How Australia Answered the Call
By Hugh Knyvett
[The Outlook; June 5, 1918]
[This article by Captain Knyvett was written shortly before his recent death in this country. A review by ex-President Theodore Roosevelt of Captain Knyvett's noteworthy book "Over There with the Australians appeared in The Outlook last week.—THE EDITORS.]
Within twenty-four hours of the knowledge of the invasion of Belgium by Germany, the Australian Prime Minister had cabled to the British Prime Minister offering all the equipped and trained troops in Australia for service in any part of the world that was desired. This decision had the unanimous support of the whole Australian nation; not that we wanted to fight anybody, not even did we desire to help England or fight for France. But instinctively we felt that already France was fighting our battle.
In our isolation in the South Seas we had been used to doing pretty much as we pleased, without much regard to the feelings of other peoples. In the proud arrogance of our young manhood, we had insulted another nation, the ally of our Empire, and refused to allow them to laud on our soil because of the color of their skin. We had slapped in the face the subject princes of British India, bolting, banging, and barring our door in their faces, for they were not white.
We had so acted in supreme confidence, knowing that there was no possibility of our being able to defend ourselves did these myriad hosts of colored peoples that lie on our borders plan to attack us, but we felt that our Empire and the civilized world recognized that all peoples have a right to govern themselves as they please, so long as they do not menace any other people.
When we knew that Germany had invaded Belgium and attacked France, we realized that here was a nation challenging that cardinal principle of our political faith, and no small nation had more at stake in this conflict than had we; and it was degrading to our manhood to lie snug in the shadow of the great navy of our motherland. Now was the opportunity to prove ourselves worthy of our blood and fight in our own defense.
There were some other motives that stirred the hearts of the young men of our land when we flocked to the colors more than three years ago. Some of us felt that big things were being done, and "Australia ought to be there." History was being made on a large scale, and Australia had not had much chance to be put on the map, and it was up to us to put her there. (I have been asked in this country if Australia belonged to the United States, and also told that I speak pretty good English for an Australian!) Others thought that it would be a good chance to see the world at Government expense, a sort of cheap Cook's tour. We did not expect a long war, and none of us had any bitterness against the German people or soldiers.
Since those days we have paid a very heavy price to "make the world safe for democracy." For, though we have given only ten per cent of our population, no country could so ill spare its young men from the work of production. Never a land so starved for men, and we have given almost half a million out of a total population of less than five million. We have still our pioneering to do—the back-blocks to open to—and we shall feel very bitterly the, loss of the sixty thousand who have gone forever. These young men, the future fathers of our race, how shall we replace them? How we hunger for people, this land of larger area than the United States with about the population of New York City!
The Australian armies have been raised entirely by the voluntary system, and the burden has fallen unequally over the continent. The country districts have given more than their share; as usual, the majority of slackers are in the large cities. Among the most remarkable sights our island continent has witnessed were what are called the "snowball marches." Away somewhere in the "never-never" a group of young men would start to walk to the coast cities to enlist, gathering fresh bodies in every town through which they passed, until they would arrive in Sydney or Melbourne a company or battalion strong. The "Kangaroos," one of these bodies marched about five hundred miles; like distances were covered by the "Wallabys" and the "Wallaroos." After a white the Government sat up and took note, and arranged to give training in discipline to these bodies on the march, and they were organized into distinct units. Some of these country districts have been entirely drained of their young men. Within fifty miles of my home town there is not a man under fifty years of age. I know a family in which the father and five sons have all been killed. When recruiting in Victoria a few weeks ago, a young lad (nineteen years of age) enlisted, and his mother came to me and said: "His father and two brothers were killed in Gallipoli, his other brother is in France; he is all I have left, but, had I as many more, you could have them all!" There are hundreds of thousands of acres of wheat that can't be harvested—there is no labor; there are hundreds of thousands of sheep that can't be shorn—there are no men to do it."
But there is no thought in Australia of easing up in our contribution to the cause. No more than in Great Britain are we holding back to allow America to do her bit. There is no question that the toll in deaths from the British Empire, even in the last year of war, will be more than from America.
