After the conclusion of the trials, we waited three days to hear our fate; at times Morant appeared much worried, and gloomy forebodings would sometimes depress him. He would often say to me; "What do you think they will do with us? Do you think they will shoot us?"
On one of these days I was spending the afternoon with Morant, Handcock, and Picton at the prison. We whiled away the time in the garden at the back, where grew several peach trees laden with green fruit. When anyone passed with whom we were intimately acquainted, he would be saluted with a shower of hard peaches. Presently there came along in an old ricketty buggy a deposed Kaffir chief, Magato, who was in the employ of the Intelligence Department as a spy, and who had just before tried to swindle Morant out of a ka-ross, or rug of skins; he was greeted with a volley of the hard fruit. Appearing to take no notice, he drove straight away, and lodged a complaint with the Garrison Adjutant. Half an hour later Major Lene-han received an official letter from the Adjutant to the effect that complaints had been made about the conduct of his officers at the garrison prison, and requesting that he should cause the same to be discontinued.
The correspondence was passed on to Lieutenant Morant, and on the back of it he dashed off this reply:—
An Intelligence Nigger named Magato Has been singing a sad obligato, And begs to complain He suffered much pain By being struck with a squashy tomato. [P.S.—For "tomato" read "peach"--exigency of verse.]
This was returned to the Adjutant; that night at dinner, in the officers' mess, it was handed round the table, to the great amusement of all.
On the night of the 20th the last remnant of the Carbineers met at a dinner at Morant's quarters in the garrison prison. Majors Thomas and Lenehan, Captain Taylor, Lieutenants Morant, Handcock, Picton and myself were there. The evening passed very pleasantly; the wearisome trials were forgotten, and it seemed like old times again. As if to fill our cup of joy to the very brim, an orderly from the brigade office came and informed Morant that a staff-office'r had said in his hearing that the result of the court-martial was that he and his subordinates were exonerated. This bit of news greatly elated us, and in high spirits at the thought of freedom on the morrow I returned to my quarters, near the cow-gun, about 10 o'clock, where I was met by the officer in charge, who informed me that he had orders for me to move to the garrison prison there and then. After protesting against moving at such an unseemly hour, I had my bedding packed up and returned to the scene of our festival at the prison. I made a shakedown in Handcock's room, and turned in, fully expecting that this would be the last night of my imprisonment. The morning brought with it a rude awakening. At six o'clock Captain Brown, 2nd Wiltshire Regiment, came to the prison, and informed us that we were to entrain for Pretoria at 7 o'clock. We hastily got our kits together and had breakfast, when the Provost-Sergeant came to us carrying four pairs of handcuffs. After apologising for the unpleasant duty he was compelled to perform, he handcuffed us separately. When Morant held out his hands, he remarked, "This comes of empire building." His position then seemed to strike him very forcibly, for he broke down completely and wept.
We were then escorted under a guard with fixed bayonets to the station, and confined in two closed armoured trucks, Major Lenehan (who was not handcuffed), Lieutenant Morant and myself in one, and Lieutenants Handcock and Picton in the other. An officer and six men in each truck acted as guard. While waiting on the platform to entrain, Major Bolton came up to us, as though to gloat over the successful consummation of his labours. Picton turned to him, and exposing the irons on his hands, called out, "I have to thank you for these. Major Bolton." Major Thomas had not been informed of our departure, and consequently did not travel with us. This was probably done to prevent any interference on his part; he followed on, however, shortly after.
Quite a crowd had gathered on the station, many laughing and joking as though it were a picnic excursion, others bewildered and wondering what was to be our fate. It appeared to me to be an insult to the British uniform we wore that we should undergo the indignity of being placed in irons before we were sentenced or deprived of our badge of rank. I could not think that our position called for such precautions, and held there must be some mistake, perhaps the result of officiousness on the part of the Provost-Marshal.
