The Bushveldt Carbineers

No unit that served during the Boer War is as well known to Australians as the Bushveldt Carbineers. Not because of the many great deeds they performed in battle, but by the infamous deeds of some of its members. This has overshadowed the many fine actions in which the unit was involved.


As the great battles of 1899-1900 came to a close, the defeated Boers chose to continue the struggle by hit and run raids which were more to their character than large set piece battles. Lord Kitchener was forced to disperse his forces over the Orange Free State and the Transvaal and, to cover the many gaps which were created, he formed a variety of irregular units. One of those was the Bushveldt Carbineers.

The Regiment was formed on the 21st February 1901 in the Northern Transvaal by Maj. R.W. Lenehan (an Australian) with a maximum complement of 350 men. The recruiting base was at Durban and between February 1901 and June 1902, 660 men had attested, of which 43% were Australian, 31% English and the rest native South Africans, Americans, New Zealanders, Canadians and even a German.


In March 1901, the Regiment began to muster at Pretoria where it became part of General Plumer’s column of 1300 men which was preparing to advance and capture Pietersburg, 180 miles north of Pretoria. The column left on 26th March and followed the Pietersburg-Pretoria railway track until they reached the Pienaars River where there was a running fight with the Boers. During this time, the Bushveldt Carbineers were tasked to ensure General Plumer’s supply trains were able to run as the Boers continued to attempt to blow up all trains on the Pietersburg-Pretoria Railway Line.

After one such train had been attacked, the Carbineers took some local Boers prisoner. These prisoners were placed in the second carriage of the next train and told that if they did not reveal the location of further demolitions on the line they would be blown up with the train. When the prisoners would still not talk, the Carbineers ran the train until the first wagon was blown up. With that, the Boers revealed the position of all mines.

With Pietersburg’s capture on the 14th April, the Regiment moved into that location to establish its headquarters. Lt Col Hall took command of the Regiment. A Sqn, under Capt J.H. Robertson, was assigned the area of Louis Trichardt at Fort Edward, North of Pietersburg and B Sqn, under Lt H.H. Morant, was camped at Strypoort, south of Pietersburg. From these positions they conducted a series of raids and patrols along the Zoutpansburg District and Pretoria-Pietersburg Railway.


By April the Regiment was making its presence felt. On 5th May, one patrol under Lt H. Morant captured five Boers at Chuniespoort and on 11th, another five were captured at Marsfontein. It was during this time that the only man to receive a decoration in the Bushveldt Carbineers was mentioned in Lord Kitcheners dispatches. On hearing of 23 Boers, Sgt C.A.B. Forbes (an Australian) marched 80 miles, surprised and captured them. A further 100 men, under Commandant Rensburg, surrendered to the Carbineers at Pietersburg towards the end of the month.

Some notable captures were in April. They included 42 Boers at Commissie Drift, 47 at Klip dam and during May, 150 surrendered in the Louis Trichardt area. In June 44 men under Veldt Cornet Preez surrendered and Capt Taylor captured 20 more on 18th August. Perhaps the most notable capture occurred on 30th September when, after a wild ride across the veldt, Lt Morant and a small party took Veldt Cornet Kelly and 10 men.

In mid July, after some misconduct in A Sqn, its commander, Capt Robertson was dismissed and Capt Hunt assumed command. Lt Morant and 60 men were sent to Fort Edward to “sort A Sqn out”. The next month, A Sqn was again out on patrol and 18 Boers were captured with 500 cattle and 15 wagons.

On 6th August Capt Hunt and 17 men went to the Viljoen farmhouse to capture Veldt Cornet Viljoen, who was reported to be hiding there and in the following action, Capt Hunt and Sgt Eland were killed by Viljoen and 35 Boers of his Commando.

From August to September many prisoners were taken but few were sent back to Pietersburg. In October,seven officers of the Bushveldt Carbineers were involved in a court of inquiry into the shootings of prisoners and, as a consequent, the Bushveldt Carbineers were reformed into the New Pietersburg Light Horse, the name they kept until the disbanding of the Regiment in June 1902 with the end of the war.

