[Editor: This is a chapter from The Yellow Wave: A Romance of the Asiatic Invasion of Australia (1895) by Kenneth Mackay.]
The defence of Longreach.
When Leroy left the ruined house, his first impulse was to at once confront Hoffman; but as he hurried towards the outworks this resolve first weakened, then was put aside. Knowing his soldiery, he recognized that what he had just seen was possible of accomplishment in spite of all that his officers could do. He had Hoffman’s assurance that he had done all in his power to prevent needless brutality, and he felt that, under the circumstances, he could take no other course but to believe his statement.
Standing gazing on the murdered girls, the man’s numbed but not yet dead nobility of character rose for a moment superior to the grosser passions which of late years had crushed it back into dim, almost forgotten, recesses of his being. Filled with righteous wrath, he was prepared to measure out punishment on the heads of the killers — ay, even if the sword-strokes which let out their miserable lives cut from him the allegiance of the army he led.
But now, as he walked towards Hoffman’s quarters, ambition once more asserted its potent sway; he was still filled with rage, pity, shame, but all these feelings now ran their course subject to the cold guidance of reason.
Emotions such as prompted his first impulse were the peculiar property of women, and of men unencumbered by supreme responsibilities; but he was a soldier, a leader before whose grasp vast possibilities lay, and so he must thrust aside this ghastly detail on which he had chanced as impracticable of solution by ordinary methods. A quarrel with Hoffman was not to be thought of, while the discovery of the actual criminals was worse than hopeless. Above all, would he be justified, when face to face with the enemy, in risking disaffection among his followers for the sake of such a quixotic quest?
Reason answered, No. And at last, falling back on the old ground that Heather’s safety was bound up in his remaining absolute leader of the Mongols, Leroy turned into Hoffman’s quarters determined to keep what he had seen to himself, not as a matter of willingness, but as an act of expediency.
In the morning the Commander-in-Chief returned to Mayne River junction, where everything was in readiness for the movement on Longreach. At Charleville no symptoms of serious attack as yet manifested themselves. During the night small bodies of horsemen had come into collision with the outposts, but beyond this the scouts reported that there were no signs of the enemy within touch. So Leroy left Hoffman to complete his works with little danger of opposition, at any rate for the present.
On reaching Mayne River station, the General found that all communication between his advanced posts and Longreach was cut off. This was of little importance as regarded touch with Dromeroff, for the line from Hughenden viâ Normanton and Cloncurry was open. Still, it meant that the alarm had been given.
A telegram from Dromeroff confirmed Leroy’s fears. The enemy was on the alert, and had begun to blow up the line from Winton.
Warned in time, Dromeroff had pushed on a column supported by a Maxim gun, which now held the road to within ten miles of Longreach. Acting on his own responsibility, the officer commanding at Mayne River had despatched every available truck, crammed with men, to support the flying column which had started the night before to cover the Mayne River road.
The latest news from the Point informed Leroy that this column had succeeded in holding the railway as far as the Thompson River, and that the bridge was for the present safe, the enemy being unable to face the fire of the Maxim guns.
Wiring Dromeroff to push on at all hazards, and so divide the defending line, Leroy started for the front with every man he could find rolling stock to carry.
The officer in command of the Longreach volunteer detachment had received a wire from Rockhampton on the night Leroy reached Charleville, to the effect that a warlike force of some sort had landed in the Gulf, and was advancing by rail. How far they had got the message did not say. It had come from Cooktown, where Frank McLean had arrived, and only contained the meagre information he himself possessed. Regarding it as a hoax, the Lieutenant did nothing beyond sending a reply asking for something definite. An hour later he got his answer from Townsville, announcing the sacking of Hughenden, and almost before the instrument ceased ticking, a further telegram came to the effect that Charleville was in the hands of the invaders. Following this, the bewildered Lieutenant received orders from the officer in command at Rockhampton to get away all the women and children, and to destroy both lines of railway as far as practicable. This done, he was to hold the Rockhampton-Longreach railroad with all the men he could muster, until such time as support could reach him.
Placed suddenly in a position calculated to test the resources even of a trained veteran, Lieutenant Jones held the message in one hand, while with his other he scratched his head. Then, after the custom of his countrymen, he walked into the nearest bar and had a drink.
Being in private life a draper, who combined extreme affability (some people called it servility) with a nice discriminating faculty as between good and bad marks, Mr. Jones had thriven amazingly, and now called his shop an emporium, and himself a merchant importer.
Left to follow his natural bent, it is probable that he would have rested content with aldermanic honours, and the privilege of adding the magic letters J.P. to his name. Personally, he had no cravings for blood, nor did he pine to lead the Longreach fencibles to the muzzles of the enemy’s rifles. In fact, to him might have been applied the remark made by a certain colonel to a Sydney military commission, when he said that it seemed to him impossible to combine the fierceness of the soldier with the tameness of the clerk.
