BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
Australia's first major victory in the Great War
, March 29, 2014
FIRST VICTORY, 1914:
HMAS Sydney’s Hunt for the German Raider Emden
by Mike Carlton
(William Heinemann Australia),
Hardcover: 496 pages
Reviewed by Michael E. Daniel
A common criticism one hears is that Australia is always fighting other people’s wars, even when it is not directly threatened. This argument has often been used with regard to Australia’s participation in World War I.
Mike Carlton’s book, First Victory, 1914, challenges this assessment by reminding readers that, for the first few months of World War I, the Imperial German Navy posed a very real threat to Australia and to Australian interests.
Australia relied heavily on access to sea-lanes across the Indian ocean so as to be able to send its shipments of exports en route to Britain and its troopships to Europe and the Middle East. It was vital therefore that the major threat posed by the German light cruiser, the SMS Emden, be neutralised.
The success of the HMAS Sydney in sinking the Emden on November 9, 1914, constituted Australia’s first major victory in World War I.
Strangely enough, this important episode, although it has long been a matter of scholarly interest for the British and the Germans, has been largely forgotten by the Australian public. Mike Carlton’s book therefore is significant in that it is the first major Australian study of the subject.
The focus of much of Carlton’s book is on the Emden’s actions in the first few months of World War I and its subsequent sinking. However, the book provides much useful background material to set the scene and also discusses other important Australian and British naval actions during the first few months of the war.
Carlton begins his book by describing the establishment of the Royal Australian Navy before the war and, particularly, the arrival of the first RAN fleet in Sydney Harbour in October 4, 1913.
Given Australia’s vast coastline and isolated position, the Commonwealth government recognised the importance of our nation having its own navy.
This decision was to prove fortuitous on the outbreak of the war. The German East Asia Squadron, based at Tsingtao in China, made its decisions as to where to deploy its vessels on the basis that the RAN was in existence. Had Australia lacked such a naval presence, the Imperial German Navy could have bombarded Australian eastern seaboard cities with impunity.
On war being declared, Admiral Maximilian von Spee, fearful that his fleet could be trapped by the British eastern squadron, decided to head east. However, he granted Captain Karl von Müller, commander of the Emden, a request that his ship be detached from the squadron so that it could operate freely, predominantly in the Indian Ocean, to attack and sink British shipping.
Carlton describes in detail the actions of the Emden during this period. It sank a number of British merchant vessels, but studiously avoided attacking neutral vessels. It would not be until February of the following year that Germany would pursue unrestricted submarine warfare,
In 1914, the world learned of German war atrocities in Belgium. These were widely condemned, particularly in the British press. In contrast, von Müller’s actions were considered chivalrous, particularly by those whom he captured. He treated prisoners with respect and tried to ensure, when he was attacking a ship, that all personnel were able to depart before he sank it.
He also periodically organised for captured personnel, particularly those wounded, to be repatriated, often to an Allied port. Knowing that he himself would be hunted by British naval vessels, von Müller astutely kept shifting the focus of his operations, and was thus able to act unimpeded.
On September 22, 1914, he successfully bombarded large oil tanks in Madras harbour, on the south-eastern coast of the Indian peninsula (India then being part of the British empire). However, possibly his most daring operation was a raid he conducted on Penang on October 28, in which he sank a Russian cruiser in the harbour and later a French warship which gave chase.
Meanwhile, in the same month, Australian military and naval forces captured Rabaul, the capital of German New Guinea, the chief target being the radio transmitting station located there. This event, not the 1915 Gallipoli landings, was the first action in World War I involving Australian troops.
Ironically enough, an Australian naval party had previously visited Rabaul, yet the Germans had succeeded in keeping hidden the location of its inland radio station. The German troops stationed there put up determined resistance, which resulted in a number of Australian casualties.
With the first contingent of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) preparing to depart for Europe at the end of October 1914, Australian authorities were increasingly anxious about the Emden’s whereabouts.
The convoy, which was assembling near Albany, Western Australia, was to be escorted by ships of the RAN and the Imperial Japanese Navy.
Ultimately, the Emden’s luck ran out when von Müller made his decision to send a raiding party of 50 armed seamen to land on Direction Island, one of the Cocos Islands in the Indian Ocean, with the intention of destroying the wireless station there, a vital link in the communications of the British Empire.
Von Müller made this decision unaware of the proximity of the RAN convoy en route to Europe. However, the convoy learnt of the Emden’s proximity through an emergency wireless transmission from the Cocos Islands station after officials there became aware of the German light cruiser’s presence.
HMAS Sydney was detached from the convoy and engaged the Emden. Although the Sydney sustained some damage, it succeeded in disabling the Emden, which nevertheless continued fighting long after there was any chance of mounting a successful counter-attack by launching a torpedo.
Von Müller eventually made the decision to run the Emden aground. There were a significant number of German casualties. However, a large number of Emden personnel survived and were captured.
Those who remained at large were the members of the original 50-strong raiding party under the command of Lieutenant Hellmuth von Mücke. Their long journey back to Germany is one of the most remarkable odysseys ever told, and Carlton recounts it towards the end of his book.
The 50 German personnel from the shore party commandeered a dilapidated 123-ton schooner and escaped from Direction Island, making for the neutral Dutch East Indies.
There, on December 13, 1914, they transferred to a German freighter, which took them to the Red Sea port of Al Hudaydah in Yemen, then still part of the Ottoman Empire.
They travelled by boat up the east coast of the Red Sea as far as Jedda, all the time trying to avoid British and French ships. They endured battles against hostile tribes in the desert and marched overland in dangerous conditions.
Eventually, they reached a rail head and from there travelled to Constantinople (Istanbul), the capital of Germany’s ally, Turkey. From there they travelled overland to Germany, where they received a heroes’ welcome.
First Victory, 1914 is an enthralling and thoroughly researched account of the RAN and the sinking of the Emden in the early phase of World War I. It is accessible to the average reader, utterly absorbing and a must-read.