Captain Bowen-Colthurst and summary executions in 1916 in Dublin. Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, Thomas Dickson, Patrick McIntyre, Francis Fletcher Vane, Councillor Richard O’Carroll and Australians

In relation to the motion on Councillor Richard O’Carroll and Captain Bowen-Colthurst – reminds me of Lt William Calley and Mai Lai in Viet Nam- which was put on the DCC agenda by Cllr O’Callaghan and Ring, there are other candidates for commemoration in the Members Room at City Hall such as Francis Sheehy Skeffington and Unionists like Alderman James Kelly. I am not in favour of renaming the Members Room but I am in favour of commemoration of every member of Dublin Corporation at that time, elected or employee who took part or was affected by the events and consequences of the 1916 Rebellion by an Honour Board in City Hall naming Nationalists and Unionists alike as a true reflection of the forty shades of Green.


extraordinary events, but surely the most disturbing was the summary execution of three journalists – Francis
Sheehy Skeffington, Thomas Dickson and Patrick McIntyre. It was never suggested that they had the remotest
connection with the rebels. Sheehy Skeffington, a well-known pacifist and a determined fighter for votes for
women, was trying to prevent looting when he was arrested. McIntyre, editor of a newspaper called Searchlight,
and Dickson, editor of The eye-opener, seem to have been picked up casually. All three were brought to
Portobello Barracks by Capt. Bowen-Colthurst, who hailed from Dripsey, near Cork City.
No charge was made against the prisoners. No trial was held. After they were detained overnight, Capt. Bowen-
Colthurst decided that all three were to be executed. Lt Dobbin, who gave evidence at the subsequent court-
martial, testified that he said: “I am taking these prisoners out and I am going to shoot them because I think it is the
right thing to do”. Bowen-Colthurst told the three prisoners to stand against the far wall and the guard loaded and
fired before the three realised what was happening to them.

It was a remarkable thing that Bowen-Colthurst was obeyed by the officers under his command. They must surely
have realised on the previous day, when he had shot dead an unarmed 17-year-old boy returning from church, that
he was acting illegally and irresponsibly. An attempted cover-up of the atrocity began immediately, led by the
commanding officer in the barracks, Maj J. Rosborough, who explained to British Army Headquarters that the
shooting was in response to “fears that the prisoners might be rescued or escape”. Also present in the barracks was
Sir Francis Fletcher Vane, an officer in the Royal Munster Fusiliers who had distinguished military service in the
Boer War and at the beginning of the First World War. He was on leave in Bray when the Rising started but he
made his way to Portobello Barracks and assisted in organising its defence. He was mentioned in dispatches as a
result.

There was no suggestion that he was other than a loyal British army officer who, like his colleagues, regarded the
Empire as the great benefactor of humanity. Of course, he had what we would describe today as an “attitude
problem”. During the Boer War, he raised strong objections to the atrocities committed as a direct result of policies
pursued by two Irish-born Generals – Field Marshal Roberts and Field Marshal Kitchener. It was Roberts who
developed the concentration camp; Kitchener added the further refinement of imprisoning Boer women and
children in these camps, where, deprived of proper food or medicine, many thousands died. As a result of his
opinions, Vane seemed to have attracted the enmity of Bowen-Colthurst who, before the shooting, was heard in the
officer’s mess denouncing Vane as pro-Boer and pro-Irish.

Vane was outraged when he heard that Bowen-Colthurst was allowed to carry out his duties as if nothing had
happened. He seems to have made every effort to have him put under arrest and charged with murder, but he
received no co-operation from the other officers present.

In an action that was quite extraordinary, he obtained leave, travelled to London and arranged an interview with
Prime Minister Asquith and Field Marshal Kitchener, now Secretary of State for War, and made a full statement
about the affair. It is hard to imagine that Kitchener – who was no humanitarian and who rejoiced in the nickname
“The Butcher of Khartoum”, have written out a telegram ordering the arrest of Bowen-Colthurst, unless he had
been placed under severe pressure by Sir Francis Vane, who probably threatened to go public on the matter if this
was not done. Bowen-Colthurst was tried and found guilty be a military court but immediate intervention was made
on his behalf and he was declared to be insane. Imprisoned in Broadmoor Criminal Mental Asylum, he was
released in 1922 and settled in Canada where he died as late as 1966, the 50th anniversary of the Rising. Whether
he was truly mad or just bad will always be debatable.

Sir Francis Fletcher Vane suffered as a result of his action. He was dismissed from the army, or – as a recently
released document from the Public Records Office nicely put it – “this officer was relegated to unemployment owing
to his action in the Skeffington murder case in the Sinn Féin rebellion”. For a number of years he waged a campaign
for reinstatement, appealing even to the King, but failed in his efforts.

Apart from his army career, Vane was a most interesting man. He was widely travelled, acted as a war
correspondent, founded the boy scouts in Italy, was an underwriter at Lloyds, and wrote books including
Principles of Military Art, Other Illusions of War, Walks and People in Tuscany. He was even an unsuccessful
Liberal candidate in the 1906 election. He died in 1934, no doubt sadly disillusioned with the Empire he had once
served loyally and feeling the same sentiments so well expressed by an Irish poet – “In aisce, mo léan, mo léann ní
bhfuair mé”.

Sir Francis Fletcher Vane deserves to be honoured. Now that a peace process is developing between Ireland and
England, it is the opportune time to raise matters such as the Casement “Black Diary” affair and Vane’s dismissal
from the British army. And is there not a moral duty on the Irish Government to raise the matter officially? Surely
there is some process whereby the British establishment could review the case, re-instate his name on the roll of
officers and offer an apology to his descendants. It would be the just and proper thing to do.

Pádraig Ó Cuanacháin

(Excerpt from An Irishman’s Diary – The Irish Times, Monday, April 24, 2000)

Murder of Sheehy Skeffington and others
The Easter Rising was marked by many extraordinary events, but surely the most disturbing was the summary execution of three journalists – Francis Sheehy Skeffington, Thomas Dickson and Patrick McIntyre, who had no connection to the rebels. Sheehy Skeffington, a well known anti-war pacifist and a determined campaigner for votes for women, was trying to prevent looting when he was arrested. Stopped by troops on the Portobello Bridge in the city he was that night taken out as a hostage by the British Army on a raid. During the course of the raid Skeffington witnessed Bowen-Colthurst shoot dead a 17 year old boy.

