Monday, March 15, 2021

POETRY SPOT


I have previously posted the story of Breaker Morant.

Harry "Breaker" Harbord Morant (born Edwin (1864 – 1902) was an Australian drover (born in England), horseman, bush poet, military officer and war criminal, who was convicted and executed for murder during the Boer War. He was known as “Breaker” for his skill in breaking horses.


While serving with the Bushveldt Carbineers during the Boer War, Morant and two co-accused were arrested and court-martialled for war crimes—one of the first such prosecutions in British military history. According to the prosecution, Morant and the co-accused killed a wounded Boer POW and 8 civilians in retaliation for the death in combat of his commanding officer. Morant's defence attorney, Major James Francis Thomas, demanded the acquittal of his clients under what is now called the Nuremberg Defence, alleging that his clients could not be held legally or morally responsible, because they only followed orders for “no prisoners”.

One of the Boer prisoners Morant ordered killed had been found wearing the uniform of one Captain Hunt, who had been wounded, then tortured & mutilated by the Boers. He was also the brother of Morant’s fiance and his best friend.

Morant and Lieutenant Handcock were convicted and executed by a firing squad on 27 February 1902. The Breaker’s last words, addressed to the firing squad, was "Don't make a mess of it - shoot straight, you bastards."

Officers of the Bushveldt Carbineers, including lieutenants Handcock (far left) and Morant (with dog)

The matter was the subject of a 1980 film by Bruce Beresford.


Despite the seriousness of the evidence and charges against them, there is a strong feeling in Australia that Morant and Handcock were scapegoats, perhaps even the victims of judicial murder, with continuing demands for posthumous pardons or new trials. It is argued that they were made scapegoats by the British, who were intent on concealing the existence of the "take no prisoners" policy against Boer insurgents – a policy which, it is claimed, had been promulgated by Chief of Staff Lord Kitchener himself. 

Kitchener won notoriety for his scorched earth policy against the Boers and his expansion of internment camps during the Second Boer War. Kitchener denied that there was a “no prisoners” policy or order but there is no doubt that international politics played a large role, the Kaiser having become involved in the Boer conflict.

Further, many other cases of the shooting by English soldiers of Boer soldiers who surrendered with a white flag, were ignored. It was not unnoticed that two Australians only were found guilty, and that they were convicted by a British Court-martial.  The fact that the sentences were kept secret until a day before the execution of Morant and Handcock, and that the transcripts of the proceedings went missing, upset many. 

Their case (and one other) were responsible for the Australian Government's decision never to place Australians under total foreign legal command ever again. 

In WW1, although over 150 Australians were sentenced to death by British courts-martial, not one was executed as the Australian Governor General always refused to sign the order.

The grave of Lieutenants Morant and Handcock, together in the same grave, in Pretria, South Africs

Previous Bytes posts on Breaker Morant:

October 12, 2012
A detailed look at the Breaker Morant story


April 24, 2016
Some of the Morant story.
Morant relics found on rubbish tip.

According to the Australian Bush Poets Association website, "by definition Australian Bush Poetry is metred and rhymed poetry about Australia, Australians and/or the Australian way of life".

Morant was such a bush poet and I will post some more of his poems in the future. His poems were regularly published in The Bulletin under the name The Breaker.

Today’s posting is the last poem he ever wrote, composed the night before he and Handcock were executed. It is recited in voiceover in the film while he and Handcock are led before the firing squad.

Butchered to make a Dutchman's Holiday

In prison cell I sadly sit,
A dammed crestfallen chappie,
And own to you I feel a bit--
A little bit—unhappy.

It really ain’t the place nor time
To reel off rhyming diction ;
But yet we’ll write a final rhyme
While waiting crucifixion.

No matter what end they decide
Quick-lime? or boiling oil? sir
We’ll do our best when crucified
To finish off in style, sir !

But we bequeath a parting tip
For sound advice of such men
Who come across in transport ship
To polish off the Dutchmen.

If you encounter any Boers
You really must not loot ‘em,
And, if you wish to leave these shores,
For pity’s sake, don’t shoot ‘em.

And if you’d earn a D.S.O.,
Why every British sinner
Should know the proper way to go
Is: Ask the Boer to dinner.

Let’s toss a bumper down our throat
Before we pass to heaven,
And toast: “The trim-set petticoat
We leave behind in Devon.”

The "trim-set petticoat" is a reference to Hunt's sister to whom Morant got engaged whilst visiting England.

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