The "I Won't Work" organization recently appeared in Australia, and, misreading the failure of the referendum for conscription into showing that the country was willing to slow down a little in patriotism, they forced a general election, saying that Australia had done enough, as much as any small country could be expected to do. They won over a majority of the Senate, causing a deadlock between the two houses. However, a coalition was formed between the best of the Labor members and the Liberals, called the National party, and this party appealed to the people for support, on the grounds that Australia was pledged to send the last man and the last shilling if need be. "Though Australia had done more than any other country, even then we should ask ourselves what more can we do, whereas we have not done as much as Great Britain, or more than Canada."
Women have had suffrage for over twenty years in Australia, and it was asking a lot to call on these women to return to power a Government pledged to send from the country the last man. There has not been a day in all these three years that there have not been hundreds of Australian wives made widows, not a week in all these three years that there has not been more than full page of casualties in our papers. Every woman in our country, if she has not seen the name of her near kin there, has seen the name of some one she knows, and just now women form the majority of the voters.
Yet the National party won every seat in every State in the Senate, and two-thirds of the seats in the House of Representatives. No Government has ever had such a majority in our country before.
It is very easy to misunderstand the meaning of the failure of conscription in Australia. There were several things that explain why thousands voted against it. There was, first of all, the feeling that enough men were volunteering:, and it is certain that if we had had conscription from the beginning we could not have sent more men, for recruits have come in as fast as their equipment was ready for them. Many people also thought that the soldiers who had enlisted would not fight alongside conscripts, and this was supported by numbers of letters from the troops in France and Egypt published in the papers. Among some of the despicable methods adopted by the I. W. W.'s and anti-conscriptionists was the sending of a photograph of a grave "somewhere in France" to every mother who had a son fighting over there. This was done the night before the voting, and no doubt many mothers hesitated to vote that their remaining sons should be forced to go or pip in favor of forcing the sons of other women to go.
When it became known that the soldiers themselves had voted in favor of conscription, there was a complete reversal of public opinion, and there is no doubt that if the Government were again to submit the issue, it would be carried by a large majority. This is shown by the fact that candidates who came out openly in favor of conscription were successful in electorates where the majority had voted against it in the referendum. There is no doubt that the real feeling of the Australian people is that it would be better that we should perish as a nation Than be free at the cost of an Englishman's blood, a Frenchman's blood, or the blood of the sons of any other people but our own. We are fighting for ourselves in our own defense; for every Australian has enough intelligence to know that it is in France that Australian home defense is being secured. If the day is not ours there, what can protect us out yonder? If Germany is not destroyed now, it will only be a matter of time before we shall be helpless under her iron hand in our own land.
This was brought home to me very clearly one day last year in France. I was talking to a little French girl in the town of Estaires. She was a typical French miss—dainty, petite, refined, vivacious; her father was one of the Town Councilors—a girl as well brought up and sheltered as any in this land; she had been educated in a convent, with its atmosphere of gentleness and modesty. Well, I shall never forget how this little girl changed into a fury before, my eyes as some German prisoners were led past. Her eyes blazed, her face was like paper and it was as if she held a dagger in her hand. She said, "Oh, how I could kill them!" Tell me, men of America, what was it that would so change such a girl—a girl to whom before the war the very sight of blood was abhorrent, who would almost faint at a cut finger—make her want to slay with her own hands? I'll tell you. That girl had seen things no girl ought to be able to see while there are men on the earth. She turned to me with tears in her eyes, ashamed that her feelings had betrayed her, and she said, "Oh, how good of you Australians to come over here to fight for us!" I turned to her and had to say the truth: "M'selle, we did not come here to-fight for you at all; we came to fight for our own women folk, for we know that, though you live next door to these filthy beasts, we live in the same street, and after they had dealt with you it would be our turn and the turn of our women folk if we did not come and fight the fight of Australia's home defense here on your soil." And it is for American home defense that you are fighting, or you are not wanted in this fight at all. Germany can and would be beaten without America's help, and I say to you, "Hurry, hurry lest this war end without you."
There was a movement recently in Australia to give the men who had had over three years' trench service a six months' furlough. It was thought that these men—all that were left of the original contingent—must be war weary, that their nerves needed this rest. Men from Great Britain and Canada can get home: on leave now and then, but Australia is too far away, and these men have not seen their home folk for over three years. Well, they refused to leave. While they are able to fight no one else shall fight for their mothers, sisters, sweethearts, or wives.
