The ballad of ‘the Breaker’ – Australia’s Boer War

The Breaker Morant story is back in the news here in Australia with the investigation of our SAS for the unlawful killing and torturing of Afghanis.

Every once in a while, the matter of the trial and execution by firing squad of Harry “the Breaker” Morant for killing unarmed prisoners of war during the 19th Century fin de siecle Anglo-Boer War surfaces as his partisans push for a pardon. The war was Australian troops’ fourth overseas military adventure in the service of British Empire (the first was New Zealand’s Maori Wars, and later, in Sudan and during The Chinese Boxer Rebellion – with few engagements and no battle casualties (see Postscript below).

The argument goes like this: Lieutenants Harry Morant, an immigrant to Australia from Devon, England, and Peter Handcock, Australian born, were tried by a military court and executed unjustly as scapegoats of the British Empire. Some partisans are more nuanced. Celebrated lawyer and human rights advocate Geoffrey Robertson questions whether there was due legal process and not whether the two were guilty as charged.

The general consensus here in Australia, however, is that the two men received a fair trial (by martial law standards, that is ) and got what they deserved. It’s a similar “hero or villain” debate to that which has persisted for a century about our most famous bad guy,  bush ranger Ned Kelly. The consensus here too is that Ned received his just deserts for the shooting of the policemen at Stringybark Creek. As Ned said just before dropped through the trapdoor at Melbourne Gaol, “such is life”.

But back to “the Breaker”, Harry Morant, and the subject of the latest book from Australian author Peter FitzSimons, Breaker Morant. Morant earned his sobriquet for his superb horsemanship. Most folk know him only from Bruce Beresford’s excellent 1981 film, Breaker Morant and particularly, his famous last words: “Shoot straight, you Bastards! And don’t make a mess of it!”

Fitz is a “popular historian” and a fine storyteller – and Bob Dylan tragic (I once asked him to write a book about the Bobster, but he hedged with his answer). He has written prolifically on subjects as diverse as Captain Cook, the gruesome Batavia mutiny, and Ned Kelly, and particularly Australian military history, including books about Gallipoli, Pozières, Tobruk and Kokoda. He is an ardent republican, and that comes through strongly in his writing. He is excellent at drawing characters out of history and describing events in detail. I enjoy his tales very much, but I do not like his style – he writes in the vernacular, which is not a bad thing, but embroiders the story much to much, putting words into his historical characters’ mouths and retelling the event, be it a battle or a horse race, as if they were a contemporary action novel.

His Breaker Morant is true to form. Fitz bulls up his voluminous text with extraneous aphorisms and superfluous intrusions “of shreds and patches, of ballads, songs and snatches” (I can be as guilty as he) as if they were intrinsic to the narrative. And his sub-paragraph headings, employing puns and tabloid catchphrases seems to me as contrived and, well, naff.

He has little affection for his subject. “… that ragged, red faced charmer, the ever garrulous Breaker Morant” is introduced to us in the Australian bush as a Pommie, a compulsive liar and cheat, con-artist and impostor, faker and fantasist, one step ahead of creditors and the law. But man, he ride and shoot! There is no colt he cannot tame nor race or polo game he cannot win. And he can drink any man under the table.

Morant is a story teller non parièl – mostly about himself and his much embroidered exploits. He is able to impress and ingratiate himself upon people of all genders, classes and occupations, not the least, our celebrated poet lorikeet Henry “Banjo” Paterson. They bond over a shared accuity for penning bush ballads – and by the standards of that genre, The Breaker holds his own among Australian poets:

There was buckjumping blood in the brown gelding’s veins,
But, lean-headed, with iron-like pins,
Of Pyrrhus and Panic he’d plentiful strains,
All their virtues, and some of their sins.
‘Twas the pity, some said, that so shapely a colt
Fate should with such temper endow;
He would kick and would strike, he would buck and would bolt
Ah! – who’s riding brown Harlequin now?

