• Able Seaman John Courtney. (HMAS Cerberus Museum)
The first soldier in Australian uniform to be killed in action in the First World War has been identified by researchers and it happened not in Europe but the German colony of New Guinea.
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7 Aug 2014 - 1:43 PM  UPDATED 7 Aug 2014 - 7:09 PM

Twenty-year-old Able Seaman John Courtney died instantly during Australia’s first military operation as a nation, during the Battle of Bita Paka on September 11 1914.

Six Australian servicemen, one German and an unknown number of Melanesians fighting for them died in the day-long battle to take possession of the German colony.

“John Courtney, he was advancing through the jungles with the objective of capturing the German wireless station and he was shot in the chest and the base of the skull and was killed outright,” said war historian David Howell.

SBS reporter Stefan Armbruster speaks with historian David Howell.

He found the details in the the diary of Admiral Sir George Patey, the first Commander of Australian Fleet from his flagship, the battle-cruiser HMAS Australia.

“It clearly states that he was shot in the chest and killed outright and only then a few moments later, advancing towards the same German trench, his commanding officer Elwell pulled his sword out, commanded his men to fix bayonets and shortly afterwards met the same fate,” said Mr Howell.

The Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force of about 500 Australian service men sailed to capture the German colony.

Toni Munday, the curator of the HMAS Cerberus Museum in Victoria, discovered a photo of John Courtney after finding a descendant.

“There’s lots more stories to be told about the Battle of Bita Paka but because the history, because of Gallipoli, they’ve been overshadowed,” said Ms Munday.

“They had the ANZAC spirit, before the ANZACS.”

The battle resulted in the destruction of the German wireless station in New Britain and the capture of code books.

It was a major victory and the codes were vital in defeating the German navy cruisers harassing shipping in the Indian Ocean, Pacific and South Atlantic, including the sinking of the Emden.

“There were three main importance of the Battle of Bita Paka, and they are, yes the code books, very important to the war effort, secondly it was Australia’s first overseas operation and it was before Gallipoli and it was a victory, and thirdly New Guinea was mandated to Australia after the First World War,” said David Howell.

The Australian Government will commemorate the centenary of the Battle of Bita Paka as well as the loss of Australia’s first submarine off Rabaul with the loss of 34 lives with a service on the September 11 in New Britain.