It appears that the ground for these remarkable proceedings was that a report, which had originated through a Kaffir boy, had reached the German authorities that a subject of theirs had been shot by British troops. Redress was demanded, a penalty must be paid, and the result was the arrest of the officers of the Carbineers as stated.
It has been said that the missionary was shot because he was going into Pietersburg to inform the authorities there about the shooting of prisoners, but there was no necessity to shoot him on that account, as the authorities there were aware of the facts.
It was customary in outlying districts during the latter stages of the war to shoot as many of the enemy as possible. Vaguely-worded orders were issued that "All officers should strive to the utmost to bring the war to a speedy termination;" "All officers must use discretion in dealing with the white flag;" or, as one officer said, he was told to "clear the district, and not to be too keen on filling burgher camps." These orders were interpreted in only one way by the officers, and that was "No quarter, no prisoners."
On the morning I attended a sitting of the court a German farmer from near Duival's Kloof, who was alleged to have seen the body of Captain Hunt, was being examined. "Did you notice any marks on his face?" he was asked, "There was a graze over his eye, which might have been caused by coming in contact with the branch of a tree at night time," was the reply. "Did you notice any extravasation of blood about the neck?" I could see the man did not know what was meant by extravasation of blood, but he replied in the negative. "In your opinion, then, Captain Hunt's body had not been maltreated ?" "Yes."
It is reasonable to conclude that this man, being a German, would be a biassed witness, and, again, that he would not dare to give evidence favourable to British troops, as his farm and possessions were at the mercy of every Boer commando that came into the district. Notwithstanding this, I shall prove later that this man's evidence-taken at this court, and not at the court-martial—was accepted as correct, as against that given by a clergyman and a British officer.
When the men of the Carbineers were being examined they were questioned in a most high-handed manner, and in some cases questions and answers would be taken down in writing without their knowledge; a day or so later they would be sent for again, and a long statement read over to them, which they were ordered to sign. Some of the statements were made by men who knew nothing whatever personally, but had only heard the case was as they represented; some even had merely heard that someone else had heard, and so on. These men's statements were taken as evidence. Others who were called, and said truly that they knew nothing, were treated as hostile, and were bullied and badgered, and even threatened with arrest. One man was actually sent to the garrison prison, and detained there until he was removed to the hospital suffering from brain fever.
In addition to the men of our own regiment, evidence was taken from Dutchmen, Germans, Africanders, and Kaffirs.
When Lieutenant Handcock was brought before the court he was staggered at the charges laid against him; it seemed as if he were charged with the murder of every Dutchman that had been shot in South Africa, as well as that of a German missionary. He was so completely ignorant of military law and court proceedings that he asked the president what would be the best course for him to pursue; he was advised to make a clean breast of everything, as the responsibility would rest solely on Lieutenant Morant. He declined to make any statement whatsoever, and was sent again for a considerable time into close confinement, even the military chaplain not being allowed to see him.
Is it possible to conceive such an iniquity perpetrated in these days of supposed civilisation?—a man charged with numerous murders shut up alone, without a soul from whom he could seek advice; condemned before he was tried. There could be only one ending; Handcock's mind gave way, and when he was not responsible for his actions he was forced into making a statement which incriminated himself and Lieutenant Morant.
This court of inquisition sat daily for nearly a month, and was supposed to be held in camera, yet statements made during the day, with additions, were freely discussed at garrison mess, and were the common talk of the town during the evening.
Captain Taylor's charge-sheet was, I believe, a notable one, and almost identical with that of Lieutenant Handcock—if not for the actual crimes, for instigating them. The statements made by some of his men would, I am sure, furnish interesting reading; the majority of the charges against him were, however, withdrawn.
After twelve weeks' solitary confinement Handcock was allowed to make arrangements for his defence. Upon being made aware of his position by his friends, he refuted his previous statement, and said that he had only made it to please Colonel Carter; it was too late then, however, as I was informed on good authority that a copy of the evidence taken at the court had been furnished to the German Government.
With me, who was also kept in solitary confinement, time just passed on; I waited, wondering what the future would bring forth. I was in no way worried, because I could not think that I was in any way culpable for what had happened in the Spelonken district. Towards the end of December I w as again requested to attend a sitting of the court of inquiry; on this occasion Lieutenants Morant, Handcock, and Picton were present.
