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III

Andrew Fisher and I were good friends in the House of Representatives, though we differed in politics. He was deputy leader of the Labour Party and I a supporter of Sir George Reid. He had not the brilliancy nor sense of humour of Hughes, but he had great caution and exceptional shrewdness. Born in Scotland, he was decidedly “canny,” also upright and strongly patriotic. A coal miner, he had worked in collieries from the time he was ten years of age, and when twenty-three years old he migrated to Australia, where he worked for years in Queensland as a miner. In 1893 he was returned to the Legislative Assembly. He was a member of the Dawson Ministry, the first Labour Ministry to hold office in Australia, a Ministry that lasted only six days.

Fisher was three times Prime Minister, and during his second term the Government of which he was the head established the Commonwealth Bank, effected the transfer of the Northern Territory to the Commonwealth, began the construction of the east-west railway, established an interstate commission, strengthened the Australian navy and instituted compulsory military training. When war was declared his Party was in Opposition, and as Leader he announced that the Australian Labour Party was with the Motherland “to the last man and the last shilling.” In October, 1915, he resigned the Prime Ministership and accepted the position of High Commissioner in London.

Photograph Facing Page 256: The University of Western Australia. The lower view shows the lily pond.






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The Trans-Australian Railway was then in course of construction. Work had been begun at Port Augusta, the eastern end, and at Kalgoorlie, the western end. Port Augusta and Kalgoorlie are over a thousand miles apart. Mr. Fisher decided that on his way to England he would travel overland to Western Australia, where he would board the mail steamer. There was about six hundred miles of the line yet to be completed, and he had to cover that gap, part of it with camels and the remainder in motor-cars. The country he had to traverse was then unknown except to the men who had a few years previously surveyed the route of the railway. It was arid, inhospitable and without people except on its edges, where there were a few wandering tribes of wild half-starved aborigines.

I was at Kalgoorlie and was invited to join a small party to meet Fisher at Ooldea, which is six hundred and twenty-six miles east of Kalgoorlie and four hundred and twenty-seven miles west of Port Augusta.

We travelled in motor-cars along the track made by the surveyors. Our course lay over the Nullarbor Plain, that curious flat limestone country covered with a low growth of blue bush and salt bush. The leaves of these bushes retain moisture from rain and dew, and salt bush especially is a valuable fodder plant, especially for sheep.

The Nullarbor Plain was well named No-Tree Plain. There is but a foot or so of red soil to cover the limestone. To all appearance it is a dead level, but we are told that it is not exactly so. Our journey traversed the full length of the Plain, some four hundred miles.

To the person on the Plain the impression created is


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of the immensity of space. As at sea, the horizon makes a perfect circle in the far distance.

Ooldea is at the eastern edge of the Nullarbor Plain. When we reached it there was no sign of Mr. Fisher or his party. We camped to await his arrival. East of us was a sandhill belt through which he had to travel on his way from Port Augusta. It would be impossible for our motor-cars to proceed further. A couple of days passed. Fortunately, we had abundance of food. Water was procurable a few miles away.

We began to be concerned about the non-arrival of the Fisher party. They were overdue, and we had a consultation. Wireless was not available. A mishap may have occurred.

An aboriginal with a couple of camels had just arrived at our camp from Fowler's Bay, about one hundred and thirty miles south of Ooldea. He had a message for Mr. Fisher's party, and we had become so tired of waiting that early one morning another member of our party, the black fellow, and I mounted the camels. Saying au revoir to our friends we left the Ooldea camp and travelled directly eastward. Up and down interminable sandhills, covered fairly thickly with small trees, bushes and scrub, there was a faint track.

My knowledge of camels was limited, but I knew some of their peculiarities. Mild in appearance and demeanour, they can at times become wildly and dangerously savage. The camel I was riding was not making much pace. After a couple of miles and there was no improvement, I asked the black whether the beast ever woke up.

“My word he does, boss,” was the reply. “No


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one in Fowler's Bay will ride him. That camel's savage.”