Leaving Pietersburg on the morning of 21st February, we arrived at Pretoria the following day, and were met by a strong escort of military police. Here we were placed in a van with armed men on either side of us, and with mounted police armed with revolvers and swords riding in the front and rear, and on both flanks. There were quite enough to form a bodyguard for the Commander-in-Chief himself.
With the exception of Major Lenehan, who was sent on to Capetown, we were driven to the old Pretoria Gaol. This was the first time I had ever been inside a civil prison. My first impressions were anything but encouraging; the warders appeared most uncivil. The first one we met told us in a domineering manner to "face the wall," then commenced to order us about. Morant resented this treatment; turning to him he said, "Look here, warder, recollect although I am a prisoner I am still a British officer, and will be treated as such."
On being taken to the reception room, we were stripped and our clothing carefully searched; we were then examined, and a complete description for identification purposes taken. Our own clothes were returned to us, and we were then taken to separate cells and locked up—in the quarters where Dr. Jameson and his followers had been confined after his disastrous and abortive raid on the Boer Republic a few years previous.
When the cell door closed behind me the thought came into my mind that for some underhand motive my position from the beginning had been falsely represented to me. I had treated it too lightly; gloomy forebodings as to the future then struck into my heart. Even then I could not believe that capital punishment would be meted out to any of us.
The following morning we were removed to another part of the prison, and occupied a row of cells on the west side of the yard, which I afterwards learned were known as the "condemned cells." During the day Captain Purland, Inspector of Prisons, visited us; he was an old acquaintance of Morant's, and at the request of this officer he relaxed much of the prison discipline. Instead of being kept locked in our cells all day, they were thrown open at 5.30 in the morning until 7 p.m. During the day we were allowed to associate with each other; tobacco, cigars, and cigarettes were sent to us, which we were permitted to smoke. We had been at Pretoria nearly a week before the findings of the court were made known.
We arrived there on Saturday, 21st February, and it was not until Thursday, 26th February, that we were called into the Governor's office and informed of our fate. We were walking about the yard as usual at 8 o'clock, Morant asking me the same question that he had asked me before, "What are they going to do with us? Do you think they will shoot us?" I scouted the idea of it, and tried to reassure him by saying that if they shot us they would require to go on shooting officers every day.
A warder then came to Morant and informed him that he was required at the Governor's office. He walked over, and in a few minutes returned. His face was deathly pale; he looked as though his heart had already ceased to beat. I exclaimed, "Good God, Morant, what is the matter?" "Shot to-morrow morning!" was the reply. Hand-cock was called next; when he returned he appeared quite unconcerned. "Well, what is it?" I asked. "Oh, same as Morant!" he wearily replied, as though he were tired of it all, and felt relieved that the end had came at last.
I was next called, and walked across the yard quite prepared for, and fully expecting, the same fate as the others. On being ushered into the Governor's office, I was taken before Captain Hutson, Provost-Marshal of Pretoria. Glancing at me he said, "George Ramsdale Witton, you have been found guilty of murder and sentenced to death." He paused for a time, as if to give me the full grasp of that sentence. He then continued, "Lord Kitchener has been pleased to commute your sentence to penal servitude for life." I was then marched out, feeling quite resentful because my sentence had been commuted, as I felt that death a thousand times would be preferable to the degradation of a felon's life; I had already suffered a dozen times over pangs worse than death.
Lieutenant Picton was the next called. He soon returned. "Weil, what luck?" I asked. "Found guilty of manslaughter and cashiered!" was his reply. The appalling injustice of the sentences was a terrible blow to us.
Morant by this time had pulled himself together, and was his old self again. He requested to be provided with writing material, and immediately petitioned to Lord Kitchener for a reprieve. Handcock at the same time also wrote, asking neither mercy nor anything else for himself, but begged that the Australian Government would be asked to do something for his three children.
To Morant's petition there came a brief reply from Colonel Kelly, second in command at Pretoria, stating that Lord Kitchener was away on trek. He could hold out no hope of reprieve; the sentence was irrevocable, and he must prepare to bear it like a man. Handcock's letter was returned to him without an acknowledgment. At the same time I sent out two telegrams—one to Mr. Rail at Capetown, another to my brother in Australia. I was officially informed that they had been sent, via Durban, but I learned later that both had been suppressed.
