Australia opened its involvement in WWI with a campaign on German New Britain, a little remembered but successful battle in which six died.
As Australian troops prepared to go into action for the first time in the Great War, young army doctor Captain Brian Pockley penned a letter to his parents.
“Personally I think it will be a pleasant little picnic,” he wrote.
The next day September 11, 1914, in the confused fighting of the Battle of Bitapaka in the jungles of German New Britain, he was shot and mortally wounded while attending another soldier.
Pockley was not wearing his red-cross armband at the time. He had selflessly given it to a sailor carrying a wounded comrade from the battlefield.
Five other Australians died that day and it may be that Pockley was the first of more than 60,000 Australian servicemen to die.
The official history actually gives that dubious honour to Able Seaman Billy Williams, who Pockley was treating shortly before he was shot. Both died of their wounds that afternoon.
Or maybe it was Able Seaman John Courtney, shot and killed early that afternoon. Since there are no records of precise times of death, it’s unlikely we’ll ever know for sure.
As it turned out, this opening skirmish of Australia’s part in the Great War was eclipsed by a greater tragedy.
Patrolling off East New Britain on September 14, Australia’s first submarine AE1 vanished with all 35 British and Australian crewmen. She probably hit a submerged reef. The wreck has never been found despite several searches.
The navy will launch a fresh search later this year in what could prove the closing event of a little- remembered campaign which was over and done with in just 10 days.
Australia went to war on August 4, 1914 and on August 6, the British government requested Australia and New Zealand deal with Germany’s Pacific colonies, principally so they could not be used to support the roaming German East Asia cruiser squadron.
Both nations mounted hasty expeditions.
New Zealand’s objective was achieved speedily with no bloodshed. Their force landed on Apia, German Samoa, on August 29. Local authorities offered no resistance and occupation took place without fighting.
The Australian Naval and Military Expedition – comprising a brand new infantry battalion of 1000 men, 500 naval reservists and former sailors plus 500 Queensland militia – sailed a week after it was raised.
These were scarcely crack troops and their convoy stopped at Thursday Island to give them a little more training.
They landed at Kabakaul, south-east of main town Rabaul, on September 11 then advanced inland.
“It was a six-to-seven-hour-long rolling skirmish between German reservists and Melanesian troops and Australians trying to secure a wireless station,” said Australian War Memorial historian Aaron Pegram.
So, as Pegram notes, the first Australians to go into battle in WWI were not soldiers but the 25-member landing party of sailors, men essentially press-ganged as infantry, with negligible experience of ground combat let alone jungle warfare.
Four Australians died in the final bayonet charge on German trenches, including their leader Royal Navy Lieutenant Commander Charles Elwell.
The remaining German forces and the German administration withdrew to the town of Toma, hoping their fleet would come to their rescue.
There followed a three-day siege, in which Australian troops with a field gun and an Australian warship bombarded the town and a nearby hillside, killing no one. Realising further resistance was futile, governor Eduard Haber surrendered on September 17. However one small party led by German colonial security force officer Hermann Detzner remained at large, only emerging from the jungle in January 1919.
Australia subsequently formed a military government and provided an occupying force, which remained until 1921 when the League of Nations provided a mandate to govern the former German possessions.
This opening event of Australia’s role in the Great War is little remembered, mostly because it was overtaken by events at Gallipoli, and perhaps because not all involved covered themselves in glory.
Historian Chris Coulthard-Clark said the operation was successful but could scarcely be rated as well-managed. The Australian force lost six dead with five wounded to a force of mostly half-trained native police and plantation labourers.
At least two of the Australian dead were possibly shot by their own side in the confused fighting.
Later it was claimed that disproportionate casualties among the defenders – one German and some 30 Melanesian troops dead – stemmed from the Australian practice of bayoneting native soldiers who fell into their hands.
Some later indulged in what the Melbourne Argus of April 23, 1915 termed “loot, plunder and rapine”, with at least five soldiers court-martialled and jailed for misconduct in a Chinese opium den in Rabaul.
Some officers were also court-martialled but acquitted.
According to Labor MP Frank Anstey that was grossly unfair.
In a parliamentary debate in April 1915 he said officers were permitted to loot, and ship after ship departed Rabaul laden with their booty.
“The offences of the men could not be compared with those of the officers, who, on unquestionable evidence, had been guilty of wholesale rape and looting. Yet the officers had the audacity to sit upon the court martial and condemn the rank and file,” he said.