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Chapter I The Cornstalk

THERE was a story sent from the Front by the Correspondent of a Sydney daily newspaper, concerning a Great General, a Field Hospital and Geography.

New South Wales had a very well-equipped and well-served Army Medical Corps, which, when troops were offered for service in South Africa by the Australasian Colonies, had despatched two field ambulances to the Cape. One of them was at Paardeberg whilst Cronje sullenly stood at bay in the Modder. The Great General came to see it. Everything was good, and complete, and well done, and of an excellence that does not show through a binding of red tape; and the Great General had never before seen anything quite so good, or complete, or so well done, and was pleased and interested in all he saw.

“Who are you?” he asked, “and where do you come from?” To which the P.M.O. made answer: “We are part of the New South Wales Army Medical Corps”.

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“Ah, yes,” returned the Great General; “yes, New South Wales! That's Adelaide, isn't it?”

Now the application of this little tale is, that if Great Generals do not know that New South Wales is not a suburb of Adelaide, how much less will the average un-Australian reader comprehend the meaning of the term ‘Cornstalk’?

In Gippsland grow the big gum trees. It is a matter of some pride, perhaps, to Victorians that their province should grow the largest gum trees in all the Australias. Jealous of Victorian prowess in eucalyptus cultivation, so to speak, the other Australians refer to the Victorian people collectively as ‘Gum-suckers’!

Because the popular banana finds the climate of Queensland suitable to its healthy being, the inhabitants of that Colony are dubbed ‘Banana-landers’.

It may have been that, to the early South Australians, means of subsistence came not easily. At any rate they are called ‘Crow-eaters’.

In delicate reference to the nature of their country the West Australians are ‘Sand-gropers’.

Finally, the people of New South Wales, having acquired a reputation for lankiness and wiriness, have been named ‘Cornstalks’.

That a native of the mother colony differs very greatly from the human product of any other part

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of Australia is possibly doubtful, but that, in the days of his youth at any rate, he is usually slimly built and long of limb is a fact fairly well established. See him in his own country—along the creeks and rivers of the eastern ranges, on the New England and Monaro tablelands, or out in the sun-baked West—and you will find that there is something about him peculiarly characteristic, something of his own that marks him slightly, but still unmistakably, as himself and no one else. Place the average bush-bred boy of eighteen beside the same aged English lad and note the difference.

The Cornstalk is the almost immediate successor of the Hawkesbury native—is indeed symbolical of the evolution of that physically perfect being. Years ago, we of the present generation are told, if you should see anywhere a particularly tall, brawny, well-made, big man, you might be morally certain that he hailed from the farms upon the Hawkesbury River flats. The first of the free settlers who commenced the march westwards ‘squatted’ there, and owned the land by right of occupation. If they could obtain them, they took wives unto themselves, and reared up families. And the families subsisted principally upon pumpkin and ground maize, and wore no boots in their childhood, and led a free, wild, untrammelled sort of life. So they grew into tall, clean-limbed, deep-chested men, and sturdy, comely women, and spread North and West and South over the land—and

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their offspring were the fathers and mothers of the Cornstalks of to-day.

There were, of course, other places besides the banks of the Hawkesbury where the pioneers tilled the land and grazed their flocks, but the Hawkesbury native is typical of the best men and women of that time.

Big and large, the Cornstalk is a good man. Like most other good men, he has his faults—even his vices—but they are not yet the faults and vices that bring a people to the gutter. His is not a new race—it is rather the renewed, reinvigorated reproduction of an older one. He has the blemishes of his forebears, the transmitted characteristics of a not too perfect ancestry. He has developed little traits, and big traits, of his own; and many of his leanings look alarming. But, even now, there is promise and hope—and, if we may be permitted to say it of one's own people—some fulfilment.

He has been spoken of in the Literature of the Hopeless as ‘tired’. He has been painted as a somewhat weary decadent—too listless, too blasé, too worn-down by the overwhelming burden of existence to act the part of a strong man, of a vigorous and energetic citizen. The weird melancholy of the Bush has warped his soul. Too much meat, too much tobacco, too little grinding poverty, have combined to unnerve and render him effete. If we are to believe it all, he is tending towards a sort of demoralising apathy, a listless carelessness

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that will make him, in time, something akin to the more degenerate Latin type—a creature too feeble, too vacillating and uncertain, to help himself and keep his place near the surface in the struggle for existence. But, perhaps, recent events have proved that this is a false view. We may thank Heaven that he is better than he has been represented to be in this class of literature.

He is, at times, ‘flash’. He considers himself to be rather a better man than most other men. He is said to lack reverential feeling, to respect little that is worthy of respect. Undoubtedly he loves holiday, he thinks more of sport than of work. He is well able to sound his own trumpet, and he thoroughly believes in the correctness of its notes. But these are not hopeless characteristics. Flashness is only another name for self-confidence—merely the over development of the bump of self-respect. It is good and healthy to appreciate oneself. He does not really want in reverence—he is shy. Why should he not love sport and holiday? Few of us work for fun, and if you don't sound your own trumpet, who is likely to sound it for you? Taking him ‘in the lump,’ the Cornstalk is not a bad fellow. Above all things, he is no Degenerate.

