A War Stamp Court Martial

Trial of the Soldier Chief Postmaster of New Britain.

In pursuance of an order-in-council by the Governor-General, a general court martial was opened at the Victoria Barracks, Sydney, on 12th May, for the purpose of trying cases of alleged stealing and other offenses by certain members of the Australian naval and military expeditionary force which went to Rabaul at the outbreak of war.

The members of the court were: Colonel G.L. Lee, District Commandant of Queensland (President); Colonel G.H. Kirkland, C.O., 10th Infantry Brigade; Lieut.-Colonel A. Jobson, C.O., 34th Infantry Regiment; Lieut.-Colonel F.W. Osborne (R.A.G.A); and Major B.F. Parker, 26th Infantry; while Mr. V. Le Gay Brereton was the Judge Advocate.

In all, five cases were set down for trial. With four of these we are not concerned, but the fifth was a charge of disobeying a lawful command given by a superior officer to Second-Lieutenant George William Moore. The charge was that, notwithstanding an order by Colonel Holmes (the Administrator) that no person was to be allowed to purchase surcharged New Guinea stamps from the post office in excess of the total value of 10 shillings worth of each denomination issued, the accused while acting as chief postmaster at Rabaul sold stamps to a Captain Ravenscroft.

Moore was also charged with selling stamps of one denomination in excess of 10 shillings to himself.

The charge was proceeded on 17th May.

Captain J. Dowie Wilson, of the Australian Intelligence Corps, prosecuted, assisted by counsel in the person of Mr. Mitchell. Mr. Kelynack (instructed by Messrs. Mitchell and Forsyth) appeared on behalf of Moore.

Outlining the case for the prosecution, Mr. Mitchell said that although the charge might seem an innocent sort of one, he would show the court that a very serious breach of internal discipline was involved, and that if the matter had not been detected when it was the accused may have had an opportunity of putting into his pocket sums of money ranging from £1,000 to £2,000.

When the Australians occupied the German territory, the accused was made postmaster and the German New Guinea stamps were collected and surcharged G.R.I. for the use of the forces. It soon became apparent that there would be a shortage of them. Stamp collectors began to take a great interest in them, and requests began to arrive from collectors of all parts of the world for them; the stamps then became of high value for philatelic purposes. All the men soon realized the value of them, and Captain Fry made representations to Colonel Holmes when the order referred to in the charge was given.

The second charge was based upon a packet that Moore brought with him from New Guinea when on a visit to Sydney. Customs officers were appointed to search luggage in Sydney. A searcher found in Moore’s luggage a packet tied and sealed (produced) and asked him what the contents were. Moore replied: “Confidential documents sent by the Commander-in-Chief in New Guinea to the Commander-in-Chief in Australia.” The Customs officer tore off the corner and saw that the packet contained sheets of stamps and he questioned Moore about them. Moore said he was bringing them to the Postmaster General. Later, when being taken to Captain Brownlow, Moore said he had bought the stamps himself and had paid £100 for them, and added that he had a certificate from the Treasury that his accounts were all right.

Major Heritage, who was military secretary to the Administrator, was the first witness called and said that at first it was thought there would not be sufficient stamps and after consultation with Colonel Holmes witness told Moore that he was not to sell any more than actual requirements.

Mr. Mitchell: Was there any question of exploiting the stamps at the time? - Yes.

What was it?: The postmaster complained that his work was being hampered by requests from stamp dealers and agents for £10 and £20 worth of stamps. He got them from England and all parts of the world, and was told by the Administrator and myself not to have anything to do with these people.

In reply to Mr. Kelynack witness said, “Later on they got more stamps from other places, and the first order witness gave the postmaster Moore related particularly to the first lot of stamps. I know that the Treasurer, owing to his having a bigger supply of stamps, had allowed the postmaster to exercise his discretion. I personally bought 15 shillings’ worth.”

Mr. Kelynack: It was Moore himself who first brought the matter of the difficulty caused by stamp dealers and collectors to your notice, was it not? - Yes.

If soldiers wanted stamps for the purpose of afterwards selling them, they were at liberty to buy them? - Yes.

Captain Fry, who was in charge of the Treasury at Rabaul, said that 13 Marshall Islands stamps and 13 New Guinea stamps were surcharged. The total value of one set was 13/5. Instructions were given in November that no individual was to have more than 10/- worth of one denomination of the surcharged stamps. That meant a man could get £6/10/0 worth by taking 10/- worth of each denomination in the full set.

Mr. Mitchell: At the time the order was given had the Marshall Islands stamps been received? - No, we only had the New Guinea stamps.

What made you make the suggestion that the sale be limited? - I thought everyone should have a fair share of them.

