When news reached Australia in August 1914 that Britain and Germany were at war, more than 50,000 men enlisted within a week, while Prime Minister Andrew Fisher promised that Australia would defend the mother country, “to the last man and the last shilling”.
The immediate priority was to remove the threat posed by the German East Asian Fleet, which following the outbreak of war was ordered to destroy any British or Allied shipping it could find. Under the command of Admiral Graf Maximilian von Spee, the cruisers Scharnhorst, Gneisenhau and Emden operated as “lone wolves” ranging across the Indian and Pacific Oceans, attacking both merchant and naval vessels without warning.
The key to stopping these attacks was not only to hunt down each of the raiders, but to cut off supplies and prevent communications by capturing land-based wireless stations on German territories in New Guinea and the islands of Melanesia.
The Australian authorities hurriedly assembled a joint naval and military expeditionary force to capture German territories in North East New Guinea, the Bismarck Archipelago, the Solomon Islands and Nauru. They also provided naval support to a New Zealand force that took possession of the German portion of Samoa.
The Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force (ANMEF) was deployed between September and November 1914. It achieved its goal of securing the key administrative centres, destroying a number of wireless stations and preventing the Germans from using these territories to resupply their ships.
The campaign, while brief, was not without cost. The German soldiers and the Melanesian Police Force provided stiff resistance at the Battle of Bita Paka (New Britain) as well as in defence of the military barracks at Herbertshohe (now Kokopo). Amongst the casualties of the campaign were Able Seaman Billy Williams, the first Australian to be killed in the war, Medical Officer Brian Pockly and Lt. Commander Charles Elwell, who died, sword in hand leading a charge against the German trenches.
The loss of one of Australia’s two submarines with 35 crew was another casualty of the campaign. Whilst patrolling off Cape Gazelle near Rabaul the submarine slipped below the surface and did not return. There was no enemy action at the time nor any evidence to indicate the boat had broken up. The disappearance remained a mystery until recently when modern sonar was able to locate the submarine lying on the floor of the sea, near where it had submerged.
Resistance was not prolonged. After Bita Paka the Germans capitulated, leaving a small Australian force to administer and guard the territories gained. While at the time it was heralded as a notable victory, it soon became little more than a sideshow as the focus of attention in Australia shifted to the maelstrom of the war in Europe.
One of those who served in the ANMEF was William Sanders, of Mortlake whose family-operated Sanders boatshed adjacent to Cabarita Park. The name is preserved in Sanders Parade as well as the popular Sanders Restaurant and kiosk on the same site.
Born: 18 August 1881, Dawlish, England
Enlisted: 8 December 1914, (Service No. 449)
NOK: Ethel May Freely (wife)
Address: Kingston Avenue, Mortlake – later “Wywurrie” Broughton Street, Concord.
Fate: Returned to Australia
Notes: Previous military experience 3 years with Queensland Navy. Served in the 3rd ANMEF (Australian Naval and Military Expedition Force) Served as assistant to the Harbour Master at Rabaul New Guinea