Embarkation of the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force (AN&MEF) for New Guinea. At the request of the British Government a special force, the Australian Navy and Military Expeditionary Force, was raised between 10 August 1914 and 18 August 1914, and despatched against the neighbouring German colonies. It was a volunteer force, enlisted partly from the naval reserves in the various states and partly from the militia. A portion of the military contingent is here shown, being ferried down Sydney harbour in course of embarkation. These were the first infantry to leave Australia. (Press photo). 19 August 1914

As the request by Great Britain to seize German New Guinea had only been received a few weeks earlier it is little wonder that one writer has described the force as ‘hastily kitted and rudimentarily trained’. Even the Official History admits that one of the contingents was:

"Unfit for tropical campaigning. Supplies of clothing and boots were non-existent or unsuitable, food supplies were deficient, there were no tents, no mosquito nets, no hammocks, and the shipboard accommodation was hopelessly inadequate."

Perhaps surprisingly, Webber and his comrades had received some infantry training in terrain that bore a vague resemblance to the jungles of New Britain, when the convoy had paused for several days at Palm Island, north of Townsville. The force, as the Official History rather optimistically argues:

"Were taken ashore nearly every day, across a shingle beach to rocky ground and bush – a terrain ill-suited to manoeuvres; but it taught them how to maintain touch in thickly-wooded country, and the lesson afterwards proved invaluable in the dense jungles of New Britain."

The Bitapaka road. The first objective of the New Guinea expedition was the German wireless station at Bitapaka, a few miles inland from Blanche Bay, which at the outbreak of war was still in the course of construction, but was hurriedly finished and ready for use. When the Australians entered Blanche Bay, landing parties were at once despatched to seize the station. The road to the wireless station (shown in photograph) was entrenched by the Germans and held with native levies, a brush occurred between these and the naval brigade, in which two Australian officers and four men were killed while fighting, the first Australians to be killed in action in the First World War. When the wireless station, which the Germans had deserted, was occupied, it was found that the mast had been destroyed.

Thankfully, so brief would be the period of combat that their inadequate preparations would not have major repercussions. After landing at Herbertshohe, Sub-Lieutenant Webber and his party advanced southwestwards along the Toma Road, towards the supposed location of the wireless station. To their disappointment the patrol would encounter no German opposition.

Landing at Kabakaul, east of Webber’s landing place, the force under Lieutenant Bowen would be far busier. A main road ran inland towards the wireless station at Bitapaka but it was sure to be covered by the Germans. Bowen therefore ordered his men into the jungle that crowded in on either side of the road. They were instantly hidden from view but had to struggle painfully – and slowly – through the tangled and unfamiliar tropical undergrowth. Muttered curses punctuated their travails.

The scouts found it impossible to keep on course and had to repeatedly make their way back to the Bitapaka road, find a break in the jungle, re-enter it and continue. Bowen soon decided that this was impractical and his force ‘kept to the fringe of the road, as it was impossible to maintain any formation in the tangle of tropical vegetation’. While this decision enabled the main body to advance more easily, his scouting parties were still floundering through the jungle.

Two men became separated from one of these parties and suddenly found themselves face to face with the enemy. Petty Officer Palmer was quickest off the mark and his rifle bullet shattered the hand of the German patrol commander, whose native troops scattered into the jungle and began to return fire. If the enemy had not been fully alerted by the landing, they were now.

Bowen called for reinforcements from the ships offshore and continued the advance. Resistance grew and the challenges peculiar to warfare in jungle terrain quickly became apparent, as highlighted by the Official History: Bowen had pushed on, his party being fired upon at frequent intervals. His men returned the fire, but in such country…the German forces were almost entirely concealed, and the effect of the Australian shooting could not be seen.

The fighting was becoming acute, but the enemy’s fire was badly directed, and Bowen’s main party, for the most part creeping low through the undergrowth, had so far escaped misfortune. But the luck did not hold. As the Germans and their native troops fought to prevent the Australians from seizing the wireless station the first men were hit. Most of them did not see where the fatal shot had come from. Eventually Bowen was also hit, receiving a serious head wound.

The light cruiser HMAS Sydney steams towards Rabaul. The Australian Naval & Military Expeditionary Force (AN&MEF), which included HMAS Sydney, HMAS Australia, HMAS Encounter, HMAS Warrego, HMAS Yarra and HMAS Parramatta, seized control of German New Guinea on 11 September 1914.

The German resistance was to no avail however and by early afternoon the fighting was over. Australian casualties were deemed to be light, with six dead and four wounded. The high ratio of killed to wounded would become a feature of combat in the jungle; ‘evidence to the closeness of the fighting’ as the Official History stated.

