Part III Chapter IX [The Australian Crisis, by C.H. Kirmess, 1909]

[Editor: This is a chapter from the novel The Australian Crisis by C.H. Kirmess.]

Chapter IX


Under the circumstances, Colonel Ireton did not accomplish much in Port Darwin. Apart from a more satisfactory arrangement of local services in connexion with his mission, his one success was the exaction of a firm promise from headquarters that two more steamers fitted with wireless telegraph would be despatched to the North at once. One of these he intended to station off the secret Japanese base, while the other was to patrol the coast regularly. He did not prolong his stay, and on the evening of December 9 he arrived again in the fort.

The Federal garrison had hardly ventured out of barracks in the meantime. One night a determined attempt had been made by swarms of the enemy to burn down the fort. The free use of firearms had kept them in check. But the prowlers had carried off their dead and wounded under cover of the darkness, leaving no trace by which they might be identified, and no proof of their criminal enterprise. Otherwise, the Japanese continued to ignore the existence of the whites, except in one particular. A new jetty was being constructed in place and on the foundations of the old one which had been destroyed. The invaders worked at it in a great hurry. Large gangs of toilers were employed day and night. Even some of the most substantial buildings were demolished, so that the seasoned timber, of which there was evidently a dearth, might be used for this structure. And a few Australian soldiers, who followed the peaceful occupation of fishing, were warned off its neighbourhood. As they did not seem to take notice, fences were erected on land, and well manned Japanese boats patrolled unceasingly the waters round the jetty.

Colonel Ireton had no sooner heard of the fresh development than he regarded it as a hint of providence. The jetty was all but completed. So next morning he ordered his steamer alongside. As she approached, a Japanese hastened forward and asked the captain for a wharfage fee. He was referred to the Colonel, who, of course, refused to listen to such demands. Nothing more happened until the steamer began to discharge cargo. Then an unarmed party of Japanese advanced boldly and seized the first cases. They held their ground unflinchingly, though the carriers tried to drive them off with blows, and unfolded a Union Jack, thus imparting an official character to their proceedings. Colonel Ireton, on being informed, perceived that he had fallen into the trap of the enemy, who had foreseen what he would do and who had devised a careful plan to outwit him. It was too late to withdraw with honour. Accepting the situation, he alarmed the garrison and marched down to the jetty fifty men under his personal command. Meanwhile the other side had not remained passive. The Elders were wending their way to the same place, attended by a large escort. Both parties arrived almost at the same moment. The Colonel ordered his men to remove the goods, which consisted of half a dozen cases. But the Elders prevented the execution of this instruction by sitting down, in calm deliberation, on top of the disputed cases. Even the Colonel recoiled from the idea of treating these magistrates with the offhandedness which would have been meted out to the common rabble. There was an awkward silence. Then he asked curtly what they meant by robbing the Commonwealth. “We rob nobody and nothing,” their spokesman replied. “We simply place embargo on the goods in lien of payment of the fee due to us for the use of the jetty.” “This is Australian soil,” said the Colonel; “nothing will be paid for landing cargo in our own territory.” “That may be so,” was the retort, “but this jetty was built under your eyes by our people for the benefit of the community. We do not wish you to have anything to do with it at all, for fear it might be burned down again. But if you use it, it is only just that you should pay the ordinary fee which we charge against our own steamers, and which would be enforced against the shipping of all nations.”

It was evident that nothing could be gained by arguing the point. So the Colonel said: “Apply to the courts. But I won’t have violence here while I and my comrades can shoot straight.” Turning to his men, he called out: “Remove the goods. If any fellow resists, shift him.” The Elders exclaimed in chorus: “The British Empire stands for justice. We cannot get justice here.” “Go then where you can,” mocked the Colonel, and added: “You have no case at all. In every civilized country you have to get a permit before you can start building. I am the Federal officer in authority in this district, and I know you did not apply to me for permission. By the law of the nation, I can command you to remove your jetty altogether. I shall do so if there is any more obstinacy. Forward, men!” The spokesman stepped close to Colonel Ireton: “Take care,” he hissed, “Japan is stronger than your Commonwealth.”

