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|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
Pretoria, South African Republic
|Years of service||1899 – 1902|
|Unit||South Australian Mounted Rifles
|Battles/wars||Second 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, Lt. 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 stood 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. Lt. Morant was found guilty and sentenced to death.
Lts. 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 carried out by a firing squad drawn from the Cameron Highlanders on 27 February 1902.
Despite having left a written confession in their cell, Lts. Morant and Handcock have become folk heroes in modern Australia. Their court-martial and death have been the subject of books, a stage play, and an award-winning Australian New Wave film adaptation by director Bruce Beresford.
Upon its release in 1980, Beresford's film 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 Lts. 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. In a 1999 interview, Beresford expressed a deep sense of regret that his film is widely viewed as a story "about poor Australians who were framed by the Brits."
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."
- 1 Early life
- 2 Australia
- 3 Enlistment
- 4 South Africa
- 5 The Bushveldt Carbineers
- 6 Fort Edward
- 7 The Battle at Duivelskloof
- 8 Court-martial
- 9 Execution
- 10 Personal life
- 11 Aftermath of the execution
- 12 Literature on Morant and conflicting theories about the case
- 13 Petition
- 14 See also
- 15 Footnotes
- 16 References
- 17 Further reading
- 18 External links
Inquiries made in 1902 by The Northern Miner and The Bulletin newspapers identified the "Breaker" as Edwin Henry Murrant 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 in 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 defense counsel, Maj. 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, Maj. Thomas wrote, "Morant was not an Australian, he was an Englishman, who came to this country for 'colonial experience'."
After his arrival, Murrant adopted the name Harry Harbord Morant and first settled in outback Queensland. Over the next 15 years, he drifted through Queensland, New South Wales and South Australia. He gained a reputation as a hard-drinking, womanising bush poet and an expert horseman. He was one of the few who managed to ride the notorious buckjumper Dargin's Grey in a race that became a roughriding legend.
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[who?] 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.
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 William Ogilvie.
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:
"We the undersigned, do hereby solemnly, sincerely and truly swear that we will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Queen Victoria, her heirs and successors according to law, and that we will faithfully severally serve as members of the South Australian Volunteer Contingent enrolled for service in South Africa, and we hereby severally bind ourselves from the 17th day of October 1899, until discharged to be subject to the provisions of the Army Act in force for the time being in Her Majesty's Army, in like manner as if we had been severally and duly enlisted and attested for Her Majesty's Army for general service, and as if the said South Australian Volunteer Contingent formed part of Her Majesty's Army, and that we are in like manner during the same time severally to be subject to the Queen's rules and regulations, the rules and articles of war, and to all such other rules and regulations and discipline of whatever nature or kind to which Her Majesty's Army is for the time being subject, and to all laws, rules and regulations in force within the Province of South Africa under the Defense Act 1895; and also to all rules and regulations re: general orders and for any general officer commanding Her Majesty's forces in South Africa in which we may severally for the time be serving."
Morant was reportedly invited to visit the summer residence of South Australian governor, Lord Tennyson. After completing his training, he was appointed lance corporal and his regiment embarked for the Transvaal on 27 February 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 Sgt. Morant had stayed there in November 1900, while claiming to be the Admiral's son. "The Breaker" had further passed himself off as 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 friend, Lt. George Witton, Morant was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Bushveldt Carbineers (BVC) on 1 April 1901. Prior to that, he had served in the South Australian Second Contingent for nine months, during which time he was promoted to the rank of sergeant.
In March 1900, Morant carried dispatches for the Flying Column to Prieska, under Colonel Lowe, 7th D.G., who 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. Morant 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 Middelburg and Belfast to the occupation of Barberton. At this point, he took leave and returned to England for six months. Here, he befriended Captain Percy Frederic Hunt, and the two of them became engaged to a pair of sisters.
Hunt, who was still "signed on", returned to South Africa to take command of a squadron in the Bushveldt Carbineers, whereas Morant (who had intended that his military service come to an end) followed him shortly after not having found the forgiveness he sought in England. Originally returning to take up a commission in Baden Powell's Transvaal Constabulary, he was convinced by Hunt to instead accept a commission in the BVC.
