[Editor: This is a chapter from The Yellow Wave: A Romance of the Asiatic Invasion of Australia (1895) by Kenneth Mackay.]
On the summit of a slight rise a group of cavalry officers stood looking through their glasses out over the level lands which stretched towards Charleville.
As Hatten neared the foot of this vantage-ground the roll of musketry grew more sustained. Pulling up on the crown of the hillock, the Colonel of the Ringers could see puffs of smoke bursting from some vineyards which occupied the farther distance, and nearer could detect through his glasses Major Johnson’s column standing under cover of a belt of timber.
Beyond the vineyards the Mongol skirmishers could be easily made out through his field-glasses, but so far the total absence of smoke above their lines pointed to the conclusion that they were not returning the fire of the Queensland Mounted Infantry. Another thing which struck Dick as not only strange but ominous was that their advance seemed wholly unchecked by the Queenslanders’ volleys. Inferior as the men’s weapons were, Hatten felt certain that the enemy were now within range, and knowing that every one of the skirmishers was a crack shot, their inability to make any visible impression on the enemy was the more unaccountable.
The solution of both enigmas was simple. Realizing its probable effect on raw troops, Leroy had decided to use not only smokeless but noiseless powder in this first real battle, while the failure of the Mounted Infantry to stay the advance of the opposing skirmishers, even when within easy range of their rifles, was due to the fact that the bullet-proof uniforms of the Mongols were quite equal to resisting the penetrating power of these obsolete weapons at anything beyond point-blank range.
Firm in their determination to attack Leroy, the Australian commanders had set their forces in motion at daybreak, and now their unwieldy columns began to pour round the base of the hill from which Hatten was watching what looked like a similar movement on the part of the Mongol General.
Numerically the national army mustered between thirty and forty thousand men, but of these the great majority were totally without discipline and miserably armed, while the enemy they were now being drawn up to oppose consisted of fully forty thousand magnificently armed and trained regulars, supported by a horde of fierce guerillas.
‘For hearths and homes!’ That one appeal, which has never failed to arouse a people not wholly enslaved by luxury or oppression, had waked Australia at last.
When the summons came, the farmer left his wheat to the birds of heaven. The tradesman cast aside his life of sordid bargaining, and girded on that manhood which even the tricks of commerce had been powerless to take away. The clerk forgot his cigarettes, and the Bushman thanked God that he had a horse left fit to carry him to the border.
So from the far western plains and the heat-cursed inland towns the Southerners poured, disorganized, ill armed, and full of that turbulent spirit which deems that to obey is the watchword of a slave, but also ready after their own fashion to fight for, and if need be die with, their brothers of the North.
In that strange host unionist and free labourer, squatter and shearer, marched side by side, for despite the conscience-wakened distrust of capital, and the craven promptings of a few of their own self-constituted leaders, the unionists as a body came out of the ordeal scathless. They had wives and children, fathers and mothers, whom they loved every whit as well as did their masters, and Australia was as dear to them as to the men to whom it had proved a more generous mother. Though New South Wales, Victoria, and Queensland were naturally most largely represented, the other two colonies had sons among the ranks of the national army, men who had travelled thousands of miles by rail to strike a blow for their native land.
Taught from their birth to look on Chinamen as inferior beings, creatures to be tolerated chiefly because they grew vegetables, and so saved their customers the trouble, human footballs on which the youthful larrikin might with safety practise those mighty kicks, later to win him place and fame as an exponent of the national game, the Australians advanced upon the Mongols not only without fear, but with positive contempt.
Had the enemy been Russians, the question of their own want of discipline and arms would doubtless have been treated with a proper measure of consideration; but now, because their opponents were only Chinamen, both officers and men wrapped themselves in a mantle of fatuous self-confidence, as little borne out by logic as the head-covering manoeuvre of the danger-threatened ostrich.
