By Rasa Writes
A hundred years ago this week, the first global conflict in the world began. And it set in motion many geopolitical quakes whose ramifications we continue to witness today.
It was on July 28, 1914, that Austria declared war on Serbia. On August 1, Germany declared war on Russia. Two days later, Germany declared war on France and invaded Belgium. On Aug 4, Great Britain declared war on Germany.
And thus began World War 1. On one side were Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire; on the other side were Britain, France, Russia, Italy, Japan and the United States.
Though most of the fighting occurred in Europe, battles were fought in most parts of the world and on all the oceans; even in the then Malaya.
The veterans and those who know some history of Malaya would remember the incident that came to be known as the Battle of Penang. This happened on Oct 28, 1914.
Penang, then part of the British Empire, was a popular port used both by naval and merchant vessels.
In the early hours of Oct 28, the German cruiser Emden which had been preying upon British merchant vessels in the waters off China and Southeast Asia, entered Penang port disguised as an allied vessel and flying the Russian flag.
A Russian cruiser, the Zhemchug, was then undergoing repairs at the port.
Nearing the Zhemchug, the Emden lowered its Russian flag and raised the German flag before firing a torpedo at it. The first apparently missed but a second torpedo did not and the Russian cruiser, undergoing repairs and its crew taken by surprise, sank.
At least 85 of the 250 crew members of the Zhemchug died, according to a November 9, 1914, report in a US weekly called The Independent. On its way out of the port, the Emden engaged with the French destroyer Mousquet, which was returning to port, and sank it too.
Why did the German cruiser bring down the Russian flag and fly its own German flag before attacking the Zhemchug and the Mousquet? Well, under the international code of naval warfare it was permissible for a ship to disguise itself, including using a false flag, to come near an enemy vessel but it is required to display its real flag before firing. That is what the Emden did.
A Wikipedia entry, however, says the Emden was disguised as a British cruiser and that 89 crew members of the Zhemchug died that day.
I am sure some older Malaysians and Singaporeans would have heard of many more stories about World War 1. It would be great if those who know could kindly share the tales with us.
My comments : Family lore says that my grandpa who would have been 24 years old in 1914 witnessed the Emden attack Penang. On that day my grandpa happened to be by the sea along Penang Harbour. The Emden fired not just at the ships but also at Penang Port and shells landed along the shoreline. People ran helter skelter.
The Emden's movements were hampered by the hundreds of sampans and small boats that cruised around Penang Harbour. The Germans used a loudhailer and shouted 'Sampan lalu, sampan lalu' to get the sampans out of the way.
The stories I heard was that the Emden did enter Penang disguised as a British cruiser, complete with an extra funnel (which was fake). Since there were strong British defences and other warships in the harbour the Emden turned at speed, causing the fake funnel to either tilt or fall over completely.
Penang Harbour of 1914 would not have been much different from Penang Harbour of the 1960s when I first saw it. Those were the days of beautiful old ships. Penang was a fantastic place. I think it still is.