[Editor: This is a chapter from the novel The Australian Crisis by C.H. Kirmess.]
In touch with the enemy
The White Guard decided to make the camp in Snowdrop Creek the base of all further operations. Part of the stores and ammunition were hidden away thereabouts. A large shelter shed was constructed, with the idea that it might serve as a hospital some day. A paddock was fenced in for the horses. And to the north a track was blazed, marked for many miles in such a fashion that no true bushman could miss his way back to camp. Several parties of scouts had gone in that direction, accompanied by natives. The country which they had to traverse forms the backbone of Arnhem Land and rivals in barren desolation the arid plains over which the adventurers had come.
Nearly a week elapsed before the first parties of scouts returned. They had discovered Japanese villages much further inland than had been expected. On the high plains, in fact. How far it was from there to the sea they could not tell. For afraid of surprises, they had not penetrated far beyond the foremost lines of the enemy. They had a good reason for this display of caution. The settlements, two of which they had located at a distance of about eighteen miles from each other, were linked up by telegraph, and other wires had been detected stretching away into the unknown North. Other signs of intelligent management and organization abounded. Cultivation paddocks extended round the villages, the bush had been cleared away and the timber had been used in the construction of neat little houses.
The failure of the scouts to explore the Japanese position thoroughly was redeemed somewhat by their activity in another direction. They had made a searching survey of the intervening country and had found a convenient locality which could serve as a stage of the impending campaign, being in much closer proximity to the enemy. Thomas Burt refers to the matter in his diary as follows: — “Our scouts urged that the present base was very suitable as a final refuge, but not within reasonable striking distance, particularly because the hill district was too awful to be crossed more than once except in case of direst need. They recommended that we should move about ninety miles to the north-east to a gully where fresh water was plentiful and whence the Japanese outposts could be reached in an easy ride of two days.” The suggestion was acted upon at once. Nearly all the spare rifles and ammunition, and half the stores were taken to the new camping-ground, which, as subsequent exploration has proved beyond doubt, was situated in one of the head gullies of Liverpool River. And for greater security of retreat two different routes were marked from there to Snowdrop Creek.
Everything was avoided which might convey a premature warning to the enemy. McPartoch never ceased to impress this necessity upon his men, which may account for the want of push exhibited by some of the scouts. But all precautions were in vain, as was shown when two bolder pioneers, who had relied on the fleetness of their horses and good fortune to carry them right to the seaboard, returned to the new base in company of a Japanese dignitary attended by two servants. It was altogether a curious incident. The two whites had come unexpectedly upon a number of Japanese working in a depression in the forest, who did not give them time to escape unnoticed, but, throwing away their implements, rushed forward to meet them with all the signs of pleasurable excitement. It was, for representatives of the ruling race, too late then to run away from unarmed Asiatics. So they allowed themselves to be escorted to the nearest village, where to their great surprise they were welcomed by an English-speaking, polite headman, who gave a dinner in their honour. Under cover of his hospitality, he questioned them closely on the motives of their presence in those parts, and even alluded, in an easy, confidential way, to the White Guard. But the Australians remained perfectly cool, as if they did not know what he was talking about. They played the part of tourists on an excursion from Port Darwin. After dinner, the dignitary arrived on horseback and was introduced by their host. He, too, proved to be a good linguist and interesting gossip and did not forget to refer to the Queensland irregulars also. At last he said: “I have been entrusted with a mission to the commander of the White Guard. As you, gentlemen, have come to enlarge your knowledge of the Northern Territory, you would surely like to make the acquaintance of this distinguished officer; if so, I shall be glad to show you the way in the morning.” Enraged at the manner in which they were made the dupes of the wily Asiatics, the Australians agreed on condition that he would guide them back if he failed. They stayed for the night with their host and were made quite comfortable. The Japanese dignitary kept his promise. Starting at sunrise, he conducted them back to camp without going wrong once, and he did so, moreover, in record time, arriving in the middle of the second day. The two whites noticed that he was guided by minute signs on tree stems and rocks. It was proof that the enemy, on his part, had explored the country well.
The Japanese dignitary did not beat about the bush. He requested the honour of an interview with McPartoch, and told him that the headmen of the settlement had been warned — by the Imperial authorities at Port Darwin, he pretended — that a large number of Queenslanders were moving against them in no friendly spirit. For some days the outposts had reported their presence. So it had been decided that he should hasten to meet the whites to assure them that his race stood for peace and progress. As the white friends who accompanied him and whom he had encountered in the zone of settlement could confirm, the only war his compatriots were waging was against vermin and wilderness. In doing so they were fighting for the cause of humanity and civilization, and they would allow nothing to stand in the path to hinder them. Therefore he had come to implore the whites that they might not break in suddenly and without notice upon the refugees, because the latter, in their ignorance, might take alarm and might, if thrown into a state of excitement, inflict very serious harm upon incautious, unannounced visitors.
