Breaker Morant

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Historical figures

Harry 'Breaker' Harbord Morant
Harry 'Breaker' Harbord Morant
For the film of the same name, see 'Breaker' Morant (film)

Harry 'Breaker' Harbord Morant ( 1864- 27 February 1902) was an Anglo-Australian drover, horseman, poet and soldier whose renowned skill with horses earned him the nickname "The Breaker." Articulate, intelligent and well educated, he was also a published poet and became one of the better-known "back-block bards" of the 1890s, with the bulk of his work appearing in The Bulletin magazine.

During his service in the Second Boer War, Morant ordered the summary execution of several Afrikaner and African prisoners, which led to his controversial court-martial and execution for murder by the British Army; his death warrant was personally signed by the British commander in South Africa, Lord Kitchener.

In the century since his death Morant has become a folk hero in Australia. His story has been the subject of several books and a major Australian feature film. Even during his lifetime there was a great deal of conflicting information about this romantic but elusive figure, and many of the stories about him are undoubtedly apocryphal.

Early life

Accounts of Morant's life before the Boer War vary considerably and it appears that Morant himself fabricated a number of these romantic legends. His full name was either Henry Harbord Morant or Edwin Henry Murrant; he was certainly born in England, probably in Devon; his date of birth is believed to have been around Christmas 1864 or sometime in 1865. He spent his early years in the Union Workhouse in Bridgwater, England, where his mother was employed, he also knew a fellow called Daniel Green, who was his friend and mentor.

Morant is often described as being 'well educated'. He claimed to be the illegitimate son of Admiral Sir George Digby Morant of the Royal Navy, a claim often repeated as fact by later writers, although the Admiral is said to have denied it. Other sources name his parents as Edwin Murrant and Catherine Riely. Although it is yet to be proven, Australian author Nick Bleszynski claims that there is 'strong circumstantial evidence' to suggest that The Breaker was indeed the son of Admiral Morant.

Through an unknown set of circumstances, the young Morant came into the care of a wealthy Scottish author, soldier, hunt-master and golfer, George Whyte-Melville. Regarded as the greatest British equestrian of his day, he is believed to have exerted a strong influence on Morant, who clearly flourished under his patronage, and learned the horsemanship for which he was to become famous.

Morant emigrated to Australia in either 1883 or 1884 and settled in outback Queensland. Over the next fifteen years, working in Queensland, New South Wales and South Australia, the charismatic roustabout made a name for himself as a hard-drinking, womanising bush poet and gained renown as a fearless and expert horseman.

Morant worked in a variety of occupations. He reportedly traded in horses in Charters Towers, then worked for a time on a newspaper at Hughenden in 1884 but there are suggestions that he left both towns as a result of debts. He then drifted around for some time until he found work as a bookkeeper and storeman on the Esmaralda cattle station.

On March 13, 1884 Morant married Daisy May O'Dwyer, who later became famous in Australia as the anthropologist Daisy Bates, but the couple divorced soon after; Daisy reportedly threw him out after he failed to pay for the wedding and then stole some pigs and a saddle. He then worked for several years as an itinerant drover and horse-breaker, as well as writing his popular bush ballads, becoming known to and friendly with famed Australian poets Henry Lawson, Banjo Patterson and William Ogilvie.

Military career

At the time Morant volunteered for military service (in 1899), the formal federation of the Commonwealth of Australia was still two years away. Australia consisted of separate colonies, each of which was still subject to direct British rule, and because the population comprised such a high proportion of British migrants, most Australians still had strong ties to "The Mother Country". Consequently thousands of Australian men volunteered to fight for Britain in the Boer War, which pitted British colonial forces against Dutch Boer settlers in South Africa, as Britain attempted to expand its interests into the gold and diamond-rich Boer Republics of the Transvaal and Orange Free State Morants good friend Daniel Green served with Morant, but was shot along side capt.Hunt after the attack on 'Duiwelskloof'.

Evidently seeing it as a chance to return to England, Morant enlisted with the second contingent of the South Australian Mounted Rifles. While in Adelaide, Morant was reportedly invited to visit the summer residence of the South Australian governor, Lord Tennyson; after completing his training he was appointed Lance Corporal and his regiment embarked for the Transvaal on February 27, 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 the debonair Morant with ample opportunity to visit the nearby hospital and dally with the nurses.

