Journal of the Australian War Memorial - Issue 34

Australian nationalism and the lost lessons of the Boer War

Author: Adam Henry

{1} The 1899-1902 Boer War is seemingly forgotten in Australia. There are no living veterans or days of remembrance to remind us of this conflict, which involved a military contribution that pales into insignificance in comparison to the forces that served and died in the Great War and the Second World War. Yet it was not one of Queen Victoria's "Little Wars", but a major conflict to which Britain and her colonies would eventually send nearly 450,000 troops. It was in this war that the Australian commitment of 16,500 troops made up over half of the number of troops from outlying regions of the Empire who fought.1 And these troops served in a particularly bitter and bloody war.

{2} In the jingoism of the time can be seen the paradoxical nature of Australian nationalism. Although the five mainland colonies plus Tasmania were in the process of joining together into one nation state, when war began in South Africa support for Britain was unequivocal across Australia.2 Australians who already had self-government as colonies since 1850, and wished for nationhood, also wanted to support the Empire as part of the "imperial family". The values of Britain were not considered alien to Australia, they were ours too. The strength of "blood and cultural" ties also produced a reflected pride of association which meant that we were eager to prove our worth on the battlefield fighting for the Empire.3

{3} As far as our press was concerned, the war itself demonstrated our brave and noble type, our pragmatic self-reliance, and our fighting spirit. It was the war where the "Bushman Soldier" would be elevated to mythical status for his bush craft, fighting skills, and personification of the "real" Australian spirit, in what must be seen as the forerunner of the brave and noble "Digger" of the First World War.

But before the voice of the street crowds died away to almost nothing, the departure of the two Bushmen contingents attracted a lot of interest because they were also a novelty: purely citizen soldiers [like their Boer counterparts] who bore no taint of militarism as the militia did. They also carried about them the romanticism bestowed on bush dwellers by the literature of the nineties.4

The Australian Bushman soldier was called to the South African veldt on the assumption, which was proved correct, that they would be better able to fight the Boer guerrillas on their own terms.

{4} The battle of Diamond Hill in June 1900 was the last set piece action of the war. The British Empire had, in conventional terms, won the war. But Boer "bitter-enders" organised themselves into commando units, and roamed the veldt attacking trains and communication lines in a guerrilla campaign aimed at prolonging the struggle. British Empire forces had begun pursuing a "scorched earth" policy from March that year, destroying the farmsteads which were the supply lifeline of the Boer cause under orders from Lord Roberts, who was adamant that "unless the [Boer] people generally are made to suffer for the misdeeds of those in arms against us, the war will never end".5 The change in Boer tactics caused yet another modification of strategy from British commanders, to what amounted to "total war".6 The Boer War therefore marked the beginning of 20th century warfare, as it broke with previous conventions and concepts.

A soldier photographs a building torched under the
A soldier photographs a building torched under the "scorched earth" policy adopted by the British to deal with the guerilla tactics of Boer commandos, c.1900.  C218092

{5} In an already bitter and bloodthirsty war this would push the bounds of wartime "fair play" to the limit. In this situation the Australians, who had hoped to find glory during large set piece battles, were to be disappointed. Chasing elusive Boer commando leaders like Christian De Wet around the South African countryside also added to the anxiety of one officer who feared a possible mutiny due to boredom and lack of real action.7

The [Australian] desire to rid themselves of South Africa was widespread among both officers and men. Most just wanted to go home. Others wanted to go home by way of England. Some wanted to go to the Boxer Rebellion [in China].8

Back in Australia, too, the initial wave of patriotic fervour had begun to evaporate and was replaced by a more critical focus. While the Australian resolve to fight on remained, some criticised the overall morality of the war, others the manner in which the war was being run by the Imperial General staff. Nothing symbolises the disillusionment with the war more than the outcry over the executions of Lieutenants Harry ("Breaker") Morant and Peter Handcock.

Crowds turn out in Sydney to farewell troops departing for the war in South Africa.
Crowds turn out in Sydney to farewell troops departing for the war in South Africa.  C56085

{6} The trial and execution is the one event of the Boer War that many Australians would be familiar with to some extent. Since the deaths of Morant and Handcock in Pretoria in 1902, the Morant legend has been synonymous with Australian nationalism. Morant was a British-born, adopted son of the Australian bush. His exploits as a drover, horse-breaker, and troublemaker were legendary. He helped this status along by immortalising himself in his own bush-inspired verse, which was published in the Bulletin magazine. These works of poetry cemented his reputation.

