Today marks 100 years since the disappearance of Australia’s first submarine, and the death of a man believed to be Tasmania’s first World War I casualty. DAISY BAKER delves into her family history and looks at the fate of her great-great-uncle, Cyril Lefroy Baker.
I REMEMBER attending an Anzac Day dawn service in Launceston with my grandmother as a small child.
I was wearing the medals of my great-great-uncle Cyril, not quite grasping the full significance of his sacrifice in World War I.
Throughout my early schooling at Glen Dhu Primary, lessons about Australia’s involvement in World War I focused on the role of the Anzacs at Gallipoli. We were taught about Australia’s alliance with New Zealand and their landing at Anzac Cove on April 25, 1915, through to the signing of the armistice by the German government at the end of the Great War in 1918.
But there was a significant historical event that was not taught: the fate of the AE1, Australia’s first submarine.
For several decades my grandfather has collected information about his uncle, Cyril Lefroy Baker, and the AE1. One hundred years ago today, the submarine disappeared, with the 35 men aboard representing Australia’s first major military loss in World War I. Cyril, aged 22, was the AE1’s telegraphist (Morse code operator), and many believe on this day he became the first Tasmanian casualty of World War I.
Cyril, commonly known as ‘‘Buds’’, was born in Lefroy, east of George Town, in 1892. Before his service on AE1, he had more than three years’ experience in the Royal Australian Navy, serving on HMAS Protector and HMAS Encounter. During this time, he studied as a wireless telegraphist and successfully passed his exams on HMAS Cerberus in January 1913. The following year he embarked on AE1, under the command of Lieutenant-Commander Thomas Besant. The Weekly Courier reported the loss of AE1 10 days after its disappearance, describing Cyril as ‘‘a keen, intelligent, and industrious lad, well known in the several mining communities in which his family had lived, and a lad who might have gone far in the service’’.
At the outbreak of World War I, Australia placed all Royal Australian Navy ships and submarines under the control of the British Admiralty. AE1 and its sister submarine AE2 joined the Royal Australian Navy’s expeditionary force.
The submarines were sent to PNG, to capture a German Pacific colony, landing at Rabaul on September 11, 1914.
This land mission was successful and they took possession of the colony, with the Germans at Rabaul surrendering on September 13. The following day, the submarines left on a patrol of the North East coast of New Guinea. AE1 was last seen patrolling alongside HMAS Parramatta near Cape Gazelle just before 3.30pm on September 14.
Little trace of AE1 or the 35 servicemen on board has been found to this day, despite extensive searches in the area. In the absence of conclusive findings, many speculations have been made about the fate of Australia’s first submarine.
The most widely accepted theory is that during an unscheduled practice dive, AE1 struck a reef.
Reading about Cyril has been a powerful reminder for me that in the retelling of history it can be too easy to talk about numbers of casualties and forget individual lives.
This is but a small part of the thousands of stories which sadly ended in World War I.
I encourage you to investigate your own family history, if not already known, and take time to learn about the lives of war veterans in your family.
The ABC reported last week that the most recent search for AE1 had not yielded conclusive results. The minehunter HMAS Yarra spent four days combing the waters near the Duke of York Islands looking for the AE1, with little joy.