1916: John MacBride

Add comment May 5th, 2018 Headsman

Major John MacBride was shot on this date in 1916 for his improvised role in the Easter Rising.

A doctor by training and a republican by heart, MacBride earned his officer’s commission when, as an emigre to South Africa, he raised the Irish Transvaal Brigade to fight against the British during the Second Boer War. (The Boer nationalist cause was wildly popular among Irish nationalists: they had the same enemy.)

The British during that conflict were aggressive about treating as “rebels” even guerrillas whose nationality was in question, so the fact that the Irishman MacBride accepted citizenship from the Transvaal Republic and went to war against the Crown made him a right traitor in London’s eyes. After the war, he laid low in Paris and married Maud Gonne to the annoyance of the lovestruck poet W.B. Yeats who had unsuccessfully wooed Gonne.*

Back in Ireland once gone from Gonne, MacBride’s Boer War bona fides made him such an obvious locus of sedition that the Easter Rising conspirators kept him entirely away from their plot for fear of inviting the attention of whomever was watching MacBride. Instead, he walked into events accidentally, finding the rising occurring while he was in town to meet his brother.

A proper Irish patriot with military experience that the revolutionaries sorely needed,** MacBride recognized what was happening and presented himself to Thomas MacDonagh — who gave him a snap appointment to the command team occupying Jacob’s Biscuit Factory.

After events had run their course, MacBride embraced his martyrdom with such equanimity that some wondered whether he hadn’t tired of life. More likely, he was just being realistic: as he halloed to another prisoner who hailed him, “Nothing will save me, Sean. This is the end. Remember this is the second time I have sinned against them.” His dignified and fatalistic final address to the court that condemned him concluded,

I thank the officers of the court for the fair trial I have had, and the Crown counsel for the way he met every application I made. I have looked down the muzzles of too many guns in the South African War to fear death, and now please carry out your sentence.

* The two married in 1903 and divorced in 1905. Yeats alleged in private correspondence that MacBride had molested Gonne’s daughter, Iseult. (Repeatedly rebuffed by Maud Gonne, Yeats later also proposed to Iseult, who was 30 years his junior. There’s a lot going on here.) This allegation has blackened MacBride’s name down the years although its credibility remains in question since the jealous Yeats was an extremely hostile observer.

After the Easter Rising was crushed, Yeats spared some verse in his poem “Easter, 1916″ to throw some (qualified) shade at his dead rival, which drew him a rebuke from Maud.

This other man I had dreamed
A drunken, vainglorious lout.
He had done most bitter wrong
To some who are near my heart,
Yet I number him in the song;
He, too, has resigned his part
In the casual comedy;
He, too, has been changed in his turn,
Transformed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

** General Charles Blackader, who suppressed the Easter Rising and presided over the ensuing courts-martial, reportedly admired “the most soldierly” MacBride: “He on entering the court stood to attention, facing us. In his eyes, I could read: ‘You are soldiers, so am I. You have won. I have lost. Do your worst.'” (From Secret Court Martial Records of the Easter Rising)

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,History,Ireland,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Revolutionaries,Separatists,Shot,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1901: Johannes Lotter, Boer War “rebel”

Add comment October 12th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1901, Commandant Johannes Lotter was shot at Middelburg.

Along with Gideon Scheepers, Lotter is one of the most famed Boer guerrillas from the Second Boer War.

Regarded by the British as one of their most nettlesome adversaries in that dirty guerrilla war, Lotter was captured in a bloody early September ambush when matters were well into an unpleasant scorched-earth endgame.

This was cause for much slapping of backs among the Union Jack set, and earned for his captor an immediate promotion.


Lotter’s captured men being jubilantly escorted into Graaff-Reinet.

Lotter almost immediately found himself in the dock for — well, all the things one does in a dirty guerrilla war.*

And one other thing: sedition.

The British charged Lotter as a rebellious subject of the British Cape Colony — rather than a resident of one of the independent neighboring Boer states — who owed allegiance to the British crown; upon this premise things like “killing troopers in war” became “murdering troopers”.

