HERALD MAGAZINE SECTION
By ALFRED BURKE
"They laid him low in a coward's grave
Somewhere out in the grey Karroo ;
(Yet I know one mate would have called him
And a woman who thought him true)"
THESE lines serve as epi- taph for one of the strangest and most colourful characters ever to make his mark in Australian life.
When I was knocking around the back country 40 years ago a
frequent topic of conversation by camp fires and in shearers' huts was the case of Harry Harbord Morant, "The Breaker," who fell before a firing squad at Pretoria
In 1918 I worked on Brindin- gabba station, 100 miles back o'-Bourke, with one of Morant's sons. There and in other parts of the back country I heard many fierce arguments and personal
[photo] Harry Morant in 1886.
reminiscences when the talk turned to the South African War and "The Breaker."
Contrary to general belief, Morant was not an Australian. But he was a friend and contem- porary of other bush versifiers, notably "Banjo" Paterson, Henry Lawson and Will Ogilvie (who wrote the lines at the head of this article).
The eighties and nineties of last century saw the birth of our national literature and Morant, although his work is not in the same class as some other bush poets and balladists, is well iden-
There is much melodrama in this man's life story.
MORANT (probably not his
real name) was born at Bideford, Devon, in 1865, and claimed that his father was a rear-admiral in the Royal Navy.
But the only things certain about his early life are his superb horsemanship and the fact that he arrived in Queensland at the age of 19.
He first saw the outback as a station storekeeper. Then he drifted over the country, drov- ing, cross-country riding and breaking in horses — from which latter occupation he took his lit- erary pen name, "The Breaker."
"He was," said one admirer, "the only Englishman who could sit a buckjumper like a native!"
Morant's capacity for strong liquors, his daring feats of horse- manship, and his popularity with the ladies, coupled with the pub- lication of his rollicking bush verses, made the name of "The Breaker" known all over Austra- lia.
For 15 years he lived the life of "a wild colonial boy." He broke horses and feminine hearts with ease and skill; wrote dud cheques and bush verse with equal facility; evaded creditors and, when in funds, visited Syd-
There he consorted with other bush balladists and George Street North bushmen, some of whom would have needed the prover-
[photo] Group of Carbineers' officers. Left to right: Lieut. Handcock, Lieut. Morant, unidentified man, Capt. Hunt, Capt. Taylor, Lieut. Picton.
bial team of wild horses to drag them back to their beloved bush. THE outbreak of the Boer
War, with its prospect of adventure, hard riding and relief from creditors, must have been a boon to "The Breaker."
He enlisted in the second con- tingent of the South Australian Mounted Rifles and soon rose to the rank of sergeant.
Attached to General French's cavalry column, he saw service when that force outflanked the Boer general, Cronjie, relieved Kimberley and captured Bloem- fontien. His bold riding attract- ed the attention of General French, who made him a dis- patch rider.
Then, after his term of enlist- ment had expired, "The Breaker" travelled around South Africa with the war correspondent of the London "Daily Telegraph" and, among other activities, sup- plied horses and mules to the British Army.
There is little doubt that the animals Morant furnished were "acquired" when and where the opportunity offered. After some months of this easy and pleasant life Morant, his pockets full of money, went back to England.
Once again in his home county, Devon, he mixed with the elite of county society, rode fearlessly to hounds and became engaged to the daughter of a landed squire.
But after three months the restless horseman was off once more, this time a commissioned officer in Baden-Powell's Con- stabulary.
BACK in South Africa, where
the war had flared up again, Morant failed to link up with Baden-Powell's outfit; instead he joined the newly formed Bush- veldt Carbineers.
These carbineers were a guer- illa force, composed chiefly of time-expired colonial soldiers for the specific purpose of patrolling northern Transvaal and combat-
ing the activities of Boer com-
There is no shadow of doubt that the Bushveldt Carbineers (one Sydney journal called them "The Bushveldt Buccaneers") had little regard for the rules of modern warfare. Their practice of placing Boer prisoners in open trucks which preceded locomo- tives, so as to deter Boer dyna- miters, shows their ruthlessness very clearly.
Morant was made a lieutenant in this loosely organised band and took up duties under Cap- tain Hunt, who was engaged to the sister of Morant's Devon fian-
Together Hunt and Morant en- gaged in a number of successful forays against the enemy—or those whom the carbineers con- sidered were enemies.
In one raid, from which Mor- ant was absent, Hunt was killed and, allegedly, mutilated. On learning of Hunt's death, Morant, who now became leader, went berserk and vowed he would give no quarter.
With a body of troops he went in search of Hunt's killers. The Boers escaped, but one, who was too ill to travel, was overtaken and found wrapped in Hunt's cloak. After a farcical drum- head Court-martial this unfor- tunate prisoner was shot.
Morant was the prime mover in other shooting atrocities, not- ably that of the German mis- sionary, Hesse.
This preacher had seen some of the carbineers' shootings and reported the matter to head- quarters.
The German Kaiser, notori- ously pro-Boer, sent a strong pro-
test to England with the result that Morant and other officers were arrested and the carbineers disbanded.
MORANT, Lieutenants Hand-
cock and Witton (both Aus- tralians) and Lieutenant Picton, were surprised and indignant when arrested and held in close confinement in Pietesburg gaol.
From this gaol "The Breaker" wrote these wry lines:
In a prison cell I sit,
A d— crestfallen chappie, And own to you I feel a bit —
A little bit unhappy.
If you encounter any Boers
You really mustn't loot
And if you wish to leave
For pity's sake DON'T
Morant and his mates were charged with three separate counts of murder. Then, on the eve of the trial, the enemy, under the leadership of the cagey Colonel Beyers, attacked Pietes- burg.
The position became desperate and the imprisoned officers were freed from their cells and given arms. All shared valiantly in the defence of the besieged town.
The Boers were beaten off, but the prisoners were amazed to learn that their court-martial was to proceed.
All were found guilty. Mor- ant and Handcock were sentenc- ed to die before a firing squad,
Witton to life imprisonment, and Picton to be cashiered.
FRANTIC efforts by their
counsel, an Australian solici- tor. Major Thomas, to have the sentences postponed were fruit-
The condemned men were taken to Pretoria, and just out- side that town faced a firing party of 18 rifles.
"The Breaker" was, as we have seen, not an Australian, nor in any Australian force at the time of his crimes and death.
But Handcock WAS native born! He was the first Austra- lian ever to be court-martialled and shot, and feeling ran high all over the recently formed Commonwealth.
The new-born Federal Gov- ernment took the matter up with Whitehall, and this intervention is probably the reason why no Australian soldier has since stood before a British firing squad.
Lieutenant Witton was taken to England to serve his long sen- tence. A monster petition on his behalf was organised and pre- sented, and he was released in
Witton returned to farming in Gippsland, Victoria, and later wrote a book about his experi- ences in South Africa and in English prisons.
In this book he gave great praise to Harry Morant who, according to Witton, tried to take the whole blame for the shoot- ing of Boer prisoners. _