During February and March 1902, Commandant Beyers and his Commando seized the Fort Edward area, from where he was able to send out raiding forces as far away as Pietersburg. Col Colenbrander, the local British Commander, was sent with a mixed force of regular and irregular units (which included the Pietersburg Light Horse) to retake the area. Between 25th March and the 21st April, the Light Horse distinguished itself in a number of actions. Two members received decorations, Capt S. Midgeley (an Australian) was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and Sgt J.R. Gray (also an Australian) was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal.

With war’s end in June, the Pietersburg Light Horse was disbanded. Since its creation, the Regiment had enlisted 660 men of which eight were killed in action, three died of disease and four were severely wounded.

The Shootings

Those arrested in October 1901 were mostly Australians but perhaps there has been too much emphasis on their nationality. The officers were Maj Lenehan (Aus), Capt Taylor (Eng), Lts Morant, Hancock, Witton, Hannam (all Aus) and Lt Picton (Eng). Lt’s Morant and Hancock were subsequently found guilty and executed.

There were six known charges brought against the seven officers at the court of enquiry:
1.    2nd July shooting of six Boer prisoners
2.    4th July shooting of Tpr Van Buuren BVC
3.    11th August shooting of a prisoner named Visser
4.    23rd August shooting eight prisoners and one missionary
5.    5th September shooting into wagons killing two children, and
6.    on 7th September shooting two prisoners and boy.

1st Charge – On 2nd July six Boers were captured by Capt Robertson who had Capt Taylor shoot them. (This happened before Lt Morant’s detachment arrived at Fort Edward).

2nd Charge – Tpr Van Buuren was a local who had enlisted in the Bushveldt Carbineers. On witnessing the above shootings, he told their families who were also locals. Lt Hancock took Tpr Van Buuren out on patrol from which only Hancock returned. Lt Hancock stated that Tpr Van Buuren was shot by Boers.

3rd Charge – The prisoner named Visser was captured at the Waterburg by Lt Morant’s patrol after the death of Capt Hunt. Morant had him court martialled and shot for wearing a British coat. The court of inquiry was told it was Capt Hunt’s jacket (it was in fact a British warm jacket). The fatal shot was administered by Lt Picton.

4th Charge – On 3rd August, eight Boers surrendered to Lt Morant’s patrol. Rev Heese rode in to comfort these men and was told to depart by Morant. He then had them shot. Lt Witton shot one man as he attempted to escape. Afraid that the Reverend would tell, Lt Hancock went out and shot him. Unfortunately for Hancock, he was seen by two Kaffir boys and the local storekeeper.

5th Charge – On 5th September, Lt Hannam came upon three wagons containing four men with women and children. They were called upon to surrender which they did but Hannam ordered his men to shoot into the wagons. After 250 rounds were fired, he advanced to the wagons finding two little boys killed and one little girl wounded.

6th Charge – On 7th September, Maj Lenehan who was at Fort Edward on an inspection, sent Lt Morant to take two Boers and one boy aged 14 prisoner. Morant had all three shot, all with Maj Lenehan’s full knowledge.

The result of these crimes was the eventual execution of Lts Morant and Hancock. Lt Witton was sentenced to penal servitude for life, Lt Picton was cashiered, Maj Lenehan was reprimanded and discharged and all charges were dismissed against Capt. Taylor.

Lt Hannam was not brought to trial. Capt Robertson having already been discharged for his actions on 2nd July, turned prosecution evidence and no charges were laid against him.

All officers were brought to trial from the evidence taken from 15 NCO’s and soldiers from the Bushveldt Carbineers who were sickened by the actions which they were forced to partake. With evidence from other soldiers, Morant’s and Hancock’s fates were sealed. All seven officers were charged with real crimes, despite the innuendoes of the movie ‘Breaker Morant’. The facts in all the proceedings were that all seven were guilty of the shootings either by direct action or by complicity. The charges brought against these men meant that the great service of their Regiment was spoilt but this does not detract from the contribution of the Bushveldt Carbineers to the final victory in South Africa.

