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Soldier, sailor, beggarman, thief

By Clive Emsley


Soldiers, sailors, and airmen reflect the societies from which they come.  We should not be surprised therefore if they reflect vices as well as virtues; yet there is often hostility to anyone picking up on the vices of service personnel.  When putting together my recent book, I was denied permission to use a quotation from the memoir of an infantry lieutenant about theft by members of his platoon in Germany in 1945.  It might be asked: why was the information put in the memoir if it was not to be read?  It was not always thus.

Vintage engraving from 1861 of Uniform of the 1st Surrey Rifles from the British ArmyDuring the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries British soldiers were commonly looked upon as dangerous, dissipated and, at least when stationed at home, drunk.  It was also feared that demobilisation at the end of a war led to men trained in the use of weapons and brutalised by battlefield experience would turn to violence and robbery rather than the manual labour that was thought to suit their social origins.  There was a slight respite in these fears when Britain became and armed nation in the wars against the French Revolution and Napoleon, though this was subsequently offset by garbled accounts of the Duke of Wellington’s description of his men as ‘the scum of the earth enlisted for drink.’  Press reports of the horrors of the Crimean War brought a degree of sympathy for the soldiery and some amelioration of the suspicions about soldiers, yet at the end of the century Rudyard Kipling could contrast the ‘thin red line of ‘eroes when the drums begin to roll’ and the publican’s: ‘We serve no red-coats here.’

Jack Tar could, potentially, be as rough and rowdy as Tommy Atkins, but he was rarely criticised to the same extent.  Of course it would be quite wrong to label every pre-war Tommy as drunk and dissipated, but the two world wars appear to have moderated the critical attitudes.  The patriotic volunteers of 1914 and many of the young men conscripted in the last two years of war were from a very different social class, with very different expectations from the old volunteer army.  These were men who had never expected to serve in the army and who came from families that had never expected to see their young men in khaki.  Conscription during the Second World War, and its maintenance until the beginning of the 1960s, continued this moderation, and so too has the fact that recent conflicts involving an all professional army have been of suspect legality and questionable motivation.  When brave young men are losing their lives or returning from distant, unpopular wars severely disabled, the idea that anyone should point to some of them being criminal offenders appears to some to be offensive.

In 1946 the former president of the British Military Court in Jerusalem made a throwaway comment at a Rotary Club dinner.  When someone asked about theft by Palestinian Arabs, he replied that British soldiers were’ the biggest thieves in the world.’  A glance through the press during both world wars reveals soldiers involved in everything from petty theft to major black-market racketeering.  A glance through other sources shows them selling guns to insurgents in Ireland in 1921 and to Hagana in Israel in 1947.  Large numbers of young women in the ruins of continental Europe appear to have worn clothes styled and hand-made from British Army blankets; the blankets, along with cigarettes, army rations, chocolates were purchased with watches, cameras, jewellery, and sometimes their bodies.  British soldiers raped – though not as often, it seems, as soldiers from other armies; sometimes they robbed; occasionally they murdered.  They were paid to fight, and often they fought men on their own side.  There were regimental rivalries; rivalries between ships’ crews or ships from different home ports; above all their were rivalries with better-paid troops from the White Dominions and, above all, in both world wars there was hostility towards the over-paid, over-sexed Americans who were ‘over-here’.  At times the evidence reads like contemporary reports of fighting between rival street gangs.  But then servicemen recruited for the duration of a war knew that, once engaged with the acknowledged enemy of the state, they depended on their mates, on their new family of the platoon or company, the gun battery, their shipmates, their crew.

The notion of the brutalised veteran, returning home unable to settle back into civilian life and engaging in a life of robbery and violence was common after both world wars.  There appears to have been a slight increase in violence following both world wars, but this seems mainly to have been domestic violence as men responded to stories of their wives ‘carrying-on’ with others in their absence or lashed out when a noise or an incident reminded them of some aspect of their war experience.  A few self-harmed; the statistical evidence does not point to many suicides, but police officers and others could cover up a suicide to protect a family, especially if the man was a war hero.  A few others could not settle back into civilian and took to living rough.

Occasional outbursts of violence, loss of temper, self-harm, living rough are problems recognised among veterans of modern wars.  Criminal offending by servicemen, especially by young, poorly educated men, sometimes from broken homes, who finish up in the tough so-called ‘teeth-units’ that do the hard fighting in modern armies should not come as a great surprize.  No more so should the fraud and dodgy-dealings that is to be found among some administrative and logistics personnel. The armed services, as noted earlier, reflect the societies from which they come.  Governments, under pressure from different charities, are being forced to recognise the deleterious impact of military service on some young men.  The historical evidence suggests that government responses have improved, but there is still some way to go.  Governments boast about using evidence-based policy, the history of crime and the British armed services needs much more research; and it can certainly produce much significant evidence.

Clive Emsley is Emeritus Professor, the Department of History, The Open University. He is the author of Soldier, Sailor, Beggarman, Thief: Crime and the British Armed Services since 1914.

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Image credit: Vintage engraving from 1861 of Uniform of the 1st Surrey Rifles from the British Army via Duncan1890, iStockphoto.

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