John Robertson has undertaken a formidable piece of research in following through British, French and Russian archival sources the background and history of the Battle of Penang on 28 October 1914. On this day the German battleship SMS Emden made its way into Penang Harbour and sank the Russian cruiser Zhemtchug in a dawn raid.
Robertson's account is loosely based on the diaries and other writings of Rev. William Cross, a Scotsman and minister of Penang's Presbyterian Kirk. However, the research extends far beyond Cross's writings. He starts with an outline account of the activities of the Western powers—France, Germany and Britain—together with Russia, China and Japan in the SE Asian region in the first 14 years of the last century, and moves on in the years immediately preceding the outbreak of the First World War to a more detailed consideration of the aims and objectives of the different parties. Here he draws on a wide range of sources, both published and unpublished, to sketch the personalities and backgrounds of those who were to be most intimately involved in the Penang battle.
Once war was declared between Britain and Germany the kaleidoscope of power relations changed abruptly. Britain was at pains to keep open naval communications with Australia and NewZealand, countries which were to provide so much cannon fodder for ill-advised British military escapades in Europe.
In this exercise Britain was assisted by a number of the European and other powers, notably the French and the Russians, who willingly put naval vessels at the disposal of the Far East Command, headed by Vice Admiral Martyn Jerram, an amiable if not outstanding individual.
The leading individual on the German side was Commander Karl von Müller of the Emden. He became an important player in the early weeks of the First World War by decimating British shipping in the Bay of Bengal, and eventually taking advantage of the gross laxness of the British harbour authorities in Penang to destroy the Zhemtchug, and later the French Mousquet.
Robertson well records not only the muddled communications between the Allied parties in the Far East Command. He also explains in some detail what amounted to a serious dereliction of duty by the Penang Harbour authorities in failing even to switch off harbour navigation lights at night.
Von Müller is portrayed as a personally charming, reserved, yet extremely daring commander, who went to great lengths to ensure that prisoners captured during his stirring exploits were well treated. As against that, he carries responsibility for massive loss of life on the Zhemtchug. [End Page 121]
Robertson has also researched in some detail the personal lives and subsequent fates of the leading characters. For instance, at the time of the attack, Cherkasov, Commander of the Zhemtchug, was spending the night onshore at the E&O Hotel with his wife, who regularly followed him round the world. Subsequently, Cherkasov was court-martialled, and stripped of his rank, serving as a common seaman in the Caucasus. His bravery earned him reinstatement to the rank of officer. Von Müller, by contrast, was received home as a hero.
With personal details such as these, and personal photographs of many of the leading participants, Robertson brings to light a brief, daring and vivid episode of the First World War in Penang.