Mrs. Jones, however, thought otherwise. This misguided lady had conceived the idea that, if her husband became a lieutenant, she must of necessity be entitled to call herself Mrs. Lieutenant. Being already brigadier-general in the Jones household, this settled it. The local member was rather heavily represented in the debit column of the emporium ledger, and so, as a natural consequence, when the position became vacant, Mr. Jones was gazetted on the legislator’s recommendations.
During the piping days of peace things went fairly smoothly with Lieutenant Jones, under the watchful supervision of the Government drill-instructor.
Thanks to that obliging ‘non-com.’ he passed his examination in a way which made it hard to understand why he always allowed the sergeant to whisper the word of command before uttering it himself. But as he shouted liberally, his men let this peculiarity trouble them little. Longreach was too hot a hole for the working out of abstruse problems.
But now war had come, and it was a ‘line’ in which the soft-goods man had had no actual experience. In his perplexity he naturally turned to his guide, philosopher, and friend, Sergeant Hegarty. That respected relic of the British army was, as luck would have it, reclining on a bench in the bar, an empty pewter in his hand, the froth from its late brimming measure frosting his moustache, and gleaming like a star on the crimson expanse of his nose.
Walking up to the instructor, Lieutenant Jones shook him. At first only a grunt rewarded his efforts, but as the shaking continued, the sergeant rose to a sitting position and demanded thickly what the deuce he wanted. Then seeing who it was, he added affably: ‘Hullo, Jones, old cock, I don’t mind if I do.’ Passing over this familiar mode of address, Jones stood the necessary drink, and then led his ‘non-com.’ into a private room and read him the telegrams.
Roused by the message, the old soldier sobered up instantly. ‘Faix, Captain,’ said he, ‘it’s the divil to pay, an’ no pitch hot, right enough.’
‘But what am I to do?’ asked Jones feebly.
For a moment Hegarty looked at his superior with pitying contempt, then he answered stoutly:
‘Obey orders, Captain.’
‘Get the wimmin and kids away, and foight the divils, av course.’
‘But I never fought in my life.’
‘Bedad, then, you can’t begin earlier,’ grinned Hegarty; ‘an’ by the powers it will be a hell of a tussle intoirely.’
‘Don’t you think we’d better retire?’
‘Is it guardin’ the wimmin ye mane?’ asked Hegarty; ‘not in the face of these orders, Captain. You send a couple of engines along the lines to feel for the inimy; if there ain’t any to be had, bicycles ’ull be better than nothing. Manetime I’ll rally up all the buoys.’
Before daybreak, thanks to Hegarty’s exertions, the alarm was spread, and every man who chanced to have a weapon was under arms.
Roused to some sense of duty, Lieutenant Jones now lost no time in carrying out his sergeant’s suggestions; and as fast as was practicable every woman and child was removed into safety.
Warned by the pilot engines of the near approach of the enemy, the townsmen began to tear up the line, only to be driven back by the Mongol advance columns. Ill armed, and totally without artillery, they now had to fall back across the river.
Barricading the streets, and filling the houses with riflemen, Jones and Hegarty then waited the attack. About five o’clock in the afternoon it began. Standing on the barricade, the old sergeant said grimly:
‘Nothin’ but the Almoighty or reinforcements can save us, buoys; but, tare an’ ages, is it the loikes of us is goin’ to run afore a lot of d——d cabbage-growin’ chows! Lie down, buoys,’ he added as the fire opened, ‘and blaze at ’em betwixt the chinks.’
Not knowing when reinforcements might come up, Leroy poured a heavy fire from his machine-guns into the barricades and then ordered a general advance.
Protected by their cover, the defenders had so far lost few men, and thanks to Hegarty’s orders, ‘to fire low, and at something,’ the Mongols suffered heavily as they rushed to the assault. Still, though their ranks showed many a gap, the infantry never wavered. Their General’s eyes were on them, and closing each break in their line, on they came.
‘Give the yaller-bellies the cold steel fur it!’ roared the sergeant, as the Mongols charged the breastwork.
Then, sword in hand, he leaped on the barricade. Inspired by their leader, the volunteers met thrust with thrust, while those who had no bayonets clubbed their guns and rifles, and battered at the heads of the Mongols, with the grim strength of despair.
Mad with the lust of battle, Hegarty fought in the foremost ranks. Bayonet clashed against bayonet, and men trampled over each other in their fierce haste to slay. Then, just as the defenders began to give ground, a chance shot struck the Mongol leader, and he fell. For an instant his followers wavered, and seeing their indecision, Hegarty waved his sword above his head, and, leaping over the breastwork, yelled:
‘They’re licked; intil ’em, lads!’
Borne back by the resistless rush, the Mongols gave way, and then, missing their leader’s voice, broke and fled.
‘Back under cover, buoys,’ shouted Hegarty as the Maxims again opened fire.
‘Well, Captain,’ muttered the sergeant, as he lay down beside his officer, ‘how do ye feel at all?’
