Thursday 16 November 2023

The Siege of Tsingtau: The German-Japanese War 1914 by Charles Stephenson.

World War I in the Far East was a sideshow in the grand scheme of things, but it had long-reaching implications, setting up further conflict in the region. Nevertheless, the main action, the Battle of Tsingtau, was full of drama, bravery, and suffering, which is covered in the book – The Siege of Tsingtau: The German-Japanese War 1914 by Charles Stephenson.

Tsingtau, more commonly known as Tsingtao or Qingdao, is a city on China’s Yellow Sea coast and as such, was coveted by imperial powers. Following the murder of two German priests, Germany took advantage and forced China to lease Tsingtau to them, turning it into a massive naval base. Kaiser Wilhelm II had grand dreams of a naval empire to rival Britain and Tsingtau was seen as a mere stepping stone, one where German ships could refuel as they traveled across the Pacific to the many other German possessions in New Guinea and the Marshall Islands.

However, German ambitions ran up against the plans of the Japanese Empire, which also wanted to expand its influence in China. After concluding the Anglo-Japanese Alliance in 1902, Britain pressured Japan to enter the war in August 1914 in order to clear out German colonies in Asia. The Japanese government saw this as a golden opportunity and sent an ultimatum for Germany to abandon its colonies, which she ignored. As such, Japan entered the war on the Entente’s side.

The Japanese Navy easily seized the islands in the Pacific, often without a fight, but Tsingtau was the main prize, and as such, it was heavily fortified. The book gives a detailed account of the German defenses and the Japanese Army’s invasion of the Shantung Peninsula, under the command of General Mitsuomi Kamio, while the Japanese Navy blockaded the harbor.

The battle actually saw heavy cooperation between the Japanese Army and Navy, ironic since interservice rivalry would plague Japan during the Second World War. After the Japanese Army took Prince Heinrich Hill in September 1914, an important vantage point, they settled in for a long siege, since Tsingtau was heavily guarded by three large German forts.

The battle was also notable for its use of aircraft in warfare, possibly the first in history. The German pilot Lieutenant Gunther Pl├╝schow achieved fame by flying his Etrich Taube plane over Japanese lines for reconnaissance. The Japanese also had aircraft and, allegedly, the first aerial combat happened over Tsingtau with pistol potshots, although the book casts doubt on this.

Kaiser Wilhelm ordered the German Naval garrison to hold out as long as possible, saying, “It would shame me more to surrender Tsingtau to the Japanese, than Berlin to the Russians.” It should be noted that Kaiser Wilhelm was virulently anti-Japanese and is the man who originated the term “the Yellow Peril.”

However, the fall of Tsingtau was never in doubt for either the Japanese or the Germans, but it was a brutal siege. The Germans shelled the Japanese trenches daily, but when the Japanese Army brought its heavy artillery up in late October, the end was near. When the Germans ran out of shells on November 6th, the Japanese made their final charge, breaking through their third line of defense. The next day, the German garrison surrendered the fort. Japanese staff officers had learned lessons from the brutal siege of Port Arthur and roughly followed the same strategy, albeit with far fewer casualties. The entire Japanese conduct of the war was conducted efficiently, earning the praise of many Western observers and even the Germans themselves.

While the battle itself made no real impact on the war at large, its effects were long-lasting. The Versailles Treaty granted the Shantung province to Japan, enraging the Chinese and leading to the May 4th Movement, often called the birth of modern Chinese nationalism. Emboldened by their success, the Japanese presented the infamous 21 Demands on China in 1915, leading to a backlash by Western powers, especially from America. These demands were later toned down. Most importantly, the Japanese were granted the German possessions in the Pacific Ocean, which they later began fortifying. During World War II, American troops fought bloody battles with Japanese forces on these islands that were surrendered without a fight in 1914.

The Siege of Tsingtau: The German-Japanese War 1914 is not a book for a casual reader. Rather, it’s a book for people interested in military history and those already familiar with the First World War. However, it fills an important gap in the war, which should be appreciated by every student of history.