Australia’s Attorney-General has petitioned Queen Elizabeth II to pardon an Australian soldier who was shot more than 100 years ago during the Second Anglo-Boer War in South Africa.
According to the Times Online, Australia’s Attorney General, Robert McClelland sent the petition, calling for posthumous pardons for the Lieutenants Harry ”Breaker” Morant, and Peter Handcock, because of legal errors committed at the time. A lawyer in the Royal Australian Navy, Commander James Unkles wrote the petition, addressed to Britain’s Defence Ministry. Unkles said:
The passing of time and the fact that Morant, Handcock and Witton are deceased does not diminish the errors and these injustices must be addressed. The issue is not whether Morant and Handcock shot Boer prisoners, which they admitted to, but whether they were properly represented and military law properly and evenly applied.
Lieutenants Morant and Handcock were part of an irregular force called the Bushveldt Carbineers (BVC) which, under Morant’s orders, murdered 12 Boer prisoners and a German missionary in 1901, committing what would today be classified as a ”war crime.”
The two were court-martialled, along with others, and Morant and Handcock were shot in Pretoria in 1902.
According to Wikipedia, the executions caused an outcry in Australia because the two executed men were Australians, while others accused in the same trials, who were British, were given lighter sentences.
According to Wikipedia, the Australian government of the day demanded an explanation from Britain, and the British commander of the British occupation army in South Africa, Lord Kitchener, wrote:
In reply to your telegram, Morant, Handcock and Witton were charged with twenty separate murders, including one of a German missionary who had witnessed other murders. Twelve of these murders were proved. From the evidence it appears that Morant was the originator of these crimes that Handcock carried out in cold-blooded manner.
Morant is something of a folk hero in Australia and previous efforts have been made to have him and his comrade pardoned.
Morant was born in Britain and emigrated to Australia at the age of 19. He did various odd jobs, had an unsuccessful marriage, but became known as a horse-breaker, likely the source of his nickname. He volunteered to fight against the Boer Republics in the cause of Britain in 1899, at the outbreak of war.
Another article in Wikipedia says some 20,000 Australians served the British Empire in the war, and about 1,000 were killed.
Canada was at first not willing to get involved and French Canadians were quite set against it, but eventually 8,600 Canadians landed in South Africa, not all of whom saw action. Of these, 267 died.
Some 6,500 men volunteered from New Zealand. However, many nations allowed their citizens to volunteer on the Boer side, as they saw these two small countries as the victim of the world’s superpower at the time. These included France, Germany, Italy, Americans, Russians, Austro-Hungary and others.
However, not all Australians believe the pardon is the right thing to do. The Age newspaper of Australia quoted Craig Wilcox, author of Australia's Boer War: The War in South Africa, said:
I've got a gloomy view of the man himself and his elevation as a folk hero. Those who don't share that view are blind to his crimes. Lining up civilians by the roadside and killing them, that's just not right. My gut reaction is that they shouldn't be pardoned.
An Oscar-nominated movie, titled simply Breaker Morant was made in 1980 in which Morant is portrayed as a scapegoat for war crimes committed by higher-ranking officers.