Heroes before Gallipoli – Battle of Bita Paka
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Mat: Hello everyone. welcome to Living History and an episode where we’re going back a little bit further than what we’ve been doing lately, because we’ve had a lot of World War 2 focus with the 75th anniversary of D-Day and other significant anniversaries that have been happening very recently, but I want to go back to World War 1 and to a chapter of World War 1 that I think is a little bit unknown in Australia and we should know more about it. This was the opening chapter of Australia’s war during the First World War. Joining us to discuss it is historian David Hale, so David welcome to Living History.
David: Thanks a lot, Mat
Mat: So we’re talking here about 1914, which was a time when I think people didn’t even realize Australia was actively involved in the war. I think people know that we were at war. We declared war on the Germans, that we were preparing to fight but I think a lot of people assume that Gallipoli was our first action of that war. Paint a picture for us. What was happening in 1914, very close to our home?
David: Yeah, so most people that you speak to especially that are Melbourne-based looking out now into Port Phillip Bay and they will talk about the first shots being fired at Fort Nepean as the SS Pfalz tried to make her way and get out to sea, which was a merchant ship when the First World War was declared. A German merchant ship and a shot was fired, and no one was hurt. They stopped the ship from leaving but our first battle and the first of many firsts actually for Australia happens immediately to our north in what is now Papua New Guinea
Mat: So just paint a picture for me about the politics, about the geography. I mean, how was it possible that we were fighting in New Guinea in the First World War? We think of New Guinea, its famous actions during the Second World War but I think many people would be surprised to know there was fighting there that went on in the First World War as well.
David: Yeah, so we don’t have to go back that far before 1914. In fact we only have to go back a few decades to 1884 when Germany, who itself was a new country, was going around and trying to build up an Empire. Like it wanted to emulate what Britain and France etcetera, other European powers had done, and I guess it wanted to go and get territory that didn’t have a cause to have a fight, so they bought several Caroline and Marshall Islands up in the Pacific. They bought those off the Spanish. They set down in in New Guinea, and there is a distinction between Papua and New Guinea and they wanted to have an area, I guess where they could control their trade but also have a presence in the Pacific, so in 1884 Germany annexes New Guinea, much to the dismay of the colonies, because obviously Australia isn’t federated then and Queensland in particular because it had been using Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea to do a not so nice thing – black birding to build up the sugarcane industry of course in Queensland, and they were worried that Germany was going to impose on the territory up there. Britain didn’t really want anything to do with it. In fact the reports from the British East India Company had come back and said this is a miserable place. Why would anyone want anything to do with it?
So long story short, even though Germany said to Britain, oh no we’re not interested in New Guinea, in 1884 they hoist the flag and they annex that part. We actually, when I say we Australia, the colony in Queensland with some help from some Victorians and New South Welshman go up there, raise the Union flag in Papua which is the lower part, and then Britain says, well hang on a second. Why are the colonies doing this and long story short, we become federated. 1905, they have the Act of Papua and the bottom part becomes Australia and everything to the North becomes German.
Mat: So David talk to me about this time. I mean, it was a tumultuous time in Europe and the Germans weren’t exactly considered everyone’s best friend at this time. How did Australia feel about having a German colony right on its doorstep?
David: Didn’t like it at all, and so much so as I said that the colonies went up there to try and put their own presence in the area. New Zealand obviously our other neighbour, was very, very worried because the Germans got German Samoa, so there was a lot of presence, if you will, of the Germans breathing down our necks and obviously at that stage, Australia was British and we looked towards Britain, and Britain and Germany was already heading to war and we didn’t like it at all. In fact the East Asiatic Squadron which was under the command of the chap a German fellow named von Spee, he had some very powerful ships including the Scharnhorst, the Gneisenau and of course most listeners would be familiar with the Emden.
Australia had a Navy. It was fairly new. We did have one ship HMAS Australia that could outgun the German ships but we were very, very worried that the Germans were on our doorstep, if you will.
Mat: So the Germans were there for several decades before the First World War. What were they doing in New Guinea? Why was it important to the German Empire?
