Retreat and reinforcement
The ignorance which the movements of the enemy on the previous day seemed to imply regarding the whereabouts of the White Guard, was either another strategic trick from the outset to lull into a false security the watchfulness of the volunteers, or it had been dispelled very quickly. Even before dawn the Japanese scouts began to attack the outposts. Probably the former had marched throughout the night, guided by the light of the full moon. The Australians broke camp hurriedly and rode to the east, partly with a view of outflanking the pursuers and partly because they were afraid of being surrounded on the land side and driven back upon the inlet of the sea, if they made a stand in this unfavourable position. The country was not at all suitable for the full development of cavalry. It was flat, covered with thick jungle and permeated with a tortuous network of channels, mostly dried out, but forming veritable pitfalls among the dense vegetation. Apparently the Japanese had limited their pioneer efforts of civilization to the districts further west over the water, for there were no traces of settlement here. But that they had explored and charted this wilderness was evident from the rapidity with which their own forces moved. Moreover, they had pressed the local natives into service as guides.
The aboriginals of the interior accompanying the White Guard were nearly as much at a loss in the coastal jungle as their masters. They were, however, ahead of the latter in their ability to make themselves invisible during critical periods. This trait had been noticed from the first. Every time a battle waxed hot, they had vanished mysteriously, rejoining the volunteers when the air was clear again. During the whole course of the campaign, they had lost so far less than half a dozen of their number, which fact was the best proof of their sagacity in taking care of themselves. The White Guard did not resent their caution. It had never been intended to make them fight for the cause of White Australia. That was the sacred privilege of the ruling race. The blacks were employed as hunters and scouts, and in this capacity they had proved serviceable and willing enough. When the first shots were exchanged that morning (July 26) they had all stolen away quietly, and their prolonged disappearance was accepted as a sure sign that serious trouble with the enemy was brewing.
The Australian van and right flank suffered heavily under the fire of Japanese marksmen concealed in the thick growth. After a ride of about two hours, the foremost squads came to a bare patch, a kind of spur of the high plains. Here they were charged by hostile cavalry. A fierce battle raged for half an hour until the aggressors, cut to pieces and much reduced in numbers, fled back. But the delay enabled Japanese infantry to concentrate behind their gallant horsemen in such strength that the further progress of the White Guard was effectively barred. It turned north, towards the sea. Again the cavalry attacked, to gain time, so that the infantry might push on in that direction. Though decimated, the mounted Turanians had lost nothing of their energy. But the exasperated Australians were now determined to make an end of them, regardless of cost. After a terrible struggle they succeeded. The Japanese cavalry was annihilated and all its surviving horses captured. Nevertheless, the purpose for which it had sacrificed itself, had been attained. Long lines of infantry hemmed in the van and both flanks of the White Guard.
At last, the genius of the invading race had invented a method of counteracting the superior mobility of the raiders. It consisted in the employment of thin files of infantry, no longer stationary, but hurling themselves against the horsemen, taking advantage of every tree and rock for cover, yet ever advancing and followed by other files like successive waves of destruction. Horsemen had no chance against such rushes. They could not override them. They might fling them aside, only to be confronted by the second and third lines, while the first one, which had been broken through, would re-form and pour a deadly fire into the rear of the advancing cavalry.
This method was tried for the first time on this occasion with very satisfactory results. Before order had been restored fully in the ranks of the White Guard after the cavalry contest, an infantry rush occurred. It increased the confusion, and after a short stand the Australians were repulsed. Some daring scouts of the enemy had got into the rear already. About eleven o’clock the squads of the extreme western flank touched the inlet again and had another glimpse of the capital. In the blinding noon glare of the sun the impression was no longer peaceful. Even as they looked, troops were hurrying over the cleared cultivation paddocks, no doubt sent to help in the work of destruction. The fort, in its inaccessibility, seemed to represent the embodiment of the deep Oriental disdain against the Whites whose Star Cross was to pale in the Northern Territory before the victorious rays of the Rising Sun.
The position of the Australians was desperate. Behind them the river; to the east, and bending north and south, superior hostile forces. Everything had remained quiet so far to the south-west, but this silence was really disquieting, because the connexion between the Japanese headquarters and their eastern army lay across that line, and it was natural, therefore, to assume that strong reserves were massed in that neighbourhood. McPartoch held a hurried consultation with his lieutenants, in which it was decided to strike out straight to the south, in the hope that the enemy might be compelled to disclose his plans more fully by a diversion in this direction.
