World War I in the Pacific


Since the latest comment sent this way asked how my current project is coming, here is a preview.  This will be the first section in the next (4th) chapter of my South Pacific history series:

World War I: The Prologue

In the previous chapter, we saw six Western nations divide the South Pacific between themselves: Spain, the Netherlands, Britain, France, Germany, and the United States. By 1900, just about all of the islands had been claimed, and one of the empires, Spain, had been knocked out of the game by the United States. True, Australia and New Zealand had been granted self-government in the first decade of the twentieth century, but their obligations as members of the British Commonwealth meant that in times of war, they acted like they were still parts of the British Empire.

The next nation to lose its empire was Germany. In the forty-three years after its 1871 unification, Germany grew by leaps and bounds. By 1914, Germany had the most efficient army in Europe, the strongest industry, and because its gross domestic product had just pulled ahead of Britain’s, it was now the richest European country as well. However, Britain still ruled the waves, despite Germany’s vigorous efforts since the late 1890s to build a fleet that could take on the Royal Navy. Thus, when World War I began, Germany had an early advantage in Europe, but all of its overseas colonies were isolated, lightly defended, low-hanging fruit that the British and anyone allied with them could pick off at will.

At the beginning of the war the leaders of Europe promised their subjects that this war would be short, with light casualties, like most of the wars from the previous century. They did not expect a variety of new weapons, from machine guns to poison gas, to change the rules of warfare. Because of those weapons, in Europe and the Middle East, World War I was a bloody slugfest, killing millions and lasting for years. But because of Britain’s naval advantage, the war’s Pacific phase went quickly and almost bloodlessly, as had originally been predicted for all fronts.

Australia and New Zealand were in the war automatically when Britain declared war on Germany, and because the Japanese had an alliance treaty with the British, Japan declared war three weeks later, on August 23, 1914. New Zealand troops captured German Samoa without resistance on August 29, and the Australians took Nauru on September 9.

However, there was a bit of fighting when the Australians attacked a larger colony — German New Guinea and the Bismarck and Solomon archipelagoes. On New Britain (then called New Pomerania by the Germans), 500 Aussies met and defeated a defending force of 301 (61 Germans and 240 Melanesian policemen) at the battle of Bita Paka, on September 11. The remaining Germans on the island surrendered at Toma, on September 17. By September 24, the rest of New Guinea and the Solomon Islands were also in Allied hands. A single German officer in Kaiser Wilhelm Land, near Angorum, tried to resist with a force of thirty natives, but was captured in December 1914 after the natives deserted him. That left twenty German soldiers in New Guinea’s interior, commanded by Hermann Philipp Detzner. This group (I won’t call them a force, because they didn’t have enough men to count even as a platoon) had been sent in early 1914 to explore the hinterlands; after the war started, they hid from Allied troops, and obtained the supplies they needed from German missionaries in the neighborhood. By avoiding defeat and capture, Detzner, like Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck in East Africa, remained at large throughout the entire war, and when he finally surrendered in January 1919, he went back to Germany as a hero.

North of New Guinea, the Japanese had no trouble seizing Germany’s Micronesian islands: the Marshalls, Carolines, Marianas and Palau. This task took all of October 1914 because the islands were spread out over such a large portion of the ocean. The only hotly contested territory was Kiaochow (modern Qingdao), the German colony on the coast of China; British and Japanese forces began to surround this port at the end of August, and it fell on November 7, 1914, after a siege which killed 727 Allies and 199 Germans.

That ended all the land battles in the Pacific for the war, but there were some naval actions worth talking about after that. Six cruisers, the German East Asia Squadron, were performing various duties in the northwest Pacific when the war broke out. The squadron commander, Vice Admiral Maximilian, Reichgraf von Spee, knew they didn’t have a chance of beating the Allied fleets in the region; he figured the Australian flagship, the HMAS Australia, was strong enough to defeat the squadron all by herself. All they could do was try to make it back to Germany, where the German command could give them a more useful assignment. Accordingly, von Spee left Kiaochow on August 6, and the squadron assembled in late August at Pagan, an island in the Marianas. One ship, the Emden, captured a Russian steamship and converted it into a commerce raider; this success prompted von Spee to let the Emden separate from the squadron and go on independent raiding in the Indian Ocean. The other five ships headed east across the Pacific, the plan being to gather what supplies and information they could get from the neutral nations of the western hemisphere, before entering the Atlantic for the last part of their journey. On the way they destroyed a British wireless & cable station on Fanning Island, and bombarded Papeete in French Polynesia. At Easter Island they were able to refuel, because the local coaling station had not yet heard about the war. After this, though, the squadron lost the element of surprise and the British West Indies Squadron caught up with it off the coast of Chile. The Germans won the resulting battle, the battle of Coronel, but then their luck ran out after they rounded Cape Horn; at the next battle, the battle of the Falkland Islands, von Spee was killed and most of the German ships were sunk. The only vessel which escaped, the Dresden, returned to Chile; three British cruisers cornered the Dresden and sank her near the Chilean island of Más a Tierra (Robinson Crusoe’s island!) on March 14, 1915.


