[Editor: This is a chapter from Fools’ Harvest (1939) by Erle Cox.]
Although we did not know it then, that decision we five made that afternoon on the empty highway at Donnybrook, was typical of the disintegration of a nation. On Thursday, October 13, the social and administrative fabric of Australia was torn to shreds. The Australians were no longer a nation. They were a conquered race, without Government, and without cohesion or a rallying point. Law, order, discipline, and morale had collapsed. There were some 7,000,000 people spread over the country, leaderless and helpless.
In the world without there was no hand raised to help us. We were the spoils of war to an arrogant power. Europe was one vast battleground. Britain, our sole hope, was barely holding her own against overwhelming odds. India was in flames, In Canada there was a warm appeal for aid for the stricken sister Dominion, but where there were the men and the will, the seas were in the enemy’s hands. Then, too, our conquerors had begun to put into effect that policy of preventing news of what was being done here from being spread abroad.
They set in motion that propaganda machine that spread round the world, when it was quiet enough to hear, that vile tradition of the anarchy, cruelty and treachery that we never lived down. They understood thoroughly the psychological value of the saying that a lie will go half way round the world while the truth is pulling on its boots. With devilish ingenuity they filled the American press with sensational stories of Australian cowardice, cruelty and treachery. They told of their necessity to take over its Government for the sake of humanity, because they found the Commonwealth in a state of utter anarchy. They told how their kindly and considerate rule had been met with barbaric murders and tortures of their people that would shame a savage. They told those stories with a wealth of circumstantial detail, and inventive genius, that was as brilliant as it was foul.
Their half truths were worse than their pure mendacity. They alleged that at the battle of Seymour 100,000 Australians had broken and fled, with scarcely any casualties, before 10,000 Cambasians.
[There is a total absence of official figures regarding the battle of Seymour, on both sides, that is significant. The Paramount Power made a point of destroying all Australian archives of every description. Marsden estimates that Mackinnon could have had very few more than 12,000 men at his disposal on October 12, 1939. It is probable that the Cambasians had at least 20,000 on the field. Mackinnon’s field artillery was outranged, and his air force had been almost used up before the battle. Burton’s estimate that only 4,000 men fell back on Tallarook on the night of the battle is probably fair. One sinister aspect of the battle was that no estimates of wounded on either side have been given. Most of the Australians must have been left on the field. Their fate has never been referred to by the Paramount Power. — Eds.]
It must be admitted that, so far as Melbourne was concerned, there was justification for their allegations of the anarchy they found when they entered what they regarded as the official seat of Government. From several people I have heard varying accounts of what occurred when the news of the disaster at Seymour became known. Despite the exodus that had been going on since the bombing on September 30 and the following day, there were probably more than half a million people still left in the Metropolitan area. But these were more demoralised than those who had left, because of the certainty of occupation by the enemy within a few days.
News of the treatment of civilians in occupied towns in New South Wales had spread. The stories of enemy atrocities could scarcely have been magnified from the truth. It is not to be wondered at, therefore, that panic reigned, and that the terrified inhabitants lost their heads, and that there were deplorable excesses committed in consequence. So far as I have been able to learn, there was no really organised insurrection against the Government. What occurred was caused by irresponsible hot-heads with no real following, who made demands as crazy as themselves, but who, unfortunately, were listened to by terrified people who were easily led. There must have been a score of these self-appointed geniuses all claiming to be able to save the country.
The police force was entirely inadequate to keep such crowds as gathered round these orators in control, so that the rioting that ensued was widespread but actually aimless. It was the natural result of the breakdown of the entire social structure that occurred. The demonstrations were bred of fear, and the crowds were beyond reason and unable to think for themselves. Parliament House was one objective of this mob animosity, and the members of the Government were obliged to escape from the blind wrath as best they could. One of the redeeming features of the disaster was the gallant attempts made by Labour Leaders and Trades Hall officials to stem the flood of demoralisation. They recognised the futility of divided counsel at such a crisis and loyally stood by the Ministry. They faced, and tried to reason with infuriated mobs who would listen to anything but reason. Several of them lost their lives in trying to turn the rioters aside from their folly. The fratricidal madness had become completely out of hand.
When the enemy finally took possession of the city on Sunday, October 15, it was in a chaotic state. They entered from Coburg, Essendon, and Preston, and worked inward methodically. Unfortunately, the conditions they found were some excuse for the drastic measures they took to restore order. The same folly that was at the root of the disorder incited some of the rioters to fire on the advance of the enemy, who responded with merciless reprisals.
Herein lay the bitterest aspect of the tragedy. In the temporary Capital of Australia, the invaders alleged that there was no authority from whom they could accept surrender, or to whom they could dictate terms. The real administration, that had been dispersed, approached the Commander-in-Chief, but he declined to recognise them. In the circumstances the Cambasians took over the Government, and enforced their own laws and regulations, which they made by proclamation.
Meanwhile, as all organised military opposition had been crushed, they proceeded systematically to make good their occupation. In exactly three weeks from striking the first blow they were in practical possession of the whole Commonwealth. They knew they had ample time to complete their plans, and to consolidate their position. Britain was powerless to help, and Europe was too busy to interfere. The United States were fooled by the most foul and unscrupulous propaganda. Every possible outlet of news to the world outside was stopped.