During the day Major Thomas visited us; the terrible news had almost driven him crazy. He rushed away to find Lord Kitchener, but was also informed by Colonel Kelly that the Commander-in-Chief was away, and not expected to return for several days. He then begged Colonel Kelly to have the execution stayed for a few days until he could appeal to the King; the reply was that the sentences had already been referred to England, and approved by the authorities there. There was not the slightest hope. Morant and Handcock must die.
After sentence had been passed upon Morant, the Provost-Marshal asked him if he wished to see a clergyman. "No!" he replied, in his usual fierce and curt style; "I'm a Pagan!" Handcock, hearing of this, inquired, "What is a Pagan?" Upon being enlightened, he said, "I'm a Pagan, too!" Thus these two went out of this life believing there was no God. Little wonder either!
During the afternoon two warders were busily engaged in the workshop, not a chain away from our cells, making two rough coffins; we could hear them quite distinctly all the afternoon, and knew what they were doing. In the evening they could be seen in the prison yard, where they had been placed just outside the workshop door.
At four o'clock I was informed that I would leave for England at five the following morning. At six a hamper was sent in containing a nicely got-up dinner for four. We laid it out in my cell, but it was scarcely touched. After the awful events of the day we had no relish for a feast. It was the last meal that two of the company would partake of in this world. Morant remarked, "Not to be blasphemous, lads; but this is 'The Last Supper.'" At seven two warders came to lock up for the night. At the request of Morant, he and Handcock were allowed to pass their last night on earth together. At the last moment I bade Morant good-bye. He said, "It's hard lines and a sideways ending, thus being sacrificed as an atonement to pro-Boer sentiments. Good-bye, Witton; tell the 'Bulletin' people 'The Breaker' will write no more verse for them; I'm going into 'laager' in the morning."
Morant spent most of the night writing, and then wrote his last verse.
In prison cell I sadly sit, A d-d crestfallen chappy, And own to you I feel a bit- A little bit-unhappy.
It really ain't the place nor time To reel off rhyming diction; But yet we'll write a final rhyme While waiting crucifixion.
No matter what "end" they decide— Quick-lime? or "b'iling ile?" sir- We'll do our best when crucified To finish off in style, sir?
But we bequeath a parting tip For sound advice of such men Who come across in transport ship To polish off the Dutchmen.
If you encounter any Boers You really must not loot 'em, And, if you wish to leave these shores, For pity's sake, don't shoot 'em.
And if you'd earn a D.S.O., Why every British sinner Should know the proper way to go Is: Ask the Boer to dinner.
Let's toss a bumper down our throat Before we pass to heaven. And toast: "The trim-set petticoat We leave behind in Devon."
At five the next morning, 27th February, I was roused by a warder, who informed me that an escort was waiting for me as soon as I was ready. I asked permission to say good-bye to Morant and Hand-cock. I was allowed to see them only through the small trap-door. I clasped their hands through this for the last time, and could scarcely stammer a good-bye. I was more unnerved at the thought of their hateful death than they were themselves. They were calmly prepared to meet their death, as they often had been before at times during the war.
I was then taken away to the Chief Warder's office, handcuffed, and handed over to an escort of Cameron Highlanders, who took me to the railway station, thence to Capetown. At the prison gate I passed a squad of Cameron Highlanders waiting to be admitted. It was unnecessary to ask why or what they were there for. It was a heart-breaking sight.
I was told that at six o'clock the warders threw open the door of the doomed men's cell, and asked, "Are you ready?" "Yes!" replied Morant, "where is your firing party ?" Hand in hand in the grey light of the dawn they walked out to their death. To Lieutenant Edwards Morant said, "Remember the Boers mutilated my friend Hunt. I shot those who did it. We had our orders; I only obeyed them when Hunt was murdered. I did it. Witton and Picton had nothing to do with it; I told them so at the court-martial." They faced the firing party unflinchingly. While waiting at the Pretoria Railway Station I distinctly heard in the clear morning air the report of the volley of the firing party, the death knell of my late comrades, and I knew they had gone to that bourne from whence no traveller returns. So went out two brave and fearless soldiers, men that the Empire could ill afford to lose.
