The romance of the White Guard
The march over a thousand miles
The deliverance of the Commonwealth depended entirely on material force. But a century of peaceful development based on legislation had modified profoundly the character of the people. There existed, particularly in the more settled parts where politics had been raised to the level of a fine art, an almost superstitious belief in the power of law. Though it may sound strange, it is a fact nevertheless that the ordinary citizen was firmly convinced that restrictive enactments, duly sanctioned by Parliament, formed an unsurmountable bar against coloured invasion. This respect before the law is certainly the best proof of the high standard of civilization to which the Australians had risen. Unfortunately, though well aware that the crowded millions of Asia were impelled by instinct or necessity without regard for codified reason, they had neglected to draw the correct conclusions from their knowledge. Only very slowly did they recognize that force, brutal force, alone could save them. The unquestioning confidence in the efficiency of moral pressure can be traced right through the first period after the invasion, up to the refusal of Royal Assent to the Coloured Inhabitants’ Registration Act. Then came a period of doubt and anxiety, followed at last by the violent reaction of repentant disillusion as expressed in the anti-colour riots.
Far removed from the law-bewitched nerve-centres of population, there lived a more aggressive type of Australian. Away out in the backblocks in the borderland of savagery, the skin-hunters, drovers, station-hands, prospectors and other adventurous vagrants heard the rumours of the invasion which spread like wild-fire to the loneliest camps. Many set out for the coast, eager for closer information which promised stronger excitement. Nothing more seems to have come of this spontaneous movement in the southern parts. But in North Queensland, the near neighbour of the invaded territory, it led to important developments. As the travellers met, they began, of course, to discuss the news: reaching the more settled districts, they exchanged ideas of revenge and retribution with kindred spirits. And in this casual manner was evolved the bold project of a raid against the Japanese. It was a tremendous enterprise, considering the distance and hardships which had to be overcome. But the daring bushmen made little of natural obstacles in those feverish days. Everybody was acquainted intimately with the terrors of the wilderness and had braved them often before. Everybody could ride and thought nothing of sitting a horse day after day, week after week. Everybody bore in his heart undying hatred against an enemy who contested the white supremacy and who was doubly loathed because of his inferiority of race, environment and ideals. Probably it will never be known to whom honour is due for having originated the patriotic conception. Before it matured and was put into execution it was possibly influenced by outside suggestions.
At any rate, it was not long before the project met with official encouragement. The State of Queensland, with Federal sanction, proclaimed the formation of an irregular defence corps, ostensibly for the purpose of guarding the western frontier which travels for its whole length with that of the Northern Territory. For the Commonwealth Government, who controlled, under the terms of the constitution, the regular army, preferred to have nothing to do officially with a volunteer force. In this way a greater freedom of movement was ensured to the latter and immediate Federal responsibility for its actions was evaded. Secretly, however, they furnished arms and advanced money. But though the local and central authorities worked hand in hand at first, their interests soon began to clash. Queensland, of course, wished to launch its best manhood against the enemy in a supreme effort. On the other hand, the officers of the regular army claimed all the able-bodied men included in Class I of the militia for service. Their demands were upheld by the Federal Executive, which, perceiving the first ominous signs of civic disruption, desired to increase the power of the Commonwealth against separatist tendencies of which the Northern State was suspected at this early time. The only means to defeat the insatiable zeal of the regular officers consisted in rushing the liable men out of their reach, and the local organizers were not slow to act accordingly, with the result that the preparations were hurried very much. Still, a great deal of energy and thoroughness was devoted to the cause. Rifles, ammunition, horses and stores were despatched to Bourketown, which became the centre of the enterprise. Several able and strenuous patriots proceeded by sea to Port Darwin, where they founded a secret league of active sympathizers and arranged a system of support. This place, being the solitary white stronghold near the scene of operations, was, indeed, the only base from which some help might be rendered once the campaign had begun properly. At the outset, it was planned to transport the raiders by steamer across the Gulf of Carpentaria and to land them within easy striking distance of the enemy. But the idea was abandoned owing to the fear of Japanese cruisers, which were supposed to hover round the coast.
