Today, 120 years ago, Harry “The Breaker’ Harboard Morant and Peter Handcock were executed by firing squad in South Africa during the second Anglo-Boer War. The recent findings of alleged war crimes by Australian troops in Afghanistan in the 2020 Brereton Report and the allegations being made in the Ben Roberts-Smith defamation case, have drawn comparisons to the case of ‘The Breaker’ Morant who was executed for murder during the Second Anglo-Boer War.
Harry ‘The Breaker’ Morant, stockman, station hand, horse breaker, bush poet and soldier occupies a place in Australian folklore as the last Australian soldier executed. Most Australians have heard of the Boer War of 1899 to 1902 and of Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant, a figure who rivals Ned Kelly and Peter Lalor as an archetypal Australian folk hero, but was he really wrongly executed for war crimes – or simply a petty criminal and murderer who got what he deserved?
In Australia, the Second Anglo-Boer War, or Boer War is often called Australia’s ‘forgotten war’. The Boer War was the first conflict in which Australian soldiers left these shores en masse and fired a shot in anger. 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.
Federation took place in the middle of the war and the events that followed were the first test of Australian nationhood. 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, Colonel 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.
Whenever the Boer War is mentioned, the first thing many Australians think about is the court-martial and the 27 February 1902 execution by firing squad of Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant and Peter Handcock. The trial and execution of Lieutenant’s Morant and Handcock for killing 12 unarmed Boer prisoners has been a controversial aspect of Australia’s history in the Boer War. A third man, George Witton, was jailed for life. Some Australians were uneasy that the British army had punished these men. The execution occurred during the closing stages of the Boer War, but the debate over their convictions continues to this day.
Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant was born in Somerset on 9 December 1864 and claimed to have come from landed gentry in Devon. This was but one of a number of romantic legends he created about his past. Far more likely is it that he was the son of Edwin Murrant, the master, or manager of a workhourse for the poor in Bridgewater, Somerset.
Harry Morant moved to Australia when he was 19, arriving in Townsville, north Queensland in June 1883. He quickly travelled inland to Charters Towers where, then known as Harry Edward Murrant, his horsemanship secured him a stockman’s job on a local station, Fanning Downs. It was here he met and married Daisy May O’Dwyer. On 13 March 1884, one Murrant married Daisy May O’Dwyer. A number of historians have uncovered hard evidence that Murrant and Morant were the same person. It seems she found the gloss of marriage vanishing early. The marriage lasted just over a month. Her new husband was accused of disobeying a summons on payment for the wedding and of stealing a saddle and a number of pigs. This period also marked the first time he used the name Morant instead of Murrant — on a dud cheque for two horses. Daisy told him to pull his ‘bowyangs’ up. He was to reform himself and meet her in a couple of years back at Charters Towers. The reunion never took place.
The English immigrant took off to the Winton and the backblocks of western Queensland, and over the next 15 years relocated to various places in Queensland, New South Wales and South Australia. He found fame in the 1890s as a horse-breaker, drover and poet. Morant earned a reputation as a charming scoundrel, an expert horseman but a heavy drinker and a womaniser. He earned himself the moniker of ‘The Breaker’ for his extra-ordinary horse-breaking skills, which most famously included being one of the few who managed to ride and tame the notorious buckjumper horse Dargin’s Grey, the wildest brumby ever to be brought out of the bush, in a race that became a roughriding legend. As well as writing his popular bush ballad, Morant became friendly with famed Australian bush poets Henry Lawson, Banjo Paterson, and Will H. Ogilve.
When the South African War broke out in 1899 he enlisted in Adelaide in the 2nd Contingent, South Australian Mounted Rifles, as Harry Harboard Morant. 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 General Lord Kitchener, the commander of British troops in South Africa, handed down secret orders not to take any prisoners.
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 did not. As a result, Witton was released from prison after three years following a petition by 80,000 Australians to King Edward VII.
Descendants of the three Lieutenants believe they had not received a fair trial and campaigned from then on to clear their names. The line of ‘The Breaker’ Morant legend for over a century has been that he was doing no more than following orders, and that his own trial for war crimes was a travesty of justice.
The story attracted national attention in the early 1980s, following the publication of The Breaker by Kit Denton and the subsequent Bruce Beresford 1980 film Breaker Morant, starring Edward Woodward. The hopelessly romantic film centres on the war-crimes trial of three Australian soldiers by a British court-martial during the South African war at the turn of the twentieth century. The suggestion is that the real enemies of the newly minted Australia were not the Boers they went to fight, but their supposed allies, the British. Opposition between Britain and Australia is at the heart of Bruce Beresford’s Breaker Morant.