David: A couple of things. First of all, they wanted an empire so they wanted land. They wanted land to spread out across our trade routes for shipping, because at that time in history we still relied heavily on ships to move materials, cargo, etc. around the around the globe, but also the Germans wanted to really have a presence where they could sum up any of the territorial gains that they’d made. As I said, it was nonviolent kind of gains to begin with, but perhaps preparing for something bigger and better and to sum this network up, von Spee had his fleet but the important thing, and this is very important to this battle, is that now messages didn’t take months or weeks rather to get across the earth’s surface. They had a wireless radio system if you will and now from Germany to this part of the world, you could get a message within a day, which was an amazing feat if you think of it at the time. So all across these territorial gains that Germany had made, they started to build a wireless network where they could send messages and they could control their Navy if you will in the backyard of Australia.
Mat: it’s an interesting point whenever we talk about the First World War, David that there’s often a debate about whether Australia should have been involved, whether it was a European conflict, that we should have kept our noses out of etc. etc., but I think this is a really fascinating point that we can’t stress strongly enough. Effectively Australia’s nearest neighbor was a German colony at the time of the outbreak of the First World War. I mean, that must have been nerve wracking for the Australian people at that time.
David: Ah! Immensely so and this has ramifications that lasts now in present day because a lot of Australia’s effort since we became a nation is to have this buffer zone to our immediate north. I myself did peacekeeping operations in the Solomon Islands. Why was I there? Our Solomon Islands was unstable. We need to keep this buffer zone. We’ve got new threats in the Pacific now and of course in the Second World War, we had the Japanese breathing down our necks but in the First World War, at this time Australia was very important and we should rightly so have gone and had this buffer if you will between Australia and the rest of the world to the north. So the First World War started in New Guinea and the battle fought there I would argue is one of the most important battles that we have fought as a nation.
Mat: Well, tell us exactly what happened, David. So the war begins in August 1914. Australia declares war on Germany, following hard on the heels of Britain. What does it mean for our location? What does it mean for Australia in terms of our own defence, particularly the fact that we’ve got a German neighbor very nearby?
David: Yeah. as we all know, Australia had pledged, our Prime Minister had pledged to send troops to fight for Empire if you will, and Britain had asked Australia very quickly, pretty much soon, very soon after war was declared. War was declared 4th of August ‘14 and message comes and says that if you can Australia please go and get rid of the German wireless stations. Take that. Capture that territory very quickly, so that’s what we do and in a relatively short time, we’re talking just a week basically. By the 11th of August, we’re already starting to recruit men to go and off on this expedition, and we actually created a special Expeditionary Force and it’s called the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force, and there’s a first there because not only is it going to be, which I’m getting to, our first battle but it’s the first combined operations if you will between the Army and the Navy.
Mat: So tell me more about these men. Did they volunteer for service? Were there regular soldiers that were formed into this new unit? Who were these men that would end up fighting this battle in New Guinea?
David: Well interesting enough, because we raised an Expeditionary Force we called for volunteers and the guy who’s the chief of staff at the time and I’m sure some listeners may be familiar with that was a chap named Legge, Lieutenant-General James Gordon Legge, who would later go on and command the Australian Second Division on Turkey and the Western Front, but the task fell to a Boer War veteran, a chap named William Holmes and he was criticized actually. He actually writes a letter to Legge again says, hey isn’t this wonderful you know. we’ve managed to recruit in the space of a week a force, a battalion, a battalion size of over a thousand men, 1,023 men, and he goes then before the minister at the time, the minister for War because we are at war who basically criticizes him because he allows married men – can you believe that? – he allows married men to be to be recruited into this expeditionary force from the military side of it.
On the other side, which actually come into play because these are the guys who go and do the fighting, a naval component and many of the naval men formed into companies. There were six companies. The Navy had fifty men in each of those companies, which broke down to half companies of 25. A lot of them were reservists. Some of their commanders were obviously regular naval guys, but most of them were reservists who joined up to go and fight in this expeditionary force and they as we will see as the conversation develops, they are the guys that actually do the fighting.
