Part II Chapter III [The Australian Crisis, by C.H. Kirmess, 1909]

[Editor: This is a chapter from the novel The Australian Crisis by C.H. Kirmess.]

Chapter III

The first campaign

McPartoch determined to dislodge the enemy. The nature of the country favoured the display of Australian bush craft. A shallow, densely wooded depression was in front of the strong ridge occupied by the Japanese and a belt of scrub bent round its flank. They were soon expelled from the forest and scrub, but made a stubborn defence of the hill, whence they made frequent sallies against the Australian vanguard which had dismounted and crept forward steadily. But the position was too strong to be taken by frontal attack without disproportionate sacrifice. At length the white commander tried a ruse. He ordered his rear company, which was out of sight of the enemy, to the back of the ridge under cover of the scrub belt. Then the vanguard fell back, feigning exhaustion. This stratagem proved successful. The defenders, noticing the front attack was weakening, dashed out in great force, flinging aside the scouts. They found, however, their further advance stopped by terrible volleys from the Australian’s main lines and were driven back again. Before they could regain their original position, it was carried from flank and rear by the ambuscade, and they were surrounded by a ring of fire. Only a few escaped. About 300 Japanese corpses were counted in the bush. Twenty-one Australians were missing.

After all, McPartoch was only half satisfied. His own losses were considerable. But the worst was that here, at the outset of the campaign, the White Guard had been drawn into a pitched battle, in spite of all good intentions to the contrary. As it happened, fortune had smiled. If reinforcements could have been hurried up on the other side, victory might have been turned into disaster. And the Australians, elated with success, might now be tempted to try a similar game under less suspicious conditions without reflecting that even in this case surprise tactics had won the day. McPartoch addressed his men on the subject in great earnest, candidly blaming himself and warning them that, if any section should imitate his proceedings without special orders, it would be left to its fate, because he would not consent to ruin the cause for its safety.

The advance was resumed. About noon, the White Guard skirted the southernmost settlement of the Japanese. Scouts dismounted and approached cautiously. It was not long before they drew fire. But nothing could be seen of the defenders, who remained invisible throughout, though the Australians, enraged by the shooting of a comrade, tried every means to lure them from their haunts. This peaceful village was, in fact, a well-contrived fortification, like all the others which were subsequently discovered. It was surrounded by a breast-high earth rampart steadied with logs. The abutting huts were constructed of stout timber with narrow slits on the outside in place of window-openings. Each formed a separate stronghold and was so flanked by others that even if it should be carried by storm, a destructive crossfire could be concentrated upon it from the nearest buildings. Big logs, apparently thrown about carelessly, afforded in reality cover for free communication between the several points of importance within the settlements. Many strong trees and some patches of scrub had also been left standing within its confines and completed the almost bullet-proof screen behind which the inhabitants could move in comparative security. Outside, a large space had been cleared thoroughly from protecting vegetation, thus offering no scope for bushman tactics. The village stood on a gentle slope. No doubt wells had been dug inside providing for an independent water supply. A few hundred men could hold it against an army without artillery. They could only be dislodged by a general assault, and the White Guard was not strong enough to risk many lives in such a desperate venture.

After a close watch extending over several hours, enlivened by an occasional exchange of shots, the siege was raised. A mile outside, the telegraphic connexion was cut off by the removal of a long stretch of wire. As the search parties had reported already, a network of telegraphs linked up the Japanese settlements. Information of every movement of the Australians, therefore, was sure to be transmitted without delay to headquarters, wherever that might be. The White Guard was determined to find out. That night it camped ten miles to the rear of the first unconquered line of the enemy.

The Australians rode on all next day (July 21) without meeting with any traces of Japanese occupation. They had been compelled, on account of the advanced season, to swing round to the east, so that they might remain in the vicinity of water. Incidentally, they hoped to outflank in this way the foreworks of the enemy. For it was the aim of the White Guard to locate his headquarters or capital. McPartoch conjectured that it must be situated on or near the seaboard. Before accurate knowledge had been acquired of the Japanese centre of power, it was impossible to form a useful plan of campaign.

