The Commonwealth Division
by Garry Toffoli
There is a scene from the movie Camelot when the brotherhood of the Round Table is no more, in which King Arthur expresses the hope that future generations will remember and be inspired by “the one brief, shining moment” when Camelot existed. There was another “brief, shining moment” when the Queen’s modern knights were united in a just cause. It too, is no more, but also remains as an example. It was the moment when the 1st Commonwealth Division fought in the Korean War.
This essay is not a history of the Korean War, nor even an account of the various battles involving the Division, but rather a look at a Commonwealth institution in terms of its creation, organisation, and experience as an expression of the Commonwealth spirit. By necessity, it can only be a brief outline of the force. To put the Division into an understandable context, a short summary of the Korean War may be useful.
Korea was once a great empire, but by the 20th century had fallen to the status of a dependency of the Japanese Empire. In 1910, Korea was officially absorbed into that empire. At the end of World War II, it was occupied by the American and Soviet forces and artificially divided along the 38th parallel for the simple reason that it was administratively convenient to do so. It was intended by the United Nations that democratic elections would be held, and Korea united as one country, but the Cold War got in the way, the Soviets refused to hold elections, the Americans held elections in the South alone, and the Soviets declared the North a separate country. By 1950, Soviet and American forces had left Korea, leaving behind a large and powerful North Korean army and a relatively small and weak South Korean army respectively.
On 25th June, 1950, the North invaded the South and drove the Southern forces back. The Americans appealed to the United Nations to support the South. Fortunately, the Soviet Union was at the time boycotting the Security Council because Nationalist China, instead of Communist China, was a member, so the UN supported the South and there was no Soviet veto. The UN called on member countries to come to the aid of the South, and the response was extensive.
While the majority of land, naval and air forces came from the United States, the following is the roll of other countries eventually involved: land forces from Australia, Belgium, Canada, Colombia, Ethiopia, France, Greece, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand, the Philippines, Thailand, Turkey, and the United Kingdom; naval forces from Australia, Canada, Colombia, France, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Thailand, and the United Kingdom; air forces from Australia, Canada, Greece, South Africa, and Thailand; and non-combatant medical forces from Denmark, India, Italy, Norway, and Sweden. The non-Korean, non-American land forces were equivalent to about three divisions, of which the Commonwealth contributed a third.
The North pushed the South back to a mere toehold around the port of Pusan, when the first American and UN forces arrived. The overall commander, General Douglas MacArthur, launched a brilliant amphibious attack at Inchon on the west coast, near Seoul, and well behind the Communist lines, simultaneous with an attack from Pusan. This shattered the Communist forces and drove them back past the 38th parallel with the UN in pursuit. The UN drove on to the Chinese border, intending to wipe out the Northern forces and unify the country.
As the UN forces neared China however, the Chinese saw them as a threat. It is now generally agreed that the Chinese might have accepted the situation, had MacArthur’s forces stopped well back of the Chinese border. In any event, the Chinese forces swept across the Chinese-North Korean border and drove the UN forces south once again, past the 38th parallel, before they were stopped. MacArthur, who wanted to bomb China, was dismissed, but that is not the concern of this essay. The UN forces were able to push the Chinese forces back just north of the 38th parallel eventually, and the line stabilised at this point. The war bogged down to trench warfare and raiding, dangerous but unspectacular, while armistice talks dragged on for two years until the summer of 1953 when the war was stopped with a ceasefire, still in effect today, though officially there has been no peace treaty to end the conflict.
Commonwealth co-operation in wartime was far from novel, and can be said to have originated in the South African campaign at the turn of the 20th Century. In the First and Second World Wars, Canadian and other Commonwealth forces served under overall British command, and inter-Commonwealth units, such as the Anzac Corps, earned a place in history. In these cases however, the pattern was for Commonwealth units to serve in larger brigades, divisions, corps or armies, whose command unit was entirely, or primarily, British. The Commonwealth Division was to be different. It was a truly integrated body drawn from the Commonwealth. While the British made the largest contribution and provided the commander, the British were in the role of first among equals, not the mother country.