From starlight to starlight – all day in between
The foam-flakes might fly from his bit,
But whatever the pace of the day’s work had been,
The brown gelding was eager and fit.
On the packhorse’s back they are fixing a load
Where the path climbs the hill’s gloomy brow;
They are mustering bullocks to send on the road,
But – who’s riding old Harlequin now?

Style aside, Fitz’s take on the Boer War is well researched, and his narrative is gripping and colourful in descriptions and language, and also characters. His is a cast of hundreds, including entertaining walk-on roles for the likes of young Winston  Churchill, Rudyard Kipling, Arthur Conan Doyle, and The Banjo, all of whom served as newspaper correspondents at one time or another during the conflict, and also, the celebrated Daisy Bates, remembered still for her work in remote indigenous communities, who was married to Harry for a short while up Queensland way until she tired of his drinking and gambling.

A dirty little war

The Anglo Boer War (October 1899 to May 1002), second of its name, was a dirty little war, fought for gold and diamonds and sold to the public throughout the empire as a “just war” to defend the interests of the non-Boer Uitlanders (‘outlanders’, who were predominantly British residents of the legitimate Boer republics) and to uphold Imperial honour (the Boers attacked first – a preemptive strike like Israel in 1967). Some sixty thousand Boers and their African auxiliaries (bribed or conscripted) faced off against six hundred thousand British and colonial soldiers, and again, African auxiliaries.

Most of the Imperial forces were British, including militias from Cape Colony and Natal, but Australians, Kiwis, Canadians, and Rhodesians served as eager volunteers in defense of the “home country”, and Indian soldiers were “volunteered” by the Raj, whilst indigenous people served as auxiliaries, and also as porters and servants who were often in the firing line. Mahatma Gandhi served as a stretcher bearer, again, in the line of fire, and established an “ambulance” service for the British army.

Boer (meaning “farmer”) is the common name for Afrikaans-speaking white South Africans descended from the Dutch East India Company’s’s original settlers at the Cape of Good Hope who adhered to the fundamentalist strictures of the Dutch Reformed Church.The Boer forces were citizen soldiers, but small numbers of Irish, Scots and English also served in the Boer commandos, and even some Americans and Frenchmen. Most were often long time settlers who fought to defend their farms and families and also, their country, and others were soldiers of fortune attracted by the Boers’ defense of their liberty.

The Imperial forces were commanded by the ageing but highly respected Lord Roberts, but operational command lay with General Kitchener, a man who was not averse to stringent measures and also to sacrificing his own men if it served his tactical or strategic purpose. Whilst he decreed that once a combatant had laid down his arms he was to be taken prisoner, his directive was sometimes ignored, as the tale of  The Breaker illustrated. In the conquest of the Sudan, Kitchener sanctioned cold-blooded murder of tens of thousands of captured and wounded mahdists in revenge for the death of General Gordon.

In his excellent Empire, economic historian Niall Ferguson’s has no kind words for Cecil Rhodes, who had an influential part to play in the events that led to the war, and he is quite iconoclastic with regard to imperial icons like Gordon, Kitchener and also, Baden Powell, the “hero of Mafeking” and subsequent founder of the Boy Scout Movement,  all of whom he characterizes as eccentric and potential nutcases. He likes Lawrence and Churchill, however, for all their faults, foibles and fables.

Once introduced in the opening chapter, the eponymous Breaker does does not figure prominently in the narrative until the second half of the book – the first half is taken up with the “formal” war – the military campaigns that conclude with the capture of the Boer capitals of Bloemfontein and Pretoria after the conquest and annexation of the independent Boer republics of The Orange Free Sate and Transvaal.

Thence follows the guerrilla war waged by the “bittereinders” that compelled Generals Roberts and Kitchener to resort to extreme measures to subdue the hold-out Boers, including a scorched-earth policy of demolition and confiscation, barbed wire and blockhouses, and herding civilians, including women and children into concentration camps – their African servants and workers were confined in separate camps. Thousands perished of starvation and disease.

