The Pretoria grave of Anglo-Boer War soldier and poet Harry “Breaker” Morant has been taken under the care of the Australian government, 96 years after he was court-martialled and executed for alleged atrocities against Boer prisoners and civilians.
The grave, which had suffered from neglect and vandalism, stands in a quiet civilian section of Pretoria’s Church Street cemetery, 50m from the official Commonwealth military plot containing the remains of fallen soldiers from Britain, Ireland, Australia, Canada, South Africa and New Zealand. Morant shares the grave with Peter Handcock, a fellow officer who was executed for the same charges.
The inscription on the stone, erected decades ago by persons now unknown, reads simply: “To the memory of P Handcock and Henry H Morant 27th Feb 1902. `He that loseth his life shall find it.'” No mention is made of the executed men’s rank (both were lieutenants) or unit.
Because of their court martial and disgrace, the two officers were buried without military honours and their grave therefore falls outside the responsibility of the Office of Australian War Graves. But earlier this year, the Australian Ministry of Veterans Affairs accepted responsibility for the upkeep of the grave.
“I think it was felt that however they died, these were two Australian soldiers who had fought and died in a war overseas, and that the grave should be looked after,” said Matthew Anderson, a representative of the Australian high commission in Pretoria.
It is not clear whether the grave was deliberately vandalised or a random target. The Church Street cemetery also contains the graves of Paul Kruger and several other senior Boer, Afrikaner and apartheid leaders, several of which also appear to have been damaged by vandals.
The work, which cost R4 000, involved removing a broken stone cross that once stood over the monument and replacing it with a marble cross lying on the grave itself. The worn inscription has also been renewed and the curbs around the grave repaired.
The grave of Morant and Handcock has become an increasingly popular draw for Australian tourists in recent years, particularly since the 1980 release of Bruce Beresford’s movie Breaker Morant. The film fell in with popular legend by portraying Morant and Handcock as brave fighters, caught up in the exigencies of a dirty guerrilla struggle and then betrayed by the British military authorities, who were looking for scapegoats for Lord Kitchener’s policies of scorched earth and deliberate reprisals.
Since his execution by firing squad, the charismatic Morant has become, for many Australians, a symbol of early nationalism and of British perfidy. Born, ironically, in England, the 19-year-old Morant emigrated to Australia in 1883, allegedly to escape debts which threatened to see him cashiered from the Royal Naval College. In Australia he became renowned as a horse breaker, a poet and a journalist.
Like many inhabitants of the “white Dominions”, Morant volunteered for the war to assert the crown’s power over the independent Boer republics. His second tour of duty with the newly formed Bushveld Carbineers, a mainly Australian force raised in South Africa, proved his undoing. Persistent allegations of atrocities against prisoners and civilians in the Pietersburg region led to the arrest and court martial of seven carbineer officers. Only two, Morant and Handcock, were eventually shot.
Although history suggests that the primary evidence against the officers came from their own men, disgusted at some of the actions they had been ordered to perform, the executions caused disquiet in Australia.
The court martial was conducted hurriedly and in secret, contrary to regulations, and the transcripts went missing soon afterwards. Many Australians also wondered how the two British officers who were among the seven originally implicated in the crimes both escaped with mere dishonourable discharges, while Australians were jailed or executed.
With the centenary of the war coming up next year, Australia’s high commission says it is still deciding what part it will play in celebrations. More than 16 000 Australians served in the war, mainly as irregular volunteers in ad hoc mounted infantry units. Disease claimed the lives of 267 and 251 were killed in action.