Saturday 12 September 2020

Sgt Ellis - accidentally shot or murdered?

I was recently emailed by a family researcher in Australia asking if I could help clear up the mystery surrounding the death of Sgt 2616 John David Jones Ellis, 4th (militia) battalion Somerset Light Infantry. Sgt Ellis is recorded in the official casualty roll as "Accidentally shot by a comrade" on April 25th, 1900 at East London, Cape Colony.

My correspondent had found two British newspapers (Bristol Mercury 28-04-1900 and Western Mail 27-04-1900) stating that Sgt Ellis has been "deliberately shot" by a private "undergoing punishment drill". 

Which source is correct, the official casualty roll or the newspaper, and can we determine who shot Sgt Ellis?

Court martial records do not as a rule exist for the war and Sgt Ellis' papers do not survive which is a shame. To answer these questions I looked at the QSA roll for the 4th bn Somerset Light Infantry to identify any men who had forfeited their medal for committing a crime. A number of men were noted on the roll as being returned to the UK as prisoners but one remark stood out: 

"Forfeited medal on conviction by civil power, sentenced to penal servitude for life"

The man in question was Pte 5495 WJ Holloway.

Fortunately his papers survive and they are marked in red ink on two pages with the word

Holloway was discharged from the Army on the 24th August, 1900 following his conviction for murder presumably of Sgt Ellis.

The newspapers provide some background to Sgt Ellis' military career. He had been one of the battalion Permanent Staff suggesting he had frist served as a regular soldier. At the 1899 summer camp on Claverton Down Sgt Ellis was the battalion police-sergeant. He later was based at Bath recruting men to the battalion and then moved to the Depot at Taunton. Pte Holloway was recruited in Bristol in November 1899, the two probably did not know much of each other before the battalion left for South Africa.

The battalion was embodied for war service on 4th December, 1899. They did not go overseas until March 1900 disembarking at East London on 2nd April, 1900. Sgt Ellis was killed just three weeks later leaving a widow, they had been married for just two months.

The final proof that validates the usefulness of the medal rolls in this type of research comes with a newspaper report I found in the Bath Chronicle & Weekly Gazette (05-07-1900) detailing the court case. Pte Holloway pleaded guilty, he had shot Sgt Ellis in front of other defaulters. The defence tried to argue Pte Holloway did not know his rifle was loaded and cocked. Pte Holloway was sentenced to death with a recommendation for mercy which was granted.


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