Monday 21 April 2014

The Cochrane Letter

Revised and Updated 20/02/2021
Many people falsely claim that it was a letter dated 4 October 1901 from 15 of the BVC officers’ own men that initiated the inquiry and subsequent courts-martial resulting in the execution of Harry Morant and Peter Handcock and the imprisonment of George Witton.

The letter is reproduced here.

Some even try to maintain that it was written by 15 “fellow Australians”. Let’s get that out of the way first. Thanks to the research published by Bill Woolmore [p149-293] we have the enlistment details, including nationality, of most of the Bushveldt Carbineers members and the names of the 15 signatories are published in Arthur Davey’s book [1]:

Name                                         Nationality
Cpl. Ernest G. Browne              New Zealander
Tpr. J.A. Skelton                       Unknown ?Sth African
Tpr. A.W.M. Thompson            Australian
Tpr. J. Hatfield                          English
Tpr. F.C. Sheridan                     Irish
Tpr. J.W.H. Penn                       British
Tpr. A. Duckett                         Canadian
Tpr. Jas. Christie                       New Zealander
Tpr. E. Stratton                         English
Tpr. Geo. D. Lucas                   English
Tpr. J. C. Hampton                   Irish
Tpr. H.Y. Cox                           English
Tpr. A. van der Westhuizen      Sth African
Cpl. A.R. McCormick              Sth African
Tpr. John Silke                         Australian

Only two Australians it seems. Both Thompson and Silke, as well as Duckett, Hatfield and Hampton were members one or more of the shooting parties that carried out the executions so they had a fairly strong incentive to distance themselves from prosecution. Silke (a good mate of Christie) was one of the men who abandoned the wounded Captain Hunt at the farmhouse where he was killed and these men were later chastised for doing so by Rev. Reuter [2]. It is most probable that they also bore the brunt of Morant’s anger as he remarked in a letter to Major Lenehan on 17 August 1901 “By God there must have been some wastrels there that night when poor Hunt went under … I’ve straightened some of the men up – they stand cursing!”.[3]

Only one of the signatories, Thompson, was called as a witness in the courts-martial of Morant, Handcock and Witton. Two others, Lucas and Sheridan, testified against Captain Taylor only. While some of the others signed sworn depositions prior to the Court of Inquiry their testimony must have been considered too unreliable to present in court.

Robert Mitchell Cochrane
The person who compiled and witnessed this letter was a Trooper Robert Mitchell Cochrane – born in Norwich, England he had been a mine manager and JP in Western Australia before enlisting in the BVC on 2 April 1901. Interestingly, he gave his address on enlistment as “Reuter’s Agency, Durban”[4].

 There is no record of him having served at Fort Edward. Bill Woolmore, who did fairly extensive research into the records of the BVC members confirms this on page 112. This is further evidenced by the fact that he doesn’t list himself as a potential witness to any of the incidents alleged in the letter. The letter and its signatures, the memorandum and list of witnesses, as well as all the depositions taken in Pretoria are all recorded in Cochrane’s handwriting (apart from the signatures of course) in official army letterbooks (Transvaal Archives, Pretoria, CS1092 Letterbooks I and II). This tends to suggest that Cochrane was employed in some clerical capacity at BVC headquarters and is supported by the fact that he was able to list the whereabouts of all the potential witnesses who were still serving in the BVC at the time of the memorandum.

Copy of Page 46 of CS1092 Letterbook II, the signature page of the Cochrane letter. Photo courtesy of James Unkles

Copy of Page 64 of CS1092 Letterbook II, one of Cochrane's witness list pages. Photo courtesy of James Unkles

Thanks to extensive research by James Unkles. He kindly provided me with copies of all the original pages of the letterbook containing Cochrane's letter, memorandum, and witness list and most of the depositions recorded by Cochrane in Pretoria between 9th and 15th October 1901. The depositions are followed by several pages, also in Cochrane's handwriting, showing details of cattle and various items allegedly stolen from Boer prisoners by Captain Taylor.

 After the war Cochrane turned up as an auctioneer and commission agent in New Zealand where he was the subject of a bankruptcy hearing in Wellington on 4 March 1904. Listed among his assets were shares in a South African water company valued at £200. (Bush Advocate, Dannevirke NZ, 5 March 1904, p2). 