The ratio in a ‘normal’ combat environment was one killed to three wounded. In the jungle, unseen rifle and machine-gun fire exploded at ranges of feet or metres, causing devastating wounds that killed men instantly. Nearly 30 years later, young Australian soldiers would have to learn the lessons of jungle warfare in Malaya, Papua and New Guinea. For the men of the AN&MEF, however, the dangers of close quarters combat in the jungle were over.

Soon they would leave the tropics, returning with their commander, Colonel William Holmes, to Australia. Many of these men transferred to the 1st AIF with Holmes, upon his appointment as commander of the 5th Brigade. After training in Australia they would land at Gallipoli in August 1915. For the men of Tropical Force; the occupation contingent that would follow the AN&MEF, more insidious and painful killers – malaria and dengue fever – would claim dozens of their comrades as they garrisoned the German colonies. For the two Victorians who had led the landing parties, the remainder of the Great War would take widely divergent paths.

For his gallant role in the advance on the wireless station at Bitapaka, Lieutenant Rowland Griffiths Bowen would be Mentioned in Dispatches and promoted acting Lieutenant-Commander. After recovering from his wound, he returned to duty in April 1915 on the Melbourne naval staff. In ‘1916 he became first state President of the Returned Sailors’ and Soldiers’ Imperial League of Australia’. The following year he was posted to Perth and in 1919 he was promoted to Commander and made District Naval Officer in Tasmania. His longest posting was to Western Australia from 1923-35 where he was also DNO.

The following year he would retire from the Navy, settling in Sydney where his service to the community continued in his senior role with the St John’s Ambulance Association. As mentioned earlier, Charles Webber and his patrol had encountered no opposition. He would eventually see more than enough action however, ending the war as a Major with the 10th Field Artillery Brigade after extensive service on the Western Front. Upon his return to Australia in early 1915 he transferred to the AIF, completed Officers Training School in Broadmeadows, Victoria and was appointed as a Lieutenant in A Company, 30th Battalion.

On 9 November 1915 he departed Sydney on HMAT ‘Beltana’, arriving in England in December. In early 1916 he would transfer to 5th Division Artillery, serving in artillery units for the remainder of the war. In February 1917 he was gassed and spent time in hospital, while in October during Third Ypres – known even since as Passchendaele – he would be wounded again. Like Bowen, Webber would be Mentioned in Dispatches, in his case for ‘conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty while commanding the 38th Battery...during the period 25th September 1918 to 5th November 1918’.

Outdoors group portrait of staff of the Royal Australian Naval Brigade, Australian Navy and Military Expeditionary Force (AN&MEF), after the operations against the Germans. The three officers from left to right in the centre row are: Lieutenant (Lt) L S Bracegirdle; Commander J A H Beresford and Lt R G Bowen.

At the time his unit was supporting attacks by the American 27th Division on the Hindenburg Line. In July 1919 he would return to Australia aboard the transport City of Exeter. In post war years he would return to life as an accountant in Albert Park. Thus two Victorians, both members of the Royal Australia Navy, one a regular and the other a reservist, would serve in the first jungle campaigns undertaken by the Australian military.

Chance would see one of them seriously wounded during a hectic engagement, while the other did not encounter the enemy. Upon their return to Australia they continued to serve their nations. One followed a relatively straightforward and distinguished naval career, while the life of the second took a completely different turn, as he left the navy and saw action during some of the most costly battles of the Great War.

The stories of Webber and Bowen therefore add to the incredibly broad picture of the hundreds of thousands of Australians who enlisted during the Great War.

Written by Dr Adrian Threlfall

* Display Image: Back row (in background), left to right: Gunner Young RAN; unidentified native; unidentified native. Middle row (standing): Midshipman William, Royal Australian Naval Reserve (RANR); Midshipman Cocks, RANR; Signal Boatswain Hunter RAN; Sub-Lieutenant Webber RANR; Lieutenant Marsden CMF; Lt Godby, CMF; Sub Lt Buller RANR; Midshipman Sage RANR; Lt Read RANR.

Front row (sitting): Captain Flood, Australian Army Medical Corps; Lt Gillam RANR; Lieutenant Commander L. S. Bracegirdle DSO, RAN, Commanding Officer (HMAS Penguin tally band); Dr Runge; Paymaster Lieutenant Commander Livesay, Royal Navy.

Group portrait of Australian Navy and Military Expeditionary Force (AN&MEF) Officers at German New Guinea. *