Australia’s ‘urgent imperial service’
Keen but untrained men took Australia into the Great War and met the enemy on our doorstep.
Australia did not enter the First World War with the landing on Gallipoli on 25 April 1915. When war broke out in August 1914, Australians faced an immediate military threat in their region – a situation they had long feared. German possessions and warships in the Pacific posed a threat to Australian shipping and ports. With a shared-land border between British Papua and German New Guinea, an enemy was suddenly at Australia’s northern frontier.
On 6 August, Australia agreed to undertake a “great and urgent imperial service”: to seize German wireless stations in the south-west Pacific, specifically German New Guinea. Australia was also required to occupy the territory under the British flag and establish a military administration. For the first time, Britain called on Australia to train, supply and command her own forces in defence of the empire.
The man selected to raise what would become known as the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force (AN&MEF) was Boer War veteran Colonel William Holmes, who came to the position with a reputation for “personal bravery, ability and capacity for command”. He did not disappoint his superiors. In less than 10 days, Holmes recruited, equipped and embarked a 1,000-strong infantry battalion, 500 naval reservists and ex-seamen, and a 500-strong citizen-battalion from north Queensland. The majority of the force were untrained men who had rushed to enlist at the outbreak of war. Holmes noted the abundant enthusiasm of his men, but also their inexperience, with many having “never been put to sea”.
The expedition was delayed when the commander-in-chief of the Australian fleet, Rear Admiral Sir George Patey RN, was unexpectedly called away on escort duties in Samoa. Most of the AN&MEF, now aboard HMAT Berrima, had to wait at Palm Island, off Townsville in Queensland. Here they went ashore each day for jungle training and drill. After two long weeks, Berrima sailed for Port Moresby to meet the Queensland battalion waiting on board the hospital ship HMAT Kanowna. Upon inspection, Holmes decided regretfully that the youthful and unseasoned troops were “unfit for active service”. Nevertheless, Patey decided that they should accompany the expeditionary force and perform garrison duties.
The naval force, comprising Sydney, Encounter, Yarra, Warrego, Berrima and the supply ship Aorangi, and the submarines AE1 and AE2, gathered at Port Moresby before rendezvousing with HMAS Australia on 9 September en route to Rabaul. Only then did Patey reveal the precise destination of the convoy. The Kanowna’s stokers, who had not volunteered for overseas service, called a snap strike as soon as they discovered they were heading into a war zone. Eager not to miss out, the soldiers offered to stoke the ship the rest of the way. For the battalion aboard Kanowna, that was the end of their adventure. Unimpressed by the stokers and the low military standard of the men, Holmes ordered the ship back to Australia.
The slightly depleted AN&MEF approached Blanche Bay, just south of Rabaul, at dawn on 11 September 1914. The military leaders had expected the occupation to be a simple exercise; nevertheless they had sent 1,500 men and almost the entire Australian fleet. Then, not having encountered any naval formations or coastal defence, the AN&MEF became complacent. Holmes, in particular, convinced himself that he could acquire new territory for the British empire “without a shot being fired”.
Two parties of 25 naval reservists went ashore at the settlements of Herbertshöhe and Kabakaul, on the south-eastern shore of the bay. Their orders were to capture the radio station at Bitapaka, about seven kilometres inland. Lieutenant R.G. Bowen, RAN, led his men from Kabakaul and headed inland along a narrow road. They had travelled less than two kilometres when they encountered three Germans and about 20 New Guineans fighting for the Germans. “This is where the fighting began, shots being exchanged as fast as we could put them in our barrels,” recalled Able Seaman Sidney Staines, a member of the lead party. “Bullets were buzzing all around us … I was expecting to drop anytime at this stage, so we got together and started firing volleys.”
The Australians soon captured the group after wounding one of the Germans. A map found on one of the prisoners revealed German plans to resist the Australian troops by means of a system of trenches, rifle pits and mines. Bowen sent for reinforcements and pushed on. Some New Guineans had climbed the tall trees and were firing from elevated positions. The Australians made slow progress and “were constantly subjected to rifle fire by an unseen enemy”, which forced them from the narrow road into dense jungle.
As they approached the first trench, Able Seaman W.G.V. Williams was shot through the stomach. Captain Brian Pockley, the medical officer, immediately set out to find him. Under fire, Pockley removed his red-crossed brassard and tied it around Leading Stoker Kember’s hat, in the hope that the enemy would respect the symbol. Soon after, Pockley himself was wounded. Both men were taken aboard Berrima, where they died later that afternoon. Williams became the first Australian to die in action in the Great War.
For the young men in the AN&MEF, the excitement of joining Australia’s first action of the war gave way to the realities of combat. Able Seaman “Gus” Shea was in the thick of the attack and helped carry the dead and wounded to the beach: “It is terrible to hear the wounded scream,” he wrote in a letter home. “I don’t want to hear anymore.”
Back on the Bitapaka Road, Bowen’s men encountered a well-defended trench dug across the road. As reinforcements arrived, a sniper’s bullet pierced Bowen’s helmet, leaving a deep furrow along the side of his head. Lieutenant G.A. Hill, RNR, assumed command and sent a runner to Berrima calling for more support. A few hours later, Lieutenant Commander Charles Elwell, RN, arrived with 50 men. He launched a flanking attack and charged the enemy. Sword in hand, Elwell was shot through the heart. Outflanked on both sides, the Germans surrendered.
Tensions remained high. Shots rang out, possibly from snipers, when the forward party captured the second trench held by three Germans and 20 New Guineans. As Lieutenant W.D. Hunter wrote to his girlfriend, they “made a break … and the officer and ten niggers were shot while escaping”. Able Seaman Henry Street was mortally wounded in the exchange.
Three Germans and about 30 New Guineans were killed in the fight for the Bitapaka wireless station. The claim that Australians bayoneted some of the New Guineans who fell into their hands during the fighting is probably true. Numerous personal letters and diaries reflect the mixture of racism, inexperience and anger at having lost men to the New Guinean fighters, and this would have contributed to the brutal treatment of the Indigenous population.
At 7.00 pm the wireless station was captured and Admiral Patey demanded the German acting governor, Dr Edward Haber, surrender the entire colony. Although Haber did not officially surrender, he told Patey that Rabaul and Herbertshöhe were “unfortified” and “no opposition [would] be offered to the military occupation”. The next day the naval reservists marched from Kabakaul to Herbertshöhe, and Berrima landed a garrison at Rabaul.
On Sunday 13 September, AN&MEF forces raised the Union Jack in Rabaul. A translator told the New Guineans who looked on: “All boys belongina one place, you savvy big master … No more ‘Um Kaiser, God Save ‘Um King.” With this sentence, the Australians asserted the authority of their military administration and custody of the Indigenous population was transferred from one imperial power to another.
By October, departments of Treasury, Works, Law and Lands and Surveys were in operation. But it was as administrators of the colony that the AN&MEF began to fall apart. Corruption and undisciplined behaviour marred the occupation. Most of the troops saw no action, and the boredom fuelled unruly and rampageous behaviour. Harsh discipline – 137 Australians were court-martialled in the four months to December 1914 – seemed no deterrent. Most were eager to join the war in Europe, and on their return to Australia in early 1915 many re-enlisted for service in the AIF.
Australia’s first action in the war certainly made headlines at the time. Naturally, the magnitude of Australian losses in Gallipoli and the Western Front quickly pushed these stories to the fringes of popular memory. But Australians in 1914 knew that the war had come to their part of the world.
Daniel Oakman was a historian in the Military History section of the Australian War Memorial.