Civil war in Australia and its inevitable result
The Federal Parliament assembled on August 28, 1912. The first weeks of the session were given over largely to the evolution of order out of the chaos of the elections. Where so many interests clashed, where so many intricate political questions required the utmost nicety of balancing and confidential negotiations before they could be handled safely, the startling developments in the farthest West were rather welcomed by Parliament as a means of diversion. At first nobody understood the seriousness of the situation. But when the drift of events at Perth became unmistakable, the great governing party of the Extremists entered wholeheartedly into the contest. Among them the most uncompromising and aggressive patriots, in whom, whatever their former political opinions, the crisis had fostered the wish to end the States misery for ever, blended with men whose economic ideas were socialistic and pre- required, if not a united Universe, at least a closely-knit Commonwealth for an experimental base. Both these sections had thus, from different motives, the same interest to seize this chance of enhancing Federal supremacy. After the confiscation of armaments in Perth, the Government hastened to fall in with their demands of rigour, which, indeed, no one in the House opposed. For the remnant of Moderates had learnt the value of silence on all points where Commonwealth and State Sovereignty collided; they did not wish to expose their patriotism to further suspicion.
Votes were passed to enable the Executive to grapple with the rebellion, as it was termed. Troops assembled at Adelaide, drawn from New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. Steamers were bought or chartered and altered into transports. While these preparations were going on, the reports of the defeat of Colonel Ireton reached Melbourne. The Government was accused by its own supporters of unnecessary delay in the despatch of the penal expedition, and saved itself only by promising that an army strong enough to impose the will of Parliament upon the rebels would leave within a week.
On October 1, 1912, the Federal Fleet departed from Adelaide conveying 15,000 men with 28 guns. After demonstrating off several points on the coast of West Australia, it arrived, about ten o’clock in the morning of October 7, off Rockingham, the port of the Yarra Timber Company, situated about fifteen miles south of Freemantle, and, after a short bombardment of the little township, began to land there the army of invasion. Telegraph and telephone reported the news to the State authorities, and large forces were immediately hurried southwards from Perth. Early in the afternoon, the first shots were exchanged between the scouts of the two armies. The Federal Commander-in-Chief was not at all anxious to precipitate battle. He knew well that his men were raw soldiers, and therefore liable to sudden panic. The enemy, on the contrary, could not be supposed to be suffering from similar weakness, having already become accustomed to concerted action under fire in the struggle against the miners. For these reasons the Commander-in-Chief did not like to take chances; he preferred to go slow and to rely on the more thorough training of his men, on his superior artillery, the efficiency of which could be augmented by the guns of his four auxiliary cruisers, as long as he remained within range of the latter.
General Morthill, who arrived at Clarence, halfway between Freemantle and Rockingham, at 3 p.m., was, on the contrary, eager to strike a decisive blow, being aware that the Federals, after having been cramped together on board ship in rough seas for a week, could not be in the height of condition. He rapidly led his vanguard against the Federal outposts and succeeded in sweeping them back. Night fell and stopped further progress. But the State troops were able to occupy Mount Brown, a prominent hill less than four miles distant from Rockingham, and to place eight guns in this commanding position.
This move practically forced the continuation of the battle next morning (October 8). For Rockingham could not be held by the Federals unless the galling fire from the State batteries on Mount Brown was silenced. During several hours a murderous struggle raged round the hill. The decision was brought on at last by a tremendous bombardment of General Morthill’s key from the cruisers. One of the vessels took ground and had to be abandoned, sinking soon afterwards. But the heavier calibre of the remaining three ships’ guns proved too strong. A State gun was wrecked. The defenders suffered terribly. By noon they had to quit the position, which was occupied at once by two Federal regiments with four batteries.
