SMS Emden and the Singapore Mutiny

Posted by Maddy Labels:

Some months ago, I had written about Champaka raman Pillai and a few years ago about the Emden’s exploits around Madras. Many a rumor still exists about Champaka Raman Pillai being aboard, conducting the attack at Madras, of his leaving ship and visiting relatives in Kerala etc, as the local Iyer populace were rumored (I assume this was done in jest or started by the Iyengar’s) to have started taking German courses. Though at least one site confirms his presence on the ship, the German accounts do not mention him at all.

The Hindu also makes a mention. Fanciful legends abound of his being Mueller's second-in-command, of his directing the firing on specific targets in and around Madras Harbour, and of his rowing ashore at Cochin to greet his family and admirers! Authentic records of the voyage of the Emden do not corroborate any of this, but they do speak of his work aboard the cruiser and his post-War attempts to gather in Germany an anti-British group of Indians, a forerunner to the Indian National Army.

The SMS Emden was an Imperial German Navy ship, based in China that had been ordered to attack allied interests in the Indian Ocean at the outbreak of World War 1. The ships sailors were later involved with an Indian mutiny against the British in Singapore and then escaped to reach Istanbul, after skirmishes with Lawrence of Arabia and his rag tag army in the desert sands. As you can imagine, with all these, the fame and notoriety of the Emden, its chivalrous captain Von Muller and its sailors has been unsurpassed in sailing history. There are so many books around about the ships exploits, its officers and I certainly believe that each one would make interesting reading.

But this article focuses on Emden’s role in the Singapore Indian Sepoy mutiny of 1915. So let’s now go to the First World War days, when the Emden was a much feared vessel, playing truant with the fake fourth mast and roaming the Arabian and Indian Ocean, destroying allied shipping and striking a chill in the hearts of the expatriate and local people of the East. The Emden had just shelled Madras and the people of Singapore was fearful of being next, being a British base. The food stocks were starting to run out and people were soon seen hoarding food.

Anyway it was all to reach an anticlimactic end. The SMS Emden met its fate at the Cocos Islands and was destroyed. The Sydney had located it off Australia and when lookouts on Emden spotted the Sydney approaching, Captain von Müller had no choice but to raise anchor, leave his landing party on Direction Island, and engage the Australian cruiser. Sydney was larger and faster than Emden and outranged her, but still the fight went on for nearly an hour and a half. Early on, Emden managed to knock out a gun on Sydney and destroy the Australian ship's rangefinder. However, Emden herself suffered serious damage, being struck over 100 times by shells from Sydney. Her firing dwindled and Captain von Müller beached Emden on North Keeling Island at 1115 hrs to avoid sinking. After yet another salvo much later which scuttled the ship, German losses were 131 dead and 65 wounded.

Captain von Müller and the rest of his crew which included Capt Julius Lauterbach were made prisoners of war. The captured German sailors were transferred to Singapore on the 15th Dec 1914, which at that stage was only garrisoned by the 5th Indian Light Infantry Regiment and some Malay States Guides.

Indian soldiers had no objections fighting the Germans, but balked at crossing the oceans, for fear of losing caste. But that was not a real problem, for various purification ceremonies could be done to get that sorted out.Meanwhile in Singapore, the Yorkshire regiment had been moved to the fronts near France and were replaced by a disgruntled 5th Light Rifles regiment from Bengal comprising Hindu and Ranghar Muslims. The 5th Light Infantry, enlisted men who were mainly Punjabi Muslims, their morale was constantly low, being affected by poor communication, slack discipline and a weak leadership.

When Britain declared war on Turkey, the Muslims in Singapore (then a British colony) felt obliged to rebel against the British. The bigger problem was the declaration of war against the Caliph Mehmet V Enver Pasha (circulated through the newspaper Jahan I Islam via Rangoon by Abu Sayyid) in Istanbul. He had issued a number of religious fatwa’s in Nov 1914 asking his brethren to fight the British and this was being heeded to seriously by many Muslim soldiers in the British army. The Turks had also spread out a rumor that Kaiser Wilhelm had converted to Islam. A prominent Indian businessman (in some books mentioned as a Surati tea shop owner) Kassim Ismail Mansur, invited many of the sepoys to his home, and talked them into rising against the British. The Imam Nur Alam Shah also apparently addressed sepoys during prayers, telling them it was their religious duty to rise against the British. German funded Gadharites from USA living there fomented the cause further, after expulsion from the US lands. The rumors had finally started to take a strong hold on the Ranghar Muslims. They decided to rally.