The other two men, McIntyre, editor of a newspaper called Searchlight, and Dickson, editor of The Eye-opener, seem to have been picked up casually by Capt. Bowen-Colthurst who brought all three to Portobello Barracks.

Francis Sheehy-Skeffington
Although no charge was brought against the prisoners and no trial held, Colthurst decided that all three were to be executed. Lt Dobbin, who gave evidence at the subsequent court-martial, testified that Colthurst said: “I am taking these prisoners out and I am going to shoot them because I think it is the right thing to do”. Bowen-Colthurst told the three prisoners to stand against the far wall and the guard loaded and fired before the three realised what was happening to them. When it was felt that one victim had survived he ordered second volleys to be fired into the bodies on the ground.

Pádraig Ó Cuanacháin, in an article in the Irish Times, notes that it was a remarkable thing that the officers under his command obeyed Bowen-Colthurst as they must surely have realised that he had been acting illegally and irresponsibly even on the previous day when he shot dead J.J. Coade an unarmed 17-year-old boy returning from church. The Irish Times reported that, ‘after brief interrogation, Bowen-Colthurst drew his pistol and shot Coade dead.’ An attempted cover-up of the atrocities began immediately, led by the commanding officer in the barracks, Maj J. Rosborough, who explained to British Army Headquarters that the shooting was in response to “fears that the prisoners might be rescued or escape”.
Sir Francis Fletcher Vane, the humanitarian.
Also present in the barracks on the night of the Skeffington murder was Sir Francis Fletcher Vane, an officer in the Royal Munster Fusiliers who had distinguished military service in the Boer War and at the beginning of the First World War. He was on leave in Bray when the Rising started but he made his way to Portobello Barracks where he assisted in repressing the rebellion. Although a dedicated member of the British Army, Vane had deep humanitarian instincts. During the Boer War, he raised strong objections to the atrocities committed as a direct result of policies pursued by two Irish-born Generals – Field Marshal Roberts and Field Marshal Kitchener. It was Roberts who developed the concentration camp; Kitchener added the further refinement of imprisoning Boer women and children in these camps, where, deprived of proper food or medicine, many thousands died. As a result of his opinions, Vane seemed to have attracted the enmity of Bowen-Colthurst who, before the shooting, was heard in the officer’s mess denouncing Vane as pro-Boer and pro-Irish.

Vane was deeply upset when he heard that, following the murders, Bowen-Colthurst was allowed to carry out his duties as if nothing had happened. He seems to have made every effort to have him put under arrest and charged with murder, but he received no co-operation from the other officers present. In an action that was quite extraordinary, he obtained leave, travelled to London and arranged an interview with Prime Minister Asquith and Field Marshal Kitchener, now Secretary of State for War, and made a full statement about the affair.
Bowen-Colthurst found guilty
It is hard to imagine that Kitchener — who was no humanitarian and who rejoiced in the nickname “The Butcher of Khartoum” — would have written out a telegram ordering the arrest of Bowen-Colthurst, unless he had been placed under severe pressure by Sir Francis Vane, who probably threatened to go public on the matter if this was not done. When the court martial was held, several witnesses had disappeared, had been transferred to remote outposts or had died in France. Nevertheless a military court found Colthurst guilty but immediate intervention was made on his behalf and he was declared to be insane. Imprisoned in Broadmoor Criminal Mental Asylum he was released, under somewhat questionable circumstances in 1922, and was eventually settled in Canada where he died as late as 1966, the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising.
Sir Francis Fletcher Vane suffered as a result of his concerns and action. He was dismissed from the army, or — as a recently released document from the Public Records Office nicely put it — “this officer was relegated to unemployment owing to his action in the Skeffington murder case in the Sinn Féin rebellion”. For a number of years he waged a campaign for reinstatement, appealing even to the King, but failed in his efforts. The British Army Council never forgave Sir Francis and Colthurst dismissed him as an Irish sympathiser.

Colthurst’s mysterious release and sojourn in Canada
Through correspondence with John Wrafter, a Sligo man living on Vancouver Island in Canada, I have learned the following very interesting information. Collthurst ended his days in British Columbia living firstly Up-Island, then Sooke (14 miles away from Wrafter). With the IRA on his trail he left Sooke and spent the remainder of his days in Naramata, the Okanagan (B.C.). Jim Hume a columnist with a local newspaper, the Penticton Herald, wrote that he ‘got to know the old captain fairly well when I worked at the Herald. He never denied the executions, refused comment on half a dozen other alleged executions, and argued he was just doing his duty”.
In one conversation Colthurst told Hume that he was released in 1918 from Broadmoor Asylum under mysterious circumstances; that he lived in London but was tracked down by the I.R.A. following which he ‘was spirited’ with his wife and family to Terrace in Canada. When the I.R.A. tracked him down again he moved to Sooke and finally, after being followed once more, to the Okanagan.
Jim Hume continues: ‘In the late 1970s, in a smoky Irish pub in Dublin I met with an I.R.A. leader to talk about Bowen Colthurst. I was viewed with some suspicion until I produced a copy of Colthurst’s obituary. My unnamed contact lifted his glass and said “God bless Ireland, that’s good news.” I asked if there was any IRA record of Colthurst’s pursuit story or if it was built on [Colthursts] guilt and paranoia. The answer was cold: “We were looking for him. For how long I don’t know. We would have killed him had we found him”.

