Setting Sun: The Fate Of Germany’s Pacific Empire

When the Great War began in 1914, Germans were very proud of their global empire, which boasted possessions in Africa, China, and the Pacific Ocean. The Kaiser’s naval arms race, which had done so much to raise prewar tensions with Britain, had the ostensible aim of securing his farthest-flung territories from Japan, so it is one of the war’s great ironies that Wilhelm’s actions brought about the very event he most feared. A century ago, the world was mostly divided into European empires, and as the German one fell, so did the others change too. 

It was also a time of great adventures, when explorers were still discovering new parts of the world while the old order was crumbling in fire and blood. Although most of the sailors in Germany’s East Asia Squadron will meet their fate in combat, the courageous survivors will witness the immense changes taking place in the societies through which they pass. This is the stuff from which great Hollywood films and television miniseries are made.


02 September 1914 – Asian Dragons

Above: a Japanese heavy gun position during the siege of Tsingtao

The outbreak of the Great War has sundered the world order that was defined by European colonialism. Over the next half-century, brand new nations will rise from the ruins of empires, while in Asia, two ancient nations struggle to emerge into the modern world.

Japan has ended its medieval isolation, rapidly modernizing and asserting its strength. A century ago today, 23,000 soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army begin landing at Longkou in Shandong Province, a peninsula jutting out into the Yellow Sea. Emperor Taisho has been at war with the Kaiser for ten days, and his ships have already begun to take possession of Micronesia; now they are arriving in force on the Asian mainland.

Japanese troops landing at Laoshan Bay on September 18

Initial landings were slowed by flooding, so the beachhead was changed to Laoshan Bay on September 18

Declaring that he would rather surrender Berlin to the Russians than lose his Chinese territories to Japan, Kaiser Wilhelm exhorts his subjects in Shandong to rally at Tsingtao, the port city that his empire “leased” from the Emperor of China at gunpoint shortly before the Boxer Rebellion. Responsive to his call, they have been streaming into the city for weeks.

A republic for just two years, China is also struggling to throw off her shackles and find a place in the world despite the indignity of foreign occupation in its coastal zones. Japan has already used violence to win a piece of China, then fought alongside Europe and the United States to keep the Chinese dragon at heel. After today, Japanese policy trends towards hegemony — casting the other world powers out of its sphere of influence in Asia to achieve absolute dominance.

Members of the Shanghai Volunteer Corps who trekked to Tsingtao to defend the Kaiser's Chinese possessions

Members of the Shanghai Volunteer Corps who trekked to Tsingtao to defend the Kaiser’s Chinese possessions. They are carrying British-made rifles and wearing British-cut uniforms, evidence of improvised mobilization

The German defenders are not prepared for sustained combat. Their forts quickly run out of ammunition for the big guns, and Japan’s meticulous preparations pay off in a rapid reduction of the defenses by heavy artillery. Badly outnumbered and outgunned, armed only with a hodgepodge of insufficient weaponry, the colony falls after two months of campaigning but just a few days of actual battle.

The confrontation has contained historic events, however. On September 6th, a Japanese seaplane launched from the Wakamiya becomes the first aircraft to leave a ship’s flight deck and attack another ship, though its improvised bombs fail to damage two boats defending the harbor. Flying a primitive Taube aircraft, Lieutenant Gunther Plüschow claims to have shot one of the Japanese pilots dead in midair with his pistol during the siege, winning the world’s first aerial combat victory (his claim is impossible to verify).

The 1,500-man British contingent arrives in Tsingtao to keep an eye on their Japanese allies

The 1,500-man British contingent arrives in Tsingtao to keep an eye on their Japanese allies

Japan has been drawn into the war by their British allies, but their aggressive move into China is also a source of concern for London. Within weeks, a force of 1,500 troops arrives with the ostensible mission of supporting the attack. In truth, they are here to ensure that the Rising Sun does not monopolize the weakened China they have done the most to create through centuries of war and policy.

In 1917, after the United States declares war on Germany and prevails on China to do the same, Japan lands more troops in Shandong to signal that they intend to stay. The island empire goes on to achieve its war aims when the peace conference at Versailles recognizes their ownership of Shandong, enraging the Chinese, who entered the war in part to reclaim the province. Wellington Koo, China’s ambassador to France, refuses to sign the treaty, and American diplomatic intervention leads to Japan returning the province in 1922.

It is another balance of power on which events will once again cascade into a second global conflict. The League of Nations recognizes Japan as one of the ‘big five’ world powers, but the Asian dragons grapple again in 1937 — and this time, Japan has one eye on the colonies and Pacific interests of Europe and the United States.

A Belgian-built Farman MF11 Hydro like the one launched from the Wakamiya

A Belgian-built Farman MF11 Hydro like the ones launched from the Wakamiya

For China, the challenge of forging a place in the world proves arduous. It is made harder by the lack of Chinese exposure to the outside world, so the experiences of 190,000 laborers who serve in France at the invitation of Sir Douglas Haig prove invaluable when they return home with heads full of ideas and tales of the world they’ve seen.

For Japan, which is experiencing a social renaissance in these years that is the equal of America’s Jazz Age, this all too-brief period sees the invention of the suit-wearing, clock-punching salaryman — and the first examples of a cosmopolitan Japan. Gender and tradition are being questioned as never before, with radical feminists and Marxist radicals appearing for the first time in the brand-new cafés.

Yet it will take another long war and decades of distrust before these dragons can coexist, and their relationship remains uneasy today. It is the power-balance that largely defines the East Asian region in our time; America has never not been a part of it, for better or ill.

Chinese Labor Corps recurits arriving in France. Via the Lyons Institute

1917: Chinese Labor Corps recruits arriving in France. Via the Lyons Institute


10 September 1914 – Cruiser Rules

The SS Indus is steaming at a leisurely pace towards Bombay to take on troops. Her decks are already fitted with horse stalls and her amenities are fully-stocked in anticipation of the men she will soon float. Then a little after 9 o’clock this morning, her captain spots what appears to be a British warship overtaking him. As he soon learns to his dismay, she is the SMS Emden (see above), a German cruiser based at Tsingtao, and her crew has fitted her with a false fourth smokestack in order to pass for a British boat.

The Emden has been at sea since before the war began. Contemptuous of the odds he faces in this ‘British lake,’ her captain has steamed into the Bay of Bengal with a mission to encourage insurrection, disrupt commerce, and divert British attention from the rest of the East Asiatic Squadron’s movements across the Pacific. Although Captain Karl von Müller’s strategic effort to inspire rebellion in Britain’s South Asian colonies fails, he achieves his economic and operational objectives in sensational style.

Of all the stories in this horrible war, this is one of the best. Müller is nothing if not gallant, preferring to argue with neutral sea captains until they give up their secrets rather than use threats of violence to extort information. On one legend-making evening, he chooses not to force a crew off her ship because the captain’s family would be at risk riding a small boat in the choppy seas. Released whenever possible, Müller’s captives universally acknowledge his humanity. Within a week, even the British press will be praising his remarkable chivalry.

And it is remarkable. This war is hardly going to be a chivalrous affair, and in our grief at the slaughter we tend to turn to stories like this one for some kind of comfort and meaning.

A map of the Emden's outrageously successful diversionary cruise in the Indian Ocean

A map of the Emden’s outrageously-successful diversionary cruise in the Indian Ocean

As the Emden overtakes the Indus and orders her not to radio the shore, First Officer Lieutenant von Mücke jokes that what his captain really needs to capture is a load of soap. In fact, the crew is running short of fresh food and sundries of all kinds, and upon discovering their prize is stocked with exactly these things they spend more than six hours unloading all the goodies they can from her, stacking the booty on their decks before sinking her with six shots from their guns. At sunset, every sailor is issued soap and cigarettes.

Germany’s East Asiatic Squadron was already too small to fight the allies all by itself when Japan declared war on the Kaiser in August. Correctly predicting that the Empire of the Rising Sun would besiege his home port, Spee took his ships across the Pacific towards neutral Chile, stopping at Fanning Island to cut a British undersea cable. Sensing an opportunity in the busy trade lanes of the Indian Ocean, Captain Müller proposed that Spee detach him for a bold charge west instead of east. Defying military orthodoxy, Spee agreed on the 17th of August, sending him into the sunset with a collier (coal ship) for fuel.

In addition to camouflage, the Emden has successfully evaded the British fleet through an innovative use of their onboard radio-set. Although radio direction-finding technology is still in the future, Mücke has been using the signal strength of the HMS Hampshire to gauge their relative distance and thus avoid contact. It is a primitive kind of radio-ranging, a prelude to the invention of radar.

Captain Karl von Müller

Captain Karl von Müller won accolades for his generous behavior towards those he captured

Over the next twelve days, Emden takes five more ships loaded with goods and coal. With each ship, he seizes newspapers for his staff to pore through for shipping news that might guide his campaign. Once word of Emden’s presence reaches port on the 13th by way of a neutral Italian steamer that Müller was obliged to release, wireless communications spread the news around the world almost instantly. As shipping losses become known, commodity prices quickly soar on the London exchange.

