Defending the Pacific - Australia's first engagement in WWI

Dr Jo Wills (BA(Hons), GradDipMusStud, PhD) is a Museum Development Officer for the Queensland Museum. As part of Queensland Museum's ANZAC Centenary program, Faculty of Arts alumna Dr Wills and her colleague Ewen McPhee have curated an exhibition entitled 'Defending the Pacific' to celebrate and commemorate Australia's first military engagement in World War One.

The exhibition details North Queensland's involvement in WWI, which commenced on 5 August 1914 just after the declaration of war, and which included an attack on German assets in New Guinea and the Pacific, the defence of the Australian borders, and the aborted initial attempts to participate in active service overseas. The physical exhibition – showcased across regional Queensland – was designed to enable a greater understanding of the contribution by North and Far North Queenslanders through archival material, newspaper clippings, photographic images, and diary entries of soldiers involved in the first engagements of WWI.

Sourced from the Australian War Memorial, local historical societies, local libraries, the North Queensland Army Museum in Townsville, and private collections, the exhibition shares insights into the experiences of Queenslanders' lives during the first few days, weeks and months of the First World War.

Now brought to life digitally by Dr Wills and ABC Open, the 'Defending the Pacific' exhibition tells the story of the forgotten Australian soldiers of World War One, the ordinary men who were the first to go to war, and the particular story of the Queensland war experience.


This is a story about North Queensland's involvement in the war. It's a story of an attack on German assets in New Guinea and the Pacific. And also the defence of Australian homeland. And it's the story of North Queenslanders' aborted initial attempts to have active service overseas.

A lot of people think about Australia and the First World War in terms of Gallipoli, but Australia's first military engagement was just after the declaration of World War 1 which was 5th of August 1914. And that's when Britain declared war on Germany, and then Australia decided that they would declare war as well.

The British government really wanted the Australians to address the problem of German colonial occupation of New Guinea. They formed a couple of initial responses, and the first was the formation of the Australian Naval and Expeditionary Force, it was also known as the Tropical Force. And they left Sydney and headed up to New Guinea.

The other initial response they had was to defend Australian territory. For many years Australia had a garrison that was stationed on Thursday Island. This was the first communication that Australia had from Britain asking for their help in the war.

"The Governor General may, in time of war, by proclamation, call out the citizen's forces and whereas a state of war exist between this country and Germany, it is in the opinion of the Governor General essential in the interest in the commonwealth that some part of the citizen's forces should be called out for active service."

- Winston Churchill to Ronald Munro Ferguson.

He was calling to arms the forces of Australia. It was both the military forces, but he was also calling for the mobilisation of citizen forces. And the citizen's forces were made up of men from Queensland's rifle clubs. They were a very active part of communities in this particular expedition. We had rifle clubs from Mackay, up to Cairns and then out to the Hinterlands. People from Charters Towers, Ravenswood, Townsville, and they had never undergone formal military training.

Men were called to two distinct places. They were called to either go to Kissing Point at Townsville, or they went to Norman Park in Cairns, this was when they formally signed up to actually get on board the boat, which was called the Kanowna.

Initially, they didn't knowwhere they were going. The citizens' forces would only be fighting on Australian soil. And some of the diary entries, they're really quite evocative.

"As we left the harbour, food was given to us in the roughest, cruellest manner. We had to make the best of it with a certain amount of good humour. Then followed a trip, which will remain a weird memory to many, the Tropic Sea, protected by the Great Barrier Reef. It was as calm as a mill pond. But the discomforts on board prevented many from enjoying the trip."

- J. W. Collinson, diary.

The Kanowna reached Thursday Island, and then the next day, they asked for 500 volunteers to sign on and go overseas. And they left on the Kanowna and started heading for New Guinea. When they reached New Guinea, they had to wait for the rest of the Australian Naval Fleet to actually catch up. They were waiting for a long time. The Australian military and the naval fleet got there and of course, they had really good provisions. When they got there, the soldiers on the Kanowna, they were a fairly dishevelled lot, and some of the reports were that the men who were on there were actually unfit for active service.

"I consider the canal detachment as a present constituted and equipped, unfit for immediate service."

- Colonel Holmes.

Five hundred men still left from Port Moresby on the Kanowna, but when the crew refused to stoke the ship, they were accused of mutiny. All on board the Kanowna were sent back to Townsville, and they became known as the Dirty 500.

These people volunteered for service in good faith. They weren't really given the provisions that they needed, and then they were sent back. They felt that they had been waiting in Fairfax Harbour for a long time, and they saw the guys coming up on the boat from Sydney as kind of usurping them. There would have been a sense of disappointment, almost disengagement.

But, I do know that some of the men who were sent back then reenlisted in the AIF. And then they went back, and they went and fought overseas in some of the big engagements in Europe. So there were obviously people who went on to go to Gallipoli and the Somme.