The menace, lurking beneath the calm courtesy of this emissary, aroused the anger of the white leaders. They regarded him as a spy. Some demanded that he should be treated as such with all severity, and a good many others were in favour of his retention as prisoner. But he never flinched when McPartoch told him plainly that he had a good mind not to permit him to go back. The Japanese dignitary wanted to know what he had done to deserve punishment. He had placed himself in their power, trusting to the principle accepted by all civilized people, that voluntary negotiators should be immune, whatever the quarrel might be. And he added that, if he should remain away for long without any satisfactory explanation, his compatriots would lose confidence in the fairness of the whites. For which reason he recommended strict adherence to international custom and to the highest standard of fair dealing in all relations between the two races, as a matter of the greatest interest to the Australians, who were in a minority in these parts and should, therefore, for their own sake, be the champions of law and order.
After a short deliberation, it was decided that the dignitary should be allowed to return to his own people, together with his servants. But he was asked to understand that the White Guard did not recognize him officially, and that he would not be looked upon and treated as a messenger of peace if he should be overtaken after a period of grace of twenty-four hours had elapsed. It seems that his dauntless bearing and cool audacity gave rise to some anxious discussions among the volunteers about the chances of the expedition, though it is most unlikely that anybody should have proposed the abandonment of their task. Probably the bushmen indulged merely in that inveterate habit of theirs to “argue a point,” to dissect sportively the pros and cons of their chances. There must have been some dispute, because without some reason McPartoch would not have delivered the following address, which has been written down in Thomas Burt’s diary:
“Australians! Comrades!” he said, “was our cause just when we set out, or were we fools to come all this way? If the latter is the case, it behoves us to finally expose our true character by applying for board and lodging to the British authorities at Port Darwin. For back we cannot go. Apart from a worse repetition of the hardships which have cost already the lives of so many brave friends, how could we dare to show our faces again anywhere among upright sons of the Commonwealth after a ghastly failure through cowardice? If we were right in the beginning, I do not see that our risks have become heavier meanwhile. We came to make war on the invaders and we did not count on any help from outside. Some may say that the Empire must have forsaken us, judging by the impertinence of the enemy. Let it be so, or otherwise. It cannot make our sight keener, our aim surer, our rifles carry any further. And it is on these matters our own cause, the cause of Australia, depends for success. If the people of the Commonwealth seem to hesitate and to be slow of action, it must be because they are not fully awake to their danger, or because they do not yet trust firmly their own strength. It is for you to decide if by our example we could inspire our nation with this confidence, if we could impel her to get rid of doubt and doubters, to rally to our side in the fight for our common destiny. I believe we could. Let us but maintain our position, and we shall not stand alone for long. Six hundred willing whites should be able to render the soil of their country too hot for brown or yellow mongrels to camp on. And should defeat be our lot, all I can say is this: let the survivor remember that Australia is big and full of harbours of refuge where patriots need not fear betrayal.”
This manly speech brushed away all scruples, if such had really existed. Loud shouts of applause rewarded the brave commander. The dice had been cast. A handful of bold bushmen had declared war to the knife against the subjects of a great power. Camp was broken immediately afterwards as a precaution against a possible Japanese surprise, and was re-formed at a point about fifteen miles further north under different conditions. For now, so near the enemy, concentration of the whole force in one spot would have been courting disaster. It was never done again over the entire period of which records are left. Instead, an ever varying number of sub-camps became the rule, mostly three or four, but as many as six or seven in dangerous localities, and the number was never the same for two nights running, for the purpose of confusing the scouts of the enemy. The camps were arranged now in a straight line, now in some simple geometrical figure, as suggested by the nature of the ground. Sentries kept up the connexion between the sub-camps, which were strictly guarded. The night was divided into three parts, and one third of the inmates watched while the others were sleeping.
During the stay on the Katherine River the organization had been perfected. The leaders had recognized that the nature of the country and the disposition of the men made pitched battles an improbability. The White Guard was, indeed, best fitted to guerilla warfare, which would set free every man to act according to his own ideas and to exploit his own knowledge of the bush to the greatest advantage. Under such circumstances the course of contest would be sure to become most intricate. In desultory action it is necessary to specialize the management, so that individual impulse may be given a wide field, while timely checks are ever in readiness to be applied at the right moment in the proper place. It was evident that six lieutenants would be unable to exercise such intimate control. This consideration led to further incisures. Each company was divided into three sections which were entrusted to sub-lieutenants; each section was broken up into three files under the command of sergeants. Thus responsible leadership was created for every file of ten men. The entire staff was selected by equal votes; each company and each section picking its own favourites. But once the choice had been made, stern discipline was exacted. Yet so devoted were the men to the cause, or so little leisure for quarrel was left them by the vigilant enemy, that there are actually no records of insubordination in Thomas Burt’s diary. The sub-lieutenants were distinguished by a thin red ribbon, the sergeants by a thin black ribbon worn on the left sleeve. For the democratic spirit of the force did not permit the use of more pronounced badges, which, besides, would have given a cue to the Japanese marksmen. Perhaps for this reason the Commander-in-Chief and his six lieutenants did without any decoration, relying wholly on their well-known identities.
