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2 stories...Thou Shalt Not Kill and Heroes or Hoodlums?


Thou Shalt Not Kill

Dr. Peter A. Pedersen

The Australian had a reputation as the most undisciplined soldier in the British Expeditionary Force. One hundred and twenty-one Australians were sentenced to death, the majority for desertion, during the war.

None were executed because Australian military law all but forbade capital punishment. Moreover, domestic antipathy to the death penalty in the AIF was etched in stone and governments attempting to introduce conscription could not afford to challenge it. Those attempts failed anyway. The Australian soldier remained a volunteer free from the threat of extreme sanction. His country would have it no other way.

When the Australian colonies federated on 1 January 1901, they ceded responsibility for defence to the new Commonwealth Government. In 1903, it brought the various colonial military forces under a single binding piece of legislation, the Australian Defence Act, which enshrined the principle of a defence force comprised of volunteers who could not be compelled to serve outside Australia or its territories. Section 98 of the Act governed the use of capital punishment. It relied heavily on the relevant provisions in the colonial defence legislation of New South Wales, Queensland and Tasmania, which reflected concerns that local forces should remain under local control.

The execution by British authorities of two Australian officers, Morant and Handcock, for the killing of Boer prisoners in South Africa was a lesser influence because the case aroused little public controversy in Australia at the time.

Under Section 98, only mutiny, desertion to the enemy and certain forms of treachery were punishable by death and the sentence had to be confirmed by the Australian Governor-General rather than a commander in the field. The small number of capital offences prescribed under Section 98 is striking compared to the range of offences punishable by death in the British Army.

And unlike the Canadian, South African and New Zealand governments, which agreed to their soldiers being tried and punished under the British Army Act, the Australian government insisted on the primacy of Section 98 when its troops served under British command.

Like voluntarism, a more lenient disciplinary code seemed appropriate for a culture considered, not without reason, as independent, resourceful and freer from class distinction than most. Its soldiers had never in their lives known any restraint that was not self-imposed. But even by this standard, discipline in the Australian Imperial Force had all but collapsed within a month of its arrival in Egypt in November 1914.

Under pressure from his British superiors, Maj-Gen. Bridges, the commander of the 1st Australian Division, ordered the return of 131 persistent offenders to Australia for discharge, together with 24 venereal cases. An official despatch explaining to the Australian public why the men were being sent home fulfilled the exemplary function of the punishment. In the absence of the death penalty, it remained the most dreaded instrument of discipline among Australian soldiers.

Unlike Egypt, Anzac was conducive to the maintenance of discipline. As the bridgehead was barely one mile square, it did not have a ‘rear’ where alcohol and women were available to tempt potential deserters.

Nevertheless, on 9 July an Australian court-martial sentenced a soldier to death for falling asleep on sentry to demonstrate the gravity of the offence and ensure a heavy prison sentence was awarded in lieu of a punishment that was bound to be commuted. Two more death sentences were passed on Australians at Gallipoli.

On the Western Front, the AIF lacked the independence granted by the isolation of its enclave at Anzac. It fought directly alongside British and other Dominion troops who were liable to the death penalty. The difficulty of having soldiers in the same army subject to different laws arose almost immediately after the AIF arrived in France in March 1916.

When an Australian soldier was sentenced to death in April and another in May, the commander of 1 ANZAC, Lt-Gen. Birdwood, recommended that the Australian Government should be asked to waive Section 98, thereby putting its troops on the same footing as the rest of the British Army. Haig forwarded the request to the War Office with his endorsement. On 9 July, London asked the Commonwealth to place Australian overseas troops under the British Army Act forthwith. As it was considering the introduction of conscription to remedy declining voluntary enlistment, the government delayed its answer.

Over the next two months the four Australian divisions in France suffered 28,000 casualties, precipitating the government’s decision on conscription. It called for a referendum at the end of October. Though the campaign split the nation, all Australians opposed the infliction of the death penalty on men who had volunteered to fight in a distant land in a cause not particularly their own. Even a hint that the revocation of Section 98 might be considered would have left conscription with no chance. Its defeat in the referendum all but precluded any measure that would discourage voluntary recruiting, making change even more remote.

The British request concerning Section 98 remained in abeyance.