The advantage gained by the Commonwealth troops was exploited with energy. Another battery was established even further north on the road bend between Mount Brown and Clarence, well within the cruisers’ range. Meanwhile the State army had retreated behind Clarence, which was burning fiercely. It was nearly three o’clock in the afternoon when a strong force of Federal volunteers rushed at them to complete their overthrow. But General Morthill was not beaten. Now that he had withdrawn his whole army beyond the cruisers’ range, his resistance became desperate. Rush after rush was repulsed. And in the end, his front lines turned tables on the Federals in a furious counter-assault. Broken and decimated, and not too brilliantly supported, the volunteers fell back. Close behind, in hot pursuit, followed the West Australian élite, the sporting young manhood of Perth and Freemantle. General Morthill, by a masterly stroke of tactics, diverted them upon the advanced battery on the road bend. The covering Federal force, about 600 men strong, suddenly found themselves confronted by overwhelming numbers pressing so closely upon them that the batteries on Mount Brown and the cruisers had to cease fire in that direction, fearful of shelling their own ranks. It was the culminating moment of the battle. The Western Australians — in imitation of the miners — used handbombs with such deadly effect that every attempt to reinforce the advanced position was defeated. After a strenuous quarter of an hour, two-thirds of its defenders lay dead or wounded; who of the survivors could run, did so; and the battery was in the hands of the State army. But now, the spot having been abandoned by their own side, the Federal artillerists had their chance. From hill-slope and sea, they swept the battery with a hail of shell. As quickly as relays of horses could be brought up to remove the conquered guns, they were shot down. At last men hitched themselves to the guns, trying to drag them away, but they too, were mowed down in ranks. The position had become untenable. So the battery was wrecked with bombs. Then the State troops retreated, and the oncoming darkness saved them from further losses.
The terrible struggle of the afternoon left both armies in possession of the lines occupied by them at its beginning. General Morthill held a council of war, which resolved that the further advance of the Commonwealth should be contested inch by inch. Trenches were thrown up during the night. The State troops derived considerable encouragement from the arrival of reinforcements, belated portions of the Eastern division which had operated against Colonel Ireton. These, after the supposed annihilation of the miners, had thoroughly destroyed several miles of the Kalgoorlie railway. Not the slightest danger, therefore, was apprehended from that quarter.
All this time, Colonel Ireton was making a forced march across the Darling Range, that low cordillera unsurpassable in tristness, barrenness and steepness. His division passed the first night on a high hill near the junction of the gullies through which, in wet seasons, the waters rush which then form Helena River. About sunset on the second day they crossed the railway south of Kelmscott. The roar of the guns, twelve miles away, was plainly audible. Farms dot the country hereabouts, but the miners were not regarded with suspicion. Everybody took them for a Southern contingent which had been compelled, owing to the wholesale railway destructions, to make this short cut to the sea. Thus no warnings reached Perth in time. Just while the mortal combat round the advanced battery was at its height, two orderlies sent forward by Colonel Ireton reported themselves to the Federal Commander-in-chief. Officers departed hurriedly to confer with the Colonel. It was arranged that the miners should spend the night near a pond, still eight miles from the battlefield, so that the men and horses might be quite refreshed and fit for the great task before them. Many messengers passed between the two Federal camps in the dark hours, and the plan of action in the morning was perfected.
At dawn the Commander-in-Chief informed his army that Colonel Ireton would attack the enemy without delay. The news caused unbounded joy. Soon the frontal battle was renewed with undiminished vigour, but the Western Australians planted firmly on a bush-covered ridge behind trenches repulsed every effort, and their ten guns, three towards the sea, three in the centre and four on the Eastern wing, replied uninterruptedly to the fierce cannonade of the Commonwealth artillery. Three hours elapsed, and still the Federals had made no headway. Many anxious eyes and ears were straining for a sign from the miners.
Colonel Ireton proceeded with the deliberation of a man sure of success. Leading his little army right into the rear of the State position upon the road from Clarence to Freemantle, he concealed an ambush of 400 men in a forest patch. The remainder of his troops silently enveloped the eastern wing of the West Australians. Suddenly 1,500 rifles burst into flames in flank and back of the Rebels. A thundering charge of cavalry flung aside the rear guards, rode down the detachments covering the eastern battery, and conquered the four guns, among wild shouts of “Colonel Ireton! The Miners!” Throwing round the guns, the miners opened fire at point-blank range upon the State centre, supported by a deadly fusillade. Further south, the Federals broke into frantic cheering, hurling themselves upon the trenches where they no longer met with resistance, and exerting the pressure of victorious thousands upon the wavering enemy. Nothing could stop the panic in the State ranks. General Morthill tried to save his remaining guns and to organize a retreat. For a few moments he revived the courage of his immediate followers by his personal heroism. In vain. Quickly he fell, mortally wounded, fighting valiantly to the last. It was the signal for his troops to begin throwing away arms and to stampede, a lawless rabble, towards Freemantle. But the ambuscade soon barred their progress. Behind the Federals pursued hotly. No quarter was given. Only very few of the vanquished, who had the presence of mind to capture riderless horses, arrived at the port before the victors.