Tokio received probably early information of the new danger menacing the Japanese settlement. There is the fact that Downing Street made inquiries — which it would hardly have done without prompting — in Melbourne and afterwards in Brisbane with regard to the object of the irregular armament. The artful reply was to the effect that it was merely intended to protect the stations and the stock route within the possible zone of the activity of the immigrants, in short, to safeguard the recognized property of white people in those parts. As it was not likely, however, that the Imperial authorities and the pushful ally behind them would accept such an explanation as final, the organizers decided to baffle any further restrictive attempts by coming to the point at once. Without waiting for reinforcements, the first company of the irregular corps entered upon its famous ride over a thousand miles of desert and jungle against an enemy whose numbers and resources were absolutely unknown.
A finer body of men never took the field to do battle for Aryan ideals. It was composed of the sturdy sons of the Australian bush set off by just a dash of a more refined cosmopolitan element made up of a few Americans, Canadians and Australian city bred. All the members were in the prime of manhood and health. None were frightened by the prospects of hardships and isolation. The latter was indeed necessary to the success of their sombre mission, the import of which they realized instinctively, though perhaps nobody cared as yet to define it in plain words. But they felt that nothing less was expected of them than the extermination of the invaders. That was, after all was said, the only way to punish and to end the intrusion of the alien race on Commonwealth soil. Mercy had not — could not have — a place in this tremendous enterprise born of mortal hatred and big with the certainty of terrible privations. Neither would mercy be pleaded for. Away in the silent wilderness, in the fight against a determined foe who had had leisure to acquire a good deal of bush-knowledge and whose martial qualities were above suspicion, there would be no room for sentiment. The gallant volunteers were convinced from the beginning that victory alone could save them from the only other alternative — death. But they did not worry much about fears of failure. In the midst of the unbroken solitudes, their thoughts were fully occupied with preparations for the task before them.
Tokio, again, seems to have been informed almost immediately of the departure of the first company. At any rate, it addressed another appeal to London reiterating the willingness of its former subjects to become British citizens, and adding a warning that the advisers of the Mikado could not accept responsibility for the tranquillity of the nation, if harmless settlers of their own race should be treated with violence. The Imperial Government communicated this intimation to the Federal Executive and demanded guarantees that the peace would not be broken. Melbourne retorted that it had nothing to do with the irregular force, which was regarded as a special State constabulary, and that it must disclaim all liability for the actions of the latter. This was the last official reference to the volunteers: soon afterwards, international anxiety was monopolized by the anti-colour riots in the south. But probably there was some connexion between the evasiveness of the Commonwealth attitude and the closure by Great Britain of the Northern Territory coast.
It seems that the Japanese had not reckoned with the volunteer movement in spite of their characteristic thoroughness. There are many good reasons, however, which would account for the oversight. In the first place, the project to carry war into the settlement across an unknown wilderness, barren of any resources upon which the aggressors might fall back, was so audacious, even quixotic, that the methodical Japanese mind may well have refused to consider it seriously. Moreover, though the emissaries of the Mikado had no doubt studied the Commonwealth with a perspicacity similar to that displayed elsewhere in the past, they had naturally turned their attention to the centres of population and national power. Japanese squadrons visited the big ports frequently, almost regularly. Tourists had travelled over the pleasure resorts, merchants had looked over the country in all directions in ostensible pursuit of business, and a more intensive research had been carried on by pseudo-Chinese or frankly Japanese domestics, artisans and gardeners, by Asiatic delegates of Christian religious sects, and in every other practicable way. But all these moved, or drifted, into the more settled parts or at least into the households of the great landholders. And they found there all the symptoms of indolent culture, love of play, indulgence in luxuries and careless national pride, which seemed so real though they were, after all, merely the result of imitation, by a section of the young community, of the economic excrescences of old Europe. The Japanese agents may have reported all they saw. But apparently they did not penetrate under the surface and overlooked the typical Australians: the hardy pioneers who wrestled with and conquered hostile nature in the arid heart of the Continent, the selectors, stockmen, miners, drovers, carriers and other bushworkers who loved an uncrowded life on the borderline of civilization. And such spies as gave them a passing glance may have been deceived by the peculiarities of the men of the vast interior. For the solitude, monotony and sadness of the bush breed, as a natural protection against its oppressive influence, a picturesque emphasis and descriptive exaggeration of the language of its dwellers, which conveys to the superficial observer an impression of irresponsibility on their part. This is especially the case if the language takes the form of boastful carelessness or disdainful blasphemy, which serves — and often is meant to serve — as a cloak for the true sentiments — pride of battle and triumph in the face of disheartening difficulties; fierce devotion to the boundless sweep of virgin country which every bushman regards as the priceless inheritance of his race; and an unconquerable love of freedom as the pre-requisite of life. The rough outside had hidden these sterling qualities from the prying eyes of the Asiatics, and the threatening concentration of the bushmen came as a surprise to Tokio.
