Attack at Ularring

The 16th October, 1875, was drawing to a close, as all its predecessors from time’s remotest infancy have done; the cheery voice of the expedition cook had called us to our evening meal; as usual we sat down in peaceful contentment, not dreaming that death or danger was lurking near, but nevertheless, outside this peaceful scene a mighty preparation for our destruction was being made by an army of unseen and unsuspected foes.

Our supper was spread, by chance or Providential interference, a little earlier than usual. Mr. Young, having finished his meal first, had risen from his seat. I happened to be the last at the festive board. In walking towards the place where his bedding was spread upon the rocks, he saw close to him, but above on the main rock, and at about the level of his eyes, two unarmed natives making signs to the two quiet and inoffensive ones that were in the camp, and instantaneously after he saw the front rank of a grand and imposing army approaching, guided by the two scouts in advance.

I had not much time to notice them in detail, but I could see that these warriors were painted, feathered, and armed to the teeth with spears, clubs, and other weapons, and that they were ready for instant action. Mr. Young gave the alarm, and we had only just time to seize our firearms when the whole army was upon us. At a first glance this force was most imposing; the coup d’oeil was really magnificent; they looked like what I should imagine a body of Comanche Indians would appear when ranged in battle line. The men were closely packed in serried ranks, and it was evident they formed a drilled and perfectly organised force. Immediate action became imminent, and as most fortunately they had thought to find us seated at supper, and to spear us as we sat in a body together, we had just time, before fifty, sixty, or a hundred spears could be thrown at us, as I immediately gave the command to fire, to have the first discharge at them.

Had it been otherwise not one of us could possibly have escaped their spears—all would certainly have been killed, for there were over a hundred of the enemy, and they approached us in a solid phalanx of five or six rows, each row consisting of eighteen or twenty warriors. Their project no doubt was, that so soon as any of us was speared by the warriors, the inoffensive spies in the camp were to tomahawk us at their leisure, as we rolled about in agony from our wounds; but, taken by surprise, their otherwise exceedingly well-organised attack, owing to a slight change in our supper-hour, was a little too late, and our fire caused a great commotion and wavering in their legion’s ordered line.

One of the quiet and inoffensive spies in the camp, as soon as he saw me jump up and prepare for action, ran and jumped on me, put his arms round my neck to prevent my firing, and though we could not get a word of English out of him previously, when he did this, he called out, clinging on to me, with his hand on my throat, “Don’t, don’t!” I don’t know if I swore, but I suppose I must, as I was turned away from the thick array with most extreme disgust. I couldn’t disengage myself; I couldn’t attend to the main army, for I had to turn my attention entirely to this infernal encumbrance; all I could do was to yell out “Fire! fire for your lives.” I intended to give the spy a taste of my rifle first, but in consequence of his being in such close quarters to me, and my holding my rifle with one hand, while I endeavoured to free myself with the other, I could not point the muzzle at my assailant, and my only way of clearing myself from his hold was by battering his head with the butt end of the weapon with my right hand, while he still clung round my left side. At last I disengaged myself, and he let go suddenly, and slipped instantly behind one of the thick acacia bushes, and got away, just as the army in front was wavering. All this did not occupy many seconds of time, and I believe my final shot decided the battle.

The routed army, carrying their wounded, disappeared behind the trees and bushes beyond the bare rock where the battle was fought, and from whence not many minutes before they had so gallantly emerged.

This was the best organised and most disciplined aboriginal force I ever saw. They must have thoroughly digested their plan of attack, and sent not only quiet and inoffensive spies into the camp, but a pretty little girl also, to lull any suspicions of their evil intentions we might have entertained.

Once during the day the little girl sat down by me and began a most serious discourse in her own language, and as she warmed with her subject she got up, gesticulated and imitated the action of natives throwing spears, pointed towards the natives’ camp, stamped her foot on the ground close to me, and was no doubt informing me of the intended onslaught of the tribe. As, however, I did not understand a word she said, I did not catch her meaning either; besides, I was writing, and she nearly covered me with dust, so that I thought her a bit of a juvenile bore.

After the engagement we picked up a great number of spears and other weapons, where the hostile army had stood. The spears were long, light, and barbed, and I could not help thinking how much more I liked them on my outside than my in. I destroyed all the weapons I could lay hold of, much to the disgust of the remaining spy, who had kept quiet all through the fray. He seems to be some relative of the little girl, for they always go about together; she may probably be his intended wife.

During the conflict, this little creature became almost frantic with excitement, and ran off to each man who was about to fire, especially Nicholls, the cook, with whom she seemed quite in love, patting him on the back, clapping her small hands, squeaking out her delight, and jumping about like a crow with a shirt on.

While the fight was in progress, in the forgetfulness of his excitation, my black boy Tommy began to speak apparently quite fluently in their language to the two spies, keeping up a running conversation with them nearly all the time. It seemed that the celebrated saying of Talleyrand, “Language was only given to man to conceal his thought,” was thoroughly understood by my seemingly innocent and youthful Fowler’s Bay native. When I taxed him with his extraordinary conduct, he told me the natives had tried to induce him to go with them to their camp, but his natural timidity had deterred him and saved his life; for they would certainly have killed him if he had gone. After the attack, Tommy said, “I tole you black fellow coming,” though we did not recollect that he had done so.

The spy who had fastened on to me got away in an opposite direction to that taken by the defeated army. The other spy and the girl remained some little time after the action, and no one saw them depart, although we became at last aware of their absence.

We kept watch during the night, as a precaution after such an attack, although I had not instituted watching previously. There was a dead silence in the direction of the enemy’s encampment, and no sounds but those of our camel-bells disturbed the stillness of the luminous and lunar night.

Giles, Ernest, Australia Twice Traversed, Hesperian Press, Carlisle, Western Australia, 1995, pp 291-295. Reprint of 1889 edition published by Low, Marston, Searle and Rivington, London.