These boys were the same that were the last to leave the front-line trenches at Anzac on the evacuation from Gallipoli. They were what were left there of the men who had made that glorious landing, and they requested the place of greatest danger—the post of honor—and it could not be refused them.
This evacuation was in direct contrast to the landing, but not less unique in the annals of military history. Whereas in the landing these Australians displayed impetuosity, dash, berserker rage, individual initiative, fierce hand-to-hand fighting (every man his own general), for which we would have to go to mediaeval history to parallel; in the evacuation they displayed the exactly opposite qualities of coolness, co-ordination, silence, obedience, imagination; an example of discipline—a body of men acting, as a unit, in perfect response to a single will—such as has been excelled by no troops in the world.
These opposing qualities were required by the different circumstances of each exploit, and in neither case would anything else have been successful.
The men who took part in that landing have never ceased to wonder how it was accomplished. Those beaches were mined, were strewn with barb-wire out into deep water (so thick that it could not be cut with pliers, and in the end was towed out to sea by destroyers), were swept by machine-gun and rifle fire, held by an intrenched enemy superior in numbers and armament. Two-thirds of the landing force was killed in the boats before they touched the beach, but the remaining men not only landed in that hail of lead, and drove the Turks out of their first intrenchments, but scaled cliffs hundreds of feet high and went miles inland that first day, digging in three miles inland.
During six months that little force of amateur soldiers from Australia and New Zealand hung on to that strip of land by the skin of their teeth, always against a force superior in numbers having more machine guns and artillery, with their base behind their backs (the city with the greatest resources of any in the East only a few hours away), always "with an army in reserve on the Asiatic shore five times as large as the British Expeditionary Force, Of course the Anzacs (Australian-New Zealand Army Corps) did not make up one-half the forces on the peninsula, and there were no troops superior to the Twenty-ninth British Division that landed at Cape Helles, or the French colonial troops that landed on the Asiatic shore.
All the stores for the British troops had to be brought from Egypt; the immediate base at Lemnos would not have supported a single ship; the navy was "father and mother to us';" every drop of water, every ounce of food, every cartridge, every splinter of firewood, had to be brought by the navy.
Well, when it was found that the force was not large enough to accomplish the final purpose of holding the narrows to allow the navy to get through, we had to evacuate immediately, as on those beaches there is no landing for boats during the winter gales, and we could not have existed a single day without landing of stores. So the evacuation was set about, and a great game of bluff it was.
Right up to the last day troops were landed every day. A thousand, say, would be taken away at night, then five hundred would be landed in daylight—it must have looked to the Turkish airplanes as if we were making a fresh landing: stores were taken away by night and the empty boxes piled on the beach during the day—it looked as if we were laying in for the winter. Of the many clever things invented on the peninsula one of the cutest was a device whereby rifles were actually being fired in the front-line trenches after every man had left. The Turks were absolutely bluffed. When the stores left behind were fired, they thought their shells had done it, and completed the work of destruction by bombarding them very heavily, so that they got practically no loot.
About the last to leave the actual beach at Anzac was a hospital unit (medical officers, padre, and orderlies). It was intended that they should care for what wounded there were and be taken over by the Turks. A lot of sympathy was wasted on them, for they came off in the last boats, as there were no wounded at all.
I have heard in this country that if we had held on a few hours longer we could have taken the Turks' position, as they were out of ammunition. What a pity there was not an American there to tell us at the time! Of course it is just German propaganda; the absurdity of it can be at once seen when it is remembered that there was a Krupp factory in Constantinople turning out more per day than was being used. We Australians, in the freest land on earth, reach across the Great Ocean of Peace (Pacific) to our cousins in this great democracy, clasping your hands in congratulation that at last you have joined us in this great fight for world freedom, and none will rejoice more than we Australians that when the great day of peace comes America will stand with uplifted head among the free peoples who have sacrificed for liberty, and that for American liberty American blood has been shed.
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013
If you appreciate the articles, read the e-novel informed by them —
THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald