Delving into Diversions and Deviations – An Australian in the German Army

As Family Historians we are urged to stay focussed and stick to the research plan that we should have already worked out.  But we delve into the diversions and deviations that frequently appear in our quest – searching the internet and books for time and place material, tracking who else lived in the street and what was their trade in the 1861 census and, if you are an Ancestry member, getting inundated with tips that seem totally irrelevant.  No – Mary Ann Carey was born in Brisbane, Queensland not Delaware, Ohio!  Along the way however, there is always something to pique the interest and the grass often seems greener in someone else’s family tree!  In this manner, I discovered an Australian citizen serving in the German Army in World War I.My 3rd great aunt Julia Augusta Carroll (1843-1868) married Martin Zerbe (1831-1900) on 22 August 1861 at Taroom in the Dawson Valley region of Queensland.  Zerbe had arrived at Port Jackson (Sydney) 12 March 1855 aboard the Cateaux Wattel which was carrying 585 German immigrants including 288 children.  In 1856 Martin was appointed the first Postmaster at Taroom and in 1859, the year in which Queensland was separated from New South Wales – the day after Queen Victoria signed the Proclamation in fact – he was granted “… all the rights and capacities within the said Colony of New South Wales, of a natural born British Subject”.  Coincidentally, Julia’s sister Margaret also married a German national – Ludwig Henninges – in Taroom on 15 January 1863.

Image - Martin Zerbe

Martin Zerbe 1831-1900

Martin Zerbe is described as an educated German, a genial host and a pioneer of the Taroom District.  Owning the general store and a public house in Taroom, he also purchased the White Lion Hotel in Maryborough, established a cattle station and was a public advocate for extending a the rail link to Taroom as well as being a leading racehorse owner and trainer.  His presence in Taroom was even noted in an 1898 ‘ragged rhyme’ by Mr WS Walsh Prospecting in the old days:

Unaffected by ill-fortune, aye, with never fading hopes

We search onward through the ranges and

Work down the Dawson slopes,

Down ever-widening spaces to the sacred “Knob” of yore,

Now Taroom. Where genial host Zerbe tends his

Public house and store.

From entertaining the crowd with his humorous questioning of a noted politician of the day to being admonished by a Judge for harsh language in the court room; from a status of prominent citizen to being arrested on “suspicion of being of unsound mind”; from successful businessman to a bankrupt yet still being able to leave a sizeable estate to his third wife, Martin Zerbe seems an enigmatic character worthy of further research.

I gradually became aware of Martin having a brother living in Queensland – Anton Heinrich or Anthony Henry Zerbe.  Like a ghost flitting across the records landscape, the very few references reveal that Anton was living in Taroom in 1865 when he won an action against the authorities in respect of a Hawkers Licence.  In 1867 both Martin and Anton proved debts against the insolvent estate of Edward Massarath, publican of the Maranoa Hotel at Mount Abundance.  There is a Zerbe mining at Eidsvold in 1873 and then A. Zerbe is recorded as a miner on the Calliope goldfield in 1889.  Eventually, the Queensland Births Deaths and Marriages Index revealed their common parents as John (or Johann) Zerbe and Catherine Berbeler (again, various spellings).

Anton Zerbe died 23 April 1902 and is buried in the Calliope Cemetery, about 28 km south west of today’s Gladstone (previously known as Port Curtis).  The website Find a Grave attaches an interesting obituary relating that Anton migrated to the United States, enlisted in the 20th New York Infantry 17 July 1861 during the Civil War, mustered out 1 June 1863 and returned to Germany where he married Emma Amelia [Kneipp] Knippe in 1864 before migrating to Australia that year and was living at Ravenswood in 1897.

There is no doubt that the Anton Zerbe I am researching married a Emma Amelia Kneipp but, initially, I was unable to replicate the research that leads Find a Grave to its obituary.  Yes, there was an Anton Zerbe in the 20th Regiment, New York Infantry but there was also an Anton Zerbe naturalised in 1882 who had been honourably discharged from the US Army.  Anton H. Zerbe arrived in Sydney on the Hohenzellern from Bremen, Germany, but this was in 1887 and the names of his wife and children do not match our target.  Intriguingly, there is an Anthony H.J.A. Zerbe born 2 April 1881 in Hoboken, New Jersey, USA, to Anthony H. Zerbe and mother Kneipp!  I was about to rule out these USA Civil War connections but then came across a record of Anton Zerbe of Millchester near Charters Towers, Queensland, applying for a US pension claiming to have served in 20th New York Infantry.  So, Martin Zerbe’s brother Anton did serve in the Union Army.

What is not in doubt comes from the ubiquitous Ancestry hint.  Johann Zerbe born 27 March 1899 in Ravenswood, Queensland, Australia to Anton Heinrich Zerbe and Emma Kneipp was sworn into a Bavarian Artillery Regiment on 13 July 1917.  Listed in the Australia, Birth Index, 1788-1922 is John Zerbe, born 27 March 1899, Queensland to Anthony Henry Zerbe and Emma Emalia Knupp.  Subject to getting some documents transcribed from the original German, it appears that John Zerbe was accidentally killed in May or June 1918.