The Bushveldt Carbineers
Following their defeats on the battlefield during 1899–1900, the Boer Commandos embarked on 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, a 320-strong regiment that had been formed in February 1901 under the command of an Australian, Colonel Robert Lenehan. Following his friend's lead, Captain Hunt joined the BVC soon after.
By the summer of 1901, rumors 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, Capt. Robertson was recalled to HQ and given a choice between court martial and resigning his commission. Robertson submitted his resignation and left 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 Lts. Morant, Charles Hannam, and Harry Picton.
The exact sequence and nature of the events leading up to Morant's arrest and trial are still disputed, and accounts vary considerably. While it seems clear 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 re-imposed by Lieutenant Morant and Lieutenant Handcock, but this was resisted by some. In one incident, several members of a supply convoy led 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 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"[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.
The Battle at Duivelskloof
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 Sgt. 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 Sgt. 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 led "his patrol into a situation that would echo through the next 100 years."
Hunt had been told that Viljoen had only 20 men with him. The Boers surprised the British as they approached. During the ensuing skirmish, both Barend Viljoen and his brother Jacob Viljoen were killed. Witnesses later testified that Captain Hunt was wounded in the chest while firing through the windows and Sergeant Frank Eland was killed while trying to recover his body. Witnesses later testified that Hunt was still alive when the British retreated.
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, broke down 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 following day, after leaving a few men to guard the mission (which the Boers threatened to burn in reprisal for harbouring 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 the Australians 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 commando called 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 point, he searched and questioned Visser and found items of British uniform, including a pair of trousers which he believed was that of Hunt's, but was later proved to be of much older origin; 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 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 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 commandos who were being brought in under guard; 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. At his later court-martial, it was proved that Morant himself had shot Heese in an effort to prevent him from disclosing the murder of the Boer prisoners-of-war. 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 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 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 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. 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.
On 4 October 1901, a letter signed by 15 members of the Bushveldt Carbineers (BVC) garrison at Fort Edward was secretly dispatched 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":
1. The shooting of six surrendered Afrikaner men and boys and the theft of their money and livestock at Valdezia on 2 July 1901. The orders had been given by Captains Alfred Taylor and James Huntley Robertson, and relayed by Sgt. Maj. K.C.B. Morrison to Sgt. D.C. Oldham. The actual killing was alleged to have been carried out by Sgt. Oldham and BVC Troopers Eden, Arnold, Brown, Heath, and Dale.
2. The shooting of BVC Trooper B.J. van Buuren by BVC Lt. Peter Handcock on 4 July 1901. Trooper van Buuren, an Afrikaner, had "disapproved" of the killings at Valdezia, and had informed the victims' wives and children, who were imprisoned at Fort Edward, of what had happened.
3. The revenge killing of Floris Visser, a wounded prisoner of war, near the Koedoes River on 11 August 1901. Visser had been captured by a BVC patrol led by Lieut. Morant two days before his death. After Visser had been exhaustively interrogated and conveyed for 15 miles by the patrol, Lt. Morant had ordered his men to form a firing squad and shoot him. The squad consisted of BVC Troopers A.J. Petrie, J.J. Gill, Wild, and T.J. Botha. A coup de grace was delivered by BVC Lt. Harry Picton. The slaying of Floris Visser was in retaliation for the combat death of Morant's close friend, BVC Captain Percy Frederik Hunt, at Duivelskloof on 6 August 1901.
4. The shooting, ordered by Capt. Taylor and Lt. Morant, of four surrendered Afrikaners and four Dutch schoolteachers, who had been captured at the Elim Hospital in Valdezia, on the morning of 23 August 1901. The firing squad consisted of BVC Lt. George Witton, Sgt. D.C. Oldham, and Troopers J.T. Arnold, Edward Brown, T. Dale, and A. Heath. Although Trooper Cochrane's letter made no mention of the fact, three Native South African witnesses were also shot dead.