Tpr S.M. Becker
Courtesy of “Fortune & Valour”, the Journal of 12th/16th Hunter River Lancers


Justice or Murder 

Just before dawn on February 27th 1902 Morant and Handcock were shot by a detachment of Cameron Highlanders as the sun rose in the eastern sky. The debate over the rights and wrongs of their executions has raged on for a century through countless articles, papers, books and a movie that turned them into cult heroes. Ironically, it is the perception that war criminals have been made into heroes, rather than an objective examination of the evidence against them, that now prevents their rehabilitation.

Morant and Handcock were found guilty of murdering twelve Boers in the Spelonken region of northern Transvaal during August and September 1901. They were part of an irregular unit fighting a brutal guerrilla war in which atrocities had been committed on both sides. Kitchener responded to the wearing of khaki by Boers, abuses of the white flag and the blowing up of trains and subsequent murder of survivors by issuing orders to “take no prisoners”. These orders were clearly circulating in the Bushveldt Carbineers even prior to Morant’s arrival at Fort Edward – a fact admitted by the subsequent court of inquiry. Six Boers and a Boer member of the BVC, thought to be a spy, were all shot before Morant arrived – a fact conveniently overlooked by Morant’s detractors. After his arrival Morant cheerfully ignored orders to take no prisoners given to him by his best mate and superior officer, Captain Percy Hunt. He was even reprimanded for bringing them in.

All that changed, however, on the night of August 5th 1901 when Hunt led an attack on a Boer farmhouse at the ominously named Duwielskloof (Devils Claw). Hunt was wounded during the action, but witnesses testified that when they retreated he was still alive. However, when they returned the next day they found his naked body battered and mutilated. On hearing of the outrage Morant, now the de facto leader of the BVC, led a patrol in hot pursuit of those responsible. Following a dawn raid they captured a Boer who was using Capt. Hunt’s trousers as a pillow. Following a “drum- head”, or field court martial, Morant ordered him shot.

Two other groups of eight and three Boers were shot on Morant’s orders in the following weeks. Although headquarters were informed of each action no action was taken. However, when the simultaneous death of a missionary Rev. Daniel Heese, who saw the bodies of the eight executed Boers, and the appointment of a civilian commissioner for native affairs threatened to bring the killings to light, Kitchener had the BVC officers arrested.

The subsequent court of inquiry and courts martial singled out Lieutenants Morant, Handcock and George Witton as the guilty parties. Morant and Handcock admitted shooting prisoners, but claimed they did so on the orders of Army HQ. Despite a plucky defence by Tenterfield lawyer, Major JF Thomas, Morant, Handcock were sentenced to death and Witton to life imprisonment.

News of the executions were received in Australia with both shock and horror. With no Australian correspondents in the field details were obtained through the British Army and newspaper dispatches. However, the certain feeling that they must be guilty began to evaporate as returning soldiers revealed that key witnesses were shipped off to India without testifying and the officers who ordered the first seven killings had escaped punishment. Stories of other units who carried out the same orders with impunity also came to light. These issue of their innocence or guilt has been debated ever since. During the five years of research I did for my new book on Morant, “Shoot Straight You Bastards!” I discovered evidence that pointed to the courts martial being anything but a fair and impartial.

Morant, as it turned out, did receive orders to take no prisoners. Kitchener was notorious for never writing anything down, hence the absence of an order, but his Chief of Police, Provost Marshall Robert Poore did. On hearing of their arrest for the killing of Boer prisoners he remarked that: “… if they had wanted to shoot Boers they should not have taken them prisoner first”.

The order to shoot Boers clearly not only existed, but was sanctioned at the highest level. It would appear that Morant and Handcock’s real crime was to shoot Boers already taken prisoner, rather than shooting Boers before they surrendered. Witton commented in his book “Scapegoats of The Empire”: “… This I later discovered was the correct interpretation of the order to take no prisoners”.

Poore’s diary also revealed that orders did exist to shoot Boers wearing khaki, which was denied by the prosecution when it was argued that the first Boer Morant executed was wearing khaki. He noted: “… Most of De Wet’s men were dressed in our uniform, so Lord K. has issued an order to say that all men caught in our uniform are to be tried on the spot and the sentence confirmed by the commanding officer.”

Regimental records and diaries belonging to members of Kitchener’s Fighting Scouts, The Gordon Highlanders and The Canadian Scouts revealed that Morant’s Bushveldt Carbineers were by no means the only unit shooting Boers. “Two wrongs don’t make a right” argued the Judge Advocate, but trying one person for a crime whilst turning a blind eye to similar indiscretions is hardly justice either.

