Stephen M. Miller | “Duty or Crime? Defining Acceptable Behavior in the British Army in South Africa, 1899-1902” | 2010

Herbert Kitchener

Kitchener on horseback in The Queenslander Pictorial in 1910.

Crime committed in South Africa by British army during Anglo-Boer conflict kept hidden from public. Comments by Daily Mail’s Edgar Wallace were typical: “Whatever may be said of the Anglo-Boer War or 1899-1902, it must be confessed that never was war waged where so much humanity was displayed on both sides as in that war!” Notion reinforced three decades later, J.F.C. Fuller, The Last of the Gentleman’s Wars.

One subject that remains virtually untouched by historians of the South African War is the subject of discipline and punishment in the British army. This study shows that the army defined crime and punishment not simply to produce obedience but also to satisfy the moral conventions of Victorian society wherever it was transmitted.

Recidivism was a universal problem and drunkenness often was a gateway to more disturbing crimes. [See Alan Ramsay Skelley’s groundbreaking work in the 1970s, including The Victorian Army at Home: The Recruitment and Terms and Conditions of the British Regular, 1859-1899. Kitchener

Also David French has studied British army methods for reducing crime, including establishment of temperance societies. [Drink]

In 1908s, myth that South African War was a white man’s war between Britons and Boers shattered by Peter Warwick. In 1900, most contemporary Britons had little idea how important and how extensive were the roles of black South Africans in the war.

Records reveal that most army infractions were minor charges, including drunkenness, sleeping on sentry, absence without leave. Death penalty COULD be applied, w/latitude, to crimes like shamefully abandoning one’s post, aiding or harboring the enemy, sleeping or being drunk when on sentry.

Kitchener: “There have been some terrible stories of atrocities in out of the way districts in the Transvaal, and I regret to say two officers of one of the Irregular Corps have been shot by order of the Commander in Chief for murder. I do not think such a thing has ever occurred in the annals of the English Army before, but their provocation was very great, and I am afraid if the war continues much longer, it will degenerate into pure savagery in out of the way parts.”

Captain L. March Phillips, writing about his looting experience at Pretoria:

“Soldiers as a class are men who have discarded the civil standard of morality altogether. They simply ignore it. In the game of life they don’t play by the same rules. In soldiers’ eyes lying, theft, drunkenness, bad language, &c., are not evils at all. […] Looting is one of his perpetual joys […] smashing furniture for the fun of smashing it, and may be dressing up in women’s clothes to finish with, and dancing among the ruins they have made.”

Strict discipline could do little to curtain drunkenness, which was an endemic problem in South African War, as it has been historically in the British army and Victorian society in general. Allan Skelley calculated that drunkenness in itself and as a cause of other wrongdoings accounted for 75 percent of all crime in the late 1880s.

Alcohol prevalent among officers, too. [See Miller for list of crimes and punishments.] In sum, alcohol use both led to an increase in crime but paradoxically mitigated assignment of guilt.

An episode, described by Frank Perham, escorting donkeys across Riet River: “A fair part of the load comprised cases of whiskey and somehow many of the cases had fallen to pieces. It was very tempting to the ‘Scotties’ [Scottish Rifles] and most of them became hopelessly drunk. They were brought before the heads and charged with being unfit for duty on the Veldt, and were sentenced to seven days’ C.B.”

Drinking got worse as war went on. Fines, terms of imprisonment, and even harsh methods of discipline such as lashing the guilty soldier spread-eagled to the wheel of a moving wagon did little to encourage sobriety.

Race and public punishment. One private: “There he was, tightly braced up to this stake, arms, legs, and body as tightly as could be, to be gazed at by all the Europeans and niggers. A more piteous sight one could hardly see, and as an object-lesson I think it failed completely, calling, as it did, more for one’s pity than one’s wrath. I think a good dose of the triangles and the knout would have been much better and would not have exposed the white man in front of the nigger.”


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