Sir Francis Fletcher-Vane
Addendum: In addition to his army career, Francis Fletcher-Vane was a most interesting man. He was widely travelled, acted as a war correspondent, founded the boy scouts in Italy, was an underwriter at Lloyds, and wrote books including Principles of Military Art, Other Illusions of War, Walks and People in Tuscany. He was even an unsuccessful Liberal candidate in the 1906 election. He died in 1934, no doubt sadly disillusioned with the Empire he had once served loyally and feeling the same sentiments so well expressed by an Irish poet – “In aisce, mo léan, mo léann ní bhfuair mé”.
Fletcher Vane deserves to be honoured. Now that a peace process between Ireland and England is in place, is it not an opportune time to raise Vane’s dismissal from the British army? And is there not a moral duty on the Irish Government to raise the matter officially? Surely there is some process whereby the British establishment could review the case, re-instate his name on the roll of officers and offer an apology to his descendants. It would be the just and proper thing to do.
I find it interesting and perhaps an example of natural justice that today, ninety four years after the events detailed above, I cannot find a single picture anywhere of Bowen-Colthurst the erstwhile victor; remembered and despised today but his face forgotten and unknown.

References:
Pádraig Ó Cuanacháin’s article in An Irishman’s Diary – The Irish Times, Monday, April 24, 2000
Two articles by Jim Hume in the Penticton Herald
Evidence of Lieutenant Morgan extracted from Sinn Fein Rebellion Handbook published by the Irish Times subsequent to the Easter Rising p86:

“… the three men were taken out into the yard, and he heard shots fired as from the yard. He went into the yard and saw three men lying dead there. He knew Sheehy-Skeffington from his appearance of the night before, when he heard his name mentioned. Witness knew the body. He did not examine the bodies that he saw on the ground, but he saw blood on the ground…

Replying to questions put by the President of the court witness said that when Capt. Colthurst came out of the guardroom he appeared in an excited state, which was not his usual manner.

‘to shoot again’
“In your previous evidence you made a statement which you have not corroborated today. You were asked by the prosecutor if you noticed anything regarding one of the bodies and you said, ‘nothing in particular’. That is your answer to the prosecutor today. Did you notice anything in particular about one of these bodies?
I did.
What was it?
I noticed a movement of one of the legs of Sheehy Skeffington.
What did you do then?
I sent an officer to the orderly room. That officer was Lieutenant Tooley and what I wanted to know was what steps I was to take.
What was the answer received by you?
The order was that I was to shoot again.
Who sent that order?
Captain Colthurst.
How do you know it was he?
Lieutenant Tooley told me.
What did you do then?
I stood by four men of my guard and I complied with the order.
The President—Perhaps after this evidence counsel for the defence would like to cross examine the witness.
Mr. Chambers (to witness)— What sort of a movement was it that you saw, was it a twinge of a muscle?
I don’t know.
Did you believe Skeffington to be then dead, or that he was living?
I believe he was dying.
That he was dead?
I cannot say. In my opinion he was done for…”

=============================================================================

Sir Francis Fletcher-Vane chronology from 1916
1916 In charge of defence at Portobello Barracks in Dublin during the Easter Uprising.
He tried to have Sergeant Bowen-Colhurst arrested for murder of Francis Sheehy Skeffington. Arrest occurred only after Vane took leave and went to London and reported directly to the War Office. As a result of his actions Vane was sacked from the army.
1916-1917 Principles of Military Art published
1917 Wrote a book on the 1916 rebellion – The Easter Rising . Proof copies were produced before publication was prevented by the Army Censor. Manuscript long lost. Also wrote a book War Stories, incidents from South Africa, the First World War and the Easter uprising. This too was suppressed by the Censor.
1918 General election. Vane chaired meetings for Labour and Liberal candidates
1918 – 1927 Resident in Italy, active in support of Scout movement. Left Italy after Fascist suppression of the scout movement.
1924 Tox, Or Everyboy written for his wife as she was dying. Privately published privately in Italy.
1930 The autobiographical Agin The Governments – Memories and Adventures of Sir Francis Fletcher Vane published.
1934 Died aged 73.

HANSARD 1803–2005 → 1910s → 1916 → October 1916 → 19 October 1916 → Commons Sitting → DISTURBANCES IN IRELAND.
CAPTAIN BOWEN-COLTHURST.
HC Deb 19 October 1916 vol 86 c705 705
§ 29. Mr. M’KEAN
asked the Chief Secretary if he will say whether Captain Bowen-Colthurst was certified as insane by any competent medical authority; and if he will state the name and qualifications of such authority and the date on which the certificate of insanity was given?
§ Mr. DUKE
I am informed that Captain Bowen-Colthurst was found guilty, but insane, by the court-martial which tried him, and that before committal to the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum he was examined and found insane by Dr. Dawson, Inspector of Lunatic Asylums, at present serving in Ireland as mental specialist to the Forces in Ireland.
§ Mr. DEVLIN
May I ask whether the military superiors of Captain Bowen-Colthurst are also insane? Are they still retained?
§ Mr. DUKE
I do not understand that there has been any trial or any conclusion on any matter of that kind.
§ Mr. REDDY
Give them all medals.
§ Mr. BYRNE
Is it not the fact that Captain Bowen-Colthurst was found unfit to control a section of the Army on the battlefields of France fighting the Huns, and will he say why he was allowed to run loose on unarmed citizens in Dublin?
§ Mr. DUKE
Captain Bowen-Colthurst was never under the control of the Executive whom I at present represent in this House. He was at all times a military officer, and the Department which represents him in this House is the War Office, and no doubt if a question is addressed to the Secretary of State for War he will answer it. I am not able to do so.
§ Mr. BYRNE
Can the right hon. Gentleman say whether he was under Major Price or not?
§ Mr. DUKE
I have not the least idea.
§ Mr. FLAVIN
Can the right hon. Gentleman say at what particular moment did Captain Bowen-Colthurst conveniently become insane?

A man of courage

Sir Francis Fletcher Vane was an hereditary peer born in Dublin of an Irish mother and English father.
A career officer in the British Army, he was sacked from the Army (‘relegated to unemployment’) for preventing an Army cover-up of a number of military murders in Dublin during the 1916 Insurrection.
It was Vane who revealed the murder of the well-known writer and pacifist Francis Sheehy Skeffington, by Captain Bowen-Colthurst.

Vane was an extraordinary character. Born in 1861 at 10 Great George’s street, Dublin, he died in London in 1934. Although an army officer, he spoke on anti-war platforms, was a democratic aristocrat with socialist and republican sympathies who challenged the jingoism of the empire and the demonising of its enemies.

