Navy’s WWI history on display

Published on Australian National Maritime Museum (author)

Location(s): Brisbane, QLD

Topic(s): Sea Power Centre - Australia, Events, Naval Heritage and History

HMAS AE2, imagery scanned from Navy Historic Archive. (photo: Navy Archive)
HMAS AE2, imagery scanned from Navy Historic Archive.

One hundred and three years ago Australia’s first submarine, HMAS AE1, disappeared while patrolling the seas near present-day New Guinea. No trace of the vessel or its 35 hands has ever been found. This story is now being told in a new exhibition at the Queensland Maritime Museum, ‘War at Sea – the Navy in WWI’.

The experiences of Australian sailors in the First World War has largely been overshadowed by the stories of soldiers on the Western Front and at Gallipoli.

The Australian National Maritime Museum travelling exhibition draws on the personal accounts of Navy servicemen – through their diaries, mementoes, ship’s logs and letters home – to tell their stories of bravery and sacrifice amidst the drudgery of life at sea, patrolling, blockading and escorting troopships.

The mystery of what happened to AE1 is explored alongside the story of Australia’s second submarine HMAS AE2, which became the first Allied vessel to breach the Dardanelles in Turkey, disrupting the Turkish forces moving to defend the Gallipoli peninsula in April 1915, and the story of the Royal Australian Navy Bridging Trains at the Gallipoli campaign. 

The exhibition features rare objects from the National Maritime Collection, the Australian War Memorial, and the National Film and Sound Archives including medals posthumously awarded to Lieutenant Leopold Florence Scarlett - lost with AE1.

Highlighting the tragedy of the war and the loss of life, the exhibition features letters of condolences following the disappearance of AE1, including a letter from Winston Churchill to a grieving widow.

Also on display are poignant artefacts such as sailors love tokens and grand commemorative medallions dedicated to Australia’s first major naval victory – the defeat of the seemingly invincible German raider SMS Emden by HMAS Sydney (I) in November 1914.

Visitors will see rare archival footage of the Navy during the war which gives a window into life on battleships as well as the troop transport ships which ferried soldiers around the globe.

The activities and subsequent loss of AE2 is highlighted by footage from inside the shipwreck filmed during the first dive to the site by Australian and Turkish maritime archaeologists earlier this year. 

Sailor’s diaries also form a key part of the exhibition, with many quotes featured throughout.

Australian National Maritime Museum Director Kevin Sumption said it was important to tell the full story of Australia in the First World War.

“Australia’s involvement was a defining moment in our nation’s history, helping form many of the ideas of national identity we still have today,” he said.

“The contribution of the Royal Australian Navy to the First World War, by a naval fleet formed less than a year before the outbreak of war, was significant, serving in all theatres of the war from the Pacific and Indian Oceans to the Mediterranean and North Seas.

“It is our hope that this exhibition will give due recognition to the brave naval servicemen who sacrificed so much,” he said.

‘War at Sea – the Navy in WWI’ is on display at the Queensland Maritime Museum until April 2018.