The subject of Peter FitzSimons’ latest work is Harry "Breaker" Morant, an Englishman who holds the dubious honour of being Australia’s most famous war criminal. A lieutenant in the irregular Bushveldt Carbineers, Morant was convicted in 1902 by a British Army court martial (along with Australians Peter Handcock and George Witton) for his role in the murders of civilians and surrendered combatants during the Second Anglo-Boer War. Witton received a life sentence, later commuted; Morant and Handcock were executed by firing squad.
In the nearly 120 years since his death, a substantial mythology has sprung up around Morant. Most famously depicted in Bruce Beresford’s 1980 film Breaker Morant, the legend holds that the Bushveldt Carbineers committed war crimes only because they were ordered to do so, by a British Army leadership desperate to break ongoing Boer resistance by any means necessary. Once that had occurred and the Boers were ready to negotiate, the story goes, the Carbineers were scapegoated to pave the way to peace.
The real injustice of the episode was thus not that innocent people were murdered but that Morant and his comrades were sacrificed once it became politically useful to do so.
The reality, as historians have been arguing for decades, is considerably different. There was no political pressure to convict Morant, and Lord Kitchener did not issue a secret "no prisoners" order. Instead, the killings occurred because Morant wanted vengeance for the death and alleged mutilation of his friend Percy Hunt.
Not satisfied with having executed a Boer who was found to be in possession of some of Hunt’s clothes, Morant colluded with intelligence officer Alfred Taylor to identify and murder other groups of Boers.
Taylor was a cruel and brutal man who enjoyed randomly murdering Africans, and who had already worked with Hunt’s predecessor to murder a group of Boers after they had surrendered. As the murders continued, witnesses also started to die – first Trooper Van Buuren, a member of the Carbineers, and then the Reverend Daniel Heese. The official explanations for both deaths were unconvincing, and a group of Carbineers would later allege Handcock had killed Van Buuren and Heese to keep them from talking.
FitzSimons has always been unapologetic about his desire to "bring the story part of this history" alive, a task he tries to accomplish by writing in the present tense and structuring the book as a novel. The unravelling of Morant’s criminal conspiracy is well suited to this style. For about 150 pages Breaker Morant is an engaging enough thriller, as a handful of honest soldiers work to prevent Morant and his henchmen from committing further crimes and expose the ones already committed, all while trying to avoid the fate of Trooper Van Buuren.
As is always the case with FitzSimons, there is a lot of fiction spliced in with the fact, as what he imagines characters would have thought or said is put alongside what is in the historical record. This is bad history, but it is mitigated somewhat by the fact that Peter FitzSimons can only write characters who sound like Peter FitzSimons; combined with his liberal use of footnotes, that is enough to make clear what is real and what is not.
The much larger problem with Breaker Morant is that only half of the book deals with the titular character. The remainder is given over to a rambling account of the first year or so of the Boer War. FitzSimons lurches from anecdote to anecdote, ignoring incidents that do not suit his narrative and providing context only when he absolutely must.
There’s a sloppiness throughout, both in the handling of facts and in the writing. The Boers did not begin their "great trek" into the interior of southern Africa when the British occupied the Cape in 1805, but some 30 years later. Lord Roberts did not retire following the annexation of the Boer Republics but instead became Commander-in-Chief of the British Army.
FitzSimons notes his discomfort with writing about "a war that was essentially white fellas battling over black fellas’ land", but then fails to discuss the enormous impact that growing African participation in the violence had on the Boer decision to make peace. We get introduced to the "most beloved" Banjo Paterson twice in four pages. A subheading announces "Murder on the Disoriented Express"; the following page reveals that, in fact, no one was murdered and the train in question was on time.
Still, for all its flaws, Breaker Morant might be FitzSimons’ most valuable book to date. He concludes by delivering a rebuttal to the various efforts, still ongoing, to clear Morant’s name. Particular scorn is reserved for Liberal MP Alex Hawke, with his argument in favour of pardoning Morant lambasted as "tepid" and possessing "so little foundation it could not stand in even a mild breeze".
The overall result is that one of Australia’s most popular authors has delivered to his enormous audience a ringing denunciation not only of Morant and his conspirators but the entire edifice of war crimes apologia.
"All up I think Breaker Morant and Peter Handcock got exactly what they deserved," FitzSimons concludes. By accident or design, it is a timely message.
Breaker Morant, Peter FitzSimons, Hachette, $49.99.
Tom Richardson is a lecturer in history at UNSW Canberra and is writing a book about the Australian Army in the Boer War.