Within a week, Emden has dozens of ships of the British, French, Japanese, and Russian navies all searching in vain for her on the high seas, driving First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill to distraction and making headlines around the world. The much-hallowed British Navy is being embarrassed by the upstart.

Müller’s greatest feat comes on the 22nd of September, when the Emden makes a daring night attack on the oil storage tanks at the port of Madras. Approaching within three kilometers of the shore, she illuminates the targets with her searchlight and quickly turns them into flaming wrecks, then makes a clean getaway. Although Müller’s attack has been carefully planned to do as little collateral damage as possible, some shells do land downtown. Within days, twenty thousand people have left the city in fear of further attacks.

“I had this shelling in view simply as a demonstration to arouse interest among the Indian population, to disturb English commerce, to diminish English prestige,” Müller writes in his after-action report. The German Foreign Office has already started fomenting insurrection in the British Raj through Hindu nationalists in Germany and the United States, but the attack does not spark an instant uprising.

Damage in downtown Madras from the Emden's guns. Panic did not fully subside until she was sunk

Damage in downtown Madras from the Emden’s guns. Panic did not fully subside until she was sunk

We should perhaps understand Müller’s behavior in the context of his ship itself, for she cannot replace her ammunition, and can only take on what fuel he is able to capture. The refueling process is a long, dangerous, exhausting ordeal that leaves her sitting still and vulnerable. Coal-fired boilers require constant maintenance and repair; the Emden is overdue for overhaul and refit. Her guns are useful against unarmed merchant hulls and unarmored oil tanks, but the Emden is badly outclassed by many of the ships that are looking for her.

In other words, the daring cruise of the Emden will inevitably end with her very first fight, for she can never outnumber or outgun the enemy.

That Müller has taken the time to be so chivalrous, even at great risk of discovery while parked at sea, can be understood the wrong way — as a product of some imaginary past age of better manners in battle. He knew exactly how dangerous this cruise would be when he proposed it. He knows luck will not always be on his side, and expects to be brought to battle at some point.

Müller is observing the letter of the ‘Cruiser rules’ for commerce-raiding because he hopes to be treated just as well when fate finally catches up with him.



11 September 1914 – Pacific Radio

As the Imperial German Army retreats in good order from the Marne to take up entrenched positions at the Aisne, on the very opposite side of the world a remote island is experiencing the first of three violent ‘liberations’ this Pacific paradise will endure in the 20th Century. The volcanic island of New Britain, known to her European settlers as Neupommern, is populated by perhaps a half-million people speaking fifty languages — and administered by less than 1,300 German colonists.

Today, five hundred Australian troops make an unopposed landing near Herbertshöhe on the Gazelle Peninsula and move immediately on their first objective: a new radio transmission station (see above). It is one of three German Pacific territories to fall since the war was declared: New Zealand troops took Samoa unopposed thirteen days ago, and Nauru two days ago. Though they are not the only German communities in this patch of the Pacific, what all these islands have in common are radio stations.

The Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force (AN&MEF) taking formal possession of Samoa

The hastily-raised New Zealand regiment holds a formal parade to take possession of Samoa

Indeed, the very first British offensive of the war took place not in Europe, but in German Togoland, where the Kaiser’s empire had just finished building yet another radio transmission tower. These choices reflect the priorities of Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, who understands the strategic importance of radio better than most — and whose personal wartime ambitions are clearly driving the British empire’s operations outside of Europe.

Wireless communications have obvious military value for Germany’s scattered ships, which aim to disrupt Britain’s maritime empire. But they also offer an important morale boost by delivering news of home and the progress of the war, both of which are in short supply. Silencing Berlin’s voice is an important psychological step in conquering the entire island chain.

A map showing German location names for the Kaiser's Pacific colonies

A map showing German location names for the Kaiser’s Pacific colonies

Five dozen Germans lead a large company of native police in a sharp fight. Though they manage to slow the Australians’ advance, and have even prepared a fighting trench, they are badly outnumbered and soon outflanked. After a few hours of resistance, the radio station falls into the attackers’ hands; its antenna has already been dismantled. The German governor of the colony continues to hold out at Toba for three more days, but a bombardment convinces him to ask for terms the next day. It is the first battle victory in the war by Australians.

As a natural crossroads, the Bismarck Archipelago already hosts a diversity of people from China, Malaysia, Japan, and elsewhere in addition to a cacophony of native tribes that have lived here for thousands, and tens of thousands, of years. German rule has largely been benevolent, but the Kaiser’s governors have never shied from asserting their authority to suppress cultural remnants of cannibalistic practices, such as the Duk-Duk dance.

German troops marching into Herbertshohe to surrender

German troops march into Herbertshöhe to surrender on the 21st

The Great War is the definitive beginning of the modern era. When this area becomes a war zone again in 1943, radio signals have proliferated here as much as anywhere — and so has the music. The 20th Century is the first in which the sounds and movements of culture are recorded and broadcast by widespread artificial means, allowing everyone, everywhere to enjoy everybody else’s culture.

But modernity also brings a kind of sameness — a muting of differences. As musical styles influence one another, they begin to sound alike. A change in the language of the lyrics is not the same thing as a change of instrument. Reggae, a style born in the Caribbean, is so popular today in the South Pacific that one can quickly find it on the island of New Britain by scanning the commercial FM band.

Which brings us to something else happening today, halfway again around the globe.

Duk-Duk dancing was banned under German rule, but never died and immediately resurged without the Germans

A Tim Burton movie? No, those are Duk-Duk dancers on left and right. The faceless one in the middle is a Tubuan, or female spirit. Germany suppressed these costumes, but the tradition survives

Today is also the day that William Christopher Handy publishes sheet music for The St. Louis Blues. A twelve-bar song influenced by ragtime rhythm, it immediately sparks a new dance called The Foxtrot. Handy will issue an instrumental record in 1915, and Al Bernard will record it with Handy’s lyrics in 1918. It is the world’s first commercially-successful pop song.

‘The Blues’ are a uniquely American musical style born from the anguish of Southern negro life, but by the end of the century styles derived from it — including rock and roll, hip-hop, and yes, reggae — will dominate radio stations all around the world.



01 November 1914 – East Asia Squadron

Based at the far eastern port of Tsingtao, the Kaiser’s East Asia Squadron (see above) was the most powerful single European naval force in the Pacific at the outbreak of war. Admiral Turpitz has justified the expensive construction of the High Seas Fleet as a contingency to relieve Tsingtao and the East Asia Squadron in the event of war. At least, that was the theory. Now that Germany fights an actual conflict against fellow European powers, the Kaiser’s battlewagons remain shut up in harbor — and Tsingtao is under siege.

Vice Admiral Maximilian von Spee was cruising in Germany’s Pacific island territories when the war was declared. Then when Japan joined the war at Britain’s invitation, Tsingtao was suddenly besieged by an imperial fleet larger than his own, and he was forced to scrap prewar plans. After agreeing to Captain Karl von Müller’s suggestion that the Emden be dispatched to the Indian Ocean to provide a grand distraction for the British admiralty with commerce raiding, Spee sent the Leipzig to Hawaii with cables for Berlin — and then, upon her rejoining his force, he began using only the Leipzig‘s radio.

This has disguised the location of his main force from the British admiralty. As a result of the deception and his generally-poor intelligence, Admiral Christopher Cradock leads an inferior force into disaster today against Spee’s entire squadron. It will be the worst defeat the British navy has suffered since the Battle of Chesapeake Bay sealed the success of the American Revolution in 1781.

Maximilian von Spee

Tragically, Maximilian von Spee served alongside two of his sons who were on board as officers

Both sides hear one another before they see one another, yet radio direction-finding technology has not been invented yet, so Cradock’s force is spreading out at fifteen-mile intervals to sweep the coastal waters of Chile in a north-by-northwest direction when they encounter Spee’s force cruising southwards about fifteen miles to their east at 4:20 in the afternoon. Cradock immediately orders his force to redeploy in line, but keeps the range open until nearly dark, when his ships are silhouetted against the horizon. This turns out to be a very misguided move.

Whereas Cradock’s flagship is crewed by reservists — including an incompetent chief engineer — Spee’s crack crews have won the German navy’s coveted gunnery award for two years in a row. Now their own ships are practically invisible against the darkening sky, but their targets are easily sighted and ranged in the failing light. German hits soon set the Monmouth and Good Hope ablaze, turning them into easy targets in the swirling Pacific waves.

The SS Otranto, a converted civilian steamer that has no business in a battle of armored ships, has already fled the scene with Cradock’s blessing. A few minutes before 8:00 PM, the light cruiser HMS Glasgow witnesses the Good Hope erupt in a fiery explosion that is soon snuffed out by the water as she sinks. She was the only ship in Cradock’s force whose guns had the same range as Spee’s, and now he dies with her.

HMS Good Hope, Cradock's flagship, was one of two British cruisers lost with all hands at the Battle of Coronel

HMS Good Hope, Cradock’s flagship, was one of two British cruisers lost with all hands at the Battle of Coronel

The fighting and dying are not done yet, however. The Glasgow beats a retreat, signalling the armored cruiser Monmouth of her intentions. But she receives no reply, and at about 9:20 PM her crew observes a series of six dozen flashes from that direction; they are the Nürnberg‘s guns administering the coup de grace from point-blank range. As the most northerly of Spee’s ships, her captain arrived last, and has offered his foe a chance to surrender by shining a spotlight on Monmouth’s ensign. When no one struck the colors, he finished the bloody business with professional detachment .

