Word of the coded telegram arrived in the office of WA premier John Scaddan on August 5, 1914.

"Tipsified Germany. Glyphic."

The telegram had been sent by governor-general Sir Ronald Craufurd Munro Ferguson to WA governor, Maj-Gen. Sir Harry Barron, and had been decoded and forwarded to Mr Scaddan's office.


Although no one could have imagined it at the time, it marked the start of what would become four years of horror in World War I.

Decoded, the message was clear: "War has broken out between Great Britain and Germany."

Mr Scaddan received the same message from prime minister Joseph Cook the same day, although it was not coded.

"Official information has been received that war has broken out with Germany. Jos Cook Prime Minister."

On August 3, 1914, this secret letter from the military announced the Cable Telegraph censorship had begun. Photo: SRO.

The telegrams were part of a secret file which had been opened by Mr Scaddan's office on August 1, days before the seemingly inevitable conflict.

Its simple name had been handwritten on the cover of a brown folder: War - and it was also marked "confidential".

As war unfolded, correspondence of all sorts from all sorts of people and organisations flowed into Mr Scaddan's office and was stored in successive War files.

The files cover the period up to October 1915, split into five volumes containing more than 1000 documents.

They have been digitised by the State Records Office and put online to mark the centenary of the start of WWI.

Among the early telegram cables was another dated August 5, from the WA agent-general in London.

In code, it read in part: Naja vizeka vokyle pimy kacu niny vawyvy kapyhe lefu pemy mato.

Translated, it informed Mr Scaddan that numerous people were stuck in London because of uncertainty about departure of ships "and temporary financial embarrassment".

An issue which caused immediate concern was the presence in the State of nationals of other countries - in particular, German-born residents.

Research by State Records Office senior archivist Gerard Foley revealed that the 1911 census showed that Germans were the biggest foreign-born group in the State after those born in Britain and Ireland.

On August 7, a coded message from Mr Cook raised concerns about Germans employed as lighthouse keepers, a role which was crucial for the safe passage of Australian coastal shipping and also vital for detection of enemy ships.

Decoded, it read: "Men from the German Empire are employed as public servants as lighthouse keepers in Queensland.

"Undesirable that should be continued in position favourable to give signal to enemy's ships . . . or withhold information received from HM ships or supply them with inaccurate information."

A coded message from WA Premier Scaddan to Prime Minister Cook advising that Western Australia is at his service. Photo: SOA.

The file records that WA's acting chief harbourmaster was asked to take action and that he wrote back on August 10, telling the State government that "we have no German light keepers".

"We have one Swede at Gantheaume Point near Broome and one Norwegian at Bunbury," the note said, adding that "both men are naturalised British subjects".

On August 8, another coded message from Mr Cook said all German officers and reservists should be arrested as prisoners of war, modified two days later so that "care should be taken not to arrest persons whose known character precludes suspicion".

As Mr Foley's research found, the issue caused great unhappiness among sections of the migrant population.

On August 28, PE Stolz, pastor for Germans and Scandinavians in WA, wrote to ask for "more generous treatment" of people "whose only crime it is that they are of German blood but otherwise citizens and loyal subjects of the State".

But it was not just security and military-related issues that flowed into the file.

An issue of concern to many was the fear that price rises would occur, and the file contains a letter from the WA National Council of Women, dated August 6 and signed by Edith Cowan - later to become the first woman in Australia to be elected to Parliament - in which she backed moves to control the price of food.

On August 9, J. Bordas & Co of the Savoy Cafe in Perth offered use of their premises for a soup kitchen if needed.

Other sections of WA society which faced uncertainty also took the opportunity to remind the government of their concerns.

On August 6, a letter arrived from the committee of the King Edward Memorial Hospital for Women reminding the premier that despite the outbreak of war an adequate training school for midwives "must not be lost sight of".

And on August 12, the WA Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals sent a statement about animals in war.

Societies like theirs had been active across the globe working to achieve an extension to the Geneva Convention "to include assistance to wounded animals in time of war".

And on August 21, WR Burton, of Kalgoorlie, wrote to advise Mr Scaddan that a small local company was building an aeroplane expected to be finished in a few weeks.

The information, he thought, might be useful just in case Mr Scaddan wanted to "take the machine over if it proves a success".

State archivist Cathrin Cassarchis said the files offered a unique perspective on how WA reacted to the start of the war and how government officials in 1914 and early 1915 mobilised the community and co-ordinated the local war effort.

Mr Foley said the records from the files could be found on the SRO's website, sro.wa.gov.au, and it would also post to Facebook and Twitter selected highlights.

The West Australian

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