History - WW1
An interest in philately has led to a collection of post cards from a century past showing the Pacific colonies of the German Empire. These help bring to life the story of the transit of the German Asiatic Squadron from its base at Tsingtao across the Indian and Pacific Oceans until its eventual demise off the cold and dark waters of the Falkland Islands. This article summarises an award-winning exhibit at the Canberra Stampshow 2014 held in March.
Germany was a latecomer to overseas colonies but made up for lost time in the latter part of the 19th century. To help penetrate world markets a series of colonies was acquired between 1884 and 1899 extending from southern China through chains of oceanic islands to New Guinea. These comprised Chinese concessions at Kiautshou and Chefoo, and colonies/ protectorates at Bougainville Island, Caroline Islands, Marshall Islands, Mariana Islands, German New Guinea, Solomon Islands and German Samoa. A naval base and small garrison was established at the Chinese concession with an administrative centre at Tsingtao. A further administrative centre was at Rabaul in New Pomerania, Kaiser-Wilhelmsland (German New Guinea).
Kaiser Wilhelm II had a great attachment for his navy, epitomised by his royal yacht Seiner Majestät Yacht Hohenzollern. With a length of 390 ft (116 m), 46 ft (14 m) beam, 19 ft (5.7 m) draught, displacing over 4,300 tons and capable of 22 knots with a complement of 600 officers and men this was indeed a stately floating palace. She was used extensively taking the royal party on summer cruises and fleet reviews. In twenty years of active service the Kaiser is said to have spent over four years onboard. In June 1914 at the Kiel Regatta officers of the British fleet were entertained on board only two months before the outbreak of WW I. Importantly in philatelic circles the Hohenzollern image was used as the definitive design for nearly all German colonial postage stamps issued between 1900 and 1919.
The Homeward Journey
The first post card which shows the cruiser SMS Gneisnau was posted from Tsingtao on 13 March 1913. In translation this reads: Dear Parents, One day after I sent my last letter to you, this was 13th March, received your parcel by the steamer York containing the bag for a telescope and other nice things. Naturally I was very glad about it and thank you very much and I send my best wishes. Your warm hearted son, Ernst.
On 23 August 1914 Japan declared war on Germany and promptly blockaded Tsingtao but by this time Vice Admiral Graf Maximilian von Spee and his German Asiatic Squadron had departed. Following a bitter struggle supported by British troops the Japanese claimed the German concession. There is a post card from this period showing the Japanese cruiser Soya. She had an interesting history, being built in the United States as Variag for the Russian Navy. Being badly damaged in the Russo-Japanese war she was scuttled but salvaged and repaired by the victors. Soya then served as a cadet ship until 1916 when sold back to the Russians. After refitting in Britain she served as a depot ship until wrecked on her way to the breakers in 1920.
Next is a post card from the New Zealand Expeditionary Force of 1,383 men who effected an unopposed occupation of Samoa on 29 August 1914. Life in this quiet backwater was interrupted on 14 September by the arrival of the German cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. An intended dawn raid to destroy Allied shipping and cut communications did not eventuate when it was discovered the only vessel in harbour was an American sailing ship. The cruisers withdrew seeking better game.
A postcard dated 21 September which in part reads: ‘Things are pretty deadly in Samoa and the heat is awful and the bugs, ants and mosquitoes make night hideous and none of the boys are feeling too well and next month when the rainy season commences many no doubt will be down with fever. Two big German warships entered the harbour last week and alarmed the Corps but they cleared out without a fight. They are still off the coast, however, so we may yet have a scrap. Everyone is sick of Samoa and we all want to go to Europe, but suppose we will have to stick it out here for months yet.’
By 22 September the German cruisers had reached Tahiti where they conducted a half-hearted bombardment. This was answered by a shore battery of 4-inch guns taken from the gunboat Zelee. The gunboat had been scuttled to block the harbour and the stockpile of coal set alight. The Germans again withdrew but by this time their intentions were becoming clearer in making for South America.
Following the decisive Battle of Coronel where the German squadron defeated a Royal Naval squadron commanded by Rear Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock, the victors called at Valparaiso primarily to coal ship. From here a post card was sent from the Captain of SMS Nurnberg to the Mayor of Nurnberg dated 3 November 1914. Translated, this reads: ‘A quick note to say the SMS Numberg sank the English heavy cruiser Monmouth on the night of 1st November off the coast of Coronel (Conception Bay, Chile). The weather was stormy. The conditions of the whole engagement was excellent.’ This card most likely went in diplomatic mail via the German Consulate.
The revenge by a superior Royal Naval force over von Spee’s squadron off the Falklands on 8 December 1914 is well known. Only one warship, SMS Dresden (a sister ship of Emden), escaped to hide in the expansive Chilean fiords, until she too was cornered by HM Ships Glasgow and Kent at Juan Fernandez Island (famed home of Alexander Selkirk, the inspiration for Robinson Crusoe).
Finally there are two postcards of British manufacture showing Dresden at Juan Fernandez, taken before her magazine detonated. One card shows a ship’s boat approaching Dresden and the other a close-up of shell splinter damage. On 14 March 1915 after a few shots were fired by both sides Dresden’s Kapitan zur See Ludecke, knowing his situation was hopeless, raised the white flag and sent Leutnant Wilhelm Canaris (later Admiral) to negotiate with the British. However, this was merely a ruse to buy time so that the crew could abandon ship and scuttle her by detonating the forward magazine. Dresden then sank with her battle ensign flying and most of her crew were saved to be interned in Chile.
