Skip to main content

Duty, Crime, and Acceptable Behavior: The Complex Experience of the British Soldier in the Anglo-Boer War

John is a historian and researcher interested in the relation between war and society.


The Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902, or simply the 'Boer War, has received new attention from historians. Aspects of the war were re-examined by historians applying new methodologies, including for military historians the methods of social history.[1] Historian Bill Nasson in particular, used the conflict to draw attention to the ironies of warfare, particularly the later guerrilla phase, and its parallels to imperial-like conquests of today, specifically to the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.[2]

While one can inevitably draw parallels between different conflicts, the Boer War’s significance in this context seems instead to come from the study of how states use counterinsurgency tactics to defeat their enemies. This guerrilla phase of the war lasted longer than the earlier conventional keynote battles, and saw a ‘total war’ against the Boers and the civilian population in order to make the Boers submit.[3]

Boers besiege the British at Mafeking, 1899

Boers besiege the British at Mafeking, 1899

What was the experience of the soldier?

The Boer War experienced an early deluge of printed histories.[4] The majority of the early works on the war, however, missed the strategic significance of the later guerrilla conflict, as authors dwelt mainly on the early conventional battles and sieges, such as Mafeking and Ladysmith.

A historian who revisited the Anglo-Boer War in great detail, nearly 70 years afterwards, was Thomas Pakenham, who in his narrative replete with interviews of veterans, cited the later portion of the war as the first guerrilla conflict of the modern age.[5] It is this aspect of the Boer War in particular, the guerrilla campaign of the Boers and the British methods used to defeat them, which has drawn new attention and critical examination by historians seeking to apply new methods to under-researched aspects of the conflict.

I will focus here in particular on an essay by Stephen Miller, “Duty or Crime? Defining Acceptable Behavior in the British Army in South Africa, 1899-1902”. Miller addresses the subject of military law and how it was applied by the British Army during the war, and how ‘acceptable behaviour’ in wartime was defined by the application of military law in a theatre of war, an understanding of civic law, and dictated further by Victorian cultural norms.

In his introductory questions addressing his topic, Miller states:

“One subject that remains virtually untouched by historians of the South African War is the subject of discipline and punishment in the British army. Did the British employ the ‘methods of barbarism’… and were these methods part of an overarching strategy to defeat the enemy? Or were they simply acts of cruelty and abuse on the part of the soldier in the field? Can the two be separated—the actions of the state and the actions of its army—or do they feed off one another? Did British soldiers step beyond the rules of justice in war as defined by their leadership or perhaps as defined by the Hague Convention and contemporary international law, and, if so, how were they punished for their actions? How did soldiers view their own behaviour?”[6]

The Relief of Ladysmith. Sir George Stuart White greets Major Hubert Gough on 28 February. Painting by John Henry Frederick Bacon (1868–1914)

The Relief of Ladysmith. Sir George Stuart White greets Major Hubert Gough on 28 February. Painting by John Henry Frederick Bacon (1868–1914)

Crime or Duty?

Miller further states that his study would show 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.”[7] Notably absent, states Miller, is any significant research by historians in military law in the theatre of war.[8] In addressing his stated questions, the so-called ‘methods of barbarism’, the term invoked by contemporary critics to address the concentration camps used by the British army to separate the civilian population from the Boer commandos, are by design not treated in detail in his essay.[9]

Miller instead shifts this question of a deliberate strategy of barbarity by examining whether the army or individual soldiers were engaged in acts of deliberate cruelty and abuse on the battlefield. By using evidence from military court records and soldiers’ diaries and letters, Miller examines the behaviour of soldiers in the field, scrutinising their actions and crimes and how they, and in some cases the army, sought to justify their actions. Miller uses much of his own research on the service of the volunteers during the war in his examples.[10]

Rare War Footage from The Boer War (1899) | War Archives

In the army’s handling of capital crimes, Miller suggests that crimes otherwise defined as murder in Britain were redefined In South Africa. As much as Roberts and Kitchener wanted to win the war, they were also very aware that excesses of abuse, destruction, and theft could hinder negotiations, make post-war rebuilding enormously expensive, and would also cause great animosity among the defeated. Roberts, and even more so Kitchener, were required to regulate their soldiers’ behaviour, Miller concludes.