Mat: So these men when they enlisted, were they were they signing up to fight the war against Germany, and then they found themselves fighting closer to home than they anticipated, or was this a special recruitment just to take care of this German problem on our doorstep?
David: Funnily enough, the AN&MEF was a special force raised just to go and take care of the problem to the north with the Germans and the radio stations. In fact many men you see in the… because a lot of the military component were from New South Wales. That’s where Holmes was from. A lot of the men if you look at the 20th battalion AIF, a lot of the guys ended up going into that, but they have to in effect discharge from the AN&MEF and then re-enlist into the AIF. In fact there are accounts of men who are sick because obviously got things like malaria and whatnot and they have to either change names or hide that fact in order to get into the AIF. So this was purely a force specially raised for this task and as I said, it was done very quickly within the space of a week or so.
Mat: And what about training for these guys? They had enlisted pretty quickly as you say. They were thrust into this new unit. How well-trained were they by the time they were sent up north?
David: Well, a lot of them had done military service under the scheme that was running at the time. They may have done school cadets so they could operate the rifles, they could drill, they could do all that sort of thing, but they were going off to do a very different type of warfare, warfare that we’d never experienced. In fact, it’s jungle warfare and our only experience before the Second World War was this battle, but they set sail. They leave Sydney on the 19th of August, so again very close since the outbreak of war, and on their way they have a bit of a stop on Palm Island and they do some training there but it doesn’t prepare them. Their equipment – well, their Lee Enfield 303 rifles is their main weapon system but they’re wearing Bedford cord breeches and a woollen shirt that tucked into it with a collar, so it’s wool which is probably great if you’re running around Melbourne or Sydney, but maybe not so great when you’re about to go off to the tropics and fight in the jungle.
Mat: So what were the German preparations because they must have expected that our force would land against them in New Guinea? How did the Germans prepare to defend their territory in New Guinea?
David: Yeah, so interestingly enough in German New Guinea you imagine if you were to look at a map of the right hand side of what is now PNG, you have the main part with Port Moresby down the bottom being the capital, and then if you go north after you leave Papua, you are into what was then German New Guinea and then you get an island above it called East New Britain although the Germans had had renamed that. They had also renamed the main part Kaiser-Wilhelmsland was the name of the main part of the mainland PNG, and they knew of course that they would be a target, but their preparations were very, very different. They didn’t have a lot of resources. Not much money was spent on defense. They did use native troops. They withdrew back to that island that I spoke about, East New Britain, from the mainland. In fact only a couple of days before the AN&MEF arrived in Rabaul, the German governor or the Acting Governor, a guy named Dr Haber, he actually moved his seat of government if you will to that island and consolidated. They also removed the wireless station and they took it back into the interior, along with their headquarters staff and all of that but to give you an idea, there’s only really about 150 native troops and they’re reservists. The German guys are reservists or they are volunteers, just volunteers within the German community. There was quite a big German community in Rabaul prior to the Australians coming, but all the German side were basically volunteers or local native forces.
Mat: And how many Australians were sent up to German New Guinea? You mentioned that there was both Army and Navy forces. Give us a bit of a breakdown of how many men were actually sent up, and what type of ships because there’s a couple of special things particularly to note on the Navy side, wasn’t there?
David: Yeah so for example, the military component has said before was a battalion strength, that was a thousand men, and we had machine gun, we had a small artillery attached to that within that force, so we certainly outnumbered them in strength, although we didn’t know that of course at the time. From the naval side of things in terms of the men to go and do the fighting if you will, they had six companies. As I said each company was 50 men and so there’s 300-odd men there, so our sizeable forces of being able to do action. That doesn’t include the naval staff on the ships was really only around less than 1,500 men, and it’s interesting to know why the naval component of the expeditionary force was the first ones to go in to battle, because up until that stage you think what the Navy within the Empire was up to. They had a long history of being able to go put shore parties down and capture things close to the shore and then garrison it, whereas armies were things that went out onto a field of battle and met their enemy on a field of battle and fought, so I guess they were very well drilled in being armed to put their boats down and to do landings because the landing that we’re getting to in Rabaul was a first for Australia because of the first amphibious landing we’ve done. Certainly it wasn’t Gallipoli. It was here in Rabaul.
