Pottsy is the man who saved Australia with clever tactics to thwart the Japanese on the Kokoda Trail. Instead of being venerated, he was relieved of his command by “that bastard Blamey” and his men humiliated in an infamous “rabbits that run” speech.
Kojonup has half a dozen delightful attributes all within a couple of hundred yards of the excellent statue (above) – paid for by private donations in 2007 – that immortalises Brigadier Arnold William Potts set in a shrine beside the Albany-Perth Highway.
The town should be a mecca for freedom campers: across the road from the statue is a stretch of old railway land where self-contained vehicles can overnight for $5 (get a sticker from the nearby visitors centre). Water and a dump point are on site.
A memorable full-scale replica of a wool wagon is at the edge of the rail land and brilliantly lit at night. Beside the visitors centre is a remarkable rose garden maze tracing the history through the recollection of three women – Aboriginal, European and Italian. An innovative museum of old and modern history is also there. (Another museum is at the old military barracks on the outskirts of town near the spring that gave birth to the town in 1837.)
Kojonup’s old railway station has been preserved with intriguing apparatus and a quaint old train from the Perth zoo makes runs through the industrial and rural areas on the first and third Sundays of the month.
Just up the street from the statue and station is the superb Kojonup bakery with pies to die for but make sure you don’t walk past the historic Commercial Hotel, which holds the oldest current licence in Western Australia. Mine host and devoted Carlton fan David Jackson will show you old memorabilia and, like most of the rest of the town, bristle with pride and indignation when you mention Pottsy.
David will give you a potted history of why Pottsy – who died in 1968 – is so treasured in the town, where his daughter and other relations still live. Don’t expect a free beer if you are any relation to Blamey.
Kojanup has other attractions – the spring which led to the town being founded in 1937 and the old military barracks built in 1945 but Pottsy’s memory envelopes all. He was born on the Isle of Man but spent most of his life in Kojonup. He served at Gallipoli and in France in WWI, and did sterling service in Syria in WWII before he became the legendary “Warrior of Kokoda” only to be pilloried by the pudgy, self-serving head of the Australian defence, General Thomas Blamey.
After the Japanese landed on the northern beaches of PNG, Brigadier Arnold William Potts was sent to turn them back. His Australians were outnumbered five to one, fighting in mountainous jungle terrain with uncertain supplies. Hampered by rain, mud and disease, they were also slowed by a determination to stretcher out all their wounded over perilous paths: they had heard the tortured screams of captured comrades.
Pottsy devised tactics of strategic withdrawal, harrying the weakened Japanese as they were stretched further down the Kokoda Trail. In sight of the Port Moresby airfields they aimed to capture to attack Australia, the exhuasted Japanese gave up and struggled back to the northern beaches.
An energetic, brave and smart leader, Pottsy was a hero to his men and fellow officers. Instead of being hailed for saving Australia he was dismissed by Blamey and sent to Darwin. His men were lined up, expecting to be congratulated on turning back the Japanese, but were instead berated in a scathing address by Blamey, who was probably prodded by the arrogant US General Douglas Macarthur who was annoyed that Pottsy didn’t hurl his troops down the track to death and defeat.
As the parade became “almost molten with rage and indigation”, Blamey told them they had been beaten by inferior forces, and that “no soldier should be afraid to die”. A medical officer, Captain “Blue” Steward wrote: “The troops could have withstood the field gun more easily than what they received. Blamey got them on edge at once … then made his famous remark that ‘the rabbit that ran away is the rabbit that got shot’.”
Hostility towards Blamey was such that the “eyes right” to his dais was ignored by many troops as they marched out. When Blamey visited a hospital the wounded nibbled lettuce and sang “Run, Rabbit, Run” softly. Several officers tendered their resignations in anger.
The fighting withdrawal over the Kokoda Trail is rated as one of the most critical triumphs in Australian military history and one that an apathetic nation has still to honour. Contemporaries and histories regard the sacking as one of the most disgraceful actions of Blamey (who has other deeds to his name that were far from honourable). Pottsy’s policy of strategic withdrawal and ambush became a textbook for future warfare tactics.
Writes Peter Brune: “It is staggering to contemplate that an Australian brigade commander could be thrust into a campaign with such damning inadequacy of military intelligence, support and equipment and yet fight a near flawless fighting withdrawal where military and political stakes were terribly important and that he could then be relieved from his command as a reward.”
Maybe they will make a movie one day of the man in tropical military uniform standing beside the highway 120km north of Albany.
Two hundred yards away, the lives of three imaginary women are welded into a poignant peek at life around Kojonup in the early 1900s. Actual quotes from several women have been extracted from diaries, interviews and letters and placed on plaques around the maze created from 2000 Australian-bred roses.
Here’s a sampling:
(European 1910): Clearing the back block of bush has been heavy work. Even with the help of an Aboriginal couple Donald is exhausted. If it were not for the children I would be out there helping too. I wonder if this fence they have built will stop the rabbits coming west. If it does not there will be rabbits on the menu along with parrot and kangaroo. Tomorrow Donald is to chop and burn the bamboo that has grown up near the house. There are snakes in it and we are far from help if anyone gets bitten. It’s the children I worry about.
(Italian 1911): Cara Mama. Our handsome son has a sister – Katerina. The lady from the next farm helped with the birth. Thank God it’s over. I have planted many vegetables and olive trees. Cara Mama, I do not cry so much now. Giovanni works hard clearing the land. Plants grow here that make the animals sick and sometimes die. We have a cow so I make butter and cheese. Soon we will plant vines for wine.
(Aboriginal circa 1913): Sometimes Mum showed us how to find bush tucker. Sometimes Dad showed us how to catch goanna and cook it. That was really good. When show time came we all dressed up. Wore our best clothes to go into town.
1915: Word has reached me that Donald was amongst those who landed at Gallipoli to fight the Turks. Everyone justifies this war as fighting for “God, King and Country”. Though I am proud of him joining as a volunteer I silently wonder at the sense of it all.
(Circa 1925): When we were older my sisters and me worked for wadjelas in their big houses. Cooking and cleaning. Got to eat things we had never seen before. Never liked spending too much time inside. Better in the bush.
1932: Today another swaggie at the door. This one was lucky. We took him on for a few weeks poison grubbing and root and stone picking. We can’t pay him but he’s happy to work for his keep. At least we have our own meat and a plentiful supply of milk, eggs and vegetables….it’s my turn to accommodate the lady teacher. If I don’t the school will close….
1940. Cara Mama. I do not know if this letter will arrive in Italy. Giovanni says our countries are at war. How can that be? I have children born in Australia. I am from Italy but live in Australia. I cannot be at war with my insides. I cannot be at war with my children.”
Circa 1948: New white people came on to the land and then got farms and houses for free for fighting in the war. We still living in our tent. One wadjela he knew in the war looked away when he seen Charlie in the street. I asked Charlie where our farm and house was. I said “What those wadjelas do that you didn’t do Charlie?”
1946. Cara Mama. You tell me there was so much bombing near the village. …. We did not have much fighting in Australia but many of the women lost husbands, sons or fathers. Stefano was in the internment camp. He was there two years. The Government said he did not have Australian papers so maybe he was a spy.
The roses have stories to tell through different eyes but when it comes to that statue in Kojonup one version exists. Pottsy was one of our greatest war heroes. Blamey was a bastard.