The first company of volunteers left Bourketown on a Sunday, June 16, 1912, after divine service, and was escorted to the boundary of the township by an immense concourse of people. The bells of all the little churches and chapels rang, volley after volley was fired, and cheer on cheer went up. It was an outburst of wild enthusiasm and patriotic rejoicings. They called themselves the “White Guard,” a name as appropriate as it was happy and inspiring. The White Guard departed 615 members strong, all well armed and mounted. There were 200 reserve horses, most of them carrying stores. The advance was rapid in the first stages. They rode into Woolagarang, 140 miles away on the Northern Territory border, on the third day after sunset. Progress became more difficult now, for they had to pass through almost unknown country to reach the McArthur River. But they pushed on without delay and arrived on June 24 at Booraloola, where they crossed the stream.
So far their route had skirted the jungle for the most part and the enervating charm of this Lotosland had tired the men. Though its tortuous formation, full of fantastic vegetation and animal life, offered so much variety, it seemed always the same kind of change, lulling to rest and forgetfulness. Above all, the slow silvery trickle of water like mocking voices of wood sprites beneath the impenetrable, luxuriant undergrowth, imparted to the parched-out, sun-baked riders a tantalizing yearning after dreamful ease. True, there were dangers everywhere. The jungle was alive with gliding, running, jumping, gloom-loving things. Snakes, centipedes and large spiders abounded. Some men had been bitten; they had been driven mad for the time being either by excruciating pain or by the horror of the thing; two had died. Mosquitoes and ants swarmed in places, and though every measure of protection was taken, some would find an opportunity for inflicting their tortures. But the memory of hardships on the march faded away in the strange drowsiness borne on the cool night-air. When on an open patch high up the creek bank the camp fires had been lit and evening had turned the sky of burning blue into ethereal green and gold, a forlorn enchantment began to weave its meshes round the weary adventurers. Dark shadows indicated the tangled undergrowth below. The tops of the higher trees rose over them like a grey mist rolling upwards. Much more distinct in the clear atmosphere above these swam the proud fronds of palms, the slender stems of which could be rather imagined than perceived. The sky paled rapidly, pierced by the leisurely steadying flicker of stars like pleasing fancies slowly embodying themselves into clear thought. A noisy chorus of parrots and other birds filled the woods. Bats began to circle. Some kangaroos might bound across the line of sight, or the patter of a troop of emus would be heard. Long after dark, sleepless listeners could often distinguish, above the many rustlings, whisperings and cracklings of night life in the tropical jungle, the heavy wing-flappings of geese as they flew on in ghostly files changing from pool to pool. Early in the morning the air was sparkling fresh and the green looked many degrees brighter in the first slanting rays of the sun. The somber undergrowth dissolved into quaintly shaped, delicately leaved shrubs bearing gorgeous blooms or luscious berries or into dainty tree-ferns and dwarf-palms. Graceful garlands of creepers linked majestic trees, and even above their mighty crowns the palms reared their heads in effortless supremacy. Setting, colour scheme and scale of vegetation seemed to be conceived always in the superlative. Human energies could not resist for long the voluptuous invitation to forget that there was such a thing as purpose in life. The jungle breeds slavery. It will have to go if the white race wants to people the Northern Territory.
