Breaker Morant – a review and discussion of the controversy.

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Breaker Morant is a superb film directed by Peter Beresford. It is a gripping tale of three soldiers on trial for their lives in South Africa in 1902. The characterisation is credible, the dialogue is both rich and spare, the cinematography is masterful, the music is atmospheric and the storyline is just the right speed. This picture relates the true story of three soldiers of the Bush Veld Carbineers (BVC) who were charged with a plethora of murders during the Second South African War.

The late Edward Woodward is in the title role. ‘Breaker’ Morant was a British immigrant to Australia. He was known as ‘breaker’ because he broke in horses for a living. Woodward plays Morant as tough but pensive. He was not just a rumbustious horseman, he was also a man of intellectual attainments. Morant was a journalist and a writer of light verse. He achieved some renown as a bush poet.

Bryan Brown portrays Morant’s co-defendant Peter Handcock. Brown interprets Handcock as a rambunctious, epicurean which is probably true to life. He is easily the most likable character.

George Witton is played by Lewis FitzGerald. FitzGerald shows his character to be an ingenue. His angel faced interpretation of Witton is perhaps far fetched. Anyone would be hardened and aged by the horrendous experience of war. This was an especially unchivalrous war where by 1902 quarter was seldom given.

Jack Thompson gives the performance of his live as Major J F Thomas the defence lawyer of the trio. Thomas is shown to be an entirely honourable man who does his level best in defending men accused of the gravest of crimes. He faces impossible odds but never gives up hope.

John Waters has a smaller role as Alfred Taylor. Waters skillfully hints at Taylor’s darker nature. Taylor is suspected of killing man black civilians. It is stated that Taylor will face trial after the first three. There is something quietly unhinged about his blank expression and occasional sadistic smile.

This is no hackneyed courtroom drama. The film jumps back and forth in its chronology without sacrificing coherence. The court room scenes are interspersed with some nail biting action scenes. There is ample scope for high drama. There is gallantry, tragedy, cruelty, remorse, comradeship, lust and love.

There is a lot to pack into 2 hours but this film does not force the pace. The long and the short of it is these three man have been accused of shooting dead many Boer Prisoners of War. They claim superior orders mandated them to do so. Indeed killing POWs had become common practice by 1902. Lord Kitchener was the commander of British and Australian forces in South Africa. He sends a subordinate to deny ever issuing such a command.

Handcock is also charged with the murder of a German missionary whom the BVC believed was passing information to their enemies. Handcock has a water tight alibi for that – he was committing adultery with two Afrikaner women at the time – she he is acquitted of the gravest charge.

The trial is shown to be a fix. The British top brass have done all their can to bias the trial towards the prosecution. The prosecution has 6 weeks to prepare and the defence has only 2 days to study the brief. The defence solicitor has never handled a court martial or even a criminal case at all. The panel of judges repeatedly sustain objections from the prosecution counsel and overrule them from the defence. Witnesses vital to the defence are shipped overseas.

Major Thomas launches a valiant defence of his client. He is perturbed by the flagrant unfairness of proceedings. He is also irked because Handcock keeps interjecting with cocky remarks. Handcock’s insolence towards authority is digging his own grave. He seems to confirm all the allegations about the Australians’ indifference to orders. Thomas maintains that POWs were only shot dead because of orders to do so. The trio on trial mainly gave such orders to privates to shoot POWs rather than the trio shooting the POWs themselves. Maj Thomas makes the unanswerable argument that the privates who shot the POWs should be on trial too. The prosecution says that would be unjust since the privates were following orders and cannot be prosecuted for doing their duty. The court does not want to have to execute the entire regiment.

There is a discrepancy in the tale. The trio had told their attorney that Handcock did not kill the German missionary and was having a liaison with two Boer women at the time. When Thomas is not there Handcock says that he murdered the missionary with Morant’s approval.

The verdict is seldom in doubt. Sentences of guilty on the charges of murdering POWs are returned.

