Captain Edwards and the Australian Volunteer Automobile Corps – a German Spy?

Part One

Eduard Paul Otto Eichengrün was born into a Jewish family in 1878 in Aachen (also known as Aix-La-Chapelle), close to the French and Belgian border within then Prussia. Eduard attended schooling in Aachen before travelling to England in 1895 where he began working with Rudges Motor-Cycles as a 17 year old. With a good command of English and now known as Edward Eichengruen, he moved to the rubber business with Continental Rubber of Hanover by 1900.

In 1901 as a Continental international traveller he was sent on a world trip by the company – a trip which included visiting Melbourne. The travel demonstrated a sense of adventure, curiosity and purpose no doubt recognised by Continental when it funded the trip for the young entrepeneur. He was just 23 years old.

In early September 1904, he came back to Melbourne with his young wife (a Lutheran – they had married in a registry office in London) as the international traveller for the German firm Continental-Caoutchouc-und-Gutta-Percha-Compagnie AG to establish the company in Australasia. He had now anglicised his name to Edward Edwards.

Edwards quickly established a partnership first with German-Jewish traders Hesselmann & Co. Limited and then a joint venture with John Patrick Wallace of the I.R. Cycle Works in Melbourne to discuss distribution of Continental tyres from Germany. Wallace quickly agreed. A Continental motor car tyre depot was established at Wallace’s premises in Flinders Street in Melbourne.

The automobile industry in Victoria in 1904 was in its infancy with only about 30 cars in the Victoria. However, the demand for automobiles was growing steadily along with the supporting ‘auto industry’, with early automobile firms such as Tarrant Motors, and suppliers like Continental, leading the growth (in 1904 Continental became the first company in the world to develop grooved tires for automobiles and for motor-cycles. The industry also created a new class of hands-on managers and auto mechanics, adept at engines of all kinds and with a passionate interest in all classes of automobiles.

Edwards quickly became known as an active auto enthusiast. He was an early member of the Automobile Association of Victoria (ACV), formed in January 1904 and an enthusiastic supporter of early aviation. The Edwards also started a family in Melbourne with sons being born in Melbourne in 1905 and 1907 and in the latter year moved to the first apartment building in Melbourne, the Melbourne Mansions on Collins Street.

In late 1907, there was a new share issue with directors in Hanover taking over direct control. Hanover held the vast majority of shares, retaining three company directors in Edwards, James Maitland Campbell, solicitor and George Selby, the accountant; Coleman remained company secretary. In August 1908 Edwards applied for and was granted naturalisation, giving the oath of allegiance to the King and committing to a future life in the Commonwealth with his young family.

Their decision to become naturalised was no doubt personal in that they appeared to have committed themselves to staying in their adopted country and like other Germans who settled in Australia, saw their future as assimilation. There are no public indications that the Edwards were involved in the activities of the local German community or in organisations such as the Deutsche Verein von Victoria [German Club of Victoria], such as participating in the annual German National Holiday celebrations.

In Europe where the auto/motor industry was much further along than in Australia, trials in the application of auto vehicles for military purposes were occurring in several countries. These developments were followed avidly by enthusiasts in Victoria such as Tarrant and Edwards. Tarrant had been a Militia officer for some time and had recently retired from the Victorian Field Artillery Brigade. With his business connections with Militia officers like Tarrant and like others in the new auto business sector in Victoria and interstate Edwards was drawn towards an interest in the use of autos for military purposes. The formation of the Australian Volunteer Automobile Corps (AVAC) in 1908 was yet another opportunity for Edwards to network and build Continental’s business.

The creation of AVAC was one of the first steps by the new Australian Army to embrace, in a very careful way, the use of auto transport. Forming sections in most States from 1908, AVAC comprised a small number of volunteer officers driving their own cars. It was an experiment in a way, to socialise the auto among senior military officers. Over its existence from 1908 to 1915, the Victorian (or 3rd Military District) maintained no more than 18 officers at any one time. Without exception the officers were owners of automobiles or were associated with the automobile industry. AVAC’s first Officer Commanding was none other than Harley Tarrant of Tarrant Motors, who had been brought out of retirement from the Victorian Field Artillery Brigade.
The role of the AVAC as stated to the fifteen volunteers at its inaugural parade in Victoria Barracks on 21st August 1908 was to:

‘…apply themselves to the task of obtaining a thorough knowledge of the topography of the country and qualify themselves to furnish sketch plans and supply information as to routes and roads and physical features. They would also be required to convey staff officers from place to place at various times.’

