Remembering AE1: ‘…the ocean bed their tomb’

by Daina Fletcher

Submarine AE1

Remembering AE1

On 14 September 2015 a major art installation by leading Australian light artist Warren Langley was unveiled at the Australian National Maritime Museum to commemorate the disappearance of submarine HMAS AE1 and the loss of its 35 souls, 101 years on.


The work entitled ‘… the ocean bed their tomb’ takes the form of a large scale stainless steel wreath, six metres in diameter floating above the water in the museum basin, casting a shadow from day to night. Warren Langley states:

This is an art work about contemplation and reflection in both a literal and metaphorical sense … In sunlight, the polished stainless steel structure shimmers and reflects its image upon the water surface. At night a concealed light source creates a complex optical intrigue of reflections.

<em>AE1</em> commemorative sculpture <em>‘… the ocean bed their tomb’</em> at night
AE1 commemorative sculpture ‘… the ocean bed their tomb’ at night in the Australian National Maritime Museum's basin, September 2015.

Photo: Andrew Frolows/ANMM

The concept for the work of art arose from the mysterious circumstances of the submarine’s disappearance, the necessarily truncated effort to search for it given the exigencies of wartime operations and the chimera or elusive shadow it leaves, in that neither the submarine nor the bodies of the men on board have been found. Commander Lieutenant Besant, his two officers and 32 Australian and British petty-officers, seamen, artificers and stokers remain lost at sea.

When the submarine failed to return to Rabaul Harbour on 14 September 1914 fellow ships of the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force including HMAS Parramatta, Yarra, Encounter and Warrego were deployed searching for three days. No traces were found and the ships resumed their hunt for German cruisers in the Pacific.

The loss and this unresolved mystery, amplified by a line from a poem (‘… the ocean bed their tomb’) written at the time by South Australian Anne Almer, inspired Warren Langley to conceive the work in a lyrical homage to the lost sailors.

Langley explores the wreath form:

A burial at sea is not uncommonly accompanied by a floating wreath of flowers. In September 1914, in the early months of WW1 it is unlikely that the luxury of a floral wreath would have been available. The concept for this art work imagines an alternative, equally beautiful wreath constructed of floating twigs, branches and vegetative flotsam from the waters off Papua New Guinea.

So the loss of the men of AE1 is now marked by this impressive large scale light wreath nestled in the museum basin.

Immediate reaction to the loss of AE1

This unexplained loss so close to home and so early in the war had a major impact on the public consciousness in a nation marshalling its eager volunteers.

AE1 entering Cookatoo Dockyard June 1914 with the Balmain Coal mine on the left in background
AE1 entering Cookatoo Dockyard June 1914 with the Balmain Coal mine on the left in background

Courtesy Sea Power Centre – Australia

Almost immediately the Australian media reported the disappearance, as communicated by Admiral Patey, Commander of Australian Fleet in charge of naval operations on 19 September, and following it, the pronouncements from the Minister for Defence and Prime Minister Andrew Fisher.

The Bendigo Advertiser, 21 September 1914
Article in The Bendigo Advertiser, 21 September 1914

Newspapers across the country followed the loss intently and reported developments daily. With headlines such as ‘Australia loses her first ship of war’ (Sunday Times, 20 September) and ‘Naval disaster’ reporters chronicled the submarine’s technical attributes as ‘the last word in submarine construction’.

Reports also covered the search, the specialist expertise of the lost officers and crew (‘a superior lot of men’), stories of local men like artificer John Messenger from Ballarat and stoker John Bray of Eaglehawk, Victoria, the benefit concert for wives, mothers and family held 14 October, along with diplomatic messages of support and condolence.

They also reported the mystery and then excitement of theories about its fate. The news even reached Berlin, with the publication of German news report postulating that its ‘Pacific fleet has not been idle’.

Many regional papers reported a letter from Sydney Morning Herald’s Special Commissioner in Rabaul, dated 27 September 1914, asserting the nobility of their deaths:

… though Lieut Besant and his companions perished without the firing of a single shot, the fact that their death lacked the qualities of spectacular detracts not a whit from its nobility or its example. They obeyed their orders. And they died in that obedience. They gave their lives for King and for the Empire as surely and as unhesitatingly as though the AE1 had sunk, bows toward the enemy, rent and shattered from stem to stern beneath a crashing rain of shells.

