Scapegoats of the Empire
'The Last Man': George Witton and ''Scapegoats of the Empire''
Among the many books about the Boer War in the Special Collection of Deakin University Library is a small brown-coloured book which has a significance that far outweighs its plain cover. ''Scapegoats of the Empire'' is the only first hand account of the infamous 'Breaker' Morant - Peter Handcock trial, held in South Africa in 1901-2 and of the Bushveldt Carbineers, the irregular force in which these Australians served during the war against the Boers. It is alone amongst Australian memoirs of the Boer War in being infused with disappointment and disillusion and it is the reasons for this, and for its rarity today, which go some way towards explaining its significance.
''Scapegoats of the Empire'' by George R. Witton was first published in June 1907 and although it was reprinted at least twice that year, it is today an extremely rare book with very few copies in existence outside major libraries. This is because there is still some mystery surrounding the circumstances of the book's publication. Stories persist that the Australian government of the day were so nervous that the book's contents reflected badly on Lord Kitchener (who was then one of the foremost heroes of the Empire) that they caused all copies of the book to be seized from D.W. Paterson, the original publishers and printers, prior to its publication. Another rumour abounded to the effect that the government bought up copies as they were published in order to prevent the truth from 'getting out' and, more prosaically, it has also been suggested that there was a fire in the publisher's warehouse in Melbourne which destroyed all copies.
Whatever the truth behind the circumstances of its publication, the rarity of the first edition of ''Scapegoats'' today suggests that the possibility may well be correct that the only copies of the 1907 version to survive are the author's own pre-publication copies.
In 1980 the award-winning film ''Breaker Morant'' was released. A line in the credits of the film stated that it had been based in part upon ''Scapegoats''; this heightened interest in the book and led to its republication in 1982 by Angus and Robertson. The edition they reprinted is one of the later impressions of 1907, not the true first edition.
George Witton on trial
George Ramsdale Witton (1874-1942) was born in Victoria to a farming family and was an expert horseman and rifle shot. Prior to the war in South Africa he served with a volunteer infantry regiment and with the Victorian Permanent Artillery at Fort Queenscliffe. He sailed with the Victorian Imperial Bushmen for South Africa on 1 May 1900 to fight in the war against the Boers and on 1 June 1901 was commissioned a lieutenant in the Bushveldt Carbineers. It was whilst serving with the Carbineers that Witton, along with Lenehan, Morant, Handcock and Picton, was arrested for the murder of a number of Boers, including prisoners, and of a German missionary, Daniel Heese, who had been a witness to the shootings.
After a lengthy trial, at which the prisoners were defended by Major James Thomas, a solicitor from Tenterfield, NSW who had originally enlisted with the New South Wales Mounted Rifles, Lenehan and Picton were reprimanded and cashiered respectively and Morant, Handcock and Witton were found guilty. They were sentenced to death by firing squad, although the court made a strong recommendation for mercy. However only Witton was to be reprieved; he was gaoled for life in an English military prison and Morant and Handcock were shot on 27 February 1902.
Whilst Witton was serving his sentence in England, the case had received publicity in Australia and efforts were being made to have him released. A petition was forwarded to King Edward VII (containing over 80,000 signatures) and increasing pressure from the Australian government, Witton's own ill health and the death of his father led to him being released on 11 August 1904.
Witton arrived back in Australia on 12 November 1904 an angry and bitter man. He felt his imprisonment had been unjust and was determined to remedy the situation. Using the notes and trial documents kept by Major Thomas, he wrote ''Scapegoats of the Empire'' to present what he claimed to be the true story; it was well received by the critics, but didn't get him the pardon or compensation he felt he deserved.
After the publication of ''Scapegoats'', Witton worked at a succession of jobs in Queensland and Victoria. His first wife died and he married again, but the marriage did not last. He had no children. Unlike many Boer War veterans who rushed to enlist in the First World War, Witton's disillusionment and bitterness caused him to refuse. Prime Minister Fisher pledged Australia's assistance to 'the last man', and Witton is reported to have said: ''I am the last man''.
Cryle, Mark "Scapegoat of the Empire: George Witton and the Breaker Morant Affair" in Fryer Folios, vol. 3, no. 1, Sept. 2008, pp.8-12.
Henry, Adam ''Australian nationalism and the lost lessons of the Boer War'' in Journal of the Australian War Memorial, no. 34, June 2001.
Lyons, Gerald ''Did Morant's Mate Survive the Firing Squad?'' in People, 8 Oct. 1980, pp.4-5.
National Archives of Australia; Applications for Literary and Dramatic Copyright; A1336/227.
Wilcox, Craig Australia's Boer War: the war in South Africa 1899-1902, Oxford University Press, 2002.
Witton, George R. Scapegoats of the Empire, D.W. Paterson, Melbourne, 1907 (reprinted by Angus and Robertson in 1982, with an afterword by G.A. Embleton).
Woolmore, W. The Bushveldt Carbineers and the Pietersburg Light Horse, Slouch Hat Publications, Australia, 2002.
Kristen Thornton is responsible for the contents of this page.