Possibly encouraged by Tarrant, Edwards – as a ‘Naturalised British Subject’ – volunteered for the AVAC in September 1908 and after passing the requisite tests, was commissioned as a lieutenant. He came to press attention in March 1909 when the car he was driving for the State Commandant and other officers, hit a soft patch and rolled, pinning him underneath. When the automobile was righted by the other occupants, Edwards was found to be not seriously injured although his boots had been torn off. Edwards, undeterred, continued to participate in all AVAC activities. There appeared to be no impediment to Edwards becoming part of the Militia despite his German antecedents; there were a number of other German Australians and Jews serving in the Militia both in Victoria and other States. He was viewed neither with suspicion or hostility.

Captain Edwards top left at the 1909 camp – Harley Tarrant at front second from left

In April 1909 Edwards joined his fellow Automobile Corps officers at the Victorian Militia’s Easter camp at the Langwarrin training area on the Mornington Peninsula south-east of Melbourne. There they shuttled senior officers around and umpires between the opposing exercise troops and activities. In December it was off to Seymour north of Melbourne to work with the newly formed Intelligence Corps to prepare accurate maps of the area for the January 1910 eight-day review of troops and exercises by Lord Kitchener, on his inspection tour of Australia’s defences. It is tantalising to think that Edwards may even have met Kitchener. He certainly met fellow Jewish officer Major John Monash (later commander of the Australian Imperial Force in 1918) of the newly formed Intelligence Corps, which also availed of AVAC’s services. Edwards even came to notice during the camp:

An interesting experiment was carried out by Mr. E. Edwards during, the manoeuvres in using a portable plant for wireless telegraphy. This plant was so made that it could easily be carried on the car, and, with the assistance of collapsible poles, the apparatus would be erected in a short pace of time and messages sent. We understand Mr. Edwards is having some further improvements made, and that he hopes to be able in a short while to send messages over eight or ten miles [ km] with this light and transportable plant.

It was another high profile networking exercise by Edwards, who along with his 13 colleagues under Major Tarrant, covered 4250 miles [6840 kms] between them over a manoeuvre area of about 30 sq.miles [7770 sq.hectares]. Edwards personally defrayed the cost of experiments with wireless telegraphy at the camp, conducted by a detachment of engineers with the assistance of a ‘well known city electrical engineer’. Clear Morse was transmitted over a distance of about 1,000 yards [914 metres]. Edwards was ‘the central spirit in the whole movement’.

Edwards also joined the prestigious Naval and Military Club and was elected Hon. Treasurer of the ACV in May 1908. His business and personal interest in aviation also saw him elected to the provisional council of the new Victorian Chapter of the Australian Air League under the auspices of the Automobile Club of Victoria. While very much an infant given the state of aviation in Australia, the league was filled with influential military and civilian members. Among those on the Council was Lieutenant-Colonel John Monash and several other Militia officers including Harley Tarrant; the State Commandant, Colonel John Stanley; the Lord Mayor of Melbourne, Councillor James Burston; George Fairburn, member of parliament, and a number of ACV members etc. Edwards was moving in high circles indeed.

As a committeeman and Hon. Treasurer, Edwards attended no less than 41 committee and sub-committee meetings of the ACV over 1908-09 – a record only beaten by the Secretary and one other committee member. A sign of Edwards’ standing in 1910 saw him being given a presentation farewell gift at the first annual AVAC dinner in April by his fellow officers (along with Lieutenant Charles Proctor, secretary of the Dunlop Rubber Company leaving for Europe and USA to take up a new company position). He was also presented with a ‘handsomely bound album of photographs’ by the members of the staffs of the company’s various offices in Australia, and New Zealand. There seems little doubt that Edwards was proving himself to be a creditable colleague to his peers – both professionally and personally, but also seemed to be popular with staff. As well the ACV asked Edwards if he could present, while in England, a gold car badge of the Victorian Club, ‘mounted on a pedestal of polished Australian wood’ to the Royal Automobile Club.

Edwards had been developing his ‘public relations’ skills since 1908 and became very effective at using the press to keep Continental in the media in Australia while he was away and upon return. Continental was not just innovative in the auto tyre business. In those days automotive enthusiasts were invariably keen on aviation. The popular Mrs Edwards was also an early pioneer for women taking flights in Australia – in March 1911 at Sunshine she took a flight in a Bristol biplane, as did Edwards. The flights were with the British and Colonial Aeroplane Co.’s representative and pilot, Joseph J. Hammond, who was in Melbourne demonstrating to the Commonwealth military authorities, and the public in general, the possibilities of the Bristol aeroplane.

