Should 'Breaker' Morant be pardoned

Hey everyone,
Time to take off the coal scuttle helmet and put on a slouch hat for this one.

In 1902, Lt Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant and Lt Peter Handcock of the mainly Australian Bush-Veldt Carbineers were executed in South Aftica by the British - their crime, shooting Boer p.o.w.'s and a German Missionary. A third officer had his death sentence commuted.

Their defence was that the men were shot in reprisal for the killing and mutilation of a fellow officer, and furthermore that they were ordered not to take prisoners because they would be a liability.

The verdict was the cause of considerable controversy, particularly in Australia. The surviving officer Lt Witton published a book entitled ‘Scapegoats of the Empire’ in which he suggested the men were shot to avoid German entry into the war and bring the Boers to the negotiating table.

In 2010, a petition for a pardon was submitted to the Queen, however despite what was described as a “strong and compelling case” the appeal was rejected in November of that year.

The interesting thing is that there appears to be little dispute that prisoners were indeed shot, however the case still elicits strong feelings. I wondered what other posters thought. Should they be pardonned or not; or indeed, should they not have been shot in the first place.

If you would like to know more, the following link is a good starting point:

Kind regards,

Hi heimwehr danzig,
thank for sharing this informations and for the link you posted. It sounds like an interesting story, that took place in an area and in a period of history almost unknown to me. Good opportunity to learn something…
Best regards

I wouldn’t pardon them.

Leaving aside popular myths created by various writers and cinema, the only realistic case for pardon is based upon, quite clear, inadequacies in the conduct of their trials.

However, Morant and Co were irregulars who murdered Boers and who deserved the death penalty then imposed upon murderers.

Hi Skorzeny, I guess that in Italy the Boer war is relativly unknown, even in the UK it is something of a forgotten war. I guess it’s a bit like the Italian colonial campaigns in that respect.

Interesting to get a response from an Aussie, Rising Sun*!
May I ask, although you agree with the sentence per se, do you feel that they were singled out because they were Australian (even though Morant was english by birth)? How about the fact that the well connected English officer Cpt Taylor was not executed, but went on to a promising career? I take it you reject the conspiracy theories surrounding this case?

No, they were dealt with because they murdered people.

Most Australians will concede that being English by birth should be a criminal offence down here, although generally not a capital offence. :wink: :smiley:

Taylor’s subsequent career has no bearing on the guilt of Morant & Co.

This is a somewhat biased article, but it is probably nearer the truth than the cinematic and popular myths surrounding Morant & Co.

Hi Rising Sun*,
Thanks for the article; interesting yes, biased certainly!
It intrigues me because having watched the excellent movie with Edward Woodward as the Breaker, I was pretty sympathetic and I was under the impression that Down Under Morant is seen as a folk hero and victim of British injustice.
I was amused by the comment under the article you attached where somebody had said all the good bits make him an Aussie, all the bad bits make him a Pom!

Hi heimwehr danzig,
i can’t say anything about my compatriots, but the Boer wars are quite unknown to me… It’s just a fault on my part. I promise i’ll put this defect right… Talking about the Italian colonial wars, here’s another dark page of our history… It just was a tragicomic attempt to emulate the ancient glories and the splendours of the European Colonial Powers…
Best regards.

The Boer Wars are actually very interesting, it’s where the term ‘commando’ came into widespread use. It was the last time a British unit carried colours in battle - the battle of Laing’s Nek 1898. And as a direct consequence of the Boer War the territorial force was created.

I realise I’m going off my own topic, but why did the Boer wars bring the T.A. into existance?
Also, since I’m already off topic, in Thomas Packenham’s Boer War book her relates a joke told by a veteran regarding the Boer commander Christian De Wet
Q. Why do Boojers go to bed with their boots on?
A. To keep De Wet from defeat
Even after 100+ years, that is still really funny!

Very interesting, Thanks

That’s the popular view, largely informed by the film and some books in similar vein.

It’s similar to Ned Kelly being a folk hero in the popular mind rather than a robber who murdered three policemen.

It depends upon whether one wants to look at the myth or the reality.

I was most interested in this forum regarding Morant. I have spent 2 years researching the case and last year petitioned the British Crown to pardon Morant, Handcock and Witton. In October, the government refused the petition I lodged. My case for pardons has involved detailed analysis of the case, the arrest, trial and sentencing of these men. This is not the forum in which to detail the defects in the manner in which these men were tried, except to state that the grounds are compelling and were stated as such by the Australian Parliament’s Petitions committee at a public hearing in March 2010. Without detailed analysis, most writers on this subject draw assumptions and ‘dress’ them up as historical fact, often relying on issues that were portrayed in the film made in 1980.

My web site, contains extensive material about the case for pardons, including evidence that I uncovered in 2010 proving that orders to shoot prisoners were issued by two named British officers who were not held accountable for these orders. Detractors have always said that such orders did not exist, I have proven otherwise and the evidence corroborates what these men and their defence counsel said.