He then returned to Perth where it seems he worked as a journalist. At the end of July 1909 he sued The Daily News for moneys owed for work he allegedly did. In his testimony he claimed to have had 20 years experience as a journalist. (The Daily News, Perth W.A., 25 July 1909 p4).

Investigation Already Well Under Way
In reality, investigations into the irregularities at Fort Edward began a month before the above letter was submitted to the Officer in Command at Pietersburg, Colonel Hall. Hall had sent Major Lenehan to Fort Edward to take statements on 7 September 1901. Both Lenehan and his adjutant, Lieut. Edwards, testified at Lenehan’s court-martial that he took statements and that these were sent to headquarters. The court-martial must have been satisfied that he was telling the truth because he was acquitted of the charge of failing to report the shooting of Boer prisoners.

Captain Frederick de Bertodano
There is no doubt in my mind that Kitchener learned of the killing of the missionary, Heese, sometime early in September (probably from de Bertodano, the intelligence officer with a dubious reputation). Bill Woolmore provides a very comprehensive summary of the Spanish-Australian officer, Frederick de Bertodano’s corrupt background.[5]

Involvement of Civil Administrators
Kitchener’s Director of Military Intelligence, Colonel D. Henderson wrote to Taylor on 2 September 1901 informing him that responsibility for native affairs would be taken over by a civilian native commissioner, Francis Enraght-Moony.[6] Initially Kitchener had intended for Enraght-Moony to work alongside Taylor [7], but on 24 September 1901 Colonel Henderson wrote to the Secretary for Native Affairs, Sir Godfrey Lagden "The Chief wishes to remove Captain Taylor, who is making trouble in the North" [8] and on 27 September 1901 he advised him “I have sent orders to Taylor to return to Pretoria … “ [9].  Kitchener knew that if he was going to protect himself and, by necessity, Taylor then he would have to get in before the bureaucrats and the complaint would need to come from a source well removed from headquarters - ideally from within the ranks of the BVC. That way he would hope to avoid being accused of acting to cover his own backside.

Enraght-Moony discussed putting a stop to the "irregularities practised" by the BVC troops with Colonel Hall, including the urgent need to recall Taylor, and reports this in a letter to Sir Godfrey Lagden on 11 September 1901. He concludes the letter with "This is of course confidential and should not be used in discussing the matter with C-in-C [i.e., Kitchener]. Taylor was sent up without reference to Col. Hall." [10].  This is further confirmation that Hall was aware of what was occurring at Fort Edward and that Taylor was Kitchener’s man and one of the reasons why Hall was shipped out to India before the courts-martial commenced.

The curious thing is that the first time Provost Marshal Major Poore, according to his diary entry, learned of the "bad things which have been taking place north of Pietersburg" was on 7 October 1901:
“At about 6pm Bolton (Wilts Regt) arrived with some papers about some rather bad things which have been taking place north of Pietersburg. The BVC accepted the surrender of 8 Boers and after taking them along for several days shot them. If they had intended doing this they should not have accepted their surrender in the first instance…” [11].

How Did Cochrane Become Involved?
It must have been the Intelligence Department who conducted the early investigation and who better than de Bertodano who later claimed in his "memoirs" to have "worked up all the evidence". I propose he used Trooper Cochrane to gather up the 15 signatures on the letter of complaint. Even Craig Wilcox suggests Cochrane "... may have been nudged by de Bertodano to come forward and bring the others with him lest men in the ranks bear the burden of any official retribution" [12]. Cochrane's accompanying "memorandum" reeks of de Bertodano's writing style and unsupported allegations in his own "memoirs" [13] so I can't escape the feeling that they colluded on producing the document.

Cochrane Memorandum
Cochrane submitted the lengthy memorandum to expand on the soldiers’ letter. Bill Woolmore [14] described the memorandum as “containing certain known facts not disputed by the accused” but “otherwise largely a conglomeration of baseless rumour and trooper scuttlebutt” and Davey[15]: “a blend of fact, hearsay and surmise, bears the stamp of hastiness”.  Nick Bleszynski[16] wrote that it was “for the most part,  a witches brew of rumour and half-truths with a generous pinch of malice aforethought.”

