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Introduction

Commander William Warren, DSO, RAN) wearing his uniform and a white peaked cap. A seascape of waves breaking over a group of Commander William Warren, DSO, RAN) wearing his uniform and a white peaked cap.

Australians in World War I: Royal Australian Navy

This publication contains a brief history of the Royal Australian Navy RAN) in the First World War. It is accompanied by more than 100 images showing the personnel and vessels of the RAN as they served on operations around the world. 


Introduction

Later we turned again and engaged her on the other broadside. By now her three funnels and her foremast had been shot away and she was on fire aft. We turned again and after giving her a salvo or two with the starb(oard) guns, saw her run ashore on North Keeling Island. So at 11.20 am we ceased firing, the action having lasted 1 hour 40 min.

Lying grounded and aflame on the shore of a remote Indian Ocean island the doomed German raider Emden was still hours from being surrendered by her captain, Karl von Muller. Her foe, HMAS Sydney, steamed away in pursuit of the German collier Buresk, but rather than face the Australian cruiser, Buresk’s crew scuttled their vessel. When he returned to the stricken Emden, Sydney’s captain, John Glossop, found her ensign still flying and her surviving crew refusing to surrender. Five more minutes of reluctantly ordered fire finished the German ship. She showed the white flag and the ensign came down. Glossop later recalled that he felt like a ‘murderer’ for those five minutes of fire.

World War I was only four months old, but already Emden had sunk or captured twenty-five ships, bombarded Madras’s oil tanks, caused commodity prices and maritime insurance rates to rise, disrupted shipping movements and tied down more than a dozen Allied warships. On the night of her last voyage, Emden had passed just 60 kilometres from the convoy carrying the first Australian and New Zealand troops to the warring continent of Europe. Her signals, as well as those from Direction Island, had alerted the convoy to her presence, and Sydney, being the closest warship, steamed off to engage the hitherto elusive enemy. The victory was acclaimed in Australia and beyond—the much-feared Emden would menace no more Allied ships—and the first convoy sailed on.

For Australia the loss of four sailors in the battle was a small taste of the carnage that lay ahead. Distance prevented Australian troops from reaching the front until months after the outbreak of hostilities, but for the fledgling Royal Australian Navy (RAN) the war began much sooner. Vice Admiral Maximillian Graf von Spee’s German East Asiatic Cruiser Squadron posed a more immediate threat to Australia than did his countrymen on the distant Western Front, and the search for his ships had began before war was declared.

The hunt for enemy ships to Australia’s north could hardly have been further from Europe, nor could it have been carried out by a younger service—the RAN was a mere four years old when the war began; her origins could be traced to the very recent past.

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Commander William Warren, DSO, RAN) wearing his uniform and a white peaked cap. A seascape of waves breaking over a group of Commander William Warren, DSO, RAN) wearing his uniform and a white peaked cap.

Australians in World War I: Royal Australian Navy

This publication contains a brief history of the Royal Australian Navy RAN) in the First World War. It is accompanied by more than 100 images showing the personnel and vessels of the RAN as they served on operations around the world. 

Australians in World War I: Royal Australian Navy Education Activities