When on parade, the men in a party were always placed according to their height. I thus became a leading file, as I was the tallest man in the prison, standing a trifle over 6 ft. 2 in. in my prison boots. After taking my allotted place in the party, the process of searching was gone through. I was ordered to unbutton my coat, vest, and breeches at the knee, take my cap in my right hand, and my handkerchief in the left, and hold them out at arms' length while an officer passed his hands over my body. This search is carried out four times a day, on going out and returning from labour. When the search is over, and the coast clear-that is, when the old offenders are out of the way— the "stars" march out past the saluting base, where stand the Governor and chief warder, whose duty it is to take down the number of men in each party. The number returning from labour must correspond with the number passed out to labour. The cell is also searched every night before locking up.
Once a month a prisoner is subjected to what is known as a "dry bath." The whole party is marched from the works to the bathroom, and one by one put into an empty bath and subjected to a private bodily search. The Portland workshops are situated about a quarter of a mile away from the prison, and are fairly extensive, nearly one hundred men being employed at tinsmithing and foundry work alone. I was now put on to learn soldering tinware. I soon mastered this art sufficiently to do practical work, and was engaged in making all the kinds of tinware used in the prison service, and biscuit tins and oil bottles for the navy.
For two days I kept at this work among the acid fumes. My appetite had now almost vanished; I hardly slept at all, and one of my boots had crippled me; I kept up, however, thinking that my indisposition was the result of the change of surroundings. On the third morning I felt very ill and quite unfit for work; I then made an application to see the doctor in the usual way, which necessitated waiting until the dinner hour and parading with the "reporting sick." I went out to work, but as soon as I started I felt dizzy and faint; I went to the warder in charge, and asked to be allowed to rest a little. He, seeing that I was ill, ordered me to be taken to the infirmary at once. I was escorted there by an assistant-warder, and admitted.
I was greatly struck by the beautiful cleanliness of the hospital; as I toiled up to the "star" ward, I noticed that the railings were polished like burnished steel, the cells were roomy and scrupulously clean, and in each were an iron bedstead, a table, and chair. The walls were painted a pale green on white, the floors were carpeted with coir matting, the passages with stout canvas, the whole building seemed as silent as the grave. I had not long to wait before the medical officer came in. I described my symptoms, and drew his attention to my foot. After examining me, he remarked, "A touch of influenza." Turning to the warder-nurse, he ordered me a dose of ether and ammonia, and a lead lotion dressing for my foot. I was then ordered to bed, where I remained for eight days; by that time my health appeared to have improved, and my foot was well again.
I was discharged from the hospital with a highly-prized con-cession-boots to measure, without nails. I felt very weak when leaving, and could scarcely walk; I was quite knocked up on reaching the hall, about 200 yards distant. I was again pigeon-holed in my 3x7 cell on the basement. The following day being Sunday, I had another rest, with one hour's exercise. The following week dragged on; I could neither eat nor sleep, and my head ached as though it would split. Cramped up in my narrow cell, in a hall in which were nearly 200 prisoners, with an atmosphere which words fail to describe, I rapidly became seriously ill. I kept on with my work until Friday, when I again applied to see the doctor. I went out as usual with my party, and was working on zinc, using "live acid." The fumes almost suffocated me; my head reeled, and for a time I became oblivious of everything. On coming round, I shivered as though suffering from ague; I was again hurried away to the hospital.
I thought I was suffering from malarial fever, and told the doctor so. I believe I was treated for that complaint for nearly a week, but I gradually became worse. My case puzzled both the hospital doctors; so one day samples of my blood were taken and forwarded to the Institute of Pathological Research for examination. A reply at once came back that the case was typhoid fever.
I was then removed to the end of the ward, isolated and quarantined, and screened off by two sets of carbolised sheets. My condition was considered to be very critical; I was dieted on pepto-nised milk, Valentine's meat juice, and a little brandy.