The shame and illegality of such orders fell onto Morant, Handcock and Witton who had sworn to obey all orders. I had hoped for a fair and transparent process of review of the case for pardons, instead I was confronted with much of what happened in 1902, a secret process removed from public scrutiny. I am pleased to say that the case is now being prepared for judicial appeal, something that was denied to these men in 1902, their right to appeal to the King denied by Lord Kitchener, as was their attempt to contact their relatives and the Australian government for assistance. If guilty of anything, (and I don’t concede they were), death sentences were not justified. This case will continue to attract controversy until the all the evidence (for and against conviction) is tested before a court, divorced from the bias of government and political agendas that are as strong today as they were in 1902 when Kitchener was trying to appease the German government over the death of Reverend Heese. This case always demanded review by a process divorced from government. At long last this will occur whether the outcome will overturn the convictions and sentences will have to be seen. What this will achieve is accountability and admission (that the British government fears) that such orders did exist, were illegal and attributed to Morant, Handcock and Witton instead of the real culprits, British officers who drew their direction in fighting the Boer from Lord Kitchener. History is littered with injustices and perseverance is the key to achieving justice. This is one of those cases of injustice.

I look forward to your views

Out of interest, had they been guilty, hypothetically, and bearing in mind the laws of the time would you object to their execution? Naturally in our more ‘enlightened’ times few of us approve of the death penalty. I’m just interested if your opinion would differ if you were a disinsterested party. I just want to re-affirm that I am in no way apportioning blame or innocence.

I suggest in order to consider your question, one needs to remember that the courts martial that convicted these men also made very compelling recommendations for mercy noting the accused’s good service records, their ignorance of military law, customs, their obedience to orders and in Morant’s case, the extreme provocation at the torture and death of Captain Hunt (his superior and friend) at the hands of Boers. The recommendation for Morant reflected the court’s belief on the evidence that Hunt had been tortured and killed by Boers. They classified this act as extreme provocation

Curious that Kitchener only spared Witton and confirmed the sentences of death of Morant and Handcock. Kitchener then had Morant and Handcock shot with a few hours of being sentenced thus denying the accused their right to appeal to the King.

My opinion matters little, what matters is were they tried and sentenced in accordance with the laws of 1902? I say no, they were not. This case is about accountability of the British officers who gave orders to shoot prisoners and a trial according to due process, a trait of civilised countries of the time (1902).


My view is expressed in my earlier post at #3: “the only realistic case for pardon is based upon, quite clear, inadequacies in the conduct of their trials”. As a solicitor in continuous general practice since 1978, and from my recollection of the inadequacies in the trial and the defendants’ representation*, I agree that it’s perfectly legitimate to pursue a pardon on that basis. However, achieving a pardon on the basis of deficiencies in their trials is a very different thing to exculpating Morant and Co of the crimes of which they were accused from a historical, as distinct from legal, perspective. And which criminal acts, in general, they admitted.

*The deficiencies in the defendant’s representation do not reflect adversely upon the professional skills of their counsel, who as a rural conveyancer could hardly be expected to have the skills to run and appear in a capital trial.

I’m rusty on this, but I think that there was no necessity for a defendant at the time (or during WWI some years later) to be represented by anyone with legal qualifications in a British court-martial, but merely by an officer who appeared as the ‘prisoner’s friend’.

The nature and purpose of courts-martial at the time should also be noted as being rather different to modern courts-martial. They were often in the nature of ‘drumhead courts-martial’ convened in the field to dispense summary military justice (which is to justice as martial music is to music) for the expedient purpose of maintaining military discipline, free of many of the concepts and procedures applicable to civilian criminal trials which aspire to higher standards of proof and process. Morant & Co’s trial fits into that category of a drumhead court-martial where military management overrode personal justice and justice was seen to be done, but not done. As my father used to say of CO’s hearings he conducted: “March the guilty bastard in, sergeant, and we’ll give him a fair hearing before imposing the sentence.”

If such orders existed, don’t we still have to grapple with the Nuremberg defence at a moral and, quite separately, legal level?

In doing so, don’t we also have to put the 1945 Nuremberg defence into the context of social, political and military standards applying at the time of Morant and Co’s actions, when the concept of a British soldier disobeying a superior’s order because the subordinate considered it illegal wasn’t exactly entrenched in contemporary military, social or legal thinking? And, despite modern instruction to Australian troops, still doesn’t sit too well with the obedience to orders mentality which is the whole purpose of military training from the day you march in to basic training.

Another view of Morant & Co and their actions, which seems rather objective, is here:

Two views.

The latter link contains this statement by James Unkles “In 1901-02, the arrest, investigation, trial and sentencing of Morant, Handcock and Witton was conducted by the British in secrecy without any notice to the Australian government or their relatives.”