Lotter’s trial hung on his papers.** The defendant “pleaded that he was a Free State burgher, and, as such, entitled to the usage of civilised warfare and a legal combatant’s privileges.”

But he was in a bit of a pickle when it came to proving that the “Commandant Lotter” the British discovered on voting rolls for the Cape Colony city of Colesburg was a different guy. Innocent Blood: Executions During the Anglo-Boer War (its title telegraphs its Boer sympathies) summarizes:

his Free State citizen document was in a small case, which was lost or destroyed theday of surrender. Witnesses for the defence gave evidence that they had seen these papers. British intelligence stated that it could find no proof of his Free State citizenship in Bloemfontein. Lotter responded by asking how he could prove his citizenship when all his witnesses were still on commando and that he had been granted no time to call upon them.

Hey, the guy had six whole weeks from capture to execution to sort it all out.

A “Chair Monument” — there’s a picture of it on this page — commemorates Lotter and his fellow commando Pieter Wolfaardt at the place outside Middelburg where they were shot together on Oct. 12, 1901.

A number of additional prisoners from Lotter’s command taken with him in that same ambush were also eventually executed.

* Specifically: murdering two native spies; killing three British soldiers; blowing up railway lines; and sjamboking loyalist civilians.

** When the British later captured Scheepers, who was unquestionably not a Cape rebel, they simply charged his similar conduct as war crimes to the same capital effect.

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1902: Gideon Scheepers, Boer guerrilla

6 comments January 18th, 2012 Headsman

Scheepers lives because they shot him.”

-Hermi Baartman, Graaf-Reinet Museum

On this date in 1902, Kommandant Gideon Jacobus Scheepers was shot by the British for his exploits in the Boer War.

The young Dutch-descended Scheepers (here’s his Afrikaans Wikipedia page) was a soldier from the still-independent Boer states which were being reduced in this war to British dependencies.

In 1901, late in the proceedings, Scheepers took a column of irregulars into the British Eastern Cape Province and wrought havoc behind the lines. Some exploits are the stuff of legend, like the time he rode into a town, released all the Boer prisoners, locked up the British magistrate, and hauled down the Union Jack — to the delight of the Boer locals.

He would spend that year giving the British much better than he got, but the war was also infamously dirty.

According to David Harrison’s The White Tribe of Africa: South Africa in Perspective, “Scheeepers’ men also flogged and shot natives who helped the British, looted as well as burned farms, and executed Boer ‘traitors’.”

Was any of that criminal?

Since Scheepers was over enemy lines, the Boers who joined him could be held liable for treason … but that didn’t hold for Scheepers himself. His execution turned on holding these unsavory acts as war crimes: his 30-count charge sheet included seven arsons, seven murders, and various and sundry abuses of prisoners and blacks. Scheepers was really sore about the last; natives were supposed to be kept out of the fighting, but the prisoner very credibly insisted that the ones he “murdered” were under arms as scouts for the British.

“We Afrikaners will never find justice under the English,” Scheepers wrote as a prisoner. “Everything is for the kaffirs.”

(There’s a vociferous defense of Scheepers from a pro-Boer history here, and a more sober one by a London press correspondent here.)


Scheepers is read the death warrant on January 17, 1902 — before Graaf-Reinet townspeople assembled by British orders.

For non-Loyalist Boers and for many throughout the world — the U.S. House of Representatives even moved a resolution calling for Scheepers to be accorded POW status according to the Geneva Convention — it smacked of a setup.


Gideon Scheepers (mostly obscured by his guards) tied to a chair for execution.


Just shot, Gideon Scheepers slumps backward in his chair.

While martyrdom guaranteed Scheepers a lasting legacy, bizarre posthumous turns helped elevate it into legend. When the dead man’s family turned up after hostilities to retrieve his bones, the grave turned out empty, leading to a years-long saga with colorful frauds presenting bogus remains, a mentally ill man doing the Grand Duchess Anastasia act and claiming to be Scheepers, and the actual corpse remaining stubbornly elusive.