The chief instigators of Western Australian resistance had proceeded on the previous day to Freemantle, where they would be nearer the scene of action. As soon as they heard of the defeat, they rushed to the river and surrendered themselves to the commander of the British cruiser. This officer thus found himself in a most uncomfortable position. He had, of course, been friendly with these men. And now they threw themselves upon his mercy. He knew that the Commonwealth authorities would be furious if he gave them shelter. But he also knew that Great Britain always protected political refugees. So he allowed them to stay on board until he should have consulted his superiors by cable. While terror stalked the cities and every acre for fifteen miles south was red with the blood of victimized patriots, the ringleaders, whose blunders and obstinacy were responsible for everything, were out of immediate danger.
By noon Freemantle was completely in the hands of the Federals, who hurried on, by rail and road, to the capital. Perth offered no further resistance. Colonel Ireton, at the head of his mounted miners, was the first to enter it — a fine compliment paid him by the Commander-in-Chief. His men were quartered in the General Post Office and he himself was the guest of the State Governor, whose authority for the last few weeks had been more nominal than ever, all the most important and far-reaching measures having been ordered in the form of departmental instructions issued by General Morthill. A proclamation was fixed at the principal street corners guaranteeing the safety of private citizens, but stating that every one who should be taken prisoner in State uniform after sunrise next morning would be dealt with summarily.
The State army, as an organized force, had ceased to exist. During the afternoon and evening, its scattered units continued to pour into the outskirts of Perth. The more orderly elements who lived there or had friends or relatives near, destroyed their uniforms and reassumed common garb. Others bought or begged or, in the general confusion commanded ordinary clothing and set out for the country. But a more reckless or patriotic remnant refused to submit so quietly. There was a small nucleus of resistance left. Several companies of the reserve who had remained in the capital and its port on police duty or for supervision of the supplies service, had retreated to Guildford, that rural suburb of Perth, at the first news of the disaster. Here they were joined by numbers of Irreconcilables. At first they had no common aim. But a former Federal officer, who had violated his oath by fighting for his State and was quite aware that no mercy would be extended to him and his kind, proposed that they should retreat to the northern farming district and carry on their defence from there, as all avenues of escape by sea were cut off. Of course, only horsemen could take this risk. Moreover, it was important that they should be provided with the necessaries of life, with victuals, spare clothing, money and valuables. These could be had at Guildford, but not for the asking. For the terrified inhabitants, trembling for their own skins, did no longer look with favour upon a soldiery which was important to protect them.
There was no time for parley. What was not given voluntarily, the Irreconcilables seized by force. Where resolute men defended their property arms in hand, blood was shed. All the fury and despair of the losers broke out in a final orgy. Soon the flames of pretty residences towered against the midnight sky, like giant torches in honour of civil war. Happily, the horror did not last long. Colonel Ireton, roused from the first comfortable sleep which he had enjoyed for months, came to the rescue of sacked Guildford. An ever brightening glare in the east directed his march. After a short, sharp encounter with the completely surprised Irreconcilables those of the latter, who had their horses handy, got away. The less fortunate ones were shot. And the deliverers spent the small hours fighting the flames.
For the next week, the Commander-in-Chief, in his capacity as Federal High-Commissioner, was kept busy reorganizing the civil government of Western Australia. His task was not easy, as all the leading men of the State had fled the country, or were dead or in hiding. Military officers filled the most important posts temporarily. The first practical work was the repair of the railways and the despatch of provisions to the
Goldfields. Colonel Ireton was sent on a special mission to Kalgoorlie to convey the thanks of the Commonwealth to the loyal miners and, incidentally, to supervise the transport of the enormous quantities of gold piled up during the interruption of the coastal train service.
Later, the Colonel was employed to stamp out the last embers of the rebellion. Troops were transported by sea to Dongara and Geraldtown. Armoured trains were fitting to control the northern line. A war of extermination was waged against the Irreconcilables who were commanded by former Federal officers who had sided with the State. These held out for weeks in inaccessible localities on the fringe of the farming districts. But their wants soon reduced them to stock-raiding and other predatory practices, with the result that in the end the whole countryside made common cause against them, and so the last phase of the fratricidal struggle deteriorated into a man hunt away in the backblocks north of Perth and the southern districts, full of heroic incidents, but devoid of historical interest except as far as serving, by reason of its sordidness and cruelty, to extinguish thoroughly any lingering sympathy which the coastal population might still cherish for the lost cause of Western Australia.