Publication December 2014 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
By Peter Brigden
The following story is of an Australian Able Seaman whom some military historians believe should have been awarded the Victoria Cross for his courage and compassion while under enemy fire from Turkish guns in the Dardanelles during World War I. The most senior survivor was Petty Officer Coxswain Robert Perkins, DSM who wrote in a report, ‘Reuben Mitchell acted most gallantly. He was on the conning tower with three officers, passing orders below to the helmsman. All the officers were swept off the bridge by shellfire and he was left all alone. Although the enemy had the exact range and he was clearly visible, he stuck to his post and took charge of the boat until it sank. When in the water, he then rescued the wireless operator who was unconscious from head wounds. There was no senior officer left to recommend him for his outstanding gallantry, and his only reward was the self-evident fact that he had done his duty.’
Reuben Joseph Edward Mitchell was born in Ballarat, Victoria on 28 July, 1894. Having joined the Royal Navy based on the Australian Station, he served on several ships before joining HMS Challenger and sailing to England on the ship’s return in 1913. It was while at Portsmouth that he volunteered for submarines and on completion of his training at HMS Dolphin based on Fort Blockhouse, and at HMS Vernon, which included training in HM Submarines A6, A13 and E4, he joined HMAS AE2 to return to Australia as an Able Seaman.
When AE2 was deployed to the Mediterranean, Mitchell found himself transferred to spare crew on a submarine repair ship when AE2 undertook her sortie up the Dardanelles in April, 1915.
On 27 January 1918, Able Seaman Mitchell was included in the crew of HMS E14 under the command of Lt-Cdr G.S. White, RN, when they set out to torpedo the German battle cruiser Goeben, which had been damaged by a mine and run aground off Nagara Point in the Dardanelles.
The source for most of this story was written by Mitchell himself in a report which was recently found in a file located in the Sampson Collection on Spectacle Island. It is reproduced here verbatim.
Mitchell’s own account
‘HM Submarine E14, Lieutenant Commander White, RN, left a naval base on the evening of 27 January with an escort as far as the entrance to the Dardanelles. At 3 am 28 January, we forced our way through the first line of nets without resistance. All went well until about 6 am, when we ran aground and were caught in the nets, which we could not clear, so we surfaced, and the Captain went out and cleared the obstacle. We believed it to be the nets, but the Captain did not say. Before going out, the Captain left orders for the Lieutenant to dive at once should he whistle or sing out, and to ‘look after himself as there were 31 men inside; never to mind him.’ While the Captain was on the surface, he found the gates of the Narrows, and that we were at Chanak. He did not hear a shout or anything and came inside the boat and went astern into deep water, and got away without being seen. These were the last nets we felt.
Now the search for the Goeben started and I believe we went on for two miles past Nagara Point and found the Goeben had gone. We found out during our capture that she was taken away six hours before, this we got from a Turkish naval man, who helped get her off. When the Captain found that she had gone, he went back for home, but at Chanak, there was a large German liner which we believed had ammunition for the Goeben.
We fired one torpedo at her and a heavy explosion took place. Our boat came to the surface and a heavy fire came from all the forts. Many pieces of shrapnel hit the boat, then a large shell hit the conning tower and did a bit of damage. The captain was pleased at the moment with the behaviour of the crew, not a man moving from his station. Several shells were then heard to pass overhead, but luckily they did not drop a depth charge.
After a time, the boat got out of control, and as we had only three bottles of air left, the Captain thought it would be best to surface. At once we could hear heavy fire and we could hear pieces hit the hull of our boat. As a result of a hit in the centre of the boat, it could not dive again. We ran the gauntlet for half an hour under murderous fire from all round, only a few hitting the hull of the boat. Our wireless operator was badly wounded in the mouth and the left hand, and fell unconscious. The Captain, seeing it was hopeless ran the boat towards shore. His last words were, ‘We are in the hands of God, my men. Do your best to get ashore’.
A few seconds later, I saw his body mangled by shellfire, roll into the water and was taken under. The same shell killed the Navigator, and left me by myself, and other shells killed nearly all the hands.
Had the Turks stopped firing as soon as they saw us sinking, with a few wounded on deck, many more might have been saved. It must have been half an hour before they put out for us. Amid the cries of the wounded men in the water, several voices were heard saying ‘Goodbye, goodbye all’. Their hands went up and they disappeared for the last time.
Only nine survived
It was hell; when I look back at that fatal half hour, it haunts me. As no boat seemed to be coming out to pick us up, we made for Kum Kale, and were picked up only a few yards from the shore. Soon after the Turks got hold of us, all our clothing was taken from us, and we had to walk through Kum Kale naked. It broke our hearts when we saw only nine had been saved out of 32 officers and men. The three wounded were in a very bad state and unconscious when I saw them last.
On arrival at a small hut, a short pair of trousers, all patchwork, was given to us to put on, which we found to be full of lice. No underclothing was given to us. A small fire was made in a room, and we were very glad to get it as we were very cold; and shortly a filthy-looking Turk brought us some hot tea without milk or sugar. That is all he gave us to bring us round again.
In the evening, we were sent to Chanak and handed over the Germans, and here we remained for two days. Here we were sent to a small room for the night, feeling very tired and hungry, as the crew had nothing while submerged in the Dardanelles and it was midnight when a Turk came with some black barley and maize bread and a dish of beans boiled in olive oil which we could not manage to eat. This was our daily meal; two meals a day and one maize loaf and a bucket of water. During our time at Chanak many visits were paid by newspaper reporters and Germans of high rank.