Mat: Isn’t it fascinating when you talk about this, David and it’s something that regular listeners of the podcast will have heard me say before, but the evolution of technology, strategy, tactics in the First World War was just extraordinary, and I heard someone say once, another historian, say that in 1914, a Napoleonic era soldier would have recognized what he was looking at if he could observe the battles of 1914, but by 1918, a modern soldier of today would recognize the tactics and the technology and how that war was being fought, and it’s a wonderful example the way you’re describing this Australian force heading up there and as you say the fact that the Navy thought well, the way to do this is to use our troops because these are the guys that are going to be best equipped to come from ships to land on the shore, and armies are more to be used on large fields of battle to manoeuvre and to hold ground. So I’m seeing reflections in that sort of Napoleonic mindset that armies are for big manoeuvres and these small little operations are more for the Navy guys to carry out.
David: Exactly. as I said before, armies really were bodies of men that go on fight on the field of battle, and British Empire had built its empire based on shipping and trade and putting down parties and then garrisoning ports so the Navy, actually when you think about it at the time, they were best suited to be able to do this type of warfare.
Mat: The Navy was also fairly technologically advanced, wasn’t it, because we had things like AE1, the Australian submarine was up there accompanying this force as well, so the Navy was actually demonstrating it had some fair advantages in terms of the technology of the day.
David: it was a very, very much so in the sense that it was quite proud because we’re only a decade on really from the Navy being formed. We had our flagship HMAS Australia but you’re right. We have these two submarines the AE1 and the AE2 which are submarines, wonderful technology, made the correlation there before Napoleonic soldiers. Many imagined from the naval side of things yeah the technology had grown in leaps and bounds prior to this. It would take the three or four years of the fighting in the First World War for the army to sort of catch up with their personal weapon systems and planes and tanks and all that sort of stuff, but the Navy at this time, Navies all around the world at this time was certainly Britannia still ruled the waves. We had a lot of technology in there and very much proud Australia was to have the Sydney, to have the AE1 and the AE2 which we had not long bought from Britain.
Mat: So David, tell us what happened. This Australian force heads up to New Britain to take back the wireless station. Tell us how the fighting there unfolded.
David: So it happens over the course of 1 day. It’s a very, very easy date to remember – September 11th – that they go and land on New Britain. I should say just before that though that on Nauru, everyone would be familiar with Nauru, HMAS Sydney went and got rid of…well, put the wireless station out of action although there wasn’t a fight there like what we’re about to hear, but the Navy had already started to go up and take care of these things as the Army and the military component was coming up behind, but just let’s go to that moment if we will.
Basically what had happened is that the Navy had in tow a passenger liner that had been converted to a troop ship that was bringing a lot of the sailors and the army component up which was the Berrima, and yeah and the first thing they do is they go into Rabaul into the harbour, there’s beautiful Simpson Harbour. It’s one of the most magnificent harbours in the world, I think and they put down at 7 a.m. in the morning, they put down the naval guys at a place called Kabakaul which is near Blanche Bay within that harbour, and if listeners are familiar with the geography of Rabaul, you’ve got Rabaul to the right and Kokopo to the left and Blanche Bay is on the left-hand side so they put down the naval component which at that time consisted of 30-odd men. They had with them one Australian soldier who we will find out about in a moment, but his name was Pockley, Brian Pockley. He was a young doctor from Sydney, had followed in his father’s footsteps, and had been a Macquarie Street doctor. He was much loved at his school and he really was I guess the man’s man, well liked, had volunteered his service and to go with the naval component because they needed somebody to be their doctor.
The whole battle unfolds basically from a jetty going up a hill along a road and when the Australians rock up, they actually find inside a house if you will that was very close to the shore some Carl Zeiss binoculars, German binoculars and a couple of revolvers on the table, so obviously the Germans had only just stopped observing the Australians coming and they withdrew back up this road which leads up to the wireless station. Along the road they had built small trenches and they were defended by, as I said German reservists if you will, local people that are doing the military service and native troops and when the Navy component puts down, that’s what they do. They start walking up the road. In fact the commander on the ground, his name was Bowen, he took and asked a Chinese fellow who had happened to be there working in one of the houses and some of the local Thai people where the Germans were, and they basically said look, they’re up the road and off they go. That’s how the battle started.
