Friday, 27 May 2016

By Airship Across Unknown New Guinea

Could the Great War of 1914-18 have been averted? There have been many speculations about how different decisions by the statesmen and diplomats might have made a difference. Were Germany and Britain really doomed to come into conflict? One little- known episode in the very year of the war shows the two nations planning to co-operate on a joint expedition to map unknown territory. If it had gone ahead and shown them successfully working together, with tales of comradeship and daring shared by citizens of the two countries, might the public mood back home have changed?

Such is the tantalising possibility offered by the German-English Airship Expedition to New Guinea planned for the Summer of 1914. Germany, through the determination of Count Zeppelin, was a pioneer in airship design and manufacture. But it was a latecomer in the drive to acquire overseas possessions. Britain lagged badly behind in making airships, but had a vast empire and a record of exploration.

The terrain of Papua New Guinea in the Pacific was mostly dense jungle, and full of unmapped rivers, marshes, lagoons, ravines and mountains. Surveying on foot was virtually impossible. So the idea was to photograph and map the land by airship. As well as the scientific and geographical gains, there was a potential commercial one: the project hoped to identify areas where large coconut and tobacco plantations could be developed. The expedition could also collect meteorological data to aid aircraft and shipping.

The plan had been hatched by Lt Paul Graetz, an explorer who had already written about his exploits in crossing Africa by car in 1908-9, a project in which the Kaiser himself took a special interest. He had inspected the vehicle, a specially constructed 45 horsepower machine which could hold enough fuel for over six hundred miles, and asked for regular reports on Graetz’s progress. The officer in the East African forces had journeyed from Dar-es-Salaam, then in German East Africa, through British colonies to Swakopmund, on the coast of German South West Africa. He had made a point of noting how this linked the two German colonies, with British consent and support for the journey. Both the Kaiser and King Edward VII sent him congratulatory telegrams.

The large Pacific island was largely undeveloped. The European population was small –just a few hundred – and consisted mostly of missionaries, a few officials, planters and traders, and the drifters that inevitably, for reasons of their own, found their way to places remote from too much interference. The indigenous population had an extraordinarily distinctive and rich culture, with an almost uncountable number of different languages.

There was, of course, a military and naval interest in the New Guinea airship scheme: if colonial rivalries burst out into war, knowledge of the interior and of the coast would be invaluable. Already Papua New Guinea and the surrounding islands were divided between four powers. The Netherlands held the western half of Papua New Guinea, and the Australian State of Queensland had annexed the south-eastern quarter, bringing in a reluctant British interest, since Queensland was still a Crown colony. The north-eastern portion was a German colony that had been named Kaiser-Wilhelmsland. Further afield, French Pacific territories were not far away: the USA had begun to acquire islands for guano production and strategic interests; and a resurgent Japan was already extending its influence in the region.

But the ostensible reason for the expedition, and indeed it may genuinely have been the principal impulse, was scientific. The Kaiser was keenly interested in ethnographic reports on his colonies: every survey, for example, was required to record on wax cylinders and return to Berlin the voices of the native peoples, capturing their language and customs. The expedition personnel were to include members competent in a wide range of scholarly disciplines. As well as surveyors and photographers, it was proposed to collect botanical, geological, meteorological, oceanographic and zoological data and samples. There would also supporting engineering and mechanical staff and a small detachment from the German Navy. The supposed British involvement was from a “Colonel Smith”, said to be interested in investing in the project and in carrying out photographic work.

The plan was to make an initial base at the mouth of the fully navigable River Sepik, where it flows into the Bismarck Sea in NE New Guinea, within German territory. The survey would then start by surveying the coast and identifying sites to set up temporary stations where the airship could dock and take refuge in adverse weather conditions. The scientists could also be accommodated here to catalogue their findings in between flights. There would also be warehouses for supplies. From each station the airship would explore inland in carefully plotted segments, keeping always within reach of its base. There was tentative agreement to permit temporary airship stations on the coast of the Dutch and British colonies. This appealed to the diplomats, who urged the importance of co-operating with the other European nations on the expedition. This would help to allay suspicions about its purpose, and gain vital logistical support.

Once the segments of surveying from each temporary station had been completed and the results of each compared, the expedition, building on its experience so far, would next go further into the interior to cover any country not so far mapped and photographed. This was the rather more hazardous element of the plan, for the airship would be more at the mercy of sudden storms, and its supply chain would be extended much further.

The expedition was sufficiently well advanced to have special stamps designed and printed to raise funds and promote its plans. The 2 pfenning blue labels depicted a sunlit airship rising over palm trees, with the title ‘Deutsch-Englische Luftschiffexpedition’ and the legend ‘Z. Erforschung V. Neu-Guinea’ (“To Explore New Guinea”). The stamps would no doubt have also been used on envelopes posted back to stamp collectors and supporters around the world. Similar labels were issued by British expeditions to Mount Everest and the Antarctic. The combination of adventure, the allure of the airship, and the chance to get letters from a philatelic wilderness would have proved very appealing.

Alas, it was not to be. Even as the plans were being made, the two countries were drifting into war. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on 28 June precipitated a diplomatic crisis that led to war involving all the European Great Powers on 28 July. The war soon spread to their colonies across the world. Australian troops invaded and soon occupied Kaiser-Wilhelmsland and the nearby German Pacific islands: the Japanese took those to the north. None were ever to return to Germany. After the war, unofficial “mourning stamps” were issued for each colony, in black.

As for Lt Paul Graetz, he served as a fighter pilot on the western front, and launched a civil airline after the war. He died in the Baltic port of Travemünde, near Lübeck, in February 1968, in a house he named "Afrikaruh" ('African Rest').

The war was not quite the end of the German presence in New Guinea, though.

When it broke out, Lt Hermann Detzner, with a corps of native troops, was on what was described as a “surveying expedition” on the borders between the German and Australian parts of the island. This might have been linked to the planned airship project, but was probably also partly a spying opportunity. He did not hear of the war until much later, and claimed to have eluded capture by pushing further on into the interior. His book Vier Jahre unter Kannibalen : Von 1914 bis zum Waffenstillstand unter deutscher Flagge im unerforschten Innern von Neuguinea ("Four Years Among Cannibals: under the German flag in the unexplored interior of New Guinea from 1914 until the Armistice," Berlin, 1921) made him a hero who had kept an undefeated corner of the world for his country. Some of his claims were later disputed both by Australian officials and German missionaries on the islands, and he conceded he had written a “fictional account” of his adventures.

And ironically, there was another survival of Germany’s presence in the Pacific. Unserdeutsch, a pidgin version of German learnt by local children in an orphanage run by missionaries, joined the hundreds of other languages spoken on the islands, and is now as endangered as many of those, as its speakers die out and no-one new needs to know it. Today it has less than a hundred speakers, and is studied by ethnologists alongside the native tongues.

(c) Mark Valentine 2016


With thanks to ‘Planspiel: Mit dem Luftschiff Neuguinea vermessen’ (Game Plan: Surveying New Guinea by Airship) by Golf Dornseif.