Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant may be in line for a posthumous pardon after the trial that convicted him was analysed by a military lawyer.
Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant may be in line for a posthumous pardon after the trial that convicted him was analysed by a military lawyer. Courtesy Australian War Memorial

Queen petitioned on Breaker Morant

JUSTICE may be at hand for Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant and his Tenterfield lawyer, Major James Francis Thomas, 109 years after Morant was executed at the end of the Boer War.

A petition for the pardon of soldiers Harry Morant and Peter Handcock, both of whom were executed by the British for the murder of prisoners during the Boer War, has been forwarded to the Queen by Australian Attorney-General Robert McClelland.

Prepared by military lawyer Commander James Unkles, with the writer Nick Bleszynski, the petition argues that the convictions of lieutenants Morant and Handcock, and that of Lieutenant George Witton, were unfair and that mistakes had been made by the judge and advocate.

The men were also denied the right to appeal to the King, and the Australian Government was kept ignorant of the trial until after the executions, they argue.

Major Thomas was a small-town country solicitor and had never been an advocate in a court martial before. He had just one day’s notice of the trial.

Tenterfield and District Historical Society secretary Daphney Struck said Major Thomas never got over the loss of the trial.

“I think he realised he was up against something he couldn’t beat,” Mrs Struck said.

After returning to Tenterfield after the war he worked as the editor of the Tenterfield Star, but he was never the same.

“He was unhappy and disillusioned,” Mrs Struck said.

Major Thomas had gone to the war with Sir Harry Chauvel, leading a squadron of men from Tabulam and Tenterfield.

Having volunteered to fight with the English against the Boers in South Africa, English-born Morant was one of many Australians drafted into irregular units to fight.

Morant’s unit, known as the Bushveldt Carbineers, was regarded as an ill-disciplined – even murderous – mob. However, Morant was credited with returning it to military order.

By then the war had turned ugly. In 1900 the British commander, Lord Roberts, had declared it almost over – yet it dragged on.

A new commander, Lord Kitchener, ordered ruthless tactics to quell the Boers, including sending their families to concentration camps and – according to the Australian officers’ defence – shooting prisoners.

Morant ignored the order until his friend, Lieutenant Hunt, was killed and his body mutilated.

The three were arrested in October 1901 and charged with the murder of 12 Boer prisoners and a German missionary, the Reverend Daniel Hesse.

Their court martial found them not guilty of Hesse’s murder, but guilty of the other charges.

Despite that it recommended mercy. Against tradition, Kitchener ignored the recommendation and had them shot.

The petition is the first time the case has been analysed legally.

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