Feb 272016


On this date in 1902 Australian lieutenant Harry “Breaker” Morant (along with his comrade in arms, Peter Handcock) was executed by firing squad by the British army after being convicted for murder during the 2nd Boer War. Morant, and Handcock, along with lieutenants George Witton, Henry Picton, Captain Alfred Taylor and Major Robert Lenehan – of the Bushveldt Carbineers (BVC), an irregular British force active during the Boer War – were all brought up on charges of murder which were, in part, prompted by a “letter of complaint” signed by James Christie and 14 other members of the BVC, stating that lieutenant Morant had incited the co-accused to murder about 20 people, including the Boer commando Visser, a group of eight Boer prisoners of war, Boer civilian adults and children, and a German missionary named Heese. Morant and Handcock were acquitted of killing Heese, but were sentenced to death on the other two charges and executed within 18 hours of sentencing. Their death warrants were personally signed by Lord Kitchener (before the verdicts were read).


It was not until 1907 that news of the trial and executions was made public in Australia when Witton published Scapegoats of the Empire. The Australian government ensured that none of its troops would be tried by the British military during World War I, but by then Australia was a nation, whereas during the Boer Wars Australia was a series of colonies which came directly under British rule. The official court records have never been found, prompting accusations of a British cover up.

Conflicting opinions continue to swirl around the trial and execution, not least because of interest aroused by continued publications, and the release of the 1980 film Breaker Morant. The facts of the matter have never been in dispute, and were never denied at the trial. Morant had ordered the summary executions of Visser and 8 prisoners of war. Controversy continues concerning the reasons for the trials of these men at this time. As one of the characters notes in the movie, the Boer War was “a new kind of war for a new century” – what we now call “total war” and what became normative in the 20th century.


Total war, which, it can be argued, started with the Boer War, involves such tactics as the lack of differentiation between combatants and non-combatants since opposing sides can consider nearly every human resource, even that of non-combatants, as part of the war effort. Thus, civilians and other non-combatants and their resources can become “legitimate” targets of war – evidenced by the carpet bombing of industrial cities, such as Coventry and Dresden in World War II, or the use of nuclear weapons in Japan, in which large numbers of civilian men, women, and children died. Total war can also involve commands to take no prisoners as a tactic.

Let me be quite clear on my moral stance before exploring the complexities and differing opinions on this case. I am utterly opposed to violence on any grounds. I am a confirmed pacifist and cannot be moved from that position. So, in examining the various viewpoints concerning the trial and execution of Morant I begin from the stance that war under any circumstances is morally wrong and, therefore, ALL acts of war are atrocities by definition, and cannot be condoned. That said, it’s possible to examine the arguments on all sides in Morant’s case.


Bruce Beresford, director of Breaker Morant has made it very clear what his motives were in making the movie:

The film never pretended for a moment that they weren’t guilty. It said they are guilty. But what was interesting about it was that it analysed why men in this situation would behave as they had never behaved before in their lives. It’s the pressures that are put to bear on people in war time… Look at all the things that happen in these countries committed by people who appear to be quite normal. That was what I was interested in examining. I always get amazed when people say to me that this is a film about poor Australians who were framed by the Brits.

I find Beresford’s remarks a tad disingenuous, although I understand his main point. The underlying reality is that the Boers, caught in a conflict that they felt they could not win, had begun resorting to guerrilla tactics that involved the killing of civilians and destruction of their property, as well as the execution of prisoners of war, so that the British felt justified in retaliating in like fashion. Many believe that such tactics were tacitly approved of by the British high command, including Lord Kitchener, but there were no public declarations or direct orders to that effect because such edicts would have been condemned internationally, and, hence, Morant et al were part of a show trial so that Britain could distance itself from tactics which it secretly condoned.

Then we get to the tricky question – the so-called Nuremburg defense. Can soldiers be excused acts of barbarity during times of war simply because they were following orders? Not a question with a straightforward answer. The answer in Nuremburg and Morant’s case was a resounding NO. But I can understand how a soldier, even one of high moral standards, could feel conflicted. The penalty for disobeying orders might be execution. This point, in fact, leads directly to Beresford’s central idea: modern war brutalizes people such that they are never the same afterwards. Here’s the summation by defense counsel from Breaker Morant. What do you think?

If you don’t want to watch the clip, here is an abbreviated transcript:

Now, when the rules and customs of war are departed from by one side, one must expect the same sort of behavior from the other. Accordingly, officers of the Carbineers should be, and up until now have been, given the widest possible discretion in their treatment of the enemy.

Now, I don’t ask for proclamations condoning distasteful methods of war, but I do say that we must take for granted that it does happen. Let’s not give our officers hazy, vague instructions about what they may or may not do. Let’s not reprimand them, on the one hand for hampering the column with prisoners, and at another time, and another place, hold them up as murderers for obeying orders.

The fact of the matter is that war changes men’s natures. The barbarities of war are seldom committed by abnormal men. The tragedy of war is that these horrors are committed by normal men in abnormal situations, situations in which the ebb and flow of everyday life have departed and have been replaced by a constant round of fear, and anger, blood, and death. 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. And if, in every war, particularly guerrilla war, all the men who committed reprisals were to be charged and tried as murderers, court martials like this one would be in permanent session. Would they not?

I say that we cannot hope to judge such matters unless we ourselves have been submitted to the same pressures, the same provocations as these men, whose actions are on trial.

Of course the judges in the court martial were military officers, so such a summation was wasted on them – coupled with the fact that the verdict was a foregone conclusion. I would hope that, if anything, the trial brings to light the fact that in modern total war, atrocities are the norm, and are habitually condoned by the high command. It’s well past time to stop using war as a political tool.

Morant's grave

Morant’s grave

I could not find a record of Morant’s last meal before execution. It surely would have been accorded him even though he was shot a bare 18 hours after the verdict was read, which meant he had no chance of appeal, and the entire proceedings had been kept secret from the public. What would your last meal be? I’ve asked this question many times of people. I think I’d have to fall back on comfort food, such as, cock-a-leekie soup, steak and kidney pudding, and apple crumble with egg custard — all British standards which I’ve mentioned numerous times before. However, I would not want to rely on a prison cook to make them the way I like, so they might be wasted choices. Considering that problem, I’d probably have to base my decision on where I was, and what dishes were available locally. Then I’d be down to questions like, “What’s your favorite dish in San Francisco? Nairobi? Tokyo? Adelaide? . . .” I can’t say what my favorite dish of all time is. There’s too many, and, in any case, my tastes change. So maybe just something gargantuan and varied. I’ve always been a fan of all-you-can-eat buffets. I use a small plate, take small portions of one or two different things, and return often.


I don’t get many comments on this blog, so this is a perfect moment for you to weigh in. What’s your pick for a last meal?