Harry "The Breaker" Morant
Harry "The Breaker" Harbord Morant.
|Birth name||Edwin Henry Morant|
|Nickname(s)||Harry, The Breaker|
|Born||9 December 1864|
Bridgwater, Somerset, England
|Died||27 February 1902 (aged 37)|
Pretoria, South African Republic
|Years of service||1899 – 1902|
|Unit||South Australian Mounted Rifles|
|Battles/wars||Second Boer War|
Harry "Breaker" Harbord Morant, probably born Edwin Henry Murrant (9 December 1864 – 27 February 1902), was an Anglo-Australian drover, horseman, bush poet and military officer, who was convicted and executed for murder during the Second Anglo-Boer War.
While serving with the Bushveldt Carbineers during the Second Anglo-Boer War, Lieutenant Morant was arrested and court-martialed for war crimes—one of the first such prosecutions in British military history. According to military prosecutors, Morant retaliated for the death in combat of his commanding officer with a series of revenge killings against both Boer POWs and many civilian residents of the Northern Transvaal.
He was accused of the summary execution of Floris Visser, a wounded prisoner of war, and the slaying of four Afrikaners and four Dutch schoolteachers who had been taken prisoner at the Elim Hospital. Morant was found guilty and sentenced to death.
Lieutenants Morant and Peter Handcock were then court-martialed for the murder of the Rev. Carl August Daniel Heese, a South African-born Minister of the Berlin Missionary Society. Rev. Heese had spiritually counseled the Dutch and Afrikaner victims at Elim Hospital, indignantly vowed to inform Morant's commanding officer, and had been shot to death the same afternoon. Morant and Handcock were acquitted of the Heese murder, but their sentences for murdering Floris Visser and the eight victims at Elim Hospital were implemented by a firing squad from the Cameron Highlanders on 27 February 1902.
Morant and Handcock have become folk heroes in modern Australia, representing a turning point for Australians’ self-determination and independence from British rule. Their court-martial and death have been the subject of books, a stage play, and an award-winning Australian New Wave movie by director Bruce Beresford.
Upon its release during 1980, Beresford's movie both brought Morant's life story to a worldwide audience and "hoisted the images of the accused officers to the level of Australian icons and martyrs." Many Australians now regard Morant and Handcock as scapegoats or even as the victims of judicial murder. Attempts continue, with wide public support, to obtain a posthumous pardon or even a new trial.
According to South African historian Charles Leach, "In the opinion of many South Africans, particularly descendants of victims as well as other involved persons in the far Northern Transvaal, justice was only partially achieved by the trial and the resultant sentences. The feeling still prevails that not all the guilty parties were dealt with – the notorious Captain Taylor being the most obvious one of all."
Inquiries made during 1902 by the newspapers The Northern Miner and The Bulletin identified the "Breaker" as 'Edwin Henry Murrant' who was born at Bridgwater in Somerset, England, in December 1864, the son of Edwin Murrant and Catherine (née Riely). Edwin and Catherine were master and matron of the Union Workhouse at Bridgewater and after Edwin died in August 1864, four months before the birth of his son, Catherine continued her employment as matron until her retirement in 1882. She died during 1899 when Morant was in Adelaide, South Australia, preparing to embark for military service in South Africa.
Despite his humble origins, Morant could easily pass for a member of the British upper class and created a number of romantic legends about his past. He was often described as "well-educated" and claimed to have been born in 1865 at Bideford, Devon, England, and to be the son of Admiral Sir George Digby Morant of the Royal Navy, a claim repeated as fact by later writers, although the Admiral denied it.
Although Morant has often been described as an Australian, his former defence counsel, Major J. F. Thomas later "reacted strongly" whenever his former client was described as such. In a letter to The Sydney Morning Herald on 16 June 1923, Major Thomas wrote, "Morant was not an Australian, he was an Englishman, who came to this country for 'colonial experience'." At the time, and until the Australian nationality law of 1948, all 'Australians' were in fact, British subjects.
After his arrival, Murrant adopted the name Harry Harbord Morant and first settled in outback Queensland. During the next 15 years, he relocated to various places in Queensland, New South Wales and South Australia. He gained a reputation as a liquor drinking, womanising "bush" poet and an expert horseman. He was one of the few who managed to ride the notorious buckjumper horse Dargin's Grey in a race that became a roughriding legend.
Morant worked in a variety of occupations; he reportedly traded horses in Charters Towers, then worked for a time for a newspaper at Hughenden during 1884, but there are suggestions[who?] that he left both towns as a result of debts. He then relocated around for some time until he found work as a bookkeeper and storeman in the Esmeralda cattle station.
