Remembering the First World War through German-Australian eyes

1st Battalion troops waiting near Jacob's trench for relief by 7th Battalion, Lone Pine, Gallipoli, 8 August 1915. Photo: Harold Jacobs/Australian War Memorial.

Over a century since the end of Word War I, features editor Makayla Muscat speaks to historian Dennis Overton about two brothers landing at Anzac Cove under fire.

I could never imagine going to war, let alone as a teenager, but some of the 300,000 Australian soldiers who enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force during the First World War were as young as 13.

Among those were George Newhouse and his brother Harry, the sons of Ubbe John Shetzberg Newhouse, a German seaman who arrived and settled in Australia in 1879. Australia’s vilification of German-Australians was so intense that it caused Ubbe’s death, and his wife Elizabeth to suffer a nervous breakdown.

Harry followed in the footsteps of his older brother, enlisting on 7 January, 1915, for what was seen as an unmissable adventure. Harry landed at Anzac Cove, Gallipoli, under fire on 26 April, 1915, one day after his brother; he learned of George’s death a week later.

After contracting malaria, Harry was sent home, and in 1918, he and his wife Eliza, celebrated the end of the war by welcoming their first son ‘Young George’.

In 1990, on the 75th anniversary of the war, Harry returned to Gallipoli, where more than 60,000 Australian soldiers were killed and a further 150,000 were wounded, gassed or taken prisoner, still unable to fathom the meaning of it all. On 24 November, 1996, Harry made history; he died at the age of 101 as one of the last surviving Anzacs. 

George Newhouse (aged 23) and Harry Newhouse (aged 19). Photo: Dennis Overton/supplied.             

Ubbe Shetzberg was born in Simonvolde, Germany in 1862. He anglicised his name to John Newhouse, prior to arriving in Australia as a German seaman in 1879. He married Elizabeth Johnson in 1889 and they settled in Pyrmont and had six children together.

John admitted Elizabeth to Parramatta Psychiatric Hospital in 1901 after a suicide attempt. Observation records show that she was a “poorly nourished woman with blue eyes and brown hair”. With their youngest child only two-months-old, this put a strain on John to raise their family and continue working as a night watchman.

According to historian Dennis Overton, in 1914 John received a letter from his brother in Germany, advising that his sons had been drafted into the German Army and his eldest daughter was working in a tear gas factory. This was alarming to John. He was especially concerned by his son George enlisting in the Australian Army and fighting against their German cousins.

Ubbe John Shetzberg Newhouse and Elizabeth Newhouse. Photo: Dennis Overton/supplied.

German-Australians were seen with suspicion and animosity. According to The Australian People and the Great War by Michael McKernan, workplaces dismissed Germans because the state of war meant that “no German should benefit by the civil advantages which were obtainable in Australia”. This left them with little chance of finding another job and no social security benefits to protect them; they faced a bleak future.

Australian War Memorial historian Michael Kelly says, with John’s wife still in hospital, “the stress caused by widespread anti-German sentiment, the threat of imminent internment, having sons and nephews in opposing armies, and losing his job,” was too much for John. He was sacked from his job and advised by the police that he would be interred as an “alien”, despite the fact that he was naturalised in 1911. Under tremendous stress, he suffered an epileptic fit and died on 5 December, 1914 – leaving four younger children without parents or income.

Merry and Bright hut at Freshwater. George at the piano and Harry standing on the right side. Photo: Dennis Overton/supplied.

Following in his brother’s footsteps, Harry enlisted on 7 January, 1915, one month after the death of his father. George and Harry embarked from Sydney in February 1915 aboard a ship to Lemnos in preparation for the Gallipoli campaign.

Australian war correspondent and historian C.E.W. Bean wrote of the landing on 25 April: “The night was so black … The water was as smooth as satin … a gloriously cool peaceful night … Only the soft dip of the muffled oars broke the silence … they were forty or fifty yards from the shore – there flared out a trail of flame – there flashed a bright yellow light …there was a deathlike silence – a voice called on the land – a Turkish rifle flashed… a second or two of silence – four or five shots – another pause – then a scattered, irregular fire growing very fast – they were discovered.”

