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A Century Ago Canadian Soldiers Supposedly Killed Prisoners

Old Sweat

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The following story from today's Ottawa Citizen is reproduced under the Fair Comment provisions of the Copy Right Act.

Canadian soldiers are again facing serious claims of wrongdoing in a faraway war, followed by political denials in Ottawa. As Richard Foot writes, there are echoes of the Boer War running through those allegations.

April 18, 2010
 
It's springtime in Ottawa, and a Conservative MP is standing in Parliament defending the honour of Canadian soldiers accused of behaving badly in a foreign war.

For months allegations have swirled that Canadians abused and even killed their prisoners. Now a report in a British newspaper claims Canadians were seen after one battle stripping the socks from their dead enemies and pulling out toe nails to take home as souvenirs.

Not true, insists MP Sam Hughes, a future defence minister -- speaking on April 3, 1902, in the dying days of the Boer War.

"The Canadians conducted themselves on that occasion, as on every other occasion, with the greatest gallantry," he said in the House of Commons.

Fast-forward a century and -- déjà vu -- Canadian soldiers are again facing serious claims of wrongdoing in a faraway guerrilla war, followed by political denials in Ottawa.

In Afghanistan, Canadian Forces are alleged to have knowingly handed over Taliban prisoners to local prison guards notorious for carrying out torture.

They are also accused of mistakenly killing an Afghan teenager and trying to cover up the shooting.

A Canadian officer is now also on trial, accused of killing of a wounded Taliban prisoner.

Whatever the merits of the mushrooming allegations out of Afghanistan, anyone shocked by them should remember that Canada has been through all this before -- long ago in South Africa.

From 1899 to 1902, more than 7,000 Canadians served in South Africa, fighting alongside Britain and other imperial allies against the commandos of the Boer Republics.

South Africa was Canada's first foreign war and, like Afghanistan, it was a difficult and ugly counter-insurgency campaign against a determined enemy that wore no uniforms and hid among the population.

Canadians fought with skill and courage in South Africa, and won four Victoria Crosses there for bravery. But, according to a series of little-known wartime documents contained in archives around the world, some Canadian units also acquired a reputation for rogue behaviour and murder.

Questions about the killing of Boer prisoners have long haunted the history of Lord Strathcona's Horse, an Alberta-based regiment. In 1900, a squadron of mounted Strathconas allegedly lynched six Boer prisoners, after witnessing an attack against a British patrol lured into a trap by Boers deceptively flying a white flag.

The incident is retold in a letter written in Pretoria two days afterwards by Lance Sgt. R.J. Byers, a member of the Australian Mounted Rifles.

"The Canadians have a great dislike of the Boers," says the letter, archived in the State Library of Victoria, Australia.

"They took a few prisoners one day and what did they do, but took their lassoos off their saddles and hung six of them before their Officer could stop them."

The letter also alleges a second case of killing prisoners.

"Another day, the New Zealanders had 13 Boer prisoners and they met some Canadians, who asked them if they wanted to hand over their prisoners," writes Byers. "Well the New Zealanders were glad to get rid of them, so they handed them over to the Canadians who took them away to a quiet place, and shot the 13 of them."

The Strathconas incident was also reported in a letter home by Ottawa native Sgt. Ed Holland -- one of Canada's Victoria Cross winners.

"I do not know what truth there is in it," says a copy of the letter, in the archives of the Royal Canadian Dragoons. "But I do not doubt it in the least, for they are a wild and wooly lot those boys from the West."

The affair was also used by the defence in the famous trial of Australian Lt. Harry "Breaker" Morant, who was shot by firing squad in 1902 for ordering the similar execution of Boer prisoners. Morant's court martial was popularized by the 1980 film Breaker Morant.

"The Canadians ... rigidly adhered to the rule of never allowing their enemies to trouble them a second time," wrote Lt. George Witton, another Australian court-martialled alongside Morant, in his subsequent book Scapegoats of the Empire.

No Canadians were ever convicted of such crimes in South Africa and no illegal killings have ever been proven by eyewitness accounts.

Historian Brian Reid, a former Canadian artillery officer who briefly recounts the Strathcona incident in his 1996 book, Our Little Army in the Field, says all the evidence surrounding it is "circumstantial or hearsay."

But McGill University professor Carman Miller, the country's leading academic authority on the Boer War, says while there's no hard proof of any Canadian crimes, "I have no doubt that these few incidents took place.

"While we don't know without a shadow of a doubt that Canadians committed atrocities, there's every reason to believe that certain Canadian units didn't take prisoners."

Another mounted unit, the Canadian Scouts, an elite, commando-style corps of volunteers, also gained a fearsome reputation for killing its prisoners.

In a 1956 interview recorded by the Canadian army Historical Section, William Hare, a Boer War veteran of the Canadian Scouts, says the "Scouts sought and gave no quarter ... and they took no prisoners."

Allegations that Canadians had killed Boer prisoners eventually filtered home near the end of the war, in soldiers' letters and in foreign newspaper reports. But unlike today, such questions sparked little discomfort, little sense of scandal and no official inquiries -- only denials from MPs like Hughes, himself a Boer War veteran.

"There are certainly parallels with today," says Miller. "What's different about South Africa is that there was very little discussion of these rumours and allegations in public."

Times were different at the turn of the last century. By the time rumours of wrongdoing surfaced in South Africa, there were no Canadian reporters there to investigate the matter. And the media, politicians and the public, particularly in English Canada, were passionately jingoistic about fighting for the Empire against the Boers.

Many also suspected that the enemy sometimes killed their prisoners, too.

Even the war's critics, such as Quebec nationalist MP Henri Bourassa, might condemn Canada's willingness to send troops overseas for a British cause, but wouldn't dream of questioning the conduct of the troops themselves, says Miller.

"It was a very patriotic time," he says. "News coverage of the war focused very much on the heroism of Canadians."
 

George Wallace

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And a century ago society was completely different that it is today.  The whole population of Canada would be imprisoned today for "Not sparing the child the rod".  The measures that parents took to discipline their children then would have them imprisoned for life today. 

A totally different time and place and can not be held up as a comparison of what is happening today.  Social values have changed drastically in the last century.
 

SeanNewman

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There is no question at all that today's soldiers are the most morally sound they have ever been.

The reason is that they don't have a choice because everything is reported immediately in the news.

The first Iraq war was live on CNN, the Vietnam war had corespondents who could get something on the news maybe within a day, Korea a few days, and WW2 possibly within a week.

But sheer volume of embeds means that you can't really hide anything.  I'm not saying that you ever should have used that as an excuse to wipe something under the rug, but now there's no choice; whatever you do will likely end up on the news.

If anything the pendulum has swung too far the other way, because now you even have soldiers doing the right thing like shooting at a speeding car coming toward them when they fail to stop after a dozen warnings...even that gets reported as "Canadian soldier kills unarmed man".
 

Old Sweat

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It was a different era. I once opined in a lecture on the war that most of the Canadians who fought in South Africa believed that white, male, English-speaking citizens of the British Empire were at the top of the food chain, and that was probably among the more progressive of their attitudes. A number of years ago I wrote the South African Military History Society for any information they had on the Strathcona incident. To say they were taken aback is an understatement. None of them had ever heard of it, and the consensus was that it never happened. Moreover, there were no Boer casualties on the day in question in the area.

On the other hand, the troop of Strathconas implicated had method, means and opportunity. A week or so before, their very popular troop sergeant was killed in an ambush from another farm house flying a white flag. Each member of the unit carrier a lariat on their saddle. And, if the story is true, they captured Boers red-handed abusing the white flag by ambushing a British patrol. I have also identified the British unit and note that it had casualties that day in the same area. But there ain't no dead Boers and no record of any getting killed on that day.

As for the other incidents, I will have to research the one involving the Kiwis. As for the Canadian Scouts, the statement about not taking prisoners was made by Captain Charlie Ross, the unit 2ic, after the CO, Major Gat Howard, was killed in a Boer ambush on 17 February 1901. There was circumstantial evidence that he had been captured and had thrown down his weapon(s) before he was shot out of his saddle. Note that Bill Hare (who was a member of the Left Section of D Battery at Leliefontein for you RCDs out there) did not arrive in South Africa for his second tour until after the event.

The only primary source mention of Canadians not taking prisoners I have seen is a letter from Private Anderson of the RCD MG Section. He writes that the Boers will not stay around to fight it out with the Canadians and opines that is because they believe the story our troops started about not taking prisoners.

And as for Breaker Morant et al, that is noise.
 

Dennis Ruhl

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It was a different time and I would be extremely surprised if Canadians did not kill some prisoners in South Africa.  Just as German machinegunners in WWI and SS troops in WWII found surrendering and surviving problematic, I'm sure the troops in South Africa had their own unique sense of morality.  The transition from fighting for one's life to worrying about that of the enemy must be difficult.

I am not a member of the Canadian Forces but it sure irks me to see Canadians labeled as war criminals by Ignatieff and company for following protocols set up by the Liberal government themselves.
 

George Wallace

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Ignatieff and gang are out for their own profit in the polls.  This country has changed its moral values quite drastically in the last few decades.  We have seen Louis Riel become a hero and had schools named after him, where 100 years ago he was a murderer and a traitor.  200 years ago we had aboriginal warriors carving the hearts out of their fallen enemies so that they could gain their courage.  Times change.  Today's Canadian Soldiers have had SHARP training and DIFFERENTIAL (or whatever it is called) training (Are you an "X" or an "O"?).  The Canadian Soldier has cultural briefs on the nation they deploy to.  They have strict Rules of Engagement (ROEs).  They are taught the Geneva Conventions and study the Laws of Armed Conflict.  What happened a century ago, even fifty years ago, has no relation to what a Canadian Soldier is today.
 

pbi

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I'm not sure that I get the point of the Citizen article.