The memorandum was written 3 days after the submission of the letter and was signed by Cochrane alone. It was totally hearsay because Cochrane was not a witness to any of the events described.

Cochrane apparently submitted his memorandum to Colonel Hall on 7 October. He turned up in Pretoria (260km away) the next day with Cpl. Browne chasing witnesses -

CS 1092, Letterbook II, p66[17]
Blackwood Villa
8 October 1901
Captain Bolton
I have taken lodgings in Blackwood Villa, Van der Walt St. [Pretoria]. It is not more than 100 yards from the BVC orderly room and is reached by an alley about opposite the orderly room. Corpl. Browne is with me …
[sgd] R.M. Cochrane

This suggests that this process was well under way before Provost Marshal Poore learned of it. Kitchener was so involved that he managed to take time out of his busy schedule to sit in on the taking of some of the witnesses' depositions between 9 and 15 October[18]On the previous page Davey points out, “they were obviously assisted by Cochrane for the style and the handwriting of the main statements are his”. In footnote 4 on the same page he says: “Cochrane’s letterbooks (2) were kept by Major Bolton who retained them at Pietersburg after the war in connection with compensation claims.” He handed them over to the Colonial Office, Transvaal when he returned to England.

Cochrane Accuses His Commanding Officer of Cowardice
Any doubt that the Cochrane letter was constructed with headquarters involvement is dispelled by the following passage in the accompanying memorandum:

“Antecedents of Major Lenehan
R.Q.M.S. Ross can prove that Major Lenehan was drummed out of the permanent artillery in New South Wales. His cowardice in the field in this country has been commented on in the Bulletin, Sydney which nicknamed him the “Hero of Abram’s Kraal”. R.Q.M.S. Ross was an eye-witness of his cowardice at Abram’s Kraal and subsequent engagements. Further testimony can be got from Lt. Col. Knight, New South Wales Mounted Rifles.”

Here we have a private soldier daring to write to the Camp Commandant accusing his commanding officer of cowardice when he (Cochrane) wasn’t even in the country when the alleged episode occurred. Surely nobody can suggest that he would be able to do so with impunity unless he was guaranteed protection at the very highest level. By the way, there is no evidence to support these allegations about Major Lenehan but it didn’t stop Craig Wilcox from claiming that Lenehan was widely believed to have lost his nerve[19] and that he was dogged by rumours of cowardice (in his brief biography of Lenehan in the same book), citing the Cochrane document as his only source.

Was Cochrane Rewarded  For His Role?
Robert Cochrane was a journalist and given that he had some connection with Reuters Agency the question arises: Was he the journalist who covered the court-martial proceedings? I am also at a loss to understand why, on his return from South Africa, he didn’t publish what he knew, particularly after the publication of George Witton’s book. One can only speculate so I will resist the urge to do so.

Richard Williams

1. Davey,Arthur,Breaker Morant and the Bushveldt Carbineers,VAN RIEBEECK SOCIETY CAPE TOWN 1987, p82
2. Woolmore, William, The Bushveldt Carbineers and the Pietersburg Light Horse, Slouch Hat Publications, Australia, 2002, p87
3. Davey, Arthur, op cit, p77
4. Woolmore,William, op cit, p170
5. Woolmore,William, op cit, pp296-301
6. Davey, Arthur, op cit, No38 p66
7. Davey, Arthur, op cit, No39 p67
8. Davey, Arthur, op cit, No42 p69
9. Davey, Arthur, op cit, No43 p70
10. Davey, Arthur, op cit, No41 p68
11. Woolmore,William, op cit, p113
12. Wilcox, Craig,Australia's Boer War: The War in South Africa 1899-1902, OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2002, p290
13. Davey, Arthur, op cit, pp53-64
14. Woolmore, William, op cit, p112
15. Davey, Arthur, op cit, p74
16. Bleszynski, Nick, Shoot Straight You Bastards!, Random House,2nd Ed 2003, p285
17. Davey, Arthur, op cit, No52 p89
18. Davey, Arthur, op cit, p75
19. Wilcox, Craig, op cit, p280


  1. How about doing some proper research into Cochrane. He was into mining and ended up in South Africa investigating mining techniques. He held several patents to improve the extraction of gold. He was a reporter for Queensland papers before he got into mining. The bankruptcy in NZ is rubbish. He was the editor of a paper in Charters Towers before he went of to WA. Son killed in 1WW. If you are going to publish rubbish suggest you open up a waste paper bin somewhere and put it all in.

