Chapter 12 [Fools’ Harvest, by Erle Cox, 1939]

[Editor: This is a chapter from Fools’ Harvest (1939) by Erle Cox.]

Chapter XII.

Looking back on that tragic week from September 23, its every hour brought its own irreparable disaster. In the seven days, Australia had been torn from its apparently unassailable pedestal of prosperity and safety, and flung into an abyss of terror. In those seven days the heritage of freedom vanished. We were stripped of every spiritual and material possession. By October 1, no man in the Commonwealth could call his soul, his life, or his property his own. Their destiny had passed into alien hands. By snatching the West from our grasp, and by three swift blows in the East, all hope of effectual resistance had been crushed. We were as a wrestler on whom an adversary had fixed an unbreakable hold, and who had but to bear down upon our paralysed body till we cried for mercy or broke. The bitterness of it was that our physical strength was intact but we were powerless to use it.

All that terror that had swept over New South Wales was now the lot of Victoria. Scenes such as we had already witnessed in Sydney were now being re-enacted in Melbourne, but under more poignant conditions. The destruction of the oil fuel reserves had made the strictest conservation of what remained imperative. For rich and poor alike, the only means of flight lay with the railways, and, in the rush for safety, panic overcame reason. The Government recognised the advantage of scattering the population of Melbourne as widely as possible. The concentration of food supplies in the city had become a desperate problem, and the destruction of the sewerage system was causing consternation. Every detail of rail transport that could be used was drawn upon to meet the demands of the clamouring crowds that besieged the railway stations.

On the Monday, every available man in uniform at the Barracks was called out in an attempt to control the crowds that concentrated at Spencer Street and Flinders Street. Here we saw the scenes of the panic-stricken crowds at Moss Vale magnified a thousand fold. Trains of either passenger carriages or goods trucks were mobbed in the yards regardless of their destination. The only mercy was that no bombing planes appeared. Short of firing into the crowds there was no way of holding them. One battalion was simply lost in such a throng. By midday the scattered units were assembled and rushed to North Melbourne. Here we were given charge of an empty train that was backed into No. 1 platform at Spencer Street, where a crowd of women and children had been assembled. Our orders were to protect the train from the mob, and allow no one to enter it except from the platform.

That train ran through the yards at a speed of about 12 miles an hour. But nothing deterred the wild horde that had swarmed everywhere. During the few minutes of its passage we had to beat off the waves of men that tried to rush it at the risk of their lives. We used the butts of our rifles, without mercy, to knock those off who succeeded in obtaining a hold on the trucks. When the train stopped and the truck doors were opened for the women, the train was rushed from the other side. For a wild ten minutes the troops fought a surging, yelling mob that attempted to storm the train. We drove down with our rifle butts on clutching hands or at times into cursing faces. Then they began to pelt us with ballast metal. Shots began to ring from the trucks, then — no order was given — the men fixed bayonets and used them. By this time the train was packed with its load of screaming hysterical women so that we could scarcely find room to move, and the train started. Even then the mob of men was still trying to get a foothold.

Well beyond the road bridge over the North Melbourne station, the train pulled up long enough for the troops to climb down. Twice more we carried out the same manoeuvre. But, learning from our experience, we lined the trucks with our bayonets fixed and magazines charged. Still it was a nasty job, as we were pelted through the yards by mobs of men who yelled savage threats and insults at us.

During the next two days thousands of people were transported to country districts and various towns down the western and Gippsland systems, where local authorities organised shelter and food for the refugees who were, in the majority of instances, completely destitute.

Probably the gravest effects of the national crisis were in the loosening of the bonds of authority. In New South Wales civic administration and control ceased to exist. There was a state of anarchy in which the strong, and generally the most unscrupulous, elements came to the surface. It was a condition of national “Sauve qui peut” in which the ordinary decencies of life were lost. There were, however, for the honour of Australia, some splendid exceptions. In both Victoria and New South Wales, the railway men stood to their posts so long as there was a post to stand by. Demonstrations of individual heroism were magnificent. Again and again in New South Wales railway men threw their lives away to delay the march of the enemy. They stuck by their work to help the despatch of refugees, and to attempt to wreck enemy transport, though they knew their lives were forfeited. So long as there was a chance to move a train, or, if necessary, to destroy one, they took it without hesitation.

