The death ride
The death of the beloved Commander-in-Chief electrified his troops. Far from discouraging them, it filled them with a supreme desire for vengeance. They fought like demons and inflicted tremendous losses upon the ever-increasing swarms of the Asiatics. Still, all this bravery was thrown away. Conquest was out of the question. Cavalry from the capital now entered into the contest. During a temporary lull, Thomas Burt, assisted by thoughtful friends, succeeded in reorganizing the retreat. But the enemy granted no respite yet. Japanese detachments held favourable positions for many miles along the western flanks, and action after action had to be fought, with the result that the White Guard was pressed more and more to the east. Late in the afternoon the pursuers were left behind. The night was spent with hardly a pretence of a watch service. But the camp was not harassed. The exhaustion seemed to be mutual.
At dawn the Australians, somewhat refreshed by the unbroken rest, continued the flight. Of the gallant nine hundred, only about two hundred and sixty survived now. All the proud hopes of two days ago had vanished. Instead, quarrel arose within the ranks. Grimpan, the leader of the reinforcements, claimed succession to the chief command, in accordance with the original arrangements. Every one of the old campaigners, and not a few of his own people, objected fiercely. It was he who had commanded the rear, the delay of which had led up to McPartoch’s death. Probably he was not to blame, and there certainly seem to have been no allegations that he did not equal the bravest in courage. Yet the fact told against him. Besides, Thomas Burt enjoyed greater confidence; he was McPartoch’s choice, and it had been entirely due to his efforts that order had been restored on the previous day. Thus he was already the supreme leader by reason of his merits. Still, Thomas Burt stood down for the sake of peace. But less than two hours later Grimpan was missing. Some personal partisans, fellow-Canadians, raised accusations of foul play.
Shortly afterwards the Japanese attacked again, near the place where the White Guard, but five days ago, had burnt down a village after driving back victoriously a detachment of the enemy. It seemed that the latter had waited patiently thereabouts for the return of the Australians. Thomas Burt now took command as a matter of course. All his skill and devotion, however, could not make up for numerical weakness. After a disastrous fight, the volunteers were thrown still further east, hotly pursued by a small body of cavalry. As on the previous day the Japanese had again attacked from the west and their horsemen did not so much pounce straight upon the White Guard as ride parallel to it on its western flank. There is a grim significance in this fact. It is just conceivable that Thomas Burt, who had explored the country before the invasion, might have resolved to retreat directly upon the Pine Creek. The successive attacks from the west may have given him the impression that large hostile settlements were situated in the intervening district, the present condition of which was totally unknown to the Australians who had entered upon both campaigns from Liverpool River and were therefore only acquainted with the eastern part of the zone of settlement. It is, indeed, probable that this cunning Japanese strategy induced Thomas Burt to avoid unknown risks by regaining his old base in Snowdrop Creek viâ the head of Liverpool River, every inch of which route the bushmen were familiar with. And thus, it appears, he played right into the hands of the enemy.
During the last struggle some Australian scouts on the extreme western wing had been cut off from all connexion with the main force. They, too, were hotly pursued by Japanese cavalry and at nightfall they had given up all hope to regain the others. There were eighteen of them, and one of the number was a volunteer from Port Darwin. This man suggested that they should try to reach the railway. Under the circumstances his advice was accepted. The little band had a final skirmish with the enemy next day and lost five comrades. The thirteen survivors arrived at Pine Creek a week later, utterly exhausted.
With the exception of the thirteen, who were separated from the remainder, not one member of the White Guard has ever returned to the haunts of civilized men so far as is known. Its fate is one of the unexplained mysteries of history. There is only one document in existence which, if genuine, may throw some light on the matter. It was found, in 1917, about a day’s ride south from the site of the base at the head of Liverpool River in a hollow log, faintly marked, which had evidently been overlooked by the Japanese. The discovery was made by a party of English tourists, among whom, however, one of the wounded men of the first campaign had managed to get himself included. Being, therefore, familiar with that strange wilderness, he was the actual finder. The document was enclosed in a gun-metal watch-case. It was merely a crumpled slip of paper bearing the following pencil inscription —
“Again attacked this morning. Enemy occupied our base beforehand. Are still 116 strong. No surplus horses. No stores. Am slightly wounded. — T. B.”
The writing differs so much from that of the diary that some experts doubt if it was done by the same hand. But it must be remembered that the writer, according to his own statement, was wounded and probably in the last stage of despair and exhaustion.
Curiously enough, about the same time a Japanese, who had fled his country for some offence and was engaged in the household of a British merchant in Hong Kong, indulged in some indiscretions. When his stories began to attract attention he disappeared unaccountably, for which reason it has been impossible to verify the reports. This fellow seems to have boasted that he helped to conquer the Northern Territory. His version was that immediately after the burning of the first village a Japanese force, consisting of infantry and cavalry, set out to seize the Australian base (he meant the camp at the head of Liverpool River, no doubt). When the remnant of the White Guard returned, a series of severe struggles followed, in the first of which it had been completely surprised and had lost its baggage. The wounded men were “put to sleep” by the surgeons. All the dead, white or brown, were cremated. The end came one morning before dawn, when in the moonlight the last survivors were surrounded and destroyed. But the Japanese did not lose so many fighters as had been feared.