[His Bulletin verses used] ... rhymes much in the tradition of the bush-balladists who were popular at the time, and which carried echoes of romantics like Herrick and Christina Rosetti and Byron, a book of whose poems Morant was said to carry with him at all times.9

{7} Morant claimed to be the son of Admiral Sir George Digby Morant, whose family had long been part of the gentry establishment of Devon, England. This link was always denied by Sir George and other family members. After the executions, the admiral issued a formal denial via the British press that the executed officer had been his son.10 There is strong evidence that Morant was not related, and that he was really the son of the Master and Matron of the Union Workhouse at Bridgewater in Somerset, Edwin Murrant and his wife Catherine Riely.11 Morant's genealogy, however, is less important than the issues he represents for Australian nationalism.

{8} The rekindling of Morant's legend in the early eighties owed much to the Bruce Beresford film Breaker Morant. This is largely based upon nationalistic folklore, such as George Witton's book Scapegoats of the Empire (1907), the novel by Kit Denton called The Breaker (1973) and Beresford's own republican leanings. That the realities of Morant's life are different from the legend should not be surprising; that they differ as greatly as they do, should be. When arrested and charged with shooting Boer prisoners, Morant, Handcock, and Lieutenant George Witton made little attempt to hide the fact that they had, but defiantly proclaimed that they were under strict orders to do so from their superior officers.12 That Morant and his comrades from the Bushveldt Carbineers (BVC) committed a number of killings in suspect circumstances is a fact that cannot be disputed.

Morant, Handcock, [Lieutenant H.] Picton, and Witton were all charged with the murder of the prisoner, Visser. All but Picton were charged with the murder of eight Boers. Morant and Handcock were further charged with the murder of three Boers on another occasion and Handcock alone faced yet another charge, of murdering a German missionary [named Heese]; Morant was charged with instigating and commanding that killing. Peter Handcock was also charged with murdering one of his own troopers, Van Buren. In addition to all that, Captain Alfred Taylor was charged with the murder of six men.13

{9} Oddly though, the legend of Morant within Australian nationalism is framed squarely within the discourse of a victim - a victim of Lord Kitchener, who represents perfidious Albion. Equally naïve are those that have defended Lord Kitchener and use these events to elevate Kitchener to quintessential gentleman-soldier pretensions. They argue that he oversaw a necessary and honourable prosecution of individuals guilty of murder. Therefore, by this logic, he was an honourable and moral military commander. This conveniently absolves him of any "criminal" guilt for the thousands of women and children who perished in unsanitary concentration camps. It is true that conditions varied from camp to camp, yet at their worst they were breeding grounds for illnesses.

The most telling condemnation of the refugee camps was the tragically high death toll. Altogether, 27,927 Boers died in the camps and of this total over 22,000 were under the age of sixteen.14

{10} Stripped to the bare essentials, the legend of Morant offers what we might call today a Nuremberg defence. Which is to say that they claimed to have merely obeyed orders from their superiors. This is what George Witton offered in Scapegoats of the Empire. It was this book that was most responsible for giving a credible outlet for the nationalistic rage generated over the Morant incident. In it, Witton gives a systematic (if self-serving) account of the events and the various court martial proceedings. He justifies himself and his comrades by pointing out that the accused had merely carried out their duty for their country and the Empire. Indeed, their legal counsel, Major J.F. Thomas, went further by implying that the King's Army Regulations backed up the killings. For example, the defence argued that Boers of the Spelonken district, where the BVC operated, were mere bandits who had committed vile outrages against British subjects. Therefore, as they wore no uniform that identified them as soldiers of the South African Republic, they could only expect to be treated as marauders rather than as prisoners of war.15 These lines of thought are put forward in Beresford's movie and is best seen in the persona of Major Thomas, played by Jack Thompson.

{11} In one of the most dramatic moments of the movie's courtroom proceedings, Major Thomas runs foul of the court martial by stating that the actions of men fighting in the inhuman conditions of war cannot be judged by the standards of civil society. This echoed Thomas in the real court martial, who said that some irregularities had to be expected due to the nature of the warfare the BVC were meant to engage in.16 On the one hand, the rules of "civilised warfare" should not apply to them due to their function, yet he attempted to justify their actions with the same military manual they (the BVC accused) supposedly should not be judged by. Given the horrific lessons of war in the 20th century, it is an appalling notion when examined closely.

