Book Review – Red Coat, Green Machine: Continuity in Change in the British Army, 1700-2000

Charles Kirke, Red Coat, Green Machine: Continuity in Change in the British Army, 1700-2000. London: Continuum, 2009. Figures. Bibliography. Index. Appendices. XVI + 240pp.

Kirke has written a book that straddles the fields of social anthropology and military history, bringing a new methodology and a new set of insights to the study of the British Army. He begins by setting out his project and the approach taken. He discusses how his research was into a culture in which he, as a Lieutenant Colonel, was a long-standing and important member, and the care he took to prevent this from influencing the results of his research. He sets out the theoretical framework of his study—his models for categorising and explaining social structures in the British Army, and for doing the same with personal, non-hierarchical relationships and interactions between individuals in the Army. He sets out particular definitions of his terms, but thankfully, he consciously avoids the complex neologisms that are the stereotype of the social sciences and theoretical thinking. To identify terms in the text, he italicises them whenever they appear.

Kirke identifies four social structures in the army: formal command structure, informal structure, loyalty/identity structure and functional structure. The first structure concerns itself with the most recognisable facets of army life, like the chain of command and the issuing of orders. The second is about what happens off the parade ground under less regimented conditions. The third focuses around the definition of ‘we,’ a word with a host of meanings and levels of identification, among which the regiment is very important but by no means all. The last term deals with notions of suitable ‘soldier-like’ behaviour. Within the informal structure, he identifies various kinds of interpersonal relationships between members of the military. They are, in a roughly descending order of intimacy and a roughly ascending order of occurrence: close friendship, friendship, association, informal access, and nodding acquaintance. Each of these terms is given a clear and specific definition, and the borders between each category are explored and made clear with examples; if two men get along well, but neither would invite his comrade on holiday with his family, the relationship is association rather than friendship.

The bulk of the book is devoted to identifying each of Kirke’s classifications in the near-contemporary British Army, the ‘Green Machine’, circa 1970-2000. He examines a number of instances of each of his categories, and notes that although he had kept his mind open to the possibility of a fifth social structure, and indeed spent some time trying to find one, he is quite satisfied with the four he has listed. He makes a similar exploration of his five categories of relationship, and notes that together they provide a good model to describe the behaviour of the modern British army. They are not, he notes, a catch-all, and like any such model there are portions of behaviour they do not touch such as a soldier’s membership of a civilian club, or religious belief, however, they function well to ‘describe, analyse and explain that part of the soldiers’ lives that is spent immersed in the organisational culture of the unit.’ (p. 113)

Kirke then seeks to trace these threads back in time, and while the sources grow more sparse as he looks farther and farther into the past, he is still able to discern examples of each of his categories fully 300 years into the past. The one exception is nodding acquaintance, of which not a single example can be found, probably owing to the distant and unremarkable quality of this mode of relation. Otherwise, the study is carried back through the volumes of evidence from the world wars with little difficulty and back through the many wars of Victoria’s reign with similar facility. It is only in looking at Wellington’s army, and the army of the eighteenth century, that the material begins to wear thin. Nevertheless, Kirke draws from it what he can, without overstating his case, and is able to chart an impressive continuity in the Army’s structures and social relationships over the course of three centuries.

One of the delights of this book (and there are quite a few) is the style of writing. In the wrong hands, an explanation of methodology and models of social analysis could put all but the most determined reader into a deep sleep, but Kirke writes clearly and succinctly, avoids jargon, and peppers both his opening exposition and his later analysis with examples and quotations from interviews and primary sources, as well as episodes from his own experience. His chosen examples are even more effective because they often illustrate more than one principle or category of analysis, and are frequently amusing or touching anecdotes in their own right. If the book has one disappointing facet, it is its brevity. Kirke covers a lot of ground, but the text raises many tantalising avenues for more research, and it would have added to the book’s strength if examples from 1850 onwards had been examined in more detail. However, Kirke himself notes that there are many opportunities to apply his models of analysis in further study, and all but issues an invitation to build on his solid foundations.

The book is accessible to lay readers and serious historians and social scientists alike; to keep the uninitiated on the right track; Kirke explains important things about military life and unit structure briefly in the text, and flags up the essential points of how both his disciplines have typically looked at key issues. Smaller matters are relegated to chapter endnotes, where they can be consulted by those who wish to do so. This provides all of the necessary background without cluttering up the chapter with minor, if fascinating, details, like the notation that an evening of drinking remains fairly tame if it doesn’t involve Zulu Warrior, i.e. ‘a male strip-tease dance to a particular chant.’ This is exactly the sort of detail that a purely academic study might miss and it is part of the book’s considerable charm that it so ably mixes a rigorous academic approach with the insider’s eye for the quirks of an institution. As a piece of history, it is very good indeed and all the more so for tackling the subject from a new angle.

By Andrew Duncan, PhD Candidate, Centre for War Studies, University of Birmingham

You can download a copy of the review here.

Citation: Andrew Duncan, ‘Review of Charles Kirke, Red Coat, Green Machine: Continuity in Change in the British Army 1700-2000’, Birmingham “On War”, 21 January 2013

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