The statement of service Morant tendered at his trial is quoted, apparently verbatim, in the book written by his friend and colleague George Witton. According to that account, Morant was commissioned as a Lieutenant in the Bushveldt Carbineers (BVC) on April 1, 1901; prior to that he had served in the South Australian Second Contingent for nine months with the rank of sergeant.

In March 1900 Morant carried despatches for the Flying Column to Prieska, under Col. Lowe, 7th D.G. He was in the general advance to Bloemfontein and took part in the engagements of Karee Siding and Kroonstadt, and other engagements with Lord Roberts until the entry into Pretoria. He was at Diamond Hill and was then attached to General French's staff, Cavalry Brigade, as war correspondent with Bennet Burleigh of the London Daily Telegraph. He accompanied that column through Middelburgh and Belfast to the occupation of Barberton. He was promoted to a commission in the Transvaal Constabulary, but at this point he took leave and returned to England for six months. Here he became close friends with Captain Percy Hunt, and Morant and Hunt became engaged to two sisters.

A previously unpublished photo in Nick Bleszinksi's book, taken ca. 1900 (presumably while on leave), shows the 35-year-old Morant to have been a debonair and strikingly handsome man. His short dark hair, carefully groomed, surmounts chiselled features and piercing pale eyes. His left foot rests on a stone; leaning slightly to his left, his left arm rests across the raised leg, riding crop held between thumb and forefinger, a cloth cap dangling from his fingers. Immaculately dressed in an expensive tailored riding outfit, his right thumb is hooked nonchalantly in the coat pocket, a cigarette dangling between his first two fingers.

The guerrilla campaign, 1901-1902

Following their defeats on the battlefield during 1899-1900, the Boer rebels embarked on a guerrilla campaign against the British. 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 BVC, a 320-strong regiment that had been formed in February 1901 under the command of an Australian, Colonel R.W. Lenehan. Following his friend's lead, Captain Hunt joined the BVC soon after.

The regiment, based in Pietersburg, 180 miles north of Pretoria, saw action in the Spelonken region of the Northern Transvaal during 1901-1902. The region was remote, wild and dangerous and was also in a particularly unhealthy malarial area, so the British had difficulty in finding troops; as a result many colonial soldiers were enlisted. About forty percent of the men in the BVC were Australians, but the regiment also included about forty surrendered Boers who had been recruited from the internment camps, and their presence was greatly resented by the Australians. The garrison was soon divided into two columns, one of which was under the command of Lt Morant, operating in the Strydpoort district, about thirty miles south-east of Pietersburg.

During the often savage guerrilla campaign, there were numerous atrocities on both sides. The Boer commandos had no uniform, they fought in their ordinary civilian attire. On long service, as the state of their clothing became progressively worse, many resorted to taking the clothes of captured troops. Some Boer commandos exploited the resulting potential for confusion, using the uniforms to gain a strategic advantage in battle by masquerading as British soldiers; they also blew up trains. Kitchener responded with equal ruthlessness, ordering the destruction of Boer farms and the mass internment of refugees and prisoners of war in order to deprive the commandos of their civilian support base. Kitchener foiled the train-wrecking by ordering the placing of Boer civilians on the front of trains.

Although unknown to the general public and denied by the Army during Morant's trial, it is evident that Kitchener did issue an order that British and colonial troops were to shoot any Boer commandos they encountered who were dressed in khaki. This secret order, confirmed in a cipher telegram sent by Kitchener to Lord Roberts, the British Secretary of War, on November 3, 1901, was to be Morant's undoing.

Morant's unit was very successful in eliminating roving bands of enemy commandos from their area, forcing the Boers to transfer their activities to the Bandolier Kop area, on the northern fringe of the Spelonken. In response, the BVC moved north under the command of a British officer, Captain James Huntley Robertson, and they established a command post in a farmhouse about 90 miles north of Pietersburg, which they renamed Fort Edward.

