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