The following weeks saw eulogistic poems on similar themes of heroism, national duty, sacrifice and nobility of spirit published and republished in city and regional newspapers, including WE Vincent’s ‘The boys of AE1’, Del McCay’s ‘A.E.1’, and ‘Submarine AE1’ by Anne Almer, a regular contributor to Adelaide’s The Register interested in the spirit and soul. The first stanza of Almer’s poem reads:

The brave men at their duty met their doom
Sudden and sharp the ocean bed their tomb.
No roar of battle warned them death was nigh;
Silent and sudden they plunged into gloom.



On 21 October 1914 in London, Trafalgar Day, High Commissioner to the United Kingdom former Australian Prime Minister Sir George Reid placed a wreath at the Nelson Column ‘in memory of Australians lost in AE1 in the Pacific’ while the Navy League did the same for warships sunk in the North Sea.

In Australia this first major loss was soon overtaken by the carnage at Gallipoli and the Western front and in 1916 Anzac Day was instituted to remember the fallen.

While newspapers reported a survey party on HMAS Suva in 1919 leaving Sydney to search for AE1, no further reports ensued and it was in 1928 that the submarine and its crew were again publicly acknowledged. The Returned Soldiers and Sailors Imperial League instituted a series of commemorations at Sydney’s cenotaph to mark key anniversaries of wartime losses. At the first, on 14 September, the bugler played The Last Post to commemorate the disappearance of AE1.

The Royal Australian Navy marks the loss in glass

Submarine Flotilla commemorative stained glass window in the Naval Chapel at Sydney’s Garden Island naval base
Submarine Flotilla commemorative stained glass window in the Naval Chapel at Sydney’s Garden Island naval base

Courtesy Royal Australian Naval and Historical Society

Within the Royal Australia Navy the story of the AE1 and its sister-ship AE2, Australia’s first two submarines and its only two submarine losses ever, was marked in 1933 with the installation of the Submarine Flotilla commemorative stained glass window in the Naval Chapel at Sydney’s Garden Island naval base.

The window, alongside the reredos altar, is accompanied by an illuminated testimonial noting naval lives lost in World War I listing all 35 men lost, this erected by the ex-Naval Men’s Association of New South Wales. The Submarine Flotilla stained glass windows were designed and crafted by John Radecki, the designer and proprietor of John Ashwin and Co .

Those 1930s stained glass windows and are a material and conceptual link to Warren Langley’s installation ‘… the ocean bed their tomb’.

The use of light and reflection has been a constant in Langely’s work since he began his art practice in the 1980s. In ‘… the ocean bed their tomb’ reflection is the principle design element which provides a metaphor for the single most important intent of the concept: to create pause and evoke a sense of contemplation and inquiry in the viewer about the disappearance of the submarine and the loss of its 35 crew.

Warren Langley: glass, water, light

Mapping the tide, Warren Langley
Warren Langley, Mapping the tide, 2002

Courtesy Warren Langley

Langley, a former geologist, sought out glass as his first and preferred medium. He was attracted by its form, materiality, aesthetic and optical qualities: reflection, refraction, diffraction and the way it played with light.  He experimented with form, pattern and light, only limited by the scale of the medium.

Experimenting with bigger sheets of glass he developed a lucrative commercial technique of slumped glass sand casting which enabled him to capture gesture, almost drawing in glass. This technique was the main interpretive form in the Australian Service Nurses National Memorial in Canberra ACT, a public commission with Robin Moorhouse from 1999.

Langley gradually realised that water possessed many of the same qualities as glass. It could do the same thing as glass but in much larger scale. He began working with water and light, setting up large-scale light installations around Sydney Harbour at night with fibreoptic cable. This 1990s body of work, entitled glass=water=glass, saw Langley working with expanses of water—‘the biggest piece of glass’ he could find—to create glass-like effects in works such as Light and Water composition, Sydney Harbour. Initially guerrilla art projects, they became planned, local Council-sanctioned art installations and public art commissions such as Mapping the tide (2002) on Queensland’s Noosa Sound.

