The German who fought for Australia against his homeland in WW1

The flogging at Proclamation Square of one of the Germans responsible for the beating of the Reverend W.H. Cox. 30 November 1914.

A German fought alongside Australian soldiers in the country’s first military operation of the Great War, the little know battle of Bita Paka in German New Guinea.

Commemorations in PNG and Australia will mark the 100th anniversary of engagement on 11 September 1914 and the soldiers who fought and were the first to die for their country in the First World War.

Bita Paka was a vital German radio station relaying orders to the Imperial Navy fleet across the Pacific and Australia was charged with destroying it.

The battle claimed the lives of six Australians, one German and dozens of New Guineans before Kaiser Wilhelmsland was captured.

A German fighting for Australia

Among those fighting for Australia was Conrad Constance Eitel, who landed with the initial party and later acted as an interpreter. He was the son of a German Lutheran missionary and was born in Hong Kong.

Australia’s success on the battle field was tarnished by looting and accusation of breaching the rules of war for flogging German civilians in a punishment beating. 

"This operation is Australia's first ever operation as a country, and Australia requested we be sent north to capture the German territories of New Guinea and the German wireless station,” said historian David Howell, who is in PNG for the commemorations.

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“Now Germany had a squadron of ships that patrolled through the Pacific and South East Asia and by taking out that wireless station they stopped that threat of those German ships, the same ships that would have most likely sunk ships taking our troops over to Europe and ultimately Gallipoli."

War was declared on August 4 and two weeks later Major General William Holmes had raised a force of about 4,000 soldiers and sailors on a flotilla of nine ships.

An audio recording held by the Australian War Memorial of the late Colonel Basil Holmes recalls Australia's first battle against the Germans.

Basil Holmes was aide-de-camp to his father Major General Holmes, who led the Australian Naval and Expeditionary Force from Sydney.

It was a hasty departure and the orders were vague.

"Nobody knew where the wireless station was. So it was decided that somebody knew it was 30 miles or thereabouts from Rabaul. Well, we looked at 30 miles from Rabaul. It's very likely to be down Herbertshohe way,” said Basil Holmes.

“In the morning of 11 September 1914, (we) landed at daylight and they hadn't gone far before they were opposed by trenches across the road and fired on,” he says.

About 50 soldiers and sailors landed but who was the first uniformed Australian killed in the First World War is disputed.

"Billy Williams, the able seaman from North Cote in Victoria, and he certainly was the first casualty, followed by captain Pockley, who took his Red Cross armband off and performed the first feat of bravery, if you will, in the Great War for Australia but little is known about about the rest of the men that lost their lives on that day, including John Courtney who was advancing through the jungle and he was shot in the chest and the base of the skull and killed outright,” said David Howell.

Acts of bravery

Bita Paka is also where Australia’s first acts of bravery were recorded.

“The first medals for Australia were awarded for the battle of Bita Paka. Thomas Bond, Lieutenant Bond received the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) and there was something like nine other commendations,” said Toni Munday, curator of the HMAS Cerebus museum and Bita Paka researcher.

"Timothy Sullivan, he got shot nine times, can you imagine, he got hit and he advanced, he got hit and he advanced, yet in our official war record he is not given a special mention, it's just, ‘He got wounded’.”

The battle was over within a day and when the wireless station was captured, it had already been destroyed by the Germans.

The Australian force went on to capture the German colonial capital of Rabaul and many of prisoners of war.

"We were not furnished with a German speaking man in the force, but luckily we found in the force a German-speaking, private soldier who could speak, whose mother tongue was German and he prepared all these documents, translated the English documents from English into German,” said Basil Holmes in the audio recording.

When SBS provided HMAS Cerebus curator Toni Munday with Basil Holmes' recording and she identified the mystery German from archival records.

"I've looked at the official history records, and on page 69, it talks about corporal Conrad Constance Eitel as the interpreter,” she said. 

The Australian occupying force spent four months in New Guinea before being relieved and boredom set in from regular garrison duty.

Looting and a flogging

Soldiers were caught committing crimes like looting Rabaul's Chinatown and then an incident with some of the remaining German civilians.

A local parson named Cox was bashed up by German planters for informing on them to the Australians.

"They beat him up, flogged him. So my father sent a special expedition out and captured them and brought them into Rabaul where they were tried and found guilty of beating this parson,” said Basil  Holmes.

“So my father said he had nowhere to lock them up. He'd punish them as they had punished the parson. So he ordered them to be beaten."

The incident cause a major diplomatic incident with the German government and tarnished what had otherwise been a successful Australian military operation.

"Before he (Major General William Holmes) got back (to Australia). Word got out, word got out. The Germans, the German nation, had heard and they made a great scene about it, which the Australian Government had to answer,” said Colonel Basil Holmes.

“The Australian Government took it out on my father by being very rude to him. They never treated him, for all he'd done there they never ever gave him any decorations or never gave him any congratulations. 

“The only thing was that when he got back to Australia they did put him in command of the 5th Brigade AIF and he raised the 5th Brigade AIF and took it to Gallipoli."

Source SBS

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