The Australian Boer War Memorial
Anzac Parade Canberra

Major (later Lieutenant Colonel) Robert Lenehan VD


Many Australians have an interest in the events that led to the execution of Lieutenants H.H. Morant and P. handcock by firing squad at Pretoria, South Africa, on 27 February 1902. Many have stopped in front of the South African War Memorial in Bathurst and looked at the plate bearing Handcock's name, which was added to the Honour Roll by Bathurst City Council in 1964, following representations to Bathurst Sub-Branch of the RSL from Major H.G. Palmer, Second West Australian Mounted Infantry.

When the history of St Ignatius' College, Riverview (founded in 1880) was published in 1989, it revealed that Major R W Lenehan, who commanded the Bushveldt Carbineers, had been an early student at that school.

While Morant and Handoock have become part of Australia's folk history, Lenehan is much less well known. Nevertheless Lenehan was subjected to the same process of Court of Inquiry and Court Martial that resulted in the execution of Morant and Handcock, the imprisonment of Lieutenant R Witton and the dismissal of a British officer, Lieutenant H. Picton DCM, great-grandson of the Duke of Wellington's famous general.

Lenehan was a member of the New South Wales Military Forces and the Australian Military Forces for twenty-seven years. A review of the old Army lists revealed that Lenehan had given good service to Australia.

Except for time spent on war service, Bob Lenehan practised law in New South Wales until his death.

 Early Days go to top of page

Robert William Lenehan (universally known as Bob Lenehan) was born on 16 August 1865 at Petersham, Sydney, eldest son of Irish-born Christopher Henry Lenehan, grocer, and his wife Marie Louise, née Gannon. He enrolled at Saint Ignatius College, Riverview, Lane Cove, in 1881. "Riverview" as the College is usually known, had opened in 1880 with 26 students, most of whom were boarders. Today there are about 1,200 students, most of whom are day students.

The College history records that Bob Lenehan was involved in College activities. In 1882 he was photographed as a member of the Cricket XI, and the same year took part in a students' harbour picnic accompanied by his gun. Was this a hint of things to come? The harbour outing included a visit to HMS "Nelson", an armoured cruiser and flagship of the Australian station of the Royal Navy.

On 4 September, 1883 a concert was staged at the College. The programme provided for a debate on whether the Middle Ages are justly termed "Dark", Bob Lenehan was one of the debaters. The debate was not an unqualified success because the debaters had not prepared their addresses properly.

Bob Lenehan completed his secondary schooling in 1884 and went on to study law. On 30 January 1889, at St Ignatius' College chapel, he married Harriett Emma Mary Hodge.

It is on record that he was practising as a solicitor in 1890 when he obtained a verdict in favour of a student at the College who (on crutches and going to an examination) had been threatened by a Sydney cab driver.

  Military Service, October 1890 to January 1900 go to top of page

Bob Lenehan joined the New South Wales Military Forces and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the 1st Infantry Regiment on 20 October 1890. On 2 April 1892 he was promoted lieutenant and appointed to "K" Company of the Regiment at Hunters Hill.

On 23 October 1894, Bob Lenehan transferred to the quaintly named Brigade Division Field Artillery and was appointed to "C" Battery (partially paid). The New South Wales Army and Navy List 1896 shows that Bob Lenehan was promoted Captain on 31 January 1896, having passed all examinations for his rank, a course at the Field Artillery School of Instruction and a course of Equitation. The same list corrected to 15 October 1900 shows that he had been promoted major on 1 December 1898 to command "C" Battery (partially paid) of what was now New South Wales Artillery (Field). The List of 15 October 1900 shows that Bob Lenehan had dropped a rank to serve as a captain with the 1st New South Wales Mounted Infantry in South Africa with effect from 17 January 1900 (when he embarked for South Africa), whilst retaining his seniority as a major in the New South Wales Military Forces.

