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Our real baptism of fire?: Australia’s little-known WWI campaign in PNG

Researching for and writing this book was an amazing experience for me. I have met many of the descendants of the men who died as well as many dedicated military historians. The highlight for me was being invited to speak at the Centenary of Anzac Commemorative Service conducted at the Bitapaka War Cemetery on New Britain, Papua New Guinea. This was the first of a number of such services and was filmed live by ABC TV. The RAN arranged for descendants and media personnel to be flown up by an RAAF Hercules.

Throughout my research, I uncovered many almost unknown facts about the men involved in the campaign. For example, Sergeant Bill Dovey was a member of the original deployment. He later became a judge in the NSW Supreme Court but is perhaps better known as Margaret Whitlam’s father. A number of other men from the first deployment went onto distinguished post-war careers which earned them a mention in the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

There was even a diehard German officer who hid in the jungle, defiantly refusing to surrender to the Australians. An international incident erupted due to the way in which the Australians punished some German plantation owners for giving a British missionary a caning. An officer of the AN&MEF who, having a legal background, remained behind to perform the duties of magistrate and later wrote the official history of this campaign for Charles Bean, himself ended up in prison.

My favourite such story, not previously discussed by others who have studied this campaign, is the story of Conrad Eitel.

The case of Conrad Eitel
Eitel enlisted as a private in the militia even though he had previously worked as a journalist, often writing for the Sydney Morning Herald under the pseudonym Darnoc (Conrad spelt backwards). He had previously gained some renown as the Secretary for Sir Douglas Mawson’s Antarctic expedition. This was basically a fund-raising role which he held for about 18 months. An Antarctic mountain has been named after him.

But few of his comrades realised that Eitel was actually born of an English mother and a German father. Eitel was fluent in German as he had lived in Germany until about the age of eight or nine.

During the advance down the Bitapaka Road a situation arose whereby it was necessary to call on his knowledge of German. He performed the allotted task admirably and was one of the first three Australian personnel to arrive at the wireless station. As with all members of the AN&MEF, Eitel was on a six-month deployment. Upon return to Australian soil about 71 per cent of the men who went to New Guinea chose to re-enlist in the AIF.

For whatever reason, Eitel decided to conceal his background and so enlisted under the name of Lionel Easton, using his mother’s maiden name. He was given a placement and sent to Liverpool Training Camp.

About three months later the authorities discovered his true identity and the decision was made to court-martial Eitel. He only served a few days but the charge was not brought about because of his German background. Despite some glowing references from training camp officers he was discharged for falsely declaring in his enlistment papers that he possessed no previous military experience!

Rather than simply telling the narrative of this campaign in my book, I chose to weave into it the personal stories of three individuals. One was the already-mentioned Charles Elwell; another was Captain Brian Pockley, a doctor in the Australian Army Medical Corp (AAMC) who was also killed during the hostilities. The third was William Miller, a crew member onboard HMAS Encounter who later re-enlisted in the AIF. He was my wife’s grandfather.

The crew of HMAS Encounter. Courtesy William Miller family.
The crew of HMAS Encounter. Courtesy William Miller family.

To learn more about Australia’s Real Baptism of Fire: Heroes known only to a few, email author Greg Raffin at raffhist2015 [@] gmail.com with the email subject “Real Baptism of Fire” ($35 to Australian addresses). 

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