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.’
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.