During service in the Second Boer War, Morant was responsible for the summary execution of several Boer (Afrikaner) prisoners and a German missionary, Daniel Heese, who had been a witness to the shootings. His actions led to his controversial court-martial for murder; his death warrant was personally signed by the British commander in South Africa, Lord Kitchener, although Lord Kitchener denied the issuance of it. Morant was executed for murder by a contingent of Cameron Highlanders (a regiment of the British Army) in Pretoria gaol (South Africa) on 27 February 1902.
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, much of what we `think' we know about him relies on what he, himself, told people - thus many of the stories about him are undoubtedly apocryphal.
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 Edwin Henry Murrant and he was born in Bridgwater Workhouse, Somerset, England in December 1864. His father, also named Edwin Murrant, died just two weeks before Morant's birth and was the workhouse master whilst his mother, formerly Catherine Riely, was the matron. Morant (as he would later rename himself) spent his early years in the Union Workhouse in Bridgwater, England, where his mother continued her employment as matron after the death of her husband in August 1864. She died in 1899 when Morant was in Adelaide, South Australia preparing to leave for South Africa.
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 denied it. Morant in fact entrusted his cigarette case and other personal belongings to Major Bolton, the prosecuting officer during the later courts martial with the words "see that my family gets them". Years later when Bolton's daughter tried to hand them to the family of Sir George she was sent away and told Morant was not related to them.
It has been suggested that the young Morant came into the care of a wealthy Scottish author, soldier, hunt-master and golfer, George Whyte-Melville. Like other stories there is no evidence for this theory. Morant migrated to Australia in 1883 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 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. 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.
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 immigrants, 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.
Evidently seeing this as a chance to return to England and redeem himself in the eyes of the family he'd left 16 years before, 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, attaining the rank of sergeant and had subsequently returned to Devon, England for a period of time.
In March 1900, Morant carried despatches 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 Devon, England for six months. Here he became close friends with Captain 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 regiment in the Bushveldt Carbineers whereas Morant (who had intended that his military service was at 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.
A previously unpublished photo in Nick Bleszynksi's book from the UK National Archive, taken circa 1900 in Bideford (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.
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. Because of this, the British had difficulty in finding troops and as a result, many colonial soldiers enlisted.
About seventy percent of the men in the BVC were Australians (mostly recruited from the descendants of convicts in Australia, and the Outback) but the regiment also included about forty surrendered Boers ("joiners") who had been recruited from the internment camps, and according to Witton, their presence was greatly resented by the Australians. The garrison was soon divided into two columns; one, under the command of Lt Morant, operated in the Strydpoort district, about thirty miles south-east of Pietersburg.
During the often savage guerilla campaign, there were numerous atrocity committed by both sides. Most Boer commandos had no uniforms, and 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. (As a result of this 27 000 women and children died of malnutrition and disease in the so-called English "concentration camps.") 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 British Army during Morant's trial, it is evident that Kitchener did in fact issue an order to the effect that British and colonial troops were to shoot any Boer commandos they encountered who were dressed in khaki. This secret order, allegedly 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". In his book, Witton wrote that as far as the Africans were concerned,
"...(Taylor) 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."
Taylor 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. Taylor was, as Bleszynski notes, implicated in some of 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 account, 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 disarmed and subsequently shot dead.
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 it included Lts Morant, Handcock and Witton.
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 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 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 Edwards, 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" by certain members of the detachment.
Witton arrived at Fort Edwards on August 3 with Sergeant Major Hammett and thirty men, and it was at this point that he met Morant and Handcock for the first time.
The pivotal event of the Morant affair took place two days later, on the night of August 5, 1901. Captain Hunt led a seventeen-man patrol to a Boer farmhouse called 'Duiwelskloof' (Devil's Gorge), about 80 miles south of the Fort, hoping to capture its owner, the Boer commando leader Veldt Cornet Barend Viljoen. Hunt also had some 200 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. The Boers surprised the British as they approached and during the ensuing skirmish, both Barend Viljoen and his brother Jacob Viljoen were killed. Witnesses later testified that Capt Hunt was wounded in the chest while firing through the windows and his Sergeant Frank Eland was killed while trying to recover his body (Reference: The Bushveldt Carbineers by William Woolmore). Witnesses later testified that Captain 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".
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. The body of Jacob Viljoen was also found inside the farmhouse, also mutilated in the same way as that of Hunt. It was later proved that black witchdoctors came to the house after the skirmish, and removed parts of the bodies of Hunt and Viljoen to use as "medicine" ("muti").
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 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 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 blow his brains out with a pistol 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. When Morant and his men 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 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 Rev. Heese had been found shot along the Pietersburg road about fifteen miles from the fort. 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 disarmed and 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 (210 km) 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 six members of the Carbineers. 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 Carbineers 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. 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 having captured and disarmed 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.