But it would not go away. The effects of the 1916 battles went beyond the huge losses, which were eventually made good. They were forever seared in the minds of the survivors. For men whose nerve had gone, the concept of duty as a noble and over-riding ideal faded, weakening as a deterrent the supreme punishment instituted by Bridges for indiscipline, return to Australia in disgrace.

Whereas eleven Australians deserted in the three months before the battles, courts-martial convicted 288 men for it by the end of 1916. Sixteen Australians received death sentences between July and November. With the onset of the harshest winter in forty years, they were joined by fourteen more in December, the highest monthly total of the war.

These figures were a reminder that the jurisdictional question regarding capital punishment for Australian soldiers was still unanswered. On 11 December Birdwood revisited it, venturing to Gen. Rawlinson, of whose Fourth Army I ANZAC was part, that the Australians’ discipline would likely suffer when they realised that a regulation binding other soldiers in the British Army did not apply to them. Rawlinson needed no convincing.

Three Australian deserters had been sentenced to death in the Fourth Army so far that month and 130 of its 182 absence cases were Australian. He told Haig that he would not be responsible for the discipline of the Australians unless the law was immediately altered. Haig strongly supported him. On 3 February, the War Council stressed that the change was essential.

The Australian Government finally responded, seven months after the matter was first raised. The British concerns did not diminish the existing arguments against acquiescence. Provoking public antipathy to the death penalty would adversely affect voluntary recruiting and reignite the passions generated by the conscription campaign at a time when it had held office less than a month. The answer was no.

When the matter resurfaced after the twin battles of Bullecourt in April-May 1917, some Australian commanders joined the British chorus. In the disastrous first battle, the 4th Division suffered the heaviest proportionate losses of an Australian formation in a single action. When it was warned for the attack on the Messines-Wytschaete Ridge in June, after only one month’s rest, desertions from it became acute. Its commanders urged upon Birdwood the amendment of Section 98 so that it could be applied to a few cases.

The commander of the 3rd Division, Maj-Gen Monash, similarly approached Birdwood shortly afterward. Monash had no doubt that the increase in serious crime, especially ‘desertion and the avoidance of battle duties’, was due to the absence of any real deterrent. But the carrying into effect of even one death sentence would cause potential deserters to hesitate, thereby stiffening discipline. Consequently, the Australian government should be urged strongly to withdraw its prohibition on the death penalty. If it rejected this demand, an unequivocal statement that convicted deserters whose sentences were commuted to penal servitude would serve the full term of their punishment, irrespective of any armistice, should be sought.

Birdwood answered Monash as he had the others. Everything that could be done had already been done, not just by himself but by Haig, the Army Council and the Secretary of State for the Colonies, who between them had urged the Australian government ‘much more strongly than he’. But it had told all of them in ‘definite terms’ that the matter would not be reopened. Meanwhile Lt-Gen Godley, the commander of II ANZAC recommended asking the government outright to allow the second of Monash’s options. Penal sentences imposed by courts-martial should be served in full even if the war ended in the meantime.

That compromise did not satisfy Haig. Worried about the deterioration of discipline in the AIF and the effect of the Australian example on the BEF, he visited I ANZAC on 29 July to ask what could be done. Maj-Gen White, its Australian Chief of Staff, re-iterated that the Australian Government would never agree to the shooting of deserters. Unwilling or unable to accept what White had spelt out so clearly, Haig continued to press for the full and urgent application of the British Army Act to Australian troops.

Perhaps realising that full application would make them liable to the death penalty for a range of offences, he promised the most sparing use - in cases ‘where desertion was most deliberate and an example badly needed’.

Birdwood knew that the Australian response would be the same as before but he had to support his chief. He suggested to Senator Pearce, the Australian Defence Minister, that the death penalty should be imposed solely for desertion, and then only if conscription were introduced. Even this dilution was too much. On 20 September Pearce replied that the impact on flagging enlistment would be ‘disastrous’, so much so that the request could not have come at a more inopportune time.

The Australian Government’s decision to leave Section 98 in place came as the Australians joined Haig’s Third Ypres offensive. The effect on discipline was the same as in previous campaigns. Ten Australians were sentenced to death in August, the month before it began. 53 men left the 2nd Division as it went into the line. Courts-martial for absence and desertion peaked in October and sixteen death sentences were passed in September and October, the two months of Australian involvement. On 5 November, in a step reminiscent of Bridges’ measure three years earlier and based on the same exemplary principle, Birdwood asked Pearce to approve the publication in all Australian newspapers and in AIF orders of deserters’ names, towns of enlistment and sentences.

