Copyright © Australian War Diary (World War One)



Monday, 29 June 1914

​Most people in Australia and New Zealand were asleep at 2.10 am EST when press offices in London at 3.10 pm GMT, Sunday, received and reported the first Reuters' Vienna report of the assassinations over the cable telegraph network linking the British Empire’s disparate territories.

Australasia received the news so quickly because the inter-connected development of steamships, electric telegraphs and press wire services in the mid-19th century had changed the communications world fundamentally. For Australia, with widely-separated settlements within a vast territory, and New Zealand, both separated by enormous distance from Britain, these were of even greater significance.

In 1788 the first fleet to Australia took six months sailing
time on ships based on the 15th century carrack model, with a mix of square and lateen sails inspired by earlier Asian and Arab technologies, which provided the fastest, long distance transport and communications for about 500 years.
Over the next 50 years the minimum sailing time from Britain to Australia was reduced only marginally by improved navigational technology and techniques; wind was still the chief motive power. The first settlers to South and Western Australia, like those to New Zealand, in the late 1830s took almost as long as the First Fleet; so it was for mail.

A few years before the First Fleet set sail, Europeans in both the Old and New worlds experimented with ships, partly powered by steam-engines developed from the expanding mining industry and the locomotives it both made possible and needed. T
he first Atlantic steamship crossing was in 1838. Next year, the first fully steamed-powered, propeller ship capable of ocean travel was launched.

In 1852 the Australian Royal Mail Steam Navigation Company's ship the 
Australian made the first such journey to Australia, dramatically reducing
travel-time. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 helped further,
mail delivery times to Australia to about six and, by 1914, about 4 weeks.
the All-Red Route--Britain, Gibraltar, Malta, Alexandria, Port Said,
Suez, Aden,
Muscat, Bombay, Penang, Singapore, Fremantle/Albany,
Adelaide, Melbourne,
New Zealand--this was still the only means by which
paper communications
moved between governments in Britain and Australasia.

On this day, 29 June 1914, while the eight Australasian governments still 
​received most of their official
information, advice and policy from London by
these mail steamships, they did not have to wait four
weeks to hear of the
Vienna outrage because of another technological
revolution in communications.


Experiments in both Britain and America, also in the late 1830s, with electrical telegraph, Morse code and wires built on recent, limited success with semaphores. Over land, this closed the era of horse-mail even before the triumph of the locomotive and, later, motor vehicle.
Over water was more difficult until better submarine cables and means of laying them were developed. There was partially successful communication across the English Channel in 1850. Soon, Britain was also linked by telegraph to Ireland, Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark.

After some stuttering efforts to communicate across the Atlantic from Ireland to Newfoundland from 1857, Queen Victoria telegraphed the US President in Pennsylvania: ‘Europe and America are united by telegraphy. Glory to God in the highest; on earth, peace and good will toward men.’ By 1866 communications were stabilised after the world’s largest steamship, SS Great Eastern, laid better cables to Newfoundland, linking London to Washington via Canada.

​Australian governments and entrepreneurs also established telegraph lines. Starting in Melbourne (1853) and Adelaide (1855), the cities were linked by 1858, just as Sydney’s cable to Albury connected with Victoria’s. Next year, a more difficult, undersea link from Melbourne to Hobart, after the latter was linked in 18
to Launceston, failed and was only completed in 1869. Sydney was connected to Brisbane in 1861, and to Adelaide directly in 1867. Perth established a line to the important All-Red Route port of Albany in 1870, from where the line to Adelaide was completed in 1878. All Australian cities were now connected for rapid, if brief (due to cost), communication. The Eastern Extension, Australasia & China Telegraph Co. (EEACTC) connected New Zealand and Australia in 1876.

For most of this time, however, mail-steamship was still the only extra-territorial means of communication for Australasia. The Imperial government, in conjunction with four private telegraph companies later merging to form the Eastern Telegraph Company (ETC), sought to link the whole Empire by telegraph.
By 1863, even before the stable trans-Atlantic cable was completed, the British Empire was building a link between its Mediterranean, Middle East and Indian settlements. British naval supremacy and near monopoly supply, from its Asian-Pacific colonies, of the gutta-percha necessary for insulating the submarine cables, gave it a global advantage. In 1870 Suez was linked to Bombay (Mumbai), then Madras (Chennai), Penang, and Singapore.

The three Australian northern ‘frontier’ colonies (South Australia administered the Northern Territory) competed to host the proposed London cable.
Queensland lobbied the British Australian Telegraph Company (BATC) to have the cable extend from Singapore to the Netherlands’ Java, land at Darwin, overland to the Gulf of Carpentaria's isolated Burketown--established just previously for this purpose and named for the famed explorer--and join the existing line to Morton Bay which had been built in anticipation. Another proposal, with the advantage of using only British territory, had the cable coming from Sri Lanka to Cocos (Keeling) Island and on to Perth. This was dropped due to Western Australia’s limited internal telegraph network--being not yet linked to any other Australian colony.

​South Australia won when it boldly offered, unlike Queensland, to pay for the overland connection--in this case 3,200 kilometres from Port Augusta, Spencer’s Gulf, to Darwin. This ambition was behind its
1859 offer of a
£2000 prize--won in 1862 by John McDouall Stuart--for a survey of that route. The cable from Java landed in November 1871. Problems with the link within Australia persisted until solved in October 1872 whereupon, on receiving the first cablegram from the Imperial government’s Colonial Secretary, the Earl of Kimberley, the Governor of NSW replied: ‘NSW sends her cordial congratulations on success [of the] completion [of] telegraphic communication with England and rejoice in [the] establishment [of] this additional bond of union with [the] mother country.’ Sent on 17 November it arrived in London within seven hours on--due to time differences--the same day.

This message arrived in London on the cables of the privately-owned but British-based ETC
but it had to pass through Dutch Java. So, too, did an additional line in 1889 of the EEACTC,
which landed at Broome’s Cable Beach and, from a new government telegraph station there,
bypassed Darwin, linking directly to Perth, thereby giving all Australia a second international
​link, at least from Java.

For security of communications a British-only cable link was desired. In 1901 the EEACTC
built a cable link from British possessions in Africa to Cocos (Keeling) Island and then
direct to Cottesloe, Fremantle. The Broome link accordingly declined, closing in March 1914.

Eastern Telegraph Company's Imperial cable network
The All-Red (Steamship) Route