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 Handcock 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 he only thinks so 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.

Update 15 May 2021:

I have always considered Anzac Day to be the one day where personal agendas and opinions are put aside in respect for those who gave up their youths, and in many cases their lives, in service of our country. You would think that someone who claims to have "written 10 books on Australia's military actions" might have developed some appreciation of the importance of the day and chosen some other time to foist his opinions on the Herald's readership. Particularly when those opinions are often based on cherry-picked historical evidence that is either false or at best questionable. It is with this in mind that I decided to lodge a complaint about the article with Australian Press Council.

This is part of what I wrote in my complaint:

"The article breached the principal of fairness and accuracy as I have covered in detail in my blog: Under the guise of objective reporting it presented subjective opinions which are not based on fact. I believe it was a cynical attempt to promote his book by making unsupported offensive claims about the subject of his article, Peter Handcock on Anzac Day, of all days. I found his abuse of the sanctity of Anzac Day equally as offensive as his attacks on my great-grandfather."

Here is the condescending, dismissive response I received from the Press Council, signed by someone who calls themselves "Complaints":

Dear Mr Williams,

Re: Sydney Morning Herald article "Disgraced Peter Handcock deserves no war memorial honour" (Online) 25 April 2021

We refer to your complaint received on 1 May 2021 concerning the article above.

In your complaint, you express concern that the article “presented subjective opinions which are not based on fact” and that it makes “unsupported offensive claims about the subject of [the] article, Peter Handcock”.

After careful consideration, the Executive Director has decided not to proceed further with the complaint. In reaching this decision, we have taken into account that the article is clearly an opinion piece and the Council takes the view that such articles are entitled to express robust and, at times, provocative views. While we appreciate that you find the article offensive, we do not consider it to be so substantially offensive that it outweighs the significant public interest in allowing freedom of expression. We also note that there does not appear to be any significant inaccuracies in the article. In noting that the article is an opinion piece, there is no requirement for the publication to contact you for comment. As such, it is considered unlikely that a breach of the Council’s Standards of Practice has occurred.

 Although we are not proceeding further with the complaint, the publication will be informed of your concerns about the article.

 We appreciate your concern about compliance with appropriate media standards and we thank you for bringing it to our attention. Apart from the outcomes in specific cases, we do try to learn from the broad pattern of complaints in an effort to improve media standards and to target our educational initiatives.

Kind regards,


The first thing that struck me was that the person who responded didn't have the courage or courtesy to identify themselves by name but rather chose to use the pseudonym "Complaints". I can only conclude that they don't have much confidence in the calibre of their response, given that:

  • They made no mention my complaint about the article's blatant abuse of the sanctity of Anzac Day, instead they referred to it as an expression of "robust and, at times, provocative views". Surely they could agree that Anzac Day isn't the proper time to indulge in outrageous self-promotion!
  • They claim there "does not appear to be any significant inaccuracies in the article" without addressing or acknowledging the factual errors I have highlighted, citing valid and verifiable sources, in this paper and in my previous paper, Fiction Is Not Fact!. Did they bother to read my papers?
I guess I was pretty naive to expect otherwise from an industry that thrives on gossip, scandal and sensationalism.

Thank you to Bathurst RSL and Bathurst Council
The following link to Military History Society NSW includes the written response by Bathurst RSL to Fitzsimons' demands:

I am extremely grateful for their intelligent and measured reply and their unwillingness to be pressured by self-serving newspaper articles.

Richard Williams


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

  2. It turns my stomach every time I see a book by Peter FitzSimons in the 'history' section of a book shop. He has no credibility as a writer of history and I discourage anyone from wasting money on the rubbish he produces.

  3. Hi Richard

    My father was on the board of the Bathurst RSL when the decision was made to add Peter’s name to the Boer War Memorial. I remember him talking about it long before the story came to prominence through the Breaker Morant movie
    John Neil
    Born and bred in Bathurst

    1. Thank you John,
      I recall how much it meant to my grandfather, and I am very grateful to your father and the other board members who made this happen.


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