The Vane family had a long tradition of championing human rights. An ancestor, Sir Henry Vane, led the republicans in Parliament during the English Civil War and in 1656 his tract a Healing Question. affirmed the doctrines of civil and religious liberty.

He resigned from politics rather than acknowledges Cromwell as Lord Protector. When the monarchy was restored he was tried for treason and executed in 1662. Sir Francis was sent to Military college in Oxford, was commissioned in the Scots Guards before his appointment as captain in the 26th Middlesex Cyclist Battalion. When Britain invaded the Boer Republics in 1899, he was sent to South Africa, Appointed as a military magistrate in 1902, he was sacked for being “pro-Boer”.

He was firmly set against the heavy-handed military repression of the Boer people and wrote The War and One Year After (1903) attacking British was methods.

His Pax Britannica in 1904 amplified his stand and he was put on the “retired” list. However, he had become South African correspondent for the Daily News and Manchester Guardian. Then in 1906 he stood as a Liberal candidate in the UK General Election. Although unsuccessful he became active in the anti-war and suffragette campaigns. With the outbreak of the 1914-18 War he felt it was his duty to return to army service again. With the rank of Major he was sent to Ireland as a recruiting officer. When the insurrection took place he was ordered to take command at Portobello Barracks, Dublin. There were about 300 soldiers in the garrison mainly from the Royal Irish Rifles and the Ulster Militia Battalion. Vane went round the area of Rathmines, personally placing observation posts. On Wednesday, April 26, he returned to the barracks.

It was then that he discovered the activities of Captain J.C. Bowen-Colthurst in his absence.
Three “suspicious” persons were being held at the barracks. They were the writer Sheehy Skeffington and two journalists Thomas Dickson and Patrick MacIntyre.

Captain Bowen-Colthurst had decided to conduct some raids and on the night of April 25 he had taken the prisoners with his raiding party to act as hostages, human shields, against all rules of war.
At Rathmines they came across a 17-year old boy named Coade coming from a church, and, on orders, one of the soldiers smashed the boys jaw with his rifle butt. Then Bowen-Colthurst stood over him and shot the boy, as he lay senseless on the ground.

The raiding party then proceeded to the home of Alderman James Kelly, a Unionist, but Bowen-Colthurst had mistakenly identified him as a Sinn Féin councillor. They destroyed his house with grenades. Another Dublin councillor, Richard O’Carroll, was also shot by Bowen-Colthurst.
Returning to barracks, Bowen-Colthurst then ordered his sergeant, William Aldridge, to take the prisoners out and shoot them. This he did, in Bowen-Colthurst’s presence.

Vane returning to barracks and discovering what had happened had Bowen-Colthurst confined to Barracks pending court martial. On reporting to army headquarters, Vane found his superiors justifying Bowen-Colthurst’s actions. Royal Engineers arrived and repaired the bullet holes in the barracks walls to they could not be seen. Vane was removed from command and Bowen-Colthurst was released and allowed to conduct a vicious raid on Mrs Hannah Sheehy Skeffington’s house for “incriminating evidence”.

On May 2, Vane left for England and, using contacts, managed to secure a meeting with Field Marshal Lord Kitchener and Bonham Carter, private secretary to the Prime Minister. After two weeks of prevarication, in which Vane was “relegated to unemployment”, on May 18, Lord Chief justice of England,Lord Reading, accepted a military court martial in private so that the Government would be spared a public hearing. Bowen-Colthurst was quickly found guilty but insane . He was confined to Broadmoor criminally insane hospital for one year, then released and allowed to go to Canada where he died in 1965.

the Government then offered Mrs Hannah Sheehy Skeffington £10,000 compensation. She refused and demanded the full facts be made public and even former President Theodore Roosevelt became interested in the case. Thanks to Vane, the horrors of the murders committed by Bowen-Colthurst became public.

In 1917 Vane attempted to publish a book on the 1916 insurrection but the proof copies were seized and prevented from publication by the military censors. The manuscript was subsequently lost. This was the first of Vane’s books that was suppressed for he wrote a book recounting incidents from South Africa, the 1914-18 War and the Irish insurrection, which was also seized and suppressed by the military censor.

He took up residence in Italy in 1918. his wife died there in 1924, and he returned to London’s Bayswater in 1927, leaving Italy after his political views caused him to fall foul of the Fascist Government of Mussolini.

In 1930 he published his autobiography Agin The Government – Memories and Adventures of Sir Francis Fletcher Vane, giving full details of the Bowen-Cothurst affair.

British Officers like Vane, General F.P. Crozier, and latterly Captain Fred Holroyd and Major Colin Wallace, have demonstrated that there are occasional army officers of great moral courage who find principles a more powerful force than political expediency. We should honour them.

