[Editor: This is a chapter from The Yellow Wave: A Romance of the Asiatic Invasion of Australia (1895) by Kenneth Mackay.]
The call to arms.
On September 24 the intelligence that war had been declared, accompanied by a warning with regard to possible attacks on capital cities, reached Adelaide by the overland line.
This was the message Professor Jansen had in reality sent before cutting off all communication with Europe.
Deceived by the frequent cry of ‘Wolf!’ the various Australian Cabinets had grown to regard war-scares with an equanimity which even the demand for help from India had failed to seriously shake. Cabinet Ministers excused the financial side of this expedition, on the grounds that it must tighten certain silken bonds which were supposed to unite the colonies with the mother-country, and which, through defective tying or shoddiness of material, required periodic bracing up. The general public, as was its wont, shouted when the soldiers marched away, and then began to laugh at the whole affair. But neither the people nor their advisers deemed the question of hostile attack of sufficient importance to call for special investigation as to present means of resistance.
Occupied by indecent scrambles for office, and arduous efforts to shield or whitewash various members of their respective bodies who had overstepped the bounds of legal honesty, the Parliaments of Australia found little time in which to do anything more useful than flood the pages of Hansard with hopeless twaddle, in which the worker was deified as a god by men who valued him only as a beast of burden on which to ride to place and power.
Standing in the relation of an unknown quantity, the various Labour parties sold their support to either faction in return for value received in the form of concessions; and this system had naturally produced a condition of legislative immorality without precedent in the annals of history. In the excitement of this political debauch, the question of defence dropped out of sight. So long as the Governments of the day had enough men to overawe the working classes when they became openly rebellious, they were satisfied. Naturally the labour members would have displaced even this force were it in their power to do so, but, recognising that this was impossible, they contented themselves with effectually blocking the introduction of any scheme which promised to render it more effective. Moulded for obvious reasons on imperial lines, the Australian war offices were little in touch with the national pulse, and the military service of the colonies now held little in common with its natural aims and objects.
The news that war had actually been declared, produced an immediate and spontaneous revival in military matters. Men who had left the various companies and troops, either disheartened with existing conditions or weary of the dull monotony of drill, crowded to again enrol. Every regiment in Australia could have been raised to double its war-footing in a week but for the one fact that, when the officers commanding made application for arms, it leaked out that they could not be obtained.
Driven from office by what he considered a trick, Sir Robert Blake now realized that his opportunity had come. Rising in his place in the House, he put the following questions without notice to the Minister for War:
‘1. Is it a fact that there are no rapid-firing field-guns in the colony, and that in consequence 16-pounder muzzle-loading siege-guns have to be used?’
‘2. Is it not a fact that the Soudanese had better guns in 1885 than our forces have to-day?’
‘3. Is it not a fact that, while the returns in the official report show that there are 321 rounds per gun available for the 25-pounders, there are only 76 rounds actually in stock?’
‘4. Is it true that there are only 100 rounds each for the twenty 6-inch guns?’
‘5. Is it not a fact that 2,220,000 cartridges imported from England were stored in a damp magazine, and that in consequence of this the powder in the 1,800,000 which remain is defective?’
‘6. Has not rifle practice been curtailed through shortness of ammunition, and is it not absolutely true that the Government has barely 400 rounds per man for 4,000 troops?’
Naturally the Minister refused to answer Sir Robert’s questions without reference to his departmental head, but the Leader of the Opposition could see that he had the Government cornered.
The following day he had an interview with the leader of the Labour Party, and that gentleman, despite the fact that he had consistently opposed any increase in the military estimates, professed himself ready to give Sir Robert a block vote if he moved a vote of censure.
Personally the question interested him little, but the existing Government had refused to support a measure which was very dear to the hearts of his followers. This the Labour Leader had set before Sir Robert as the price of his party’s vote, and Blake had pledged himself to its support.
In due course the Minister for War attempted to answer Sir Robert Blake’s questions, and failed.
Then the Leader of the Opposition tabled a formal motion of censure, which, coming from him, the Government could not ignore. Just before the debate opened, the Premier received a telegram from Sir Peter McLoskie announcing the landing of the Mongols at Point Parker, and asking for immediate help.
Recognising the nearness of the peril, the Hon. Henry Lewis implored the House to go to division without debate. But amid cries of ‘Gag!’ a dozen members sprang to their feet and demanded the right to speak to the motion.
Sir Robert Blake’s speech was brief and to the point. He showed the absolute rottenness of the defence system, pointing out as an instance that the submarine-mine field, which constituted the outer line of defence for the town and port of Newcastle, was situated only a quarter of a mile from the battery and town itself, and showing that, as modern cruisers carried ordnance capable of throwing projectiles seven miles, the enemy’s fleet could lie beyond the marine field, and shell both battery and town in perfect safety. ‘This obsolete form of defence must be situated as in New York — at least seven miles from the position it is meant to defend — to be worth anything at all!’ he thundered, ignoring the fact that his Government had in reality sanctioned the construction of this very work on the eve of their last defeat. Knowing he had nothing to hope for from the Labour Party, the Premier contented himself with pointing out this fact to Sir Robert, and after a short, bitterly sarcastic speech, in which he threw the whole blame of the existing state of affairs on the Opposition, he again begged the House to go to a division, and sat down.
