Like tigers at bay
Early on November 25, 1912, Colonel Ireton left the fort with an escort of two officers, a sergeant and four men. The latter led several spare horses carrying provisions and a collapsible boat, the parts of which were well hidden under the other baggage, for the explorers did not wish to let the Japanese into the secret of their destination. With this intention they travelled due south to deceive possible watchers and also to evade the swamps and creaks of the coast. Ostensibly they were bound on a hunting trip. About noon on the following day they turned eastwards and were soon out in the original wilderness. Progress was slow, continually impeded by natural obstructions. But from time to time a marked tree or rock was passed showing that the intrepid invaders had penetrated even here, and these observations filled the explorers with fresh hopes. At nightfall they crossed Liverpool River and camped not far from its right bank.
Next morning they pursued their quest further. Fortune favoured them. They found a track running from the north-east to the south-west about four miles distant from the river. It was very rough, but its condition indicated plainly that it was much frequented. Soon it bent round to the north near a village in a clearing. There were many dwellings, but only very few settlers were to be seen. It occurred to the Colonel that this must be a kind of half-way house established for the comfort of weary immigrants on their march to the interior, and that a similar station was probably situated on the banks of Liverpool River at the end of another day’s journey, which station he had missed luckily by crossing farther down. He had no wish to make his presence known to the villagers, who might have means to warn the secret coastal base — the existence of which could no longer be doubted — of the approach of the whites. Much time was lost in the endeavour of the little party to pass through the bush surrounding the settlement out of sight and hearing of its inhabitants. The explorers were just expecting to come out on the track again when the din and tramping of a large moving crowd made them recoil. They left the horses in care of some of the rank and file far back in the thickets; then the officers crept forward cautiously to ascertain the cause of the commotion. They beheld a force of about two hundred Japanese marching inland. A vanguard of twenty men, rifle on shoulder, headed the procession. Behind, in motley array, the main crowd followed, some carrying burdens, others leading horses laden with crates of living poultry or with bulky packages, still others driving cattle, sheep and goats. Another armed detachment brought up the rear. It was afternoon before the track was clear once more. The explorers pushed on for another twenty miles and camped for the night in a sheltered spot.
Little more than two hours’ spirited riding after sunrise (November 28), and the party had the first glimpse of the sea — the endless, sparkling crescent of Boucant Bay. At this point the track turned sharply to the west to the mouth of Liverpool River. Quite unexpectedly it opened upon a village on a side channel of this river, nestling in a fold of the ground, which position, in conjunction with thick lines of high mangroves on the banks, hid it completely from the sea. It seemed that the Japanese were using the place merely as a temporary convenience, as a residence for immigration officials. It consisted of less than twenty houses and three large sheds serviceable as stores or barracks. There was no sign of any cultivation around it. About a mile further down was an opening in the mangroves. A log-paved road led down to it from the sheds and a gang of coolies were removing goods from there on hand-trucks. The explorers hurried down and espied a large steamer standing out to sea. It was too late to stop her for inspection, but that was really needless. There could be no doubt that she was the transport which had landed the immigrants encountered on the previous day. Moreover, something else attracted the Colonel’s attention. A small steamer lay motionless in the mouth of the river, a few hundred yards away. She had two very high masts, with loose wire dangling from the top. One glance through his glasses convinced the Colonel that this was the floating Japanese station for wireless telegraphy. He jumped into a boat and was paddled over. For the sake of safety, his escort carried a supply of Commonwealth flags, one of which was unfurled with satisfactory results. The crew lined up, cheering. Unfortunately, that was the only British accomplishment acquired by them. None, from the captain downwards, confessed to a knowledge of the English language. They did not try to interfere with the close inspection to which the vessel was subjected, and which proved it to be admirably adapted to its purpose. On the contrary, their courtesy was perfect, but explanations, of course, were impossible in the absence of an interpreter.
On shore the farce continued. The headman of the village gloried to conduct his vistors in dumb show. It was noticed, however, that he persistently overlooked a certain building, on which, consequently, their curiosity soon centred. As the door was locked and the guide did not seem to understand that the key was wanted, Colonel Ireton and his officers entered through a window, to the pantomimically expressed horror of their cicerone. The place was a splendidly equipped telegraph office, though there were no overhead wires. The wires disappeared in a wooden pipe running down the wall. This was another proof of Japanese cunning. The station was evidently connected with the capital by underground cable. Subsequent investigation upheld this supposition, and revealed plainly the whole scheme of the enemy’s carefully planned communications. Every fresh reinforcement was thus telegraphed to the capital where the Board of Five was kept informed of all details and was enabled in turn to use unimpeded and unsuspected the wireless service of the existence of which no white man had dreamed. It was possible, indeed likely, that other floating stations were hidden in unfrequented waters among the island clouds to the north of Australia, forming a connexion between Tokio and the new Japanese colony.
Colonel Ireton did not prolong his stay. He was powerless to interfere at present and wished to transmit his astonishing discoveries to headquarters as rapidly as possible. For a moment he felt tempted to cut the cable, but he was sensible enough to recognize the uselessness of such an action. He departed the same afternoon, intent on following the track right to its end. Next day the party covered sixty miles and passed five villages, two of which were mere refreshment stages, but the three others lay in fertile country farther south and teemed with population. No women were visible — conclusive evidence, beside the unfinished state of the settlements and the backwardness of the cultivation paddocks, that the inhabitants were recent arrivals. Some miles farther on the track, which after crossing the river had turned due west and then north-west, lost itself altogether, and the explorers had to face again the hardships of slow, pathless progress, until in the afternoon of November 30 they crossed a telegraph line and knew that they were within the confines of the district of older settlement. Under the circumstances it was not wonderful that neither the Imperial garrison nor the Federals had conceived any suspicion of a beyond, owing to the prudent policy of the Japanese to leave a broad strip of untouched wilderness between their public and secret spheres of operation.
