Robert Coveny. Australian and Officer of the Black Watch

A biography by Laila Haglund and the late John Burless

The book in brief

The true story of an Australian, Robert Coveny, who was born into a prominent colonial-era family in Sydney, New South Wales, in 1842. Instead of following in his father’s footsteps in business and commerce, Robert opted for a military career in the British Army.

He journeyed to Britain and joined an elite Regiment – the 42nd Highlanders or ‘Black Watch’ as the Regiment is more famously known. He served with the Regiment in many of Britain’s colonial wars until he was Killed in Action during the ill-fated Nile Expedition. His military service had begun on 7th January, 1862, and ended on 10th February, 1885.

A fascinating account of a little-known aspect of Australian history.

Review by Dr Peter J.F. Coutts – 9th March 2018

Australian Archaeologist and Author, First Director of the Victorian Archaeological Survey 

The Coveny brothers, Robert and Thomas, of English and gentile origin, migrated to Sydney from Ireland in 1835 where they established themselves as successful merchants. Robert, a devout Catholic married in Sydney, and he and his wife (of a different religious persuasion), went on to have 4 sons and 6 daughters including his eldest son, Robert, who is the focus of interest in this book.

Robert senior receives recognition in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, being a successful businessman, but mainly because he played a significant and unselfish role in public life. Members of his family receive scant mention, although the entry does include a brief outline of the career of Robert junior. Otherwise the only other public recognition of Robert Junior is a brief record of his military service at the Australian War Memorial. This book, based on detailed research, analysis and review of a vast array of family documents, seeks to make public for the first time the extraordinary military career of Robert junior.

Robert lived in an age where it was fashionable for the gentry to encourage, if not cajole their sons to opt for a career in the military. Clearly Robert’s father, perhaps with encouragement from his wife who came from a military family, and despite putting down roots in Sydney, felt it necessary to educate his sons in England and subsequently to sponsor Robert’s military career in the motherland. In 1862, after finishing school, he enlisted with the Royal Welsh Fusiliers but shortly afterwards he was able to join the 1st Battalion of the Black Watch with a purchased commission as a second lieutenant. Thereafter, and for the next 23 years he served in the military with some distinction ending his career in February1885 at which time he held the rank of Lt Colonel. Robert died leading his troops at the Battle of Kirbekan in the Soudan part of the attempt by General Wolseley to rescue the ill-fated General Gordon trapped at Khartoum in upper Egypt.

Robert’s career in the military coincided with the period when the British Empire was at its zenith, when its military tentacles and political influence extended over vast areas of the world. Consequently he saw service in many of its dominions including India, Gold Coast, Malta, Cyprus and Egypt.

Robert was not a swashbuckling adventure seeking Errol Flynn, although the records of his exploits indicate he was very brave and resourceful. He had another skill that he used with great sensitivity and passion wherever he went….he was an artist and he took every opportunity to draw what he observed during his postings. Consequently he has left us a delightful legacy of contemporary illustrations, a number of which are presented in the book, others in the London Pictorial World, depicting life in and around military establishments many with accompanying notes. Nor was he without a sense of humour; he devoted some time to producing unflattering but amusing sketches of his contemporaries. As the authors of the book make plain, these sketches with their annotations combined with the information contained in his numerous letters are important documentation of contemporary historical events.

Haglund and Burless have without doubt discovered and brought to public attention a truly Australian forebear of the Anzacs, a soldier of considerable accomplishment, a man of courage who gave his life in combat, and a soldier of whom we Australians can be proud. The book is well written and worthy of a good read by those who have an interest in Australian and/or military history.

Dr Peter J.F. Coutts

From the London Illustrated News 21st March, 1885

Death of an Australian

On the morning of the 11th February 1885, by the east bank of the Nile, two regiments, the Black Watch and South Staffordshires, were drawn up in hollow square formation. In the midst of the interior ground three graves had been prepared, and a battery of field guns to fire the last salute for the dead was emplaced a little to one side of the ranked soldiers. General Earle, a Grenadier Guard, commanding the British Forces at the Battle of Kirbekan, which had been fought on the day previous; Lieutenant Colonel Eyre, leading the Staffordshires, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Charles Coveny, who commanded a company of the Black Watch; all three had fallen in the battle and were to be interred just beyond the edge of the field on which they met their death. The scene was engraved from an ‘on the spot’ sketch made by ‘a military officer’, possibly Lieutenant B.W.R Ussher of the South Staffs, and reproduced in ‘The Graphic’ of March the 28th.

The Illustrated London News’ on March 21st had carried a double page engraving depicting the Kirbekan fight at about the time General Earle and Lt. Colonel Coveny were killed. Indeed the large portrait engravings of Robert Coveny that appeared in English journals re-porting the engagement would have made his face familiar to their host of readers. He would have been one of the exceedingly few Australians, who had at that time achieved such familiarity with the British public in life or in death.

A promise kept

For co-author of this book, Laila Haglund, the completion of the work and its publication, has been the fulfilment of a promise she made to her husband, John Burless, who died during its compilation.

Laila reports, ‘This background to the story to be told here was prepared by my late husband John Burless. I promised him, as he was dying, that I would try to finish his work, use what I could of his material and add what else I could find that seemed relevant. Several Mort family members have been very helpful.

‘It has taken me, a Swedish archaeologist, some five years to move from Australian prehistory into the complexities of Victorian British politics and warfare; a very interesting and often shocking journey.

‘Having read the Illustrated London News report, above, John had become fascinated by the life and times of Robert Coveny and embarked on a long and detailed research project to discover the full story of how the Australian had ended up in command of a famous British Regiment and what had happened to him.

‘Sadly, time was not on John’s side and he was ailing as he was working on the project.  After months of busy research, and a period of convalescence, John died 3rd September 2009, and it was time for me to take over by contacting some Mort family members who had been assisting John and were already known to me, and by ploughing through his volumes of notes and the many books (about 2-3 shelf metres) needed to teach me about Victorian times – and wars.’

‘Happily, the work has now been published and is now into its second print run,’ she says.

Laila also states that, to the best of her knowledge, the account of the life and death of Robert Coveny is notable because he has the distinction of being the first Commissioned Officer from Australia to have died in action  in any war.

Title: Robert Coveny. Australian and Officer of the Black Watch

Sub title: A biography compiled by Laila Haglund and the late John Burless

ISBN:  978-0-9924546-2-3

Published by: , David Mason-Jones, Journalist. 15 Valley Road, Denhams Beach, NSW, 2536. Mob: 0411 172 328. Email:

Price: $34.50 plus $13.50 postage and handling in Australia

First published: In Australia in 2016.

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