Australia’s invasion of New Britain, 11 September 1914


New Britain children fishing off the tip of a natural breakwater near Kabakaul, on the road between Rabaul and the Rabaul airport, c.1976.

One hundred years ago, at dawn on 11 September 1914, an advance party of 25 voluntarily enlisted Australian soldiers landed on the breakwater at Kabakaul, in New Britain. They were subsequently joined by the rest of the 1500-man strong Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force. By 12 September the force had occupied German-controlled Rabaul. It remained under Australian administration until the end of the war.

The rubble breakwater at Kabakaul Wharf had been built by the Germans early in 1914 to land the materials and equipment to build a wireless station at Bitapaka, directly inland from Kabakaul and not far from the German administration centre at the beautiful Rabaul township.  The station was going to be Germany’s most powerful wireless station in the Pacific, in contact with the German East Asiatic Squadron and Berlin.

Britain declared war on Germany on 4 August 1914 and wasted no time in asking Australia’s Governor General  for assistance:

 If your Ministers desire and feel themselves able to seize German wireless stations at New Guinea, Yap in the Marshall Islands and Naru or Pleasant Island, we should feel that this was a great and urgent Imperial service. You will realise, however that any territory now occupied must at conclusion of war be at the disposal of Imperial Government for purposes of an ultimate settlement. Other Dominions are acting on the same understanding in a similar way, and, in particular, suggestion to New Zealand is being made with regard to Samoa.

The Australian expeditionary force embarked on the troop ship Berrima on the 19 August 1914 and a few weeks later, succeeded in annexing New Britain. It was the beginning of Australia’s involvement in World War I. In 1920, the League of Nations declared New Britain a mandated territory of Australia. Clearly, then, the site of that old man-made breakwater has historic significance for Papua New Guinea, New Britain specifically, and Australia.


A familiar image of old Rabaul. This one was taken in 1976. Much of the town was buried under ash and destroyed by the volcano eruptions in 1994.

I visited Rabaul in 1976 to cover an inter-zone rugby league match between the Southern Zone and the Island Zone. It was a fly-in, fly-out assignment and after the game there was time for a quick visit to the lookout on Tunnel Hill to admire the incomparable view. On the way out to the airport, I noticed some children fishing off the tip of an unusual rocky outcrop and grabbed a couple of quick snaps. I thought no more of it, and the slides were stored away in a drawer.

However, ABC News has just published an image of a painting by Charles Bryant, a war artist with the Australian War Memorial. It was painted on-site in 1923 and it depicts the Australian force landing on the breakwater at Kabakaul. Hopefully you can still see it yourself at this link: Australian forces landing at Rabaul

It occurred to me that the children were standing in the vicinity of same breakwater but New Britain locals may correct my conclusion. In any event I offer up the photo today as a 100th anniversary tribute to every person killed as a consequence of one of World War I’s first battles.

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