The night passed without disturbance. But on the following morning (July 22) the Australians became soon aware that they were being shadowed. Sometimes, they caught a glimpse of horsemen dashing across some far-off opening in the forest. It was the first intimation that the enemy had a cavalry force. A few were laid low with unerring aims, but, of course, the whites could not waste time in the pursuit of solitary foes. By noon, these scouts had disappeared entirely. An hour later, the Australian vanguard came unexpectedly upon a village. All at once it received fire from a point about a mile to the west of the settlement. The leading company rushed forward, under the impression that the inhabitants, working in their paddocks, had been cut off from their base. But McPartoch, old campaigner as he was, restrained his men and contented himself with concealing two sections in a patch of scrub whence their rifles commanded the settlement. Then he began to surround the locality from which the shots had been fired. He was soon satisfied that he was opposed by a force of several hundred men, evidently a military unit, and as eager for the fray as the White Guard. As they were in thick country, where bushman skill had a fair chance, he attacked them with two companies. The Japanese, impatient of battle, met his advance with a vigorous counterstroke, calculated to push the Australians back in the direction of the village. But the latter, experts at taking cover, withstood the blow. The struggle became very bitter. At its height, the villagers, who so far had given no sign of existence, suddenly dashed from behind their ramparts to take the White Guard in the rear. So they exposed themselves to the fire of the two sections hidden in the scrub, who poured volley after volley into them. They wavered, then turned and fled. To complete their defeat, a few mounted files swept down upon them, riding them under foot. But the mounted files were subjected to a severe fusillade by the defenders of the village who had not participated in the sally and who shot upon them without regard to the damage they might do to their own compatriots who were still outside.

The ambush of the Japanese had failed, their field force was enveloped and in danger of annihilation, when an unexpected noise of rifle discharges coming from the extreme rear induced McPartoch to break off the fight hurriedly. The commotion was caused by Japanese cavalry which was engaging, at this critical moment, the last lingering lines of Australian scouts. It was not numerous, and was quickly repulsed. But it had gained its end. The White Guard retreated in some confusion, which cost several valuable lives. Once more it had been impossible to restrain the ardour of individuals. Even the cautious commander had been carried away by his zeal. And again the result had been a pitched battle, with its corresponding neutralization of the one great Australian advantage of superior mobility. If there existed no possibility of preventing this, it was easy to foresee a day when the Japanese, improving in staying capacity as they became ingrained to guerilla warfare, would succeed to lure on the White Guard until they should be able to overwhelm it by force of numbers. What did it matter that the Australians would sell their lives dearly? The enemy could evidently afford huge losses, as was shown by his action of firing into a crowd of his own people to deal death to its pursuers.

Sixteen Australians had been killed. A score was wounded. Among the latter was a young Tasmanian, who had been shot through the neck. He was a mere boy, about twenty years old, and very much liked. Often he had entertained the older comrades by exultant little stories of his sweetheart, a photograph of whom he cherished as his most precious possession. Now he was carried back from the battlefield in the arms of a herculean mate, his eyes closed, his face the pallor of death, while beside the pair his own horse cantered like a big, faithful dog. Not before the White Guard fixed camp for the night, many miles from the scene of bloodshed, could he get medical attention. Then it was too late. The young fellow died under the hands of the doctor. His comrades stood by silently, while the doctor, who seemed strangely interested, made a post-mortem examination. Suddenly he jumped up. “By God,” he cried, “I had my suspicions before. This settles them. Boys, they are using dum-dums against us as if we were niggers. This wound would not have been mortal if it had been caused by a Christian bullet. It was a dum-dum did the work.”

He showed the men the jagged sides of the egress hole, the torn, widened channel of the projectile. For the moment they were too stupefied to say much. The poor boy was buried under a big tree, with the picture of his sweetheart upon his breast.

