The Bloody Transvaal: British War Crimes in the South African War

At the beginning of the twentieth century, two officers walked out onto a field in South Africa, their hands tied behind their backs. Behind them was a small group of British riflemen, sent out to deal justice. As the officers halted and turned, so too did the line of riflemen. When given the chance to speak, the junior of the two, with a bit of disdain for the British Empire, chose to say, “Australia forever.” The senior of the two officers shouted out “Shoot straight you bastards!” These men were war criminals. Officers who had been tried, sentenced and were due to be executed during the South Africa War, fought between 1899 to 1902. They had shot surrendering enemies without trial and now had to pay the price. At first glance, it sounds like justice. However, their crimes were hardly a onetime occurrence in their war. The killings of prisoners and suspected enemies, despite being in violation of the Hague Convention, was something many other units routinely did. Yet, despite the frequency of these crimes, only these two officers were declared guilty. The fact that they were executed for their crimes while many others never had to deal with the courts makes their case incredibly significant. Their execution was ultimately the result of perceived foreign pressure, growing callousness in, and changes in military policy. As the fusillade of the firing squad meted out justice, many others carried out a similar injustice.

In total, there were three separate trials. Unfortunately, the best record on this trial, or at least the most frequently cited, is the account of Lieutenant George Witton. As far as I have been able to find in my research, there has been no official transcript of the trials, no other memoires authored by other persons involved with the trial, and no official documents on the executions of Lieutenants Harry Morant and Peter Handcock. Outside of newspaper articles discussing the execution, the only source is Witton’s book and his subsequent letters. For this reason, it is important to take every claim he made with a grain of salt. That being said, there are enough cases of soldiers with no connection to the Bushveld Carbineers (B.V.C.) telling stories about killing Boer prisoners, that it cannot be said that everything written by Witton should be considered apocryphal.

The war itself began under less than scrupulous means. The South Africa Company, an English company that had chartered settlements in the Cape Colony, wanted a united South Africa. One that would be subservient to the British Empire and would encompass the Cape Colony, the Orange Free State and the South African Republic. The latter of these two were former Dutch colonies populated by Boers, Dutch-African farmers. In the South African Republic, also known as the Transvaal, the President Paulus Ohm Kruger was decidedly opposed to the idea of British rule over all of South Africa. The men who wanted to unite South Africa chose to do so by performing a coup-d’état in Johannesburg, the capital of the South African Republic in 1896. In doing so, they hoped to unite British-South Africans and overthrow the Boer government. What followed was an absolute failure of a coup that collapsed within a matter of days. The attempt was led by Leander Jameson. The Jameson Raid, as it came to be known, became the South African Republic’s call for war against the British Empire.

While the Boers won significant victories in the first half of the war, they had taken significant causalities when the British army was able to reverse the Boer advance. The Boers, no longer having a standing army, relied on a volunteer militia. The Boer ‘Commandos’ used a mix of guerrilla tactics and trench warfare. The Commandos did not wear uniforms, choosing instead to wear civilian clothes that allowed them to blend in with the common populace. They also wore khaki, khaki uniforms taken off of dead British soldiers in order to catch other British soldiers off guard. Some of them also feigned surrendering by holding up a white flag while their allies surrounded the capturing British. When they fought together, they would often dig trenches in the mountains. Knowing that the British would try to coax them out, they held their fire until the British were within firing range.
Considering the overall effectiveness of the Boer commandos, the British army needed to implement a new military doctrine. Some of these new strategies were later considered morally questionable. To begin with, the British army performed mass ‘pushes’ that would force Boer civilians from their homes. From there, they would be sent to concentration camps, where many of them would be held for years. If any civilian in the towns held contraband, such as rifles, or was suspected of aiding the Boer Commandos, their home was to be burned down. They would then be pushed into the camps in mass ‘drives.’ In the end, almost 28,000 Boer civilians would die in these camps, along with another 18,000 South African blacks who were also thrown into camps. Such mass and institutional cruelty was the result of callous indifference to the Boers. Nowhere was such cruelty more evident than these camps.

For this war, Britain had once again called on the service of irregular soldiers. These were citizens of the empire, usually from the colonies, who had received no formal military training. One of the more common practices of these units was the executions of Boers caught wearing British Army khaki. This started as a general order from Lord Horatio Kitchener, the head of the Royal Army in South Africa, in August of 1901. The justification was that the Boers wearing khaki were technically spies. The orders called for a trial and summary execution of Boer prisoners following a battle. This practice became much more common in late 1901, halfway through the war. For some units, it had become a common practice to simply shoot Boers wearing khaki on sight regardless of whether or not they were holding a white flag or a rifle. This had been legal for column commanders, and Kitchener did try to uphold this policy, but it was ultimately shunned by London. This is not to say that the British army did not take prisoners. If a Boer were to surrender himself to the regular army, he was simply taken prisoner. That is not to say that there were not instances of British soldiers shooting surrendering Boers, but that the practice of it was more common in the irregular units.

