(The sound recording is here.)
VADM GRIGGS, VADM BARRETT, RADM SAMMUT, ladies and gentlemen.
It’s both an honour and a pleasure to be here with you this evening. As a mere civilian invited into your midst, I take it as a great compliment.
I should admit that I did come very close to the 1963 entry at the RANC, but squibbed it at the last minute.But I hold a profound respect for the men and women who serve in the Royal Australian Navy today, and for those many more thousands who went before you in peace and war over a century and more.
And I’m delighted to note that there are more admirals are here tonight than there were at Trafalgar ; that’s very flattering.
Let us go back 100 years to this very day, the 16th of October, 1914. It was a Friday. The First World War is not yet three months old. In Europe, the German army’s race towards Paris has been checked at the Battle of the Marne, and the Battle of First Ypres is about to begin. Millions of men face each other across the fortifications and the trenches.
Here at home, Australia has taken the colonies of German New Guinea, at the cost of six lives at the Battle of Bita Paka, all but one of them sailors. One of them, LCDR Charles Elwell RN, was killed, sword in hand, leading a bayonet charge ; an unusual way for a naval officer to go, and one we are unlikely to see again. As ever, it was the Navy first in. 35 more men are dead with the loss of the submarine AE1. At home, in seaports around the country, the 20-thousand men of the 1st AIF are in camp, waiting to join the great convoy that will take them – they think – to England and, eventually, a crack at the Kaiser. And on this very day, the Kiwis set sail from Auckland across the Tasman to join that ANZAC convoy.
The battlecruiser HMAS AUSTRALIA is at Suva with the cruiser ENCOUNTER, the destroyers WARREGO and PARRAMATTA and the submarine AE2. VICE ADMIRAL Sir George Patey, commanding the Australian Squadron, is convinced that Germany’s East Asia Squadron is heading east across the Pacific towards South America. In this he is correct. But the British Admiralty knows better, it believes. So Patey is ordered to remain in the western Pacific where – in the words of the official Australian naval historian, A.W. JOSE, he is kept tethered like a dog to his kennel, and bombarded with silly and contradictory suggestions from London.
And in the Indian Ocean, on this same day, just off the south-western tip of India itself, near the Minicoy Light, at 8 degrees 21 north, 72 degrees 24 east, the small German cruiser SMS EMDEN sinks another two British merchant vessels. Her 11th and 12th victims. They are the steamer CLAN GRANT, of 4000 tons, with general cargo on passage from Liverpool to Calcutta. To the delight of EMDEN’S crew that cargo includes a load of much-needed English cigarettes.
The second vessel was the most novel capture of EMDEN’S raiding career: the PONRABBEL, a dredger of some 400 grossly unseaworthy tons plodding along at five knots from Scotland to Tasmania. The PONRABBEL’s crew were thrilled. They’d already been paid for their voyage ; they could not wait to be rescued from this floating nightmare. They were packed and ready to leave even before the German boarding party set foot on their deck,
So that was the 16th of October. Let’s pause for some wider context. There is a modern view that the First World War was a quarrel between the crowned heads of Europe – kings and emperors – and their arms makers. And that, therefore, far distant Australia had no reason to enter their fight. There is enough truth to the first part of that argument to provide a flimsy platform for the second.
But that simplification ignores some important facts. As war broke out in 1914, the Kaiser boasted a flourishing colonial empire in China, East Asia and the Pacific. Germany’s place in the sun, as he called it. Deutsch Neuguinea sprawled across Australia’s northern doorstep. With its capital at Rabaul, it commanded a great sweep of the islands of New Guinea, of New Britain, the Solomons, Nauru and as far south as German Samoa.
With Deutsch New Guinea as its base, the Kaiser’s navy – the Kaiserliche Marine – had laid detailed plans to attack Australia’s seaborne trade in the event of war with England and the British Empire. It would severe the links of commerce and communication between Britain and Australia ( and New Zealand as well) and – if necessary – it would send warships to bombard Sydney and Melbourne and other port cities. So Australia was directly menaced by Imperial Germany lying just over the northern horizon, a threat that our forebears understood very well. We did have a dog in the fight.
And it was a threat not just to Australia. Our exports of wool, of wheat, of gold and meat were vital to the economy of Britain. Take wool alone: essential for Britain’s army and navy. No wool, no uniforms. It was as stark as that.
This German Pacific empire was policed by a modern and powerful naval force, the Ostasiengeschwader, the East Asia Squadron, based on the colony of Tsingtao, now Quingdao, in Northern China.
Under the command of a capable and honourable officer, Vice Admiral Maximilian Graf von Spee, the squadron was made up of two 12,000 ton heavy cruisers, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, and a handful of smaller cruisers, including the light cruiser Emden. It was this squadron that would have attacked us, but which was now making its escape across the Pacific.
Because one formidable presence had seen it off: HMAS Australia. For a small navy and nation , she was an extraordinary thing to possess. A capital ship. Fast, powerful, state of the art. 25,000 tons. Eight 12-inch guns, a speed of 26 knots, a ship’s company of more than 800. Arguably, she was the most powerful ship in the Pacific; certainly in the southern hemisphere.
We had set aside the enormous sum of 2-million pounds to have her built on the Clyde in Scotland. She was completed before time, and under-budget by an impressive 295-thousand pounds. (A feat, a triumph never again repeated in Australian defence procurement.) And she was, in the words of my friend James Goldrick, the single most effective defence purchase this nation has ever made. As Admiral von Spee wrote to his wife, she was too powerful for his squadron ever to think of challenging her. AUSTRALIA was the ultimate, successful deterrent.
On the 13th of August, Spee was at Pagan, in the Marianas group of islands. He called his captains for a conference in his cabin. In their best white uniforms with swords and decorations – they were a very formal navy – they listened as he explained his plans for South America. Coal would be readily available from Chile and other countries believed to be well-disposed towards Germany, and British trade could still be attacked.
Spee asked for the opinions of his captains. Most agreed. But one did not. Fregattenkapitän Karl von Müller, commanding officer of Emden, respectfully offered another idea. He objected that the Squadron would be almost inactive, doing no harm to the enemy in the long weeks of crossing the Pacific. And his personal account of that conference survives in the German Naval History.
” I asked that consideration might be given to whether it might not be a good thing to detach at least one small cruiser from the squadron to the Indian Ocean, where circumstances were particularly favourable for trade warfare, and where the intervention of German forces against the Indian littoral would have a favourable influence on the morale of the Indian population.”
There was a silence in the cabin, each officer aware of what this meant. To all intents and purposes, the Indian Ocean was a British lake. The Dutch East Indies were neutral, offering only limited port entry to a belligerent warship. And anyway, turning up in a Dutch port would only alert British intelligence.
So a lone German cruiser would be thrown on her own resources. EMDEN would at first have a supply ship with her, but eventually she would have to sustain herself on whatever coal and food she could capture.
And coaling itself – it was filthy, backbreaking work alongside in harbour. Coaling at sea, which she would have to do, would be a nightmare job. She could not replenish her ammunition, for Allied shells would not fit her guns. Engine maintenance, too – she had no fewer than twelve water-tube boilers, which would have to be regularly cleaned. And perhaps most challenging of all, the morale and fighting efficiency of the ship’s company would have to be maintained,400 men alone at sea for months on end, with no chance for a run ashore and no contact from home.
In theory, all this was possible. It was known as cruiser warfare – or Kreuzerkrieg in German – the destruction of the enemy’s maritime trade. But it had never been done in the age of steam. In the age of sail yes, when a ship could keep the sea almost indefinitely as long as water could be obtained. It was the legalised piracy of the centuries.
But by 1914 naval warfare had changed beyond recognition,and in ways that even its most skilled practitioners barely understood. The arrival of wireless was bringing even more revolutionary advances in the control and command of ships and squadrons and fleets, of the very seas themselves.
But even if EMDEN and von Muller overcame all these odds and were successful in their war on British trade, their troubles would just be beginning. They could be certain that the might of the British navy would be turned into the hunt for them. They might survive if the war were to end quickly in a German victory, but if it were to drag on there would be little chance of ever returning home. Even if coal could be obtained for the voyage north across the world – a virtual impossibility – they would have to go via the Cape of Good Hope or the Horn, for Suez and the newly opened Panama Canal would be closed to them. And if, by some miracle, they made it north through the Atlantic and back to the North Sea, the British blockade would be lying there in wait. Every officer there in the admiral’s cabin in SCHARNHORST knew this.
The hush was broken by Spee’s chief of staff who, to everyone’s surprise, said he agreed with von Müller. Spee promised to consider the proposal and said he would give his answer that afternoon. He did. And it was yes. So began this extraordinary story in the annals of war at sea.
Karl von Muller was the son of a Prussian army colonel, born in Hanover in 1873. A reserved and studious figure, his career as a junior officer had been conventional. Battleships in the Baltic Fleet, watch-keeping certificate, gunnery officer here, signals there, a posting to a gunboat in Germany’s East African colonies, where he contracted the malaria that would plague him all his life. In a lucky break, he had a spell on the staff of the founding father of the German navy, Alfred von Tirpitz, who marked him for promotion. The East Asia squadron was a coveted posting – so much more exotic, more congenial than the drab grey Baltic or the North Sea. And EMDEN was his first command. He was, as it would turn out, the perfect man for the mission: he proved to be a skilled seaman, with extraordinary qualities of leadership and endurance, and a firm grasp of tactics and strategy. He had courage and resolve. And indeed humanity. His steward recorded that he kept a biography of Horatio Nelson by his bedside.
And either by accident or design – certainly by marvellous good fortune – his Executive Officer – or First Officer, as the Germans called them – Kapitanleutnant Helmuth von Mucke, was the right choice as well. Von Mucke was also highly competent – but where his captain was reticent, thoughtful and aloof – the XO was the opposite: energetic, gregarious, a flamboyant character who took no nonsense but was nonetheless liked and respected by the ship’s company. They made the perfect pair. The wardroom was full of handpicked young lieutenants, many of them aristocrats with the “von” in front of their surnames, one of them a Hohenzollern prince who was a distant cousin of the Kaiser.
Emden herself was a graceful, elegant ship, commissioned into the navy in 1909 and later nicknamed the Swan of the East. Curiously, she was almost exactly the same size as one of our modern Anzac frigates: a length of 118 metres ; she displaced some 3,600 tons. For any engineers present, she had two triple-expansion, 3-cylinder steam engines, the last in her class before turbines arrived. Flat out on her trials, she notched a top speed of 24 knots, but that was exceptional. Her optimal cruising speed was around 12 knots. Depending on the quality of her coal, that gave her a range of some 6,000 kilometres.
She bristled fore and aft and port and starboard with Germany’s most modern naval weapons: no fewer than ten 10.5cm or 4.1 -inch quick firing guns ,of such an advanced design they were still in use in Hitler’s Kriegsmarine in the Second World War. There were also two 18″ or 45cm torpedo tubes, amidships on either side. In her final wartime months, her ship’s company numbered just over 400 men. God knows where they put them all.
But by any standards, Emden was an impressive vessel, a ship any sailor could be proud of. Von Müller would command her from his bridge in an armoured conning tower, a small space but usefully protected from the weather,and from flying shrapnel.
And so, with the admiral’s blessing, she set off, to create havoc in the Indian Ocean. By late August she had scraped through the Dutch East Indies and was there, with a supply vessel, the Markomannia, to keep her company.
Von Muller set about his task with energy and audacity. He was bold and cleve, dodging here and there, turning up where he was least expected ; now in the Bay of Bengal, next south of Ceylon, then off India’s west coast. Luck, and the weather, and skill and seamanship were with him. For three months from late August 1914, he caught and sank no fewer than 18 ships, 16 of them British merchant vessels.
EMDEN learned on the job. She would halt her quarry by signal lamp, rarely having to fire a shot across the bows. That done, she would lie off to windward while her boats plied back and forth, taking off the crew and the spoils. No fancy RHIBs dashing about ; EMDEN did have a steam pinnace, but that was rarely used because it took time to make ready. The boat work was oar-power, men pulling whalers.
To the chagrin of her gunnery officer, though, it proved extraordinarily difficult to sink a ship by gunfire, no matter how many shells were poured into or below the waterline. Torpedoes were an option, but EMDEN carried only five of them, and they were not to be wasted. Eventually the ships had to be scuttled, by sending a party below to open the Kingston valves and to lay explosive charges in the bilges. That worked.
Von Muller obeyed all the rules of war at sea as they stood at the time. This was before the onslaught of unrestricted submarine warfare, which changed everything. Before that, the rules required civilian crews to be taken off to a place of safety, unquote. Von Muller kept one or two of his captured vessels as accommodation ships, and when they were full he’d pack them off to the nearest British port. Not one life was lost in any of those merchant ships he took and sank. Those merchant seamen set free spoke of him with high praise: the gentleman raider, they called him. To the despair of the Admiralty in London.
The Royal Navy threw what few ships it had available into the hunt – a handful of cruisers from the China station – but it was the classic search for the needle in the haystack. And not made any easier by the meddling of the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, who had already begun his lifelong habit of interfering in naval operational matters beyond his competence,and who harried the wretched First Sea Lord, Prince Louis of Battenberg, with directives, orders, queries and ideas. Most of them quite impractical.
Emden and Von Muller also bombarded Madras on the east coast of India – modern day Chennai – setting fire to the oil storage tanks there and, as he’d planned, causing panic in the population. Doubling back, he made a daring raid on Penang, in modern Malaysia, on the 28th of October, where he dashed into the harbour at speed just after dawn and torpedoed and sank a Russian cruiser, dashed out again,and then sank a French torpedo boat destroyer that set after him in pursuit. The Swan of the East was thumbing her nose at the British Empire and its allies with apparent impunity.
And causing much anxiety for the governments of Australia and New Zealand, who would very soon be sending the flower of their young men across the Indian Ocean to join the war. Time and again the convoy sailing from Albany was postponed.
But eventually it set off on the 1st of November. Coincidentally, on that very same day, across the Pacific, von Spee destroyed the weak and obsolete ships of a British squadron at the Battle of Coronel off Chile, with the loss of 1,500 men. The Admiralty had paid a tragic price for ignoring George Patey.
But it was now that von Muller in EMDEN made his fatal miscalculation. In early November he decided to destroy the British cable and wireless station at the Cocos Islands. This station was a vital link in Australia’s communication with the Empire and the world. An undersea cable ran to and from Perth and then on to Europe. To cut that would be a crippling blow to both Britain and Australia.
EMDEN arrived there in the lagoon early in the morning of Monday the 9th of November. All was quiet as she dropped anchor. She sent a raiding party ashore, 50 sailors under the command of the XO, Helmuth von Mucke, armed with axes and hammers and explosives to smash the wireless and cable gear and demolish the mast.
But as they landed, the COCOS wireless operators managed to get off an SOS. “Strange ship in harbour,” they sent. That spelt EMDEN’S doom.
Because that great AIF troop convoy was just 50 miles, away, heading northwest towards Colombo. The Germans had no idea it existed, let alone that it was so close. Cocos didn’t know about it either, for it was maintaining absolute radio silence. But that convoy was escorted by three warships – the cruisers MELBOURNE and SYDNEY and by a big black Japanese battlecruiser, the IBUKI, a ship notable for the vast clouds of smoke it emitted.
They heard the SOS and guessed that the strange ship could only be EMDEN. MELBOURNE heeled over in a turn to port and set off, until, to his bitter disappointment, her captain – Mortimer Silver, RN – realised that as escort commander his duty was to stay with the convoy. He then ordered SYDNEY away. What a moment it must have been: the ship working up to full speed, black smoke pouring from her funnels, plates vibrating, stern digging deep from the thrust of her four propellersShe would be at the Cocos in two hours.
SYDNEY was in every way bigger, faster and more powerful than EMDEN. 138 metres long, 5,500 tons, and a top speed of close on 26 knots (again depending on the coal.) Her main armament of eight 6-inch guns packed a much bigger punch than EMDEN’S 4.1-inch. She was modern, state of the art.
Her commanding officer, Captain John Glossop was an Englishman, the son of a country vicar, now 43 years old. He had served as a midshipman and then lieutenant on the old Australia station in colonial days, had liked the life, and had therefore expressed a desire to their Lordships of the Admiralty that he might command a ship of the brand new RAN.
Glossop had never fired a shot in anger. But he was a competent officer, schooled in the finest navy the world had known, And now here he was, presented with an opportunity that every cruiser captain would have given his right arm for. With 300 years of naval tradition behind him, he knew what he had to do, and he set off to do it.
Most of his officers and senior rates were British as well, although his first lieutenant, LCDR John Finlayson, was Australian born, the son of a manager of the Bank of New South Wales from Vaucluse. SYDNEY had a crew all up of around 400 men. ( I was never able to find a definite, accurate figure.) Just over a third of them were Australians, native born. Many of them teenagers, boys as young as 16, brought up for the sea in the old training ship Tingira, a hulk moored in Rose Bay. Glossop had not been keen to take them, but there they were.
With time to spare, he sent the hands to breakfast, and then when that was finished, he cleared lower deck and spoke to the ship’s company in words that were jotted down later by Able Seaman Jimmy Stewart:
“There is a German ship at or near the Cocos Islands and, should it be a German cruiser, this young ship’s company is going to taste its baptism of fire. This opportunity will probably be given to our young Australian Navy to make history, and I want every officer and man aboard this ship to do his duty quickly but coolly and with every co-operation. I hope to bring an action, if there is one, to a successful completion.”
Then they went to action stations.
The two ships sighted each other just after 9 o’clock that morning, in fine, calm weather. Glossop ordered his yeoman to hoist the challenge, but everyone know what they had met. EMDEN had been trapped ; caught at anchor, with her guard down. At first von Muller had thought the smoke coming towards him from the nor-east was from a collier he’d captured and kept in company and which was due to join him that morning.
But soon enough the speed of the approach and the volume of smoke told him he was facing a warship. He frantically went to action stations, called for steam,weighed anchor,and began to move, leaving his shore party behind at the wireless station. SYDNEY bore down towards him.
Miraculously it was EMDEN which drew first blood. Captain Glossop had underestimated the range of the German’s guns, and he’d brought SYDNEY in too close. It was not his fault ; nobody in the navy, not the gunnery experts at Whale Island, not the entire British Admiralty knew that EMDEN’s guns had a range of well over 10-thousand metres. The Germans could elevate their barrels to an unheard of 30 degrees, whereas the best the British could manage was not quite 20. The difference was crucial.
Von Muller’s action report, written after the war, said he opened fire at 8,900 metres. SYDNEY’S gunnery officer, LEUT Denis Rahilly, thought it was more like 10,000. But either way, EMDEN’s gunners were experienced and accurate, and they hit hard and fast.
One of those shots might have changed the entire battle. It struck SYDNEY’S bridge where the captain was conning the ship on the compass platform. In the words of Leading Signalman John Seabrook, who was there:
“This shot first of all cut away a pair of signal halyards, cut the rangetaker’s leg off below the knee, cut the rangefinder in half, went through the hammocks lining the inside of the bridge, cut a bridge rail off, went through the screen and then burst in the awning, which was rolled up and flaked around the upper bridge. One piece went straight through the lower bridge screen,taking exactly half a pair of binoculars with it, which were left hanging there.
The rangetaker, a 30 year old able seaman named Albert Hoy, collapsed on the deck, blood pumping from a severed artery. He died later. But that was it. No one else on the bridge was scratched. Again the ship might have been lost but for the quick thinking and courage of two young Australian-born sailors, 17 year old Boy First Class Tom Williamson of Melbourne, and 19 year old Ordinary Seaman Les Kinniburgh of Mildura who, with their bare hands, flung overboard some burning cordite charges which might have blown back to the ship’s magazines.
Von Muller’s luck had drained away. Fifteen of his shells struck SYDNEY, but only five exploded. Four of Sydney’s crew were killed, and half a dozen more were injured. And then fortunes changed.
Shocked but still thinking, Glossop quickly withdrew out of range and began pouring in a fire of his own. Both ships were heading more or less northeast at around 20 knots. Less experienced, and without the bridge rangefinder – and the aft rangefinder, which had also been damaged – SYDNEY’S guns took a while to get the eye in. Director fire was unknown, of course. But when they did get the range it was devastating, it was carnage, with the bloody inevitability of a heavyweight boxer battering a flyweight. EMDEN twisted and turned like a hunted animal, trying to draw in close for a lucky torpedo shot, SYDNEY holding off. But slowly and surely the Swan of the East was smashed to pieces, her guns falling silent one by one. Von Muller called for a torpedo attack but that, too, failed because the torpedo compartment was wrecked and flooded. This is a description from one of her petty officers:
“ Almost all those who had been in the ammunition rooms as well as those at the guns had been killed,.
“Blood was flowing in streams on deck, and terribly mutilated corpses were lying about. We were answering the fire of the enemy, but more feebly. I myself had only a few unimportant injuries. My mate Hartmann came towards me to give me an order, but he had not opened his lips when shrapnel came bursting over us between the tower and the bridge. Hartmann fell, and I got a shell splinter on the right hand ,
“The ship was burning in several places. Several shells of ours exploded on deck ; the fourth gun on our starboard side exploded and the feeding machinery threw down all the crew, opened the compartment and threw a crewman of the 5th gun overboard. An officer went overboard too.”
Miraculously, Captain von Muller on his armoured bridge was only slightly scratched. He determined he would not allow EMDEN to be taken, and he decided to run her aground on one of the Cocos group, North Keeling Island, which lay dead ahead to the north. He gave the order for full speed and with one final, convulsive lunge from her engines, she crunched onto a coral reef, never to move again. It was just after 11 am. The battle had lasted almost exactly two hours.
Glossop sent a signal which electrified the navy and the world. Just five words: EMDEN BEACHED AND DONE FOR. But he had more work to do, and there were more chapters to be written. First, he took care of Emden’s accompanying collier which had been hovering uncertainly on the horizon,her German prize officers scuttled her as she approached, and the crew had to be taken off.
He sent a boat to EMDEN with food and water and medical supplies, carrying one of the German prize officers. And then SYDNEY returned to Direction Island and the wireless station – where, for all Glossop knew, there might have been fighting, with civilian dead and wounded. In fact there hadn’t been. EMDEN’s shore party had behaved impeccably, not harming a hair on anyone’s head, and leaving civilian possessions strictly alone. Von Mucke had been efficient and courteous,and the station staff actually offered the Germans sandwiches and a cup of tea. In one, almost surreal incident, they realised the Germans were going to blow up the signals mast. They went to von Mucke and asked him:
“Would you mind not bringing it down on the tennis court ?” they said.
“Certainly,” said the Germans. And the mast toppled the other way – although unfortunately it crushed some cases of scotch whisky which had been carefully hidden from the invading Hun. The raiding party had vanished, though, before SYDNEY’s arrival, getting away on a schooner they’d commandeered in the lagoon. The story of their escape and eventual return to Germany via the Red Sea and Constantinople is quite extraordinary.
SYDNEY returned to the wreck of the EMDEN at around 1600 the next afternoon, the 10th of November. What happened next was a collision of misunderstanding on both sides so sad and so devastating that it colours the memory of the battle to this day. John Glossop opened fire again on Emden’s shattered and still smouldering hulk.
He did not do so immediately. Sydney slowed almost to halt perhaps four kilometres off, while Glossop and the watch on the bridge scanned the enemy with glasses and telescopes. They could clearly see the destruction they had wrought and the men in the midst of it, but they could also see that the enemy ensign still flying from what was left of her mainmast. Perhaps the Germans wanted to keep fighting.
Glossop ordered a signal to be sent by flag hoist:“ Do you surrender?” There was a pregnant pause and then they could see a small figure replying by waving semaphore flags, a jerky message in English which read: “What signal ? No signal books.”
Glossop tried again, this time also by semaphore. He repeated his first signal, “ Do you surrender ?” and then , a few minutes later: “Have you received my signal?”
There was no reply, and so he ordered Lieutenant Rahilly to open fire again. He would say later in his report that he did so reluctantly, which there is no reason to doubt. He, too, was a humane and decent man.
The official historian of the Australian naval war, Arthur Jose, wrote that:
“ As long as the German flag still flew, the Emden was still a resisting enemy ; moreover, although all her guns were destroyed or dismantled, she had used no torpedoes and, so far as Glossop knew, might still be able to discharge one, or to resist with rifle fire any boat he should send to board her. His duty was unmistakeable; if von Müller chose to avoid surrender, he must endure the further use of force to compel him.”
That is a faulty judgement, I think, the victor writing ten years after the war when the scars were still raw. With the hindsight of 100 years, it would have been perfectly possible for Sydney to stand off in a position out of torpedo range while sending a boat to Emden under a white flag of truce.
But Glossop kept firing for another 5 minutes until a German sailor, with incredible courage, climbed what the mast and brought the ensign down. Von Muller ordered him to throw it into the fires,it would not become a trophy for the enemy,to be displayed in some naval chapel somewhere.
With darkness upon him, Glossop decided not attempt to bring off Emden’s survivors. Surf was still smashing against the side of the wreck. But he had written a letter to his opponent, the captain of His Imperial German Majesty’s Ship Emden, remarkable for its tone of decency and chivalry:
I have the honour to request that in the name of humanity you now surrender your ship to me . In order to show how much I appreciate your gallantry, I will recapitulate the position.
1) You are ashore, 3 funnels and one mast down, and most guns disabled.
2) You cannot leave this island and my ship is intact.
In the event of your surrendering in which I venture to assure you there is no disgrace but rather your misfortune, I will endeavour to do all I can for your sick and wounded and take them to a hospital.
I have the honour to be,
Your obedient servant.
In the end, it was never delivered, although it has been preserved for posterity, and a copy of it hangs in the captain’s cabin of the current HMAS SYDNEY.
First thing the next morning, the rescue began, of men from the ship, and the handful who has somehow managed to swim and scramble ashore through the surf onto the island. Many were severely wounded, in agonies of thirst and hunger. They were treated with great care and compassion, with SYDNEY’s two doctors and one of the German surgeons working on them for hours on end.
134 of Emden’s crew had died, with 65 wounded. The last to be recovered was von Muller himself. He had asked for no special treatment, but Glossop sent his gig for him, and the defeated captain was properly piped aboard,where he was welcomed by Glossop and saluted by a circle of officers,and ushered below to the captain’s cabin. Over dinner, the two captains drew a track of the battle, which they both signed.
One of the most touching accounts of this day comes from an unidentified Emden sailor, who had been badly lacerated by two pieces of shrapnel, one of which tore a hole in his back.
“We were rowed along to the Sydney one by one, put into a crane and hoisted on board. I myself was put in the wardroom, which had been transformed into a hospital. Here too were berthed the wounded of the Sydney . We were at once properly bandaged, and well treated as far as circumstances allowed, Next to me lay a sailor of the Sydney . He had his right foot blown away. He bent himself towards me and gave me his hand.”
The two men lay there, side by side, German and Australian, holding hands in a silent affirmation of their humanity.”
I admired the Germans for their seamanship, their patriotism and above all, their courage. I admired the young, untried crew of SYDNEY for their bravery and skill as well…they were aware that they were laying down a foundation stone for the traditions of the RAN. And they rose magnificently to the task.
The tragedy is that these men were not very different. Australian, British or German. They were serving their country in a war that was not of their making.
The destruction of the EMDEN sent Australia wild with delight. None other than Banjo Patterson was travelling with the AIF convoy as a war correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald, and he wrote:
“Arrived in Colombo to find everybody in a wild state of excitement over the sinking of the Emden by the Sydney. We can hardly believe that Australia’s first naval engagement could have been such a sensational win, for our people are not sea-going people and our navy–which some of us used to call a pannikin navy–was never taken very seriously. And now we have actually sunk a German ship!
Telegrams of congratulations poured in from around the world. Patriotic songs and marches and poems were written by the score, including one hilarious effort from the British poet Sir Henry Newbolt, which went:
The Sydney and the Emden
They went it shovel and tongs,
The Emden had her rights to prove,
The Sydney had her wrongs :
The Sydney had her wrongs, my lads.
And a crew of South Sea blues ;
Their hearts were hot, and as they shot
They sang like kangaroos —
Which caused a certain amount of amusement then, too.
Underlying it all was a feeling of relief. In some exalted circles, particularly in Britain, there had been a nagging worry that Australians, the descendants of English and Irish convicts, might not be up to the job. But they had proved themselves worthy sons of Britannia. The Australian High Commissioner in London, Sir George Reid, wrote to Winston Churchill that:
The Mother Country will see that the breed is all right, and that it was never more all right than when Australians are on Australian ships under the White Ensign with the Australian flag at the jackstaff.
100 years on, it is right and proper to pause and reflect. The First World War swept away great Empires: The German, the Austro-Hungarian, the Russian Empire, the Ottoman Empire. It opened the world to the evils of Communism and Nazism. We still see the effects of the war today, most notably in the Middle East.
There’s a view of the past that I love, from the British poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge:
“If men could learn from history, what lessons it might teach us. But passion and party blind our eyes, and the light which experience gives us is a lantern on the stern, which shines only on the waves behind us.”
In that lantern’s light, I think the SYDNEY-EMDEN battle holds lessons and truths for today and the future. Lessons and truths that were re-inforcfed in the Second World War.
Paramount of these is that Australia is a maritime nation. We are one of the world’s great trading powers, but no other has a coastline like ours, washed by the waters of three great oceans.
And none of those great trading powers is so dependent, so reliant as we are, on the security of the seas to sustain the inbound and outbound trade in commodities that is our lifeblood. Maritime security is not merely desirable for Australia ; it is the very core of our existence.
I’m not trying to teach you to suck eggs here. But I fear these truths are sometimes not appreciated, or sometimes lost altogether, by government, parliament and people.
Speaking as a journalist, I concede that much of this is the fault of the media, which understands only two stories about Navy. Story One: coloured flags, brass bands, frigate home from the Gulf. And Story two: rum, sodomy and the lash, frigging on the fo’c’sle.
So Navy must never give up on the job of explaining itself to the Australian people. Sometimes you are not very good at it,even now most Australians believe the Collins Class submarines were duds, ruinously expensive white elephants, a disaster. You cannot afford to let that happen again, to lose the public relations battle with the new submarine acquisition.
You must hammer home that the RAN is not just a glorified coastguard, stopping SIEVS off Christmas Island,not just a ferry service to take the Army somewhere. The Australian people must grip the fact that this maritime nation requires a blue water navy capable of trade protection and war fighting wherever those imperatives arise.
I’m delighted tonight to see here some young men and women from ADFA, the Australian Defence Force Academy. What a future lies before you. Some of the ships you will serve in – perhaps command – have yet to be imagined or designed. You and they will be the envy of the grey and grizzled old admirals at the tables here this evening. Good luck with your careers.
So I finish tonight with words written some 300 years ago ; which appeared as a preamble to the Royal Navy’s Articles of War in the reign of the Stuart kings ; which are carved in stone at the Royal Naval College, HMS BRITANNIA, at Dartmouth.
It is upon the navy under the good Providence of God that the safety, honour and welfare of this realm do chiefly attend.
Personally, I’m not so sure about God. But nearly four centuries on, and a world away,those lines still proclaim an essential truth which we ignore at our peril.
Thank you so much for inviting me this evening.