By Peter Burness
(Previously published in Kilmore Connections, June 2003)
During the First World War tens of thousands of Australian troops passed through the huge military training camps set up in Britain. Soldiers would move between these camps and the battle front in France and Belgium. The hutted camp at Sutton Veny near Salisbury was one of these, and there, on the night of 27 November 1917, a tragic event began to unfold. An Australian soldier was found dead in suspicious circumstances.
About 11 pm that night, Corporal Verney Asser, an instructor at the camp, went to the sergeant of the guard’s room to report that his colleague with whom he shared a hut had committed suicide. Asser said that he had been woken by a loud shot and looked over to find Corporal Durkin dead in his bed. The victim was lying on his right side with his head bloodied and a rifle by his hand.
The deceased was 24-year-old Joe Durkin from Carlton, Victoria. He had grown up in Kilmore where his Irish-born father was a local tailor; his mother died when he was about ten years old. Durkin, a former railwayman, had been in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) for almost two years. He left Melbourne with the 17th reinforcements for the 6th Battalion in April 1916, and was stationed in Egypt before going to England. More recently, he and Asser were light machine-gun instructors with the 2nd Australian Training Battalion and they shared accommodation in the Lewis gun hut.
Two days after the tragedy a coroner’s court was held at the military hospital at Sutton Veny. Corporal Asser was the main witness. He testified that Durkin had been depressed and moody all the fateful day. The jury retired and, after deliberation, returned to the court to announce that it believed that the corporal had committed suicide during a period of temporary insanity.
The matter may have rested there but for another camp instructor, Corporal Mime, coming forward a few days later with information that would quickly re-open the case. From the first Milne had insisted that Durkin was not a man likely to kill himself and clearly he had become concerned about the inquest’s conclusions. He now went on to say that on the night of the shooting Asser had come to his hut three times and had gone into an area where ammunition was stored. Later there had been a shot from Asser and Durkin’s hut next door and a round had actually passed through Mime’s wall and put a hole in his jacket which was at the end of his bed. Initially he had thought it was an accidental discharge and did not want to report it.
Matters that had been ignored in the original investigation now took on a sinister appearance. It was recalled that when Asser had gone to the guard hut he was fully dressed, even wearing his wound puttees and in the hut, where he said he had been asleep, his mattress was still rolled up. No empty cartridge was found in the rifle that killed Durkin; someone had extracted it after firing, and only Asser and Durkin were in the hut. It began to look like murder, and Asser was the obvious suspect.
Investigation of his background revealed further odd facts. Verney Asser claimed to have been born in Ballarat thirty years earlier and to have been employed as a porter before volunteering for the AIF. He may have had previous military training because he was a sergeant in October 1915 when he was accepted to transfer to the permanent forces as an acting staff sergeant-major in the Administrative and Instructional Staff. Two months later he was recorded as having deserted from the army.
Asser next appeared at sea on the troopship Maiwa. When the ship reached Colombo he presented himself as a stowaway, expressing a wish to get to the war and requesting that he be enlisted. He was taken on to Egypt and there was made to contribute to the cost of his voyage. He was held at Zeitoun camp until it was decided that his desertion from the permanent forces would be overlooked, and he rejoined the AIF on 1 March 1916. He became a Member of the Australian Army Service Corps and in due course saw service on the Western Front until February 1917.
There was certainly evidence that Asser and Durkin had been friends. However, Asser revealed his darker side when drunk The two men quarrelled sometimes and witnesses recalled that a few weeks earlier Asser threatened “to get even” with Durkin. Added to this, investigators also discovered that a year earlier Asser had been admitted to hospital in England suffering from “mental derangement”. This was attributed to his alcoholism. It seems that he may have also been jealous of Durkin’s association with a widow in the town. The two men had argued when Durkin found Asser reading his letters from her.
Soldiers are subject to both civil and military law. Because the crime was committed in England it was decided that civil authorities would handle this case. Asser was committed to stand trial at the assizes at Devizes in January 1918 and the Commonwealth agreed to pay the costs of his defence. Extensive evidence was presented and the prosecution clearly established that only Asser and Durkin had been in the hut that evening, and that from the positioning of the fatal wound, and the type of rifle used, Durkin would have been in no position to shoot himself.
Still, Asser seemed comfortable when called into the witness box, answering confidently, and insisting he was innocent. It did him no good: the prosecution’s case was sound, and he was found guilty and condemned to death.
Verney Asser appealed against his sentence on the grounds of insanity. He claimed that he had been in asylums and hospital mental wards, although only his military record, with its reference to “mental derangement”, was produced as evidence of this. The appeal was dismissed and the death penalty confirmed. He was hanged at the old Shepton Mallet Prison on Tuesday morning 5 March 1918. The execution was conducted in secrecy without the customary raising of a black flag or tolling of a bell. Asser died instantaneously and offered no confession of his crime.
Remarkably, the Shepton Mallet Prison would see many more military executions. It was taken over by the American forces during the Second World War, was nicknamed “the glasshouse”, and gained a notorious reputation. Twenty-one US servicemen were hanged and two were shot at Shepton Mallet for crimes of rape and murder.
It is possible that had Asser’s crime occurred in a camp in France, and been handled under Military Law, he may have escaped execution. While military courts’ sentences were often harsh, some death sentences for murder were commuted. Furthermore, in the application of Military Law the official historian, Charles Bean, noted that “it was doubtful whether an Australian soldier even when guilty of murder could receive a death penalty”. It may be that there was more certainty in getting a conviction, and the full penalty, from a civil court. As it was, he became the only Australian soldier executed overseas in the First World War, if one excepts the case of Private Albert Fraser, who was hanged at HM Prison Glasgow on 26 May 1920.
Fraser’s situation was quite different. This troublesome soldier had arrived in England too late to see active service, and had cast aside his uniform and deserted as soon as the war was over. He lived as a civilian from the proceeds of selling pots and pans, and from crime. He and an accomplice were arrested in Belfast for the brutal murder of a man they had assaulted and robbed in a Glasgow park on 3 February 1920. This was a straight out civil matter and the fact that Fraser was still an “illegal absentee” from the AIF was not raised during the trial.
The subject of military executions during the First World War has been the subject of increasing interest in recent years. Throughout the war the death penalty was imposed on British soldiers for various crimes, including murder. Overwhelmingly, the most common charge was desertion. Various moves have been made to gain posthumous pardons for these men largely in the belief that they did not receive a fair hearing in the prevailing circumstances. The British Commonwealth forces executed over 300 of their own troops during the war, but none was a member of the AIF. But the claim that “no Australian soldier was executed during the war” overlooks the little known story of Verney Asser. Of course, the claim remains essentially correct, since it refers to military executions, not those under Civil Law.
Verney Asser died in disgrace. His entitlement to medals was cancelled; he has no marked grave; nor is his name recorded on the Australian War Memorial’s roll of honour in Canberra. Joseph Harold Durkin’s name is there. This unfortunate soldier received a military funeral and is buried in the war cemetery at St John’s Churchyard, Sutton Veny, Wiltshire. His resting place is in the care of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and he lies in the small cemetery with 142 other Australians who died while in the local camps or hospital during the war.
Author Peter Burness is Senior Curator, Gallery Development, Australian War Memorial.
- National Archives Files: NAA B2455; A.J. Fraser; J.H. Durkin; V Asser.
- Australian War Memorial File; AWM Series 10: 4304/9/75.
- Information from Kilmore Historical Society.
Reprinted with the permission of Peter Burness and Wartime magazine. Originally published in issue 21 of Wartime, the official magazine of the Australian War Memorial.