Fortune favoured the White Guard. As it happened, the Japanese had concentrated the bulk of their army in the east in their eagerness to block its progress. Their southern outposts, commanding every opening in the jungle, every neck between creeks, had thus been denuded temporarily of defenders. When the volunteers were falling back, the defect had been noticed and reinforcements were despatched. But it was too late. The Australians, wheeling south with great rapidity, ousted their opponents in a series of magnificent charges. To delay them, the last remnant of cavalry at hand was thrown against them. But they had learnt from their experience of the morning. They wasted no more precious time in a pitched battle. Cutting a way through the cavalry and overriding the van of the infantry reinforcements before they were able to develop their new tactics, the White Guard at last escaped into the open. It continued its ride all the afternoon, unpursued, and fixed camp for the night well out of the enemy’s reach.
The death list of the battle was enormous. Two lieutenants, five sub-lieutenants, a surgeon, fourteen sergeants and sixty-eight men were missing. Moreover, forty reserve-horses had been killed and some stores were lost with them. This latter calamity was relieved somewhat by the seizure of over sixty Japanese horses, which were mostly Australian-bred. There was irony in this. Commonwealth citizens had reared the stock, had realized a profit on it, and now it was employed to defeat their compatriots. For without efficient cavalry, the enemy would hardly have been able to take the offensive against the White Guard. More stretchers were constructed for the transport of the badly wounded. Of the first batch, only two were still surviving. Eleven others were added that night.
Burdened with this further impediment, the leaders were compelled to come to a clear understanding about the further course of the campaign. They conferred during the evening, and before sunrise next morning (July 27), they placed the results of their deliberations before a general council of war, which had been called together originally for the purpose of rearranging the decimated units and electing subordinates for the fallen officers. McPartoch, in another manly speech, pointed out the insurmountable difficulties in their path. It could not be denied, he said, that the White Guard had been thrown upon the defensive owing to the overwhelming numerical superiority of the invaders, and that it could not hope for victory under the circumstances. He regretted that it should have been his advice, in the last instance, which had persuaded them to carry through the desperate venture at a loss, so far, of almost a third of their comrades. Here the brave fellows interrupted him with cheers and passed a resolution by acclamation, thanking him for his unselfish leadership and assuring him that he continued to possess their full confidence. His proposals were warmly debated. But in the end they were carried with practical unanimity. Retreat, as speedy as possible, to the base in Snowdrop Creek was determined on, so that the wounded might receive proper care. And a thorough consideration and final decision regarding future action was to be postponed until after that. It was a touching attempt at self-delusion. For in his heart every man felt convinced that a handful of white fighters could not defeat the organization created by the enemy, though every one be a hero. Yet they tried to evade that last bitterness, the open acknowledgement of failure to each other, as long as there was a chance.
The march was resumed. They were still within the danger zone, in the circle of outlying villages. One they passed before noon, but its inhabitants did not seem to take any notice of them. McPartoch had decided to travel straight south to avoid the jungle with its rank vegetation, which would have delayed progress, and with its animal pests, which would have tormented the wounded. In the afternoon they skirted another village. They kept always to a rough track cleared by the enemy. Shortly before sunset they came to a waterhole in a depression, about twelve miles further on, and camped there for the night. It was by no means an ideal spot strategically, being surrounded on three sides by a wide sweep of hill country and on the fourth to the north, by a belt of thick scrub and patches of acacias which restricted the outlook. But the volunteers knew that the Japanese main force could not have kept pace with them on their retreat and they did not particularly fear attack from the isolated settlements, because according to all previous observations, these did not contain more than one hundred, or at most two hundred, men each. Of course, the usual watch was kept.
But the White Guard had underrated the resources and tenacity of the enemy, who again took advantage of the moonlight to creep up to its position. This time the Japanese scouts penetrated silently the line of outposts and with the dawn, a furious infantry assault was directed against the two most exposed sub-camps of the Australians. Fortunately, some confusion ensued among the enemy in the dim light. His own scouts shot upon mounted reinforcements hurrying to their help, apparently taking them for the withdrawing volunteer outposts whom they had passed under the cover of the scrub. Thus the occupants of the sub-camps were enabled to escape, leaving tents, blankets and other belongings behind them. These were secured, however, in a successful counter-attack immediately afterwards. Day had now broken fully and revealed a large force of Japanese infantry approaching from the high ground to the west. Already they were forming the long thin files preparatory to one of their characteristic rushes. McPartoch had just time to sound the signal for retreat, when the first line hurled itself against the Australians, coiling about their flanks like a poisonous breath before which men and animals staggered and fell. The rear of the White Guard resisted for a moment, then followed the others in headlong flight eastwards. They were pursued by cavalry.