Curiously noticeable in South Africa were the variations in ‘English as she is spoke’ amongst the troops of the Empire. From the broad dialects of the men from the different counties of England—of the Scotch

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and of the Irish—the speech and accent of the various Colonial contingents were strangely distinct. To the newcomer from Canada or Australia, a Yorkshire ‘Tommy’ was, at first, almost as unintelligible as a Chinaman. Doubtless the reverse was true also. There were few distinctions in dress as the campaign grew older, and most men looked alike, but one was generally able to locate a man's habitat in the Empire as soon as he opened his lips to speak. From the rounded, full-voiced English, the broad Scotch, or the Irish brogue, the Canadian twang and the Australian drawl were as distinguishable as the French language is from the German. Roughly, the difference is this—the Englishman says all his word; the Canadian emphasises the last syllable sharply, and the Australian slurs the terminations. In Australia, where all people speak more or less alike, this peculiarity of ours escapes one; but in Africa, where it could be compared, and always was in contrast, with so many accents and modes of expression, it was extraordinarily apparent. And of nothing was this difference in speech more suggestive than of the wideness of the Empire.

So Tommy Cornstalk is generally a long-limbed fellow, with a drawling twang, to whom anything in the nature of sport appeals most strongly. He is a newer being than the English ‘Tommy,’ and he is pretty much, though not quite, of the same species as the Canadian.

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But we want to consider him as a soldier, and to discover what his capacities and capabilities are for soldiering.

Above, of course, one has not considered the Cornstalk of the city. His is another story. The Cockney is not taken as the standard Englishman. John Bull is typically a farmer; and his son Jack Bull, of Australia, is a bushman.

Most of the rank and file of the troops who went to South Africa from Australia were of the Bush.

From the history of the Dutch people in South Africa—their hardships and struggles as pioneers in the first place, and their open-air, half-civilised existence nowadays — it was, from the outbreak of hostilities, a matter of universal opinion throughout the Colonies that the Boer should be met by men who resembled him in their ways of living, in their training as horsemen, and, more particularly, in their education as expert rifle shots.

When troops were offered by the several Australian Governments last year (and accepted perhaps in the first place as a compliment), the movement was regarded in Australia not as a mere formal evidencing of the loyalty and good will of the Colonies to the Motherland, but rather as a serious step taken to assist her with men trained to the same conditions, if not of war, then of ordinary life as obtain amongst the Veldt-dwelling Boers of South Africa. And, afterwards, the Imperial Government seemed to view

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the matter in the same light; though at first, before the irregular troops had proved that they were of some worth, at least, there seemed to be in England the feeling of ‘we-don't-want-them-but-they'll-feel-hurt-if-we-refuse’.

The Bushman—the dweller in the country as opposed to the town-abiding folk—the real Cornstalk, is, to all practical purposes, of the same kind as the Boer. It is not to be supposed for a moment that he generally possesses the meaner attributes of the Boer character. He is not constitutionally a liar (except in the matters of horses and dogs). However one may wish to do the Africander justice, it is difficult to believe that he possesses the same views with regard to honour and fair dealing as obtain amongst Englishmen. To be ‘slim,’ to ‘verneuk’ his neighbour, is, with the Boer, a by no means bad failing. We are certainly no better in most things than we ought to be, but, if only as policy, we do deal more with truthfulness than do the Boers.

One does not wish to decry or make little of a people whom one has learned to respect as a brave and hardy race, and a gallant foe, and it is perhaps the most charitable view to take if we assume that the Boer's ready resort to lying of a bad kind is a flaw in his nature for which he is scarcely accountable—and try and understand that he is sometimes unable to grasp the wrongness of falsity and crooked dealing. It is not intended, therefore, to imply that the Cornstalk,

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when likened to the Boer, is necessarily possessed of the more objectionable attributes of the latter. Neither, moreover, is he such a slothful and retrogressive person in his conduct of life. What we wish to point out is, that in training, in conditions of living, in environment, and to some extent in ancestry, the Cornstalk and the Boer have very much that is in common.

As a soldier, Tommy Cornstalk differs considerably from his cousin Tommy Atkins. His soldiering is mainly of the present. Active service is the first occasion upon which he has been called to obey unquestioningly in all things since he has worn a uniform. The only discipline he really knows is the ‘discipline of enthusiasm’. He may have made many sacrifices for his volunteering. He may have been accustomed to ride miles to his parades. His shooting may have cost him time and money. He may have taken pains innumerable to perfect himself, as far as was in his power, and with the means at his command, in all his duties—but, until he has signed his attestation paper, almost until he has embarked upon the troopship, he has never thoroughly been ‘under the whip’! He has never known what it means to be the unthinking piece of mechanism, the pawn in the game, which all soldiers necessarily become under a strict and unswerving discipline.