Langley’s next step was to take this site responsive light work out of the water into the earthscape and in 2004 he was awarded an Australia Council grant to travel to the Simpson Desert to explore readings of the landscape, from his innate geologist’s viewpoint overlaid with readings from the local Aboriginal community. Drift (2006) shows a canoe image suspended above the dry riverbed at Simpsons Gap while Point in time and Memory lines reflect lineations—joint patterns in the rock face.

In the urban landscape Langley’s explorations of light, form and histories have resulted in some beautiful and stimulating commissions around the world, including the site-responsive Breathe (2004). Located in the waterscape at the Museum of Contemporary art, Tacoma WA, USA, polycarbonate rods of light gently move with the winds.

Aspire (2010) in Ultimo, Sydney, is a forest of glowing golden polyethylene trees which appear to support the concrete freeway overhead, referencing both the displaced natural flora and the gritty determination of local residents to successfully preserve pockets of their suburb.

Valley (2012) a work of repetitive stainless steel forms heralds the approach to the Swan Valley in Western Australia. It echoes a valley profile, by day it creates an interesting shadow interplay on the ground and by night the concealed lighting lights up the form.

Valley by Warren Langley
Warren Langley, Valley, 2012

Courtesy Warren Langley

… the ocean bed their tomb

Artist Warren Langley in front of the AE1 commemorative sculpture at the Australian National Maritime Museum, 5 September 2015
Artist Warren Langley in front of ‘… the ocean bed their tomb’ at the Australian National Maritime Museum, 5 September 2015

Photograph: Andrew Frolows/ANMM

Langley’s clever and poetic melding of metaphorical and physical, abstract and referential brings us to ‘… the ocean bed their tomb’, which transforms from day to night in an intriguing interplay of light and shadow.

The development of the work raised many technical challenges for the engineers and naval architects who worked on the project to allow the sculpture to move with the water, above the water. The major challenge was to engineer the work so that it could be unshackled and moved around the basin  when visiting vessels are scheduled.


Attached to a cleverly engineered hexagonal pontoon of PVC piping the work is anchored to concrete blocks on the sea floor attached by lines to a wharf pontoon, enabling it to almost levitate above the water, moving with its tidal and transient rhythms, projecting its image onto the water below.

The scale of the work, fabricated in the artist’s workshop, presented more challenges to transport it to the Australian National Maritime Museum. The six-meter diameter wreathe-like shape had to be cut in half to enable it to go on to a truck. While this was planned well in advance the action of cutting a complete work in half would no doubt provoke some anxiety in the most calm artist. Over a three day period the work was reassembled on site, gently lifted into the water by crane, secured to the blocks on the sea floor and then to lines back to a counter-weight secured to the pontoon in museum’s basin, where it now floats.

The form of ‘… the ocean bed their tomb’ is largely abstract, with stainless steel rods shaping the wreath. Representational elements are highlights—the laser-cut leaf forms reference place, the mangroves from Papua New Guinea. At times the form of black PVC pontoon is visible, hinting at the fate and form of a submerged submarine.

AE1 sculpture photographed at different times throughout the day

This stainless steel work enjoys a striking presence in the museum’s waterfront location where its modernist form, standing apart from the smaller historic craft at the museum’s wharves, resonates with the clean lines of the submarine HMAS Onslow and the soon-to-be-unveiled Warships Pavilion. These structures—the submarine and the interpretive centre—provide further context for the visitor to explore the legacy of the loss of HMAS AE1 and its 35 men in World War I.

This year, amid the centenary years of World War I, 101 years after AE1’s disappearance, the poignancy of Warren Langley’s work of art continues to keep the memory of these men alive. The museum hopes that this beautiful homage to those lost men will become even more resonant in future years to prompt conversations about the contribution of submariners and the Royal Australia Navy in Australia’s defence history.

The last known photograph of AE1, 9 September 1914.
The last known photograph of AE1, 9 September 1914. HMAS Yarra and HMAS Australia appear in the background

Courtesy Sea Power Centre – Australia

The development of the work is supported by the Australian Government’s Anzac Centenary Arts and Culture Fund