Like all civil wars within civilized communities, the rebellion was marked by extreme bloodiness. Considered relatively, the sacrifice of life had scarcely ever been equalled. Of the Federal regular forces, about 1,200 men were killed and nearly twice as many wounded. The casualties of the army of the interior were even higher; it is computed that 3,500 miners died in battle or perished afterwards. The State army is said to have lost 7,000 men, though no doubt many of the wounded recovered under the care of their friends. These numbers do not include the victims of the campaign against the Irreconcilables, whose last stand was literally smothered in blood. Altogether, it is hardly an exaggeration to place the deathroll at over ten thousand. Such a sacrifice of Anglo-Saxon life had not been contemplated for generations. And the entire population of the mutinous Coast did not reach 150,000 souls!
Yet terrible as the ordeal was, it had its uses. It removed for ever the contention that the Continent lacked internal stability. Parochial politicians had so often played with the idea of secession that the world had become doubtful whether Federation expressed the true sentiment of the Australian people. The energy with which the struggle for mastery had been conducted and the rapid, complete victory of the Commonwealth provided the answer. The lesson had been taught that no backsliders were tolerated, and that Australia was indivisible.
All eyes turned now on the Federal Parliament, the sole arbiter over the fate of the West Coast. Contrary to the fears of many, the ruling majority, though dominated by the Extremists, showed wise moderation. Complete amnesty was granted to the rank and file who would join the Commonwealth colours within a month from date of proclamation This extended to the irregular officers, with the limitation that these were to be transferred to the Eastern States and enlisted there without regard to their former rank in the rebel army, a humiliation mitigated, however, by the promise that they would be allowed, after a while, to qualify for promotion by examination. All private citizens, who would take within a month a new oath of allegiance to the Commonwealth before specially appointed commissions, were granted immunity from prosecution for any political or military acts in connexion with the late insurrection which might become known subsequently.
Excepted from the general pardon were Federal officers who had violated their oath by fighting for the State. Much might be said in excuse for their transgression, but it was considered advisable to make a warning example of them. That these men were quite conscious of the enormity of their offence is proved by the fact that not one of them surrendered to the mercy of the victors. Penalty of death was pronounced against them. It was in reality superfluous; for the survivors had all joined the Irreconcilables, who were shot without trial whenever caught.
Throughout Australia, the sheltering of the ring-leaders of the revolt on board a British cruiser was resented bitterly. Melbourne at once opened negotiations with London for their extradition. But the English Government refused to do so on the ground that their crime was political.
In vain the Federal Executive urged against this contention that the refugees were British subjects who had committed high treason, not foreigners worthy of protection against tyranny. To cut short the dispute, the cruiser was ordered to Colombo, where the fugitives were landed. So they escaped the felon’s death, and Parliament had to discover other means of punishment. Their private estates were declared to have reverted to the Commonwealth inclusive of all rights and future benefits to which the former owners and holders might be entitled. In this way the nation became possessed of much city and country property in the West, as well as of a large amount of money, valuable mining interests and other securities. However, generous provision was made for the families of the culprits; wives were granted annuities of £200 each, with an addition of £5 per year for each child under age. But a very important restriction was inserted: the recipients of such annuities were bound to reside in Australia. Thus the escapes were deprived of re-union with their families, or, as an alternative, the latter forfeited all claims of financial support.
Under the firm management of the Commander-in-Chief, order in West Australia was being restored. Life began to return to its ordinary channels; men again schemed and toiled for wealth. The removal of so many leading citizens had made room in front for others; and in the renewed vigour of business people strove to forget the hideous memories of the recent past. But this was impossible while military government continually reminded them of it. Therefore, genuine joy and gratitude was felt when it became known that a Civil High Commissioner had been appointed (October 30), and that, moreover, the choice had fallen upon a fellow-citizen, who in the days before Federation had been the idol of Western Australia and whose sympathies for his own State were above suspicion.
Timely relentlessness, then, as timely forgiveness, had restored — for ever, it is to be hoped — the unity of the Commonwealth.
C.H. Kirmess. The Australian Crisis, George Robertson & Company, Melbourne, 1909
cordillera = an extensive chain of mountains
tristness = gloomy, sad, or sorrowful (from the medieval French “triste”, itself from the Latin tristis)
[Editor: Corrected “annihila-of the miners” to “annihilation of the miners”.]