British War Office manuals and international law, 1899–1907
Empire and legal thought : ideas and institutions from Antiquity to Modernity
Leiden : Brill Nijhoff, 2020
p. 548-577 ; 20 cm
In the aftermath of the 1899 Hague Convention, Oxford Professor Thomas Erskine Holland was employed by the British War Office to write the section on the laws of war for the army’s Manual of Military Law. In an era of rapid change and codification of international laws of war Holland’s involvement with the Manual of Military Law exposed the deep divisions in the British Government over the content and purpose of the codified laws of war. Holland’s conviction in the binding nature of international convention was challenged by the War Office and Foreign Office, who disputed his academic understanding of how and when international law should be applied in conflict. In the British civil service international legal expertise, feigned or legitimate, was claimed by many individuals making up what Robinson and Gallagher called the ‘official mind of imperialism’. These layers of intergovernmental bureaucracy subjected his draft to constant revisions, exposing the multiple, and often contradictory, understandings of international law held by the military and civil service. This chapter first provides of a close reading of the correspondence surrounding Holland’s text to explore the reluctance of the government to commit to written codification on the laws of war. It then contrasts Holland’s approach to the Manual of Military Law with that of the previous compiler, Lord Henry Thring, to track the changing sources of the laws of war for the War Office. These changes are situated in the context of the South African War (1899–1902), a cataclysm which preoccupied the secretariats of the Colonial Office, the Foreign Office, and the War Office like no other issue of the time. Together, these experiences and characters illustrate the disparate and often convoluted understandings of international law which contributed to the evolution of international legal thought in the British War Office.
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