Courtesy of Peter Berrisford Ellis and The Irish Post

According to Michael Foy and Brian Barton, authors of The Easter Rising, Sheehy Skeffington was
a well-known, loved and somewhat eccentric Dublin character dressed in a knickerbocker suit who was actively involved in every worthy cause such as pacifism, socialism, vegetarianism, alcohol abstinence and votes for women. He had become an object of resentment in military circles because of his opposition to the war which the authorities believed hindered recruiting.[54]
{53} Bowen-Colthurst, of an Anglo-Irish family from County Cork, was a captain in the 3rd Battalion of the Royal Irish Rifles stationed at Portobello Barracks. An honours graduate from Sandhurst and a veteran of the Boer War, India and Tibet, he had taken part in the Battle of Mons in August 1914 and had been severely wounded at the Aisne the following month, leading to his being invalided home. He had appeared before a medical board in March 1915 but had not been returned to the front, due more to an adverse report as to his competence written by his commanding officer than to his medical condition. Lieut.-Colonel W. D. Bird (later Major General Sir Wilkinson Dent Bird) had accused Colthurst of attacking a German position at the Aisne without orders, thereby leading to a counter-attack that resulted in the battalion’s suffering many casualties, including Colthurst himself. Bird had also accused him of breaking down during the fighting. Colthurst denied Bird’s charges, arguing that Bird had a personal vendetta against him because of an argument the two men had had in 1914 after Bird had offered the regiment for service in Belfast to enforce the Home Rule legislation. Colthurst later wrote, “[H]is crowning folly was volunteering the services of the Royal Irish Rifles he commanded for active service in Belfast and Ulster. … I as an Irishman declined to give my men orders to fire, on the peaceful citizens of Belfast.”[55]
{54} With the outbreak of the rising, Bowen-Colthurst once again found himself in action. On the morning of Wednesday, 26 April 1916, he transferred three prisoners, Sheehy Skeffington and two other journalists, Thomas Dickson and Patrick MacIntyre, from the barracks guardroom to an adjoining yard where he ordered a party of seven soldiers to shoot them, which they did. Were it not for the persistence of a fellow officer in the Royal Irish Rifles, Major Sir Francis Vane, the murders might have been hushed up. Colthurst had his supporters and to them he had simply done his duty under difficult circumstances. In her diary of the rising, Elsie Mahaffy wrote of Colthurst in glowing terms: “one of the best young men I have ever met” and described Skeffington as “a man whose life and principles were vicious” and the other two shot with him as “ruffians, editors of sedition & indecent papers”.[56] But Vane took the matter to the top, laying his allegations before the Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener, who ordered that Bowen-Colthurst be arrested and charged.
{55} On 10 June 1916 a General Court Martial found Bowen-Colthurst guilty of the murder of Sheehy Skeffington and the two other men. But the court also found he was insane at the time he committed those acts. It was largely the evidence of Major General Bird as to Colthurst’s behaviour in France that persuaded the court martial that Colthurst was mentally unsound. Therefore, instead of being hanged for the murders, he was detained in Broadmoor criminal lunatic asylum at His Majesty’s pleasure. This lasted less than two years, until January 1918, when Colthurst was granted conditional release. On 26 April 1921 – five years to the day after the murder of the three journalists – Colthurst, with his wife and four children, emigrated to Canada, where he resided until his death on 11 December 1965 at the grand age of 85 years.[57]
{56} Public opinion was not assuaged by the court martial and eventually the Government established a royal commission under the chairmanship of Sir John Simon to inquire into the murders. The commission took evidence between 23 and 31 August 1916 and issued its report on 29 September that year. It is difficult to establish from the published accounts of the evidence before the court martial and of the evidence and report of the royal commission precisely what occurred, as the testimony of the witnesses is often inconsistent.[58] Nevertheless, subject to a few discrepancies, the events described in that material bears an uncanny resemblance to those to which the “Australian officer” referred in his letter.
{57} The episode began on the evening of Tuesday, 25 April 1916, when Sheehy Skeffington was walking toward his home in Rathmines from a meeting in the city, which he had convened to discuss ways to prevent the looting that had broken out in Dublin following the break down of law and order. As he approached Portobello Bridge, which spans the Grand Canal not far from Portobello Barracks, he was being followed by a small crowd who were making a noise and heckling the odd-looking eccentric. Lieutenant Morris, who was in command of a detachment of troops guarding the bridge, detained Sheehy Skeffington and brought him into the barracks. Bowen-Colthurst then took charge of the prisoner and searched him, but found nothing of an incriminating nature. Nevertheless, Sheehy Skeffington was detained in the guardroom.
{58} Later that night Bowen-Colthurst was given command of a patrol whose task was to enter and occupy the shop premises of a suspected Sinn Fin sympathiser Alderman James Kelly at the corner of Camden Street and Harrington Street, about a kilometre from the barracks in the direction of the city. On his way out of the barracks at about 10.30 pm, Bowen-Colthurst removed Sheehy Skeffington from the guardroom and forced him to accompany the patrol as a hostage, threatening to shoot him if the party were fired upon. The patrol left the barracks and proceeded along the lane that leads from the main gate of the barracks to Rathmines Road. This is where the evidence given to the royal commission and the events described in the letter of the “Australian officer” begin to coincide.
{59} As the patrol turned into Rathmines Road, it came upon three men by the name of Coade, Keogh and Byrne. Byrne later gave evidence to the royal commission that they had been at a sodality meeting at the nearby Catholic Church of Our Lady of Refuge. Byrne’s evidence continued:
Coade was smoking a cigarette when the officer came forward and asked what they were doing out at that hour of the night, and if they did not know martial law had been proclaimed. Witness said they did not know. The officer turned to a soldier and said “Bash him”. Coade was then struck with the butt-end of a rifle. … They then separated, Keogh going off on his bicycle one way, and Coade and witness in the opposite direction. Then witness saw a flash and heard a report, and looking back he saw that Coade had fallen.[59]