The ambush and fatal shooting of the Reverend Carl August Daniel Heese of the Berlin Missionary Society near Bandolierkop on the afternoon of 23 August 1901. Rev. Heese had spiritually counseled the Dutch and Afrikaner victims that morning and had angrily protested to Lt. Morant at Fort Edward upon learning of their deaths. Trooper Cochrane alleged that the killer of Rev. Heese was BVC Lt. Peter Handcock. Although Cochrane made no mention of the fact, Rev. Heese's driver, a member of the Southern Ndebele people, was also killed.
5. The orders, given by BVC Lt. Charles H.G. Hannam, to open fire on a wagon train containing Afrikaner women and children who were coming in to surrender at Fort Edward, on 5 September 1901. The ensuing gunfire led to the deaths of two boys, aged 5- and 13-years, and the wounding of a 9-year-old girl.
6. The shooting of Roelf van Staden and his sons Roelf and Christiaan, near Fort Edward on 7 September 1901. All were coming in to surrender in the hope of gaining medical treatment for teenaged Christiaan, who was suffering from recurring bouts of fever. Instead, they were met at the Sweetwaters Farm near Fort Edward by a party consisting of Lts. Morant and Handcock, joined by BVC Sgt. Maj. Hammet, Corp. MacMahon, and Troopers Hodds, Botha, and Thompson. Roelf van Staden and both his sons were then shot, allegedly after being forced to dig their own graves.
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 re-enlist 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, Col. Hall summoned all Fort Edward officers and non-commissioned 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". Lt. Morant was arrested after returning from leave in Pretoria, where he had gone to settle the affairs of his deceased friend Captain Hunt.
A Court of Enquiry into the affairs of the Bushveldt Carbineers followed. The War Office subsequently stated that, on 8 October 1901, some members of the BVC who had been 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. 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. The panel found that there were no charges to answer in the cases of Hannam and Sergeant Major Hammett.
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"[this quote needs a citation] — a view later ruefully echoed in his book by George Witton. While it is certain that Morant and others did kill some prisoners, their real "mistake" in terms of their court-martial was that they killed the Boers after capturing and disarming them after they surrendered with a white flag. As Poore noted in his diary, had they shot them before they surrendered, the repercussions might well have been considerably less serious, since they could have claimed (truthfully or otherwise) that they had been killed in battle, rather than murdered after being taken prisoner.
Just before the court-martial, Colonel Hall was removed from his post at Pietersburg and transferred to India. The BVC were disbanded and replaced by a new regiment called the Pietersburg Light Horse. On 15 January 1902, the accused were finally given copies of the charges against them and informed that they would be defended by Major James Francis Thomas (1861–1942), who in civilian life had been a solicitor in Tenterfield, New South Wales. The court-martial began the following day.
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 under heavy guard and tried on the third main count, the killing of 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 took place.
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 off 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 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, and a confession which read
- To the Rev. Canon Fisher
The night before we're shot
We shot the Boers who killed and mutilated
our friend (the best mate I had on Earth)
Harry Harbord Morant
Peter Joseph Handcock
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, and 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, 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.
| Photo of the grave of Morant and Handcock.
Source:Genealogical Society of South Africa
On 13 March 1884, Morant married Daisy May O'Dwyer, who later became famous as an anthropologist. The Morants separated soon after and never formally divorced; Daisy reportedly threw him out after he failed to pay for the wedding and then stole some pigs and a saddle.
Despite still being legally married to Daisy, Lt. 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.