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. In fact Poore makes no such claim in his diary but does make the point that prisoners should not be killed once they had surrendered.
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." Again Poore did not say this in his diary which is in the Scottish Archive in Edinburgh.
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 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 J.F. Thomas, 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." A Corporal Sharp said that he "would walk 100 miles barefoot to serve in a firing squad to shoot Morant and Hancock."
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 Rev Heese. Although acquitted of killing Rev 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; however, the Field Marshal absented himself on tour when the executions took place.
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 pay for what he did".
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.
26 February 1902 The 'Confession'
The 'Confession' written on the back of photograph A05828 addressed to the Reverend Canon Fisher was written by Lieutenant (Lt) Harry Harbord Morant and signed by Morant and Lt Peter Joseph Handcock, it reads:
To the Rev. Canon Fisher, Pretoria 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 5 am 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 before 6 am, Morant and Handcock were led out of the fort at Pretoria 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 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 Lt Picton on the train that left at 5.30. Thus Witton would have been several miles on the way to Cape Town when the execution occurred. 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.
The Australian government demanded an explanation from Kitchener who, on April 5th 1902, sent a telegram to the Australian Governor-General, and 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 2nd July, 11th August, and 7th September. 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 officents - lieutenant 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. The official transcripts of the court-martial reportedly disappeared soon afterwards.
Not surprisingly, news of the executions of Morant and Handcock caused an uproar when it reached Australia, 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 killed, and in the planning of which Kitchener along with Winston Churchill 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 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 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. The book was reprinted in 1982 following the success of the 1980 film Breaker Morant. Witton died in Australia in 1942. The Marquis de Moral described the book as "It is mostly a garbled and untrue version of the facts. It was not worth the trouble to attempt to analyse it."
Some years ago a short Enfield carbine surfaced in Adelaide with the words; G. R. Witton carved into the stock. The rifle matched the description of the arm mentioned by Witton in his book adding to the argument that Witton's account of events was not a fabrication. There was a certain irony that Witton carved his name into his rifle stock, for a photo of that carving appears in an Australian book, Carvings From the Veldt, p. 94. Ironically Witton acknowledged in his 1907 account that he had shot a Boer who had tried to seize Witton's carbine.
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. 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]." 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..."
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 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:
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 most originals disappeared. Here too, accounts vary as to the reason for its rarity. Persistent claims suggest 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 first hand and primary evidence account is crucial to what is known 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; while in prison. 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.
Witton's book is an important primary source, albeit questioned as being inaccurate and biased, and ought be viewed as partisan. It may or may not conform to the missing official records of the trial; only their retrieval can shed light on the subject.
Wilcox claims 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 urban 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 Pretoria v 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.
These versions of the story, although fictional, had a considerable effect in shaping public opinion about the Morant case, especially in Australia. As fiction they omit, condense or transpose many important details and include others (e.g. Denton's possibly fictional claim that Capt Hunt was castrated) which do not appear in Witton's book. Readers of Denton's work need to appreciate that it is a good novel that looks like history. Similarly, O'Brien's Bye-Bye Dolly Gray has the Breaker and Handcock in this fictional novel, but O'Brien makes it very clear his novel is fictional.
Bleszynski's successful and controversial book although classed as 'non-fiction', is a trap for the unwary - for he openly admitted he fictionalised the unknown parts using italics, (Bleszynski, pp. xviii-xix). This work was debunked by the academic historian Wilcox as a romanticised version of the event. (Wilcox in Weekend Australian Magazine, 23-24 Feb 2002.Cf Wilcox, Australia's Boer War, pp. 363-368) Though this book is researched and well written, its flaw is the fictional substitution in a book that claims to be the untold story.
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 they were 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. In South Africa, Morant is regarded as a murderer, marauder, womaniser, and a man generally without morals or remorse. The BVC are generally regarded as war criminals, rogue soldiers and cold-blooded murderers. 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 favorable towards Kitchener.
Thomas Pakenham (Lord Longford), book The Boer War (1979) 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. Heese. 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 Pakenham, 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 Pakenham'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. However this claim is spurious and the town council decided not to place Handcock's name on the memorial. It was eventually placed on the memorial in 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 Rev Heese 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. The marble cross which stood over the grave had been vandalised.
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. This group came 'not to praise Morant and Handcock', but to remember that never again should any Australian soldiers be handed over to any foreign power for trial or justice. The service was also attended by the Australian High Commissioner to South Africa. The group left a new marker on the grave. There was consternation among South Africans that the Aussies came to make a 'Ned Kelly' hero of Morant and Handcock. There was a gasp when the Australian leader having welcomed everyone to the service then switched to Afrikaans and spoke to the South Africans explaining that they came as friends and were not in-country to praise Morant's actions.