Rathmines Road near the entrance to Portobello Barracks where Captain Bowen-Colthurst shot Coade. The dome of Our Lady of Refuge Church is in the centre of the photograph.
{60} The patrol continued along Rathmines Road to the Portobello Bridge where Bowen-Colthurst divided the party into two. Leaving one half of the men at the bridge under the command of Lieutenant Leslie Wilson, he took the rest forward to attack Kelly’s shop. Sheehy Skeffington remained with Lieutenant Wilson.
{61} What happened thereafter is described by Miss Kelly, Alderman Kelly’s sister, who gave evidence to the royal commission:
The military threw a bomb into the shop, and the shop assistant was wounded by it. The door had been closed, and it was forced open by the soldiers with their bayonets. When the soldiers entered they looked for the telephone, and she was going to show it to them when she heard an officer say: “Now lads, another bomb for upstairs.” The bomb, however, was not thrown, for she saw that officer coming downstairs with the bomb in his hand. The officer shouted to those in the house, “hands up”, and said: “Remember, I could shoot you like dogs. Martial law is proclaimed. I am an Irishman myself. We have shot persons on the street before we came in.” The lieutenant confirmed that by saying: “We have done it.”[60]
{62} Lieutenant Wilson in his evidence at the court martial said, “Captain Colthurst came back with five prisoners, including Messrs Dickson and MacIntyre. Two prisoners were allowed to go away, and two were taken into the guardroom.”[61] The patrol then returned to the barracks where Sheehy Skeffington, Dickson and MacIntyre were locked up for the night. The next morning Bowen-Colthurst ordered the three prisoners to be shot.
{63} The similarities between these events and those described by the “Australian officer” are striking. Yet there are differences. For instance, the letter describes the three men who were shot as “head men of the gang”, whereas the royal commission cleared the three journalists of any involvement in the rising. However, Bowen-Colthurst had written in his report of the incident that he knew them to be “dangerous characters”,[62] subsequently describing them as “leaders of the rebels”.[63] Presumably he did so to provide some justification for his actions. The “Australian officer” might therefore have been relying on the self-serving rationalisation that Bowen-Colthurst was himself retailing, or might have been repeating the talk that was current in Dublin at the time. For instance, on Friday 28 April 1916, Mary Louisa Norway (the wife of Arthur Hamilton Norway, the secretary of the General Post Office who was often at the Castle during Easter week) wrote in a letter: “On Wednesday three of the ringleaders were caught, and it is said they were shot immediately!”[64]
{64} Nevertheless, there are other discrepancies between the letter and some of the accounts of the events of that night. Most are within the normal bounds of variance that occurs when eye-witnesses describe an incident. But the most significant discrepancy between the account in the letter and the events surrounding the raid on Kelly’s shop falls outside that normal variance. The letter gives the time of the patrol as 10.30 am, while all other accounts place the raid as having occurred at night. Although the evidence as to precisely when the patrol left the barracks is not totally consistent, most accounts suggest that it would have been about 10.30 pm. Therefore, what on its face is a disqualifying discrepancy might simply be the result of an error in the writing or the transcription of the letter – a substitution of “am” for “pm”. Furthermore, after describing the raid and the shooting of the three men, the letter continues “Anyone out after dark was shot.”
{65} Similar considerations might explain another significant variance. Whereas the letter describes the party as consisting of a total of sixteen men (being the letter writer, the captain and fourteen others), the royal commission evidence indicates a larger party – probably forty. Again the figure of fourteen in the letter might be the result of an error in writing or transcription or, alternatively, the writer might have been referring to the number who actually attacked Kelly’s shop, as opposed to the whole group – one half of whom remained at the bridge under Lieutenant Wilson.
{66} Apart from these discrepancies, the coincidence between the events described in the letter and the evidence of what happened on the patrol to Kelly’s shop is so close that it would be remarkable if they described different incidents. True it is that there were many occasions when British soldiers shot and summarily executed civilians during Easter week, and after the rising the British did officially execute fourteen of the Dublin insurgents by firing squad. But, apart from the Bowen-Colthurst affair, there is no account in the literature of an incident involving three men being captured, imprisoned and shot in circumstances similar to those described in the letter. It is possible that it did happen and was covered up; but on the publicly available information concerning the activities of Crown forces during the rising that possibility is mere speculation.[65]
{67} It is also possible that the letter was a fabrication – a fictionalised account based on the events of the Bowen-Colthurst affair but given a local flavour by the inclusion of an Australian officer, perhaps to inflame Irish-Australian readers at a time when sectarianism was on the rise. But such an explanation beggars belief. Although the letter writer is unnamed, the letter itself was identified as having been sent to Richard Garland, presumably by someone known to him whose veracity he trusted sufficiently to make the letter publicly available. Garland, an Irish born Canadian, was a senior official of a significant public company,[66] and apart from a prejudicial view of his origins there is nothing to suggest he had a motive or the propensity to forge the letter, or to be a party to such a hoax on the Australian public. But even more telling is the fact that it was published on 1 July 1916, nearly two months before the royal commission convened. Even though this was after the court martial, the events at Kelly’s shop and the shooting of Coade did not form part of the evidence at Bowen-Colthurst’s trial. If the letter was a hoax, the hoaxer must have been well informed.
