Tag Archives: British Army

Life imitates art….

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.

Iraklion memorial wall RB ASC AOC

Memorial Plaque. Agios Konstantinos and Eleni, Iraklion.


Rifle Brigade memorial Crete

Rifle Brigade memorial obelisk. Agios Konstantinos and Eleni, Iraklion.


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.


Canea 1897. Two views of the bastion.

Canea Bastion 1897

Canea Bastion 1897 Photograph showing the flags of the occupying Powers.

Canea bastion. Illustrated London News. 20 March 1897

The Turkish Bastion in Canea with the flags of the  six Powers flying. Illustrated London News. 20 March 1897

Shows that, if nothing else, the photographer and the illustrator had the same idea about what made a good viewpoint.

Those who remain in Crete.

Around 175 British military personnel died on Crete between 1897 and 1913; the actual figure is difficult to determine because of the lack of a central army record and lack of detail in the naval records. The bulk of those who died on the island are commemorated at two sites: 24 in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission site at Suda Bay and the remainder in British memorial graveyard located in the cemetery of Agios Konstantinos and Eleni, 42 Odos Knossou, Iraklion. One further member of the 1/Seaforth Highlanders is listed on the Seaforths’ memorial in Edinburgh as having died in Crete, but his name does not appear on either of the island’s memorial sites.

British military cemetery, Iraklion. Date unknown.

British military cemetery, Iraklion. Date unknown, early 1900s.

British Cemetery Iraklion 2015

Gate of British Cemetery Iraklion. 2015.

British Cemetery Iraklion. 2015. The memorial wall at the rear lists names of those originally interred here.

British Cemetery Iraklion. 2015. The memorial wall at the rear lists names of those originally interred here.

Of those for whom the cause of death can be identified, only 14 died as the result of ‘enemy action’, all these deaths occurring during the riots of 6th September 1898. (One member of the 2/Rifle Brigade, Rifleman J. Smith, is listed on the Rifle Brigade memorial obelisk in Iraklion as being ‘Killed in Action’ on 2nd September 1898. However, the battalion didn’t arrive in Crete until 22nd September that month so it’s possible that either he died in Crete of wounds received in the Sudan Campaign or it’s an error in the listing.)

Of those who died of other causes, an examination of the records from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission relating to Suda Bay, the Parliamentary returns from the Army Medical Department and the memorials in Iraklion shows the following causes of death for British military personnel: Five died of drowning, four in one incident, one murdered by a colleague, one suffered a judicial execution, three suicides, one ‘dislocation of the spine after a fall in a ditch’, one died of appendicitis, one of ‘internal strangulation after an operation’, and three died of alcohol poisoning. The overwhelming majority of the remainder died of disease.
The main killer was Enteric Fever – Typhoid. This accounted for 53 deaths overall, 38 of them in 1898 with the influx of troops following the September riot; many of these troops coming straight from the Sudan Campaign. (The 2/Rifle Brigade and 1/Northumberland Fusiliers are recorded as suffering in particular as a result of this campaign.) Dysentery and Malaria were the next highest killers inflicting 11 and eight fatalities respectively. However, the figure for fatal cases of Malaria belies the reality that this disease was the greatest medical drain on the British Armies resources in Crete; nearly 5,000 hospital admissions for Malaria alone being recorded between 1897 and 1909.

Having nothing better to do….

Keeping British troops occupied and out of mischief was clearly a major task of the British authorities. The perils of drink were ever present on Crete and although the men were limited to one pint of beer a day, unsurprisingly,  ways were always being sought to circumvent this limit. In 1899, the Northumberland Fusiliers regimental magazine, the St. George’s Gazette, reported that in one of their outlying camps,  ‘the richest tradesman in the village…[who] used to bring bread into the camp to sell, … took to bringing in the accursed native liquor, whereby several soldiers were grievously stricken.’ The entrepreneur in question was given 7 days hard labour for his sins.* Recourse to illicit alcohol also resulted in at least three fatalities. In 1897, the year that saw one soldier hospitalised three times for morphine poisoning, ‘…a man broke out of barracks after dark, and brought back a large quantity of native liquor which he drank almost at once. He was discovered insensible at “reveille” the following morning, and died immediately after being taken to hospital.’ In 1899 a further two deaths by alcohol poisoning were also recorded.**

One answer was to keep the men busy with sporting activities. While the officers could indulge in cross country paper chases on horseback and sailors indulge in gymkanas and other such activities, the infantry were left to make do  other less expensive sports. The St. Georges Gazette, details an extensive range of sports laid on for men serving in Crete in 1898/1899, including Battalion Aquatic Sports which featured a swimming race open to the Garrison and Navy, Water Polo and an aquatic Tug-of War. There was also, inevitably, football – a competition for the ‘Chermside Cup’ being won by the Royal Welsh Fusiliers – tug of war, putting the shot and hockey. Regimental sports days were held in the ditch below the ramparts at Candia, events including a ‘stone and bottle race.’ Additionally, on one occasion the Sergeants of the Northumberland Fusiliers challenged their Regimental Warrant Officers and the Petty Officers from H.M.S. Fearless to a ‘double match’; a competition involving football and whist.

Sports day in Candia.

Sports day in Candia.

I can find no record of the Cretan reaction to the British indulging in ‘stone and bottle’ races.


*Northumberland Fusiliers Regimental Archive. St. George’s Gazette, 31 January 1899, page 6.        **  House of Commons Command Paper 1898 [C.8936] Army Medical Report for the year 1897. Volume XXXIX, p.80, and Command Paper 1899 [Cd.521] Army Medical Report for the year 1899. Volume XLI, p.75.

Seaforths Go Forth

Seaforth Highlanders en-route to repair water supply Candia. 1897

Seaforth Highlanders en-route to repair water supply Candia. 1897

Having landed in Candia (Iraklion) to prevent the threatened attack on the town by Cretan Christians, the British army was faced with the problem that the water supply to the town was in the hands of the insurgents. On several occasions Cretan Christians damaged the aquaduct and attempted to disrupt the water supply necessitating British, or in this case Scottish, troops to venture out of the town and repair the pipes. The date on which the photograph was taken is unclear: Since the Seaforths left the island in November 1897, it must have being taken between March and November that year, and at least one such incident was reported by Colonel Chremside, Commander of British troops on the island, as occuring on 15th April 1897. [C.8429. Turkey No.9. Reports on the situation in Crete. Inclosure No.2 in No. 9.] A similar situation had arisen in Canea, see here.

The prominant display of the National Flag of any European troops operating outside the towns was laid down in the standing orders of the day promulgated by the Council of (European) Admirals who effectively had control of the island. It was deemed necessary in order to clearly identify the troops as European rather than Ottoman, although that didn’t stop the Cretan Christians firing on them on more than one occasion.  In this case though, given that the soldiers are wearing kilts, it seems to have been an unecessary precaution.

This photograph is one of the few taken by a British soldier, rather than by a commercial photographer, and is used here by kind permission of Alex Graeme, whose Grandfather took it.

Another parade.

Parade in Candia

Parade in Candia

Could be 1/Inniskilling Fusiliers, 3/King’s Royal Rifle Corps or 2/Royal Sussex. All were in Crete at some time in 1907 or 1908.

British get their medals back to front?

Distribution of medals in Candia (Iraklion)

Distribution of medals in Candia (Iraklion)

No date on the photograph but given the presence of the flag of the Cretan Autonomous State, it’s definitely after December 1898 and the presence of the Greek flag suggests it’s post 1908.

Nice view of the parade; pity that the photograph appears to have been printed back to front.