The Commonwealth Division did not emerge fully developed, but evolved in two stages. The British government agreed to provide two battalions for Korea, while Canadian and Australian authorities also committed themselves to forces. The Chief of the Canadian General Staff had first suggested the Commonwealth units be grouped into one brigade, and this won British support. The Canadian government was leery however, emphasising that the Canadian troops were not going to Korea on behalf of the Commonwealth, but on behalf of the United Nations, and did not wish to suggest otherwise by the name of the Brigade or, subsequently, the Division. They had no objection to the practical benefits of uniting the Commonwealth troops, however. The name settled on was the First (Commonwealth) – with Commonwealth only in parentheses – Division, United Nations Forces in Korea. The parentheses were quickly forgotten, and the trailer at the end ignored, so that the organisation was known simply at first as the 27th British Commonwealth Brigade, and later, after expansion, as the 1st Commonwealth Division.
The initial 27th Brigade originally consisted of two British infantry battalions – one English and one Scottish – 1Bn, The Middlesex Regiment (Duke of Cambridge’s Own), which had fought with Canadians at Hong Kong in 1941; and 1Bn, The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders (Princess Louise’s); one Australian, 3Bn, The Royal Australian Regiment; one Canadian, 2Bn, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry; 16th Field Regiment, Royal New Zealand Artillery, and the 60th Indian Field Ambulance.
The Patricias had arrived in Korea in January, 1951, and were placed under the command of the Commonwealth Brigade in mid-February, coming into contact with enemy forces for the first time shortly after.
In late June, 1951, when the British and then Canadian and Australian contributions expanded, the Commonwealth Division became operational. This consisted of the 27th British Commonwealth Brigade as described, except that the Canadian battalion was withdrawn and replaced by a second Australian battalion and it was renamed the 28th Commonwealth Brigade; the 29th British Brigade, which was entirely British, and the 25th Canadian Brigade, which was entirely Canadian. The divisional headquarters staff was drawn from all forces and integrated. It consisted of about seventy British personnel, eight officers and fourteen other ranks from Canada, and similar numbers from Australia and New Zealand. Britain provided the artillery staff, a field engineer regiment, a divisional signal regiment, and a Royal Army Service Corps column.
Canadian signalmen and other troops who would normally have supported an independent brigade, but were not needed by a brigade that was part of a division, were also allocated to the larger Commonwealth units at division level.
On the 6th February, 1952, King George VI died, and Queen Elizabeth II acceded to the Throne. Divisional officers wore mourning armbands, and paraded to swear allegiance to their new Sovereign. Official functions and entertainment were postponed, and the general mess activities were toned down. The 1st Commonwealth Division were the last troops to fight for the King who had incarnated the British and Commonwealth spirit in the dark days against the Nazis, and the first to fight for the new Queen.
On 2nd June, 1953, Elizabeth II was crowned Queen, and the Commonwealth Division, like the nations it represented, celebrated. The Division held a ceremonial parade, which was watched by the President of South Korea, Syngman Rhee. The Canadian Brigade provided an extra rum ration for the troops, which “provided the wherewithal for a toast to Her Majesty”. The Canadians were opposite an enemy position known as Hill 227. The guns of 81st Field Regiment, Royal Canadian Artillery, and the tanks of Lord Strathcona’s Horse (Royal Canadians), joined in the occasion by firing a salute of red, white, and blue smoke shells at “two humps known to be occupied by the enemy”. The diarist of the artillery recorded that “when it was fired, the Chinamen came out of their trenches to have a look at it”. The divisional artillery as a whole also fired a 101-gun Coronation salute pointed towards the enemy but plotted so that the shells would fall on dead ground. The gunners were ordered, “Be careful not to hit the Chinese”, for as one officer explained, “We didn’t think that it would be quite sporting to hit them with the Queen’s salute.”
When Cardinal Heenan visited Canadian troops in Korea, he commented that the American troops he visited had displayed photos of various popular pin-up girls in their quarters, but that the Canadian troops, instead, had pictures of the young Queen.
The Queen was also involved in two other ways with the Canadian contingent. During her 1951 tour of Canada as Princess, she and the Duke of Edinburgh reviewed guards of honour in Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal, and Quebec provided by the third battalions of the three regular Canadian regiments. These battalions had been formed from surplus recruits for the Korean force, and were serving as the replacement holding battalions. Eventually they were confirmed as operational battalions and took the third tour of duty in Korea. Canadians rotated whole units instead of individuals as in the American forces.
The expansion of the army also saw the eventual creation of regular battalions of the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada, and the Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) of Canada, and the creation of a new regiment, the Canadian Guards. The latter was formed through the efforts of the Canadian Chief of the General Staff, Lt Gen. Guy Simonds, to mark the Queen’s assumption of the title Queen of Canada, and Her Majesty became their Colonel-in-Chief. The 4th battalion of the regiment took the fourth tour of duty in 1954. Although hostilities had by then ceased, so no battle honour could be granted, it was the first action for the Canadian Guards. Also in 1953, His Royal Highness The Duke of Edinburgh became the Colonel-in-Chief of The Royal Canadian Regiment.