The bereaved mother’s ultimately fruitless search for her son’s final resting place inspired the poem “Gebed om die Gebeente”(“Prayer for the Bones”), by D.J. Opperman. (Here’s a translated version.) That verse was recently set to music as a cantata by composer Hendrik Hofmeyr.

Scheepers’ allies, however, had simply been beaten in the field. On May 31, 1902 they capitulated to the British.

If we are asked why in 1978 a memorial should be erected for a man who died in 1902, then the answer is simple. The life and work of this man was such that history placed him in the heroes’ gallery and nothing and no one can deprive him of that place.

-Nationalist Prime Minister John Vorster upon the unveiling of a Scheepers monument

This interesting “On the Trail of Gideon Scheepers” series has a detailed and richly illustrated narrative of the man’s final year.

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1903: Arthur Alfred Lynch condemned

1 comment January 23rd, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1903, Irish MP Arthur Alfred Lynch waited 26 minutes for a jury to convict him, then heard the sentence of a British court for having fought against the British Empire in the Boer War.

[T]he jury have found you guilty of the crime of high treason, a crime happily so rare that in the present day a trial for treason seems to be almost an anachronism — a thing of the past. There can be no doubt that in times gone by there was great abuse, and many persons were indicted, convicted, and punished for matters which would not now be thought worthy of serious or, perhaps, any notice. There has been a kind of national reaction by which many persons have been disposed to treat serious crimes against the State as if the name of treason, and as if the thing, no longer existed. One moment of reflection will show you how erroneous is such a conception …

Yes, even if the black cap gave away the ending, the judge was going to take his time getting to it.

The misdeeds which have been done in this case, and which have brought you to the lamentable pass in which you stand, must surely convince the most sceptical and apathetic of the gravity and reality of the crime. What was your action in the darkest hour of your country’s fortunes, when she was engaged in the deadly struggle from which she has just emerged? You joined the ranks of your country’s foes. Born in Australia, a land which has nobly shown its devotion to its parent country, you have indeed taken a different course from that which was adopted by her sons. You have fought against your country, not with it. You have sought, as far as you could, to dethrone Great Britain from her place among the nations, to make her name a byword and a reproach, a synonym for weakness and irresolution. …

Even allowing that this sentence was pronounced before either of the coming century’s world wars, calling the Boer War to conquer South Africa for the crown England’s “darkest hour” only underscores how very long Britannia had stayed in the sun. Were the early shadows of empire’s twilight visible from here … or was it just standard issue judicial showboating?

[Y]ou thought it safe, no doubt, to lift the parricidal hand against your country. You thought she would shrink from the costly struggle wearied out by her gigantic efforts, and that, at the worst, a general peace would be made which would comprehend a general amnesty and cover up such acts as yours and save you from personal peril. You misjudged your country and failed to appreciate that though slow to enter into a quarrel, however slow to take up arms, it has yet been her wont that in the quarrel she shall bear herself so that the opposer may beware of her, and that she is seldom so dangerous to her enemies as when the hour of national calamity has raised the dormant energies of her people — knit together every nerve and fibre of the body politic and has made her sons determined to do all, to bear all, to sacrifice all on behalf of the country that gave them birth.

The only — I will not say excuse, but palliation that I can find for conduct like yours is that it has been for some years past the fashion to treat lightly matters of this kind, so that men have been perhaps encouraged to play with sedition and to toy with treason, wrapt in a certain proud consciousness of strength begotten of the deep-seated and well-founded conviction that the loyalty of her people is supreme, and true authority in this country has slumbered or has treated with contemptuous indifference speeches and acts of sedition.

There’s some relish here, the kind you’d hear if Antonin Scalia had an opportunity to pass sentence on Cynthia McKinney.

This ponderous bombast was the culmination of a highly-anticipated, highly-publicized trial of a man who had returned to London and arrest as an elected Irish parliamentarian after upholding the Boer cause in print throughout Europe, and enrolling an Irish unit in the fight.*


Col. Lynch’s Irish Brigade, from this South African military history page.