Witton is the first to heard his sentence. He is awarded the death penalty but instantly informed that Lord Kitchener has commuted it to life imprisonment with hard labour. A tremendous opportunity for drama is lost because there could have been a pregnant pause between his being informed of his sentence and then the commutation. He returns to his cell and stands impassive for several seconds – contemplating that he has been handed his life but also the grim reality of an endless gaol sentence.

Thomas rides to Lord Kitchener’s HQ. He is desperate to secure a stay of execution and allow him the chance to petition the king for mercy. Lord Kitchener has anticipated this gambit and gone on manoeuvres to make sure he cannot be contacted. It is yet another example of British chicanery.

Handcock and Morant take their sentences with the uttermost sangfroid. They are buoyant and make light of it. Handcock has been he-man throughout. He is a self-proclaimed simple-minded man and never shows fear or pity but when he writes a last letter to his wife a tear comes to his eye. This humanises a character who would otherwise be too hard and perhaps merciless. Handcock and Morant tersely remark that they are being executed to appease Boer and German opinion. They are killed as a public relations exercise to bring about peace negotiations.

Handcock and Morant are shown as meeting their doom unflinchingly. Their gallant and truculent demeanour is profoundly impressive. The closing credits play the 1899 song ‘Soldiers of the Queen’ in ironic homage to these men who were executed for fighting for the British Empire.

A certain amount of bending the truth is acceptable to squeeze the story into two hours. However, this is only decent where it does not impact on the justice of the case. It is an outstanding film in its watchability. It is superb visually and truer to life than it could easily have been. The scenery is sparse and the colours are earth tones. That is what the landscape, building and clothes were like at that time and in the locale. There are plenty of closeups of faces. There are five major characters and about 20 minor ones. There is not one weak link in the chain. The acting is entirely credible and never overdone. Morant is shown as perhaps too urbane compared to the reality.

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ANALYSIS

The film is too simplistic in showing Australians to be good and the British to be evil. In fairness the film shows some balance. One of the prosecution witnesses is Australian. One Briton speaks up for the trio – he is Taylor from Ireland who is also about to face trial.

The whole affair was initiated by 15 members of the B V C writing to the authorities to complain about crimes committed by members of their unit. The B V C soldiers who wrote to their superiors stated ”many of us are Australian.” This is not a case of British verses Australians. It is a case of those who care about humanity against those who abuse human rights.

Was there a ‘ no prisoners’ order given? There is no record that Lord Kitchener gave one but it is likely that one was given lower down the chain of command. Certainly it was accepted practice among the B V C to shoot dead POWs. Kitchener surely knew that POWs were often shot dead and made no effort to prevent it. He was at least complicit in this. He certainly said enemy taken wearing British and Australian uniform could be shot. A British-Australian author Brylzcyk wrote Shoot Straight you Bastards – a title based on Morant’s last words. Brylzcyk is a partisan of Morant and Handcock. Even he cannot find any order from Earl Kitchener of Kharthoum ordering that POWs be shot.

Why do we take prisoners? It is so we can avoid needless bloodshed. A man surrenders and then is not harmed. His life is saved. If he knew he would be killed when he surrendered then he would fight to the death and maybe kill some of his enemies. Humanity towards POWs saves lives on BOTH sides.

The Boer commandoes did not wear uniforms and were thus outside the Geneva Convention. Therefore the B V C had a strong case for shooting those of their enemies who surrendered.

Morant was British born and moved to Australia aged 17. He spent 16 years in Australia. It was impossible to draw a sharp disctintion between Australians and Britons at the time.

The British officers are shown as uniformly supercilious, heartless and snobby. To be fair some of these officers probably were conceited. As for heartlessness, wars cannot be won by compassion. The BVC boasted of their mercilessness. Some officers were no doubt snooty. Morant himself was ever eager to emphasise that he was upper crust even when this was largely bogus.

Taylor is referred to as ”a damned Irishman” by Lord Kitchener. The viewer is given to believe that Kitchener was anti-Irish when there is no evidence that he was. Lord Kitchener was Irish himself! His ”damned Irishman” remark is corrected by his subordinate ”Anglo-Irishman” as though that is better than being Irish and not damnable. Alfred Taylor was a Protestant from a well-off family and such people were occasionally referred to as Anglo-Irish. This dialogue is invented to try to make the British officers seem racist. A film maker has to imagine some dialogue but when representing historical events he should strive to show them faithfully and not to stoke national prejudice and hostility.