Compelled by the inability of regular military Kitchener authorized the establishment of irregular formations to counter the Boer guerrillas with like-tactics – which is where colonial volunteers, like Harry Morant and his comrades, used to living in the saddle and off the land, came into their own. The latter part of the Boer war thus became one of the first instances of modern counterinsurgency operations, setting a president for further colonial wars – for example, the French in Indochina and Algeria, the British in Aden and Cyprus, and the Americans in Vietnam.

When Roberts returns home to retirement and his chief of staff assumes total command, Kitchener is implacable, vengeful and ruthless in his determination to bring in the bittereinders dead or alive, and to collectively punish their womenfolk and children and their African servants and field hands with the destruction of their livelihood and transportation to the camps outside the main towns. Captured combatants receive the punishment often meted out to rebels against the crown – they are transported – to India, Ceylon, Bermuda, and even Portugal and Madagascar – and ironically, St. Helena, the last exile of Napoleon Bonaparte. In their own way, the exiled Boers were the heirs of the Fenians and trade unionists who ended up in Australia where so many of Kitchener’s bushmen originated.

As peace talks were initiated and ended in stalemate, Kitchener dialed the brutality knob to full. He and his soldiers would refer to Kitchener’s “bag”, the tally of Boers killed or captured – a grim precursor to General William Westmoreland’s fixation with the “body count” during the Vietnam War.

Boers at rest

Boers in action

Dark deeds in a sunny land

Enter the infamous Bushveldt Carbineers. The recruiters were by now literally scraping the barrel; as FitzSimons puts it, “a motley crew, a mix of the old and the bold, the young and the desperate, and those with no better options than joining an outfit destined to be operating in such dangerous realms. No fewer than a third of the new recruits have no military experience whatsoever, and some have never even ridden a horse”. “Rangers, rogues and renegades”  and “the rough and the rowdy, the wild and the woolly, and sometimes the demonic and dangerously”, and whilst in the field, as often as not, drunk – both officers and men. And among them, down on his luck in England and almost destitute and desperate, Harry Morant.

In control though not in command is Captain Alfred Taylor, Intelligence Officer and District and Native Commissioner, known to the natives as “Bulala”, killer. A psychopath is on the loose, appointed and sanctioned by Kitchener himself, and he finds willing henchmen in recently promoted and opportunist Lieutenants Morant and Handcock.

Half way through the 500 page book, FitzSimons changes pace. What had up to now been a largely historical narrative interspersed with colourful and entertaining vignettes, becomes a tale of dark deeds in a sunny land.

As Fitz tells it, encouraged by the sinister Taylor, who believes the only good Boer is a dead one, an increasingly delusional and unhinged Morant and the psychotic Handcock embark on a murder spree. As Moran would admit to the court, “we got them and we shot them under Rule 303”, referencing the Lee Enfield, the standard-issue British Army rifle.

Based on transcripts of their subsequent trial and letters and memoirs of fellow carbineers, Fitz reconstructs the events that conclude with Morant’s downfall and death. Reluctant members of firing squads and outright refuseniks put together a dossier and petition detailing the cold-blooded murder of surrendered Boers, children, an unfortunate priest, and also, a carbineer who’d threatened to blow the whistle.

Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant and third from left with the 2nd South Australian Mounted Rifles during the Boer War, circa 1900. .

The book becomes a page-turner as the petition is dispatched up the chain of command, the prospects of a cover-up being high. But no. There are indeed men of integrity in higher command who will see justice done – not the least because they wish to see the dangerous Taylor removed. The more pragmatic view the alleged crimes as impediments to bringing the Boer leaders to the negotiating table.

But the outcome is far from certain. As court martial proceedings conclude and sentences are handed down, including an acquittal for the nefarious Taylor, and a recommendation for clemency by the court after it sentences Moran and Handcock to death for multiple murders – they were in a war zone and under serve strain and provocation after all – Kitchener refused. How could he enter the peace talks that would soon come if the killers were let off the hook?