Then there was the case of the Bushveldt Carbineers. They were a group of mounted irregulars brought in to combat small groups of Boers in Pretoria. The Carbineers were led by one Captain Frederick Hunt and his executive officer, Lieutenant Harry ‘The Breaker’ Morant. Despite the brutality of his nickname, he was given the name because he ‘broke’ horses in Australia The Carbineers were a disorganized force, who often “bordered on mutiny.” Some of the officers, like Morant, did not have previous military experience before joining the Carbineers. Their troubles began after Captain Hunt’s death. He had been killed during a raid on a house that was believed to have Boer commandos. When his body was recovered, the B.V.C. found that he had been stripped of his uniform and mutilated. This particularly affected Lieutenant Morant, who was very close to Captain Hunt. When Morant went to inform his men, he could barely contain his emotions. Morant led his men out to hunt down the Boers who had killed Hunt. When they did come upon a group of Boers, Morant fired before the Carbineers could surround the Boers. One Boer was left behind as the others fled. Morant would later say that the trousers the Boer was wearing were those of Captain Hunt. Because of this, Morant ordered the immediate summary execution of the captured Boer.

Later on, the Carbineers captured another group of eight Boers. Before their execution, a German missionary named Daniel Heese tried to talk to them, despite Morant ordering him not to. After Heese left, one of the Boers tried to charge Lieutenant George Witton, who shot the Boer in self-defense. The other five Boers were shot without trial. Sometime that day, Heese, was shot by an unknown assailant fifteen miles away from the post where the Carbineers were stationed. When informed of this, Lieutenant Witton volunteered to lead a group out to investigate the site but was ordered by Lieutenant Morant to not travel any further than five miles from the post. Nearly a month later, Lieutenant Morant, Lieutenant Witton, and Lieutenant Peter Handcock, also from the Carbineers, were arrested under suspicion of murdering the priest and the unlawful executions of the Boer prisoners.

For the matter of the eight Boer prisoners, the courts ruled all three officers guilty of killing prisoners without a fair trial. During the course of the trial, Morant had said that he had acted under “rule .303”, in reference to the caliber of the British standard issue rifle. Their defense was that the Boers had been found wearing khaki, and that a trial was simply a luxury they had no time for. Major James F. Thomas, their defense attorney, said that these men believed they were following Kitchener’s orders to “not take prisoners.” Though Kitchener did give out an order to execute Boers in khaki, he never sent out an order to simply not take prisoners. For these crimes, all three of the officers were to be executed by firing squad.

Before that, the officers were to be questioned about the priest, Daniel Heese. The story was that Morant had ordered Handcock to kill Heese after he spoke to the Boer prisoners, despite being told not to. Handcock then rode out and shot Heese fifteen miles away from the fort. It was discovered during the trial that Handcock had actually rode to the houses of two different women that day, both many miles away from where priest was shot. Testimony from both of those women confirmed this. Later on, a letter was written from Lieutenant Witton to Major Thomas, dated in 1929. In the letter, Witton revealed that Morant had, in fact, ordered the murder of Daniel Heese, which was carried out by Lieutenant Handcock. He had arrived at the first woman’s house just after killing Heese. However, the courts did not know about this confession. Morant and Handcock would be declared not guilty of killing Heese.

During the trial, Boer commandos attempted to attack the town of Pietersburg, where the trial was being held. In the defense of the British outpost there, the accused officers were temporarily released and ordered to take defensive positions in the town. They did so without hesitation and the Boers were effectively repelled. At this point, the officers should have been acquitted under the British Army law of condonation regarding defense. If a soldier under investigation of an offense were to “perform a duty of honor or trust…[it] ought to convey a pardon for the offense.” Yet the trial carried on, and it would not stop their sentencing.

Ultimately, it came down to Lord Kitchener. On his orders, Morant and Handcock were to be executed and Witton was to be imprisoned for life. The reason given for this was the fact that Witton had simply been following orders from Morant. One of the factors that may have contributed to the death sentence for Morant and Handcock is that they were accused of killing a German priest. At a base level, one could see the logic in it. The Germans had become Britain’s imperial rival in South Africa, given that Germany had just set up a colony in Western South Africa, now known as Namibia, which directly bordered the British Cape Colony. On top of this, a German priest had been murdered in a British war that the Germans did not approve of. At the very beginning of the war, Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany wrote to Paul Kruger, the president of South Africa. The Kaiser congratulated him on his peoples’ success in halting the Jameson raid. One might also be tempted to ask, why was Lieutenant. Handcock denied a life sentence? Both Handcock and Morant were declared innocent of the murder of the German priest. Lieutenant. Witton was originally sentenced to death for the executions of the Boers, as were Handcock and Morant. However, Witton’s sentence was reduced to life as he was simply following Morant’s orders. If that was the case, then Handcock sentence also should have been commuted, as he was also following Morant’s orders. Yet, Handcock was executed just the same as Morant. While this does raise suspicion, it cannot be said that this was due to German influence. It was well understood that South Africa was a British claim. Though they would consider diplomatic intervention, the idea of full on military intervention in South Africa was out of the question.

