SYDNEY // It was one of the most controversial episodes in Australian military history: three soldiers, including a former Outback poet and cowboy, Harry "Breaker" Morant, were sentenced to death for killing unarmed Boer War prisoners more than a century ago.
A British court-martial rejected the men's defence that they were acting under orders from Lord Kitchener, the commander of British forces in South Africa, not to take prisoners. Morant and a fellow lieutenant, Peter Handcock, were executed in 1902 by firing squad in Pretoria, while George Witton had his sentence commuted to life imprisonment.
The families of the trio - the only Australians ever executed for war crimes - have always believed that they were victims of a miscarriage of justice. Britain rejected a petition for posthumous pardons last year; now the men's descendants are pinning their hopes on the Australian government, which is considering whether to order a judicial review of the case.
Morant - an Australian folk hero immortalised in the 1980 film Breaker Morant, starring Edward Woodward - was an English migrant who worked on Outback cattle stations, gaining the reputation of a hard-drinking, womanising charmer. His horsemanship was legendary - hence his nickname - and his ballads about rural life were published in a national magazine, The Bulletin.
At the time Morant volunteered to fight in an Imperial war far from home, Australia was still a collection of British colonies. Like Handcock and Witton, he joined the Bushveldt Carbineers, a mainly Australian regiment raised to confront guerrilla commandos in the remote Spelonken region of Northern Transvaal.
The killings - of 12 prisoners - took place over four days in 1902, and followed the death of the men's commanding officer, Captain Frederick Hunt, during an assault on a Boer stronghold. Hunt was a close friend of Morant's, and the Australian was reportedly enraged by accounts that his body had been mutilated. His last words, as he faced the firing squad, were: "Shoot straight, you bastards!"
While the soldiers' descendants do not condone the killings, they believe their ancestors did not receive a fair trial. Kept in solitary confinement for three months, they were not able to consult their lawyer until the night before the court-martial. All three were denied the opportunity to appeal. Their relatives, including Handcock's widow and three children, found out what had happened from the newspapers.
The campaign for a pardon is being spearheaded by James Unkles, an Australian military lawyer, who has uncovered what he says is new evidence of shoot-to-kill orders. It includes a legal opinion from that time, which refers to "the idea that no prisoners were to be taken in the Spelonken", and the transcript of a British parliamentary debate that aired concerns about military tactics in the war.
Mr Unkles, who says he has identified 10 legal grounds on which the soldiers were denied justice, believes they were "scapegoated" for political motives: to cover up the orders allegedly issued by Kitchener, and to accelerate peace talks with the Boers.
"These men were colonial volunteers; they were not British officers educated in the finer points of the rules of engagement," he said this week. "Morant had been reprimanded [previously] for bringing in prisoners, and he finally got to the point where he obeyed the orders. For political reasons, three Australians were made to take the rap for senior officers."
The events in South Africa inspired not only the movie, directed by Bruce Beresford, but also a play and a string of books. Among the latter was Scapegoats of the Empire, written by Witton, who was released after three years following a petition by 80,000 Australians to King Edward VII.
The Australian attorney-general, Robert McClelland, is expected to decide soon whether to grant a judicial inquiry, which would independently review the evidence. The men's descendants hope it would throw doubt on the convictions and sentences, convincing Britain to reconsider its position. If the request for an inquiry is rejected, Mr Unkles plans to seek leave to appeal in the British High Court.
However, descendants of the Boer prisoners who were shot are opposed to a pardon, and many historians dispute the existence of shoot-to- kill orders. One Australian historian, Craig Wilcox, wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald last year that "the secret orders they claimed to have followed … are surely mythical, a fabrication by desperate men in the dock".
Cathy Morant, a distant cousin of Breaker's, believes that the court-martial was "a sham", and that the men's reputation as murderers is unjustified. "I want it recorded in the annals that these accusations were unfounded, and for future generations to regard them as the heroes that I think they were, not the villains that they're being portrayed as," she said.
Peter Handcock, great-grandson of the soldier, says that he and his father want "some kind of resolution, even if it turns out that they were guilty after all". Handcock's execution had greatly affected his son, Peter's grandfather, "a very troubled person" who lost contact with all his siblings.
"My Dad tells me that it was the cause of great shame for the family, and that it was never spoken about," Mr Handcock said. "He didn't know about it himself until he signed up for World War Two, 40-odd years later, and his parents thought he ought to know. I'm hoping that the record can be set straight now. Let the evidence be examined, let the truth come out and, if need be, let the history books be rewritten."