The Battle of Bitapaka

The New Guinea soldiers who also died in battle for their Crown and country


MacKenzie’s account tends to be rather disparaging of the fighting quality of the Melanesian troops, although he seems also to acknowledge that as snipers and in fire from rifle pits a number of them proved effective. From his account, a reader can identify each of the Australians who fell or were wounded, and most of the Germans killed or wounded; there are no names given for any of the Melanesian troops and,, in the course of preparing this summary, nothing has been found to indicate where the New Guineans who died in that first conflict in a European war were buried or laid to rest. For that reason alone, it may be appropriate to reproduce here Hiery’s tribute to them which may reflect a more considered retrospective from a German viewpoint of their contribution:

The behavior of the Melanesian police-soldiers in the battle for the German radio station deserves special mention. It is quite astonishing that at Bitapaka a hastily assembled indigenous troop of former plantation laborers and half-trained policemen, numbering just under forty, together with five Germans, could hold four hundred Australians armed with machine guns at bay for five hours. In the clash between German and Australian interests, Melanesians paid the highest toll in lives.

Finally, however, they were no longer prepared to die for others. Even the threat of execution could not persuade them to leave the protection of the trenches to shoot. After the first defeat of a German-Melanesian unit, other formations mutinied. "They said it was a fight between the whites, and was nothing to do with them," noted the German officer in charge. In any case, it was the deployment of Melanesian police-soldiers which allowed the Germans in New Guinea to gain favorable terms for the treaty of surrender. Without the support of the indigenous police, the Germans would not have been able to offer any resistance. The high Australian losses had convinced the Australian commander that they could not win a protracted bush war.