In reply to Mr. Kelynack, witness said the order was not given in writing. So far as the administration was concerned, the order had no importance. The revenue was received just the same. He merely made the suggestion to limit the sale of stamps with the object of seeing that everyone got a fair share. He did not do so because it was his duty.

To Colonel Lee: The witness said the order, he understood, was to last during the war. The total value of the German stamps surcharged was £505.

Mr. Kelynack: When there was a plentiful supply of stamps the reason at any rate for the order disappeared? - Yes.

Stamps went up from New South Wales afterwards, I understand? - Yes, £300 worth.

So that the shortage of stamps that existed in the first place was very much modified as time went on? - Yes.

The President: If stamps became plentiful after this verbal order, was there any occasion to still give effect to it? - No, I don’t think so.

Was there anything to prevent a man buying twice? - The instruction was that if a man bought a big lot his name was to be taken.

A person could buy as many of the Commonwealth stamps as he liked? - Yes.

Did you take any steps to see what effect had been given to your order? - No steps at all.

Lionel Babington Ravenscroft, a Captain in the Naval and Military Expeditionary Force, said that while he was in New Guinea he purchased about £27 worth of New Guinea stamps at Rabaul, but about £13 worth were not face value. He got £7/10/2 worth direct from the postmaster. The purchase spread over the period from November to January.

In reply to Mr. Kelynack, witness said he could not say how many he purchased at any particular time.

To Colonel Lee: I did not know there was an order against the sale or purchase of them.

Mr. Mitchell: Can you tell us the total face value of the stamps you have sold since you returned to Sydney? - I cannot say exactly. At the time I gave evidence before I had sold about £25 worth of stamps.

The next witness was James Hodgens Smyth, a stamp dealer, who said he had purchased a large quantity of stamps from soldiers returned from New Guinea.

Mr. Mitchell asked the witness a question as to the market value of the stamps in Sydney, but Mr. Kelynack, counsel for the accused, objected on the ground that the value of the stamps had nothing to do with the case, the charge being merely as to whether or not a military order had been disobeyed.

The court disallowed the question.

The Defense

George William Moore said he enlisted in the Expeditionary Force for New Guinea as a private in the Infantry. He had been employed as a traveler for Marcus Clark and Co. and other people and at station work in the country. He was appointed to the post office as a private and was promoted sergeant three weeks afterwards. Three months later he was promoted a second lieutenant. There were no stamps when he was first appointed to the post office.

“I have no knowledge of any order regarding the sale of stamps issued by Captain Fry,” he said. “I am perfectly satisfied there was no order given to me.”

The stamps he bought for himself did not in any way affect the opportunity of other soldiers getting what stamps they required. He could easily have secreted the package of stamps had he thought it necessary.

He told the story he did because he was only on nine days’ leave of absence and wished to avoid any delay, by inquiries, in returning to Rabaul.

To Mr. Mitchell: There was an order restricting the sale of stamps to dealers or collectors, but not to the troops.

The witness admitted that he wrote the letter (produced) from Rabaul offering to sell a set of stamps (face value 13s. 5d.) to a Mr. Smyth, stamp dealer, for £30, and also that he told a stamp dealer he could not supply larage quantities of them because an order had been issued restricting the sale of stamps to correspondence purposes only.

Mr. Kelynack: You wrote to the dealer in that way because you thought it a polite official way of getting rid of a nuisance? - Yes.

He admitted writing in the same letter that he had a few incorrectly surcharged stamps which he made a speciality of collecting, and which he would submit to the dealer on his return to Sydney.

“There was one percent of the German surcharged stamps,” he said, “bought in Rabaul for postal purposes. They were bought as curios of the trip.”

He denied that he told the customs officer when he discovered the parcel contained stamps that they were for the Postmaster-General. What he said was that he (witness) was Postmaster-General of New Guinea.

At this stage the court adjourned.

The cross-examination of accused was continued by counsel for the prosecution on the following day.

Mr. Mitchell: You were present when the packet of stamps was opened last night, and the figures showed that there were £73 worth of New Guinea stamps and £22 worth of Marshall Islands stamps (face value)? - Yes.

If the statements in your letter (to a Sydney stamp dealer) were correct, that only £290 worth of New Guineas stamps were issued, you brought from New Guinea one-fourth of the whole issue? - Yes, that is according to the letter, but that was not all the issue.

Is it a fact that you made large sales to Captain Ravenscroft? - I made sales to him.

Did they approximate £50? - I could not put a figure on them.

Could you say within £10 worth of what you sold him? - I should say about £20 worth were sold to him by me personally.

