Sid Thompson and D Company: the Story

This story is an early first draft of the full story. The final version now published as part of Seen and Unseen: a century of stories from Asia and the Pacific, published by Glass House Books an imprint of IP (Interactive Publications Pty Ltd) has more detail and dialogue. Buy the book here

I often thought about him when I revisited the places he’d shown me as a child.  Standing here on the northern headland of Coogee, looking south towards Wylie‘s, I could see some of his favourite places.  Beyond and unseen was our special place.  A dramatic embayment with a spectacular overhang where a small waterfall still cascades from a swampy land lying between cliff’s edge and a towering sandy hill.  This towering fixed dune forms the background in Tom Roberts Holiday at Coogee. In those days the old Batty mansion stood at its base, guarded by stone lions, gazing in vigil to the north and the south.

Sid Thompson aged 57, the year before his death.

He was only 19 when he settled in Sydney’s eastern suburbs.  Leaving his parents’ place in Summer Hill he moved to Bondi in the winter of 1914.  This was the first time he’d ventured away from home but he was in no sense bound to his family.  He had a strong and independent spirit, one that had led him to seek self-sufficiency and to chart his own course in life. He was well suited to coastal life; it afforded him a great sense of freedom.  His own father hailed from the small island of Jersey in the English Channel so he loved the coast, talk of the sea was part of his family’s style. He loved long coastal ambles, sometimes throwing in a line or just taking a dip in one of the countless bogey holes between Bondi and Maroubra.

A purposeful young man, Sid worked as a shop assistant and had already served three years in the 39th Infantry, part of the citizens militia forces.  With a sharp mind, a deft ability to work with figures and a serious but charismatic persona he was developing an interest in the racing industry, he dreamed of becoming a bookmaker Just after the move to Bondi Great Britain declared war on Germany.

Remote as it must have seemed events suddenly assumed a sharp regional significance when, three days later, the British War Office requested Australian support in seizing German colonies in Nauru, the Caroline Islands, New Guinea and the Bismarck Archipelago (New Britain and New Ireland).  Enemy wireless stations, particularly the one at Herbertshöhe in New Britain, were critical to the operational effectiveness of the East Asiatic Squadron of the Imperial German Navy. While these stations remained operational contact could be maintained with German naval head quarters at Kiau Chau [Know known as Qingdao (青島) and located on the The Shāndōng Peninsula ( 山东半岛)], in China.  Their presence rendered the sea-lanes between Australia and the Middle East vulnerable to attack and gave the squadron great freedom of movement in Asia and the Pacific.

Australian destroyers and a light cruiser quickly converged on naval anchorages in New Britain, but the elusive East Asiatic Squadron had vanished.  Urgent military action was now imperative.  The wireless stations were vital nodes in a web of naval communications linking this remote corner of the South West Pacific back to China and Germany.

There was an immediate call for volunteers, marines in particular.  On 11 August 1914, the Naval and Military Expeditionary Force (ANMEF) Tropical Unit 1 Battalion was formed, in Sydney. Given Sid’s experience he was an ideal recruit for the new force. A mere eight days later the ANMEF, a battalion of 1,000 infantry, 500 naval reservists and former Royal Navy seaman embarked on the recently converted P&O liner HMAT Berrima, bound for Palm Island, off the coast of Queensland.  Here they received two weeks training for the exercise.  Ultimate destination still secret they were joined by the battleship Australia.

One of the best known WWI photos, but do people realise this is ANMEF departing?

Events moved rapidly.  On 7 September the force left for Rabaul with a naval escort that also included the new submarines HMAS AE1 and AE2.  After five days steaming through the Coral Sea and no encounter with the East Asiatic Squadron, the landings began.  One detachment attacked Bita Paka, another made straight for Herbertshöhe, while another seized Rabaul.  German resistance was completely overwhelmed and within days the acting Governor surrendered German New Guinea.  All subsequent operations in Bougainville and on the mainland of New Guinea were unopposed.  Total losses in action amounted to about six servicemen.  The only substantial loss of the campaign was submarine HMAS AE1, which disappeared without trace.  It probably struck an uncharted reef, off the Gazelle Peninsula, and sank with all 35 hands.

As a Naval and Military campaign, the victories of ANMEF seldom draw much attention, the sacrifices of Gallipoli and the Western Front taking precedence in the official national memory.  Few remember the German colonies in our region, let alone the small naval and military campaign that flagged the emergence of an embryonic strategic regional engagement.  The geopolitical significance of the campaign was dwarfed by the by the scale and gravity of the losses sustained in the European and Middle Eastern theatres of the Great War.

Just outside the consciousness of most Australians at the time, forces that continue to shape our culture and us were revealed in this obscure engagement.  While the Germans were easy to defeat the power of hitherto unseen forces was beginning to emerge.  The campaign was an encounter with new and as yet intangible realities.  The mysterious loss of submarine HMAS AE1 was just the first of these encounters while politically the implications of our success in the eyes of our imperial ally Japan were unresolved.  For the men on the ground the most tangible and confronting experience must have been the wet season of 1914-15.