But would any of this new evidence have made a difference at the time and should it make a difference now? The trouble with historians is that they are not legal experts – even though they are quick to pass judgement. Barrister and human rights advocate, Geoffrey Robertson generously gave me the following legal opinion, “…Examples abound in military courts of wrongful convictions – from Dreyfus to General Yamashita – and of wrongful acquittals (eg of Col Medina over the My Lai massacre). “Breaker” Morant’s trial was a particularly pernicious example of using legal proceedings against lower ranks as a means of covering up the guilt of senior officers and of Kitchener himself, who gave or approved their unlawful ‘shoot to kill’ order. Morant may have been all too happy to obey it, of course, in which case he deserved some punishment. But it was wrong to use him as a scapegoat for an unlawful policy. I regard the convictions of Morant and Handcock as unsafe.”

Robertson’s view is also shared by the ex- Chief Justice of South Australia, Dr Howard Ziller, who maintained in a 1988 letter to “The Adelaide Advertiser” that the case “wouldn’t last five minutes” in an appeal court. Melbourne QC John Francis recently commented that the case was “wrong in law” – as Kitchener did not apply the principle of condonation which should have seen Morant and Handcock cleared of all charges after they were pressed into service to defend their prosecutors when Pietersburg was attacked during the trial. By all accounts they led the defence with distinction, but Thomas’ pleas for the charges to be quashed fell on deaf ears. The age- old custom was established by Wellington who described his men as “scum of the earth”, but in failing to apply it, or even mention it in his telegram to Barton, Kitchener obviously thought less of his men than Wellington. Yet, Baden- Powell had had no difficulty in extending this custom to a British officer accused of murder during the siege of Mafeking.

However, despite the evidence and legal opinions of eminent lawyers, the word of that British court martial is still good enough for both Veteran Affairs Minister Dana Vale, the RSL and the Australian War Memorial. Seeing the historical battle lost they have now retreated behind the 1946 Nuremberg precedent that “I was only following orders” is no longer a defence against war crimes – as though it were some definitive moral standard. This ignores the inconvenient fact that in 1902 – superior orders were a legitimate defence and if it could have been proved that Kitchener gave the orders, he, and not Morant and Handcock would have been held ultimately responsible. Nuremberg is now redundant the standard proof of guilt now being “beyond reasonable doubt”. A sensible measure given then number of major convictions quashed in recent years, which have shown British justice to be anything but infallible. Modern standards of justice demand that a verdict be overturned if the original evidence is not safe. It will not bring back the dead, but at least sets the historical record straight.

However, this would mean calling into question the sanctity of the ANZAC myth, the reputation of a “God” of the British Empire and discrediting those court martials before the British have done so themselves. It would also mean conceding that popular sentiment has been right all along. Therefore, it is for reasons of pride and nothing else that Morant and Handcock must continue to be “scapegoats”, but not just of the British Empire. The time has come to ask if these venerable institutions are really interested in reflecting history accurately or just defending their own political line?

Nick Bleszynski
Author of book ” Shoot Straight You Bastards”

A Question of Justice

In my first edition of “Shoot Straight You Bastards!”, released a year ago, I confirmed what many had long suspected – that Morant and Handcock were not the only ones in the Bushveldt Carbineers or the British Army acting on Kitchener’s orders to “take no prisoners” and that those orders did indeed exist. Yet, they were the only colonial or British soldiers executed during the Boer War. The personal diary of Major Robert Poore confirmed that if Morant and Handcock had wanted to shoot prisoners they should not have taken them prisoner first. In other words, the order meant literally what it said – shoot them before they can surrender. Unfortunately, being irregulars with no knowledge of military law, they didn’t make this fine distinction and were made “scapegoats” by the devious Kitchener once his murderous policy threatened to become public knowledge. Britain’s damaged international reputation would not have withstood revelations that Boers were being shot on Kitchener’s orders.