He then worked for several years as an itinerant drover and horse-breaker, as well as writing his popular bush ballads, becoming friendly with famed Australian bush poets Henry Lawson, Banjo Paterson, and Will H. Ogilvie. The bond between Ogilvie and Morant was quite strong, and subject of a book Breaker's mate: Will Ogilvie in Australia. Ogilvie went to write at various times:
During 1899 Morant enlisted with the Second Contingent of the South Australian Mounted Rifles at Adelaide. According to a 13 January 1900 report of his enlistment by The Adelaide Advertiser, Morant, like all other volunteers, read and signed the following declaration:
Morant was reportedly invited to visit the summer residence of South Australia's governor, Lord Tennyson. After completing his training, he was appointed lance corporal and his regiment embarked for the Transvaal on 26 January 1900.
In many respects, the terrain and climate of South Africa is remarkably similar to that of outback Australia, so Morant was in his element. His superb horsemanship, expert bush skills, and educated manner soon attracted the attention of his superiors. South Australian Colonel Joseph Gordon recommended him as a dispatch rider to Bennet Burleigh, the war correspondent of the London Daily Telegraph; the job reportedly provided Morant with ample opportunity to visit the nearby hospital and pursue dalliances with the nurses.
A letter written on 23 January 1901 was sent to Admiral Sir George Morant by the Mount Nelson Hotel in Cape Town alleging that Sergeant Morant had stayed there during November 1900, while claiming to be the Admiral's son. "The Breaker" had further claimed to be a war correspondent for the Daily Telegraph and had "left without discharging his liability" of £16: 13s. The letter concluded, "We shall esteem it a favour if you will let us know the course we had better adopt. We are adverse to taking the matter to court till we had heard from you."
According to his co-defendant, Lieutenant George Witton, Morant served with the South Australian Second Contingent for nine months, during which time he was promoted to the rank of sergeant.
During March 1900, Sergeant Morant carried dispatches for the Flying Column to Prieska, commanded by Colonel Lowe, 7th D.G., who was in the general advance to Bloemfontein and participated with the engagements of Karee Siding and Kroonstadt, and other engagements with Lord Roberts until the entry into Pretoria. Morant was at the Battle of Diamond Hill and was then part of General French's staff, Cavalry Brigade, as war correspondent with Bennet Burleigh of the London Daily Telegraph. He accompanied that unit through Middelburg and Belfast to the occupation of Barberton. At this point, he took leave and returned to England for six months. There, he befriended Captain Percy Frederic Hunt, and the two of them became engaged to a pair of sisters.
Captain Hunt, who was still "signed on", returned to South Africa to command the B squadron of the Bushveldt Carbineers, whereas Morant (who had intended that his military service end) followed him soon afterward not having found the forgiveness he sought in England. Originally, he returned to South Africa to accept a commission with Baden Powell's Transvaal Constabulary; he was convinced by Hunt to instead accept a commission with the Bushveldt Carbineers (BVC).
Lieutenant Morant enlisted as a commissioned officer of the Bushveldt Carbineers (BVC) on 1 April 1901.
After their defeats in open battle during 1899–1900, the Boer Commandos began a guerrilla campaign against both British and Commonwealth forces. In response, Lord Kitchener, the British commander in South Africa, assembled and deployed a number of irregular regiments to combat Boer commando units and protect British interests in the region. On his return from leave, Morant joined one of these irregular units, the Bushveldt Carbineers (or BVC), a 320-man regiment that had been formed and commanded during February 1901 by an Australian, Colonel Robert Lenehan. After his friend's example, Captain Hunt joined the BVC soon after.
By the summer of 1901, rumours had reached the Officer Commanding at Pietersburg "of poor discipline, unconfirmed murders, drunkenness, and general lawlessness in the Spelonken." It was further alleged that a local woman had accused a British Army officer of sexual assault. Further investigation revealed that the alleged rapist was Captain James Robertson, the commanding officer of the Bushveldt Carbineers' A Squadron, based at Sweetwaters Farm. In response, Captain Robertson was recalled to HQ and given a choice between court martial and resigning his commission. Robertson submitted his resignation and quit the British Armed Forces.
In response, Captain Percy Frederic Hunt, "an Englishman, a former Lieutenant in Kitchener's Fighting Scouts, and a fine horseman" was ordered to the Northern Transvaal and given command of the Bushveldt Carbineers "B Squadron". Before departing Pietersburg on the night of 11 July 1901, Captain Hunt successfully "requested the transfer of certain officers and friends of his" to his new field of command. These men included Lieutenants Morant, Charles Hannam, and Harry Picton.
The exact sequence and nature of the events resulting in Morant's arrest and trial are still disputed, and accounts vary considerably. While it seems certain that some members of the BVC were responsible for shooting Boer POWs and civilian noncombatants, the precise circumstances of these killings and the identities of those responsible will probably never be known for certain. The following account is drawn mainly from the only surviving eyewitness source, and the 1907 book Scapegoats of the Empire by Lieutenant George Witton, one of the three Australians sentenced to death for the alleged murders and the only one to escape execution.