For an hour the volunteers rode on without lessening their speed appreciably. And still the Japanese horsemen doggedly stuck to them. Their presence was a disagreeable surprise to the Australians, who had flattered themselves that they had exterminated the mounted service of the enemy, and who were now running away from an inferior number of that arm. McPartoch had to yield at last to their entreaties to make a stand. The rear faced round. But the shock of the outset proved too much for it. It had to give way, and the hostile cavalry, still about 150 strong, fell upon the centre of the White Guard, commanded by McPartoch in person. Here the advance was arrested. The Japanese, surrounded, were shot down in numbers. The survivors, however, never wavered. Their leader, a man on a splendid horse, gave them a wonderful example of heroism. Riding into the thick of the fight, he brought down man after man, seemingly invulnerable himself. He came within ten yards of the Commander-in-Chief when suddenly a member of the Port Darwin contingent cried out: “Ah Ting!” At the exclamation, the Japanese leader half turned, and found himself face to face with McPartoch. Two pistols were levelled at the same moment, two shots rang out in one. Ah Ting threw up his arms and fell to the ground, dead. McPartoch’s mare staggered and broke down, throwing her rider. Some men ran to his assistance and lifted him on to Ah Ting’s horse. The fall of the leader decided the fate of the Japanese, hemmed in on all sides. They perished manfully.
The contest had reduced the number of the White Guard to about four hundred, counting in the badly wounded. To make matters worse, McPartoch was half-dazed in consequence of his accident. He surrendered the command to Thomas Burt until he should have fully recovered. Under the pressure of their misfortune, the volunteers did not have leisure to ponder over the fact that such a large force, independent of the main army of the enemy, should have been away in the open country. If they could have done so, the truth might have dawned upon them, and thus warned, their ultimate fate might have been different. For it is most likely that this force had been despatched, even before the rout of the White Guard near the capital, with a view to cut off its retreat. Of course, the truth will never be known until the Japanese choose to publish it. But appearances seem to show that they made this attempt thus early, the repetition of which was to be so terribly successful afterwards. Ah Ting, no doubt, had been entrusted with the execution of the task. He failed because the Australians retreated too quickly. And rather than return a beaten man, he sought death. It is impossible to explain in any other way his fool-hardy pursuit of a superior number of superior horsemen.
Next day (July 30) the White Guard passed the southernmost village, where the parting shots of the campaign were exchanged. It was noticed that the telegraph lines had been repaired already. On the following evening (July 31) the Australians camped again upon the old spot at the head of Liverpool River. They spent a day there recovering vigour after their exertions and afterwards continued their retreat to the base in Snowdrop Creek, arriving on August 2. The seven badly wounded comrades who still survived were then removed with infinite care to Katherine and distributed among trusted friends. So well was the secret kept that the Imperial authorities at Port Darwin remained in ignorance of these happenings. But perhaps they did not wish to know anything.
A general council of war held in Snowdrop Creek decided that it would be madness to renew the fight. The only question under dispute was the manner in which the White Guard should be disbanded. Some adventurous members proposed that they should all return to Queensland by the route over which they had come. They had no doubt that reports of the campaign had transpired in Palmerston, and they were afraid of arrest if they should place themselves within reach of the British commander in that port. The overwhelming majority, however, justly dreaded the overland march mainly because the dry season was now far advanced. In the end, all agreed to send a deputation to Port Darwin to investigate the real state of affairs there and to arrange, if possible, for a quiet refuge and gradual absorption of the volunteers in that district, whence they might disperse by sea by and by.
Meanwhile the White Guard remained at Snowdrop Creek to await the result of the mission. And during this period an event occurred which changed the destiny of the corps. Quite unexpectedly, reinforcements from Queensland arrived at Katherine (August 7) and, in due course, were directed to the camp. The new-comers were in a pitiable state, having traversed the same overland route, conducted by aboriginals. They had lost thirty-two men on the march. According to their statements, the deficiency of water in the Interior precluded absolutely all further help by land until the end of the year. But they did not mention this to discourage the others. On the contrary, as soon as they had refreshed themselves by a few days’ rest, they declared themselves quite ready for action. The relief force was certainly a fine body of men. It numbered 564 members, with 200 reserve horses and a vast quantity of stores. Cosmopolitan elements had entered into its composition to a much larger extent than in the case of the first corps. For before the date of its departure (July 16) from Bourketown there had been time to get to North Queensland for adventurers from all the states who objected to the drudgery of regular drill and were yet too patriotic to shirk the duty of defence. In addition there were over a hundred Canadians and Americans from the Western Slopes.
