The chance discovery of a treasure trove of films shot nearly a half-century ago has shed new light on the saga of Harry “Breaker” Morant and his sidekick Peter Handcock, who were executed for war crimes in 1902.
As campaigners step up their efforts to have Morant and Handcock pardoned, a witness to one of their killings can be heard saying: “They were as guilty as sin.” The evidence of Muir Churton, who fought with the infamous Bushveldt Carbineers during the latter stages of the Boer War, is captured on film made in 1973.
At 19, Churton was the youngest member of the BVC when he joined up in 1901. He was 91 when the film was made and died soon afterwards. The films, including interviews with more than 20 Boer War veterans, have been lost for 44 years and have never been publicly seen.
Filmmaker Frank Shields discovered them recently among hundreds of cans of negatives in his Beacon Hill, Sydney, garage. They had been gathering dust as they were moved from one storage garage to another over three decades. Shields’s film The Breaker was shown by the ABC in 1975 and won the best documentary prize at the 1975 Sydney Film Festival.
“None of the interviews were included in the doco broadcast by the ABC,” Shields says. “I was aware that there were few survivors of the Boer War in the early 1970s, so I thought their stories should be preserved. I did the interviews with a view to making another program but I ran out of money and was never able to pay for the film processing.
“The films remained in the possession of the colour film processing company when it was sold in the early 80s. The films would have been thrown out except for the keen eye of a former employee, who thought there might be some historical value in them.
“The cans were returned to me but I was unable to do anything with them at the time,” Shields says. “I lost track of them for more than 30 years but recently unearthed them amid mountains of other cans. I have now begun the difficult job of synchronising the film to audio tracks and last week completed digitising the first of them with a view to making a new documentary series on Australia’s first war.”
The interview with New Zealand-born Churton is the only one that touches on the saga of Morant and Handcock, the subjects of Bruce Beresford’s landmark 1980 film, Breaker Morant.
Henry Harbord Morant was an English migrant to Australia in the 1880s. An accomplished horseman as well as a noted bush poet, womaniser and cheat, he joined the BVC when the British commander Lord Kitchener established the unit in 1901.
The war against the Dutch farmers who resisted British attempts to take over the diamonds and mineral-rich Transvaal province of South Africa had almost been won when the BVC was set up as a specialist commando unit to deal with remaining pockets of Boer fighters.
The BVC was ruthless in its take-no-prisoners approach to the Boers. “There was no discipline,” Churton says. “They were too rough — just a band of men thrown together.”
In the 1973 film, Churton explains why be joined the BVC: “They were paying seven shillings a day while the rest paid five shilling a day … plus, it was something new; something interesting.”
He says Handcock was “a quiet, dour sort of man”, while Morant was much more lively. “We had horseraces one day, from our camp up the road to the fort, and he rode a horse called Benefit Boy and, of course, he won. He was a good rider.”
Churton details two vital encounters that were to culminate in charges being laid against Morant, Handcock, their commanding officer, Major Robert Lenehan, and Lieutenant George Witton.
“We were out on patrol in the Spelonken area of the Transvaal when we came across six Dutchmen (Boers) lying in a row beside the road,” Churton says.
“They had been shot by our advance guard.
“A group of us including Trooper van Buuren was sent on a day’s trek to a farmhouse to bring in the wives of the men who had been shot.
“We stayed the night and van Buuren found a bottle of peach brandy. That loosened his tongue and he was overheard telling the women what had happened — how their husbands had been shot the day before.”
“That afternoon, I was riding out on the left flank, scouting, when Lieutenant Handcock suddenly appeared,” Churton says. “He was right on top of me before I knew he was there and he spoke as he went by, saying, ‘Keep an eye on the hills over there … there are Dutchmen up there … we lost a man back there this morning.’
“Well, that would be van Buuren. He went out on the left flank with Handcock and was never seen again. Who did the job?