Miller’s evidence, however, suggests that the British army enforced military law in curbing violations of the law of war, such as the execution of Boer prisoners, looting and other violent crimes, only when convenient. For example, Miller states, many soldiers were brought up on capital charges, but most all had their sentences commuted; only four were ever executed.[11]

Miller examines the British army’s handling of looting and how this action became embroiled in the ambiguous strategy of depriving the Boer of needed war supplies.[12] In drawing attention to the significance of the Hague Convention of 1899, Miller cites the work of Geoffrey Best, and suggests that the British were morally bound to adhere to the articles of the convention when fighting the Boers, who were not signatories, as the articles were reflective of British values.[13]

Scroll to Continue

Read More From Owlcation

Miller concludes that the British army violated the Hague Convention throughout the war primarily because, after the summer of 1900, as British soldiers failed to draw the Boers out onto the battlefield, they felt forced to bring the war directly to Boer homesteads.[14]

One British response to the guerrilla war was a 'scorched earth' policy to deny the guerrillas supplies and refuge. In this image Boer civilians watch their house as it is burned.

One British response to the guerrilla war was a 'scorched earth' policy to deny the guerrillas supplies and refuge. In this image Boer civilians watch their house as it is burned.

This strategy of Roberts, and later Kitchener, aimed at breaking the morale of the enemy and preventing them from obtaining the resources needed to continue fighting, mandated activities directed against civilian populations and culminated in the infamous construction of a network of concentration camps. Miller states the following in his conclusion:

“The army cannot be viewed as an isolated institution, and similarly the behaviour of soldiers even in wartime cannot be dismissed as situational. Indeed, in the South African War, more than 20 percent of imperial troops were volunteers who brought with them a civilian understanding of crime and punishment. By situating military law within the context of law in general and the army within the context of service in the empire, we are rewarded with a deeper awareness of both Victorian cultural norms and imperial attitudes.”[15]

Reexamining the soldier experience

I propose an alternative conclusion and methods to probe the question of determining influences to acceptable behaviors further. Firstly, the British Army at this period was still very much an institution apart in society.[16] Miller’s extensive evidence British army’s willingness to put aside the law in order to achieve the end objective of winning the war is well organized and compelling. However, the same evidence, I submit, does not make the case for the British Army to not be viewed as an institution apart.

Boer women and children in a British concentration camp in South Africa (1900–1902)

Boer women and children in a British concentration camp in South Africa (1900–1902)

Steve Attridge in his study of the imagery of the common soldier in late Victorian culture demonstrates that the soldier is cast variably as a metaphor for the nation, a romantic hero, as well as a hooligan and urban malcontent’.[17] The British Army, despite extensive reform, was still very parochial and hierarchical in nature, and institutionally resistant to change.[18]

Mark Girouard has cited that following the Boer War, the army’s upper echelons were pleased to be able to move beyond the unpleasant experience of the war. Yet officers could still look back on the experience of war in Africa as a sort of adventure in keeping with the romantic idealism prevalent in this period before the First World War.[19]

This is supported by veterans’ accounts of the war from Pakenham’s seminal work, where at the end of the war the mythology of the ‘gentlemanly war’ was fractured along class lines with officers reflecting positively on the war, the lower class soldiers reflecting on the hardships of war.[20] Miller’s assertions in his conclusion are heavily influenced by his methodology in the use of the volunteers in his evidence base. The popular ideal of the citizen soldier and the volunteer was only emerging at this period, but was not yet a fixture of the army or society.[21]

The British Army at the start of the Boer War, still represented a very small portion of British society, predominantly the upper classes amongst the officers, and the lower classes in the ranks. Miller is correct in his examples that the middle classes were included in the ranks of the volunteers, but this still represented a very small portion of the population, and an even smaller portion within the army as a whole.

