The Curious Case of Breaker Morant

By John Vogel

As if we don’t have enough controversial historical cases to deal with, here’s one more added into the mix. The military case against Lt. Breaker Morant of the British Empire.

Born in England, Harry Morant set out for the Australian Territory at the age of 19 in hopes of finding a badass experience worth talking about. His father died before his birth, which allowed him to pass himself off however he pleased, including claiming he was the son of a famous British admiral. Since the internet didn’t exist, he got away with it … for a while.

He knocked around the Australian countryside for a while, finding work as a wrangler while moonlighting as a bush poet and a drunk. He traded horses, broke brumbies (mustangs) and got in plenty of fights while living in the outback. Come 1899 though, the British declared they were going to war to put down the rebel army of the South African farmers known as Boers. Having always considered himself loyal to the Crown, Morant signed up and was shipped to South Africa.

He took to the hilly, arid environment fairly quickly as it wasn’t a whole lot different than the Australian bush. His expert horsemanship made him a quick favorite of military leaders and was quickly promoted. But after having lied about being both an admiral’s son and a war correspondent, he found himself in quite a bit of trouble and debt, forcing him to take a discharge and go back to England to settle the issues.

Unable to settle anything, he found himself re-enlisting with the army, this time being placed in a group specializing in guerilla warfare, the Bushveldt Caribeeners. England was getting their asses kicked by the local population of farmers, and had kicked the war into 3rd gear. England forced much of the population that wasn’t fighting into concentration camps, confiscated livestock and burned crops. Even going so far as to salt farmers’ fields, just to really make sure they got the idea.

Morant’s irregular mounted unit focused on ungentlemanly warfare.

With it being the first of many bush wars of the 20th century, there was a certain amount of leeway given to irregular units, as well this combat was far from regular. After the commanding officer of Morant’s group was found not just dead but mutilated, what was left of the gloves came off. This is where things get hazy.

Morant claims that orders were given to “kill anyone wearing Khaki (common Boer uniform)” and to “take no prisoners.”

So when a report made it back to British higher-ups that Morant was offing prisoners, including a well connected German missionary, they knew someone had to swing.

In the subsequent military trial, Morant and 3 others were charged with murdering 11 unarmed prisoners of war. His only defense was that he was just following orders, but command staff denied the allegations. Morant testified that not only had he seen other units doing exactly what he did, but they did it to a worse degree.

The executive officers leveled that maybe these orders were given, but most likely by the very officer who was found mutilated.

It didn’t help that most of the witnesses that would support his testimony were shipped off to India at a moment’s notice.

So the jury declared that England would have its cake and eat it too. All 4 were found guilty, but only 3 were executed as one managed to escape. Morant was not the one who escaped; he died by firing squad on February 27, 1902.

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