Sleep was out of the question that night. Many questions were asked of us concerning England. They were under the impression that England was in a very bad state, as the submarine menace was hitting us hard. On the following day, we were sent to Constantinople, and when we arrived were taken on board a German liner, used as German Headquarters. Here we went before a court of German and Turkish officers, one at a time, and many jokes were passed.
At 5.30, we were taken over to the Turks and were taken through Istanbul thinking we were going to a British camp, but found ourselves behind prison bars, for what reason I do not know. We were housed in filthy compartments, among some of the biggest criminal prisoners in Turkey, sitting in a room with huge chains and handcuffs on.
The place was full of lice and bugs. We remained there for two days and then went to another room with 150 of the same kind of criminals, some dying of cholera and dysentery. When we arrived we asked for bread which was not brought to us until 36 hours after. A man named Firuze Hanzandian, an Armenian subject, bought four loaves of bread with one Turkish pound and then gave them to us. He got a flogging for it and was not allowed to talk to us. He said, ‘I am not a rich man, but I am a man.’
Time went on and we were getting very bad; no clothing to cover us up at night, and nothing to lie on but the cold bare floor. We complained of the filthy rooms in which we had to eat and sleep, suffering the same punishment as the criminal offenders who were guilty. After this, another room was allotted to us, which was quite as bad, the smell and stench being abominable. Owing to this, fever and dysentery broke out, which eventually became so bad that two men lay weak on the floor. A doctor was asked for; he came 24 hours after, and the two men were sent to hospital. During our time in prison, no bedding or any covering was given to us. Drinking water had to be obtained from the urinals.
We eventually saw two British officers and told them of the conditions we were living under as prisoners of war. Pressure having been brought to bear, we were sent to British camp at Samatyra and that consisted of a school room with 150 English (servicemen), some with arms and legs off, waiting to be exchanged. We had no fires unless we could buy our own fuel; no books or anything to read, and hardly any food, only two meals a day and one loaf of bread. I remained in the camp two days and was sent to hospital with typhus fever and dysentery. Weak as I was, I had five miles to walk, arriving almost dead and hungry. A Turk was turned out of one bed and I was told to get in it. I refused and was handled roughly, and given another bed, which was just as bad. The bed and clothing was covered in lice and not many hours after I was covered with vermin.
The following morning I was sent to the typhus ward, and there I found one of my comrades. I was put in the next bed but one, after turning a Turk out, and getting into his clothing. I was in this ward for about two weeks, and left it like a bag of bones and my body almost black with lice. On three occasions the Dutch Embassy gave two ½ lb tins of milk and a third one to go between three Englishmen. My meals were mostly baked wheat or spinach, and that was what I pulled around on.
At times the Embassy used to bring us a little food, about three parcels for all the English, and you got a little tea, sugar, butter, jam, just enough for one piece of bread. What food you received from the hospital was no good. At last we asked to be discharged and weak as we were, we were sent to a working camp.’
After the War
Mitchell returned to London after being liberated at the end of the war where he was able to recuperate from his time in prison. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal on 12 December, 1919. He returned to Australia where he married and raised three children. He passed away on 16 August 1954, aged 60.
In a footnote to the above, the Commander of the E14, Lt-Cdr Geoffrey White RN, was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, gazetted on 24 May, 1919 for his part in the action in the Dardanelles, which had started the day before the boat set out.
He flew as a passenger in an aircraft during the aerial bombing of Goeben to see her position for himself and to plan his method of attack.
The award of the Victoria Cross to White created a record as HMS E14 is the only vessel in the history of the Royal Navy in which two different commanding officers had won the Victoria Cross, the other Commander being Lt-Cdr Edward Courtney Boyle, RN, who was presented his Victoria Cross on 1 March, 1916 for actions during the 1915 Gallipoli campaign. when the submarine went on a sortie through the straits and past minefields into the Sea of Marmara.
The wreck of HMS E14 was identified in 2012 found lying at a depth of 65ft at an angle of almost 45 degrees with sand covering nearly all the 181ft vessel.
At least one shell hole was visible near the bows, but that appeared to be the only one.
To the returning servicemen Hughes was ‘the Little Digger’ a symbol of Australian self-confidence. Geoffrey Button
William Hughes, the father of William Morris Hughes, came from a line of respected tradesmen whilst his mother, Jane Morris, was from yeoman farming stock all from North Wales. The young couple set off from the Principality for the bright lights of London, where William (snr) was employed as a joiner and carpenter at the House of Lords, and to supplement the family income Jane did some domestic work. The Hughes family were pillars of the Welsh Baptist Church at Moorefields in London, where William was a deacon.
Their only child William Morris Hughes was born in London in 1862. William’s mother died when he was aged seven, and accordingly the child returned to Wales to be brought up by his aunt. A bright pupil, he attended Llandudno Grammar School until he turned 14. As a young man he was physically uninspiring; at a height of 5 foot 5 inches he was small, scrawny and suffering from deafness and chronic dyspepsia (gastrointestinal discomfort). He had piercing blue eyes and big ears. What he lacked physically was more than compensated for in mental toughness, intellect and oratorical skills.
