Australian invasion of New Ireland, 1914: Jim Ridges

17 October 1914, 100 years ago, should be memorable in Kavieng, New Ireland.

In the early morning hours, a new arrival, a first child Harald, was born to Gertrud, wife of Rev. Ernst Böttcher the first German Methodist Missionary to northern New Ireland, stationed at Omo. He is remembered every time someone reads his gravestone at the Pakail pioneer cemetery, near Kaewieng, having died aged three on 3 March 1918. Previously, from 1905, although governed by Germany, the missionaries had been Australian or Pacific islanders.

A few hours later, still in the early morning, a rumble of gunfire signalled more new arrivals and the raising, for the first time on the flagpole at Kaewieng, of the Union Jack over New Ireland, replacing the German flag that had flown for thirty years of German rule. Australia had invaded at the request of Great Britain following the declaration of war in faraway Europe on 4 August. The graves at Pakail of two Australian soldiers, Capt Guy Manning (died 18 June 1915) and Private William T Addis (died 13 January 1917) recall the events.

It was an anxious time for the Germans. Being so far from Europe they realised that German ships would no longer deliver foodstuffs and mail or collect cargo. They were cut off from the World. Almost immediately Australian and Japanese warships (Japan was an ally of Great Britain in this war and had a large navy) were prowling the Bismarck Archipelago and Pacific waters looking for German ships, especially warships of the German Navy in the Pacific based at Tsingtau in China. Japan blockaded Tsingtau on 23 August, the day it also declared war.

On 12 August, Australia’s largest warship, HMAS Sydney, with destroyers, temporarily visited Blanche Bay, sending small parties ashore to destroy the telephone systems at Rabaul and Herbertshöhe (Kokopo).

Rabaul was occupied on 11 September with some fighting around the new Bitapaka radio station in which the first six Australian casualties of the war occurred, but by 17 September, terms for surrender of German forces had been signed between Colonel William Holmes the military commander, and German acting Governor Eduard Haber. Surrender of German forces happened on 21 September at Herbertshöhe.

There were anxious moments in New Ireland during the almost 11-week period between war being declared and the arrival of Australian troops. They were led by Major Francis Heritage with 15 soldiers and a machine gun. They arrived at Kaewieng on the HMAS Nusa, the almost new—it only arrived from Tsingtau boatyards in May—former German boat for Kaewieng District captured on 14 September by the HMAS Warrego at Kaewieng before it was occupied.

Early on, a large Japanese warship steamed up the east coast and entered the Kaewieng harbour. Everyone at Omo mission station rushed to carry into hiding all Missionary Böttcher’s household goods—he was down the coast road on patrol at the time and saw the ‘monster’ from the shore—but as there were no ships in port it didn’t stay and continued on its way.

On 30 August the German light cruiser SMS Geier was seen approaching Kaewieng down the NE coast of New Hanover. The Tsintau accompanied it. Before the identity was confirmed, the District office cash box and files were loaded on a truck with six Police ready to leave town hastily if it was an enemy. The ship had left Singapore just before war was declared and needed to load coal and water, preparatory to meeting the cruising German Naval squadron in the Marshall Islands.

Extra crew was required and seven Germans1 on New Ireland were recruited, including former naval officers W.F. Metzner and R.Kessler. Metzner had to be fetched from Fileba plantation 80 km from Kaewieng and others were collected from the islands near New Hanover by the cutter Greif overnight. Loyal Germans gave cattle, pigs, poultry, eggs and vegetables.

Planter Dornfeld at Tsalui on Tsoi Island received secret orders from Captain Grasshof of the SMS Geier, taken to him by the Galathea, of the movement of German naval vessels that may be seen on the north coast of New Hanover. The ships left at 8 am the next day.

To keep the visit secret from the Australians in Rabaul, the sails were removed from an Australian schooner Harriet Alice, belonging to Octave Mouton. Its captain, and the English settlers on Tsoi, Gilbert Heathcote and Frederick Smith, also brought in on the Greif overnight, were sent to Katu plantation where settlers Hans Balkau and Albrecht Arnusch were given police powers to detain them.

The SMS Geier entered the neutral waters of the USA for protection at Honolulu on 8 November and was interned.

On 6 September a large German auxiliary vessel, the SMS Cormoran with two funnels—originally the Russian vessel Riasan captured early in the war—entered Nusa harbor at Kaewieng. It had been armed at Tsingtau with a gun on its foredeck, as a replacement for the warship often used around New Guinea, the old SMS Cormoran recently decommissioned and scuttled outside Tsingtau. On 14 December, the SMS Cormoran also entered neutral waters of the USA at Guam. On America’s entry into the war in 1917, her crew scuttled her in the harbour.

The English Consul at Rabaul, Frederick Jolley, had refused to give his parole at the declaration of war with Germany. He was sent away on the Nusa and arrived at Kaewieng on 3 September, where the District Officer, Dr Georg Stübel, placed him under ‘house arrest’ at Lauan, 45 km from Kaewieng, staying with Gottfried Furter who also received police powers.

His safe recovery was one of the objectives of the 17 October ‘invasion’, but the primary purpose, as well as establishing a small Australian military unit at Kaewieng, was to check out intelligence that German ships were hiding at the Gardner (Tabar) islands.

