On the afternoon of ANZAC Day this year I didn’t do the usual two-up game in a crowded pub. Instead, I went to a seminar at Sydney University on Australia and the Pacific in WWI. The final in a Sydney Ideas series, three speakers outlined their research into various aspects of what has been described as a ‘neglected war’.
As curator of the upcoming War at sea – The Navy in WWI exhibition, I thought the seminar might provide some valuable insights into a theatre of the war where the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) was to expend much time and effort. From September 1914, combined Australian naval and infantry forces swiftly took over several under-defended German territories across the south west Pacific region. While it was a relatively minor theatre of war and quickly overtaken by events in Europe, there were some important and long lasting legacies from Australia’s period of occupation from 1914 to 1921.
In the great colonising grab to build a global empire just like the British, from the 1880s Germany turned to the islands of the south west Pacfic – at least the ones that had not been taken by other major powers. In Australia, fears of an expansionist Germany – as well as a desire to ‘supply black labour for the sugar planters’ in northern Queensland – had prompted the Queensland Colonial Government to annex the eastern part of New Guinea in 1883 – even without official approval from Britain.
Fortunately for Queensland, approval was later granted, though after the horse had bolted and Australia had established its first major overseas colony. Germany – which had already been trading in the area – quickly claimed the northeastern part of New Guinea as a protectorate and in 1884 they established German New Guinea. By 1885 Germany and Britain had divided eastern New Guinea between them.
By 1914 the ‘Imperial German Pacific Protectorates’ had been expanded beyond the mainland – named Kaiser-Wilhelmsland – to include the Bismarck Archipelago, German Solomon Islands (Buka, Bougainville, and several smaller islands), the Carolines, Palau, the Marianas (except for Guam), the Marshall Islands, and Nauru. In the central Pacific the Germans had also colonised part of Samoa (German Samoa), establishing a broad reaching, if somewhat overstretched series of island colonies that were not particularly resource rich, but gave credence to German claims of having a vast empire to rival the British.
Even before war broke out in 1914, the newly federated nation of Australia had been eyeing off the thinly defended German colonies. So too had the Japanese, with a small but growing presence particularly in the West Carolines, Mariana and Palau Islands. As early as 1912 Australia and New Zealand were commencing military plans in the event of war with Germany – both also concerned with limiting Japanese expansion in the Pacific. These plans specifically ignored homeland defence and focused on the swift seizure of German Samoa by the New Zealanders and German New Guinea by the Australians.
As historian Hermann Hiery has noted, Australia was conducting a form of ‘sub-imperialism’, operating within larger British colonial interests, but with significant and growing national objectives in the Pacific region. Hiery has described the Australian efforts in the Pacific during World War One as ‘an expedition of conquest’.
In August 1914 when war broke out in Europe, Australian planning became reality and an Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force (AN&MEF) was created. The force was quite separate from the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) that was being recruited, and it was formed and trained in some haste. One thousand men enlisted in Sydney and made up the 1st Battalion. Another 500 naval reservists and ex-sailors were recruited to serve as infantry when the force was landed in New Guinea. They were chosen as they had training. However 500 ill-disciplined raw recruits from Queensland that were earmarked to join the expedition were thought best to remain in Australia.
The Australian forces most important task was to destroy German radio communications so the German fleet – their most powerful asset in the region – would be disrupted. But the conquest of German colonies by the AN&MEF was by no means as straight forward as had been expected. Although the Australian force was overwhelmingly superior to the Germans and their Melanesian militia they met unexpected resistence at the Battle of Bita Paka. Here Australia suffered its first casualties of the war – near Rabaul in New Guinea, not the Western Front or Gallipoli as many might think.
Still, the Australians had assembled the most powerful naval force in the region and from the first troop landings on September 11 1914, it only took a matter of days to establish control over much of the German protectorate. While the Japanese – much to the annoyance of Australian commanders – took control of Micronesia, Australian forces completed the conquest of the remaining German areas with the occupation of Nauru by 6 November.
I will explore this often overlooked and fascinating first Australian military campaign of WWI in another post. Even less well known is the period of occupation of the ex-German colonies by Australian military forces from September 1914 until 1921 when Australia received a mandate from the League of Nations to govern the territory of New Guinea.
One or two examples of Australia’s military occupation of German New Guinea are worth noting. After the initial fighting and occupation, Australian soldiers turned to looting and drinking. By all reports, troops and officers alike found German property to be just reward for their occupation. But when German money and belongings had dried up, they turned to local, non-European property. By early 1915 details of plundering were being reported in Australia and debated in parliament.
