Monday, June 13, 2011

Australia’s first WW1 battle was not in Gallipoli, but Papua New Guinea


Most Australians know about the horrors of Gallipoli in 1915 and commemorate Anzac Day annually on April 25.

Bitapaka War Cemetery where Australians from WW1 and WW11 are buried
However, very few people know and acknowledge the fact that Australia’s first battle against Germany was seven months before Gallipoli, in East New Britain, Papua New Guinea,
Who has heard about the 1914 capture of German New Guinea?
Alternatively, the battle between the German Pacific fleet raider, SMS Emden, shelled by HMAS Sydney on September 11, 1914 and beached as a total loss?
Few people also know that Australia’s first submarine AE 1, on patrol near the Duke of York Islands, some 20 miles from Herbertshohe (Kokopo), was lost with its crew of 35 on November 14, 1914, and has never been since then.
Various theories exist but it seems likely that the navigator, who was using captured German charts, may have misunderstood them and hit a reef.
Now, former Rabaul-based policeman, Maxwell Russell Hayes, is pushing for this battle to be given the full recognition it deserves before its 100th anniversary of Gallipoli in 2014.

Maxwell Hayes...fighting for recognition of this fogotten battle
Hayes joined the Royal Australian Air Force in 1950 for six years, including service in Korea.
He was appointed as a direct entry to commissioned rank to the Royal PNG Constabulary in 1959, and his first posting was to the New Britain island town of Rabaul in the volcanic Gazelle Peninsula.
Hayes became interested in the rich history of that area as it concerns Australia.
After 15 years in the constabulary, he was retrenched at the rank of chief inspector at the time of PNG independence in 1975.
As PNG was then not covered by the Australian section of International Police Association, Hayes joined the British section on July 6, 1964, transferring to the Australian section on February 23, 1976.
In researching the history of RPNGC, he made three return trips to PNG.
“Despite this being Australia’s first battle in WW1, Australian government commemoration is non-existent and there are surprisingly few memorials,” Hayes says.
“At the Royal Australian Navy base, HMAS Cerberus, there is a memorial in tiles naming those who perished in this battle.
“In Sydney, high on the sandstone wall near the Opera House at Circular Quay is a small plaque erected in 1964 denoting the sailing of the fleet on August 19, 1914.
“For many years, Northcote RSLClub (Victoria) has recognised that one of the first two killed was a Northcote citizen.
“On December 16, 2001, it commissioned a large mounted bronze plaque commemorating this battle with images of William Williams and Brian Pockley.
“Each year, on September 11, a small group meets to commemorate Australia’s first six killed in battle with the loss of submarine AE 1 and its crew in WW1.
“At Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance, wreaths are laid by two grand nephews of Pockley and Williams within the shrine and at the ‘Rabaul’ tree.
“The 100th anniversary of this small but important battle will be in three years.
“It is hopes that the Australian government might see fit to recognise Australia’s first battle as a sovereign nation.
“Locating, and hopefully recovering our lost and forgotten coral-encrusted steel coffin, AE 1, with its 35 crew still entombed would be a significant gesture.
“The post-humous award, in what should have been Australia’s first WW1 Victoria Cross to Captain Pockley for the meritorious deed, which cost him his life, would be more appropriate.
“With the exception of Moffat, those Australians killed in the battle were buried in various locations before being interred at Rabaul in 1919.
“There, those graves suffered considerable damage during the bombardment of Rabaul during the Japanese occupation.
“Finally, the graves were returned to the Bitapaka War Cemetery in 1950, very close to where they fell in 1950.”
With the outbreak of WW1, Britain declared war on Germany on August 4, 1914, and knew that a large and hostile German naval fleet was active in the Pacific Ocean.
Britain feared that a newly-constructed wireless station at Bitapaka near Rabaul in German New Guinea would be of immense assistance to that fleet.
By cable on August 5, 1914, Britain requested Australia to capture and destroy that wireless station.
In the early nationalistic fervour of doing battle with Germany, a force of 1, 116 New South Wales army volunteers with 451 naval reservists was quickly enlisted and uniformed.
This force embarked on the HMAT Berrima from Man O’ War steps at Circular Quay, Sydney, on August 19, 1914.
“The force became known as the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force,” Hayes says.
“The accompanying flotilla of almost the entire Royal Australian Navy, including our first submarines AE 1 and AE 2 (sunk in the Darndanelles and recently discovered in situ in 1998), steamed north.
“It stayed a few days at Palm Island and two weeks at Port Moresby for further training.
“This was the first-ever Australian force as such to leave our shores, and the first commanded by Australian officers.
“Earlier foreign wars such as the Maori Wars, the Boxer Rebellion and the Boer War were comprised of colonial (state) forces before the Federation in 1901.
“Early on the morning of September 11, 1914, our fleet entered Rabaul’s magnificent deep volcanic Simpsonhafen (Simpson) Harbour.
“Earlier troops and naval reservists landed some 20 miles away at Herbertshohe (late Kokopo) and the stone Kabakaul jetty.
“This was thought to be the nearest access to where the wireless station was probably located.
“In fact, it was located some five miles inland and directions to the inland track were obtained from a Chinese trader.
“Shortly after dawn, the attacking force (comprising mainly of naval reservists, with some army medical personnel) started to make it way along a narrow track through the thick jungle.
“The track was mainly impenetrable on both sides.
“The force came under the first volley of fire from a numerically-superior German force of reservists, backed by native troops, firing from positions in high trees.”
To cut a long story short, killed were Australian Army Medical Corps Captain Brian Golden Antil Pockley, 24, of Sydney; Able Seaman William George Vincent Williams, RANR number 294, 28, of Northcote, Victoria; Able Seaman John E Walker, RANR number 121; Lieutenant Commander Charles B Elwell of Wentworthville, New South Wales; and Able Seaman Henry W Street, RANR number 419.
The party continued to advance along the track to capture the wireless station.
German deaths were estimated to be one reservist and about 30 native troops.
On the same day, having received information the seat of government had been moved inland to Toma, HMAS Encounter shelled the position.
German acting Governor, Dr E Haber, then sought a truce, until officially surrendering three days later.
Lest we forget!


  1. interesting! wonder why it is not even recognised by the aussies?

  2. The events at Gallipoli and the meat grinder of the Western Front completely overwhelmed our first ever battle. There is a move by naval historians in Australia to give this battle proper recognition. In South Australia there will be a ceremony in Adelaide at the Naval Memorial Gardens at 10.30 am on the 11th of September 2012 to commemorate this.
    Lest We Forget.

  3. Each year for the past three years, a school in Sydney Australia has taken students to the Bita Paka War Cemetery to commemorate the bravery of the Australian Forces in PNG. Their tributes are both moving and well researched. The person responsible for the research is Mrs Jan Viney, President of the Strathfield District Historical Society. Her son Andrew, who visits the region twice each year, is responsible for getting the students to the cemetery. The first world war diggers were remembered in the visit to the cemetery during the 2010 trib and this is recorded at the following link on vimeo. the other two visits are also highlighted on the site - just search for "Andrew Viney".

  4. War is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

  5. Good contribution there, Malum Nalu. Australia surely needs to make corrections to honour it's wari dead.

    Congratulations too to those in Australia who strove to make this recognition for their countrymen.

  6. Thank God Papua New Guinea was the battle field to safeguard Australian Sovereignty. Did Papua New Guinean's understand what they were fighting for? But sacrifice their lives for a battle that was never theirs for the beginning. No head stone not even identity is known for those casualties of war but only labelled as the fuzzy wazzy angles of war.