Sixteen hundred British sailors are dead. It is the latest disaster suffered by a navy and admiralty that have consistently sent inferior forces into harm’s way, misjudged the threats of naval mines and U-boats, and have yet to draw out the Kaiser’s beloved High Seas Fleet for the decisive final battle both navies yearn to fight. One of the primary causes of prewar European tension, the prewar naval arms race is being tested in battle — to the advantage of Germany, but without a decisive outcome.

The Battle of Coronel is an undisputed victory for Spee, whose command is unscathed. Yet he remains pessimistic, as there is no safe harbor in the South Atlantic at which he can refuel his coal-burning ships. Nor can he remain hidden forever in the thousand inlets and natural harbors of Chile while that country’s neutral government looks the other way. To get home, Spee must fight his way through the much-larger British navy and its base in the Falkland Islands — without the support of the High Seas Fleet — and he knows exactly what that means.



07 November 1914 – Rising Sun

What few standing military forces the Kaiser and his Austrian colleague Franz Josef maintained in their Chinese possessions were adequate to repel a fellow European power, but the attacker today is an Asian dragon on the rise, and the scratch force of defenders (see above) is badly outnumbered and outgunned. Though the campaign has been tiny by European standards, with just 32,000 combatants and fewer than 500 dead, the Siege of Tsingtao is the largest action of the war outside of Europe in 1914. It is also the climax of the entire war in the Asian-Pacific theater.

And just like the war taking place in Europe, there are trenches guarded with layers of barbed wire.

The Great War has already begun the 20th Century process of global decolonization, but Japan is determined to imitate the Western model of empire in Asia and the Pacific. Drawn into the war at the request of Britain, the Emperor’s generals have conducted a meticulous, methodical campaign to surround and cut off the Kaiser’s Chinese port city from the rest of Shandong Province.

Their two-month campaign has only involved a few days of actual fighting. Yesterday the central defensive works fell, and Governor Alfred Meyer-Waldeck dispatched Lieutenant Gunther Plüschow, the colony’s lone pilot, to Beijing with the colony’s final dispatches. The fall of Tsingtao today lands as a tremendous blow on Wilhelm II, who declared at the beginning of the siege that he would rather surrender Berlin to Russia than lose Tsingtao to Japan.

It is also a complete discrediting of Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz’s disingenuous naval war plan — and his faraway interference in the critical prewar defensive planning for the Kaiser’s farthest-flung and proudest colony.

A view of Tsingtao from Japanese positions after shells set the oil tanks afire

A view of Tsingtao from Japanese positions after their accurate artillery fire set the oil tanks ablaze

Of the three defensive plans proposed to Berlin, Tirpitz chose the one closest to the colony itself, since it was the smallest in size and required the fewest troops. To make matters worse, the colony’s annual ammunition supply was supposed to arrive in September, and the defenders have used up a great number of shells making improvised land mines. As a result, the German guns are running short of anything to shoot at the attacking Japanese.

Unlike the Navy, the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) suffered high casualties and did not perform well during the war with Russia ten years ago. The General Staff saw this campaign as an opportunity to expunge that record and chose a cautious commander, Lieutenant-General Mitsuomi Kamio. Instructed to take no unnecessary risks, but to win a showcase success for Emperor Taisho, the success of his thorough planning and patient organization has been made easier by the colony’s limited defenses.

His troops are generally bad shots with their inaccurate rifles — a lucky thing during ‘friendly-fire’ incidents with their British allies — but their final assault took place yesterday with an abundance of rifle grenades as well as improvised ‘Bangalore torpedoes’ made with bamboo and explosives. These innovations would be welcome right now on the fields of Flanders, where grenades are in high demand by troops struggling against the first strands of barbed wire. Kamio’s elaborate communications planning has allowed him to quickly exploit breakthroughs, a feat that both sides struggle to repeat on the Western Front.

The appearance of aircraft over Tsingtao from the first days of the siege, correcting artillery fire and dropping bombs, came as an unwelcome surprise to the defenders. In fact, history’s first carrier strike took place on September 6th with seaplanes launched from the Wakamiya, and although it is impossible to verify, Lieutenant Plüschow claimed history’s first combat aviation kill by firing his pistol from the seat of a Taube aircraft.

Japanese officers observe the shelling of Tsingtao

Japanese officers observe the shelling of Tsingtao. The prepared defenses did not encompass the surrounding hills, allowing the besieging force to systematically reduce them with artillery fire from high ground

But the Siege of Tsingtao has also revealed fault lines in the alliance. The small British and Indian contingent has not distinguished itself: during the night of November 2nd, they fell back from an exposed point in the trench line they had been digging alongside a Japanese unit doing the same, but which did not break under fire. The resulting acrimony is a harbinger of things to come, for the British Foreign Office was hardly enthusiastic about invoking the alliance in the first place. The relationship will only deteriorate as the Japanese Army reasserts its prerogatives in the government on the strength of their renewed prestige, starting their nation’s long, sad slide into fascism.

Perhaps the most telling anecdote of the campaign is a possibly-apocryphal swordfight that took place last night during the final assault. As the story goes, a Japanese infantry officer bearing a samurai sword encountered a German officer waving his ceremonial saber; both combatants moved to join in the ancient ritual of steel-on-steel combat, but the folded metal of a master craftsman using ancient smithing techniques shattered its European counterpart with contempt.

The Great War is doing more to dispel all notions of white racial superiority than all the human rights advocacy of the 19th Century put together. The empire of the rising sun has now defeated two European powers, including the empire that trained its army.

One of the biplanes Japan used during the Siege of Tsingtao

One of the biplanes Japan operated from a beach during the Siege of Tsingtao. Their appearance in the skies caught the defenders off-guard


09 November 1914 – Island Getaway

Just after first light today, a Chinese laborer on Direction Island stops one of the British wireless station operators to tell him of a strange ship he has just spotted in the remote anchorage. After the station superintendent gets a look at her, he has his employees immediately begin signalling: “S.O.S. Strange ship in entrance.” When radio interference fills the air, they assume it is hostile jamming, and their message changes to: “S.O.S. Emden here.”

Indeed, that strange ship is the SMS Emden, a German cruiser that has torn a path of destruction through Britain’s maritime empire for more than two months. Capturing or sinking over two dozen merchant ships, she has pulled off a daring and destructive raid on the Indian port city of Madras, then surprised and sunk a Russian and French ship in harbor with torpedoes.

Captain Karl von Müller approached the Cocos Islands under cover of darkness last night, and now a fifty-man shore party lands on the dock using the ship’s steam-powered pinnace and two cutters. Entering the wireless station, they order the staff to cease transmission and then begin trying to destroy the antenna. They also cut the undersea cable which runs through the island. But those missions prove time-consuming, and the Emden’s wireless operators soon report an unknown ship calling the station as its signal grows stronger. Upon sighting an approaching cruiser at half past nine o’clock, Müller signals the shore party and leaves in a rush to get his steam up for a fight.

The HMAS Sydney, a heavy cruiser belonging to the small but proud Australian navy, has heard the station’s distress call and made for the Cocos at flank speed. Her arrival brings the end of Müller’s brilliant career — and the beginning of a second adventure story every bit as good as the first.

The actual photograph of the shore party

The Emden‘s shore party leaving Direction Island for the schooner Ayesha with provisions taken from the tiny outpost

The Emden starts out well, surprising the Australian ship with the range of her guns. At about a quarter to ten, their fourth shot hits the Sydney‘s targeting section, damaging her fire control apparatus and forcing the Australian gun crews to aim manually. But then the Sydney opens the range, hitting her quarry repeatedly from a distance that Emden cannot answer, and by ten o’clock Müller’s gun crews have stopped trying to return fire. Moments later, hits destroy the Emden’s fire control, wipe out port No. 1 gun, and set the stern ablaze with a direct hit on the ammunition for port No. 4 gun. Shells also punch holes in the engine room’s steam piping, and the ship’s internal communications system fails.

Müller tries to position his ship to fire torpedoes, but Captain John Glossop of the Sydney wisely stays out of range. By eleven o’clock, with the Emden’s foremast shot away and a sixteen inch hole in the waterline, Müller decides to run his ship aground rather than sink and drown. Glossop soon realizes his enemy’s intentions and increases his ship’s rate of fire until about 11:20, when it is clear that his quarry will not be going anywhere and his guns have expended more than a hundred rounds of ammunition.

But instead of lingering, the Sydney races off again after the Buresk, a captured coal ship commanded by a prize crew from the Emden. Unable to get away, they elect to scuttle her and become prisoners of war, consuming the afternoon. When she returns, the Emden’s ensign is still flying, so Glossop pounds the wrecked boat with shells again. On ceasing fire, he offers no help to the stranded enemy, but returns to Direction Island after 4 PM to find Lieutenant Hellmuth von Mücke and his shore party already gone.