Mat: So you’ve got this Australian force advancing up the road. Germans obviously know that they’re there now, so what happened in those following minutes?
David: Yes, so the Australians start to move along the road but the commander says hey look we’re going to be exposed on the road so we better get off into the bush. A lot of the guys with their woollen uniforms on, they get scratched and cut to pieces by the jungle. They start converging back onto the road and it doesn’t take long before as I said, those Germans and the native troops spy them. A shot rings out. The first shot actually that was fired in anger by Australians in the First World War was by a petty officer named Palmer. He spies one of the Germans, hands up, shooting. Shoots him, doesn’t kill him. He shoots him in the hand. The Australians keep moving forward. That guy Pockley that I spoke about, the medical officer, they captured the first line of Germans if you will for only a small handful of men. Pockley performs an amputation without anaesthetic, cuts the German’s hand off. It’s said that the German whose name was Mauderer, he bit down on a cigar and didn’t betray the pain that he was going through and then they regroup and they continue moving up this road through the scrub. They actually spy some local people working in their gardens. In fact, some of the men that were there later write that it was a bit like a Sunday-school picnic. They were off there almost like an adventure, very different than the horrors that are going to befall the Australians in Gallipoli in the Western Front.
So they keep moving up this road and then another shot rings out but this time it’s the Germans turn and they hit one of the sailors, a young guy from Northcote here in Melbourne, a guy named Billy Williams and he becomes Australia’s first casualty in the First World War. He’s shot in the stomach. He doesn’t die straightaway. Pockley the medical guy comes back down, attends to him and not only in that moment do we have the first casualty for Australia in the First World War but we also had the first act of bravery. Pockley takes off his armband, his Red Cross armband as they’re carrying Williams away on the stretcher and they take him back to the Berrima. Later on Williams would die next to Pockley, which we will get to in a moment, in the afternoon.
So after that they continued going on. It doesn’t take long. More shots ring out and unfortunately Pockley too becomes a casualty, becomes our second casualty and the first Army casualty of the First World War and he’s taken back and as I said sadly both of them. They’re not sure who died first but they both pass away two, three o’clock in the afternoon. This all happens around 9:30 in the morning on the 11th of September.
Whilst this is all going on, the Germans have done other things. They’ve actually put a big mine in the road and one of the things they were going to do is the Germans fall back to their different positions if you will, along this road is that they were going to blow the road up and then effectively kill whoever was coming to take the wireless station, but fortunate enough for the Australians, the native fellow that the Germans had trained to do that was sick. He actually had malaria they believed and he didn’t turn up for work that time. It doesn’t go off.
Now also while this is going on, the commander on the ground Bowen, he decides that he’s had enough of this being bogged down and he actually pulls out his revolver. I remember the chap I mentioned that the German guy that had his arm amputated, he basically frog marches him up to the next line of the German trenches and these aren’t trenches like we think in the First World War. These are more of a makeshift trench if you will across the… just to give them some cover. Wouldn’t be enough I guess for a man to stand up in but Bowen frog marches this wounded German up there and basically says, listen. tell the rest of your mates to surrender or I’m going to do some not-so-nice things to you, and that’s another first for Australia albeit not a great one, and unbeknownst to Bowen but he’d actually broken the rules of warfare because he’d used a prisoner because the poor German chap had obviously surrendered, had had his hand amputated and he uses a prisoner to go and get the others to surrender but it works, and he thinks, You Beauty!
So off they go and they continue to go up along the road, but you have to realize this is a very, very short space. It’s not an overly big hill. In fact if anybody’s been to Rabaul and visited Bita Paka War Cemetery, the road you go up to the cemetery which would easily get up in a car in 5, 10 minutes time, that’s where the battle unfolds.
Meanwhile back out at sea, the Australian command if you will especially those on the Berrima were thinking, hang on a second. It’s almost midday now and what’s happened? There was only meant to be a few Germans. We’re just gonna walk up a road to find this radio station and it’d all be over, but the Germans funny enough, under strength by comparison to the Australians, they were putting up not a bad fight. In fact, Bowen goes again and takes German prisoners and frog marches them up to the next line but it doesn’t work and he himself was actually shot and it literally parts his hair. It grazed the top of his forehead, a scar that he lives with for the rest of his life. He survives and he’s actually taken off the field of battle.
Meanwhile some of the Germans that was captured in those trenches included a senior German on the spot, a captain and he was a bit of a prize and they took them back and they got some more intelligence on exactly where the radio station is. They knew it was at the top of the road and they keep going on but back on the ship Berrima, you get this really interesting thing unfold. There were men going about having their breakfast, smoking their pipes, writing letters, all that sort of thing, letting the naval contingent go off. Some other naval forces had landed further down in the harbour but no action was going on there, and they get this report that the Australians are getting fired upon. I mean casualties are coming back. You’ve got two Australians back on the ship and you get this crazy thing where they need to call for reinforcements and whilst the other detachment that had landed started to make its way along, men on the SS Berrima, you get a cook, there’s a story of a cook grabbing a ladle. There’s another guy that doesn’t have much in the way of a weapon. He picks up a plank of wood if you will, off the jetty and you’ve got a ragtag sort of… they must have looked like pirates leaving the Berrima to race up to give aid to the Australians. You also unfortunately, because obviously there’s a sad element to this, we end up losing six people, but you have another casualty and this casualty was killed outright as they’re advancing further along to the German trenches.
You get a chap, John Edward Walker or John Courtney, whichever way you want to call him. He had actually changed his name. I thought at first he perhaps changed his name to put his age up as we all hear those stories. He actually changed his name because he didn’t want to pay maintenance to his wife, which is a funny one, but he ends up getting shot and killed outright and they believe he dies before Pockley and Williams pass away on the ship and there’s no denying that Williams is the first Australian casualty but Courtney is the first Australian casualty to be killed outright.
Now again all this is unfolding and you have this situation whereby something that was not meant to take much time – they’re only using thirty odd men – is turning into prisoners coming back, casualties. We’ve got people killed now. There’s another chap Streatham Moffatt that get mortally wounded. One chap dies the next day. You’ve got all this stuff going on and they’re getting bogged down, and so enters two other chaps that I want to talk about in this battle. One is Charles Elwell, Charles Bingham Elwell who was actually seconded from the Royal Navy before the AN&MEF was formed. He was actually down at Geelong just on the other side of the bay from where I am at the moment. He was down there at the… that’s where the Naval College was, and he is well above his peers. In fact by all accounts, he’s dressed quite for the occasion. He’s got his saber with him and he’s a guy who could speak French, is quite worldly. He’s above his peers I guess in that way. He says listen here and by the way he’s the highest-ranking man on the scene he’s a Lieutenant-Commander and he comes into the fray. He gets up to the second to last I think in the line of German trenches with some of the men. Bowen had been taken off the field of battle. They’d had another chap that it was on one side. Elwell takes the other side of the road. He gets up near the trenches, he pulls his saber out and he says to the men, fix bayonets. Now we’re about to have Australia’s first bayonet charge of the Great War and he pulls his saber out, tells his men to fix bayonets. He takes a couple steps and he’s shot in the chest and he’s dead and I think he becomes our second outright KIA in the First World War, so it doesn’t go too well.
Eventually what happens is that there’s a break in the battle. Another chap rocks up. Bond, I like that introduced. I wish he was Lieutenant-Commander Bond but he was Lieutenant Thomas Bond, and he’s about to get the first decoration. He ends up getting a DSO for what’s about to come about. He gets up there. Elwell’s being killed, the Germans are ready to surrender but a senior German officer up there, he won’t surrender to this ragtag bunch of guys that have been cut to pieces in the bush, wearing dishevelled uniforms if you will, sweating, whatever and they actually stop and have a break and they pull out some whiskey and they sit there and have a drink waiting for someone senior to come up from the ship so he could hand over the surrender.
Bond, he really gets the poops with this. He hands his revolver to one of his colleagues and there’s one last line of German defenders before the radio station and the Germans are out there talking to one another in front of the native troops that are in front of the trench, and before I forget, he also summarily executes one of the Germans who had surrendered. Some of the Germans they allowed just to return to walk back down the road and go and hand themselves over to the rest of the naval chaps down there. He runs around trying to get other native troops together and try and take the fight. When bond knows about this, here’s a guy who been a POW, the German. He then has given his word to go back down and go and be taken as a POW but goes and decides to continue the fight, and Bond just shoots him.
But Bond gets up to the last trench, hands his revolver over to his colleague to cover him and whilst the two German officers are out standing in front of the trench while the men are behind them so the men can’t shoot and the native troops, they are confused. They’re not sure what they can do when their commanders are standing in front of him. He basically just goes up to them and takes their revolvers off them and forces them to surrender, and off they pop to take the radio station.
So it goes until late into the late afternoon/ early evening. It goes for one day. As I said unfortunately, we lost six people five naval chaps and one army guy. The Germans lose the one guy, the guy that Bond kills. Bond as I said for his bravery of taking the revolvers out of the Germans in front of the trench is awarded a DSO and they successfully take the wireless station, and within not too long by the 17th of September, a term of capitulation of the Germans had had been signed and it was all over.
Mat: David, it’s just extraordinary. I mean, thank you for that account. There’s so many twists and turns and small acts of heroism and incredible individual stories. the word that struck me as you were talking about is it’s really quite quaint and I don’t say that to be patronizing to what was going on, but considering the horrors that awaited these men as they went on through the rest of the First World War, this was really a sort of an old-fashioned way of fighting a very small battle, wasn’t it? It’s really just an extraordinary state of affairs.
David: It was. I mean, if you were to read some extracts in the Australian I think it’s Volume 10 of the First World War history, you’ve got men talking about as I said before there was a Sunday-school picnic. It’s a boy’s own adventure. You’ve got guys sitting down with the enemy, drinking whiskey. You’ve got others where they are letting them just pass back down, like Mauderer that had his hand amputated. he just walks back down and I mean, it’s all very gentlemanly and I don’t think either side really had any idea of what was about to unfold in the years following. It’s just extraordinary. It’s not what we think the First World War is about.
Mat: It is an extraordinary story, David and obviously a small action, especially considering what was to come in Gallipoli in the following year and then the horrors of the Western Front, but it’s not insignificant, is it? What we did there was really important for Australia’s history for not just during the First World War, but in the years to come. Tell us a little bit about the significance of the fighting up there which was much greater than the size of the battle.
David: Yeah, two things I’d like to say. First one is I can’t go on without mentioning the loss of our submarine the AE1. It’s only recently been discovered, the last resting place. 35 hands lost their life so there was a underlying sadness to the story, and by no means am I taking away from the six on our side and the 30-odd native troops that they believe lost their lives and the one German, but yes in terms of that one action, what unfolds is that we have a garrison force that sent up there which ends up becoming tropical force. In fact, if you go to Bita Paka Cemetery you’ll see a lot of graves for tropical force, the guys that succumbed to tropical disease whilst they were on garrison duty. Obviously malaria is a big one but of course after the First World War, because this sort of gets left behind because we’ve got the horrors of Gallipoli and then the Western Front, and this just becomes a footnote almost in the First World War.
But there is a bigger picture here and the reason why I think it is the most important battle that we that we fought and that is because in the First World War, the Japanese were actually our allies. They batted well above their average in terms of shipping. They escorted Australian soldiers to the Dardanelles which was very, very important. Gave them safe passage if you will, especially when we’re sending all these men overseas and we’ve still got the German Navy running around the Pacific. They do very well. in fact I’ve got a wonderful photo of Japanese naval officers at that very wharf where the men had first landed with the AN&MEF inspecting Australian forces, and of course after the First World War when the war spoils are being divided up, Australia’s seat if you will at the League of Nations/ Treaty of Versailles carving up all the spoils of war including land gains, Australia says well look, we want this area but there was another ally that also wanted this territory and that was Japan.
