along the China
By the turn of the 20th Century the coastline
and navigable rivers of China
were dotted with small territories occupied by western nations who had acquired
concessional rights to be there through treaties entered into with the
Chinese. The Europeans wanted to trade
openly anywhere in China
but the Chinese authorities, whilst happy to export items such as silk,
porcelain and rhubarb, wanted the trade to be controlled through a limited
number of ports. The Europeans developed
small temporary expatriate colonies in the areas that they controlled by
treaty, and whilst trade was the real motivator, military strategy figured
prominently in the decisions made, especially the requirements for European
naval bases in the Far East.
In 1914 on the Shantung
Peninsula south-east of Peking there were two major foreign bases used as
important naval stations. Britain leased Wei-hai-wei at the end of the
peninsula and Germany leased
Tsingtao that overlooked Kiaochow
Bay. Both leased territories were surrounded on
the landward sides by agreed respective spheres of influence. The Germans did not have any supporting
military forces anywhere else in the area but the British had a garrison of two
infantry battalions not far away in Tientsin, near Peking. In 1914 these battalions were the 2nd
Battalion The South Wales Borderers and the 36th Sikhs; both units
supplied guards for local security duties and for the British Legation in Peking. The
British commander in North China was Brigadier
General Nathanial W. Barnardiston MVO.
Across the Yellow Sea to the east of the Shantung Peninsula
lay Japanese-occupied Korea,
and south of that peninsula lay Japan
itself, who harboured imperial designs on Chinese territory. Japan
had proved to be a very respectable military power by beating Russia on land and sea in Asia
during the 1904 Russo-Japanese War. An
Anglo-Russian treaty of alliance had been signed in London in 1902, the treaty having being
expanded in 1905 and 1911. In 1914
German plans for war do not seem to have included the possibility that Japan might
wish to attack German territory.
The outbreak of
After the declaration of war in August 1914 German
civilians working in China
moved to Tsingtao to join the garrison as
reservists. Eventually the senior German
officer in Tsingtao, naval Kapitan Alfred
Meyer-Waldeck, had around 5,000 soldiers and sailors and one aviator under his
command. The largest unit was the 3rd
See Bataillon of naval infantry that
had on its strength 26 officers and 1,161 other ranks. The airman was the recently-qualified pilot
Gunther Pluschow who had one Rumpler military aircraft known as a Taube (dove).
main concern was the presence of the powerful German naval Far East Squadron of
five modern warships that frequented Kiaochow
Bay; this squadron,
commanded by Admiral Graf von Spee, was a potent threat to the Royal Navy. In the event von Spee and his squadron were
in the Pacific Ocean when war was declared, and the German and Austrian
warships that remained in Kiaochow
Bay were fairly ancient
and slow. After the declaration of war
Meyer-Waldeck had few real concerns about the defence of Tsingtao as besides
the firepower of his naval vessels Germany had constructed a complex
of concrete defences to protect the hilly landward approach to the port; all
these fortifications mounted naval guns or machine guns. It was not thought likely that the British
would initially bother to concentrate sufficient forces to be in a position to
successfully besiege Tsingtao.
Right: Tsingtao commercial harbour in 1910
However, although Japan
was not yet involved in the war, Britain asked her to help in
eliminating German naval activity in the region. The Japanese response was to the point but
perhaps not what Britain had
expected, as the Japanese solution offered was to attack and seize Tsingtao. Then
events slipped rapidly away from British control as, after ascertaining that
the United States of America would not object, Japan declared war on Germany on
23rd August, and on Austro-Hungaria 48 hours later; Japanese
mobilization plans had been activated one week earlier. Tsingtao became an important Japanese
military and political objective as the seizure of the German enclave would
the base she needed to extend her influence on the Chinese mainland. The Japanese prepared to attack Tsingtao and agreed to the presence of a British military
expedition consisting of the 2nd Battalion The South Wales Borderers
and a wing (half-battalion) of the 36th Sikhs; some medical and Army
Service Corps support personnel accompanied the British infantry but no
artillery or engineer units were involved.
Brigadier General Barnardiston was the British commander and he was
accompanied by a few staff officers.