  2. Thanks for your comment Anonymous. There is very little information online about Cochrane. If you know so much about him why don't you publish something elsewhere with appropriate and verifiable references.

    I did find the following so I fail to see how you can label it as rubbish:

    "Papers Past Bush Advocate 5 Poutūterangi 1904 Page 6 of 9

    A meeting of creditors of Robert Mitchell Cochrane, auctioneer and commission agent, of Dannevirke, was held at the Official Assignee's Office at Wellington yesterday. The bankrupt is in Perth, Western Australia. Mr. Myers appeared on behalf of a creditor. It was resolved that the costs incurred by some of the creditors in bringing about the bankruptcy be paid out of the estate. It was also decided to institute enquiries regarding the shares held in a water company in South Africa, estimated by the banrupt to be worth £200 ..."

    I also learned that his son was killed in WW1 and was sorry to read that but I couldn't see what relevance that had to Cochrane's role in assisting Kitchener to scapegoat three junior officers to cover up Kitchener's war crimes.

    The information you provided only serves to make me even more suspicious of Cochrane's reasons for joining the Bushveldt Carbineers as a private soldier, particularly given his connection with Reuters. Little wonder that Judge J.W.Rant, when he wrote his opinion in 2002, mistakenly thought that he was an officer, a major even, with some official capacity.

    1. Cochrane enlisted in the BVC at a time when he had gone over to in 1901 to explore conditions in the South African mining industry when it was thought the war was coming to a close following Roberts successes. He held several gold mining patents back in Australia and was interested in exploring metallurgical practices on the Rand. He enlisted for 6 months because he was probably running out of cash. He was a journalist and at one time edited a socialist paper in Charters Towers called the Eagle. He contributed to The Bulletin 24/12/92 ,pen name Alaric,. He was a JP and also was the mine manager. He was aman of many parts and a highly motivated individua who always organised associations, guilds and generally tried to right injustices as he saw them. When he came across Morant and Handcock he had a cause to fight for.

  3. Thank you for the information Anonymous. He sounds like an interesting character - a real Jack-of-all-trades particularly when you add in his botched real estate ventures in New Zealand and his failed political career (he stood unsuccessfully for the seat of Geraldton in the 1908 Western Australian state election). It was a curious jump from editor of a socialist newspaper to mine manager in Coolgardie. I can't imagine that there were too many mine managers back in the 1890s who were good friends of the workers.

    You say he went to South Africa in 1901 and that he enlisted in the BVC because "he was probably running out of cash". He enlisted on 2 April 1901 (Trooper No. 141). He gave his address as Reuters Agency, Durban and his occupation as mining engineer. Strange that a man of his experience should run out of cash so soon after his arrival and why would a 38 year old man with no military experience (none recent anyway) choose to enlist as a trooper in a remote counter-insurgency unit where the only criteria for enlistment were the abilities to "ride and shoot". However, it looks like he managed to secure a job in the HQ Orderly Room well out of harms way but not much opportunity to "explore metallurgical practices in the Rand" there.

    The Cochrane letter and memorandum are contained in an archive in South Africa "JU. CS vol. 1092. Bushveld Carbineers. Outrage and Compensation" in letterbooks in Cochrane's handwriting. Two personal letters (also in Cochrane's hand and presumably copies for his own records) dated 11 October 1901 also found their way into this archive and are worth reproducing here.

  4. Box 284 Pretoria

    The Manager
    The Bank of Africa

    I received your letter of the 13th Sept '01 informing me that Mr C. Fraser Dawson's cheque had been dishonoured. Until I called at your Pretoria branch today I could not understand what course I ought to take. I now enclose my cheque for £40 to put matters right. I understand that the valueless cheque having been credited to me this is necessary to compensate matters.

