Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Clive Emsley's "Soldier, Sailor, Beggarman, Thief"

Clive Emsley was educated at the University of York and at Peterhouse, Cambridge, and has taught and held visiting fellowships in Australia, Canada, France, and New Zealand. He has published widely on the history of crime and policing, including Crime and Society in England 1750-1900 (now in its fourth edition), Crime and Society in Twentieth-Century England and The Great British Bobby: A History of British Policing from the 18th Century to the Present.

Emsley applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Soldier, Sailor, Beggarman, Thief: Crime and the British Armed Services since 1914, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Soldier, Sailor, Beggarman, Thief begins with the story of a fleet paymaster sentenced to three years’ penal servitude for embezzling over £13,000 on the eve of the First World War. It then goes on to discuss various other, but generally more minor acts of fraud and embezzlement committed by service personnel during the two world wars. Fraud and the misappropriation of funds are rarely offences that hit the headlines or feature in novels or movies, unless they involve massive sums. The numbers of frauds are always relatively few in annual crime statistics; in many ways they can be said to emphasise the fact that most crime is petty and low key.

Soldiers, sailors and air force personnel were (and in the main still are) overwhelmingly young men, and during the two world wars when Britain’s mass armed services were ultimately reliant on conscription, they were young men broadly representative of the population as a whole. It is, therefore, only to be expected that service personnel will commit the same sort of offences as are to be found among the general civilian population. In addition to looking at the extent and the kinds of offences that were committed by people on active military service, Soldier, Sailor, Beggarman, Thief addresses two broader questions based on popular assumptions: first, the extent to which contemporaries were right in believing that crime decreased when war began as thousands of young men – and young men are the group within society most likely to be involved in criminal offending – were swept up into the armed forces; and second, how far crime increased at the end of war as men supposedly brutalised by training and combat returned to the civilian world but, unable to settle in the peacetime environment, engaged in crime and violence.

The evidence for any work of history is always going to be fragmentary and varied. Piecing a narrative requires careful thought to fill in the gaps, and given the military’s use of summary justice by unit commanders, for which little record survives, the gaps are many. It seems clear, however, that offending in the armed forces was much like that within civilian society – many thefts, fights, a few murders and an indeterminate number of sexual offences. The gender distinction was much the same, with men committing many more offences than women. As for the decrease in crime at the beginning and the increase at the end of wars, here the conclusions are much more complex, especially when the two world wars are put side-by-side.
Learn more about Soldier, Sailor, Beggarman, Thief at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue