The Siege of Tsingtau. Germany v Japan in WWI

The Siege of Tsingtau: The German-Japanese War 1914. By Charles Stephenson. Pen and Sword, Barnsley, 2017.
Reviewed by Dr Gregory P. Gilbert

August 1914 was a moment of ‘supreme opportunity’ for Japan.
Inoue Kaoru, senior member of Japanese Genro

DESPITE increased emphasis on the teaching of Asian-Pacific history not many Australians are aware of the conflict between Germany and Japan in 1914. Whereas the Gallipoli and the Western Front dominate our national narrative of World War I, the Asia-Pacific campaigns of 1914 are mostly forgotten. This is despite the enduring characteristics and important political consequences of these events. Indeed, the siege of Tsingtau offers an important case-study for national strategy, maritime strategy and amphibious campaigning which reveals numerous fundamental military and political lessons.

Charles Stephenson’s ‘The Siege of Tsingtau’ is a well-written, modern narrative of the political and military events leading up to, during and after the German-Japanese War of 1914. At just over 170 pages it is a quick read while its extensive notes and bibliography helps the more enthusiastic reader to delve deeper into the subjects. It uses broad ranging authoritative sources to explain why, when and how the German-Japanese war happened, but also convincingly brings together all related aspects of WWI in the Pacific. The Australian Fleet, (particularly the battlecruiser HMAS AUSTRALIA), the British China Squadron, the German East Asian Squadron, and the Imperial Japanese Fleet all had parts to play in this conflict.

As a case-study of national strategy the reader should reflect upon the German policies to establish an empire in the Pacific, a place in the sun on the other side of the world. This established the requirement for an ever stronger German East Asian Squadron, the major naval base at Tsingtau (modern Qingdao) in China, and a scattering of minor bases in German territories across the Pacific. It would be fair to say that by 1914 such policies were just not sustainable although they may have paid for themselves as economic and strategic distractions for the British Empire. There is much food for thought here.

Japanese national strategy in 1914 is perhaps even more insightful. As a regional power Japan saw the events in Europe during August 1914 as an opportunity to extend their interests throughout the Asia-Pacific. In many ways the Japanese also wished to reflect the power relationships that gave the British Empire and the other European nations effective control over the Asian economies, particularly over China. The reader should try and understand the Japanese national strategy during WWI and consider the alternatives (if any). By 1919 the vast majority of Japanese would have thought their efforts during the war were rewarded by their occupation of Tsingtau, parts of coastal China and much of Micronesia – but they were soon disappointed by the machinations of other major powers. Twenty years later, after many years of expansionist policies, the effects were disastrous for Japan. Much of the fighting during World War II in the Pacific, 1941-45, followed albeit indirectly the strategic aftermath of the German-Japanese War of 1914.

Despite its title ‘The Siege of Tsingtau’ has relatively few pages discussing the siege itself. In fact once the overwhelming majority of Japanese siege artillery and the entrenchments were in place the German defenders had little choice but to surrender or die. They chose to surrender with dignity. Much more interesting, from my point of view, was the planning and execution of the amphibious campaign by the Japanese forces. They chose not to attack the German defensive strong-points directly but made two separate amphibious landings in areas of little or no resistance – actually in territory controlled by neutral China!. The Japanese, in overwhelming force, marched across mountain ranges, occupied railway communications, and established supply lines. When the weather turned bad preventing supplies from reaching the front lines, they changed plans and shifted part of their landing force to an alternative beach much closer to the German defensive lines. They planned for a siege, with heavy guns, engineers, tools and supplies they gave them a materiel superiority over their opponents. They relied on manoeuvre and firepower to overcome all resistance. The Japanese demonstrated a professionalism in amphibious operations which was quickly forgotten by their British allies. In many ways the Tsingtau 1914 campaign had similarities with the capture of Singapore in 1942.

The British Army sent a token force to fight alongside the Japanese at Tsingtau, while a number of Royal Navy ships, including HMS TRIUMPH, served with the more numerous Imperial Japanese Navy ships.

Stephenson also mentions the naval and military aviation firsts of the Tsingtau siege. Both Japanese and German aviators flew in support of operations throughout the campaign. The Japanese deployed its first naval aircraft from the seaplane carrier WAKAMIYA MARU, while the exploits of the German aviator Gunther Pluschow in his Rumpler Taube became famous.

‘The Siege of Tsingtau’ is a good read which makes one think about the wider implications of a nation adopting a maritime strategy. The events of 1914 in the Asia-Pacific deserve to be better known then they are at present. It would make a good case-study for any naval or military professional wishing to develop their own strategic thinking. A little surprise that is well worth the effort!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *