Monday, December 24, 2012

Scorched Earth: Kitchener's Boer War Counterinsurgency

A large group of horsemen of the Imperial
Yeomanry galloping over a plain. © IWM (Q 72318)
The old myth of the Boer War as one of the last gentlemanly wars, tied to romantic visions of honourable combatant knights, has long been revised and retired.  The conflict had no lack of ferocity and destruction, and the line between combatants and non-combatants was very much blurred.  The guerilla tactics of Boer commandos from 1900 posed a serious difficulty to the British Army. Attempts to curb the mobility of small groups of mounted riflemen included the use of blockhouses and barbed wire, with mobile columns attempting to press the Boers towards these defences. Ian Beckett notes in Modern Insurgencies and Counterinsurgencies (2001) that a more controversial method was the establishment of “concentration camps”, the destruction of houses and crops and the removal of livestock.

After the fall of Bloemfontein in the spring of 1900, Field Marshal Lord Roberts had ordered the protection of Boer property and allowed Boers considered loyal to return to their homes. After guerrillas began to emerge in the summer, however, Roberts ordered the destruction of houses close to vulnerable communications infrastructure. Other efforts to detract from guerrilla attacks were collective fines and the compulsion of Boer civilians to ride on trains.
Roberts policies may be deemed moderate. He rescinded less discriminate policies, and ordered the destruction of only those houses which were proven to be used by Boer fighters. From December of 1900, however, Roberts' successor Lord Kitchener extended the internment system to include both military prisoners and civilian refugees. Kitchener attempted to remove the entire Boer population from the veld. As he wrote in March 1901, "The refugee camps for women and surrendered boers [sic] are I am sure doing good work[;] it enables a man to surrender and not lose his stock and movable property . .. The women left in farms give complete intelligence to the boers of all our movements and feed the commandos in their neighbourhood". (Krebs, History Workshop, No. 33, p. 41)  
Kitchener’s internment policy was aimed at women as well, who were thought to be key figures in motivating the Boers. Women were originally rounded up to prevent them from spying for the Boers.  Yet as Paula Krebs suggests, this motivation was kept quiet, as it would admit that the women were incarcerated due to their military activities.  (Krebs, p.42)  Liberals and Irish M.P.s had been arguing that those in the camps were prisoners of war, not refugees.  In March of 1901, an exchange in the House of Commons evoked the gendered nature of imperialism.  Irish M.P. John Dillon asked, "What civilised government ever deported women? Had it come to this, that this Empire was afraid of women."  (Krebs, p.42)
"Garden of Remembrance, Aliwal North" 
Concentration Camp Memorial
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AttributionNoncommercial Some rights reserved by G Bayliss
Beckett suggests that some women were held hostage to provoke Boer surrenders. Many women and children were condemned to a nomadic existence when their homes were razed.  Inside the camps, Boer children were subject to colonial indoctrination.  Research by Paul Zietsman notes that education provided in concentration camps attempted to Anglicize Boer children, which shows parallels with colonial aboriginal policies of assimilation behind residential schools. These policies invoked further political controversy back in Britain, especially when poor management of the camps led to the deaths of nearly one quarter of the 116,000 civilians detained.  When camp tents began to be populated by women and children, Britain, and especially British women, were alerted to a potential cause. 
After the uproar regarding the camps, Kitchener still claimed that their functional value outweighed the dissent.  In 1901, Kitchener claimed, "I wish I could get rid of these camps but it is the only way to settle the country and enable the men to leave their commandos and come in to their families without being caught and tried for desertion." (Krebs, p.43)
Typical group of Boer farmers at "Compensation" claims tent after war.Rodolphe Lemieux / Library and Archives Canada 1902-1903.
The success of these efforts is still debated among military historians.  It would not be the last time that the tactics of counterinsurgency led to political turmoil domestically.  Curiously, the tactic of burning farms was not as controversial as the camps themselves.  By May of 1902, somewhere in the range of 30,000 homes had been razed along with many acres of crops.  Larry Addington noted that Kitchener's tactics were very "un-Victorian", and observes the "systematic sweeps through Boer country foreshadowed American 'Search and Destroy' tactics during the Vietnam War nearly seventy years later." (Addington, Patterns of War since the Eighteenth Century, p.124).  Death rates are a matter of some debate, but figures of 25,000 Boer deaths, along with 12,000 black Africans.  The conflicts' brutal policy against non-combatants and domestic outrage at the harder facets of suppresion, resonate with students of twentieth-century counterinsurgency.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Review - James Wood's "Militia Myths"

James Wood.  Militia Myths: Ideas of the Canadian Citizen Soldier,
1896-1921.  Vancouver  University of British Columbia Press, 2011. 
368 pp.  $35.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7748-1766-0.