The Adelaide Advertiser also asked Edwards what he thought of the prospects ‘for aeroplaning’ in Australia. Edwards reply was interesting – stating that it was an open question, although aeroplanes had proven useful for war purposes as shown in the war in Mexico and on maneouvres in England and on the Continent – ‘I believe and hope that the Federal Government will before long establish an aviation school for military officers.’ Edwards clearly kept himself well-informed, for the Imperial Conference in London of May-June 1911 decided that aviation should be developed by the various military forces of the countries of the British Empire; Australia’s first military flying school was opened in 1913.

By 1913 Edwards had successfully opened Continental offices throughout Australia and new Zealand and also moved into the prestigious luxury Cliveden Mansions in East Melbourne. Yet the Edwards were not social gadflies and did not mix in the circles of the ‘upper class’ – they did not appear to attend theatre, ballet, patriotic occasions like the King’s birthday ball, military social events, or other high profile social activities. Certainly they mixed in neither the Jewish community nor the German one.

While in England in July 1913, Edwards also attended the first Imperial Motor Transport Conference in London as the representative of the ACV. The Conference, attended by senior British Government political and military figures as well as delegates from British and ‘dominion’ motor trade and other motor industry organisations, had several aims in mind. These included the question of fuel supply (present needs and future prospects), the possibility of creating adequate supplies within the Empire and the problems of Imperial military motor transport, with special reference to the production of types of vehicles, useful both for military work and for industrial work in the dominions and colonies. As an officer in the AVAC (Edwards was promoted to captain in the Automobile Corps while on this trip), he would have been especially interested in the military aspects of motor transport.

It is not clear how active the now Captain Edwards was on his return in late 1913 with the Volunteer Automobile Corps, but the Corps was certainly active enough as the annual training cycles for the militia ramped up from early 1914. In February 1914 over 3,000 militia exercised at Lilydale north-east of Melbourne and included six officers and cars of the Corps. Two AVAC officers and cars supported the camp of 1600 lighthorsemen at Burrumbeet in western Victoria beyond Ballarat in March 1914. Four officers and their cars supported over 3,000 infantry camped at Bundoora north east of Melbourne in April 1914. However it is not known whether Edwards attended any of these camps.

When war broke out in Europe in early August 1914, Edwards would have been immediately cautious when a meeting at the Automobile Club of Victoria of members including the officer commanding AVAC, Major Harry James Joseph Maddox, called upon ‘motorists to assist in the defence of the Commonwealth should the necessity arise’ and for motorists at the club ‘who were willing to place their vehicles at the disposal of the Commonwealth’ to hand in their names and details of their vehicles. Rather than attending such a meeting, Edwards would more likely have been conferring with his business associates to develop a strategy to protect the company he had built up in Australia from being too adversely affected.

Yet he continued to attend AVAC parades, the last in early October 1914, to show that he was determined to do his duty as an officer as he had done for the past six years. This did not stop the editor of the Australian Motorist, who became especially antagonistic towards Edwards for his personal reasons disguised as patriotism, sarcastically reporting on 2nd November that Edwards had attended the parade, in a blatant attempt to smear Edwards and convince his readers [and Defence authorities] to act against him:

A remarkable instance of German humour occurred in Melbourne when [Edwards] had the courage to take part in a parade three weeks ago… The idea of a Britisher taking part in a German military parade under present conditions is impossible; yet this German-born is allowed to take part, and, we presume, order around his junior Australian officers. If it was not in such bad taste we could appreciate humour of it. We feel sure it thoroughly appealed to the humour of his German friends.

It appears that even before the war began the military authorities were intercepting Edwards’ mail to his Mother in Germany. Later a military intelligence translation of a letter written on 9 July 1914 came to light.

The translation is signed by Major Isidor Isaacson, VD [Volunteer Decoration] an Australian born Jewish merchant and Militia officer. Isaacson had joined the Militia in 1885 but was too old for active service in 1914, although he did serve briefly in London in 1916. At the outbreak of war, Isaacson was ‘employed by the Minister [for Defence] in a personal and confidential capacity for some considerable time.’ As Isaacson had attended a gymnasium in Strasburg and German school in Stawell, Victoria, presumably this meant he was used to translate sensitive documents in German, such as Edwards’ letters to his mother.