His intended career path was that of a schoolmaster and he was apprenticed for five years as a pupil-teacher at St Stephen’s Anglican School, Westminster. Here, under the tutelage of a friendly headmaster, he spent the first hour of every day at lessons before putting in another five hours as a teaching assistant. He also attended evening classes and undertook quarterly assessment examinations. Hughes’s school inspector was the great man of letters and eminent poet, Matthew Arnold. Arnold instilled into the youngster a love of literature, giving him a volume of Shakespeare’s collected works. Despite his small stature a patriotic Hughes also found time to serve as a volunteer with the Royal Fusiliers.
In 1884, aged 22, Hughes took a government assisted passage to the new Colony of Queensland. He was offered a teaching position in the remote outback which he turned down and took to the road undertaking various odd jobs. Eventually finding himself back in Brisbane he then worked his way to Sydney in the galley of a coastal steamer. This led to a series of shore jobs as a kitchen hand before gaining a better paid position with a manufacturer of kitchen equipment.
Billy was living at a boarding house in the inner Sydney suburb of Darlinghurst. Here he met and married his landlady’s daughter, Elizabeth Cutts, who had a young son from a previous relationship. Over the next few years Billy and Elizabeth had three daughters and two surviving sons.
In 1890, using Elizabeth’s family money, they set up shop in Balmain and lived over the premises. Gradually this business developed into an outlet for the sale and exchange of books and a place for political discourse. This was the time of the bitter national maritime strike, into which shearers and coalminers were drawn, in support of maritime workers.
Hughes edited a radical weekly called New Order, giving him a platform to enter state politics, and in 1894 he won the working-class waterfront seat of Pyrmont and Ultimo. His energetic organisational skills gained him various union posts including secretary of the Wharf Labourers’ Union. Using his union power base Hughes easily won a seat in the new Federal Parliament. He supported Australia having its own defence force and advocating conscription of all males between the ages of 18 and 60 to undergo part-time military training. He joined the National Defence League to influence public opinion in favour of a national defence policy.
Working in arbitration on behalf of the unions allowed Hughes to qualify for the Bar, and in 1904 his first major political role was his appointment as Minister for External Affairs and Chairman of a Royal Commission on the Navigation Bill. Hughes carefully examined all aspects of the Australian maritime environment and gained considerable expertise in this field. After two years the Royal Commission produced a report exposing the harsh conditions under which merchant seamen worked and recommended reforms. Meanwhile the British Government became interested and proposed Britain and New Zealand join with Australia to secure unified action. When this took place Hughes became one of the delegates, resulting in his first return to his homeland where his work ethic created a favourable impression.
On the domestic front, in 1906 Elizabeth Hughes died, leaving a considerable void. In 1907 leadership of the Labor Party passed to Andrew Fisher with Hughes as his deputy and the following year Hughes became Attorney-General. Between 1907 and 1911 the conservative Daily Telegraph invited Hughes to provide a weekly column presenting ‘The Case for Labor’ in which he promoted moderate socialism. In 1911 he remarried, this time at a different social level, to Mary Campbell, a pastoralist’s daughter. By now he had a fine home, a motor car and a hobby farm on the Hawkesbury River.
The Australian federal parliamentary system was still evolving, and from Federation to the outbreak of the Great War there had been five elections, with a sixth due on 5 September 1914. During this time there had been a total of nine Prime Ministers. With war clouds looming in September 1913 a general election was called, resulting in a return of the Liberals by a majority of one with Joseph Cook becoming Prime Minister. The instability of Cook’s government brought about another election and during the campaign the British Empire found itself at war with Germany. Labor won office with Hughes serving as Attorney-General under Prime Minister Fisher. On 3 August 1914, Cabinet agreed to offer to place the newly acquired Australian fleet under control of the British Admiralty, and to send an expeditionary force of 20,000 troops overseas whenever it was required by the Imperial Government.
In October 1915 Fisher resigned to become High Commissioner in London and Hughes, unopposed, became Prime Minister. He felt secure enough to visit England in early 1916 as he wanted a more effective voice in the progress of the Great War. In particular Hughes was concerned that Australia’s exports were hampered by insufficient shipping and for the need to gain control of the ex-German Pacific colonies.
Hughes, accompanied by his wife Mary, a qualified nurse, and their infant daughter Helen, sailed unheralded from Sydney on 26 January 1916 with calls at New Zealand and Canada, then travelling overland to the US. They landed in Vancouver on 19 May 1916 and crossed the border to Seattle where ten wooden ships were being built for the Australian Government. Progress was good as three had already been launched and a fourth would be the next day. They also arranged to see some concrete ships and enlist the help of an expert on these to visit Australia with a view to constructing them under licence.
The party proceeded to Washington to meet President Woodrow Wilson, then sailed from New York in the Red Star liner Finland, reaching Liverpool on 7 March. The Australian Prime Minister’s energetic approach won him many admirers in Britain and although not impacted by the complexities of European policymaking, he gained a reputation as a statesman and was to strike up a rapport with another fiery Welshman, Lloyd George. The opportunity was taken to visit Australian troops on the front line in France before returning home via troopship on 31July 1916. The new-found status of our Prime Minister is aptly summarized in the following newspaper description:
Before Mr. Hughes went to England he was plain ‘Billy’: in the cables he was Mr. Hughes…now that he has received the ‘freedom’ of the cities of London, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Bristol, Liverpool, Manchester, York, Sheffield and Birmingham, and doctorates from the Universities of Edinburgh, Glasgow, Birmingham, Oxford and Wales, and is a Privy Counsellor in addition, what is one to call him? Seems sacrilege to say ‘Billy’ nowadays. (Tweed (NSW) daily newspaper 29 July 1916.)