The statements of the talkative Japanese domestic are quite compatible with the shred of information on the tiny slip of paper. And his disappearance certainly does not disarm the suspicion that he spoke the truth. The few lines — or rather death cries — which have been recovered do not probably represent Thomas Burt’s whole account of the second campaign; he must have continued his diary, for the survivors all agree that he wrote a good deal. This priceless manuscript may have perished in the flames together with the corpse of its author, or it may be hidden away in some secret archives in Tokio.
Though it may seem incredible, the fact is that the Japanese have never admitted, either officially or unofficially, any knowledge of the existence of the White Guard. Tokio simply sheltered behind the plea that there was no official connexion with the late subjects of the Mikado, who were considered, to all intents and purposes, as British citizens in an Imperial colony. The settlers themselves have remained marvellously silent with regard to this matter. It is easy to see why they should do so. If ever the people of the United Kingdom should wake to a clear understanding of the terrible treatment meted out to its kinsmen, before the affair has passed into ancient history, all the little peevishnesses and jealousies would vanish before the thunderclap of a national explosion, the consequences of which would be incalculable. That a bloody secret should be known to thousands of Orientals without ever being divulged to Europeans by one of them was by no means a unique occurrence. And in this case the Japanese had the advantage that, as a result of their refined diplomacy, the Australian nation was confronted with issues of such vastness that, for the moment, the guerilla war in the far north of the Commonwealth seemed to be of very little importance compared to them. The vanishment of twelve hundred men, who had never been prominently before the public eye, attracted hardly any attention. And the handful of survivors lay low in the Palmerston district, afraid of arrest by the Imperial authorities. Moreover, for several months afterwards, the fate of the main body of the White Guard remained uncertain. It might have been mad enough to attempt the overland retreat to Queensland. There is the possibility — and if ever the Japanese should be hard pressed for an explanation, they will probably fall back upon it — that this attempt was made. Possibly the bones of the volunteers are strewn about some dried-out waterhole, or buried in the sand-drifts of the interior.
But Australians do not believe it. And with due regard to Thomas Burt’s last message, as well as to the Hong-Kong indiscretion, the main features of the final struggle, as it must have been, may be reconstructed without any special effort of the imagination. While the White Guard was still dreaming of conquest after the burning of the southernmost village and the annihilation of its inhabitants; while its members, thinking that they had struck terror into the hearts of the enemy, were pushing forward to deal a decisive blow at his nerve-centre of power; all the time a Japanese army marched southwards, patient, day after day, sure of ultimate revenge, leaving detachments in commanding positions, probably near the principal waterholes, and never resting until it had occupied the Australian base. The bulk of this force consisted, no doubt, of the garrison of the southern belt of outlying villages, some of which the volunteers had found deserted. If so, the distance which had to be traversed by it cannot have been over eighty miles and it must have had plenty of time to enter into possession and to prepare its future course of action before the White Guard returned. There is something fascinating about the tenacity, thoroughness and subtle leadership of the Japanese which compels admiration and places their conduct of this obscure bush campaign on a level with their world-famous exploits on the Manchurian plains. That must be admitted, though white men may regret the fact. It mattered nothing to the invaders that an Australian élite corps was threatening their capital. Not content to ward off the danger, they organized, simultaneously, a deadly counter-attack.
Their calculations proved correct. Crushed between overwhelming numbers, the White Guard fled for life. For two days Japanese detachments harassed its western flanks, driving it eastwards so that it might not escape from the prepared trap. Then, when it had passed out of the zone of hostile settlement to supposed security and was approaching the base, the enemy suddenly swept down upon it, causing a wild stampede in which the reserve horses and stores were left behind.
The last night. Utter exhaustion in the Australian camp. The leader wounded. The moon, proud and early on that triumphant night of fire and sword which marked the outset of the second campaign, rises late, waning. Her misty beams light the way for Asia’s hordes, valuing life only as a means of destruction, who creep up steadily, stealthily on all sides. A final roar of battle. At daybreak the Turanians look upon their completed work. Surgeons deftly move among the fallen volunteers, dispensing the crowning mercy where the suffering is not yet ended. Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth. They are excellent men, though not Christians. The first rays of the morning sun glitter upon the metal and glass of cool little syringes, as, one by one, the wounded men are “put to sleep.” Meanwhile the Japanese troops have been busy heaping together dry wood. The corpses are flung on top, and soon the flames envelop them. It was an appropriate termination — the blazing funeral pyre; just the manner in which the old Norsemen, whose blood had rolled in the veins of many of the dead patriots, used to honour fallen heroes. That probably Turanian carcasses were consumed in the same fire did not lessen the grandeur of the end; these were merely additional fuel.
So it may have been. Some day the Japanese may tell a later generation their version of the racial struggle. Then the details will have to be modified most likely. But one thing is certain. The short and hitherto uneventful history of the youngest Continent has been ennobled by one sublime episode which ranks equal to the proudest traditions of Old World nations — the Death Ride of the White Guard.
C.H. Kirmess. The Australian Crisis, George Robertson & Company, Melbourne, 1909
[Editor: Corrected “steathily on all sides” to “stealthily on all sides”.]