Thursday 20th of February 2003 03:48 AM 
Article [19]

The Bulletin

The government has rejected a formal submission to review the Breaker Morant case, reports Anthony Hoy, despite new evidence showing the executions of Morant and Peter Handcock were clearly unjustified. On the 100th anniversary of their deaths, Tim Fischer says it is time to right an historical wrong while author Nick Bleszynski relates the role of The Bulletin in the controversial case.

The federal government has decided against a review of the courts martial resulting in the execution by firing squad of Harry "The Breaker" Morant and his farrier Peter Handcock in South Africa 100 years ago.

Veteran Affairs Minister Danna Vale has rejected new evidence in a book by Nick Bleszynski, Shoot Straight You Bastards!, and chosen not to act on a submission that the guilty verdicts in the case be overturned.

"This is a matter of great controversy," Vale said. "However, there are some undeniable facts including that the Breaker and Handcock were fighting in a British irregular unit at the time of the incidents which led to their court martial.

"Whether or not they were victims of British military justice will be a matter of ongoing debate – and Mr Bleszynski has made a contribution to that discussion.

"However, singling out these two individuals for commemoration, regardless of the details of their trial, is inconsistent with the government and community view on how to appropriately recognise the service and sacrifice of armed services personnel."

The saga of Breaker Morant has, in the words of jurist Isaac Isaacs as far back as 1903, "agitated the minds of the people of this country to an unprecedented degree". Isaacs – later to become chief justice of the High Court and the first Australian-born governor-general – petitioned Edward VII to release George Witton, the third accused officer in the affair, whose death sentence had been commuted to life imprisonment.

The Returned Services League and conservative elements of the armed forces and Australian politicians, including the first prime minister and external affairs minister (1901-03) Sir Edmund Barton, consistently side-stepped the Morant issue.

"History will not judge them kindly," says Bleszynski, whose book provides new evidence as to "the truth behind the killing of Breaker Morant". Its publication next month will coincide with the centenary of the executions.

With former deputy prime minister Tim Fischer, Bleszynski had formally requested a government review, having briefed Vale in writing on the background of the case and the new evidence. "The British denied that Morant and Handcock shot Boer prisoners under orders, denied that orders existed to shoot Boers wearing khaki, denied that vengeance was the motive for the killings and also made light of the fact that other irregular units were carrying out a similar policy," says Bleszynski.

"On all those counts, I have shown clearly that the opposite was true. In order to justify executing Morant and Handcock, the British had to prove that Morant and Handcock were guilty and guilty alone. From the new evidence I have gathered, that is clearly unjustified. And British commander-in-chief Lord Kitchener and the British army perjured themselves during the courts martial. The executions were clearly unjust."

Bleszynski's book details for the first time "the whole unabridged, definitive story of the life and death of an Australian anti-hero, a story that has been bubbling beneath the surface of the nation's collective consciousness for the past century".

"It is a story that tells us a lot about the Australian experience," he says. "At an incredibly important time during the early formative years of a young, federated nation, the Morant case drew a line in the sand between what was Australian and what was British. The disquiet over the executions demonstrated that a fledgling nation's ethos was already disparate and evolved from the British empire, that Australia already had its own clearly defined ideas and standards in terms of what was just, and what was right and wrong.

"The two pillars of democracy are truth and justice. I have sought to show that this is a stain on the Australian consciousness that really has to be erased."

While Bleszynski, Fischer and a band of supporters were confident that Shoot Straight You Bastards! would provide the impetus to right an historic wrong, a New Zealand precedent involving posthumous pardons for soldiers executed while in the service of the British army has already been established. A private members' bill passed through the New Zealand parliament last year pardoning five soldiers from Kiwi regiments executed during World War I – the first time the stain has been officially removed from any of the 300-odd troops executed by the British in the Great War.

Resolution of the Morant issue was also thought to be timely, given South Africa's invitation to the federal government to join official celebrations in May marking the centenary of the end of the Boer War.

"There is a sense that the centenary should be used to finally reconcile the British, the Boers and black Africans, many of whom died of starvation during the Boer War," says RSL national president Major General Peter Phillips.

"Reconciliation starts at home," says Bleszynski. "There is no better case in point than the Morant case. The official laying of a wreath at their grave in Church Street cemetery, Pretoria, by the Australian delegation during the 100th anniversary celebrations would be a simple and poignant way to end a century of controversy and formally reclaim them from their cruel exile."

Following the murder and mutilation by the Boers of his commanding officer and friend, Captain Percy Hunt, Morant was appointed senior officer of an irregular unit of the British army known as the Bushveldt Carbineers. While operating in the northern Transvaal, Morant ordered the summary executions of 12 Boers he believed were responsible for Hunt's death.

When the killings threatened to become public, the commander of the British forces, Lord Kitchener, had Morant, Handcock and Witton arrested. They were offered immunity if they would agree to implicate their commanding officer, fellow Australian Major Robert Lenehan. They refused and until the morning they faced their firing squad insisted that they – like other British army and Bushveldt Carbineer units – were simply following Kitchener's orders to "take no prisoners".

There has always been divided opinion on the guilt of Morant and Handcock. "The pendulum has swung back and forward as articles, books, academic papers, a play and a Bruce Beresford film have made this one of the most enduring controversies in Australia's short history," says Bleszynski.

Phillips said: "Our concern is that Bleszynski's book might entrench Morant as a national hero. Our research has found no reason to fault the findings of the court martial, or the way it was handled."

But he admits that fellow Australian War Memorial councillor historian Geoffrey Blainey, has conceded that Kitchener had "undue influence on this thing".

"I don't think there was any evidence to suggest that, technically, Morant was anything other than guilty," Phillips says. "Equally, it could also be argued that the death sentence was 'over the top'."

Phillips acknowledges weaknesses in two aspects of the courts martial. The first was the fact that other British units were also following orders and shooting Boer prisoners. The second was the appointment as defence counsel of a relatively inexperienced Major J.F. Thomas. "They might [otherwise] have got off with a prison sentence."

Britain's foremost expert on British military law, Cambridge University's Gerry Rubins, and noted jurists including former South Australian chief justice Dr Howard Zelling and Geoffrey Robertson QC, are among those who consider many aspects of the case to be unsafe and to merit a proper review, Bleszynski says.

"The summings-up were so bad that no proper trial was had on either charge on which the accused were convicted," Zelling said in a letter to the Adelaide Advertiser. "The so-called summing-up was, in short, a speech for the prosecution in each case. Neither summing-up would survive for one minute before a court of criminal appeal."

Phillips says: "It doesn't alter the fact that in my view they deserved to be found guilty. I haven't got a closed mind on this but I am a bit reluctant to see Morant sanctified."

Bleszynski counters: "It is the inability of people to basically deal with this issue that has turned Morant into an anti-hero. The reason why the Morant matter needs to be put right is because the 'fair-go' ethic is still an essential part of being Australian.

"Wars are always portrayed as being right against wrong. But there is always a guy like Morant who gets stuck in the middle. And he reminds us that the bad guys aren't always wearing the black hats. It is not that simple. There are bad guys on our side too."

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