After the crossing of the McArthur River the real hardships of the enterprise commenced. The White Guard had determined to attempt a short cut across the interior to Katherine, a mining camp situated about sixty miles south of Pine Creek, the terminus of the railway from Port Darwin. Four hundred miles stretched before them, never yet traversed by white men. Nevertheless, general relief was felt when the jungle was exchanged for the dry plains. The members were by no means too well under control, and there had been signs of impending demoralization. But this would have to give way now to strict discipline, for the only chance of overcoming the dangers of the desert ride lay in mutual loyalty and prompt obedience to the leaders. The contrast between the creek country and the interior plains is unsurpassed in the world. The blazing sun cracks the grassy surface. No shadow offers anywhere; the patches of sparingly foliaged gum trees afford none, neither do they give any shelter against the clouds of fine dust sweeping along before the steady breeze. The outlook is bounded only by the horizon, apart from an occasional sandstone ridge, often intersected by quartz bands of blinding whiteness, and rising above the level like a petrified wave of desolation. From its summit the eye roams over dismal views of weird melancholy. The rugged patches of forest below consist of trees huddled together so closely that their tops of dull, drab, contracted leaves, thus seen from above, give them the appearance of thick scrub. And the belts of real scrub are frequent too, which can be traced for long distances by the lines of glistening sand-hills driven up by the wind against the living barrier of invincible growth. All over the plains depressions occur suggesting creek beds, in which, however, no water can have run for ages, for ancient gum trees grow in them, besides acacias and shrubs. But it is at the bottom of such depressions that water is found, sometimes in a deep hole difficult of access, sometimes in a pond or in a chain of ponds, surrounded by swamp gums. Unfortunately, these abound also in many low-lying spots without surface water, and their deceitful presence adds thus to the tortures of the thirsty.
Still, the White Guard managed to push forward. Often the endurance of the horses had to be taxed to the utmost on the long stages intervening between waterholes. The men had to fall back largely on the provisions which they were carrying. For fresh meat they depended on rock wallabies, and now and then on a kangaroo. Plump pigeons furnished a welcome variety of diet. These were the only birds thriving on the plains, with the exception of uneatable kites living on grasshoppers. Mere good intentions were not sufficient to sustain the men on this march of privation. The weaklings of the force did not survive the test. Some died outright from exhaustion; others, maddened by the exertions, by heat and thirst, stole away into the desert to perish. And others again committed suicide by bullet or blade. Their comrades had no time to mourn them. On they rode, and the dust soon blew over their tracks and obliterated all traces of the heroic venture. And the dingoes, the haunting, sad howls of which resound over the plains in still nights, cleared away the remains of the fallen. All the men were unanimous on two points: that there was no possibility of retreat by the road they had come, if they should be beaten or weakened, and that it was not probable that many reinforcements would reach them by the same route. The White Guard emerged at last from the Unknown at All Saint’s Well, on the overland telegraph lines. Three days later (July 11) it camped eighteen miles north-east of Katherine, on a pond in the bed of the river of that name. It had lost eighteen men and over sixty horses during the passage across the interior.
When the White Guard left Bourketown, the bonds of discipline were very loose. A leader had been chosen, by name McPartoch. He was a robust Scot, member of the League of Frontiersmen, and had seen much fighting in the British Colonies before he settled down to a small cattle run near the Gregory River. From the outset of the panic, he had thrown himself with enthusiasm into the movement for resistance by force, and the rapid formation of the first corps was due partly to his endeavours. His experience, patriotism, straightforwardness and Scotch common sense marked him for its command. But his appointment was the only approach to a military system, and the White Guard had to evolve its organization on the march.
