Australia Undefended

Australia Undefended 

Images of war in Queensland Poetry -1859-1945

Part 1 – Sliding towards Gallipoli -1859-1914


‘It was as if the ground before him, that had only minutes ago stretched away to a clear future, had suddenly tilted towards Europe, in the direction of events, that they were all now on a dangerous slope…. That they were sliding.’

David Malouf, Fly Away Peter

Poetry in the 19th century was much more concerned with public affairs than it is now. If one reviews the literary pages of the many journals and newspapers from the 1800s that are now available on-line, there are relatively few poems concerned with the petty worries of the individual. Instead, on page after page, we see poems that are concerned with the events and pre-occupations of the day.

In the 55 years between the election of the first Queensland Parliament, and the landing at Gallipoli, Queenslanders were pre-occupied with the defence of the land that they had conquered. For example, Mabel Forrest, in Australia Undefended (1909) fears invasion from the north:

Australians, will you leave your dear land,

Maid of the sun, and queen of the blue seas,

To cringe ‘neath an alien master’s hand,

To hug his feet or fawn about his knees.

                                                               From Australia Undefended[1]

In addition, at least for the poets, there is an increasing pre-occupation with proving both the independence and the British-ness of the citizens by participation in a fight. It didn’t much matter whose fight. So the policeman-cum poet F.C. Urquhart, writing in 1891, calls on Britons, wherever they live, to take up arms to defend the mother land. From Canada, from Australia, and from Africa, Britain’s sons are called upon:

Come on more warrior bands;

Ready in brotherhoods to clasp,

Or in stout grip their weapons grasp

With true bred British hands.   

                                    From ‘Federation’[2]

Shaky beginnings

Curiously, it wasn’t always like that. The first Queensland-born white poet was also the first to fight overseas. The conflict was the New Zealand Maori Wars of the 1860s, and the poet was George Vowles, who served (at the age of 16) as the first Queensland born volunteer in those wars, in 1863-64.[3] Like so many poets with real life experience of war, he preferred peace:

Be this the patriot’s care in field or hall;

Corn graces better than the reeking slain.

What profit comes from yonder monument?

Will musty trophies give us back the dead,

Dry tearful eyes, make pure the innocent?

                                     From Sonnet: To Peace[4]

Similarly, in those early days, Queenslanders were as likely to be raising funds for peace, as for a militia. In 1871, the poet and journalist Theophilus Pugh, organized a benefit performance at the Brisbane School of Arts, to raise money for the Red Cross relief effort in the Franco-Prussian war. Pugh’s prologue to the performance concludes:

The red cross flag, above our heads suppose

That is our banner! You’re our friends, not foes.

                                       From ‘Prologue’[5]

The Queensland Army and Navy, annexing  Papua New Guinea

Wide Bay Regiment, 1885 (SLQ Neg 389)

But of course military forces were also growing. From the early 1860s onwards, a number of voluntary (and largely unpaid) militia were established throughout Queensland, from Stanthorpe to Cooktown, though these had varying levels of success, largely dependent on the perceived level of foreign military threats, and the willingness of the Government to fund their operations[6].

The growing Queensland militarism arose in reaction to a number of perceived threats. First, the Imperial Army withdrew from Australia in 1869. Then the Russian Army invaded Afghanistan in the late 1870s. This led to the establishment of the Queensland Navy, comprising two gunboats (one of which was unarmed) and a torpedo boat [7]. Fortifications were established at Thursday Island, at Townsville, and at Lytton, on the Brisbane River.

The Queensland McIlwraith administration annexed Papua New Guinea (without consulting the British Imperial Government) in 1883, in response to perceived German and Dutch imperial threats:

‘a contingency which could not but gravely affect the Australasian Dependencies of Great Britain, as tending not only to limit the range of their development but possibly also to imperil their safety’[8]

Not all poets saw their safety as being imperiled. ‘Fun’, writing in The Brisbane Courier began, ‘The Queensland Government have taken formal possession of New Guinea; what will the Dutch say to this?’ and continued in verse:

While the Dutchman is smoking – dull ninny,

Queensland annexes Papua, (Bulletin image)
Qld annexes Papua (Bulletin image)

Or drinking- the indolent sot,

Lo! Queensland has taken New Guinea,

And England has taken the lot!