“I suppose it was Handcock but I can’t say definitely. But that was the opinion of the troops. When they knew van Buuren had been talking down there (to the women) and opened his mouth, that’s what he got.”
Lenehan was charged with failing to report the killing of van Buuren at the January 1902 courts martial. He was found not guilty but was guilty of a further charge relating to the deaths of three other Boers and was reprimanded and sent home to Australia.
Churton was a witness to another killing. It came two days after the death of Morant’s close friend Captain Percy Hunt, who was wounded in a bungled BVC attack on a remote farmhouse. He was then tortured and kicked to death by Boers.
Hunt’s brutal death enraged Morant, who vowed to kill every Boer involved. Churton says he and his party were returning to Fort Edward when they were met by Morant and were told that Hunt had been killed.
That night they circled a Boer camp but “the Boers cleared out and left a wagon behind and there was a lot of biltong (meat) in it. It hadn’t been dried so we put it on the Dutchman’s fire and was very glad of it.”
Also left behind was a Boer named Visser who had been wounded in the ankle. He was found to be wearing Hunt’s trousers and had other items of his clothing. This signed his death warrant. As Morant argued at his court martial, under orders issued by Lord Kitchener, any Boer fighters found wearing British uniforms were to be shot.
Churton says, with chilling brevity: “Next morning they had a court martial and Visser was condemned to be shot. There was a firing party and he was carried out blindfolded, and that was the end of him.”
Asked if he thought the execution of Boers had been proper, Churton says: “No. That was the opinion of the troops; those men had surrendered under a white flag and had given up their arms when they were shot. They were prisoners of war; they should have been sent into prison camp.”
Churton was named as a witness in the January 1902 courts martial of Morant, Handcock and Whitton but he was never called to tell his story.
Morant mounted his own stout defence. Asked whether the court martial that condemned Visser was properly constituted, Morant burst out: “We were out there fighting the Boers, not sitting comfortably behind wire fences. We got ’em and shot ’em under Rule .303,” referring to the calibre of British rifles.
“I alone was responsible,” he told the court. “You can’t blame the young ’uns; they only did as I told them. They just carried out orders, and that they had to do.
“They thought they were obeying Lord Kitchener’s orders. Captain Hunt told me not to bring in prisoners … I did not carry out those orders until he was brutally murdered. If anybody is to blame, it is me.”
Morant was found guilty of the Visser murder with Handcock, and Whitton guilty of manslaughter but not murder. They were also found guilty of killing two men and a boy, all unnamed, and sentenced to death. They also faced charges of killing a German missionary named Hesse, but were acquitted.
Handcock and Morant were shot at dawn on February 27, 1902, in a swift execution. Morant reportedly told his firing squad: “Shoot straight, you bastards. Don’t make a mess of it.”
Whitton’s death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment and he was freed from a British prison in 1904 after a wave of protests in Australia. He subsequently wrote a book, Scapegoats of the Empire, saying Morant and Handcock were executed to appease mounting fury over the British “scorched earth” tactics in South Africa and to open the way to the negotiations that led to the end of the war in May 1902.
More than a century on, pressure to pardon Morant and Handcock continues. Melbourne lawyer Jim Unkles has been fighting to have their case reopened with a view to granting the men a pardon because, he says, their trials were improperly conducted.
He says Muir Churton’s “voice from the grave” evidence about their guilt is of no consequence. “These men may have been brutal but does that excuse brutality in return?” he asks. “The duty of democracies, even in 1902, was to ensure trial by due process according to the military law of the time. That did not happen.
“The passing of time and the fact that Morant, Handcock and Witton are deceased does not diminish errors in the administration of justice. Injustices in times of war are inexcusable and it takes vigilance to right wrongs, to honour those unfairly treated and to demonstrate respect for the rule of law.
“How Australia responds to this case remains a test of our values and is vitally important to the descendants of Morant, Handcock and Witton. It is our duty to put it right.”