The Portuguese and the Spanish were the first Europeans to visit the area of what is now Indonesia / New Guinea in the early 1500s. Both these powers competed for the trade and the expansion of their own national power base. During this period many ships passed along the northern shores of New Guinea without realizing its importance.

The Dutch arrived in 1606 and again in 1623 and explored the area to the east and north of New Guinea. William Dampier, flying the English flag arrived in 1700 and landed on and named the island of “New Britain” was followed several years later in 1766 by Carteret who name the island of “New Ireland”. He took possession of this land and the surrounding islands in the name of the King of England.

Captain James Cook arrived on the east coast of Australia in 1770 and sailed along the southern coast of New Guinea. Captain William Bligh in the HMS Providence also sailed in this region and took possession in the name of King George 3rd of England. The East India Trading Company sent ships to explore and to take possession of territories and did in fact set up a base in western New Guinea with British troops for about six months.

The French turned up in 1769 (Laperouse) and in 1793 another French expedition surveyed areas of the islands to the east. The next French intrusion in 1827 surveyed the northeast coast of New Guinea. The British returned and continued to map the islands and claim possession.

The Australian colonies and New Zealand had, during the 1800s requested the British to exercise sovereign rights over the area of New Guinea to prevent any European powers from claiming the area for themselves. They were told that no foreign power was contemplating such a move. The colony of Queensland in 1882-83 tried to annex all of the area, which was not held by the Dutch including the adjacent islands. The British government rejected this and Germany moved in and took possession of the northern coast of New Guinea and the adjacent islands.

In 1884 Germany sent four ships of war to the New Guinea area and on the 3rd November 1884 the German flag was raised at Matupi in New Britain. During the next month Germany took possession of Mioko in the Duke of York group, Madang and Finsch Harbour. In 1886 Germany took possession of Bougainville and Buka in the Solomon Islands.

By 1914 Germany was a major player in the pacific area. This had always been the main aim of the German government along with an increase in naval strength to rival that of Australia and Britain. The naval base at Tsingtao was well established with refueling, repair and docking facilities. It was garrisoned by the German military. German bases were also established in the Caroline and Marshall island groups as well at Apia in the Samoan islands.

The German Pacific Fleet consisted of the cruisers Scharnhorst (the flagship of Rear-Admiral von Spee), Gneisenau, Emden, Leipzig, and Nurnberg, together with the small cruisers Cormoran and Geier.

The Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were first-class armoured cruisers with 8.2-inch guns-heavier than those carried by any ship of the Royal Australian Navy except the battle cruiser Australia. The flagship of the Australian fleet was armed with 12-inch guns, but the light cruisers Sydney, Melbourne, and Encounter mounted nothing heavier than 6-inch. The German squadron was therefore a formidable opponent.

The Germans had established a network of very powerful radio stations in the Pacific. (Samoa, Nauru, New Guinea, the Carolines, Apia, Rabaul, Kiaochao) These stations had direct communications with Berlin. This was a major asset in the event of war and had escaped notice by the Australian and British governments.

On the declaration of war the British government urged Australia to take immediate action against the Germans in this area. By the 10th August 1914 a decision was made to send a combined naval and military force to destroy or capture the German naval radio stations and neutralize all resistance. The force comprised of six companies of RANR, a battalion of infantry – war strength 1023, two machine gun sections, a signal section and a detachment from the Australian Medical Corps.

1st Battalion ANMEF on Parade Randwick (NSW) August 1914 . Sydney Mail Photo per AWM

Enlistment began on 11August.The force was inducted and the length of service required was 6 months. Leaving from Circular Quay on HMT Berrima the force stopped over at Palm Island for training and finally landed at Kabakaul, east of present day Rabaul and close to the all-important wireless station at Bita Paka.

Colonel William Holmes was appointed as the commander. (He became the first Military Administrator of German New Guinea) He served in the South African War as a Lieutenant and rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, was wounded and awarded an MID and the DSO. He later commanded the 5th Infantry Brigade 1915/16 and the 4th Division 1916/17.

The force was known as the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force. (ANMEF) The battalion was the 1st Battalion ANMEF. Enlistment was for six months but later was changed. A great number had service in the South Africa War and the Militia. The CO was Lieutenant Colonel Russell Watson who had served in South Africa and later commanded 24th Battalion in 1915/1917 at Gallipoli and in France and Belgium.

On the 18th August the contingent was embarked on the “Berrima” in Sydney and sailed north to Palm Island, via Morton Bay. The naval ships HMAS Sydney, Encounter, Aorangi, Protector and submarines AE1 and AE2 formed the attack force and met the Berrima at Palm Island. The military force underwent training on Palm Island while waiting for the force to assemble and left for New Britain on the 2nd September.

