In 1890, Rudyard Kipling first published his poem ‘Danny Deever’ in which he described the execution of a British soldier in India for the murder of a comrade. In the poem, the murder’s battalion is obliged to watch while the man is hanged, and then to march past the corpse. Although a fictional account apparently based on a real execution, the poem clearly reflected the military practice of the time.
The churchyard of Agios Konstantinos and Eleni in Iraklion, contains the memorials to the majority of the British servicemen who died on Crete during the European Intervention. Inscribed on both the memorial wall and the battalion obelisk of 2/Rifle Brigade is the name of Acting Serjeant F. G. Austin, Number 1774, who died on 16th March 1899, aged 25.
What makes Austin different from the other 150 or so servicemen commemorated in the churchyard is that he didn’t die of disease, enemy action or accident; he was murdered by a comrade.
On 26th March 1899, Major General Chermside, Commanding British troops on Crete, reported that on the 24th March, a private in 2/Rifle Brigade, was hung ‘for the murder on the 16th, of a Sergeant in the same battalion.’ Unsurprisingly, no member of the battalion is recorded on the battalion memorial as dying on 24th March and accordingly the name of the murderer remains unknown. The execution of the murderer was carried out in front not only his battalion, 2/Rifle Brigade, but also of the garrison in Candia. A member of 2/Northumberland Fusiliers present recorded the following:
“We had a very unpleasant job that was hanging of a private for the murder of a Sergeant by shotting him for which he was hung in front of the garrison his coffin being in front of him from the cell to the ground where the seafold was erected and the band was playing the dead march. This execution took place on the March 99 at 8am. It was very distressing after he was hung the men marched by his corpse in fours getting the command ‘Eyes is Right’ on which all turned their eyes towards him when in line with him. His body was then cut down and put in a coffin anyhow and put onto a dirtcart from burial; with the grave diggers who were soldiers smoking etc in rear of his body he was buried as a dog.”
[Excerpt from “The Soudan Campaign.” L/Cpl W. Chippett. E Company, 1/Northumberland Fusiliers. Northumberland Fusiliers Museum Archive 2012:15/2. Spelling and punctuation as original.]
It’s not known if Lance Corporal Chippett was familiar with Kipling’s poem, but it’s clear that, on this occasion at least, Kipling knew what he was talking about.