New Zealand troops marching down Wellesley Street, Auckland, to embark for South Africa

New Zealand troops marching down Wellesley Street, Auckland, to embark for South Africa

What is missing in Miller’s conclusion is the significance of and the varied experiences of the war as a contributing factors to the behavior of the soldier.[22] The army is an institution that deals with the organisation and execution of violence, intended as a means to an end rather than an end to itself. The variables that relate to the pursuit of these ends do represent a cultural perspective in time. Jeremy Black addresses this perspective correctly when he stated:

Anthropology, collective psychology and sociology have much to offer here, not least in moving beyond a largely unsystematic, if not sometimes anecdotal approach to the ‘face of battle’ to a more thorough probing of the issue….as a consequence both of experiences of conflict and of wider social shifts, the pressure and requirements that mould factors such as unit cohesion, morale, and leadership have been far from constant”[23]

Boer soldiers, known as Boer commando

Boer soldiers, known as Boer commando

Complex experiences - a look at other sources

This experience by the volunteers and regulars alike leads me to my next point. Miller’s last stated introductory question in his essay asks how the soldiers viewed their own behavior. Did Victorian attitudes, despite the idealistic notion of the war being a ‘gentlemanly’ conflict, determine behavior in Africa? I submit they did not. Officers, who were expected to epitomize the best of British values, themselves engaged in looting.

Officers gave orders to shoot Boer prisoners caught wearing British army uniforms, or khaki, ordered the burning of farms, the slaughtering of livestock, and the rounding up of civilians for the concentration camps. Some were plagued by the moral dilemma and the decidedly ‘ungentlemanly’ nature of the war, the conduct of their enemy, and the actions they were required to engage in as part of war in Africa. Such an experience was related by an officer of the Royal Sussex Regiment, Captain R.C. Griffin, in his diary over the shooting of a Boer prisoner at a drumhead court-martial:

“Our column captured 28 Boers at Vlegfontein...One Boer caught in Khaki was tried and shot in the afternoon. Very horrid business! He was made to dig his own grave and shot before a full parade of all the troops and other prisoners, one of them his own brother.”[24]

These experiences shaped the actions and behaviors of the soldiers, and each interpreted these events differently. Miller likewise suggests a civilian understanding of law, at least for the volunteers. But in a war where the army conveniently set aside the law to achieve its aims, the experience of war in Africa, not trends in civil law and societal norms in England, was the overriding factor in determining acceptable behaviors. So endemic was the cycle of looting and destruction by the British army, cites Tabitha Jackson, that when Lord Roberts tried to ban it upon relieving General Buller, the practice continued unabated.[25] The guerrilla nature of the war was something which the British army was ill prepared for and adapted to slowly. Few regular soldiers had experienced its like before, and junior officers leading their men were not schooled in ‘small wars’, despite recent doctrine crudely applied by the army senior leadership.[26] The volunteers, which Miller cites extensively in his evidence, also had no experience of war themselves and little of army life; the unifying factor for these soldiers, therefore, would be the shared experience of war.

Lord Roberts, General Commanding British Forces in South Africa

Lord Roberts, General Commanding British Forces in South Africa

Miller’s suggestion that the army cannot be viewed as an isolated institution is also unsuitable when considering the army’s methods to accomplish the end state of victory. David Grossman cites that the primary factor that motivates a soldier to do things no sane man wants to do, namely killing or risking death, is not the force of self-preservation but a powerful sense of accountability on the battlefield to his comrades.[27]

In addition to creating a sense of accountability, groups also enable killing through developing in their members a sense of anonymity that contributes to further violence.[28] Miller uses the example Private C. Chadwick, 3rd Grenadier Guards, in his examination of the execution of prisoners by British army soldiers. According to Miller, Chadwick came closest to an admission of guilt when writing the following on the killing of Boer prisoners:

“The Boers cry for mercy when they know they have no chance of shooting you down, but we take no notice of the crying, and stick the bayonet through them.”[29]

Tents in the Bloemfontein concentration camp

Tents in the Bloemfontein concentration camp

Shifting responsibility from the individual to the group is evident here in this example. This experience seems to transcend the soldierly behaviours of regulars and volunteers in Miller’s evidence. Miller cites the volunteers as having a ‘civilian’ understanding of law. But in this theatre of war where the law was conveniently set aside in favour of achieving the desired end state, victory, the experience of the volunteer in Africa was far different than that of what they knew at home. The shifting of the law in favour of achieving victory was situational in nature; soldiers could not expect leniency for the same actions in Britain or elsewhere in the empire where they would be criminal.

