Sydney Institute Presentation- Was Breaker Morant A War Criminal?

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Letters of Colonel John Flewell – Smith – Evidence From The Past

article  An extraordinary collection of letters written by Colonel John Francis Flewell – Smith has been released by his descendants recently.  The letters give graphic ‘eye witness’ accounts of the Boer / Anglo war during the period of Frank’s service in 1901 – 1902.

Frank, a farmer from Queensland volunteered to join the war in South Africa and on the 27 January 1901, Frank was made Commanding Officer of the 5th Australian Contingent which sailed on 6 March on the Templesmore for South Africa. After service with the Australian Bushmen as they were called, Frank was transferred to Colesburg as Area Commandant. Amongst a rebel farming population he had 4 District Commandants under him and his area covered 8,000 square miles. He had the power to raise mounted troops and town guards. He had to watch the rebel farmers and supervise all supplies. Frank completed his service and returned home in 1902. On 19 June that year he resigned his commission in the Queensland Defence Force and returned to Lowood on the 13 August.

Frank’s letters discuss tactics used by the Boers against the British and Colonial soldiers, African natives and scouts and Dutch civilians who sided with the British.  Some letters also discuss orders to shoot Boer prisoners.  Some of his assertions corroborate claims made by Breaker Morant and George Witton on the tactics used by both the Boers and the British to prosecute the war.

I will include some of the extracts of the letters on this Blog topic.  Suffice to say, the contents of the letters challenge much of what has been claimed by historians and provides new insights into the conduct of the war by senior commanders on both sides.

I am grateful to the Flewell – Smith family for their approval for me to study and publish some details of the letters.

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South African Support for Pardons

Since I have worked on the case for pardons, many people have voted on the poll on the web site, and have also signed the on line petition.  While the majority of people support the case for pardons, there are those who disagree, particularly people from South Africa.   I respect their views.

However, I appreciate the support I have received from other South Africans who understand that Morant, Handcock and Witton were victims of their British Superiors who gave the ‘no prisoners’ order and used these men as scapegoats to deflect responsibility for their own culpability.

A number of South Africans who signed the on line petition include,  John Hall,  Susan Van Staden, Louis du Plessis, Roche Petersenm,  Cobus Strydomm , Rob Marshall and Marga Williams.  The following is a statement from John Hall, (dated 11 Nov 11) who supports the case for pardons.  He made this comment on the petition site:

 ‘lets get over our selfs if need to review the case lets then do it. these people shoulh have been pardoned years ago. i am a white south african, Afrikaans speaking and can not believe we still live in 1901 in the boer war. if there is still people living there shame thats why we get nowhere. PARDON THEM. We are in 2011 leave the past in the past

Rob Marshall also supports pardons.  He stated  on 13 Nov 11:  ‘The British government were looking for a scapegoat and these unfortunates were conveniently available

I appreciate their support and understanding that it is time to deal with this case and deliver justice through pardons.


Jim Unkles

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Injustice for ‘Breaker’ Harry Morant, but the fight continues!

Almost 108 years after they were found guilty of killing Boer prisoners of war and executed by a British firing squad, the prospect of justice is still elusive for Lieutenants Harry “The Breaker” Morant, Peter Handcock and George Witton, (sentenced to life imprisonment).

The British Government’s Secretary of State for Defence, Mr Liam Fox, MP has announced that the petition for pardons (quote) ‘does not identify any new primary evidence and I have determined that there are insufficient grounds on which to take the petition forward’ (end quote).

The refusal of the British Government to consider the case for pardons and the evidence that says Lieutenants Harry “Breaker” Morant, Peter Handcock and George Witton did not receive fair trials and should not have been sentenced to death is an insult to our democratic traditions of due process of law.

I would like to offer the descendants of these men my sincere apology for the decision made by the British government. I join Australians who support the case for pardons in condemning the decision about this case as it demonstrates the British government’s refusal to have an independent judicial assessment of the case in an open and accountable manner and without the interference of those who support this travesty of justice.

In 1902, the British conducted a trial of these men in secret and without consultation with the Australian government. One hundred and eight years later, Dr Fox has again conducted a review in secret, without any accountability to the public and scrutiny of his decision. Although I produced previously ‘hidden‘ evidence of orders of British officers to men like Morant not to take prisoners, Dr Fox has refused to convene a judicial inquiry to assess all the evidence for and against the granting of pardons. The evidence of superior orders is compelling and corroborates what Morant said, that he obeyed orders and yet payed the ultimate price while his British superiors, (in particular Captain Taylor) escaped liability!

Regrettably, Secretary Fox has relied on the advice of public servants in his Department rather than an assessment by an independent judicial officer. Further, the decision is protecting the reputations of senior British military officers, in particular Lord Kitchener who used these men as scapegoats for flawed tactics in fighting the Boers in 1902.

This decision is not only against the weight of evidence in support of pardons, it is an insult to the Australian House of Representatives inquiry into the matter in March 2010 when the case was described as strong and compelling. It also flys in the face of prominent judicial figures, MPs and others who have urged the British government to do the right thing and subject the case to a judicial inquiry and not rely on the subjectiveness of British public servants ‘behind closed doors’.

This case won’t go away with this decision. It will continue to attract support for justice and criticism of the British Government. Winston Churchill once said, ‘If you are going through hell, keep going’. I assure the British Government, the case for pardons will continue and redress will be sought through judicial means!! I have already commenced work in this regard, to get this case away from bureaucrats and before a judge in an open and transparent hearing.

A final word about the Australian government! The reluctance of the Gillard government to lobby the British for a fair and transparent judicial review is regrettable. While Ms Gillard supported a mercy plea for drug trafficker, Schapelle Corby she has ignored the plight of the ‘Breaker’ !