{68} Nevertheless, the identity of the “Australian officer” remains a mystery, and until that can be ascertained the letter’s authenticity cannot be categorically established. One piece of evidence that is troubling is a list containing the names and units of officers who reported at Portobello Barracks during Easter week. The list, which is in a War Office file covering the inquiry into the deaths of the three journalists, does not include any Australian officer.[67] However, the identification of the letter writer as an “Australian officer … on leave in Ireland” comes not from the text of the letter itself but the newspaper’s introductory comments. Should it be the case that he was not an officer, then there is yet another link between the events described in the letter and the evidence given to the royal commission. Lieutenant Leslie Wilson was a key witness at the royal commission. He was on the patrol the night of the raid, being placed in charge of the party that stayed at the bridge. In the notebook that Sir John Simon kept during the royal commission there appears the following note of Wilson’s evidence (which does not appear in the extracts published in the 1916 Rebellion Handbook):
Colthurst had with him a man who carried bombs. I don’t know what regiment. Party consisted mostly of R[oyal] Irish Rifles.
I heard Capt Colthurst ask if any man was efficient bomber. One man came forward.[68]
{69} The “Australian officer” in his letter had written: “They called for bombers and I was turned over to a captain, an enormous man about 6 feet 4 inches.” Once again the coincidence is remarkable, particularly given that Colthurst was about 6 feet 4 inches (193 cm) tall.[69] Both accounts of the recruitment of the bomber suggest a degree of subordination that implies that he was not an officer. This makes sense given that an officer, whose role is to lead and direct, is unlikely to have been appointed the raiding party’s bomber. And who would be better suited to that role than a soldier who had acquired his bombing skills in the trenches of Gallipoli? Furthermore, Wilson’s inability to recognise the bomber’s regiment is consistent with the man being from a force outside the British Army.
{70} Monk Gibbon, a lieutenant in the British Army’s Service Corps, was at Portobello Barracks during Easter Week. In his war memoirs, Inglorious soldier, he wrote of the Colthurst affair and “the tall bomber” whom he met the morning after the raid on Kelly’s shop. Gibbon formed a more favourable impression of the man than Russell or the correspondent to the Tribune, whose opinions were based solely on the letter. Expanding on a brief note he had made in his diary, which included “Pot shots at windows. Bomber knocking up his rifles”, Gibbon wrote in his memoirs:
It appears from this that whenever Colthurst, out on patrol, saw a figure at a lighted window he promptly fired; and that, but for the bomber’s action, a quite innocent person might have been killed. … He [the tall bomber] was lost in admiration of Skeffington’s behaviour. “He was just wonderful, sir. I never heard a man talk like that before. And he showed no fear, no fear at all.”
Everything the young NCO said made me wish to meet this man who had won such respect and admiration from one member of his escort.[70]
Attitudes to the Easter rising
{71} As remarked above, the diary of Private Chapman is lacking in detail about his activities in Dublin during Easter week. It also does not tell us what he thought about the rising or his part in its suppression. He was already an experienced soldier, having been on active service at Gallipoli. Yet street fighting against civilian insurgents would have been a completely different kind of war for him. As a soldier, he no doubt did his duty, but whether he felt any concerns about fighting the Irish insurgents is not disclosed. Chapman was not a Catholic; he was Presbyterian. Whether his religion contributed to his attitudes to the rising can only be a matter of speculation. Certainly, Private Davis, a Methodist, was not happy about what he was asked to do. He recorded in his diary: “We were in a very unenviable position, for we personally had no quarrel with the rioters.” But as a pragmatic Australian soldier he did his duty: “We are making the best of a bad job, but would prefer to be anywhere but in this unenviable city.”[71] Private McHugh was a Catholic of Irish descent, but it seems he, too, did his duty. Whether he shot the dispatch rider who passed by Trinity College is not known, but by all accounts he would have been on the roof of the College when the event occurred. What he felt about being called to arms by the British military authorities and ordered to fight his cousins has not been recorded, and on his return to Australia he does not seem to have spoken much about it, if at all. Members of his family, who still live in North Queensland, were unaware of “Uncle Mick’s” adventure until told about it in 2002.
{72} But being Irish, or a Catholic, did not necessarily translate into sympathy with the insurgents or their cause, let alone a propensity to disobey an order to fight against them. When the rising broke out, a majority of the 2,400 British Army soldiers in Dublin were Irishmen, mostly from regiments that recruited in the south of Ireland. It was these Irish troops that initially confronted and fought the insurgents. It was not until reinforcements from the 59th (North Midland) Division began arriving in the city on the Wednesday that the Crown forces assumed a predominantly English composition.[72] John Dillon, the Irish Party MP who was in Dublin during Easter week and witnessed events there, told the House of Commons:
I asked Sir John Maxwell himself, “Have you any cause of complaint of the Dublins [the Royal Dublin Fusiliers] who had to go down and fight their own people in the streets of Dublin? Did a single man turn back and betray the uniform he wears?” He told me, “Not a man.”[73]
{73} Irishmen in the British Army, including nationalists who before the war had been in the paramilitary Irish Volunteers, had already made a commitment to serve the Empire and reject the arguments of the separatist nationalists that they were traitors to Ireland and degenerates for having taken the king’s shilling. Attempts by the German Army to incite disaffection among the Irish regiments on the Western Front in the wake of the rising were met by derision and defiance. Keith Jeffery has written:
During May 1916 the 8th (Service) Battalion of the Royal Munster Fusiliers … found themselves faced by two German placards. One read “Irishmen! Heavy uproar in Ireland. English guns are firing at your wifes [sic] and children.” The other announced the fall of Kut to Turkish forces. According to the regimental history (not an entirely unbiased source) the men responded by singing “God Save the King” and captured the placards which were later presented to King George V.[74]

