Clash of arms
Even when the Government of Western Australia seized the consignment of Federal armaments, it had not finally decided on open resistance against the Commonwealth, though this action was distinctly hostile. Nothing illustrates more plainly the irresolution than the fact that the telegraphic connexions between Colonel Ireton and Melbourne quarters were not interrupted until the middle of September. So the Colonel had received timely warning of the improved equipment of the coast militia. But he was urged nevertheless to establish Federal authority throughout the State, by all means and at all hazards. In this effort, the cyphergram stated, he would be assisted by armed co-operation on the part of the Commonwealth, if it should become necessary. The Central authorities, and the Extremists at their back, dared at least to face the situation squarely. However, as soon as the wires snapped Colonel Ireton found himself completely isolated. The Federal department had not finished its wireless installations, and so his own apparatus was useless. He was thrown back on his own resources at a most trying time.
The District Commandant had made good progress with the organization of the miners. He had gained the confidence of his subordinates, and generally made the men feel that they were now parts of an efficient machine which could be relied upon to work smoothly. He hoped that a month’s patient drill would render his forces superior to the coastal militia. It was a bitter disappointment for him to hear that, owing to a departmental blunder, the enemy had been given the advantage of better armaments. But he wisely kept his troops in ignorance of this! His own equipment had been a source of trouble to him from the outset. Altogether, he could put forward about 5,000 old service rifles, which had been sent down in the past from the coast which, with usual selfishness, had retained the newer patterns for its own use. In addition, there were on the goldfields about 4,000 shot guns of all makes, which had been requisitioned for public needs. Under any circumstances it was risky to match an army possessed of such weapons against a better- armed enemy. But when the latter was now equipped with the most modern rifles, and with artillery into the bargain, the venture became well-nigh desperate.
Inactivity, however, presented a danger still worse — the certainty of being starved out. Since the State rulers had found out the trick of the alleged train disaster, railway communication with the coast had ceased entirely. And the goldfields were absolutely dependent on imports for the necessaries of life. Thanks to the speculative enterprise of the traders, substantial additions had been made to the stocks. The traders were not permitted to reap the benefits of their smartness immediately. As soon as it became evident that the trouble would be prolonged, Colonel Ireton declared all provisions Government property and paid for them in receipts for settlement by the Federal authorities. This precaution staved off a panic. But it did not really improve the situation, which was, briefly, that, with the utmost care and economy, the resources of the eastern goldfields might last, without supplements from outside, into the second half of October. By the end of that short period of grace, therefore, new sources of supply would have to be opened either by the decisive victory or by the unconditional surrender of the army of the interior.
Everything considered, the Colonel did not feel justified to wait idly until the Commonwealth should have struck a blow. His orders were peremptory. Hesitation would merely discourage his men. Perhaps the Coast would submit rather than fight all Australia, which would be inevitable if it should forcibly resist him. His hopes of peaceable settlement, however, were rather low. Neither did he overlook the formidable difficulties in his path if the Coast should make a stand. But, at any rate, an active campaign would teach his forces the practice of war and would prepare them for a great effort when time should be ripe for co-operation with a Federal expedition. These reasons induced Colonel Ireton to push forward. On September 18 he moved his vanguard by rail to the vicinity of Spencer’s Brook Junction, which was occupied after a sharp skirmish with a picket of the enemy the same night. The consequence was that the railway communication between the State capital and Albany districts was cut off.