He dies almost two years to the date of his landing in South Africa with the second Contingent

The war winds down 

By war’s end, Britain’s claims to moral supremacy, already questioned by its waging a war of aggression against two small states, was irreparably damaged. Public opinion which had in the beginning embraced jingoism and righteous anger, once informed of the true nature of the war by returning journalists and also soldiers’ letters, and fired up by clergymen and humanitarians, began to question the purpose and the morality of the war. In Australia, the new narrative was championed by none other than Banjo who had early on developed an admiration for the Boer fighters, likening them to the resilient and resourceful folk of the Australian bush.

Many consider the Boer War as marking the beginning of the questioning of the British Empire’s level of power and prosperity; this is due to the war’s surprisingly long duration and the unforeseen, discouraging losses suffered by the British fighting the Boer citizen soldiers; and repugnance with regard to the ruthless treatment of non-combatants. Many parts of occupied Boer republics with their burned farmsteads and plundered lands resembled more a desert than a once prosperous agrarian economy.

Not that the Boers were exemplars of moral rectitude by our enlightened twenty-first Century standards. Their’s was a conservative and indeed fundamentalist society that regarded the indigenous people as inferior and destined to serve their needs. The British regarded the Boers attitude towards the kaffirs as unacceptable – and yet they too regarded the indigenous Africans as their inferiors – but their’s was a righteous though none the less prejudiced and patronizing “white man’s burden” mentality that characterized Victorian Britons’ view of Empire.

By the end of 1901, the British are physically and morally exhausted. Attrition has turned to atrophy. Kitchener craved an end to the conflict. “I wish I could find some way of finishing this war”, he writes to the Secretary of State for War. Especially now that it is is believed that ordered the execution of Boer prisoners “found in khaki” – wearing items of British uniform.

And so it comes to pass that two months after Morant and Handcock are laid in their un-shared un-hallowed grave, the Boer leadership, wanted to end the devastation and human misery, and the British unable to go forward of back, agree to terms, including ceding Boer sovereignty to Britain, an amnesty for all combatants, the return of the far-flung  transportees, and the emptying of the camps.

At the end of the day, after twenty months of conflict, some twenty two thousand British forces soldiers perished, whilst five thousand were sick and wounded.  Six thousand Boers were killed and twenty four thousand captured whilst twenty one thousand bittereinders surrendered. There were over forty six thousand civilian fatalities, and of 115,000 people incarcerated in concentration camps, twenty seven thousand women and children died, and twenty thousand Africans. Thirty thousand Boer homesteads had been destroyed and tens of thousand of those of Africans, and forty towns had been razed.

By 1910, the Dominion on South Africa had been established with English  and Afrikaans as its co-equal languages. The next stage of South Africa’s eventful history had begun.

Butchered To Make A Dutchman’s Holiday

-In prison cell I sadly sit,
A d__d crest-fallen chappie!
And own to you I feel a bit- A little bit – unhappy!
It really ain’t the place nor time To reel off rhyming diction –
But yet we’ll write a final rhyme Whilst waiting cru-ci-fixion!
No matter what ‘end’ they decide – Quick-lime or ‘b’iling ile,’ sir?
We’ll do our best when crucified To finish off in style, sir!
But we bequeath a parting tip For sound advice of such men,
Who come across in transport ship To polish off the Dutchmen!
If you encounter any Boers You really must not loot ’em!
And if you wish to leave these shores, For pity’s sake, DON’T SHOOT ‘EM!!
And if you’d earn a D.S.O., Why every British sinner
Should know the proper way to go Is: ‘ASK THE BOER TO DINNER!’
Let’s toss a bumper down our throat, – Before we pass to Heaven,
And toast: ‘The trim-set petticoat
We leave behind in Devon.’
At its end the manuscript is described –
The Last Rhyme and Testament of Tony Lumpkin

Postscript – Australia’s 19th century wars

Between 1845 and 1872 just over 2,500 Australian volunteers saw service in New Zealand during the wars between the Maori and Pakeha (white colonists) over the ownership of Maori lands. Though Australian born, troops all served in British regiments. The majority of these volunteers came from the colonies of New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania.