Two days later a second conscription referendum was announced for December. Recruiting in the second half of 1917 had fallen far short of the numbers needed to replace the 38,000 casualties of Third Ypres and cover future wastage. The anti-conscriptionists were not swayed. In a campaign that was more bitter than the first, they increased their majority. The voluntary system remained intact but from now on it was unable remotely to meet the AIF’s needs. Desertions and imprisonments depleted its ranks further, leaving Pearce little choice but to agree to Birdwood’s proposal. It came into effect in January 1918. The government also flirted with the addition of murder to the crimes covered by Section 98 but it withdrew the amendment at the Armistice.

At the same time, AIF attitudes to shell shock softened. In December 1917, Birdwood formally acknowledged that some breakdowns were very different to cases of deliberate desertion to avoid action. He directed that ‘the medical aspect of the case should be carefully gone into before the man is charged with desertion’.

The following May Monash, Birdwood’s successor as commander of the Australian Corps, ordered the withdrawal from the line of long-service men suffering from ‘nerves’. Many were sent to support units. In July, the commander of the 5th Division, Maj-Gen. Hobbs, interviewed seven men convicted of desertion. Finding some of them to be nervous wrecks, ‘more to be pitied than blamed’, he suspended the sentences and instructed commanding officers not merely to read the court records of men found guilty but to see the men themselves.

Though long in coming, this enlightened attitude towards a major cause of desertion helps explain why only two Australians received death sentences in 1918.

Ironically, a number of Australian soldiers could legitimately have been executed that year. By September, their corps had lost almost 50,000 men in six months’ continuous fighting. As recruiting in Australia was down to a trickle, these casualties could not be replaced, reducing some battalions to fewer than 100 men. Eight were disbanded to feed the rest.

The order was a shattering blow for the men concerned and they refused to obey it. In what was considered a ‘strike’ rather than a mutiny at the time, they elected their own leaders, maintained ‘especially strict discipline’ and asked to go into the next battle, the assault on the Hindenburg Line, in their old units. The other battalions sympathised with them, creating a dilemma for Monash. He decreed that the battalions could remain but they would not receive reinforcements. After the battle, the Australian Corps’ last, the battalions disbanded voluntarily.

Another incident could not be disguised as ‘industrial action’. On 21 September, 119 men of the 1st Battalion stood fast when they were ordered back into the line shortly after their relief, protesting that they were being called upon to make good British failures as well as having to fight on their own front. ‘Fatigue mutiny’ or not, these men had committed an offence unequivocally punishable by death under Section 98 for the first time in the war. Aware of the outcry at home that its enforcement would provoke, Monash again took the broader view. All but one of the 119 were convicted of desertion rather than mutiny and sentenced to up to ten years imprisonment on Dartmoor.

The Australian commanders were essentially orthodox disciplinarians. To them desertion was more than a slander against military virtue for the AIF could ill afford to lose men to non-battle causes when it relied on an increasingly fragile voluntary system to replenish its ranks. So they regarded as necessary the death penalty to deter it.

Some of them even dismissed the sensitive and considered way Monash and Hobbs dealt with desertion due to nervous exhaustion in 1918 as ‘merely likely to store up future trouble’. The collective Australian opinion that the hardened deserter saw a long prison sentence as merely a safer alternative to the trenches was advanced by Field-Marshals Allenby and Plumer when they publicly opposed the abolition of the death penalty in the British Army after the war.

For his part, the Australian soldier was not sympathetic to deserters. The men of the 1st Battalion who attacked on 21 September never forgave their comrades who did not.

But condemning them to death was something else again.

The reading out to Australians on parade of reports on executions evoked only a sullen sympathy and a fierce pride that their own people had refused this instrument to its rulers.

The strength of popular feeling ranged against capital punishment in the AIF made Section 98 impregnable. So there were no Australian ‘examples’. The AIF remained a volunteer army that possessed alone among the armies ‘the privilege of facing death without a death penalty’.