On the following morning, the citizens of Perth and Freemantle were startled by the alarming headlines of the Press: “Civil War,” “Commonwealth Breaks Constitution.” “Federal Commandant Opens Hostilities.” By noon an official proclamation was published calling to arms all males from eighteen to under forty-five years of age. In the Assembly, the Premier declared that they would uphold the rights of the State, war or peace. The Government was, indeed, confident that the attack would be repelled. For the call to arms was, after all, only a formality. Class I stood ready to take the field. And during the last few weeks rifle corps and volunteers companies for the older classes had sprung into being by private efforts. It was well known that the enemy was badly equipped and had no artillery. The only point on which the State-Righters were anxious was whether the local Labourites would espouse the State cause or whether they would refuse to fight their comrades of the interior, in which case resistance would be practically at an end. But the Labourites sided with their fellow-citizens. Probably the alarming reports spread broadcast in the capital about Colonel Ireton’s tactics were not without influence on their final decision. In fact, the invasion had degenerated into a great victualling raid. Conscious of the menace of famine, the miners confiscated all the live stock and all the provisions in the agricultural districts where they found themselves. That was unavoidable, but it had a very bad effect, especially as there were some ugly incidents of maltreatment of the enraged owners. There was no time for calm reasoning. Every man on the coast fancied that not only the community but his personal property was in danger. And the subtle contrast between opulent city and predatory province, which stretches through the ages, was revived in this modern place, under modern conditions, fanning world-old passions to fever-heat.
The command of the State army was entrusted to a retired British officer of distinguished career who had settled on a small estate near Perth, and with an energy and thoroughness peculiar to old military men, had identified himself with the cause of West Australia to such an extent that he hated the very name of the Commonwealth. His name was Morthill, and he was honoured by the title of “General,” perhaps because the Federal leader ranked only as Colonel. General Morthill enjoyed the entire confidence of his staff, and soon became the virtual dictator of the State, in whose hands the responsible ministers were as soft wax. He was, in every respect, a foeman worthy of Colonel Ireton’s steel.
General Morthill’s task was by no means simple. There was a large element of uncertainty about the situation, which had to be faced — the possibility of a Federal attack from the sea. To meet this danger, he concentrated his army at Perth. It consisted of nearly 4,000 well-trained men of Class I, who were all armed with new regulation service rifles, and of a reserve of 6,000 men, who were now being organized and for whom an abundance of good modern rifles was available. There were also the two batteries which had been seized, and four older, somewhat heavier guns. The General was a little inconvenienced by the shortage of rolling stock, owing to Colonel Ireton’s confiscation of railway material of the Eastern line. In consequence the traffic of the other lines had been reduced to narrow limits, and every engine and truck which could be spared had been brought to the capital, the terminus of all the railways, whence, accordingly, troops could be moved out rapidly in every direction. Against Colonel Ireton’s forces, the General, who fully recognized their desperate situation, proposed to play a waiting game, in the hope that they would be starved quickly into surrender. Their danger, however, was also their protection against attack. For the small State army could not be wasted in warfare in an arid desert, dependent on a single railway line. Wherefore only a detachment was posted at the fringe of the agricultural country to prevent raids by the enemy.
But the occupation of Spencer’s Brook Junction was eagerly accepted by General Morthill as a challenge to battle. Both sides spent the following day hurrying troops forward. On September 20 the first skirmishes were fought and towards evening a State company succeeded in ousting the miners from a prominent hill, known as Mount Mary, which commanded the station. After that Colonel Ireton decided to retreat. His opponent had at least 5,000 men on the spot, while his own numbers did not exceed 4,000, because he had to leave behind strong detachments to guard the railway and the waterworks against treacherous destruction, there being some State sympathizers on the field, though they did not dare to proclaim themselves as such. Above all, the day’s struggle had convinced him that he had no chance against the superior equipment of the enemy, whose fire was effective over a much longer range. During the night the army of the Interior entrained for the east and the main body was beyond the reach of General Morthill at dawn. The Colonel, however, to mask his failure and to counteract the discouragement likely to follow in its wake, had resolved to execute a surprise attack upon the most advanced State position.
