About the author
For more than three decades Greg Growden was a senior sportswriter for The Sydney Morning Herald and Sun Herald, where he was chief rugby union correspondent between 1987and 2012. After a six-year stint as Australian rugby correspondent for ESPN, he returned to The Sydney Morning Herald as a sports columnist in 2019. He has written fifteen books, including A Wayward Genius – a biography of Australian Test cricketer Leslie ‘Chuck’ Fleetwood-Smith, rated by renowned British writer Frank Keating as among the 100 best sporting books of the 20th century.
Words by Greg Growden
One book can lead to another. While researching an Australian Test footballer’s involvement in the Boer War for my book The Wallabies at War, I was distracted. I was thumbing through Craig Wilcox’s excellent Australia’s Boer War, when I wondered if there was any Breaker Morant rugby connection.
There wasn’t, but I was soon compelled into reading a short summary of Major Thomas’s eventful life. Shortly after, I contacted my agent Jeanne Ryckmans, who had previously been involved in publishing a Breaker Morant book, to ask: ‘Why hasn’t there ever been a book written about Major Thomas? It’s an incredible story.’
She agreed. ‘Why? Good question. Get onto it.’
The interest had been there for some time, especially as some years earlier I was among a group of Australian sportswriters who had tracked down Morant and Handcock’s grave in Pretoria, while over the years during numerous trips to South Africa had visited various Boer War battle sites.
And so the intense research began. This has been a hard toil, involving endless hours, days and kilometres going through newspapers, files, private documents, reports, and almost ending up blind in front of a microfilm machine, poring over copies of newspapers, files and reports. Much of the information was difficult to find, but the often exhausting search was fruitful.
It involved trips to the beautiful town of Tenterfield, to follow Thomas’s tracks, and also some unexpected on-the-road delights, in particular discovering the University of New England and Regional archives in Armidale – a treasure trove of information.
Historian Ken Halliday was correct when describing Thomas as ‘the meat in the sandwich’ in many disputes, which resulted in a terrible final few years of his life, ostracised by a community that once flocked around him. Few are able to adequately handle the slide from fawned-upon community king to a ridiculed nobody. That he did for many years is a testament to his courage and spirit. He never truly gave up believing in himself.
Was he misguided? Undoubtedly.
Were there mitigating circumstances? Certainly.
Was he a hero? Definitely. He had some glowing war moments and believed in his fellow troops.
Was he a fool? No. He did too many good deeds and for the most part was too creditable and loyal a leader to be regarded as a buffoon. Yes, he has been maligned.
The impossible-to-dispute fact is that in this dreadfully messy Morant fiasco, where he suffered as much pain as those he diligently defended, Thomas was the third victim.
The real, unexpurgated story of Major James Francis Thomas, with its many complexities, blemishes and unexpected twists and turns, is compelling. It is a story that has to be told.