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Our Global Neighbours: Mr Potter Goes to War

By: Dr Stan Florek, Category: Science, Date: 20 Aug 2014

Gentlemanly pursuit on a periphery of war.

Australian Soldier WW1

 © John Richardson

Our Global Neighbours is a blog series containing stories from and about cultures around the world.

Why should a good soldier care about the love charms carried by young native men in Madang?

The war was not the same for everybody. Many soldiers perished in big battles while others in skirmishes – some survived and returned home, often afflicted by trauma and depression. After the guns went silent the glory of war was manufactured, for political reasons and ‘historical mythology.’

Some soldiers found themselves in unexpected places where twists and turns of destiny presented them with surprising opportunities. Such was a case of Private William James Potter.

Potter had surfaced in the records during the war and vanished from them before the war’s end. It is difficult to gather detailed information about him, but he was probably a 40 year old clerk, from Waverley – a suburb in eastern Sydney. He was married to Hannah Potter and joined the Tropical Unit of the Second Infantry Battalion towards the end of 1914.

Potter arrived in Rabaul late in 1914 after a short period of actual military engagement with German forces was over. The Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force occupied ‘German New Guinea’ throughout the war. Afterwards it became the League of Nations Mandated Territory under Australian administration until 1975, when Papua New Guinea became independent. Private Potter was a part of this occupation force.

To kill time in remote tropical outposts Potter immersed himself in collecting natural history specimens and native artefacts, which he sent to the Australian Museum in Sydney. He was diligent and the Museum was pleased with his incidental services.

On 22 March 1917 Richard Etheridge Jnr, Curator and Director of the Australian Museum, penned a letter to shipping company Burns Philp & Co. The letter informed the Company that Private William Potter of the AEF (Australian Expedition Force) with headquarters in Rabaul had been officially recognised by the Military authorities as a Collector of Natural History Specimens for the Australian Museum. He asked the company to expedite shipment of the specimens he had collected.

Potter supplied the Museum with over 200 artefacts from former German New Guinea. He showed healthy curiosity in the culture that even now would be strangely exotic to Sydneysiders. In his laconic descriptions he attempted to convey the objects use, material and meaning to a distant Museum curator. Whenever possible he wrote the native name for the objects – not common practice for the collectors of that time. His interest was more than just casual - less than one in ten artefacts in our collection have a given indigenous name.

It is probable that William James Potter returned safely home from the war and disappeared from the records as if dissolved in the anonymity of normal civilian life.

If you, dear reader, know about W J Potter or know someone associated with his family I would be extremely grateful to hear from you. Contact: Stan Florek