By continuing their policy of frightfulness, they occupied the salient points and the capitals and large provincial cities. These they were enabled to hold with small, but efficient and ruthless forces. Regulations in the cities and larger towns forbade an Australian to walk on the footpaths, to be in the streets after dark, or to engage in any occupation without licence. The slightest infringement of a regulation was punished summarily by death without trial, and on the spot. Men, for not raising their hats to Cambasian officers, were shot dead in the streets. The whole aim of the policy was to terrorise the people into abject submission.
The Commander-in-Chief of the invading army, now known as the Paramount Power, made no excuse for the barbarity. He claimed that he had 7,000,000 lawless people to deal with, and he was justified in adopting any measures he thought fit to safeguard his country’s interests.
After the debacle, the Paramount Power set about dealing especially with Queensland and Tasmania, from which no opposition could be expected. Month after month transport carried thousands of peasants and working people south. They began at the north of Australia, working from Cooktown down the coast. First came a military force to spread terror through the district. Then came the transports, with the Cambasian workers, who took over the plantations and farms. Wherever an Australian could be captured, he was sent to work on the land for the invaders, practically in a state of slavery.
So thoroughly was this methodical invasion carried out that, by the end of 1941, two years later, when the Berlin Congress was held, three plenipotentiaries of the Paramount Power attended as representatives of the Government of Australia. In the two years between, the Commonwealth was systematically gutted of any natural wealth to which the Paramount Power took a fancy. Worse still, the gutting was done by the Australians themselves, who worked the coal mines, the gold fields, the farms and orchards, and sheep and cattle stations. Coal, wool, wheat, iron and other minerals were torn out by their rightful owners working under the supervision of the Paramount Power, and shipped out of the country.
This programme of suppression, however, was not carried out peacefully; until the Congress of Berlin it is safe to say that outside the cities and the large provincial towns the writ of the Paramount Power did not run beyond a rifle shot. It would have taken an army of 1,000,000 men to enforce their rule absolutely.
Scattered all over Australia were thousands of men who became outlaws, and whose sole aim in life was vengeance. At first there was little cohesion among them. At first barely half of them were armed. Gradually, however, this was altered, and from north to south, Australia was overrun with some of the most desperate and ruthless bands of guerilla fighters whereof the world holds record. Most of them were men bred in the country and bush, who knew their districts as a man knows the palm of his hand. Before long the city folk who had gone bush became equally dangerous to the Paramount Power.
In this guerilla warfare no quarter was given asked. It developed with the most cold-blooded and ruthless killing without mercy. It was this that furnished the Paramount Power with material for its propaganda in the world outside on Australian atrocities. Of it I can say this, that we did fall to the level of trying to emulate the barbarity of the Paramount Power, but we were never able to equal their sheer fiendish ferocity of reprisals.
It will be remembered that when the invaders entered Victoria all the livestock in their line of march was driven east into the ranges as the safest place for them. Thousands of sheep and cattle were allowed to run loose. A similar policy was adopted in the other States when it was known that organised military resistance had collapsed. For this reason the bush and the ranges were full of stock that had, perforce, been abandoned to run wild because they were either ownerless or their owners had no means of using them or profiting from them. It was these that provided the guerilla bands with food and, in the end, clothing.
Doubtless there were thousands of people — especially women and children — among the ranges near Melbourne, and others who had fled from the large cities, who perished from hunger and exposure. Those, who, forced by privation, surrendered themselves to the Paramount Power, had reason to wish they had not stayed where they were and died. These poor dupes were in many cases lured from safe hiding places by promises of safety and protection that were never honoured in letter or spirit.
Those, however, who took to the bush in the country districts, developed a style of hard living and swift thinking that enabled them to become almost as much a terror to the Paramount Power as the Paramount Power was to them. They became, both men and women, as hard as nails. Their bushcraft developed in a school where an ill-learned lesson or a mistake meant certain death. They established contact with their brethren in bondage in the rural districts. Such a perfect system of secret communication was established that the enemy could make no move that was not immediately known to the guerillas.
Though against this the Paramount Power had the advantage of a highly organised military force, with motor transport, and an omni-present air force, during those two savage years they made little or no impression on the guerilla warfare. Of course, there were heartbreaking disasters, but for every life they took a relentless toll was exacted. If the history of those two years could be written in full, it would form one of the most exciting records of adventure and bloodshed ever written.
Some of those guerilla troops became legendary for the daring of their deeds. On several occasions I fell in with the famous “Dumbell” Wright, whose headquarters were near Beechworth, and who harried the country from Wangaratta to Albury with tireless audacity. It was he who immortalised himself by hanging the Paramount Power’s military Governor of Victoria within sight of Wangaratta. The generally accepted story about “Dumbell” was that he was or had been, a clergyman of some denomination which objected to shedding blood. But this was not true, for on one occasion Clifford and I were with him in raid in which he did not exhibit the slightest repugnance to using a bayonet he acquired from a Cambasian soldier.