German sign taunting Irish troops over the rising.
{74} Some Irishmen, like the nationalist intellectuals Tom Kettle and Frank Ledwidge, were troubled by their choice, but nevertheless considered that by enlisting in the British Army they were serving Ireland and the cause of Home Rule. It was only after Pearse had surrendered and the British began to execute the leaders that the insurgents of Easter Week started to assume the mantle of Irish heroes. In the early days of the rising, they were largely seen as wreckers who had stabbed Ireland in the back.
{75} It is also the case that the rising was unpopular with those sections of Dublin’s inhabitants who were dependent on the separation allowance paid to them while their husbands were serving in the British Army in France, either as regulars or as recruits to the New Army. Many of them feared the rising would threaten their economic well-being. Others had lost loved ones during the Gallipoli campaign, which saw the slaughter of the Dublin Fusiliers at V Beach on 25 April 1915 and the destruction of the 10th (Irish) Division at Suvla Bay in August. To many of them, the rising was an insult to the memory of those who had died fighting for the Empire.[75]
{76} It is not surprising, therefore, that the immediate response of Australian Irish to the rising was generally negative, both in Australia and at the front. Even Archbishop Mannix initially described the rising as deplorable and its leaders as misguided,[76] a sentiment shared by Sergeant James Joseph Makin of the 21st Battalion, a Catholic, who wrote to his mother:
Is it not deplorable that trouble has broken out in Ireland? It is astounding, in as much as there are thousands of fine men in the Irish regiments here, who are moved by the highest sense of patriotism. Who can deny that these Irish regiments are not among the best of the British fighting units and are fighting to uphold British integrity and traditions? I have mixed with them for a month and I know their spirit. And yet they are having their honor and name filched away by a ruffian horde, blinded by long-past wrongs and kindled by German gold and influence. Let me hope that the trouble will be stamped out this time for good and all, as assuredly it will be, but at the expense of much needed lives at a critical moment. This is another instance illustrating the saneness of the “Keep your eye on Germany” policy.[77]
{77} The reference to German gold and German policy reflected a widespread belief at the time that the rising was instigated and financed by Germany to distract Britain from the war effort. An intelligence summary issued by General Headquarters Egyptian Expeditionary Force on 28 April 1916 included the following:
The capture of the notorious SIR ROGER CASEMENT and two German officers (on the very day when the disturbances broke out) whilst being landed off the Irish Coast from a disguised German Auxiliary cruiser has probably robbed the rebellion of all direction. … Inspired articles have already appeared in the Dutch and Italian papers which show clearly that this rebellion has been organized in Germany to co-incide with the approach of the spring when an Allied offensive was to be expected, and also relied [sic] to find in Ireland (excused from the Military Service Act) many men of military age who could be used to further the designs of the enemy.[78]
{78} Casement had, in fact, been arrested on the preceding Friday, after he had come ashore with two Irishmen, Bob Monteith and Dan Bailey. Ironically, his mission had been to persuade Pearse and Connolly to call off the rising because of the lack of German support. Nevertheless, the intelligence report is indicative of the belief that the Germans were behind the rising, a view that had currency well before Easter Week. An Australian officer from the 9th Light Horse had written home in November 1915 that while in Ireland on convalescent leave he had seen “a full battalion of ‘Sinn Feiners’ at Limerick dressed in German uniforms and armed with Mausers.”[79]
{79} Yet Australian soldiers drew a distinction between Sinn Feiners and the Irish soldiers with whom they had served at the front. In a letter to his father, Sergeant Makin wrote:
It is pleasing that the Irish rebellion is not as alarming as it was thought and is now dying out. It is most regrettable that it should have occurred at this time. It is the fanatical Sinn Feiners at the bottom of the trouble, & the Nationalist Party under John Redmond is absolutely against them. It is astounding when you see the Irish regiments here in France, fighting along with the rest of us: – Australians, N.Z.ers, & Canadians.[80]
{80} Makin’s references to the Irish regiments and the unity of purpose of the Empire soldiers touches on one of the key issues that divided constitutional nationalists from the separatists: the idea that one could serve severally the country of your birth and the Empire at one and the same time – a view shared by most Australians, though not all. Ironically, in Australia it was not nationalists but Empire loyalists who opposed the notion of dual loyalty, believing that the Empire was one and indivisible.[81]
{81} The attitude of many Australian soldiers to the rising was probably summed up by Private John Collingwood Angus of the 28th Battalion who, in a letter to his sister on 5 May 1916, wrote:
things seem to be pretty lively in Ireland just now, well I wish they would send some of our boys there we would make things hot enough for them rebels in a pretty short time.[82]
Conclusion
{81} How many Australian soldiers were in Dublin during Easter week 1916 is not known and may never be known – given that AIF records which might provide such information were destroyed in the late 1950s, when staff of the Australian War Memorial culled what they then considered to be superfluous material.[83] While records in England and Ireland provide information about the rising and in some cases about individuals, such as Private McHugh and the anonymous Australian soldier, they do not include a list of names or even a return of the numbers involved.
{82} Nevertheless, it is reasonable to assume that there were more than the handful whose stories are told here. Although by April 1916 the AIF had only just moved from Egypt to France and its administration was still in the process of transferring from Cairo to London, more than 13,000 Australians had by then been sent to the United Kingdom either sick or wounded, who upon discharge from hospital were entitled to convalescent leave.[84] It seems clear that there was not a unit in Dublin as claimed by Tim Pat Coogan – none of the primary or secondary sources supports such a proposition. But Ireland was a popular destination for Australian soldiers, both those officially on leave and others who had absented themselves, either temporarily or permanently from service. Private Davis wrote in his diary that Australian soldiers in England were often harassed by overzealous police who were paid a bounty for every deserter or absentee they caught:
Perhaps that is why most diggers make off to Ireland, and to the furthest places in North Scotland. According to Headquarters’ reports, the number of diggers who have not returned from their furlough is very high – quite a few thousand. Most deserters are reported dressed in mufti and favour Ireland, where they evidently get more sympathy and receive passes and railway warrants.[85]
{83} Certainly, the attractions of Ireland for deserters and absentees was recognised as a problem later in the war, sufficient to justify the Assistant Provost Martial, Lieutenant Colonel John Williams, making a special trip there in April 1918 to investigate the situation. In his report, Williams confirmed what Davis had learned while working at AIF Headquarters two years before. He referred to Ireland as “a perfect haven for absentees and deserters” and described how “‘Sinn Feiners’ and other people … not only harbour absentees and deserters, but provide them with civilian clothes, food, and accommodation, free of charge, in order to hide their identity, and very frequently find them some reasonably lucrative employment.”[86] Williams returned to Ireland two months later with a detachment of military police and made “several arrests”.[87]
{84} So far, only a few of the Australian soldiers who would have been in Dublin during Easter week have been identified. But undoubtedly there were others, like the unnamed Australian treated at Dublin Castle hospital by a VAD who wrote of her experiences in Blackwood’s Magazine.[88] There were also Australian VADs there, who, though not soldiers, had volunteered to assist the Red Cross in treating the sick and wounded during the war. Presumably the deserters and absentees would have avoided joining the Crown forces in suppressing the rising. But for those Australians who did lend a hand, it would have not have been an easy time. They had enlisted and travelled half way round the world to fight Germans, not Irishmen. It was also dangerous work, as attested by Chapman and Davis. But as with so many of the deeds of the diggers during the Great War, one is left wondering what motivated them to do what they did. Veterans of the Dardanelles campaign, who had survived the hell-hole of Gallipoli since the landing, had well and truly lost their thirst for adventure. By September 1915, when Davis, Grant, Chapman and McHugh were on their way to England, morale was low, illness was rife and the glory of war had proved illusory. Men who a few months before had been enthralled by the idea of the great adventure had become envious of the sick and wounded who were being evacuated.[89]
{85} Nevertheless, there was ingrained in these men a strong sense of duty that kept them going, long after their martial enthusiasm had waned. In his graphic portrayal of life on the Western Front, Eye-deep in Hell, John Ellis wrote:
In the war as a whole, on all sides, most men simply did what they conceived to be their duty. When they were told to hold, they held; when told to advance, they went forward even to almost certain death. The reasons for this lay in their sense of patriotism, duty, honour and deference to authority; all much more important concepts than they are today.[90]
{86} More than eighty-five years on, we know a lot more about the rising, its causes and consequences than those in the thick of the action in 1916. But that should not colour our judgment of the deeds of the diggers in Dublin. At the time they would have shared Sergeant Makin’s opinion of the insurgents. And although they might not have liked doing what they were ordered to do, they would have seen it as their duty as loyal soldiers of the Empire to answer the call to arms and “to resist His Majesty’s enemies and cause His Majesty’s peace to be kept and maintained”.[91]
The author
Dr Jeff Kildea is a barrister with a PhD in History from UNSW. He is currently writing a book on Australian soldiers in Ireland during the First World War. His research on the involvement of members of the AIF in the Easter Rising was carried out with assistance from the Army History Research Grants Scheme