With Hunt now commanding the detachment at Fort Edward, discipline was immediately reimposed by Lieutenant Morant and Lieutenant Handcock, but this was resisted by some. In one incident, several members of a supply convoy commanded by Lieutenant Picton looted the rum it was carrying, resulting in their arrest for insubordination and for threatening to shoot Picton. They escaped to Pietersburg, but Captain Hunt sent a report to Colonel Lenehan, who had them detained. When the matter was brought before Colonel Hall, the commandant of Pietersburg, he ordered the offenders to be discharged from the regiment and released. In his book, Witton explicitly accused these disaffected troopers of being responsible for "the monstrous and extravagant reports about the BVC which appeared later in the English and colonial press."
Back at Fort Edward, the seized livestock were collected and given to the proper authorities and the stills were destroyed, but according to Witton, these actions were resented by the perpetrators, and as a result Morant and Handcock were "detested"[This quote needs a citation] by certain members of the detachment.
Witton arrived at Fort Edward on 3 August with Sergeant Major Hammett and 30 men, and it was at this point that he met Morant and Handcock for the first time.
At the end of July 1901, the garrison at Fort Edward received a visit from the Reverend Fritz Reuter of the Berlin Missionary Society and his family. Rev. Reuter was assigned to the Medingen Mission Station and, despite later claims by his family, he "seems to have been an exception" to the generally Republican sympathies "of the Zoutpansberg German population". In conversation with Captain Hunt, Rev. Reuter reported that Veldcornet Barend Viljoen's Commando was present at Duivelskloof and had been "harassing local noncombatant farmers". Rev. Reuter further alleged that his own mission station had been threatened. In response, Captain Hunt ordered a detachment under BVC Sergeant A.B.C. Cecil to protect the missionary and his family on their return journey.
After Rev. Reuter's intelligence had been confirmed by a Native runner, Captain Hunt also learned that Sergeant Cecil's patrol had been ambushed near the Medingen Mission Station. In response, the captain departed Fort Edward on 2 August 1901 with the intention of ambushing the Viljoen Commando. In addition to service personnel of the Bushveldt Carbineers, the patrol included Tony Schiel, a defector from the Zoutpansberg Commando and Intelligence Scout for Captain Taylor.
It was to be Schiel's task to command between 300 and 400 irregulars drawn from the local Lobedu people. According to South African historian Charles Leach, Captain Hunt had received "warnings and expressions of caution" regarding "the wisdom of attacking an enemy position at night" without normal reconnaissance of the place. Deciding to proceed anyway, Captain Hunt commanded "his patrol into a situation that would echo through the next 100 years."
According to the diary of BVC Trooper J.S. Silke, Rev. Reuter warned Hunt against attacking. The Viljoen farm, he explained, was built on a rocky hillside and "was unassailable". Furthermore, the nearby Botha farm contained more than 40 armed men who could easily intercept Hunt's line of retreat. Despite the warning and the fact that it was a bright moonlit night, Hunt chose to attack anyway.
After planning a two-pronged attack, Captain Hunt ordered Trooper Silke to wait for a signal shot and rush the farmhouse from behind with 50 Lobedu warriors. Then, Captain Hunt approached the farmhouse via concrete steps terraced into the hillside.
Meanwhile, the Viljoen Commando knew, according to Burgher Hendrik Adriaan Jacobs, that an attack was coming. Many commandos, however, were "feverish" from the effects of malaria and fatalistically waited for the arrival of the Bushveldt Carbineers. Jacobs later recalled how he saw Hunt's party through a window and began shooting. Possibly mistaking Jacobs's first shot for the signal, the BVC and the Lobedu also began shooting and general pandemonium ensued. In an exchange of fire, Captain Hunt was shot through the chest. Sergeant Eland was killed attempting to go to Hunt's aid, as was at least one Lobedu warrior. On the Boer side, Barend Viljoen, his brother J.J. Viljoen, and G. Hartzenberg were killed. The dead of both sides were left behind by their retreating comrades.
When the surviving members of the patrol returned to Medingen Mission Station, Rev. Reuter asked them about their officers and "was told a confusing and contradictory story of what had happened". Decades later, Rev. Reuter's daughter recalled in a televised interview, "My father roused on them, asking how they could leave their Captain like that."
According to Leach, Captain Hunt's broken neck would be consistent with a fall down the concrete steps after being wounded. The mutilations found on his body were also found on the bodies of the three dead Boers. Both sides blamed the other for the disfigurement of the dead. Hendrik Jacobs, however, believed that Lobedu witch-doctors were responsible. According to historian Charles Leach, the mutilations do conform with accounts, by French anthropologist Henri Junod, of the traditional warfare practices of the Lobedu people.
The body of Captain Percy Hunt was buried at the Medingen Mission Station, where a cross was later installed by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Sergeant Eland was buried at his family's homestead, the Ravenshill Farm, after a burial service was read by Rev. Reuter.
When news of Hunt's death reached the fort, it had a profound effect on Morant; Witton said he became "like a man demented". Morant immediately ordered every available man out on patrol, became emotional while addressing the men, and ordered them to avenge the death of their captain and "give no quarter".