Dr. Peter A. Pedersen

A graduate of the Royal Military College Duntroon and the Australian Command and Staff College, Dr Peter Pedersen commanded 5th/7th Battalion, the Royal Australian Regiment after a secondment to the Australian Prime Minister's Office as a political/strategic analyst. His many publications include books on General Sir John Monash and the Gallipoli Campaign. Dr Pedersen guided the then Prime Ministers Hawke and Thatcher around the Gallipoli Peninsula during the 75th Anniversary Commemoration in 1990 and has led battlefield tours throughout the world.

Heroes or Hoodlums?
By Jonathan King
April 21, 2001

Eighty-six years ago, 15,000 larrikins poured on to a Turkish beach and created a legend. Amid the brutality, they were `like kings in old poems', writes Jonathan King

DESPITE the passing of time since the Anzacs landed at Gallipoli, the legend of their achievement has grown rather than diminished. This week, 86 years after the 15,000 youngsters in uniform scrambled ashore in the dark with their bayonets fixed and eyes straining for the Turkish trenches ahead, another 15,000 will arrive on that same beach for the Dawn Service, where they will bow their heads in prayer, remembering the Anzac heroes.

Mind you, there has been no short age over the years of those who would challenge this hero status, from deserters on the day to dissident academics. But no matter how much criticism is thrown at the diggers, their hard-won reputation comes through unscathed.

It has been claimed that the British considered the Anzacs hopelessly undisciplined and little short of hoodlums. In the British Army, they would have been severely disciplined. But wartime leader General John Monash said it was this very irreverence that made them such good soldiers. The larrikin streak fired their bellies for the mad charges against the enemy.

Nobody would deny some soldiers who had volunteered on the spur of the moment would have had second thoughts and gone to water when the first shells began blowing their mates to pieces all around them. Many of the diaries confirm how terrified they were. They lived, ate, slept and dreamed among unburied bodies in their trenches for months.

But there were cracks in the Anzac facade. Having interviewed the last 10 Gallipoli Anzacs myself, I can confirm they were just ordinary men with all the frailties of the man on the street. None of them wanted to be glorified, claiming they were just "doing their duty for King and country''.

But the facts remain – 15,000 volunteer soldiers did go ahead and land on that narrow beach on April 25, 1915, despite heavy enemy fire. Even when they realised the British had landed them at a cliff face instead of an open field, they kept going. Although non-professional soldiers with limited training, they still managed to force the Turks out of the first few trenches and fight their way up the lowest parts of the cliff before digging in and holding their positions against counterattack.

Their diaries are full of passionate yearning to "get into the thick of the fighting''. Some saw it as a sporting contest, comparing it with a football game. You see, they were all volunteers.

"Never forget that,'' said the late Ted Matthews, at 101 Australia's last original Gallipoli Anzac. 'Tell them over and over we were all volunteers and the only volunteer army in the First World War.''

The legend generated by these volunteers is made up in many parts, and different scholars have come to respect different features. But, as the diaries and letters of the volunteers show, over the nine months of their occupation of the peninsula they demonstrated unexpected qualities. Most of all, these young men from all walks of life demonstrated superior fighting skills, not only according to reports from generals such as John Monash, but also the British leaders such as generals Ian Hamilton and William Birdwood, and Turkish leader Kemal Attaturk. Monash had said: "There is no possibility of the Turks shifting us as we have ample guns and munitions, and have achieved a remarkable ascendancy over them in musketry, sharp shooting, bomb attack, bayonet work and gunnery.''

A Melbourne farm labourer, Albert Jacka, jumped into a trench and shot five Turks and bayoneted two others a month after he landed. He was the first of 63 "ordinary'' Australians to win VCs – 11 per cent of all VCs issued during the war. By the end of the war, these seasoned fighters helped turn the tide, ending the war six months ahead of Britain's schedule. Although the five divisions of Australians under Monash constituted only 9.5 per cent of 53 Allied divisions, they occupied 21.5 per cent of German-held territory, captured 23 per cent of German prisoners and 23.5 per cent of German arms.

The blitzkrieg strategy of Monash and his veteran volunteers that won the July 4, 1918 battle of Le Hamel in 93 minutes revolutionised modern warfare. King George V drove straight down to the battlefield and knighted Monash – the last warrior to be knighted in battle. French prime minister Georges Clemenceau followed, making a speech to the battle-weary soldiers, crediting them with a key role in liberating France.