As I said, I think Japan lost about 700 sailors. They bat well above their average and they said look we want it. In fact they accused countries like Australia for being racist saying you don’t think our contribution is great enough. we should have some of it but I think it was their ex-Prime Minister at the time had really fought hard and said look we want this territory, and in the end it becomes mandated territory to Australia, and part of the League of Nations decision of mandated territory was that you couldn’t do things like build fortifications and you couldn’t train native troops.
However as we’re to see in the Second World War, I think it’s on January, ’42, the Japanese invade Rabaul. They get rid of LARC force which was mainly the 2nd, 22nd and Infantry Battalion that had been sent to garrison, and they use it from then on as their main base. they do all their operations for the Kokoda campaign, all their operations against the Americans in the Solomon Islands, and they use it as their main base in that part of the of the Pacific so much so that when the Allies eventually push in the Second World War, push on to Japan, they bypass and Rabaul doesn’t fall properly until surrender of the Japanese, so I guess had we not fought that one day in September, had we not then said hey, look we’ve done something here, we should be given this territory, then I think the war in the Pacific in World War II may have turned out very, very differently.
Mat: That’s a really interesting point, David. Considering what the Japanese did in only a year or two in Rabaul, the fortress that they turned it into and what an important base it was. I’m just trying to imagine if they had had occupation of it between the wars since the end of the First World War until the Second World War, what a fortress they could have turned that into. You’re absolutely right. It was a crucial decision that affected the history for decades to come and even up till today, because Rabaul would have been an impregnable fortress if the Japanese had had decades to develop it.
David: Undoubtedly and we could always ponder the question, had Japan being given that territory, would Japan have abided by the mandate on what you could and couldn’t do there? My personal opinion, probably not and maybe they may have made mainland Australia. We don’t know.
Mat: It’s just fascinating and as always when we talk about these great chapters of history, David I like to bring it back to the present by talking about what you can now see there on the ground, and you and I are actually gonna be going there next year. We’re gonna be going on our World War II cruise. One of the key destinations is Rabaul and so I’m really looking forward to being there with you and walking the ground where this battle unfolded. What can you see there today that’s left over from the First World War?
David: Well, a couple of things from the First World War that you can see that I think is truly remarkable that it’s still there and the fact that I think it’s best-kept secret of Rabaul. There is a road that takes you up to Bita Paka Cemetery. It’s tarred now but that’s basically the road where the battle unfolded. The wireless station ended up being dismantled and brought down and AWA here in Australia ended up using part of the equipment, but on the right-hand side of the road is still the very ground where the wireless station is. When you get to Bita Paka to the cemetery itself, you have the graves of some of those men that I spoke about. Pockley, for example.
You also got a wonderful… they rebuilt the original memorial, but the memorial that was built and it was there before the Japanese occupied during Japanese occupation of Rabaul, it got all overgrown. I have a wonderful photo of Australian soldiers that come up at the end of the Second World War sitting on this sort of stonework, and some of that original stonework now has been put into the memorial itself. But if you were to go back down the road back to Kabakaul itself, although it’s been built upon – not by much – the original jetty if you will which is basically stones into the water, you can walk down. You can actually drive a vehicle down onto it and you can stand pretty much in the very, very spot and it’s very well maintained in the sense that not a lot of activities. There is a few buildings but you can be there on the very spot where these chaps at 7 a.m. on the 11th September landed, Australia’s first amphibious landing.
Mat: It’s just extraordinary. it’s what we love about walking battlefields is bringing that history to life and if anyone listening wants to join us, David and I and a number of other excellent historians will be on this World War II cruise that we’re doing from Brisbane in August next year, so visit our website if you wanted to see details of that because we’ll be telling this story obviously of Rabaul in the Second World War and Moon Bay and other exciting destinations but also talking specifically about this battle in World War I, really a forgotten chapter of the First World War.
David, it’s just been wonderful. Thank you so much for your insights into this, and for keeping this memory alive.
David: Yeah. Thanks a lot, Mat