In November 1914, the Cocos (Keeling) Islands played host to Australia's 'first victory' of World War I – the battle of the HMAS Sydney and the SMS Emden. A hundred years after the fact, the descendents of the sailors who fought have returned to share in a legacy of valour and compassion, often overlooked in this remote tropical 'paradise'.
THE ISOLATION OF the Cocos Islands is both a blessing and a curse. Marooned two thousand kilometres from the Western Australian coast and nine hundred kilometres from Christmas Island, it costs $17 for two litres of fresh milk and women have to relocate the mainland for even routine childbirth. But alongside this comes island quirks like a golf course stretched across an international runway, a functioning ‘I-O-U’ system for goods in town and a hire-car company imploring drivers to leave the keys in the car at all times so they don’t get lost.
Captain William Keeling of the East India Company discovered the Cocos (Keeling) Islands in 1609, while he was on a pepper and nutmeg run. The islands weren’t settled until the early nineteenth century, though, when rival European dreamers, Alexander Hare and John Clunies-Ross, had designs on the unclaimed paradise. Hare brought in slaves and forty women for his own personal harem; Clunies-Ross planted thousands of coconut palms in the hope of making it a copra-producing powerhouse. Once Hare’s harem disbanded (after he kept the women on the aptly named ‘Prison Island’) Clunies-Ross and his family ruled the island as their own little kingdom until it passed to Australian governance in 1955 and full assimilation in 1984. There are now around five hundred people living here: one hundred Australian expats on West Island and four hundred Cocos Malays on Home Island.
While the Cocos Islands still trades off its isolation for tourists and sea changers, this atoll of twenty-seven islands was once a vital communications hub for the entire allied war effort at the beginning of World War I.
THE COCOS ISLANDS were seen as the perfect place for deep-sea cables to connect the empire in the early twentieth century. These improbable cords under the sea turned this island of explorers, eccentric coconut barons and failed harems into a place of international importance.
One cable stretched all the way from the Cocos to Rodriguez Island off Mauritius, thus connecting it with Africa, another went up to Java and onwards to Europe and the third to Cottesloe in Western Australia.
In 1911, a wireless station was built on Direction Island; it allowed ships within a radius of four hundred and sixty kilometres to communicate with the island and the Allied cause. The Germans were well aware of the Cocos Islands and their importance to Australia and the Allies. In November 1914, the infamous German light cruiser SMS Emden approached the islands. It had spent the last three months marauding through the Indian Ocean, destroying one Russian merchant vessel and two warships, sinking sixteen British vessels and bombing Madras and Penang. The Emden was intent on also destroying the Cocos Islands’ communications facilities and, in the process, severely damaging the Allied war effort.
It was early morning on 9 November 1914. The wireless station’s operator had just finished his shift and saw the Emden approaching in the soft Cocos dawn. With no military reinforcements on the island, he sent out a rushed transmission: ‘Strange warship approaching…SOS…strange warship approaching.’ Unbeknownst to Karl von Müller, the captain of the Emden, a convoy of troopships, which was transporting Australian and New Zealand soldiers from Albany to Europe, was only ninety kilometres away. The HMAS Sydney was one of the warships escorting the convoy and it broke off to investigate.
Von Müller thought he had ample time to destroy the communications systems and move on before the Australian warships could react. He sent a landing party of fifty men ashore to chop down the transmission mast and disable the wireless station.
The Germans arrived with axes and hammers; they hacked through the cables and, as Phil Andere wrote in The Zodiac, ‘the converter, spare armature, engine, switchboard, accumulators, and all the sending and receiving apparatus were smashed, the latter presenting a spectacle chaotic to behold’.
Despite this, the men were courteous to one another and shared stories and took photos together. Andere even commented that ‘one of our [men] expressed a wish to a German officer that the mast be caused to fall clear of the tennis courts,’ when they chopped it down, and the Germans obliged, ensuring that the island’s only court was left intact.
This momentary respite from the hostilities of war ended at 9 am. The sailors aboard the Emden spotted smoke on the horizon. It was the HMAS Sydney.