All the search parties had returned. Only in one further instance the enemy had taken notice. It happened to a file led by a daring Queenslander, who was bent on a flying trip right through the invaded territory. Skirting a village the file was called upon to halt. They rode on, until a hail of bullets, whistling over their heads, stopped them. There was a shout. On all sides Japanese broke cover, waving white handkerchiefs in sign of peace. One of them advanced smiling, asking in very good English whether the visitors had a permit. “Australians do not carry permits on journeys in their own country,” was the cold reply.
“It is indispensable these times to prevent misunderstandings. I believe you can get them on application to the Imperial authorities at Port Darwin,” the Japanese said. “With a permit, I shall be glad to show you over our little settlement myself,” he added. “Without one, your way lies there.” He pointed south.
“You’re wrong. To the north, to the sea,” the Queenslander cried, with a curse. “I’ll see who can stop me.”
His interviewer turned to give an order. Quick as lightning, the Japanese disappeared behind trees and rocks. But the muzzle of their guns showed threateningly. The spokesman changed his tone, “Don’t be a fool,” he exclaimed, in a stern voice. “Within fifty yards round about, you are outmatched ten to one. One signal from me — or one insult,” he cried, for the Queenslander raised his whip, “and you will be wiped out. I act on my orders, I warn you. We don’t want bloodshed. Our race is strong and proud enough not to wish to fight with odds on our side.”
The white men had to accept the position. They had no orders to open hostilities. Of course, they might have feigned retreat, and might have continued their advance afterwards. But such a course would have exposed them to similar, or worse, insults at any time. So they turned back, vowing vengeance under more favourable circumstances.
The humiliation was felt deeply by their comrades. Nevertheless the occurrence lifted a weight off their minds. There had been harassing doubt about the method of opening hostilities. The idea of marching into the Japanese zone of settlement and beginning to shoot people on sight right and left without proper warning, had always seemed hateful. All qualms of conscience or chivalrous objections were set at rest now. For it was the enemy who had committed the first act of war by stopping the advance of white Australians with bullets. If their own rifles rang out, it would be in reply to a challenge and in retribution. Every man yearned for the moment when first blood would be drawn. Realities were wanted to give relief from ever-increasing nervousness which, apart from the influence of isolation and uncertainty, was fostered by the anxiety of the returned scouts, many of whom seemed to scent spies everywhere. That the Japanese had a splendid intelligence service and followed closely every movement of the White Guard, was proved, indeed, by the events of the immediate past. Obviously, the best defence against their tactics was a rapid blow at the heart of their organization, strong enough to crumple up the artfully woven net in which they evidently thought to enmesh the Australians.
High spirits, gaiety even, marked the last day of the great march which brought the White Guard right up against the enemy. It camped at night less than fourteen miles from the nearest Japanese village. The men were in fine condition, and so were their horses, after the interval of rest. Australian horsemen have no peers the world over. They relied on their extreme mobility. Fear was far from their hearts. Like a hailstorm they hoped to sweep over the Turanians, beating to the ground all resistance, and vanishing into bush and jungle before the enemy would have time to collect his wits. The volunteers knew well that their opponents, whose military virtues they respected otherwise, did not excel mounted. That was the great advantage of the White Guard, as long as it did not permit itself to be drawn into a pitched battle, where its superior agility would be neutralized. McPartoch and the more thoughtful leaders never ceased to warn their men against mock heroics.
And their persuasion counted for something. So stern, so bent on success were these six hundred Australians, that they even agreed in solemn council that night to sacrifice their wounded rather than to make a stand under unfavourable conditions. Rescue work was to be strictly limited. If a man fell, a comrade might help him on to his horse, or might get a sound horse, if handy. But if the man was too badly wounded to maintain himself in the saddle, and the enemy was pressing hard, then he should be left to his fate. For the attempt to assist a dangerously wounded comrade would soon gather about him more or less stationary and exposed groups of his mates, who would form a welcome target for the hostile marksmen under cover. The weal or woe of incapacitated individuals could not be allowed to threaten the cause with ruin. Even if one or the other might be saved temporarily he had not much chance to survive the tear and wear of the campaign, without the slightest hospital comforts. He would be a drag on the force, his sufferings would probably depress the spirits of his comrades, and there would be no equivalent for all this trouble. It was better not to try. If the wounded man had energy to scorn the mercy of aliens, the last shot from his revolver would place him beyond their reach.
Such were the merciless yet necessary rules formulated by the gallant volunteers, before whom there was no other alternative but victory or death. In practice the rigour abated somewhat. Within each file the promptings of natural friendship drew together little clans of two or three or four members, and it soon became customary among these to bind themselves solemnly that, whatever might befall until the end of the war, they would live and die together. Friends thus linked always rode and fought side by side. As only a few men were involved in each case, and this system served to restrain outsiders, the leaders tolerated it. It was, of course, understood that, where duty demanded such heroic self-sacrifice, there could be no room for Asiatic prisoners. That logical conclusion required no official proclamation.
On July 20, 1912, early in the morning, the White Guard advanced to the assault. Every man knew that the first clash could not be delayed for many hours longer, for the line of march led straight upon the southernmost Japanese village. They rode in a very open formation. The rifles of the vanguard, composed of one company, extended over a wide stretch of country. Two more companies protected the flanks, a fourth the rear, while the other two companies occupied the centre. Spare horses were divided among the groups to provide against losses, but the reserve animals and the stores, which had been re-packed on the quieter steeds, remained with Thomas Burt’s commissariat company in the middle column. Altogether, the few hundred men covered, from the scouts of the extreme front to the last rear file, about five miles in length and three miles in width. Though very often lost to each other’s sight, the divisions remained in perfect touch by means of a simple code of signals — animal cries, in the striking imitation of which bushmen are adept. As they developed their lines in halts and dashes, it would not have been possible even for a careful observer to estimate correctly the strength of each unit or of the entire force. This was another measure of protective deception well thought out.
The scouts had advanced about eight miles when they were challenged suddenly by a small detachment of Japanese who pushed forward boldly within talking distance, waving white handkerchiefs. McPartoch had ridden immediately behind the vanguard and hurried to the spot, curtly asking what they wanted. The Japanese, meanwhile, had thrown down their ensigns of peace and raised a long pole, on which they unfurled a Union Jack. Then they solemnly bared their heads to the flag. The Australians looked on in stony silence. McPartoch repeated his question. In reply the flag was pushed under his nose, as if it was expected that the white man should salute it. He pushed it disdainfully aside, among shouts of derision from the volunteers. Next, the Japanese covered themselves before the spokesman, addressed him in these words: “In the name of His Britannic Majesty! why do you come here in martial array? We are peaceful subjects of His Imperial Majesty. You are welcome, but first lay down your arms!”
A roar went up. All the pent-up fury, all the mortal hatred against the impudent invader who dared to dictate to Australians on Australian soil, found vent in it. A hundred muzzles were lowered — the answer came in a flash. From the bodies of the fallen Japanese, dark blood oozed, staining the Union Jack which had tumbled in between them. McPartoch dashed forward and seized the flag. The van wavered for a second or two, then swept back in wild stampede, fleeing instinctively from a prepared trap. And the whole White Guard was engulfed in the panic-like retreat. It saved them from loss. For immediately afterwards, from thickets on the left flank and from a ridge in front the enemy discharged volley after volley. Some miles back the fugutives eased their pace. As the men of the different companies met, pale, dishevelled, they broke out, all at once, in a great shout of laughter. It ran right through the ranks. The tension was relieved. They were now committed irrevocably. Swiftly and resolutely they faced round again. Order was restored. The scouts plodded on tenaciously, and soon the firing began quite lively. At last the death struggle between the two races had begun in earnest.
C.H. Kirmess. The Australian Crisis, George Robertson & Company, Melbourne, 1909
behoves = an alternative spelling of “behooves” (meaning, to be advantageous, necessary, or proper)
[Editor: Corrected “patroits need not” to “patriots need not”; “vowing vengence” to “vowing vengeance”; “propably depress” to “probably depress”.]
[Note: As the correct spelling of “vengeance” is used elsewhere (at the start of Part I Chapter XI “Furor Australiensis” and at the start of Part II Chapter VI “The death ride”), this would indicate that the use of “vengence” was a spelling error. However, as a general note, whilst “vengence” is not listed in the readily available modern dictionaries as an archaic spelling, it nonetheless may be an alternative older spelling of “vengeance”, as used in (for example):
1) Encyclopaedia Britannica; or, A Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and Miscellaneous Literature, fourth edition, Archibald Constable and Company, Edinburgh, 1810, volume XVII, page 10 (line 24)
2) Samuel Halkett and John Laing. A Dictionary of the Anonymous and Pseudonymous Literature of Great Britain, William Paterson, Edinburgh, 1882, page 45 [actually column 45], (under the entry “Admonition (an) or Warning”)
3) John Jamieson. Jamieson’s Scottish Dictionary: An Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language, new edition, Alexander Gardner, Paisley, 1882, page 117 (under the entry “To Scanse of, v.a. Apparently to investigate”).]
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