Sunday, April 24, 2016

Some military news items


This weekend is a long weekend insofar as Monday, 25 April, is Anzac Day.

For overseas readers who may not know the significance, the day (celebrated on the date on which it falls) is a national day of remembrance in Australia and New Zealand for its people who served and died in wars, conflicts and peacekeeping operations, and for the contribution and suffering for those who have served. 

The name stands for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, who fought at Gallipoli in Turkey in WW1. Originally for remembrance for those who fought, served and died at Gallipoli, the significance of the day was widened to cover the above.

As I was having a coffee with Kate at a café (try saying that quickly a couple of times) yesterday and reading the café’s newspaper, I came across a report of interest about Harry "Breaker” Morant.   More of that in a minute.

The Breaker Morant story has been the subject of a previous Bytes posting, click on:

Breaker Morant

In brief, Harry Morant (1864-1902) was nicknamed “The Breaker”/"Breaker" because of his skills in breaking horses. Fearless, hard-drinking, womanising, a bush poet and a larrikin, he worked at various times as a roustabout, horse trader, newspaper writer, and a bookkeeper and storeman on a cattle station. 

In 1884 Morant married Daisy May O’Dwyer. The couple separated soon after the marriage but they never formally divorced. Known subsequently as Daisy Bates by virtue of a secret but bigamous marriage, Daisy later became a well known anthropologist and activist for aboriginal rights. Daisy reportedly threw Breaker out for not paying for the wedding and for stealing some pigs and a saddle. 

While serving with the Bushveldt Carbineers during the Second Anglo-Boer War, Captain Morant was arrested and court-martialed for war crimes- one of the first such prosecutions in British military history. Also charged with him were Handcock and Witton. According to military prosecutors, Morant had retaliated for the death in combat of a fellow officer with the summary execution of nine Afrikaner prisoners-of-war. Morant was also court-martialed for the murder of a Lutheran minister, Rev. Daniel Heese, who had witnessed the POW massacre and indignantly vowed to inform Morant's commanding officer.  Heese had been shot to death on the way to the British Army HQ at Pietersburg. 

Represented by former Tenterfield solicitor Major James Francis Thomas, the court martial of Morant and his co-accused began the day after Thomas was appointed. The defendants did not deny the facts of the killings but instead maintained that they were consistent with British orders and policy of not taking Boer prisoners. At that time the Australian troops were under British control. The orders and policy were both denied by the British. 

Morant was acquitted of the Heese murder but he and his co-accused were found guilty of the murders of the prisoners of war. Morant and Handcock were sentenced to death, Witton’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment but he was released in 1904. Morant and Handcock were executed by a British firing squad on 27 February 1902, within days of being sentenced. When Major Thomas sought to have the executions postponed to enable him to petition the King, he was told that the sentences had already been carried out. 

Both men refused blindfolds at their execution. Morant’s last words were "Shoot straight, you bastards! Don't make a mess of it!" A contemporary report (from The Argus 3 April 1902) however has his last words as "Take this thing (the blindfold) off", and on its removal, "Be sure and make a good job of it!" 

Despite having left a written confession in his cell, Harry Morant has become a folk hero in modern Australia. His court-martial and death have been the subject of books, a stage play, and an award-winning Australian film adaptation by director Bruce Beresford.

Many now regard Morant as a scapegoat or even as the victim of a judicial murder. Beresford has expressed regret that his film has contributed to this belief:
"The film never pretended for a moment that they weren't guilty. It said they are guilty. But what was interesting about it was that it analysed why men in this situation would behave as they had never behaved before in their lives. It's the pressures that are put to bear on people in war time... Look at all the things that happen in these countries committed by people who appear to be quite normal. That was what I was interested in examining. I always get amazed when people say to me that this is a film about poor Australians who were framed by the Brits."

The above is history. 

The newspaper report I mentioned appeared in yesterday's Sydney Morning Herald, 23 April 2016, and can be read at;

This is the report in full:

Breaker Morant relics found on rubbish tip

Damien Murphy 

A bullet-damaged British penny etched with the name Edwin Henry Morant has been found on a rubbish tip outside Tenterfield, the northern NSW home town of the lawyer who represented Harry "Breaker" Morant at his notorious Boer War war crimes trial.

The coin is on a leather thong, and is perhaps an early form of dog tag.

An Australian red ensign was also discovered. It bears the names of Morant and his co-accused, Peter Handcock. Their birth and execution dates are inked into the Southern Cross stars on the design. It reads:
Utter scapegoats of the Empire.This flag bore witness [to] 11 scapegoats of the Empire Feb 27 1902 Pretoria.Signed J F Thomas.Handcock Feb 17 1868 Feb 27 1902 RIP.Lt Henry H Morant Dec 9 1884 Feb 27 1902 Pretoria RIP.
The writing is believed to be that of James Francis Thomas, the Tenterfield solicitor who was serving as a major in South Africa when appointed to defend the two at their war crimes court martial, one of the first in British military history.

The 1980 film "Breaker Morant" turned the executions into a kind of new Australian nationalism and a grainy 1902 photograph of Thomas standing by the flag-draped grave in Pretoria of the dead Anglo-Australian horseman, bush poet and military officer, has become an iconic image.

The ensign found at the tip is believed to be that flag.

The items were found in February in an old mail bag inside a hessian bag dumped on the tip. Other articles included a bayonet scabbard, a cartridge bandolier (which carries the name Henry Morant) part of a trumpet and brass drinking cups, both etched with the initials HM, army field eating equipment and a Boer War medallion.

A British penny believed to have belonged to Harry 'Breaker' Morant.

Artefacts believed to have belonged to Harry 'Breaker' Morant. 

Artefact believed to have belonged to Harry 'Breaker' Morant. 

The man who discovered the relics wants to remain anonymous. He is also against revealing the rubbish tip for fear of creating a rush.

However he has donated the items to Tenterfield's Sir Henry Parkes School of Arts and local lawyer, TerryKneipp, will deliver the opening speech when they go on display on Saturday.

Kneipp, whose father knew Thomas, says the words on the ensign look to be in Thomas' handwriting.

"The provenance is hard to establish. Thomas died in 1946. But there are too many coincidences not to believe that the articles are genuine," Kneipp said.

"Of course, it may be wildly speculative to think that the British penny was damaged when the Breaker was shot, but it is tempting to think the coin was evidence that the execution squad did its work well. After all he supposedly called out, 'Shoot straight, you bastards! Don't make a mess of it!'."

Morant, whose birth name was Edwin Henry Morant, and Handcock were found guilty of the summary execution of nine Afrikaner prisoners-of-war.

Thomas returned to Tenterfield a broken man.

He took up the cause of the two executed men but seemed out of step with the times.

Thomas became an eccentric around town, eventually bankrupt. He served time in Long Bay in the 1920s and returned to town in disgrace.

He died at 81, alone on his isolated property at Boonoo Boonoo, 30km outside of town. It was Armistice day, 1944.

Having finished reading the Sydney Morning Herald, I had a look at the Telegraph and came across another bit of history, this time specifically related to Anzac Day.

It can be read at:

Will of famous Anzac John Simpson found

The personal will of Anzac figure John Simpson, of the Simpson and his Donkey legend, has been discovered in Western Australia.

Simpson was a member of the field ambulance and written accounts of the war describe him bravely collecting wounded soldiers by donkey from the frontline and singing and whistling while heavy gunfire and fighting raged.

Like the other Anzacs, Simpson would have been handed the sombre message to write a will some time between being trained in Egypt and travelling across the Mediterranean Sea to Turkey, WA's State Records Office's executive director Cathrin Cassarchis told reporters.

The handwritten will, dated April 6, 1915, is on a small piece of notepaper and says "in the event of my death" he wanted to leave everything: 37 pounds and 37 shillings or $4500 today, to his mother Sarah Simpson in northern England.

That included outstanding military pay.

"Most of these soldiers were young men who had not really embarked on their lives and they were simple wills leaving very modest amounts to family members," Ms Cassarchis.

Archivists had been going through records since last year's Anzac centenary when they found Simpsons will among 3600 other WA soldiers' wills and that the number written in Australia tripled during World War I.

Simpson's will is now available to view on the State Records Office's website in time for Anzac Day on Sunday and the names of the other 3600 soldiers are available, giving family descendants or curious people the opportunity to request to see them.

John Simpson, also surnamed Kirkpatrick, was among the Anzacs who landed at Gallipoli on April 25, 1915.

He died 24 days after the landing when he was hit by machine gun fire.

WA Culture and the Arts minister John Day described the will as a significant part of Australia's military history and poignant symbol of the enormous sacrifice and service many young men from Australia and New Zealand made.

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