The sailors onshore would never reunite with the Emden. They commandeered the Clunies-Ross cutter, the Ayesha, from the bay and the Cocos Islanders gave them supplies for their voyage. Despite being caught in the middle of this strategic battle, which could have dire consequences for the islanders, the people on the Cocos Islands were helpful, friendly and then largely forgotten by both sides.
The Germans would sail to Batavia, across the Indian Ocean, into pitched battles in the Saudi Arabian desert and through Turkey by train before arriving in Germany six months later.
Offshore of the Cocos Islands, the Emden struck the Sydney first and disabled its range finder. The Sydney recalibrated correctly and battered the Emden with its superior guns and extended reach. The two ships zigzagged for twenty-five kilometres to the north, and the Sydney landed numerous fatal blows along the way. By mid-morning, the Emden was on fire, the masts were destroyed and there were increasing casualties. Captain von Müller wanted to be in charge of his ship’s destiny, though, and continued limping towards North Keeling Island as the Sydney closed in.
IT IS NOVEMBER 2014, and the Cocos Islanders are remembering the war that came to their doorstep a hundred years ago and marking the importance of their own involvement. There are commemorations, a gazebo opening and a dual memorial of the Sydney and Emden’s ship bells. Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove, German Ambassador Dr Christophe Müller; the new Administrator of the Indian Ocean Territories Barry Haase, and numerous other dignitaries and descendants have arrived on the island to commemorate the battle.
'This was a coming of age for Australia’s fledgling Navy. It proved to us that we could hold our own in the heat of a battle against an experienced adversary,' the Governor-General tells the crowd.
The German ambassador, a pale rake of a man, seems genuinely moved by the commemorations: ‘It defies imagination that on a morning exactly like this, in view of this peaceful island, young men were preparing to fight and to die,’ he says solemnly.
‘History can never be undone, but we can learn.’
Later in the evening, under the fans of the lemon-yellow primary school, men idle in corners wearing ill-fitting shirts, which look like they don’t come out of the cupboard very often. The Chief of the Navy, Tim Barrett, thanks the people of the Cocos Islands for their role in the battle and their ‘decency, bravery, honour and respect’. ‘That is why we’re here today,’ he adds.
This sentiment seems to sit well with the islanders who quietly nod at their acknowledgement.
It is also revealed that the Germans will return a life buoy from the Ayesha to the Cocos Islanders.
Last to speak is John Clunies-Ross, the only remaining descendant of the former ‘Kings of Cocos’. He is wearing a black Hawaiian shirt, unbuttoned across his barrel chest. ‘We’re not used to having so many big frogs in our pond,’ he says with a smile.
‘It’s taken you all a hundred years to get here bringing back part of the Ayesha. Don’t take a hundred years to bring back the rest!”
Over dinner I talk to the Levy family who, strangely, have a foot in each camp at this event. Their relative, Gustav Levy, was a twenty-year-old German sailor from the small town of Lavenau near Hanover. He signed up for the war and became the Emden’s butcher. Gustav died in the Cocos battle and no trace of him was ever found. Most of the family’s German history was ‘largely destroyed’ in World War II, Michael Levy tells me. Interestingly, the Levy’s now live in Canberra and have been in Australia for seventy-five years, since their Jewish family was forced to flee Germany in 1939.
Michael’s son, Yoni, is now in the Australian Army and has just returned from his second tour of Afghanistan. ‘I was even serving alongside Germans this year,’ he tells me, highlighting how things have changed for his family.
Yoni was charged with lowering the German flag at the ceremony earlier in the day and he reflects that ‘to be a part of any history is interesting’, though this is also a rare occasion where his family’s past and present can align.
TORPEDOS HAD RIPPED gaping holes in the cruiser, the masts had fallen, the decks were on fire and, despite their hoisted white flag, the barrage continued. The SMS Emden snagged on the outer reef of North Keeling Island, and the dead and dying surrounded young German petty officer Bernhard Hulsmann. Survivors recalled the rank smell of scorched human flesh: ‘Blood was flowing in streams on the deck, and terribly mutilated corpses were lying about,’ it was said by one German survivor. The HMAS Sydney’s doctor, Leonard Darby, noted, ‘The worst sight was a fellow who had his face literally blown away, his right eye, nose and most of both cheeks were missing.’ Darby would be responsible for saving many German lives in his cramped and stifling operating quarters below decks before the conflict was over.
It was little wonder that many able-bodied sailors still aboard the Emden jumped into the sea as Australian fire continued to fall on them. ‘A number of men jumped over the side in the belief that we intended to kill them all, more, I dare say, lost their lives in this manner than directly through our fire,’ wrote Ernie Boston, the Sydney’s messenger, in his journal.
‘After our second salvo we could see about twenty or thirty men forward waving a white sheet, but it was too late to stop the third salvo,’ wrote Boston. It was from this final attack on the reef outside North Keeling Island that many of the Germans are thought to have perished. In all, 134 Germans and four Australians were killed in the battle of the Cocos.
As the shots exploded across the deck, Bernhard Hulsmann jumped in the water to save his life. Some of his compatriots were washed against the reef and drowned, others succumbed to their injuries in the shallows; many said there were sharks swimming towards them as they thrashed for the shore. Bernhard was one of the lucky ones. He spent the night on the coral beach being crawled over by bugs and thousands of crabs before the Sydney rescued them the next day.
A hundred years later Reinhold Janssen, Bernhard’s grandson, and I plunge into the same sea where sharks, dead comrades and thrashing waves greeted his grandfather. We have a few hundred metres to swim before we’re safe.
Reinhold kicks with his fins to get over the waves hitting the reef. I swim alongside him; salt water shoots up my nostrils as we aim for the shore. We bob rather than glide because of the bulbous life jackets fitted for safety. More waves are approaching, but we time our strokes well and surf into the rocky shallows. Just ahead is Craig Fotheringham, who takes his first steps on the shores of North Keeling Island while thousands of frigates and boobies circle above. These two men are descendants of the German and Australian sailors who fought each other here. We scramble up the beach past Dr Seuss-like octopus trees, furry palms and thousands of hermit crabs rolling and marching along the sand.
There are fifteen people onshore – descendants, dignitaries and national parks guides. We are here to explore the island and remember the ordeal of the grandfathers and relatives of the people who clamber over driftwood logs beside me.
Craig Fotheringham has come here from Sydney. Yesterday he was standing under the commemorative bells constructed on West Island, rung for the first time by Governor-General Cosgrove and German Ambassador Müller. Today he is walking along the beaches of broken coral to the place where his grandfather, Ernie Boston, saw his first action in World War I.
Boston was only sixteen when he volunteered for the war. He was from Tenterfield in country NSW, and became the captain’s messenger. Boston survived the battle, and the war, though only just, and this isn’t lost on his grandson today: ‘My grandfather died when I was one. I have to dive in and chase this history.’
North Keeling Island is now under the control of National Parks, so a trip out here is quite rare. Many locals have never made it to the island because of the scarcity of vessels able to navigate the rough swells.
Craig walks under the canopy. The air is thick and mosquitoes swarm as he uncovers the Emden’s rusted boiler, the size of a 44-galloon drum, in the undergrowth. The island smells of guano; it paints the trees, the ground and the boiler.
‘I certainly feel like an outsider here,’ he says looking around at the last stands of virgin Cocos forest.
The humidity is suffocating. The group slows and walks in single file with vacant and determined faces. It is only from an experience such as this that we can understand what the conditions were like for the German sailors who tried to survive by coming ashore.
The island has more than a hundredth of the world’s populations of Red-footed Boobies, Lesser Frigate birds and Common Noddies, and these seabirds swoop and swirl across the islands in great black clouds.
I FALL INTO line with Henning Bess, a retired navy admiral whose grandfather was the executive officer of the Emden. He implored the crew’s descendants to come to the Cocos for the commemorations. ‘There are fourteen Germans here for the commemorations– nine direct descendants,’ he tells me. Henning pauses and looks down the curve of the white coral beach. ‘I told them it was paradise. Now they believe me.’
