THE BLOG

Outside Europe - Memorialising the Great War in the Colonies

14/03/2014 08:55 GMT | Updated 13/05/2014 10:59 BST

It won't be very long now until we commemorate the anniversary of that fateful June day, a hundred years ago, when an heir to a throne was wasted and a man fired two rounds. The first shot slaying the former, thus paving way for that war which was meant to end all wars. What followed was a series of posturing of the highest order; Russia came to the defence of Serbia who by then had Austria knocking at their doors, Germany mobilising carte blanche offering full support to Austria in the face of a Russian backed Serbia, a plan for swift capture of France that just wasn't Schlieffen enough, and finally a violated neutrality of a neighbour named Belgium by Germany which in turn inevitably forced Britain to get her feet wet across the channel.

The First World War is not normally remembered for its epic battles outside the tranches of Europe, as there was nothing Ypres-like about, say, 'Edwardian' Southeast Asia. We just don't associate it to be as globally engulfing as World War Two. Yet, it would a mistake to think that there were geographical limits to the range in which this first (only if one discounts the Seven Years War) recognisable 'world war' was fought.

Penang is a small island situated off the northern coast of the Malayan Peninsula, present day Malaysia. In 1914, it formed part of the Straits Settlements (mainly consisting of Penang, Malacca, and Singapore) and was administered as a Crown Colony by His Majesty's government. Within five months of Gavrillo Princip's gunshot, the Great War finally arrived to the Straits of Malacca. At about five o'clock in the morning on the 28th October 1914, a German Dresden-class cruiser, the SMS Emden, made its carefully calculated approach into the port of Penang and sank a Russian cruiser; the Zhemchung, and a French destroyer; the Mousquet. A report from The Manchester Guardian describes the Emden as being "cleverly disguised" through the "rigging up a fourth funnel" allowing it to be mistaken as an Allied vessel. The Times, two days after the event, ran a similar report to that of The Guardian of an "audacious dash into Penang" by a captain taking inspiration from Kipling using a disguised ship with a "dummy smoke-stack". The attack of the SMS Emden killed eighty-five crew members while wounding 112 men on the Zhemchung, and an unknown number on the Mosquet.

Although the casualties of this particular battle is miniscule compared to those battles much closer to Europe, but the point still remains; that the war itself knew no natural borders. That these reports were only seen by the reading public two days later is a reflection of the time. And despite the limited global reach of news reporting in 1914, out in the colonies, the war was nothing but foreign. The Battle of Penang has of course today been relegated to the back pages of what we remember about World War I, and that in the grander scheme of things, it appears to be a rather insignificant event contributing very little to the overall war efforts on both side. However, placed in the context of memorialising it a hundred years later, there is more to it than it just a being small exchange of fire.

It shouldn't be lost on us that, as one estimate showed, India contributed approximately 1.5 million men during the war, while other dominions such as Canada, South Africa, Australia and Newfoundland contributed another 1.3 million men. Similarly, the French, as the war progressed went on to add nearly 500,000 colonial troops from their possessions in Africa and Indochina to their existing pre-war 90,000 figure. On paper, this breakdown leaps off the page only as numbers, but in life, they were individuals who led meaningful existences.

Perhaps in the coming days, as the countdown continues and the commemorations extended, it would be interesting if the public is supplied with more stories of the Great War from outside its popular theatres. E.H Carr once described history as consisting of a corpus of ascertained facts. These facts are available to the historian in documents, inscriptions and so on, like fish on the fish monger's slab. The historian therefore collects then, takes them home, and cooks and serves them in whatever style appeals to him. Perhaps our meal, this year, would taste that much nicer with a dish that is more than just Europe.

It's no secret in this day and age that the coverage of the World War I is easily accessible by anyone from around the world. In the same way the sun previously never sets in her empire, it matters not nowadays which part of the commonwealth one is from and what time of the day it is when one accesses the news. Fortunately or otherwise, we still turn to Fleet Street to supply us with the memories we need to help mark the hundred year anniversary of the breakout of the war. In the spirit of memorialising the war, it would be appropriate to underscore that the war was experienced even by those geographically quite removed from it, combatants and non-combatants alike. The lack of attention paid to this outside angle of the Great War should be lifted and reiterated as an equally important aspect of the war, and should not be ignored by those intending to commemorate it. After all, what was once shared should again be so.

2014-03-13-IMG20140305WA0006.jpg