Ten soldiers were left at Kaewieng under Lieut Basil Holmes, the son of the new military Administrator at Rabaul.  Meanwhile HMAS Nusa steamed away overnight and on a foggy early morning entered the narrow passage between Tabar and Tatau islands, piloted by a long time skipper of small vessels in the islands, John Strasburg, who had accompanied them from Rabaul.

They surprised the Neu Guinea Company steamer Siar and the schooners Matupi and Senta with officers still ashore breakfasting at the trade store. They were quickly captured and prize crews put aboard and papers taken. As the engine of Siar had been partially dismantled, it was towed to Kaewieng accompanied by the other boats and arrived on the morning of 20 October.

In the report of the successful voyage Petty Officer G.I. Clarke was commended for taking over the Siar and Able Seaman C.C. Courtman for putting the engines into working order so that the Siar could steam from Kaewieng to Rabaul under her own power.

On the same morning the German official in charge at Kaewieng, Dr Eduard Stübel, who had left town on the approach of the Australians, surrendered and in the meantime Frederick Jolley had been handed over and was returned to Rabaul.

Lieut Holmes in the meantime had annoyed the German health assistant and part-time Postal agent, Georg Lachmann, by inspecting the records and discovering stamps and postcards valued at 3,000 Marks hidden away in the linen cupboard. When asked to sign a detailed acquittal Holmes refused, and only signed a general handover that in due course was handed to the Postal authorities in Berlin in March 1915, on Lachmann’s return to Berlin. The availability of more stamps for sale in Rabaul from Kaewieng was notified in the Gazette, and at about the same time in Australia, as collector pieces, they were fetching about double their face value.

Another German ship, the three-masted motor schooner of 260 tons, Samoa, belonging to the Deutsche Handels und Pflanzung Gesellschaft and hiding in Kalili harbour on the west coast andwas captured on 25 October by the Madang under the command of Lt-Commander R.H.Lambton, RANR.

At about the same time as the Australians arrived, the German government herd of cattle that grazed on the government plantation at Kaewieng were given to the Omo Methodist Mission station to ‘look after’. It wasn’t long before it was realised the government cattle were ‘missing’ and the soldiers demanded that Böttcher return the cattle to them. This he did, raising only mild objections that they were a gift to the mission.

There was no fighting in this invasion of northern New Ireland (Namatanai was not occupied until 12 November). However, the event was dramatic and confusing for the people who were only just getting used to 14 years of total change and disruption to their traditional life, following Boluminski’s arrival on 30 June 1900. To make matters worse, 1914 had an unusual 7-month dry season when the forests caught fire (similar to 1997). 

Garden food was short, and the non-arrival of German ships carrying food after war was declared, particularly rice for the contracted plantation labourers, created an almost desperate situation. The arrival of the Australians triggered the idea that all contracts with the Germans were invalid, and many workers left their employers, a serious offence at the time, and there was general unrest, made worse by the food shortages.

The same day the Australians arrived at Kaewieng, 17 October, the first Australian ship entered Rabaul with food. It was the Burns Philp vessel Moresby with food so expensive the German traders refused to trade. To exert pressure on them the Administrator requisitioned for the military all the food remaining from the Neu Guinea Company. It had been brought from Makasser in the Dutch East Indies on August 29 by the Siar after war was declared, and the manager Georg Taeufert was deported on the Moresby as an example to the other traders. Burns Philp thereafter operated a virtual monopoly for many years.

The new Administrator at Rabaul, Colonel William Holmes, had issued urgent instructions that workers with their German employers were to continue working for them. Therefore, after his successes at Tabar, Major Heritage returned and travelled down the Kaiser Wilhelmstrasse (today’s Boluminski highway) for three days, as far as Kapsu. He delivered a total of 410 blows to 28 people and reported ‘All boys and kanakas between Kapsu and Kaewieng were told the situation was just the same as before’. Ironically, it seems not only the employment conditions, but the punishment by flogging that had earlier raised much angst in Australia against Germany. It continued under the military occupation.

Another event involving the flogging of a white Australian missionary by Germans, at the same time that Heritage was learning those skills near Kaewieng, occurred on 26 October at Namatanai in the south of New Ireland, not yet occupied by the Australians. The ‘payback’ flogging of Germans would have international repercussions for Australia. But that’s another story.

The military occupation and administration of New Ireland was an unhappy time after the efficiency of the Germans and a change in language, and made worse by the constant replacement and transfer of District Officers (one account says 24 in 6 years). Few of them had any experience in colonial administration or could understand the German laws that still applied. Patrolling and services to the people, particularly health, declined rapidly and the new ‘kiaps’, almost to a man, refused to learn Tok Pisin, thinking that simple English should be understandable! In one instance, the missionaries were reporting serious food shortages and hunger at the same time as the ‘kiap’ said there was plenty of food.

Kaewieng military occupation continued until 9 May 1921, when an Australian civil administration took over the former colony of Deutsche Neu Guinea under a mandate from the League of Nations. Kaewieng was officially spelt Kavieng from 9 June 1924 by order of the Administrator, along with changes to other German sounding names in New Guinea.

1 Dr Stubel was deported with others on the MV Sonoma and in a report he wrote on board, and signed on 22 January 1915, gives other names as Leading Seaman R.Jungmann, Lance corporal (medical) R. Putze, Marine R. Koch, Volunteer soldier R.Luchting and soldier Becher.

This article is Copyright © Jim Ridges


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