MILITARY / DEFENDING THE COLORS : British Regiments Battle to Survive Deep Budget Cuts


For centuries, the regiment has been the keystone of the British army. Generations of soldiers have fought not just for queen (or king) and country but for regimental honor as well.

Unlike the American army regiment, identified by a mundane number with random assignment of personnel, the British army regiment has always had a descriptive name, a selection process and its own identity, and most are steeped in history.

But today, some regiments are threatened with extinction by the reduced British defense budget, following the end of the Cold War.

With army personnel due to be whittled down by one-third, defense specialists say it is more than likely that some regiments will have to be disbanded or combined with others.

The stiff-upper-lip units will not go without a fight.

"The best regiments have very powerful lobbyists working for them in Parliament, in Whitehall and in high business circles," observed one defense specialist. "They will fight tooth and claw to keep their old regiments from being disbanded."

Some of the more recently formed regiments are considered top-notch militarily and probably won't be affected by budget cuts. These include the Parachute Regiment, which won two Victoria Crosses in the Falklands War, and the anti-terrorist, all-purpose Special Air Service Regiment (SAS).

Because regiments have anywhere from one to three battalions operational, one way to retain many regimental structures would be to pare down extra battalions.

The last major threat to the regiments, a military reorganization in the late 1960s, led to intense lobbying for individual units. The venerable Scottish Argyll regiment, for example, managed to survive by combining with another regiment as the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders.

The history of the regiments parallels much of the history of the nation. The Life Guards date to 1659, when they were formed to support King Charles II. The Blues, whose horses can be seen on guard at London's Whitehall, were organized a year later and won their first battle honors at Tangier in 1662.

Several regiments, including the Foot Guards, fought at the Battle of Waterloo and still toast the victory over gleaming regimental silver at formal mess evenings. Royal Family members are honorary colonels-in-chief of select regiments.

Each infantry and cavalry regiment has its own special uniform, with plumes or braid or spurs--and often with Saville Row tailoring. In civilian dress, the regimental tie is a distinctive item of clothing.

There are 52 serving cavalry and infantry regiments plus four Gurkhas units. But because of their traditions and attractions, some are considered more fashionable--the less grand meanly called "fish-and-chip" regiments.

Those standing highest in the social scale are generally considered to be the Horse Guards, the Life Guards and the Blues and Royals--with their shining helmets and breastplates--and the Foot Guards, the Grenadiers, Coldstreams, Scots, Irish and Welsh.

Guards alumni include such luminaries as former NATO Secretary General Lord Carrington, ex-Deputy Prime Minister Lord Whitelaw and Archbishop of Canterbury Robert A. K. Runcie.

Military experts maintain that the British army regiment is not simply a fancy-dress organization but rather an efficient way of life for soldiers, who are brought into it as recruits and often spend their entire careers there.

"The British regimental system encourages personal loyalty, dedication and esprit de corps ," said one military commentator here. "It would be a great pity to see a fine regiment disbanded."

Or as British author Duff Hart-Davis put it: "I served in the Coldstream Guards for less than two years, almost 35 years ago. But if ever I learn that the regiment is to be disbanded or even to lose one of its two battalions, I shall reckon it a personal as well as a national disaster."

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