Compiled for Darebin Heritage by Brian Membrey

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The First Call To Action

The Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force

Australia's first casualties came just under a month after general recruiting for the A.I.F. began.

In the years leading up to the outbreak of war, expansionist Germany (which had control of New Guinea) had established powerful wireless and telegraph stations in the south-west Pacific which enabled them to communicate quickly with German ships in the region and with Germany itself.

When Britain declared war on Germany, Australia was asked to destroy the radio stations and to occupy German New Guinea and the surrounding areas, leading to the formation of the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force (ANMEF) for which recruiting began on 10 August, five days after Britain entered the war.

Less than ten days later, a force of 1,000-strong infantry and 500 naval reservists and ex-seamen had been recruited and equipped – the naval reservists were drawn from Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, and South Australia, but due to the urgency of the situation, the military component was taken only from New South Wales.

The ANMEF left Sydney on 19 August aboard HMAT Berrima escorted by the cruiser HMAS Sydney and joined later by two stores ships, two submarines and further escort vessels.

Just over a month later, at dawn on 11 September 1914, fifteen hundred men and almost the entire Australian fleet arrived off Rabaul in German New Guinea. The men had not been told of their destination or objectives until a few days before their arrival.

Two hours after arrival, two parties of 25 naval reservists under the command of an officer (Lieutenant Rowland Griffiths Bowen, a regular based in Port Melbourne with the Royal Australian Navy went ashore at the settlements of Herbertshöhe and Kabakaul to search and take two radio stations, believed respectively four and seven miles inland.

A letter  written the night before to his family in Sydney by the group’s medical office, Captain Brian Pockley (the second Australian casualty and first commissioned officer to die in combat) the uncertainty behind the upcoming operation  

"we are not even certain that they exist, and much doubt if they are defended. However, we shall see tomorrow ..."..

View the detailed history of “The First To Fight

The Northcote Contingent

Just before the action, The Argus published a list of 104 Victorian Naval Reservists heading into action with ANEMF and for a town nowhere near the ocean, the Northcote district remarkably provided five of the group.  

Able Bodied Seaman William George Vincent Williams from 36 Beavers Road became the first Australian casualty of the War;  the other four were : Midshipman Charles William Hicks (11 Mitchell Street, Northcote), Ordinary Seaman William Nathanael Gothard (c/- Mr. Jenkins, Fairfield), Able Bodied Seaman Rupert Leslie Bourne, ("Roseville", Speight Street, Northcote) and A.B.S. William Robert Benjamin Hartwell (c/o Bentick Parsons, Brook Street, Westgarth).

Hicks, Gothard and Bourne all resigned from the Reserve on their return and enlisted in the A.I.F.; he first three mentioned later enlisted with the A.I.F. - Hicks in particular reaching the rank of Captain with 1 Field Artillery Brigade before returning to the Navy during the Second World War where he became one of its most foremost officers.  

Gothard was shown in private life as a 22-year-old boot last turner from 54 Arthur-street, Fairfield, he served as 807, Lance Corporal in the 39th Battalion, C Company, later becoming a Sergeant. He returned to Australia on January 31, 1918 having served on the Western Front. A brother, Ernest James served 858, Private (later Sergeant) , 31st Infantry, D Coy and was mentioned in Despatches before being awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal in October, 1917. It appears that their parents were both deceased; both gave siblings (Elsie and Edward) in Arthur-street as next of kin.

Rupert Bourne served as 1038, 30th Battalion, A Company (later 5th Pioneer Battalion), shown as 23-year-old coachbuilder with his widowed mother Jane Catherine, nee Jeffries in Speight-street as next of kin, returned April, 1919.  Born in Brunswick, he died at Yallourn in 1957 at 65 years of age

Hicks was later promoted to sub Lieutenant with the Naval Expeditionary Force. He enlisted as a 21-year-old draughtsman, his widowed mother as next of kin  his rank in the Bridging Team later seeing him promoted to Captain with the 1st Division Artillery. He was Mentioned in Despatches in October, 1918. His date of return is not documented; he also served in the Second World War after enlisting from Wayville, South Australia, shown as an engineer by profession and serving as a Captain with HQ in Adelaide, and later after being transferred to a Mechanisation Division in Melbourne, before being assigned as Lieutenant Colonel to  the Australian Military Mission in Washington.

Born 1887 in Adelaide, he enlisted 12 July, 1906 in Adelaide for a five-year term and appears to have subsequently switched to the Naval Reserve, records of which have either not been retained or not publicly available; South Australiian registrations reveal him dying in Adelaide in 1959.

Action At Rabaul

The Force first saw action, and the first Australian casualties, when a raiding party of 25 – rather surprisingly Naval Reservists from H.M.A.S. Una rather than the trained infantry party - disembarked near Rabaul, New Britain (an island to the north-east of New Guinea then known as Neu Pommern), to destroy a German radio station operating at Bita Paka some five miles inland.  

One permanent officer and five Naval ratings were subsequently killed in the raid. One German and 30 New Guinea native police troops under German command were killed; RAN Reserve Officer Lieutenant Bond was awarded a Distinguished Service Order for his action in disarming eight Germans and causing the surrender of 20 New Guineans.

The German administrator at surrendered Rabaul two days later, and on 21 September all German forces in the colony surrendered and ANMEF forces commenced military occupation of German New Guinea.  

The Treaty of Versailles of 1919 acceded to Australian Prime Minister "Billy" Hughes' demand that the former German colony be placed under Australian control despite U.S. President Woodrow Wilson's grand plan for the "internationalisation" of the former German colonies.  Japan occupied most of the remaining German possessions in the Pacific.  

Officially the first casualty was Able Bodied Seaman William George Vincent Williams, a 29-year-old Naval Reservist from Northcote, followed around an hour later by Captain Brian Colden Antill Pockley of Sydney, the first Australian commissioned officer to die.

The eastern section of New Guinea in 1915; German colonies in red. Holland (who remained neutral during the war, held the western end of the island, the southern-eastern quarter already known as the Territory of Papua was annexed in 1883 by the Government of Queensland  for the British Empire. New Britain, then known as Neu Pommern is the large island in the centre.

Officers and ratings of the Victorian naval contingent of the 1st Australian Naval & Military Expeditionary Force, circa August 1914. The officers in the foreground are, from left, Lieutenant Bowen, Sub Lieutenant Webber, Sub Lieutenant Hext, Midshipman Hicks, Midshipman Veale and Engineer Midshipman Willian.