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There are many reasons to read A History of the Artists Rifles. The winged dagger of the SAS might catch the eye, hinting at as yet untold secrets of the birth of Britain’s special forces. The seeming incongruity of Artists and Rifles might pique the interest, promising amusing tales of artistic temperaments thrust into rigid military discipline. Those recognising the regiment might expect a thoughtful consideration of the cognitive diversity that a unit of artists might bring to straightjacketed military thinking. Barry Gregory’s retelling of the history of the Artists Rifles does justice to this collision of identities. One can follow each of these strands yet none of them dominates the book. Modern military histories (cf. Macintyre, Hastings) are no longer tomes brimming with abstruse details of troop numbers and finely detailed tactical actions; readers are more likely learn the stories and personal affectations of the people who shaped the history. Gregory treads a line between these paths: at times a history, at others a biography, Artists Rifles offers something to each reader who picks it up. The SAS moniker and the whiff of celebrity (Edward Thomas, Frederic Leighton, Wilfred Owen and Noel Coward all feature) generate interest but this titillation is hardly needed. The Artists Rifles is one of the most fascinating reserve units in the British Army; one that numbers famous artists, actors and architects in its midst, alongside winners of every award for bravery from the Army and the Air Force. Sadly, this is likely to be last of Gregory’s works published. It was written in 2006 and the author died in 2008. Artists Rifles is an important contribution to the distinguished story of a regiment he served for seven years.
The winged dagger on the front cover is, today, literary clickbait. 21 SAS – one of two reserve special forces units – bears the name ‘Artists’ after the 1947 reorganisation of the Territorial Army brought the Artists Rifles into the UK special forces fold. The eagle-eyed will at once notice that the scope of Gregory’s book ends in 1947; therefore there is vanishingly little told about the exploits of the Artists as part of the SAS. While the regiment has every right to trade off the winged dagger mystique, those whose only interest is in the tales of the nascent SAS ought to skip to p295. There they may be disappointed to find themselves just a few pages from the book’s end.
The many identities of Gregory’s history are evident from the structure. The contents page signals chapters that are biographical, others historical, and the overall sweep is not neatly chronological, but with overlaps between most chapters. It is not a collection of independent essays as there are interdependencies and assumed knowledge in most sections, expecting the reader to know what has come before. The first chapters set the scene. A fascinating chapter on the link between the Royal Academy and the Artists Rifles, satisfying the curiosity of those who approached the book from the artistic angle, follows a protracted chapter explaining the need for reserve forces in the 19th century. We are introduced to many of the significant sites in the capital that will recur throughout: No. 17 Dukes Road, Euston; Burlington House; Hampstead Heath. These initial sections are light on personal details. Gregory deals more with the hard facts of formation, growth, location and equipment which can lend an impersonal feel, but given the vivacity of his later personifications, one suspects that this is down to the sparseness of the historical records.
The chapter on the Boer War relates the conflict in admirable detail but feels too lengthy for this book. What the war did prove was that the Artists Rifles’ links with the arts would not belie its competence as a combat-ready and reliable unit. Succeeding sections tending towards the outbreak of World War 1 build a powerful sense of momentum. Gregory exploits a sense of dramatic irony, rare in non-fiction, as the reader knows what is about to erupt across Europe; yet the indomitable Artists did not, too consumed in their smoking concerts and shooting competitions (with unwanted crockery as targets). A modern operations officer might pore over the Artists Rifles’ plans for mobilisation with fascination, marvelling at how they managed to overcome the twin challenges of the natural diaspora of a reserve unit and a lack of WhatsApp. With the threat of total war and mass mobilisation fortunately absent today, only the plans for the event of the death of a monarch are comparable, covered in captivating (if morbid) detail by Sam Knight here.