In the early 1880s the British-backed Egyptian regime in the Sudan came under threat from local supporters of Muhammed Ahmed, also known as the Mahdi. In 1883 the Egyptian government was sent south to crush the revolt but instead of destroying the Mahdi’s forces, the Egyptians were soundly defeated. On March 29, 1885 a New South Wales contingent, an infantry battalion and an artillery battery, totalling 758 men. arrived in Sudan, It spent three months there  with no major engagements or battle casualties. there were three wounded soldiers and seven deaths from fever or dysentery.

In 1900, a contingent of mainly naval reservists was sent to China to restore order after the Boxer Rebellion. It didn’t take part in fighting and there were no battle casualties. The few fatalities were from disease.  The first Australian contingents, mostly naval reservists from New South Wales and Victoria, sailed in August 1900. Australian personnel sent to northern China were not engaged in combat. Six Australian’s died of sickness and injury and none were killed as a result of enemy action.


Read more about Australian history and politics in In That Howling Infinite: Down Under ; and British history in Foggy Ruins of Time

Many Australians past and present view Harry Morant as harshly dealt with, a  folkloric antihero  sacrificed on the alter of empire, as the following article by Fitz himself explains. But first, a word from an Australian country music icon.

They still sanctify the monster Breaker Morant – and insult the true heroes

Peter FitzSimons, Sydney Morning Herald,  September 14, 2021 

Edward Woodward as Breaker Morant

 The idea that Breaker Morant should be given a posthumous pardon is a persistent one, as is the idea that he should have his name added to the Boer War Memorial in Adelaide – the latter idea getting a new lease of life in a strong article published in The Advertiser in Adelaide on Saturday.

For the legend is a beauty: Breaker Morant was a Man From Snowy River in Australian uniform: a brilliant horseman, soldier and bush poet who was cruelly put up against the wall by those Pommy bastards, merely for following their orders.

Yes. So strong and seductive that the article in the ’Tiser records that 70 per cent of their respondents are in favour of Morant’s name being added to the Boer War Memorial. In terms of iconic status, it is of the ilk of the Anzac legend that Education Minister Alan Tudge is insistent must not be questioned in any way in the national history curriculum. As Tudge said last week, the Anzac legend is “not going to be a contested idea on my watch”.

But, based on the book I wrote on Morant, with the help of strong researchers who were able to dig fine detail, let’s contest the Morant legend and look at just one episode of his war career, this one while commanding the roving unit, the Bushveldt Carbineers, in the latter part of the Boer War. The first thing to note is that rather than being Australian, Morant was English and had joined the war effort from Australia after being here for a couple of decades – while the Bushveldt Carbineers was a wholly British unit.

On September 7, 1901, Morant hears of three unarmed, non-combatant Boers heading their way and wanting to surrender. Morant goes out to meet them in the company of one lieutenant and two other troopers. And there they are, up yonder: Boer farmer Roelf van Staden and his two sons, the youngest of whom, Chris, is 12 and desperately ill.

Morant takes immediate action, using a procedure he has previously developed to get through such matters most efficiently. He tells his men that when they get to the clearing up ahead, they must wait till he says “Lay down your arms”, and as soon as they relax, shoot ’em. Arriving at the clearing, Morant barks: “Dismount.” His men do so, and quickly bring up their rifles. The Boers look at them, horrified. “Lay down your arms!” Morant commands.

As planned, the father and his sons relax just a little . . . only for the Troopers to shoot them dead.

