Rewinding the Breaker

I was remiss in not mentioning the 12th Military History Carnival at Thoughts on Military History when it took place last month. My eye was drawn to's post about Harry 'Breaker' Morant and Peter Handcock, the Australian soldiers executed in 1902 for killing Boer prisoners-of-war. There's still a debate about whether Kitchener issued an unwritten order to take no prisoners, meaning that the Australians were made scapegoats as a sop to either the Boer government (i.e. so it would consider peace) or to the British public. It seems unlikely to me, on the face of it, or at least unnecessary -- it's not like similar, illegal but tacitly accepted, acts were unknown in the later wars of the twentieth century.

By chance, I caught an episode of the excellent (but cancelled) Rewind the other night which dealt with the Breaker.1 The transcript is online, and is worth a read: it does poke some holes in the scapegoaters' arguments.

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  1. Rewind dealt with various mysteries and puzzles from Australian history. I missed it when it originally aired, which is a shame. It was different to most other history programmes in that it wasn't afraid to present the viewer with primary source texts to support (or refute) an argument, or indeed to go digging around in archives for clues. I nearly stood up and applauded when, in a segment on the death of Billy Hughes's daughter, the reporter said 'So where to look for proof? Well, one obvious place is the National Library to look through Billy Hughes's private papers'! []

8 thoughts on “Rewinding the Breaker

  1. That's a great catch -- thanks! I've updated the blog entry with it.

    I don't have a particular brief for or against Breaker and I'm not remotely expert on the Boer Wars, but I wonder how much this concept of an "order" imposes a false structure on the affair -- or at least, alters the question from "what was really going down?" to "what specifically is Lord Kitchener responsible for?"

    These things can be understood to be occurring, understood to be necessary, understood to be expected, without someone issuing even an unwritten order. For the behaviors of complex organizations, that's probably more the rule than the exception. It might also be the case that as the war wound down, the expectations of months before had shifted, and he miscalculated either the range of activities they now authorized, or the extent to which he could get away with a freelance atrocity by pointing at the old playbook. All rank speculation, of course.

    P.S. -- Hawt Rome pix. I'll be there in three weeks! :)

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  3. Post author

    That's an interesting point, ET. The claim of an order was made by the defence, and maybe that's an inherited idea that nobody has questioned sufficiently. As you say, there's a range of possibilities outside a formal or even informal order. And it looks like the work that Chris mentions could be the one to at least show the context which the Morant incident took place in.

    P.S. — Hawt Rome pix. I’ll be there in three weeks! :)

    Easy to take good photos in Rome. Wish I was going back!

  4. Ralph Hitchens

    Interesting post. While the film is clearly a masterpiece, one of the best war/antiwar films ever made, the history behind it is not clear-cut. In the film the missionary Hesse was murdered by Handcock (on Morant's orders) because he was suspected of being a secret courier among the Boers. I haven't heard of any evidence to support this theory.

    My own theory about the issue of murdering prisoners argues for vagueness. I really doubt if Kitchener -- an austere, interoverted man -- would have openly confided his approval of shooting prisoners captured during operations on the veldt. But the notion existed, & may have been discussed in circumspect terms within his staff and percolated down to units in the field. I don't think Morant and Handcock made it up out of whole cloth. By the same token, I think their excessive brutality alienated many of the rank & file within the Carbiniers, and their superiors clearly felt obliged to bring charges -- against which the three officers had few defenders.

    But it was a tragedy for everyone concerned. The point of the film is that war can put even well-meaning people into situations where fear, grief, rage, the possession of weapons, and remote authority combine to enable horrifying actions that would otherwise never happen.

  5. Post author

    That sounds like a plausible interpretation to me. We'll probably never know for sure; maybe the best we can do is to explore the wider context as suggested above, to see where this incident lay in (or outside) the spectrum of military behaviour at the time.

    It's actually a long time since I've seen Breaker Morant (which is why I didn't discuss it in the post), but I wouldn't be surprised if its relationship with history was much like that other great Australian anti-war film of the early '80s, Gallipoli -- which is to say, not particularly close. Which doesn't much diminish the power of either film.

  6. Simon Fielding

    I've just discovered the blog and am really impressed Some very intelligent comments here.

    I love the film, and it made a huge impression on me as a lad; but I agree that the anti-British loading of it makes it questionable as history.

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