About 8,000 men and 4,000 horses, which made up the Main Body and 1st Reinforcements of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force, embarked from Wellington in October 1914, sailing in a convoy via Australia to Europe to join the war. Ten troopships had been requisitioned by the NZ government from shipping companies to accommodate men and horses on this momentous voyage. The NZEF anchored in Hobart, Tasmania, for two days and the men went ashore for marching exercises. They re-embarked and sailed to Albany, Western Australia, on 28 October where they were joined by 28 Australian troopships and escort vessels and about 22,000 men and 3,500 horses.
The combined ANZAC fleet of 38 troopships and escorts, carrying 30,000 soldiers and 7,500 horses left Albany on 1 November 1915. Their destination was no longer Europe.
Turkey had declared war against the Allies only the day before, and the Expeditionary Force was diverted to Egypt. On that leg of the voyage, the convoy encountered war for the first time when sailing to Colombo in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka. While the convoy was at sea, the Imperial German navy cruiser, SMS Emden, captained by Karl von Müller, had raided the Cocos Islands, also known as the Keeling Islands, in the Indian Ocean, in order to destroy British operations that were stationed there.
The Emden was pursued and attacked by the Australian cruiser HMAS Sydney. She was badly damaged and run aground by von Müller to avoid sinking with all hands aboard. More than a third of her crew was killed and most of her surviving crewmen were taken prisoner. Captain von Müller escaped with a small crew in a commandeered schooner and managed to sail back to Germany.
The wounded German prisoners were sent to Australia while the uninjured were taken on board HMAS Sydney to Colombo and transferred to ships in the convoy. The prisoners were interned in Malta after their voyage north and finally repatriated to Germany in 1920.
The ship’s ensign somehow found its way into the hands of New Zealand soldiers. A series of holes in the linen, apparently made by shrapnel, are visible. The simple cotton ensign is composed of a white field with a red cross and a yellow crown at the centre of the cross. It was donated to the Whanganui Regional Museum in 1957.
Also in the Museum collection is a badly stained and dog-eared mimeographed issue of The Arrower, the newspaper of the NZEF aboard HMNZ Transport No.10 Arawa. The magazine records the Emden event in great detail alongside current events, the voyage schedule and poetry. Apparently, this copy of the Arrower was later sunk in a submarine and rescued and acquired by Captain Morgan of the first NZ Expeditionary Force, who donated it to the Museum in 1935. “A.H.W.” puts the Emden event into verse.
Sydney and Emden
Here’s to the Sydney cruiser,
That put the Emden out,
She beat the German bruiser,
With a good Australian clout,
No more the German pirate,
Will sink our helpless ships,
She took the count for the full amount,
When the Sydney came to grips.
The Germans wanted something soft,
So to the Cocos went,
The wireless saw him from aloft,
So “S.O.S.” was sent,
The Sydney quickly took the hint,
And turned her nose about,
In an hour or two the news came through,
The Emden’s down and out.
Libby Sharpe is the Senior Curator at Whanganui Regional Museum.