Everywhere, too, the police carried on in total disregard for their own safety. In Sydney, during the terrible hours of Bloody Saturday, hundreds of them died in their attempts to bring order among the panic-stricken traffic. When the bombardment was over, they were among the first to give aid to the injured. So it was in Victoria, and especially in Melbourne; the Force was foremost in trying to aid and direct a panic-stricken people.

Again, during the terror of the bombing on the Sunday, there were those among the people of all grades of society, who went to the aid of the injured among the burning buildings. With them were medical men who organised emergency hospitals and worked desperately to alleviate the suffering of the broken people who were gathered by the volunteer helpers.

By Monday, the range of the authority of the Federal Government was confined to Victoria and South Australia. By no means in their power could they offer any aid to Tasmania, and for all practical purposes Queensland was as completely isolated as Western Australia. In the three disastrous days since we had left New South Wales, the invaders had tightened their stranglehold, and had terrorised the entire eastern side of the State into submission. They left a trail of death and desolation wherever they passed. This inexorable cruelty was evidently prompted not only by their policy of relentless intimidation, but also to prevent any possibility of organised hostility in their rear.

Though, by October 3, it was learned in Melbourne that reinforcements had been landed both at Newcastle and Sydney, the invaders in their advance south had a long line of communication to guard. Their ruthlessness was therefore a military necessity to enable them to hold their line with the smallest possible demands on their numerical strength. They were faced, too, with the urgency of forcing a military decision at the earliest possible moment. Rather than allow time for Australia to strengthen her trained army they were determined to force the issue by advancing into Victoria.

One of the bitter incidents of those days was the reply of the Government of the United States to a second and detailed representation from the Federal Government on the massacres of civilians in the occupied districts. The Cambasian Ambassador at Washington had presented a reply from his Government to the effect that the allegations of the Australian Government were malicious and baseless falsehoods. The Cambasian Government had regretted the necessity for military action, although it did not regard itself as being at war with the Commonwealth.

The Cambasian expeditionary force was an unavoidable protest against repeated acts of harsh trade discrimination against Cambasia. Also they had no option but to secure similar rights of migration to those afforded to European countries. Reports from the Commander-in-Chief of the Expeditionary Force asserted that in no instance had civilians been harshly treated, that civilians in the occupied areas had accepted the presence of Cambasians as benevolent. On the other hand, the Cambasians had every right to protest against repeated acts of murder by civilians of Cambasian outposts. In these instances the military authorities had been obliged to make salutary examples.

The Government of the United States had accepted the assurance of the Cambasian Government that any violence offered to inoffensive civilians by their troops would be severely punished.

That there was one grain of truth in that bitter pill made it all the more difficult to swallow. As the wave of refugees spread westward, the stories of savagery they told excited two of the western towns to fury. In a day or two independent bodies of irregular defenders were organised. They were men from the country towns and the stations outback. Many of them were “Diggers,” and all were at home in the saddle. Used to firearms, well mounted, and with a thorough knowledge of the country, these small raiding troops closed on the flanks of the invaders. By the end of the first week down the long line of advance, they ambushed and sniped day and night. Their strength lay in their mobility. They struck and scattered, and regathered and struck again, giving the invaders no rest and no quarter.

Communications through the west of New South Wales kept the Government fully informed of the enemy’s advance south, and when news of the opening of guerilla tactics reached headquarters, trained officers were despatched to provide the irregulars with arms and munitions and to co-ordinate their activities. But while they exacted stern vengeance, and harassed the fringe of the advance, the resistance had come too late to stem the tide. By Monday, the united forces from Sydney and Port Kembla, working down by rail and road, had reached Albury through Gundagai and Wagga. They had collected an enormous train of motor transport, and every road leading towards Albury was infested with their troops. Their progress was marked by the smoke of burning towns and homesteads.