Is it to suggest, by innuendo and linkage of unrelated incidents, that Canadians have a tendency to committ war crimes?

In that case I'd say all soldiers probably have a tendency to commit war crimes under certain circumstances: that's why we try to instill LOAC, and ROEs, and ethics, and why we have a military discipline system. It's also why we've done quite a lot of work on how we train leaders, how we deal with the media, and on facing the fact that we are accountable. These things are all intended to counter that human tendency to give in to rage, fear, vengeance or racism and start slaughtering people. They don't work 100% of the time (nothing does) but my sense is we're a hell of a lot further ahead.

If, on the other hand, the purpose is to say "yadda, yadda, so what, it's all rumour like last time...", that might feel good for us, but it's a fairly irresponsible and professionally dangerous way of thinking about a very serious subject-one that caused this Army of ours real damage and suffering as recently as Somalia.

So what is the author getting at?

Cheers
 

daftandbarmy

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These things happen in war. Playing up these types of incidents and rumours supports the Liberals' efforts to make sure that we get back in the Peacekeeping box, and stay there.
 

SeanNewman

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daftandbarmy said:
These things happen in war.

While quite "gung ho" sounding, that defence will never keep you out of jail for being involved in a war crime.  Further, the defence of "I'd rather be tried by 12 than caried by 8" won't get you very far, either.

I agree with your second part about war/peacekeeping, but there is no justification for war crimes regardless of how much combat is going on around you.  Times are different, and the Canadian public (right of wrong) expects a soldier to act on their behalf regardless of the context and the challenges they are facing.  Is that fair?  Ours is not to reason why...
 

Old Sweat

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I tend to agree with Petamocto's position on war crimes.

However, in the case of the South African War, the issue that concerns me is whether these incidents happened at all. For those that don't know me, I am the dissenting voice in the story and remain convinced that I am the only one in step on this parade. Why? First point, there were two separate British forces in South Africa at this time in the war. The South African Field Force - which included the RCD, CMR, artillery and 2 RCR - had occupied Pretoria in June and was consolidating in the Orange Free State and the western Transvaal, while the Natal Field Force (NFF) had entered the south-eastern Transvaal in July 1900 and was forcing its way north along the eastern railway against heavy Boer resistance. The Strathcona's were part of the NFF. In other words, there were a few hundred miles and several thousand hostile Boers between the Straths and the rest of the Canadians. How then did the latter (and everybody else) learn of the supposed incidents?

Second, several years ago I contacted the South African Military History Society along with the War Museum of the Boer Republics in an effort to gain information on the incident involving Strathcona's Horse. To my surprise (and relief) no one in South Africa had heard of it, and frankly doubted that it had ever happened. This position was enhanced by an examination of the Boer casualty figures. There was no record of any Boers being killed on the date in question, and no record of any Boers being killed in this manner during the war.

Third, in the case of the Canadian Scouts, Mr Hare did not arrive in South Africa until several months after the unit's CO was killed. There may have been some shooting of Boers attempting to surrender, but this would be difficult to pin down. As for the 13 Boers supposedly handed over to a Canadian unit and then shot, this sounds like another rumour.

Now, the Boers made a practice of luring troops into ambushes by flying a white flag over a farm house and then opening fire as the troops approached. While this was due more to an ignorance of the rules of war than outright treachery, this did not excuse it in the eyes of the troops. The Boers tended to shoot and scoot, so few very every caught in the act. this in part may explain why the rumour flourished, and why it persists to this day.
 

Dennis Ruhl

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Weren't the Straths  known as the Headhunters?  Maybe simply because of bravado.

Looking for morality or the lack thereof in the least moral war Canada ever fought is perhaps futile.  Despite stories of mistreatment of British subjects the only reason the war happened is that Britain wanted the real estate.  In the grand scheme of things whether a few Boers were killed unsuccessfully surrendering pales in comparison the thousands of Boer soldier's wives and children who died under British captivity and whom Canadians helped round up.  There's a story there.




 

armyvern

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Dennis Ruhl said:
Weren't the Straths  known as the Headhunters?  Maybe simply because of bravado.

Looking for morality or the lack thereof in the least moral war Canada ever fought is perhaps futile.  Despite stories of mistreatment of British subjects the only reason the war happened is that Britain wanted the real estate.  In the grand scheme of things whether a few Boers were killed unsuccessfully surrendering pales in comparison the thousands of Boer soldier's wives and children who died under British captivity and whom Canadians helped round up.  There's a story there.