He was cut short by a scuffle, in which he and his colleagues were brushed aside contemptuously, while the coolies were knocked down in all directions. Next moment the Australians had secured the goods and were continuing the discharging of the steamer regardless of the multitudes of Japanese thronging round, who for once had deserted their ordinary duties and were standing about in thick clusters at short distance, as if they had been invited to witness the hoped-for discomfiture of the whites. Though sadly disappointed, they never stirred. No sign, no order came from the Elders, and in its absence no Japanese dared to spring to the assistance of his leaders. Discipline held the Asiatics in an iron grasp, which even the sight of acute humiliation could not relax. The Elders exchanged a few words in their own language and retired, followed by all their faithful subjects. Obviously, they considered that, after all, the propitious moment had not yet arrived for a final reckoning with the hated Federals. The steamer left the jetty before nightfall, for Colonel Ireton did not like to court the risk of another conflagration.

After the jetty incident the Japanese did not let a day pass by without some demonstration of their utter dislike of the Australians. They had already exterminated the wild animal life in the district of older settlement to such an extent that hunting trips had to last over several days before sufficient game could be had to vary the monotonous diet of the garrison. Now they began to destroy the fish in the inlet by explosions of dynamite, doubtless for the purpose of putting an end to the angling sport, which formed perhaps the chief recreation of the lonely white exiles. This callous behaviour outraged the clean sporting instincts for which the Australians are famous, and, probably more than anything else, caused the latter to loathe the alien race.

But this was not the worst. Even while Colonel Ireton was still absent on his visit to Port Darwin, curious accidents commenced to happen. Bridges, which had often been crossed in perfect safety, became unstable. Planks shifted. In the log roads over swamps, deep treacherous holes opened, concealed mostly under a cover of branches or grass. Several horses had been hurt at these danger spots and had to be killed. A man broke his leg; another was thrown by his frightened animal on such an occasion, and fractured his collar-bone. At first it was thought that the rainy season, which was now at its height, was responsible for the bad state of the tracks. Colonel Ireton’s sub-commander wrote a letter about it to the Elders and received a courteous acknowledgement regretting the mishaps, but pointing out that the roads and bridges had not been designed to withstand the weight of horse traffic. Colonel Ireton himself was inclined on reflection to suspect a new villainy on the part of the cunning Asiatics. There seemed to be so much method about these occurrences. He could not prove anything, however. So he had to hold his peace and to be content with warning his men to be very careful and to travel only in broad daylight.

The Colonel kept his men much in the fort now. His idea was to lie quiet until the promised steamers should arrive, when he intended to boldly plant a detachment at the secret base and to generally overawe the enemy. But this penning-up of a garrison bereft of enjoyments and diversions could not be carried out for long without evil consequences. Although the Commander was well liked, discipline began to suffer. The veterans of the Western campaign grumbled. That affair had been breezy. Nobody thought much of the heavy losses, which were forgotten in the great patriotic stir. Here, on the contrary, everything stagnated. There was no action to defeat the creeping tactics of the coloured aliens, no hope of a change by which this dead waste of weeks and months might be justified. It was bad enough to break the hearts of heroes. So Colonel Ireton had to give way by consenting to another series of hunting trips. As it had not rained for some days, he decided to lead personally the first party.

He rode out with fifty men on the morning of December 12. About twelve miles to the south he came to the largest bridge of the district, over a creek dry in winter, but through which torrents roared often in summertime. However, there was only a chain of ponds in it now. A gang of coolies were working at the bridge when the whites approached. But these fellows disdainfully turned their backs on the latter, as had been their habit of late, and retired without uttering a word. The Colonel called out a warning. Three men cantered over the structure and signalled that all was safe. They were too hasty. Suddenly, when they were within a few yards of the other side, a crash was heard. Planks broke, and two riders were precipitated into the bottom of the creek. The third just managed to parry his horse and to hurry back. The coolies looked on from some distance, without moving a limb to render assistance. This callous apathy threw the Colonel into a violent rage. Leading his escort through the bed of the creek, he ordered the arrest of the loitering Japanese. While some soldiers pursued and secured them, without meeting with any resistance, others attended to the victims. One was dead, having dislocated his neck in the fall. His comrade was unconscious and suffered from a broken arm. Both horses had to be shot.

