Length: 400 Pages.
Published: Amberley 15 Dec 2016.
The execution of Harry “Breaker” Morant and two other officers of the Bushveldt Carbineers is one of those controversy riddled debates that rumbles onwards wether or not the subject is in the public eye. Honestly I am unable to comment as to wether the evidence presented in this latest contribution alters the scale one way or the other. For this reviewer is one of those mentioned in the introduction; a newcomer to the subject, therefore in reading this I was at least blessed with an open mind.
The authors have set out to round up all the available contemporary evidence for a thorough examination of the trial and the deeds that brought it about, in order to oppose the pleas of a vocal party wishing for posthumous pardons for the condemned. The question is was Breaker Morant a scapegoat for Lord Kitchener or was he a brutal murderer? This effectively makes the authors the prosecution of an already tried case, and as such their objective must be to affirm the findings of the courts martial that sent Morant and his fellow defendants anything else would constitute a verdict of not guilty.
The examination begins with a look at the character of Morant. He comes across as a rogue, albeit one with a likeable side. His continued duplicity in reinventing himself is strongly stressed here. The investigation is harsh but makes an effort to suppose the possibility of innocence, even though it sets out from the get go to condemning the guilty. In the initial chapters much of the legend is weighed as false or deeply questionable by strict adherence to written records where they exist.
Much of the problem that faces the “prosecution”, however, is the fact that there is an near impenetrable legend of “the wronged man” and the “romantic rebel” surrounding the story. Added to this are yawning gaps in physical evidence that are noted in the text as gifts to conspiracy theorists.
The next significant point of investigation is to explore the context of Morant’s presence in South Africa during the Boer war. A useful examination follows their overview of an interesting Victorian life, perhaps not untypical of many adventurers who travelled to the frontiers of the empire, of who influenced him and the environment created by the men of his regiment the Bushveldt Carbineers. Here we learn about his regiment and it’s tough reputation, how it was organised and who it was that made it its ranks.
The ground having been cleared, a lengthy chapter delves into the dark deeds in northern Transvaal and then another is devoted to the trial.
A main argument of the book is that apologists for Morant and his fellow condemned believe what they want to believe and read the facts in that light. Much effort is made to quote witnesses at length in order to better contextualise the proceedings and show that all was right and proper. The result is unsurprisingly damning. The reason for this seems to be that the crux of the argument defending Morant in some cases seems not to be about wether or not he shot Boer Prisoners after they had surrendered, or wether officers of the BVC murdered troopers and civilians to cover up their crimes, but wether the trial was conducted in a proper manner. Still others plead he was acting under orders, now lost or covered up that came from high up hence he was silenced. It is curious that these men were the ones signalled out when others were left alone. Yet those that escaped justice aren’t the subject of the final roundup, though reasons are given as to why they were not prosecuted, there is little room for doubt in this book that the men who were punished deserved what they got.
There is no way for me to say whether this book is airtight in its findings. My experience of publications setting out to balance the scale tells me that somewhere people will be making long lists of everything it does wrong and everything it left out. What I can say is that the book is engrossing, detailed and thorough. The authors have set out to reappraise the Morant tragedy and though it is a self confessed indictment of these colonial soldiers, they have presented their evidence in a well reasoned and clear narrative. Showing how dirty the war in South Africa had become by this point. Maybe this won’t be the last word on the legacy of Morant and it certainly won’t be the last word on Britain’s more dubious colonial campaigns but it is food for thought. About the reality of war and how it is perceived, about military justice and political necessity, the difference between revenge and reprisal and about morality and atrocity in war.