Breaker Morant

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Breaker Morant : biography

9 December 1864 – 27 February 1902

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.

Court-martial

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 Handcock."

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 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.

Boer guerrilla campaign, 1901–1902

Following their defeats on the battlefield during 1899–1900, the Boer soldiers 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 Bushveldt Carbineers, 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, 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 forty percent of the men in the BVC were Australians, 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 Lieutenant Morant, operated in the Strydpoort district, about south-east of Pietersburg.

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 British Captain James Huntley Robertson and established a command post in a farmhouse about north of Pietersburg, which they renamed Fort Edward.