The other ranking officer at the Fort was Captain Alfred Taylor, a special officer with the Army's Intelligence Department. He had been selected and sent to Spelonken by Kitchener himself because of his knowledge of "the natives". Witton says that as far as the Africans were concerned,

"...he had a free hand and the power of life and death; he was known and feared by them from the Zambesi to the Spelonken, and was called by them 'Bulala', which means to kill, to slay."

He had the power to order out patrols and, according to Witton, it was generally understood that Taylor was the commander at Spelonken, and that Taylor admitted as much in evidence at the court-martial. He was, as Bleszynski notes, implicated in all the killings in the case, yet was acquitted of all charges. Taylor's role is one of the most problematic aspects of the case.

By all accounts, Captain Robertson had great difficulty in maintaining discipline and some of his troops ran wild — they looted a rum convoy, kept seized Boer livestock for themselves, and appropriated liquor and stills from the Boer farms they raided; according to George Witton's memoir, the situation was bordering on mutiny by mid-year.

On July 2, 1901 Captain Taylor received word of a disturbing incident — a few days earlier, a group of six Boers had approached the fort, apparently intending to surrender, but they were intercepted by a British patrol led by Sergeant Major Morrison and on his orders they were all shot. When this news reached Pietersburg, the Fort Edward detachment was recalled; after an enquiry, Robertson and Morrison were allowed to resign unconditionally. His squadron was replaced by a new one under the command of Capt. Hunt and which included Lts Morant, Handcock and Witton.

Events leading to Morant's arrest

Like so much of his story, the exact sequence and nature of the events leading up to Morant's arrest and trial are still hotly disputed and accounts vary considerably. While it seems clear that some members of the BVC were responsible for shooting Boer prisoners and others, 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, the 1907 book " Scapegoats Of The Empire" by Lt 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 Edwards, discipline was immediately re-imposed by Lts Morant and Handcock, but this was resisted by some. In one incident, several members of a supply convoy led by Lt Picton looted the rum it was carrying, so they were arrested for insubordination and for threatening to shoot Picton. They escaped to Pietersburg but Capt. Hunt sent a report to Col. Lenehan, who had them detained. When the matter was brought before Col. Hall, the commandant of Pietersburg, he ordered the offenders to be discharged from the regiment and released. Witton explicitly accuses 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 was collected and handed over to the proper authorities and the stills were broken up, but according to Witton these actions were resented by the perpetrators and as a result Morant and Handcock were "detested" by certain members of the detachment.

Witton arrived at Fort Edwards on August 3 with Sgt Major Hammett and thirty men, and it was at this point that he met Morant and Handcock for the first time.

Death of Capt. Hunt

The pivotal event of the Morant affair took place two days later, on the night of August 5, 1901. Capt. Hunt led a seventeen-man patrol to a Boer farmhouse called 'Duiwelskloof' (Devil's Ravine), about 80 miles east of the Fort, hoping to capture its owner, the Boer commando leader Veldt Cornet Viljoen. Hunt also had several armed native African irregulars with him and Witton claims that although "those in authority" denied the use of African auxiliaries, they were in fact widely used and were responsible for "the most hideous atrocities".

Hunt had been told that Viljoen had only twenty men with him, but this appears to have been a ruse and Viljoen was lying in wait with eighty men. The Boers surprised the British as they approached and during the ensuing skirmish Viljoen was killed, as was one of the troopers, Sgt Eland, the son of a local Boer farmer. Witnesses later testified that Capt. Hunt was wounded in the chest while firing through the windows and had to be left behind, but that he was still alive when the British retreated. Another trooper, Yates, was captured by the Boers, held prisoner for two days, stripped of all his clothes and possessions and was so badly beaten that after his rescue he had to spend several weeks in hospital.

When news of Hunt's death reached the fort, it had a profound effect on Morant — Witton says he became "like a man demented". He immediately ordered every available man out on patrol, broke down while addressing the men, and ordered them to avenge the death of their captain and "give no quarter".

Hunt's body was recovered the next day. It had been found lying in a gutter, naked and mutilated — the sinews at the backs of both knees and ankles had been severed, his legs were slashed with long knife cuts, his face had been crushed by hob-nailed boots. According to Kit Denton, he had also been castrated, but Witton makes no mention of this.