‘Right enough,’ replied Jones, who had fought with the best, and who had sense enough not to object to his sergeant’s assumption of command; ‘only I’ve broken my sword.’
‘More power to ye,’ whispered his companion; ‘it must have been a grate sthroke intoirely.’
‘But it wasn’t,’ replied Jones irritably; ‘I just leant on it when I slipped, and it snapped — a weapon I gave six pounds for, too.’
‘That’s nothing,’ grinned Hegarty, ‘oi’ve had me own bayonet turn roun’ from a nigger’s brisket, and job me in the jaw, before to-day. Hullo, here they come again!’
As he spoke, a man ran up.
‘Our powder’s nearly out, Captain,’ he said.
‘What’s to be done?’ asked Jones helplessly.
‘Hould this barricade without it,’ roared Hegarty, his Irish blood up. ‘Eh, buoys?’
But the men began to murmur, and Hegarty himself saw its utter madness.
‘We’ll give ’em one more taste of our quality while the powder lasts, then retrate while they’re in confusion,’ he suggested.
A cheer told him they were ready, and then silently they waited the coming foe.
During the afternoon a train from Barcaldine had brought up the local company, and a body of picked civilians who had rifles of their own. These, under their own officer, were posted in a position to oppose Dromeroff’s advance, and if possible prevent him from turning Jones’s flank. Like all the rest, however, they had little ammunition, and their supply had already been lessened in order to provide the men facing Leroy with a few extra rounds.
Hearing the sound of firing from the north-west, Leroy determined to carry the barricade before Dromeroff arrived.
Not to do so was alike repugnant to his pride and calculated to impair his prestige.
Besides, to let this paltry force defy him would not only lessen the enemy’s opinion of their opponents’ courage, but would be certain to fill the Mongols with doubts as to their own invincibility.
Riding to the front of the re-formed companies, their General put himself at their head. Taking no notice of their wild shout, he pointed to the barricade, and, putting his charger into a walk, advanced towards it, his sword resting m its scabbard.
Keeping up a continuous fire with their automatic rifles, the Mongols continued their forward movement under a hot discharge from the breastwork and houses. When less than a hundred yards from the barricade, Leroy’s horse fell under him. Springing to his feet, the General drew his sword, and, giving the word in a voice that rang out above the roll of the musketry, he dashed on, followed by his troops.
Again Hegarty leaped on the barricade, brave as a lion, and as before his men fought like devils. For a moment the bayonets met, and the whirling rifle-butts sank with dull thuds into shattered skulls. Making straight for the old sergeant, Leroy engaged him hand-to-hand. Never flinching, Hegarty parried his fierce thrust. But useless was all his valour against the first swordsman of his day. For a little the swords rang against each other, then, breaking down the gallant Irishman’s defence, Leroy swung his sabre aloft like lightning, and with one mighty downstroke cleft him to the chin. Tossing his arms, Hegarty fell back on a pavement of dead and dying, and, following his advantage, Leroy sprang over the breastwork, followed by the Mongols, and the position was won.
Leaderless and broken, the defenders fought no more. Panic-stricken, they fled before the dripping bayonets of the foe, only to meet Dromeroff’s victorious column. Outflanked, the weary survivors became a helpless mob, and the retreat a merciless butchery. At the railway-station Leroy and Dromeroff met.
Sheathing his sword, the General grasped his comrade’s hand.
‘Well met, mon brave!’ said he. ‘Save all the prisoners you can; they are too useful to break good bayonets on.’
‘Pardieu! you are right, General,’ exclaimed Dromeroff; ‘but these tigers have tasted blood. Still, I will do what I can.’
That night the two commanders held a consultation.
There was much to discuss; but both were men of action rather than words. Dromeroff told all that had happened since he parted from his chief in the form of a concise report, and Leroy, in a few words, explained his future plan of campaign.
While discussing Fort Mallarraway, Leroy discovered that the squadron he had sent to capture Heather had failed in their mission. A survivor had been picked up at one of the stations about mid-day, who declared that the whole party had escaped into the Fort.
Dromeroff had left orders for the cavalry to invest it. But now that Longreach was taken, he proposed attacking it in earnest with artillery.
‘It must be stormed,’ admitted Leroy. ‘Such a position in our rear is of course impracticable.’
‘It shall not exist two days from now,’ remarked Dromeroff confidently.
Hiding the keen interest he felt about the matter from his second in command, Leroy said carelessly:
‘I will see to it myself; I want to personally inspect Hughenden; you have enough to do here, mon Colonel. Longreach must be put in a position of defence, and your forces pushed on for Charleville without an hour’s delay. So leave this small nut for me to crack.’
So it happened that Leroy went North, while Dromeroff remained at Longreach to fortify the position and personally superintend the advance of his columns.
Kenneth Mackay, The Yellow Wave: A Romance of the Asiatic Invasion of Australia, London: Richard Bentley and Son, 1895, pages 300-311