German Military

Bavaria, Germany, WW I Personnel Rosters, 1914-1918 for Johann Zerbe – Ravenswood, Queensland, Australia 27 March 1899

Casualty List

German Newspaper Casualty List

It is unlikely that Anton Zerbe was particularly successful as a miner and obviously moved about a great deal.  Gold was first discovered near Calliope in 1853 but the rush there did not start until 10 years later.  The alluvial gold soon played out and reef mining continued through shaft construction and by 1885 it is reported there were only about 20 independent miners working the fields.

Calliope takes its name from the Calliope River so named by Governor FitzRoy after the ship Calliope in which he travelled to Port Curtis (Gladstone) in 1854.  Another diversion – there was a later ship called HMS Calliope; a warship which sailed from Australian waters to Apia, Samoa to watch over a looming diplomatic crisis and potential military confrontation between the United States and Germany.  These colonial powers were backing rival clans in a dispute over who would replace the usurped and exiled King of Samoa, Malietoa Laupepa.  After two civil wars, the Tripartite Convention of 1899 would establish American Samoa and German Samoa.  Having had no knowledge of the Samoan Civil Wars, I resisted the temptation to delve further into this diversion!

For the first quarter of 1889, the Gladstone Mining Warden reported that A. Zerbe’s claim at Calliope had produced 8 dwt of gold from a crushing of 8 tons 11 cwt of ore; that is – about 12.5 grams or half an ounce.  With the fixed gold price at that time, Zerbe’s output would be worth roughly $290 today.  Hardly a bonanza!

What led young John Zerbe to depart Australia and travel to Europe and join the German Army?  Anton, his father died in 1902 when John was only three years old.  From the few records discovered, Anton and Emma had five children – Frederick William died in 1896 aged about two years and Anthony Henry and Otto, who seem to be twins, both died in 1897, either in infancy or were stillborn.  Of Catherine born in 1891 and William in 1897, there seems to be no further record.  I surmise then, that following Anton’s death, Emma Amelia (Kneipp) Zerbe returned to Germany, her birthplace, with her three surviving children.

So, it would seem that John Zerbe did not depart from Australia to join the German Army; rather, that having been born in Australia and then raised in Germany for about 14 years, he joined his nation’s army.  Emma Amelia then would like many other mothers of that period grieve for a young life extinguished by the Great War.

References Australia, Marriage Index, 1788-1950 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2010. Australia, Birth Index, 1788-1922 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2010. Australia, Death Index, 1787-1985 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2010.

Queensland Intestacies, Insolvencies and Wills 1859-1900

Queensland Places: Calliope

Australia and New Zealand, Find A Grave Index, 1800s– Current

State Records Authority of New South Wales; Kingswood, New South Wales, Australia; Series: Certificates of Naturalization, 1849-1874; Series Number: NRS 1039; Roll: 2692

HMS Calliope (1884)

Samoan Crisis

General Correspondence of the Record and Pension Office, 1889-1904, NARA Publication Number M686 (Find My Past)

National Archives and Records Administration. U.S., Civil War Pension Index: General Index to Pension Files, 1861-1934 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc, 2000.

Image – Martin Zerbe c. 1880, State Library of Queensland.

1865 ‘SUPREME COURT.’, The Brisbane Courier (Qld. : 1864 – 1933), 30 August, p. 2, viewed 15 September, 2015,

1867 ‘The Courts.’, The Queenslander (Brisbane, Qld. : 1866 – 1939), 20 April, p. 6, viewed 15 September, 2015,

1886 ‘Local News’, Maryborough Chronicle, Wise Bay and Burnett Advertiser (Qld: 1860-1947), 3 March. p.2, viewed 9 November 2014,

1886 ‘Local News’, Maryborough Chronicle, Wide Bay and Burnett Advertiser (Qld: 1860-1947), 10 December, p.2, viewed 9 November 2014,

1889 ‘GLADSTONE.’, The Telegraph (Brisbane, Qld. : 1872 – 1947), 16 April, p. 3, viewed 14 November, 2015,

1898 ‘PROSPECTING IN THE OLD DAYS.’, Maryborough Chronicle, Wide Bay and Burnett Advertiser (Qld: 1860 – 1947), 14 October, p. 3, viewed 15 November, 2015,

1900 ‘Family Notices’, The Brisbane Courier (Qld: 1864-1933), 19 July, p.1, viewed 9 November 2014,




About njsresearch6

Although raised in Western Australia, I have lived in the Northern Territory most of my life. Memberships include the NT Genealogical Society (Committee), Australian Museum and Gallery Association (NT Chapter Committee), and Chung Wah Society (NT Chinese Museum Coordinator).
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2 Responses to Delving into Diversions and Deviations – An Australian in the German Army

  1. Bevan Buirchell says:

    Hey Neville

    Long time since I have seen you or heard of your whereabouts!!!!! Msg be Albany High days for the seeing and a photo in the paper regarding your survival from a cyclone up near Kununurra some years ago.

    I just come across your blog and was most interested in your family tree adventures. I have a fair bit of information on the Buirchell (Birchall) side and the Rogers side. Recently came across some more info on the Sale and Trotter family that may solve some of your mysteries in that area. Also not sure if you have come across a child of George Birchall and Mary Anna Sale who was born 6 days before Anne died in Albany. Her name was Ellen Gertrude born 11.7.1872. There is no record of her other than a birth certificate. Rumour I heard from someone was that she was given to a family from a boat that was in the Albany Harbour which was going to Adelaide. End of the trail.

    There are a few other stories that I have collected and am willing to share. Email: M: 0428957896 I live in Como, WA. Drop us a line.



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