The siege of Tsingtao
After diplomatic wrangling over China’s
neutrality that was solved by Chinese compliance, the Japanese began landing
troops on Chinese territory at Lung Kow, about 160 kilometres north of Tsingtao. The
Japanese commander was Lieutenant General Mitsuomi Kamio, and his force would
eventually total around 57,000 men. The
Royal Navy contributed three fighting ships to join the Japanese total of 34
fighting ships and seven Gunboats; the Germans in Tsingtao
had four fighting ships and six Gunboats.
Fierce storms delayed Kamio’s operations but by 18th
September he was also landing men on the south of the Shantung
Peninsula in Lao Shan Bay, in the German sphere of
influence. On the previous day troops
from the Lung Kow landings had cut the railway line out of Tsingtao,
isolating the port. The Germans did not
oppose the Lao Shan Bay
landings, preferring to keep their troops in their own defence lines.
Above: Japanese artillery at Tsingtao.
Barnardiston and all of his small force except the 36th
Sikhs started landing at Lao
on 23rd September. The
Japanese were methodically advancing to a carefully prepared plan and were
moving their siege artillery into positions from where they could engage the
German forts in the inner defence lines; the German outer defence line was
captured before the British expedition came into action. Kamio wanted to keep an eye on the British
force to ensure that it complied with his plans and so Barnardiston’s men were
allocated a sector on the centre-right of the Japanese assault line. After a fortnight spent in moving forward and
siting the British field ambulance and the supply depots, on 10th
October the South Wales Borderers occupied 550 metres of front-line
trenches. Meanwhile Regimental
Headquarters and half of the 36th Sikhs were still in Tientsin awaiting orders to move.
The arrival of
the 36th Sikhs
At last Lieutenant Colonel Edward Langford Sullivan,
commanding the 36th Sikhs, was ordered to embark his 450 Sepoys on S.S. Kwanping on 19th
October. The Sikhs disembarked at Lao Shan
Bay on 21st October
but were delayed there for over 24 hours by orders to unload and stack freight
from the Kwanping. This delay was unfortunate because a typhoon
burst over the Shantung
Peninsula that night,
flooding the area and making movement on the muddy tracks very difficult. But on the 26th October the Sikhs
had arrived at Litsun where immediately one double-company moved into the
trenches to relieve a South Wales Borderers’ double company, whilst the other
double-company and the machine gun section went into reserve two kilometres to
the rear. Four days later the reserves
were pushed forward another 800 metres but this put them next to a Japanese
artillery battery. Gunther Pluschow in
his Taube aircraft soon spotted the battery and the area was subjected to sporadic
but effective German artillery fire.
Meanwhile the British soldiers and sepoys were suffering
in their thin cotton summer uniforms, as rain kept pounding down and cold winds
kept blowing. The ground that the men
occupied was intersected by small ravines which soon became watercourses; the
sides of the ravines often collapsed burying equipment, ammunition and weapons
under layers of thick mud. Apart from
using artillery and occasional machine gun fire the German troops stayed on the
defensive, only once moving forward to counter-attack.
The Japanese siege gunners were ready on 31st
October and a heavy bombardment of the first enemy inner defensive line began
that night. Meanwhile at sea the
Japanese and British ships added to the bombardment with their firepower, or
else engaged targets of opportunity that were observed. The allied naval gunners hit the Tsingtao dockyards and fuel storage tanks, causing thick
smoke to arise over the port. After
expending their ammunition the Germans in the first inner defensive line
covertly withdrew, allowing the Japanese infantry to seize the empty positions
without a fight.
The allied line moved forward but the German artillery
fire became more accurate, and on 4th November the Sikhs lost two
Sepoys killed and two officers wounded.
One of the Sikhs killed had his head blown off by a shell that hit his
two-man bivouac, but his companion in the bivouac was unscathed. During the following night as working parties
prepared an attack start-line along a river bank the German gunners again
engaged them, killing eight and wounding 24 of the South Wales Borderers and
wounding a few Sikhs. Five Welsh
soldiers received Distinguished Conduct Medals for gallantry displayed on this
night as frantic efforts were made in the darkness to return enemy fire and to
retrieve wounded men.