This illustrates to me the confusion which some Australians ignore about Morant & Co. They may have been Australians, although Morant wasn’t, but they were serving with British irregular forces, being the Bushveldt Carbineers, under British military authority.

Why should Britain consult Australia about dealing with its own troops, any more than America should consult Australia about an Australian born person serving in its military, or Australia should consult Britain about dealing with a British born soldier in the Australian military?

Thanks for the response. The case for pardons is based on a number of factors. The Nuremberg and indeed principles of war as per UN conventions were not applicable in 1902. Although modern day international law (post Nuremberg) provide clear direction to military commander about military members following illegal orders, the same could not be said of the state of military law that existed in 1901. The Hague Convention of 1899, that contained provisions about the treatment of prisoners did not apply to the Boer War. At the time of the shootings by Morant, Handcock and Witton, the Boer republics were not signatories to the Hague convention.

In an authoritative study of crimes committed by the British Army during the Boer war, Miller, an associate professor of history stated:

[i]‘Britain altered its notions of acceptable conduct in war by joining the Geneva Convention in 1865 and submitting to further changes in international law agreed to at Brussels in 1874 and the Hague in 1899. (Stephen M. Miller, Duty or Crime? Defining Acceptable Behaviour in the British Army in South Africa, 1899–1902, Journal of British Studies 49 (April 2010): 314 - 315)

[i]The Hague Convention, which Britain signed just two months before the outbreak of hostilities with the Transvaal and the Orange Free State, is particularly relevant to evaluating British conduct in the South African War, even though the South African republics were not participants. The invitation list put together by the Great Powers at Russia’s prompting omitted their inclusion over fear of British objections. Since the laws that emerged from the Hague talks were only binding between signatories of the convention, Britain did not legally have to abide by them in the war’.[

The situation was complicated by the employment of paid volunteers (like Morant et al) who were not skilled in military tactics, rules and customs of war, the legality and jthe jurisdiction of the Hague convention. Colonial officers, including the accused signed attestation documents pledging loyal service to the King and obedience to their superiors. The existence of attestation documents is another piece of new primary evidence not previously considered. The lack of understanding of military law and customs that existed in 1901 by Morant, Handcock and Witton is aptly summarised by the officers who sat in judgment.

The trial officers were present during all the proceedings and were best equipped to judge the evidence before them. The recommendations for mercy included the following reference to Morant:

[i]‘The difficult position in which he was suddenly placed, with no previous military experience and no one of experience to consult, and

Want of previous military experience and complete ignorance of military law and military procedure[/i]

Similar recommendations were made for Witton and Handcock. These findings are significant and call into question opinions that illegal orders should have been disobeyed by the accused and whether they held a bona fide belief that the orders issued were in fact legal. Military law at the time was particularly harsh of professional soldiers and colonial volunteers) who disobeyed orders of their superior officer, maximum penalty death.

Other points, Morant was an Australian, an immigrant from England. In 1901, Australian colonies/States were open to anyone, particularly from the mother country. Remember Australia did not have sophisicated residency / immigration laws and procedures of the modern day. Morant had been working in Australia since the early 1860s.

The secrecy of the trials ect was an attempt to exclude Australian interference and contradicted an earlier assurance given by Kitchener to the Aust PM that the arrest and trial of Australians would be notified. The denial of the accused’s appeal rights as per the military and common law of 1902 was disgraceful and the executions carried out to prevent appeal to the Crown. George Witton refers to this in his book and counsel, Major Thomas protested the treatment of his clients in his writings between 1902 and as late as 1930.

The Manual of Military Law 1898 contained various provisions about the rights of an accused. Frankly, even by the standards of 1902, one’s day’s notice of trial and to consult Major Thoams (who represented 6 accused) was a disgrace and caused the accused to suffer a significant injustice, particularly as Thomas was not an experienced trial advocate (military or civilian) and the prosecution had almost three months to prepare its case.

I could continue but will comment on the reference to the Aust war memorial entries about the accused. The AWM does not support a call for an open and independent judicial inquiry. Its position is final and it relies on the writings of a few historians who have claimed ‘ownership’ of what they say is the ‘truth’ of the Boer war and the actions of troops like Morant. Organisations like the AWM attempt to hold the high ground and resent any attempt to challenge their version of their research. I say this, the Morant case will continue to attract challenges to those who claim the British got it right and justice was served. The supporters of the British case said evidence to shoot prisoners did not exist. In 2010, I produced such evidence and yet the British government refuses to convene an inquiry to consider all evidence about the case, for and against pardons and the quashing of the convictions. Perhaps it fears public exposure and independent review by someone not of government agends or bias. This case will not be settled until such an inquiry is convened, a request that Major Thomas asked for immediately following the executions.

Hi Iron Yeoman,
thank for the information and for the link you posted. Like i wrote before, i know almost nothing about that history period, in that part of the world… I’ll get myself some books about the topic. For example, i didn’t know where and when the term “commando” came into use… :confused:
Kind regards to all of you.