Pages from Hunter Region in the Great War

SteveWilko

First action: Australia takes New Guinea

When the call went out in Newcastle, in August 1914, for men with previous military experience to join a

combined navy and army force to fight for the British Empire, it didn’t take long for Hunter men to respond.

Five men signed up on August 11 – apparently the first Hunter men to enlist for overseas duty – and soon all

were on their way north as part of an expedition to capture potentially dangerous German wireless facilities

in New Guinea. The Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force of about 2000 men was sent to seize

and destroy the wireless stations. The mission was successful, although allegedly not well organised.

Though the Germans had not been expected to put up much of a fight, they built some fortifications

and fought, along with Melanesians, against the Australian invaders. They were forced to surrender by the

middle of September. Australia lost seven men in the fighting, while one German and 30 Melanesians were

killed. The Australian submarine AE1 was also lost while on patrol off Rabaul, with the loss of 35 crew.

In 2014 a collection of glass plate negatives was unearthed in Newcastle that shed valuable new light

on the short and successful campaign. Some of the photographs were taken by

Thomas James Rodoni, himself a member of the volunteer force, who was in New

Guinea for five months following the takeover.

Rodoni (pictured at left) was a trained toolmaker, born in Victoria in 1882. He

worked in the government small arms factory at Lithgow in 1915 to 1916 and

was recorded as having worked in Newcastle’s state dockyard (Walsh Island) in

1919. He worked as a general engineer in Newcastle after the war, and was killed

in a car accident in 1956. The Rodoni glass plate negatives – including some that

appear to have been looted from Germans in New Guinea – are preserved in the

archives of the University of Newcastle.

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