Australia’s first battle as a sovereign nation -
& her first battle in WW1
11th September 1914
Saturday 11th Sept 2004, marks the 90th anniversary of Australia's first battle in WW1, and also marks that event as being Australia's first ever battle as a sovereign nation. (All earlier conflicts were fought by the various colonies sending colonial forces, e.g., to Sudan, the Boxer Rebellion and the Boer War).
Yet this battle is almost totally unknown in the light of Gallipoli some seven months later and which Australians seem to think was our first battle in WW1. Certainly the horrors of Gallipoli surpassed those of our first battle.
On August 5th 1914, England in a telegram to the Prime Minister sought Australia's help in mobilising a force to proceed to German New Guinea to capture a wireless station, thought to be of great use to the German fleet then active in the Pacific area. In a remarkable feat and with considerable speed and enthusiasm, a force of 1,500 ( about 1,000 were military infantrymen and 500 naval reserve volunteers) were enlisted, uniformed, equipped and set sail a bare two weeks later on the HMAT Berrima on August 19. A strong supporting fleet of Royal Australian Navy provided escort and an attack force. This force was known as the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force. After the capture from the Germans, Australian troops remained in German New Guinea until May 1921, when it became a League of Nations Mandated Territory, the mandate of which was given to Australia.
En route to German New Guinea, the troops received training at Palm Island (off North Queensland coast) and two more weeks training at Port Moresby, before setting sail for the objective.
On 11th September the Australian fleet entered the magnificent harbour of Rabaul, whilst troops had disembarked some few miles away at Kokopo and Kabakaul, and near where they met resistance from German forces consisting of a few regular army officers, militia and native troops. Little was known about the actual location of the wireless station thought to be some miles south of Kabakaul, but information was provided and the troops proceeded along a jungle track. On the way they encountered mines laid across the track, and trenches from which they were fired on.
The first to be mortally wounded was Able Seaman W.G.V. Williams (of Northcote, Victoria). An Australian Army Medical Corps doctor, Captain B Pockley to facilitate the removal of Williams for medical treatment, gave his Red Cross arm band (which signified that he was a non combatant) to the stretcher party conveying Williams. A short while later Pockley was himself mortally wounded by rifle fire. This brave deed was never recognised.
As the troops advanced along the thick jungle track towards the wireless station some five miles inland from the stone wharf, a further four Australians were shot dead. German dead were estimated at about 1 officer and 30 native troops. Three days later, Australia's first submarine, AE1, disappeared near the adjacent Duke of York Islands, with the loss of a crew of 35, and has never been sighted since.
Although this battle was with few casualties compared with later events it, none the less, marks Australia's first battle as a sovereign nation. And how has Australia marked this event?? It seems that it prefers that this first battle should be forgotten. The departure of the troops from Sydney's "Man'o'War" steps near Circular Quay was noted by the City of Sydney erecting a small obscure bronze plaque, high on the Tarpeian Wall near the Opera House, on the 50th anniversary of the troops sailing.
Northcote RSL however took more interest in commemorating this obscure battle as one of its citizens was the first mortally wounded.
With funds raised locally, and a grant from the Department of Veterans' Affairs, a large bronze pictorial plaque was commissioned at the front of this RSL on 16.12.2001. These two memorials constitute Australia's remembrance of our first battle. Perhaps the 90th anniversary can create a little more interest.
Maxwell R. HAYES,
Royal Australian Air Force 1950-1957,
Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary 1959-1974,
Papua New Guinea Volunteer Rifles 1960-1962.
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