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Previous Ministers' releases and speeches - Senator The Hon. Michael Ronaldson

Senator the Hon. Michael Ronaldson
Minister for Veterans' Affairs
Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Centenary of ANZAC
Special Minister of State

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Thursday, 11 September 2011
VA051

**CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY**
REMARKS AT THE BITA PAKA COMMEMORATIVE EVENT BITA PAKA WAR CEMETARY, RABAUL, PNG

[Greetings omitted]

One hundred years ago, the land on which we stand was a possession of the German Empire, a possession that was won and lost in war.

It was a sign of the times that this far-flung colonial outpost, of questionable strategic importance to the land war raging on the other side of the world, was to be the first place where Australians would fight and die during the First World War.

Those who came ashore here 100 years ago today could not have imagined the horror of war.

And in the peaceful quiet today, it is hard for us to imagine the sounds of war which echoed from these hills during the battle which raged.

The six Australians who died here, did not die in vain.  Their service, their sacrifice, was in defence of values they held dear.  Truths which were worth defending at home, close to home, or far from home.

Today we remember especially Able Seaman Billy Williams, Captain Brian Pockley, Signalman Robert Moffat, Able Seaman John Walker (enlisted as John Courtney), Able Seaman Harry Street, Lieutenant Commander Charles Elwell, RN.

Today we mark the centenary of Australia’s first campaign of the First World War and remember in particular the six men who fell in the brief but bitter encounter at Bita Paka at the beginning of this campaign.

Shortly after the war’s beginning, the British Government requested that Australia perform a ‘great and urgent imperial service’ - that being an attack on Germany’s Pacific territories and the destruction of their all-important wireless stations.  The combined naval and military force that was formed to fulfill this duty was known as the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force (AN&MEF).

These German wireless stations were vital to the operations of the German Navy’s East Asia Squadron in the Pacific – a fleet that posed a significant danger to Allied shipping and whose whereabouts were unknown.

The AN&MEF reached New Britain on 11 September 1914 and several parties of naval reservists were landed at Kabakaul and Herbertshöhe on Blanche Bay with orders to destroy the German wireless stations believed to be a few miles inland.

While one party encountered no resistance, the men who had come ashore at Kabakaul were soon engaged by German and local troops.  In the ensuing fighting, six Australians were killed and another five were wounded.  One German Officer and thirty Papua New Guineans also died.

Having forced the Germans and New Guineans to surrender the Australians advanced on the Bita Paka wireless station, only to find it had already been abandoned. 

This was the first Australian battle of the First World War.
The Australians killed at Bita Paka were the first of more than 60,000 who lost their lives in the Great War.

The Bita Paka war cemetery is a fitting resting place for those men who gave their lives in service of their nations’.  This beautiful cemetery contains more than 1,100 graves, of which some 500 are unknown.  A reminder of the price paid for the freedoms we enjoy today.

A total of 455 Australians are buried here, including 29 casualties of the First World War but just as significantly, are the burials of servicemen from the United Kingdom, India, Fiji, New Zealand and four of unknown nationality.

On behalf of the Australian Government, I would like to acknowledge the assistance of the Papua New Guinea Government, who work closely with the Office of Australian War Graves on behalf of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in maintaining the memory of those Australians and servicemen of other Commonwealth nations who lie here at rest in Bita Paka. 

Few too Australian’s know that Bita Paka was Australia’s first action of the Great War, and is thus an important moment in Australian wartime history, but the losses suffered here were soon eclipsed by our country’s first naval tragedy, the disappearance of the submarine AE1 with all hands lost somewhere off Cape Gazelle, just a few kilometres from here. 

The AE1 was one of the Royal Australian Navy’s first two submarines and had been part of the fleet dispatched to German New Guinea with the AN&MEF.  She was patrolling in waters near here on 14 September 1914.

When she was last seen she was apparently returning to Simpson Harbour. 

AE1 was the first Royal Australian Naval vessel lost in war.  Her disappearance and the loss of her 35-strong crew of British and Australian sailors has been described as ‘’the RAN’s greatest mystery’’.

No trace of AE1 has ever been found despite an extensive search when she failed to return to port.  Sadly we must accept that the whereabouts of her crew’s final resting place may never be known. 

Today we share in commemorating the servicemen lost at Bita Paka and the crew of the AE1

I thank you all for making this journey to Bita Paka and hope that all of us here today remember our servicemen and women, those who served in decades past and those who continue to serve today. 

It is up to all of us to ensure their legacy lives on.

Lest we forget.

Veterans and Veterans Families Counselling Service (VVCS) and Veterans Line can be reached 24 hours a day across Australia for crisis support and free and confidential counselling. Phone 1800 011 046

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