It is certainly beautiful, though I imagine that as night fell, the bitter reality of their predicament might have tempered the German survivors’ impression of paradise.
Reinhold tells me that the horror of the battle actually brought the Germans closer together. The ‘Emden family’ is a group of descendants who have been meeting regularly for twelve years. The families of the descendants were legally allowed to add the prefix ‘Emden’ to their surnames in the wake of the battle because of the pride at the way the Emden had conducted itself. Captain von Müller was called ‘the Gentleman of the German fleet’ because of his exploits and compassion. The Emden successfully sank or captured twenty-seven ships with the loss of only one life.
‘To be remembered alongside his crew as the last gentlemen of war is something he, his family and the German people can be very proud of,’ the Governor-General said of von Müller.
The compassion for the German crew demonstrated by the HMAS Sydney is one of the aspects that has remained prominent for the descendants. It is why this occasion is important for all of them. After the Emden was wrecked and burning, the Sydney steamed in to rescue the survivors. They would pick up men floating on planks of wood and those swimming for safety and pull them aboard. Ernie Boston remembers it fondly: ‘It was only a little incident, though one I was very proud to witness.’
After hours of walking along the rough bones of broken coral, we make it to the memorial. It is tattered and ravaged by the elements – a plank surrounded by driftwood and flotsam – though it seems appropriate. Behind the descendants, who pose for a photo and take a moment of silence, the sea is picking up. The rolling whitecaps and gusts of wind yank the sea birds across the surface of the water as if on a string; it reminds us how changeable the conditions here can be.
We decide to head inland, so that we might appreciate what else the survivors dealt with. On the edge of the stinking and stagnant lagoon, which stretches for hundreds of metres across the interior of the island, there is a simple raft tied together with scraps of rope and with buoys of odd shapes and sizes hanging from it. Trish Flores from National Parks sees it too: ‘An asylum seeker boat. Probably from the Sri Lankans in 2012.’
Trish tells me that there have been three asylum seeker boats on North Keeling in her time, including the group of Sri Lankans who lived here for ten days before their campfire alerted a local fisherman. There are now barrels of water and emergency rations placed throughout North Keeling, something the Germans would have been grateful for on that awful night before the Australians rescued them.
We begin the trek back to where our boat is waiting. Exhaustion aside, the mood is subdued – the significance of this place has settled on the group. We pass scraps of the Emden still lying on the shore – North Keeling is still so remote that much of what remains is left to sink into the sand with the thongs and fishing nets washed up from Indonesia.
THE GROUP SWIMS back to the boat as the suns sets across the island. Barry Haase and Henning Bess lay wreaths for the fallen soldiers in the soupy swell. Barry echoes the ‘lest we forget’ call, not only for the men lost in the battle but for role of the Cocos Islanders, and the war that arrived on their doorstep one sunny morning a hundred years ago. The boat is silent, and I watch Craig taking this all in. It reminds me of the entry in his grandfather’s diary of the funeral at sea after the battle: ‘This ceremony will live always in my memory, the faint whirr of the propellers, in darkness and calm of the mighty deep, and the lantern which just lit up the captain’s face and the prayer book he was holding.
The Cocos Islanders were largely a forgotten element in this conflict. The Australian sailors were celebrating their first victory and the Germans were packed off to prison camps, though the role of these quirky island people was not recognised fully, until now.
The Cocos Islanders have allowed the two sides to reconcile and establish the only German war memorial on Australian soil. The humanity and respect present on both sides has lingered. In these times of disconnected warfare and remote conflict, it is significant that the positive connection between two opposing sides what remains from the event. Gallipoli and the Western Front might hold more significance because of the lives lost in the context of Australia’s World War I involvement, but the ‘first victory’ and the Battle of the Cocos, which took place on Australia’s strange frontier on the 9 November 1914, should be remembered prominently alongside them.
All historic images and audio courtesy of Sydney Emden 100.
All photographs by Ben Stubbs and Craig Fotheringham.