The Sydney's shore party arrives too late to catch the Emden's crew

The Sydney‘s shore party arrives too late to catch the Emden‘s crew. The entire battle unfolded within view of the residents at nearby Bantam Island. Photo via

Mücke has rifles and machine guns, and as he watches the battle in dismay he considers digging in to defend the island against the British Navy. But an old schooner lying at anchor beckons. Unlike most of his sailors, Mücke originally trained on a sailboat; the station staff warns him that Ayesha is barely seaworthy, but the island is impossible to defend. Using the steam pinnace to pull the boat out of harbor, Mücke hoists sail and tacks towards the neutral Dutch territory of Sumatra. It is the beginning of an epic journey in which they will travel more than 8,000 miles across the sea, and through the hostile Arab desert, before arriving in Constantinople.

But for Müller and his surviving crewmen on the Emden, the adventure is over. Now there are only the harsh sun, fires to fight, code books to destroy, guns to spike, and casualties to tend. Sea birds attack the wounded on deck. The surf proves too difficult to reach the shore of North Keeling Island without the boats that Mücke’s shore party took with them. The Sydney does not return to rescue them until 1 PM tomorrow, leaving them to spend the night on the open deck of a smoldering ruin. 134 German sailors are dead, 69 are wounded, and 157 are unharmed but made prisoner.

The last cruise of the Emden has embarrassed the British Admiralty, raised commodity prices in world markets, and spiked shipping insurance rates. More critically, while the Emden ran amok in the Indian Ocean the British Navy was forced to move troop ships in convoys, with escorts, delaying the arrival of reinforcements to the African theater and the brand-new Middle Eastern theater. Müller’s campaign has even left a permanent mark on the Tamil language, whose speakers still refer to sneaky, sly or clever people as emdena.

But the denouement of this daring mission is the high water-mark for the Kaiser’s cruiser fleet, which has won a series of brilliant victories. After today, there will be no more victories in the cruiser war.

A photo taken from the deck of the Sydney after running the Emden aground

The Sydney reapproached the Emden more than 24 hours after she ran aground on North Keeling Island


08 December 1914 – Port Stanley

The South Atlantic is a stormy sea where there are few waters calm enough for a coal-burning warship to safely refuel. This is a primary reason why the British flag flies over the jagged, wind-swept Falkland Islands in 1914. Ownership of these remotest ocean peaks, and their natural harbor at Port Stanley, allows the admiralty to concentrate forces along the South American coast in the event of war, dominating international trade routes. British agents have already bought up all the coal ships south of Paraguay in anticipation of the East Asia Squadron, the Kaiser’s colonial fleet, coming this way in a bid to fight its way home or harass British commerce in the Atlantic.

The lookout post on Sapper Hill, the land feature in the background above, sights coal smoke on the horizon at four minutes before eight o’clock this morning and signals Admiral Sir Doveton Sturdee’s cruisers, which are busy maintaining boilers and coaling in the harbor. Sturdee immediately orders all ships cleared for action, setting out in force at 9:45, when all of his ships have full steam up. Sturdee is a former intelligence officer who understands the value of radio silence, and he is lucky, for the Kaiser’s intelligence networks have failed to let Vice Admiral Maximilian von Spee know that Sturdee’s command was sighted by South American agents while en route to the Falklands.

Spee, who recently inflicted the British Navy’s worst defeat in more than a century at Coronel partly on the strength of his own wireless silence, does not know his enemy is here. He sights coal smoke over Post Stanley at about 8:30, but assumes that the locals are setting fire to the coal stocks, as did Tahiti’s defenders when his squadron showed up on their horizon. It is not until an officer on his own ship, positioned at the rear of his column, sights the distinctive tripod masts of British warships at 9:00 that Spee understands his error.

Vice Admiral Sturdee was sent to the South Atlantic with one mission: to end Spee's cruiser threat

Vice Admiral Sturdee was sent to the South Atlantic with one mission: to end Spee’s cruiser threat

If Spee had attacked immediately, the resulting battle would have been quite destructive and ugly, but it may perhaps have not been so one-sided. Instead, Spee signals the squadron to abort their mission; he had wanted to cut the telegraph lines at Port Stanley, destroy the radio transmitter on Wireless Ridge, requisition coal and supplies, and take the governor hostage in reprisal for the seizure of Samoa’s German governor by New Zealand troops. It is a mission profile that has already ended the legendary commerce-raiding cruise of the Emden, a ship that Spee detached from his own command while in the Central Pacific.

Had Spee arrived just two days ago, or two days from now, he would have found Port Stanley as empty as he expected. But even in that case,  the result would likely have been the same as the Emden, which was destroyed when the wireless station at Direction Island signaled a nearby Australian cruiser; like the HMAS Sydney, Sturdee’s ships would have been nearby in either case, and responded to the alarm.

Taking perhaps a forty minute head start on his pursuers, Spee signals: “Do not accept action, head east at full speed.” At about half past noon, he is overhauled and outgunned by a British squadron flying the ‘General Chase’ signal, authorizing each captain to fight as he sees fit. Only the SMS Dresden, sister ship of the Emden, makes an escape with her faster turbine engines. The rest of Spee’s ships are too slow to break contact. At ten minutes before 1 PM, he stops running and turns to meet his destiny.

The sole survivor of Spee's command will be found hiding off Coronel in March, whereupon she is scuttled by her crew

The sole survivor of Spee’s command will be found hiding off Coronel in March, whereupon she is scuttled by her crew

It is not a fair fight. Whereas Spee’s ship has deck-mounted 8.2-inch guns that actually outrange the British battlecruisers, they do little damage, and he has already used up half of his ammunition. The German admiralty has done an admirable job of pre-positioning colliers for its cruiser fleet, but has neglected to do the same for their magazines. By 2 PM, the heavier 12-inch turret-mounted guns of the Invincible and Inflexible are punching huge holes in the lighter armor of their targets. By 6 PM, only two hundred sailors of Spee’s 2,000-man command are still alive to be rescued from the subarctic night.

There are two standout moments that deserve mention in this slaughter. One is the richly-symbolic moment when the tall-masted sailing ship Fairport, which flies a Norwegian flag but is crewed by Frenchmen, unexpectedly finds herself in the midst of the battle. Having left Europe in July to cross the ocean under the slow pull of canvas and without a radio, they are completely unaware of the war until Sturdee’s helmsman steers right past her with guns blazing. It is a perfect illustration of the transitional technological picture of 1914 that led to so many naval intelligence failures for all sides.

The other moment takes place on board the HMS Kent, when Sergeant Mayes of the Royal Marine Artillery sees a German shell burst ignite cordite propellant charges improperly stored in a casemate. Courageously picking up a burning charge to throw it away and prevent a catastrophic explosion like the one that recently destroyed the HMS Bulwark, he then obtains a firehose and soaks the hallway, earning the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal. It is another sign that the British Navy has a serious safety issue, one that is going unaddressed due to the admiralty’s rigid Nelsonian traditions.

During the evening, the transmitter on Wireless Ridge informs London of Sturdee’s victory in the Battle of the Falklands. The next morning, shipping insurance rates slide again, returning to near-normal now that the German cruiser threat has been neutralized. It is another important psychological boost for the world’s financial markets, which have slowly begun reopening in recent days. It is also a blow to the prestige of the German Navy, which is fighting for respect against superior numbers, and a discredit to the ruinous naval policy of Admiral Tirpitz. Finally, with the East Asia Squadron destroyed and the Kaiser’s Tsingtao colony in allied hands, the German imperial project has suffered the most catastrophic damage of all.

The HMS Inflexible opens fire on

The HMS Inflexible opens fire on the SMS Gneisenau. Unlike land warfare pictures, which were generally posed in safety far from the actual fighting, there is a strong photographic record of actual Great War naval battles. Via


14 December 1914 – Schooner Ayesha

After Queen Victoria granted the Cocos Islands to the family of Scottish sea captain John Clunies-Ross in perpetuity in 1886, they were soon covered with coconut plantations. The schooner Ayesha (see above) was built to carry their copra, or dried coconut meat, to the Indonesian mainland, but she has fallen into disuse ever since regular steamship service was established. When the German cruiser Emden met her end on November 9th, Kapitainlieutnant Helmuth Karl von Mücke’s shore party of three officers and fifty sailors was left behind on Direction Island. Rather than wait for the Australian armored cruiser Sydney to return and take him captive, Mücke decided to take the three-masted ship against the advice of Direction Island’s British wireless and cable staff, who tried to warn him that she was hardly seaworthy.

Built for a crew of five men and one captain, conditions on the boat have been cramped and difficult for such a large compliment. Near-daily seasonal storms provide drinking and washing water for the crew, but also threaten the patched sails and worn rigging, forcing Mücke to haul in his sails and lose speed during bad weather. The wood of Ayesha‘s bottom is rotten and spongy, and her spars keep threatening to snap. So it is with great relief that he sights the Choising, a German freighter that has slipped out of a neutral port to rendezvous with them in the Indian Ocean, at about two in the afternoon today. Unfortunately, the seas are far too heavy to transfer safely to the other ship. Mücke and his crew will have to wait another two nerve-wracking days before they can leave the Ayesha.

