Whenever the Boer War is mentioned, the first thing many Australians think about is the 27 February 1902 execution by firing squad of Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant and Peter Handcock. 110 years after his execution, there is a move to have Morant pardoned. History editor Dr Glenn Davies reflects on the arguments for his innocence or guilt.
31 MAY 2012 marked the 110th anniversary of the end of the South African War (Second Anglo-Boer War). The Peace Treaty of Vereeniging was signed on 31 May 1902 between the South African Republic and the Republic of the Orange Free State on one side, and the British Empire on the other. In Australia, the Boer War is often called Australia’s ‘forgotten war’.
Between 1899 and 1902, 16,000 men went from Australia to the Boer War in South Africa, with more than 500 of them dying there. Australians who served also included an unknown number of Aboriginal trackers. Six Australians received the Victoria Cross in South Africa, and many others received other decorations. Though the nation honoured its dead with ceremonies and monuments, the enormity of the following two world wars has overshadowed the legacy of this terrible and bloody conflict. In truth, it was a nasty, bloody affair. Cruelty abounded. British soldiers besieged in Kimberley refused to let Africans have meat or vegetables. Many starved to death or died of scurvy. In Mafeking, Baden-Powell left 2,000 Africans to starve or be shot by the Boers. The Boers flogged and shot Africans caught working for the British and did the same to white army scouts. Some units swore not to take prisoners.
Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant was born in Somerset in 1864 and moved to Australia when he was 19, finding fame as a horse-breaker, drover and poet in the 1890s. He earned a reputation as a charming scoundrel, but a heavy drinker and a womaniser. When war broke out in South Africa, he volunteered to fight with the English against the Boers. In 1901, his unit – the Bushveldt Carbineers – killed 12 prisoners of war and one German witness. The Bushveldt Carbineers had an Australian flavour, drawing on colonials who were accomplished riders, expert shots and well-adapted to the South African climate and terrain. More than 40 per cent of its 320 members were Australian. The killings of prisoners took place over four days and followed the death of the men’s commanding officer, Captain Frederick Hunt, in an assault on a Boer stronghold. Hunt was a close friend of Morant’s and the latter was reportedly enraged by accounts that his body had been mutilated. The men admitted to the shooting but it was not clear whether they had been ordered to kill the prisoners or not. The three never denied the shootings, but claimed it was accepted practice in the fog of war. They also maintained that Lord Kitchener, the commander of British troops in South Africa, had handed down secret orders not to take any prisoners.
A controversial aspect of Australia’s history in the Boer War was the trial and execution of Morant and another Australian army lieutenant, Peter Handcock, who both faced a firing squad on 27 February 1902 for killing 12 unarmed Boer prisoners. A third man, George Witton, was jailed for life. Some Australians were uneasy that the British army had punished these men. Still, they’d belonged to a British regiment, not an Australian one, and Morant had never considered himself Australian anyway. As news came out about the murders a consensus grew — shaped by a noisy campaign by Witton’s family — that Morant and Handcock deserved their fate, but Witton didn’t. Witton was released from prison after three years following a petition by 80,000 Australians to King Edward VII.
Morant and Handcock are the first and only Australians ever executed during war time. Their story attracted national attention in the early 1980s, following the publication of The Breaker by Kit Denton and the subsequent Bruce Beresford film Breaker Morant, starring Edward Woodward.
In one of the film’s best known lines, Morant describes the justice meted out during the Boer War.
“We applied rule .303. We caught them and we shot them under rule .303,” the character says, referring to the calibre of the standard issue army rifle of the time.
It is in this movie that Morant’s last words, as he faced the firing squad, are:
“Shoot straight, you bastards!”
Descendants of the three believe they did not receive a fair trial and have been campaigning for years to clear their names.
Former Navy lawyer, Commander James Unkles says he was researching Morant’s lawyer, Major James Thomas, when he became convinced the soldiers were innocent. He became involved in this case in 2009 after watching the ‘Breaker’ Morant movie. He became concerned by the disregard for the rights of the accused to a fair trial, in particular a reasonable opportunity for their Australian defending officer, Major James Thomas to prepare a defence case for Lieutenants Morant, Handcock and Witton who had been charged with killing Boer prisoners during the Boer War.
“It became very apparent to me that a major injustice had been committed and the only way it was going to be addressed was by taking some action,” he said.
As with most controversies, this one is mysterious. Commander Unkles says many transcripts from the original trial are missing and there are all sorts of theories as to their whereabouts. He has also identified apparent defects in the court-martial procedure, including the fact that the defendants received inadequate legal representation and were denied access to certain evidence.
The case for pardons for Morant, Handcock and Witton is also strengthened by the British government’s decision in 2002 to pardon over 300 soldiers executed during World War 1 for offences such as cowardice and desertion. The soldiers came from many countries, including Ireland, Canada and New Zealand. Two of the New Zealand soldiers had been born in Australia.