Late on Tuesday afternoon their advance guards entered Corowa. At each place, the bridges over the Murray to Wodonga and Wahgunyah had been destroyed. It was here, too, that they met their first military opposition from the mounted rifle regiments that fiercely contested their efforts at building pontoon bridges. At this juncture the enemy’s advance was ahead of their artillery, but their light tanks and armoured cars swept the south bank of the river to cover their engineers. But early on Wednesday morning all resistance to their crossing was crushed when a hail of shrapnel and gas shells swept over the river from the batteries that had been rushed to both towns during the previous night.

At Wahgunyah the mounted riflemen fell back down the Rutherglen Road, harassing the enemy advance from the vineyards that were already showing sufficient green to give them cover. They left the little village burning, but still hung on to the flanks of the enemy, whose progress they could not halt.

So it was on the Wednesday, October 4, eleven days after the first raid, that, under cover of their artillery, the invaders entered Victoria at two points 30 miles apart. At the same time a force took possession of the causeway of the Hume Dam. Thus they were provided with three lines of advance — or of retreat should the need arise.

From then onward they advanced with methodical steadiness down the line of the Hume Highway. They passed through an empty country from which every human being, and every source of food, had been systematically cleared. As they moved forward, too, their movements were harassed on both flanks by men who had gathered from townships, ranges and plains. Rifles and ammunition had been distributed through scores of centres on both sides of the highway to all who applied.

In every town and settlement eager men rallied to the call; the call to which for years they had closed their ears. They had refused to believe in the possibility of a threat against their country, and the threat had become a desperate fact. Now they were called to answer for their indolence and indifference by an enemy within their gates, already victorious without having fought one battle.

There was no lack of courage among them. Every man was burning to avenge the savage that had been perpetrated on his people. Now, as they closed down on the line of march, they threw away their lives with reckless bravery. They attacked in groups or singly. They met the disciplined detachments of flank guards with guerilla bushcraft, that took bloody toll. But, as they harried the enemy from the ground so were they harried from the air. All day the enemy planes circled over the advancing army, swooping down at every burst of rifle fire and drenching every attack with machine gun bullets.

But at night, with their complete knowledge of the country to guide them, the irregulars closed in, rushing outposts or whole battalions indiscriminately, wherever they touched on the highway. Nevertheless their impetuous courage lacked cohesion. They were learning, too late and at terrible cost, that courage was no substitute for discipline in war. The vast, well equipped machine that moved forward with irresistible force, could not be held back by flesh and blood and courage alone.

Each day saw the spear-head of the enemy 20 miles further south-east.

Five days after crossing the Murray they were past Euroa. That was on Monday, October 9.

At Melbourne, the situation of both Government and military authorities alike was tragic. It was symptomatic of the panic that a bewildered people, with the ruin of their country suddenly thrust into their faces, should demand victims. They would not recognise then, as most of them did later, that, to use the words of General Mackinnon, they were reaping a “fools’ harvest.” They had elected successive Governments, and had themselves tied their hands by insisting on vast expenditure for social services. They had, too, followed the lead of a noisy pacifist minority in objecting to paying the price of an adequate insurance policy in the form of defence measures.

By the end of the first week, Melbourne itself was too panic stricken and too intent on deserting the city to take concerted action. But in the large provincial cities vociferous orators at public meetings were demanding the resignation of the Government. There were as many crazy proposals for the establishment of a Council of Safety as there were crazy orators. All had plans to save a country that they could not recognise was beyond salvation. They largely demanded the immediate creation of armies — probably on the dragons’ teeth system.

That old Latin tag about the gods driving mad those whom they wished to destroy seemed created especially for Australia. I had been through most of the terrors of that first week. I had not seen a single enemy soldier. All the fighting so far had been among our own people. Instead of sinking party doctrines, and offering a united front to the invaders, the entire body politic had been torn by internal conflicts. Even on that Monday morning, with the enemy within striking distance of Seymour, Mackinnon hesitated to move that infantry battalion up to the front for fear of treachery at his back.