Colonel Ireton immediately returned to the fort with his eleven prisoners. He was determined to bring matters to a head. In his capacity as Chief Federal Magistrate and Commander-in-Chief, he proclaimed martial law over the Japanese settlement the same afternoon and informed the Elders that he would try all offenders, and in the first place the arrested coolies, before a summary court of justice consisting of Commonwealth officers appointed by him. He further stated that the trial would commence on the following day at 10 a.m. in front of the fort, and that an alleged ignorance of the English language on the part of the accused would not be allowed to interfere with the course of the justice in Imperial territory, before an Imperial court; if, however, an interpreter should be furnished by the Japanese community, his appearance would not be objected to. Notices to this effect were also nailed to the outsides of the principal buildings in the four quarters of the capital, and a further supply was handed to the Elders by an orderly of the Commandant, with the peremptory demand that they should be published in every outlying village.

The Board of Five solemnly protested against the introduction of martial law, on the ground that it had not been proved that properly constituted civil courts would be unable to deal with any matters arising among the settlers. For this reason they refused to help the court without a guarantee that such action would not be taken as an acknowledgement of its powers. The Colonel refused to listen to any conditions. Nevertheless, a Japanese offered his services privately. But he would accept no payment from the whites. He said that he would rather rely on the prisoners for his reward. All this, of course, was a farce originating in the desire of the Elders to get into touch with the captives. The Asiatic mind ever prefers to move in curves rather than in a straight line.

Proceedings opened punctually at 10 a.m. on December 13. Deal benches formed the seat of justice, surmounted by a tent roof supported by bare poles, so that sun or rain were kept out and yet the view of the audience was not obstructed.

The court consisted of twelve officers under the presidency of Colonel Ireton, The two other officers acted as Crown Prosecutor and Counsel for the Defence. Fifty men, with fixed bayonets, kept guard. The remainder of the garrison was held ready for instant action within the fort No Japanese were visible, with the exception of the interpreter, who begun by doubting, on behalf of his clients, the competency of the court and subsided only when he was told that he did not represent counsel. The ordinary routine of courts was observed. The Prosecutor outlined his case and called witnesses — the members of the hunting party — who were then cross-examined by the other side. Their evidence brought out the facts clearly, the collapse of the bridge, the presence of the accused, who had uttered no warning and had rendered no help. As for the defence, the interpreter was irrepressible in spite of the previous snub and soon ran it himself. He maintained that it had not been proved that the prisoners had been on or near the scene of the disaster. The witnesses, in reply, stated that all the accused belonged to the gang which had worked on the bridge. So the interpreter was thrown back on the old assertion that the occurrence was an accident and that any possible blame must attach to the whites, because they had carelessly subjected the structure to an overweight.

The court found that the prisoners worked on the bridge when the hunting party approached, and that it was their duty to warn travellers of its unsafeness. This had not been done, either from gross neglect or from malice, and loss of life had been the direct consequence of the omission. Furthermore, no help had been rendered, either by them or by their mates, which callousness aggravated the offence. The prisoners, therefore, were found guilty and were sentenced to a public flogging of twenty-five lashes each.

During the afternoon Colonel Ireton received a communication from the Elders intimating that they were unable to vouch for the maintenance of peace if the feelings of the Japanese community should be outraged by the public execution of the sentence. But he resolved to persist without mercy. His men were enthusiastic and looked forward eagerly to the moment when brown malefactors should writhe under the whiplash of the whites in revenge for so many silent insults. Some of the officers were more anxious, but even the most cautious man had to admit that it was time to take risks. That the Elders, so imperturbable and cool hitherto, should have become so frantic that they condescended to a threatening message, was considered a good sign. The Australians were still convinced that the enemy would not dare to employ open violence; though the Empire might tolerate the outwitting of one of its units by diplomacy, it was inconceivable that its rulers would look on calmly if arms were raised against men who wore its uniform. These soldiers, a mere handful, felt that the whole striking force of the Empire was at their back and conducted themselves accordingly.

Early on December 14 the tent was set up again. Twenty-five yards away four flogging stocks were constructed of broad deal benches fitted with stout leather straps. While these preparations were under way, the Elders requested an interview, but the Colonel postponed it until after demands of justice should be satisfied, as he could not permit criticism of the findings of the court or interference with their proper performance. At 10 a.m. fifty Australians, fully armed, marched out and surrounded the tent where the court was already assembled. A few minutes later the prisoners were brought down, escorted by another detachment of soldiers. An officer read the judgement and then showed the signatures to the oldest captain, whose duty it was to see it carried out. Eleven floggers, who had been selected by ballot from the ranks, one for each culprit, stepped forward and seized their charges. A military surgeon hurriedly examined the prisoners to ascertain whether they were physically fit to undergo the punishment. Then the oldest captain called out in a loud voice: “Now let justice be done!”

