Australian Forces engaged in their first action of World War One

Australian Forces engaged in their first action of World War One
Monday 8 September 2014

One hundred years ago this month Australian forces were engaged in their first action of World War One: capturing German New Guinea and dismantling the vital communication systems that supported German naval assets based in the Pacific.  Within days of the declaration of war against Germany on 4 August 1914, Australia and New Zealand had assembled naval and military units primed to attack in New Guinea and Samoa respectively. The Australian Naval and Expeditionary Force set sail for New Guinea on August 18, with some of the ships diverted to Samoa along the way so they could reinforce the New Zealand expedition heading to Apia.  Australian forces would later secure the lucrative phosphate island of Nauru while Japanese forces took Germany’s Micronesian Islands.

September 11, 1914 is the day that the first Australian soldier, of the tens of thousands to lose their lives in the Great War, was killed in action.  His name was Able Seaman W. G. V. Williams who was a Melbourne City Council employee aged 29.  He was killed in an ambush on the Bita Paka Road near Rabaul along with five more Australians on the morning of September 11.[1]   Despite this start, within ten days German authorities ‘exchanged salutes with the British troops and laid down their arms’.[2]  But who were Australian forces fighting in New Guinea in September 1914?  Few of the opposing side were Germans.  New Guineans sustained by far the greatest causalities in Australia’s occupation of Kaiser Wilhelm’s Land as they made up the bulk of Germany’s defences.[3]

This aspect of Australia’s World One history is dwarfed by what came after it – Gallipoli and the Western Front. By comparison, few Australians lost their lives in securing New Guinea for the British Empire and so this part of the war’s history is relegated to a footnote to World War One, a surgical and successful operation that preceded the main event.  The centenary of this action has been officially marked with the issue of this commemorative fifty-cent piece.  How does this compare with what is coming up from next April?

The Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force is more than a footnote to World War One.  It is part of a much longer, complex and fraught history of Australia and the islands that a number of present and former Australian National University historians have illuminated.[4]  This was territory Australians had coveted since the 1880s according to the dictates of ‘Australia’s Munroe Doctrine’ that argued the islands surrounding Australia’s north had to be controlled in order to assure Australia’s security from hostile European nations and then Japan after its victory in the Russo-Japanese War in 1905.[5]  In 1906, Australia officially gained control of the Territory of Papua (south-east New Guinea) from Britain, sharing the colonial spoils of the island with the Dutch and Germany.[6]

The events of September 1914 in New Guinea ushered in another chapter in Australia’s history with New Guinea, specifically the far from glorious period of military occupation that was marred by consistent accusations of brutality towards indigenous peoples.[7] This was followed in 1921 by Australia’s rule of the territory as a League of Nations mandate.   World War One veterans - ANZACs - administered the Mandated Territory of New Guinea from the top down and, like the military occupation period, brutality was a constant source of angst for the Australian government trying to lay to rest its international reputation for ill-treatment of indigenous peoples under its control.[8]

The events in New Guinea one hundred years ago this month are much more than a prelude to ANZAC. They were a part of a colonial surge in the Pacific with far reaching ramifications; but this is not a history anyone is rushing celebrate.

Dr Patricia O'Brien is an ARC Future Fellow working on the project 'Colonialism, Violence and Resistance in the Interwar Pacific: Australia, New Zealand, New Guinea, Samoa and Beyond'

[1] S. S. Mackenzie, The Australians at Rabaul: The Capture and Administration of the German Possessions in the Southern Pacific (Sydney:  Angus and Robertson, 1941), p. 58-69.

[2] ibid., p. 86.

[3] Mackenzie, The Australians at Rabaul, p. 48.

[4] Hank Nelson, Donald Denoon, Chris Ballard, Bill Gammage, Bronwen Douglas, Richard Eves are amongst the ANU scholars who have done vital work bringing to light Australia’s colonial relationship with New Guinea. Scholars in the State Society and Governance of Melanesia Programme (SSGM) examine this relationship in a more recent context. ANU’s School of History is collaborating with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to produce the volumes for the 'Documents on Australian Foreign Policy' series: 'Australia and Papua New Guinea, 1970-1975'.

[5] Patricia O’Brien, “Remaking Australia’s Colonial Culture?: White Australia and its Papuan Frontier 1901-1940”, Australian Historical Studies, Vol. 40, issue 1, March 2009: 96-112.

[6] What became the Australian Territory of Papua in 1906 had been British New Guinea from 1884 though it was run by Australian personnel and funded by Australian colonies under British command.

[7] C. D. Rowley, Australians in German New Guinea 1914-1921 (Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 1958)

[8] Patricia O’Brien, “The 1926 Nakanai Massacre: Australian Colonial Violence in New Guinea in a Global Context”, Australian Historical Studies, 43:2: 191-209, 2012.




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