From German Raiders of the South Seas, by Robin Bromby (Highgate, 2012), Kindle Loc. 441-459, 636-658:
The Germans took advantage of the dithering by the British, and raised their flag on the northern coast of New Guinea. The British Government, confronted by this development, was furious. Although not then in the government (but later to be colonial secretary himself), Joseph Chamberlain spoke for British public opinion when he said: ‘I don’t care about New Guinea, and I am not afraid of German colonisation, but I don’t like to be cheeked by Bismarck or anyone else’. Britain promptly proclaimed its sovereignty over the southern part of the island, the territory to be known as Papua.
The Germans, meanwhile, had marked out their claim. North-east mainland New Guinea became Kaiser Wilhelmsland, New Britain was renamed Neu Pommern, and New Ireland was now Neu Mecklenburg. The village of Kokopo, on Neu Pommern, was the main German administrative centre and was renamed Herbertshohe. But what scared the Australians more than changes of nomenclature was that Germany now had a potential naval base in their backyard (and in New Zealand’s backyard once the Germans acquired the western islands of Samoa).
Where the flag went, so went German trading companies. The most famous was the Hamburg house of Godeffroy which had set up its first trading base in Samoa in 1857. In 1872 an English visitor to the Gilbert and Ellice Islands reported that almost all the white men there were agents of a Godeffroy ally, Weber and Company of Apia. That same year a Royal Navy ship found a Godeffroy agent established at Ponape in the Caroline Islands. In fact, by the end of the 1870s the company had posts and agencies in Fiji, Tonga, the Solomon Islands, the New Hebrides, New Britain and the Marshall Islands as well. They were out to corner the copra trade. And they were supported back in Germany by an insistent new group, the Kolonialverein, which advocated the importance of trade with colonial territories. German ships traded with non-German islands including Tonga. It was significant that German companies had established themselves in the region well before the imperial thrust from Berlin. Hermsheim Company opened a branch at Yap, part of the Caroline Islands, in 1873 to trade copra. In 1903, the Germans discovered phosphate on Angaur Island in the Carolines (now in the Republic of Palau) and in 1909 Deutsche Sudsee Phosphat AG began mining, production rising to 90,000 tons in 1913.
New Guinea was the poor relation. By the time they were thrown out in 1914, the Germans had still never even come into contact with the majority of their subjects. However, they did achieve a great deal more in terms of economic development, public works and education than did the Australians in Papua. (By 1914 the Australians had not even built a public school.)
The failure of this German colony is adduced by the fact that shortly before the war there were only slightly more than 1,100 Europeans living on mainland New Guinea and the Bismarck Archipelago combined. It was hot, covered in jungle, peopled by what were seen at the time as savages and malaria was lying in wait for any European. Hundreds of thousands, probably millions, of marks were pumped into plantations which returned practically nothing. Berlin did not care — it had neither the economic importance of German East Africa, the naval appeal of Tsingtao, nor the emotional tug of Samoa.
But Australia did care about New Guinea. It remembered how the Germans had sneaked in during 1884. It also knew that any German colony, malarial or not, was a safe haven for the Imperial German Navy and, as such, ought to be taken seriously. The New Zealanders had similar fears for Western Samoa — along with the desire to make it the jewel in the crown of New Zealand’s Pacific empire.
On the morning of 6 August 1914 a cipher telegraph arrived from the Colonial Secretary in London addressed to the Australian Governor-General:
If your Ministers desire and feel themselves able to seize German wireless stations at Yap in Marshall Islands, Nauru on Pleasant Island, and New Guinea, we should feel that this was a great and urgent Imperial service. You will, however, realise that any territory now occupied must be at the disposal of the Imperial Government for purposes of an ultimate settlement at conclusion of the war. Other Dominions are acting in a similar way on the same understanding, in particular, suggestion is being made to New Zealand in regard to Samoa.
Australia and New Zealand did not need to be asked a second time. The Dominion governments were behind Britain all the way; the recruits could not wait to sink a bayonet into a German. At the turn of the century, German’s Foreign Secretary Prince von Bülow had stated contentedly that ‘now Germany’s possessions in the South Seas are complete and this treaty (with Spain over the Carolines and Marianas) together with the one with China regarding Kiaochow, are milestones along the same road, the road to Weltpolitik’.
The Australians sailed from Sydney on 19 August. The Australian army force left aboard the armed troopship the Berrima which, together with the navy escort, arrived off Herbertshohe on 11 September.