The mastery of the goldfields
Colonel Ireton, alighting in Kalgoorlie, found himself in surroundings very different from those he had fled. However, he was quite prepared for this, for twice before he had been in the interior on journeys of inspection. He was not recognized and, indeed, he did not choose to proclaim his individuality and his purposes all at once. Instead, he renewed old acquaintances and made it his business to gather a circle of influential supporters round himself on the quiet. In this respect, he met with much success, and within twenty-four hours he felt strong enough to throw off his disguise.
The population of the Eastern Goldfields — as of all others — consisted mainly of adventurers who had drifted there from all parts of the world. Victorians, whom the decline of their own mines had driven further afield, and men of the other states of Eastern Australia, preponderated. There were many Europeans and Americans, but hardly any natives of Western Australia. Such a mixture of international elements did not understand the narrow parochialism of the coast. From the very nature of their toil in a hot desert country, at the bidding of wealthy companies, the shareholders of which resided mostly in the distant pleasure grounds of the globe, the miners were imbued with advanced socialistic ideas. Their vote had carried the accession of the State to the Commonwealth and was responsible for its permanent exclusive representation by Labour men in the Federal Senate. Moreover, the mining electorates never failed to send advanced Socialists into the House of Representatives, as well as into the State Assembly. In short, politically they formed a pronounced contrast to the coast, where a majority of the people cherished Moderate ideals and, consequently, resented fiercely the tendencies of the interior. For as the result of co-operation between the coastal labour minority and the interior Labour majority, advanced radicalism dominated the local legislature and continually menaced the coastal vested interests.
Yet the bonds of union were stronger than the mutual aversion. For the barren, arid goldfields depended absolutely on regular outside supplies of the necessaries of life and of all luxuries, which could only be drawn from the west coast as long as no transcontinental railway existed. On the other hand, the social and economic organization of the Coast was based on the needs of the goldfields, and must collapse if these should be diverted to other quarters.
When the Japanese invasion became known, the goldfields had faithfully reflected the alarm of the Eastern States and had loyally indulged in anti-colour riots after the fashion set there, though on a smaller scale. The energetic steps taken by the Commonwealth to create a national army roused much sympathy. In all the centres, Class I formed companies who zealously practised shooting. As the policy of the central Government became more relentless, so martial enthusiasm increased. Many a patriot, tired of the monotony of the dusty desert, looked forward gladly to the chance of a change, particularly if it should be full of excitement. Message after message was despatched to Perth demanding instructions and officers, and, above all, modern arms. Nearly every man possessed an ordinary shot gun, good enough to serve for drill or even firing practice. But the recruits were eager to have proper service rifles, so that they might get rid of the idea that they were playing. The State authorities, however, were not in a hurry to equip and train the miners. They could not hope to exact support for the cause of narrow parochialism from this large body of reckless, self-conscious Federalists. Perth, therefore, aimed at keeping the population of the gold-fields unorganized while arming, and thus placing in an advantage the coastal districts.
Colonel Ireton, on reaching Kalgoorlie, discerned at once that the underhandedness of the State Government had resulted in universal discontent. Many leaders of the miners were quite circumspect enough, especially with the aid of the latest advices, to penetrate the real meaning of the neglect. He set himself, without delay, to benefit by the resentment. Having assured himself privately of the assistance of a number of stout partisans, he called a secret meeting of the leaders of trades-union and friendly societies. Economic and political organization was very complete, and every association had become a centre of the malcontents. It was on this occasion that the Colonel threw off his reserve and carried his audience by a straight-forward, patriotic appeal. He received a unanimous promise of support. But it was now necessary to prevent that Perth should be warned early. He proceeded to the Post Office, and, proving his authority, ordered that no telegrams dealing with political and military developments, and no cypher telegrams, should be forwarded to the coast. He had no difficulty there, as he had to do with Federal officials. This precaution did not suffice, however. There were the railway telegrams, of which he had to secure control. Moreover, if he did not wish to see defeated all his efforts to maintain secrecy, he had to interrupt the train service, so that the conveyance of passengers or letters might be impossible. As the railway was under State management, he had to employ force. At the head of a numerous band of patriots, he overawed the staff of Kalgoorlie station. His wireless experts seized the telegraph. Others removed vital parts from engines, and even blocked and guarded the line. A special train, managed by the most determined and trusted Federalists, was despatched in the direction of Perth. These men were under orders to confiscate or destroy every telegraphic installation as far west as Merenden, to block the line at that place, to keep a strict watch there, to disable or to shunt back to Kalgoorlie any engine on the wayside stations. Colonel Ireton had opened hostilities. To account for the stoppage of the railway traffic, the authorities in Perth were informed by wire that a great train disaster had occurred. Apart from misleading them, this move was calculated to attract as much rolling stock as possible. The Colonel compelled the station people to make urgent appeals for relief trains, which he intended to seize, thus diminishing the means of communication at the disposal of the State.
