First British Naval Defeat in a Century;
No Port is Safe.
Special to The Great War Project
(8-9 November) The war at sea is spreading and rapidly claiming more lives.
The Indian Ocean is the battleground.
On November 9th a hundred years ago, writes historian Martin Gilbert, the first Australian wartime naval encounter takes place in the Indian Ocean. The Australian cruiser Sydney attacks with guns and torpedoes and beaches the German raider Emden after a German landing party destroys a British wireless station on Direction Island off the coast of Australia.
More than 130 of the German crew are killed.
It is a fortuitous action. Over the previous two months, “the Emden had captured eight unarmed Allied merchant ships and sunk fifteen, sending to the bottom cargoes of coal, tea, rubber, cattle, and even racehorses.”
In Penang Harbor in the Dutch East Indies, the Emden sinks “a Russian cruiser and a French destroyer.” In October she reaches the island of Diego Garcia in the middle of the Indian Ocean. According to Gilbert, a Frenchman living there greets the German raider with fresh eggs and vegetables.
“He had no idea that war had broken out two months earlier, and was satisfied by the explanation for the ship’s warlike appearance that she was part of German-French-British ‘world naval maneuvers.’”
After the Emden is sunk, newspaper accounts in London praise the ship’s captain for his “chivalry in his treatment of the crews and passengers of the captured ships.”
“If all the Germans had fought as well as the Captain of the Emden,” wrote The Times, “the German people would not today be reviled by the world.”
The sinking of the Emden follows the battle of Coronel on November 1st off the coast of Chile. German naval forces there defeat a squadron of British ships, shocking and enraging the British public.
According to war historian John Keegan, “Coronel was…
…the first British defeat at sea for a hundred years.”
In response the British send more ships to the southern Atlantic near the Falkland Islands searching for the German warships that defeated them at Coronel. There are also naval attacks off the Pacific coast of Mexico, off of China, off the Caribbean island of Barbados, in the waters near New Zealand, and off Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands.
None of the seven seas are safe havens from the war.