Opposite, in a wide half-circle, groups of Japanese clustered in deep silence, nearly without motion, in attitudes of panting suspense. So they remained until they heard the slashing noise of the first blow, and the shriek which followed. A hundred voices took up, repeated, intensified the cry. It was like the wail of a wounded monster. With the suddenness of lightning, the groups dissolved into a whirling sea of humanity, surging forward with stretched arms. They carried no weapons — their mission was a last peaceful appeal of a warlike race. A short command — a white file formed to meet them, dividing, breaking, pushing back the brown flood. Behind, the flogging went on as if nothing was happening. For a moment the Japanese wavered. But the fourfold screams of the victims spurred them to fresh exertions. On they came again, and now they closed with the soldiers, who were forced to use their rifle butts, even their bayonets, to repulse the ju-jitsuing fiends. Suddenly an alert mob outflanked them and rushed swiftly towards the flogging stocks. Before, however, the rioters could interrupt the execution of the sentence, the Colonel had sprung forward and ordered his men to fire; they did so at point blank range, with terrible effect. The rapidly advancing crowd fell back in indescribable disorder. Many of the survivors threw themselves flat on the ground. Their bodies, and those of the slain, remained after a minute the only visible sign of the formidable onset and its fatal end.

The flogging had been done with: the culprits were set free; orders were given to succour the wounded, when, all at once, a new commotion in the Japanese quarters attracted the attention of the Australians. There rose, from behind the low ramparts, a well-armed host. Thin lines dashed forth, curling around the flanks of the handful of Federals. These were now retreating leisurely, as if unconscious of the singular manoeuvre. At a bugle call, the Asiatics threw themselves down. Instinctively, the whites did the same. A volley rang out, followed by terrific sectional fire. The enemy, at last, had come into the open. A large force tried to intercept the retreat to the fort. Colonel Ireton’s efforts were all in the direction of defeating this purpose. With the help of the reserves, who had been left within, he succeeded. The majority of his men regained the sheltering barracks. He himself had to be carried in, shot through the hip. Five officers and forty-two men lay outside, dead or wounded.

As quickly as the battle fury had broken loose it died away. The Japanese army withdrew out of the firing zone and assumed a waiting attitude at a safe distance. From the central offices the Board of Five approached under a Union Jack surmounted by a white towel. They came to dictate the terms of surrender. For that was what it amounted to. Only about two hundred and fifty unwounded defenders were left to oppose the invaders. The provisions in store would hardly last a fortnight and, of course, no relief could be expected. Indeed, the Elders did not look forward to a siege. Apologizing for the painful necessity which had brought them there, they announced that in case of a renewal of hostilities the fort would be a mass of flames within an hour. On the other hand, if peaceful counsels prevailed, they promised that the wounded would receive immediate care. Under the circumstances, the conditions were soon formulated and accepted. Colonel Ireton agreed to ship his whole garrison to Port Darwin as rapidly as the Federal steamer, which served as floating wireless station, could be got alongside the jetty. Only the badly wounded men were to remain behind in charge of the military surgeons, and the Japanese bound themselves to do everything in their power to assist the latter and to supply proper food. The whites retained their arms. As there was not enough space in the vessel for the horses, it was determined that the Japanese should take care of them for three weeks, and should deliver them to any authorized person who might demand them within that period. After that they should become the property of the settlers.

The garrison embarked early on December 16. It must be admitted that the conquerors behaved modestly after their triumph. There was no jeering, no ironical cheering. Colonel Ireton, who should have remained with the other wounded men, insisted on being removed at once. He died at sea, less from his wound than from a broken heart, as his faithful soldiers are fond of asserting. According to his last wish he was buried in the placid waters which lave the shores of the Northern Territory, wastes which he had battled for so bravely, and died for in the bitter end.

C.H. Kirmess. The Australian Crisis, George Robertson & Company, Melbourne, 1909

Editor’s notes:
lave = to lap up against or wash up against

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