The Commandant’s return was timely. The garrison was in danger of getting out of hand, irritated by the demeanour of the invaders, whose coolness began to change to defiance, as many incidents, petty in themselves, showed. He affected to ignore them in the hope that a bolder move on the part of the enemy might give him an opportunity to employ stern measures. It occurred very soon. Probably the Elders were much annoyed over his successful excursion, which had taken them by surprise, and were eager to get in a counter-stroke. They requested the honour of an interview (December 2) in the course of which they intimated that they wished to terminate the occupation of the fort by the Federal troops, because they required it for their own use. They justified this remarkable demand with the plea that the fort had been built by Japanese labour and was therefore the property of their community. Admitting that they had loaned it to the Imperial garrison, such courtesy did not signify that they had parted with the rights of ownership to all comers. The former surrender was an acknowledgement that they considered themselves part of the British Empire. The Australian army was not Imperial, but a local force, and they had never asked for a Federal garrison. At any rate, the site was too central and too valuable for military purposes and was wanted for civic extensions.
Colonel Ireton replied that the site, and indeed all the land occupied by the Japanese, was vested in the Commonwealth and had never been lawfully alienated. His interviewers did not wish to open that portentous question, yet they were not so easily beaten. Politely declining to discuss this point with a military officer, they attacked his position from another quarter. Apart from the issue of ground rights, they said, there could be no doubt that the buildings belonged to their community, wherefore they craved permission to remove the materials, as timber was getting scarce in the immediate surroundings of the capital and was urgently required for new constructions.
The Colonel simply stated that he knew nothing about the men who built the fort. It might have been their people, or it might not. However, he took it over as the successor of the Imperial garrison and meant to keep it. Here, indeed, the Japanese had committed a sin of omission. In their joy of having in their midst an Imperial force, the presence of which gave an air of loyalty and legality to their sinister proceedings, they had not foreseen that one day Federal troops might be substituted. The evacuation of the fort had been a spontaneous act of gratitude, without any records or reservations in writing. They had now occasion to repent of their hastiness. For Colonel Ireton was not a man who overlooked any weakness in the armour of his adversaries, and declined politely but firmly to discuss the matter any further. A letter addressed to him by the Board of Five was returned with the remark that he regarded this particular incident as closed.
On the following day (December 3) a Federal cargo boat arrived from Port Darwin with stores for the garrison and steamed right up to the Japanese jetty, as had been done before. It being Sunday, the discharging did not commence at once, and the captain and crew, with the exception of a couple of men, spent the evening in the fort, retailing the latest news. Suddenly, in the dead of night, an alarm was raised. The jetty was enveloped in flames, so that it was impossible to get to the vessel from the land side. The few hands aboard tried their utmost to push the steamer out into the stream away from the wooden structure, which burned fiercely as if it had been soaked with some inflammable stuff. But wind and current seemed to drive her against it. In the end they had to jump into the water to swim ashore. Jetty and steamer became a total loss.
The Japanese Elders insisted that the disaster was due to the carelessness of the whites and claimed heavy damages for the destruction of their property. Colonel Ireton repudiated responsibility on the ground that the fire had broken out on the jetty. He refrained from hurling accusations which he could not prove. But every Australian was convinced that the disaster was due to incendiarism. The spirits of the little force, isolated from all the world, had never been very cheerful. A deeper gloom now crept into the brave hearts, when it was realized that the enemy was not afraid to strike in the dark, from the back, and did not hesitate to sacrifice his own work if he could gratify his hatred by doing so.
Still it might have been worse. The Federals congratulated each other on the fact that the first attempt had not been directed against the fort, which was entirely built of timber. Every reasonable precaution was taken immediately. Several sheds not used permanently were demolished and the material covered with earth. The guards were strengthened and received orders to fire on any nightly prowler who should ignore their challenge. Colonel Ireton informed the Elders of the new rules under the pretext of preventing misunderstandings; they did not deign to acknowledge the communication.
The Federal Commander was very much disquieted. His instructions enjoined mainly the ceaseless assertion of Commonwealth sovereignty. How that was to be done against an enemy who had all the advantage of possession and real power, he was left to find out for himself. He began to fear that the Japanese would not recoil from the use of violence, if they should think that they had a good case. It became necessary, in the interests of the many lives under his care, to enlighten the Federal Government with regard to the precarious position of its garrison and to ask for more detailed orders. Though he was in wireless connexion with headquarters, this service was most roundabout and altogether too much dependent on go-betweens for his needs. He could never be sure that his messages were rightly interpreted in Port Darwin and transmitted in full to their destination. Therefore he decided to proceed to Port Darwin, where he could place himself in direct communication with Melbourne by the overland telegraph. Moreover, there were several local matters he wished to attend to personally. Since the bad feeling between the two races had become more pronounced, the Japanese had gradually stopped the sale of foodstuffs from their cultivations to the garrison, which consequently had to rely more and more on imports from its base. So far these had not been too well regulated, and the Colonel desired to make better arrangements.
Colonel Ireton never hesitated once he had made up his mind. He entrusted his command to the oldest captain, a man whose coolness and courage had been tested thoroughly in the civil war, and boarded the fast steamer which served as his floating wireless telegraph station, bound for Port Darwin (December 4). He did not forget to issue a final warning to his men not to provoke the enemy during his absence, which, he promised, would not extend over more than a week.
C.H. Kirmess. The Australian Crisis, George Robertson & Company, Melbourne, 1909