Sailors from HMAS Cerberus, Australian Naval Cadets, members of the Great War Association and ex-service personnel re-enacted a significant piece of Australian history on Sunday, 17 August 2014.
Descendants, veterans and Defence members gathered at the iconic Flinders Street Station in Melbourne to pay tribute to the Victorian men that formed part of the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Forces (ANMEF) that went on to fight in German New Guinea during the First World War.
More than 150 people marched across the Princess Bridge, under the historic clocks and onto a smoke filled Platform 1 in preparation to board the old steam train. One hundred years on the people were different, but the smells and sights of the train were the same, evoking the spirit of the brave young men who left behind family and loved ones to join the efforts of the Great War.
The latter part of 1914 is a period of Australian history often overlooked and overshadowed by the tragic losses of Gallipoli and the famous creation of the ANZAC legend.
Commander Mike Oborn, CSM, RAN, Executive Officer HMAS Cerberus, said that Australians were involved in the first land operation of the war, the first amphibious landing, and the first coalition operations. The first bravery decoration of the war and the first Australian combat casualties of the war also occurred in 1914.
It was several volunteer members of the ANMEF that became those first Australian casualties.
On 11 September 1914, a group consisting primarily of Naval Reserve personnel were put ashore to seize the wireless station at Bitapaka, German New Guinea. Despite strong initial resistance the station was captured and destroyed. During the attack four sailors of the landing force and an attached Army doctor were shot.
“We remember Able Seaman Billy Williams, the first combat casualty Australia suffered in the Great War. We remember Captain Brian Pockley, Australian Army Medical Corps who assisted Billy Williams and was shot shortly after. Both died later that day,” Commander Oborn said.
Commander Oborn related that whilst Billy Williams was the first to be shot, Able Seaman John Courtney, aka John Edward Walker was the first Australian Serviceman to be killed in action. Other casualties included Able Seamen Harry Street and Robert Moffatt, while the other fatality during the operation was Lieutenant Commander Charles Elwell, Royal Navy.
“The land campaigns of the Great War delivered Australia a harsh introduction to modern warfare-one that would scar and shape the nation. We commemorate the supreme sacrifice made by those sailors who departed Melbourne, as part of the Victorian Contingent of the Expeditionary Force from this place one hundred years ago.”
After the ANMEF departure re-enactment ceremony, guests were invited to board a steam train as the original contingent had, where they travelled to Darebin RSL, in the Melbourne suburb of Preston. A service and wreath laying ceremony was held to observe the traditional Last Post and Ode to the Fallen.
Imagery is available on the Navy Image Library at http://images.navy.gov.au/S20142441.