Then the necessities of the living demanded their right. As it had been impossible the last few days to secure a sufficiency of game, and as it was prudent to reserve the tinned provisions for a real emergency, the Australians had been forced to rely for food mainly on the superfluous horse of their dead. It was not a time to cultivate an over-dainty taste, and once the prejudice had been overcome, the flesh of young horse became recognized as a toothsome diet and as the great stand-by for men who, being in the saddle all their waking hours, required strong, sustaining meat. The horse of the fallen Tasmanian was selected for the evening repast. But in this case, the simple act of killing an animal for food was transformed into a rite of terrible significance.

Thomas Burt, in his diary, has left a suggestive description: “How the idea originated,” he writes, “I can’t explain. Several men of his section ran into the bush and returned with some flowery creepers and bright-leaved boughs. With these they garlanded the horse as if for sacrifice. He was shot, and after the jugular vein had been opened for bleeding, they dipped their fingers into the gore, whereupon they joined bloodstained hands and swore a frightful oath, calling on the name of the dead boy, that they would never spare the life of a Japanese, war or peace. This example had a hypnotic effect. Men rushed in from all sides to imitate it. Everywhere groups formed of blood-smeared comrades, the camp-fires playing gruesomely on their inflamed faces and eyes reflecting a paroxysm of rage, who took the vow in the same words, often in low, strained voices which imparted to it the character of some ghastly incantation.”

The manufacture of dum-dums by means of removing or cutting the tops of bullets became at once the established industry in the Australian camp. Their employment by the enemy had silenced for ever the last lingering misgivings prompted by humanitarian considerations. The Japanese had revealed their secret thoughts: that for the white vermin infesting the tropical wilderness dum-dums were the correct thing.

Benefiting by the experience of the last two days, McPartoch again subdivided his force by halving the files into squads, doubling the number of sergeants. This measure resulted in a more perfect scouting service and a still looser formation, which permitted a more rapid withdrawal from action of the units. So, under the pressure of circumstances, a wonderfully agile and elastic organization had been evolved. Some further adjustments were made calculated to increase the efficiency. Till then, rests on the march had been ill regulated, and particularly the breaking of camp in the morning had often been somewhat disorderly. It was now ordained that breakfast should always be finished before sunrise and that a general halt should be the rule during the hottest hours of the day, provided that the safety of the corps should allow it.

Early next day (July 23) there was no sign of the enemy. Everything seemed favourable to a swift advance. The changing character of the vegetation left no doubt that the coast was not very distant. Surface water was met with more often, and the White Guard was now able to travel right across country in a north-westerly direction. It passed one village during the morning, and later two artificial clearings in the forest. Had these latter been abandoned as places for habitation, or were they being prepared for new settlers? In the second case, where would the settlers come from? Would they be drafted from older villages or from concentration camps on the sea board? Or would new imports arrive from oversea? So early, according to an entry in Thomas Burt’s diary, the white men were struck by this idea of a steady inpour of invaders.

But, after all, progress was not so rapid as had been hoped for. The country became more difficult. In places the high plains dipped steeply into creek valleys, which were covered half-way up with dense jungle and formed ideal hiding nooks for ambuscades. Further north the network of water-courses, dry channels, headlands, jungle, forest and rock became ever more intricate. It was impossible to explore thoroughly over such ground. Several times the intrepid Australians had to turn back in their tracks, confronted by insurmountable obstacles. These happenings caused much anxiety. For if ever their advance should be barred by natural impediments while the enemy was so close in pursuit that they would have to fight a retreat through his ranks, terrible disaster might follow. But apparently the enemy had lost touch again, for they did not see a single Japanese scout that day, and the inhabitants of the solitary village passed by them did not venture outside their ramparts.