 Military Service in South Africa, January 1900 to February 1901 go to top of page

The Army list for 1907 shows that for eleven months Bob Lenehan would seldom have been out of the saddle. A summary of his active service is:

February - May 1900, operations in Orange Free State
May - June1900, operations in the Transvaal
August 1900, the siege of the Elands River staging post
September 1900 - February 1901, operations in Orange Free State.

This service qualified Bob Lenehan for the Queen's South Africa Medal 1899-1901 with six clasps.

Bob Lenehan proved that he was an efficient and energetic officer and a good leader. In February 1901 he was appointed to command the Bushveldt Carbineers with the rank of major.

 The Busveldt Carbineers, February to April 1901 go to top of page

By June 1900 the Boer Forces had been defeated in the field and British Forces had occupied Bloomfontein, capital of the Orange Free State and Pretoria, capital of the Transvaal. President Steyn of the Orange Free State was still in the field. President Kruger of the Transvaal had been reduced to running the country from a railway coach before fleeing to Holland via Portuguese East Africa, taking with him the Republic's gold reserves, 2,500,000 pounds ($A 5,000,000 but a vastly greater sum in today's value).

The war developed into a guerrilla conflict and continued for another eighteen months. The Boers split into small groups and it was a nice question as to whether each group was defending its country or simply acting as a gang of outlaws. The latter situation was very much the case in the North East Transvaal and could be likened to the activities of Frank Gardiner and Ben Hall in the Central West of New South Wales in the 1860s. There was one difference: in the north-east Transvaal the Boer gangs robbed all and sundry including their own people. It was with the object of controlling the situation that the Bushveldt Carbineers were raised in February 1901.

The Bushveldt Carbineers had an authorised strength of 500, but actual strength never exceeded 350. There were some enlistments of local people; in one case this was to have an unforeseen effect later. The majority of enlistments were from colonial troops, included many Australians attracted by the prospect of further action, and by the high rate of pay (10 shillings per day, equal to $1 when our currency was decimal converted in 1966 or, in real terms, about $500 in today's currency). The Bushveldt Carbineers was a tough and experienced unit with a tough and experienced commanding officer.

 Operations of the Bushveldt Carbineers go to top of page

The Bushveldt Carbineers moved into the Pietersberg District in April 1901 ahead of a column of infantry and artillery commanded by Colonel Plumer. During its short life, the Bushveldt Carbineers never fought as a unit. Australian officers known to be serving with the unit were:

Major R.W. Lenehan, Commanding Officer
Captain Edwards, Adjutant
Lieutenant Mortimer, Quartermaster
Lieutenant P. Handcock, Veterinary Officer
Lieutenant Baudinet

Two more Australian officers joined later. At the end of April, Lieutenant H.H. Morant, known throughout Australia as "The Breaker", arrived. Of good English family, well educated, he had knocked about the Australian outback for 16 years before enlisting in the Second South Australian Mounted Rifles in 1900. There was not a horse that Morant could not ride. He was a contributor to The Bulletin and on that account was a minor celebrity. As a soldier in South Africa, he had a fine active service record and was commissioned. Bob Lenehan had no hesitation in accepting him as an officer in the Bushveldt Carbineers. Apart from Morant's service record, he was known to Bob Lenehan socially. Sydney was a small city in the late 19th century, and Morant had met Bob Lenehan on at least two occasions.

The other Australian officer was Lieutenant G.E. Witton, a former gunner in the permanent Victorian Regiment of the Royal Australian Artillery. Witton volunteered for service in South Africa, was quickly promoted sergeant in the Victorian Rangers and arrived in South Africa in May l900. He was commissioned in the Bushveldt Carbineers in June 1901. Witton had not seen action due a knee injury but was quite fit by the time he received his commission.

Bob Leneban opened the Bushveldt Carbineers at Pietersburg Headquarters and members of the unit were soon dispersed on operations. Authority over the Bushveldt Carbineers at Pietersburg was in the person of the Area Commandant, Colonel F.H. Hall, CB, RA. There was another Area Commandant at Spelonken about 145 kilometres north of Pietersburg. He was Captain A. Taylor of the Intelligence Corps.