For nine long weeks I lay hovering over the fine line between life and death; I was so weak I could not raise my hand. Just as the last feeble spark of life seemed about to flicker out I rallied slightly, but did not make any progress. I could not sleep, and opiates had no effect upon me. The day warder-nurse who attended me told me afterwards that often, when he went off duty at night, he never expected to see me alive in the morning.
About 7 o'clock one morning I had my breakfast of milk, and do not remember anything more; I must have dropped into sound sleep. When I awoke the nurse was standing near. He said, "Oh! you are awake at last; what time do you think it is ?" "About nine o'clock!" I replied. "Well, it is five o’clock in the evening, and I have two pints of milk, a pint of beef tea, and two lots of brandy waiting for you; which will you have first ?"
From then I slowly improved. Though so close to death, it rarely, if ever, troubled my head; thoughts of my freedom and return to Australia, my native land, were always paramount.
One day, just after I had turned the corner, and was on the road towards recovery, I received from my brother in Australia a copy of the opinion of the Hon. Isaac Isaacs, K.C., and also a copy of the Australian petition to His Majesty the King, which had been based on the opinion, and which I was informed was being supported by tens of thousands of His Majesty's subjects. It was a dear and truthful summary of my case. I read and re-read it, and felt that my release was assured; such a petition could not be long refused. The following is a copy:-
AUSTRALIA. The humble petition of the undersigned, your Majesty's most loyal subjects, Sheweth:-
1. Prior to May, 1900, George Ramsdale Witton was a gunner of the Royal Australian Artillery, in the service of the Crown in the Defence Forces of the colony of Victoria, Australia. He was born on the 28th day of June, 1874, and is now twenty-eight years of age.
2. On or about 1st May, 1900, the said Witton left Australia for South Africa with the Imperial Australian Regiment, under Lieutenant-Colonel Kelly, with the intention and purpose of serving in the military forces of the Crown against the Boers.
3. After being some time in South Africa he offered his services as a member of the Irregular Corps of the Bushveldt Carbineers, and was accepted, receiving, in consequence of his previous knowledge and practice of artillery, and notwithstanding his inexperience as an officer up to that time, a commission as lieutenant in that corps. He joined the corps on 13th July, 1901.
4. On 5th August, 1901, he joined the Spelonken detachment of the corps, then under the command of Captain Hunt. Captain Hunt, however, with the main body of the Spelonken detachment, when Lieutenant Witton arrived, was some miles away engaging the enemy, and was killed on 7th August. Lieutenant Witton never saw or had communication with Captain Hunt, but was always under the immediate command of Lieutenant Morant, as superior officer, and Lieutenants Handcock and Picton, all of whom were senior to Lieutenant Witton.
5. Lieutenant Witton is at present a prisoner of the Crown at Lewes, England, under sentence of penal servitude for life, by way of commutation by the General Commanding Officer, Lord Kitchener, of a sentence of death by court-martial, upon the trial of Lieutenant Wit-ton on two charges of murder of Boers.
6. No official copy of the proceedings is at present obtainable in Australia, but reliable information has been collected from reports in public newspapers, notably in the weekly edition of the "Times" for 18th April, 1902, and from persons having actual knowledge of the events, and from communications from Lieutenant Witton. From these sources the following circumstances appear to be those connected with the two cases in question.
7. The first charge was that of murdering a Boer named Viss-er. Visser was captured wounded shortly after Captain Hunt's death. Lieutenants Morant, Handcock, Picton, and Witton had a consultation with reference to Visser, and after that Visser was summarily shot, without trial and without charge. When captured he wore a soldier's khaki jacket or shirt, and was in possession of a pair of Captain Hunt's trousers. Although found guilty of the charge by the court-martial, your Majesty's petitioners humbly urge that for the reasons following no guilt in respect thereof is properly imputable to Lieutenant Witton.
