A move is underway to achieve pardons for Lieutenants Harry Harbord ‘The Breaker’ Morant, Peter Joseph Handcock and George Ramsdale Witton.
On 21 December 1901, Lieutenants Morant, Handcock, and Witton, were charged with offences that occurred between 2 July and 7 September 1901 in South Africa during the Boer War. The offences involved the murder of Boer prisoners.
Following a number of courts martial, Morant and Handcock were convicted and sentenced to be executed. Witton’s was also convicted and sentenced to death. His sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. Morant and Handcock were executed in Pretoria on 27 February 1902. Witton’s case was reviewed on petition to the British Crown and on 11 August 1904, and he was released from prison and returned to Australia.
The courts martial decisions including the sentences have never been subjected to judicial review or by petition to the Crown.
The cases have been subjected to extensive historical comment over many years and most Australians are familiar with the Australian film, Breaker Morant made in 1980.
After 107 years, the time has come for the questions about whether the men were tried fairly and in accordance with military law and procedure that existed at the time, to be addressed. Accordingly, petitions for review of the cases have been presented to the British Crown and the Australian Parliament. The petitions argue that the trials of the men were defective, significant errors in law were made and the sentences imposed excessive. The petitions request pardons for Morant, Handcock, and Witton.
Recently I lodged a petition with the House of Representatives and the British Crown for a review of the convictions and sentences of British Courts Martial against Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant, Peter Handcock and George Witton during the Boer war in 1902.
Found guilty by British Military Courts Martial of murdering Boer prisoners of war, Lieutenants Morant and Handcock were the first and last Australians executed for war crimes in Pretoria on February 27, 1902. Lieutenant Witton, who was also sentenced to be executed, had his sentence commuted to life imprisonment. Witton’s case was considered by Sir Isaac Isaacs QC, in 1902 (destined to become Chief Justice and Governor General). This review led to protest from Australians, representations from the Australian and South African Governments and British politicians, including Winston Churchill for Witton’s release. Witton’s case was reviewed on petition to the British Crown and on 11 August 1904, he was released from prison and returned to Australia.
In my research of the military prosecutions of the three men, I have formed the opinion that a number of significant errors were made that denied the accused due process in accordance with existing military law: Some alleged errors in trial procedure included:
I believe that in the interest of justice, a compelling argument exists for the review of the convictions and sentences. Notwithstanding extensive historical review of the cases against Morant, Handcock and Witton as officers in the Bushveldt Carbineers, a thorough legal review has never been conducted.
For this reason alone and to settle speculation and doubt about the strength of the cases against the men and the legitimacy of their subsequent sentences, a sanctioned review at Parliamentary and Crown level is a welcomed development.
Ultimately, it is possible that the review of the convictions and sentences of the accused may conclude that there was no significant error in the courts martial, the sentencing of the men was in accordance with law that existed in 1902 and the convictions were safe. Nevertheless, it is appropriate to encourage and endorse any legitimate process of review.
The Attorney General has 90 days from the 26th of October to report to Parliament on the petition lodged.
In conclusion, readers may recall the circumstances that led to the New Zealand Government pardoning five New Zealand soldiers who were executed by the British in World War 1 for offences including desertion. An act of Parliament passed in September 2000 pardoned the soldiers without prejudice to the British Crown. Notwithstanding the differences between the New Zealand pardons and the cases of Morant, Handcock and Witton, the fact remains that a compelling case for review can be justified in the interest of fairness and restoring honour to men who served their country and the British Crown.
Commander James Unkles (Legal Officer RANR), Chirnside Park VIC
Extract from Hansard
Mrs IRWIN (Fowler) (8.32 pm) — Tonight I wish to speak about a petition which has come before the Standing Committee on Petitions and which I have just presented to the House. It illustrates something of the breadth of concerns petitioners bring to the House. This petition calls for the House to make representations to the British Crown to review the sentences and convictions of Harry Morant, Peter Handcock and George Witton at their court martial in South Africa in 1902 and to seek their pardon.