For this purpose he retained 400 volunteers. A train stood ready about a mile beyond the slopes of Mount Mary, its last two carriages occupied by marksmen. Before sunrise (September 21) the volunteers crept uphill towards the hostile encampment, and as soon as it was light enough, a rush was made. But the enemy was on his guard General Morthill had decided on the previous evening to mass his foes on Mount Mary and to plant artillery there. Some reinforcements had already arrived under cover of the darkness. So, after some disorder at the outset, resulting in heavy losses on the part of the defenders, the fight came to a standstill. And soon the superior numbers and weapons of the State troops began to tell and the miners were thrown back. Before they could regain their train and safety, General Morthill, hurrying up, launched a counter attack. A party of his sharpshooters took up a sheltered position on the slopes whence they could range over the whole ground over which the volunteers had to return. Colonel Ireton was wounded in the arm. Just as he reached his carriage, two guns opened fire. There was only one escape left to him, if he did not wish to fall into the hands of the enemy with all his men. That was to leave the loiterers to their fate. After a warning whistle and another short wait, which during the struggle raged round the cars, the occupants of which fired from the windows and platforms, the train started, carrying off about 230 passengers. The other 170 stayed behind dead or wounded and in captivity. Altogether it was a disastrous affair for the Federals.
Colonel Ireton did not deceive himself regarding the consequences of the rebuff. His men, it was proved, were equipped too inferiorly to hold their own against the State troops. The usefulness, even the salvation, of his organization depended now on Federal action from the sea, which would divide the forces arrayed against him and would give him a chance of co-operation. Two days after his return to Kalgoorlie, there was a development which somewhat revived his hopes. At last he was able to communicate with Melbourne by wireless telegraphy. The main station had been constructed at Cape Borda on Kangaroo Island, which was already in cable connexion with the Continent. Three steamers, fitted with the necessary apparatus, completed the system. One was stationed in the centre of the Great Australian Bight near the point of intersection of 131° East and 35° South, another about five degrees further west and the same latitude, and the third was anchored in Port Esperance. This latter intercepted the messages from Kalgoorlie, only slightly more than 200 miles distant in a straight line, and transmitted them by way of the floating station to Cape Borda. None of the intervening spaces exceeding 300 miles, the installation, after some experiments, served its purpose very well. Colonel Ireton at once telegraphed a summary of his failure to headquarters and insisted on the following alternative. Either a maritime expedition would have to be dispatched within ten days, or he would have to disband his forces and to surrender arms and his person, to prevent the horrors of famine in the loyal districts under his care.
But he was not the only one who received encouragement about this time. On October 1 a British cruiser steamed into Swan River to the immense joy of the coastal population, which knew that its leaders had appealed to London for Imperial protection less than three weeks ago. The arrival of the warship was interpreted as a prompt response and hailed as proof of British sympathy for the State. And the local Government did nothing to disabuse the masses, though it was aware that the demonstration, in reality, meant nothing of the kind. The cruiser had been sent to re-assure and to calm the people, not to excite it. For the lessons of the immediate past had not been quite lost upon England. Its statesmen did not wish to interfere in the domestic arrangements of the Commonwealth. Any other course would have been open to the suspicion that it was an attempt to exploit the present unhappy situation of Australia, and would probably have led to a violent revival of indignation in the sister-dominions. Moreover, educated political thought in Great Britain favoured Federation of the distant possessions as a means of concentrating and increasing Imperial power. Assistance to secession in one case, for the sake of temporary advantage, would have created a fatal precedent which in future might be fastened upon by malcontents in other colonies. For this reason alone it was not to be countenanced for a moment. Perhaps the trouble in itself was not regretted in London. While it lasted, the Commonwealth certainly could not devote much attention to the Northern Territory, and things there would be allowed to settle down. But all that would come about without Great Britain taking sides. Accordingly, the reply to the anxious State Government was couched in non-committal terms and merely expressed a firm hope that all parties would adhere strictly to a constitutional course.
It was a pious wish. Already rumours were current in Perth that a Federal fleet was on the point of sailing for the west coast. The Commonwealth Government, while maintaining the greatest secrecy with regard to the strength of its preparations, had allowed this fact to leak out, in the hope to alarm its antagonists and to induce them to concentrate their forces in defence of the capital, relieving the pressure on Colonel Ireton’s army.