When a prize may be had you should pot it;

That old guineas are scarce we know well;

But what shall we do now we’ve got it-

With this new one? perhaps you will tell.

                                      The Anxieties of Annexation[9]

However light the surface tone of this piece, the undertones of imperial rivalry are unmistakable.

The Sudan and its aftermath

By the time of the next overseas deployment of troops from Australia, that of the New South Wales Militia in the Sudan, in 1885, Queensland poets were in the press encouraging them on.  In the forefront was the Toowoomba poet George Essex Evans:

The Gayundah, Queensland Navy flagship
Gayundah (SLQ 162278)

Blow soft, ye southern breezes, blow! For see

How bright the star which guides our destiny

Sheds its soft ray!

Sail on, ye warriors, on your northward course,

And bear the banner of the Southern Cross

Far in the fray….

                      From Australia Militant[10]

Evans wasn’t alone. The poetry pages of The Queenslander in the first few months of 1885 were full of references to the death of General Gordon, even though no Queensland troops were ultimately deployed[11]. Throughout the next 15 years, whenever the British Empire was threatened, a Queensland poet picked up his or her quill and burst into verse. Essex Evans saw the Russian threat to Afghanistan as a threat to the Empire:

Proudly and loudly their drummers play;

Proudly and loudly their bugles peal;

But stern and stubborn to bar the way

Stands a bristling wall of British steel.

               From The Russian Advance[12]

There was also a strong pan-Britishness, evident in a desire to encourage the advance of the British cause. So, during the first Matabele war, of 1893-4, between the British South Africa Company and the Matabele people Mary Hannay Foott wrote of  Major Wilson, leader of the ill-fated Shangeni patrol:

                                         …… But we know where our brothers bide.

The song of them comes to us in the wind; their story is told by the tide,

And the links are strong, though the chain is long that holdeth us side to side.

From In Mashonaland[13]

The Boer War

By the time of the Boer War (1899-1902), however, poets were beginning to express a more balanced range of views.  Queensland committed some 2000 troops to southern Africa,[14] and the immediate experience of loved ones departing and returning seems to have created a perspective that was lacking when local troops were not involved.

The poems of the Boer war begin conventionally enough. The Gympie poet Sarah Paterson sends the Gympie contingent off as follows:

Queensland’s proud sons are going,

Qld Contingent off to the Boer War
Boer War Parade, Queen St, Brisbane, 1899

In their hearts true valour glowing

For Britain’s noble Queen;

May they raise the standard higher,

As they feel the hallowed fire

Of  gun and armour sheen.

                          From To the Gympie contingent[15]

And the pages of the Queensland newspapers were full of jingoistic poems, commemorating almost every battle[16]. Perhaps the high point is George Essex Evans, writing just after the Sunnyside engagement, in which two Queenslanders died:[17]

Europe, flaunting crimson signals, danger-bugles blown,

Loudly whispers: ‘Britain’s empire cannot hold its own.”

Safe is she on every frontier, safe by shore or brine,

Who can call such whelps around her on the fighting line?

Give our fondest love to Kruger, tell him to repent;

Tell him we have thirty thousand, like the boys we sent!

                                                  |From How’s that Umpire?[18] 

However, once the reality of war hit home in the form of local casualties, a more sombre note finds its way into the poems. Not long after Evans published ‘How’s that Umpire’ , Mabel Forrest, (writing under her then name, of Burkinshaw) asks ‘Will the Glory of Old England give/ the mothers back their boys?’[19]. Forrest then takes on a mother’s voice, in ‘Teddy at the War’:

They talk of the Victoria Cross,

            And say it’s made of gold;

But Teddy is my only son,

            And I am getting old.

