Known for his famous last words: "Shoot straight, you bastards. Don't make a mess of it!"
Harry "Breaker" Morant was born in Devonshire around Christmas 1864. He emigrated to Australia in 1883. Reportedly a hard-drinking womaniser, he spent the next 15 years drifting through the Australian outback in a wide variety of jobs. Famed for being a Horse breaker
, he also spent time as a horse trader, a journalist, bookkeeper, and storesman, and was a published poet on the side. Morant enlisted to serve in the Anglo-Boer War
with the South Australian Mounted Rifles in 1899. He served in numerous roles for the British forces in Transvaal
, before taking leave and returning to England. In his time in England he became close friends with Captain Percy Hunt, and the two of them became engaged to two sisters.
Morant returned to South Africa and on April 1, 1901 accepted a commission as a Lieutenant in the Bushveldt Carbineers
. The Carbineers were an irregular force specially formed in the closing stages of the Anglo-Boer war to counter the Boer commando tactics of hit and run. Although the unit was nominally British, only 30% of the soldiers were from Britain, the majority of the rest being Australian.
Due to the legend surrounding Morant, no unit that served during the Boer War is as well known to Australians as the Bushveldt Carbineers.
On August 5, 1901 Hunt led a raid on a suspected Boer commander's hideout. Hunt's force was outnumbered four to one, and was forced to retreat, but not before Hunt was injured and was forced to be left behind. He was then captured, tortured, mutilated and later killed by the Boers.
"Captain Hunt's body was struck by a bullet at close range. It passed through his right shoulder. This was a simple wound and did not cause his death. When found the body was stripped naked. The sinews at the backs of both knees and ankles had been severed. The fore head was bruised and the right cheekbone was crushed. Captain Hunt had been castrated".
Shortly after, Morant, Lt Peter Handcock. Lt George Witton and Harry Picton shot a Boer
prisoner, claiming that he was wearing Hunt's clothing. They later executed other Boer prisoners claiming that they had been placed under verbal orders to "take no prisoners". The order came from the British commanding officer, Lord Kitchener
, who later denied all knowledge. Later, a Boer sympathizer (and German missionary) was shot while on his way to complain about the killings. Handcock, Witton and Morant were charged with murder on several counts.
Although Handcock, Witton, and Morant acted under orders, it appears they were shafted
by the British General Staff when the trial started, on 16 January 1902. They were acquitted on the count of killing the missionary but convicted on the other charges. All three were sentenced to death. Witton had his sentence commuted to life imprisonment (he was released after 2 years) but on the morning of 27th February 1902 Morant and Handcock were executed by a firing party of Cameron Highlanders. Morant is reputed to have called out, "Shoot straight, you bastards. Don't make a mess of it".
Breaker Morant is also the name of a 1980 movie centered around Morant's courtmartial and the preceeding events. It stars Australian actors Bryan Brown
, Jack Thompson
, and Ray Meagher
. A stirring movie for Australian viewers, who still feel that we as a nation were wronged by the British whom we were there to assist.
notes for me that Lt George Whitton went on to write a book called "Scapegoats of the Empire" - if people are interested in a first hand account of the events.
'The Breaker" by Kit Denton