History Stories

The Snowball Marches of the Early 1900s

 ‘Way out back in the Never Never Land of Australia there lives a patriotic breed of humans who know little of the comforts of civilized life, whose homes are bare, where coin is rarely seen, but who have as red blood and as clean minds as any race on earth.

 The little town of Muttaburra, for instance, has a population of two hundred, one-half of whom are eligible for military service.

 They live in galvanized-iron humpies with dirt floors, newspaper-covered walls, sacking stretched across poles for beds, kerosene-boxes for chairs, and a table made from saplings.  The water for household uses is delivered to the door by modern Dianas driving a team of goats at twenty-five cents per kerosene-tin, which is not so dear when you know that it has to be brought from a “billabong” ten miles away.

 Most of the men in such towns work as “rouseabouts” (handy men) on the surrounding sheep and cattle stations.  At shearing-time the “gaffers” (grandfathers) and young boys get employment as “pickers-up” and “rollers.”  Every shearer keeps three men at high speed attending to him.  One picks up the fleece in such a manner as to spread it out on the table in one throw; another one pulls off the ends and rolls it so that the wool-classer can see at a glance the length of the wool and weight of the fleece; another, called the “sweeper,” gathers into a basket the trimmings and odd pieces. 

These casual laborers and rouseabouts are paid ten dollars a week, while the shearer works on piece work, receiving six dollars for each hundred sheep shorn, and it is a slow man who does not average one hundred and fifty per day.  All the shearing is done by machine, and in Western Queensland good shearers are in constant employment for ten months of the year.  The shearers have a separate union from the rouseabouts, and there is a good deal of ill feeling between the two classes. 

When the shearers want a spell I have known them declare by a majority vote that the sheep were “wet,” though there had not been any rain for months!  There is a law that says that shearers must not be asked to shear “wet” sheep, as it is supposed to give them a peculiar disease.  The rouseabouts do not mind these “slow-down” strikes, as they get paid anyway, but the shearers are very bitter when these have a dispute with the boss and strike, for it cuts down their earnings, probably just when they wanted to finish the shed so as to get a “stand” at the commencement of shearing near by.

 When the war broke out the problem of the government was how to collect the volunteers from these outback towns for active service.  It would cost from fifty to one hundred dollars per head in railway fare to bring them into camp.

 The outbacker, however, solved the problem without waiting for the government to make up its mind.  They just made up their swags and “humped the bluey” for the coast.  That is how the remarkable phenomenon of the human snowball marches commenced.

 Simultaneously from inland towns in different parts of Australia men without the means of paying their transportation to Sydney or Melbourne simply started out to walk the three or four hundred miles from their homes to the nearest camp.  In the beginning there would just be half a dozen or so, but as they reached the next township they would tell where they were bound, and more would join.  Passing by boundary riders’ and prospectors’ huts, they would pick up here and there another red-blood who could not resist the chance of being in a real ding-dong fight.  Many were grizzled and gray, but as hard as nails, and no one could _prove_ that they were over the age for enlistment, for they themselves did not know how old they were!   “Said the squatter, ‘Mike, you’re crazy, they have       soldier-men a-plenty!   You’re as grizzled as a badger, and you’re sixty year or so!’   ‘But I haven’t missed a scrap,’ says I, ‘since I was       one-and-twenty,   And shall I miss the biggest?  You can bet your       whiskers–No!!'” Presently the telegraph-wires got busy, and the defense department in Melbourne rubbed its eyes and sat up.  As usual, the country was bigger than its rulers, and more men were coming in than could be coped with. The whole country was a catchment of patriotism–a huge river-basin–and these marching bands from the far-out country were the tributaries which fed the huge river of men which flowed from the State capitals to the concentration camps in Sydney and Melbourne.  The leading newspapers soon were full of the story of these men from the bush who could not wait for the government to gather them in, and none should deny them the right to fight for their liberties.

 Strange men these, as they tramped into a bush township, feet tied up in sacking, old felt hats on their heads, moleskins and shirt, “bluey,” or blue blanket, and “billy,” or quart canister, for boiling tea slung over their backs, all white from the dust of the road.

 Old Tom Coghlan was there.  He had lived in a boundary hut for twenty years, only seeing another human being once a month, when his rations were brought from the head station.  His conversation for days, now that he was with companions, would be limited to two distinctive grunts, one meaning “yes,” the other “no.”  But on the station he had been known to harangue for hours a jam-tin on a post, declaiming on the iniquities of a capitalist government.  Those who heard him as they hid behind a gum-tree declared his language then was that of a college man. Probably he was the scion of some noble house–there are many of them out there in the land where no one cares about your past.

