The quest for overseas colonies, which necessarily entailed a major naval expansion to support them, was the principal factor that brought Germany into conflict with Britain in 1914. Ironically, the war that resulted cost Germany all of its colonial possessions almost immediately; with the bulk of the German Navy bottled up by the British blockade, Germany could do nothing to protect its colonies. The Siege of Tsingtao, carried out by the Japanese with limited assistance by the British, effectively expelled the Germans from the Pacific and reduced Germany’s colonial presence to a small but stiff resistance in East Africa.
In the late nineteenth century, nearly all of the Great Powers had established some holdings in China. In 1898, following an incident that cost German missionaries their lives, Germany procured a lease on Kiaochow Province, located on Shandong Peninsula, with the port of Tsingtao (or Qingdao in contemporary spelling) as its principal city. The port facilities afforded by Tsingtao made this the most strategically important of Germany’s overseas holdings; this also made Tsingtao the greatest threat to Germany’s enemies. In the summer of 1914, Tsingtao was the home base of seven cruisers, two of which, the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, were heavy cruisers reflecting the most recent developments in naval construction. Against this force, Britain had a larger collection of vessels, but they were widely dispersed across the Pacific, and in many cases these were substantially older warships. If the British vessels concentrated, the German flotilla could evade them; if they remained near their individual stations, the German flotilla could defeat them in detail.
For Britain, the destruction or at least expulsion of the German vessels operating out of Tsingtao became a major priority. Clearly, however, the British lacked a force capable of seizing Tsingtao by itself. In order to neutralize the German threat, Britain turned to a local ally, the Empire of Japan. The existing alliance was only a defensive one, aimed at the protection of Britain’s own colonial possessions in the western Pacific, but Japan was a friendly state with a powerful army and navy within striking distance of Tsingtao. British diplomats induced Japan to side with the Entente in return for the prospect of increasing Japanese power in the Pacific at German expense.
Japan issued an ultimatum on August 15, 1914, insisting that the Germans vacate the city of Tsingtao. The Germans defied the Japanese demand, despite a relatively weak defensive force. They had four forts east of the city, and a collection of heavy guns intended to oppose a naval attack, but which could turn and fire inland instead. German soldiers, however, numbered only between four and five thousand, and even in prepared defensive positions, they could not hold out long against a determined Japanese attack. Significantly, the naval vessels at the center of the incident were not in port at the time. Admiral von Spee had been conducting exercises when he learned of the declaration of war, and decided that there was nothing to be gained by allowing his ships to be trapped in port. Instead, he resolved to gather his ships and fight his way into the Atlantic, where he could eventually make himself useful to the main fleet. Consequently, the city of Tsingtao was left to its own devices when the Japanese declared war on August 23.
At sea, the allied powers assembled a blockade of Tsingtao, mainly with Japanese vessels. For the land operation, Japan sent a force numbering around 23,000 under the command of Mitsuomi Kamio. Britain supported them with a token force of 1,300 men. These troops made their initial landing on September 2, and inclement weather stalled the beginning of major operations until September 23.
The Germans held a main line of defense with the river Chang Tsang before them, and behind them, to the south, Prinz Heinrich Hill. Two British battalions (one Welsh, the other a Sikh battalion from India) attacked the center of the line, with larger Japanese attacks on either side. The weather remained bad throughout the siege, contributing to slow progress, but on September 28, the Japanese left wing seized Prinz Heinrich Hill, and the remainder of the main line was secured the following morning.
The Germans regrouped northeast of Tsingtao, on the other side of the river Hai Po, where the peninsula narrowed substantially. Between the city and the new line of defense stood three of the German forts, Fort Moltke, Fort Bismarck and Fort Iltis. The fourth fort, Fort Hsiao-ni-wa, overlooked Tsingtao Bay and did not contribute materially to the city’s defense from a land attack. Fighting resumed on October 16th. It was in this phase of the defense of Tsingtao that the heavy coastal guns could be used against the attackers, but there was no chance to resupply these guns, and by the end of October, the ammunition reserves were largely exhausted.
The Japanese and British operated under no such limitations. On October 31, they began a sustained artillery attack on the German defenses conducted by both land-based artillery and shipborne guns. This attack, employing mainly shrapnel shells, continued through the night, when the Japanese advanced their troops. On the night of November 6th to 7th, the Japanese broke through German defenses between Forts Moltke and Bismarck. The following day, the German commanding officer, Meyer-Waldeck, negotiated the surrender of Tsingtao.
With Tsingtao fallen, there was nothing to protect the German-controlled islands in the Pacific, and these holdings quickly fell to the Japanese or to the British and their Pacific Dominions. The flotilla that it had once harbored was resting in port in Chile, having won a victory in the Battle of Coronel on November 1. One vessel from that flotilla, the Emden, had been sent east into the Indian Ocean to perform some independent raiding, and it would be sunk a few days after the fall of Tsingtao. The remainder of Spee’s force had only another month before it, too, would be destroyed at the Battle of the Falkland Islands. Subsequent German operations in the Pacific would be carried out only by solitary raiders capable of long-term independent action, like the Wolf. Of Germany’s overseas colonies, only German East Africa maintained any form of resistance, with British forces harried by colonial troops under the wily Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck until the end of the war.
Benbow, Tim. The History of World War I: Naval Warfare 1914-1918. Amber, 2012
Livesey, Anthony. The Historical Atlas of World War I. Henry Holt, 1994
Westwell, Ian. The Complete Illustrated History of World War I. Anness Publishing, Ltd., 2008
Willmott, H.P. World War I. Covent Garden Books, 2003
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