A Cat of Tindalos

A Cat of Tindalos

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Breaker Morant

Breaker Morant

D. L. Kershen comments: "Breaker Morant tells the story of the court-martial of Harry Morant, Peter Handcock, and George Witton in South Africa in 1902. Yet, its overriding theme is war's evil. Breaker Morant is a beautiful anti-war statement—a plea for the end of the intrigues and crimes that war entails."

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 , a symbol that they would shoot any Boer captured under arms.

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 Based upon extensive research, Leach had complete access to unpublished South African sources and the papers of the Viljoen and Heese families.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."

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.

 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.

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.

The Australian government felt so strongly about this case that it insisted that none of its troops would be tried by the British military during World War I.

Quotes from the film Breaker Morant (1980):

George Wittow: [after Handcock has admitted to murdering the missionary] Major Thomas has been pleading justifying circumstances and now we're just lying.
Peter Handcock: We're lying? What about THEM? It's no bloody secret. Our graves were dug the day they arrested us at Fort Edwards.
George Wittow: Yeah, but killing a missionary, Peter?
Harry Morant: It's a new kind of war, George. A new war for a new century. I suppose this is the first time the enemy hasn't been in uniform. They're farmers. They come from small villages, and they shoot at from behind walls and from farmhouses. Some of them are women, some of them are children, and some of them... are missionaries, George.

Lt. Col. Denny: [regarding Kitchener's order to shoot any Boers taken prisoner] Do you really believe that Lord Kitchener, a man venerated throughout the world, would be capable of issuing an order of such barbarity?
Major Thomas: I don't know, sir. But I do know that orders that one would consider barbarous have already been issued in this war. Before I was asked to defend these soldiers, I spent some months destroying Boer farmhouses, burning their crops, herding their women and children into stinking refugee camps where thousands of them have already died from disease. Now these orders WERE issued, sir! And soldiers like myself and these men here have had to carry them out however damned reluctantly!

Harry Morant: It really ain't the place nor time to reel off rhyming diction, but yet we'll write a final rhyme while waiting crucifixion. For we bequeath a parting tip of sound advice for such men who come in transport ships to polish off the Dutchman. If you encounter any Boers, you really must not loot 'em, and if you wish to leave these shores, for pity's sake, don't shoot 'em. Let's toss a bumper down our throat before we pass to Heaven, and toast a trim-set petticoat we leave behind in Devon.

Sentry: Do you want the padre?
Harry Morant: No, thank you. I'm a pagan.
Sentry: And you?
Peter Handcock: What's a pagan?
Harry Morant: Well... it's somebody who doesn't believe there's a divine being dispensing justice to mankind.
Peter Handcock: I'm a pagan, too.

Harry Morant: There is an epitaph I'd like: Matthew 10:36. Well, Peter... this is what comes of 'empire building.'
Major Thomas: Matthew 10:36?
Minister: "And a man's foes shall be they of his own household."

(Source: Wikipedia & IMDB)

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