Although the fear of a general war in Europe, centred on the growing antagonism between the Central Powers of Germany and Austro-Hungary on the one hand and England, France and Russia on the other, had been of concern for some time, nonetheless Australia including the Edwards family, was taken by surprise when it occurred. The highly successful world of the Edwards and Continental in Australia was immediately impacted. The society which had accepted them with open arms now abruptly turned against them. War fever engulfed Australia. ‘…..the great majority of Australians of all classes identified with themselves with Great Britain in 1914. The first reaction was not a matter of reason or calculation, but spontaneous and instinctive.’ Anti-German feelings quickly ran high and intensified after the first casualty lists started appearing in Australian newspapers in mid-1915.

At first it may have appeared that little had changed – the Edwards had, after all, done everything possible to assimilate and join society both business and personally in Victoria. However the Edwards were among the first to be swept up by anti-German fever – they were high profile targets as much by their personal success as German-born individuals as much as by the success of Continental in Australia.

As early as the 8th of August, local papers were reporting that the Government had received the King’s ‘proclamation’ warning subjects in Britain and in the Dominions (which included Australia) not to trade with the enemy. The Government put its lawyers to work to draft legislation of a similar kind, not wanting to be seen to be lagging behind its London master. Similarly, Edwards would have also been alerted to potential issues for Continental as a result and its directors would also have been quick to meet and discuss the ramifications with its legal counsel. The Imperial proclamation was officially recorded in the Commonwealth Gazette on 13th September 1914 while the Government’s Trading with the Enemy Bill was passed by parliament and assented to on 23 October 1914.

Indeed, in August rumours immediately began circulating that Edwards was in trouble, that his company would be closed etc. Edwards, trying to defend himself against attacks on his reputation immediately launched legal actions against two individuals – an Indent Agent, William John Robinson and a motor dealer company director well known to Edwards – Alex Jewell. Edwards sought damages of £500 in both cases. In the first, Robinson was alleged to have said ‘falsely and maliciously’ on 23rd August that Edwards had been arrested at 2 a.m. on Thursday morning “as a spy”. Edwards asserted that as a native of Germany but as a naturalised British subject that this meant that he had been guilty of ‘treasonably serving the King’s enemies or of some other crime of a like nature.’ This action was discontinued on 2nd September.

In the second case, in a writ served 10th September 1914 Alex Jewell, at the Automobile Club, was alleged to have said to fellow members John Cook, Gordon Menere and others ‘I’ve heard on good authority that …Edwards has been arrested as German spy and is at present in gaol and some plans of the Forts were found in his room’. While the archive file is incomplete, we know from a later press report that this writ was also withdrawn. It is not known whether both actions were withdrawn because they were settled out of court, or whether Edwards had been advised that in the current jingoistic climate of the first few weeks of war that his cases would not prosper.

That the outbreak of the war created a situation where the Australian public, encouraged in large part by statements by the then attorney-general, William Hughes about the German ‘octopus’ and egged on by the ‘patriotic’ popular press, tried to create their own war at home – ‘in a sense, a war experience had to be manufactured in Australia, and the German residents of the country including the members of the German-Australian community were the obvious targets to be identified as enemies…’. For all the nastiness and vindictiveness this would entail, where many Germans were arrested and interned purely on hearsay or unwarranted suspicions, the Government also contributed by deliberately targeting individuals to make an example of them and to show the Australian people that it too was doing its job – once the legislation was in place to act – and especially when it realised that it simply did not have the resources to intern everyone of German blood in Australia. Edwards fell neatly into this framework and little attention was given to his efforts to settle long term in Victoria; indeed, naturalised Germans like Edwards were explicitly included in the legislation.

This led to some farcical police investigations. In a Minute from the Intelligence Corps Major of the 3rd Military District [Victoria] to the officer-in-charge of the Intelligence Section on the General Staff, on 19th August, the officer reports that ‘Mr Schroeder’ (corrected in pencil to Schreiber) [he means Otto Schober, Edwards’ deputy] of the Continental Tyre Company, ‘is sending mail via Italy so as to circumvent local censorship’ and recommends that it be censored. He also says that ‘it is understood’ that Continental has ‘discharged all British and Australian employees and are now working with an all-German staff.’ He adds that he is keeping Edward Edwards, alias J. Kengreen [author’s italics] and the office staff under surveillance.