In the spring of 1953, the Division acquired a further international character, and the Queen acquired some unique soldiers. The previous year, it had been decided to incorporate into the Division Korean soldiers who could not be accommodated by the existing South Korean Army units. Roughly 100 Koreans were integrated into each battalion of the Division on the basis of three per section. These troops were known as Katcoms (Korean Augmentation to Commonwealth), and it was hoped that this plan would allow the Koreans to eventually take greater responsibility for their own defence. There was some handwringing before the plan was implemented, over difficulties such as smaller uniforms, since such a scheme had never been tried by the Canadian Army at least, but it proved successful.
On the subject of racial integration, much has been said in recent years regarding Canadians’ alleged racist attitude towards Japanese-Canadians in World War II, and to a significant degree the criticism is merited. The internment of the latter in the Second World War was unacceptable and unjustified. The implication, however, has been that Canadians were as bad, or worse, than the Americans in their attitudes. In the Korean War, the Commonwealth base was in Japan, and the following passage from the official Canadian history of the war is interesting regarding Canadian and American attitudes towards the Japanese:
Inevitably, many [soldiers] ran foul of the Japanese police, but the greatest problem facing the Canadian commanding officers was a practice that developed of contracting marriages according to Japanese laws and setting up after-duty house-keeping in Japanese accommodation. This practice in itself was not so much frowned on as were the consequences that flowed from it. No provision had been made for such marriages and no marriage allowances or dependents’ benefits had been provided for. As a result, a soldier who found himself in this position, was often tempted to trade military stores for living expenses. When it became apparent in Ottawa that this was a problem requiring solution, enquiries were made in Washington to find out what US service regulations had to say on this matter. In a wire despatched from Canadian Army Staff on 26 April, 1951, the American position was outlined:
“US service regulations provide for the movement of dependents … exception to the above is in the case of Orientals. Because of strange marriage customs and other reasons, service authorities do not recognize marriage with Orientals as being legal. Consequently any serviceman who marries an Oriental must transport her to USA at own expense.”
This solution did not appeal to the authorities in Ottawa in spite of the fact that it was pointed out by Lieutenant-Colonel Campbell of No. 2 Canadian Administrative Unit in Kure, that “a religious marriage ceremony has no legal significance in Japanese law”. All that was required was for the girl’s family to agree to the union, and to enter the facts concerning the marriage in the family register maintained at the offices of the municipalities where they were domiciled. Further, in 1951, no peace treaty [with Japan] had been signed. This situation complicated the immigration aspects of permitting Japanese war brides to accompany their husbands back to Canada at rotation time. However these, and other obstacles, were gradually cleared away; the Judge Advocate General was quick to point out that since this type of marriage was performed according to the laws of the country, there was no question as to its legality.
The Commonwealth Division was a successful organisation, and to honour the men and women who served in it, or with the other services in Korea, the Queen’s approval for a new Commonwealth service award, the Korea Medal, was announced on 28th April, 1952, the first new award of her reign.
The Korean War also saw the last major award to Canadians of the Sovereign’s traditional honours, which have now been supplanted by “distinctive” Canadian honours. In the War, the following honours were received by the Canadian Army: 1 – Companion of the Order of the Bath, 3 – Commanders of the Order of the British Empire, 8 – Distinguished Service Orders, 17 – Officers of the Order of the British Empire, 58 – Members of the Order of the British Empire, 1 – Royal Red Cross, 33 – Military Crosses, 1 – Distinguished Flying Cross, 1 – Associate Royal Red Cross, 7 – Distinguished Conduct Medals, 1 – Bar to the Distinguished Conduct Medal, 1 – George Medal, 53 – Military Medals, 21 – British Empire Medals. In addition, 21 American and 6 Belgian honours were received by individuals. These totals do not include Royal Canadian Navy and Royal Canadian Air Force figures.