When the rains started in late October or early November Sid had already been promoted from Private to Lance Corporal.  His skills in communication saw him working as a telephone switchboard attendant, in Rabaul.  He was attached, on a temporary basis, to the Royal Australian Engineers under Lt. B.T.Goadby. Rabaul was well laid out with some fine colonial buildings.  Low green hedges separated airy timber houses set high on piles and surrounded by verandas.  Broad streets were divided by rows of flame trees, acacia and casuarinas.  Kitchens stood well back from houses minimizing the risk of fires and reinforcing the social separation between householders and Tolai servants. Rabaul even had its own botanic gardens and cinema.
Rabaul’s main street

Rabaul’s main street

From Sabang to the Rabaul, trading connections with China already extended well back into the Ming Dynasty.  Chinese settlers ventured out into the Dutch East Indies and Melanesia in increasing numbers from the early Ching.  Rabaul already had a substantial Chinese Diaspora attracted by the economics of the lucrative copra industry established by the Germans.  About 500 had already settled in town and a further 500 lived outside.  Chinese businesses and houses stretched some 300 metres along the main street, near the Tolai markets, bringing a distinct Chinese influence to the town.  No doubt the community also supported its own Tao-Buddhist temple.

Apparent victory in hand there was little to do in the wet, yet unseen forces gathered.  A stealthy and highly effective enemy moved amongst the people, choosing their targets well and laying the elements of a strategy that guaranteed ultimate victory.  They were experts in camouflage.  One group aimed principally to incapacitate the enemy.  Adept at making use of fallen palm fronds, coconut shells, boats, tin cans and tarpaulins, they moved so close to the AMNEF deployments that their presence was probably detected but perhaps overlooked as benign.  Further out on the perimeter of the town, in low lying and swampy areas, a second more lethal force gathered strength as the wet season consolidated.

Today we know them better as dengue fever and malaria. Dengue is a virus spread by the Aedes aegypti mosquito.  It causes an acute viral fever often with symptoms such as headaches, bone and muscular pain, rash and a lower than normal white blood cell count. Malaria is a far more dangerous condition produced by one of four protozoan parasites of the genus Plasmodium.  Carried by female anopheline mosquitos, its resistance to treatment varies, depending on the parasite involved. Its life cycle is complex.  Both Plasmodium vivax and Plasmodium Falciparum were common in the area. Vivax tends to recur in three day cycles causing high fevers alternating with chills, profuse sweating, sever headaches and extreme weakness.  It is particularly debilitating because destroys red blood cells.  It commonly recurs and relapses may occur years after infection.  Falciparum malaria is far graver and if left untreated, amongst people without immunity, is often fatal in three to four weeks. In ANMEF’s case immunity was the key to the problem.

The medical officer sensed this early on and used his own initiative to requisition quinine.  Just how much he managed to obtain is unclear but it was ineffective against falciparum.  Realising that more diagnostic precision was required, he requisitioned a microscope. Melanesian people of New Guinea and the Bismarck Archipelago had a degree of immunity to malaria. Although the death rate amongst children was high they had learned to live with it.  In coastal areas where malaria was endemic constant re-infection stimulated and maintained an immune response.  Mosquito, parasites and humans lived in an ecological balance. The sudden appearance of a large alien population had significant ecological implications.  It created a new ecological space, increasing the number of opportunities for the plasmodium parasites to flourish unconstrained by the problem of immunity.  Amongst the ANMEF men there was a parasitic population explosion and accelerating rates of transmission.

Men line up for their dose of quinine.

Sid contracted vivax malaria that wet season.  It was with him on and off for years and probably contributed to his early death in 1952.

Throughout his life Sid had great confidence in traditional Chinese medicine that was unusual for his time.  In the last months of his life he was receiving treatment from a Chinese herbalist. It’s likely that on one of his many ambles through the Rabaul’s Chinatown Sid began to wonder just how such a large community was surviving the problem of malaria.  Perhaps he stumbled onto the solution, perhaps it was given to him, either way his abiding interest in Chinese herbs seems to indicate that he new something.  Certainly there’s no evidence that ANMEF did anything more than issues quinine tablets to the troops, yet the alternative treatment must have been everywhere.  A simple herb, sweet wormwood, probably imported from China was widely used in Chinese medicine as an anti-malarial.  We now know that it’s actually more effective than quinine in the treatment of vivax.  Alternatives abound across the string of islands to our north, simple things like a ginger known as tsaoko fruit and the widely available Java brucea fruit.

ANMEF’s commander fell in November 1914 and was replaced Colonel William Holmes a Boer War veteran.  Holmes went on to serve in Egypt, Gallippoli, Poziers and Flers assuming command of the 4th Division in January 1917.  Holmes continued campaigning for recognition of ANMEF’s efforts, acknowledging that while they hadn’t undergone all the risks and hardships of other overseas forces that when looking at the casualty lists from Malaria, their lot was not an enviable one.

Sid was never bitter about the burdens of war, his response to the tragedy was remarkably adaptive he sought neither glory nor compensation.  He certainly understood and felt the sacrifices of war yet as my grandfather I can’t remember him talking about it at all.  As an adult I often wondered how he must have felt when 27 years later a militia unit, bearing the same names as his old unit, fought the Japanese advance along the Kokoda Track sustaining heavy casualties from malaria.

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