Muller and his shore party preparing to leave Direction Island

Mücke and his shore party preparing to leave Direction Island. The Emden‘s steam launch, seen on the right in the background, was used to tow the schooner out through unfamiliar coral reefs as sunset brought complete darkness to make things interesting

When the Ayesha arrived at the Dutch port of Padang on November 29th, Mücke had already ordered the crew to cut four gunports for their machine guns. Upon encountering the Dutch destroyer Lynx and meeting her captain, Mücke refused to accept his ship’s internment, pronouncing the Ayesha a warship in the Kaiser’s navy. “I hope you and I will not get into a fight when I leave,” Mücke told his interlocutor. As the kapitainleutnant recalls in his published memoir of the voyage, this was merely his first display of chutzpah while in port.

Just before we reached the entrance to the harbor, a small steam tug came out to meet us. It was bringing the harbor master, who was coming to show us where to drop anchor. He indicated a place quite far out. It was my intention, however, to get as close as possible to the steamships lying in the harbor, for even now I could distinguish the German and Austrian flags flying on some of them. I therefore told the harbor master that I would rather not anchor so far out, but would like to run farther into the harbor. It was not a sufficiently sheltered place for my ship, I explained, and furthermore, that it required a great length of chain to anchor in water of that depth. That our chains were in fact quite long enough to reach to the bottom of water six times as deep, I did not feel obliged to tell him. By and by his objections were overcome by argument in plain German. But, as we got farther in, he demanded very insistently that we anchor at once. Now it chanced that by a mishap the two topsails, the very ones by which a ship makes the most headway, absolutely refused to come down. Again and again the sheets and halyards hitched, so that, as was my original intention, we had come close up to the steamers before we found it possible to anchor.

Having been cut off from real news of home since August, Mücke’s crew eagerly accepted newspapers, cigars, and other gifts from the German merchant crews. The harbor-master, a Belgian citizen under orders to obtain their internment in any way possible, refused to let them take on clothing, soap, or toothbrushes on the grounds that these items would increase their “war strength;” he was not persuaded to relent by the ragged remains of their uniforms or the smell of their breath. Implacable, Mücke refused to give in.

This morning I was informed by the official representative of the Royal Dutch government in the presence of the German consul on board SMS Ayesha that the Royal Dutch government is determined to designate the Ayesha a prize of war. I am submitting a protest against this designation and demand that the ship be treated as a warship. All conditions of a warship are met by her. There are only members of the Imperial German Navy on board; the crew is therefore militarily organized.

[…] The question of how I came into possession of the ship and by what right I am its commanding officer are matters of German domestic concern, and in explaining this turn of events I am responsible only to my superior officer.

After loading on food, including ten live pigs, and passing a note to the consul about his intentions to wait off Padang Island for a rendezvous, Mücke weighed anchor at 8 PM on the 30th and headed back out to sea. He has spent the last two weeks dodging allied ships and waiting for a steamer to show up.

Hellmuth von Mucke

Blessed with good looks, Helmuth Karl von Mücke was also a genuine badass

During a squall late on the second day of their rendezvous, her foresail and staysail finally tear from their ropes, taking the fore staysail with them and leaving the schooner without any forward canvas. Nevertheless, Ayesha and Choising are finally able to connect in the calm waters on the leeward side of Padang Island in the wee hours of the morning of the third day. After transferring everything of value to the more seaworthy vessel, the crew drills holes in her bottom and then watches her slip under the waves.

It appeared as though the little ship were loathe to part from us, for, although our steamer was moving on, and no hawser was holding the Ayesha to us, she kept alongside the Choising for some time. And then, at last, as though she had found her own strength insufficient to keep up with us, the Ayesha caught on to our ship, just behind the gangway ladder, carrying a part of it with her.

[…] Gradually, and very slowly, she sank lower and lower in the water. Soon it washed her upper deck. Then suddenly a shudder passed over the whole ship; she seemed to draw a long breath; the bow rose out of the water for a last time, only to plunge into it again the more deeply. The iron ballast rolled forward; standing on end, her rudder up, her masts flat on the water, the Ayesha shot like a stone into the deep, never to be seen again. Three cheers for her rang out above her ocean grave.

The remarkable journey of the Emden‘s shore party is not over yet. Having already sailed more than 1,700 miles, Mücke must still cross the Indian Ocean to Yemen — and then brave the burning Arabian desert. It is to be one of the greatest adventures of the Great War.

A propaganda postcard of Lieutenant Muller saluting the Ayesha

A propaganda postcard of Kapitainleutnant Mücke saluting the Ayesha as she goes down


15 February 1915 – Singapore Mutiny

The 5th Light Infantry Regiment of the Indian Army was sent to Singapore last October as replacement for a British Army unit that was being deployed to the Western Front. This morning, Lieutenant Colonel E. V. Martin attended the departing review ceremony for the 5th, which is slated to be sent on to Hong Kong tomorrow. The commanding general of the Singapore colony praised the troops without mentioning their destination, however, unintentionally fueling rumors that the entirely-Muslim unit is being tricked onto ships so they can be sent into the meat grinder of trench warfare — or forced to fight their co-religionists in the Ottoman Empire — rather than merely garrisoning another British colony.

Responsibility for these rumors lies with three Indian officers, Turkish agents, and Indian insurrectionists who have encouraged the men of Punjab to mutiny. This is a good day for it, too, because the colony’s Chinese troops are all on leave celebrating their New Year. At 3:30 PM, when most of the British officers are napping after their midday meal, four of the 5th’s eight companies rise in revolt; a detachment of 100 opens fire at Tanglin Barracks, killing fourteen people, including one of the Germans interned there. Other mutineers fire on nearby European civilians, killing eighteen.

A century later, there are some Indians who prefer to think of this episode as a thrilling moment in the history of India’s independence. But today’s violence is inspired by the Turkish caliphate’s fatwa of jihad — and a deliberate campaign of incitement and disinformation — in an imperial backwater located more than two thousand miles from India, and it is hardly a blow against imperialism either, for their core organizers hope to give the dying Ottoman Empire a strategic coup today.

This story ends with forty-seven mutineers lined up against a wall and put down by a firing squad because their deeds are properly adjudged acts of treason, not solidarity. I do not say this to diminish the men dying in the photo above; I am simply acknowledging their ambition. The 1915 Singapore Mutiny is another example of the Great War sundering old loyalties and forging new ones, but it is not really about Indian nationalism. Like the massacre and ensuing shootout at Broken Hill, Australia on New Year’s Day, religiosity is secondary to resentment among the Singapore mutineers. Most of them are justifiably upset about their abysmal pay, which is a serious issue in the long-underfunded army of the Raj.

Tanglin Barracks in 1900

Tanglin Barracks in 1900. A former nutmeg plantation, the base was decommissioned and turned to civilian purposes in the 1990s

Among the more than three hundred German internees at Tanglin Barracks are seventeen officers and crew of the Emden, a commerce-raiding cruiser which ran amok in the Indian Ocean until brought to battle by the HMAS Sydney, who were captured while operating the collier Exford as a prize crew. Although their liberation is a primary goal of the outside agitators, almost all of the internees refuse to join the mutineers; only one man of the Emden, Lieutenant Commander Julius Lauterbach, has the courage to make a bid for freedom. Lauterbach escapes by way of Java and the Philippines to Shanghai, where he avoids a Japanese dragnet by posing as a Scandinavian merchant to book passage to Hawaii.

(As I keep saying, there are enough adventure stories and intrigue during the Great War to make a dozen Hollywood — or Bollywood — productions.)

Rather than accept loyal Sepoys into his camp, Lt. Col. Martin tells them to take cover and avoid being mistaken for the enemy. In short order, he sets up a defense of his position and calls for reinforcements. Muslim civilians in town remain loyal, and the rebellious Baluchis have no support during the night. At first light, Martin counterattacks and wins back the barracks, scattering his foe and then keeping up a steady rate of fire all night where ever he finds them. As the mutineers try to enlarge their rebellion across the island, the Sultan of Johore’s army meets them.

The next day, four allied warships show up: one Russian, two Japanese, and the French Montcalm, which lands Marines. Low on ammunition, many of the insurgent soldiers soon begin to surrender. Some try to meld into the jungle, but they are not jungle fighters, and there are no supplies or relief on the way for them. Five days after the crisis began, British reservists arrive from Rangoon and quickly round up the last holdouts.

Muslim soldiers on the Western Front in 1915

Hundreds of thousands of Muslim soldiers served proudly and loyally on the Western Front, in Africa, and in Middle East

A court martial is held for more than two hundred mutineers on the 23rd of February, with 137 convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment, while others serve various terms at prison colonies. Lasting into mid-May, the inquiry finds no single source of blame for the deadly uprising, but cites low morale as a problem. Martin is a capable combat commander, but his command suffers from poor communication between white and native officers.

The role of outside agitators is also deemed a motivating factor, and Pir Nur Alam Shah, a radical cleric at the Kampung Jawa Mosque as well as a member of the Ghadar Party, is later deported for his role in the Singapore Mutiny. He will remain under surveillance by British intelligence for years to come. Indeed, British agents are already tracking all the Ghadarites passing through Singapore — and laying plans of their own.