The Colonel, now in constant communication with headquarters, did not fail to scatter broadcast the good news of approach of succour from the East among his faithful followers. The work of reorganization proceeded with renewed energy. He established a reliable scouting service. His horsemen starting from a point on the railway about thirty miles east of Spencer’s Brook Junction, which point he had fortified as an advanced base, made stubborn incursions into the enemy’s territory. It was arduous work, in which many lives were lost, for in this guerilla warfare no side gave quarter. The most daring scouts pushed forward to within sight of Perth and kept the Colonel informed of every important movement of the hostile army.
Meanwhile General Morthill did not sleep on his laurels. He quite realized his danger of being caught between two fires. Yet he did not lose hope. His troops had already shown fine spirit. They fought for home and hearth, and had this advantage, that they were not in their own country, where the entire population was backing them up, where losses could be promptly filled and the wounded would be sure of loving care. On the other hand, the Federals would be absolutely dependent on a floating base, and from the moment they set foot on land they would find themselves on hostile soil, without any refuge in case of rebuff. The same considerations applied to Colonel Ireton’s army, which, with every mile of its approach towards the coast, would be removed further from friendly support. General Morthill was inclined to underrate the importance of the miners. He knew that they were armed badly, and concluded from the hurried retreat after the first encounter that they were not possessed of the right enthusiasm either.
Business was at a standstill in Western Australia. The Government had no longer any real influence. For some days, there was much talk of its resignation. But as such a course would not have relieved its members from the responsibility for events which had already happened it came to nothing. The military opposed resolutely all backsliding tactics and insisted that the State should face its fate with dignity. Probably there was still a hope that allround firmness might lead to Imperial intervention. The Cabinet again protested by cable in London. But the Imperial authorities did not choose to depart from their attitude of correct reserve.
It was evident that the State stood alone. The Government now called upon General Morthill to see that the community be in a position to repulse outside violence. He became dictator. At his command Albany district was abandoned, and its defenders withdrawn to Perth, on the principle that the available forces, small as they were, should not be distributed over large distances and exposed to the danger of being cut off. Nine thousand men were massed within fifteen miles radius from Perth Post Office, and 3,000 more were camped at Midland Junction, ready to be thrown against the army of the interior, which was further opposed by a vanguard of 600 men strongly entrenched at Spencer’s Brook Junction. Albany and Freemantle ports were mined.
These were the preparations of the State when the Federal fleet was signalled in its waters off Port Esperance (October 4). It stood out to sea again and proceeded to Albany, where a demonstration was made (October 5). For several hours the big steamers hovered round the entrance of King George Sound and several shells were fired into the quiet town. At nightfall the fleet continued its journey. There was method in these manoeuvres. The Federal Commander-in-Chief had established wireless communications with Colonel Ireton and had exchanged plans of the campaign. The delay in the South had the purpose of attracting attention to the threatening invasion, and of facilitating thus the quiet advance of the army of the Interior within striking distance.
Colonel Ireton acted promptly. He had organized a mounted corps of 2,500 men and had equipped them with the best rifles. But this was his striking force, which he wished to keep intact for the decisive blow. The honour of opening the road was reserved to the second line, consisting of about 4,000 miners, who were to return to the gold-fields as soon as they had succeeded. About noon on October 5 the miners attacked the entrenched position of the State vanguard, after scouts had blown up the railway behind to delay the hurrying up of reinforcements. They were repulsed several times with severe losses. Again and again they charged, until after more than two hours they carried the rebels’ camp. The still fierce resistance was stamped out finally by the free use of handbombs — a miner’s contrivance. Only about 200 survivors escaped. The casualties of the victors outnumbered the entire strength of the defenders before the battle.