The qualities displayed by the Anzacs included courage, cheerfulness, sense of humour, resourcefulness and an attitude of uncomplaining persistence. As Monash said at Gallipoli: "The thing above all others which stands out uppermost in the terrible fighting which has been incessant since our landing on April 25 is the magnificence of the Australian troops. I have had plenty of opportunity of comparing them with the troops of the regular British Army and Territorials and the British officers are the first to admit that for physique, dash, enterprise and sublime courage, the Australians are head and shoulders above all the others.''

As this was the first time the young nation had appeared on the world stage, this performance introduced the Australian character. Some liked what they saw. British poet John Masefield wrote: "The Anzacs were the finest body of young men ever brought together in modern times. For physical beauty and nobility of bearing, they surpassed any man I have ever seen; they walked and looked like kings in old poems and reminded me of the Shakespearean line: `Baited like eagles having lately bathed'.''

So the evidence supports the heroes tag rather than hoodlums. Of course, there were exceptions to the rule. There were plenty of "shirkers'' or "yellow bellies'' among the 331,000 who volunteered, but the overall facts and opinions of leaders on the spot confirm this sample of Australians was the stuff of legend. That is not to say they were representative of the nation because they were, after all, only the ones who volunteered. And as Ted Matthews stressed, it is in that light the deeds of the Anzacs must be assessed

AIF DESERTER. AIF soldier Walter Lesley Schwarz enlisted with the AIF in 1915, but felt he was being discriminated against because of his name. He deserted in England and joined the Royal Fusiliers. He became a Lieutenant winning an MC and Bar and was mentioned in despatches three times. In 1921 King George V granted him a pardon on the desertion charge.

ohn Simpson Kirkpatrick (1892-1915)
KNOWN by diggers on the beach at Gallipoli as "the man with his donkey'', Simpson, as he was best known, saved hundreds of wounded men by bringing them down from the front line to the hospital tent on his donkey, Murphy.
Simpson had been a merchant seaman and rural labourer before enlisting, and had landed at Gallipoli on dawn of the first day. Appalled by the lack of services for the wounded, he grabbed a donkey from a nearby farm and started carrying soldiers who could not walk from the top of Monash Valley down Shrapnel Gully to the dressing stations on the beach.
Allowed to operate independently, Simpson worked day and night with total disregard for shells, bullets or shrapnel. He camped at night in the Indian mule-camp, where the Indians called him "Bahadur'', bravest of the brave.
Inevitably, ``Simpson'' was killed, shot through the heart on May 19 while saving a wounded man from the front. He was buried on the beach at Hell Spit.
After being mentioned in dispatches he became a symbol of courage to the Anzacs still fighting.
The legend that has fascinated Australians since Gallipoli is now being made into a documentary film by Walkley Award-winning Australian journalist Patrick Condren.

Albert Jacka (1893-1932)
A FARM labourer and keen sportsman, Albert Jacka was the first Australian to win a Victoria Cross. He landed at Gallipoli on the second day, April 26, 1915, and the VC was awarded after he stormed a Turkish stronghold with three other diggers, who were all shot dead. Unbelievably, he hurled two bombs into a Turkish trench before jumping in and shooting five Turks and bayonetting two, forcing the remaining Turks to flee. "I managed to get the beggars, Sir,'' he told an officer leading reinforcements.
Jacka became a national hero in Australia and his photograph was used on recruiting posters – with good reason, as his action was not a one-off.
In 1916, at Pozieres, Belgium, when Jacka came out of his dugout to find 50 Germans rounding up Australian soldiers at gunpoint, he started firing from the hip, coo-eed his platoon and told the prisoners to fight back. In minutes, the tables had turned, with startled Germans dropping their rifles and raising their hands to be marched off as prisoners. Jacka was wounded in the neck and shoulder in what was the most dramatic and effective act of individual audacity in the history of the AIF, according to official war historian Charles Bean. For his efforts, he was awarded an MC. Other acts of bravery followed.
Although he was rumoured to be bullet-proof and unstoppable, German gas got Jacka in the end, just after the turning-point liberation of Villers-Bretonneux on the third anniversary of Gallipoli.Invalided to Australia, he set up an electrical business in Melbourne, became Mayor of St Kilda and married. He died of chronic nephritis in 1932.