Among the many lies spread by the provocateurs, but only now recognized as rampant, are that the Kaiser himself has converted to Islam. Two mutineers even claim allegiance to the Kaiser, one doing so dramatically just before the execution. Rallying in the immediate wake of events, Singaporeans reject the uprising, and a crowd of over 15,000 turns out to watch the firing squad in solemn approval.

A re-formed 5th is later sent to Africa, where they will fight with courage in two campaigns to remove the stain on their unit’s honor.

A map of Singapore. Click to embiggen

A map of Singapore, Britain’s strategic colony on the southernmost tip of the Malay Peninsula. Click to embiggen


11 March 1915 – The Last Cavaliers

When the Great War began, the North German Lloyd passenger ship Prinz Eitel Friedrich (see above) was steaming towards the German colonial port of Tsingtao on the East China Sea for refitting. Upon her arrival, she was converted as planned into an auxiliary cruiser using the weapons from three old gunboats, the Iltis, the Luchs, and the Tiger, then put under the command of Korvettenkapitän Max Therichens and dispatched with the cruiser Emden to rendezvous with Vice Admiral Maximilian von Spee’s East Asia Squadron in the Caroline Islands.

Five weeks later, with Tsingtao under siege by forces of the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy, SMS Prinz Eitel Friedrich and her fellow auxiliary cruiser Kronprinz Wilhelm took the lead role in Spee’s bombardment of Tahiti. But because she could only reach fifteen knots — hardly fast enough to keep up with Spee’s squadron — the Prinz Eitel Friedrich was detached for independent commerce raiding (Handelskrieg) in November. Since then,  Tsingtao has fallen, the Emden was destroyed, and Spee’s squadron was sunk by a superior British force; only two of the Kaiser’s cruisers are still afloat: the Königsberg, which has been blockaded in the Rufiji Delta for months now, and the Dresden, which escaped destruction under Spee but lies damaged and hidden from British patrols along the Chilean coast.

Along with another auxiliary cruiser, the Kronprinz Wilhelm, the Prinz Eitel Friedrich is Germany’s final remaining surface threat to allied merchant ships. To date, she has made eleven captures, sunk 33,000 tons of shipping, and survived an Antarctic voyage to give Cape Horn and the British Navy a wide berth while transiting from the Pacific to the Atlantic. But her bottom is fouled by barnacles, slowing her down, and her boilers are in dire need of repair. Low on provisions and coal stocks, Therichens is also aware of the tight British blockade on German ports thanks to wireless signals from Berlin. Today, he reluctantly brings his ship into the neutral harbor at Newport News, Virginia. She will never sail under a German flag again.

The barque William P. Frye

On January 27th, the barque William P. Frye became the first American merchantman to be sunk by a German warship

It is worth noting that eight of the eleven vessels sunk by the Prinz Eitel Friedrich were slower sailing ships, not steamers which might have outrun her. One of these was the William P. Frye, an American sailing ship that Therichens encountered off the coast of Brazil on her way from Seattle to Ireland with a cargo of grain. After ordering the vessel to stop and dump its cargo overboard, Therichens gave the crew twenty-four hours to comply. When he observed the next day that the crew had not completed the task, he took them prisoner and sank their ship. It was the first time in the 116-year history of US-German relations that either country had destroyed a ship belonging to the other, and with the Prinz Eitel Friedrich’s arrival in port today, the incident sparks a diplomatic row from the moment American customs agents see the boat’s weapons — and the more than three hundred prisoners on board.

American inquiries quickly determine that the wheat on board the William P. Frye was almost certainly not destined for use by the British government, which is known to buy flour but not grain. On March 31st, Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan cables a bill for $228,059.54 to the US embassy in Berlin, insisting that it be paid in full immediately. German State Secretary for Foreign Affairs Gottlieb E. G. von Jagow responds that the William P. Frye was bound for “fortified” ports at Queenstown, Falmouth, and Plymouth that are also used by the British Navy, insists on using the same definition of “contraband” that Britain’s navy has used to blockade German ports and starve the German people, and offers to put the matter before a German prize court in Hamburg. However, by then the issue has receded in importance.

A contemporary German postcard of the in the harbor at Newport News

A contemporary German postcard of the Prinz Eitel Freidrich floating in the harbor at Newport News. Note all the sailing masts

The affair is complicated by Therichens’s request to extend his time in American waters. Due to the condition of the ship, the US neutrality board reluctantly agrees to let him repair his vessel under strict supervision. On March 18th, Bryan tells the German ambassador that Prinz Eitel Freidrich must leave before midnight on the 7th of April or face internment. By then, the HMS Cumberland and HMCS Niobe are stationed just off the Chesapeake Bay, and Therichens is listening to British wireless signals growing stronger as the Royal Navy prepares to meet his bid for the open sea with gunfire.

In the end, Therichens blinks. After powering up his ship and showing every sign of making for open water with three hundred men and women serving as human shields, he officially requests internment on April 8th. Releasing his prisoners, Therichens and his crew are housed with the men of the Kronprinz Wilhelm, which drags into Newport News in even worse condition three days later. The guns are removed from both ships. When the United States enters the war in 1917, the Prinz Eitel Freidrich is seized, re-flagged as the De Kalb, and used as a troop transport. After the war, she returns to passenger service, remaining on duty until 1924. She is finally scrapped in 1935.

The Kronprinz Wilhelm interned in Newport News ca. 1916

Another converted passenger ship, the auxiliary cruiser Kronprinz Wilhelm, interned in Newport News ca. 1916


14 March 1915 – Hills Of Yemen

After they escaped the destruction of their ship in November, Lieutenant Helmuth Karl von Mücke and his shore party crossed the Indian Ocean — first in a rotten-bottomed sailboat, and then a merchant steamer. With luck, they managed to avoid British patrols, but the most dangerous leg of their journey only began in January, when they arrived at the entrance of the Red Sea and came ashore in Yemen to avoid a French ship in the channel. Although the Arabian coastline is ostensibly under Turkish control, the tribal structure of the peninsula’s human geography is not always so clear-cut, and loyalties there are fluid.

Helmuth von mucke

Lieutenant Helmuth Karl von Mücke: badass

On the seventh day of the new year, Mücke and his men stepped from the surf near Al-Hudayda and soon encountered a hundred armed local fighters who spoke no German. Knowing not a word of Arabic, Mücke struggled to communicate with them until he produced a German gold coin, which they immediately recognized. Suspicions evaporating, the tribesmen became excited and endeavored to help them on their way to the port city. But then things took a slightly comical turn, for as they marched, new groups of tribesmen would appear responding to the same spreading rumor of foreign invaders, causing the whole column to halt so that Mücke’s new friends could make introductions. By the time they finally met Ottoman officers outside of Al-Hudayda, the scene had transformed into an impromptu parade of ululating and celebratory shooting in the air, with everyone clapping in rhythm to the Germans’ marching cadences.

Upon his arrival, Mücke became aware that a British cruiser was controlling sea access to the main Red Sea port of Jedda. He was also disappointed to learn that rumors of a coastal railroad were untrue. Signaling the steamer Choising to find safety at an Ethiopian port, Mücke chose to prepare for an overland journey to Sanaa, where he believed the water and health conditions to be better than the available facilities in Al-Hudayda. For despite boiling all their drinking water and taking daily doses of quinine, by the time they proceeded on the 27th of January, dysentery and malaria were burning through the Emden‘s shore party. This next phase precipitated further comic scenes, for just as very few of his sailors had known anything about wind and sail when they boarded the Ayesha, only his officers have any experience riding mounts. The inexperienced men and their assigned mules, donkeys, or camels struggled to get along with one another, and soon a kind of rear-guard of dismounted men and riderless animals trailed the column, which traveled only in the cool of night.


A photo of Al-Hudaydah from Mücke’s memoir, The Ayesha, Being the Adventures of the Landing Squad of the “Emden”

But as Mücke recalls in his account of the Emden shore party’s travels, the adventure took a more sinister turn on the way to Sanaa, hinting at things to come:

The region through which we were traveling was not considered a wholly safe one. Robbery and attacks upon small caravans were the order of the day. As early as the second night out, we had an experience of this kind ourselves. Suddenly, in the moonlight, there appeared to one side of our road a dozen or more men mounted on camels. The Turkish gendarmes that had been sent with us as an escort and to guide us on the way, declared them to be robbers, and immediately got their rifles ready to shoot. When the men on the camels saw the size of our caravan, they vanished among the sand hills quite as suddenly as they had appeared.

Arriving in the high country where the capital of modern-day Yemen is located, Mücke was impressed with the local roads and the brick walls surrounding the city. But he was soon disappointed to learn that the trip had brought him no closer to home.

Unfortunately Sanaa was not as healthful a place as we had hoped to find it. Owing to its great altitude it is very cold there even during the daytime. It takes some time to get accustomed to the climate. A few days after our arrival, eighty per cent of my men were sick with the fever, and unfit to continue on the march. We suffered especially with sudden and severe attacks of cramps in the stomach, and with colds.