The views of the old campaigners — the heroes of the first campaign — were strongly modified by the fresh development. The optimists among them were inclined to bury the remembrance of the terrible experience of the recent past under a hope of revenge, now that the losses had not only been made good but the original fighting strength had been increased by one-half. Others, more cautious, pleaded that the Japanese had gained an intimate knowledge of Australian tactics and would be able, therefore, to meet all efforts with even deadlier effect than in the opening struggle. These warners reminded their comrades that the enemy thought nothing of sacrificing the life of his own warriors. They doubted if even the united white forces would be sufficient to expel or to exterminate the invaders. Anything less would not be worth the risk of so many lives valuable to the Commonwealth. Was it not better to wash their hands of a hopeless affair and to save themselves for another battle some day, in the regular army of Australia, where their experience would be of the highest importance?
But the reinforcements wanted war. Their leader offered to serve under McPartoch. They could certainly make out a good case. Having come all this way, they claimed the right to be given a show. It seemed unfair to desert them. No description of Japanese methods and the hardships of a campaign could cool their ardour. They still believed fondly in the immense superiority of their own race. Their point was that if the enemy had gained knowledge, so had the Australians, and that the imperfections natural to a first effort need not be repeated.
These remonstrances were not wasted. Yet more than by anything else the old campaigners were influenced by a singular circumstance. The mission returned from Port Darwin to camp on August 14. It brought all the news of the anti-colour and election riots, from which one fact could be gathered plainly — that no support could be expected from the Federal authorities, whose energies were absorbed fully by civic disruption in the centres of population. But the mission had to tell of something much stranger. Nothing at all was known in Port Darwin of the doings of the White Guard. Its sympathizers, indeed, had become quite anxious about it. Was it loafing? Had it no courage to come to blows? These were the questions which assailed the members of the deputation, whose replies were received with incredulity. There could be no doubt that the Japanese had been absolutely silent on the subject, that they had lodged neither protests nor appeals. It seemed that they regarded the White Guard with calm contempt and officially ignored its existence.
No intelligence ever caused a more profound sensation or more violent indignation. With feelings akin to consternation the heroes of the first campaign asked one another what might be the policy of Japan that it did not seize the opportunity to condemn publicly a raid of irregulars which could not have cost it less than a thousand lives. It drove the blood from the heart of the brave men who had fought so hard and borne so much, to contemplate how their exertions were stifled in studied silence. Were they of so little importance? So they had not made themselves dreaded enough? Had all the sacrifices, the deeds of mates now dead and rotting in the interminable bush no worse effect on the enemy than so many flea-bites, scratched casually and dismissed from memory? Ah, they had not done yet! The brown horror would yet squeal at the top of its voice for protection against the intrepid sons of Australia! The lofty disdain displayed by the Japanese so incensed the old campaigners that the resentment practically decided the issue. A vote taken exclusively among them, which every man bound himself beforehand to stand by, resulted in favour of a second campaign by a twelve to one majority.
Although the leader of the reinforcements — a Canadian named Grimpan — had announced his willingness to serve under McPartoch, he objected to being reduced to mere lieutenant, while others previously under his command were elevated to the same level. A regrettable element of jealousy, foreign to the old campaigners, was thus introduced. The matter was compromised by forming two companies of 150 men each, with five sub-lieutenants, and by appointing the Canadian to the command of one of these. It was also arranged that the supreme leadership should revert to him in the event of McPartoch being killed or disabled. All the old campaigners regarded the second concession as an affront, for they looked upon Thomas Burt as the rightful heir-presumptive to the honour, as his stewardship during the last stage of his retreat had won their entire confidence. For the moment the settlement was accepted, but the slight rankled nevertheless.
The command of the other increased company was entrusted to Thomas Burt, who again received that most responsible office, the commissariat. He would have preferred a place in the fighting line, but he bowed to the pleading of McPartoch, who knew only too well that the very existence of the White Guard depended on the safety of the stores and particularly the horses, and that it was to be feared just for this reason that the Japanese would try to gain possession of or to destroy them. In the commissariat was also vested the supervision of the aboriginals. The old band seemed to have sustained some loss, after all, in the final stage; about a fourth of their number was missing. Now the blacks brought by the reinforcements were added. The total, then, amounted to about eighty. On the whole, the second instalment was not up to the former level. It had not been treated with so much consideration by its masters, and sulked rather. A close watch was very necessary.
Among the old campaigners there were several of the lighter wounded who had not quite recovered. Some of them were, for the purpose of war, no better than cripples. Yet they craved permission to share in the new venture. But McPartoch would have none of them. He even refused to move while they were present. So these brave fellows, twenty-three altogether, had to return to Katherine, thence to Port Darwin and civilization. To one of them Thomas Burt entrusted his diary — all that is left of it. And this foresight has preserved to white humanity the only strictly contemporary record of the first campaign of the White Guard — one of the most unselfish and tragic sacrifices of all times.
C.H. Kirmess. The Australian Crisis, George Robertson & Company, Melbourne, 1909