[Editor: This is a chapter from The Yellow Wave: A Romance of the Asiatic Invasion of Australia (1895) by Kenneth Mackay.]
Sauve qui peut!.
From the hill lately occupied by the chief of the national army, General Leroy now directed the pursuit. With the exception of the cavalry who had borne the brunt of Hatten’s charge, and the columns which had turned the Australian flanks, the Mongols had suffered little loss, for their General had strictly adhered to his original plan, and his infantry had practically never come face to face with the enemy.
The Australians, on the other hand, had suffered heavily. Almost from the first shot they had been exposed to his long-range artillery and rifle fire, and during their gallant but futile advance they had been swept away in files before the discharges of his machine-guns and automatic rifles. With their fighting-line broken, all hope of re-formation was at an end, for the panic-stricken centre had become inextricably mixed up with the reserves, and now the whole of the national army, with the exception of the remnants of the Mounted Infantry and Hatten’s brigade, were merely a disorganized mob.
Aided by the splendid heroism of his cavalry and Mounted Infantry, Don, who, now that the day was lost, was tacitly left with a free hand, might yet have turned the rout into a retreat but for the incapacity of some of his officers. Never safe when out of earshot of their drill-instructors, these men now provided a grim object-lesson of the future by making the confusion worse confounded.
‘Each man for himself!’ was the motto which became every moment more in evidence, as, realizing the utter inability of their leaders and the alarming nearness of the enemy’s fire, the whole of the infantry melted away in search of more than doubtful safety. Rallying all the horsemen still left, Hatten continued to show a front to the Mongols, and, weakened as his brigade was, they still by repeated charges checked the hostile advance.
At last, extricating himself from the mass of fugitives, General Don rode up to the Colonel of the Ringers. Covered with battle-dust, the latter saluted his chief with mournful respect, for however much his folly in underrating the foe had cost, Hatten felt a soldier’s admiration for the gallant attempt at reparation made by his commander.
‘We can do nothing with these,’ exclaimed Don, pointing after the flying infantry. ‘Their utter dispersion is their best chance.’
‘But, sir,’ retorted Hatten stoutly, ‘I must cover the poor devils while I have a man.’
‘At their present rate of extension it will be impossible,’ replied Don, adding bitterly, ‘Not that I blame them. My one duty is to save my best men, not to allow them to be annihilated.’
‘Then what can I do?’
‘Retire, and save your men for another day. This one is lost beyond all hope of being retrieved.’
During the time Hatten had been holding the enemy in check, the flying infantry had again reached the position from which they had advanced to the attack. There the horses on which most of them had ridden during the forward march were picketed.
In the distance the Colonel could now see a blurred picture of stampeding horses, from which body after body of fugitives began to detach themselves, and as he watched them scatter over the plains, he had to admit that his chief was right, little as he relished leaving the field in the hands of the Mongols. Once more he looked towards the enemy, now massing as if determined to annihilate his feeble squadrons by sheer force of numbers. Then, as the batteries belched forth from their new position a dread salute, Dick Hatten at last gave the word, and, followed by all that were left of his brigade, galloped from the field.
With the retreat of the Ringers all semblance of offensive opposition to the Mongol advance practically ceased. Still, while realizing that the further sacrifice of life was not only suicidal but useless, Hatten, in withdrawing his brigade, was careful to show a firm front to the hordes of Kalmuck horse who now began to hang on the outskirts of the routed army.
Awed by the determined face maintained by the Ringers and the fragments of the Mounted Infantry and Southern Cavalry, the Kalmucks as a whole devoted themselves to the pursuit of the scattered bodies of men who now rode with mad haste from the field. Sabre-cut and lance-thrust had already accounted for the unfortunate wretches who had failed to secure mounts, and now the fierce nomads, fired with insatiable lust for blood, raced in the wake of the men who, lying on their horses’ necks, sought to shun the keen spear-thrusts of their pursuers. Recognising the cohesion still maintained by Hatten’s troopers, Redski, to whom Leroy had entrusted the direction of the pursuit, directed the full force of a personal attack on them; for, however little his men might relish the attempt, the Russian was determined not to let so dangerous a nucleus escape.
Afraid to ‘burst’ his already overworked horses, Hatten made no special effort to escape the Kalmucks who now thundered in his rear; keeping just enough speed up to induce the best mounted of their squadrons to outpace the others, Dick held on his course until he reached the top of a low, sloping rise. Then, suddenly halting, he wheeled about and charged down the incline straight into the foremost squadron.
Already cowed by the Ringers’ desperate heroism, the savage irregulars reeled before their onslaught, awe-compelling in its stern purpose, and girded with additional force through the falling ground. Vainly Redski, both with sabre and curses, strove to hold his command together; he was swept away by his own men, who now in their wild dismay crashed into and through the squadrons they had left behind in their onward rush.
