Sunday, 2 May 2021

Not What Anzac Day Is About

 Now that I've calmed down a bit I feel compelled to comment on Peter FitzSimons' shameless and cynical abuse of the sanctity of Anzac Day in the Sydney Morning Herald on that sacred day when he, among other things, promoted his latest book, "Breaker Morant".

In his article he labelled Peter Handcock a war criminal and the "most dishonourable soldier to disgrace Australia" and demanded that his name be removed from the Boer War Memorial in Bathurst NSW. What I found most offensive was that he based many of his claims on his own perverted version of history. "Aren't you being a bit over the top describing them this way?", you ask. Well let's take a look at the most blatant one, FitzSimons' version of the shooting of the wounded Boer, Visser. I discussed this at length in my previous paper with relevant references.

According to FitzSimons' article "In early August 1901, Handcock personally put a revolver to the head of an unarmed, wounded Boer prisoner, Floris Visser, and fired, killing him." In his book he based this on an uncertain statement made by Trooper Staton who couldn't swear positively who shot Visser but thought it might have been Peter Handcock. On the other hand:

  1. Corporal Sharp testified in the court-martial that it was Lieutenant Picton who shot Visser.
  2. Picton himself was reported as confirming that it was he who fired but claimed he fired into the ground.
  3. Trooper Silke, a member of the firing party, wrote in his diary that Picton fired the final shot.
  4. Trooper Cochrane stated in his memorandum that Picton was the shooter.
With all this evidence in mind would any sane, reasonable person believe it was Peter Handcock and not Harry Picton who shot the wounded man? Apparently FitzSimons does.

This example alone should raise serious doubts about FitzSimons' version of events and I covered several more in my previous paper so I won't discuss them again here. One thing that particularly irks me is his statement that Peter Hancock was acquitted of the shooting of Rev. Heese "despite the overwhelming evidence". What overwhelming evidence? There was no evidence, that is why he was acquitted and the military chaplain, Rev. Joshua Brough, who attended most of the court-martial sittings, was moved to write "the court, without hesitation, found him not guilty, and never, I should think, has a feebler charge been brought before a court".

Rev. Joshua Brough also believed that case against the BVC officers was "prejudged from the statements of bad men" which sounds to me like a serious indictment of Trooper Cochrane and his 15 cohorts. He was there, he heard the evidence and no doubt the garrison scuttlebutt and discussions in the mess so I believe he was in a good position to know the true story. Not so Peter FitzSimons, who, looking back from afar, praises them as "unsung heroes". He claims they risked their lives despite the fact that, as I have shown previously, they were all safely in the Pietersburg garrison when they signed their letter. For some reason, best known to himself, FitzSimons continues to claim that the signatories were 14 Australian and 1 New Zealander. The relevance of their nationality escapes me completely but I have shown here that only a couple of them were Australian. For example, one of the signatories was Albert van der Westhuizen. On page 410 FitzSimons describes him as "Trooper van der Westhuizen, a turncoat Boer now fighting with the British", so I wonder whereabouts in Australia you reckon he came from Pete.

In his statement to the court-martial Morant included this admission "I was Senior Officer of the B.V.C. in the Spelonken, and for the ordering of the shooting of these Boers I take full and entire responsibility." The officers of the court-martial must have agreed. I guess they had to find Peter Handcock and George Witton guilty because they were commissioned officers but their verdict contained the following:

"The court recommend Lieut. P. J. Handcock and Lieut. G. R. Witton to mercy on the following grounds:-

  1. The court consider both were influenced by Lieut. Morant's orders, and thought they were doing their duty in obeying them.
  2. Their complete ignorance of military law and custom.
  3. Their good services throughout the war.
Signed at Pietersburg this 4th day of February, 1902." 

Peter FitzSimons disagrees with these experienced officers, claiming it is no excuse that Peter Handcock was following Harry Morant's orders. He claims to be an authority because he gained his military experience vicariously writing 10 books about the exploits of real soldiers. He seems unable to grasp the fact that military units are not run by committees. There is a clear chain of command and only one person is empowered to issue orders at each level down that chain.

On page 296 of his book "Australia's Boer War: The War in South Africa 1899-1902" Craig Wilcox wrote:

"Through accidents and twists of legal process, through a deal done with James Robertson, and possibly through deals done with Robert Cochrane and Alfred Taylor, two men had been executed for crimes that others had joined in committing and in most cases were like those being committed by perhaps hundreds of soldiers across South Africa."

On 30 November 2020, in response to a comment about Craig Wilcox by one of his followers, Peter FitzSimons tweeted "Thank you. Wilcox is the last word on the Boer War!" But only when it suits his agenda it seems.

In the article Peter FitzSimons makes particular reference to the shooting of the family of three Boers and on the surface I have to agree that this was pretty unpalatable. However, we do know that it was Morant's interpreter, Theunis Botha who shot the youngest of the three, Chris van Staden. Chris' age has been given as 12, 14 and 17 in various documents. I'm pretty sure neither Morant nor Handcock were fluent in Afrikaans so we don't know what Botha told Morant before he ordered their shooting. Similarly we don't know what turncoat intelligent agent, Leonard Ledeboer told him when he handed over the 8 Boers previously. We do know that Morant was only interested in seeking vengeance against those Boers who he believed were responsible for the mutilation of Captain Hunt. That explains why, as FitzSimons points out, 100 other prisoners were sent in by the BVC that month.

I was particularly disgusted that FitzSimons chose to drag my grandfather's name into his diatribe, misspelling it as 'Hancock' in the process. My grandfather spent his lifetime in the belief that his father was innocent and a scapegoat because both James Thomas (their lawyer) and George Witton had assured him that this was so. Contrary to FitzSimons' claim he was not a local resident, but lived in Sydney for over 30 years. He was in ill health for the last few years of his life and while he may have corresponded with the people in Bathurst who were responsible he was only one of the prime movers who had his father's name added to the memorial. I do recall it was a very emotional experience for him to be invited to the unveiling. I can assure your follower, "Bart", who commented on your article that he had changed his name from 'Handcock' to 'Hancock' to "avoid association" that this is absolutely untrue. He proudly remained Peter Handcock all his life.

According to the Virtual War Memorial Australia, Harry Morant's name is listed on two memorials: Bourke & District War Memorial, NSW and  Renmark & District Boer War Honour Roll, SA. Could it be that FitzSimons didn't bother to check or is it because unlike Peter Handcock, Harry Morant doesn't have any direct descendants that he could upset and get a rise out of on Anzac Day, so there'd be no fun in that would there?

I'll conclude this paper by pointing out that the Boer War Memorial in Bathurst belongs to the people of Bathurst and it is their right to decide who they want to include on it. Opinionated, headline grabbers have no right to dictate otherwise.

Richard Williams


  1. Well said again Richard! FitzSimons should use his bandana to wipe the egg off his face.


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