The Most Important Battle of World War I?

In a few weeks, on 9 November, it will be 100 years since the battle happened which could have changed the world, and yet efforts to have it commemorated have failed to raise much interest.

This is the date that the Australian navy’s first light cruiser, the HMAS Sydney, began a running sea battle with the German cruiser turned lone pirate on the isolated atoll of the Cocos Keeling Islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

The Sydney had been escorting the first contingent of ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) troops from Fremantle Western Australia to Gallipoli. This campaign was the first of the newly independent Australian nation, which resulted in massive slaughter on the Turkish beaches and is now commemorated with a national holiday on April 25th each year.

The flotilla was made up of 12 transports from New Zealand with 10,000 men, 26 from Australia with 20,000, plus over 7,000 horses, the largest fleet ever assembled in the Southern hemisphere. But their departure had been delayed by the presence of the Emden, the last of the German fleet in the Pacific, which had been raiding ships as well as bombing Madras oil depot and sinking 2 war ships in Penang harbour. In the absence of radar, there was no way of knowing where she was, so Commonwealth shipping was at a standstill. The Sydney with 3 other ships were escorting the troops when they were notified of a strange ship at the Cocos, which turned out to be the Emden, destroying the radio station, the main link between Australia and the rest of the world.

The battle was the only ship to ship battle of World War I, and had the Emden not been destroyed, it could have got into the flotilla and caused untold damage as the escort ships could not have fired at her. Had this happened, the colonials, already unwilling to be involved in the far off battles – would have stayed out of World War I, and other countries such as Canada, India and Malaysia may have followed them. As Britain relied so much on these strong healthy men with their horses, this would have been devastating.

After the battle the sailors were treated as superstars, as they passed through Suez soldiers ran from their tents throwing their hats in the air, songs were written about them, commemorative medals struck, and towns and streets across the region were named after the ship and its captain Glossop who, like many of the Britons on board, later settled in Australia. There is even a Glossop Street in Cardiff which is probably from this time.

And yet attempts to celebrate this victory in the Pacific have been largely ignored. While the ANZACs are widely commemorated, and even their departure from Albany, the fact that they almost didn’t make it to the battle is being ignored.

You can read about the battle in my book Fine Ships & Gallant Sailors :


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