Aftermath of the execution
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 Lieutenant 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, 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 Australian government demanded an explanation from Kitchener who, on 5 April 1902, sent a telegram to the Australian Governor-General, which was published completely in the Australian press. It reads as follows:
- "In reply to your telegram, Morant, Handcock and Witton were charged with twenty separate murders, including one of a German missionary who had witnessed other murders. Twelve of these murders were proved. From the evidence it appears that Morant was the originator of these crimes which Handcock carried out in cold-blooded manner. The murders were committed in the wildest parts of the Transvaal, known as Spelonken, about eighty miles north of Pretoria, on four separate dates namely July 2, August 11, August 23, and September 7. In one case, where eight Boer prisoners were murdered, it was alleged to have been done in a spirit of revenge for the ill treatment of one of their officers – Captain Hunt – who was killed in action. No such ill-treatment was proved. The prisoners were convicted after a most exhaustive trial, and were defended by counsel. There were, in my opinion, no extenuating circumstances. Lieutenant Witton was also convicted but I commuted the sentence to penal servitude for life, in consideration of his having been under the influence of Morant and Handcock. The proceedings have been sent home."
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. In 1981, South African historian Dr. C.A.R. Schulenburg wrote to the Public Records 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 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 in 1907 under the provocative title Scapegoats of the Empire; through this the Australian public first found out about the case. The book was reprinted in 1982 following the success of the 1980 film Breaker Morant. Witton died in Australia in 1942.
Literature on Morant 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 others in both the facts presented and their interpretation. There are facts intermingled with fiction.
The most important primary source, the official records of the court-martial, vanished following 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].[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]
" .. 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..."
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 "Breaker Morant and the Bushveldt Carbineers" (Van Riebeeck Society, Cape Town 1987).
In 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 in 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 and most recent is a 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.
Wilcox 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 leading up to 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 around the location of the execution, i.e. Pretoria or Pietersburg.
Kenneth Ross's 1978 highly 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 film Breaker Morant. The film was nominated for the 1980 Academy Award for the screenplay adapted from another source.
In 1988 in the small town of Burra, South Australia, where Bruce Beresford's film 'Breaker Morant' was shot, 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. Archival material which had been gathering dust in attics flooded in. 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 central questions of the case — how many Boers were killed, by whom were they killed, and on whose orders? In his book, Born to Fight, Speed has photos of a number of Canadian Scouts wearing black feathers (pp. 105 & 119.), a symbol that they would shoot any Boer captured under arms.
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.
However, Hamish Paterson, a South African military historian and a member of the Military History Society, has pointed out that the Bushveldt Carbineers were a British Imperial unit, not an Australian one: technically, the two "Aussies" were British officers.
A 2002 book 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 carried out by many disparate units. It also asserted that the court-martial was fundamentally flawed in its procedures.
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. 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.
In 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 the 100th 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 in 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 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, one to Queen Elizabeth II, and the other to the House of Representatives Petitions Committee in October 2009 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 110-year 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".
In November 2010 a statement from the Ministry of Defence in the UK said 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 statement said.
In October 2011 Robert McClelland claimed on ABC radio that the executed men had no legal representation at the Courts Martial. This is untrue since Major J.F. Thomas represented them.
On 12 December 2011 Robert McClelland was replaced as Attorney General with Nicola Roxon. 
On 9 May 2012, Nicola Roxon indicated that the Australian government would not be pursuing the issue further with the British, on the basis that there was no doubt that the three men had committed the killings for which they were convicted. The Australian government's position is that pardons are only appropriate where 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." 
McClelland, who claims to have reviewed the case, for which no transcripts exist, has yet to provide reasons for his popular view that the Englishman Morant and Australians Handcock and Witton did not receive a fair trial.
- Charles Leach (2012), The Legend of Breaker Morant is Dead and Buried. A South African Version of the Bushveldt Carbineers in the Zoutpansberg, May 1901-April 1902, Leach Printers & Signs, Louis Trinchardt, South Africa. Page xxxii.
- Phone interview with Bruce Beresford (15 May 1999) accessed 17 October 2012 [phttps://web.archive.org/web/20150909030104/http://petermalone.misacor.org.au/tiki-index.php?page=Bruce+Beresford&bl wayback machine archive 9 September 2015]
- Leach (2012), page 139.