Next morning (July 24) the White Guard was crossing the head of a gully when it received fire from a narrow neck on the further side. Its march, of course, was delayed while its scouts pushed forward to reconnoitre the hostile position. The enemy seemed to have counted upon this hesitation. Suddenly, a strong division of Japanese cavalry attacked the Australians in front and from the left flank. It had abandoned the Fabian tactics for which it had been distinguished hitherto. Instead, it dashed in at a tremendous pace, and so wild and well-directed was its charge that the foremost squads of the White Guard were cut to pieces. Reinforcements rode up quickly, throwing themselves into the battle with enthusiasm. They belonged to Thomas Burt’s company, which now shared in the struggle for the first time. The famous diarist himself led his men, whose dexterity on horseback soon outclassed the Turanians. Still, the latter resisted stoutly. Though overwhelmed on all sides, they preferred to die rather than to give way. And those who fell mortally wounded took a parting shot at the horses of their opponents if they felt their sight growing too dim to hit the men, or they killed their own animals. There was a grim significance in that act. For the White Guard, unhorsed, would be doomed to speedy extermination in the hands of their relentless enemies.

The cavalry contest had diverted the attention of the Australians from the Japanese infantry in front, which had had time to develop long lines of marksmen in the scrub. And these now made a furious assault on their part. At the same time, a desultory fusillade came from the rear and left flank. It proceeded in rapid succession from several places and led McPartoch to the belief that more cavalry was approaching from that quarter. He apprehended another rush, with the result that his force would be caught between two fires. He also recognized that the infantry, extended in a thin line followed by two more lines, could not be repulsed without great loss on his part. Already men and horses were falling under their deadly volleys. Instantly, he gave the order to retreat. The signal ran along his ranks and next moment the White Guard was racing away, bearing to the left, and over-riding the Japanese horsemen, who had survived the encounter with Thomas Burt’s company, in their flight. Once more the volunteers had escaped with honour, but not unscathed. Forty-one comrades were missing. Six more were so badly wounded that, though they had contrived to save themselves from the battlefield, they were unable to ride on any longer.

Here was a new problem. Men were in the ranks who had been wounded lightly — on this occasion there were about two score of them — and who had been able to look after themselves, when the surgeons, who numbered four in all, had dressed their injuries. Two or three, indeed, had committed suicide, when they felt worse and did not wish to become drags. But not everybody possessed strength of mind to emulate this heroic example, though there was none unwilling to sacrifice his life in honest fight. As mercy was neither expected nor conceded, the possibility that men struck within an ace of death should escape only to collapse in utter helplessness a little later had not been thought of previously. Instinct revolted against the idea that disabled comrades, still warm with life, should be left behind to perish in the wilderness or by the hands of loathsome aliens. It did not matter that a solemn covenant existed approving of such a course — the thing could not be done. On the other hand, the safety of all demanded that the mobility of the White Guard should not be lessened.

A handy bush carpenter solved the difficulty by devising a combination of stretcher and chair, made of stout sticks and a wicker work of pliable boughs, and provided with uprights at the back which would keep the occupant in a half-sitting position with his legs stretched level before him. The whole was well secured with telegraph wire and covered with blankets and clothing to ease its roughness. Each stretcher was mounted on a quiet horse. Then the wounded man was lifted into it. By means of a long bridle, he could control the animal himself, if he felt well enough, otherwise, a comrade would lead it. Ingenious as this moving field hospital had been arranged, the ordeal, which the sufferers had to undergo during the swift march of the White Guard over rocky ground or through forests where the horses stumbled over roots and creepers, was terrible and killed most. Still, the best had been done for them under the circumstances, and a few were saved, and were spared ultimately for a kinder fate than was in store for their hale mates.

The best part of the afternoon was spent in caring for the wounded; so that not much progress could be made during the remainder of the day. But the scouts discovered two telegraph lines running parallel to each other at a distance of about three miles and in an almost straight northerly direction. There could be no doubt that these wires connected outlying villages with the Japanese capital and that the White Guard was now right in the centre of the zone of settlement. The lines were not cut, so that the enemy might receive no warning of the whereabouts of the Australians. The night passed without disturbance.