Hunt's battered body was taken to the nearby Reuter's Mission Station, where it was washed and buried by Rev. J.F. Reuter and Hunt's native servant Aaron, who corroborated the troopers' statements about the condition of the body. Significantly, Morant did not see Hunt's body himself — he arrived about an hour after the burial. He questioned the men about Hunt's death and, convinced his friend had been murdered in cold blood, he vowed to give no quarter and take no prisoners. Morant 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.

Reprisals in Hunt's name

The following day, after leaving a few men to guard the mission (which the Boers threatened to burn in reprisal for harboring the British) Morant led his unit back to the Viljoen farm. It had been abandoned, so they tracked the retreating Boers all day, sighting them just on dusk. As they closed in, the hot-headed Morant opened fire too early and they lost the element of surprise, so most of the Boers escaped. They did however capture one wounded commando called Visser.

The next morning, as they 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 point he searched and questioned Visser and found items of British uniform, including a pair of trousers which he identified as Hunt's; he 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 'no prisoners' proclamation. He called for a firing party and although some of the men initially objected, Visser was shot.

On the return journey to the fort, Morant's unit stopped for the night at the store of a British trader, 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, even dragging Mrs Hays' wedding ring from her finger. When they arrived back at Fort Edward, they learned that a convoy under Lt Neel had arrived from Pietersburg the previous day, just in time to reinforce Capt. Taylor against a strong Boer force that attacked the fort. During the encounter one Carbineer was wounded and several horses were shot and 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 led a small patrol to intercept a group of eight prisoners from Viljoen's commando who were being brought in under guard; Morant ordered them to be taken to the side of the road and shot.

About a week later, reports began to circulate that a German missionary, Reverend Predikant C.H.D. Hesse, had been found shot along the Pietersburg road about fifteen miles from the fort. Shortly afterwards, acting on a report that three armed Boer commandos were heading for the fort, Morant took Handcock and several other men to intercept them and the Boers were shot.

Later the same day, Major Lenehan arrived at Fort Edwards for a rare visit. Morant persuaded Lenehan to let him lead a strong patrol out to search for a small Boer unit led 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 September 16, 1901 with orders from Lenehan that Kelly and his men were to be captured and brought back alive if possible. Covering 130 miles in a week of hard riding, they left their horses two miles from Kelly's laager and went the rest of the way on foot. In 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 personally sent Morant a message congratulating him on the success of his mission, after which Morant took two weeks leave.


Then, in mid-October, the Spelonken detachment was suddenly recalled to Pietersburg and Fort Edward was abandoned until March 1902. On 24 October 1901 Colonel Hall ordered the arrest of seven members of the Carbaniers. Four were Australians: Major Lenehan and Lieutenants Handcock, Witton and Hannam; the other two, Captain Taylor and Lt Picton, were English. When Morant returned from leave in Pietersburg he too was arrested, although no charges were laid at the time. A Court of Enquiry into the affairs of the Bushveldt Carbaniers followed and the War Office subsequently stated that on 8 October, 1901 some members of the BVC who were discharged at Pietersburg on the expiration of their service had reported the irregular actions of the officers at Fort Edward over the preceding months.

The men were held in solitary confinement within the garrison, in spite of vigorous protests by Lenehan; he even wrote directly to Kitchener to ask that he be allowed to inform the Australian government of his position but Kitchener ignored the request. Meanwhile the Court of Enquiry held daily hearings, taking evidence from witnesses about the conduct of the BVC and two weeks later the prisoners were finally informed of the charges against them; in December they were again brought before the panel and told that they were to be tried by court-martial. Curiously, in the cases of Hannam and Hammett, the panel found that there were no charges to answer.

On hearing of the arrests, Kitchener's Chief of Police, Provost Marshall Robert Poore remarked in his diary: "... if they had wanted to shoot Boers they should not have taken them prisoner first" — a view later ruefully echoed in his book by George Witton. With hindsight, while it is fairly certain that Morant and others did kill some prisoners, their real mistake — in terms of their subsequent court-martial — was that they killed the Boers after they captured them. As Poore noted in his diary, had they shot them before they surrendered, the repercussions might well have been considerably less serious.

