Foreign volunteers

Even if you’re a keen student of military history, you may not have heard of the Royal Air Force Eagle Squadrons. Like a great many… Read More »

Foreign volunteers

Even if you’re a keen student of military history, you may not have heard of the Royal Air Force Eagle Squadrons. Like a great many unusual stories that always emerge as a result of war, they have largely been lost to time, but in my mind, they are some of the greatest American heroes in history, and represent everything that is – or was – magnificent about the United States. 

I could write at length about these chaps, but shall control my dewy-eyed urges and keep it brief. In short, they were Americans who volunteered for service in the RAF before the Americans entered the war, and against the wishes of their government. Some had been pilots in the US military, although if memory serves they were not a majority; they were all, however, united in their belief that the right thing to do was to enlist with the people who were actually fighting the Nazis.

I once asked an American army friend of mine as to why there had never been a movie made about them. What, hot-shot pilots fighting the good fight when their own government didn’t want them to? I’d never heard anything so square-jawed, steely-eyed American. My friend looked at me blankly. “Because,” he said, “they make the rest of us look bad.” And in that, I can see his point. 

They’ve been very much in mind lately with the abundance of foreign volunteers who have travelled to Ukraine. The other – arguably more obvious – comparison is those other figures of history who fought in the Spanish Civil War, but since matters were a little more ad hoc in that case, I shall cheerfully ignore it; after all, the foreigners who have travelled to Ukraine are enlisting in the Kyiv government’s armed forces, not ideological militias. 

The reaction to these brave souls has been – in Britain at least – somewhat mixed. True, I’ve seen a number of people with no military training trudging up to the Ukrainian embassy armed with nothing but good intentions, and thought that they’d be better off volunteering as humanitarian aid workers or simply flinging cash at a reputable charity; it seems the Kyiv authorities think so too, since they’re only asking for people with military experience in their own country. 

Yet even to these, the reception has been lukewarm. The British government itself can’t appear to make its own mind up: Foreign Secretary Lizz Truss’ encouragement is in stark contrast to Defence Minister Ben Wallace’s counsel against anyone hopping over to Poland to enlist. Yet I think the most eloquent arguments were put forward by author Gavin Mortimer in The Spectator:

None of the estimated 60 British volunteers who have entered Ukraine will have experienced the firepower at Russia’s disposal. That includes former British soldiers. Some may have experienced Iraq or Afghanistan, or those longer in the tooth may have served in South Armagh, but none will have been strafed by a MiG fighter jet or targeted by a Grad multiple rocket launcher, capable of firing 40 projectiles in 20 seconds.”

True on all counts. The gunfighting in Ukraine looks to be infinitely more fearsome than anything in Afghanistan or Iraq, and of course, a Russian airstrike or artillery bombardment dwarfs even the largest IED that an Islamist insurgent could create. 

Yet this all rather ignores the fact that there are people fighting in Ukraine whose training has consisted of an hour’s class in how to hold a rifle. Are they better prepared to withstand Russian heavy artillery than a former US Army Ranger or Royal Marine? The Ukrainian people have shown their resilience and their courage, but if I had to choose between former Western professionals who had fought in Afghanistan and a terrified civilian desperate to defend their hometown, I’d go with the chap who at least went through Basic Training.

It takes months to make a professional soldier, and while this can be compensated for to some degree by rage, determination, and life-saving terror, these are not sustainable in the long run. Yes, no British or American soldiers were strafed by jets or hit with artillery, but they do know what it’s like to go on for weeks and months of hardship, without any of the comforts of the modern world, and still be fit and strong enough to fight at the end. Besides, if you’re being hit with Taliban-style small calibre mortars, Russian jets, or heavy artillery, the order is, quite simply “Get the **** down”. 

These are, you’ll probably agree, obvious points, but Mr. Mortimer seems to think that war is a bit like a Dungeons and Dragons board game in which Ukrainian civilians have a “+4 resistance to artillery” characteristic which is denied to British ex-paratroopers. The weakness of his article is that he also seems to use “foreign volunteers” as a blanket term for people who did serve in the armed forces and those who pretended to; his ire in the latter category is justified, but the lack of distinction is sloppy journalism in this writer’s view*.

* A piece on foreign volunteers and ‘how to beat Putin’ can be found in the American edition of The Spectator

You might also have noticed that Russia’s fake news is in full swing: I for one do not believe the tale that 170 out of 200 foreign volunteers fled at the first sight of a Russian tank, especially when even Moscow seems to grudgingly admit that Ukraine’s civilians are holding the line. 

My doubt is not just a result of Russia’s well-known proclivity for lying. A few days ago, I was shown a video from Russia Today (which should tell you everything) by someone who seems oddly enthusiastic for Moscow to win. The clip showed a smug reporter walking around an “abandoned Ukrainian Army camp”, showing that tanks have been left in what the journalist clearly thinks was a panicked retreat, along with unused weapons and unfired ammunition. 

All compelling stuff, let down only by the fact that Russia and Ukraine mostly use the same weapons and equipment. It would have been the easiest trick in the book to walk around an empty Russian camp (or just tell the soldiers therein to stand behind that wall for ten minutes) and claim everything in view was Ukrainian. These are, after all, the same people who produced a “cutting-edge AI-controlled humanoid robot” which later turned out to be a chap in a suit. Any reports that Western military veterans fleeing at the sight of a Russian flag can, therefore, be treated with a high degree of scepticism. 

There are reportedly 20,000 of them now fighting in Ukraine’s ranks, and even if this figure has been exaggerated (which I wouldn’t be entirely sure of) there has clearly been a large influx of foreigners looking to do their bit. Can they have a significant impact? I’m glad you asked, but in order to answer that, I’m afraid I shall have to bore you with another tale from military history. 

China’s Taiping Rebellion, fought between Imperial China and a religious sect who preached a bastardised Christianity, is the second-most deadly war in history, with the number of dead exceeded only by World War 2. The Imperial Army floundered against the organised rebels for the first decade of the war (it lasted for fourteen years), but was given significant backbone by the ‘Ever-Victorious Army’.

Originally founded by an American, Frederick Townsend Ward, it was taken over by Major-General Charles Gordon, later to win immortality by his last stand in Sudan. It was, in essence, a mercenary army, although many of the later additions were Chinese with Western officers commanding them. The full story is long, but the short version is that a force of approximately 5,000 played a key role in ending the second-worst war of all time. 

Foreign volunteers for Ukraine’s ‘international legion’ gather at an administrative building in Lviv.

I am not trying to suggest that the Ukrainian Army is floundering the way that Qing China’s was; demonstrably this is quite the reverse. But what I will say is that even if Ukraine only has half of the 20,000 Western veterans in its ranks it claims, units composed of men like this are not to be dismissed. After all, Russian artillery is not winning this war, and the performance of its infantry has largely been pathetic. 

I would say, then, to Mr. Mortimer and all who think like him, not think of this is as a contrast between an ex-British soldier and a Russian airstrike – rather, consider an ex-British soldier being pitted against a Russian conscript who neither knows why he is fighting, nor really wants to. And the conclusion of that exchange should, I hope, be too obvious to even bother recording here. 

And as for the governments, there should be no discouragement for people looking to fight a war that really matters. Like the Eagle Squadrons of the 1940s, these are people who value their moral duty over any government caution – and as much of affront as that might be to our caution-obsessed Western world, we should consider that there wouldn’t even be a Western world without them.