The Cochrane Letter

Source: Breaker Morant and the Bushveldt Carbineers, Edited by Arthur Davey, Van Riebeeck Society, Cape Town, 1987, pp.78-82
My comments are in red.

No.50                             CS 1092, letterbook II, pp. 37-46

Colonel Hall
O. C. Line of Communications

We the undersigned non-commissioned officers and men of the Bushveldt Carbineers recently returned from the Spelonken district feel it is our imperative duty to ask you to kindly hold an exhaustive and impartial inquiry into the following disgraceful incidents which have occurred in the Spelonken district in order that the exact truth may be elicited and the blame attributed to those responsible. These disgraceful incidents are:
  1. On July 2nd the shooting of six surrendered Boer prisoners who had been entirely disarmed and who offered no resistance whatsoever.
  2. On July 4th the shooting of Trooper Van Buuren BVC by Lt Handcock BVC for reasons which will be detailed later on.
  3. August 11th. The shooting of a surrendered and wounded Boer prisoner, Visser, after conveying him 15 miles.
  4. August 23rd. Shooting eight surrendered Boer prisoners and one German missionary.
  5. September 5th. Lt Hannam BVC and party fired on wagons containing women and children altho’ no resistance whatever was offered, in spite of remonstrations of the men, killing 2 children of tender years and wounding one little girl.
  6. Sept 7th. Shooting 2 men and a boy who were coming in to surrender, this fact being well known.

Charge No. 1 July 2nd. Intelligence was received that six Boers were coming in 2 wagons to surrender. One of the six was a very old man very sick with fever. Sergeant Major Morrison instructed Sergt Oldham to kill all the prisoners alleging that the orders came from Captain Robertson BVC. The Boers were totally disarmed and did not, as alleged, offer any resistance whatever. When dead, bandoliers were placed on the bodies and rifles by the sides. It was noticed by the rest of the patrol when it came up that in the excitement and confusion of the moment some of the bodies had placed on them bandoliers with Mauser ammunition and by their sides were Martini Henry rifles. In the wagon there was supposed to be a box containing about £2000. As will be proved by eyewitnesses it is entirely false that these Boers made any attempt to escape or offered any resistance whatever. The firing party consisted of Sergt Oldham, Troopers Eden, Arnold, Brown, Heath and Dale. This is probably the only case in which there may be some trouble to get the witnesses together.

  2. July 4th. Trooper van Buuren disapproved of the events of 2nd July and communicated the true facts of the case to the relatives of the murdered men. Next day he was taken out by Lt Handcock BVC in a district where the patrol affirms there was not a single Boer to be seen. Trooper van Buuren never came back, Lt Handcock saying he had been shot by the Boers, but it is the consensus of opinion of the men that van Buuren was shot by Lt Handcock and not by the Boers. This is believed the more readily as Lt Handcock has repeatedly threatened to shoot any man who spoke a word of dissent from the questionable proceedings. The troopers who were nearest to the deceased were Troopers Eden, Arnold and Brown.

  3. Aug. 11th. The wounded Boer prisoner, Visser, on this occasion was conveyed about 15 miles. He was then given a short period of time in which to write home. He was told that he had been tried at court martial and condemned to death though he certainly was never present at any court martial and we do not believe one was ever held. At the time he was wearing an old British Warm and was not clad in the tunic of the late Capt. Hunt as Major Lenehan BVC tried to prompt the witnesses to swear when he held a so-called “inquiry” in the fort at Spelonken recently.

  4. Aug. 23rd. Shooting of eight surrendered Boer prisoners and one German missionary. This party of eight Boers was being marched into camp by Sergt Wrench. The Boers had of course been disarmed. The rifles of the Boers were on the wagon but the bolts of all had been withdrawn and were in possession of the escort. The escort was met close to the hospital by Lt Handcock and Lt Morant, both of the BVC, who told Sergeant Wrench to ride on with his men. A little later some shots were fired from a kopje (but not by Boers) to simulate an attempt at rescue. The whole of the Boer prisoners were immediately shot. The firing party consisted of Lts Morant, Handcock and Witton, Sergt-Major Hammett, Troopers A. Thompson and Duckett.
    The Rev. Mr Heese was walking alongside the wagon conversing with the prisoners. He was ordered to depart. The shooting than occurred. If not an eyewitness he must have returned almost immediately, attracted by the shooting, and must have seen the unburied bodies. Shortly after he passed the pickets in a state of great excitement. Lt Handcock shortly after left camp armed. Three Kaffir boys in the district affirm that they saw Lt Handcock shoot the missionary. Later on when men had searched in vain for the body to bury it Lt Handcock went straight to the place where the body was found, itself a suspicious circumstance. Mr Pritchard, storekeeper, can produce the Kaffir boys who state they saw the missionary shot. Mr Bristow, farmer and storekeeper, Sweetwaters, can also give valuable evidence as to the shooting of the eight surrendered prisoners.

[Comment: While this letter contains mostly facts that are not in dispute it is also embellished with a deal of  hearsay and rumour. e.g. there is no record of Mr Pritchard having been asked to give evidence or to produce the alleged “three Kaffir boys”. Surely this would have been evidence vital to the prosecution case if there was any truth to it.

According to The Times report of the trials no evidence was produced at the court-martial to show that Rev. Heese was a witness to shooting of the Boers - only that he was aware that there had been "a fight that morning and several had been killed".

