The Minute Book
Saturday, 20 July 2013

High Seas in a Melmac Cup
Topic: Commentary

Rank badges of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Source: Their Glory Cannot Fade, a souvenir pamphlet published by the Canadian Pacific Railway, Christmas, 1918.
Click on thumbnail images for full size. Images cross-posted from here.

The battle lines are drawing themselves over an issue in the Canadian Army that seems to be self-propagating contentious views. Sadly, its not over the loss of buildings in places like Wolseley Barracks, but rather over the planned change to officers' rank insignia.

It's not worth one's time to trawl through the comments on news media sites, even the CBC, because those discussions seldom don't turn into raving political diatribes. Better to look at internet forums where we find congregated people of similar interests who will discuss issues from a common understanding, even if not common agreement.

Take the British & Commonwealth Military Badge Forum, for example, where in a thread titled "Pips and Crowns re-instated" we find the admission by member servicepub that it was indeed a lobby group that precipitated the Government decision to change Army officers' rank badges. It is most likely that if this had actually been a Canadian Army agenda item, its execution would have swiftly followed, if not preceded, the change to Naval officers' rank insignia in 2010. Granted, the Army has had other priorities for some time now.

The members on the Badge Forum show strong support for the change, but they are a group of collectors, reveling in the intricate design and workmanship of badges. And for many military badges, the finest workmanship and levels of detail are not in basic accoutrements such as officers rank stripes, it is in the older badges like intricate metal crowns and stars (pips is a colloquialism). This is a group that celebrates the past, and works diligently to preserve and honour it. They like the idea of returning to more ornate rank badge styles, and readily agree with the connections this gives to the historical Canadian Armies of the World Wars. But, notably, few of them will be found among the officers subject to any new uniform changes.

In comparison, we can read the exchanges on the forums at Milnet.ca (a.k.a., Army.ca) where a group comprised, in large proportion, of serving members of the CF generate a very different tone.

In the recent pages of a lengthy discussion thread titled "Re-Royalization" (RCN, RCAF & RCEME), renaming, CF to CAF, old badges, and "new" Army Divisions". (Start about page 111 of the thread.) Here the conversation circles less around support for or against the change per se, but more on the timing of such a decision in declared times of austerity. Small change one might argue, but the principle remains. The costs of changing rank insignia could have been the money to give buildings at Wolseley Barracks a few year's reprieve.

The troops at Army.ca also, quite deservedly, feel affronted by the claim that this change somehow restores honour lost at Unification. If that is so, someone hasn't been keeping the military of the past few decades informed that they should be maintaining a sense of lost honour. Instead, they've been in places like the former Yugoslavia, Africa, and Afghanistan forging honour with good steel and lost blood.

But some will ignore the achievements of today's Army because they are too rigidly focused on slights, real and imagined, of the past. Like the British with the retreat from Kabul, Isandlwana, and the Somme in 1916, some Canadians also love to treasure a good tragedy, especially when we can find someone to blame in the distant past and try to fix it in the modern era. Like War of 1812 Battle Honours, Unification of the CF, or the attempts to resurrect the Arrow, there's never a shortage of lobby groups to attack an issue, and when they can convince the Government can use Defence dollars to achieve their dreams, all the better.

There's a certain irony that the sides drawn in this battle don't really exist, or at least aren't mutually opposing. One side declares the change is a "good thing," and having convinced the government to do it, find themselves mystified that the rank and file aren't marching proudly to their victory over Unification. The rank and file, on the other hand, are saying "meh." For them, it just another change to uniforms (and not everyone's anyway). The ones who have a few decades service remember that no-one made any furor over the re-introduction of the coloured "jam label" regimental shoulder titles and brass locket belt buckles on the Garrison Dress in the 1980s. Those also copied badges worn in Italy and North West Europe in the Second World War, and they came and went without a whimper from the 'save our heritage' crowd.

The garrison dress shoulder flash.  The embroidery of the blue and the wide black border with heavy hem stitchery make it distinctive from earlier patterns. Photo by Capt M. O'Leary (Private Collection)

The garrison dress shoulder flash of The Royal Canadian Regiment.

"Change the uniforms?" the troops say, "ok, but don't tell us what we're supposed to think about it."

Today's Army, the one that maintained an incredible pace of operational tempo to meet Canada's expectations in Afghanistan lacks no honour. To imply they do, and that it will be restored by new pips and crowns on officers' shoulders, is a laughable argument. They're not against the change, they're protesting the window dressing of hot air accompanying it and all that it implies about them. They're questioning, among themselves, the contradiction between warnings of austerity measures and an unexpected expense on non-essentials. Regardless, none of them are going to resign their commissions in protest over this one. They'll work through the change and be just as effective afterwards, probably without spending forty years bemoaning it.

Bring on the stars and crowns.

Next, the Canadian Forces, and the Canadian Army, will have a chance to examine the task, devise the insignia (hopefully with appropriate and distinctive Canadian iconography), contract their production, and coordinate their issue. The lobbyists may have sold the plan to Ottawa, but the Army still needs to do the detailed staff work on what will actually be approved and worn, otherwise we might have to ask who's steering this ship.

To anyone who's still reading, can we put this issue to bed now? Let the Directorate of History and Heritage (including the Dress and Ceremonial officer) do their jobs. After that, let the Supply folks do theirs, and then the tailors can get to work.

If you happen to be a big fan of the change, for whatever reason, just don't be surprised when a young officer wearing freshly minted pips doesn't gleefully join you in a good round of damning Hellyer, he probably won't know who that is. Or care. But if your next project is getting the troops good boots, you may find a willing audience.

The Senior Subaltern


Posted by regimentalrogue at 12:01 AM EDT
Updated: Saturday, 20 July 2013 12:07 AM EDT

Sunday, 21 July 2013 - 3:09 PM EDT

Name: "Clive M. Law - Service Publications"
Home Page: http://www.servicepub.com/brooker.html

Michael,

Thanks for the plug in the third para but I need to correct the comment that this was a lobby group. My post in the British & Commonwealth badge forum clearly states "I have been working with a small group, both within DND and outside, to see this happen." 

The initial concept was developed inside the Army (although I had floated the idea of the Star of the Order of Canada to DHH over 20 years ago with not so much as an acknowledgement of my letter.)

Both the former and current Army Heritage Officers have been on this file for a while and the re-introduction of the "Canadian Army" as a name provided much of the impetus. Needless to say, serving officers do not dream up ideas and run with them without official sanction so it is safe to conclude that the Army was involved.

Insofar as the 'outsiders' are concerned, some are historians, some are serving Militia officers and others have served in either the Regular Force or the Reserves. All provided input to the Heritage Officer, based on our specific areas of knowledge (mine happens to be 'material culture') in order to ensure that the Army, once they made the decision, gets it right. None of us 'lobbied' DND and our input was that of Subject Matter Experts.

Best wishes,

Clive (aka 'servicepub')

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