Such strenuous measures could not remain secret even for hours. Kalgoorlie was thrown into fits of wild excitement. And the Commandant deemed it wise to take the citizens into his confidence forthwith. At night he addressed a huge open-air meeting by torchlight and unfolded his plans and his reasons with the utmost frankness. He said that he was instructed by the only lawful authority to organize the militia of the State, and that he would do so, even if he had to lead the loyal miners upon Perth. He adjured his audience to stand by him in defence of White Australia, in defence of the glorious inheritance of their race. He said that he did not plead for mercy or for favours; he merely pleaded that they should act like men, not like cowards, and should declare their allegiance there and then — for the misguided West Coast or for the Commonwealth. The ground had been well prepared by his supporters, and hurricanes of cheers signified the decision of the gathering. Afterwards the town council held a special sitting. At midnight the Federal Commandant was introduced, and the members placed themselves at his disposal in a body. He lost no time. Next morning he attended a conference of the managers of the chief local mines and promised that the stoppage of traffic would not last for over five days, on his part. Training hours were fixed in a friendly spirit so that the unavoidable work of the industry should not be interfered with. Then he worked out a simple but efficient course of military exercise and appointed the first batch of officers of the local militia. He slept in the train which rushed him off to other centres. His journey was an unbroken triumphant process. Everywhere he received ovations; everywhere he won the gratitude of the most influential and capable partisans by rewarding them with officerships. Within a few days Colonel Ireton was the undisputed master of the great Eastern Goldfields.
Meanwhile, relief trains rolled down from Perth. The comedy with regard to the imaginative disaster was, indeed, well maintained. Detailed lists of the casualties and descriptions of the losses were wired to the departmental heads. It was alleged that the line had been torn up and that considerable time must elapse until repairs could be finished and the traffic resumed. That all seemed so reasonable that no suspicions were aroused. Goods trains, too, went down the line. For there had been quite a burst of orders from the interior. Shrewd traders foreseeing prolonged trouble, thought it worth while to increase their stocks. Colonel Ireton rather encouraged this business venture — for reasons of his own. The merchants had fullest use of the telegraph for the transmission of open commercial messages.
But never an engine, or a car, or an employee returned from the West. Something seemed to be radically wrong. The responsible managers became restless. And the Minister for Railways had just decided to travel to the scene of the accident when the secret of the Colonel’s illness leaked out. An employee, anxious for promotion, evaded the watch set by the Federals by leaving Southern Cross on a bicycle one dark night. He stopped a down train, but had much difficulty in convincing the startled attendants that he was not joking. The train was rushed back to the coast, where the news created consternation. Colonel Ireton was nearly forgotten. His retirement was explained satisfactorily by his illness. Courteous inquiries were as courteously acknowledged by his orderlies, who guarded his sick-bed and regretted deeply that personal callers could not be admitted, on account of the patient’s nervous breakdown. Nobody really cared about him as long as he lay quiet. Disabled, he was preferable even to a more pliant substitute. And now the truth came out that his illness was a trick, as well as the railway disaster, and that he was in a position to menace the State authorities. Perth rang with the news. The two orderlies, hearing of it, hurried on board the Katoomba, which left Freemantle at once.
