Published on September 24th, 20130
A Gentleman and a War Criminal: A Measure of Integrity (Part 2)
By Henri Le Riche
One was born in Australia, the other in England. One a Christian, the other an Atheist. Both made their choices on a matter of principle. Both men ended up in a foreign country fighting a war that had nothing to do with them. One did it for the adventure, the other did it because he believed it was the right thing to do.
Unlike Arthur Lynch who was born in Australia, Murrant was born at Bridgwater in Somerset, England in December 1864, the son of Edwin Murrant and Catherine (née Riely). Edwin Henry Murrant arrived at Townsville in Queensland, Australia in 1883. Morant settled in outback Queensland, and over the next 15 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. Accounts of Morant’s life before the Boer War vary considerably, and it appears that Morant fabricated a number of these romantic legends.
Morant enlisted with the Second Contingent of the South Australian Mounted Rifles. While in Adelaide, Australia. After completing his training, he was appointed lance corporal and his regiment embarked for the Transvaal, South Africa on 27 February 1900. Morant was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Bushveldt Carbineers (BVC) on 1 April 1901. The BVC consisted of mainly Australian soldiers fighting for the British as a British unit.
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. On 2 July 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, taken prisoner, and subsequently shot dead.
The pivotal event of the Morant affair took place two days later, on the night of 5 August 1901. Captain Hunt led a 17-man patrol to a Boer farmhouse called Duivelskloof (Devil’s Gorge), about 80 miles (130 km) south of the fort, hoping to capture its owner, the Boer commando leader Veldtcornet Barend Viljoen. Hunt also had some 200 armed native African irregulars with him, and Witton claimed that although “those in authority” denied the use of African auxiliaries, (As agreed at the start of the war that it’s a European war and nothing to do with Africans) they were in fact widely used and were responsible for “the most hideous atrocities”.
Hunt had been told that Viljoen had only 20 men with him. The Boers surprised the British as they approached. During the ensuing skirmish, both Barend Viljoen and his brother Jacob Viljoen were killed. Witnesses later testified that Captain Hunt was wounded in the chest while firing through the windows and Sergeant Frank Eland was killed while trying to recover his body.
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”.
The following day, after leaving a few men to guard the mission (which the Boers threatened to burn in reprisal for harbouring the British), Morant led his unit back to the Viljoen farm and managed to capture one commando called Visser, wounded in the ankles so that he could not walk. 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 administer a coup-de-grace with pistol shots to the head. One of the officers, Taylor had a native shot for refusing to give him information about the Boers’ movements.
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 15 miles (24 km) 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.
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.
The court-martial of Morant and his co-accused began on 16 January 1902, and both Morant and his co-accused Handcock were shot within days of sentencing. Before the execution, 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 of Atheist, declared “I’m a Pagan too!”
Charles Leach, a well-known South African historian, published his book “The Legend of Breaker Morant is DEAD and BURIED” in March 2012, with the subtitle “A South African version of the Bushveldt Carbineers in the Zoutpansberg, May 1901 – April 1902″ after extensive research,
including access to unpublished South African sources and documents of the Viljoen and Heese families. Joe West, a British Bushveldt Carbineers researcher describes the book as follows: “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.”
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. Hamish Paterson states: “I don’t think they [the Australian supporters of a Morant pardon] have actually considered what Morant was convicted of.
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.”
*For more on the Anglo-Boer war, you can visit https://www.facebook.com/groups/AngloBoerWar/. The original version of this article can be found at http://www.henrileriche.com/2013/07/12/a-gentleman-and-a-war-criminal-a-measure-of-integrity-part-1/