{12} Beresford, in the desire to make a nationalistic film, grossly distorted historical fact and glossed over the real issues of wartime morality. The discourses of Australian nationalism are the most important issues in the film. Ironically, in real life Major Thomas was very supportive of the war, had little time for sentiments that expressed concern over the style of warfare employed to combat Boer guerrillas, and had served actively in the New South Wales Lancers. He had fought in the war and had been involved in recruiting men for the war in Sydney, from where he wrote to Lord Kitchener to let him know of the desire of local recruits to fight in British army units. His jingoist attitudes were confirmed in a letter to Witton's father that seemingly condoned war atrocities, saying "with less nonsense and sentiment the war would soon be over".17 His defence was not anti-Empire, but one that relied on the accused being completely innocent of the murder of Reverend Heese, and followed orders from above to shoot Boer prisoners.

{13} There was no sense of remorse from Morant and his co-accused, but a sense of "angry injustice" that they had been charged at all. During the court martial examining the in-the-field court martial and execution of the Boer prisoner Visser, who was captured wearing British khaki supposedly belonging to Morant's fallen and mutilated friend Captain Percy Hunt, Morant made his infamous retort to the prosecutor that "we got them [the prisoners] and shot them under Rule 303".18 Captain Hunt was killed while tracking Veldt Cornet Viljoen. Acting on a report that he was hiding at the Viljoen farmhouse, Hunt with seventeen BVC moved in for an ambush. However, they were surprised themselves by the Boers, and Hunt and a sergeant were subsequently killed. It was the mutilation of Hunt's body that allegedly set Morant on his subsequent course of actions. Hunt had a broken face, presumably from being stamped upon by boots, a broken neck, and cuts to his legs, which may possibly be a Victorian-era euphemism for genital mutilation. At the court martial there was conflicting evidence over whether Hunt had been alive or dead when these terrible injuries were inflicted.

{14} Other officers were also charged over incidents, including the BVC's commander Major Robert Lenehan (a Sydney lawyer in civilian life),19 but only Morant and Handcock were executed. Morant, Witton, and Handcock faced three courts martial, not just one, and the evidence gathered against them was largely collected by Major Ramon de Bertodano. He was an Australian intelligence officer whose involvement in the story was completely removed from popular history by Beresford's film. De Bertodano became suspicious of BVC activities after the disappearance of the Lutheran missionary, Heese. The reverend had, in fact, accompanied an intelligence colleague of de Bertodano to a Swiss army hospital for an urgent operation upon a severe case of goitre.20

Major Robert Lenehan, commander of the Bushveldt Carbineers at the time of the Morant-Handcock executions, pictured about 1904. Lenehan was himself charged over instances of the shooting of Boer prisoners, but was only found guilty of failing to report such occurrences; he was reprimanded, relieved of his command and returned to Australia.
Major Robert Lenehan, commander of the Bushveldt Carbineers at the time of the Morant-Handcock executions, pictured about 1904. Lenehan was himself charged over instances of the shooting of Boer prisoners, but was only found guilty of failing to report such occurrences; he was reprimanded, relieved of his command and returned to Australia.   C286577

{15} Major de Bertodano, who had offered his Cape Cart and two mules for the journey, became anxious about the reverend when he received a telegram from the mission asking when Heese might be returning. Years later he recalled:

To my great surprise ... I received a wire . to say the Mission Station at P.P. Rust urgently required the return of the Rev. Hesse [sic]. I immediately wired from H.Q. to Fort Edward asking . as to why Mr Hesse had been detained for several weeks. The reply made some excuse for this, and said that he was leaving the next day, about 26th or 27th August. About the 29th August a further wire came to say that the Reverend Hesse had been shot by Boers near Bandolier Kopjes, 15 miles from Fort Edward on the Pietersburg road.21

{16} Heese had intended to stay a few days at the Fort before heading on to his mission, as this was near the Swiss hospital. After hearing of the discovery of Heese's body, the apparent victim of Boer rebels, de Bertodano began to investigate. It was this investigation that uncovered what had been going on at Fort Edward. Witton maintained in his book that the murder of Heese was the only reason that anyone from the BVC found themselves charged. He was a man of religion after all, not a Boer commando. It was Witton's contention that once de Bertodano made Kitchener aware of the incidents, the latter could hardly charge people with Heese's murder without including the Boer prisoners as well. Doing so would send out the wrong message to the world's press, and, of course, to the recalcitrant Boer commandos Kitchener hoped to eventually persuade to lay down their arms.