 Here, too, was young Bill Squires, who had reached the age of twenty-one without having seen a parson, and asked a bush missionary who inquired if he knew Jesus Christ: “What kind of horse does he ride?”

 Not much of an army, this band.  They would not have impressed a drill-sergeant.  To many even in those towns they were just a number of sundowners.  They would act the part, arriving as the sun was setting and, throwing their swags on the veranda of the hotel, lining up to the bar, eyeing the loungers there to see who would stand treat. Only the eye of God Almighty could see that beneath the dust and rags there were hearts beating with love for country, and spirits exulting in the opportunity offering in the undertaking of a man-size job. Perhaps a Kitchener would have seen that the slouch was but habit and the nonchalance merely a cloak for enthusiasm, but even he would hardly have guessed that these were the men who would win on Gallipoli the praise of the greatest British generals, who called them “the greatest fighters in the world.”  Soon the news of these bands “on the wallaby” at the call of country caught the imagination of the whole nation. Outback was terra incognita to the city-bred Australian, but that these men who were coming to offer their lives should walk into the city barefoot could not be thought of.  The government was soon convinced that the weeks, and, in some cases, months that would be occupied in this long tramp need not be wasted.  Military training could be given on the way, and they might arrive in camp finished soldiers.

 So the snowball marches were at last recognized and controlled by the government.  Whenever as many as fifty had been gathered together, instructors, boots, and uniforms were sent along, and the march partook of a military character.  No longer were they sundowners; they _marched_ into town at the end of the day, four abreast, in proper column of route, with a sergeant swinging his cane at the head, sometimes keeping step to the tune of mouth-organs.  The uniforms were merely of blue dungaree with white calico hats, but they were serviceable, and all being dressed alike made them look somewhat soldierly.  The sergeants always had an eye open for more recruits, and every town and station they passed through became a rallying-point for aspirants to the army.

 Their coming was now heralded–local shire councillors gathered to greet them, streets were beflagged, dinners were given–always, at every opportunity, appeals were made for more recruits.  Sometimes, to the embarrassment of many a bushman whose meetings with women had been few and far between, there were many girls who in their enthusiasm farewelled them with kisses, though one can hardly imagine even a shy bushman failing to appreciate these unaccustomed sweets!

 The snowballs grew rapidly.  Farmers let down their fences, and they marched triumphantly through growing crops, each farmer vying with another to do honor to these men coming from the ends of the earth to deliver democracy.

  “They’re fools, you say?  Maybe you’re right.   They’ll have no peace unless they fight.   They’ve ceased to think; they only know   They’ve got to go–yes, got to go!” [6]

  By the time they reached the camp many of these groups had grown to regiments, and under names such as “Coo-ees,” “Kangaroos,” “Wallaroos,” they marched through the streets of Sydney between cheering throngs to the tune of brass bands.  Such was the intention, at any rate, but before they reached the railway station their military formation was broken up, and in their enthusiasm the people of the capital practically mobbed these “outbackers,” loading them, not merely with cigarettes and candy, but before night came there was many a bushman who had never seen a city before who carried a load of liquor that made even his well-seasoned head spin.  The “chain lightning” of the bush was outclassed with the cinematograph whiskey of the city, that made its moving throngs and streets pass before his eyes like a kaleidoscope.  A day or two in camp soon restored their balance.  The training en route bore fruit; their commandant was so impressed that some of these regiments were equipped and officered, in a few weeks embarking for overseas.

 Men from these regiments can be picked out to-day in London.  If you see an Australian in a slouch-hat galloping his horse down Rotten Row, expecting “Algy” and “Gertrude” to give him a clear course, be sure it’s a “Coo-ee!”

 When some Australian sprawls in the Trocadero, inviting himself to table with the Earl of So-and-so, asking him to pass the butter, it’s likely to be one of the “Kangaroos.”

 These Australians have had no master in their lives but the pitiless drought; they respect not Kings, but they love a real man who knows not fear and is kind to a horse.  Masefield said of them in “Gallipoli”: “They were in the pink of condition and gave a damn for no one!”

Excerpt from “Over There with the Australians” by Captain R. Hugh Knyvett, published in 1918.

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