Hatten, and a few of the Queenslanders who had already come in contact with the Mongols, grasped to a greater or less extent the gravity of the situation, but their voices were drowned in the clamour of men who refused to regard the Chinamen from any other than a Little Bourke Street standpoint.
The three commanders, with their respective staffs, had taken up a position on the rise occupied by Hatten, and as it soon became palpable even to them that Leroy did not mean to wait to be attacked, they now decided to draw their forces up in line of battle.
Taking his orders from Major-General Don, the Queensland Commandant, Hatten formed his brigade under the cover of the rise. Having intelligent men to deal with, all able to ride, and nearly all quick to grasp a common-sense command, Hatten had little trouble in carrying out his chief’s instructions. Nor, beyond a certain unsteadiness, which seems inseparable from militia, could much fault be found with the manner in which a couple of the Queensland regiments, the artillery, and the New South Wales cavalry took up their respective positions.
The disposition of the raw levies was, however, quite another matter. An attempt had been made to classify these into regiments, and in some cases, where a considerable number of the members had already served, a fair measure of utility had been arrived at.
Major-General Don now suggested that the most efficient of these should be placed in fighting line, and that the rest should be held in reserve, urging that their want of discipline would be almost certain to cause confusion during any movements made under fire. This, however, failed to fall in with the ideas of his colleagues, most of whose men would thus be debarred from sharing in the repulse of the first onslaught of the enemy.
While the dispute was at its height, Hatten drew his General’s attention to the fact that the skirmishers were falling back on their supports.
The enemy had suddenly pushed forward a battery of machine-guns, and even as the Mounted Infantry poured out of the vineyards, the leaves were cut from the stems as if struck by a hurricane of hail.
‘These beggars seem to know what they’re about,’ muttered Don, a trifle uneasily. Then, recognising that a misunderstanding now might prove even more fatal than his colleagues’ proposition, he gave in, and, calling Hatten, whispered, ‘For God’s sake, Colonel, try and help them to get these poor devils decently dressed!’
‘They’re not butchered yet, sir!’ retorted Hatten.
‘Never mind; they soon will be, if these devils handle all their batteries like that one,’ growled Don, upon whom the truth was beginning to dawn with unpleasant distinctness.
The task of forming an undisciplined mob into any semblance of military order is herculean enough on a peaceful parade, even when entrusted to efficient officers. Now, with the men under the influence of an overwhelming excitement, and with their officers in many cases more ignorant than themselves, the attempt promised to be hopeless.
But for a happy thought of Sir Peter McLoskie’s, it would doubtless have been. That astute politician, while for diplomatic reasons silent on the subject, had long recognised the utter incapacity of the average Australian volunteer officer. Fortunately, in his hour of peril he had turned to the one sheet-anchor of the existing military system, and wired to Sir Robert Blake:
‘Send me every drill-instructor procurable, drunk or sober.’
Afraid to cause jealousy by interfering, and, indeed, hardly capable of doing much good with infantry if he did, Hatten remarked to the officer commanding the brigade:
‘Why don’t you make those lazy ‘non-coms’ do this pottering work? It’s what they’re paid for.’
‘By Jove! you’re right,’ gasped the Colonel thankfully.
And so the ‘non-coms,’ as is their wont, untied one more knot in the Australian military service.
Riding down the line to join his brigade, Hatten’s mind reverted to the account of that army of the ‘beggars’ which occurs in Dutch history. Every description of uniform was represented here, from the gold and blue of the staff, to the moleskin pants, Crimean shirt and ‘soft felt’ of the digger and Bushman. And, alas for the men who handled them here! every class of weapon found a place — save only those adapted for modern war. Of the thirty thousand men who stood waiting with sublime, or, rather, childish, confidence the onset of the foe, not more than one-third were from a military standpoint armed at all; the rest waited the Mongols with weapons originally bought, and only fit, for the annihilation of crows and ducks. Glancing at the men themselves, the Colonel was struck by their sturdy bearing and admirable physique. So it always is; the best and bravest are the victims the God of War demands, and to the end will get.