In fact, the military government’s own monthly newspaper the Rabaul Record had been describing in detail how Australian soldiers could make their fortunes in New Guinea. One article focused on prospecting for gold. It suggested that for soldiers to penetrate settlements in the interior of New Guinea that it was ‘usually necessary to fight’ and they needed to be ‘tactless with a rifle’ to force the ‘hillmen into acquiesence’.
But it was in the famous bird of paradise and other exotic New Guinean birds that soldiers ended up finding their gold. When the first of the expeditionary troops returned to Australia in 1915, thousands of the birds that had been placed under some protection by the Germans were smuggled out of New Guinea. The bird feathers were a highly prized women’s fashion accessory and yielded high profits for those who could circumvent customs in Australia.
According to estimates, between 80 to 100,000 birds of paradise were killed during the Australian military occupation of New Guinea between 1914 and 1921. This was twice as many as had been killed under German occupation between 1908 and 1914.
The other revenue earner for Australia’s new colonies was in copra – the dried meat, or kernel, of the coconut used to extract coconut oil. The Germans had developed coconut plantations and the Australians continued to manage them with a view to long term profits after the war. What the military government failed to consider was that while gaining revenue from taxing the copra industry was expedient during wartime, infrastructure and long term economic development of the colonies would suffer.
The administration, argues Hiery, was essentially involved in profiteering. With the introduction of a virtual monopoly of supply and trade to the Burns Philp company, the exploitation of the ex-German colonies gradually shifted to a company whose influence and profits skyrocketed during the period of military occupation.
The Sydney Ideas seminar was titled ‘Remembering World War One in the Pacific’. It was the closing event for the Australian Association for Pacific studies conference ‘Oceanscapes: cooperation across the Pacific’ and was initiated to ‘redress the gap’ on the lack of scholarship on the Pacific theatre of World War I that has been ‘substantially overshadowed by the western front’ (and I might add Gallipoli).
Christine Winter’s paper ‘From Curios to War Trophies: collecting in ex-German New Guinea 1914-1920’ looked at how Australian soldiers collected Indigenous Pacific artefacts as mementos or souvenirs. She discussed how these exotic objects were curios that also served as trophies of war. Importantly, as the war was drawing to a close and Australian occupation looked like it would end, the military itself made urgent calls to troops to collect as many indigenous artefacts as they could before they had to leave.
This rapacious collecting, reminscent of an earlier period of colonialism, must be seen in the light of how the massive, global death and destruction of the ‘war to end all wars’ was what has been called a crisis of modernity. It led to a turn toward the ‘primitive’ that inspired Europeans to look to the Pacific Islands as an ideal, tranquil place where the barbarity of modern war did not exist.
Sean Brawley’s paper looked at a broader European view of the ways in which the Pacific was figured as both salvation and escape during and after the war. He focused on how the Pacific became a popular subject for writers and artists and was an important reservoir of stories and images for popular culture, particularly books and films about the alluring South Seas.
Finally, Max Quanchi looked at the differing practices of commemoration of war service in Pacific nations since 1918. Although their numbers were not great, Pacifc Islanders did serve, and there are several monuments to war dead in places such as Fiji and Samoa – some quite similar to the monuments that grace many Australian towns centres.
At the seminar the question was raised; how will such neglected stories as Australia’s involvement in the Pacific during World War I be raised when there will be so much focus on Anzacs and the Western Front over the next four years? There was no real answer to this.
The same question arises for the upcoming exhibition War at sea – The Navy in WWI. The exhibition will highlight some significant events and stories that over the next few years of the centenary of the war will compete with the grand narrative of the Gallipoli story and the AIF on the Western Front. Not all these stories are about military service, sacrifice and valour. Some, such as the endless patrolling across vast oceans by RAN destroyers or the occupation of ex-German colonies in the Pacific, are not generally the histories we turn to when thinking of the Great War.
But they deserve our attention. They offer a deeper understanding of Australia’s participation in the first great global conflict. They remind us that the First World War was not merely about supporting Britain, nor simply about proving nationhood on the world stage. In the Pacific theatre it was also about Australian imperial ambitions and how they formed the basis of 20th century visions of, and political and economic relations with the region.
Seaforth MacKenzie The Australians at Rabaul: The capture and administration of the German possessions in the South Pacific Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918 Volume X Angus and Robertson, Sydney, New South Wales, 1941.
Hermann Joseph Hiery (1995) The Neglected War: The German South Pacific and the influence of World War I University of Hawai’i Press, Honolulu,1995.