Upon returning home he was involved in the hostile conscription debate. Hughes preferred to legislate for conscription as was being done in Britain, Canada and New Zealand but he feared losing a closely contested vote, especially as many Irish-Australians were against continuation of the war. As an alternative a referendum was held on 28 November 1916 where ‘No’ triumphed by a narrow margin.
A wartime double dissolution election was called in May 1917 with Hughes changing horses from Labor to Nationalist but again winning a mandate. As manpower shortages at the front continued, a second referendum was called in November 1917, which was defeated by a wider margin than the first.
The Imperial War Cabinet met in London in June 19181to which the Dominion Prime Ministers were invited. To satisfy this requirement a more ambitious visit was made in RMS Niagara, which sailed from Sydney on 26 April 1918.Hughes was again accompanied by his wife and daughter. Included in the party were Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for the Navy Joseph Cook and Mrs. Mary Cook, the Solicitor-General Sir Robert Garran and John Latham2, a naval reservist and brilliant lawyer with expertise in Pacific affairs and naval intelligence. Latham acted as Cook’s secretary. The extensive party included Percy Deane, Hughes’s personal assistant, and his physician, Dr. R Mungovan, two stenographers and a messenger. While he was not part of the official entourage, from the time they reached England, journalist Keith Murdoch was never far distant. In London they lived in a house provided by the British Government.
When they reached Auckland they were joined by the New Zealand Prime Minister William Massey and his Minister for Finance Joseph Ward, who then traveled with them to Canada. On reaching Vancouver they traveled by train to Ottawa to meet with the Canadian Prime Minister Robert Borden and thence to Washington for discussions with the American President Woodrow Wilson. Hughes and Cook arrived in New York on 13 May and were in Washington from 27 to 30 May. They were received by President Wilson on 29 May, however the meeting lasted only thirty minutes with the academically devout President being unimpressed by the forthright views of his guest.
Imperial War Cabinet
In North America the parties made separate transport arrangements to England, with the Canadian and New Zealand delegates arriving in London on 8 June. At the first meeting of the Imperial War Cabinet on 12 June the Australian delegation was limited to the Solicitor-General Robert Garran and LCDR John Latham. It was not until the meeting of 17 June and afterwards that Prime Minister Hughes and Minister for the Navy Cook attended.
Possibly to prevent Prime Minister Hughes from grandstanding, a Royal Navy cruiser HMS Leviathanwas placed at his disposal to transport him from New York to England, but the rules against females travelling aboard RN ships were unbending. Mother and daughter and the remainder of the official party departed from New York in the troop transport ex-RMS Adriaticon 05 June 1918. They were now part of an escorted convoy of eight ships carrying American troops and equipment to the war in Europe. After berthing at Liverpool the official party was reunited at Euston Station in London on 15 June.
Following the Imperial War Cabinet meeting other PMs departed, but Hughes remained to argue the case for better access for Australian products to English markets. He again visited Australian troops in France. With the approach of peace, it was agreed that Hughes and his entourage should remain to safeguard Australia’s interests. This gave Hughes his moment on the international stage where he won a mandate over New Guinea and over the phosphate rich island of Nauru. To Australian returning servicemen he was ‘the Little Digger’, a symbol of Australian self-confidence. He returned home with many of them in a troopship.
Learning the Ropes in Wooden Ships
The work of Hughes on the Royal Commission into the operation of the Navigation Bill, his association with maritime unions and a penchant for nationalism drove him to support a union push for a local merchant fleet manned by Australians. This also fitted with a ‘White Australia’ policy as many British merchant ships which operated on the Australian waterfront were majority crewed with low-cost Asian labour.
Upon the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, by astute management of its military and naval forces Australia was fortuitously able to impound 27 German and one Austrian vessel through Prize Law. A merchant fleet of well found vessels had been obtained at virtually no cost. Initially the Transport Branch of the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) operated these ships. Some were used as troop transports and supply ships and others fulfilled commercial purposes.
In 1916 the Commonwealth Government Line of Steamers (CGLS) came into being through Prime Minister Hughes invoking the War Precautions Act to requisition money for a payment of £2,047,000 for 15 British tramp ships. With war-time conditions shipping was at a premium and this was a high price for these vessels. Each ship’s name began with ‘Austral’ such as Australfield– collectively they were known as ‘the Australs’. In 1918 management of the Australs and the requisitioned enemy ships were all placed under the CGLS.
Because of wartime losses hulls remained at a premium, affecting Australia’s ability to ship produce. As steel was in short supply and the local steel manufacturing industry was in its infancy, an American proposal was received to revert to building ships of wood, which was in plentiful supply. This resulted in the Commonwealth in 1917 entering into contract with the Patterson-MacDonald shipyard of Seattle for the supply of 10 wooden steam driven cargo ships. The contract was later amended for five steam powered and five motor ships.
In January 1918 the Sydney firm of Kay McNicol was co-opted by Prime Minister Hughes to present plans for the construction of similar wooden merchant ships. Initially this was to be for 24 ships divided amongst four builders for six ships each, with three builders in Sydney and one in Western Australia. With the end of the Great War the need for these vessels was reassessed and only the first two ships, which were already under construction by Kidman & Mayoh at a slipway at Kissing Point on the Parramatta River, were completed. It is noteworthy that Kidman & Mayoh had never before built ships.
