Smiths Weekly Sat 29 Sep 1928

Smith's Weekly (Sydney, NSW : 1919 - 1950)  Sat 29 Sep 1928 Page 1 "Smith's" Sheds Light On The Blackest Page In Imperial History

The Blackest Page In Imperial History


Northern Dairy Farmer Whose Fate Once Rocked the World


NOT ONE MAN in ten million has had the flashes of melodrama in his life that were the lot of George Ramsdall [sic] Witton, of Coulston Lakes (Q.)

"Smith's Weekly", after locating and visiting him last week, is now able to complete an epic story that has been told in scraps in the past, and to break the seal of the hitherto unrecorded epilogue.

In the telling of his part, this powerful man trembled with a deep, suppressed emotion that has lingered for twenty years.

Wrongly sentenced to death, reprieved at the eleventh hour, languishing in gaol while two dominions demanded his body from the mother country, this man was once the storm centre of events in the fate of nations, and was the pivot point upon which for a time hung the history of the world. His life and liberty were the pretext upon which the World War came near being fought twenty years earlier with very different results

INCIDENTALLY his sacrifice and that of two of his comrades fixed the Australian determination that never again would it be possible for an Australian soldier to be put to death by court-martial for a military offence, and not even for a criminal offence without the approval of the Commonwealth Parliament. Men who have since attained greatness in the affairs of the Commonwealth and the Empire move across this story in minor parts, and behind it looms the German Kaiser.

Witton is now a peaceable dairy farmer beside the Coulston  Lakes, two remarkable bodies of water perched a thousand feet up on the mountains. His farm is one of the most picturesquely situated, and the farmhouse one of the most comfortably-furnished in the district. He went there in 1908 to forget the world, and to carve this home out for himself from the virgin scrub. Today he is still a powerful man, six feet two inches tall of a gentle nature, respected by his neighbours. He is a director of the Biggenden cheese factory.

At the conclusion of the interview he left with neighbours to take part in a working bee to repair the mountain road.

To take up the threads of his experiences it is necessary to turn back to the ancient history of the outbreak of the South African war. Witton, an Australian born of two generations of Australians, was a member of the garrison artillery at Fort Franklin, opposite Queenscliff, Victoria, and in March of the first year of the century he sailed for South Africa with the Fourth Victoria Contingent, with the rank of quartermaster-sergeant.

Under the absurd system of enlistment of that time, troops having served a year had willy-nilly to be repatriated or discharged. So Witton, with a number of other Australians who did not care to come home and leave the job unfinished, joined up with a composite unit which was recruited in the Cape from men from all parts of the Empire, and called the Bushveldt Carbineers. It was under the command of  Major Lenehan, whose subsequent rise to General's rank in the A.I.F. is well known.

With a detachment of the Carbineers under Capt. Hunt, an Englishman, Witton, with the subaltern rank of Lieutenant, was sent to Fort Edward, the farthest outpost of the British forces in the North-West Transvaal. Here, at the time, was the hottest corner of South Africa, where neither side gave nor asked quarter.

The British could buy a fight any time they showed out of the Fort, and if they did not show out, the Boers came and offered them a guerilla skirmish.

The other officers were Lieut. Morant, an Englishman by birth and an Australian by adoption; Lieut. Hancock [sic], an Australian; and Lieut. Picton, an Englishman. Morant was the bright and game personality of the Fort, full of bold and lawless men. There was wit and cheerfulness and optimism about him. The spirit of adventure had taken him to West Queensland, where he learned bushcraft, was one of the best horsemen in the district, and wrote light verse for "The Bulletin" that betrayed a youth of culture and education. A devoted comrade of Hunt, to whom he was adjutant, he had an additional bond with him in that, years before, back in England, the two of them had courted two English sisters. Hancock, on the other hand, was a bushman who could scarcely read and write, but a restless, practical man, a master-horseman, who filled in his spare time in the Fort acting as vet. and farrier to the horses. He never wanted rank, and despised military methods, but took the job because he loved fighting for its own sake. A wife and three children in Australia never saw him again. A fierce and primitive military law ruled in the bush round that Fort. The Bushveldt Carbineers were a wild lot, given to forays and impatient of formalities that might hamper them in fighting the Boers in their own way.  Marauding kaffirs were in that bush impartially looting and killing. There can be no doubt that some of the atrocities attributed to both sides were the work of the kaffir.

