One hundred and three years ago, on 14 September 1914, Australia’s first submarine AE1 disappeared while patrolling the seas near present day New Guinea. No trace of the vessel or its 35 hands has ever been found to this day.
This story is now being told in a new exhibition at the Queensland Maritime Museum, War at Sea – the Navy in WWI, opening this October.
The experiences of Australian sailors in World War I has largely been overshadowed by the stories of soldiers on the Western Front or at Gallipoli. This Australian National Maritime Museum travelling exhibition draws on the personal accounts of Navy servicemen – through their diaries, mementoes, ship’s logs and letters home – to tell their incredible stories of bravery and sacrifice amidst the drudgery of life at sea, patrolling, blockading and escorting troopships.
The mystery of what happened to AE1 is explored alongside the story of Australia’s second submarine AE2, which became the first Allied vessel to breach the Dardanelles in Turkey, disrupting the Turkish forces moving to defend the Gallipoli peninsular in April 1915, and the story of the RAN Bridging Trains at the Gallipoli campaign.
The exhibition features rare objects from the National Maritime Collection, the Australian War Memorial, and the National Film & Sound Archives including medals posthumously awarded to Lieutenant Leopold Florence Scarlett – lost with submarine AE1.
Highlighting the tragedy of the war and the loss of life, the exhibition features letters of condolences following the disappearance of AE1, including a letter from Winston Churchill to a grieving widow.
Also on display are poignant artefacts such as sailors love tokens and grand commemorative medallions dedicated to Australia’s first major naval victory – the defeat of the seemingly invincible German raider SMS Emden by HMAS Sydney in November 1914.
Visitors will see rare archival footage of the Navy during WWI which gives a window into life on battleships as well as the troop transport ships which ferried soldiers around the globe.
The activities and subsequent loss of AE2 off Gallipoli is highlighted by footage from inside the shipwreck filmed during the first dive to the site by Australian and Turkish maritime archaeologists earlier this year.
Sailor’s diaries also form a key part of the exhibition, with many quotes featured throughout.
Australian National Maritime Museum director Kevin Sumption reflected on the importance of the new exhibition in telling the full story of Australia in World War I: “Australia’s involvement in the First World War was a defining moment in our nation’s history, helping form many of the ideas of national identity we still have today,” he said.
“The contribution of the Royal Australian Navy to the First World War, by a naval fleet formed less than a year before the outbreak of war, was significant, serving in all theatres of the war from the Pacific and Indian Oceans to the Mediterranean and North Seas. It is our hope that this exhibition will give due recognition to the brave naval servicemen who sacrificed so much,” he said. The tour is made possible with the assistance of the Australia Council and Visions Australia: Regional Exhibition and Touring Fund and is proudly supported by presenting partner, the Returned and Services League of Australia.
War at Sea – the Navy in WWI is on display at Queensland Maritime Museum until Remembrance Day 2018.