The whole history of the wooden ships was a disaster. As ocean going vessels of about 3,000 gross tons with a maximum speed of nine knots they were too small and too slow to be commercially viable. Many were poorly built with extensive repair work required to make them seaworthy. Litigation with the American builders, who became bankrupt, lasted many years. As soon as possible these vessels were sold at bargain basement prices. The Commonwealth incurred losses of £2.34m on this venture. In addition, losses on the two Australian built ships were estimated to be about £300,000.
The fate of the two locally built ships Burnside and Braeside, which were considered unseaworthy, was pitiful. Burnside was burnt out on the stocks on 4 September 1923 and Braeside was towed outside the Heads on 21 December 1923 and set on fire.
The next venture into shipbuilding was however successful with the construction in Australia of two Dale-class, and in Britain, of five Bay-class ships3.
The 10,000 gross ton Dales were twin screw refrigerated cargo ships built at Cockatoo Island Dockyard and at the time the largest such vessel built in country. The Bays were handsome twin screw cargo-passenger vessels of 12,800 tons. Given the past mistakes these ships were a great accomplishment and they were much admired.
Esperance Bay, Hobsons Bay, Moreton Bay and Jervis Bay became armed merchant cruisers and Largs Bay a troopship. Under the command of Captain Fogarty Fegen, RN, VC, Jervis Bay is well known for her heroic action against the German pocket-battleship Admiral Scheer where against overwhelming odds she was responsible for saving the majority of her convoy of 38 ships.
By 1923 half of the Government owned fleet of fifty-four ships was laid up and during the following three years most of the ships were disposed of at bargain prices. However, with the Dales and Bays the nationalised shipping company (CGLS) retained the nucleus of a fine merchant marine. These ships were as good as any others afloat and their standard of accommodation for both passengers and crew was excellent. Crew accommodation, pay and entitlements were possibly the highest in the world. But this was not good enough for a rapacious union movement which called for more and through a series of petty strikes virtually brought the company to a standstill. Surely William Morris Hughes, a visionary, a man of the people, had the ability to control the unruly maritime unions.
But Hughes’s influence had waned, with no end in sight the Government decided to sell its shipping interests to a British monopoly and by 1928 it no longer had any ships on the Australian register. The Australian merchant fleet would never fully recover from this blow.
Relationships with the Australian Navy
While Hughes was generally supportive of the Australian navy he could afford to leave much of its administration to his close friend and colleague Senator George Pearce who first became Minister for Defence in 1908 and continued in that role during the whole of the Great War and beyond. This confidence was well placed as Pearce was most competent and a great advocate of the RAN.
In May 1918 the Admiralty produced a memorandum for consideration of the Imperial War Conference that proposed a single navy for the Empire. This stirred up national resentment with Hughes but he left the running of this important issue with his Navy Minister Cook, which most likely fell to the latter’s assistant John Latham. The result was that all Dominions rejected the proposal. As a compromise it was agreed that Admiral Jellicoe should tour the Dominions to advise on the needs of Dominion navies.
Hughes crossed swords with the naval establishment when HMAS Australia returned home in June 1919 with an incident in Fremantle where stokers refused to take the ship to sea, resulting in the court-martial of five ringleaders. In a nation recovering from a horrendous war, naval discipline by way of prison sentences meted out to the culprits seemed out of touch with community expectations and political pressure was brought to bear for reduced sentences. The Fleet Commander, the Australian born and popular Commodore John Saumarez Dumaresq, and the First Naval Member of the Naval Board, Rear Admiral Grant, threatened to resign in what they considered political interference in naval justice. Luckily they were persuaded to withdraw their resignations and the incident was largely forgotten.
In April 1922 John Dumaresq, now a Rear Admiral, had resigned and was returning home to England. Prior to his departure the Admiral took the opportunity to speak his mind to reporters. He expressed fears held throughout the Australian Fleet chastising the Government for the lack of appropriate funding for the navy, and expressing the hope that the Australian Navy would never fall below three light cruisers and an adequate number of other ships such as submarines. ‘If she falls below three light cruisers, the soul of the Australian Navy will have expired, as the spirit, morale – call it what you will – of a navy cannot be maintained with anything less than three light cruisers’.
These comments incensed Prime Minister Hughes who responded by saying the Admiral’s comments were ‘unfortunate and showed rather bad taste’ and continued, ‘it is the business of the Naval Board, of which Admiral Everett is chief, to advise the Government upon naval policy, and it is the business of the admiral in charge of the fleet to command the forces placed at his disposal by the Government on the advice of the Naval Board. Therefore, whatever is to be said in reference to the naval policy of the Government should be left to the responsible naval adviser’. This rebuke was hotly resented by naval officers who supported the comments of the late fleet commander. The last word came from Admiral Dumaresq who said ‘it would not become me to reply to such a great man as the Prime Minister of Australia’, adding that his intent was to be open with the Australian people about his beliefs. Tragically Admiral Dumaresq, who suffered from ill health, was never to return home as within a month he died at an American hospital in Manila and he was buried there with full military honours provided by American armed forces.
Dumaresq’s comments related to Government restrictions being placed upon the RAN because of economic stringencies. With the onset of the Great Depression the RAN suffered severely. Recruiting ceased and no new entries were accepted into the Naval College which had been moved from Jervis Bay to the Flinders Naval Depot. Manpower was reduced and the number of ships in commission fell, at its lowest level to just four ships: two cruisers, a seaplane tender and one destroyer. But by the mid-1930s there was a progressive movement towards rearmament and the RAN quickly returned to a formidable naval force.