One night Hunt, with 17 troopers, went out to attack a Boer commando in a farm house. The Boers were too many for them. The raid failed, and in the darkness Hunt was wounded and missed. Several days later Morant, who had taken over command, came across his friend's body hung on a barbed wire fence, stripped of clothes, and horribly mutilated with a knife. The face had been stamped and mangled with hobnailed boots, a circumstance which convinced Morant that this was the work of the Boers and not of kaffirs.

From that moment Morant was a changed and bitter man, thirsting for vengeance. He lined up his little command, and told them that from that time on they would carry out to the letter secret orders received by word of mouth from Kitchener's staff through senior officers to Hunt himself, that no more prisoners were to be taken. For one thing there was a shortage of food for the troops, and none to spare for prisoners.

That night they surprised some Boers in a laager. The enemy were driven out, leaving behind one of their number named Visser, wounded and wearing part of Hunt's uniform. Morant said his orders were clear. Any of the enemy caught wearing British uniform were to be shot. When his subordinate protested that this meant doing in a wounded man, he translated his words into a specific order, and a firing party under Lieut. Picton, carried out the order. In view of subsequent events, it is important to note that it was Picton who gave the actual word of command to fire.

Later on, eight Boer prisoners captured in the district, were sent to the Fort. Again Morant ordered them to be shot, since there was no means of feeding them, no men to spare as a guard, and the alternative was to allow them to escape. Witton was one of the firing party, but fired ahead of the order, since one of the Boers, a powerful fellow, rushed him with a heavy knotted stick upraised.

Just as the party returned to the Fort, a hooded buggy drawn by four mules passed within range. It was flying the white flag, and was allowed to pass. Later events showed that it was driven by a German missionary named Hesse [sic], who carried what looked like a British passport.

Morant and Hancock left the fort that afternoon and returned some hours later. A week later the body of the German was found with a bullet in his heart.

Skirmishes followed for two months, when, without warning the garrison was relieved by a British detachment, and taken back to Pietersburg, where a British staff officer placed all the officers under arrest.

After long delays, Morant, Hancock, Witton, and Picton were charged with complicity in the murder of Visser, the eight prisoners, and the missionary, Hesse. Under a sort of third degree that lasted for weeks, Hancock's mind broke down, and he admitted that he had shot Hesse. This part of the charge against the others was struck out.


The series of supposed courts-martial that followed, Witton still says were the greatest series of farces conducted off the comic opera stage. It was obvious to all the prisoners that the courts-martial were acting under orders from higher up. They were given only the most perfunctory chance of denying the murder charge, and were not assigned any competent officer to defend them, even under military law.

Morant simplified matters by taking the whole blame for the execution of the nine Boers. The others, he said, acted under his military orders, and he would have been within his rights in shooting them for mutiny in the face of the enemy, had they disobeyed. He in turn had his orders from his dead and mutilated comrade, Hunt, who had told him whence the orders came. Hunt traced them back through various officers to a staff officer attached personally to Kitchener. This officer went into the witness box  and swore that no such orders had been given, though intermediate officers swore that they had received them verbally and passed them on.

Subsequently events proved the staff officer was lying valiantly like a gentleman in the interests of his country and of international diplomacy.

Morant, Hancock, and Witton, the Australians, were sentenced to death. Picton, a British regular, was considered adequately punished by being cashiered and sent home to England.

The death sentence wrought another remarkable change in Morant. Gloom lifted from him, and he reverted to his former cheerful irresponsible self. While awaiting the firing party he wrote light frivolous verse. The three, who had been kept in separate cells, were allowed to be together for a few hours. A chaplain came to visit them, but Morant said he was a pagan. Hancock had never heard of that particular sect before, but said that if it was a good enough religion for Morant it was good enough for him.