Mr. Kelynack: You say that £290 worth does not represent all that were surcharged while you were in office. How many were? - About £700 worth. About £290 worth were for Marshall Islands, and the balance were New Guinea stamps.

Mr. Mitchell for the prosecution submitted that the charge had been absolutely proved and that the evidence showed Moore to be self-confessed of having disobeyed orders.

Mr. Kelynack for the defense held that there had been no proof of the issue of the order. He would ask the court, he said, to look at the matter in its broad, general aspect. The interests of discipline, he admitted, were great, but he submitted that it seemed almost a lamentable thing that whilst the enemy was at the gate men in our own forces should be expected to act upon principles and with a care which could only be found in a most careful performance of civil duties in times of peace. When a man came down from a place where he had been occupying an important administrative post and where it was shown that whatever order had been given was given and observed in a loose manner, it was not fair to ask the court to infer against him the disobedience of an order which really was one calculated to discourage men from embarking upon military enterprises at a time when every incentive was wanted to induce men to offer their services to their country. When men went on an expedition such as the one to New Guinea, it was only natural that they should want to bring home or send to their friends, some mementos or souvenirs of the trip such a spears, bows and arrows, and stamps, and he failed to see why stamp collectors and dealers staying at home should be given the same privileges as the men who were fighting for their country.

After nearly an hour’s deliberation the court was reopened. The prosecution admitted that there was nothing previously against Moore’s character. He had served as an Imperial Bushman in the South African War for 168 days, and his discharge had been marked “Conduct very good.”

A court martial has to announce a verdict of acquittal in open court. Other verdicts are duly reported to the confirming authority, in this case the Governor-General, and subsequently notified to the accused person after confirmation, and generally to the public through military order.

At the commencement of the trial the question of “What is an officer?” cropped up immediately the charge was read. Mr. Mitchell said he would like the court to decide whether a temporarily appointed officer was really an officer. An officer could not be an officer unless he held a commission.

At the conclusion of the proceedings the court decided, on the advice of the Judge Advocate, that the plaint should be amended by the accused’s designations of “second-lieutenant” and “an officer” being struck out, and the respective designations of “a sergeant” and a “soldier” substituted.

The Verdict

The Evening News, May 26th, contained the following: “Sergeant George William Moore, who was found guilty by court martial at Sydney last week on a charge of disobeying a lawful command given by a superior officer while acting as postmaster at Rabaul, was today by order of the Federal Executive reduced to the ranks and dismissed from the defense forces.”

Comments on the Trial

The following comments upon the trial from a philatelic standpoint are appended by Mr. J.H. Smyth in his report in the Australian Stamp Journal, of which we are favored with advance copies of the typescript as passed by the Intelligence Department at the Victoria Barracks.

Speaking philatelically, the order that no stamps were to be sold to stamp collectors or dealers should not have been given, for it places these stamps under the ban of being a restricted issue. As to the order that not more than 10/- worth of stamps of any one denomination were to be sold to any member of the expedition, we fail to see how that would prevent some of the men from getting more stamps if they wanted them, for all were probably not interested in stamps alike and those who did want them could easily have prevailed upon their fellows to purchase supplies for them.

We are quite prepared to admit that the desire and intention of the administration was to provide stamps for postal purposes, and that they did not want the supply to run out sooner than could be avoided; but the fact of the restriction was calculated to enhance the market value of the stamps, and to increase the desire on the part of the troops to have them, on the ground that anything difficult to obtain is all the more appreciated and there is not a doubt that the majority of those who purchased believed that should they wish to sell the stamps they would make a profit on them.

Had the Administrator issued an order to the effect that no stamps were to be sold at all, but that those soldiers who wished letters sent outside the territory should hand them in at the post office, pay the postage and have the stamps attached to the letter, and after being canceled put into the mail bag, the order would have ensured that the stamps were only used for postal purposes and the supply would have lasted a long while.

The knowledge that there were so few of the high values printed made it only possible for very few of the soldiers to get 10/- worth of a kind. It would appear from the evidence that the suggestion regarding this order came from Moore himself and it certainly did not redound to his credit that insofar that he endeavored to “feather his own nest,” so to speak, while trying at the same time to prevent the other members of the force from getting their share. Still, Moore believed he was quite justified in acting as he did, but he has no doubt seen now that he committed a grave indiscretion.

Sergt. Moore stated that altogether about £700 worth of stamps were surcharged, but Captain Fry, who was in charge of the Treasury which had control of the issue of stamps to the postmaster, stated in his evidence that only £505 worth had been surcharged. We feel disposed to split the difference and estimate the total face value of all the G.R.I. stamps issued at about £600.

