27 February 1902 – Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant

Harry ‘Breaker’ MorantEloquent to the end, Harry ‘Breaker’ Harbord Morant shouted “Shoot straight, you bastards. Don’t make a mess of it” as he faced his firing squad.

Morant was sentenced to die for his activities as a soldier during the Second Boer War at the turn of the 20th century.


Morant was an Anglo-Australian who had a knack with horses, that’s what earned him the nickname ‘Breaker’. With published poetry under his belt, his real career lay with the army. That’s how he found himself serving in the Boer War in South Africa, where he was eventually done for committing war crimes. He was court martialled and found guilty of executing Afrikaner and African prisoners of war.


He was tried alongside a few mates – Lt Peter Handcock, Lt George Witton and Harry Picton. Why? Because they’d carried out summary executions, which were seen as revenge attacks after Morant’s best friend, Capt Hunt, was murdered. It’s alleged that Hunt died with real indignity, having been castrated and mutilated.

They were had up on charges of summary execution and at one point for shooting a German missionary who was about to grass them up. They were found innocent of the latter charge, but on the war crimes, charges stuck.

Kitchener sinks

Lord General Kitchener apparently personally signed the death warrants for both Morant and Handcock, although he was to deny all knowledge later. Witton’s sentence was eventually cut to just two years. Likewise Picton managed to evade death too.

But Morant and Handcock were not so lucky. Scottish troops formed the firing squad and the two men were killed at around 6am at Pretoria fort, having refused to wear blindfolds. Morant was roughly 38 years old.

Aussie rules

The Aussies’ executions sparked public outcry Down Under. They were the last Australians to ever be executed and their deaths marked the end of external control over Aussie soldiers. As a result, Australia passed a statute to never allow Aussie troops to fall under another country’s control.

So the 150-odd who’d been sentenced to death during World War I and were hanging around waiting to die were never executed, because the Aussies authorities refused to sign the death warrants.

Personally I think the above picture makes him look like one of the McGann brothers…probably Paul if I was forced to choose but it was Edward Woodward who got to play him in the 1980 film Breaker Morant.

Also on this day

27 February 1906 – Jack Griffiths

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