Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant was a disagreeable man, and The Breaker (1973) is a disagreeable book. It seems to me author Kit Denton has gone out of his way to provide a textbook case of all the worst elements of the ‘Australian Legend’ – misogyny, violence and drunkenness, not to mention bush doggerel and militarism.
The Breaker purports to be a ‘life’ of Breaker Morant. The author writes ‘Before you begin’:
There was a Breaker Morant. He lived his life in the times and company of many of the people mentioned in this story, and he went through much of the action in these pages. I had hoped to write a true history … but the obduracy of the British Government in refusing to release a number of essential documents has made this impossible… I’ve departed from history only when the facts weren’t discoverable or when I felt it was necessary in the interests of a good story.
This is the weakness of historical fiction – if the author admits some of the claims in his book are false then we have no way of knowing which claims are true.
According to Denton, Harry Morant (1864-1902) was born into the English gentry, his father an Admiral with an estate near Exeter. Morant followed his father into the Royal Navy, rising quickly from midshipman to Lieutenant, but at about the age of 19 left the navy in disgrace, secretly recovered some belongings from the family home, and emigrated to Australia (Wikipedia says all of this false, a story made up by Morant to obscure his more humble origins).
In Australia he teamed up with Irishman Paddy Magee – indeed they formed one of those indissoluble mateship bonds which are staples of the Legend – to roam inland eastern Australia for the next 17 years as itinerant drovers. Harry turned out to be an exceptional horseman, hence his nickname, able to put on and off his upper class persona as the company required, and a notorious pants man – Paddy holding the horses while Harry screwed anything in skirts.
Early in the novel he stays for some time at the property of Robert Lenehan, with of course a bedroom in the main house while Paddy waits in the men’s quarters, romancing Lenehan’s niece Julia until, believing they are about to announce their engagement, she begins sleeping with him. When next we hear of Julia, she is married to someone else, with a son named Harry, and Harry is far, far away.
No mention, more’s the pity, amongst all the roaming and womanising, of Daisy Bates, briefly Harry’s wife according to Susanna de Vries in Desert Queen (2008).
Having established that Harry is a devil with the women, handy with his fists (and boots), and a very heavy drinker, on top of his all-round skills as a horseman, it comes out that he is also a ‘poet’, with a ballad, The Brigalow Brigade, published in the Bulletin. It begins (if you can stand it), “There’s a band of decent fellows/on a cattle-run outback –“. How ‘decent’ may be judged from this verse:
The Brigalow Brigade are
Fastidious in their taste
In the matter of a maiden
And the inches of her waist;
She must be sweet and tender
And her eyes a decent shade …
Then her ma may safely send her
To the Brigalow Brigade.
In 1900 Paddy and Harry acquire a small property near Renmark in South Australia. Having ridden his previous good horse to death, Harry leaves Paddy there with his current favourite, Harlequin, and goes down to Adelaide to enlist in the Second South Australian Yeomanry (mounted rifles) to fight for Queen and Empire in the Boer War.
We move to South Africa and over the period of a year or so we establish – in line with that version of the Legend which began when the Bulletin’s ‘Lone Hand’ was incorporated into CEW Bean’s (and Keith Murdoch’s) ‘Brave Anzacs’ – that the British general staff are incompetent, that the Guards and Hussars charging uphill on horseback into machine gun fire are brave but stupid, and that Australian irregulars are impossible to direct but are nevertheless highly effective soldiers. Oh, and that the Boers are tricky and immoral but, individually at least, are all rugged individualists like ourselves.
Harry moves up from private to corporal to sergeant, serving mostly as a despatch rider. Then, when his unit is due to return to Australia, he transfers to Baden-Powell’s Transvaal Constabulary with the rank of Lieutenant, before sailing to England on leave. In England he is improbably accepted back into the bosom of his family, begins a round of social engagements, meets, begins sleeping with, and becomes secretly engaged to Margaret Hunt, and bosom buddies with her brother Percy, a captain in the Hussars. When Kitchener calls for volunteers for a ‘guerilla’ force to take the war up to the Boers, Harry and Percy return to South Africa and join a 200 man unit, The Bushveldt Carbineers, under the command of Robert Lehman (Yes, the same Lehman, now a major, who apparently bears no grudge for the deflowering and abandonment of his niece).
As you no doubt know – Spoiler Alert – Harry ends up, with 3 fellow officers in the BVC, being charged with murder. Denton is, if not dishonest, at least partisan, in his treatment of the events leading up to the charges and describes the actions which give rise to them entirely from the point of view of the defendants –
A Lutheran travelling pastor, who had been stopped by a squad being led by Morant, is later found dead; an 11 year old boy shoots an Australian soldier in defence of a cart load of guns, is shot and killed in turn, and his body is carried by Morant into a Boer church, during a service, and dropped onto a table being used as an altar; Percy Hunt is shot during a night attack on a Boer position and is subsequently found dead, his naked body mutilated. Some days later an ‘idiot’ is stopped and found to be wearing Hunt’s clothes, an enraged Morant puts him up against a tree, puts a gun in his hand to provide a figleaf for his actions, and shoots him dead.
Even by Denton’s account, the last was clearly murder and so Morant was rightly convicted. The three charged with him may have been unlucky, it’s hard to tell. And yes the hypocrisy of the British, busy with their own war crimes, clearing the countryside of inhabitants and inventing the concentration camp, was monumental.
This book was written during the Vietnam War and it is impossible not to draw some parallels between Harry Morant and Lt Paul Calley of My Lai massacre fame. Denton’s thesis could be taken to be that troops operating ‘at large’ as the BVC did, and as was common in Vietnam, are forced into difficult ethical decisions; that their actions are justified by their operating outside the ‘normal’ rules of engagement. Calley too was found guilty – but was later pardoned by President Nixon.
Conscription and the Vietnam War led to militarism becoming unfashionable, and to returned soldiers feeling unloved. 1973 was the first year of the Whitlam Labor government, too early to say that prevailing anti-war sentiments were waning; but if not the book then perhaps the movie in 1980 along with Roger McDonald’s 1915 which came out in 1979 and became a popular tv series in 1982, mark the beginning of a (regrettable) return-to-normal for Australian patriotism.
Kit Denton, The Breaker, A&R, Sydney, 1973. Audio version Bolinda Classics, 1997, read by Terence Donovan
See also: Review by Lisa at ANZLL here