But, you see, as the story goes ... the Boers were not killed "while unsuccessfully surrendering" ~ rather, as the story goes, the Boers were strung up (but, were they??) in retaliation after ambushing a British Unit ... an ambush by the Boers that, as the story goes, occured while the BOERS were flying a white flag of surrender. Today, both acts are considered war crimes; and, even then, wagging the white flag of surrender to lure in your targets was considered an outright atrocity in and of itself.

IF, this act actually occured - and there seems to be no evidence or first hand accounts of it ever actually having happened - then it was a crime committed long ago under completely different moral codes than we adhere to today. No excuse, but don't ignore the ability of both sides to act in this manner back then and try to apply it to today's standards.

The one common denominator that I see between then and today?? The political side and the media side NOT referring to or discussing/debating the "war crimes" committed by the "other" side. It's almost like that's an afterthought --- after all, this is all about scoring points NOW in the polls. Us evil Canadian soldiers. Let the facts (in the case of the Strath's - the lack of facts and evidence of a real occurance) be damned.
 

George Wallace

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Dennis Ruhl said:
Weren't the Straths  known as the Headhunters?  Maybe simply because of bravado.

Looking for morality or the lack thereof in the least moral war Canada ever fought is perhaps futile.  Despite stories of mistreatment of British subjects the only reason the war happened is that Britain wanted the real estate.  In the grand scheme of things whether a few Boers were killed unsuccessfully surrendering pales in comparison the thousands of Boer soldier's wives and children who died under British captivity and whom Canadians helped round up.  There's a story there.

Funny how this is remembered, even if it may not be true, but the fact that the Taliban murdered people execution style and otherwise in a soccer stadium on a weekly basis is totally forgotten about.
 

OldSolduer

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It also seems to be forgotten that the SS murdered Canadians in WW2. In fact, they were Royal Winnipeg Rifles.
 

mariomike

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Mid Aged Silverback said:
It also seems to be forgotten that the SS murdered Canadians in WW2. In fact, they were Royal Winnipeg Rifles.

Likewise the Canadian airmen sent to Buchenwald Concentration Camp.
 

OldSolduer

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I'm not saying that those who commit war crimes shouldn't be held accountable because we were the victims of war crimes.
What I'm saying is that it seems that there are members of the media who love to dig up past history.

Maybe a few letters to the editors detailing how our soldiers, sailors and airmen were victims of war crimes of past wars. Just a thought.
 

SeanNewman

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WW2 is a bizarre case though because very few people here know what it is like to realistically have the survival of your culture at stake.

I think we can armchair quarterback cases like killing Jewish people or POWs easy enough, but it gets pretty grey with the bombing of cities, etc.  An objective view will show that the proponent can only take the "We were bombing factories and workers" argument so far, but that's us saying that now when we haven't had our city (London) bombed for the last three years.

Can we all say that we would realistically live by the rules if the US invaded us?  Was Russia justified for what they did at the end of the war?  Of course not, but can we say we know what it's like to supposedly have a non-aggression pact broken and the other Army 1,000km inside your border before you can stop them with 25,000,000 of your people killed?  I think I might go a little loco, too.
 

George Wallace

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Mid Aged Silverback said:
I'm not saying that those who commit war crimes shouldn't be held accountable because we were the victims of war crimes.
What I'm saying is that it seems that there are members of the media who love to dig up past history.

Maybe a few letters to the editors detailing how our soldiers, sailors and airmen were victims of war crimes of past wars. Just a thought.

True, but at the same time, why are our press focusing on "our" troops in a bygone era, who had a different moral and ethical outlook on life, a totally different culture than we have today, and demonizing us; ignoring the atrocities committed by the present day Taliban that took us to Afghanistan? 

The Media is scrutinizing the nations "naval" for belly button lint, demonizing ourselves, when it should be looking at the evil bastards across the lily pond.

AND ...... Once again I land up calling them the "Fifth Column"; the eventual cause of our own defeat.
 

OldSolduer

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George Wallace said:
True, but at the same time, why are our press focusing on "our" troops in a bygone era, who had a different moral and ethical outlook on life, a totally different culture than we have today, and demonizing us; ignoring the atrocities committed by the present day Taliban that took us to Afghanistan? 

The Media is scrutinizing the nations "naval" for belly button lint, demonizing ourselves, when it should be looking at the evil bastards across the lily pond.

AND ...... Once again I land up calling them the "Fifth Column"; the eventual cause of our own defeat.
The press doesn't report on good things we do, that doesn't sell papers. Demonizing the CF does.
 

mariomike

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Mid Aged Silverback said:
The press doesn't report on good things we do, that doesn't sell papers. Demonizing the CF does.

That's why I prefer to read the old papers on line. The new ones are too depressing.
 
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