Details of the case for pardons can be viewed at: www.breakermorant.comThe public are invited to sign the on line petition and poll and write to protest about this decision to:

Rt Hon Philip Hammond MP, Secretary of State, Ministry for Defence,
Level 4 Zone B Main Building Whitehall, London SW I A 2tIB and:

The Hon Julia Gillard MP, Prime Minister, Parliament House

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Ms Christine Fyfe, MP Supports Call For Inquiry

Christine Fyfe, MP in the Victorian Parliament, member for Evelyn has joined other MPs and Judicial figures in support of an Inquiry into the case  for pardons for Lieutenants Morant, Handcok and Witton.  Her support follows similar statements made by other MPs including Senator McGaurin, Alex Hawke, Tony Smith, and Greg Hunt.

Ms Fyfe has called on the British government to, ‘review the convictions and sentences against Lieutenants Morant, Handcock and Witton through a proper inquiry in the spirit of fairness, justice and integrity on which both our great nations were founded.’

This call for an Inquiry by Ms Fyfe again demonstrates Australia’s concerns about the case and the need to review the case in a fair and transparent manner.

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‘Banjo’ Paterson and Major James Thomas (defending officer for Morant)

PATERSON, ANDREW BARTON (1864-1941), poet, solicitor, journalist, war correspondent and soldier, was born on 17 February 1864 at Narrambla near Orange, New South Wales.

Paterson was an Australian bush poet, journalist and author. He wrote many ballads and poems about Australian life, focusing particularly on the rural and outback areas, including the district around Binalong, New South Wales where he spent much of his childhood. Paterson’s more notable poems include “Waltzing Matilda“, “The Man from Snowy River” and “Clancy of the Overflow“.

In 1885, Paterson began submitting and having his poetry published in the Sydney edition of The Bulletin under the pseudonym of “The Banjo”, the name of a favourite horse. Paterson, like The Bulletin, was an ardent nationalist, and in 1889 published a pamphlet, Australia for the Australians which told of his disdain for cheap labour and his admiration of hard work and the nationalist spirit. In 1890, The Banjo wrote “The Man from Snowy River“, a poem which caught the heart of the nation, and in 1895 had a collection of his works published under that name. This book is the most sold collection of Australian Bush poetry and is still being reprinted today. Paterson also became a journalist, lawyer, jockey, soldier and a farmer.

Paterson became a war correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age during the Second Boer War, sailing for South Africa in October 1899. His graphic accounts of the relief of Kimberley, surrender of Bloemfontein (the first correspondent to ride in) and the capture of Pretoria attracted the attention of the press in Britain.[3] He also was a correspondent during the Boxer Rebellion, where he met George “Chinese” Morrison and later wrote about his meeting.[3] He was editor of the Sydney Evening News (1904-06) and of the Town and Country Journal (1907-08)

On 8 April 1903 he married Alice Emily Walker, of Tenterfield Station, in St Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, in Tenterfield, New South Wales.  One of his most famous poems is “Waltzing Matilda“, which was set to music and became one of Australia’s most famous songs. Others include “The Man from Snowy River“, which inspired a movie in 1982 and inspired a TV series in the 1990s, and “Clancy of the Overflow“, the tale of a Queensland drover.  Paterson’s poems mostly presented a highly romantic view of rural Australia. Paterson himself, like the majority of Australians, was city-based and was a practising lawyer. (refererence

During his career, he became a close friend of ‘Breaker’ Morant and given his contact with Tenterfield, he apparently met Major James Thomas, the lawyer who defended Morant at his courts martial in 1902.

In an extroadinary letter to the Sydney Morning Herald dated 25 Feb 1939,  Banjo gave a a ‘lively’ description of ‘Breaker’ Morant and how they became acquainted.  What is intriguing is Banjo’s meeting with Major Thomas.  In a paragraoh entitled, the ‘Execution of Morant’, Banjo describes what he had been told by Thomas.  In particular, Banjo’s description of Thomas’ story said in part, ‘

“Morant was sentenced to death “Thomas said, “but I never believed the execution would be carried out.  When I found that the thing was serious, I pulled every string I could; got permission to write to Australia, and asked for the case to be reopened so that 1 might put in a proper defence. It was of no use,  Morant had to go.   He died game. But I wake up in the night now, feeling that Morant must have have believed that he had some authority for what he did and that I ought to have been able to convince the Court of it.’

Banjo’s story also claimed:

‘I happened to know all that was to be known about Morant’s trial and execution, for the lawyer who defended him, one J F Thomas, of Tenterfield asked me to publish all the papers-evidence cablegrams decision appeal etc-a bulky bundle which he carried about with him grieving over the matter till it seriously affected his mind He blamed himself, in a measure for the death of Morant but I could not see that he had failed to do the best he could with a very unpleasant business.’


Banjo’s description of his discussion with Thomas confirmed:

  • Thomas consistently maintained that his clients did not receive fair trials and an appeal against convictions and sentences should have been permitted in the interests of justice;
  • Thomas blamed himself for failing to convince the courts martial in the defence of Morant;
  • Thomas  suffered mental anguish for many years after the courts martial;
  • Thomas carried with him documents about the trials and wanted Banjo to publish the documents.

From my own investigation of this matter and Banjo’s writings, it appears that Banjo either did not receive the papers from Thomas or if he did, they were not published.  The papers as described by Banjo could have included Thomas’ copy of the courts martial transcripts.  Another intriguing aspect of the Morant case.  Had Banjo received and published the court documents, the case for pardons could have relied on a record of all the evidence given at the trials, directions of the Judge Advocate etc

This communication betweeen Banjo and Thomas is a another fascinating aspect of Australia’s military history.

Jim Unkles

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