Reviewed by William Pratt (University of Calgary)
Published on H-War (December, 2012)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey

The patrimony of the Canadian militia myth is conventionally traced back to the first Anglican bishop of Toronto, John Strachan (1778-1867), who attributed British success in the War of 1812 to the stalwart Loyalist militia. The notion that citizen soldiers were the best way to defend the country has resonated in the country ever since. Indeed, Jack Granatstein's survey _Canada's Army: Waging War and Keeping the Peace_ opens with the statement that, "the central myth in the history of Canadian arms is, and always has been, that the colonists and citizens provide their own defence."[1] In the twentieth century, the old story of a Canadian Expeditionary Force composed of sturdy woodsmen, farmer's sons, and other pastoral citizenry that answered the call of Britain in 1914  has long been refuted by Canadian military historians. A recent work in the Studies in Canadian Military History series, co-published by the University of British Columbia Press and Canadian War Museum, proves, however, that Canada's militia myth has a much longer intellectual genealogy, and was by no means a static concept. As its author writes, "Although Canadians retained their confidence in citizen soldiers throughout the first decade of the twentieth century, the range of justifications they expressed in defence of that faith points not to a single all-encompassing militia myth but, rather, to a collection of competing and even contrary ideas by which they ordered their understanding of war" (p. 143).

James Wood's _Militia Myths: Ideas of the Canadian Citizen Soldier, 1896-1921_ examines the ideal of the trained militiaman in military rhetoric of the day, and the eventual replacement of this icon after the First World War by the archetype of the untrained civilian. The idea of the citizen soldier is defined by Wood as "a belief in the conviction that good citizens should provide for their own defence" (p. 10). Wood focuses largely on the literary and cultural elements of Canadian military journals, especially rhetoric found in the _Canadian Military Gazette, _which is systematically analyzed here for the first time_. _The work stems from the author's dissertation at Wilfrid Laurier University supervised by Roger Sarty, which is indicated by exhaustive citation and academic prose.

In search of the lineage of the militia myth, Wood delves much further than the War of 1812 into the traditions bestowed to the North American colonies in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. After the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution of 1688, regular soldiers were regarded with a "mix of contempt and fear" (p .5). Oliver Cromwell's New Model Army connected standing armies to tyranny in the minds of many, and such ideas, when transplanted to North American soil, encouraged praise for the British North American militia in the War of 1812, and later the Dominion of Canada's nascent military exploits in the late nineteenth century. After noting these British antecedents, however, Wood writes that "In its Canadian context, the militia myth refers to a dangerously faulty memory of the War of 1812 and the ill-founded confidence of Canadians in the abilities of amateur citizen soldiers" (p. 11).
“Militia Training on the King’s Birthday,” by C.W. Jefferys, from The Picture Gallery of Canadian History, Vol 2. Toronto : Ryerson Press, 1945, p. 116.

In the Dominion this myth did not go unchallenged. The small instructional cadre of the Permanent Force and representatives of the British Army (especially the British General Officer Commanding the Canadian Militia) fought against the notion that partially trained citizen soldiers were enough for the purposes of Canadian defense. To these groups, Wood adds "an identifiable group of professionally minded militia officers whose efforts Canadian historians have mostly overlooked," who did not call for a professional standing army, yet railed against public apathy towards defense (p. 6).

Before the Boer War, the Canadian militia ideal was rooted in the home defense tradition, and strongly connected to marksmanship. Public apathy was shaken with the Venezuela Crisis of 1895-96 and the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898. A revival of military interest emerged in the early years of the Laurier government. This enthusiasm was largely expressed in the proliferation of rifle shooting, both in paramilitary rifle clubs, and as formal training endeavors. Military reform was stifled by an aversion to standing armies until general officer commanding, Major General Sir Edward Thomas Henry Hutton, skillfully used the rhetoric of a "national army" to promote change. Hutton is shown to leverage a national appeal for the militia, working hard to popularize it in Quebec. He urged Canadians to take up universal military training on the Swiss model and encouraged marksmanship. Wood argues that while Hutton was successful in invigorating militarism in Canada, he was influenced by ideas that were already rooted in the debates of colonial militiamen. 

Despite this awakening, before the Boer War, the Canadian militia was, "more deeply involved in its social role than its military function" (p. 29).