The chapters telling the story of the Artists Rifles during World War 1 are the finest in the book. By now the reader is familiar with the yearly rhythm of their annual camps, with the distinguished artists by which the regiment earned its name and with the myriad ‘artistic’ fields from which its members are drawn. For this familiarity the tales of the regiment in the midst of some of the war’s fiercest fighting are all the more gripping. The Artists Rifles’ tactical actions are told vividly and deftly, with just the right balance of detail to satisfy the military yet not tire the casual reader. The Artists were called upon to supply officers to every fighting unit in the Army and did so willingly. Although Gregory tells this episode with humility, the immense human cost of this should not be understated. Young men who had spent time as a private soldier (as the Artists Rifles demanded) before being selected as fit for commission, suddenly sent to an unfamiliar regiment under an unfamiliar cap badge, must have been awed by the task of leading soldiers across battlefields in the Somme, Passchendaele, Verdun. The list of medals for bravery – 8 Victoria Crosses, 822 Military Crosses, 52 Distinguished Service Orders et al. – speak for themselves.1 The close retelling of the service for the fallen held at St Pancras Church on 31 May 1919, with excerpts from the hymns and readings those attending would have heard, is especially moving.
Gregory conveys some sense of the precariousness of the regiment’s existence as post-war reforms swept the Army. The ‘Between the Wars’ chapters are as much a lull in the book as they were for the Artists Rifles and across the armed forces. Although fewer acclaimed artists were members than in the regiment’s heyday, its Great War battle honours and distinctive identity were strong enough to withstand the vicissitudes of the 1920s. With World War 2 looming, a familiar sense of pre-war momentum pervades. The second war is dealt with quickly (covered in a single chapter compared to the seven devoted to 1914-1918), with little of the grandiloquent retelling granted to the first. The more nuanced portraits of the regiment’s significant personalities of the time demonstrate the greater detail of contemporary historical records. Again, post-war years herald the uneasy instability of looming reform, but the future of the Artists Rifles is secured with an intriguingly understated influence campaign on General Urquart, who came to propose that the regiment form part of the SAS. Precious few details are told about how exactly this, the Artists Rifles’ saving grace amidst widespread defence cuts, came to pass.
The collision of identities in the Artists Rifles is alive in the book and at times the book suffers from trying to be all things to all readers. Flashes of Ben Macintyre-esque fantastical retellings jar against stretches of dutifully recounted lists of names and positions. To readers seeking either a ripping yarn retelling a regiment’s story or an academic work of non-fiction, the presence of the opposite grates. However, the book mirrors the regiment. Just as the experience of World War 1 settled the identity of the Artists Rifles – retaining their links with the arts world yet a demonstrably serious fighting unit – similarly it is in retelling the regiment’s first world war experiences that the book’s identity settles. It is a non-fiction account of the regiment’s history, and the vivid personal descriptions are there to illuminate figures that did the most to make the unit what it is today. This is borne out in its format: the book is the ‘academic’ 6” x 9” size, bigger than a typical paperback, slightly too cumbersome to be read from one hand while reclining, more suited to the serious, seated pursuit of knowledge.
Gregory is wise to linger over the details of London locations where the Artists exercised and carried out their duties, as it is these distinctive and extant locations that distinguish them from other reserve units. The focus on notable characters from the regiment’s history does lend it a middle-class veneer, which can leave the reader wondering about the many members who didn’t have post-nominal letters. Exclamation marks can be inconsistent with non-fiction and at times Gregory seems to use them to laugh at his own jokes. He needn’t: the facts alone (statistics from the Somme, Artists’ acts of valour, the 100-mile test aspiring members of the cyclists’ section had to undergo) are startling enough.
Artists Rifles is a story of irrepressible esprit de corps. Gregory’s retelling brings out what is best about the reserve tradition and the regimental system: a meritocratic system that unites people from all walks of life under one purpose. Stories of Artists using the skills from their day jobs in service of the war could be straight from (or have inspired) Blackadder Goes Forth, and the fun of recounting military exercises – if not experiencing them – will be familiar to reservist and regular soldier alike. Gregory’s retelling is sympathetic, humorous and has a keen sense of the details that bring colour to monochrome pictures of the past.
It was never inevitable that the Artists Rifles would one day form part of the UK’s special forces. Few of today’s Commanding Officers need reminding that little is certain amidst the shifting tidelines of political will, defence spending and integrated reviews. However, that one of the Army’s most distinctive and distinguished reserve units not only survives but also thrives today is testament to that esprit de corps – the moral component – that makes the British Army’s regimental system the envy of militaries across the world.