Riding down the disordered enemy, Hatten now wheeled to the right-about, and, safe from immediate pursuit, soon placed some ranges between himself and the Mongols.
Calling a halt, Dick, at General Don’s request, provided him with an escort, and after arranging for an immediate attempt at remobilization, the old officer rode away towards the telegraph-line.
Appointing a rendezvous, Hatten now split up the remainder of his command, ordering each squadron to make for the place of meeting by different routes.
Sitting on his horse, he told his men what he thought of them in a few manly words, and then, waiting until they had all disappeared in the timber, he rode away in company with about twenty troopers.
For the present all attempt to check the Mongol advance was worse than foolish, and by thus dividing his men Dick made the work of pursuit more complicated, and that of obtaining supplies less difficult. Further, he hoped that each body of Ringers would be able to pick up stragglers to augment the new force to be raised for the defence of the capital. With this object, General Don had already started to get in touch with the telegraph-lines, and Hatten had arranged with his commander to push on by forced marches to Toowoomba, gathering all the men available en route. Here Don was to meet him, and together they were to attempt a new system — not certainly of attack, but of stubborn resistance.
Riding hard, and by tracks only known to one or two of his troopers, Hatten’s party, though only actually travelling about forty miles, put at least sixty between themselves and the Kalmucks before nightfall. During the march no one said much. Few men care to talk of their failures, least of all when they are fresh upon them; fewer still can cast aside the memory of a lost illusion without painful effort. So these battle-smirched troopers rode on mostly in grim silence, slowly digesting the disagreeable fact that even Chinamen, armed with machine-guns and automatic rifles, are more than a match for Australians without either.
At a water-hole surrounded by acacias they camped for a few hours. Safe from immediate danger, saddles were pulled off, and sweat-stained backs cooled with water dipped out of the hole with their hats. Then, hobbling the horses with their stirrup-leathers, they let them go, keeping one picketed in case of accidents. Treating with Bushman-like indifference the legend that acacia-roots are poisonous, the men supped on a drink apiece, and then, lighting their pipes, stretched themselves on the grass. Under the soothing influence of the weed they began to drawl out their experiences and opinions with a strange mixture of shrewdness and simplicity, now and again relieved by quaint touches of dry, unconscious humour.
For a time Hatten took part in the discussion, for he always was careful to keep the fact in evidence that he was their comrade as well as their leader. Then, remarking that he would go and turn the horses, he strolled towards the head of the gully for a quiet ‘think.’
At the result of the battle he was in no way surprised, bitterly as his pride resented the Mongol thrashing. As to the future, Dick realized that everything depended on the rallying powers of his countrymen. Not only armies, but also arms and ammunition, must now be evolved from local resources, if the enemy were to be seriously resisted. The battle just lost had proved that the raw material was forthcoming. As to the question of arms and powder, Hatten, remembering the American example, took heart of grace, and at last, summing up the situation, he actually found himself considerably more hopeful than he had been before the action began. Absolute as the rout was, it had cleared away many foolish illusions, and exposed weaknesses which might now be repaired; for defeat often teaches more valuable lessons than victory. The question as to whether the leaders would profit by the past had certainly to be faced, but this gave Dick little uneasiness, for he already reckoned that the men themselves would see that a complete system of reconstruction was carried out in the ranks of their officers. Still, for all his hopefulness, Dick Hatten had never felt more personal wretchedness. For the soldier there were still vast possibilities, but for the man all seemed over. But a few weeks ago the woman he loved had been done to death amid surroundings the thought of which made his hands clench with impotent rage and despair, and now the chum of years — the single-hearted, gallant comrade who had raced beside him on far-off plains at the tail of piker and outlaw, and fought at his right hand against the Kalmuck hordes — was gone out of his life as well. For, riding back from his last desperate effort to check the Mongol advance, Hatten had sought in vain for Ted Johnson. He had seen him led to where, under cover of the hill, the medical staff had rigged up a field-hospital, but on his return the ambulance had disappeared. Among the dead and dying, over whom a flanking fire was already playing, Dick failed to recognise his mate, and at last, as a matter of duty, he had to abandon his search. Since then nothing had been heard or seen of the wounded man, and, knowing the barbarous customs of the victors, Hatten held no hope of ever seeing his friend again.
For a little he stood gazing down the gully on the resting forms of his troopers and the ungainly lurches of the hobbled horses, his heart full of a dull, implacable desire to kill. Then arose the thought of the winsome girl waiting in Brisbane for the lover who could never come to gladden her vigil more, and lifting his hand, the Colonel of the Ringers drew the back of it across his eyes half impatiently as he walked to the water-hole.
Kenneth Mackay, The Yellow Wave: A Romance of the Asiatic Invasion of Australia, London: Richard Bentley and Son, 1895, pages 396-403