- Carnegie, Margaret; Shields, Frank. In Search of Breaker Morant – Balladist and Bushveldt Carbineer 1979 ISBN 0-9596365-2-8
- Online records show that the birth of an Edwin Henry Murrant was registered in Bridgwater in January–March 1865, the family could have delayed registration by a few weeks. No male birth with the surname Morant was registered anywhere in south-west England (Devon, Cornwall, Somerset and Dorset) in 1860-69. 
- The Bristol Mercury and Daily Post, 16 February 1882, page 6
- Hoofs and Horns, January 1986, Breaker Morant, Harry Reddel, Charlie Stewart and others, p. 65
- Renar, Frank. Bushman and Bucaneer 1902
- The Adelaide Advertiser, 7 April 1902, page 5.
- Leach (2012), page 196.
- Leach (2012), page 203.
- "The Mounted Contingent". The Advertiser (Adelaide: National Library of Australia). 26 January 1900. p. 6. Retrieved 16 May 2013.
- Leach (2012), page 158.
- Leach (2012), page 26.
- Leach (2012), page 23.
- Leach (2012), page 27-28.
- Leach (2012), pages 37-38.
- Leach (2012), pages 38-39.
- Leach (2012), pages 39-40.
- Woolmore, The Bushveldt Carbineers
- George Witton, Scapegoats of the Empire, Chapter IX – "Death of Captain Hunt.--Morant's Reprisals" (Project Gutenberg e-text edition)
- Leach (2012), pages 98-101.
- Arthur Davey (1987), Breaker Morant and the Bushveldt Carbineers, Second Series No. 18. Van Riebeeck Society, Cape Town. Pages 78-82.
- Leach (2012), pages 17-22, 99.
- Leach (2012), pages 22-23, 99.
- Leach (2012), pages 35-60, 100.
- Leach (2012), pages 61-72, 100.
- Leach (2012), pages 62-68, 73-82, 100.
- Leach (2012), pages 83-86, 100.
- Leach (2012), pages 87-90, 100-101.
- Leach (2012), page 100-101.
- Leach (2012), pages 97-98.
- Witton, Ch. XX – "Execution of Morant and Handcock"
- Shapiro, Fred R., ed. (2006). The Yale Book of Quotations. Yale University Press. p. 536. ISBN 978-0-300-10798-2. Retrieved 16 November 2009.
- "THE COURT-MARTIALLED AUSTRALIANS.". The Argus. 7 April 1902. p. 5.
- Leach (2012), page 104, 106.
- Hansard, HC 4ser vol 140 col 19.
- Jooste, Webster, Graham, Roger (2002). Innocent Blood. New Africa Books. p. 216. ISBN 978-0-86486-532-8.
- Bleszynski, Nick (2002), 'Shoot Straight, You Bastards': The True Story Behind The Killing of 'Breaker' Morant. Random House Australia. ISBN 1-74051-081-X. (Novel)
- van der Westhuizen, Linda (27 January 2012). "Monument honours those who died". Zoutnet. Retrieved 28 September 2015.
- Szabo, Christopher (12 February 2010). "South African Historian Against Royal Pardon For ‘Breaker’ Morant". Retrieved 2010-12-24.
- House of Representatives: Constituency Statement: Alex Hawke: Speech: Lieutenants Morant, Handcock and Witton (Monday, 27 February 2012).
- Malkin, Bonnie (12 Nov 2010). "Britain rejects pardon for executed soldier Breaker Morant". The Telegraph. Retrieved 2010-12-24.
- Wilcox, Craig (14 December 2010). "UK right to reject Breaker Morant review". Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 2010-12-31.
- Linda van der Westhuizen (26 November 2010). "British government says flaws don´t warrant pardon". Zoutnet. Retrieved 2011-01-01.
- Unkles, Jim (17 December 2010). "Justice has been denied the Breaker for too long". National Times. Fairfax Media. Retrieved 2010-12-31.
- www.theaustralian.com.au subscription required.
- Davey, Arthur (1987). Breaker Morant and the Bushveldt Carbineers, Second series no 18, Van Riebeeck Society, Cape Town.
- Fitzpatrick, JCL (5 Apr 1902). "Harry Morant". Windsor and Richmond Gazette. p. 6. Retrieved 24 Oct 2012.
