On the night of 22 September 1914, after spectacularly maneuvering past the massive British Navy fleet in the Bay of Bengal, SMS Emden brought World War 1 to Chennai’s shores.
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Did you know about a word in colloquial Tamil that owes its origin to a World War I German light cruiser weighing 3,600 tonnes and armed with 22 guns?
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The word referenced here is ‘Emden’ which roughly translates into someone ‘who acts with audacious daring—unafraid to take on anyone, whatever the odds.’ Other definitions include ‘a particularly cunning person’ or ‘manipulative and crafty’
On the night of 22 September 1914, the SMS Emden, which was skippered by German naval commander Karl von Muller, sailed into the Madras Harbour, after spectacularly maneuvering past the massive British Navy fleet in the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean, and dropped nearly 130 shells on the harbour in 30 minutes.
By the time the British Navy had mustered up a response, the Emden had left the area. Thus, while the Indian mainland largely escaped the horrors of the Great War, the city of Madras (now Chennai) would become the only one to come under assault by the Central Powers which included Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria.
Swift, Daring and Elusive
Prior to its arrival in Madras, the warship had destroyed several merchant vessels belonging to the British, Australians and even the Italians.
In Madras, though, the damage was extensive. It destroyed nearly 350,000 gallons of oil stored by the Burmah Oil Company. Besides the ships and harbour installations, it even damaged the buildings of the Port Trust, Madras Sailing Club, the General Post Office and a series of important roads leading up to the harbour front.
“The projectiles found many a billet in the buildings of Port Trust, Boat House of the Madras Sailing Club and facade of the new National Bank of India,” wrote D Scott, a contributor to The Indian Review.
According to his account, shells had spread as far as Poonamallee High Road, Choolai, Casa Major Road and Nungambakkam, while a few unexploded ones were also lying around. He also states that 3 people died and 13 were injured, although others note that 5 people had lost their lives.
Suffice it to say, the British weren’t prepared for such an attack. However, some historians are a little perplexed at why the SMS Emden did not further press home the advantage.
“After Emden reached a safe distance, the British started responding towards what for them was an unknown object in the dark far out at sea. The Emden could have damaged the whole fort and the high court building along with the harbour had it stayed longer,” said historian V Dhivakar, the author of ‘SMS Eden 22-09-1914,’ to the Times of India. But Muller’s objective of striking commercial targets and causing alarm was somewhat met.
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Even though Lord Pentland, the Governor of Madras, assured residents that the dangerous battleship would not return. However, reports about the ship’s daring exploits in South-East Asia, where it sank a Russian cruiser and French destroyer, and how it outwitted the British Navy continued to pour into the city.
Historian Shrabani Basu, in her book, ‘For King and Another Country: Indian Soldiers on the Western Front, 1914-18’, writes, “Panic spread in [Madras] and nearly 20,000 left every day. Crowds went out of control and the railways had to summon special police. Those who could not get the train took the road, leaving on carts and on foot. Prices of commodities shot up. The Times newspaper estimated that the Emden’s raid at the mouth of the Hooghly and down the Coromandel coast had left the province of Burma isolated for a fortnight, paralysed the trade of Calcutta, pushed up the cost of insurance on the seas and cost the country over a million pounds. There were fears that the Emden would return.”
Another key element of the narrative surrounding the SMS Emden is the alleged role played by Chempakaraman Pillai, a political activist and revolutionary, who some believe was aboard the SMS Emden and helped coordinate the attack on the Madras Harbour.
Although a book written by Hellmuth von Mucke, the vice-commander of Emden, claims that there was an Indian passenger offering them information, there is no confirmation of that person being Pillai. Many contest the notion that he was on the ship, but he did work towards enlisting the Germans in India’s battle for independence.
Less than two months later, the SMS Emden was finally downed by an Australian cruiser HMAS Sydney after a fierce battle near the Cocos Islands on 9 November 1914, although news reached the residents of Madras only by 11 November.
However, by that time, the news of its daring exploits had resulted in its name finding its way into the Tami lexicon as an example of unmatched daring.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)