Significantly, Morant did not see Hunt's body himself; according to Witton, Morant arrived about an hour after the burial. He questioned the men about Hunt's death and, convinced that his friend had been murdered in cold blood, he again vowed to give no quarter and take no prisoners. Witton recounted that Morant then declared that he had, on occasion, ignored Hunt's order to this effect in the past, but that he would carry it out in the future.
The next day, after leaving a few men to guard the mission (which the Boers threatened to burn in reprisal for harbouring the British), Morant commanded his unit back to the Viljoen farm. It had been abandoned, so they tracked the retreating Boers all day, sighting them just at dusk. As the Australians closed in, the emotional Morant began shooting too early and they lost the element of surprise, so most of the Boers escaped. They did, however, capture one commando named Visser, wounded in the ankles so that he could not walk.
The next morning, as Morant and his men continued their pursuit, a native runner brought a message that the lightly-manned Fort Edward was in danger of being attacked by the Boers, so Morant decided to abandon the chase.
At this time, he searched and questioned Visser and found items of British uniform, including a pair of trousers which he believed was Hunt's, but which was later proved to be of much older origin. Morant then told Witton and others that he would have Visser shot at the first opportunity. When they stopped to eat around 11 a.m., Morant again told Witton that he intended to have Visser shot, quoting orders "direct from headquarters" and citing Kitchener's recent alleged "no prisoners" proclamation. He called for a firing party, and although some of the men initially objected, Visser was made to sit down on an embankment (he could not stand), and was shot. After being shot, Visser was still alive, and Morant ordered Picton to administer a coup-de-grace with pistol shots to the head.
On the return journey to the fort, Morant's unit stopped for the night at the store of a British trader, a Mr Hays, who was well known for his hospitality. After they left, Hays was raided by a party of Boers who looted everything he owned. When Morant and his men arrived back at Fort Edward, they learned that a convoy under Lieutenant Neel had arrived from Pietersburg the previous day, just in time to reinforce Captain Taylor against a strong Boer force that attacked the fort. During the encounter, one Carbineer was wounded and several horses were shot. It was at this time that Taylor had a native shot, for refusing to give him information about the Boers' movements. Neel and Picton then returned to Pietersburg.
Other killings followed. On 23 August, Morant commanded a small patrol to intercept a group of eight prisoners from Viljoen's commandos who were being brought in as prisoners; Morant ordered them to be taken to the side of the road and summarily shot. The South African born German missionary Reverend Predikant C.H.D. Heese spoke to the prisoners prior to the shooting.
About a week later, reports began to circulate that Reverend Heese had been found shot along the Pietersburg road about 15 miles (24 km) from the fort on his way to Pietersburg to report the activities of Morant and his group to the British authorities. Soon afterwards, acting on a report that three armed Boer commandos were travelling to the fort, Morant took Handcock and several other men to intercept them. After the Boers surrendered with a white flag, they were taken prisoner, disarmed and shot.
Later the same day, Major Lenehan arrived at Fort Edward for a rare visit. Morant persuaded Lenehan to let him command a strong patrol out to search for a small Boer unit commanded by Field-cornet Kelly, an Irish-Boer commando whose farm was in the district. Kelly had fought against the British in the main actions of the war, and after returning to his home he had become a commando rather than surrender.
Morant's patrol left Fort Edward on 16 September 1901 with orders from Lenehan that Kelly and his men were to be captured and brought back alive if possible. Covering 130 miles (210 km) in a week of hard riding, they left their horses 2 miles (3.2 km) from Kelly's laager and went the rest of the way on foot. During the early hours of the next morning, Morant's patrol charged the laager, this time taking the Boers completely by surprise; Morant himself arrested Kelly at gunpoint at the door of his tent. A week later, they returned to Fort Edward with the Kelly party and then escorted them safely to Pietersburg. The British commandant, Colonel Hall, sent Morant a message congratulating him on the success of his mission, after which Morant took two weeks' leave.
On 4 October 1901, a letter signed by 15 members of the Bushveldt Carbineers (BVC) garrison at Fort Edward was dispatched secretly to Col. F.H. Hall, the British Army Officer Commanding at Pietersburg. Written by BVC Trooper Robert Mitchell Cochrane, a former Justice of the Peace from Western Australia, the letter accused members of the Fort Edward garrison of six "disgraceful incidents":
The letter then accused the Field Commander of the BVC, Major Robert Lenahan, of being "privy to these misdeamenours. It is for this reason that we have taken the liberty of addressing this communication direct to you." After listing numerous civilian witnesses who could confirm their allegations, Trooper Cochrane concluded, "Sir, many of us are Australians who have fought throughout nearly the whole war while others are Africaners who have fought from Colenso till now. We cannot return home with the stigma of these crimes attached to our names. Therefore we humbly pray that a full and exhaustive inquiry be made by Imperial officers in order that the truth be elicited and justice done. Also we beg that all witnesses may be kept in camp at Pietersburg till the inquiry is finished. So deeply do we deplore the opprobrium which must be inseparably attached to these crimes that scarcely a man once his time is up can be prevailed to reenlist in this corps. Trusting for the credit of thinking you will grant the inquiry we seek."