Now a rush of meaningless sound filled the Chamber. Australian members of Parliament invariably show a callous indifference for the Divine warning, ‘Beware of vain repetition’; and to-night, with foes gathering on the sea and the ring of armed and hostile feet echoing on their borders, they shouted their inane and disjointed ravings in the reporters’ weary ears, as if no graver issue than the repeal of the dog-tax hovered overhead. Three days later a blear-eyed, dishevelled House recorded an adverse vote against the Government, and, thanks to the abolition of the absurd custom of Ministerial re-election, Sir Robert Blake took his seat as the head of a fresh Government. Goaded to a sense of its responsibility, alike by public and press indignation, the Legislature promised the new Premier loyal support.
With characteristic impetuosity, Blake had immediately wired McLoskie an offer of help; and now the question arose, how was he to fulfil his promise?
The Indian contingent had taken away the pick both of his officers and men, and those who remained were barely sufficient for local defence. Port Stephen, Port Hacking, Newcastle, and Botany, were all practically open for a hostile landing. Then there were the larrikins and unemployed, to be reckoned with. The latter had during the debate made an attack on the Chinese quarters, and Sydney was, as a natural consequence, already almost in a state of siege.
To further complicate matters, not only was Sir Robert unable to satisfy McLoskie’s urgent demand for ammunition, but he could not get sufficient to supply his own men. The one powder factory in Australia was at present at a standstill. In supplying the orders of the Victorian Government they had used up all their tubes, and, now that communication with England was cut off, were unable to obtain fresh supplies of cartridge alloy. Weakened though the fleet was by the absence of the vessels which had accompanied the contingent as a convoy, Blake now looked to this arm of service as his main line of defence.
He was to receive a rude awakening. In an interview with the Admiral of the station, that officer informed the Premier that imperial orders took precedence of colonial demands. Interests affecting England’s very existence were at stake, and, much as he regretted the circumstance, the colonies must rely for defence solely on themselves. He had orders which necessitated his immediate presence elsewhere.
Blocked at every turn, the Premier met the House with a firm front. Thrown on his own resources, he rose to the occasion, and stood revealed as the self-reliant man of years ago. Suppressing with a contemptuous gesture the howl of abuse which his news brought forth, he announced his intention of ordering all the Northern troops to advance at once to McLoskie’s help.
Filled with bitterness at Blake’s attack, McFee, the late Minister for War, now rose to a point of order.
He quite appreciated the Premier’s difficulties, and his own desire was to aid him in every way. Still, his respect for constitutional methods forced him against his inclinations to challenge the Premier’s right to order these men across the border. By the military Act each man was sworn in to serve in his own colony only. This being the case, he must ask the Premier to remember that they were Englishmen, and as such must resent, ay, fight to the death, any infringement of that glorious birthright of justice and liberty which had been handed down from father to son.
Full of resentment against McLoskie for his treatment of the Labour question, the Labour members, despite their leader’s recent promise, took up McFee’s objection; while one gentleman, who had striven for years to bring about the abolition of camels, sought to show, in the course of a long and fervid speech, that the present state of affairs could be easily traced to the continued presence of these alien animals in the Bourke district.
After the debate on McFee’s objection had lasted for two days, Sir Robert Blake informed the House that he thought they had better save what breath remained for possible future contingencies.
The Northern troops had volunteered to a man, and so effectually disposed of all constitutional difficulties.
What had occurred in Sydney found a counterpart in each of the other colonies. The drain of supplying men to the Indian contingent had in all cases practically completed the disorganization of their military systems; and now, with no navy to depend on, and barely enough ammunition for purposes of purely local defence, the various Cabinets found themselves utterly unable to send either men or material to Queensland.
Following the example of Sir Robert Blake, they now called on the people to find those means for defence which their obsolete and Parliament-dominated war offices were powerless to provide.
On all sides the answer was the same. Capital and labour, face to face with a supreme peril, put aside their natural hatred, and stood united to fight for their children’s lives and their women’s honour. Thinned by voluntary migration to Africa and South America, and driven out by the cheap labour both of the West and the East, the working-classes of Australia had not improved either numerically or physically with the advancing years.
The capitalistic classes, exposed alike to climatic influences and the iron law of environment, had similarly degenerated. The large body who stood midway between the two extremes of the social zone alone retained their full vitality.
Still confronted with a danger which threatened the very existence of the race, the whole community became galvanized into warlike life, and cried out for arms with which to drive back the Mongols into the sea. Again the Cabinets had to reply that they had none. Thrown utterly on their own resources, the people armed themselves as best they could, and while Leroy was busy concentrating his splendidly-equipped and admirably-led army at Charleville, an ill-armed, undisciplined, heterogeneous, but desperately-in-earnest mob began to collect on the Queensland border.
When first the news of the invasion reached Brisbane, McLoskie’s life was in imminent danger. Angry crowds seethed round the Premier’s office and the Houses of Parliament, and demands for the body of the arch-traitor, as the Premier was now called, penetrated to the Chamber itself.
Rising, Sir Peter McLoskie placed the position before the House. Scorning to attempt the defence of an impracticable position, he demanded the support of every section in the hour of national need: later they could deal with his Government as they thought best; for the present, a united front could alone avert disaster. ‘Whatever you may think of me personally,’ said he, ‘you know I am no coward; and every man who refuses to stand by me to-day is alike a traitor to his party, his country, and the sacred cause of womanly purity!’
Recognising the truth of his words, and, while they hated him, swayed by his potent individuality, even his bitterest opponents were silenced. And so by reason of the very magnitude of the peril which many considered he was responsible for bringing upon them, the Opposition struck no blow, and the Premier, who had risen as a criminal, sat down once more a dictator.
Kenneth Mackay, The Yellow Wave: A Romance of the Asiatic Invasion of Australia, London: Richard Bentley and Son, 1895, pages 344-353