    I much regret that Mr Dawson should have sent me a valueless cheque as rather than this I should have preferred that he made no attempt at all to pay his account.
    I am
    Yrs very truly
    R.M. Cochrane

    Box 284
    11 Oct '01

    The Manager
    Reuters Agency

    I thank you for returning me the valueless cheque issued by Mr Dawson. I am entirely at a loss to understand why he should have done such a thing. I have today forwarded a cheque for £40 direct to the Bank to put matters right as they had credited my a/c with this valueless cheque.

    I am at present detained in Pretoria on official business. Please forward my letters to the above address until I write again.
    I am
    Yours faithfully
    R.M. Cochrane

  5. According to my calculations, at 7 shillings a day, Cochrane would have earned about £64 for his six months service as a trooper in the BVC. He can't have been too short of cash if he was able to write a cheque for £40 (obviously from another account) to settle the above debt. This correspondence certainly raises a couple of questions. What sideline activity was Cochrane engaged in that enabled him to conduct an account with Dawson for the not inconsiderable sum of £40 and what was his continuing business relationship with Reuters Agency?

    Given Cochrane's unique insider knowledge of the affair and the fact that he counted journalism as one of his various occupations I remained puzzled as to why he didn't publish some sort of response to George Witton's "Scapegoats of the Empire" when it was released in 1907. I can only speculate that he was well compensated for his role in helping Kitchener and Taylor dodge a bullet and that he was sworn to secrecy as part of the deal. Or alternatively, perhaps he had a guilty conscience for his part in a conspiracy that made three junior officers the scapegoats for the increasingly desperate policies of proven war criminal.

    1. Cochrane was a man well trusted in the communities of Western Australia who came from a middle class artistic background in Norwich England. He became a government surveyor in Queensland then ventured into journaliasm and gold mining in Western Australia. As I said before he edited the Eagle in Charters Towers which had a very socialistic viewpoint and a bit like student politics. he also was in favour of communes and wanted to get back to a sort of perfect society. He published under the name "Alaric" and named one of his sons (Killed in France with the Royal Australian Artillery) Bede. By 1900 he was a JP, major mine manager and a man who held several patents relating to extracting gold using electricity as well as cynide. He was also the WA correspondent for Queensland newspapers. He went to SA on behalf of WA investors to investigate Rand methods of gold extraction when it was thought that the war was coming to an end. I surmise that he was bored and running short of cash but have no evidence of this when he joined the BVC. There is no doubt that he was a man of principle and education and many soldiers who were horrified by events in the north trusted him to inform the authorities and the rest is history. I have seen his work in the Transvaal archive and seen Poore's diary in Edinburgh. The interesting thin is that ordinary soldiers such as Silke and Christie and the others opened their hearts to Cochrane and he had the guts to bring the story to the proper authorities who reacted very quickly. After SA Cochrane returned to WA and had a successful career there working on behalf of trade unions initially until his death in Perth. I doubt if he received a penny for his efforts or was sworn to secrecy. I am more than willing to debate this area of the sordid Morant affair.

  6. Thank you Joe, but you seem to be covering the same ground as in the (?your) previous comments by Anonymous. I am very aware of your position on the "sordid Morant affair" as you call it, having read many of your contributions to various forums and blogs over the past several years. I respect your right to your point of view.

    I am sure it is very essential to your position that you have absolute faith in the motives and integrity of Cochrane and his 15 cohorts. I prefer the opinion of Rev. Joshua Brough, Military Chaplain at Pietersburg, who described them as "bad men". I also refer to W.B. Melville's address to the premier of South Africa where he stated that "some of them boasted openly that they expected to be rewarded with farms".

    I have pointed out in my paper, with valid and verifiable references, that the authorities had begun to take action well before Cochrane submitted his letter on 4 October 1901. In fact Captain Taylor had already been recalled before then. These details seem to have escaped your attention as you continue to imply that it was Cochrane's letter that initiated the inquiry.

    I believe I have given you a fair go so I do not intend to debate this matter further with you. Therefore I'm sorry to say I will not publish any more of your comments on this subject.

  7. Hi William, quite difficult to get the facts strait if people do not listen to reason. You did very well explain it all and you have it right.


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