In the bright, restless eyes the light of battle had already begun to burn. Last night many a tear for the dear ones in lonely huts and flower-scented cottages had trickled all unchecked down sun-tanned cheeks, and many a beardless lip had quivered with a not ignoble emotion; but now the night, with its tender whisperings, was dead, and the war-warm sun lit up the pathway alike of glory and revenge.
Hatten could almost have laughed aloud to see such self-deceit, and yet it was so pitiful that he dropped his head and rode on in moody silence.
Falling back on the Ringers, under Major Johnson, the Mounted Infantry quickly re-formed, and, under cover of the fire from a battery of field artillery, they now advanced to again occupy the vineyards. Moving forward in loose formation, they had almost reached their former position, when a biting fire cut into their ranks. Reeling back, they again answered their commanders’ call, but again the automatic rifles of the Mongol light infantry poured forth a very tempest of bullets, and, breaking, they fell back in confusion.
From their position on the hill, the commanding officers of the national army could see their skirmishers falling back all along the line. Limbering up, the battery which was attached to the Mounted Infantry now attempted to retire, but, in crossing a water-way, one of the guns jammed, and, seizing the chance, a regiment of Kalmucks charged.
Determined to protect the gun, and bending over their quaint lances with the fierce satisfaction of men who know that now they must meet hand-to-hand, the Ringers rode at the enemy. There was a thunder of opposing hoofs, a glitter of steel, and the hoarse cadence of a yell, and then a wild thrusting home of lance-heads and hacking of sword-blades, and the men who lay under the vines were avenged. Man to man, the white race had once more triumphed, and the Kalmucks were a broken, flying mass.
Still, there was no time to delay; already fresh bodies of horse were gathering, and the machine-guns began to re-open fire almost before their own men were behind them; so, still covering the battery, Johnson gave the order to retire.
From his vantage-ground, Hatten could see the whole of the Mongol advance. The scene was so suggestive of a panorama he had somewhere witnessed, that for a moment he could not realize that the level stretches, broken here and there by clumps of timber, the fields of grain fresh-stored, the bright green vineyards, the puffs of white smoke, the glitter of arms, and the hurried movements of horse, foot, and artillery, were not all parts of some giant battle-picture.
Leroy, in his plan of attack, had followed as closely as possible the lines laid down in the Chinese manual of war. Moving behind clouds of skirmishers, his main fighting line somewhat resembled a bow, the flanks being thrown forward to overlap those of the Australian army. On either side rode masses of cavalry, supporting the Maxims, while other batteries of quick-firing field and machine guns showed in the Mongols’ centre.
Surrounded by his staff, the General directed the advance in person. The self-constituted criminal of last night was gone, and in his stead rode the leader of the Mongols. With an armed host in front, all his fighting instincts rose, and amid the opening rattle of the enemy’s musketry, Philip Orloff vanished for a time. Perfect in discipline, and armed with weapons capable of discharging two hundred rounds per minute, the Mongols now swept on with a confidence that was ominous for the ill-armed militia who lay in their front.
Already men were falling in the Australian lines, and shells, hurtling through the hot morning air, began to fill all the upper world with their shrill, implacable cries.
Someone has said that most men are by nature cowards. Be that as it may, the ordeal of fire-discipline is a terrible one even for veteran troops, and to the men now undergoing it for the first time the tension became every moment more insupportable.
A shudder went through the lines as the iron hail swept over and among the close-packed ranks. Still they answered volley with volley, save that their discharges, while making all the sound, produced little, if any, effect, for the pride of race was still strong enough in these green levies to make them stand like sheep and be slaughtered, rather than run from Chinamen.
Practically without artillery, for his few obsolete Nordenfeldts and muzzle-loading siege-guns were useless in the face of Leroy’s modern weapons, and wretchedly weak in properly-equipped cavalry, Don now realized that his position was a desperate one.