How do we know Morant committed these and other atrocities in which a dozen non-combatants were gunned down? There are many reasons, but they include 14 brave Australian soldiers and a Kiwi soldier risking their lives – for the first two soldiers in the Bushveldt Carbineers to publicly dissent had finished with a bullet in their heads – writing a letter to their commanding colonel, asking for Morant to be court-martialled. He was, during which Morant famously boasted of the atrocity of lining up eight unarmed Boer prisoners and shooting them by the side of a road. “We got them, and we shot them, under Rule .303!”

Of course, Morant was a practised hand at shooting prisoners by this time, having ordered a firing squad to execute a lone, injured prisoner, Floris Visser, to the disgust of men and officers alike. At least Visser was given the farce of a “drum head” court-martial, a kangaroo court improvised by Morant to justify murder as revenge for his friend Captain Percy Hunt.

Quoted in the Advertiser on Saturday, the Melbourne lawyer James Unkles said: “Injustices in times of war are inexcusable and it takes vigilance to right wrongs, to honour those unfairly treated and to demonstrate respect for the rule of law. How we respond to this case remains a test of our values and is vitally important.”

Was he speaking in sympathy with the dead Boers? He was not. He was pushing the case for Morant’s posthumous pardon, and for his name to be added to the Boer War Memorial in Adelaide, just as he was a prime agitator behind the Australian Parliament in 2009 voting in favour of petitions being presented to Queen Elizabeth II to review and posthumously overturn Morant’s convictions. Three years later, on the 110th anniversary of the execution of Morant and co-accused Peter Handcock, the Liberal member for Mitchell, Alex Hawke, rose in the House to make a claim for Morant and company’s pardon.

“It is timely for the Australian government to do everything it can to assist the modern-day descendants of these men to access a judicial review of this case. It is the case that the executions were conducted with extreme haste and without appeal.”

(A point of order, Mr Speaker, if I may. An appeal is something they had in civilian courts, but did not exist with courts-martial.)

”I think it is important,” Alex Hawke continued, “that we seek British government’s assistance in releasing all of the available records in relation to this case so that the modern -day descendants can know what happened and rightly, if necessary, receive a judicial review and pardon. It is an episode that appeals greatly to every Australian because of the doctrine of fairness which says that no-one should be treated differently because of their birth, rank or status. We do know that these men were treated differently because of their birth, rank and status. We certainly need legends in Australian history.”

We do. And we have plenty of bona fide ones, without the need to gloss over the record of a war criminal. But still it goes on!

In February 2018, the Australian Parliament passed a motion expressing “Sincere regret that Lieutenants Morant, [et al] were denied procedural fairness contrary to law and acknowledges that this had cruel and unjust consequences; and . . . sympathy to the descendants of these men as they were not tried and sentenced in accordance with the law of 1902.”
Any mention of sympathy and sincere regrets for the defenceless Boers, including children, that Morant had gunned down? None at all. Justice for them? No mention. Just an obsessive focus on aspects of the court-martial where t’s weren’t crossed and i’s weren’t dotted. And equal insistence, despite a lack of any evidence at all, that Morant did what he did under British orders.

Bottom line?

Some historical legends, like that of Morant, are so seductive they live on because people want to believe them. And it’s so powerful you even have serious people pushing the tragic absurdity of an Australian Parliament petitioning the Queen and the British Parliament to posthumously pardon an Englishman fighting for a British unit who committed the worst war atrocities of the Boer War!

But how much more inspirational is the truth? Morant was not the Man From Snowy River put up against the wall by those Pommy bastards. He was a vicious Pommy bastard put up against the wall by the men from Snowy River and others who risked their lives to bring him to justice to stop the atrocities.

There are heroes in this story. They are those troopers who risked their lives to turn Morant in. Imagine their thoughts at his name being next to theirs on the Adelaide Boer War Memorial.

There are victims. They are unarmed Boers ruthlessly gunned down on Morant’s orders.

How monstrously unjust to both heroes and victims to simply go with the legend, unexamined, uncontested.

Of course history must be always examined, contested, reviewed, told from diverse sides. Anything less is indoctrination.

Twitter: @Peter_Fitz

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