8. He was the junior subaltern. He had so recently joined the corps and the detachment that he could not have personal knowledge of the material facts hereinafter mentioned. It was within a week of his joining the detachment that Visser's case occurred. Lieutenants Morant and Handcock had been for some time (over a month) under the direct control of Captain Hunt, and, therefore, in a position to know exactly what orders he had given and transmitted. The first witness for the prosecution—Sergeant S. Robertson-admitted in cross-examination that Captain Hunt had given direct orders that no prisoners were to be taken, and had also on one occasion abused the witness for bringing in three prisoners without orders. Lieutenant Morant deposed that not only had Captain Hunt given these orders, but also that he had named his authority, Colonel Hamilton. It is true that at the court-martial Colonel Hamilton proved that no such orders had been issued, but that, as your Majesty's petitioners humbly urge, could not be known to Lieutenant Witton at the time Visser was shot. If Captain Hunt informed his subordinates that Colonel Hamilton had given such orders, and Captain Hunt directly required obedience to them, it is humbly submitted that Lieutenant Witton had no course open to him as a soldier but to obey. The order and the interpretation of that order were not left in any doubt according to the statements of his superiors. It is humbly further submitted that Lieutenant Witton would have much exceeded his right, wouid have been insubordinate, and as an officer been guilty of a serious dereliction of duty if he had ventured to demand from his superior officer proof of the truth of his statement as to the issue and meaning of the orders in question before yielding obedience, because if justified in demanding such proof from Lieutenant Morant, such demand might, as it seems to your Majesty's petitioners, be equally demanded from every officer short of the General commanding.
Your Majesty's petitioners humbly submit there was no criminality in a young and comparatively inexperienced lieutenant, with no previous experience in the field, less than a month with his corps, less than a week with his detachment, placing faith in and yielding obedience to the distinct assurances and positive commands of two superior officers, having vastly better means of knowledge, and with all the advantage and power of rank and authority.
We also rest reliance on the circumstances of time and place, which seem to be of the highest importance. At a great distance from still higher authority, even had he been disposed to question the authenticity and construction of his orders, immersed in services of continuous activity and serious pressure, engaged with an enemy whose methods, in some instances at least, as is well known, lent some colour to the likelihood of such orders, and having no reason for disbelieving what he was told, and led by a masterful mind and strong personal force, your Majesty's petitioners beg your Majesty's most gracious consideration to the difficult position of this young and inexperienced officer. Lieut. Colonel Pratt, in his "Handbook on Military Law," at page 113, says:—"A soldier, again, is bound to obey the lawful command of his superior officer, and before a court-martial it would be held that a soldier was bound to obey the command of his superior officer, if the illegality of it was not on the face of it apparent." Clode's "Military and Martial Law," at page 56, states that "The power and responsibility of the superior officer, i.e., the senior officer of the highest rank present, is always supreme."
No doubt can ever have existed, as your Majesty's petitioners believe, that Captain Hunt had given the orders referred to. Civil-Surgeon Johnson testified that he had heard Captain Hunt reprimand Lieutenant Morant for bringing in prisoners; so did Captain Taylor. Collateral corroboration that Captain Hunt believed that such orders were justified appears also from the evidence in other cases as to the practice in other corps.
9. The second charge of which Lieutenant Witton was found guilty was called the eight Boers case. He was indicted, along with Lieutenants Morant and Handcock, with having murdered or instigated the murder of eight prisoners. The facts were that about 20th August, 1901, an intelligence officer named Ledeboer, in charge of a party, captured the Boers and handed them over to a patrol. On 23rd August they were shot. So far as Lieutenant Witton is concerned, he was present with others, but did not take part in any decision regarding the fate of the men. One of them rushed at him and seized hold of him, and then Lieutenant Witton shot him, apparently to protect himself. He neither ordered nor participated in the shooting of the other seven.
The prosecution proved that Lieutenant Morant again asserted his orders as his justification, and also stated he had been congratulated by headquarters over the last affair, and meant to go through with it. Clearly, as your Majesty's petitioners submit, Lieutenant Morant took command of the situation and exerted his authority.