The unfamiliarity with the proper names other than Edward Edwards – an English name – is compounded when (plain clothes) Constable F. W. Sickerdick on behalf of military intelligence pretended to be a German-Australian looking for work at Continental as a pretext to getting access to ‘Mr Schreiber’. He is given short shrift by the Australian office girl and supervisor there, very possibly because Sickerdick’s disguise was not very effective. The Australian supervisor at Continental tells Sickerdick that he has no chance of seeing ‘Mr Schreiber’ and his ‘cake was dough’ to get work.

In late August 1914 the company issued a circular to its customers and business connections, trying to refute rumours and stay in business. The circular emphasised the legal status of the company and its plans to expand business and add Australian jobs. It was to no avail.

Typical of the nature of the times was the Minute from the Chief Censor located in the GPO Melbourne to the Military Intelligence office in Victoria Barracks Melbourne. The chief censor has intercepted commercial cables between Edwards/Continental and the Continental office in Amsterdam – by now mail between Australia and Germany could only go through neutral counties. References to Edwards’ mother were deemed ‘suspicious’, in fact ‘the whole circumstances are so suspicious that I deemed it best to bring them to your notice.’ Then followed a telegram from the Amsterdam office to Edwards to report that his mother was well and the next from Edwards to his mother via Amsterdam to send her love on her birthday. Edwards left with his wife for Sydney for two weeks in October, followed by military intelligence as ‘they both require careful watching.’

Not surprisingly, Harrison again used his new weekly magazine, Motor World, to put more pressure on the Government to constrain Continental even further, by constant attacks on Continental and Edwards. Harrison stated that anyone buying ‘dumped’ Continental cycle tyres should be ‘tarred and feathered’. In Harrison’s view, ‘The German by nature is a liar, braggart, a profligate, a thief, a despoiler of children, murderer of old men, seducer of helpless girls and women.’

In October the Government enacted new legislation to deal with the war. Apart from the War Precautions Act, of immediate concern for Continental was the Trading With the Enemy Act, which was designed to prevent trading with the enemy or any firms owned or controlled by enemy nationals. Later in May 1915 the Enemy Contracts Annulment Act was passed, which would have some impact on Continental as well. William ‘Billy’ Hughes, the Attorney-General at the time, was already forming a view in late 1914 as he investigated German commercial controls over metals production in Australia that German companies should not be allowed to re-establish themselves after the war even if their local companies were suspended due to the war. He made it his mission to ‘destroy the commercial power of Germany both during and after the war.’

In this regard, Continental Rubber was a company to be eliminated in Australia – along with its personification in Edward Edwards. On 23rd October, the Intelligence Section was authorised by the Commander 3rd Military District, to ‘break and enter by day or night’, Continental’s offices in Collins Street and at Fitzroy and ‘search and seize and carry away, any arms, explosives, military stores, naval stores, telephone or wireless apparatus, or enemy’s documents found therein.’ Added to this standard warrant was the sentence: ‘Documents proving supply of information to or trading with the enemy to be looked for specially and seized.’

Raids followed shortly after at several ‘German’ firms. At the offices of Continental in Collins Street, the repair factory in Fitzroy and the bulk store near Spencer Street, not surprisingly wireless, arms etc were not discovered, although armed guards remained on duty – Edwards was present during the search at the head office where documents were seized. On 27th October 1914 the State military commandant requested from the Intelligence Staff a daily briefing at 9am on progress on the case of Edward Edwards.

Meanwhile, Dunlop’s manager in Germany, none other than Charles Proctor, a former member of the ACV and head of Dunlop tyres in Melbourne, was interned in Baden Baden. No-one had heard from him so far so assumed the worst, attributing various brutality to the Germans in charge of his captivity. It was reasoned, in continuing attacks in the Australian Motorist, that nothing less should be directed at Edwards. The noose was tightening. However, there was nothing but unproven suspicions that Continental in Melbourne would try to ‘trade with the enemy’.

On 13 November 1914 the Government moved against the Continental Tyre Company, calling a formal inquiry headed by High Court Justice Sir Isaac Isaacs in the first case of its kind under the Trading With the Enemy Act 1914. The Minister for Trade and Customs applied to the High Court of Australia to appoint a controller over Continental under the Act. The inquiry was ostensibly about investigating whether Continental was in contravention of the Act, but it also gave the authorities an opportunity to investigate Edwards himself.

Click here for Part Two

© Dr Andrew J Kilsby – This article is drawn from the book The Case of Eichengruen-Edwards and Continental Tyres

Contact Andrew Kilsby about this article.

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