The Breaking of Harry Morant

One of the 8,000 or so blockhouses encircling the Boer Republics. Photo Credit: Wiki Commons
One of the 8,000 or so blockhouses encircling the Boer Republics. The estimated cost for all of the forts reached more than a million Pounds, an ungodly sum at the time. Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

Accompanying his mass internment of the Boer Republic’s populations, Kitchener also devised a solution to flushing out the Boer forces; one that also capitalized on his eye for big picture planning. Dividing both former republics into a grid, Kitchener’s forces began to build physical barriers around each cordoned space. British soldiers would then sweep the space, in a way that evokes nothing so much as a drive hunt for dolphins or small whales. As the commandos fell back, they would theoretically be pinned against the cordon, and wiped out by their slowly advancing foe. Initially, wire fencing marked each boundary, but when the Boers simply cut their way through these, Kitchener tightened the noose further. Stone blockhouses were constructed, at great expense, along each grid space at regular intervals. To emphasize the kind of resources and budget at his disposal, Kitchener would ultimately place 50,000 British and Black African auxiliaries in these microfortresses. Just to keep the terms consistent with a dolphin hunt, each weekly hunt was even catalogued by what Kitchener’s staff termed a “bag” of killed, wounded, or captured Boers. While this overarching plan was methodical, in practice it took time to finally strangle out the guerillas. Boer attacks continued, especially in Cape Colony massacres and torture committed by either side wasn’t unheard of. As 1901 wore on, the constant cycle of drive and Boer counterattacks began to psychologically wear on the British soldiers on the ground.

Harry "Breaker" Morant.  He wrote his own confession on the back of this picture. Photo Credit: Wiki Commons.
Harry “Breaker” Morant. He wrote his own confession on the back of this picture. Photo Credit: Wiki Commons.

Most notoriously in 1902, Australian Lieutenant Harry “Breaker” Morant and fellow officer Peter Handcock were executed by firing squad for war crimes. To anyone familiar with the strain of fighting a guerilla war, the story would be familiar. Morant and his men the Bushveldt Carabiners were considered a quality unit, formed specifically to tackle the more asymmetrical nature of the war, and Morant himself had no track record of violence. His squad had been racing across their grid area for weeks, chasing the commandos away from sympathetic farms and outposts. On August 5 1901, a patrol lead by the unit’s Captain Hunt was ambushed, and a rumor circulated that he was tortured before his death. Pushed over the edge, Morant swore revenge. Chasing the commandos a few days later, he executed a prisoner at point blank range. Then another small group of seven Boers who surrendered were questioned, then hauled off the road and shot. Morant’s Second Lieutenant George Witton later related his version of the incident:

“We went on, and Morant said that it was his intention to have the prisoners shot. Both myself and Sergeant-Major Hammett asked Morant if he was sure he was doing right. He replied that he was quite justified in shooting the Boers; he had his orders, and he would rely upon us to obey him. I also afterwards remonstrated with him for having the prisoners brought in and shot so close to the fort, but he said it was a matter of indifference where they were shot.

…Then we had trekked on about three miles Morant stopped the wagon, called the men off the road, and questioned them. Upon his asking, “Have you any more information to give?” they were shot.”[1]

A screencap from the 1980 film. Photo Credit: Author's own screencap
Morant and Peter Handcock face the dawn, from the 1980 film. Photo Credit: Author’s own screencap

The killings continued from there. A German missionary in the area who witnessed one of the killings also turned up dead from a rifle shot, though Morant would be acquitted of that death. The case was the sensational trial of its day, and Morant remains a controversial figure. As his quote suggests, Witton and others defenders of Morant never denied his role in the shooting, only the context.[2] They were only “following orders”, which to some historians may have been quietly passed down the line from Kitchener himself. Under this thinking Morant was doing nothing that the rest of the British Army wasn’t doing already, the only difference was that he was Australian, not British, and therefore easier to explain away as an outlier rather than a symptom of some greater sickness at the heart of the British army.

On the other side of the fence, some South African historians have argued that Morant and his men executed far more than seven men, with some placing the number around 35.[3] Regardless of whether he was offered up to serve broader interests, Morant and his squad shot men in cold blood after they surrendered and he found himself in front of a firing squad for it. Defiant to the end, Morant’s final words were, “shoot straight you bastards!”

[1] Witton, G. 1907. Scapegoats of the Empire. Ch.X Project Gutenburg

[2] Witton’s 1907 memoir Scapegoats of the Empire was considered so anti-British that its publication was suppressed until after World War II. It’s also fiercely apologist for the actions of Kitchener and the soldiers on the ground.

[3] The 1980 Australian film of the trial spends a lot of time trying to put viewers in the shoes of Morant, asking viewers to question what they would have done. In his defense attorney’s closing statement, the director drops this line: “Soldiers at war are not to be judged by civilian rules, as the prosecution is attempting to do, even though they commit acts which, calmly viewed afterwards, could only be seen as unchristian and brutal.”

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