The final assault on the second and last German inner
defensive line was planned for the 7th November and during the
preceding night British officers’ patrols ascertained that the German redoubts facing
them were manned effectively, as the German defenders fired at the
patrols. However the Japanese had their
own agenda and elsewhere along the attack line they were making substantial
gains that did not involve the British.
Suddenly during the morning of 7th November white flags were
displayed by the Germans on Diederich’s Hill signalling station and the other
defensive posts that the Japanese had not yet taken. Kapitan Alfred Meyer-Waldeck had surrendered Tsingtao.
Above: 36th Sikhs at Tsingtao
was quickly occupied by the Japanese and all surviving German combatants were
incarcerated as prisoners of war. This
had been an impressive Japanese victory.
Many observers and commentators expressed the opinion that the Germans
had given-in too readily. One German
excuse was that ammunition stocks had been expended, but subsequent Allied
inspection teams found that this was not the case. Certainly the lack of aggressive action by
the Germans as the Allied attackers advanced showed that the defence lacked
fighting spirit. The Germans knew the
ground and could have successfully ambushed Allied sub-units even though they
could not have halted the advance.
Perhaps Alfred Meyer-Waldeck knew in his heart that his was a hopeless
task, and so after withstanding several weeks of siege he limited the loss of
German life for the future good of his nation.
Just before the surrender Meyer-Waldeck had ordered Gunther Pluschow to
fly away into China with
despatches for Berlin.
The Japanese had lost 236 men killed
and 1,282 wounded; the British, 12 killed and 53 wounded. The German defenders
suffered 199 dead and 504 wounded whilst over 90 German prisoners of war
subsequently died in captivity in Japan, where their treatment was
humane. The two dead men of the 36th
Sikhs were Sepoy No. 2806 Udham Singh and Lance Naik No. 2819 Bishn Singh; both
are commemorated on the Sai Wan (China)
Memorial in Hong Kong.
Left: A German forward position during the Siege
Awards to the 36th Sikhs
Lieutenant Colonel E.L. Sullivan was appointed to be a
Companion of the Order of Saint Michael and Saint George (CMG). The following officers and men were mentioned in Brigadier
General Barnardiston’s despatches, and this list shows some of the senior
regimental personalities who participated in the Tsingtao Expedition:
Lieutenant-Colonel E. L. Sullivan. Major E. F. Knox. Captain A. D. Martin. Captain J. Gray (Staff officer). Lieutenant and Adjutant S. des
Gurmukh Singh, I.O.M. Jemadar
Sundar Singh. Jemadar
Jaimal Singh. No. 1707
Havildar Massa Singh. No. 2711 Lance-Naik Bhagat Singh. No. 2757 Lance-Naik Harman Singh. No. 2829 Lance-Naik Hari Singh. No. 3126 Sepoy Fakir Singh. No. 3785 Sepoy Ram Singh. No. 3782 Sepoy Bant Singh.
Observers were unanimous in the opinion that all ranks of
the 36th Sikhs got on very well with the Japanese, who respected
both the Sikhs’ military professionalism and their positive attitude towards
hard work in extremely unpleasant conditions.
Sadly this familiarity and mutual respect was not a feature of the
relationship between the South Wales Borderers and the Japanese.
Above: The Iron Cross 2nd Class award document to Oskar Rösch, awarded after his return from captivity
The British had made a late entry into the Tsingtao campaign, and they were so under-resourced on
the ground that they could not have operated without generous Japanese
logistical support; the British presence had been a token one in a successfully
planned and directed Japanese campaign.
The Japanese remained in Tsingtao
until December 1922 when, after strong international
pressure, the territory reverted to Chinese control – but the Japanese were
back in occupation again in 1938! The
South Wales Borderers sailed away to fight the Turks at Gallipoli. The 36th Sikhs returned to
garrison Tientsin before the regiment was also sent to fight the Turks but in Mesopotamia. After
the Great War the South Wales Borderers and the 11th Sikhs, the
successor regiment to the 36th Sikhs, were both awarded the
exclusive battle honour TSINGTAO.