History has turned on much less evidence, but instead of the suggested public debate the “coalition of the unwilling” (RSL, War Memorial and Department of Veteran’s Affairs) rushed to maintain the establishment line that the courts martial were fair and the sentences justified. The War Memorial held an in-house review behind closed doors, acted as both judge and jury and used its own publication, Wartime, to dismiss it out of hand.

When my publisher, Random House, decided they would release “Shoot Straight, You Bastards!” in paperback in 2003, I decided to follow a new avenue of research into the much- maligned courts martial, which had been opened up by the work of Colonel Barry Caligari (Retd.). Our detailed exploration of the courts martial, which is contained in an Appendix in the new edition, revealed new depths of political connivance in the so- called “Morant Affair”.

As I’ve said before, Morant did wrong and deserved some punishment, no question, but documentary evidence exists that he was indeed following Kitchener’s orders to “take no prisoners.” Those orders were enshrined in the British Manual of Military Law, were issued verbally by Kitchener and in writing by Broderick, the Secretary of State for War.

There are also countless documented cases of Boers being shot under these orders, names that never appeared in the House of Commons Blue Books where the details of all trials and executions should have been recorded. Their names were never recorded because they were executed without trial – as per Kitchener’s instructions. In fact, the Blue Books record the shooting of only four Boers for wearing khaki during the whole war. The one surviving court martial record, involving Kitchener’s brother, Walter, was legally flawed and shows there was no difference between his actions and Morant’s. Had all this evidence been produced at the courts martial, British military law (or the later Nuremberg Charter) would have demanded Kitchener take ultimate responsibility.

There is also proof that Kitchener manipulated evidence and the witnesses in order to secure a guilty verdict and there were serious flaws in the courts martial procedures. Most notably, after the accused had performed “a duty of honour” in defending the fort against a Boer attack a plea of condonation, which would have seen all charges quashed, was denied. I have it on the authority of a Melbourne QC, who is something of an expert in this area, that on this point alone the courts martial would never stand up to judicial scrutiny. But will anyone from the “coalition of the unwilling” step forwards to right this and other wrongs? Not on your life.

But should our politicians and institutions ever have an attack of conscience, or find the courage to do what New Zealand did in a similar situation and hold an independent judicial review, there are compelling legal grounds for doing so.

  • Three officers (Colonel Hall, Captain Taylor and Captain Robertson), apparently “guilty” of similar crimes, were given Kitchener’s protection and not prosecuted, or not prosecuted to the full extent of the law, to the prejudice of the accused.
  • The conduct of the “investigation” phase of the legal process was prejudicial to the accused because of the process itself and the unwarranted use of Rules of Procedure 104, which denied the accused the right of developing a defence and a formal “summary of evidence.”
  • Contrary to the courts view, the Manual of Military Law did sanction summary execution of prisoners.
  • The verdicts in the trials are no longer “beyond reasonable doubt” because of the withheld evidence such as removal of at least one vital witness, non disclosure of Kitchener’s telegram admitting he had prisoners summarily executed and his order to ignore the display of the “white flag” and shoot any Boers attempting to surrender (making a mockery of Colonel Hamilton’s denial that “no prisoners were to be taken alive” and the judge advocate’s view that “two wrongs do not make a right” without due regard to authorized reprisals).
  • The judge advocate erred in the rules of procedure by allowing a sentence to each “guilty” verdict which was adversely commented on by the senior legal officer who questioned the “safety” of most of the verdicts.
  • Should the verdicts remain the same regardless of the withheld evidence then the death sentences should have been commuted in accordance with the recommendation to mercy as required by military law.
  • The trials should not have proceeded if a plea in bar of trial on the grounds of condonation had been entered at the same time as the general plea or, at the very least, a pardon granted.
  • The necessary Crown concurrence in the verdicts and sentences’ as required by Kitchener’s Royal Warrant, was not properly obtained because it violated the correct legal procedure and resulted in a flawed and questionable decision.
  • The traditional right of officers to petition the monarch when considered wronged was denied to the prisoners on promulgation of the verdicts and sentences.

For the historical record, full transcripts of the evidence and an open letter will be sent to the RSL, the War Memorial and Veteran’s Affairs Minister Danna Vale. We await their replies with interest.

Nick Bleszynski
Author: “Shoot Straight, You Bastards!”