Morant appeared gloomy and irritable. The past months of close confinement had greatly impaired his health, physically and mentally, and he looked upon current events from a very pessimistic standpoint; Handcock was even more silent than usual, and looked much worried and dejected.
We were informed by the president that we would be tried by court-martial at an early date, and the statements of the witnesses for the prosecution were read over to us. Morant listened in austere silence to the end, then, springing to his feet, exclaimed, "Look here, Colonel, you have got us all here now; take us out and crucify us at once, for as sure as God made pippins, if you let one man off he'll yap."
The following afternoon I attended the court to hand in names of witnesses I required for my defence. I requested to be allowed to ascertain if Mr. Rail, of Capetown, would act as prisoner's friend or counsel for me at the forthcoming trial. Captain Evans was there alone; he was considered the best authority on military law in the garrison, and no one could have a better grasp of the case than he, as he had attended every sitting of the court as secretary. In conversation with him in regard to obtaining counsel and witnesses, he informed me that he had gone into my case thoroughly, and he considered that I had taken such a subordinate part that it was not necessary for me to go to the trouble of bringing counsel or witnesses from Capetown. "You have nothing to fear or trouble about," he said, "you are bound to be exonerated." Confident of a speedy and honourable acquittal, I made no further efforts for my defence.
Shortly after the conclusion of the court of inquiry the Bush-veldt Carbineers Regiment was disbanded. Men who were required as witnesses for the prosecution were given their discharges and as much as £1 per day detention allowance to remain in Pietersburg, The remainder were discharged and sent out of the district, as though purposely to obstruct the course of justice, and when certain men, most important witnesses for the defence, were asked for, the authorities at first refused to make any inquiries as to their whereabouts, and stated that the expense of securing their return would have to be borne by the defence. This was acquiesced in, and later on the authorities declared that they were unable to trace the men asked for. Yet at this very time a witness most important to me was travelling by permission of the Pretoria authorities on the Pietersburg line, and had just visited Nyl-stroom.
On the 15th January, just twelve weeks from the date of my arrest, I was served with the charge-sheets.
Case one was that I did when on active service commit murder by inciting, instigating, and commanding certain troopers to kill and murder one named Visser. Case two was that when on active service I committed the offence of murder by inciting, instigating, and commanding certain troopers to kill and murder eight men, names unknown. I was warned to appear at a general court-martial at 9 o'clock the following morning. I was then granted the liberty, under proper escort, to visit or be visited by any of the other prisoners.
I went straight to Lieutenant Morant, and asked him if he knew anything about a court-martial, or had taken any steps towards a defence. Producing my charge-sheets, I informed him that I was charged with nine murders. "Only nine!" he ejaculated, "that is nothing; I am charged with twelve, and an infanticide." The last three prisoners shot by him had been entered in his charge-sheet as two men and a boy. The "boy" was about 18 or 20, and had been right through the war and seen more active service than many a veteran soldier, or than nine-tenths of the Carbineers. This was the first time I had spoken to Lieutenant Morant since my arrest.
I then learned that Major Thomas, a member of the New South Wales Mounted Rifles, and an Australian solicitor, whom Major Le-nehan had secured to undertake his own defence, would act for us all. I was unable to interview Major Thomas, who had arrived that morning, as he was all day closeted with Major Lenehan. The following morning, about 8.30 o'clock, he paid me a hurried visit, which lasted for a few minutes only. In this time I briefly detailed to him the part I had been compelled to take, which had resulted in the charges now preferred against me. I was then escorted to the court-house in the town.
Court-martial held at Pietersburg, Transvaal, on the 16th day of January, 1902, by order of Lord Kitchener of Khartoum, commanding the forces of South Africa. The court was constituted as follows:— The president was Lieutenant-Colonel Denny, 2nd Northampton Regiment. The members were Brevet-Major J. Little, same regiment; Brevet-Major Thomas and Major Ousely, of the Royal Field Artillery; Captain Brown, of the 2nd Wiltshire Regiment; Captain Marshall, 1st Gordon Highlanders; Captain Nicholson, 1st Cameron Highlanders. Waiting members: Captain Matcham, 2nd Wiltshire Regiment; Captain Jobson, Royal Garrison Artillery. Major C. S. Copeland, 2nd Northampton Regiment, acted as Judge Advocate; Captain Bums-Begg as Crown Prosecutor. Major Thomas, New South Wales Mounted Rifles, was counsel for prisoners.