Until then (August 28) the State Government does not seem to have regarded seriously an armed conflict with the Commonwealth. Probably the former considered that it could bullock through by sheer obstinacy, relying not a little on the inaccessibility of its nerve centres by land, and on the fact that its antagonists possessed no navy. This assurance was no longer possible. Colonel Ireton’s actions spelt compulsion. At the same time the complications caused by them went far to make a peaceful understanding unlikely. While only the Commonwealth had to be reckoned with, such an understanding might not have been popular, but it was neither very distasteful. It was quite different now that a Federal officer had succeeded to seduce a component part of the State to disloyalty. The whole west coast felt the blow as a mortal insult. Under such pressure, submission would be dishonour, and was therefore out of the question. As it had been all over the Continent, so it was in its western corner: when the crisis developed, Extremists gained the upper hand. Though the Government did nothing for some days, seemed, indeed, to be paralysed, strong influences were at work under the surface, shaping rapidly a course towards open resistance against the Commonwealth. The movement was directed by the officers of the local militia, who were afraid, with some reason, that the first Federal measure would be their own removal, after the insubordination and malice with which they had treated their lawful chief. Those who had shown their disdain too openly might expect even worse punishment. The fruit of their alarm seems to have been a regular conspiracy for the purpose of retaining power by means of the continuance of State control over the troops. These officers, forming the best organized body in the community, and being connected by ties of kinship with the leading families, rapidly acquired influence enough to overawe the official Government. While Ministers were still feebly struggling against being reduced to mere puppets of a military oligarchy, an incident happened which spurred the malcontents to action and committed the whole State to a policy of violence.
Immediately on receipt of the first news of the Japanese invasion, the Federal authorities had ordered war stores in England. After the mobilization, Parliament had voted large amounts for further purchases. As haste was deemed an important consideration, these had not been confined to Great Britain, but ready modern armaments had also been bought up in Europe and America. Among the latter was a large parcel of rifles — several thousand — with proper ammunition, and two light batteries of four guns each, from prominent German factories. A German steamer, manned entirely by a white crew, brought them out, and called also at Southampton, in consequence of the British maritime counter-boycott, where she shipped several thousand regulation service rifles. Somehow, in the stress of work, the responsible Federal officials seem to have lost sight of this cargo. At any rate, the vessel steamed into Swan River for further orders (September 2). The Freemantle agents informed the local authorities. A hurried meeting of the Cabinet was held. This was the crisis; for the seizure of all the high-class war materials would ensure the superiority of the coastal militia over any forces which Colonel Ireton might be able to put forward. But it would also be tantamount to a challenge against the Commonwealth. Some Ministers had not lost yet all sense of proportion and entreated their colleagues to be calm and loyal. At this juncture, it was proposed that the commanding officer should be consulted. That settled the question. The military demanded practically unanimously that they should be provided with the best weapons available, to which right they claimed to be entitled as much as their Eastern comrades. The Government declared its willingness to accept the consignment on behalf of the Department of Defence. It was landed quickly without demur, for the agents, overwhemed with profitable business on account of the maritime trouble, wanted to get the steamer away as quickly as possible.
When the vessel arrived at Adelaide, the occurrence became known, and a torrent of abuse was poured upon the Federal authorities for the carelessness of their officials. The Commonwealth Government breasted the criticism by assuming at once an uncompromising attitude. Perth was requested by telegraph to make immediate restitution of Federal property. But the more closely the State rulers inspected their acquisition, the less did they feel inclined to part with it. Moreover, they were already committed too far. Even a belated submission had ceased to be regarded as a guarantee against reprisals. Too much bitterness had been engendered; the populace began to grow accustomed to the idea of resistance in preference to slavish obedience. Better, the State-Righters argued, a fight in the open, now that the local troops were splendidly equipped, than exposure to the silent revenge of the Continental Extremists after the last constitutional safeguards should have been surrendered.
The Government of Western Australia replied that State money had been spent in the purchase of war materials and that, therefore, the people of the West were entitled to a share. Particularly so since a Federal officer had created dissensions within the community and was doing his worst to bring about a breach of the peace. Nevertheless, restitution would be made on condition that Colonel Ireton should be recalled, and as soon as he had left the state. Melbourne rejected these terms and repeated its demands, adding, moreover, a request for a formal apology and punishment of the responsible officials. Perth, in return, remained obdurate and revived the question of constitutional guarantees foreshadowing an appeal to the Imperial authorities for protection in case of coercive measures. This message terminated the diplomatic intercourse between Commonwealth and State.
C.H. Kirmess. The Australian Crisis, George Robertson & Company, Melbourne, 1909
[Editor: Corrected “Southamption” to “Southampton”.]