The troop battalion that went into battle this morning has been ravaged by losses. The surviving soldiers are hungry and tired. War weary. And there are no reinforcements in sight. After walking miles, the battalion comes upon a farmhouse recently vacated by enemy sympathizers. Here for the first time in days is the promise of fresh water and food. A search of the house also turns up a cache of jewelry, to which the soldiers help themselves.
In the heat of battle, the black-and-white rules of engagement can blur. And the interpretation and perception of proper military conduct can vary greatly, depending on whether you’re on the front lines or on the homefront.
The dilemmas are timeless, whether talking about the ongoing conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, or a turn-of-the-century war in South Africa, according to British military historian Stephen Miller. And the answers are no clearer.
“How much has changed in 100 years?” asks Miller, a University of Maine professor of history. “Do we want to hear about atrocities in Iraq? Do we want to see images of dead Iraqis or dead American soldiers? I think there is a large segment of society now, just as there was then, that does not want to hear the details.”
In his research, Miller focuses on the British army and the South African War known as the Boer War of 1899 to 1902. It was a conflict in which the British were ultimately successful, but the cost was high. The British lost many men in battle and to disease, and morally it weighed heavily on both combatants and civilians. British soldiers regularly violated the rules of warfare and committed a number of atrocities, Miller says. Among them were murder, rape, forceful removal of civilians to concentration camps and unlawful destruction of property.
Many transgressions were not hidden. Stories circulated throughout South Africa and some made their way home to Great Britain. But few soldiers were prosecuted and, for the most part, the British public overlooked whatever crimes were committed in pursuit of empire.
Miller is interested in the nature and practice of discipline and punishment in the late-Victorian army. That includes exploration of what the British military defined as a criminal act, and how charges were investigated and punishment meted out. Using court martial records, personal letters, diaries and memoirs, he is looking at how British soldiers in South Africa viewed their actions and those of their comrades.
How society defines crime on and off the battlefield was an important question in the late 19th century as more and more countries developed professional armies that were often supplemented by civilians in times of war. The relationship of the individual to the state was in great flux.
“Traditionally it was argued that soldiers are different, and the reason why you need strict discipline in the service and separate laws, such as those which regulate military courts, is because soldiers have to act differently in battlefield situations, and they’re asked to do things that civilians would never have to do,” says Miller, whose newest book, Volunteers on the Veld: Britain’s Citizen-Soldiers and the South African War, 1899–1902, focuses on British citizen-soldiers and the depictions of the military in the South African War.
“Theorists argued that a soldier must be trained to act without question when given an order by a commanding officer,” Miller says. “But this unquestioning belief in blind obedience was challenged by those who argued that soldiers needed education, not just training. They needed to take responsibility for their actions on the battlefield and not just follow commands. And as the battlefield grew larger, the individual soldier gained more independence and decision making devolved down the chain of command.”
Rank-and-file professional soldiers were supplemented by civilian-soldiers —volunteers, yeomanry and militia — on the battlefield and as an occupation force, Miller adds. These soldiers did not see themselves as members of an elite military cast, but just regular men from London or Liverpool or Edinburgh.
“As such, these men were not just soldiers, but they were in some ways cultural ambassadors,” Miller says. “Their actions were a reflection of their culture’s morals and values.”
During the South African War, Miller says, the governments of the Boer republics continuously complained about the treatment of their civilians and prisoners of war. Many captured Boers eventually disappeared or were found dead, yet during the war only four British soldiers were found guilty of murder.
In addition, the number of reported rapes was too low to be accurate, says Miller. In nearly three years of conflict, with a force of around half a million men who routinely came into contact with the enemy, only 14 soldiers were charged with rape, attempted rape or aiding and abetting rape. Of these, nine were acquitted.
“In my research, I show that soldiers often shared their experiences with family and friends, and discussed their willingness to execute a prisoner if necessary, though none personally admitted to doing it,” Miller says. “According to the rules of law and conduct codes developed at the Hague Convention, which concluded only a few months before hostilities erupted, the execution of prisoners was clearly murder. There’s no other way around it. So then why were there so few British soldiers found guilty of murder? Britain was trying to preserve an image of itself.”
On the homefront, some scope of the atrocities was known, but the spin was clearly pro-British. The media of the day perpetrated that in a number of ways.
“Race is a term that was very fluid at the end of the 19th century and often refers to nationality,” he says. “But certain newspapers projected the Boers as sort of these backward farmers, hillbillies, hicks. And so racially they’re seen as different and not like ‘us,’ so who are you going to believe in that situation?”
And it’s important to remember, Miller says, that the British soldiers fighting in the South African War came from a range of societal classes — workers, members of the middle class, elites. British society was deeply connected to its military in that sense — in a way we don’t see in contemporary society.
The combination of disdain for the “other,” the importance of the British reputation, and a strong, often personal investment in military success may have set the stage for public sympathy for the military and a willingness to overlook the atrocities it committed.
There was a kernel of opposition in the form of small but very vocal groups that traveled to South Africa to document the situation. Miller says one of the most well-known members was a woman named Emily Hobhouse, who documented appalling conditions in concentration camps filled with Boer women and children.
“She made a big difference, because the government responded to public pressure generated around this issue,” he says. “But she was just one person from one small group, and there were many people in the public who called her a pro-Boer just for exploring the truth. That truth reflected poorly on the flag, so she was somehow anti-patriotic.”
Not much has changed since the South African War, Miller says. Today, news programs still catch heat for reminding people of the war dead. Many atrocities still go unpunished.
In times of war, the public “wants the job done,” but doesn’t always want to hear how it would be done, Miller says.
Originally published in UMaine Today Magazine, Winter 2010