In response to the letter written by Trooper Cochrane, Colonel Hall summoned all Fort Edward officers and noncommissioned officers to Pietersburg on 21 October 1901. All were met by a party of mounted infantry five miles outside Pietersburg on the morning of 23 October 1901 and "brought into town like criminals". Morant was arrested after returning from leave in Pretoria, where he had gone to settle the affairs of his deceased friend Captain Hunt.
Although the trial transcripts, like almost all others dating from between 1850 and 1914, were later destroyed by the British civil service, it is known that a Court of Inquiry, the British military's equivalent to a grand jury, was convened on 16 October 1901. The President of the Court was Col. H.M. Carter, who was assisted by Captain E. Evans and Major Wilfred N. Bolton, the Provost Marshal of Pietersburg. The first session of the Court occurred on 6 November 1901 and continued for four weeks. Deliberations continued for further two weeks, at which time it became known that the indictments would be as follows:
In a confidential report to the War Office, Col. J. St. Claire wrote, "I agree generally with the views expressed by the Court of Inquiry in the opinions of the several cases. The idea that no prisoners were to be taken in the Spelonken area appears to have been started by the late Captain Hunt & after his death continued by orders given personally by Captain Taylor.
"The statement that Captain Hunt's body had been maltreated is in no way corroborated & the reprisals undertaken by Lt Morant on this idea were utterly unjustifiable.
"Lieut Morant seems to have been the primary mover in carrying out these orders, & Lieut Handcock willingly lent himself out as the principle executioner of them.
"Lieut Morant acquiesced in the illegal execution of the wounded Boer Visser & took a personal part in the massacre of the 8 surrendered Boers on 23 August.
"The two N.C.O.s acted under orders but were not justified in obeying illegal commands. After the murder of Van Buuren the officers seem to have exercised a reign of terror in the District, which hindered their men from reporting their illegal acts & even prevented their objecting to assist in the crime."
The court-martial of Morant and his co-accused began on 16 January 1902 and was conducted in several stages. Two main hearings were conducted at Pietersburg in relatively relaxed conditions; one concerned the shooting of Visser, the other the "Eight Boers" case. A large number of depositions by members of the BVC were made, giving damning evidence against the accused. For example, a Trooper Thompson stated that, on the morning of the 23rd (1901), he saw a party of soldiers with eight Boers: "Morant gave orders, and the prisoners were taken off the road and shot, Handcock killing two with his revolver. Morant later told me that we had to play into his hands, or else they would know what to expect."[This quote needs a citation] A Corporal Sharp said that he "would walk 100 miles barefoot to serve in a firing squad to shoot Morant and Handcock."
Soon after the second hearing, the prisoners were put in irons, taken to Pretoria while heavily guarded, and tried on the third main count, that of killing Reverend Heese. Although acquitted of killing Reverend Heese, Morant and his co-accused were quickly sentenced to death on the other two charges. Morant and Handcock were shot within days of sentencing, while Witton's sentence was commuted to life imprisonment by Lord Kitchener. Kitchener personally signed Morant and Handcock's death warrants. The Field Marshal was absent on tour when the executions occurred.
| Photo of the grave of Morant and Handcock.|
Source:Genealogical Society of South Africa
During the day of 26 February, Morant and Handcock were visited by a distraught Major Thomas; Witton says that news of the impending execution had "almost driven him crazy".[This quote needs a citation] Thomas then rushed away to find Kitchener and plead with him, but was informed by Colonel Kelly that the Commander-in-Chief was away and was not expected back for several days. Thomas pleaded with Kelly to have the executions stayed for a few days until he could appeal to the King, but was told that the sentences had already been referred to England — and confirmed — and that there was "not the slightest hope" of a reprieve; Morant and Handcock "must pay for what he did".[This quote needs a citation]
When asked if he wanted to see a clergyman, Morant replied indignantly, "No! I'm a Pagan!" On hearing this, Handcock asked, "What's a Pagan?" and after hearing the explanation, declared "I'm a Pagan too!" As the afternoon wore on, all the prisoners could clearly hear the sound of coffins being built in the nearby workshop. At 16:00 hours, Witton was told he would be leaving for England at five o'clock the next morning.
That night, Morant, Picton, Handcock and Witton had a last supper together; at Morant's request, he and Handcock were allowed to spend their last night in the same cell. Morant spent most of the night writing and then penned a final sardonic verse, and a confession which read
At 05:00 hours on 27 February, Witton was taken away and was allowed to say a brief farewell to Morant and Handcock, but was only allowed to see them through the small gate in the cell door and clasped hands.