It was Morant's last wish that he should be buried decently, and outside the precincts of the prison. Some comrades claimed the bodies, and interred them in the Pretoria cemetery; there Morant and Handcock went into their last long "laager." I shudder now as I write this and recall those awful days, so vividly impressed on my memory.
Those courts-martial were the greatest farces ever enacted outside of a theatre, and were held purely to conform to the rules of military law. The sentences were decided upon the evidence taken at the court of inquiry, at which no one was given an opportunity of making a defence, or even of denying the slanderous and lying statements made by prejudiced and unprincipled men. Morant and Handcock were sentenced to death long before the court sat to take evidence for the murder, or supposed complicity in the murder, of the said German missionary. It was not intended to seriously punish me, but a conviction in that case having been missed, it was necessary to include me to secure Handcock: For shooting Boers Captains Taylor and Robertson, Lieutenants Picton and myself, Sergeant-Major Hammett and the troopers were practically let off.
When Australians were waiting expectant and astounded for the truth concerning the terrible news that was coming through in dribbles—with its stories of outrage, robbery, and murders—this report was sent by Lord Kitchener to the Governor-General of Australia in reply to an urgent request for information, and was published in the Australian press on the 7th April, 1902, and throughout the civilised World:—
"In reply to your telegram, Morant, Handcock, and Witton were charged with twenty separate murders, including one of a German missionary, who had witnessed other murders. Twelve of these murders were proved. From the evidence it appears that Morant was the originator of the crimes, which Handcock carried out in coldblooded manner. The murders were committed in the wildest part of the Transvaal, known as Spelonken, about eighty miles to the north of Pretoria, on four separate dates, namely, 2nd July, 11th August, 23rd August, and 7th September. In one case, when eight Boer prisoners were murdered, it was alleged in defence to have been done in a spirit of revenge for the ill-treatment of one of their officers—Lieutenant Hunt—who was killed in action. No such ill-treatment was proved. The prisoners were convicted after most exhaustive trial, and were defended by counsel. There were, in my opinion, 'no extenuating circumstances.' Lieutenant Witton was also convicted, but I commuted the sentence to penal servitude for life, in consideration of his having been under the influence of Morant and Handcock. The proceedings have been sent home."
To show the effect of the above report, I extract a few comments from leading journals:—
"Argus," 29th March, 1902:—"The London reports do not mention the alleged provocation of the Capetown corps, whose officer was murdered and mutilated."
"Leader," 12th April, 1902:—"The War Office report, supported by the direct able message received by His Excellency the Governor from Lord Kitchener, Commander-in-Chief in South Africa, has removed any possibility of our laying this flattering unction to our souls. We are not even able to discover any plea of extenuation which would lessen the guilt of deliberate and despicable murder on the part of those who were principally concerned, and who have suffered the penalty of their crime. The explanation originally offered by those who professed to speak with some knowledge of the circumstances went to show that the shooting of the Boer prisoners was in the nature of retaliation for an outrage committed on a wounded British officer who was said to have been brutally done to death. This statement is still persisted in by Lieutenant Picton, one of the officers tried by court-martial, who, though found guilty of manslaughter, escaped with the minor punishment of being cashiered."
"Age," April, 1902:—"The suggestion that the Boers were killed in a spirit of revenge for the ill-treatment of Captain Hunt is also discounted by Lord Kitchener's statement that no such ill-treatment was proved, and that there were 'no extenuating circumstances.'"
"Adelaide Register," 13th June, 1904:—"The accused pleaded that the Boers in the district which they had to patrol were merely bands of marauders who had 'stripped and mutilated a brother officer, but Lord Kitchener reported that no such maltreatment could be proved."