The experience of war, and the nature of the war itself in Africa, had a decided impact on the conduct of the soldier and the army. The impact of the experience of war in determining acceptable behaviours as stated by Miller, was decidedly its human dimension infused with intangible moral factors, shaped by human nature, and subject to the complexities and peculiarities which characterize human behaviour. Thomas Pakenham had the benefit of interviewing veterans of the war for his work. While a challenge to applying this methodology further might be the absence of any living veterans of the Anglo-Boer War, the availability of letters and diaries of soldiers, Boers, and civilians as well as the vast print media of the period, are available for further scrutiny and examined with a different view.

Miller’s methodology relies extensively on his previous research on the experience of the volunteers in the Anglo-Boer War. In examining acceptable behaviours in contrast to British society, further studies could benefit from the inclusion of the experience of the Naval Brigades who served during the early key battles of the war, but were likewise present during the transition periods into the guerrilla phase. An example of such an experience of war, is that of Royal Marine Corporal Frank Phillips, with the Naval Brigade, who wrote a letter from the Transvaal to his parents in August, 1900:

“Since we left Pretoria we have passed several deserted farms and houses which were left in exactly the same condition as if people were still living in them. Our troops smashed up all of the furniture for firewood and, by the time we had finished, there wasn’t much in the house left, much less the home. We are sending all the Boer’s wives out to them, but I can’t say what effect this may have on them.”[30]

In this example, we see a member of the Naval Brigade engaged in the sort of behaviour Miller cites in his numerous examples - the destruction of Boer homes; but this example also sheds some light on how Cpl Phillips felt at the time of his action and his uncertainty as to the effect this would have on the desired outcome in winning the war. Comparing and contrasting the experiences of the Naval Brigades with their army contemporaries would provide historians with a deeper understanding of the experience of war.

A 4.7 inch Naval gun known as Joe Chamberlain firing at Magersfontein.

A 4.7 inch Naval gun known as Joe Chamberlain firing at Magersfontein.


The studies and scholarship cited here have contributed much to the examination of this period of the Boer War and provided a study on the topic of soldiers’ behaviour and the application of military law in the late Victorian army in at war. His work in particular has offered a study of the contribution of the volunteers, a significant portion of the fielded Army forces during the war, but also significant to the examination of the trajectory of the British army, as volunteers would again be a significant fixture throughout the 20th century into the contemporary British forces. His application of a ‘social historian’s’ methodology has provided a platform to examine the nature of the Boer War and the human aspects of the soldiers engaged in the conflict. The ‘new military history’ cited by Miller, should continue to consider a more interdisciplinary approach and the methodology of social history.

Attridge, Steve. Nationalism, Imperialism, and Identity in Late Victorian Culture, Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003.

Black, Jeremy. Rethinking Military History, New York: Routledge, 2004.

Bourke, Joanna. An Intimate History of Killing, London: Granta Publications, 1999.

Girouard, Mark. The Return to Camelot: Chivalry and the English Gentleman, London: Yale University Press, 1981.

Grossman, David. On Killing, New York: BackBay Books, 1995.

Miller, Stephen. “Duty or Crime? Defining Acceptable Behavior in the British Army in South Africa, 1899-1902”, The Journal of British Studies, Vol. 49, No. 2 (April 2010): 311 – 331.

Miller, Stephen M. Volunteers on the Veld: Britain's Citizen-soldiers and the South African War, 1899-1902, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2007.

Nasson, Bill. The Boer War, Stroud: The History Press, 2010.

Pakenham, Thomas. The Boer War, London: Abacus, 1979.

