Former Senator and Major-General (ret'd) Australian Army, Jim Molan AO, DSC, has officially launched Ready, Aim, Fire, a book dedicated to the memory of the late Major James Francis Thomas, known as the fourth victim in the execution of Lieutenant Harry 'Breaker' Morant.
Thomas was the defence lawyer in the 1902 Courts Martial of Lieutenants Harry Morant, Peter Handcock, and George Witton who were tried and sentenced for executing 12 Boer prisoners, one of the first war crime prosecutions in British military history. Morant and Handcock were executed on 27 February 1902 and Witton's death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.
(JF Thomas) had to act as both solicitor and counsel and was refused an adjournment so he could better prepare a proper defence.James Unkles
It's been 117 years since the Courts Martial, and military lawyer and the book's author James Unkles is still fighting on behalf of the men's descendants for the Commonwealth Government to hold a judicial inquiry into the trial and sentencing of the three men and seeking their posthumous pardons.
Like many, Unkles believes the men were scapegoats for the war crimes of their British superiors - who were not prosecuted for similar offences and giving illegal orders to shoot prisoners. Critics of the accused say they were lawfully convicted of serious war crimes and deserved the sentences they received.
According to Unkles, the book acknowledges the sacrifice Major Thomas made in acting as the defence lawyer for these three men, a task that took a terrible toll on his mental and physical health and his life in Tenterfield.
"Major Thomas inadvertently found himself the centre of this controversy when he was asked to defend the accused - he was given only one day to prepare the defence of the accused of serious charges tried over a period of about one month," Unkles said.
"While the prosecution had three months to prepare its cases and unlimited resources to assist in their preparation, Major Thomas had no such assistance.
"He had to act as both solicitor and counsel and was refused an adjournment so he could better prepare a proper defence.
He also protested that following the sentencing; his clients were illegally denied the opportunity to seek assistance from the Australian Government, exercise their right of appeal and lodge a petition for mercy to the Crown, a decision that sealed their fate as the sentences were carried out within hours."
As Unkles explains, Major Thomas was a colourful character; bachelor, poet, lawyer, soldier, war reporter, newspaper owner and editor of the "Tenterfield Star", cheese maker, grazier, gardener, local historian, bankrupt, resident of Long Bay goal for 20 months, and lobbyist for Federation.
The book's author, James Unkles, has been a lawyer for 35 years and a former Crown and Police Prosecutor. He is a serving Officer in the Royal Australian Navy Reserve.