As to the part our Mr. Smyth took in connection with the trial, it may be mentioned that the War Precautions Act, 1914, which was amended on 30th April, 1915, gives almost unlimited powers to the military authorities. Clause 5, section 1, reads: -- “The Governor-General may by order published in the Gazette make provision for any matters which appear necessary or expedient with a view to the public safety and the defense of the Commonwealth, and in particular (g) for requiring any person to disclose any information in his possession as to any matter specified in the order.”

Prior to the sitting of the general court martial a military officer visited our premises and demanded to see the original of the letter received from Lieut. Moore and published in the March number of our journal pages 74 and 75. He also requested to see any other letters we had from that gentleman in regard to stamp matters. During one visit the officer informed our Mr. Smyth that if he declined to give the information desired he would be legally forced to do so. Such being the case Mr. Smyth deemed discretion the better part of valor, and yielded under pressure; but before giving his consent to the letters being taken out of his possession he stipulated that he should be furnished with a proper order demanding same. This order was contained in a summons to appear at the trial and give evidence if called upon….

As to the letter produced, some of those concerned in the prosecution were apparently not aware that both it and the one published in our journal on March 10th were supplied to us by Sergt. Moore in response to a letter sent him on 22nd January, wherein we wrote as a P.S.: -- “On page 3 we ask you if you will kindly furnish us with a list of the quantities of the various kinds of stamps that have been printed. We do not want you to do this for nothing, so if you are willing to accept it we are willing to pay you at the rate of 3d. per line of type matter similar to your letter of 7th December, giving us reliable news regarding stamp matters in your district (equivalent to 15/- per page). What we are most desirous of having is a list of the quantities of the various denominations and kinds issued, and the prices at which some of the stamps have changed hands in Rabaul.

We want this for publication in our journal, but we are willing to suppress your name if you would like us to do so.

On 17th March we sent Sergt. Moore a £5 bank note to pay for 14/7 worth of stamps sent us, and for the “copy” which he had supplied.

We did not publish all the letter which was produced at the trial, but extracts from it will be found in the March number of the A.S.J., page 75.

Whether or not Sergt. Moore referred to our Mr. Smyth when he admitted that he “wrote to the dealer in that way as he thought it a polite official way to get rid of a nuisance” we are unable to say; but he has told us since that he did not mean that construction to be put upon his words. He was asked the question in those words, and he replied in the affirmative. He was nervous when in the witness-box.

As a matter of fact the day after the package of stamps had been seized by the Customs officials, Sergt. Moore came into our shop and sold us a parcel of postmarked stamps, mostly on originals. He assured us that he had no doubt the stamps which had been seized would be returned to him as he had bought them in the ordinary way and his accounts were quite correct. Since that date our Mr. Smyth has had several interviews with Sergt. Moore, all of which were of a friendly character.

We had no desire to go out of our way to help the Crown to “sheet home a charge” against Sergt. Moore or anyone else. Mr. Smyth took an impartial stand, and acted as he did in the interests of stamp collectors without regard to the question of whether Sergt. Moore had disobeyed a military order or not.

At the conclusion of the proceedings in court Mr. Mitchell, counsel for the prosecution, said that in fairness to Mr. Smyth he wished to state that he was an unwilling witness and had expressed a desire that he should not be dragged into the proceedings if possible, and had only consented to the production of the letters when obliged to do so by order of the court.

Now that the affair is over we must repeat our previously expressed opinion that postal matters at Rabaul were not conducted as strictly as they should and could have been. While probably the Administrator thought that in selecting Moore for the position of chief postmaster he was making the best appointment possible, it is quite apparent now that Moore had little or no experience of the duties necessary; but on the other hand we must express our sympathy with Moore for we can understand that the duties which devolved upon him must have been such as would try the mental capacity of many men. To gauge these it is only necessary for our readers to cast their eyes over the pages of this journal during the past few months.

The fact has been impressed upon us that New Britain is probably only being occupied by the Australian troops until the end of the war, and that the postal service is being run by the Defense Department and is known purely and simply as a military post and is not subject to all the rules and regulations which govern the postal departments of the Commonwealth. This and other facts already enumerated make it necessary to allow a great deal more latitude and to show more leniency to those concerned, if they have failed somewhat in the discharge of their duties from a philatelic standpoint.

There were several humorous incidents during the trial, and the display of philatelic ignorance evinced by some of those concerned was lamentable. It was most amusing, for instance, to hear Mr. Kelynack put stamps on a par with spears, bows and arrows and other curios, and the impression seemed to prevail all round that the action of the authorities in the manner in which the stamps were sold was warranted. Other people will think differently.