Why Bother with the Breaker?

STONE the crows! The House of Representatives petitions committee is examining a call to pardon Breaker Morant!

Two questions occur. Why? And why?

For a start, the British tried and executed Morant, not us. All the committee can do is ask them to reconsider his case. And, apart from the occasional aggrieved antiquarian, I doubt anybody actually cares.

Despite Bruce Beresford’s famous film, most people who have heard of Morant are a bit hazy on who he was, perhaps thinking he was a British spy called David Callan who changed his name while under-cover in Australia. Morant went on to fight in the Boer War, where the British made him a scapegoat for their war crimes. Or something like that.

The facts are forgotten, or superseded by simple stories of the sort some Australians love – where good blokes are brought down by under-handed elitists.

And this is the problem. Pardoning the Breaker would only add to the legend that Australians are by nature happy warriors and when things go wrong our allies are to blame.

But it is not that simple. In an essay in Craig Stockings’ forthcoming collection Zombie Myths of Australian Military History, Craig Wilcox, Australia’s leading historian of the Boer War, makes a convincing case that Morant was not a martyr set up by the British high command. And he charts how the legend has waxed and waned according to political fashion.

The movie makes his point. Watching Breaker Morant now, reveals that it is beautifully made nationalist propaganda (the sort that sold in the 1970s) with the British in Boer War South Africa representing the Americans in Vietnam.

But there is something more universal about the Morant story – the idea that Australians are natural fighters who have no need of training or discipline, who rise above the rules snivelling soldiers obey (the portrayal of some British rankers in the film was sneering and snobbish) and who are done in by our allies, who are always envious elitists.

It is in short a whine about the world not recognising what a wonder an Aussie under arms is.

World War I was the origin of the legend which was, and occasionally still is, expressed in popular campaign studies which emphasise British incompetence and an Australian genius for soldiering. In essence, the argument runs along lines such as, “despite poor staff work at corps, the Australians carried their objectives and could have broken the enemy line if British units on their flank had not fallen back in the face of a desultory defence”.

And it is nonsense.

Certainly, the Australians did very well on the western front, in part because a relatively flat social structure ensured ordinary soldiers were able to make decisions for themselves and rise through the ranks. Rather than being natural warriors, their greatest achievements were due to discipline and intense training. Ross McMullin’s magisterial biography of Harold “Pompey” Elliott demonstrates the Australian genius for soldiering was less larrikinism than thinking, learning and practising. The same as in all other armies of citizen soldiers.

Nor do our inept allies always do us in. While Peter Weir’s film Gallipoli presents the British as incompetent and uncaring of diggers’ lives, historian Les Carlyon makes the point that the film’s famous attack was an Australian led stuff-up.

And while I am at it, could the conspiracy theorists finally accept that the sinking of the second HMAS Sydney was due to its Australian commander’s mistake in approaching, too close, to what turned out to be a disguised German raider?

Certainly, Australians at war have accomplished extraordinary things. As well as ordinary, incompetent and evil acts. Everything that ever went wrong is not somebody else’s fault and caricatures of combat dishonour the memory of all the diggers who did as much as anybody could expect – their best.

And if anybody is interested in righting a wrong done to an Australian soldier they could have a look at Arnold Potts, unjustly sacked in 1942 for not providing the required number of miracles in his fighting retreat along the Kokoda trail.

But don’t hold your breath. Sure, a self-serving political general, Thomas Blamey, sacked Potts. But he was an Australian.