Ready, Aim, Fire – Major James Francis Thomas – The Fourth Victim in the Execution of Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant By James Unkles – Book Reviews

The film Breaker Morant provided many of us with background information on the trial and execution of Harry “Breaker” Morant. However, there is a great deal more to this story and the author, looking at this through legal eyes, has written a compelling story which will be of great interest to lawyers.

The author seriously questions Britain’s involvement in the Boer War and the support for this by Australian volunteers.

It is a war we should never have been involved in. The focus of the work is Major James Thomas, a NSW country town solicitor and local newspaper proprietor, who went to South Africa as a volunteer soldier.

With virtually no trial experience, he was pulled into the role of defence counsel in the trial of three Australian volunteer soldiers. The soldiers believed that they were following “take no prisoner” orders when they shot several Boer combatants.

The trial was a farce and the British clearly wanted to the see the soldiers executed as quickly as possible. Two of the three were executed the day following the guilty verdict.
Major Thomas ended up a broken man due to the unwitting role he played in this terrible travesty of justice.

This book will appeal to lawyers as it delves into military law and generally for presenting a side to the British Empire which is less gilded than the perceptions of many Australians. Concentration camps for civilians, destroying farms, a clear take no prisoners policy. This is a compelling read.

Reviewed by Roger Mendelson, Lawyer and author

James Unkles, Sid Harta Publishers, 2018, pb $25

The 1902 court martial and execution of lieutenants Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant and Peter Handcock remain controversial. Both were Australians serving with the British Army during the Boer War and were found guilty of unlawfully executing Boer prisoners.

Lieutenant George Witton, tried with Morant and Handcock, had his death sentence commuted to life imprisonment.

It’s claimed Morant and Handcock were scapegoated for the war crimes of their British superiors.

Military and civilian lawyer, James Unkles, who has campaigned for pardons for the three accused soldiers, contends that Major James Francis Thomas, the trio’s legal representative, was a fourth victim of the saga, which exacted an enormous toll on his mental and physical health.

Unkles explores Thomas’s life as a property owner, solicitor, newspaper proprietor, historian, poet, proponent for Australian nationalism, and soldier. Notwithstanding his prominence in developing Tenterfield in NSW, Thomas died alone from malnutrition, and destitute.

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