[..] After a fortnight spent in Sanaa, we learned that the difficulties of the journey overland were so great, that, after all, it would be impossible for me to get my men safely through by this route. The sickness among them compelled me to remain another fortnight in idleness. By that time, though still weak, the sick had so far recovered as to be able to ride their animals.

Having recovered as much strength as they could in Sanaa, the plucky Germans set out on a return trip for Al-Hudayda, arriving safely. At about five o’clock this afternoon, they leave from Yabana Bay in two sambuks, or dhows (sailboats of ancient design) with the Imperial War Flag flying from the mast of Mücke’s vessel. Their cause seems hopeless: at least three British gunboats are said to blockade the coastline, for which they have no charts or maps for navigation. Beset with lice and cockroaches in their cramped boats, the men must fight their way through windless calms, headwinds, and contrary currents.

Our culinary department was not run on a lavish scale. In each zambuk there was a small open fire-place lined with tin. Here the meals for thirty persons had to be cooked. We tried to make our meals as varied as possible with the limited means at our disposal. Thus, for instance, if we had tough mutton with rice and gravy on one day, we would have rice with gravy and tough mutton on the next, and on the third day, there would be gravy with tough mutton and rice, and so on.

On the evening of their fourth day at sea, disaster strikes when one of the sambuks founders on a coral reef in the darkness. The occupants are forced to abandon their boat and swim to Mücke’s, overloading and nearly sinking it to the gunwales. Throwing everything overboard but his weapons, ammunition, and enough food and water for three days, Mücke manages to fit in all fifty men, including his sickest and weakest, and returns the next day to send divers to recover the two machine guns aboard the wreck. Arriving at the port town of Al-Qunfudhah that afternoon, his exhausted men are welcomed by local Turkish agents, but the journey has been too much for one of them. Seaman Kiel dies on the tenth day of their recovery and is buried at sea in a rowboat; he will not be the last to fall along the way.


Also from Mücke’s memoir, a view of the Emden‘s shore party and Turkish escorts traveling across the Arabian desert


24 March 1915 – Chilean Neutrality

The remote Pacific isle of Más a Tierra belongs to neutral Chile, but that has not stopped German cruisers from using it before. In fact, Vice Admiral Maximilian von Spee brought the entire East Asia Squadron here to take on coal in the calm inlets during the week before the Battle of Coronel off the Chilean coast. When Spee’s squadron was destroyed near the Falkland Islands in December, its sole survivor — the light cruiser SMS Dresden — spent three months hiding in the innumerable coastal inlets of the South American nation before seeking sanctuary here.

Fritz Lüdecke

Fritz Lüdecke, captain of the Dresden, was a stickler for the Cruiser rules of commerce war

Fregattenkapitän Fritz Lüdecke had few choices left when he dropped anchor at Columbia Bay fifteen days ago, requesting eight days’ patience. His coal stocks were low, his supplies were few, his engines were in dire need of overhaul, and his ammunition supply was quite diminished. Indeed, other than one hapless British sailing barque, his crew took no prizes all this time, for he had no crew to spare for prizes and his ship was more effective as an unseen threat than an actual raider of commerce. As long as the Dresden remained at large, the Royal Navy was forced to keep ships in the southeastern Pacific looking for her, and her mere existence elevated wartime shipping insurance rates.

But the Chilean government has had enough of British and German vessels fighting in their waters. Authorities on the island refused Lüdecke’s request, forcing him to radio home for instructions. Granted permission to intern his vessel on the 14th, Lüdecke and his crew were waiting for a Chilean vessel to arrive and take custody of their ship when the light cruisers HMS Kent and Glasgow showed up with the auxiliary cruiser Orama the next day.

Opening fire in neutral waters, Captain John Luce was acting on intelligence gleaned from Lüdecke’s radio signal for a collier (coal ship) to meet him in the Juan Fernandez Islands. But there has been no relief or refueling, so the Dresden was unable to fire her engines and run away. As she took hits on her port side (visible in the photo at top), knocking out two guns while killing four men and wounding fourteen, it became painfully clear that the sole survivor of the East Asia Squadron was doomed. Lüdecke ran up the white flag, and his men made for shore as the British guns fell silent. Several minutes later, an explosion ripped through her forward ammunition compartment, opening her bow to the sea, and the Dresden settled into her watery grave. With the short, sharp fight over, Lüdecke and 315 of his men became internees of the Chilean government housed on Quiriquana Island.

The Dresden sinking after being scuttled by her crew

The Dresden sinks after being scuttled close to shore. Due to the steep underwater incline, she lies at a depth of over 200 feet

But the incident has sparked another round of diplomatic wrangling and controversy. Today, the Chilean Foreign Minister transmits a protest to London regarding the British Navy’s choice to open fire on an interned ship, violating Chilean neutrality. Although the Admiralty asserts its rights, the British government does offer a “full and ample apology” four days later. Perhaps Sir Edward Grey feels conciliatory because the Chilean ambassador to London shares his country’s intelligence on German naval movements — as well as his country’s letter to Berlin protesting the Dresden‘s actions in Chilean territory, where German agents and ships had aided the ship’s operations for three months.

Grey, who oversees his empire’s blockade of German commerce, also values Chilean nitrates — the essential component of high explosives. In the course of the war, Chile will ship millions of tons of the stuff to Britain, where it will be turned into all sorts of munitions for the war effort. And in exchange for Chile’s understanding attitude about two dreadnoughts, some destroyers, and other vessels which they had ordered from British shipyards, but that the Royal Navy must regretfully seize for their own use, the government in Santiago is compensated with fifty airplanes and a squadron of submarines.

A view of Más a Tierra

A view of Más a Tierra Island, now called Robinson Crusoe Island, a remote and jagged volcanic peak in mid-ocean

The diplomatic affair is followed by a raft of new rules aimed at further limiting the ability of either navy to conduct commerce war from Chilean waters. In addition to decrees that prohibit combatant ships from coaling in Chile more than once every ninety days, the government decides that no belligerent vessel guilty of violating Chilean neutrality will be admitted to any port of the republic unless it is too damaged to continue travel. To crack down on espionage and prevent any further clandestine support missions, Santiago institutes new passport controls and strict monitoring of foreign nationals.

Despite the moral hazards of neutrality, Chile remains uninterested in the conflict itself. Just as the government has made every effort to appear even-handed in its diplomacy with the belligerents, government policy forbids public officials from making any statement which might be seen to support one side over the other. When the United States finally declares war in 1917, much of South America follows suit in solidarity with their northern cousins — but not Chile, which still has large outstanding trade accounts that could be disavowed by Berlin and lies far away from the sphere of action. By then, the Dresden affair has virtually been forgotten.

A map of the Royal Navy's search for the Dresden. Click here to see the full image at

A map of the Royal Navy’s search for the Dresden. Click here to see the full image at


31 March 1915 – The Battle Of Jeddah

The madness of the desert arises out of necessary adaptations, not just the challenges of the environment. Take the camel, which walks more slowly than a man. Caravans move at an agonizingly slow pace because the animals must be tied together with ropes to prevent loss. Prone to spitting, complaining, and stinking, dromedaries are one of the most frustrating modes of transportation imaginable. So it makes sense that, whenever possible, Kapitainlieutnant Helmuth Karl von Mücke and his men have preferred not to travel overland during their long journey home from the far side of the Indian Ocean. In spite of British and French patrols in the Red Sea, they managed to sail almost half the length of the Arabian peninsula before one of their native boats struck a reef and sank two weeks ago.

Forced to cover the 130-mile distance from Al-Lut to the main port city of Jeddah (see above photograph of the pilgrims’ gate, taken in 1918) on camelback, the former shore party is armed with rifles, pistols, and the same four machine guns that they once used to declare their commandeered schooner a ‘warship’ and avoid internment. Their weapons are as necessary as their mounts. Less than thirty miles from their destination, where a garrison of 300 Turkish soldiers offers sanctuary, the platoon-sized group of sailors are passing through ‘Father of the Wolf,’ one of the most dangerous parts of the entire region. Claiming direct decent from the Prophet Muhammad, the tribesmen here are nonetheless known for their depredations on passing strangers.

While stopped to wait out the heat of the day, at about eleven o’clock yesterday morning Mücke and his men were approached by a Turkish officer and seventeen gendarmes (police) from Jeddah. Already alerted by the Turkish officer and seven Arab gendarmes travelling with him that a band of forty robbers has been active in the area, Mücke does not let their appearance lull him into a false sense of security. “I took the precaution to divide our one long line of camels into two lines of fifty each,” he writes in his memoir. “The men were given orders not to go to sleep on their camels, the rifles were all examined, and everything was in readiness for prompt action. The orders to my men were, once for all: ‘Rally to your commander.'”


Until a half-century ago, the port city of Jeddah was surrounded by walls — and its gates were shut every night at sundown

The ambush finally springs just after dawn today. As Mücke rides through the middle of his caravan to make inspection, there is a sharp whistle, and then shots ring out from all sides. Springing to action, Mücke dismounts and runs to the head of the column, where he joins most of his men taking up prone firing positions and peering into the dusty morning haze. Pulling the camels to their knees, his command quickly forms a defensive perimeter — and deploys its most powerful weapons.

