Tradition surrendered

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 August, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 August, 1999, 12:00am

The last bugle was sounded on an annual military pageant last week as Britain's armed forces find growing commitments in hotspots such as the Balkans leave them little time to entertain the public.

For the last 120 years, the main public showcase for the armed forces' skills has been provided by an annual spectacular known as the Royal Tournament which featured marching bands and demonstrations of military traditions.

Each year thousands of school parties would troop along to the Earls Court arena in west London to witness mock battles and competitions designed to display the strength and stamina of those in uniform.

The event, spread over two weeks, attracted about 200,000 spectators each year and was used to help raise funds for service charities and hopefully inspire youngsters to aspire to a career in the army, navy or air force.

The Royal Hong Kong Regiment (The Volunteers) took part in the spectacular in 1996 as a tribute to their contribution to the British military, and over the years dozens of other friendly nations have lent troops to participate.

But recent displays have left spectators criticising the spectacle for being outdated and dull, with demonstrations of mounted military bands and gymnasts forming human pyramids balanced on motorcycles having little relevance to the modern military.

Many of the regular features were throwbacks to the forces role in defending the British Empire including one regular highlight which owed its history to Britain's war in South Africa at the beginning of the century.

The field gun race saw teams of sailors racing against each other to disassemble a gun and limber weighing almost two tonnes and lugging it across an obstacle course before putting it back together and firing a dummy round.

One critic pointed out the event proved little more than that the British Armed Forces were better at dismantling and re-assembling 19th century weaponry than anyone else in the world.

Training for this field gun race alone was estimated to take up 16,000 man-days by the teams selected from the Royal Navy and senior officers have complained their crews could be spending their time more usefully.

This year more than 2,000 personnel were involved in the event, some of them being taken away from units fulfilling Britain's international responsibilities.

Announcing the demise of the tournament, Defence Secretary George Robertson said it was time to re-invent and re-invigorate the shop window of Britain's military mission with a more relevant and modern event and said this year's pageant which finished last week would be the last.

Despite protests from traditionalists who have made the event an annual pilgrimage Mr Robertson decided that soldiers, sailors and airmen, had better things to do than entertain the public with marching bands and displays of horsemanship.

In fact General Sir Roger Wheeler, the Chief of the General Staff, has warned the shortage of troops is such that Britain might not be able to maintain its current commitment to Nato forces in both Bosnia and Kosovo let alone spare soldiers for public displays.

Nearly 50 per cent of the army is now on operational duty leaving the military more over-stretched than at any time for the past 50 years.

Sir Roger said that with 4,500 troops in Bosnia and about 9,500 in Kosovo the army simply would not have soldiers available to fulfil other roles.

There is currently a shortfall of about 6,000 troops as fewer men and women are drawn to a life that promises poor pay and uncomfortable conditions often requiring them to be separated from their families for much of the year.

British troops based in hotspots such as Kosovo are paid less than many of their Nato colleagues and often have to serve longer in uncomfortable postings with less frequent home leave.

Dissatisfaction by those who have signed up is shown by the outflow of troops which currently sees about 10 per cent of expensively trained soldiers packing their kit bags and departing the ranks each year.

Desperate attempts to sign up more soldiers have seen the army open up recruitment desks in night clubs and relaxing criteria to allow those with criminal records to join up.

But despite the shortage of soldiers, the Ministry of Defence has promised it will still satisfy the public's demand for pageantry.

Next year the Royal Tournament will be replaced by a sound and light show organised by the armed forces and intended to demonstrate their new hi-tech capabilities.

Details are still being worked out but the modern major generals hope some recruits will be persuaded that the army offers a future and not just a colourful history.