• Arthur Conan Doyle on wartime atrocities

    September 30, 2007

    Posted in: Empire

    In a best-seller he wrote about the British war on the Boer settlers in South Africa at the end of the nineteenth century, Conan Doyle excoriates Breaker Morant, the renegade Englishman who made a name breaking in horses in Australia, before volunteering to fight for the imperial army, and then becoming implicated in 20 murders of Afrikaner and Africans in the Northern Transvaal, one of a missionary. He was court-martialed and executed.
    Incidentally, at the time of the atrocities, 1901, the war had entered the guerrilla stage and Lord Kitchener had formed a special fighting unit, the Bushveldt Carbineers. Plus ca change etc…

    “There is one incident, however, in connection with the war in this region which one would wish to pass over in silence if such a course were permissible… (A)n irregular corps… (with its) wild duties, its mixed composition, and its isolated situation must have all militated against discipline and restraint, and it appears to have degenerated into a band not unlike those Southern “bush-whackers” in the American (civil) war to whom the Federals showed little mercy. They had given short shrift to the Boer prisoners who had fallen into their hands, the excuse offered for their barbarous conduct being that an officer who had served in the corps had himself been murdered by the Boers. Such a reason, even if it were true, could of course offer no justification for indiscriminate revenge… This stern measure (the execution of Handcock and Morant) shows more clearly than volumes of argument could do how high was the standard of discipline of the British army, and how heavy was the punishment, and how vain all excuses, where it had been infringed. In the face of this actual outrage and its prompt punishment how absurd becomes that crusade against imaginary outrages preached by an ignorant press abroad, and by renegade Englishmen at home. ” (p. 521).

    In Australia, many see Morant as a folk hero and as a scape-goat for Kitchener:

    “there is now persuasive evidence from several sources to show that the Kitchener ‘no prisoners’ order did indeed exist, that it was widely known among both the British and Australian troops and carried out by many disparate units…….Bleszynski, like Witton, Denton and Beresford, believes that Morant and Handcock were given a show trial, branded as murderous renegades and then executed as a matter of political expediency. He argues that this was done mainly to appease the Boer government and help secure a peace treaty, but also to prevent the British public from learning that, however unpalatable their actions, Morant and his men had in fact been carrying out a standing ‘no prisoners’ order that had been issued by the British commander-in-chief himself.”

    More here. 

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