In October 2009, Unkles forwarded two petitions for pardons, one to the Australian House of Representatives Petitions Committee and the other to Australia’s head of state, the Queen. In May 2010, he also sent a petition to the Australian Senate. As a result of his lobbying of Australian politicians and letters to the British government, he succeeded in having the matter heard before the House of Representatives Petitions Committee on the 15 March 2010, where a member of the Committee described the grounds of appeal as strong and compelling. However, in October 2010 the case for pardons was rejected by the British government. The British decision did not deter Unkles. Since then, he has produced compelling evidence that orders not to take prisoners were issued by senior British officers, who were not held to account while Morant, Handcock and Witton were prosecuted and two of whom paid the ultimate price.
On 21 October 2011, the then Australian Attorney General, Robert McClelland stated in writing,
‘I have been persuaded that this case does raise procedural fairness concerns. To this end I have asked my Department to prepare a submission to the British Secretary for Defence, the Right Honourable Dr Liam Fox, MP to draw his attention to the questions that exist in this regard.’
McClelland’s intervention was significant as it represented the first occasion in 110 years since these Australian veterans were tried that an Australian Minister, on behalf of the Australian Government, had raised the matter with the British government.
Boer War historian Craig Wilcox, author of Australia’s Boer War: The War in South Africa, argues Breaker Morant and Peter Handcock should not be honoured with a posthumous pardon for their war crimes.
“I’ve got a gloomy view of the man himself and his elevation as a folk hero. Those who don’t share that view are blind to his crimes”
“Lining up civilians by the roadside and killing them, that’s just not right.
“My gut reaction is that they shouldn’t be pardoned.”
Wilcox states the petition to pardon Morant and Handcock is feeding off their myth as folk heroes, instead of their reality as cold-blooded killers. After their death in 1902, the execution gradually took on the dimensions of martyrdom and his story mutated into a cautionary tale about what can happen when Australian soldiers’ lives are given over to foreign wars and foreign generals. Like the legend of Ned Kelly, Morant’s story sits comfortably with us today. But Wilcox argues that his deeds resemble Kelly’s only in so far as he was executed for murder and he died game. For Wilcox, Harry Morant was a war criminal.
No one has questioned Morant and Handcock’s guilt, including the petition’s authors. The petition argues their convictions were unjust, partially because the soldiers’ right to plea for mercy from an execution was denied and the Australian government was not told of the trial until after they were both killed. Historian Richard Scully from UNE agrees Morant and his fellows were certainly denied certain rights which would otherwise have been available to troops in their position. But he asks whether the lack of procedural nicety and due process evident in a 110 year old court case is a reason to pardon men whom everyone agrees shot and killed declared enemies who surrendered to them, and shot and killed at least one civilian who witnessed the atrocities. He states that pardoning them
“…would achieve nothing more than assuaging a false sense of wounded Australian pride, based on a supposed victimization by our former ‘imperial masters’.”
And what signal would go out to our soldiers today? That taking out unarmed civilians isn’t so bad after all, if you can somehow pass the buck to the Poms, the Yanks or whoever? But the guilty verdicts were the consequence of real crimes that could not be denied.
Jim Unkles argues in favour of the Morant legend that Morant, Handcock and Whitton were denied justice and, as is widely believed in Australia, they had been scapegoated to appease German outrage over the killing of a South African-born German missionary.
”Although Morant, Handcock and Witton admitted shooting Boer prisoners, they were not the only ones and were following orders – orders which, according to British military legal documents, did exist”
On the other hand, Wilcox and Scully contend the arguments put by the accused — merely following orders, merely avenging enemy barbarities, merely doing what other soldiers were secretly doing — were as bogus as they were inconsistent. Just because some other soldiers involved in the incident escaped punishment at the time didn’t make Morant, Handcock and Witton any less guilty.
In December 2011, McClelland was replaced as Attorney General by Nicola Roxon. In May 2012, she overturned the finding of her predecessor, expressing concern about “the morality of advocating on behalf of the three Australians”. But don’t discount the lingering power of the Morant legend. Politicians are busy people, with too little time to read enough history to establish an independent view about the past. But they do glance at the polls — and Jim Unkles insists ordinary Australians are as impatient as he is to rehabilitate Morant.
Unkles insists this is not the end of the road in the campaign to get justice for the three Australians. Although he has now exhausted all the possibilities and avenues of appeal with regard to the British and Australian governments and the Queen, he will now lodge an appeal in the British High Court in London. It will be interesting to see which side is accepted: that of the Morant legend and his ill-treatment at the hands of British generals, or the contention that he was guilty of war crimes and received a just punishment. As this controversy began in a court of law, perhaps it is only fitting that it should be resolved in a court of law.
(For more information about James Unkles campaign to get a pardon for Breaker Morant and brothers-in-arms, see his Breaker Morant blog.)
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