The battle was hardly begun, and already he was powerless; for the enemy, totally unchecked by his fire, were now within two thousand yards, and pouring showers of death-dealing missiles into his ranks with momentarily-increasing precision.
Turning to his two colleagues, he said: ‘It’s madness to wait here and be slaughtered; the men won’t hold together for another quarter of an hour. We are overmatched. I suggest that we retire before the inevitable rout sets in. Hatten can cover our retreat.’
But it was too bitter a pill to swallow — at least, just yet. No, they could not consent. Retreat from Chinamen? Never!
‘Then, damn it, we must advance!’ growled Don; ‘raw troops must not be kept standing still under a fire like this.’
While the General was speaking, Johnson, supported on either side by a trooper, rode up the rise. As he passed Hatten, the wounded man gasped:
‘It’s warm work, old mate!’
Silently Dick grasped his chum’s limp hand; then, as he disappeared behind the cover of the hill, the Colonel turned to his commander, and exclaimed in hard, set tones:
‘I’ve a couple of thousand men, General, sitting doing nothing; give the order, and I’ll steady these yellow devils!’
‘No, Hatten,’ answered Don; ‘they are too good to be butchered; I have other work for you.’
Still the leaden storm swept on.
‘Hand-to-hand is our only chance, if we can get near enough,’ muttered the General, as, taking matters into his own hands, he gave the order for a general advance.
As the command ran down the lines, cheer after cheer rose through the smoke-clouds, and, putting himself at the head of his centre, Don showed the way. But now want of discipline and want of proper handling alike began to tell their tale. As the regiments moved off, their order grew more and more broken, until at last a wild, breathless mob, without either purpose or cohesion, rushed on to inevitable destruction.
While they had stood shoulder to shoulder, each man gained a certain confidence from his neighbour, but now the spell was broken; they were individual atoms, their physical contact gone, and consequently their moral touch shattered.
Bringing all his artillery to bear, Leroy plied the advancing Australians with shot and shell. Then, as they still came on, he opened on them with both rifles and machine-guns. Meanwhile, aided by their Maxims and overwhelming force of cavalry, Dromeroff and Redski had respectively turned the flanks of the national army. Surrounded by a cordon of fire, the Australian centre wavered. Brave as each man in it probably was, it was still, as a whole, nothing better than a mob; and now that a check was given to the onward impetus of the élan, the inevitable reaction set in, and, despite all Don’s efforts, panic began to possess the practically leaderless levies, and they wavered beneath the carnage. As the shattered infantry fell back, the Kalmuck cavalry again charged the whole front, determined to change the slaughter into a massacre.
Dick Hatten’s opportunity had come. For the last hour his brigade had waited for something to do, and now the time for cavalry to charge home and sacrifice themselves had arrived.
Putting himself at the head of his squadrons, Hatten pointed to the enemy; then, sitting down in his saddle, he rode straight at the advancing brigades.
On the left, the New South Wales cavalry had charged again and again into the vast masses of hostile horse, in vain, though heroic, attempts to cover the broken infantry. But, mowed down by the machine-batteries, they now, almost to a man, lay dead on the hoof-trampled ground. On the right, too, all was practically over, and, flanked and ill supported, the Queensland Mounted Infantry and a battery of artillery were first decimated from safe range, and then worn down by repeated and over-powering charges of cavalry.
Only an hour had passed since the outposts had begun to fall back, but already ammunition was running short, and Major-General Don and his colleagues were vainly attempting to rally an army, individually as brave as any who ever rushed on to victory, but which for want of arms, ammunition, and discipline was now little better than a panic-stricken horde, outflanked and broken alike on either wing and in the centre.
Putting himself at the head of two regiments of regular militia, Don made desperate efforts to re-form his centre under cover of Hatten’s charge, and, despite a raking flanking fire, the Australians again began to rally.