Fools’ Harvest!

The event proved how sound was his ground for anxiety.

All that week we three remained with our headquarters in Melbourne. A transport park had been established at Royal Park. Twice each day we drove to Seymour and back with loads of munitions and supplies for the troops. Great reserve dumps of supplies had been built up at Tallarook, and other places near the lines. And there were others at Kilmore. At Kilmore, too, a large field hospital had been established. I learned this through Fergus’ persistence in wangling loads to Kilmore.

At that time the postal service had broken down completely, and it had taken him three days before he could establish contact with Lynda. He kept Bob Clifford and me in a state of amused amazement at the magnitude of his barefaced mendacity in explaining his delays to irate transport officers. I am afraid we shared some reflected glory by being called upon to support some of his major inaccuracies. We heard the hospital end of the story from an ex-M.O. in a cowshed somewhere near the Eildon Weir about six weeks later. From his account, Lynda’s explanations of her absences from duty were, in quality, superior to those of Fergus.

By that time we three had picked up too much information to be under any illusions regarding the outcome of the fight that we knew must take place within the next few days. The men at Seymour with whom we came into contact were sound to a man, and eager to meet the invaders. One point that puzzled everyone was that Mackinnon’s force had not been raided from the air. Neither had Melbourne been visited again since that Sunday afternoon. The immunity of the army was all the more remarkable because, for several days, enemy planes had been reconnoitring as far back as Donnybrook.

[Marsden relates that the enemy were short of bombs because a large supply had been lost on one of the ships sunk by the air force off Port Kembla on September 27. The large quantities used on Melbourne were not replaced by fresh supplies until October 9. — Eds.]

After reaching Creighton four miles south of Euroa on October 9, the enemy halted to concentrate his forces. Until that day the weather had been uniformly fine and clear. But on the October 10 heavy clouds from the south foreshadowed the coming break. Early on the morning of Wednesday (October 11) the rain began. Twice on the Tuesday Mackinnon threw his precious force of seven bombers on the enemy’s concentration. It lost one plane for each raid, but we had the satisfaction of knowing that they inflicted an amount of damage that justified the loss.

However, one effect was to incite retaliation. The enemy planes were out in force on the Wednesday morning, and vindictively shed bombs over Mackinnon’s position round Seymour. The situation, however, had been ably anticipated. By skilful camouflage, battery and troop positions had been concealed, and the enemy wasted tons of bombs on dummy artillery positions and unoccupied ground. Scarcely any real damage was done.

But the A.S.C. was not so lucky. The brutes came buzzing down the highway in the pelting, driving rain with a cold wind that had turned Spring back to Winter. They swept down through the scudding clouds and flying low tormented the transport waggons with machine gun fire. I had taken on a load of meat, and was the leading waggon of four. When we passed through Kilmore, the rain was coming down in torrents and the hills were wreathed in mist. We were a little beyond where the McIvor road branches, when one of those infernal dragon flies roared down out of nowhere. Ahead through the rain was a stretch of timber-lined road completely arched by the trees. But before we reached the shelter there was a savage stutter of fire, and my cabin roof broke into holes. How the bullets missed me I accepted as a providential mystery. Before the brute could turn and come again I shot into the long green tunnel. Half-way along the shelter the road was blocked by a dozen or fifteen waggons. Their drivers were saying things about aircraft and machine guns that were unfit for print. Looking back I saw that only two of the other waggons had reached the cover. The third had barged off the road and collided with a tree. We found later that the body of the driver had been riddled.

It was then I learned that there were three enemy planes, and they all knew that we were playing possum in the trees. After an interval of about ten minutes during which we could hear them weaving about above us, they came roaring down the outside of the avenue raking it blind from end to end as they swept past. We all crouched behind our waggons, and were showered with leaves and twigs and small branches as the bullets searched the timber. They repeated the performance several times before barging off towards Kilmore, where they apparently saw better game.

But the transport work that day was hectic, and more than 30 waggons were ditched along the road.

