Today’s planned release of details about the Anzac Parade National Boer War Memorial has thrust the controversial execution 110 years ago of two Australians convicted of war crimes back into the spotlight.
Lieutenants Harry ”Breaker” Morant and Peter Handcock were shot by a British firing squad on February 27, 1902.
Their story attracted national attention in the early 1980s following the publication of The Breaker by Kit Denton and the subsequent Bruce Beresford film Breaker Morant.

Morant and and Handcock were members of the British Army’s Bushveldt Carbineers, one of the first counter insurgency special forces units formed. They were found guilty of killing 12 Boer prisoners.

The Bushveldt Carbineers had an Australian flavour, drawing on colonials who were accomplished riders, expert shots and well-adapted to the South African climate and terrain. More than 40 per cent of its 320 members were Australian.  James Unkles, a military lawyer, has been campaigning to have the case of Morant, Handcock and a third man, Lieutenant George Witton, reopened.  Witton had been sentenced to death for the same crimes but this was commuted to imprisonment.
Mr Unkles said it was not his intention to undermine the achievements of the Boer War Memorial Association and that today’s announcement was an opportunity to celebrate the service of 16,000 volunteers who had served.  ”But it is also a time for healing,” he said. ”The passing of time and the fact the men are deceased does not diminish the errors – and the injustices must be addressed to demonstrate respect for the rule of law.”

Mr Unkles said the federal government had been asked to intervene in the case as recently as Monday. Cathy Morant, a descendant of ”The Breaker”, had delivered an appeal for action to Attorney-General Nicola Roxon.
Ms Roxon’s predecessor, Robert McClelland, had agreed to lodge a submission with the British government calling for pardons for the men shortly before he was demoted in last year’s cabinet reshuffle.

”It is to the former attorney-general’s credit he judged the case purely on its legal merits.”
Mr Unkles said, Morant – a bush poet whose work was published in The Bulletin – Handcock and Whitton had been denied justice. It was widely believed in Australia they had been scapegoated to appease German outrage over the killing of a South African-born German missionary.
”Although Morant, Handcock and Witton admitted shooting Boer prisoners, they were not the only ones and were following orders – orders which, according to British military legal documents, did exist,” he said.
Chief of Defence Force General David Hurley is to issue the Boer War Memorial design at Russell this afternoon.

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