of defence diplomacy by which force could be used ‘to dispel hostility, build and maintain trust and assist in the development of democratically accountable armed forces’. Abstract declarations of internationalism do not matter when military intervention on such grounds results in a minimum commitment of short duration. It matters a great deal when military forces have been committed to a seemingly open-ended conflict and are sustaining significant casualties on what appear to be dubious or even manufactured grounds for seemingly intangible objectives.

From the point of view of the TA, the potential sacrifice of employment, family life and life itself now required has come at a much lower level of conflict than has been regarded traditionally as in the national interest. The All-Party Parliamentary Reserve Forces Group observed in June 2007 that TA integration with the army ‘must never be done at the expense of integration with the civilian world’. It might be suggested, however, that it is a battle already lost whatever the expectations of the Strategic Review of Reserves. Recent events have shown increasing public support for servicemen and servicewomen returning from Iraq or Afghanistan but this is unlikely to be translated into any longer-term rebuilding of the kind of high profile the TA and, by extension, the army once had in the wider community.

The effect of changes since the 1990s has resulted in a regular army that cannot sustain operations in situations well short of a national emergency without the support of the TA. On average, Territorials have made up around 10-12 per cent of the army personnel deployed on active operations since 2003 though the proportion has been much higher in individual units. The Public Accounts Committee estimated in November 2005 that only sixty-three per cent of the trained TA personnel necessary to support large scale military preparations would be immediately available as a result of this level of deployment. Over 8,000 Territorials – there are now only about 31,000 – are not currently available for redeployment for some years. It is part and parcel of the performance since 1997 of probably the most pitifully mediocre politicians ever to preside over the Ministry of Defence.

At its centenary, therefore, the TA is under greater pressure from operational deployments than at ay time in its history outside of the two world wars and, at the same time, it is smaller than at any time in its history. From the point of view of the army, it is no doubt more fit for purpose than at any time in the past but that has come at a price: the loss of the ability to preserve the volunteer’s connection with his local community.

Ian Beckett is Honorary Visiting Professor in Military History, University of Kent.

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

Explore our related content