In 1951, the 27th Commonwealth Brigade fought a ferocious and heroic battle at and around Kap’yong during the UN retreat. Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, The Royal Australian Regiment, and The Gloucestershire Regiment all received Presidential Unit Citations from the United States for gallantry. The award, now borne proudly by the Patricias, raised concerns at the time from Canadian officials. The section in the official history, published in 1966, just before “Canadian honours” came into vogue, is worth quoting in its entirety:
While the new training absorbed most of the energies of the 2nd Patricias, a difficulty arose over the sort of distinction they were to wear as an emblem of the US Distinguished Unit Citation they had been awarded for the action at Kap’yong. The American policy in this matter was that all members of a unit present in the particular operation would wear the emblem, a dark blue watered silk ribbon in a gilt frame, in perpetuity, while all soldiers subsequently posted to the unit would wear it while they were on strength. In addition, a blue streamer with the name of the action in white was borne on their colour pike.
The British, after the Gloucesters had received a similar award for their action on the Imjin of the same date, decided quite speedily to allow the wearing of the emblem, though modifying the US practice slightly. Instead of the emblem being worn on the right breast, it would be worn on both sleeves just below the unit title.
The Canadian Army, however, had been reluctant to recognise the award at all, and the emblem, which resembled a decoration, was even less acceptable, the CGS making reference as justification, to a “war-time policy” of not accepting “unit” awards. But the war-time policy, the result of an offer of the French government to award the Croix de Guerre to the Régiment de la Chaudière, and the “Canadian” policy in declining the award was, in actual fact, the policy of the GOC-in-C 21st Army Group. To complicate matters, General Van Fleet, as Commanding General, Eighth Army, had already made the award, by publishing it in his orders.
The award and citation had appeared for the first time on 23 June, in Eighth Army General Order No. 453. Authorities in Ottawa first heard of it through press reports emanating from Japan. Even the recipients of the honour were in ignorance. On 28 June, Brigadier Rockingham wired the Adjutant General stating that he had received a telegram from the Mayor of Toronto that “Two PPCLI has been awarded a US Presidential unit citation. Can you confirm?” Major-General Macklin, in reply, pointed to the wide publicity given the award in the Canadian press, adding: “you seem to be like wronged husband, the last to know”, but Rockingham stuck to his guns, wiring on 30 June, “There are two wronged husbands, CO 2 PPCLI and I.”
The truth seemed to be that Van Fleet, who was empowered by his office to confer this award on any unit in his command, did not realise that Canadians could not accept the award in this manner, and were not even on the distribution list of Eighth Army General Orders. The acceptance of foreign awards is the sole prerogative of the Sovereign, and Canada could not acknowledge the honour until permission had been obtained.
On 27 October, 1951, four months after the Eighth Army announcement of the award, it was published in the Canada Gazette. As for the insignia, His Majesty, acting on the recommendation of the Canadian government, approved the “streamer” for mounting on the Colours, but made no mention of the blue emblem to be worn by the troops. Rightly or wrongly, there was a feeling in Ottawa arising out of the Second World War, that decorations given to entire battalions were too easy to acquire. Efforts were made to ensure that in future, Canada would be asked before such awards were granted. Brigadier Fleury wired the AG:
“I have addressed informal but pointed remarks on military courtesy in relation to honours and awards to Chief of UN Liaison Section GHQ”
It appears that military circles in Canada regarded this type of award and its method of presentation as without precedent in Canadian military experience; never before had a Canadian formation served directly under a US Army Commander. The pressures that developed in the press and from the theatre of operations to grant the wearing of the emblem (the Gloucesters in Korea were wearing it on the sleeves of their uniforms), were successfully resisted for some years. Finally however, on 21 February 1956, authority was granted for the wearing of the emblem, to be worn on both sleeves with entitlement to follow US regulations. On 9 June 1956, Mr Livingston T Merchant, the US Ambassador, decorated the 2nd PPCLI colour with the streamer and presented the Distinguished Unit emblem.
As a footnote, Canadian unit citations were introduced in the Canadian Armed Forces in 2000 in two degrees, largely based on the American model, as the Commander-in-Chief Unit Commendation and the Canadian Forces Unit Commendation. Perhaps the introduction can be justified as a way of honouring units for engagements in modern conflicts that do not meet the standards expected for full battle honours but merit recognition. But the senior of the two Canadian unit commendations should more properly have been named the Queen’s Unit Commendation and not named after Her Majesty’s administrator, the Governor-General, who is the Commander-in-Chief.
Hostilities in Korea ended on 27th July, 1953, though the fourth and last rotation of Canadian troops took place between October and the spring of 1954. The operational role of the Canadian brigade ended on 8th November and its headquarters “closed down” on 2nd December. The 28th British Commonwealth Brigade left Korea about the same time, while the headquarters of 29th British Brigade became the “divisional HQ” of the nominal division which now consisted of one British, one Canadian, and one Australian battalion, a New Zealand transport company, a Canadian field ambulance and British artillery, engineers and support troops. This was subsequently reduced to a battalion-sized Commonwealth contingent. In June, 1957, the last of the force departed Korea, the last of the Canadians being a medical detachment. According to the official historian, “Under the firm, cheerful and imaginative guidance of successive British commanders, the division achieved a remarkable degree of homogeneity.”
