Breaker Morant – Hero, Villain, or a Larrikin in the Wrong Place at the Wrong Time?

Harry “The Breaker” Morant was an educated man, a wonderful horseman and bushman, an evocative poet, a correspondent for the Bulletin, a friend of Henry Lawson and Banjo Patterson and, at one stage, the husband of Daisy Bates. He was also a practised writer of dud cheques, a breaker of ladies hearts, an habitual liar, a gambler with a string of unpaid debts and a horse thief. So in a country where our unofficial anthem is a song about a sheep stealer and a bank robber is a revered icon, Breaker Morant was probably always destined for hero worship!

He arrived in Australia from England, as an 18 year old lad in June 1883, after his father refused to pay a gambling debt and packed him off to the colonies. He quickly joined a travelling circus and in early 1884, met and married Daisy O’Dwyer (later to become Bates). She threw him out a few weeks later, when he was arrested for stealing pigs and a saddle and she discovered he hadn’t even paid for the wedding.

He spent the next seventeen years earning a well deserved reputation for anything and everything, working his way throughout Queensland, New South Wales and down to South Australia, where eventually, having burnt as many personal bridges as possible, he signed up with a South Australian regiment and in 1900, was shipped out to fight the Boers in South Africa.

Once over there, he carried on in exactly the same manner, running up debts, stealing horses and cattle, chatting up as many ladies as he could and at the same time, writing as a respected war correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph. After several months, he managed to wrangle a trip home to England and became engaged to the sister of his best mate, Captain Frederick Hunt.

On his return to South Africa, in April 1901, Morant volunteered for a revolutionary new army unit, the Bushveldt Carbineers. The Boers had been proving a wily match for the British and the unit was formed under the command of Lord Kitchener, to fight the Boers on their own maverick terms. Normal rules of war didn’t necessarily apply, perhaps best illustrated by Morant’s court statement citing “Rule 303” – basically shoot to kill! Effectively the world’s first commando unit, in some ways, the Bushveldt Carbineers could be considered as the forerunners of the SAS.

Several weeks after joining the unit, 17 Carbineers, including Morant, under the command of Captain Hunt, attacked a Boer farmhouse, only to discover there were far more Boers hiding in the house than expected. Hunt was badly wounded and the Boers extracted their revenge, savagely mutilating him whilst he was still alive and then stripping his dead body of his uniform.

Enraged at the barbarity, Morant, by now in command, retaliated, capturing the remaining Boers, then setting up a hasty bush court martial and ordering every prisoner shot. Although some of his fellow soldiers were very uncomfortable with the decision, he placated them, saying Captain Hunt had previously told him that Lord Kitchener had ordered all prisoners shot, but the unease about the shootings continued and seven Carbineers, including Lieutenants Morant, Peter Handcock and George Witton were charged with murder.

At that time, under increasing diplomatic pressure from European countries, such as Germany, the British government had decided to try and bring the Boer War to a close and the trial was seen as an ideal opportunity to appease European disquiet at Kitchener’s inhumanly harsh treatment of the Boers, which included concentration camps for women and children. It is salutary to find that 27,927 Boers died in these camps, 22,000 of whom were children under the age of 16!

The results of the Courts Martial were effectively a foregone conclusion, however, Major Thomas, the young Australian legal representative picked to defend the three Australians, proved to be a very capable lawyer and fought valiantly to save the men. Unfortunately, anyone who could possibly have appeared for the defence had been shipped out of the way, or charged, and Kitchener, through his subordinate, Colonel Hubert Hamilton, denied ever having given any order re shooting to kill. Morant and Handcock were sentenced to death and Witton to life imprisonment. The executions were carried out almost immediately, before any plea for clemency could be made to either the Australian Government, or the King.

Outrage over the affair continued in both Australia and Britain and with the assistance of people such as Winston Churchill, George Witton’s sentence was overturned in 1905 and he was released. In 1907, he published a bitter book on his experiences, “Scapegoats of the Empire.” It was also to be the last time an Australian soldier would be tried for an offence under foreign (allied) jurisdiction.

Some time later, Kitchener admitted he had given such orders and whilst there is no civilised excuse for Morant and Handcock’s behaviour, it had become standard practise amongst the troops, with tacit approval from headquarters. In recent years, several eminent legal people, including Geoffrey Robertson, of “Hypotheticals” fame, have commented on the case. The consensus being that at the very least, the verdicts were unsafe and at the most, Morant and Handcock were guilty of offences that should have seen three to five year prison sentences applied. In 1998, a retired South Australian supreme court judge stated that the verdicts would not have lasted five minutes on appeal.

It is a cautionary real life story of the depravity that men in battle conditions can fall victim to and the moral and political ambiguities of war. Perhaps the real hero is Major Thomas, himself a well known poet and newspaper proprietor. A thoroughly decent man from Tenterfield NSW, he was manoeuvred into leaving the army after the courts martial and died a broken man on Armistice Day in 1946.

In 1910, Lord Kitchener attended a memorial service at Bathurst NSW, for soldiers who had given their lives in the Boer War and only participated in unveiling the memorial, on being assured Handcock’s name was not featured. It was eventually put on the plaque in 1984. Kitchener and Hamilton later became once again responsible for Australian soldiers lives – at Gallipoli. Hamilton’s military career was destroyed by their disastrous Gallipoli campaign and Kitchener drowned in 1916, when his ship hit a mine.

There is a West Australian connection. An Albany man, Robert Cochrane, a JP and a fellow Bushveldt Carbineer, loathed Morant and was instrumental in bringing the matter to the attention of a rather flamboyant South Australian intelligence officer, Captain Frederick De Bertodano, who had caused the army considerable embarrassment over several matters of fraud and embezzlement. The story then takes a bizarre turn, for Daisy Bates, no stranger herself to fiction, fraud and even bigamy, corresponded over several years in the early 1940s, with both Major Bolton (the prosecution lawyer) and Captain Bertodano, (independently of each other), on the subject of Aboriginal welfare. Seemingly, they were all oblivious to the incredible connection.

Perhaps the last words on the dilemmas of soldiers at war, should be left to a modern day poet. In two 1984 compositions, Leonard Cohen wrote:

“I’m leaving Captain, I must go, there’s blood upon your hand. But tell me Captain, if you know of a decent place to stand?”

There is no decent place to stand, in a massacre, but if a woman takes your hand, then go and stand with her.”

There was this terrible sound and my father went down, with a terrible wound in his side. He said, Try to go on, take my books, take my gun. And remember my son how they lied.”

Greg Ross

This link is to a ballad about the Breaker, music by Keith Potger (Seekers) and lyrics by Greg Ross. It’s a first-take demo and not the finished article.

With very special thanks to Nick Bleszynski for his time, thoughts and comments, based on his extensive research for the definitive Breaker Morant story, “Shoot Straight You Bastards.”

Recommended reading: “Scapegoats of the Empire” George Witton

“The Breaker” Kit Denton

“Shoot Straight You Bastards” Nick Bleszynski

“The Bushveldt Carbineers & Pietersburg Lighthorse”   Bill Woolmore

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