Soldier, Sailor, Beggarman, Thief: Crime and the British Armed Services since 1914 by Clive Emsley

A. W. Purdue on the prevalence of crime within the British armed forces

April 18, 2013

The Soldiers of the Queen may have raised a cheer in the music halls of late-19th century Britain, but the soldiers of the small regular Army were generally not held in high regard. It was the Royal Navy that was seen as protecting the nation and to become a soldier tended to be regarded as the last resort of the feckless, the unemployable and the criminal. Those who served in “Queen Victoria’s little wars” were often met in respectable public houses with, in Rudyard’s Kipling’s words, “We serve no redcoats here”. Today, we again have a small professional Army, but those who serve in today’s “little wars” are regarded very differently and are seen, with justice, as heroes, if sometimes rather rough ones.

For more than a quarter of the 20th century, however, the UK had large conscripted armed forces and it is these services, and in particular the Army, that are the principal focus of Clive Emsley’s pioneering study of crime and the armed services.

Armed forces, he argues, “reflect the society from which they come, both the good and the bad”, although even a conscripted army does not exactly reflect the profile of a society, as it is predominantly made up of younger men, the social group that commits the most crime. Civil-military comparisons are also complicated by the fact that there are crimes - desertion, mutiny and insubordination - that can be committed only by servicemen. The latter factor highlights the differences between military and civil law, and leads to a major theme of this study, the way in which the administration of justice within the armed forces was increasingly influenced by the civilian justice system.

One wonders whether contemporaries would have been shocked if they had known the extent of crime within the services during the Second World War. Probably not, for the individual who made no use of the black market was a rarity

Was the crime rate in the Army higher than the civilian crime rate? It is well known that Britain in both world wars and especially during the Second World War was a far from crime-free society. Government controls on mobility, the need to carry identity cards and the introduction of rationing created new crimes, while, in London, the Blitz, the blackout and the disruption of normal life gave criminals opportunities for old ones.

Crime statistics are notoriously unreliable and there are too many variables for us to ever know the percentage of total crime committed by servicemen, but Emsley provides plenty of evidence that crime was widespread within the Army and that it ranged from petty theft or “scrounging” to organised crime rings and even murder. One wonders, however, whether contemporaries in the 1940s would have been shocked if they had known the extent of crime within the services during the Second World War that this book reveals. Probably not, for the individual who made no use of the black market was a rarity and many a post-war home contained items acquired dubiously during the conquest and occupation of Germany.

This is an impressive book, the product of considerable research and informed by the mastery of the relationship between crime and society, the history of policing and the development of criminal law, which has made Emsley a leading authority in his field. To what extent it should change our view of the conduct of the British Army since 1914, is, however, debatable. The very nature of a book on crime and the armed forces leads to an emphasis on criminal as opposed to decent and law-abiding behaviour, which the military authorities made considerable efforts to maintain.

A more important question concerns the British Army’s record compared with those of other armies, and any picture of a brutal and licentious British soldiery must be modified by comparison with what the author describes as “the systematic assault on German women by the Russian army”, while US servicemen posted to Britain were not universally applauded for their good behaviour. Nevertheless, if only the most naive will be surprised to learn that British soldiers committed crimes, many will be astonished at the extent of the criminality revealed by this detailed study.

Soldier, Sailor, Beggarman, Thief: Crime and the British Armed Services since 1914

By Clive Emsley
Oxford University Press, 240pp, £60.00
ISBN 9780199653713
Published 24 January 2013

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