The Boer War itself fostered notions that an armed citizenry could best regular soldiers, yet raised the problem of deploying a home defense militia overseas. Instead of the notion in the historical literature which suggests that militia officers believed in an untrained citizen soldier, the debate after the Boer War was instead focused on what degree of training was required (p. 94). The Dominion Militia Act of 1904 enshrined ideas that the colonial troops had performed well in the Boer War, and promoted the idea of a citizen army.

Wood argues that despite the contentions of historian C. P. Stacey, the period before 1909-10 was characterized by a conception of home defense against an American invasion. With the outbreak of the Great War, the focus shifted from a home defense force to an expeditionary force, and the eclipse of the active militia in popular esteem by the Canadian Expeditionary Force. In the years before the war, rhetoric increasingly dwelt on the responsibilities of citizenship when promoting military participation. As Wood notes, "Conditioned before the war to accept military service as a duty of citizenship in time of war, when the war in Europe turned into a national crusade and the CEF became a symbol of the nation-in-arms, this pre-war understanding of a citizen's duty became one of the foundations of conscription in 1917" (p. 212). Up to 1917, Canada's "home defence orientation" was associated with the "citizen soldier ideal" (p. 1). After conscription, the long-serving prewar militiaman was overshadowed by the notion of the innately talented civilian going straight from civvy-street to the battlefield with a modicum of training.While a host of newspapers and journals are listed in the bibliography, the main source of analysis is the _Canadian Military Gazette. _This was the only military journal to continue publication for the period studied. The journal was self-proclaimedly nonpartisan and reprinted articles on military themes from across the country. As with any discursive study of a print source, ascertaining the extent to which views expressed in the journal were read and accepted by Canadians is problematic. Wood notes that hundreds of men may have read a single copy in the mess, but it may be equally true that copies moldered without ever being read. That the journal was quoted by newspapers across the country is a good indicator that its columns carried some weight, as are frequent references in the _Canadian Annual Review of Public Affairs _(pp. 14-16).

In addressing the historiography of the ideas surrounding the Canadian militia, Wood grapples with both historical heavyweights and a new breed of contenders. Carl Berger's classic work on imperialist thought in Canada, _A Sense of Power _(1971), posited that Canadian nationalism was heavily influenced by, and compatible with, imperial ties to Britain. Wood challenges these imperial connections when applied to the militia, suggesting that, "the indigenous citizen soldier traditions of the country" were highly influential in forming imperial notions in Canada (p. 55). Militia criticisms of the Permanent Force often hinged on the British character of the regulars, blaming them for bending to the whims of patronage (pp. 58-64). Wood notes that while military reformers couched their criticisms in rhetoric which emphasized duty to the British Empire, the specific reforms they promoted advocated home defense (p. 143). Wood is especially set against the utility of gender studies in examining the militia. For example, he considers the approach of Mark Moss's _Manliness and Militarism: Educating young Boys in Ontario for War _(2001) to be ahistorical. While Moss argues that the cadet movement was an exercise in socialization and control, fostering militarism and patriotism, Wood contends that the long-term military aims were never overshadowed by progressive social prescriptions (p.163).

The extent to which the ideas in the _Canadian Military Gazette _and those expressed in the speeches of the Canadian Defence League or various general officers commanding were shared by the general public is, of course, questionable. Wood convincingly suggests that while at the beginning of the Laurier era, the general public was little interested in military affairs, by the time of the Dreadnought crisis in 1909-10, Canadians had awakened to military demands. The degree of sophistication of the civilian public's thoughts are challenged, however; Wood notes that "many Canadians simply enjoyed a good parade and felt, almost instinctively, that maintaining a national army was simply something that 'grown up' nations did" (p. 3).

Wood's work expands our knowledge of the Canadian militia beyond the elite imperialists and general officers commanding. By a close study of the _Canadian Military Gazette _and the speeches of militia officers and advocates, he shows the complex varieties of thought regarding the role of the citizen soldier in Canadian defense. By doing so he muddies the waters of the traditional historiography surrounding imperialism and the militia in Canada. More a history of military thought than a discursive study of popular conceptions, the work will appeal to academic military historians, while leaving gendered analysis and discourse and identity studies to the social historians.


[1]. Jack L. Granatstein, _Canada's Army: Waging War and Keeping the
Peace _(Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004), 3_._

Citation: William Pratt. Review of Wood, James, _Militia Myths: Ideas of the Canadian Citizen Soldier, 1896-1921_. H-War, H-Net Reviews.
December, 2012.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States