Placing all the guns he could command on his flanks, the General succeeded in checking Dromeroff and Redski, but only at fearful cost; for, drawing off their cavalry, the Mongol commanders now began an artillery duel, in which their superior ordnance swept away both the Australian gunners and supports with terrible precision.
Knowing that the success of his charge could alone avert an absolute butchery, Hatten rode on with a grim resolve to break the advancing lines, even if the attempt demanded the sacrifice of himself and his brigade.
Marshalling his squadrons as they came on, their Colonel hurled them full on the Kalmuck regiments, who, with lance-heads glittering in the sun and sword-blades whirled above their wild, hair-shrouded faces, galloped over the dead and the dying. Gathering impetus with every stride, the horses of the Ringers now shook the death-garnished plain with fierce, impatient hoofs. On right and left the dull booming of the field-guns, the shrill cries of the Maxims, and that dread mingling of sound which rises from all battle-fields, filled the smoke-shrouded atmosphere with dread thunderings.
Sitting down on Io as he had sat at Randwick when one fence only lay between him and victory, Hatten waved his sabre above his head, and, striking aside a Kalmuck lance, dashed into the advancing line. Rough and ready, but handling their horses like centaurs, the Bushmen followed their leader.
Skyward rose a dense cloud of dust, through which the red flashes of the revolvers shone like innumerable fireflies, and out of this dim panoply rang shrill cries, fierce curses, and all the twin echoes of triumph and despair. In that wild melée horse and horseman sank to meet the awful fate which lay in the plunging chargers’ iron-shod hoofs, and lance-heads that were a moment before kissed by the watching sun now bore upon their dripping blades hot baptisms of blood.
For a little, locked in each other’s ranks, the hostile squadrons fought like very demons, but once again the white man at his best, and hand-to-hand with the Asiatic, triumphed over odds, and the Kalmuck horse wavered, then broke into pieces before the men who, fighting for hearths and homes, rode in the wake of the gamest horseman in the North.
Correcting his formation as his men raced forward on the heels of the disordered enemy, Hatten rushed on the guns. For a moment the gunners stood irresolute, then opened fire, though their own troopers were between them and the enemy. Shielded by this human buffer, the Ringers were almost on the batteries before their fire began to take its full effect. With a shout, the guerillas went at them, and, bursting through the line of guns, they rode down the infantry despite their death-dealing rifles, only to find themselves surrounded by the reserve cavalry. They did all that men may do; they proved that cavalry is yet good for something better than skulking on the outskirts of modern battles, and although half their number lay dead or wounded within the narrow radius of their gallant ride, they showed, as the Prussians showed at Mars-la-Tour, that it is not so easy to annihilate cavalry even with breech-loaders. Sounding the recall, Dick Hatten led what remained of his brigade back over the ground and through the foes just riven asunder.
Again lance-heads and sword-blades met, and men went down, and some rode on dead in their saddles; but the enemy’s lines were broken, and the fierce horsemen of the North burst through them as strong men tear weak bonds apart. Meantime, General Don, taking advantage of the check to the enemy’s centre, had almost completed the re-formation of a part of his command. But now, just when a prospect of retreat opened, the ammunition for the artillery gave out. Moving up their machine-guns, Dromeroff and Redski began to pour a simultaneous and terrific fire on both flanks, and, unable any longer to bear the strain, the Australian infantry broke and fled.
Realizing that all was over, Hatten, who had just burst free from the hostile lines, now extended the remnant of his brigade as a cover for the fugitives, and so, less than two hours from when they advanced, the national army fled from the field of battle, leaving their baggage and artillery in the hands of the enemy, and with nothing between them and destruction except half a brigade of worn-out Ringers, men whose strength lay in the fact that they were well led by officers who understood them, and that their natural dash had not been cramped by artificial conditions alike unsuited to their temperaments and surroundings.
Kenneth Mackay, The Yellow Wave: A Romance of the Asiatic Invasion of Australia, London: Richard Bentley and Son, 1895, pages 380-395