Court Martial of Breaker Morant - "Take No Prisoners" Order

"Take No Prisoners" Order

Major Thomas argued that the killings of Boer commandos were justified because the men were part of an irregular unit which was carrying out the direct orders of a superior officer — i.e. Lord Kitchener's order to "take no prisoners". If Thomas had been able to prove this, the men might well have been exonerated, since it would be almost fifty years before the Nuremberg Trials established the precedent that following orders was not a defence in such cases. But for a commander of Kitchener's lofty position to take the blame for the actions of a few supposed renegade Australians made such an outcome unthinkable for the British. Not surprisingly, Kitchener (through Lt. Col. Hamilton) categorically denied giving any such order, and also denied the existence of a coded telegram from him to Lord Roberts.

But according to Nick Bleszynski, the order was common knowledge among the Bushveldt Carbineers and other regiments well before Morant's arrival at Fort Edward in mid-1901 and it was widely known among the troops that other units of British forces in South Africa had shot Boer prisoners, for example the Canadian Scouts avenging the death of Major "Gat" Howard.

Thomas tried valiantly to mount a solid defence for his clients, but the recent research by Bleszynski and others has also uncovered evidence that the British withheld crucial evidence about the "no prisoners" order, that they transferred important Army witnesses including Hall out of the country before they could testify, and that the court martial procedures were seriously flawed. Eminent Australian-born jurist Geoffrey Robertson QC recently described the trial as "... 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".

The claimed order to take no prisoners however is not the same as orders to shoot prisoners captured wearing British uniforms, which was within the rules of war (see Perfidy).

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