According to a recent book on the case by Australian author Nick Bleszynski, Poore's diary confirms that there was indeed a standing order from Kitchener to shoot Boer commandos caught wearing khaki — a claim vehemently denied by the prosecution when the defence tried to argue that Visser, the first Boer Morant had executed, was wearing khaki.

Poore in fact specifically noted that: "... Most of De Wet's (the Boer commando leader's) men were dressed in our uniform, so Lord K. has issued an order to say that all men caught in our uniform are to be tried on the spot and the sentence confirmed by the commanding officer."

Ominously, just before the court-martial, Colonel Hall was suddenly removed from his post at Pietersburg and transferred to India. The BVC were disbanded and replaced by a new troop called the Pietersburg Light Infantry. On 15 January, 1902 the accused were finally given copies of the charges against them and informed that they would be defended by Major J.F. Thomas, who in civilian life had been a solicitor in Tenterfield, New South Wales. The court-martial began the following day.


Main article: Court martial of Breaker Morant

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. Soon after the second hearing, the prisoners were suddenly thrown in irons, taken to Pretoria under heavy guard and tried on the third main count, the killing of the German priest Reverend Predikant Hesse. Although acquitted of killing Hesse, Morant and his co-accused were quickly sentenced to death on the other two charges and Morant and Handcock were shot within days of sentencing; Witton's sentence was commuted to life imprisonment by Lord Kitchener. The death warrants of Morant and Handcock were personally signed by Kitchener, but the Field Marshal absented himself on tour when the executions took place.

Execution and aftermath

During the day of February 26, Morant and Handcock were visited by a distraught Major Thomas; Witton says that news of the impending execution had "almost driven him crazy". Thomas then rushed off to find Kitchener and plead with him, but was informed by Col. 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 die".

When asked if he wanted to see a clergyman, Morant replied indignantly, "No! I'm a Pagan!" On hearing this, the unfortunate 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 4 p.m. Witton was told he would be leaving for England at five the following 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, which Witton quotes in its entirety.

At 5 a.m. on February 27, 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 after 5 a.m., Lieutenants Harry Morant and Peter Handcock were led out of the fort at Pietersburg to be executed by a firing squad from the Cameron Highlanders. Both men refused to be blindfolded; Morant gave his cigarette case to the squad leader, and his famous last words were: "Shoot straight, you bastards! Don't make a mess of it!" Witton, who was by then at Pretoria railway station, heard the volley of shots that killed his comrades.

The British Army continued the cover-up of the case even after the deaths of the two men. There was no indication given beforehand that either the men or their regiment was in any kind of trouble, and due to British military censorship, reports of the trial and execution did not begin to appear in Australia until the end of March 1902. The Australian government and Lt. Handcock's wife, who lived in Bathurst with their three children, only learned of Handcock and Morant's death from the Australian newspapers weeks after their executions. After learning of his sentence, Lt 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.

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. The official transcripts of the court-martial reportedly disappeared soon afterwards.

In Australia, the executions of Morant and Handcock not surprisingly caused an uproar, no doubt amplified by the fact that Morant was already a well-known figure. The Morant case added fuel to the growing public resentment of the British military and British rule in general — a feeling which, a decade later, grew into a major anti-British backlash as a result of the catastrophic Gallipoli campaign, in which thousands of Australian and New Zealand troops were needlessly slaughtered, and in the planning of which Kitchener played an integral part. Largely as a result of the Morant case, the Australian army never again accepted British Army justice in cases involving its own soldiers.

George Witton was transported to naval detention quarters 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 life sentence was overturned by the British House of Commons on 11 August 1905. In 1907, he published a controversial book about the Morant case, provocatively titled Scapegoats Of The Empire. The book was reprinted in 1982 following the success of the 1980 film version of the Morant story.

Accounts of Morant's life and conflicting theories about the case

The story of 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 other in both the facts presented and their interpretation.

As far as is known, the most important source, the official records of the court-martial, have not been seen since the trial and their 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]." 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:

" .. the British authorities have been approached by many researchers eager to examine the transcripts thought to be held by the War Office. Invariably these requests have been met with denials that the documents exist or pronouncements to the effect that they cannot be released until the year 2002 ... It now appears that the papers never reached England ... (it was) recently announced that the court-martial papers had been discovered in South Africa..."