That night orders were given to reload at once and to take the road again at one o’clock in the morning so as to get up the road under cover of darkness. So it happened that, on the morning of Thursday, October 12, I was passing under the railway bridge at the Seymour Station just at daybreak. I had turned into the road to the east side of the station. Then in the distance I heard the sound of artillery fire ahead. Almost at the same moment I saw the flashes of bursting shells half a mile to the west of the town. Those were the first shots in the only battle of a war that was not a war.

It was a foul day following a foul night. The wind from the south blew a gale. All night along the road we had passed through a succession of rain squalls. It was a cutting, dank wind. The low-driving clouds that touched the hill tops hid every glimpse of the sun as the slow gray light came. During the whole of that bitter day and the following night the rain scarcely ceased for half an hour at a time. Underfoot, the ground was sodden, and in level spots the water lay in puddles and sheets.

That long day of red conflict would have been agonising in any circumstances. But every tragic moment of it was made more poignant by the misery of rain and wind.

What happened in detail I do not know. They came down from Mangalore by both the Murchison and Hume Highways, and swarming through the broken timber scattered country between. Their left flank was beyond the Hume Highway, and their right on the Goulburn. Those first guns I heard had opened fire at six o’clock, and for a while there was silence. Then suddenly the whole of the country to the north belched fire, and our batteries, first from the west of the Goulburn, and then to the north of the town, joined in hellish chorus. For more than two hours that pandemonium reigned unbroken before I heard the sharper note of rifle fire.

In those early hours planes dodged in and out of the low-lying cloud roof from the fire of anti-aircraft guns. We knew what was left of our air force was in the thick of it. Half a dozen times in the growing daylight we saw wrecked machines hurtle down through the mists to earth and destruction. Again and again through blinding squalls we caught glimpses of pursuer and pursued flash into sight and vanish.

No doubt someone higher up knew what was taking place as the hours went by. But I think that few of the lower ranks knew anything except what was going on within twenty yards of where they stood. My own impression was of shells searching roads with hellish malignity, of carrying on with a dazed incomprehension, and of wondering how anything human, much less myself, remained unscathed. As the day wore on the first tension gave way to a kind of drugged indifference born of biting cold and acute physical misery. I knew that my first knowledge of the enemy’s victorious pressure came when I realised that their shells were falling far beyond the town.

That must have been sometime about midday — I had lost all count of time. The town was blazing in a dozen places. Then I remember coming up from a dump beyond the Sunday Creek bridge, and a sergeant with a smoke blackened face and scorched uniform told me the town bridge had been wrecked and directed me up the road towards Northwood. A minute later I crawled out from the wreckage of my waggon, mildly astonished that I was unharmed. Luckily for me the shell that overturned me burst under my back wheels instead of in front.

Here in our camp of slavery, men who were at Seymour that grim October day of 1939, sometimes argue over what Mackinnon should have done or should not have done. Even now they cannot see that it was neither the enemy, the weather, nor any other factor of the day that defeated him. The battle was lost nearly 20 years earlier. It was lost when the country was fooled into the belief that there would be no more wars. It was that imbecility that sent him to face a trained, efficient, and highly equipped army with half-trained men, and without any reserves on which he could draw.

The wonder of it is that those raw ranks held on as long and as splendidly as they did — some almost mutinous when ordered to fall back — and even then they went back snarling and biting. The story of how the 21st and 32nd battalions held up the enemy, while their guns got through when they were outflanked, would have redeemed a more tragic day. I saw the little handful of 12 men and one corporal, all that remained, and the last of the infantry to cross the Sunday Creek bridge before it was blown up. They marched across in fours with the corporal at their head, regardless of the warning the bridge was going up. Then when they reached the south side, at his order they doubled to the right, and throwing themselves among the scrub on the high bank, blazed into the road and the paddocks over which the enemy were advancing.

We did not know until the following day that Mackinnon and half his staff had been killed late in the afternoon, when headquarters at Tallarook had been bombed from the air. I never saw him, but from what they told of him I think he would have accepted his fate gladly. A Napoleon could not have succeeded where he failed.

