Saturday 19 April 2014

Deputy JAG, Colonel St. Clair's Opinion

 In November, 1901, at the conclusion of the Court of Inquiry, the senior legal officer in South Africa, Deputy Judge Advocate General Colonel St. Clair reviewed the evidence obtained and made his recommendations.

The following extracts from the Minute Book of Letters (Public Record Office, Kew WO 93/41) are Colonel St. Clair’s opinions following review of the Court of Inquiry transcripts. My comments are in red:

I do not recommend prosecution in the case of Lieut Hannam BVC. As to Lieut Picton BVC he appears to have been accessory to murder equally with the other members of the so called Court Martial [Visser case] and may I think be charged with the capital offence.

Yet, while Morant and Handcock were sentenced to death and Witton to life imprisonment, Picton, a British officer, was merely cashiered. Draw your own conclusions.

C of I Charges against Various Officers
I agree generally with the views expressed by the Court of Inquiry in their opinions of the several cases. The idea that no prisoners were to be taken in the Spelonken appears to have been started by the late Captain Hunt and after his death by orders given personally by Captain Taylor.

The statement that Captain Hunt’s body had been maltreated is in no way corroborated and the reprisals undertaken by Lt. Morant on this idea were utterly unjustifiable.

The Court of Inquiry must not have interviewed missionary, Rev. F.L. Reuter who testified in the Court Martial that Hunt’s body had been ”much mutilated. The neck appeared to have been broken, and the face bore marks of boot nails”. Hardly the work of native witchdoctors as has been later claimed by some so-called authorities.

Lt Morant seems to have been the prime mover in carrying out these orders and Lieut Handcock willingly lent himself as the principal executioner of them. Lieut Witton acquiesced in the illegal execution of the wounded Boer Visser and took a personal part in the massacre of the 8 surrendered Boers on 23 August. The two N.C.O.’s [Hammett and Oldham] acted under orders but were not justified in obeying illegal commands. After the murder of van Buuren the officers seem to have exercised a reign of terror in the district which hindered their men from reporting their illegal act and even prevented their objecting to assist the crime. I think charges should be preferred as under:
Lieut Morant For murder in cases no. 3-4-5 and 6.
Lieut Handcock For murder in cases no. 2-3-4-5-6
Lieut Witton For being accessory to murder in case 3 For murder in case 4.
As to Sergt Oldham the C of I recommended no prosecution, and I think taking all circumstances of Case no 1 into consideration the responsibility should rest with the officer ‘Captain Taylor’ who gave the order to this N.C.O. through Sgt Major Morrison.

I will report separately on Captn Taylor’s case.

The cases that Colonel St. Clair is referring to are:
Case No 1 “6 Boers” case
Case No 2 – shooting of Trooper van Buuren
Case No 3 – shooting of Visser
Case No 4 – “8 Boers” case
Case No 5 – The shooting of Rev. D. Heese
Case No 6 – “3 Boers” case

The Court of Inquiry was obviously satisfied that Captain Taylor was in a position of authority at Fort Edward and so was able  to issue orders to the BVC officers.

The following is St.Clair’s opinion on Captain Taylor – a document that no historian has chosen to share with us – despite the fact that it was only six pages further on in the same archive. The emphasis is mine:
Captain Taylor
Case No 1 I agree with the opinion of the Court of Inquiry. The order given by Captain Taylor that no prisoners were to be taken was against the usage of modern warfare & in my opinion rendered him personally responsible for the shooting of those 6 Boers who were coming in to surrender, & who made no defence when fired on. As being an accessory before the fact he is liable to a charge of murder.

Case No 2 The shooting of Trooper van Buuren by Lt Handcock was authorised by Captain Taylor & Captain Robertson both these officers were accessory before the fact to Lt Handcock’s act which in my opinion was ‘murder’.
Even if van Buuren was shot because he was suspected of being  a traitor there appears no reason why he should not have been arrested & tried either on the spot or at Pietersburg.

If Peter Handcock was to be charged with this shooting then both Captain Robertson and Kitchener’s personal appointee Captain Taylor would have had to be charged as accessories since they gave the order. As a result, and very convenient for the two British officers, nobody was charged.

Cases Nos 4 & 6 The verbal orders given by Captain Taylor to the officers & men of the BVC at various times not to take prisoners rendered him primarily responsible for these massacres & I think he is liable as an accessory before the fact.

So even though St. Clair concluded from the evidence obtained at the Court of Inquiry that Taylor bore the primary responsibility for the 8 Boers and 3 Boers shootings he was not charged in either case yet his subordinates received the death penalty. Once again – draw your own conclusions.

Minute Book of Letters (Public Record Office, Kew WO 93/41)

The following additional charges have no connection with the BVC officers but that hasn’t stopped certain historians and other biased individuals from making broad sweeping claims that imply BVC responsibility.

Case No 8 The shooting of van den Berg without trial was an illegal act, however guilty he may have been. There appears no sufficient reason why this man should not have been made a prisoner & tried for his alleged offences. I think Captn Taylor has rendered himself liable to a charge of murder.
The shooting of van den Berg occurred on 10 May 1901, well before the arrival of any of the BVC troops

Case No 9 Captain Taylor should have been aware when he ordered these natives to be shot that he was exceeding his powers. It is possible however that he may have been acting in good faith in this instance.

Case 10 The summary shooting of these two natives as spies does not appear to have been warranted by the evidence against them, & Captn Taylor should have known that he was exceeding his powers in ordering their summary punishment.
Some kind of investigation seems to have taken place & Captn Taylor may have acted in good faith.

Case 11 I think a charge for manslaughter will be against Captn Taylor in this case.

Despite the recommendations for 5 charges of murder and 1 of manslaughter Taylor was only tried in connection with Case No 1 and ?Case 11. He escaped conviction in Case No 1 by claiming he was not in command of troops. To his discredit, the prosecutor appears to have made no attempt to prove otherwise. Several documents, particularly letters from the Director of Military Intelligence Col. Henderson, confirm that Taylor was in overall command at Spelonken. [Davey p66-69]. Taylor even admitted under cross examination in the 8 Boers case that he was in command of the district [Witton p116].  Henderson should have been called to testify to this fact since the Pietersburg C.O., Colonel Hall, had been conveniently shipped off to India before the trials commenced.

On p1152 St. Clair initially determined that Taylor, despite his special role as an Intelligence Officer, was still subject to military law. However, on p1189 he appears to have been persuaded to have a change of heart:

p1189 (extract)
I think that A. Taylors trial should be postponed to the last & that he should be tried by a Military Court – if he was a native commissioner at the time of the offences, some such description will be advisable on the charge sheets.

Wasn’t that convenient for Taylor. The only trial that followed his was the Heese trial in spite of the fact that his offence occurred first on 2 July 1901 – over a month prior to any of the other incidents. The BVC officers, during their own trials, probably refrained from giving evidence implicating Taylor in the mistaken belief that he was to face the same charges as them.

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