It was into this situation that the prisoners from Emden arrived. They were interned in the Tanglin jail off Orchard road and as the European forces had all left, were now guarded by the 5th Light. In late 1914, the sepoys heard they were to ship off to a secret location for new action. However, they also heard rumors that they might actually be sent into action against Turkish Muslim troops (In reality it was Hong Kong!!)in southern Europe or Palestine. In addition, they were informed by the Emden prisoners that Germany was winning the war and that they should speed things up. The man behind this mission was apparently Capt Laughterbach, the portly cigar smoking beer drinking loud mouthed leader of the Emden crew.

The Ranghar Muslims and the Gadhari elements in the regiment were appalled, and planned a revolt on the 17th of Feb 1915. However the Emden crew suggested haste and so on Feb 15th, 2 days ahead of schedule, the Indians, some thousand sepoys in all revolted. It was Chinese New Year day, the Chinese volunteer coprs were on leave and noisy festivities were going on. Brig Dudley Hideout commanding the British forces was down with malaria in the Alexander barracks, and the mutineers ran wild. The mutineers split into two groups and went around town, killing and destroying what they saw for two whole days, terrorizing the place. As mutineers went on a killing spree at Keppel Harbour and Pasir Panjang killing many men and women including a judge, white women and children were rowed out to boats as protection. It was getting dark by this time and the authorities finally were getting organized. Marines and crew from HMS Cadmus came ashore and were mobilized with other garrison troops who had not mutinied. A radio message was sent to India and any allied warship for help. The mutiny continued for some 10 days. On 17th February, the French cruiser Montcalm, followed by the Russian cruiser Aural, and Japanese warships Ottawa and Tsushima arrived at Singapore with help. The mutiny was eventually suppressed by loyal police and sailors from ships in port. It is also clear that women were not molested. Interestingly, a person who stated he was not English but Irish, was spared by the rioters.

Record books mention thus - At around 1500hrs on 15 Feb 1915 (Chinese New Year of 1915), shots were heard from Alexandra Barracks occupied by the 5th Light Infantry, a British-officered, Regular battalion of the Indian Army. The shots signaled the start of a mutiny of about 400 – 500 men, about half its strength. The mutineers then spread out to various parts of Singapore. Some of them went to Tanglin Barracks, after eliminating the guards, and asked German civilians and sailors from the raider SMS Emden (1) interned there to join them. Fearing retaliation, the Germans declined although some Emden sailors took advantage of the chaos to escape. The mutineers tried to persuade the Germans to join them but only 17 plus 3 Dutchmen joined them. Meanwhile other mutineers went on a rampage in Pasir Panjang and Chinatown attacking any Englishmen they came across. In all about 47 people, including those caught in the crossfire, were killed.
A hundred or so were killed totally; Singapore in the meantime received support from some 500 plus Japanese, Russian and French troops plus those from the Sultan of Johore. Dyak trackers from Borneo hunted out those who fled into the jungles. Outram road prison was first the location of the executions of the court-martialed sepoys, and later in public which some 6000 Europeans and sometimes a total of 15000 locals plus Europeans witnessed. 202 were court-martialed and one acquitted. By May 16th, 48 were executed, 64 sent to Andaman’s for life. The 5th was disbanded in 1922. All news of the mutiny was suppressed or censored. The news that reached the public in USA for example read as follows

Feb 20th – Hindus kill 11 English.

Feb 24th – 500 Bengalese whipped the rest of the regiment and then raided town, joined by freed Germans – trouble started over promotions.

April 13th – 1000 Hindu soldiers shot at Singapore, Japanese rounded them up. German silver coins found on bodies of mutineers, Seven Germans executed.

May 2nd – Vivid story of the Singapore mutiny – a complete account

June 24th – Emden officer escapes to Manila – Flees Singapore during mutiny and after four months wandering reaches Manila.

After a number of courts-martial and Commissions of Inquiry, it was discovered that the mutineers had been influenced by rumors spread by external agents who wanted to overthrow the authorities. The situation was exacerbated by infighting among the Regiment's British officers. The two local instigators were reportedly Jagat Singh and Kasim Ismail Mansoor. The latter had correspondence through his son in Rangoon with the Sultan of Turkey and his counsel Ahmad Mullah Daud in Rangoon. The leaders of the revolt were Chisti Khan, Abdul Ghani and Daud Khan. Reading the British parliamentary papers suggest that it was a well thought out plan between the Ghadar personnel in Rangoon and the Young Turks of Turkey in Rangoon. Into this strayed the Emden crew, fresh from defeat, and goaded the sepoys to quicker action, which resulted in a mutiny ill thought out and badly conceived.