And tho’ I’m glad to send the lad,

            The Queen has asked me for,

It’s awful lonesome on the farm

            With Teddy at the war.[20]

Though there is sorrow at the loss of a son, there is no sense that the troops ought not to be there, or that the business of the British Empire is not Queensland’s business. 

Prologue: the Russo-Japanese war

Later verses in the first decade of the 20th century begin to include a sense that Australia itself is in danger, and that despite the strength of the Empire, Australia might be left to defend itself.  At the time of the Russo-Japanese war (1904-5), A.A. Bayldon, published this stirring call to arms:

The battle drums are rattling,

War’s shining blades are bared;

My countrymen! Cease prattling-

Get ready! Be prepared!

Be lions free and fearless, not rats within a trap,

To hold aloof with weaponed paw the Muscovite and Jap.

                                       from To Australians[21]

There were always those who strove for peace. The politician-poet Alfred Midgley, writing after the end of the Russo-Japanese war, longs, like so many who have been involved in war, for peace:

Alfred Midgley
Alfred Midgley

What had been proved, what has been won,

What has been gained or lost?

Shake hands, brave foes, your work is done;

Sit down and count the cost;

                      From After the Russo-Japanese War, 1905[22]

Though there is a note of sadness, the idea that after it is all over, the parties should ‘shake hands’ and get on with things, is almost a sporting image. Soon enough, everyone in Queensland would learn that war was no game. 

To be continued

[1]Forrest, M. ‘Australia Undefended’ in Alpha Centauri, Melbourne, Thomas C. Lothian. 1909, p16

[2]Urquhart, F.C. ‘Federation’ in Camp Canzonettes, Brisbane, Gordon and Gothc, 1891, p20

[3]‘A “Native Octogenarian”, in The Queenslander, 18 October 1928, p 61; ‘Mr. Geo. Vowles’, in The Queenslander, 29 November, 1928. p22.  This article also reveals that Vowles was the first European baby born in Ipswich.

[4]Vowles, G. ‘Sonnet, To Peace’, in The Queenslander, 18 December 1869, p8.

[5]Pugh, T, ‘Prologue’, in ‘Help for the sick and wounded’ The Queenslander, 1 April 1871 p3.,

[6]See Ginn, G. Davies, H. and Rough, B. (eds) “A Most Promising Corps’ Citizen Soldiers in Colonial Queensland, 1860-1903, Brisbane, Colonial Forces Study Group, 2010. 

[8]Letter T McIlwraith to Governor, Queensland  votes and Proceedings, 1883:780, abstracted in Johnston, W.R. A Documentary History of Queensland, St Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1988, p 329. 

[9]The Brisbane Courier, 30 June 1883, p3.

[10]‘Written on the departure of the Australian troops for the Soudan’,  in Evans, G.E. The Repentance of Magdalene Despar, London, Sampson Low, etc, 1891, p114

[11]See for example, MacDonald, T.F., ‘Sonnet, on the Fall of Khartoum’ and Metford, S, 26 January 1885,  in The Queenslander 21 February 1885,  p289

[12]Ibid, at p133.

[13]The Queenslander,  27 January, 1894, p161.

[15]Paterson, S.A. A Garland of Thought, Melbourne, George Robertson,  p108.

[16]See, for example,  Essex, G.E., ‘Eland’s River’, in the Brisbane Courier 10 August 1901, at p13 and Foott, MH. ‘At Lytton, Queensland’ in the Brisbane Courier, 25 January, 1902, p9.

[18]The Brisbane Courier 5 January 1900, p5.

[19]Burkinshaw, M. ‘The Queensland Contingent’ in The Queenslander, 20 January 1900, p125

[20]Burkinshaw, M. ‘Teddy at the War’ in The Queenslander, 28 April 1900, p 797.

[21]Bayldon, A.A. The Western Track Sydney, Jack Pollard, p 45. 

[22]  Midgley, A., The Poems of Alfred Midgley, Brisbane, R.G.Gillies, n.d. [1908], p51.


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