Breaker Morant revised

Breaker Morant—who has not heard of him, especially for those attending NJS after the 1980’s film Breaker Morant was released. The Sydney Morning Herald (Aust.) has a book review, Peter Fitzsimmons, Breaker Morant. Hachette (2020).

Hero, scapegoat, or villain—you decide.

The subject of Peter FitzSimons’ latest work is Harry ‘‘Breaker’’ Morant, an Englishman who holds the dubious honour of being Australia’s most famous war criminal. A lieutenant in the irregular Bushveldt Carbineers, Morant was convicted in 1902 by a British Army court martial (along with Australians Peter Handcock and George Witton) for his role in the murders of civilians and surrendered combatants during the Second Anglo-Boer War. Witton received a life sentence, later commuted; Morant and Handcock were executed by firing squad.

In the nearly 120 years since his death, a substantial mythology has sprung up around Morant. Most famously depicted in Bruce Beresford’s 1980 film Breaker Morant, the legend holds that the Bushveldt Carbineers committed war crimes only because they were ordered to do so, by a British Army leadership desperate to break ongoing Boer resistance by any means necessary. Once that had occurred and the Boers were ready to negotiate, the story goes, the Carbineers were scapegoated to pave the way to peace.

The reality, as historians have been arguing for decades, is considerably different. There was no political pressure to convict Morant, and Lord Kitchener did not issue a secret ‘‘no prisoners’’ order. Instead, the killings occurred because Morant wanted vengeance for the death and alleged mutilation of his friend Percy Hunt.

The book is written as quasi-fiction and has flaws.

Still, for all its flaws, Breaker Morant might be FitzSimons’ most valuable book to date. He concludes by delivering a rebuttal to the various efforts, still ongoing, to clear Morant’s name. Particular scorn is reserved for Liberal MP Alex Hawke, with his argument in favour of pardoning Morant lambasted as ‘‘tepid’’ and possessing ‘‘so little foundation it could not stand in even a mild breeze’’.

The overall result is that one of Australia’s most popular authors has delivered to his enormous audience a ringing denunciation not only of Morant and his conspirators but the entire edifice of war crimes apologia.

(Sic as to all punctuation you Yankee grammar czars.)

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