In the morning (July 25,) it was found that two of the badly wounded men had died. Some others, who had been reported as slightly hurt and had been present after the battle, did not respond to the roll call. Everybody knew what this meant: a few more brave hearts had felt unable to keep up the pace any longer and had retired to some quiet nook to make an end, so that they might not become a burden and an impediment. Gloom began to spread among the patriotic rough-riders and grew ever more supreme. The gaiety and high spirits so natural to the children of sun-kissed Australia, which had marked the commencement of the enterprise, vanished bit by bit, as the terrible odds against which they were fighting were more clearly realized. None, of course, had believed that they were marching against famishing weaklings. All the same, none had expected such fierce opposition. The majority had not troubled themselves much about the details of the impending campaign. It had been sufficient for them to know that the Commonwealth was invaded and that every good Australian was bound to revenge the insult. Still, at the back of the mind of nearly every one traditions of the colonial exploits in the Boer war had survived and made him look forward to something like it: a series of raids on farms and ill-defended settlements, a continual harassing of the enemy, sudden surprises, a never-ending guerilla war in which the mounted bushmen had imagined themselves as appearing, phantom-like, now here, now miles away, but always aggressive and vanishing before the adversary should have recovered breath to strike back. And this game was to be continued until the Turanians should be reduced to such despair that they should have to appeal to Great Britain for protection, which would never be granted, or else to land armies, and thus to reveal their real designs, when the Empire, for its own sake, would have to rally to the side of the Commonwealth.

It was a beautiful dream, but the disillusion came after the first few days of the campaign. Then the Australians began to understand the haughty bearing of the Japanese dignitary who had warned and vexed them. He had an army at his back, perfectly organized, splendidly equipped, under a subtle leadership undaunted by disaster and losses. The latter had been enormous, but it seemed that the enemy looked upon them as fair payment for experience. Possessed of such spirit, he might bring about a complete reversal any day. Already the Japanese were not content to defend themselves; they had taken the offensive and had thus touched the weakest spot of the White Guard. For a corps of horsemen, with no stronghold to fall back upon, without reserves, living from hand to mouth, must become demoralized in the end if they were made the hares instead of being the hounds. The enemy had the advantage of the inner line of well-placed fortifications in telegraphic inter-communication and, consequently, of a reliable intelligence service. His scouts rivalled the Australians in daring. And the latter noticed resentfully that the brown men looked spick and span in prime condition, while they themselves began to have a rather tattered appearance.

Possibly this contrast of drab raggedness fast losing the faintest vestige of smartness was more than anything else responsible for the depression ruling in the ranks of the White Guard. The influence of the natural surroundings was another dispiriting factor. Thomas Burt’s diary gives, in itself, a very good indication of the progress in intensity of the sombre moodiness which cast an ever-darkening shadow over the gallant band. At first all sorts of little traits are noted down in it, personal items and even humorous snapshots such as a man might write who had gone on an excursion of pleasurable excitement. As the days passed, the purely human interest grows steadily weaker, until it gives way entirely to military records, of councils of war, of moves and counter-moves, of battle, pursuit and plans, of privations and losses, in short, to records of the technicalities of the campaign. Towards the end, the clearness of the depositions suffers under an intrusion of speculation about the enemy and about the chances of success, and the accents of the hopelessness of it all became dominant. Then men, even the leaders, appear puny, mere drifts on the implacable course of events, even as in the moment of an earthquake the whole surface, hills, rivers, houses, trees, people, everything, seems insignificant in the sway of the all-enfolding tremor-waves.

There is a remark in the diary to the effect that the author could not turn his thoughts upon any other subject but the enemy. Others confessed the same. They were strangely fascinated by the stealthiness of his methods, so much so that the bravest would run all sorts of unnecessary risks to investigate more closely. Scouts pushed on and on, fancying that they had picked up some thread of special information, until they had lost all connexion with the main force, though they knew that they were infringing discipline by their action. Something unfathomable seemed to lurk in the silent bush and to lure them on. There was monstrous deliberation, an impassive stolidity foreign to white men, something vague and fantastic like a troubled dream about this menacing settlement of an Asiatic race separated from them by a mutual gulf of incomprehensibility. It was as if a monster had made the wilderness its lair and was lying in wait there, playing its warriors like pawns in a game of chess, without compassion, without fear, and planning all the time the destruction of White Australia. Men unconsciously lowered their voices discussing it. Often in the stillness of night, men would suddenly cry out in their sleep and jump to their feet, startled by a nightmare of the unutterable horror they were fighting against.

