Farewell to arms

The Army is short of new recruits, but retention of personnel is a much bigger problem

Eleanor Doughty

As you come over Hammersmith Flyover towards London, it’s there, in big red letters. “Snowflakes . . . your Army needs you and your compassion”. This, of course, is one of the new Kitchener-style recruiting posters put out last month by the British Army, which is desperately short of new recruits. It has certainly got people talking.

Conservative MP and former Royal Artillery officer Johnny Mercer described it as “clever . . . If you don’t get it, it’s probably not aimed at you”. But one Household Division soldier was less upbeat. “It makes me feel that the serious organisation that I am part of is a joke, that recruiting is a joke.”

Army recruitment is not in an optimal state. The force should have 82,000 trained soldiers; instead, according to one former defence chief, it is closer to 75,000. Issues with attracting new recruits have been blamed on Capita, the outsourcing firm that, in 2012, was awarded a ten-year contract to deliver recruitment services. Yet Capita has consistently failed to hit its targets. But problems with retention can’t be blamed on outsourcing. Now that personnel must wait until pensionable age to claim their booty, rather than receive it upon retirement after 22 years’ service, motivation to stay is dropping. Says one soldier of a decade’s service: “I could leave the army in 12 months time, or in 12 years time, and the benefit would be the same.” Other perks are decreasing too. “When I joined I used to get free optical care, and free glasses,” says another. “The army still pays for my eye tests, but now I have to buy my own glasses. It’s little things like that.” Some senior officers bat away these problems. One non-commissioned officer has another view. It is striking, he says, that the Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Mark Carleton-Smith is an Old Etonian, and his predecessor, General Sir Nick Carter, now Chief of the Defence Staff, a Wykehamist. “That’s your retention problem right there—the army is run by people for whom money is not an issue.”

Maintaining a sense of purpose is hard, too, in peacetime. One soldier describes the “pointlessness” of service today. “The Royal Engineers build bridges so that the infantry can cross them to get the battlefields. If there are no battlefields, there’s no need for the engineers to build bridges, and no need for the infantry to cross them.” One Royal Artillery officer complains of feeling useless, dreaming of civilian life “earning money, and actually doing some work.” A cavalryman sighs: “Now so many people are leaving, why would anyone want to join?” Why, indeed.

Underrated: Abroad

The ravenous longing for the infinite possibilities of “otherwhere”

The king of cakes

"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"