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Those Magnificent Roo’s


By David Atwell




The Kangaroo Infantry Battalions of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) remains one of the great innovations in modern warfare. But they did not originally fight for the British. Instead, for Imperial service, the Australian Army did for several reasons: when human troop numbers during the First World War dropped to alarming levels; local knowledge of their fighting prowess based upon the experience of the British colonial army's pervious defeat at the paws of the kangaroo; and finally the Australians accepted the kangaroo units into their newly fledged army once Federation took place in 1901.

Fighting Kangaroos, the forerunners to the modern day Kangaroo Infantry, had been used by the eastern inland Aboriginal tribes for some thousand of years. No one knows the exact date of their introduction, nor for that matter when Kangaroos were first domesticated, but they had been well and truly entrenched in these Aboriginal tribes’ society before Captain Cook stood on the shores of Botany Bay, on the east coast of Australia (part of modern day Sydney), and declared ownership of the land for Britain in the name of King George III in 1770.

At this point in time, however, the inland Aboriginals had no idea of who Captain Cook, or King George for that matter, was and certainly paid no attention to the Captain’s declaration. Instead they went on about their daily lives. It took, in fact, until 1815 before the British decided to introduce themselves to these inland tribes. Although, at first, things were cordial, contact was also kept to a minimum whilst the British concentrated on occupying the coastline. In doing so, though, those Aboriginals who lived in this coastal region were dislocated and forced off their land. Many of these refugees moved inland with tales of horror. This worried the inland tribes who decided to unite their various territories into what can be loosely translated into the United Aboriginal Nation (UAN).

It was thus, under such circumstances, that the British in 1821 decided that the region west of the Blue Mountains should come under their own jurisdiction. Part of it had to do with the ever increasing size of their colony based a Sydney, which not only needed more land for the people but also for local food production, but part of the reason also came out of fear - fear of stories of a new and large indigenous nation which was about to attack. Such stories were, of course, complete nonsense, yet that did not stop Governor Brisbane ordering most of the colony’s garrison, numbering three regular British army regiments, along with a similar number of local militia, into the Blue Mountains in order to invade the UAN territory to the west.

The leaders of the UAN were no fools. They knew, though the use of spies and scouts, that the British were moving against them. Consequentially, they readied themselves for battle. However, due to the dispersed nature of their civilisation, not to mention a similar dispersal of their limited military, it would be the British who soon gained the upper hand. As such locations such as Lithgow fell to the British invasion almost immediately, followed by Bathurst not long after (the British names for these places are used here for clarity).

With such initial success, however, the British invasion slowed down, mostly out of the lack of knowledge of the enemy’s locations and partly because, as more and more UAN military units joined in the fight, the British had more engagements on their hands. The UAN military, though, refused to engage in a major battles, at this point in time, and deliberately conducted a fighting withdrawal. Their strategy was two fold: 1) to slow the invasion down until the UAN army had concentrated in one location, &; 2) to lure the British deep into UAN territory so that they would be surrounded in unfriendly territory.

The British helped, in this matter, although they did show good caution. In many respects they had planned to limit the danger to themselves as much as possible. What they did not count on, however, was the secret weapon of the UAN.

After almost a year, since hostilities had commenced, the UAN main army attacked without warning. In April, 1822, the British suffered a great defeat, even though they themselves were also on the offensive. Through the diligent use of scouts, the British had discovered the UAN capital located at Orange some 100kms to the west of Bathurst. As such, they gathered their force together and decided to march on the UAN capital in order to end the war. At about half way, whilst on their march, the British were not far from the summit of the Great Dividing Range. And unbeknownst to the British, the UAN army was waiting here for them.

Out of no where, thus without warning, the first wave of the UAN army attacked. To the British the attack seemed odd, insofar as the attacking enemy force appeared to be human in shape, but then again they did not. It was not, until the enemy was within firing range, in order words about 50 metres, did the British notice that the charging lines of the enemy were kangaroos. This caused confusion, within the British lines, yet the professional British regulars fired accordingly anyway.