One of the signatories to this letter, Trooper J.S. Silke wrote in his diary “The next day [i.e. 24 August] the Kaffirs found the dead body of the Missionary in his Cape Cart stuck in the bush. A party were then sent out to bury him. His Kaffir boy escaped and arrived in Pietersburg wounded in three places but died before any information was elicited.” [Carnegie M. and Shields F., In Search of Breaker Morant, Graphic Books, 1979. p87] This is greatly at odds with the know facts. The missionary’s body was not found for several days and his servant was found dead at the scene. This has to raise some doubt about how much first-hand knowledge many of these 15 men really had and which parts were based on rumours or fabricated to support their charges. Only three of the signatories, Thompson, Sheridan and Lucas are listed as witnesses in the courts-martial by Arthur Davey on pages 125-6 of his book. Two of them, Sheridan and Lucas didn't testify against Lieutenants Morant, Handcock and Witton but only against Kitchener's man, Captain Taylor.

There is nothing suspicious about the fact that Lt. Handcock knew where to go to search for the body of Rev. Heese. He took out a patrol in response to information received from another missionary, Rev. Krause as to the whereabouts of the shooting.]

  5. Sept. 5th. Lt Hannam and party fired on 3 wagons containing women and children and 4 men. When the first shot was fired by the BVC disclosing their presence the Boers shouted “We surrender” but although Lt Hannam knew that the Boers wished to surrender and that from first to last they never fired a single shot in token of their desire to surrender, he ordered his men to continue firing with the result that two little boys were killed and one little girl wounded. The casualties would have been more numerous but the bulk of the firing party disdaining to fire on women and children, deliberately fired over the wagons. Altogether from 200 to 250 rounds were fired by Lt Hannam’s positive orders to keep on firing long after the Boer’s appeals to be allowed to surrender had been heard and the shrieks of the women and children had revealed their presence in the wagons.

[Comment: Two of the signatories to this letter, Troopers Hampton and Hatfield later signed depositions alleging the above incident [Davey op cit pp108-110] but no charge was laid against Lt. Hannam following the Court of Inquiry. Did the Court of Inquiry consider these two troopers to be unreliable witnesses perhaps? Or was it perfectly valid within Kitchener’s rules of engagement to refuse a surrender and to open fire on women and children?]

  6. Shooting of two men and a boy who were coming in to surrender. Sept. 7th. The afternoon Major Lenehan BVC arrived at the Fort, Lts Handcock and Morant, Sergt Major Hammett, Corporal McMahon, Troopers Botha and Hodds went out and shot two old men and a youth of 14 who were on their way in to surrender. The youth was sick with fever and was being supported by the two old men. The orders given were “When I tell you to dismount you dismount and put a cartridge in the breach of your rifle: directly I say ‘Hands up’ shoot them down.” In the evening Tpr Botha was called into the mess room and the following conversation took place:
Lt Morant: “Well, Botha, did you shoot the … Dutchman today” (meaning the sick boy)?
Tpr Botha: “Yes sir, I shot him.”
Major Lenehan: “I do not want such things talked of at mess. Botha, you can go.”
From this and other reasons we believe Major Lenehan to be privy to these misdemeanours. It is for this reason that we have taken the liberty of addressing this communication direct to you.
Sundry civilian witnesses can give evidence of importance provided they are guaranteed protection for a veritable reign of terror has prevailed in this district. Their names are: – Mr Bristow, farmer; the doctor at the Spelonken hospital, Mr Hayes, storekeeper, Mrs Cooksley, Mr Petringh, farmer; Mr Van Seker (?), farmer and storekeeper; Mr Pritchard, storekeeper and others. Among the Bushveld Carbineers there are plenty of troopers in the Spelonken district who if brought in would gladly give evidence.

[Comment: According to The Times report of the trial, nobody testified that the youngest Boer was sick with fever and Sergeant-Major Hammett stated that the youngest was about 17. None of the “sundry civilian witnesses” were called at the courts-martial according to Arthur Davey's list of witnesses [pp125-126]. Probably because they didn’t really have any “evidence of importance” to give.]

Sir, many of us are Australians who have fought throughout nearly the whole war while others are Africanders who have also fought from Colenso till now. We cannot return home with the stigma of these crimes attached to our names therefore we humbly pray that a full and exhaustive inquiry may be made by impartial Imperial officers in order that the truth may be elicited and justice done. Also we beg that all witnesses may be kept in camp at Pietersburg till the inquiry is finished. So deeply do we deplore the opprobrium which must be inseparably connected with these crimes that scarcely a man once his time is up can be prevailed to re-enlist in this corps. Trusting for the credit of thinking you will grant the inquiry we seek.

We are, sir
Your obedient servants
ERNEST G. BROWN Cpl (New Zealander)
J.A. SKELTON Trooper (Unknown, ?Sth African)
A.W.M. THOMPSON Trooper (Australian)
J. HATFIELD Trooper (English)
F.C. SHERIDAN  Trooper (Irish)
J.W.H. PENN Trooper (British)
A. DUCKETT Trooper (Canadian)
JAS CHRISTIE Trooper (New Zealander)
E. STRATTON Trooper (English)
GEO D. LUCAS Trooper (English)
F.C. HAMPTON  Trooper (Irish)
H.Y. COX Trooper (English)
A. VAN DER WESTHUIZEN Trooper (Sth African)
A.R. MC CORMICK Cpl (Sth African)
JOHN SILKE Trooper (Australian)
The signatures of many other men now absent on patrol can also be obtained.
Witness to all the above signatures
[Sgd]    R. M. COCHRANE
 Justice of the Peace, W. Australia
 4 October 1901

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