Breaker Morant

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Breaker Morant : biography

9 December 1864 – 27 February 1902

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 Reverend Heese had been found shot along the Pietersburg road about 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, which would be alarming considering he was acquitted of this crime at that court-martial. 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 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 16 September 1901 with orders from Lenehan that Kelly and his men were to be captured and brought back alive if possible. Covering in a week of hard riding, they left their horses 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.

Arrests

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 Lieutenant 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. 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" — 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.