It was an ordinary September morning, the third day of the Hindu festival of Navratri. The residents of Madras were going about their business. Moses and Company, the tailors on Mount Road, were advertising their woollen suits and woollen underwear for Europe-bound students. Madras Corporation was debating the closure of a road. The High Court was in session. It was less than two months into the war, but the guns seemed far away. All this would change in a few hours.
On the night of 22 September 1914, the German cruise ship SMS Emden silently entered the dark waters of the Bay of Bengal.
The 3,600 tonne Emden was on a mission to sink commercial ships. There were no Allied ships guarding the port of Madras. It was almost as if the city was unaware of the war. The Emden boldly took its chance. Armed with 22 guns, the ship dropped anchor just 2,500 metres off the harbour, the starboard side facing the city.
The commandant of the ship, Karl Friedrich Max von Müller, asked his men to bathe, wear laundered uniforms and prepare for an attack. These precautions would reduce the risk of infection if there was any retaliation. The sea was calm and there was no activity on the coast. The lighthouse in the grounds of the Madras High Court was flashing as usual. The powerful beam clearly lit up three oil tankers positioned nearby. They were painted white with red stripes. It made the job easy for the gunners. The commandant had his target. At about twenty minutes past nine, he ordered his men to fire.
A volley of shots from the Emden struck the tankers of the Burma Oil Company. Within minutes, two tankers – packed with 5000 tonnes of kerosene oil – caught fire, the flames rising high into the night. The Germans let out a loud cheer. The Emden then indulged in some “fancy shooting”. Though von Müller did not want to hit civilians, he wanted to cause panic in the city. Soon several buildings had been hit: the Madras High Court, the Port Trust, the Boat House of the Madras Sailing Club and the facade of the new National Bank of India. A merchant ship on the harbour was struck, five sailors died and 13 were injured. A giant crater opened up in the ground and unexploded shells lay around. The attack lasted 30 minutes. The Emden fired 130 shells.2 By the time the field guns at Clive’s Battery fired back, the Emden was leaving. None of the nine shells hit the German ship.
It would be the only time that the War would come directly to India’s shore.
The bombing had its effect. Panic spread in the city and nearly 20,000 left every day. Crowds went out of control and the railways had to summon special police. Those who could not get the train took the road, leaving on carts and on foot. Prices of commodities shot up. The Times newspaper estimated that the Emden’s raid at the mouth of the Hooghly and down the Coromandel coast had left the province of Burma isolated for a fortnight, paralysed the trade of Calcutta, pushed up the cost of insurance on the seas and cost the country over a million pounds. There were fears that the Emden would return.
A plaque on the Eastern wall of the Madras High Court building still today marks the spot hit by an Emden shell. So powerful was the effect of the bombing of Madras, that the word “emden” entered the Tamil lexicon meaning a “person who dares and works with precision”. The residents of Madras would not forget the day that German guns attacked their city.
The Indian connection in the First World War was not something I was ever aware of when growing up in the subcontinent. To me, it was a European war, in which I took an academic interest. In any case, it was the literature of the period that appealed more to me than the tales of battles lost and won. And therein lay a link.
When Wilfred Owen, the English war poet was killed in action in France on 4 November 1918, he was found with a notebook on him, inscribed with the words: “When I go from hence, let this be my parting word, that what I have seen is unsurpassable.”
Wilfred was only twenty-five when he died at Ors, just seven days before the guns fell silent in the First World War. The lines that he carried close to him were by the Indian poet and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore from Gitanjali (Song Offerings). Wilfred’s notebook was returned to his mother, Susan Owen, who wrote to Tagore on 1 August 1920, nearly two years after her son’s death. Reaching out to the Indian poet the grieving mother said: “I have been trying to find courage to write to you ever since I heard that you were in London, but the desire to tell you something is finding its way into this letter today. The letter may never reach you, for I do not know how to address it, tho’ I feel sure your name upon the envelope will be sufficient. It is nearly two years ago, that my dear eldest son went out to the War for the last time and the day he said goodbye to me ... we were looking together across the sun-glorified sea, looking towards France, with breaking hearts ... when he, my poet son, said those wonderful words of yours, beginning at ‘When I go from hence, let this be my parting word’, and when his pocket book came back to me, I found these words written in his dear writing, with your name beneath. Would it be asking too much of you, to tell me what book I should find the whole poem in?”
That the poetry of Tagore should have inspired the young English poet and given him courage in his last moments is something that has always moved me. It was the poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon that brought out the human tragedy of the war. It was many decades later that I realised that there were Indians too fighting in those same trenches, shoulder to shoulder with their “Sahibs”, with unquestioning loyalty. The soldiers were mostly illiterate and came from remote villages in India. They did not carry the poetry of Tagore with them, but they had their own poetry and composed their own songs. Today, few in India know about them.
Yet in the heart of New Delhi stands India Gate, a memorial designed by Sir Edward Lutyens on the lines of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, and inaugurated in 1931 to commemorate the lives of the 90,000 Indian soldiers who died in World War One and the Anglo-Afghan War.
The eternal flame that burns below – Amar Jawan Jyoti – is associated today with the twentieth century conflicts of post-Independence India. The memorial to the Unknown Soldier, the jawan, has been the site for all large-scale protests and demonstrations in the capital. However, few of the present-day protesters holding candles near India Gate would know the stories of the soldiers named on the memorial, who had crossed the forbidden sea – the Kala Pani or “black waters” – for the first time in 1914 to die in foreign fields in a long-forgotten war.
Excerpted with permission from For King And Another Country, Shrabani Basu, Bloomsbury.