After the preliminary proceedings of the court and the swearing of the members, an adjournment was made until the following morning to enable a telegram to be sent to headquarters asking authority for Major Thomas to undertake our defence.
The necessary authority being obtained, the court assembled the following morning, and the first charge, that of murdering a prisoner named Visser, was proceeded with. On the plea of "Not guilty," witnesses for the prosecution were called. These described the fight at Duival's Kloof, and how Captain Hunt was killed, and the state of his body when found, and also gave particulars as to the capture of Visser, who was wearing portion of Captain Hunt's clothing.
An intelligence agent named Ledeboer deposed that he informed Visser of his position, and that he was condemned to be shot. Upon being cross-examined, several of the witnesses stated that Captain Hunt had previously given them orders not to take prisoners, and they had been reprimanded for bringing them in.
For the defence, Lieutenant Morant stated that he had been under Captain Hunt, clearing the northern district of Boers. It was regular guerilla warfare; Captain Hunt acted on orders he got in Pretoria, which were in effect to clear Spelonken and take no prisoners. Captain Hunt had told him that Colonel Hamilton, military secretary', had given him the orders at Lord Kitchener's private house where he had gone with a pair of polo ponies, just prior to his departure for Spelonken. All the detachment knew of the order given by Captain Hunt not to bring in prisoners. After the death of Captain Hunt he took command and went out with reinforcements, and when he learned the circumstances of his death, and how he had been maltreated, he told the others that he had previously disregarded the orders of Captain Hunt, but in future he would carry them out, as he considered they were lawful. The orders had only been transmitted verbally by Captain Hunt, and he had quoted the actions of Kitchener's Horse and Strathcona's Horse as precedents; he never questioned the validity of the orders, he was certain they were correct. He had shot no prisoner before Visser, and the facts in Visser's case had been reported to Captain Taylor, also to Major Lenehan and Colonel Hall.
"Was your court at the trial of Visser constituted like this?" asked the President, "and did you observe paragraph — of — section of the King's Regulations?" "Was it like this!" fiercely answered Mo-rant. "No; it was not quite so handsome. As to rules and sections, we had no Red Book, and knew nothing about them. We were out fighting the Boers, not sitting comfortably behind barb-wire entanglements; we got them and shot them under Rule 303."
Morant made a plucky defence; he openly admitted the charges, and took all responsibility upon himself, pleading custom of the war and orders from headquarters. He did not express any regret, or have any fear as to what his fate might be. Driven almost to desperation, and smarting under the recent unjust acts of the court of inquiry, he, in his usual hot-headed manner, made disclosures which he believed would in all probability "stagger humanity." He vowed that he would have Lord Kitchener put into the box and cross-examined as to the orders given to officers, and his methods of conducting the war. The folly of all this was apparent to everyone, as Lord Kitchener held Morant's life in his hands; but Morant would not be restrained, and was prepared to suffer.
Lieutenant Picton was the next witness called for the defence. He had served in the war for two years, and had gained a distinguished conduct medal. He had commanded the firing party that had shot Visser, and had carried out the execution in obedience to Morant's orders. He had reported the matter to Major Lenehan and Colonel Hall. He also had received orders from Captain Hunt not to take prisoners.
Lieutenant Handcock corroborated previous evidence as to the reasons for executing Visser, and also as to the orders not to take prisoners. I also supported the evidence as to the information received from the Rev. F. L. Reuter about the maltreatment of Captain Hunt.
The Rev. F. L. Reuter, missionary, deposed that the bodies of Captain Hunt and Sergeant Eland were brought to his place; that of the late Captain Hunt was much mutilated. The neck appeared to have been broken, and the face bore marks of boot-heels, and was much bruised; the body had been stripped, and the legs gashed.
Dr. Johnson testified that he was of opinion from the evidence that the injuries to Captain Hunt's body had been caused before death.
Captain Taylor stated that he had received messages from the Boers through natives that if he fell into their hands he would be given four days to die, which meant that they would torture him, because he was known to them. The Boers in that part did not form part of a legal commando, but were rather outlaws. Major Lenehan gave evidence that Picton had reported the shooting of Visser to him, and he had reported it to Colonel Hall.