William Hughes was also instrumental in providing support to the establishment of the Returned Services League (RSL) and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO). He also set up the Commonwealth Oil Refineries which had the effect of halving the local price of motor fuel, and encouragement was given to the search for oil deposits in Australia. He endeavoured, with limited success, to provide a regular service of airships between Britain and Australia. He also secured approval to establish a direct overseas wireless link from Australia to other major centers. As a consequence, Hughes became a director of Amalgamated Wireless Australia (AWA).
By 1923 the Hughes magic was fading and with lack of support he resigned as Prime Minister on 2 February 1923, retiring to the back bench. Hughes made another tilt for power when as part of a coalition government in October 1934 he became Minister for Health and Repatriation but only lasted a short while, resigning the following November. However, within three months he was back as Minister for External Affairs until April 1939, then as Attorney-General, and from September 1940 as Minister for the Navy. While the approach of the Second World War stimulated the old warhorse he was now becoming a spectator as younger men sought power.
On his 90th birthday his parliamentary colleagues gave him a testimonial dinner. A week later on 28 October 1952 he died of pneumonia.
William Morris Hughes was Prime Minister of Australia from 27 October 1915 to 9 February 1923, a then-record period of 7 years, 3 months and 14 days, and he led a politically diverse country through the majority of the Great War and beyond.
The international image Australia sought to portray at the time of the Great War was of a breed of tall, carefree, country boys who became bronzed warriors. In this respect their political leader, the symbolic ‘Little Digger’, was the very opposite. Hughes was portrayed as a poor self-educated working class migrant, nurtured by the union movement to represent the aspirations of the working class. Hughes in fact came from a solid lower-middle class background, was well educated and continued with his studies as is evidenced by admittance as a barrister-at-law, and acknowledged with the accolade of being made a Privy Counsellor, and the award of honorary doctorates from prestigious universities. The real Hughes was more at home with the ideals of Plato and Kant rather than the radical socialism of Marx and Lenin.
Hughes was an enigma, a man of contradictions; starting with a socialist manifesto he became comfortable in the society of newspaper barons, landowners and industrialists. During his amazing career he achieved much but in naval and maritime circles he will be remembered as doing more than any other in building a fleet and then losing a fleet.
Of the immediate Hughes family, tragically their 21-year-old unmarried daughter Helen died in London in 1937 after complications following childbirth. William Hughes died in Sydney on 28 October 1952; his wife Mary died on 2 April 1958 and is buried in the Sydney Northern Suburbs Cemetery next to her husband and daughter.
Bridge, Carl, Makers of the Modern World – The peace conferences of 1919 – 23 and theiraftermath, London: Haus Publishing Ltd, 2011.
Gratton, Michelle, Ed, Australian Prime Ministers – Revised & Updated, Sydney: New Holland Publishers, 2016.
Imperial War Cabinet Minutes 10 January 1918 – 03 July 1918, filestore.nationalarchives.gov.uk/pdfs/large/cab-24-151.pdf.
Imperial War Cabinet Minutes 13 August 1918 – 30 December 1918, filestore.nationalarchives.gov.uk/pdfs/large/cab-23-42.pdf.
Horne, Donald, In Search of Billy Hughes, Melbourne: MacMillan, 1979.
Levi, Werner, American-Australian Relations, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1947.
McDonnell, Captain R., Build a Fleet, Lose a Fleet, Melbourne: The Hawthorne Press, 1976.
Sheden, Douglas, From Boundary Rider to Prime Minister, London: Hutchinson, 1916.
Spartalis, Peter,The Diplomatic Battles of Billy Hughes, Sydney: Hale & Iremonger, 1983.
- From the time of end of the Boer War to the start of the Second World War there were a number of Committees on Imperial Defence to which colonial, later Dominion, representatives were invited. In 1917 Lloyd George instituted an Imperial War Cabinet with executive powers. It first met and held a number of meetings between March and May 1917. Owing to a federal general election in May 1917 Australia was not represented during this important series of meetings.
- LCDR John Greig Latham RANVR was seconded to the official delegation for the 1918 Imperial War Cabinet meetings. Although recognising the achievements of Hughes he was critical of the Prime Minister’s excesses and affronted by his manner in dealing with diplomatic issues. In 1923 Latham was amongst an influential group who sought the resignation of Prime Minister Hughes. Sir John Latham later became Chief Justice of the High Court. Between the wars Latham was one of the few men in Australian politics with naval experience.
- All five Bay-class ships were sold but there were some later and confusing name changes,Esperance Baybecoming Arawaand then Hobsons Bayrenamed Esperance Bay, both these vessels and their sister Moreton Baywere later converted in Australian shipyards to Armed Merchant Cruisers (AMC). Jervis Bay’s conversion to an AMC was carried out at St John, New Brunswick, Canad
An article in the December 2018 edition of this magazine on Victoria Crosses makes no mention of the award to civilian recipients, in particular two Mercantile Marine1officers. The following may be of interest.
Captain Frederick Parslow VC
The lowly horse transport SS Anglo-Californian, owned by Short Bros of Sunderland, had nearly completed her voyage from Canada to England with a cargo of 927 horses destined for the Western Front. On 4 July 1915 she was shelled by the submarineU-39. Her master Frederick Parslow tried in vain to evade the shots but after making an SOS, and with his ship severely damaged, was forced to stop and abandon her. While boats were being prepared a radio message was received telling him to hold on as long as possible as help was on its way. Accordingly, the Captain managed to get his ship underway again but in the ensuing action he was mortally wounded and 21 of his crew died. His son, who was Second Mate, (also named Frederick Parslow) assumed command. About an hour later two destroyers approached and the submarine dived.