Shortly before 06:00 hours, Morant and Handcock were led out of the fort at Pretoria to be executed by a firing squad from the Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders. Both men refused to be blindfolded; Morant gave his cigarette case to the squad leader. His last words were reported as: "Shoot straight, you bastards! Don't make a mess of it!". A contemporary report from The Argus on 3 April 1902, however, has his last words as "Take this thing (the blindfold) off", and on its removal, "Be sure and make a good job of it!". Witton wrote that he was by then at Pretoria railway station and heard the volley of shots that killed his comrades. However, Robert Poore, who attended the execution, wrote in his diary that he put Witton and Lieutenant Picton on the train that left at 05:30 hours. Thus, Witton would have been several miles on the way to Cape Town when the execution occurred.
On 13 March 1884, Morant married Daisy May O'Dwyer, who later became famous as an anthropologist. Although Morant declared his age to be twenty-one, he was actually nineteen, making the marriage legally invalid. The Morants separated soon afterward and never formally divorced; Daisy reportedly refused to have him live with her after he failed to pay for the wedding and then stole some pigs and a saddle.
Morant claimed, at a Court of Enquiry in South Africa, to have become engaged to the sister of his close friend, BVC Captain Percy Frederic Hunt.
British military censorship prevented reports of the trial and execution from appearing in Australia until the end of March 1902. The Australian government and Lieutenant Handcock's wife, who lived in Bathurst with their three children, learned of Handcock and Morant's deaths from the Australian newspapers weeks after their executions. After learning of his sentence, Lieutenant Witton arranged to send two telegrams, one to the Australian government representative in Pretoria and the other to a relative in Victoria, but despite assurances from the British, neither telegram was ever received.
The newly federated Australian government demanded an explanation from Kitchener who, on 5 April 1902, sent a telegram to the Australian Governor-General, which was published in its entirety in the Australian press. It reads as follows:
News of the executions excited considerable public interest in the UK and a summary of the trial was published in The Times on 18 April 1902, but the British government announced in the House of Commons that, in keeping with normal practice, the court-martial proceedings would not be made public. During 1981, South African historian Dr. C.A.R. Schulenburg wrote to the Public Record Office and was informed by letter that the trial transcripts, like almost all others dating from between 1850 and 1914, had "been destroyed under statute" by the British civil service between 1923 and 1958.
The Treaty of Vereeniging was signed on 31 May 1902.
George Witton was transported to naval detention quarters in England and then to Lewes prison in Sussex. Some time later, he was transferred to the prison at Portland, Dorset, and was released after serving twenty-eight months. His release was notified to the British House of Commons on 10 August 1904. On his release he returned to Australia and for a while lived in Lancefield, Victoria, where he wrote his controversial book about the Morant case. He published it during 1907 with the provocative title Scapegoats of the Empire. The book was reprinted during 1982 following the success of the 1980 movie Breaker Morant. Witton died in Australia during 1942.
The Australian government was so resentful of this case that it insisted that none of its troops would be tried by the British military during World War I.
Morant's life, exploits, trial and execution have been examined in several books and numerous press and internet articles, but as noted above, each account varies very considerably from the others in both the facts presented and their interpretation. There are facts intermingled with fiction.
The most important primary source, the official record of the court-martial, vanished after the trial, and its location remains a mystery. A report on the case from Kitchener to the Australian Governor-General (published in the Australian press on 7 April 1902) quotes Kitchener as saying that "the proceedings have been sent home" [i.e. to England].[This quote needs a citation] Whatever their actual fate, the transcripts have not been seen since the trial and evidently not even the Australian government was granted access to them.
In the 'Afterword' to the 1982 reprint of Witton's book, G.A. Embleton states that[This quote needs a citation]
A comprehensive record of the trial of Morant and Handcock, complete with a large number of depositions by members of the BVC and other witnesses of the deeds of Morant and Handcock, appears in Arthur Davey's publication "Breaker Morant and the Bushveldt Carbineers" (Van Riebeeck Society, Cape Town 1987).
During 2012, South African historian Charles Leach published the book The Legend of Breaker Morant is DEAD and BURIED: A South African version of the Bushveldt Carbineers in the Zoutpansberg, May 1901 – April 1902. Based upon extensive research, Leach had complete access to unpublished South African sources and the papers of the Viljoen and Heese families.
Joe West, a British Bushveldt Carbineers researcher, wrote in response: "Charles Leach's impressive research has revealed that the crimes of Morant and his associates were worse than originally thought. In today's day and age Morant and Handcock plus several others would be arraigned before a War Crime Tribunal."
In the absence of the original trial records, three primary sources remain. The first is the report of the trial printed in The Times during April 1902; the second is George Witton's account of the events of 1901–02, contained in his book Scapegoats of the Empire. The third is a letter about the case, written by Witton to Major Thomas during 1929, which was kept secret at Witton's request until 1970. In it, Witton suggests that although Handcock confessed to the crimes, he did so under duress.