Before nightfall another engagement was fought along the railway line between the retreating miners and belated State reinforcements. But Colonel Ireton, with his picked cavalry and others, to the number of 4,000 altogether, did not wait for them. Instead, he turned southwards and occupied York, on the direct highway to Perth, in the afternoon. His chances were much improved. He had captured nearly all the modern rifles with which the State vanguard had been armed and, moreover, he had gained a start of several hours. In fact, he had outflanked the enemy.
General Morthill, who had hastened to the scene of trouble on the first news, was the man to make good a passing mistake. As soon as his scouts had informed him of Colonel Ireton’s movements, he stopped the fight and arrested the advance of his troops. All night he diverted further reinforcements to the neighbourhood of the highroad, a distance of about ten miles over rough tracks in hilly country. His intention was to seize Mount Observation, fifteen miles from York in the direction of Perth. But herein he was forestalled by the Colonel, who had dispatched a vanguard to occupy this commanding point, and who followed with his whole army at dawn on October 6. All day long, the miners held Mount Observation successfully in a merciless struggle, mainly owing to their exclusive employment of handbombs, with which they repeatedly defeated the frantic rushes of the State troops at the critical moment. In the afternoon, however, a most discouraging development occurred in the rear of the Federals. General Morthill had repaired the railway and had sent several trains filled with troops to within two miles of York, which township had fallen into his hands. The retreat of the army of the Interior had been cut off. Its direct advance by road on the capital had also become impossible, because the enemy, though not yet victorious, was invincible by reason of his numbers and his equipment. Next morning, then, it would be surrounded on all sides. Artillery would come into play against it. And the final result, under such circumstances, could not be doubtful.
Colonel Ireton had, of course, left his wireless apparatus on the goldfields. So he was absolutely isolated from the outside world, without accurate knowledge of the activity of the Federal fleet. But he was aware that by this time the latter must be ready to land the army of invasion, and that the descent upon the coast would be attempted southwards of Freemantle. If he, therefore, wished to be of service in the decisive battle, he had only one chance of arriving early enough, or at all. It was quite feasible for him to evade to the south, before the ring had been closed tightly, and to lead his mounted corps over rough country and through thick forests upon Rockingham, in the vicinity of which township the disembarkment would probably take place. However, if he did so, he would have to sacrifice the infantry of miners, which, contrary to original plans, had followed him so far. Its presence would merely have hampered the rapid passage of the cavalry. With a heavy heart the Colonel divided his forces. After the losses of the day, still about 3,200 men remained. Two thousand horsemen he placed under his own command. The others, 900 men, infantry, and 300 men, cavalry, exclusive of the wounded, he entrusted to the leadership of his oldest captain. About three o’clock in the morning, Colonel Ireton, with his 2,000 riders, crept down the eastern flank of Mount Observation and marched south. Soon the deep head gullies of Helena River separated him from the State army; from that section of it, he had to fear no more.
At daybreak (on October 7) the Federal fleet appeared off Freemantle and began to shell the town. But the forts made such stout resistance that two hours later the fleet headed southwards again, without having accomplished much. The information was telegraphed to General Morthill, who was busy preparing a new attack on Mount Observation. That able leader perceived the vital necessity of crushing the army of the interior at once, before an invading force should be ready to co-operate with it. His conviction found expression in a series of furious assaults on the miners’ position. The heroic little party of defenders had formed numerous subdivisions to mask its weakness and practised bushman warfare with admirable tenacity. About 9 a.m. the camp was carried. Shortly afterwards General Morthill, whose presence was urgently required on the coast, returned to Perth, leaving his most trusted subordinate to finish the work of destruction. This the latter did thoroughly. The miners were hotly pursued and driven right into the arms of the State detachment approaching from York. And the proud subordinate, looking about him on the field of carnage strewn with over three thousand dead and dying men, little dreamt of Colonel Ireton’s escape, but reported to his General that the active army of the interior had ceased to exist.
C.H. Kirmess. The Australian Crisis, George Robertson & Company, Melbourne, 1909