The Korean president sent the following message: “To all the officers and men of the British Commonwealth Contingent: It is with profound appreciation for their exceptionally meritorious service that the Korean people bid farewell to the British Commonwealth Contingent … I want to say that we are genuinely sad that you are leaving our country. Behind, you leave 1133 comrades, marked by the cross, where never a Britisher fought before. We know that you share with us a deep-felt desire to carry on the good fight of faith in the cause of freedom, and will continue to serve the ideals and objectives we jointly cherish.”
In 1984, during the Queen’s tour of Canada, Her Majesty re-dedicated the Cenotaph in Toronto, which had added the name Korea, and the dates 1951-1953. In 1991 the Canadian Korea Voluntary Service Medal was created for veterans, featuring the crowned image of Her Majesty on the obverse of the medal.
What, if any, is the future for a Commonwealth Division type formation? Despite its success in Korea, and the truism that nothing is impossible, the likelihood of such a unit in the future is limited. There are three hypothetical reasons why such a group might be formed. One is for Commonwealth-directed purposes. The second is to fulfil some undertaking of joint concern to the strategic interests of a number of Commonwealth countries. A third is for service with the United Nations again or in a UN authorised operation.
Within the Commonwealth, there are no obvious areas where a joint armed force of significant size might be requested by the Commonwealth Secretariat. Commonwealth countries are as frequently threatened by each other as looking to each other for help. India and Pakistan come immediately to mind.
At the 1985 Commonwealth Conference in The Bahamas, Grenada suggested that a Commonwealth standing force be created to defend the smaller countries, such as Grenada, from attack by outside powers. The suggestion was met by a deafening silence from the countries that would presumably provide the forces. In the 21st Century, however, Canada has taken a more active role (though under American leadership) in defending the Commonwealth Caribbean countries from drug cartels and other criminals, and Australia and New Zealand play a similar role for the Pacific Ocean Commonwealth countries. And Britain maintains an interest in all the smaller Commonwealth countries. Britain sometimes works with Canada and with Australia and New Zealand respectively in these tasks but, to date, all four major Commonwealth realms have not developed a collective approach involving them all as in Korea. Their actions have been unilateral if sometimes co-ordinated.
Canada, which is both an Atlantic and Pacific country, is the natural strategic link between Britain and Australia/New Zealand, but shows no inclination to pursue such a destiny. It is officially allied with Britain through NATO, and, until the 1990s, was the only country in the Commonwealth that permanently maintained troops in a combat unit with Britain. This unit was the Allied Command Europe Mobile Force, or AMF, which was tasked to defend the northern or southern flanks of NATO. One brigade was on call, though its units were scattered in their home countries, except for regular exercises for the north. Canada contributed an infantry battalion.
The AMF was the closest thing in the West to the old Commonwealth Brigade and Division, as it was a fully integrated force. But the basis of this British/Canadian unit was not the Commonwealth, but NATO. The brigade also included battalions and other units from the United States and continental European countries. Since the end of the Cold War it no longer functions.
Canada maintains no official alliance with either Australia or New Zealand, though, as mentioned, it works with them periodically in adhoc coalitions.
Is a training, rather than an operational brigade, possible? Yes, but the prospects have been limited over the past half-century. Britain and Canada have had reasons to train together, as have Australia and New Zealand, but there has been little common ground for all of them training together regularly on a large scale. War in Europe, which is now considered unlikely anyway, would have been different from war in Oceania, and the countries’ forces were organised on different grounds as a result. Even basic equipment such as rifles, which had always been common to the four forces (except for the ill-fated Canadian Ross rifle), is no longer similar. The current generation of rifles includes a short-barrelled Enfield rifle in Britain, a more traditional American-designed Colt rifle in Canada, and a very continental, Austrian-designed rifle for Australia and New Zealand. Commonwealth friendship will result in the countries exchanging troops for training and co-operation, but nothing on a large scale.