Two of their machine guns were submerged, along with some of the ammunition stores, during the recent accident. It is a credit to Mücke’s leadership that all of the complement’s weapons have been systematically cleaned and tested every day, ensuring operation now when they are suddenly needed. Set up in minutes, their automatic fire has an immediate psychological impact on the attackers. “Hardly had their volleys rattled over the enemy’s lines,” Mücke declares with understated calm, “when silence reigned there.”

Then, as the light grows stronger, Mücke and his men see the surrounding hills are covered in Bedouins. As he weighs his options, one of the men calls for his attention.

“Well, what is it?” I asked.

“How soon are we going at it, sir?”

“At what?” was my question in reply.

“Why, at storming the enemy,” came the answer from this eighteen-year-old boy.

“Exactly, my man! You’re right. Up! March, march!”

With a hearty cheer we were up, and rushing the enemy’s line. No doubt, such tactics were a novelty to Bedouins used to attacking a caravan.

As with battles fought recently in Oman and Persia, this seemingly-suicidal charge is immediately successful. Being little more than an undisciplined band of theives who mostly lack enough marksmanship training to hit the broad side of a barn, the Arabs fall back before Mücke as he leads three different attacks with bayonets fixed, winning critical breathing room for his command. Returning to the relative safety of the caravan, Mücke counts one man wounded…and seventeen Turkish gendarmes, along with most of his civilian cameleers, suddenly missing in action.

Helmuth von Mücke marrying his American-born wife Carla with fellow crewmen of the Emden in attendance

Helmuth von Mücke marrying his American-born wife Carla later in 1915 with sailors from the Emden in attendance

Sighting a glimmer of the Red Sea on the horizon, Mücke re-forms his caravan and turns west for the coastline to find better defensive ground. This is a gamble, for his machine guns must ride strapped to camels. Pushing on through harassing rifle fire, he only halts when one of the beasts carrying a machine gun falls. By then, seaman Rademacher has been killed, and Lieutenant Schmidt is mortally wounded in the chest and abdomen. Now unable to move in the open, Mücke elects to follow standard German defensive doctrine by digging in for a fight:

Hastily we constructed defense works out of camel saddles, which we filled with sand, out of sacks of coffee, rice and other provisions. We strengthened the rampart thus formed by filling it about with sand, as best we could. The camels were placed all together in the middle of the enclosed space, and loop holes were quickly got ready. For want of better material, they were put together out of tin plates and side arms. As all this was done in great haste, our constructions were, of course, but temporary and incomplete. Our water bottles were quickly buried deep in the sand, where they were least likely to be damaged by the enemy’s fire. Within our outer rampart we raised another little fortress, the walls of which were about one meter and a half high, and constructed of empty petroleum cans which we filled with sand. Here were placed the sick who were unfit for duty, the wounded, and the doctor.

Schmidt dies during the night, while ammunition, food, and water are being distributed inside the makeshift fortress. To extend his meager rations, Mücke allows all but one of the remaining civilians in his party to leave while his persecutors try to negotiate his surrender. The second day is a siege, with the machine guns holding off attacks amid constant sniping fire. Another German is wounded; yet another dies of wounds. As darkness falls again, Mücke sends out his last Arab companions to inform the garrison at Jeddah of what has transpired. If there is no relief by the end of the third day, he is determined to leave his wounded behind and attempt a breakout. By this time, there is only a little ammunition left for his most powerful weapons, no food, and no water.

At noon on the third day, an Arab approaches the Germans waving a white cloth. Mücke correctly guesses that this renewed attempt to negotiate his surrender is a sign that the Turkish garrison is finally approaching. After a few more bursts of fire, the Bedouins disappear as quickly as they first appeared. About one hour later, the Prince of Mecca does in fact arrive with seventy men to offer his hospitality — and extend his protection.

Having passed their greatest test of battle, Mücke and his men will soon be going home at last.


15 May 1915 – Sharif Of Mecca

Lieutenant Hellmuth Karl von Mücke is very grateful for the hospitality of the Sharif, but he does not wish to be a further burden to the ‘Prince of Mecca.’ Leaving no thank-you note today, Mücke departs with men in another sambuk sailboat, taking great pains to slip away in the dead, dark night of morning without fanfare. Not that Mücke is ungrateful to the Sharif Husayn of Mecca (see above photo), whose hospitality has been exemplary ever since he appeared on a camel to ‘rescue’ Mücke and his men from a desert siege by unidentified bandits.

There is a railhead in Mecca, but the Sharif will not let a party of Christians into the Holy City. Thus, six weeks have passed while the Sharif assures him that arrangements are underway for the next leg of his trip to Constantinople. Seeing no progress, Mücke has chosen to obtain a boat and provisions on his own, in complete secrecy. Having noted the puny size of the Sharif’s party during his ‘rescue,’ with passing time Mücke has also seen the outstanding events of that battle in a new light. The successful bayonet charge that should have been suicidal, buying precious breathing room to set up a defense — the demands for money and armaments during the three-day standoff — a general impression that the real enemy was not present on the field…what explains them?

As we can tell from a simple accounting of his command on its long, outstanding adventure, Mücke is no fool. Of the forty-nine sailors who set out with him in a rotting sailboat from a small island in the Indian Ocean after watching their noble ship get chased off to destruction, forty-four are still alive; one has been felled by disease, and three by an unknown power. Mücke is worried that he may have actually met that power after all, and that loyalties in Arabia are shifting like the sands. Having brought so many so far, Mücke is loathe to lose even one more German serviceman to the desert.

Arriving at last in the Red Sea port of Eilat, Mücke’s shore party will finally find a warm welcome, new uniforms, a train to Constantinople, and a case of chilled Rhine wine waiting for them. When they reach the ancient city on May 23rd, they have already become German national heroes.


Lieutenant Mücke being received in Constantinople. I rate him one of the greatest small-unit leaders in military history

Mücke is entirely correct in his suspicions, for the Arab region is slowly boiling over with intrigue and rebellion. As dawn and the muezzin’s call awaken the city of Jeddah, Sharif Husayn is chagrined to learn of the escape, for he has always seen the German shore party as bargaining chips. The blood debt for the Battle of Jeddah will be paid in almost exactly a year, when merchant captain Erwin Möller and four of his men are disemboweled and beheaded a few hours’ ride north of the city whilst escaping internment from the Italian colony now known as Eritrea. That slaughter will also be a gift to the British Empire, for by then the Sharif is raising his banner in an open revolt against Ottoman rule.

Arabs have simmered with resentment under the Turk-dominated Islamic superstate for years. In fact, Sharif Husayn has been in communication with Lord Kitchener since February of 1914, for he dreams of uniting the Arabs of Syria, southern Mesopotamia, and the Arabian Peninsula under the banner of Mecca. He even reassures Kitchener that, while Islamic, his independent, united Arab state will respect the human rights of religious minorities. Yet the famous T.E. Lawrence will refer to the Sharif in his memoirs as “a tragic figure, in his way: brave, obstinate, hopelessly out of date: exasperating.”

Traditional and ambitious, Husayn is hardly interested in creating a modern country. To Kitchener, who has long schemed to set up a friendly Arab caliphate in competition with the Ottoman one that is now Britain’s wartime enemy, the Sharif is a perfect partner for squelching jihad. Indeed, Kitchener’s high-level influence on this matter will produce the single most famous and consequential covert operation of the Great War, sending Lawrence of Arabia to fight alongside the four sons of the Sharif against the hated Turks.


Thomas Edward Lawrence of Arabia in mufti. In May of 1915, he is an intelligence analyst with twenty generals reading his reports

Germany, which began the war with great ambitions in the Middle East as well as the world’s largest spy network, has not been idle in the last ten months. The Ottoman Sultan’s call to jihad was a key policy endeavor for the Kaiser’s diplomats when they brought the Turks into the war. By passing out rifles and gold, German agents have incited uprisings in Oman, Iran and southern Iraq, and Morocco, sometimes with dark and disturbing results. For example, spy and archaeologist Max von Oppenheim, who has whipped up jihad against the allies for a decade and wrote a highly-influential intelligence memorandum at the beginning of the war which proposed that Germany foment jihad against France and Britain, also championed the Ottoman destruction of Christian minorities at Damascus in January.

In retrospect, the German-inspired jihad also seems naive, even gullible and guileless at times. Setting out to contact the pro-German Emperor of Abyssinia Lij Yasu as well as Ali Dinar, the anti-British Sultan of Darfur, archaeologist and ethnologist Leo Frobenius was refused passage through Italian Eritrea, and forced to return home in April, because his government’s reassurances of the expedition’s scientific purposes were unconvincing. If anything, the unnecessary diplomatic incident has helped draw Italy into the war against Germany.

Seen from high above, the German-inspired jihad is burning out almost as quickly as it has flared into being, and Arab revolution against Germany’s Ottoman ally is already taking its place. Given what we know now, Mücke was shrewd to depart the Sharif’s territory so abruptly.

Mücke and his shore party being paraded through Constantinople

Mücke and his shore party: a parade of heroes through the streets of Constantinople under the German naval ensign