ACT News

WWI centenary: First Australian lives lost in assault on Rabaul and disappearance of AE1

World War I began particularly badly for Australia. Within three days of the first shots being fired in anger over German New Guinea 42 sailors and soldiers had been killed.

The story of why Australians were fighting and dying on New Britain on September 11, 1914, began 30 years before when Germany claimed the north-east part of the world’s largest island, along with New Britain and New Ireland, for Bismarck and Kaiser Wilhelm II.

Australia’s first mass casualty event of the war came on September 14 when the submarine AE1 disappeared off the coast ...
Australia’s first mass casualty event of the war came on September 14 when the submarine AE1 disappeared off the coast of New Britain with all 35 members of her crew. Photo: AWM

At the outbreak of war on August 4, 1914, Germany had a strong Pacific fleet. A powerful radio transmitter nearing completion at a secret location near Rabaul was vital to its lines of communication.

On August 6, 1914, the secretary of state for the colonies telegraphed the Australian government: “If your ministers feel themselves able to seize the German wireless stations at Yap (in the Caroline Islands), Nauru on Pleasant Island and New Guinea, we should feel that this was a great and urgent imperial service.”

Australia came up with an operational plan built around a force of 2000 men drawn heavily from the naval reserves within three days. It was commanded by Australian Boer War veteran Colonel William Holmes.

The bulk of the soldiery were embarked aboard HMAS Berrima, a P&O liner that had been drafted into service as a troop ship and armed accordingly, in Sydney on August 18.

Other vessels in the convoy included HMAS Sydney, the supply ship Aorangi, two submarine tenders and Australia’s new submarines, the AE1 and the AE2.

Port Moresby, the capital of what was then known as Papua, was reached by September 4.

HMAS Australia, the RAN’s first and only ever battleship, linked up with the force by September 10 and the first land forces, under the command of Sub Lieutenant Charles Webber, a bookkeeper from Melbourne, went ashore at Herbertshohe on New Britain with a demand for the German governor to surrender. The governor wasn’t home and the letter was left with a civilian.

A second party, under the command of Lieutenant Rowland Bowen, had been put ashore at dawn with orders to find and destroy the wireless station at Bita Paka. It was ambushed around 9am. In the firefight that ensued three German commanders were captured.

The Australians pressed forward and at about 9.30am Able Seaman “Billy” Williams was fatally wounded by a sniper concealed in the trees. The medical officer, Captain Brian Pockley, was the next to fall and by dusk the following day seven Australians were dead.

Thirty-one men died on the German side, the majority of whom were Melanesian police.

The greatest loss of life, and Australia’s first mass casualty event of the war, came on September 14 when the submarine AE1 disappeared off the coast of New Britain with all 35 members of her crew. Her fate remains a mystery.