[Editor: This is a chapter from Fools’ Harvest (1939) by Erle Cox.]
When I made my boast that I would put the story of our tragedy into writing I had no idea that the job would prove so strenuous. Dodging the “blowflies,” as we call the P.P. spies in our camp home at Carrington, with its barbed wire walls and primitive housing, has been the least of my troubles since I began. Although the average camp population is 5,000 men, the authorities did not include a writing room among its amenities. Much less did they consider a supply of writing paper necessary. Letters from without are not regarded with favour by the powers that be. The few that reach us are carefully read and tested with chemicals for unauthorised communications before they are handed over — if ever. Letters outward bound are subject — few as they are, to an even more rigorous scrutiny. Such paper as I have collected so far has been obtained by methods which, in the early part of 1939, I would have regarded as criminal. To-day I look upon its acquisition as a game of chance with the odds against the player.
Now I have sufficient paper with which to begin, and two extremely illicit lead pencils, the problem arises to find a place in which to use them with any approach to comfort. Fortunately, I can trust my shack mates, though my excursion into literature does not add to their comfort — or safety for that matter. Perhaps a description of the camp will better explain the difficulties. Our shacks are laid out in orderly streets on low ground, that is a bog in winter and a dust pile in summer. Each iron shack is 10 ft. by 10 ft. and 8 ft. high. On the walls on either side of the door are fixed three superimposed bunks, 3 ft. wide. The 4 ft. space between them is bare. Since we own nothing but the clothes we stand in, the absence of wardrobes is no hardship. Although there are six bunks in each shack the registered inhabitants number twelve. They are conducted on the Box and Cox System. The day shift sleeps in them at night and vice versa.
To the north we would have had a fine view of the Hunter were not the wharf that forms the boundary occupied by a barbed wire protected platform decorated with machine guns. They added a wire netting screen after some choice spirits among us knocked out a few of the machine gun guards with stones during the hours of darkness. To the east a similar platform screens the town of Newcastle from view, while the machine guns provide for a cross fire down the streets of the camp should the need arise — as it has on three occasions. The south side is built up with a maze of electrified wire, and on the west are the works once known as the Broken Hill Proprietary Steel Mills. The 200 yard passage between the camp and the mills where we work is also heavily protected on both sides by barbed wire lest we lose our way between the works and our camp.
However, I have found that, by leaving the door of our shack slightly open at night, a ray from the guard light nearest us gives sufficient light by which to write. Beyond inventing new adjectives to qualify the word “fool” my shack mates raise no objection to my writing. Anything done against rules is something of an entertainment to them, and as my activities amount to a capital offence they are prepared to put up with any inconvenience to help me. Indeed, when they learned the subject of my work, most of them became enthusiastic helpers, and I am indebted to them for supplying personal experiences and information I would not have obtained otherwise. There are men in the camp from every part of Australia. From among them I have been able to collect many details beyond the reach of my personal experience.
Should this crazy shorthand of mine ever come to be transcribed, my sympathies go out to him who undertakes the job. Whoever he may be, he can take my word for it that in the writing of it and in the concealment of the manuscript, a dozen men are risking their lives daily, until the time comes when we can find means to pass it on to an American Commission of Inspection, or failing that, convey it to the safekeeping of my brother-in-law, Fergus Graham.
One of the perennial sources of argument in the camp is the origin of our slavery. Strange as it may seem, there is very little bitterness in the disputes, nor is there much personal feeling. We have all gone beyond that stage. Hate and a cold implacable lust for vengeance there are in plenty, but it is all directed against the Paramount Power. Somehow, we all seem to recognise the fact that the blame cannot be laid at the door of any individual or any Government, or public body. As I said to Fergus Graham only a fortnight ago, each one of us must shoulder his share of the obliquy. Its root was in our own smug self-satisfaction. We wanted ease, we wanted a high standard of living, we wanted a white Australia, and we wanted to keep it for people of British birth only. We closed our eyes resolutely to the truth that the ease and the high standard of living had to be sacrificed if we were to hold the more precious portions of our heritage.
With that useless and tragic wisdom that comes after the event we can recognise now the warning after warning that went unheeded. Whoever tried to open our eyes was a warmonger or a scaremonger with an axe to grind. No public man dared raise his voice on the fallacy of high wages, vast expenditure on social welfare, or against our besotted addiction to sport. The Leftists, the “parlor pinks” and all their tribe arranged themselves with every form of pacifism — some sound, some rotten to the core — to oppose all attempts at adequate defence measures. In their minds defence represented militarism and profiteering armament interests. And we were caught in the storm almost naked. Gad! but they have paid the price of finding out since then.
Even though we had been told early in 1939 what was brewing in the north, I doubt if we would have accepted the story as being within the bounds of possibility. I think we were a people of fundamentally decent instincts then, who would not believe it possible that other peoples would commit acts we would not permit to enter our own minds. Had any one man known the truth, and preached it from end to end of Australia, he would have been branded as a scaremonger. Put into words the great plot would seem too fantastic for credence.