The ship was towed into port and after repairs was sold and renamed Vandalia.Ironically, when on passage from England to Canada on 9 June 1918, in a similar position to her previous encounter with a submarine, this vessel was sunk by U-96.
A newspaper article of the former event concludes as follows: Captain Parslow set a splendid example to the officers and men of the Mercantile Marine. Later for most conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty Captain Parslow was posthumously recommended for the award of a Victoria Cross and his son, who helped save the ship and her cargo, for the award of the Distinguished Service Cross.
Captain Archibald Bisset Smith VC
The New Zealand Shipping Company’s SS Otaki,under command of Captain Archibald Bisset Smith, was on passage from New York to London when on 10 March 1917 in the mid-Atlantic she sighted the German raiderSMS Möwe,Otaki was armed with one 4.7-inch (119 mm) gun intended to ward off surfaced submarines; Möwewas armed with 4 x 5.9-inch (150 mm) guns and 1 x 22 pounder (105 mm) gun, plus two torpedo tubes and mines.
The raider called on Otakito stop but Captain Bisset Smith refused and in the ensuing action recorded a number of hits on Möwecausing considerable damage; five of her crew were killed and another 10 injured. But Otaki herself was severely damaged and on fire. The Captain ordered his crew to abandon ship but he remained and with five comrades went down with his ship. A later enemy account of this action termed it a gallant duel. For his gallant action against overwhelming odds Captain Bisset Smith was. posthumously recommended for the award of the Victoria Cross.
Captain Charles Fryatt
Charles Fryatt was an experienced master of British railway ferries crossing the North Sea. On 3 March 1915 when he was in command of SS Wrexham,she was attacked by a German U-boat. While making maximum speed his ship was chased for forty miles before making the safety of Rotterdam. For this feat his employers presented him with an inscribed gold watch.
A few weeks later on 28 March, Captain Fryatt, now in command of SS Brussels, was off the Dutch coast when ordered to stop by U-33. Instead the Captain ordered full ahead and attempted to ram the submarine which was obliged to crash dive. This action was in accordance with instruction given to captains of British merchant ships. For this second action Captain Fryatt also received an inscribed gold watch, this time presented by the Admiralty.
These insults to the German Navy did not go unnoticed and on 25 June 1916 when SS Brusselsclearedthe neutral Hook of Holland she was surrounded by five German destroyers. The ship was boarded and taken to nearby occupied Belgium where the passengers were released but the crew became prisoners of war.
In the Belgium city of Bruges Captain Fryatt was court-martialed and charged with attempting to destroy a German submarine. On 27 July 1916 he was found guilty and sentenced to death. On the same day he was executed by firing squad and buried on the outskirts of the city.
There was an international outcry and his execution was widely condemned. His Majesty King George V in a letter to Captain Fryatt’s widow wrote: The action of Captain Fryatt in defending his ship against the attack of an enemy submarine was a noble instance of the resource and self-reliance so characteristic of his profession.
Possibly owing to the politically sensitive civilian/military situation caused by this case Captain Fryatt was only posthumously awarded Belgian honours and decorations. In 1919 Captain Fryatt’s remains were exhumed and returned to England aboard the destroyer HMS Orpheus. A state funeral was held at St Paul’s Cathedral with a naval escort preceded by drummers of the Royal Marines – thousands lined the streets. His body was finally laid to rest in the churchyard in his home village of Dovercourt, fittingly overlooking the sea near the ferry port of Harwich.
Award of Victoria Crosses
The situation regarding the award of honours to Captains Parslow and Bisset Smith remained unresolved with the Admiralty being unable to reconcile the problem. His Majesty, who because of his naval service was known as ‘Our Sailor King’, remained firmly of the opinion that these two officers needed recognition and ordered that a solution be found. Accordingly, both officers and Frederick Parslow junior were retrospectively given commissions in the Royal Naval Reserve which allowed His Majesty to posthumously confer these great honours which were accepted by the next of kin of both Captain Parslow and Captain Bisset Smith. Frederick Parslow (junior) was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.
Captain Bisset Smith’s medals were later acquired by the New Zealand Shipping Company and displayed in a cabinet in the officers’ saloon of another MV Otaki.With her demise they are now held by the P & O Company’s Heritage Collection.
In memory of Captain Bisset Smith his family presented the Otaki Shield to his old school, Robert Gordon College, in Scotland as an annual award to a senior student judged ‘pre-eminent in character, leadership and athletics’. This is accompanied by six weeks as the Otaki Scholar visiting schools in New Zealand. Captain Bisset Smith married in New Zealand and is closely associated with that country.
We leave it to the reader to decide whether or not Victoria Crosses were awarded to civilians. Within the exigencies of war and the haze of battle, lines are crossed and the distinction between rules and regulations can be less than clear. What is the status of the captain of an armed ship such as Otaki which opens fire upon an enemy? And in the case of the heroic Captain Fryatt, was his execution a message to likeminded aggressive merchantmen, not to endanger enemy ships?
At this time the term Mercantile Marine was in common use and the title Merchant Navy was not bestowed by King George V on British merchant shipping until 1928. The Mercantile Marine Medal, established in 1919, was awarded to members of the Mercantile Marine who had served at sea for not less than six months between 4 August 1914 and 11 November 1918.