C.E.W. Bean (1879-1968)
ELECTED the official war correspondent by the Australian Journalists Association just ahead of the Melbourne Herald's Keith Murdoch, Sydney Morning Herald journalist and author Charles Bean landed at Gallipoli on the first day, April 25, 1915. Following the soldiers into battle day after day, "Captain Carrot'', as he became known because of his red hair, developed a reputation for bravery and a charmed life. Although shot in the leg on one raid, he stayed on the peninsula until the evacuation in late December, during which he compiled The Anzac Book.
Following the troops to Europe and armed with diaries and pen he covered every bloody battle he could first-hand until war's end, declaring "the only memorial which could be worthy of the 60,000 war dead is a bare and uncoloured story of their part in the war''. Returning to Australia, Bean then wrote the four-million word multi-volume series The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918, which sold 150,000 copies.
Bean also founded the Australian War Memorial and served as government press officer in WWII.
"The big thing in the first war for Australia,'' he wrote, "was the discovery of the character of Australian men – who rushed the hills at Gallipoli and held on there.''

John Monash (1865-1931)
CONSIDERED one of the greatest generals in World War I, the first commander of Australia's army, John Monash, did more than any other Australian to help win the war. Monash enlisted as an engineer, but was also a professional soldier, having helped Lord Kitchener review Victorian troops and written 100 Hints for Company Commanders.
Monash landed at Gallipoli on April 26 and was there for the duration of the campaign. He helped to command battles and the successful Anzac evacuation. War correspondent Charles Bean predicted: "Monash would command a division better than a brigade, and a corps better than a division.''
In Europe, Monash developed new theories on battle, with Bean saying he "concentrated upon the plans an amount of thought and care beyond that ever devoted to any other operation''.
This paid off by March 1918, when Monash's forces won a turning-point battle at Amiens, helped to liberate Villers-Bretonneux on April 25, and in 93 minutes won the turning-point battle of Le Hamel, and then the August 8 battle of the Somme.
In this "first modern battle'', Monash pioneered a new war-winning blitzkrieg strategy employing planes, tanks and heavy artillery to overwhelm the enemy forces, instead of just sending foot soldiers over the top of the trenches to be slaughtered.
When King George V knighted him in France, Monash became the last soldier to be knighted on the battlefield.
After the war, Monash wrote Australian Victories in France and chaired the Victorian State Electricity Commission.

William Birdwood (1865-1951)
THE real day-to-day commander of the Australian forces in the campaign, William Birdwood, was known as ``Birdie'' to his admiring troops, who considered him "the heart and soul of Gallipoli''. He landed with the diggers at the start, created the name Anzac and stayed with the troops in the trenches till the end, often looking after individual soldiers like sons. By doing so, he won their undying respect – even though he was English.
A professional officer who had served with British war minister Lord Kitchener and won his colours in battles on the North West Frontier and the Boer War, where he commanded troops in the front line, Birdie directed most Gallipoli battles, including the successful Lone Pine assault. As commander of the AIF at Gallipoli, he also succeeded in holding the most difficult position, resisting all attempts by the Turks to dislodge the Anzacs from the peninsula even though heavily outnumbered. After organising the successful evacuation from the peninsula, he built up the AIF to five divisions, which he united in France as one army before handing over to the first Australian officer to control an Australian army – John Monash. After the war he served as a school headmaster, collecting many decorations and titles, including Baron Birdwood of Anzac and Totnes.

James Martin (1901-1915)
THE youngest to enlist and to die at Gallipoli, James Martin, whose life ended at 14, has become a symbol of innocent courage. When Martin's father was rejected by recruiting officers, the 14-year-old kid from Tocumwal in NSW said: "Never mind, dad, I'll go in your place. And if you don't give me permission, I'll run away and join under another name.''
Martin claimed he was 18 when he enlisted and was shipped to Egypt. Although the youngest in the Gallipoli landing party, he gained the respect of his mates because he was "keen as mustard''. Writing home, he complained of "not seeing much of the fun'' because the Turkish trenches were so far away.
But in October 1915, Martin contracted typhoid. He was evacuated on a hospital ship, on which he died. Explaining his death, matron L.H. Reddock wrote to his family: "He thanked me so nicely for what had been done for him. He then settled down to sleep, but died quite suddenly.'' Buried at sea, Martin was
10 weeks short of his 15th birthday


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