“He doesn't seem savage now,” I remarked.

“He can be awful savage, boss. He killed one man and bit the leg off the last man who rode him. He's an outlaw.”

I had noticed that when I struck the camel with a stick the head and long neck came ominously round. I had heard of camels chewing people's legs. I decided to treat the beast with more respect, allow him to choose his own pace and watch for his head coming round.

After a couple of hours steady travelling the aboriginal suddenly remarked, “I hear them, boss.”

The camels were pulled up. We remained still and listened. Neither my friend nor I could hear a sound. The black was convinced he was right.

The journey was resumed. To the aboriginal it was plain we were getting near the party.

After we had covered a couple of miles my friend and I heard them also. Both of us prided ourselves on our acute hearing, but no European has hearing as acute as the average aboriginal. Generations of training have sharpened natives' hearing and sight. It was by their ears and eyes that they outwitted their enemies and got the food by which they lived. Both senses had to be keen to survive.

From the top of a sandhill I looked down and saw a man with a long stick that he used as an alpenstock to help him through the heavy sand. He was tall and thin and wearing a motor-coat that was once white, but was now soiled. He looked up—it was Fisher.




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I was on a tall camel, towering above him. He was astonished, almost startled.

“Hello, Fisher,” I remarked. “How are things?”

“Good heavens, Kirwan!” he answered. “Where did you come from?”

“Another case of Dr. Livingstone and Mr. Stanley, I presume?” I remarked.

When I said “hoosta” the camel appeared well pleased to get down, but not more pleased than I was to get off.

“You look tired, you must take the camel,” I said to Fisher, and I added, “Take my stick and hit him with it hard on the nose if he turns his head and neck. He has a nasty habit of biting people's legs off. Come, you get up.”

“I'm not going on that camel,” said Fisher; “I'd rather walk.”

The Fisher party had a couple of buggies drawn by camels. They also had some riding camels, but their progress through the sandhills was much slower than was expected. Fisher walked many miles.

I was interested to notice that no one rode the outlaw camel on the way back to Ooldea.

We lunched with the Fisher party.

As Fisher and I walked together to Ooldea most of our talk was of the war. Hostilities had been then in progress more than fifteen months. Most of the Australian ships had been transferred to the British Navy; German possessions in the Pacific had been seized by Australian expeditionary forces; the Emden had been destroyed by the Sydney at the Cocos Islands; British and Australian troops had landed at Gallipoli and


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were gallantly endeavouring to wrest the peninsula from the Turks.

All these events we discussed, and felt confident that the Gallipoli expedition would soon result in victory.

Fisher had just resigned the office of Prime Minister of Australia, but so little did he know that he talked hopefully of the victorious end of the war in the spring of 1916, if not several months earlier.

Little did either of us realise the long-drawn-out struggle that was to follow. We did not expect the evacuation of Gallipoli; the surrender of Kut to the Turks; the drowning of Lord Kitchener; the Russian revolution with the withdrawal of Russia from the war; the collapse of Serbia and Roumania; the menace of German submarines and Zeppelins; and the awful loss of life before the ultimate surrender of the German armies and the German fleet. Victory would be achieved, of that we were certain, but the price we had to pay was far beyond our wildest expectations. Neither of us thought of the aftermath—repudiation of national debts, demoralisation of youth, and trade depression creating world-wide unemployment.

When I said good-bye to Fisher at Kalgoorlie we were full of hope of the speedy and successful termination of the war. I met him in London not long after peace was declared, and he reminded me of our talk in the sandhills, and said, “How ignorant we both were of the terrific fighting strength of Germany.” He went on, “And yet we were not more ignorant than certain men in high positions who were close to the conflict.”




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“I know,” he added, “there were a few who were convinced that the war would be spread over many years and that there was no certainty as to who the victors would be. In public they spoke differently in order not to dishearten the Allies, but the great majority of British leaders kept saying and believing all through the war years that victory was close at hand. It was perhaps that conviction that won the war. As Napoleon said, ‘The English never know when they are beaten.’ ”

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