One witness Roberston says Australian troops tend to be very undisciplined. His remarks are not necessarily false for being disobliging. In the First World War the ANAZACs were known to have severe discipline problems. Their desertion rate was far higher than that of the British Army despite the ANZACs having almost no chance of a home run when they deserted. The Australians were said to be very independent minded which is laudable up to a point. Not all Australians were ill-disciplined by any means nor were all Britishers good on this score. Nevertheless Robertson’s testimony should not be lightly dismissed. Brylzcyk’s book Shoot Straight you Bastards acknowledges that discipline was very lax in the BVC with cattle rustling, drinking on duty and desertion were widespread. There were allegations of rape and murder against some men of the BVC even before Morant, Whitton and Handcock were accused of anything.

Morant was not the noble soldier he was shown to be. He was a pathological liar, a convicted thief. He was born in England and claimed that his real father was an admiral and not his mother’s husband. There is some evidence that this was true. Morant could not even tell the truth about his own name. He changed it from Murrant to Morant possibly to escape his debts and criminal record. He was forever passing bad cheques and leaving without paying the bill. Kleptomania is not murder but he should not have been presented as an entirely honourable person. He falsely said he had served in the Royal Navy. He expressed left wing and egalitarian views. This sits oddly with his continual attempts to say he was from an upper class family.

Morant was a horse thief in Australia. It is not hard to believe he stole enemy cattle in South Africa. That does not make him a murderer. It does undermine his credibility. In the film he is presented as having put and end to the practise of cattle theft. He is shown to a totally admirable but tough soldier. The reality was less uplifting.

Witton is shown as baby faced and kindly. He shows a little regret about killing unarmed men. He asks whether some POWs cannot be spared.

The film focuses on the murder of Reverend Heese. Heese was born in South Africa to German parents. He was a British subject. Germans take the view blood not soil so could view him as German too. Heese was working for the Berlin Missionary Society. The B V C suspected Heese of gathering intelligence and passing information to Boer commandoes. Heese was shot dead by persons unknown. The most likely explanation is that someone in the B V C killed him on suspicion that he was a spy. No one knows who shot Heese but there was no way enough evidence to convict Handcock of it. One of the witnesses against Handcock was a comrade from the B V C. It is unlikely that he would invent a false allegation against a member of his unit. It takes enormous moral and physical courage for a man to bear witness against a member of his regiment in relation to the murder of an enemy civilian. The film makes much of the German Government protesting vehemently about the slaying of this man of the cloth. There is no evidence that they ever did this. This specious claim is a major part of the film’s thesis that Handcock and Morant were judicially murdered to appease Germany.

In 1929 Witton wrote a letter to Major J G Thomas. In the epistle Witton revealed that Handcock had told him he killed Rev Heese. Thomas was shocked. His clients had been lying to him and they had perjured themselves in court. Thomas never doubted what Witton told him. Why would Witton write this if it were false 28 years after the event? He was Handcock’s dear friend. There was no possible motive for him to invent a bogus allegation against a man whose reputation he had tried to salvage. This was in private correspondence. What Witton wrote in his self-exculpatory book Scapegoats of an Empire is very different. There was considerable evidence against Handcock such as threatening to kill anyone who exposed his killing of POWs. This militates against his claim that shooting POWs was common practise and accepted by the high command. Heese had seen Handcock and other ordering troopers to kill POWs. Heese said he would report this. Handcock rode off just after Heese – some say in the same direction others say in the other direction. He was seen in the vicinity of Heese’s cart just before and just after Heese and his black driver were murdered. Despite all this Handcock was acquitted of that murder because the court demanded a very high standard of proof.

This film came out in 1980 when the anti-apartheid movement was in full swing. The film overlooks that fact that the B V C also murdered black civilians. Heese’s black servant was shot dead along with him. That is not quite so politically correct. In the ”Eight Boers case” the B V C also shot dead three black civilians who witnessed the killing of the Eight Boers. Handcock, Morant and Witton were convicted in this case which included the murder of the three black civilians. The trio claimed that were carrying out orders when they shot dead POWs. If this is so then it is odd that they felt compelled to kill people for seeing them carrying out orders. There was no order to kill civilians who happened to see the B V C shooting POWs. These African civilians were not POWs and had at no time been enemies of the Crown. Killing them was murder pure and simple.