More recently, a diary written by Robert Poore, the Provost Marshall at the time, was unearthed with a record for 7 October 1901. It reads:
The Bushveldt Carbineers accepted the surrender of 8 Boers and after taking them along for some time shot them. If they had intended doing this they should not have accepted a surrender in the first instance. A German missionary was close by and so as to prevent him saying anything they shot him too. I just gave the outline of the case to lord K but it is a bad one.— Robert Poore, 
Different commentators have taken the diary entry either to mean that an order to take no prisoners did exist, exonerating Morant and Handcock, or that they had clearly acted wrongly by accepting a surrender from the Boers but then shooting them.
Craig Wilcox, in 'Australia's Boer war : the war in South Africa 1899-1902,' states the next important book in creating the Morant myth was Cutlack's Breaker Morant (1962), a short book as much a cartoon version of reality as The Bulletin once presented. (Wilcox, p. 363.) Cutlack's story, said Wilcox, was based on Witton's Scapegoats and Frank Fox's Breaker Morant.
The 1976 book The Australians At The Boer War by Australian writer R.L. Wallace gives a concise and reasonably detailed account of Morant's military career, trial and execution although it contains almost no information about Morant's earlier life and omits a number of significant details contained in Witton's account of the events resulting in Morant's trial. However, Wallace was writing an overall account of the Australians' role in South Africa, not the life of Morant, Handcock or Witton.
The most widely known book is the best-selling Australian novel The Breaker by Kit Denton, first published in 1973 and inspired by Denton's meeting and conversation with a Boer War veteran who had known Morant. Wilcox suggested this book is a follow-on from Cutlack's book and helped establish the myth. (Wilcox, p. 363.) However, Denton claimed that Morant and Handcock were executed in Pietersburg and buried near that spot. This mistake appeared in his book as late as 1981 (7th edition, p. 268), and is a possible reason as to why there is confusion about the location of the execution, i.e., Pretoria or Pietersburg.
Kenneth Ross's 1978 successful and widely acclaimed play Breaker Morant: A Play in Two Acts (ISBN 0-7267-0997-2), was adapted by Ross and Bruce Beresford into Beresford's 1980 movie Breaker Morant. The movie was nominated for the 1980 Academy Award for a screenplay adapted from another source.
During 1988 in the small town of Burra, South Australia, where Bruce Beresford's movie 'Breaker Morant' was filmed, David Jennings organized a 'Retrial of Morant, Handcock and Witton'. The townsfolk staged the retrial and generated the imagination of people from all over the world. Much archival material which had been gathering dust in attics was submitted. Although the three Justices of the Peace who presided over the 'Retrial' found all three not guilty on the balance of probabilities that Kitchener had issued the orders to execute Boers in khaki only a diary extract from a deceased Australian Staff Officer on Kitchener's staff indicated that he had verbally instructed Captain Hunt and the Bushveldt Carbineers to execute prisoners, especially those wearing khaki.
Although it is generally accepted that Morant and/or others in his regiment were responsible for the deaths of a number of Boer commandos, historical opinion is still divided over the main questions of the case — how many Boers were killed, by whom were they killed, and on whose orders? In his book, Born to Fight, Neil Speed has photos of a number of Canadian Scouts wearing black feathers (pp. 105 & 119.), a symbol that they would shoot any armed Boer they captured.
Morant's devotees, however, argue that he and Handcock were unfairly singled out for punishment even though many other British soldiers were known to have committed summary executions of Boer prisoners. In their opinion, the two Australians were made scapegoats by the British, who were intent on concealing the existence of the "take no prisoners" policy against Boer insurgents — a policy which, they claim, had been promulgated by Kitchener himself.
However, Hamish Paterson, a South African military historian and a member of the Military History Society, has emphasised that the Bushveldt Carbineers were a British Imperial unit, not an Australian one: technically, the two "Aussies" were British officers.
A 2002 book by Nick Bleszynski, Shoot Straight, You Bastards': The True Story Behind The Killing of 'Breaker' Morant, promoted the "scapegoat" argument. It said that while Morant and the others probably committed some crimes and may well have deserved disciplinary action, there is now persuasive evidence from several sources to show that the Kitchener 'no prisoners' order did indeed exist, that it was widely known among both the British and Australian troops and was performed by many disparate units. It also asserted that the court-martial's procedures were flawed.
The graves of Morant and Handcock were left unattended for many years, but after the release of Beresford's movie it became a popular place of pilgrimage for Australian tourists. During June 1998, the Australian Government spent $1,500 refurbishing the gravesite with a new concrete slab. The marble cross which stood over the grave had been vandalised, as had many other gravestones nearby.
A series of monuments now mark the locations of some of the incidents, including that of the night attack, and the site of the mass grave of eight burghers.
During 2002, a group of Australians travelled to South Africa and held a service at the Pretoria graveside to commemorate the execution on the morning of its hundredth anniversary. The service was also attended by the Australian High Commissioner to South Africa. The group left a new marker on the grave.
A petition to pardon Morant and Handcock was sent to Queen Elizabeth II during February 2010. The petition has been severely criticised in South Africa, specifically by descendants of the Viljoen brothers who were killed in the skirmish with Hunt and Eland and by the descendants of the family of Rev. Heese.