The first detachment of the Bushveldt Carbineers commenced operations in the Waterberg district. A second detachment under Morant commenced operations in the Strydespoort district. With minimum military impediments, and living off the country (as distinct from the Boers who travelled with wagons and went into laager at night), Morant and his patrol were successful in gaining control of the Strydespoort district. In June, the Bushveldt Carbineers established an outpost at Bandolier Kop, and a strong detachment in the Spelonken district about 145 kilometres north of Pietersburg. The detachment opened its headquarters in a farm house which it named Fort Edward. Handcock went with the Spelonken detachment as veterinary officer. He also acted as a combatant officer.

Disciplinary problems soon emerged at Spelonken and in mid July, Bob Lenehan withdrew the whole detachment with the exception of Handcock. The officer commanding was allowed to resign his commission. Bob Lenehan ordered a fresh detachment to Spelonken under the command of Captain P. Hunt (formerly 10th Hussars). Hunt was to be assisted by three subalterns; all four officers, one of whom was Morant, could be relied upon to maintain discipline.

Shortly after the change, Lieutenant H. Picton DCM (one of the four), commanding a stores convoy proceeding to Spelonken, reported that some members of the escort had broached the rum included in the stores and cached a quantity. Hunt immediately ordered that these personnel be placed in close arrest. They broke arrest and made their own way back to Pietersburg where Major Lenehan ordered their re-arrest. After an inquiry, Colonel Hall directed they be discharged.

This second group of defaulters was replaced by a draft of 20 men under Lieutenant Witton which arrived at Spelonken on 4 August 1901. Witton, a regular soldier, knew all the answers and had the draft well in hand.

Shortly after Fort Edward was garrisoned in June, a party of six armed Boers coming in to surrender, so it was said, was attacked by a Bushveldt Carbineer patrol and all shot. At about the same time, a locally enlisted Dutch Trooper was shot for suspected traitorous activities. the trooper's death was reported to Major Lenehan as being killed in action.

Throughout August, September and to mid-October there was intense patrol activity in the Spelonken district, and a number of Boers were shot. A German missionary was shot under unknown circumstances. On 5 August 1901, Hunt was killed in action and his body mutilated at Duivals Kloof. Morant assumed command of the detachment

On 16 September 1901, a patrol of thirty men under Morant and Witton, went out with the object of capturing Veldt-Cornet Kelly, a notorious guerrilla leader in the Spelonken District. Major Lenehan had visited Fort Edward a few days before and had given permission for the patrol, insisting, despite the vigorous protests of Morant, that Kelly be brought in alive. Kelly was captured on 22 September in the vicinity of the Birthday Mine and brought in alive. Morant was congratulated by Colonel Hall and granted 14 days leave to Pretoria. The Bushveldt Carbineers now had the Spelonken District under control.

 The Bushveldt Carbineers: Arrests, Disbandment, Court of Inquiry, Court Martial go to top of page

When Morant returned to Pietersburg from leave, he was placed under close arrest in solitary confinement. On 21 October, Fort Edward was ordered to be abandoned and the Spelonken detachment was withdrawn to Pietersburg, arriving on 23 October, When the detachment arrived, Bob Lenehan, Handcock and Witton were promptly placed under arrest in solitary confinement. No charges were laid at that time.

The detained officers, two others and a warrant officer were to appear before a Court of Inquiry into shootings in the Spelonken District. The court sat early in November and the officers were informed of the charges against them. In December the officers were informed that they were to be tried by court martial. At about the same time, Colonel Hall was transferred to an appointment in India and the Bushveldt Carbineers was disbanded.

On 15 January 1902, the officers were handed copies of the charge and were informed that Major I.E. Thomas, a solicitor of Tenterfleld, NSW, would be the defending officer. Thomas had commanded A Squadron NSW Citizens' Bushmen at the siege of Elands River post; he had no experience of criminal or court martial proceedings.

Throughout the period of almost three months from the date of arrest, the prisoners were held in solitary confinement in the Pietersburg Garrison lines. Bob Lenehan protested vigorously without avail. Furthermore, he was refused permission to advise the Australian Government of his position.

This article will not follow the court martial of Morant, Handcock and Witton. All three were sentenced to death with a recommendation for mercy. Only Witton's sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, which was remitted on 10 August 1904.

Bob Lenehan appeared before the court martial on two charges. The first that he had not reported the shooting of two men and a boy (the boy was aged nineteen and had fought through the war). Bob Lenehan had arrived at Fort Edward on the day of the shooting. His defence was that he had reported the incident to Colonel Hall, who was now in India. The second charge was that he had failed to report the shooting of Trooper Van Buren. The defence was that he had only received a report that Van Buren had been killed in action.

On 21 February 1902, the finding of the court was announced. Lenehan was reprimanded and was to be deported from South Africa. He remained in close arrest until the end of the month. when he was escorted aboard the SS Aberdeen just prior to its sailing for Australia. His deportation was so hasty that he was not given time to dispose of' his horses and effects.

 Bob Lenehan's Return to Australia go to top of page

The SS Aberdeen docked in Melbourne on 25 March 1902. It was only then that the Australian Prime Minister, Edmund Barton, learnt that two Australian officers, Morant and Handcock, had been executed that a third, Witton, had been sentenced to death, but the sentence had been commuted to penal servitude for life. One can imagine the Prime Minister's feelings on being informed of these events in view of the fact that he had previously arranged with General Kitchener, Commander-in-Chief, South Africa, to advise the Australian Government of punishments awarded to Australians by courts martial in South Africa.

The General Officer Commanding the Australian Military Forces, Major General Sir Edward Hutton, refused to allow Bob Lenehan to transfer from the New South Wales Military list of officers and he was placed on the Retired List. This was meant to imply that Bob Lenehan had no future in the Australian Military Forces.

Bob Lenehan pursued the matter vigorously for two years, even writing to Colonel Hall in India asking him to confirm that he had reported the shootings verbally; there was no reply.

Shortly after his return, there was a change of Australian Government. Defence was the subject of intense debate in Australia at the time, fuelled by the report of the Fisher Committee on Britain's conduct of the Boer War, Hutton's philosophy for the employment of the Australian Army, and rumours regarding the Morant, Handcock, Witton affair.

The Australian Government requested the War Office to provide a copy of the court martial proceedings against Bob Lenehan. After studying the papers, the Government asked the War Office to advise whether there was anything against him other than what had been decided at the court martial. After some delay, the War office replied that there was not.

In Parliament on 27 July 1904 Prime Minister Watson was very critical of the treatment Lenehan had received. He was restored from the Reserve of Officers to the active military list, backdated in seniority to 1 July 1903.

 Bob Lenehan's Subsequent Military Service go to top of page

Bob Lenehan was appointed to command a Militia field battery, and the Army List for 1907 shows that he commanded No 1 Battery, Australian Field Artillery New South Wales. On 1 January 1913, he was appointed to command 4th Field Artillery Brigade with the rank of iieutenant colonel. The tenure of command was to be five years. He had also been awarded the Volunteer Decoration (VD) for long commissioned service.

Three Militia Field Artillery Brigades had been raised in New South Wales following Federation. At 1 August 1914, the Brigades were commanded as under:

2nd Field Artillery Brigade - Major C. Rosenthal
4th Field Artillery Brigade, Lieutenant Colonel R.W. Lenehan, VD
6th Field Artillery Brigade, Lieutenant Colonel R. St J. Pearce, VD

The careers of the other two officers are an indication that Bob Lenehan was considered, at the least, a satisfactory commanding officer. Rosenthal commanded the 3rd Australian Field Artillery (AFA) Brigade, Australian Imperial Force (AIF), which had guns ashore at ANZAC Cove on the first day. At the end of the war, Rosenthal was a major general commanding a Division and had been knighted. Pearce, who was older than Rosenthal and had, an outstanding career in South Africa, was initially appointed to command the Artillery Reinforcement Depot at "The Warren", Marrickville. On 17 March 1916, Pearce was appointed to command the 7th AFA Brigade AIF and sailed with the Brigade on 11 May 1916 for further training in England. Pearce returned to Australia late in 1916 because of ill health.

Colonel Lenehan volunteered for overseas service during the First World War but was required for service in Australia. It is possible that the shadow of the court martial was still there. In any event, the stresses of the campaigns in France and Belgium were proving that younger men were better equipped to cope. Bob Lenehan was on full time duty during the war and in 1916 was commanding a military camp at Menangle. He was also nominally commanding the 4th Field Brigade which, like the rest of the Militia, was virtually in suspended animation.

In 1917, Lenehan was cited as co-respondent in a much-publicised Sydney divorce case involving Emile Guiot and his wife Ruth, and in October, Sir George Pearce, the Minister for Defence, removed him from the appointment he held at Menangle Camp. He was placed on the Retired List on 20 August 1918. Survived by his wife and six of their seven children, Lenehan died in Sydney on 20 May 1922 of cirrhosis of the liver; he was 56.

  Conclusion go to top of page

In his article for the Royal Australian Historical Society Journal (see the selected bibliography below), Major L.P.W. Hindmarsh RFD concludes:

Bob Lenehan was appointed to command a dispersed unit engaged in what is probably the worst type of warfare, guerrilla warfare, without clear guidelines as to the handling of prisoners.

As early as February 1901, there was an understanding amongst Australian troops that prisoners were not to be taken. Captain Hunt said that he had received verbal orders from Colonel H.I.W. Hamilton (Military Secretary to General Lord Kitchener, Commander in Chief, South Africa) that prisoners were not to be taken. He reprimanded Morant for bringing in prisoners. Giving evidence at the court martial, Colonel Hamilton, under oath, denied having ordered that prisoners were not to be taken. It was remarked that Colonel Hamilton appeared to be most ill at ease while giving evidence.

Witnesses said that they had seen published orders to the effect that Boers captured wearing British uniform (a common practice) were to be shot. In fact, on 3 November, 1901, Lord Kitchener advised Lord Roberts, Secretary of State for War, that he had given such orders and was considering issuing a general instruction to the same effect.

I believe that the arrests and subsequent disbandment of the Bushveldt Carbmeers was a "smoke screen" laid by the British government in response to international pressure following the shooting of the German Lutheran missionary. Morant and Handcock were charged with the killing and acquitted!

My conclusion is that Bob Lenehan was a good soldier, appointed to command a tough unit that was raised to do a tough job. Bob and the Bushveldt Carbineers carried out their task very well indeed, bringing the north-east Transvaal under control within a few months. It was his misfortune as commanding officer of the Bushveldt Carbineers that he had to wear indirectly the verdicts of the courts martial and the shooting of the missionary. If it were not for the latter, it is my firm conviction that we would have heard more of Bob Lenehan in the international conflagration that was to occur not many years later.

It is hard to disagree with this conclusion; politics and soldiering, like politics and many other activities, make a poor match. War places ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances where not everybody copes well. Bob Lenehan's story suggests that how he steered himself through his life can be an example to us all.

 Selected Bibliography go to top of page

Major L.P. Hindmarsh RFD, Lieutenant Colonel RW Lenehan VD and the Bushveldt Carbineers, Royal Australian Artillery Historical Society Magazine; G. Witton, Scapegoats of the Empire (Melb, 1907); Australian Defence Department, Official Records of Australian Military Contingents to the War in South Africa, P. L. Murray ed (Melb, 1911); R. L. Wallace, The Australians at the Boer War (Canb, 1976); K. Denton, Closed File (Syd, 1983); F. M. Cutlack, Breaker Morant (Syd, 1962); Parliamentary Debates (Commonwealth), 1904, p 3576; Sabretache, Dec 1975; Sydney Morning Herald, 8 Jan 1916, 27 June, 26 Oct 1917, 22 May 1922; Herald (Melbourne), 25 Oct 1917; records (Australian War Memorial).


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