This was the first of a series of films investigating the role of Australian soldiers abroad, like Gallipoli and Anzacs. But the movies were about more than that. In fact, the soldiers were a symbol of the question the nation was asking itself: what is our relationship with the British who started white Australia and who are we now?
The campaign for Harry ‘The Breaker’ Morant to receive a pardon was reinvigorated by former Navy lawyer, Commander James Unkles in 2009 after watching Breaker Morant. 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.
In October 2009, Unkles attempted to address the denied justice by forwarding two petitions for pardons, one to the Australian House of Representatives Petitions Committee and the other to Australia’s head of state, Queen Elizabeth II. The petition did not question Morant and Handcock’s guilt but rather argued 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. In May 2010, he also sent a petition to the Australian Senate. However, in October 2010 the case for pardons were rejected by the British government. However, the British decision did not deter Unkles.
Filming of Breaker Morant – The Retrial began on location in Charters Towers on Monday, 11 March 2013. The two-part documentary series is partly based on the work of military lawyer James Unkles and his legal challenge to the original convictions and sentences. Many Australians may know this story through the movie, but the documentary series picked up where the film left off.
Boer War historian Craig Wilcox, author of Australia’s Boer War: The War in South Africa, argues ‘The Breaker’ Morant and Peter Handcock should not be honoured with a posthumous pardon for their war crimes. 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 is a war criminal.
Peter FitzSimons 2020 Breaker Morant is the latest exploration of the legend of Harry ‘The Breaker’ Morant. He also, like Wilcox, takes an opposing view to Jim Unkles and argues strongly against the call for a pardon. FitzSimons takes the non-hagiographic road and shows the evidence is overwhelming that:
“Morant was indeed responsible for shooting an unarmed prisoner, gunning down four Afrikaan fighters and four Dutch commandos who had surrendered, and the shooting of a Boer farmer and his two teenage sons.”
Peter FitzSimons’ Breaker Morant is a book of our times. A book about war crimes in “a different country and in a different war”. A book that explores a grievous tale of moral failure. A book about a variety of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
FitzSimons has spared nothing in his bleak portrayal of ‘The Breaker’:
“it is a dark, black book about grievous moral failure, about a wrongly conceived and dreadful, appalling war, and about the destruction of a society and its people.”
FitzSimons position is the argument Morant and his fellow officer Handcock were following orders from General Lord Kitchener to “take no prisoners” is spurious and there is no evidence that any such order was given. He writes on p.495:
“the idea that Morant and Handcock were wrongly convicted and shot is a wish that becomes a truth too strong to ever be torn by facts.”
He continues on p.5oo:
“There can be no doubt that Breaker Morant would love the fact that people are still quarreling over him 120 years later, and that there remain so many romantics who cannot reconcile the poet with the killer that he still has people arguing his case well into the twenty-first century. But a killer he was.”
Murder is murder and no illegal orders from British superiors can justify it. According to FitzSimons, Morant was a murderer and he should not be celebrated. As to whether they should have been executed, that is a different question.
Descendants of Morant, Handcock and Witton continue to maintain they suffered an injustice during their trial. The current push by ‘The Breaker’s descendent Cathie Morant to have Harry Morant’s name added to the Adelaide Boer War Memorial is being supported by the Bathurst RSL Sub-Branch and James Unkles. The argument is that his brief service with the 2nd South Australian Mounted Rifles from January 1900 was honourable. It was later that his crimes were committed with the Bushveldt Carbineers. However, it appears this is not supported by the Adelaide veteran community.
The NSW country town of Tenterfield is backing a pardon for Harry Morant due to James Whitton having lived in the area after he returned from service in the Boer War. Major James Francis Thomas, the defence lawyer for the three Lieutenants, also lived in Tenterfield. Interestingly, Morant’s personal remains were discovered a few years ago in a Tenterfield rubbish tip and is now displayed in local museum.
It appears the contestability around the absence of the rights of the accused to a fair trial, and the claims of murder and being war criminals will probably continue for another 100 years.
‘The Breaker’ is also remembered today with ‘Harry’s Haunt’ museum in Beaudesert, Queensland, the memorial located in a park near the Bogan Gate War Memorial, and a memorial in Poets Corner, Central Park in Bourke that commemorates the time he spent in the Bourke area writing bush ballads. Ironically, Breaker Morant Drive is a 500-metre drive that surrounds the oval in Kitchener Park, Gunnedah. Now, in death, Morant encircles and dominates General Lord Kitchener.
(For more information about James Unkles campaign to get a pardon for Breaker Morant and brothers-in-arms, see his Breaker Morant blog.)