The defence of obedience to orders, and the view that Lieutenant Witton honestly and reasonably believed in the existence of lawful orders, were, as your Majesty's petitioners believe, materially corroborated and supported by evidence in other cases before the same court-martial, that other corps believed the same thing and acted accordingly. Lieutenant Hannam stated that when he was a trooper in the Queensland Mounted Infantry, on one occasion at Bronkhurst Spruit, in 1900, his squadron took some prisoners and was reprimanded by Colonel Cradock for taking them. Sergeant Walter Ashton deposed to Brabant's Horse receiving orders to take no prisoners, in consequence of specific acts of treachery on the part of the Boers. Your Majesty's petitioners humbly submit that such reprimand and orders could have but one meaning, and that they afford strong reason for not imputing criminal conduct to Lieutenant Witton.
10. Lieutenant Witton states, in a letter of 8th March, 1902, that Sergeant-Major Clarke asked him to intercede with Lieutenant Morant on behalf of the men (British) in favour of Visser, that he agreed with the men that Visser should not be shot, and mentioned it to Lieutenant Morant. Lieutenant Morant, he says, refused to grant his intercession, telling Lieutenant Witton he was justified in what he was doing, and saying that if the men made any fuss he would shoot the prisoner himself.
11. Your Majesty's petitioners, while believing that, under the circumstances hereinbefore appearing, Lieutenant Witton ought not to have been punished as a criminal, desire to place before your Majesty further considerations which they humbly submit should move your Majesty's clemency towards Lieutenant Witton.
12. These circumstances are as follows:—Early on the morning of 23rd January, 1902, and while the court-martial was still in course of try ing the prisoners at Pietersburg, an attack on the town by Commandant Beyers took place. So far as your Majesty's petitioners can learn, Lieutenant Witton, then under arrest, but under no personal danger from the Boers, was ordered and permitted to, and did, resume his arms, and until the attack was happily repulsed stand ready if needed to do honourable and perilous service in his country's and your Majesty's cause. Your Majesty's petitioners, while acknowledging that by your Majesty's regulations, such circumstances were not technically or necessarily an answer to the charge, if the same were otherwise established, do nevertheless most earnestly beg your Majesty to graciously regard them as of sufficient weight to induce your Majesty to pardon Lieutenant Witton.
At one period of the history of the British Army such circumstances would have been considered as almost equivalent to condonation. Clode, at page 103, states the general principle thus:-The discharge of duty involves condonation, and quotes the Duke of Wellington as writing:—"The performance of a duty' of honour and trust after the knowledge of a military offence committed ought to convey a pardon," and the author adds that, according to the practice of the Duke of Wellington in the Peninsula, it did so. That such was the practice of so distinguished a commander at a period of our history noted for the rigour of military discipline appears, we think, from a perusal among other sources of the despatch of the Duke of Wellington of 11th April, 1813, and the general order of His Grace dated 11th February, 1811.
13. Your Majesty's petitioners, without desiring to rest their prayer upon any technical grounds, would humbly beseech your Majesty to consider whether Lieutenant Witton has not suffered some disadvantage in not having as one member at least of the court-martial an officer of an irregular corps in accordance with the Rules of Procedure.
Reviewing the whole of Lieutenant Witton's unfortunate case, your Majesty's petitioners venture humbly to express to your Majesty the confident hope that your Majesty may perceive room and occasion for royal clemency.
Now that peace has been happily re-established, now that our late foes have been enrolled as our fellow-subjects, when even rebels have sought leniency, and not in vain, we approach the Throne asking that your Majesty may be graciously pleased to direct the liberation of the young and inexperienced soldier who, at an anxious moment of our history, ardently offered to his country the last gift of a brave and loyal citizen, and who, if, contrary to the views of your Majesty's petitioners, he erred at all, he erred, we venture most humbly and earnestly to submit, not from wilfulness or design, but, according to the great weight of testimony and probability, from a mistaken sense of duty to obey the official commands of his superior officer.
Your petitioners therefore humbly pray that Your Most Gracious Majesty may be pleased to take this matter into your most gracious consideration, and pardon and direct and order the release of the said George R. Witton, and your petitioners will in duty bound ever pray.