Overview of The Charges and The Trial
The court martial began at Pietersburg, where two main hearings were held in several stages in relatively relaxed conditions. It began on 16 January 1902; one hearing concerned the shooting of a Boer prisoner named Visser; and the other concerned the so-called the "Eight Boers" case, in which it was alleged that Boer POWs had been summarily shot.
Morant's involvement in the deaths of Visser and the eight Boer POWs has never been in dispute, since he openly declared during the trial that he had ordered them to be summarily executed. But throughout the proceedings (and the previous Enquiry) he staunchly maintained that he had done so because of Captain Percy Hunt's reported standing order to take no prisoners, and because of the provocation occasioned by the killing and post-mortem mutilation of Hunt, his closest friend. He also insisted that he had been certain that those he executed had been members of the party that had killed Hunt and defiled his body and Witton's report make it clear that Morant considered the deaths as just reprisals.
The validity of the court-martial remains the pivotal issue in the Morant case, but the disappearance (or suppression) of the original trial records has prevented a full investigation of this matter for over a century. In their absence, historians have been forced to rely primarily on Witton's memoir, which is very detailed, but must necessarily be considered as a biased view of the case since Witton himself was one of those on trial.
If one accepts Witton's account, it indicates that there are reasonable grounds to question the court's procedural correctness, and to question both the validity of the evidence tendered and the judgments based thereon. Not surprisingly, Witton bitterly denounces the courts martial as "the greatest farces ever enacted outside a theatre ... held purely to conform to the rules of military law".
The earlier stages of the trial were, as noted above, comparatively relaxed affairs by military standards. The accused were not kept under close arrest and were often allowed to move about the fort and the town; on one occasion Witton was even escorted to a cricket match — much to the surprise of the court president, who was also in attendance. Unknown to Witton, the judge had that very day secretly sentenced him to death by firing squad.
But immediately after the hearing of the Visser case, the prosecutor was mysteriously recalled to England and replaced, as were two of the judging panel. In both the Visser and "Eight Boers" matters, none of the accused were informed of either the verdicts or the sentences until well after the trial. There was apparently no attempt to conduct any form of forensic examination of the bodies of the alleged victims, and all the so-called evidence about the killings was verbal testimony, collected long after the events. The vast bulk of this testimony was uncorroborated or hearsay evidence obtained during the preceding Court of Enquiry, much of it apparently gathered from disaffected former Carbineers who, if Witton is to be believed, harboured considerable animosity towards Morant and Handcock.
The last phase, the hearing of the Heese matter, was a stark contrast to the relatively relaxed atmosphere of the earlier phases. Suddenly and without warning, just after the conclusion of the "Eight Boers" matter the accused were placed under close arrest, put in irons, removed from Pietersburg and taken under heavy guard to Pretoria. This final phase was also conducted in camera, whereas (says Witton) the earlier parts of the trial in Pietersburg had been open to the public.
Read more about this topic: Court Martial Of Breaker Morant
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