The morning for the execution came and the drums of the firing party of Cameron Highlanders sounded. Witton was taken from his companions to the Provost Marshal, who announced that Kitchener had commuted his sentence to imprisonment for life. He was handcuffed and marched off. On the way to the station he heard the volley of the firing party that signalled the end of his comrades.

Many years later he learned that other comrades had claimed their bodies, and given them a decent burial in a civil cemetery.

It is important to note here that no reason was given for the reprieve of Witton, but that it had been clearly established that he had had no part in the death of the German Hesse.

For years Witton was lost to the world, treated as a common criminal in various English gaols. He trembles today in recording the brutality of the English criminal system.

The authorities were also at pains to keep his identity and also the facts of the execution secret, but they gradually leaked out, and, unknown to the man who was resigned to living out his life in squalor and ending as an unknown wretch in a nameless grave, powerful forces were warring for him and against him.

All his time in the prisons, Witton was not allowed to receive letters or write anything, and he was cautioned not to talk about himself.

When the troops returned to Victoria, Australia, the story, variously coloured, began to leak out. The largest petition that ever left Australia - one containing over 100,000 names - went to the King, petitioning his release. It was referred to the War Office, which remained adamant. Mr. Isaac Isaacs, now of the High Court, was then Premier of Victoria. On behalf of the Parliament of the State he petitioned the Imperial Government for the custody of Witton as a citizen of the State. Still the War Office was too powerful. Alfred Deakin and W.M. Hughes, in the most powerful terms, in the Commonwealth Parliament, demanded that Australia have the right to deal with him. Still the War Office did not budge. The agitation spread from Australia to South Africa. Big public demonstrations in Johannesburg and Pretoria, on which former Boer generals took part, demanded his release, stressing that the thing for which he was punished, though revolting, were acts of war, in which he had merely obeyed orders as a soldier. Sir Gordon Sprigg, the Cape Premier, moved strongly. Still the War Office remained constant and immovable. It seemed hopeless.

Hon. J.D. Logan, M.L.C. of Cape Colony, a wealthy and influential citizen, went to England in an effort to locate Witton, but for a time his efforts failed. Then one day he met some persons who had personal influence with King Edward, and a word from them succeeded where the petition of the people of two dominions, two Premiers, and three Parliaments, as well as questions in the House of Commons, failed. The King personally commanded that Witton be immediately released. Mr. Logan picked Witton up in his car at the gates of an English prison, and took him grouse-shooting in Scotland until his ship sailed for Australia.

Before setting out on his new life, Witton wrote a book in vindication of his comrades. It was titled "Scapegoats of the Empire", and was frowned upon by authority. Only a few private copies are in existence.

It has taken years to ascertain the motives that actuated the War Office to give express orders for the execution of Morant and Hancock, and even now the man most instrumental in tracing them out insists on remaining anonymous. Hesse, the supposed German missionary, was a spy, personally known to the Kaiser, who had taken vital messages to Kruger. The fact that he was shot gave German diplomacy the opportunity to make a casus belli with Britain and all the powers of British diplomacy were required to prevent war. Open hostility with Germany at that crisis would have found England totally unprepared militarily, and very much occupied at sea, providing transports for Africa. The cream of the British and Dominion troops were in Africa fighting a long-drawn and muddled campaign with the Boers. It was the plea that Hesse was shot by irresponsible Australians in defiance of orders, and that the said Australians were executed for it, that was used to appease the Kaiser, and which gave him the excuse to back out, because he still feared British sea power. It was a diplomatic lie, and whether or not it was justified does not seem to matter now. It is a mere trifle that it explains why Witton was reprieved by Kitchener at the last moment. He had nothing to do with the death of the German.

Witton goes on tending his herd, and taking part in the little local affairs of Coulston Lakes. In years of married life he had not been blessed with any children. Recently he and his good wife sought to adopt a little orphan girl. A lady in an official position under the Queensland Government was called on to report, and vetoed the adoption on grounds that Witton was "a disgraced soldier".

There are about 300,000 men in Australia today who know something about war first-hand. Perhaps their opinion supports the lady - and perhaps their opinion is that Witton and his comrades were martyrs.