There was much in this method to recommend it. The aspirants to leadership underwent the most rigorous practical test imaginable. They had to prove not only their circumspection and resourcefulness, but also that they had the gift of handling men. So, after a week’s march, a mere handful of serious candidates remained. As befitted such a democratic set of volunteers their foremen were finally selected by the equal vote of all. McPartoch refrained carefully from showing favour for any one — a well-considered impartiality which increased his influence and popularity immensely. But on his suggestion it was decided to fix the number of sub-leaders at six, which left each one in command of about a hundred men, and to confer upon them the title of lieutenant. Every member of the corps pledged himself beforehand to strict obedience. The men who were chosen to the responsible posts proved themselves worthy of the confidence bestowed on them by their comrades by their behaviour in the subsequent campaign. Among them them was Thomas Burt, who, after the trial of the Japanese delegates at Port Darwin, had proceeded by sea to North Queensland and had interested himself at once in the volunteer movement. His accurately kept diary is the only reliable source of information about the evolution, the march and the first campaign of the White Guard. (His friend, the Yorkshireman, had had enough of colonial experience and had just escaped compulsory enlistment by taking first steamer from Port Darwin to Hong Kong.) Of the other five lieutenants two were Queenslanders; New South Wales, Tasmania and Canada supplied one each.
In the apportionment of duties which followed the appointments, Thomas Burt was entrusted with the commissariat. This service was without doubt the most difficult to render satisfactorily. For it had been agreed upon on all sides that the stores should be kept in reserve for emergencies. Meanwhile the White Guard depended chiefly on the results of the hunt for sustenance. As long as it marched through the jungle game was plentiful. Nevertheless, in the beginning the best part of a day was wasted several times to procure a sufficiency. It was evident that a better system would have to be organized and with this end in view the commissariat was created; 120 men were placed under Thomas Burt’s command. All the surplus horses and stores were entrusted to their care. And the best bushmen, to the number of fifty, were formed into a sub-company of hunters. They travelled in advance until they reached a spot where good sport might be expected. Then they fell to work, until often the sombre forest and jungle re-echoed the shots as if a great battle was already in progress. The spoil was piled up to be bagged by the comrades, while the marksmen would ride on to the next promising hunting-ground.
Later this arduous task was simplified with the help of natives. Some genuine tribes still roamed at that time the vast interior, shy of either white or yellow men, and thus free of the depravity of the coastal blacks. They lived entirely by the chase, and in periods of starvation were supposed to resort to cannibalism. Withal, they were not considered treacherous, and not so lazy and abandoned as those aboriginals who have mixed with higher races, but rather gay, healthy and active. McPartoch was diplomatic enough to overcome their initial suspicions that the whites intended to drive them out. Once confidence was established by just treatment and presents of tobacco and small silver coins, the volunteers reaped many benefits. The natives possessed an intimate knowledge of the plains and were most valuable guides to the waterholes. Moreover, they could indicate the richest haunts of game and were skilful to secure it with less noise than a shotgun made, a method which would be of enormous advantage as soon as the White Guard should be in touch with the enemy, to whom random shots might betray its whereabouts. McPartoch, therefore, determined to enlist a number of the blacks. Their services were bought readily by little gifts. Great, however, were the lamentations of their chiefs who protested against the desertion of their choicest warriors; they had to be propitiated, too, for the White Guard could not afford to leave enemies in its back. Forty picked aboriginals accompanied the volunteers. They were, of course, supplied with horses and learnt quickly to manage their animals and to get pace out of them. It was partly due to their assistance that the White Guard crossed the interior without suffering worse losses.
In camp on the Katherine River the White Guard was joined by twenty-seven volunteers from the Palmerston district who brought several hundred reserve rifles and much ammunition smuggled in from Queensland as well as some luxuries in the shape of tabacco and liquor, and thirty spare horses. The latest news and rumours current in Port Darwin about events in the South cheered the weary patriots, as they heard for the first time of the overthrow of the Moderates and of the uncompromising attitude of the Commonwealth Government. But the information that the Imperial authorities had just ordered the closure of the Northern Territory coast caused profound consternation. At Port Darwin a strict control had already been established; all firearms had been seized by the naval commander as far as it was possible for him; those who wished to retain the use had to take out a licence and to sign a guarantee. The volunteers from Palmerston district were even afraid that a naval detachment might be sent after them once the reason of their departure and their whereabouts became known. To ward off surprises on the part of compatriots of the second degree, the White Guard shifted camp about fifty miles further north-east to a chain of waterholes in a creek bed known as Snowdrop Creek, and scouts were posted to guard the approach from the railway line.
C.H. Kirmess. The Australian Crisis, George Robertson & Company, Melbourne, 1909