"Leader," April, 1902:—"It is not conceivable that Lord Kitchener would have approved the sentence of death unless there was some reason shown for this unalterable punishment."
"Commercial Advertiser," New York, April, 1902:—"The impartial punishment of colonials by Lord Kitchener should check the torrent of abuse on the Continent against Great Britain."
The following is a true copy of the findings of the court, and furnishes a complete answer and direct contradiction to Lord Kitchener's statement that there were "no extenuating circumstances":—
CASE I.-VISSER CASE.
SENTENCE. The court sentence the prisoner Sentence.
Lieut. H. H. Morant, Bushveldt Carbineers, to suffer death by being shot. Death.
Signed at Pretoria this 29th of January, 1902. H. G. DENNY, Lieut.-Col., C. S. COPLAND, President. Judge Advocate.
RECOMMENDATION TO MERCY.
The court strongly recommend the prisoner to mercy on the following grounds:—
1. Extreme provocation by the mutilation of the body of Capt. Hunt, who was his intimate personal friend.
2. His good service during the war, including his capture of Field-Cornet T. Kelly in the Spelonken.
3. The difficult position in which he was suddenly placed, with no previous military experience and no one of experience to consult.
Signed at Pretoria the 29th day of January, 1902. Confirmed-H. C. DENNY, Lt-Col., KITCHENER, General. President. 25th February, 1902.
Promulgated at Pretoria, 26th of February, 1902, and extracts taken. Sentence carried out at Pretoria on the 27th February, 1902.
H. W. RUTSON, Asst. Prov. Marshal, Pretoria, 27th February, 1902. Pret. Dist.
EIGHT BOERS CASE.
SENTENCE. The court sentence the prisoners—Sentence. Lieut. H. H. Morant, Bushveldt Carbineers, to suffer death by being shot. Death.
Lieut. P. J. Handcock, Bushveldt Carbineers, to suffer death by being shot. Death.
Lieut. G. R. Witton, Bushveldt Carbineers, to suffer death by being shot. Death.
Signed at Pietersburg, this 4th of February, 1902.
H. C. DENNY, Lt.-Col., C. S. COPLAND, Major, President. Judge Advocate.
RECOMMENDATION TO MERCY.
The court recommend Lieut. H. H. Morant to mercy on the following grounds:—
Provocation received by the maltreatment of the body of his intimate friend, Capt. Hunt.
Want of previous military experience and complete ignorance of military law and military procedure.
His good service throughout the war.
The court recommend Lieut. P. J. Handcock and Lieut. G. R. Witton to mercy on the following grounds:—
1. The court consider both were influenced by Lieut. Moranf s orders, and thought they were doing their duty in obey ing them.
2. Their complete ignorance of military law and custom.
3. Their good services throughout the war.
Signed at Pietersburg this 4th day of February, 1902. H. C. DENNY, Lt.-Col., President.
I confirm the finding and sentence in the case of Lieuts. Mo-rant and Handcock.
I confirm the finding in the case of Lieut. Witton, but commute the sentence to one of penal servitude for life.
25th February, 1902. KITCHENER, General.
Promulgated at Pretoria on the 5th February, 1902, and extracts taken. Sentence carried out at Pretoria on the 27th February, 1902.
H. W. HUTSON, Capt., Court Provost Marshal, Pretoria District. 27th February, 1902.
The 2nd July, the first date mentioned in Lord Kitchener's report, was the date on which six Boer prisoners were shot, when Captains Taylor and Robertson were in charge at Spelonken, and for the murder of whom Captain Taylor was tried and acquitted (details page 137).
The 2nd July Lieutenant Morant was not serving with the Spe-lonken detachment, and I had not then joined the Carbineers, but was at East London, in Cape Colony. There is one fact, however, and that is, no one has yet been punished for the shooting of the six Boers on the 2nd July.
The court-martial, after a most exhaustive trial, acquitted Morant and Handcock on the charge of shooting the German missionary (see Chapter 19).