The supposed proximity of the Japanese main settlement induced McPartoch to exercise the greatest carefulness. But an incident happened after a ride of some hours which convinced him that for once the enemy had lost touch entirely or had miscalculated the whereabouts of the Australians. For the White Guard overtook a Japanese detachment of about 200 men marching north, which allowed itself to be attacked unawares. Here, at last, the volunteers had a chance to spring a surprise in the style which should have been the rule of the campaign as once imagined by them. And they acquitted themselves handsomely. Only a few Japanese escaped into the bush. As a military force, they were wiped out completely, at a cost to the Australians of but two men killed and three slightly wounded.

After this exploit, McPartoch turned to the north-east. He suspected that the noise of the battle might have been heard in the capital of the enemy, which could not be distant, as the White Guard had crossed several telegraph lines in rapid succession which were no longer running parallel to each other, but converging upon a point farther north. And he concluded that on the spot where they would intersect the Japanese headquarters must be situated. He was leaving the straight direction because he wished to evade the reinforcements which the enemy, alarmed by the shooting, might hurry up.

It was about three o’clock in the afternoon when some vanguard scouts on the left wing reported that they had had a glimpse of a large river, or inlet of the sea, and of a big settlement on its far side. Half an hour later, McPartoch and his leading officers were scanning the scene through their glasses. There lay, on the western shore of a sheltered inlet about two miles wide, a town or rather a group of four villages, sharply divided like the quarters of a mediaeval city, round a central fort. The fort stood on a gentle rise and consisted of several wooden sheds or barracks surrounded by an inner wall and outer rampart and ditch. All the telegraph wires ended in a small watch-tower on top of the biggest building, thus marking it as the headquarters. Sentinels paced to and fro, and several hundred men were being drilled in the grounds of the fort. It was evident that considerable excitement prevailed. Messengers on horseback arrived and departed frequently. A large cavalry force left town. The men of the White Guard knew the reason for the activity. It was they who were being searched for.

They were separated only by a sheet of water from the goal of their endeavours. Yet they saw that it was unattainable. The Japanese capital was impregnable. Thousands were guarding it. Thousands more were doubtless scouring the country to take revenge for the massacre of the morning. It did not seem to enter the mind of the enemy that the Australians were on the opposite bank. Half a dozen boats and a steam launch were anchored in the inlet, but nobody came to use them for investigation. McPartoch, on his part, was careful not to betray the whereabouts of the White Guard. Of course, the men could not be restrained from having a peep. But they had to dismount in the bush and to creep up softly by twos and threes. Night was falling while they were still thus engaged. And under the sunset sky of gold and green the settlement and the cultivation paddocks around it looked indescribably peaceful. But the Australians could not permit themselves to be deceived by appearances. The leaders recognized now that they had located the headquarters of the enemy, that their hope of success did not lie at its gate. Its neighbourhood was fraught with danger of annihilation to them. Their only chance lay in the open country against the isolated villages. Perhaps they might yet achieve something there, after having gained a thorough knowledge of the Japanese methods.

Above all, the White Guard required a reasonable rest of a few days after the unbroken excitement of the first week’s campaign to recuperate its moral balance and to prepare a sensible plan of further activity. But no respite could be had as long as the Australians remained within a short distance from the enemy’s centre of power. The leaders, indeed, looked forward with grave anxiety to the night which of necessity had to be spent so near to it. Tinned provisions were served out, no fires were allowed. Retreat was the password for the morning.

C.H. Kirmess. The Australian Crisis, George Robertson & Company, Melbourne, 1909

The Australian Crisis
[next chapter]

Speak Your Mind