Capt Julius Lauterbach – described as a fat, jovial ex-merchant English speaking navy skipper and old China hand, knew Singapore well and had been accorded almost a hero's welcome by his British even in captivity. Fictional accounts from the book (recounted from a telegraph article) Rogue raider state that Lauterbach, in jovial fashion, played a jolly joke on the credulous Indian Muslims: he told them that the German Kaiser had converted to Islam, and that his son had converted to Islam, and that Germany was to become a Muslim land.The Indian Muslims mutinied. The British briefly lost control of Singapore. The Governor took out the whole of the front page of the local newspaper, The Straits Times, in order to instruct the European population not to panic, but he omitted to mention what it was they were supposed to not be panicking about, and the Europeans duly panicked.

Lauterbach is the hero of a historical novel named ‘Rogue raider’. In its promotional blurb is stated the following - A seasoned sailor, the “Flashmanesque” Lauterbach was familiar with Asia, spoke many local languages and had more than one lady in every port of call. He was made prize officer on the Emden, in charge of loot, and never was a person so perfectly suited to his job. When the Emden was finally stopped by the Australian HMAS Sydney, Lauterbach found himself a German prisoner of war in the old Tanglin barracks of Singapore. Through his bored fantasies however, he unwittingly triggered a mutiny by Muslim troops of the British garrison, used the diversion to make his escape from Singapore and threw the whole course of the war in doubt. During the Sepoy Mutiny, the British lost control of Singapore, its European inhabitants fl ed to the ships in the harbour and it was only with the help of Japanese marines that the British Empire was saved. Rogue Raider is split into three parts: the first follows Lauterbach’s adventures aboard the Emden, the second his incarceration in Singapore and his triggering of the Singapore Mutiny, while the third part follows his flight from the British through Asia to America and back to Germany.

Lauterbach however responded as follows about his role in the mutiny, in a book.

My crew and I were taken as prisoners to Singapore. The natives of this island city were very friendly toward us. I had soon gained their confidence sufficiently to know that an attempt to escape would not miscarry. But I wanted to make preparations to take my crew with me when I fled. We then began to dig a tunnel under the wire fence that surrounded our prison-camp. We had scarcely completed our work when the famous revolution among the natives in Singapore broke out. The English blamed me for inciting the blacks against them. I herewith declare that this blame is founded on untruths. When the revolution had been settled, we completed our tunnel, and, during the following night, nine of us gained our freedom. We marched the entire night along the northwest coast. As we had $2000 among us, we were soon able to get hold of two Malayan rowboats which took us across the Straits to the Dutch Island. Here we found some more seafaring Malayans who were glad to take us for a cruise of several days further along the east coast of Sumatra.

Tail note – Dr Gajendra Singh disputes the records provided for public consumption in his history thesis paper “The anatomy of dissent in the military of colonial India during the first and second world wars”. He states - In the single case of a mutiny being successful at Singapore in February 1915, during which the mutineers succeeded in taking control of the entire colony for ‘four whole hours’, there was an active refusal by sipahis to adhere to the programmes devised by Ghadrite and pan-Islamist agents. This is despite the conclusions reached by the Governor of Singapore, who stated that the scale of the mutiny was directly due to the total indoctrination of Indian soldiers by Muslim ‘medicants’ and Ghadrite ‘extremists’ ‘preaching an extreme doctrine of religious hate’. For in cases in which there was an established link between Ghadrite agents and Indian soldiers in Malaya, such as with the Sikhs of the Malay States Guides, the majority of the sipahis refused to join the mutiny after being assured that they would not be forced into overseas service against their will.

Moreover, among the Muslim Ranghars of the 5 Light Infantry who did seize their arms and erect barricades on the streets, only a handful entertained the proposal of some civilians that the city should be held for the forces of the Turkish Sultan, for most of the soldiers justified their actions because they were overworked and underpaid and not because of loyalty to the Khalifa; for their logic was - Why should we fight for England and be killed in Europe when we are paid half a coolie’s wage and our wives and children are left to starve on two or three rupees a month?


The last gentlemen of War – RK Lochner
The voyage of the Emden – Von Muecke
Armies of the Raj: From the Mutiny to Independence, 1858-1947 - By Byron Farwell
Essays on Indian freedom movement By Raj Kumar
Colonial armies in Southeast Asia - By Karl Hack, Tobias Rettig
Parliamentary papers, Volume 8 - Great Britain House of Commons
NY times reports on the mutiny referred and linked above
Proceedings of the United States Naval Institute (1917) Vol 43

Unfortunately I have not been able to read a major work on the topic - Secret documents on Singapore mutiny, 1915 - By Tilak Raj Sareen

Pics - From the web - Thanks and acknowledgement to the uploaders.