And, at first, he does not take altogether kindly to it. He has been a free man—within certain limits

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a law unto himself—accustomed in his democratic country to acknowledge no man as being, per se, his superior, unless a well-tested one. He may have been to school with some of his officers, may know them intimately in civil life. It is even possible that, in his own district, he may occupy a social position above that of his officer. And this is where, to the average Cornstalk soldier, the shoe pinches. It seems to him bitterly hard that he is required to salute a man whom he may not consider at all his better. It is irk-some and uncongenial to him to have to address him as ‘Sir,’ or as ‘Mister So-and-so’. It is absurd to be expected to stand ‘as stiff as a gate post’ with his toes nicely turned out to an angle of forty-five degrees. It annoys him to have to trouble himself about the paying of compliments and such like, to his thinking, vexatious and foolish matters. And so, when he meets the Imperial Officer he astonishes him; and when he meets Tommy Atkins he wins that gentleman's admiration and awestruck regard by his cool and happy neglect of the things which have been drilled into Tommy as sacredly to be observed under all circumstances.

“What is the use of it all?” he argues; “how does it help to lick the Boers, and get to Pretoria?”

As the Boer despises a ‘voet-looper’ so is Tommy Cornstalk ashamed to be seen walking. He is essentially a horseman—and generally a horsey man. His sphere as a soldier lies in mounted work—rather,

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perhaps, in the work of mounted infantry than in that of cavalry. To be a ‘toey’ seems to him almost to amount to degradation. He thanks God that he is not an infantryman—and this not because he does not give credit for and respect the magnificent work of the infantry, but because it is his nature to look down upon the man who walks. In Australia the possession of a horse carries with it something of a guarantee of respectability and solvency. A man who cannot read is far less to be pitied than one who cannot ride.

Generally, he is a good shot. Indeed, it is doubtful whether there is any better shot in the world than the kangaroo-shooter—although, of course, all Cornstalks are not kangaroo-shooters. He is quite as good, if not a slightly better shot than the Boer. But he must fire as he pleases. Volleys, save when delivered at long and uncertain ranges to keep down the fire of the enemy, find small favour with him. It is not enough for him to ‘loose off’ his rifle, in the vague hope of his bullet chancing to drop where some one is; he must have a definite target to ‘loose off’ at.

Whatever Tommy Cornstalk may be as a fighter, he owes little of his capacity for war to drill or instruction. He has known no riding-school, he has not studied the care of the horse in a little red book. It is only by painful effort that he learns to roll his coat correctly over his wallet—in order that he may give his mount a sore wither. He would prefer to

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carry it in a fashion less uncomfortable for his horse. He is feeble in the salute. He hardly ever knows when to turn out the guard. His concerted movements lack precision. He resents exclusiveness—even in a General Officer.

But nevertheless he is a highly trained man of war. He has learned to ride through pine scrubs, down mountain sides, over rotten ground, about cattle camps. It has been his business to be a horseman. He has been more or less of a horseman from his babyhood. He has studied marching on the travelling stock routes; to endure thirst on the dry stages; to sleep in the mud or the saddle. Mother Earth is a familiar bed. His knowledge of scouting has been acquired young. You cannot teach a man to scout in a suburb or from a text-book. To look for sheep across a plain that quivers with mirage, or upon the steep ‘sidings’ in the hills, to seek wild cattle in the scrubs, trains one's eyes. Tracks acquire a language when a knowledge of their ‘true inwardness’ may mean your daily bread.

He has been taught to forage on the road. The feeding of one horse in war time is a simple matter compared to stealing grass for a mob of sheep or cattle. He has had to cook for himself, to sew for himself, to depend upon himself in his often lonely, self-reliant existence. In his own business, his daily life, he has unconsciously been taught what is as important a thing to know on active service as anything

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(and which all the barrack training of the regular will not have taught him), and that is how to be comfortable, how to become a good ‘doer’ under all adverse circumstances.

‘Looting’ comes to him naturally, though apparently not quite so naturally as to the Canadian, who is the most accomplished ‘looter’ in all the world.

This is a compliment which is none the less deserved because all looting was sternly forbidden by the British authorities; and as it happened, therefore, neither Cornstalk nor Canadian had much scope for the exercise of this particular talent.

Except for the fact that it is treeless, the veldt is not unlike our plain country. It is better watered, and often better grassed.

But, altogether, the Cornstalk was at home in it. There were the same long distances between towns. The ‘dorp’ represented the Bush township. There were the familiar wire fences. The sky above was as darkly blue. There was, as a rule, plenty of sunshine, and the wide rolling downs quivered and danced with the same beautiful mirage-making islands of kopjes, and long, low spits of ridges. He had to fight in a country not altogether so new to him as it must have been to Englishmen.