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Anniversary of execution of two Boer War soldiers could see pardons

February 27, 2010 - AUSTRALIA

Australian soldiers Lieutenants Harry Harbord Breaker Morant, Peter Handcock and George Ramsdale Witton were convicted of murdering Boer War prisoners in South Africa over a century ago. Morant and Handcock, the only Australians executed for war crimes, died by firing squad on 27 Feb 1902. The execution was deemed political, and has been the subject of books and an award-winning Australian film. There is a push to see the three pardoned, and it could happen by the February anniversary.

Australian soldiers Lieutenants Harry Harbord ''Breaker'' Morant, Peter Handcock and George Ramsdale Witton were convicted of murdering Boer War prisoners in South Africa over a century ago. Morant and Handcock, the only Australians executed for war crimes, died by firing squad on 27 Feb 1902. The execution was deemed political, and has been the subject of books and an award-winning Australian film. There is a push to see the three pardoned, and it could happen by the February anniversary. The court-martial began in Jan 1902. It has long been alleged the two men, who were acquitted of murdering a German missionary, were executed to appease growing European concerns. The third man, Witton, was quietly released from prison less than two years after the court martial. The biography in The Digger online magazine, describes Morant, in so many words, as an English-born Australian, a ne'er-do-well, skilled horseman and poet. He was given the "Breaker" nickname because of his skill in breaking horses. The three defendants were members of an irregular force, the Bushveldt Carbineers (BVC), specially formed to counter the Boer commando tactics of hit and run, live off the land and strike when least expected. The BVC lived and fought the same way. While operating north of Pietersburg the local Australian commander, Capt Frederick Percy Hunt, Morant's best friend, was wounded, captured, tortured, mutilated and then killed by Boers. Morant, Lt Peter Handcock. Lt George Witton and Harry Picton shot a Boer prisoner called Visser, 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". Later a Boer sympathizer, a German missionary was shot while on his way to complain about the killings. Handcock, Witton and Morant were charged with murder on several counts. They were acquitted on the count of killing the missionary but convicted on the other charges. An independent legal review of the case has found the convictions of the three soldiers were unsafe and unjust. The call for the case to be reopened is supported by experts in the case including historians and legal academics, according to The Age newspaper. A petition based on an examination of the case was presented to the Australian parliament in October, with a second petition calling for a review sent to the Queen in the same month. According to The Digger, "Breaker Morant," the movie, preceded other Australian New Wave war films such as Gallipoli (1981), The Lighthorsemen (1987), and the 5-part TV series ANZACS (1985). Recurring themes of these films include the Australian identity, such as mateship, the loss of innocence in war, and also the continued coming of age of the Australian nation and its soldiers (later called the ANZAC spirit). The double grave of Morant and Handcock was left unattended and almost forgotten for many years, according to The Digger. In June 1998 the Australian Government spent $1,500 refurbishing the grave site with a new concrete slab and a new marble cross. Oct/09

Push begins to win 'Breaker' a pardon (The Age 19 Oct 2009)

Morant biography (The Digger)

Date written/update: 2010-02-27