The trial records still appear to be unavailable, and Nick Bleszynski, who wrote his book about Morant in 2002 and revised it in 2003, was evidently unable to access them. Whether they will ever be found and/or released is a matter of conjecture. It has been claimed that the building in which the documents were stored was destroyed by German bombing raids during The Blitz.

In their absence, three primary sources remain. The first is the report of the trial printed in The Times in April 1902; the second is George Witton's crucial first-hand account of the events of 1901-02, contained in his book Scapegoats of the Empire. The third and most recent is a revealing letter about the case, written by Witton to Major Thomas in 1929, which was kept secret at Witton's request until 1970. In it, Witton suggests that although Handcock broke down and confessed to the crimes, he did so under duress.

Witton's book, published five years after the trials, recounts the entire Morant affair at length, covering some 240 pages, but the chapters dealing with the court-martial are especially remarkable for their detail. Indeed, they contain so much information that is so precise -- much of it apparently quoted verbatim -- that there are only four possible explanations:

  • Witton fabricated much of the text
  • he possessed a photographic memory
  • he took notes at the trial (or compiled notes from memory very soon afterwards), or
  • he had access to either the trial transcipt or notes taken by someone else (possibly the defence counsel, Major Thomas).

In spite of the fact that the book went through at least two editions and was widely reviewed at the time, this crucial source became virtually unavailable for more than 70 years, and almost every original copy disappeared. Here too, accounts vary as to the reason for its rarity. There have been persistent claims that the book was suppressed by the Australian government and that almost all copies were seized and destroyed. Another version claims that they were accidentally burned in a fire at the publisher's warehouse.

Whatever the reason, the outcome was the same — until its reprint in 1982, only seven copies of the book survived, the seven advance copies originally given to Witton by his publisher (D.W Patterson of Melbourne). These were held variously by Australian public libraries and in the possession of Witton's family. The book's rarity clearly had a significant effect on historical writings about Morant and the Carbineers.

Witton's account is crucial to what we know about the Morant case, and there are legitimate questions to be asked about its veracity. One vital concern is that it was published some five years after the event, although all or parts of it may have been written earlier. If he did not fabricate large sections of his account of the trial, the nature of the text makes it almost certain that he must have drawn on detailed written information — but he does not name the source, or whether they were his own or someone else's notes. If they were made by another, the obvious candidate is his defence counsel, Major Thomas, and the two were known to have been in touch over many years after the case.

Witton obviously wanted to clear his name, but the question here is whether he was seeking to cover his guilt or proclaim his innocence. He was admittedly working from a position of some strength — in Australia he and his co-accused were widely believed to have been innocent — but a telling point in his favour is that he had already been pardoned and released, thanks to a campaign that was fully supported by no less a figure than the second Australian Prime Minister, Alfred Deakin.

Another factor in Witton's favour is that there were good reasons for not reopening the debate. He wrote only five years after the events, and Kitchener was still alive, still in command of the British armed forces and still one of the most powerful men in the Empire. Witton published a highly contentious book with a highly provocative title, which explicitly accused the British Army and its Commander-In-Chief of a cover-up, of staging a show trial, and then executing two Australian soldiers on the flimsiest of evidence as a matter of political expediency. And he wrote all this at a time when publishing material that was deemed seditious or defamatory could easily land an author and/or his publisher in jail.

But the fact remains that we do not know for certain where Witton got his information, nor can we say how closely it conforms to the missing official records of the trial; only their retrieval can answer that.

The 1976 book "The Australians At The Boer War" by Australian historian J.W. 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 leading up to Morant's trial.

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 actually known Morant. The novel's publication sparked a resurgence of popular interest in the case, leading to Kenneth Ross's play 'Breaker' Morant (1978) and subsequently, a highly acclaimed film adaptation by Bruce Beresford (1980). These versions of the story have had a considerable effect in shaping public opinion about the Morant case, especially in Australia, but they too omit, condense or transpose many important details and include others (e.g Denton's claim that Capt Hunt had been castrated) which do not appear in Witton's book.