Of the three, Morant is the best known. He gave his name to Bruce Beresford’s 1980 film Breaker Morant. Morant was a well-known figure in his own day. In his article on Morant in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, RK Todd notes that Morant’s poetry appeared in the Bulletin, where the work of Henry Lawson and other writers of the day was published, from 1891 to 1899. In 1899 Morant enlisted to serve in the war in South Africa.
Todd notes that he served with ‘distinction’ before joining the Bushveldt Carbineers, one of a number of irregular units ‘formed to counter Boer guerrillas’. Handcock and Witton were also members. During their time with the Bushveldt Carbineers, Morant, Handcock and Witton were brought before a court martial, accused of the summary execution of 12 Boer prisoners. One was already wounded and 11 were killed while surrendering. They were also accused of the murder of a German missionary, the Reverend Heese, who had seen the prisoners before they were killed. Handcock and Morant were found guilty of murdering the 12 prisoners, inciting to murder and manslaughter and were executed on 27 February 1902 at Pretoria. The Dictionary of Biography entry on Handcock notes that he was the ‘first Australian national executed for war crimes’ and that ‘his sentence, which had been carried out without the knowledge and consent of the Australian government, aroused bitter public controversy’.
There have been a number of views on the actions and trial of Australians. One has been that the Carbineers were under orders from the British command in South Africa not to take prisoners. As Todd suggests,this was argued as a defence in the court martial, but the existence of this order has been constantly denied. Other factors have been seen as harmful to their case—in particular, the limited time and resources allowed them. This, and continued suspicions that there were orders to not take prisoners, has led to a perception that Morant, Handcock and Witton were, as in the title of a later book by Witton, the ‘scapegoats of the empire’. In this view the Australians were held responsible for a strategy to which the military command was unwilling to admit. However, Craig Wilcox, writing in the Age, takes another view. He suggests that in fact ‘one detachment’ of the Bushveldt Carbineers had ‘started randomly killing’ and that when Morant joined the detachment ‘he began killing too’. To Wilcox, Morant and Handcock’s guilt is ‘all too clear’ and ‘seemed clear at the time’. Wilcox doubts that the take-no prisoner order ever existed. If so, the crimes were solely those of the men accused and the main moral question hinges on capital punishment rather than culpability.However, there appears to be some level of agreement across these two camps that the accused men had little opportunity to prepare a defence against the charges. This petition argues that there are indeed ‘questions and concerns’ over ‘fairness, legal process and sentencing’ at the court martial, and it is on these grounds, the petition suggests, that the cases against Morant, Handcock and Witton should be reviewed. Tonight I have tried to get two messages across. One is that petitioners bring a rich and varied set of concerns to the petitions process, and this is a sign of its vitality and importance to the House. A second, which I underscore, is that it is the role of the committee to play with a straight bat. Tonight I have argued neither for nor against the petition, but I have aired its concerns and tried to put them into perspective. That is a neat metaphor for the role of the Petitions Committee and is central to its future work for the House. I look forward to getting the response to this petition and I am sure that the principal petitioner looks forward to the minister’s response, which we hope to receive within 90 days.
Mr ANTHONY SMITH (Casey) (8.38 pm)—It is my pleasure to rise on this issue. The author of the petition that was just spoken about is a constituent of mine, Commander James Unkles, who has devoted a lot of time to, and done a lot of research into, this issue. He has uncovered important new material, as he sees it, and he has shown a great diligence, as I am sure the Petitions Committee would agree, in looking into the facts at the time and afterwards. His efforts have been nothing short of incredible. He is asking that what he has researched be inquired into, be examined, be reviewed, and he has, in the best traditions of the parliament, presented that as a petition to the parliament. It has already received some coverage in the media—rightly so. I want to commend him. I will in the adjournment debate later in the week in this House speak more extensively on the subject.
The petition can be followed at: http://www.aph.gov.au/house/committee/petitions/attorney-general.htm
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