Incidentally, this is the same judge who sentenced Oscar Wilde for the love that dare not speak its name, intoning on that occasion that “people who can do these things must be dead to all senses of shame, and one cannot hope to produce any effect upon them.” (Mr. Justice Wills’ update of his father’s classic treatise on circumstantial evidence is available from Google books, as is Wanderings Among the High Alps, which he wrote in his capacity as mountaineering hobbyist.)

But had you and those with whom you associated yourself succeeded, what fatal mischief might have been done to … that inheritance of power which it must be our work to use nobly and for good things; an inheritance of influence which will be of little effect even for good unless backed by power, and of duty which cannot be effectually performed if our power be shattered and our influence impaired. He who has attempted to do his country such irreparable wrong must be prepared to submit to the sentence which it is now my duty to pronounce upon you … that you be taken hence to the place from which you came and from thence to a place of execution there to be hanged by the neck until you are dead.

For all this sound and fury, one would hardly know that it was generally and publicly understood the sentence would be swiftly commuted — as it was, a few days later.

Arthur Lynch received a free pardon in 1907, and in 1909 was returned to parliament as an Irish nationalist delegate to resume his remarkable career as writer, physician, engineer and all-around polymath.

* Lynch’s part in the war is included in The Boer Fight for Freedom, another century-old tome in the public domain and available on Google Books.

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1922: Robert Erskine Childers, for carrying the gun of Michael Collins

3 comments November 24th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1922, Robert Erskine Childers was shot by the Irish Free State for carrying a gun its founding colossus had gifted him.

Many Irishmen were executed on either side in this terrible time, but Childers cuts a unique figure among them.

To begin with, he wasn’t all that Irish — “that damned Englishman,” fellow Republican turned Civil War enemy Arthur Griffith called him. The London-born son of a British scholar and an Irish mother, Childers was a lifelong Protestant, itself an anomaly since Irish nationalism mapped (and still maps) strongly to Catholicism.

You’d think he’d be a loyal man of the empire. Early on, that’s just what he was.

In his twenties, Childers volunteered for the Boer War, and he would later say the rank savagery and underlying injustice of England’s war “changed the whole current of my life and made me a Liberal and a Nationalist.” (Source.)

Laying down the sword, Childers took up the pen and wrote several books of military history. (Long since into the public domain, at least two can be read free online: War and the Arme Blanche, German Influence on British Cavalry.) He also wrote a novel, The Riddle of the Sands, that has a (debatable) claim as the first spy novel. Riddle has never gone out of print since it was published in 1903, though it is also available free online.

Both in fiction and nonfiction, Childers’ warnings against the German challenge to British hegemony were prophetic, but he was himself becoming a man divided. 1914 saw him running German guns to Irish nationalists aboard his yacht Asgard … and then signing up for the royal navy when World War I erupted.

The British crackdown on the Easter Rising during the war completed his radicalization; he moved to Dublin and turned his eloquence against the British.

Here, Childers was swept into the tragedy of the Irish War of Independence, and the civil war that followed it; though both were in the delegation that produced the contentious Anglo-Irish Treaty, Childers broke with Michael Collins over it and backed the IRA nationalists who fought the Irish Free State.

After Collins’s assassination, emergency laws promulgated the death sentence for anyone caught armed without authorization. Childers was a writer, not a partisan, but he was arrested in early November with a small sidearm — a gift Michael Collins had given him, back when they were on the same side. It was a time of bloody justice, and they threw the book at him.

Childers knew as well as Collins had that the internecine conflict would have to end. He checked out with awe-inspiring forgiveness; summoning his 16-year-old son to prison the night before his execution, Childers extracted a promise that the boy would find everyone who signed his death warrant … and shake their hands. (Young Erskine Hamilton Childers eventually became President of Ireland.)

Childers himself likewise shook the hands of his own firing squad, one by one. His last words (reported in a number of slightly different variations) were lightheartedly addressed to them:

Take a step or two forwards, lads. It will be easier that way.

