James Holmes

Australia’s First Naval Battle

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James Holmes

Australia’s First Naval Battle

“November 9 is when the light cruiser HMAS Sydney met the light cruiser SMS Emden in action in the Indian Ocean.”

Sunday marked the 25th anniversary of the opening of the Berlin Wall, occasioning well-deserved commentary across the globe. But Sunday also marked another significant anniversary relating to Germany, namely the centennial of the Royal Australian Navy’s first victory as an independent service. That victory came over an Imperial German warship during the opening months of the Great War. While Gallipoli will dominate headlines Down Under as that centennial approaches next year, the November 9, 1914 sea fight also constitutes part of Australians’ historical memory—indeed, part of their national sense of self.

November 9 is when the light cruiser HMAS Sydney met the light cruiser SMS Emden in action in the Indian Ocean, dispatching a surface raider that had taken a heavy toll on Allied merchant and naval shipping since the guns of August rang out. R. K. Lochner chronicled Emden’s exploits in the late 1970s, dubbing her “the last gentleman of war.” Lochner awarded the cruiser this title to acknowledge skipper Karl von Müller’s and his crew’s scrupulous fidelity to the laws of cruiser warfare. The Germans’ enemy paid homage to Emden’s gallantry as well. Two days after the engagement, for instance, the London Daily News saluted the “resourceful energy and chivalry” displayed by the raider’s crewmen throughout their voyage. That, of course, was an era when knightly conduct was in decline on the high seas, yielding to unrestricted submarine warfare. Striking without warning, as U-boats commonly did in the Atlantic, left mariners and passengers scant prospects of escaping an attack.

The battle, then, helped mark the passing of an age. Emden had remained behind at the onset of war, after the German East Asian Squadron quit Southeast Asia to return home. Hers was not destined to be a prolonged cruise. Cut off from logistical and maintenance support, Captain Müller had to forage for coal and stores. The cruiser coped with this hand-to-mouth existence—for awhile—and in the process sank or captured twenty-five merchantmen, destroyed two Allied men-of-war at Penang, and bombarded the seaport of Madras, along the seacoast of British India. That’s quite a combat record. It’s especially noteworthy when compiled by seafarers who were unsure where they could refuel next—if anywhere at all—and were sure that equipment that suffered a major breakdown would never be repaired for want of spare parts and shipyard expertise.

No ship can keep going for long without putting into port or tapping resources from nearby fuel or stores ships. Heck, U.S. Navy commanders—like their counterparts in other fleets, no doubt—get antsy when the fuel tanks drop to half-empty or hardware fails at sea, hampering performance or reducing redundancy in the propulsion plant or other critical machinery. And that’s in a navy accustomed to having logistics vessels steaming in company to top off the tanks, replenish stores, or transfer or manufacture spares when need be. Imagine being altogether alone in some faraway region—at risk of running out of some vital commodity or suffering battle damage and finding yourself dead in the water. Such loneliness and doubt were constant companions to Emden officers and men during the fall of 1914.

It takes extraordinary pluck to seize the offensive amid such circumstances. And yet the Germans did. In November, nonetheless, Sydney found Emden in the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, where Müller had decided to attack a communications station that was aiding the hunt for his raider. Like so many naval actions, it was a chance encounter. The station got off a distress call, and Sydney—which happened to be in the vicinity while helping escort a convoy transporting Australian and New Zealand troops to Europe—responded to it. Emden gave a good account of herself, landing several punches before Sydney’s heavier main guns began to tell. Hopelessly outgunned, Müller ultimately ordered his vessel beached on North Keeling Island to save lives. Of the crew, 134 seamen fell while 69 were wounded and 157 were captured.

Two quick thoughts about Emden’s legacy a century hence. One, do something constitutes an iron law of maritime operations. Even a lone man-of-war that makes some effort to interrupt enemy shipping can inflict outsized effects on an adversary. It can do real damage—as Emden, like Confederate raiders such as CSS Alabama, Florida, and Shenandoah, did. It can compel the opponent to expend resources disproportionate to the threat on precautionary measures. And it can deter shipping firms from hazarding their vessels in certain waters. If Lloyd’s of London jacks up insurance rates, budget-conscious shippers are bound to listen—and adjust their practices accordingly. Commerce warfare hits an enemy in the pocketbook.

Emden’s demise, consequently, largely freed RAN warships from escort duty in the Indian Ocean. Commanders put them to better use elsewhere on the map. And two, feats of arms supply a focal point for national pride—sometimes. Benedict Anderson defines nations or societies as “imagined communities.” In effect, these are groups of people who may or may not be kin to one another yet still define themselves as communities. Ideas rather than blood help beget social cohesion among disparate people. Larger-than-life figures or deeds fire the collective imagination and help unite such groups. Hereabouts we have the Battle of Bunker Hill and USS Constitution’s single-ship triumphs over the Royal Navy from days of yore. Australians look to the Battle of Cocos and the ill-fated expedition to Gallipoli.

For Germans, on the other hand, Emden’s endeavors are largely forgotten and, to the extent they are remembered, play little part in the national identity. Why the disparity, given the renown of Emden’s voyage? Use Sydney and Emden as proxies for the imagined Australian and German communities. Even a single-ship duel along the sea routes connecting Australia to the rest of the British Empire was bound to rally enthusiasm for the Royal Australian Navy, which had made its first entry into Sydney Harbor just the year before. Not a bad coming-out party for a youthful naval service. Likewise, Americans still fondly remember the single-ship victories achieved by the Continental Navy and U.S. Navy during our Revolutionary War and the War of 1812—even though both seaborne campaigns were dismal failures from the standpoint of strategy.

And Germany? Emden’s feats of nautical arms did little for German national pride. Commerce raiding, however heroic, couldn’t disguise the fact that the German Navy succumbed to the Allies in not-especially-heroic fashion. Many U-boat crews distinguished themselves during the Battle of the Atlantic, to be sure. But the German High Seas Fleet sat rusting at its moorings after the Battle of Jutland, its commanders consoling themselves that they had inflicted more damage on Great Britain’s Grand Fleet than they had taken. Worse, High Seas Fleet crews mutinied during the waning days of World War I. Sour grapes make a flimsy substructure on which to found an imagined community—no matter what one intrepid fighting ship accomplishes thousands of miles from home. The legend of Emden was drowned out by Germany’s defeat—at sea and on land.

It’s a legend worth remembering. This Veteran’s Day week, accordingly, the Naval Diplomat will raise a glass not just to American veterans but to those valiant antagonists—Australian and German—who joined battle a century ago. Huzzah!