In the case of Floris Visser it is said that Morant killed Visser because the man was wearing Captain Hunt’s jacket. Hunt was captured wounded and then cut up alive. Visser wearing Hunt’s jacket does not prove that he mutilated Hunt but there is a considerable possibility that Visser did this. Nonetheless it was wrong of Morant to kill a man whom he had promised not to kill in return for intelligence.

The film falsely says that Australian Government approved the executions. This is not so. The Aussie PM was not even told about them until they happened. There was no need for the film to tell so many lies.

The trio have been adopted as a cause celebre by some people especially left wingers.

There are wise and brave Australians who recognise that these three were not the admirable soldiers that they are shown to be. This is not about nationality. It is about justice. Some people have tried to turn these murderers into heroes. Australia has real heroes and has no need of these villains. These scoundrels were denounced by their own Australian comrades as war criminals. This went far beyond shooting POWs.

It reflects credit on Australian and British servicemen that they would not stand for crimes being committed by their comrades. They strove to uphold standards of decency even in a war not noted for ethical conduct on either side. No other army in the world at the time held its men up to such scrutiny or was so self-critical. It reflects immense honour on the Australian, British and South African troops that they were gallant enough to speak out against atrocities.

There were 6 men on trial not 3. 2 of them were British. Of the2 men were acquitted. Of the 4 men convicted 3 were sentenced to death. Of those 3 only 2 were put to death. This hardly suggests that the court was hellbent on killing all defendants. Morant and Hancock were found not guilty on some charges such as the ”Three Boers Case.”

There were many other allegations against men in the B V C such as deliberately shooting three Boer children knowing them to be children. This was not a charge against the trio. Cattle theft was said to be widespread among the B V C.

It was absolutely right to charge the trio. Not to charge them would be to suggest that killing POWs is entirely permissible. Even more tendentious was the wilful murder of black civilians. An army must try to uphold discipline. Those who say these three should not have been brought to trial are arguing that they would do nothing to stop soldiers murdering civilians. As for killing POWs they had an arguable case. This was years before the Nuremberg principle. Following orders was a valid defence.

Shooting POWs was widely practised by British and Imperial troops because their enemies had started doing so. The Transvaal and OFS armies often shot dead even civilian railway workers. Black civilians were often killed by the OFS and Transvaal armies. Justice should be individual and not collective but that is a hard standard to uphold in war.

Those who say that shooting the POWs was entirely acceptable must ask themselves if they would be as content with it the other way around. When the Afrikaner soldiers shot dead Australian and British soldiers whom they had captured was the permissible? Would it be allowable for these Afrikaners to kill black civilians simply for witnessing such an incident? How about killing an Australian clergyman who threatened to report such misdeeds? How about killing an elderly Australian who is sick with fever? Would these be ethical actions? Surely not. What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. An ethical principle to be a principle must be universilisable. As in you would not object if the other side did it to you.

Handcock was alleged to have shot dead his comrade van Buuren. Van Buuren was one of the Boers who recognised the justice of the British side. Handcock and Taylor suspected that van Buuren was a secret agent for the Transvaal Republic. Van Buuren could have been arrested and put on trial for espionage. There were many men to arrest and guard him. Instead Handcock went on patrol with him and shot him dead. Handcock even wrote an account of it stating baldly what he had done. This is according to the vigorously pro Handcock book Shoot Straight you Bastards. Two of Handcock’s comrades said that they saw him do it. One of these men did not state that for 70 years after the incident by which time almost everyone from the BVC was dead and Handcock could not be punished. Why would a man invent a lie 70 years after the incident? This man did not stand to gain anything but fabricating an allegation. Indeed he could be condemned for not testifying at the time. Handcock almost certainly murdered his comrade van Buuren. This is hardly an example of ‘mateship.’ You may say that Peter Handcock believed the man to be an enemy agent. It is not acceptable for soldiers to shoot their comrades on suspicion. That is no way to run an army.