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1902: Harry “Breaker” Morant and Peter Handcock, “scapegoats for Empire”

15 comments February 27th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1902, two Australian officers were shot in virtual secrecy at Pretoria for atrocities they committed in service of the crown during the Second Boer War.

Harry “Breaker” Morant — he got the nickname from his aptitude with horses — was the famous one of the pair and the reason the date is so well-known to posterity as to merit its own cinematic treatment (review):

A colorful son of the Commonwealth’s hardscrabble strata, Breaker Morant led a life that has been improved into mythology, not least by his own efforts. Impoverished but educated, he migrated in 1883 from England to Australia where he carved out a larger-than-life profile as a bush poet, married the (subsequently) famous anthropologist Daisy Bates and eventually — fatefully — volunteered for service in South Africa.

The Second Boer War, Britain’s (ultimately successful) fight to corral the Dutch-descended Boer republics into the empire, started sunnily enough for the English, but as the Boers abandoned a conventional war they could not win and adopted guerrilla tactics, it descended into an exceedingly dirty conflict — notable for Britain’s pioneering use of concentration camps.

It was also notable for savagery between combatants. When Morant’s best friend in the unit was tortured and mutilated by Boer guerrillas, the poet went on a rampage, ordering a number of prisoners’ summary executions over a period of weeks. It was for this that he and his confederate were shot this day. The fact of his confinement was not communicated to the Australian government; Peter Handcock’s wife only learned of his execution weeks later, from press reports.

The defendants maintained that there was a standing order from the top to kill any Boer caught wearing British khaki, a tactic the Boers were known to employ, and that the order was frequently enforced. Though the prosecution strenuously maintained otherwise at trial, the existence of that (unwritten) directive has become accepted to posterity.

What remains murky is the matter of why — why these two, why now? And is Breaker Morant a hero or a villain? Those questions are also prisms for the many currents of Morant’s case so strikingly prescient for the century that lay ahead.*

Asymmetric warfare and the legal status of guerrillas. Human rights and war crimes. Corruption and plausible deniability. The moral culpability of subordinates for the orders of the brass. And certainly all the contradictory forces of empire and resistance entailed by an Australian adventurer shot by a Scottish detachment for killing Dutchmen in Africa at the behest of London.** It was an old-time colonial war in a world becoming, for we of the early 21st century, recognizably modern.

Hard-living to his dying breath, Morant stayed up the night before he was shot scribbling his last poem — piquantly titled “Butchered to Make a Dutchman’s Holiday”.

In prison cell I sadly sit,
A d__d crest-fallen chappie!
And own to you I feel a bit-
A little bit – unhappy!

It really ain’t the place nor time
To reel off rhyming diction –
But yet we’ll write a final rhyme
Whilst waiting cru-ci-fixion!

No matter what “end” they decide –
Quick-lime or “b’iling ile,” sir?
We’ll do our best when crucified
To finish off in style, sir!

But we bequeath a parting tip
For sound advice of such men,
Who come across in transport ship
To polish off the Dutchmen!

If you encounter any Boers
You really must not loot ‘em!
And if you wish to leave these shores,
For pity’s sake, DON’T SHOOT ‘EM!!

And if you’d earn a D.S.O.,
Why every British sinner
Should know the proper way to go
Is: “ASK THE BOER TO DINNER!”

Let’s toss a bumper down our throat, –
Before we pass to Heaven,
And toast: “The trim-set petticoat
We leave behind in Devon.”

His last words were hurled at his firing squad: “Shoot straight, you bastards! Don’t make a mess of it!”

* It is no coincidence that the Australian film excerpted in this post was released while the Vietnam War was still a fresh memory.

** Breaker Morant’s memory would develop into a point of Australian suspicion towards the British military, especially after Morant’s persecutor helped author World War I’s infamous hecatomb of Australian (and New Zealand) troops at Gallipoli. Morant and Handcock turned out to be the last Australians executed by the British military.

Update: Via Airminded, an Australian history program took a skeptical look at the Breaker Morant myth a few years ago.

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