Spiers, Edward. The Army and Society: 1815-1914, London: Longman Group Limited, 1980.

Notes and Sources

1) Stephen Miller, “Duty or Crime? Defining Acceptable Behavior in the British Army in South Africa, 1899-1902”, The Journal of British Studies, Vol. 49, No. 2 (April 2010): 312.

2) Bill Nasson, The Boer War, (Stroud: The History Press, 2010) 13-19.

3) Bill Nasson “Waging Total War in South Africa: Some Centenary Writings on the Anglo-Boer War, 1899-1902”, The Journal of Military History,Vol. 66, No. 3 (July 2002) 823.

4) The Times published a comprehensive multi-volume history of the war in The Times history of the war in South Africa, 1899-1902, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote one of the early histories of the war, The Great Boer War: A Two Year’s Record, 1899-1901,(London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1901).

5) Thomas Pakenham, The Boer War, (London: Abacus, 1979) xvii. Pakenham cites the significance of the guerrilla aspect of the war in his introduction to which he devotes later chapters in detail.

6) Miller, “Duty”, 313.

7) Ibid, 313

8) Ibid, 314.

9) Ibid, 317.

10) Stephen Miller previous to this article, published his research on the British Army volunteer experience of the Anglo-Boer War in his book Volunteers on the Veld: Britain's Citizen-soldiers and the South African War, 1899-1902, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2007). Several excerpts of his book are used to cite examples of behaviour and army policy as it involved the Volunteers during the Anglo-Boer War.

11) Miller, “Duty”, 319.

12) Ibid, 325.

13) Ibid, 315. Here and throughout his essay, Miller cites Geoffrey Best “Peace Conferences and the Century of Total War: The 1899 Hague Conference and What Came”, International Affairs ,Vol. 75, No. 3 (July1999): 619-634.

14) Ibid, 331

15) Ibid, 331.

16) Edward Spiers addresses the subject of the army existing as a parallel institution apart from British society extensively in his book The Army and Society: 1815-1914,(London: Longman Group Limited, 1980) 206. Spiers cites the paradox in the Victorian fascination with the army’s pageantry and general naivety on the alleged adventurous aspects of the army with the lack of enthusiasm of for army life and the army as a career.

17) Steve Attridge, Nationalism, Imperialism, and Identity in Late Victorian Culture, (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003). 4-5.

18) Spiers, The Army, 230.

19) Mark Girouard, The Return to Camelot: Chivalry and the English Gentleman, (London: Yale University Press, 1981). 282.

20) Pakenham, The Boer War , 571.

21) Miller, Volunteers, 14. This is a key argument of Stephen Miller’s book from which he uses excerpts for his later essay “Duty or Crime?”. He cites how the Boer War served as a transformative experience for the army, making it an army of citizen soldiers. Historians such as Spiers disputes this perspective in The Army and Society, 281. Following the Boer War, the British Expeditionary Force in Mons during the First World War comprised of regular army soldiers and suffered great losses. The army in its need for manpower would again in the massive recruitment drives headed by none other than Kitchener himself, would rely on Britons from all classes for the volunteer ranks.

22) The experience of war has been visited by anthropological studies such as David Grossman’s On Killing (New York: BackBay Books, 1995) and by historian Joanna Bourke in (An Intimate History of Killing London: Granta Publications, 1999).

23) Jeremy Black, Rethinking Military History, (New York: Routledge, 2004). 9.

24) Captain R.C. Griffin, Royal Sussex Regiment,from his diary entry for 27 Dec 1901 – RSR MS 1/126.

25) Tabitha Jackson, The Boer War, (Basingstoke: Macmillan Publishers, 1999) 124.

26) Miller, “Duty”, 316.

27) David Grossman, On Killing, (New York: BackBay Books, 1995).149.

28) Ibid,151.

29) Miller, “Duty”, 320.

30) Phillips, Corporal Frank, RMLI, Naval Brigade 11th Division, letter of 16 August 1900, Transvaal, South Africa to his parents, published in The Anglo Boer War Philatelist, Vol. 41, No.1 (March 1998). 8.

Related Articles