{17} It would seem Heese had been at the wrong place at the wrong time. Major de Bertodano had sent two of his native agents to talk with Africans near Fort Edward in the wake of the missionary's murder. He told them to be extremely cautious. One of these scouts, named Hans, returned with rumours that members of the BVC had indeed shot Heese. The other scout disappeared.22 It would seem that Heese had recognised one of eight surrendered Boers who had been brought to the Fort while he was there, as the schoolteacher from his village near P.P. Rust. Legend has it that against orders from Morant he also spoke with this man. It is thought that Varmeyer, the schoolteacher, was worried as to his eventual fate, but Heese supposedly assured him that his fears were not founded. Heese either witnessed the crime, or saw its aftermath. When he departed the Fort, his fate was seemingly sealed.

{18} Ironically, the accused were found innocent of the murder of Heese. In a letter to Major Thomas many years after the events in South Africa, Witton confessed that Handcock had clearly indicated to him that he (Handcock), and Morant, were involved in the murder.23 Handcock also informed him that Morant and he had decided to keep their mouths shut and see what would happen. Witton himself then decided that he, too, bearing in mind that his fate was linked to the others, should stay quiet. Witton added in his letter to Thomas that he had been wrong to have ever taken Handcock and Morant so far into his trust. This must have been a blow for Thomas, who had been convinced of their innocence in the Heese case. This letter is well known to those who have studied the Morant case, and has been so for decades. Bereford himself must have been aware of it through research for his film.

{19} Instances where Boers dressing in Khaki and speaking excellent English surprised and killed British Empire soldiers with an unfair element of advantage were not unknown. It is also true that Kitchener had Boer prisoners shot for wearing khaki with the intention of using it to deceive Empire troops. These orders were later re-affirmed by the British high command through General Haig, and on 19 March 1902 the Hon. St. John Brodrick, British Secretary of State for War, confirmed as much in the Commons, saying that:

Boers captured in British uniforms were liable to be tried by Court Martial and shot. Lord Kitchener, he said, had already executed some of the enemy found committing this breech of the customs of civilized warfare.24

{20} On one occasion Kitchener even applied to the War Office to have an entire small Boer commando unit shot, but was denied permission. Other commanders in the field, acting in accordance with the King's Army Regulations and following Kitchener's lead, issued similar orders to their men in regard to dealing with an enemy out of uniform. The shooting of a Boer prisoner in British khaki might therefore not have greatly concerned Kitchener had some regulation been followed, and proceedings kept above board and in the open. That Morant and the BVC had neither followed regulations, nor kept superiors accurately abreast of developments, did not help their cause once information about their activities became well known.

{21} The Boer war is often called the first modern war. Traditional concepts such as uniforms and terms of engagement were all challenged, due to the manner in which the war was fought. It became a war of moral grey areas as an official uniformed British Empire army fought a non-uniformed civilian militia army. The Boers in battle threw up the white flag on more than one occasion, only to then heap fire upon the startled enemy when they approached.25 They also deliberately used a hollow-tip bullet, known as a "dum dum", that tore gaping exit wounds and left victims lying upon the veldt in agony with appalling injuries as they bled to death. The Boers, as they became more desperate, took khaki from captured British Empire troops and did use it to deceive in ambushes. There were also attacks upon civilians and intimidation. The severest retribution was meted out to any black Africans who joined, or were seen to help, the British forces. There can be little doubt that the Boers also at times shot captured British Empire soldiers.

{22} The need of the British to combat the guerrilla tactics and often-ingenious fighting style of the Boers eventually caused the employment of a scorched earth policy. This was begun by Lord Roberts and continued by Kitchener. Upon the veldt where wives and families had assisted the men in the roaming commando units, the supply lines were cut with their relocation to concentration camps. These camps became overcrowded and unsanitary, which in turn eventually gave rise to a disastrous cholera epidemic that claimed thousands of lives - mostly women and children. The fact that more British soldiers ultimately died of infections and cholera does show that the army hierarchy had learned little form the disease-ridden Crimean War. Worse still, this time, civilians paid dearly for it.

