The True Story of Breaker Morant's Fate

posted Apr 26, 2015, 10:37 AM by Martin Roy Hill   [ updated Sep 24, 2015, 2:25 PM ]
Scapegoats of the Empire by George WittonScapegoats of the Empire is the true story of the murder trial of three Australian army officers during Britain’s Boer War, a court martial made famous to modern movie goers by the film Breaker Morant. Its author, George Witton, was one of those officers and the only one to avoid a firing squad.

Witton was a young enlisted artilleryman in the Australian Army when he volunteered for active service in the southern African war. There are many similarities between the Boer War at the turn of the 20th century and the Iraq War a hundred years later. Both began as conventional wars with set-piece battles, then eroded into guerrilla warfare. In 1901, Witton secured a commission with the Bushveldt Carbineers, an irregular counterinsurgency regiment set up to fight the Boer guerrilla units (called commandos) on their own level.

Shortly before Witton joined his detachment of the Carbineers, its commander, Capt. Hunt, was killed and his body apparently abused by the Boers. Lt. Harry “Breaker” Morant, an expert horseman as well as a published poet, took over command. Bereaved over the death and mutilation of his senior officer and close friend, Morant decided to follow Hunt’s earlier orders to execute prisoners, including some who took part in Hunt’s death. Hunt had previously told his men that Lord Kitchener, the commanding British general, had issued orders not to take Boer prisoners. According to Morant’s own testimony, the Carbineers had avoided following those orders until after Hunt’s death.

Witton never knew Hunt, and barely knew Morant and Lt. Peter Handcock when the summary executions of prisoners they were charged with took place. Witton sets forth his version of the facts in plain, unelaborated writing. He shows with quotes from pre-trial and court martial testimony that Capt. Hunt had repeatedly ordered his men to shoot prisoners, saying the order came from as far up as Kitchener. Many other incidents involving the shooting of prisoners on both sides had occurred at this stage of the war, and no British soldier was ever tried for let alone convicted of murder. Kitchener’s testimony was never admitted into evidence, and the general was conveniently out of the country when the three men’s verdicts were handed down so their fates could not be appealed directly to him. Morant and Handcock were sentenced to death by firing squad. Witton’s death sentence was commuted to life in prison. He was released and returned to Australia three years later.

While reading this book, it occurred to me Kitchener may very well have lead some junior officers to believe he wanted prisoners summarily shot without actually meaning to give such an order. It wouldn't be the only time in warfare when a senior officer’s blustering lead to war crimes. During WWII’s Sicilian Campaign, there were several incidents of American soldiers shooting German and Italian prisoners, and even civilians. When questioned, they all said they believed the order to shoot prisoners came from Gen. George Patton during one of his many firebrand speeches (as seen at the beginning of the movie, "Patton"). Patton quickly ordered a cease and desist order, but never took responsibility for the meaning of his own words.

Ironically, at the same time the British were fighting the Boer War the United States was involved in its first empire-building, counter-insurgency conflict in the Philippines. Many of the same crimes that Witton and his comrades were accused of also occurred during the so-called “Philippine Insurgency.”

In Australia, it was and still is widely believed that Witton, Morant, and Handcock were indeed scapegoats for the British Empire. At the time of their courts martial, Germany was considering entering the war on the side of the Dutch Boers because of alleged British atrocities, which included the first use of concentration camps. Convicting the three Australians mitigated the only substantial excuse the Germans had to side with the commandos. No British officer was ever tried for shooting Boer prisoners, though such executions were known to have occurred. As late as 2013, petitions were made to have all three men posthumously pardoned. None have succeeded—so far.
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