As part of NATO again, Britain and Canada do maintain some close training ties. The British Army uses the Suffield Base in Alberta to train battalion size and larger, forces, but this is not a joint programme – Canada simply provides the land, and had previously done the same for Germany in Manitoba. The Royal Air Force has also trained its fighter pilots at Gander in Labrador, along with Germany and the Netherlands. Canada had expanded this arrangement into a NATO training base, a sort of graduate-level version of the British Commonwealth Air Training Programme. Again however, the basis of the co-operation has nothing to do with the Commonwealth, or our shared monarchy, but is based on NATO and has actually diminished in the post – Cold War era.
Of course, one should not disparage these arrangements. Co-operation in NATO is good for Canada, and Canada and Britain find it easier to co-operate because of their Commonwealth relationship, and, if NATO helps maintain our ties with Britain, so much the better. But we must not fool ourselves. We will not stay in, or get out of NATO, as a result of Commonwealth sentiment.
Within the United Nations, Commonwealth countries at present and in the future will likely continue to work together, such as the Canadians and British did in Cyprus, but they do not do so in Commonwealth units as such, and it is hard to imagine the United Nations agreeing to fight another war such as in Korea. Peacekeeping remains the likely scenario, and the numbers are usually small. In light of the desire to balance East and West, developed and third-world countries in these groups, an entirely Commonwealth force is not in the cards. And peacekeeping has not been fashionable in the 21st Century for most Western armed forces anyway. It is usually left to non-NATO and third-world armies now.
Peacemaking in recent years, as in the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan is sometimes endorsed by the United Nations but organised by NATO or other coalitions, usually under American leadership. It perhaps offers greater prospects for Commonwealth co-operation and the closest parallel to Korea. But in Afghanistan Canadians served directly under US and NATO command. In Iraq Canada stayed out while Britain and Australia served under the Americans. The Americans, who tend to lead these operations, would probably not really wish to have a large unified Commonwealth contingent. They seem to prefer smaller international groups integrated within their own larger contingents.
The so-called “War on Terrorism” if it continues may however change the situation for the Commonwealth countries, with further calls for co-operative action against terrorists, international upheavals and threats to the “civilised” world in which geographical distances between the countries are diminished in significance. The reason for this is that the locations for actions, as in Korea, are not directly connected to geographical proximity – an example being Afghanistan. As in Korea, countries are coming together for principles and strategic concerns that transcend their immediate geographical concerns. And the tactics of “asymmetrical warfare” against terrorists and insurgents is resulting in the re-organisation and re-training of troops once again and now along similar lines in the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia, in a change from the Cold War. The British Army has been converted to an expeditionary amphibious and air transportable force, as have the Australian and the Canadian (minus the amphibious capacity in the Canadian case).
But is there a will to form an ongoing Commonwealth contingent? One cannot see it yet. It was reported that Britain had suggested that Commonwealth troops in Afghanistan operate as a combined unit as in Korea but Canada had said no. And after Iraq and Afghanistan will the people of Britain, Canada and Australia be prepared to support military operations of even that size in the foreseeable future? The scenario that might bring it about would be the result of a negative concern rather than a positive inspiration. If the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and possibly New Zealand all happened to agree to serve in a future operation in a force dominated by the United States they might decide to join together to put a cushion between themselves and the Americans and thus form a joint brigade or division. But, as mentioned, that did not happen in Afghanistan, which was one such situation.
In 2010 a British naval journal did advocate the creation of a standing Commonwealth naval force to face future naval threats. It made a compelling case, and perhaps a standing Commonwealth military force might also be justified. From a strictly naval or military perspective there is no reason not to consider the proposal. But in the three years since there is no evidence that any of the Commonwealth countries have pursued the journal’s suggestion.
The reality is that it would require a political desire for closer political ties between the countries of the Commonwealth to happen first before such naval or military co-ordination or integration could be initiated. That political desire existed, at least to a sufficient degree, in 1951; it does not exist today; there is no certainty of it emerging in the near future.
But political views and directions often seem permanent and remain unchanged for decades and then suddenly are altered; the fall of Communism and the rise of radical Islamic terrorism being two recent examples. A hundred years ago few would have predicted that, with a common history, a pattern of regular Imperial Conferences and an Imperial War Cabinet in World War One, close Commonwealth military co-operation, which was the norm, would not continue indefinitely. But the world changed during and after World War II and the close co-operation and integration did not continue to anywhere near the same degree subsequently. Today one cannot see it being restored to the level of 1951 or earlier, but it may happen unexpectedly if circumstances change once again.
But unless and until that currently non-existent political will emerges to direct the military change, the Commonwealth Division will remain “one brief, shining moment”, like King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table.
Copyright (c) 2013 Garry Toffoli