There were other exentuating circumstances. The Duke of Wellington propounded the principle of condonation. There was an attack on the fort where the trial was held. The trio were released to help defend it. They fought manfully. Should this not be taken to extirpate some of their guilt?

The court recommended clemency in all three cases. Lord Kitchener showed mercy to one of the three. This was possibly on account of Witton’s youth and lesser degree of responsibility.

The executions were carried out with indecent haste. There was no chance to appeal. In civilian cases there was usually the passage of at least two Sundays clear before execution of the sentence of the death. This rush to put them before a firing squad was unfair. If there had been time allowed a campaign for reprieve could have got going. They did not have due process. They were prevented from communicating with the Australian Government. That may have made little difference. This was not regarded as the citizens of one country being tried by another. Australia had no Army Act of its own at the time and went by the British Army Act. Moreover, all Australian volunteers had signed an oath to abide by the same. They had placed themselves under British jurisdiction. Australian citizens were also British subjects. Australia had no separated diplomatic identity from that of the UK at the time.

If I were a judge at the court martial knowing what I know I would convict them of the murder of civilians but not of POWs or of Heese. There is some doubt as to their moral guilt in relation to the POWs. I would sentence them to life imprisonment even though the death penalty was not controversial. I would take into account their meritorious service when Fort Pietersburg was attacked. They did not use it as an opportunity to escape.

The defence presented a tu quoque argument. There were many examples of other units killing POWs but no charges were preferred. Just because not all murderers are caught does not mean that no murderers should be prosecuted.

People say that Lord Kitchener was himself a war criminal.  There are allegations in relation to his time in Sudan. There is some merit to these claims. After the Battle of Omdurman he ordered that wounded dervishes be shot. This was not a coup de grace in many cases. Some of these men would have survived had their wounds been tended.  His wanton destruction of the Mahdi’s tomb was disgraceful. There was no military rationale to that act. The fight was over and that tomb had no military significance nor did it help the enemy war effort. There is a case for saying that charges should have been levelled against the field marshall. Did he breach any of the laws of 1898? I am unsure of that. The Hague Convention had only just been signed.

As regards the Boer War it is unlikely that Lord Kitchener committed war crimes. The concentration camps were for the safety of Boer civilians as much as anything else. They were in a war zone. They were also prey to armed robbers in a land where law and order had totally broken down. Enemy farms were burnt. Scorched earth tactics were acceptable at the time. These Boer owned farms had become barracks and supply depots for the Transvaal and OFS soldiers. These homesteads were used to shelter the commandoes and to provide them with rations and ammunition. The Transvaal and Orange Free State armies practised this. They started it in South Africa. Destruction of buildings was acceptable under the Geneva Convention if justified by military necessity.  If the British Army burnt a house of an enemy family and deprived them of sustenance it was right to give them food and shelter. It is true that the families of men who did not surrender lived on half rations. Not one person was deliberately killed in a concentration camp. The inmates were not made to work. It is a leyenda negra against the British to say that these camps bore any resemblance to those established by the National Socialists.

Placing captured enemy on trains to prevent the trains being blown up was a tendentious tactic. Was it legal at the time? That is questionable. Kitchener did not order this. When there was an outcry at the time he ordered it discontinued. Sometimes captured enemy were transported on trains because POWs were being moved.

Beresford himself as said he regrets that way the film misportrayed these men as innocent and the Brits as bad. He did at least show Handcock killing Heese but it is questionable whether Handcock really did kill Heese. Why not show Handcock murdering people he really did murder: black civilians.

Make no mistake. These three were guilty of murder. White men murdering black civilians should not be so fashionable in left wing circles.

 

 

 

 

 

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About Calers

Born Belfast 1971. I read history at Edinburgh. I did a Master's at UCL. I have semi-libertarian right wing opinions. I am married with a daughter and a son. I am allergic to cats. I am the falling hope of the not so stern and somewhat bending Tories. I am a legal beagle rather than and eagle. Big up the Commonwealth of Nations.

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