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A TRAGIC MEMORY OF THE BOER WAR
When Two Australian Officers Were Shot by Lord Kitchener's Orders
Lieutenant G. R. Witton as he appeared when he was attached to the Bushveldt Carbineers in 1901.
By HUGH COPELAND
* N elderly man, bearing marks of
/\ mental and bodily suffering, re ¿ \. cently returned to Victoria from
abroad. He is a friend of mine, and his name is Witton. When I met him again a flood of memories surged back, and one of the most tragic and unhappy incidents of the South African War of 1899-1902 was recalled.
Although rather overshadowed by the glorious feats of the Australian Imperial Force in the Great War, the contingents of Australians who served in South Africa had a meritorious record. It is tragic to recall that this memory was smirched by the execution of two Aus- tralian officers and the Imprisonment of a third, after a court-martial .had found them guilty of plain murder.
One of them was Lieutenant G. R. Witton, and although nearly 40 years have passed, I still feel that he was shamefully treated.
During the latter part of 1901 the Boer War was gradually drawing to a- close. The British forces, strengthened and re- organised after a succession of earlier de- feats, were driving back the fierce Boers, and there were early signs of the peace that was to come later. The town of Pietersburg, in northern Transvaal, had fallen to the British, but there were still bands of wandering Boers in the wild back country pillaging and wrecking
To clear the country of these an irregu- lar force, known as the Bushveldt Carbi- neers, was formed in Pietersburg and sent out. The first squadron of the force,' under the command of an English captain named Hunt, who had formerly been in the 10th Hussars, was sent to an area called Spelonken, 80 miles north of Pretoria. Among the officers were three Australians - Lieutenant H. H. Morant and Lieutenant P. H. Handcock, formerly of New South Wales, and Lieu- tenant Witton, who was bom in Gipps- land. Morant was a writer of some merit, and his verses, published under
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Mishaps like this frequently occurred on the veldt when the Boer commandoes were busy. An overturned troop train,
the pseudonym of "The Breaker," had gained wide popularity.
The conduct of this force during the subsequent operations was the cause of considerable dispute. On one side it was stated that the troops behaved with un- necessary treachery and brutality, and on the other it was claimed that they had been ordered to clear the country of Boer irregulars and take no prisoners. Back of It all was a political issue. Boer propa
gandists were busy in Europe, especially In Germany, and their outcries were lis- tened to by countries with anti-British leanings. It was necessary for the Brit- ish authorities to avoid any risk of ap- pearing to countenance outrages, and it is possible that scapegoats were made.
A group of typical Boers as they fought against the British in the South African War. Descendants of the original Dutch settlers, they proved stubborn and courageous warriors and required a great effort on the part of Britain before they were subdued.
Four charges of illegally killing Boers were brought against the officers. The worst of these related to the shooting of a party of 10 unarmed men. It was stated that the Boers had reported to the Carbi- neers that they were on their way to Pre- toria to surrender, but it was discovered that one of the party had £20,000 in
monwealth of Australia. The Governor General (Lord Hopetoun) cabled an ur- gent request to Lord Kitchener for infor- mation, and the reply, which was pub- lished In all the newspapers, stated that "there were no extenuating circum-
Perhaps Lord Kitchener's zeal might be
Transvaal paper money in his possession. A court-martial was held, and the Boers were ordered to b.e shot. A non-commis- sioned officer refused to carry out the order, and the men who performed the execution did so under protest.
Captain Hunt was killed while out on patrol, and it was stated that this was a brutal murder. "His neck had been broken, as his head was rolling limply about in the cart when he was being
explained by a bitter remark made by Lieutenant Morant on his last night alive. Here is Wltton's own version of it:
"At the last moment, I bade Morant good-bye. He said: 'It's hard lines and a sideways ending, being sacrificed as an atonement to pro-Boer sentiments. Good- bye, Witton, and tell the people 'The Breaker' will write no more verse for them; I'm going to "laager" in the morn- ing.' Morant spent most of that night
brought in. His face had been stamped upon by hob-nailed boots, and his legs slashed with a knife; the body was stripped completely of clothes, and lying in a gutter when found."
Lieutenant Morant took command of the force, and one of the charges, related to the shooting of a Boer who was alleged to have been captured with some of Hunt's property in his possession. Mor- ant announced after his superior's death that he would henceforth obey his origi- nal orders to give no quarter and take no prisoners.
iHE three officers were arrested after the Spelonken campaign, and appeared before a court-martial at Pietersburg on January Iff, 1902. All three were sen- tenced "to suffer death by being shot." This was a savage punishment, especi- ally as Lieutenant Witton did not join the Bushveldt Carbineers until October, and had served only a few days with them before the shooting of the Boer party. In the following month Lord Kitchener, who was In command of the British forces, re- viewed the sentences. He confirmed the sentences on Morant and Handcock, but reduced that of Witton to penal servitude for life.
The story created a tremendous sensa- tion all over the then newly created Com
writing, and then he wrote his last
In prison cell I lonely sit,
A d-d 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
Quicklime? or boiling ile? Sir We'll do our best when crucified
To finish off in style, Sir.
But W bequeath a parting tip
For sound advice for 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."