Although it is generally accepted that Morant and/or others in his regiment were involved in the deaths of some Boer commandos, historical opinion is still sharply divided over the central questions of the case — how many were killed, by whom they were killed, and on whose orders?

Morant's detractors conventionally depict the Carbineers as war criminals, rogue soldiers and cold-blooded murderers who were little better than the Boer guerillas they fought against and that they were fairly tried and executed for killing unarmed prisoners of war and civilians. British historical accounts of the Boer War tend to reflect this view and typically give little space to the matter. They also, predictably, tend to be highly favourable towards Kitchener.

The first major history of the Boer War since 1910 was that written by Thomas Pakenham (Lord Longford), published in 1979. It is a major work, running to some 659 pages, yet the events of the Morant case occupy only a single paragraph — although it must be admitted that Witton's book was not republished for another three years after that.

Nonetheless, Packenham addresses only one major question. He labels as "a misconception" the notion that there was any foreign political influence on the case — obliquely referring to the claims of German government pressure over the killing of Rev. Hesse. He effectively shifts all blame for the killing of Boer prisoners onto the Australians, exonerating Kitchener of any responsibility for the outcomes of the 'no prisoners' policy, and ascribing to him a simpler and "cruder" motive for ordering the executions. According to Packenham, evidence of his own army's indiscipline drove Kitchener "wild with frustration" — clearly implying that Morant and his co-accused were simply out of control.

The 1998 biography of Kitchener by British author John Pollock likewise exemplifies the 'Establishment' view. Despite the great amount of research that has been done since Packenham's book was published, Pollock still manages to dispatch the case in a mere two paragraphs; the names of Morant, Handcock and Witton do not even appear in the index.

Pollock prefaces his remarks about Morant by referring to many cases in which the supposedly kind and sensitive Kitchener had commuted death sentences passed against British soldiers — clearly implying that Morant and Handcock must indeed have deserved their fate. His account of Kitchener's visit to Australia during his world tour in 1910 conspicuously fails to mention the highly controversial claim that Kitchener allegedly refused to officiate at the dedication of a war memorial in Peter Handcock's home town of Bathurst, NSW unless Handcock's name was removed from the list of names of the fallen. It was not restored until 1964.

Pollock admits that there were 'atrocities on both sides' during the Boer War, but largely glosses over the very serious question of alleged British war crimes against Boer insurgents, particularly in regard to the scandal of the internment camps set up to hold Boer refugees — the original ' concentration camps' — in which over 28,000 people died. Although he does admit that under Kitchener's command '... Boer rebels found wearing British uniforms might be shot without trial ...', he avoids stating directly that these were Kitchener's orders — the claim central to Morant and Handcock's defence at their court-martial.

Noting that the executions caused 'an outcry in Australia', Pollock briefly mentions the claims by 'friends of Morant' that the court-martial was 'a farce', and the claims that the Boers and the priest Hesse had not been murdered, but that they had in fact been killed 'in a raid that went wrong'. But, while he admits the case 'remains contentious', he ends on a decidedly pejorative note, describing the Morant story as 'a fertile field for fiction and film'.

Morant's supporters, on the other hand, argue that he and Handcock were unfairly singled out for punishment even though many other British soldiers were known to have carried out summary executions of Boer prisoners. In their view, 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.

Australian author Nick Bleszynski is a leading proponent of the 'scapegoat' argument. He asserts 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 carried out by many disparate units. He also argues that the court-martial was fundamentally flawed in its procedures.

Bleszynski, like Witton, Denton and Beresford, believes that Morant and Handcock were given a show trial, branded as murderous renegades and then executed as a matter of political expediency. He argues that this was done mainly to appease the Boer government and help secure a peace treaty, but also to prevent the British public from learning that, however unpalatable their actions, Morant and his men had in fact been carrying out a standing 'no prisoners' order that had been issued by the British commander-in-chief himself.

The graves of Morant and Handcock were left unattended for many years, but after the release of Beresford's film it became a popular place of pilgrimage for Australian tourists. In June 1998 the Australian Government spent $1,500 refurbishing the grave site with a new concrete slab and a new marble cross.

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