Hamish Paterson states: "I don’t think they [the Australian supporters of a Morant pardon] have actually considered what Morant was convicted of. Let's start off with the laws of war. If for example, we have a surrender. You want to surrender and I don’t accept your surrender, so I choose not to accept it, that I’m entitled to do. [...] However, the situation changes dramatically once I accept your surrender, then I must remove you from the battlefield to a POW camp and keep you safe. If, for example, Kitchener said, "take no prisoners", that was very different from "shoot prisoners!" So Morant and Handcock made two very basic errors: Once you’ve accepted the surrender, you take them to the railway line and get them shipped off to Bermuda, or wherever. At that point, the sensible thing to do was to ship them off to a POW camp. The next error was to shoot these guys in front of a neutral witness, and then you kill the witness. These are a series of terrible errors of judgement. Because they killed a German missionary, the Kaiser (became) involved. [...] Technically, the two "Aussies" were British officers. The problem was you were dealing with an unstable set-up in the BVC . It had just been formed. I don’t see a regular Australian unit behaving that way. I rather suspect why no British guys were shot was that they were either regular army or militia, or yeomanry, all of which are very unlikely to actually shoot prisoners. I think no British were shot because they hadn’t made the mistake of shooting prisoners who’d already surrendered."
Jim Unkles, an Australian lawyer, submitted two petitions during October 2009, one to Queen Elizabeth II and the other to the House of Representatives Petitions Committee, to review the convictions and sentences of Morant, Handcock, and Witton. The petitions were referred to the British Crown by the Australian Attorney General. On Monday, 27 February 2012, in a speech delivered to the House of Representatives on the hundred-and-tenth anniversary of the sentencing of the three men, Alex Hawke, the Member for Mitchell (NSW), described the case for the pardons as "strong and compelling".
During November 2010, the British Ministry of Defence stated that the appeal had been rejected: "After detailed historical and legal consideration, the Secretary of State has concluded that no new primary evidence has come to light which supports the petition to overturn the original courts-martial verdicts and sentences". The decision was supported by Australian military historian Craig Wilcox and by South African local historian Charles Leach, but Jim Unkles continues to campaign for a judicial inquiry.
During October 2011, then Australian Attorney General Robert McClelland incorrectly claimed by ABC radio that the executed men did not have legal representation at the Courts Martial. In fact, Major J. F. Thomas represented the men.
Nicola Roxon replaced Robert McClelland as Attorney General on 12 December 2011. On 9 May 2012, she indicated that the Australian government would not pursue the issue further with the British, as there was no doubt that the three men had committed the killings for which they were convicted, and the Australian government's position is that pardons are appropriate only when an offender is both "morally and technically innocent" of the offence. Roxon also noted the seriousness of the offences involved, explaining that "I consider that seeking a pardon for these men could be rightly perceived as ‘glossing over’ very grave criminal acts." After Roxon's announcement, McClelland said he would write to the British government expressing his concern about the lack of procedural fairness for the three accused.
During April 2016 it was announced that a person searching through rubbish at the council tip in Tenterfield, New South Wales, had recovered a rotting hessian sack containing an old mail bag; this was found to contain numerous items that were subsequently assessed as having almost certainly belonged to Morant. Although its provenance is obscure (Thomas died on 11 November, 1942) it is believed that the bag had originally come from the former home of James Thomas, the Tenterfield solicitor who defended Morant and his colleagues at their court martial. The items found included a number of personal effects engraved with Morant's name and/or his initials, including a penny on a leather thong, engraved with his name, which has a roughly circular nick on the edge. Although it cannot be confirmed, it is speculated that Morant was wearing the penny (an early form of 'dog tag') at the moment he was shot and that the nick was caused by the passage of one of the bullets that killed him. Other Morant effects contained in the bag included fragments of a trumpet, a bayonet scabbard, a bandolier (believed to be the one Morant wore in his famous photo portrait), a cigarette case (thought to be the one Morant gave to Thomas just before he was shot), brass drinking cups engraved with the initials HM, army field mess equipment, and a Boer War medal. The cache also included an Australian red ensign which is thought to be the same flag that is seen draping Morant and Handcock's grave in the famous photograph of Thomas standing by the burial plot. The ensign had been signed by Thomas in ink on one of the white stars and has the following inscription:
"This flag bore witness [to] utter scapegoats of the Empire Feb 27 1902 Pretoria."
"Signed J F Thomas."
"Handcock Feb 17 1868 Feb 27 1902 RIP."
"Lt Henry H Morant Dec 9 1864 Feb 27 1902 Pretoria RIP."
The bag also contained newspaper clippings and books and papers pertaining to Sir Henry Parkes and the Australian Federation process. Unfortunately, a significant quantity of badly damaged documents found in the bag were discarded by the anonymous finder before he realised the significance of the trove. The anonymous finder – known only as "Mr Collector" – subsequently donated the items to Tenterfield's Henry Parkes School of Arts museum, where they are now on public display.
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