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Robert William Lenehan (1865–1922)

by E. J. H. Howard

This article was published:

Robert William Lenehan (1865-1922), lawyer and soldier, was born on 16 August 1865 at Petersham, Sydney, eldest son of Irish-born Christopher Henry Lenehan, grocer, and his wife Marie Louise, née Gannon. Educated at St Ignatius' College, Riverview, he was admitted as a solicitor in 1891 and except for time spent on war service practised law in New South Wales until his death. On 30 January 1889, at St Ignatius' College chapel, he married Harriett Emma Mary Hodge.

Commissioned in 1890 in the 1st Infantry Regiment (Volunteers), New South Wales Military Forces, Lenehan transferred to the Field Artillery in 1894, becoming a major in 1898. 'A burly man, heavily moustached … and with a splendid seat on a horse, he was a commanding figure'. Volunteering for service in the South African War, he was appointed a squadron commander (captain) in the New South Wales Mounted Rifles and embarked from Sydney on 17 January 1900. After active service in the Orange Free State and the Transvaal, which earned him the Queen's Medal with six clasps, he was promoted major and appointed in February 1901 to command the Bushveldt Carbineers (B.V.C.). This special corps, raised from local volunteers from the Pietersburg district, operated in the wild country of northern Transvaal. As local volunteers were fewer than expected, Lenehan was allowed to enlist time-expired Australians and other servicemen.

After some initial successes the B.V.C. became the subject of an international incident later that year over the alleged shooting of a German missionary and Boer prisoners. After a long court of inquiry Major Lenehan and four of his officers were court-martialled. Lieutenants Harry (Breaker) Morant and Peter Handcock were sentenced to death and executed by firing squad. Lenehan was charged with two offences: failing to report the shooting of a Dutch member of the B.V.C. (alleged to have been a traitor) and the shooting of two men and a boy. Found not guilty of the second charge but guilty of the first he was reprimanded, the lightest possible sentence. He was subsequently deprived of his command (which was disbanded) and his employment was terminated. Sent under escort to Cape Town, in February 1902, he was imprisoned there until deported to Australia by the first available berth.

On his return Lenehan was not permitted to rejoin his unit and was denied a war gratuity by the British War Office. Major General Sir Edward Hutton, general officer commanding the Commonwealth Military Forces, urged Lenehan to resign but he refused and sought an inquiry to clear his name. Hutton repeatedly tried to have him placed on the retired list but government and public disquiet in Australia increased as some facts surrounding the B.V.C. affair became known. Finally, replying to a Commonwealth government request, the War Office admitted that there was nothing against Lenehan other than evidence presented at the court-martial. In parliament on 27 July 1904 Prime Minister Chris Watson was very critical of the treatment Lenehan had received. He was restored from the reserve of officers to the active military list, backdated in seniority to 1 July 1903 and placed in command of an artillery field battery. Awarded the Volunteer Officers' Decoration, he was promoted in January 1913 to lieutenant-colonel commanding the 4th Field Artillery Brigade. He was employed on home service duties in World War I, principally in training reinforcements for the Australian Imperial Force.

In 1917 Lenehan was cited as co-respondent in a much-publicized Sydney divorce case involving Emile Guiot and his wife Ruth, and in October (Sir) George Pearce, the minister for defence, removed him from an appointment he held at Menangle Camp. He was placed on the retired list on 20 August 1918. Survived by his wife and six of their seven children, Lenehan died in Sydney on 20 May 1922 of cirrhosis of the liver.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Witton, Scapegoats of the Empire (Melb, 1907)
  • Australian Defence Department, Official Records of Australian Military Contingents to the War in South Africa, P. L. Murray ed (Melb, 1911)
  • R. L. Wallace, The Australians at the Boer War (Canb, 1976)
  • K. Denton, Closed File (Syd, 1983)
  • F. M. Cutlack, Breaker Morant (Syd, 1962)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Commonwealth), 1904, p 3576
  • Sabretache, Dec 1975
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 8 Jan 1916, 27 June, 26 Oct 1917, 22 May 1922
  • Herald (Melbourne), 25 Oct 1917
  • records (Australian War Memorial).

Citation details

E. J. H. Howard, 'Lenehan, Robert William (1865–1922)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 24 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (Melbourne University Press), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


16 August, 1865
Petersham, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


20 May, 1922 (aged 56)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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