German New Guinea – How Germany lost its territory in Pacific



In August 1914 the British called on the Australian and New Zealand governments to capture Germany’s colonial possessions in the Pacific. Among the most important was German New Guinea, annexed in 1884. Comprising the north-east of the island (Kaiser-Wilhelmsland) and several nearby islands (the Bismarck Archipelago), German New Guinea boasted Germany’s largest force in the Pacific, with more than 600 natives led by German officers and reservists.

The postcard from German New Guinea

Australian troops sailed to New Pomerania (now New Britain) to seize Rabaul, the administrative capital of German Oceania. Two parties struggled to pick their way through dense jungle. Then they encountered fierce resistance, coming under heavy fire from German and native gunmen hidden in trees and hastily built trenches.

Drilling native troops

Nevertheless, one party negotiated the mine-strewn road to the all-important wireless telegraph station at Bita Paka. Six Australians died during the battle, their first casualities of the war. But the Germans fared worse. Outnumbered, they surrendered.

Australian War Memorial

After brief negotiations, the German governor, Eduard Haber, surrendered the colony on 21 September 1914. That ended German presence in the Pacific, except for one man, Lieutenant Hermann Detzner, who was on a mapmaking expedition in the interior when the war broke out.

Hermann Detzner (1882 – 1970)

When he discovered that the colony had been occupied, Detzner refused to surrender, instead mobilising a force of 20 natives and Germans. That small band roamed the interior for four years, flying the German imperial flag whenever they could. After news of the end of the war reached his mountain camp, Detzner released his native policemen and presented himself, in carefully preserved full uniform, to the Allies at Rabaul in January 1919. He was briefly interned in a POW camp in Britain before returning to civilian life in Germany.

Flogging the German soldier

Germany lost all its colonies after the Treaty of Versailles, including German New Guinea, which merged with the Australian territory of Papua in 1949.