Eventually, Harry contracted malaria and was evacuated to Lemnos, then to Malta and then to Alexandria. He was sent back to Australia and discharged as medically unfit.

According to Diggers and Mates, published by the Department of Veteran Affairs, “He returned to work on the railways, married in 1917 and lived in Kirribilli.” In 1918, he and his wife Eliza welcomed their first son. They named him after his brother, George. He called him ‘Young George’. In 1996, George pondered, then aged 78, still being called ‘Young George’. He recalled his father reminiscing on Anzac Days, “I was there, son, I lost my mate, my brother, there,” he said. “Poor old George. I would have been with George if I could.”

In 1990, Harry was one of sixty veterans who returned to Gallipoli for the 75th anniversary of the landing. He remembered the day he went to get rations. When he came back, both his dugout and all his mates had been blown up by a shell.

In The Last Anzacs by Tony Stephens, Harry recalled the stink of corpses, millions of flies, dysentery, hunger and thirst. He spoke of the day a Turkish bullet hit his food tin and ricocheted into his forehead. “Down I went like a log. They bound up my forehead, so I looked like the Rajah of Poonacoota but soon I was stricken with pneumonia and pleurisy and the stretcher-bearers had to carry me down to the field ambulance on beach. I felt sorry for those blokes under fire just for me,” he said. “I wasn’t a real hero. I don’t know what to think I was. I think I was a bit of a nincompoop.”

Eighty years on, Harry lamented on the meaning of it all. “Not only did my brother get killed and a lot of our men, but there were 86,000 Turks killed. The Turks never did anything to us, and we never did anything to the Turks. We did not think we were going to fight them, poor buggers. We were going to fight the Germans. I’m only here because I could sidestep better than George. What was it for? I don’t know. It should never have been,” he said.

Journalist Joanne McCarthy interviewed Newhouse months before his death in 1995. She recalled the booming voice of someone whose hearing had long gone. “Harry was one of the last of the original Anzacs to die, aged 101, on 24 November, 1996,” she said. “In the statistics of war, Harry was lucky. George was not.”

On 26 September, 1999, Australia’s 22nd Governor-General, Sir William Deane, offered an apology to members of the German-Australian community. “The tragic and often shameful, discrimination against Australians of German origin fostered during the World Wars had many consequences. No doubt, some of you carry the emotional scars of injustice during those times as part of your backgrounds or family histories. Let me as Governor-General, say to all who do, how profoundly sorry I am that such things happened in our country,” he said.

In 2010, Overton travelled to Gallipoli to remember George’s sacrifice. “It was moving. It was both exciting and sad to finally see the battlefield where so many young Australians fought and died,” he said. “Reading rows of names of the young men who died brought tears to our eyes, especially when they fell on my great uncle George Newhouse name, neatly imbedded in the wall of remembrance at Lone Pine. It is believed that George fell 100m from the memorial and like so many of them there is no known grave.”

George Newhouse’s name inscribed at the Lone Pine Memorial, Gallipoli, Turkey. Photo: Dennis Overton/supplied.

Overton wrote this poem, which was attached to a floral tribute laid on behalf of the family at Lone Pine:

It has been ninety-five years,
And although we did not know you,
We came to shed some tears.
For a young man that gave his life freely,
Without any fears.
He helped create a legend,
And in the end did not hear the cheers,
But your spirit lives on in each of us,
And will forever in the coming years.

– Dennis Overton

Today, Overton (my great-uncle) is retired, but he continues to work on several projects.

“I am writing a book on the Anzacs at Gallipoli in particular what the war did to my family … and I often give lectures on mediaeval church architecture including symbolism, preservation and restoration skills,” he said.

“I am retired yes, but I, try to put back into society what I have learnt over the years for we should never tire of leaning, no matter what age we are.”

Makayla Muscat is the features editor of the Sydney Sentinel.

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