We know now it was true. But then, how was it possible to believe that three Great Powers would conspire to kill and rob one. Was it credible that by carefully thought out plans, the attack, without warning, would be synchronised throughout the whole world. Even allowing this, would anyone dream that the sworn ally of the victim would desert its friend in the day of peril. But above all could anyone conceive the grim humor of one of the three bandit Powers double crossing the other two, and helping itself to the choicest spoils while the other two did the fighting. We in Australia are like the laughing hyena in that we have very little to laugh about. Nevertheless there is something to smile at in reflecting on the feelings of the two when they found that they had been swindled by their accomplice. It will be a lasting regret to me that what the two wolves said to the jackal when they learned the truth will not be known.
[Burton died too soon. All that the two wolves said to the jackal will be found in Peel and Everard’s “The Struggle for the Pacific.” They never forgave the “Paramount Power” for its treachery, and stood aside when the Pan-American Confederation took punitive action in 1966. — Eds.]
But our ignorance of what was actually coming cannot be offered as an excuse. I belong to the generation that missed the first Great War that embodied the greatest joke of the ages — “the war to end war.” Our parents, in disregarding the warnings, were caught off their guard in 1914, just as we were in 1939. But they had had sufficient sense to have every available man in Australia under some kind of military training. Their organisation was ready. But in 1939, with the whole world still feverishly piling up armaments, we were fiddling about with plants for war material, and entirely neglecting our man power. This in the face of the certainty that the next fight would be in the Pacific, and that Australia would be in the thick of it. I suppose it is natural for my generation to blame those doddering idiots of 1918 with their crazy policy of self determination for small nations. They hadn’t the sense to see that in forming thousands of miles of new frontiers in Europe they were creating a new cause for war in every single mile of them. Then there were Germany left without a colony, and the League of Nations — almost as rich a joke as the war to end war. Queer that our civilisation of the 20th century was then as blind as one day old pups.
Looking back to the early months of 1939, our self complacency had something in it that now appears almost grotesque. Our trouble was that, being so far from Europe, we could not recognise that our own interests were as involved in events there as much as if we had been in the midst of them. It was our misfortune that we were the least military conscious people in the world. The first Great War was 20 years behind us. The “Diggers” were all ageing men. We youngsters knew they had been great fighters, but to us the fighting itself was a page of history rather than an actual fact. All their fighting had been done abroad. Such marks as the war had made in broken lives and homes had almost been effaced from memory. The war monuments were to us only stones. Our Australia seemed so safe, so inviolable. Yet all the time we were hanging like a ripe fruit for any hand to pluck. It reminds me of those lines of Kipling in “The Ballad of the Clampherdown” —
“It was our warship ‘Clampherdown’
That carried an armor-belt;
But fifty feet at stern and bow
Lay bare as the paunch of the Purser’s sow,
To the hail of the Nordenfeldt.”
Australia was like the Clampherdown. Everything outside the range of a few fort guns was “bare as the paunch of the purser’s sow” to all comers. The armor-belt was narrow and weak, and our Clampherdown’s guns were undermanned. But we appointed a lot of advisory councils.
God! the folly of it!
Spring was coming in with September — and so was the Paramount Power; a bare three weeks away. We were talking about such vital matters as football finals. I have tried often to remember any one thing worth doing in life that I did during September, 1939, before that Saturday morning. But I can remember nothing. I went to talkies I suppose; yarned about the coming yachting season or the surfing; went to the office and did my work. I remember the State Parliament was in recess, so I was having a fairly easy time at the office, because of it. I know Gwen — the first time I have written that name in nine years — was dividing her time between our boy and the garden of our home on Balmoral Heights, overlooking Middle Harbor. As I write a queer incident comes to my mind. I suppose I had jumped from a tram in Spit Road at the Stanton Street intersection a thousand times or more. But it was only on that Saturday that I really saw what a wonderful view through the Heads there was from the Stanton Street corner.
There is good cause why that memory rises clear cut from a host of blurred impressions.
But even before the first of the month every plan in three nations for what was to follow had been completed to the last detail. They were only waiting for the dawning of Saturday, September 23. Even had we known then of the armada that left a Pacific base in three divisions, between the seventh and the eleventh of the month, it would not have made much difference to the result. The knowledge might have prolonged the agony for a week or two. Only one thing could have altered the course of events. It is one of those futile “ifs” of history. Had the two wolf powers known of the treachery to them contemplated by the jackal, they must have held their hands. They believed in the doctrine of honor among thieves, however, and were badly left. But since they were all bandits together, the wolves should not have been surprised at the bad faith of the jackal. It is possible that the Paramount Power had reason to believe that after pulling the chestnuts out of the fire it would have been left with the husks. In any case it was able to sit in at the Berlin Conference with all the trumps in its pocket so far as Australia was concerned.
[History proves that Burton’s suggestion was correct. Despite their indignation towards the Paramount Power, it is abundantly clear that the two European powers fully intended to repudiate their engagements, and to curb the Paramount Power’s ambitions in the Pacific. — Eds.]
Erle Cox, Fools’ Harvest, Melbourne: Robertson and Mullen, 1939, pages 22-28
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