Biography

Birth date: 09 December 1864
Birth place: United Kingdom: England, Somerset
Death date: 27 February 1902
Death place: South Africa
Final rank: Lieutenant
Service number: 37 - South Africa, 1899-1902 (Boer War)
Unit: 2nd South Australian Mounted Rifles

Better known for the manner of his death before a firing squad than what he did in life, Harry Morant is believed to have been born on 9 December 1864 at Somerset in England. Much of his early life is clouded in mystery but he arrived at Townsville, Queensland, in early April 1883. Using the name Edwin Henry Murrant, he married Daisy O'Dwyer, in reality the anthropologist Daisy Bates, less than a year later. At the time, Morant was working as a groom on a grazing property.

The two separated and Morant moved to Winton, Queensland before finding work droving cattle. His reputation as a horseman, drinker and womaniser grew, particularly after he began contributing poetry to the Bulletin under the name 'the Breaker'. In 1899 when the Boer War began, Morant was in Adelaide and he joined the 2nd Contingent, South Australian Mounted Rifles.

Having first served as a dispatch rider, Morant also worked with the well-known British war correspondent, Bennett Burleigh. His enlistment ended after 12 months, for which he received good reports and the offer of a commission. Instead, however, he went to England where he became engaged and befriended a fellow veteran of the war in South Africa, Captain Percy Hunt. The two men returned to South Africa in March 1901 and were commissioned into a British irregular unit, the Bushveldt Carbineers.

Morant served with distinction on his first posting in the area south-east of Pietersburg. The Carbineers, based at Fort Edward in the Spelonken district, however, had already acquired a reputation for shooting prisoners, looting and insubordination. When their commander was recalled, Percy Hunt was posted to Fort Edward, joined later by Morant.

In August 1901 Hunt was wounded on patrol and his body was later found stripped and mutilated. Morant, now in command, led a revenge patrol that resulted in his ordering a prisoner to be shot. He later ordered a separate group of prisoners be executed. These killings were followed by the shooting of a German missionary who had spoken to the doomed prisoners. Shortly after that, Morant, Lieutenant Peter Handcock and others shot another group of Boer prisoners.

Morant, Handcock and other officers were arrested on 22 October and, in January, were court martialed for the killings. On one occasion, while the trial was taking place, the accused helped fend off a Boer attack on Pietersburg. Acquitted for murdering the German missionary (it later emerged that Handcock did kill him at Morant's instigation), Morant was convicted on all other charges and sentenced to be shot along with Handcock. The sentence was carried out on 27 February 1902. Morant became something of a folk hero and his memory was revived with the film Breaker Morant in 1980. The evidence, however, suggests that he was guilty of the crimes for which he was tried even if his execution resulted from political pressure after the death of the German missionary.

[Expand all]

[Collapse all]

Rolls and Awards

  • Rank: Lance-Corporal
  • Unit: 2nd South Australian Mounted Rifles
  • Conflict: South Africa, 1899-1902 (Boer War)

Collection Items

Timeline

Date of birth 1864-12-09 Somerset, England.
Other 1883-04 Morant migrated to Queensland. He became well known in Australia as a balladist for the Bulletin.
Date and unit at enlistment (ORs) 1899 2nd Contingent South Australian Mounted Rifles.
Other 1900 Enlistment ended, and despite being offered a comission Morant left for England.
Other units 1901-03 Returned to South Africa, and was comissioned into a British irregular unit the Bush Veldt Carbineers.
Date of arrest 1901-10 Whilst serving with the Bush Veldt Carbineers, Lieutenant Morant, along with Lieutenant P J Handcock and Lieutenant G R Witton were arrested and charged with shooting Boer prisoners and a German missionary. All three were found guilty of the murders of the Boers but were acquitted of the murder of the German missionary. They were setenced to death by firing squad. Morant admitted shooting the Boers and justified his action by the stress of guerilla warfare and by orders, alleged to have come from General Kitchener, that no prisoners were to be taken.
Date of death 1902-02-27 Executed by a military firing squad. All three men were found guilty and sentenced to death by firing squad. Kitchener confirmed the death penalty for Morant and Handcock but commuted Witton's penalty to life imprisonment. At the execution, Morant refused the offer of a blindfold when he and Handcock went before a firing squad of the Cameron Highlanders. Calling to the Highlanders to "Shoot straight. Don't make a mess of it".