The road down from Sunday Creek to Tallarook was almost deserted as the darkness began to fall. The artillery — what was left of it — had gone on ahead and was shelling the enemy advance from further back. Most of the infantry were marching well clear of the road, on which shells were falling as the enemy artillery searched for the retreat. The rain was still falling though the wind had dropped. There was very little order until Tallarook was reached, and some attempt was made to sort out the scattered units.

At that time, Gray, who had succeeded Mackinnon in command, was still holding together what was left, perhaps 4,000 all told. The field kitchens were in being, and most of the men had some kind of hot meal. It must have been about 8 o’clock when the last train, loaded with wounded, left the Tallarook Station. Men came straggling in up till 10 o’clock. One man I spoke to about that time told me that he did not think the enemy had passed Sunday Creek.

It was sheer luck that threw me in with Clifford and Fergus that night, when I found a damaged waggon about a quarter of a mile down the Pyalong Road — it’s hard deck was less sloppy than the soaked ground, and Fergus had taken possession. I had seen neither of them all day, but their luck had been much like my own. Dog weary, despite an occasional shell, we slept until we were ordered out towards daylight.

No one who lived through that next day, as we fell back towards Kilmore, will ever forget it. The roads were blocked wherever possible by blasting trees across them to hamper the enemy’s mechanised transport. The retreating force kept off the roads for cover from the aircraft that harried us every step of the way. We three kept together and moved down parallel to an old road that runs to Kilmore about two miles west of the Highway. Fortunately the weather cleared and the sun dried our soaked uniforms. Our artillery must have ceased to exist early that morning because the enemy aircraft gave the guns no rest.

But from every patch of cover for a mile on each side of the road, the retreating infantry sniped as they went back. There was little organisation or order. They knew they were hopelessly beaten, but every man clung to his rifle as his last hope. They knew only too well that it was all over, but still wherever an enemy showed they bit back viciously. But there was no longer any army and hope had gone.

It took us six hours to cover those 16 miles in to Kilmore, on which all roads of retreat converged — and the enemy planes had been before us. The long tree-lined street was in ruins, and among them were the wrecks of transport and ambulance waggons that had been caught in the choked road. Our one thought all the way down had been of Lynda. It was here we saw how complete was the disintegration. The one objective of the men as they came in was to break away from the line of the enemy’s advance down the highway.

We knew that at the best the enemy would enter the town within an hour or two. Our anxiety was increased by the news that the field hospital and a train load of wounded that was leaving the station had been bombed during the morning. In the general confusion it was some time before we were able to learn that the wounded who survived had been taken to the old police station, one of the few undamaged buildings.

Here, eventually, we found Lynda in warm argument with an irate M.O. Knowing of the imminence of the enemy’s arrival, he had evacuated the few wounded left, and had sent all the nurses with them. He had only learned as we came in that Lynda had evaded his order. He was telling her in plain language the fate of women in occupied territory. Fortunately he was more a doctor than a soldier, and accepted without hostility the interference of three very dirty and dishevelled transport drivers. He watched the unceremonious greeting between Fergus and his rebellious subordinate with a surprised smile. It was a greeting that made explanation unnecessary.

Said he. “Perhaps, young man, you can make this mutinous young baggage listen to reason.”

Fergus grinned, “I’ve done it before now. What’s the trouble, sir?”

“She refuses to leave because there may be more wounded brought in, and we’ll have the enemy here in no time.”

“Well,” protested Lynda, “there may be more.”

“Crazy!” snapped the doctor. “Get her out of this!”

“There’ll be no more wounded, Lyn,” Fergus assured her. “You’ll have to go — that is, if there is anything to get away in.”

The doctor looked us over. “My car is parked at the back. It will take us all. You boys had better come too.”

“If there is no one with a better right?” asked Fergus. “But we’d be glad to go.”

“Dash it all!” he said, “It’s a case of every man for himself now. Come on!”

He led the way. There was a big double seater in the yard into which we piled with the doctor at the wheel. As he turned into the street I noticed a stack of ammunition boxes, and, asking him to stop, I jumped out and hurriedly placed one of them in the luggage carrier. We had done a bit of firing that morning, but our belts were not empty.

