|Birth Date||17 February 1868|
|Birth Place||Australia: New South Wales, Peel|
|Death Date||27 February 1902|
|Death Place||South Africa|
|Unit||1st New South Wales Mounted Rifles|
|Conflict/Operation||South Africa, 1899-1902 (Boer War)|
Biographical information The Oxford companion to Australian military history in 1995
Lieutenant Peter Joseph Handcock
Peter Joseph Handcock was born on 17 February 1868 at Winburndale, near Peel in New South Wales, to William and Bridget (née Martin). It was here on the family property that he received an introduction to the rural pursuits he later became known for, thanks to his father’s involvement in horse breeding and work as a carrier and farmer. His father died shortly before his sixth birthday, and at the age of 12, was apprenticed to Bathurst blacksmith George Smith, a former business associate of his father’s. Handcock’s teenage years remain vague, but it appears he moved to Dubbo at some point: his mother died in that district in January 1881, and he was described as a labourer from Dubbo at the time of his marriage to Bridget Martin at St. Michael and St. John’s Cathedral in Bathurst on 15 July 1888.
With his wife and three children based at Bathurst, Handcock was working as a blacksmith with the Railway Department at Manildra when the second New South Wales contingent was being formed during December 1899. His wife later reported that he “expressed a wish to some friends to serve as a soldier of the Empire [but] bade them not to mention the matter to his people until he enlisted.” Handcock enlisted at Sydney and was attached to the 1st New South Wales Mounted Rifles. On 17 January 1900 he marched out of Victoria Barracks with the rest of the contingent for a parade through the city to Woolloomooloo Bay, embarking on the Southern Cross and arriving at Cape Town a month later.
During his year-long service with 1st New South Wales Mounted Rifles, Handcock was promoted to the rank of farrier sergeant and saw action at Driefontein in March and at Diamond Hill in June. With his regiment preparing to return to Australia, he remained behind and obtained a commission as veterinary lieutenant with the newly-formed Bushveldt Carbineers on 21 February 1901. Partial to soldiering, experienced in bushcraft and skilled with horses, he was well-suited to this irregular mounted infantry unit raised for guerrilla warfare in response to hit and run tactics employed by the Boers. The Bushveldt Carbineers mustered at Pretoria in March, moved north and headquartered at Pietersburg after the town fell to British forces in mid-April.
In June 1901 Handcock accompanied a detachment of the Bushveldt Carbineers to the Spelonken district. Based at Fort Edward, the detachment was involved in bitter fighting and numerous cases of misconduct. With the exception of Handcock, the detachment and its commanding officer were withdrawn and replaced with a fresh detachment under the command of Captain Hunt in mid-July. After Hunt was killed in action in early August, command of the detachment fell to his close friend Harry ‘The Breaker’ Morant, who ordered all Boer prisoners to be shot thereafter. The subsequent activities of the detachment compelled 15 men of the Bushveldt Carbineers recently returned from the Spelonken district to formally request an inquiry into several incidents relating to the killing of Boer prisoners, implicating Handcock, Morant and a number of other men. Allegations were also levelled against Handcock for the murder of missionary Carl August Daniel Heese in August, which attracted considerable attention from authorities. As a result, General Horatio Kitchener ordered an investigation, and when Handcock and Morant returned to Pietersburg towards the end of October, the pair were arrested along with five other men and placed in solitary confinement.
In November 1901 Handcock and his fellow internees were informed of the charges against them, and in December were notified that they were to be tried by court martial. The court proceedings commenced on 16 January 1902, during which Handcock and Morant admitted to the shooting of Boer prisoners, the latter taking full responsibility for the matter, but maintained they were instructed to take no prisoners based on verbal orders that originated from General Kitchener and were communicated to other officers. The court martial concluded on 19 February, and found Handcock, Morant and George Witton guilty of the manslaughter and murder of 12 Boer prisoners, with Handcock and Morant acquitted of charges relating to the murder of Heese. All three were sentenced to death with a recommendation of mercy, but only Witton had his sentence commuted to one of life imprisonment.
After the court martial Handcock, Morant and Witton were taken to Pretoria Gaol. On 26 February the governor of the gaol informed Handcock and Morant that they would be executed by a firing squad at dawn the next day. In the hours before his death, Handcock wrote a final letter to his sister Jane Martha Dempsey, in which he maintained his innocence but proffered forgiveness from family and country if judged to have been overzealous in obeying orders. Amid the strain of his predicament his last thoughts were devoted to the welfare of his wife and three children. Shortly before dawn on 27 February, Handcock and Morant were escorted from the gaol and executed by a firing squad of Cameron Highlanders. Australian members of the Bushveldt Carbineers claimed their bodies and arranged for their burial in a single grave at the Old Pretoria Cemetery, erecting a headstone that now includes the epitaph “A man’s foes shall be those of his own household”.