However, that does not mean that Kitchener did not perceive German pressure. Kitchener had promised the army’s full protection of German missionaries in the Transvaal to the German ambassador in Cape Town. When it was discovered that a German missionary had been killed and that the nearest unit did not attempt an official investigation of it, Kitchener launched an investigation of his own, at the behest of the German Consul in Pretoria. An intelligence officer at Pretoria was dispatched to investigate what had happened. The intelligence office in Pretoria already believed that the brutal methods being used by Captain Taylor and the B.V.C. were “eroding support for imperial rule.” Eventually, they were able to find evidence that suggested that the officers of the B.V.C. were responsible for the murder of the priest as well as over a dozen other Boers. The evidence itself was an affidavit signed by 15 members of the B.V.C. who felt a crisis of conscience. In what would later be called “The Cochrane Letter”, the 15 troopers reported the activities of their officers to Colonel Hall. The intelligence office reported this to Kitchener, who would ultimately convene the court-martial and review the sentencing on the trial of the B.V.C. officers.

Though these men were the only ones declared guilty, that does not mean that they were the only ones who had committed any crimes. In the standing army, shooting surrendering Boers was rare, but happened enough that it would be considered blatant negligence for the British Army to do nothing about it. Lieutenant Colin Philp of the 6th Queensland Imperial Bushmen said it had become common practice to shoot any Boers that were “breaking the customs of war.” Captain Charles Ross, of the Canadian Scouts, another irregular unit, had his entire unit swear to never take Boer prisoners after their commanding officer had been killed by Boers. Every now and then, officers were be put on trial for such crimes, but were consistently released. This was the case for Captain Alfred Taylor, also of the Bushveldt Carbineers, who had allegedly murdered a native African who refused to surrender information. Taylor was tried, acquitted, and, by the time of Morant and Handcock’s execution, promoted.

There were even times where officers would be released despite having committed murder. Sometimes, these would not even be cases of officers executing prisoners without trial, just out and out murder. Such was the case of Captain Charles Cox, of the 3rd New South Wales Mounted Rifles, who had ordered the execution of his servant. The servant in question was an African man named Jan Dolley. Captain Cox had come to a farmstead in Colesberg to arrest some Boers who were believed to be looking to join the Commandos. Cox’s men arrested the residents of the farmstead and confiscated their horses. When Cox demanded that the farmer’s servant bring him a bridle to keep the horses together, Dolley refused. So, Cox said to a policeman who had joined his men, “If he won’t get the bridle, give him a hole.” Cox was tried for this, but would be released after fulfilling a plea deal with the courts. These matters were simply forgotten about as a matter of callousness that plagues most army’s in these sorts of wars. The general indifference or hate felt towards the Boers became commonplace within the British ranks. For that reason, many on the front were willing to overlook the atrocities.

England the first northern European nation to use concentration camps while at war. The general purpose of these camps was to try to contain the Boer population, so the British would not have to worry about a handful of Boers going out and joining the commandos. During the Boers’ internment, their treatment could vary depending on whether or not they were “joiners”, people who would aid the British cause, or “bitter-enders”, people who would fight to the bitter end. Some Boers were even punished for having a family member who was a Boer commando. Such was the case of Lizzy Van Zyl -a 7-year-old Boer girl who had been brought into the camp with her mother.Within the first few months of their time at the camp, Lizzy had become horrifically emaciated. It was alleged that the guards had refused to feed her as her father was a Boer commando. What is certain is the fact is that this girl arrived at the camp healthy and two months later was so starved that her ribcage was visible through her skin and she was unable to walk. Such horrible treatment would imply a general disregard for the wellbeing of the Boers. This brutality went hand in hand with the executions of Boers, because, to the British Army, both just meant discouraging the enemy even more. That is how they began to view the whole war. It was just a matter of winning against an enemy deemed to be lesser than the British.

Two men were brought to trial and executed for committing war crimes in an altogether callous war. Where these men would be put to trial, many would be let go. Many others would simply never see trial to begin with. These crimes came about when indifference and callousness became the norm amongst British soldiers. These men would face execution due to Kitchener’s fear of German intervention in South Africa for a crime they were acquitted of, regardless of the possibility of German intervention. The B.V.C. officers were an absolute outlier of justice within a war characterized by injustice.

Bloomfontein Concentration Camp in South Africa. Digital image. South Africa. Accessed January 20, 2018.
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