HMAS Warrego and Yarra joined the force at Port Moresby while HMAS Australia with HMAS Melbourne had silenced the wireless stations at Nauru and Suva.

A strong naval force arriving in the area of Rabaul was enough to convince the German authorities not to resist. The wireless stations at Herbertshohe were still operational and defended by German military. A small Australian force under command of Lt Bowen was sent to seize the station at Kabakaul. The force was fired upon by an enemy ambush party and returned fire wounding the commander. The Australians forced the surrender of the enemy and captured two German officers and about 40 native troops. One officer, Lt Mayer, was the commander of the Herbertshohe garrison and had been planning to ambush the Australians in the rear.

Lt Bowen now knew that his advance would be resisted and he sent for reinforcements. Lt Bowen continued to advance under fire from scattered enemy forces trying to flank him. The enemy was well concealed in the dense bush and snipers were placed in trees and in trenches. Progress was slow and Lt Bowen began to take casualties. Able Seaman Williams was wounded and died shortly after. Captain Pockley, (Medical Corps) attending to a wounded enemy, heard Williams had been shot and immediately went to his aid. Pockley gave his Red Cross brassard to a medic and then moved forward. He was shot and later died of his wounds.

The Australians found trench systems on each side of the track. The captured maps showed the location of defences and the station. Reinforcements had arrived and the Australians engaged the entrenched enemy by a flanking attack. Lt Bowen was shot and Lt Hill took command and continued the attack. Midshipman Buller gave first aid to Lt Bowen, moved him to a safer position and then bought more reinforcements forward.

Lt Comd Elwell, commanding a reinforcement force, was advancing from Kabakaul but knew nothing of Lt Bowen’s fate. His party had been fired upon and had carried out flank assaults to contain the enemy. Lt Comd Elwell moved his group on the track with flanking parties out on either side for forty minutes before coming under fire again. A sniper killed Able Seaman Courtney as they pushed through the bush with two more being wounded as they advanced.

Wire cables had been found in one trench, which indicated a possibility of mines or booby traps. Lt Comd Elwell had now caught up with Lt Hill’s force and together planned the next move. Midshipman Buller took Lt Comd Elwell to where Lt Bowen was lying. Lt Bowen had enough strength to explain what had occurred and that he had handed over to Lt Hill. Enemy fire was now pouring into the Australian position from the entrenched Germans. Lt Comd Elwell took command and with Lt Hill’s troops on the left flank moved his troops to the right and continued the advance. Lt Comd Elwell was killed as he gave the order to fix bayonets and advance.

The German troops were now out numbered, out flanked and were being over whelmed. The enemy showed a white flag and surrendered. The German officer in command refused to surrender to Lt Hill (who was in shirt sleeves) and so was marched back to the rear to speak with Commander Beresford. (Bringing up more reinforcements) The German officer was marched ahead of the Australians telling all enemy troops to ceasefire. One group fired upon the Australians, killing one and wounding two. Fire was returned with the Germans and the native troops all being killed. All German forces in the area and the wireless station were now under control of the Australians.

German soldiers surrendering to Australian forces

Commander Beresford was ordered to move his force back to the “Berrima” and proceed to Rabaul. The Australians landed on the 12th with one company of naval reserve, four companies of infantry, one machine gun section and members of the Medical Corps. All German flags were replaced with the British flag. A proclamation outlining the military occupation and the surrender of the German forces was read to an assembly of the civilian population on the 13th, with a parade of military strength and a naval presence in the harbour.

Occupation of Madang

Occupation of Nauru

Australian troops landing ai Madang 24th September 1914

German forces through the region were ordered to surrender their arms and offer no resistance. During the weeks that followed the German wireless stations through out the pacific were surrendered or destroyed. All German settlements were occupied by Australian troops and a period of military administration began.

The men of the 1st Battalion ANMEF were allowed to return to Australia and most served with the AIF in Gallipoli and France.

Casualties – Killed:
Lieutenant Commander C B Elwell
Captain B C A Pockley (Medical Corps)
Able Seaman W G V Williams
Able Seaman H W Street
Able Seaman J Walker (Served as J E Courtney)
Signalman R D Moffatt

Lieutenant R G Bowen
Able Seaman J H Tonks
Able Seaman T Sullivan
Able Seaman D S Skillen

Source: Australian War Memorial
The Official history of Australia in the war of 1914-1918– Vol 10