{23} While Australian nationalism makes the Morant legend work and heightens its appeal for fictional purposes, it also almost totally obscures and makes subservient other debates, such as the one raised by the preceding paragraph. It is the easy path to take in the evaluation of history. All other discourses, about the treatment of civilians, or prisoners of war, or the moral responsibility of soldiers in a combat situation, become nothing more than a backdrop to illuminate the nationalistic one. This is a pity, as these lessons from the Boer War were important ones for the Australian national consciousness to take on board. If we had understood these ideas, perhaps we might have been more pragmatic, less naive, and had our eyes more wide-open, when we entered the killing fields of the Great War.

© Adam Henry

The author

This article was based on a research project, 'Breaker Morant, Australia, & the Boer War of 1899-1902', undertaken as part of a  MA coursework program from Macquarie University, Sydney. Adam is currently a PhD scholarship student in the Research School of the Social Sciences, Department of History, ANU. He is the author of 'Independent Nation: The Evolution of Australian Foreign Policy 1901-1946 - Australia, the British Empire and the Origins of Australian-Indonesian Relations', published by CDU Press 2010.


1 R.L. Wallace, The Australians at the Boer War (Canberra: Australian War Memorial & Australian Government Publishing Service, 1976), p.39.

2 Wallace, The Australians at the Boer War, pp.34-5. For example, in Sydney on 28 October 1899 over 200,000 people turned up to watch troops march to the transports taking them to South Africa.

3 Evans (et al), 1901, our future's past: documenting Australia's federation (Sydney: Pan Macmillan Australia, 1997), p.185.

4 L.M. Field, The forgotten war: Australian involvement in the South African conflict of 1899-1902 (Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 1979), p.129.

5 Bill Nasson, The South African War 1899-1902 (London: Arnold, 1999), pp.217-18.

6 David Smurthwaite, Hamlyn history of the Boer War, 1899-1902 (London: Hamlyn, 1999), pp.138, 187-9.

7 Field, The forgotten war, p.121.

8 Field, The forgotten war, p.122.

9 Kit Denton, Closed file (Adelaide: Rigby, 1983), p.72.

10 Kit Denton, Closed file (Adelaide: Rigby, 1983), p.69.

11 Margaret Carnegie & Frank Shields, In search of Breaker Morant: balladist and bushveldt carbineer (Armadale, Vic.: H.H. Stephenson, 1979), p.5. These authors amassed significant evidence that, regarding his origins, Morant had been a fraud. They claim that his real name was Edwin Henry Murrant. As evidence in their book, they produce birth and marriage certificates which place his date of birth as 9 December 1864 and his register date as 19 January 1865. This information is probably correct, as "The Breaker" claimed his year of birth as 1865. This version is now also essentially endorsed by the Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol.10 (Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 1986), p.581-2.

12 George R. Witton, Scapegoats of the empire: the story of the bushveldt carbineers (Melbourne: D.W. Paterson, 1907), p.76.

13 Denton, Closed file, pp.91-2.

14 Smurthwaite, Hamlyn history of the Boer War, p.151. Smurthwaite, p.125, points out that disease was also a major problem for the British during the war. Over 13,000 troops died of disease, mainly from typhoid, while 31,000 men were invalided home after suffering its ravages.

15 Witton, Scapegoats of the empire, p.124.

16 Witton, Scapegoats of the empire, pp.121-3.

17 Barry Bridges, 'Lord Kitchener and the Morant-Handcock Executions' (1981 article based on his thesis, NSW and the Anglo-Boer War, 1899-1902, University of South Africa), p.25.

18 Witton, Scapegoats of the empire, p.84. "Rule 303" refers to the .303-calibre SMLE rifle.

19 Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol.10 (Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 1986), pp.74-5.

20 Carnegie & Shields, In search of Breaker Morant, p.91.

21 Carnegie & Shields, In search of Breaker Morant, p.91.

22 Carnegie & Shields, In search of Breaker Morant, pp.92-3.

23 The letter, dated 21 October 1929, is extensively quoted in Wallace, The Australians at the Boer War, pp.378-9.

24 Carnegie & Shields, In search of Breaker Morant, p.48.

25 Kenneth Griffith, Thank God we kept the flag flying: the siege and relief of Ladysmith, 1899-1900 (London: Hutchinson, 1974), p.50.