His name was due to a weapon he invariably carried. It was made of a two-pound dumbell broken across the shank. The broken shank was fitted into a short length of rubber hose pipe and tightly wired. Used with “Dumbell’s” strength and dexterity, that waddy became a terrific weapon — all the more effectual because it was silent. Despite his size, he could move with the stealth and silence of a cat. The success of so many of his raids was due to his genius for “seeing that the sentries were asleep,” to use his own expression. His technique was to strike with his right hand and catch the body on his left arm as it fell, so as to prevent noise. On the night I was with him I saw him get his man, but without a sound, though I was not more than 10 feet from him.
Many of the raids were organised to obtain arms and ammunition. Although many of the guerillas were unarmed or only partly armed in the beginning, before three months were over there were arms and ammunition to spare. These were supplied, unwillingly, by Cambasians. I think “Dumbell” Wright armed almost the whole of north-eastern Victoria — and a tough crowd they proved.
In each State there were several outstanding figures. There was Monty Black, once an artisan in the Lithgow works, who ran the country between Nowra and the Bulli Pass as far back as Moss Vale. It was he who captured a visiting Cambasian Prince of the Blood, and exchanged him for twenty of his men who had been captured. He promised to send him back safe and unharmed, and did, but with a strange word tattooed on his forehead. Monty’s sense of humour lacked refinement. It was Monty, too, who first captured machine guns for his men.
But all along the coast up as far as Cairns the guerillas held sway. Outback, where there was less cover, the technique was different from that of the ranges and the bush, but equally effectual. There was one Queenslander for whom the Paramount Power offered a reward of £100,000, alive or dead, and a free passage out of Australia to any country the traitor liked to name. There were no takers, though probably from 5,000 to 6,000 people could have claimed that reward. This man, of Danish extraction, named Neilsen, achieved his distinction by wrecking five troop trains within the space of three weeks. No doubt the Paramount Power would be pleased to know he is among the men of our camp at the steel works, though he does not use his own name.
But that there were no traitors ever, in those days, despite temptation, was one of the finest aspects of the game — and one of the most appalling. A favourite method of trying to make a man betray his friends was to capture a wife or daughter, and use her as a form of torture, as they did Hill’s wife a few months ago, here in Newcastle. Hill did not speak, but he succeeded in killing with his bare hands the man who gave the orders, before he, himself, was shot down.
Later, after the Treaty of Berlin had given international recognition to the occupation by the Paramount Power, the situation altered. There came a time when we found there were those among our own people who could bring themselves to betray their friends. No man knows how he will behave until the moment of choice comes to himself, and the agents of the Paramount Power had made a science of creating traitors.
There were some who broke under the strain, for whom we could feel only pity. When their police found they could not obtain information by tormenting a man or woman, they used “indirect interrogation.” This euphemism for scientific savagery meant that the victims, men or women, were given the alternative of watching wife, husband or child treated with unspeakable barbarity, or answering questions put to them. Those who would condemn these people for failing, should ask themselves honestly how they would come through such an ordeal. We checkmated them by excluding married men from all subversive societies.
But there were others. In the universal misery and drudgery, there were some who bought comfort or privileges by spying. These were grouped under the unlovely name of “blowflies.” Sooner or later they were discovered — and unpleasant things happened to them under the guise of accidents. The P.P. were under no illusions about these accidents. They never admitted their knowledge. But we could always gauge the value to them of a victim of an accident by the extent to which conditions were made uncomfortable in consequence. A really good blowfly’s eradication would give us double shifts and reduced rations for a month. We knew they knew and they knew we knew.
But they could not keep faith with their own traitors. We had more than suspicion for the belief that some of the clues that led to the discoveries of spies were deliberately placed in our way. They had either finished with the man or mistrusted him.
But during the guerilla period we could and did trust any one of our own people. We had one great advantage in that, though many of the guerrilla fighters’ names were known, they were not known personally, So that we could, and often did, mix with the people in the towns in safety. I have seen Dumbell Wright slouch through the streets of Wangaratta, under the noses of the P.P. police. He would look like a rag bag and suffer a kick with a whine — but he never forgot the face of the kicker.
We never knew the total results of our glorified bushranging. But the loss of men and material to the Paramount Power must have been enormous. In the north-east of Victoria alone, I do not think 5,000 men to be an over estimate for the two years.
[Marsden’s estimate, based on P.P. admissions, places the figures at 100,000. — Eds.]
There may be some difference of opinion on the ethical side of this murderous warfare, but it was a question that we left alone. In any case, it was the natural and inevitable outcome of our defeat. Had even military decencies been observed by the Paramount Power, things might have been different. Had they exhibited either elementary justice or made some effort at conciliation, we might have met them half way. But their choice of that policy of “frightfulness” with which they began and continued, bred a loathing and disgust that placed them outside of consideration of humanity.
Erle Cox, Fools’ Harvest, Melbourne: Robertson and Mullen, 1939, pages 156-166
[Editor: Changed “Britain our sole hope” to “Britain, our sole hope,”; “coldblooded” to “cold-blooded”. Added a comma after “the farms and orchards”.]
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