The Australian Boer War Memorial
Anzac Parade Canberra

 
 
Lieutenant Peter Handcock

 Introduction  

HANDCOCK, PETER JOSEPH (1868-1902), soldier and blacksmith, was born on 17 February 1868 at Peel, New South Wales, third of eight surviving children of English-born William Handcock, farmer and carrier, and his Irish wife Bridget, née Martin. His father died when he was 6 and as a youth he worked at Bathurst as a blacksmith. When he married Bridget Alice Mary Martin on 15 July 1888 in the Catholic cathedral, Bathurst, he described himself as a labourer from Dubbo.

In 1899, when a railwayman, Handcock enlisted for the South African War as a shoesmith in the 2nd Contingent of the 1st New South Wales Mounted Rifles. Reaching Cape Town in February 1900 he was promoted farrier sergeant before transferring to the Railway Services Police. In February 1901 he joined the Bush Veldt Carbineers as a veterinary lieutenant. Raised for guerilla warfare, the B.V.C. operated from headquarters at Pietersburg, northern Transvaal.

 The Bushveldt Carbineers go to top of page

In June Handcock joined a detachment under Captain Robertson, a British officer, at Fort Edward in the Spelonken district where the fighting was bitter and brutal. Robertson's detachment lacked discipline and shot prisoners and he was dismissed by Colonel F. H. Hall, the B.V.C.'s Pietersburg area commandant. By late July Captain P. Hunt, also British, was in command. Lieutenant H. H. Morant, a close friend of Hunt, was also at Fort Edward. Hunt was killed in action and his body mutilated. Left in command, Morant ordered all Boer prisoners to be shot from then on. He and his men afterwards swore that Hunt had received verbal orders from Lieutenant-Colonel H. Hamilton, General Kitchener's military secretary, not to take prisoners and that Hunt had reprimanded them for disobeying. The B.V.C. rigorously hunted Boers; prisoners and those who surrendered were shot. Morant praised the work of Handcock, and Hall congratulated Morant for his detachment's success.

In August 1901 a German missionary, CAD Heese, was murdered near Fort Edward; he had been seen talking to Boer prisoners who may have told him that they were afraid they would be shot. The murder attracted the close scrutiny of British Intelligence. Kitchener ordered a full investigation. In October certain B.V.C. officers, including Handcock and Morant, were arrested pending a court of inquiry into the murder of Heese and the shooting of prisoners.

 Trial and Execution go to top of page

Before general courts-martial proceedings began, Colonel Hall was transferred to India out of the way. Morant accepted full responsibility for the shooting of twelve prisoners, saying that the others had carried out his orders. Hamilton denied having given Hunt instructions regarding prisoners. Handcock and Morant were found guilty of murdering twelve prisoners, inciting to murder and of manslaughter. The charges against Handcock for Heese's murder and against Morant for instigating the crime failed. Both officers were shot by firing squad in Pretoria gaol on 27 February 1902 and were buried in a single grave in Pretoria cemetery.

Other British units were known to have shot Boer prisoners without being brought to trial. This may explain the widespread belief that the sentences took into account Heese's murder. Opinions of contemporaries on whether Handcock murdered Heese are divided. Lieutenant G. R. Witton, a BVC officer sentenced to penal servitude at the same time, later wrote in Scapegoats of the Empire (1907) that Handcock 'was simply the chosen tool of unprincipled men … He never initiated any outrage, but he had a keen sense of duty, and could be absolutely relied upon to fulfil it'. However, in 1929 Witton wrote to Major J. F. Thomas, defence counsel for Handcock, Morant and himself, that Heese's murder was 'a most cold blooded affair. Handcock … described it all to me'. Witton's letter was not made public until 1970. In 1902 Captain FR de Bertodamo, the Intelligence officer whom Kitchener had ordered to investigate the Heese case, had referred to 'that poor fool Handcock' who apparently had a reputation for blindly obeying orders. During his trial Handcock testified: 'I have had a very poor education. I never cared much about being an officer; all I know is about horses, though I like to fight … I did what I was told to do, and I cannot say any more'. In a farewell letter to his sister he wrote: 'If I overstepped my duty I can only ask my People and Country for forgiveness'.

 The First and Last Australian Soldier Murdered by British "Justice" go to top of page

Handcock was survived by his wife and by two sons and a daughter. He was the first Australian national executed for war crimes and his sentence, which had been carried out without the knowledge and consent of the Australian government, aroused bitter public controversy.

The reaction to his sacrifice has ensured that no more Australian soldiers have been killed in such circumstances. From that time on, there has been no death penalty in the Australian Defence Force.



That same grave in 2012; now in Stanza Bopape Street Cemetery, Tshwane (formerly Church Street Cemetery Pretoria)

In 1910 Lord Kitchener visited Australia. Visiting Bathurst he was asked to unveil the magnificent Memorial to those who lost their lives in the Boer War. Peter Handcock’s name was not on it which gave rise to a story that Kitchener had had it removed. There is no evidence for this story. Handcock’s name was added in 1964 and a further thirty nine names have been added since.

 Selected Bibliography go to top of page

Australian Defence Department, Official Records of the Australian Military Contingents to the War in South Africa, P. L. Murray, ed (Melb, 1911); F. M. Cutlack, Breaker Morant (Syd, 1962); H. J. May, Music of the Guns (Johannesburg, 1970); R. L. Wallace, The Australians at the Boer War (Canb, 1976); Dictionary of South African Biography, vol 3, (Cape Town, 1977); M. Carnegie and F. Shields, In Search of Breaker Morant (Melb, 1979); National Advocate, 29 Mar 1902; ‘The Bushveldt Carbineers’, Marquis del Moral (F. R. Bertodamo) papers (National Archives, Rhodesia); P. J. Handcock papers (Australian War Memorial); J. F. Thomas papers, AM 77/8 (State Library of New South Wales); information from Bathurst Historical Society and Catholic Archives Office, Bathurst. More on the resources Author: R. L. Wallace Print Publication Details: R. L. Wallace, 'Handcock, Peter Joseph (1868 - 1902)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, Melbourne University Press, 1983, pp 184-185.
 


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