Tuesday 22 April 2014

George Ramsdale Witton

Since I first learned of this affair I have felt the greatest empathy for George Witton and I wonder if anyone can honestly claim that they would have acted any differently than he did in the circumstances that he found himself.

The Bushveldt Carbineers site has excellent biographies of the BVC officers including George Witton (unfortunately this site is no longer available). Mark Cryle, Fryer Library Manager, University of Queensland has written a very informative article about him on page 8 of the September 2008 edition of Fryer Folios. Witton’s own book Scapegoats of the Empire is now in the public domain and can be downloaded from the Project Gutenberg site.

Witton arrived at Fort Edward on the evening of 4 August 1901 after having been sent as a last minute replacement for the injured Lieut. Baudinet. He hardly had time to settle in and become acquainted with the other officers when three days later news arrived of the death of Capt. Hunt. He was ordered to take up the rear guard of the patrol that left under the command of Lieut. Morant.

When Morant ordered the shooting of the captured Boer, Floris Visser, on 11 August 1901 Witton attempted to intervene but Morant was adamant in the belief that he was entitled to shoot Visser. Short of inciting a mutiny, Witton, as the most junior officer present, could do no more to prevent this shooting. It’s a pity that those who charged him with murder aren’t around today to explain what they would have done in his shoes.

Only 12 more days passed before Witton was ordered by Morant to participate in the shooting of the “eight Boers”. On page 62 of Scapegoats of the Empire Witton wrote:

I was not then on intimate terms with Lieutenant Morant; I had only met him for the first time a fortnight previously as my superior officer, and had recognised him as such, and during that fortnight I had been frequently away from the fort … Both myself and Sergeant-Major Hammett asked Morant if he was sure he was doing right. He replied that he was quite justified in shooting the Boers; he had his orders, and he would rely upon us to obey him.

Any decision was taken out of his hands because he went on to say:

One of them, a big, powerful Dutchman, made a rush at me and seized the end of my rifle, with the intention of taking it and shooting me, but I simplified matters by pulling the trigger and shooting him. I never had any qualms of conscience for having done so, as he was recognised by Ledeboer, the intelligence agent, as a most notorious scoundrel who had previously threatened to shoot him, and was the head of a band of marauders. By just escaping death in this tragedy I was afterwards sentenced to suffer death.

Witton’s account was corroborated by Sergeant-Major Hammett when he was called as a witness in the court-martial.
The Times report of the trial 17 April 1902 

Craig Wilcox, who obviously wasn’t there, casts doubt on the veracity of Witton’s version by quoting the scepticism of another carbineer who wasn’t there either, [‘Breaker Morant: The murderer as martyr’ in Zombie Myths of Australian Military History p35] and claiming it “reads like’ the same old yarn". I wish I was blessed with such insight.

This represents the sum total of Witton’s involvement and as a reward for his loyal service and obedience to orders he was sentenced to death. His sentence was commuted to life imprisonment and he spent 2 ½ years in an English prison where he nearly died from typhoid fever and learned of his father’s death at home in Australia. It is little wonder he was very bitter on his return and resolved to publish his version of events.

It’s a pity that he chose to go it alone without consulting others – in particular Major Thomas who was prompted to write in his own copy of Witton’s book “This book gives only a superficial statement of the facts. Much that Lieutenant Witton probably did not know is not given…” This copy of the book is in the possession Thomas’ grand-nephew, Beach Thomas,  and I have read the original inscription.

Many historians have mistakenly claimed over the years that George Witton borrowed Major Thomas’ trial transcripts and that he collaborated to some degree with Thomas when writing his book. Thomas' entry in his copy of the book alone would tend to refute that theory. A careful reading of the book will reveal that Witton only knew comprehensive details of the two trials in which he was a defendant (i.e., the Visser and Eight Boers cases). The rest of the trial reports appear to have been lifted almost verbatim from The Times article dated 17 April 1902. Witton admits to having consulted this article on p47 of the book. Research initiated by Jim Unkles has revealed that Witton requested his own transcripts of the two trials and that these  were posted to his brother, Ernest Witton, on 6 August 1903 while Witton was still in prison. [PRO WO 81/135B p697]

I cannot escape the feeling that George Witton may have felt some resentment toward Major Thomas. Nowhere in his book does he acknowledge that Thomas remained in South Africa for over 12 months to assist in the campaign for his release. On pages 81-82 he complained “I then learned that Major Thomas … would act for us all. I was unable to interview Major Thomas, who had arrived that morning, as he was all day closeted with Major Lenehan. The following morning, about 8.30 o’clock, he paid me a hurried visit, which lasted for a few minutes only.”

The book itself is fairly innocuous. It describes in detail George Witton’s service prior to his enlistment in the Bushveldt Carbineers and he devotes a large part of the book to his period of imprisonment. His description of events leading up to and including the courts-martial is factual as confirmed by other source documents. He complained about the treatment he and the other officers received during their 4 months solitary confinement and he was perfectly entitled to do so. He was also entitled to complain that he had been wrongfully imprisoned. The book certainly didn’t deserve the review published by historian Craig Wilcox one hundred years after its release titled “Killers tale murdered the truth” [Australian Literary Review Supplement, p24, The Australian 9 May 2007]

In addition to the cruel and unfair treatment he received back then his memory had to endure another hammering a hundred years later. Wilcox even makes a disparaging remark about his military service prior to his enlistment for South Africa. “Nominally an artilleryman, he does not tell us he is an officer’s servant, his duties confined to paperwork and pressing trousers.”  What possible relevance does this condescending revelation have? It is my understanding that all private soldiers are required to perform other duties in peacetime.

Unfortunately I find it necessary to offer my own, I hope objective, criticism of George Witton in relation to the letter he wrote to Major Thomas in 1929. I will do so in another paper.

Richard Williams

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