“What’s the idea?” demanded the M.O. as I hopped in again beside him.

As we raced down the road I gave him a sketch of our experiences during the previous three weeks, and added. “So you see, it struck me that a case of cartridges might be useful.”

That was how Dr. Ben Cornish came into our lives. He was about 50 years of age. He was lean as a ferret, and as keen; and as warm hearted as he was irascible. We and many others lived to bless the day that we met the man who was afterwards worshipped under the name of “Dynamite Ben.”

When he heard our story, he turned round to Lynda, and said, “Well, my dear, if I had been given the choice of four people to pick up it would have been you and your three musketeers.” Then he turned back to his driving.

We swept down an empty road through Wallan and Beveridge with the needle of the speedometer flickering at 50. Over the open country we saw occasional groups of men plodding westward. As we reached the pine-lined road at Donnybrook overlooking the vast saucer of quiet country between there and Craigieburn, we saw another car making towards us, and losing no time.

Dr. Ben slowed down. “Wonder who this lunatic can he?” he growled. “Must be cracked or he wouldn’t be coming this way.” He stopped the car as the other came up.

In it was a man, and apparently his wife, with two young girls. They all looked badly scared. From the story they told Dr. Ben, they had some cause for looking scared. They had stuck to their home in Melbourne until that morning. He said the people who remained in the city had gone crazy. The news of the defeat at Seymour had leaked out, and with it had come utter demoralisation. There had been some form of demonstration against the Government, and that a Committee of Public Safety claimed to take over the administration. There was rioting, and no trace of authority. Our informant had owned a filling station, and had retained enough petrol with which to escape. He had run the gauntlet of panic-stricken people who tried to capture his car. Bullet-shattered windows bore witness to the truth of his stories. He had heard that the Provincial cities were also demanding some new form of Government, but that there was no unanimity of ideas. But in Melbourne itself there was anarchy and chaos.

He was making for Yea, where he had friends, through Whittlesea. Then he turned east off the high-road, still losing no time.

Dr. Ben turned round to Lynda. “Well, we’re all in this. What will we do? It seems to me that Melbourne is off.”

“So far as we’re concerned, Major,” Lynda informed him, “we’re four waifs. We’ve no home, no friends, or belongings except the clothes we are wearing. We’re like the cat that walked by itself; all places are alike to us. What about you?”

“I’m a lone wolf,” he laughed, taking up Lynda’s excursion into Kipling. “I’ve neither kith nor kin, and when our Cambasian friends get to Melbourne, if my house is still standing, I won’t want to live in it.”

“As I see it,” Bob said, “the war’s over and Australia is down and out. The only thing we can do is to take to the bush, and wait to see what turns up. It may be tough, but it will be tougher if we run into the enemy’s hands.”

“We leave it to you, Major,” Fergus put in, “but I agree with Clifford.”

Dr. Ben turned to me. “And you?”

“I’m with the others, now and always. We may have to rough it, but it is the best we can do,” I replied.

“It’s tragic,” Dr. Ben spoke thoughtfully. “But I’m afraid you young people are right. We’re all blotted out. Done! Wiped out!” Then, after a moment’s pause. “Those vermin behind us will be too busy digging in for a time to pay much attention to the outside country places. And something might turn up to pull us out of the hole.”

“Major,” I asked, “Do you know any place, small and out of the way, with good bush country near it for refuge, if necessary?”

He thought a moment, then his face lighted up. “By jove! the very place! I’ll tell you as we go,” and he turned the car east towards Whittlesea.

As we went he told us of a little fishing resort in the mountains about 100 miles away, and 40 beyond Alexandra. “If you young people will make me a member of your gallant company, then I’m with you. And gladly! We’ve enough petrol to make it.”



Source:
Erle Cox, Fools’ Harvest, Melbourne: Robertson and Mullen, 1939, pages 137-155

[Editor: Changed “shrapnell” to “shrapnel”. Added a full stop after “with a surprised smile”.]

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