- George, Dave C. (2004). Carvings From The Veldt: Rifle carvings from the Anglo-Boer War, 1899-1902, Self Published, Northern Rivers, NSW. [ISBN 0-646-44043-8]
- Jooste, Graham; Webster, Roger (2002). Innocent Blood. New Africa Books. [ISBN 978-0-86486-532-8]
- Pakenham, Thomas (1979). The Boer War. Weidenfeld & Nicholson. ISBN 0-297-77395-X.
- Pollock, John (1998). Kitchener. Constable. ISBN 0-09-480340-4.
- Ross, K.G., Breaker Morant: A Play in Two Acts, Edward Arnold, (Melbourne), 1979. ISBN 0-7267-0997-2
- Ross, Kenneth G. (1990). Breaker Morant, Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-7267-0997-2
- Speed, Neil, G. Born to Fight: Major Charles Joseph Ross DSO, a definitive study of his life, Caps & Flints Press, Melbourne, 2002. ISBN 0-9581356-0-6
- Wallace, R.L. (1976). The Australians At The Boer War. Australian War Memorial/Australian Government Publishing Service.
- William (Bill) Woolmore, The Bushveldt Carbineers and the Pietersburg Light Horse, Slouch Hat Publication, McCrae, 2002. ISBN 0-9579752-0-1
- Witton, George (1907) republished in (1982). Scapegoats of the Empire. Angus & Robertson. ISBN 0-207-14666-7.
- Wilcox, Craig. Australia's Boer War: The War in South Africa 1899-1902, Oxford, South Melbourne, 2002. (ISBN 0-19-551637-0)
- Carnegie, M. & Shields, F. (1979). In Search of Breaker Morant – Balladist and Buschveldt Carbineer. ISBN 0-9596365-1-X
- Cutlack, F.M. Breaker Morant: A Horseman Who Made History, Ure Smith, Sydney, 1962. (Novel)
- Davey, Arthur. (1987). Breaker Morant and the Buschveldt Carbineers, Van Riebeeck Society, Cape Town.
- Kit Denton (1973). The Breaker. Angus & Robertson. ISBN 0-207-12691-7. (Novel)
- Kit Denton (1983). Closed File. Rigby publishers. ISBN 0-7270-1739-X.
- Leach, Charles (2012). The Legend of Breaker Morant is DEAD and BURIED. Leach Printers, leachprinters.co.za ISBN 978-0-620-52056-0.
Songs of the Breaker
- Jenkins, Graham. Songs of the Breaker, Book Agencies of Adelaide, Hectorville, 1980. ISBN 0-9594953-0-4
- Ross, Kenneth, "The truth about Harry", The Age, 26 February 2002. (Written on the hundredth anniversary of Morant's execution and the twenty-fourth anniversary of the first performance of his play, the same article appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald of 26 February 2002 in almost identical form )
- 'Villains or Victims' in Australian War Memorial, Wartime, Issue No. 18, 2002, pp. 12–16.
- Wilcox, Craig. 'Ned Kelly in Khaki', in The Weekend Australian Magazine, 23–24 February 2002, pp. 20–22.
- Schulenburg, Dr CAR. 'The Bushveldt Carbineers: a chapter from the Anglo-Boer War', in Historia, Vol 26(1), May 1981 (in Afrikaans, translated and reworked at )
- Kruger, Rayne. Goodbye Dolly Gray, Random House Australia, 1959. ISBN 0-7126-6285-5.
Fictional novels of the event
Bleszynski, Nick (2002), Shoot Straight, You Bastards: The True Story Behind The Killing of 'Breaker' Morant. Random House Australia. ISBN 1-74051-081-X.
O'Brien, Antony. Bye-Bye Dolly Gray, Artillery Publishing, Hartwell, 2006. ISBN 0-9758013-2-5.
Songs of the Breaker,Jenkins, Graham. Songs of the Breaker, Book Agencies of Adelaide, Hectorville, 1980. ISBN 0-9594953-0-4