The journey of the German East Asia Squadron.

As for the Emden, she spent September and October prowling in the Bay of Bengal and around the Maldive Islands. During this time fifteen merchant ships were sunk, for a total of more than 70,000 tons, and eight were captured. Captured ships were allowed to move on if they and their cargoes were not owned by an Allied nation. Two special advantages helped this light cruiser achieve so many successes: a long range (she could go up to 6,000 miles before recoaling), and the addition of a fake fourth funnel, which made the ship look like a British cruiser.

The strangest part of the adventure came when the Emden and a captured British collier visited Diego Garcia, a British-ruled atoll south of both the Maldives and the equator, for repairs and rest. This island was so remote that it only got news from the ships that arrived (usually one came by every three months), so the locals, like the Easter Islanders, did not know the outside world was at war. The Emden’s captain, Karl von Müller, claimed they were part of joint German-British-French “world naval maneuvers,” and informed a local plantation owner that Pope Pius X had died, but did not bother to mention the other big news story from the past few months. The plantation owner allowed his guests shore leave, gave the crew fresh eggs and vegetables, and the natives helped the Germans scrape the barnacles off their hull. In return, the Germans gave the locals cigars and whiskey, and repaired the motor on one of their launches.

After leaving Diego Garcia, the Emden headed to the Malayan port of Penang, where in the biggest battle of the campaign to date, she sank a Russian cruiser and a French destroyer. Then the cruiser headed to the Cocos Islands, a pair of atolls about halfway between Australia and Sri Lanka, and sent a landing party ashore to disable the British wireless & cable station there. However, the station managed to get off a distress signal to a nearby Allied convoy, which was transporting troops from Australia to Egypt, and one of its cruisers, the HMAS Sydney, came to investigate. The Sydney and the Emden fought for seven hours on November 9, 1914; the Sydney suffered light damage, while the Emden was turned into a wreck, and Müller ran the ship aground on a reef so that some of the crew would survive. 142 of the Emden’s crew were killed; the survivors were sent to Australia if they were wounded, and to an internment camp on Malta if they were healthy (the latter included an officer who happened to be a Hohenzollern prince). After that, the Central Powers had no ships left in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, so Allied troop transports and civilian ships could now travel those seas without escorts, allowing the Allied navies to concentrate their attention on the Atlantic.

Speaking of transporting troops, for Australians and New Zealanders, the most important military actions were not those which took place near their homelands, like the annexation of Samoa, but the Old World battles their troops participated in. Called the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC), they first were used to defend the Suez Canal from the Turks, and then sent to Turkey for the Gallipoli campaign; of the more than half a million Allied troops at Gallipoli, 34,000 came from ANZAC.[1] In early 1916 ANZAC troops began to be used on the Western Front in Europe, and in 1917 they took part in the Mesopotamian campaign, and in the Sinai and Palestine campaign, which eventually cleared the Turks out of the Levant.


The Australian 9th and 10th Battalions, here seen at Giza, Egypt, brought a kangaroo mascot.

For both countries wartime casualties were heavy, at a time when they were just getting used to standing independently from Britain. Below are the numbers; more than half of the casualties were inflicted in the deadly stalemate on the Western Front:




Wounded, gassed, or captured





New Zealand




As you might expect, the homelands mourned their countrymen who didn’t live to come back, promoted women to take jobs formerly held by men, endured physical and economic stress from supporting the war effort, and experienced growing resentment as the war went on. However, the war was also seen as a defining moment for both nations, marking the maturity of their societies. As Ormond Burton, a decorated New Zealand veteran, put it, “somewhere between the landing at Anzac [a Gallipoli beachhead] and the end of the battle of the Somme, New Zealand very definitely became a nation.”[3]

After the war, the Japanese (under American pressure) returned Kiaochow to China, while the new international peacekeeping organization, the League of Nations, awarded the other ex-German and ex-Turkish territories in Africa, the Middle East and the Pacific as “mandates” to the nations that had captured them. In the Western nations, popular opinion was starting to swing toward the idea that the colonies could not be exploited forever, so the mandates would be handled the same way the United States was handling the Philippines – outsiders would only rule until the peoples living in them were ready to govern themselves. However, there was no time limit put on how long the mandates would last; of the sixteen mandates established, only one (Iraq) became independent before World War II, and the last mandate (Namibia) was terminated in 1990.

[1] April 25, the day the battle of Gallipoli began, is now a holiday in Australia & New Zealand to remember their fallen troops, called Anzac Day.

[2] The New Zealand forces included more than 2,200 Maori, and 500 Pacific Islanders from places like Niue. Britain also sent a Fijian labor unit to Europe, which performed only non-combat duties.

[3] Ormond Burton, “A Rich Old Man” (an unpublished autobiography), pg. 138.

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