The opening volley of the British infantry proved to be pointless. As the British let loose their volley, the entire line of attacking kangaroos simply jumped high into the air and away from the danger of bullets. Within a second the danger was over and not one kangaroo suffered injury. As the regular British infantry now reloaded, numerous members of the militia fired individually ignoring the orders of their officers. Although a few hits were registered, they were insignificant compared to the oncoming hoard of kangaroo soldiers.

The British regulars never got off a second volley: such was the speed in which the kangaroos managed to cover the distance in order to get at the British troops. Many kangaroos were, however, killed, through the use of the bayonet and sword, but even allowing for some 100 such casualties, their losses were nothing in comparison to those suffered by the British. By this stage of the battle, the militia had had enough and fled to the rear, leaving the regulars to face defeat and death.

Alas for many of the militia, if they thought that they were to survive almost intact, if not as individuals then as a unit, they were to be disappointed. Again, unknown to the British, the UAN had also unleashed their other secret weapon: the Emu Runners. The emus, unlike their kangaroo counterparts, had actually circled the British positions, out on the deep flanks, with orders to get into the rear of the British lines once the kangaroo attack had commenced. This they managed to do, with reasonable precision, although the fleeing British militia did catch them somewhat by surprise. Consequentially a nasty hand-to-hand melee took place where, even though many British militia died in the brawl, so too did many emus. More to the point, some half of the militia managed to escape the battle and survive to tell the tale.

It was, though, a different story for the British regulars who were more or less slaughtered to a man. It was only the eventual intervention of UAN human infantry, upon the battlezone, who interrupted the orgy of death wreaked upon the British by the kangaroos, which ensured that some 100 British regulars survived the battle.

As a result of the Battle of the Great Ridge, the British were left, more or less, defenceless in their colony of Sydney. All they had covering the western approaches to Sydney were about 500 regular British soldiers and some 1 000 militia. Much of the militia, though, were considered next to useless and few wanted to fight the UAN army of devil-beasts ever again. Even Governor Brisbane was rattled when told of stories of the battle. Not long afterwards, though, a diplomatic mission arrived from the UAN requesting a peace conference. Within a week, such a treaty had been signed and Governor Brisbane officially recognised the independence of the UAN. And such would be the situation until Federation took place in 1901.

When Australia became its own sovereign country, through Federation, the UAN also joined as an Original State. Although it was granted some autonomous measures, giving it a unique position amongst the other states of Australia, its military was nevertheless united with the other colonial militaries which each colony had developed since the 1820s. Amongst these units were also the Kangaroo Fighters and the Emu Runners. At first, admittedly, the Australian officers did not know what to do with them and so let them continue, under the command of their original Aboriginal officers, albeit they had a name change to the Kangaroo Infantry Battalions and the Emu Cavalry Regiments. And even though various displays and exercises were conducted, senior Australian defence department officials, not to mention their Imperial counterparts in London, believed that due to the experience of the Boer War, such units were destined for the history books regardless of the fact that such units had defeated the British army some 80 years before.

Thus, by the time the First World War came about, in 1914, the readiness of both the Kangaroo Infantry and Emu Cavalry units were deplorable. None of them were combat capable and, despite the pleas from their officers to rectify the situation, nothing was done. Yet the war beaconed and thousands upon thousands of humans volunteered to go. Within a year, though, the Gallipoli Campaign had commenced only to end in dreadful failure. Australians had been sacrificed for nothing in a campaign which was more savage than anything experienced before by Australians. Unfortunately it was just a side-show as the battlefields in France and Belgium were far worse than those of Gallipoli.

Soon, however, the Australian human units of the ANZACs found themselves employed in deplorable fighting conditions in France and Belgium. Reports and letters soon flooded home describing the butchery of this War. Gallipoli was a picnic compared to the fighting now taking place. And, far more importantly for the conduct of the War, the casualty rates for the human battalions was alarming high. The Australian Prime Minister, thus, was pushed into an inevitable and unenviable position: either introduce conscription, a very unpopular issue with the voters, or try his luck with the one Australian force so far unused - the Kangaroo and Emu units languishing in their barracks back home. In the end, Prime Minister Billy Hughes took a chance on the Kangaroos and Emus much to the amusement of Australia’s allies at the time.

When the Kangaroo and Emu units eventually arrived in France, at the beginning of 1918, the Allied high command had no idea what to do with them. Their loyal Aboriginal officers, though, knew exactly the abilities of their soldiers, ignored the reticule of the British and French, and immediately had an audience with the overall Australian commander Sir John Monash. Monash had been given command of the upcoming major offensive for summer 1918 and was optimistic of success - even more so thanks to these reinforcements from home. Having said that, many such offensives had failed in the past: in fact many commentators, regardless of background or wartime experience, were already pessimistic for this upcoming Allied offensive as Germany showed few signs that she was ready to surrender.

Eventually, though, the great day approached. On 8th August 1918 the Allied Offensive begun. Although it was not called the One Hundred Days Offensive at first, this was attributed to it later, the Allies attacked en masse, but in ways not tried before. Leading the way, the Kangaroo Infantry Battalions, acting in storm-trooper fashion, charged into the vortex of battle. Being able to leap and jump, they were able to avoid the various defences, such as barbed-wire not to mention innumerable craters, and got immediately at the German defenders. With shells exploding all around them, bullets whizzing past from rifles and machine guns, the Kangaroos crossed deadly no-man’s land, with great success, and into the German trenches.

The Germans, never having seen such creatures before, let alone having to fight one, were terrified at the sight. Even veterans, who had fought the French or British many times, were at a loss as to what to do. Furthermore, as planned, the Emu Cavalry attacked in the second line in order to support the initial Kangaroo onslaught. In doing so, they added to the carnage being waged upon the hapless German defenders. And then finally came the human battalions. Whatever the Kangaroos and Emu had not slaughtered, the humans finished off for themselves.

Although the Offensive would continue for 100 days, in truth it was all over for the Germans after the first such attack. Huge holes had been ripped into the German lines and the Allies, using armoured cars and tanks, not to mention motorised infantry, pushed through these holes and into the rear areas of the German defenders, all the while Allied aircraft attacked the Germans constantly. Soon it became a rout as the Germans had no chance in plugging these gaps, fore as each time the Germans tried to establish a new line somewhere, because they had so many gaps to contend with, the new line was often outflanked and had to withdraw before a defence could be offered.

By 11 November 1918 the Great War was over when Germany finally surrendered.

Even though it is fair to say that the First World War was mostly a human affair, the introduction of the Kangaroo Infantry was the catalyst which ensured Allied victory. Many historians, all non-Australian of course, argue otherwise, and are not prepared to give due credit to the Kangaroo Battalions which spearheaded the One Hundred Days Offensive, even though some 5 500 became casualties on that fateful day - a casualty rate twice that of the entire Allied human rate on the first day of the offensive. But even more significant, albeit a sad one, was the Emu casualty rate. Of the 21 000 Emus involved with the fight that day, some 18 500 had fallen.

Not long afterwards, after the hostilities ceased on 11 November, the Australian Army decided that the Emu Cavalry had clearly surpassed its usefulness as a military force. The surviving Emu veterans would still remain in service, albeit in honorific regiments and utilized for future parades and the like, but as time passed their numbers would not be replaced. Thus by 1929 the Emu Cavalry Regiments, even if only in honorific fashion, henceforth ceased to exist.

The Kangaroo Infantry, on the other hand, would remain to fight in future wars, thanks to their legendary status forged on the battlefields of France in 1918. Even today, the 10th Kangaroo Light Infantry Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment, even though it is the sole remaining Kangaroo Infantry Battalion, can nevertheless trace its origins directly back to their proud forefathers of the First World War.


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