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The EK1

China- October to November 1914

European enclaves along the China coast

By the turn of the 20th Century the coastline and navigable rivers of China were dotted with small territories occupied by western nations who had acquired concessional rights to be there through treaties entered into with the Chinese.  The Europeans wanted to trade openly anywhere in China but the Chinese authorities, whilst happy to export items such as silk, porcelain and rhubarb, wanted the trade to be controlled through a limited number of ports.  The Europeans developed small temporary expatriate colonies in the areas that they controlled by treaty, and whilst trade was the real motivator, military strategy figured prominently in the decisions made, especially the requirements for European naval bases in the Far East.

(For detailed maps please click HERE)

In 1914 on the Shantung Peninsula south-east of Peking there were two major foreign bases used as important naval stations.  Britain leased Wei-hai-wei at the end of the peninsula and Germany leased Tsingtao that overlooked Kiaochow Bay.  Both leased territories were surrounded on the landward sides by agreed respective spheres of influence.  The Germans did not have any supporting military forces anywhere else in the area but the British had a garrison of two infantry battalions not far away in Tientsin, near Peking.  In 1914 these battalions were the 2nd Battalion The South Wales Borderers and the 36th Sikhs; both units supplied guards for local security duties and for the British Legation in Peking.  The British commander in North China was Brigadier General Nathanial W. Barnardiston MVO.

Across the Yellow Sea to the east of the Shantung Peninsula lay Japanese-occupied Korea, and south of that peninsula lay Japan itself, who harboured imperial designs on Chinese territory.  Japan had proved to be a very respectable military power by beating Russia on land and sea in Asia during the 1904 Russo-Japanese War.  An Anglo-Russian treaty of alliance had been signed in London in 1902, the treaty having being expanded in 1905 and 1911.  In 1914 German plans for war do not seem to have included the possibility that Japan might wish to attack German territory.

The outbreak of war

After the declaration of war in August 1914 German civilians working in China moved to Tsingtao to join the garrison as reservists.  Eventually the senior German officer in Tsingtao, naval Kapitan Alfred Meyer-Waldeck, had around 5,000 soldiers and sailors and one aviator under his command.  The largest unit was the 3rd See Bataillon of naval infantry that had on its strength 26 officers and 1,161 other ranks.  The airman was the recently-qualified pilot Gunther Pluschow who had one Rumpler military aircraft known as a Taube (dove).

Britain’s main concern was the presence of the powerful German naval Far East Squadron of five modern warships that frequented Kiaochow Bay; this squadron, commanded by Admiral Graf von Spee, was a potent threat to the Royal Navy.  In the event von Spee and his squadron were in the Pacific Ocean when war was declared, and the German and Austrian warships that remained in Kiaochow Bay were fairly ancient and slow.  After the declaration of war Meyer-Waldeck had few real concerns about the defence of Tsingtao as besides the firepower of his naval vessels Germany had constructed a complex of concrete defences to protect the hilly landward approach to the port; all these fortifications mounted naval guns or machine guns.  It was not thought likely that the British would initially bother to concentrate sufficient forces to be in a position to successfully besiege Tsingtao.

Right: Tsingtao commercial harbour in 1910

However, although Japan was not yet involved in the war, Britain asked her to help in eliminating German naval activity in the region.  The Japanese response was to the point but perhaps not what Britain had expected, as the Japanese solution offered was to attack and seize Tsingtao.  Then events slipped rapidly away from British control as, after ascertaining that the United States of America would not object, Japan declared war on Germany on 23rd August, and on Austro-Hungaria 48 hours later; Japanese mobilization plans had been activated one week earlier.  Tsingtao became an important Japanese military and political objective as the seizure of the German enclave would give Japan the base she needed to extend her influence on the Chinese mainland.  The Japanese prepared to attack Tsingtao and agreed to the presence of a British military expedition consisting of the 2nd Battalion The South Wales Borderers and a wing (half-battalion) of the 36th Sikhs; some medical and Army Service Corps support personnel accompanied the British infantry but no artillery or engineer units were involved.  Brigadier General Barnardiston was the British commander and he was accompanied by a few staff officers.  

The siege of Tsingtao

After diplomatic wrangling over China’s neutrality that was solved by Chinese compliance, the Japanese began landing troops on Chinese territory at Lung Kow, about 160 kilometres north of Tsingtao.  The Japanese commander was Lieutenant General Mitsuomi Kamio, and his force would eventually total around 57,000 men.  The Royal Navy contributed three fighting ships to join the Japanese total of 34 fighting ships and seven Gunboats; the Germans in Tsingtao had four fighting ships and six Gunboats.  Fierce storms delayed Kamio’s operations but by 18th September he was also landing men on the south of the Shantung Peninsula in Lao Shan Bay, in the German sphere of influence.  On the previous day troops from the Lung Kow landings had cut the railway line out of Tsingtao, isolating the port.  The Germans did not oppose the Lao Shan Bay landings, preferring to keep their troops in their own defence lines.

Above: Japanese artillery at Tsingtao.

Barnardiston and all of his small force except the 36th Sikhs started landing at Lao Shan Bay on 23rd September.  The Japanese were methodically advancing to a carefully prepared plan and were moving their siege artillery into positions from where they could engage the German forts in the inner defence lines; the German outer defence line was captured before the British expedition came into action.  Kamio wanted to keep an eye on the British force to ensure that it complied with his plans and so Barnardiston’s men were allocated a sector on the centre-right of the Japanese assault line.  After a fortnight spent in moving forward and siting the British field ambulance and the supply depots, on 10th October the South Wales Borderers occupied 550 metres of front-line trenches.  Meanwhile Regimental Headquarters and half of the 36th Sikhs were still in Tientsin awaiting orders to move.  

The arrival of the 36th Sikhs

At last Lieutenant Colonel Edward Langford Sullivan, commanding the 36th Sikhs, was ordered to embark his 450 Sepoys on S.S. Kwanping on 19th October.  The Sikhs disembarked at Lao Shan Bay on 21st October but were delayed there for over 24 hours by orders to unload and stack freight from the Kwanping.  This delay was unfortunate because a typhoon burst over the Shantung Peninsula that night, flooding the area and making movement on the muddy tracks very difficult.  But on the 26th October the Sikhs had arrived at Litsun where immediately one double-company moved into the trenches to relieve a South Wales Borderers’ double company, whilst the other double-company and the machine gun section went into reserve two kilometres to the rear.  Four days later the reserves were pushed forward another 800 metres but this put them next to a Japanese artillery battery.  Gunther Pluschow in his Taube aircraft soon spotted the battery and the area was subjected to sporadic but effective German artillery fire.

Meanwhile the British soldiers and sepoys were suffering in their thin cotton summer uniforms, as rain kept pounding down and cold winds kept blowing.  The ground that the men occupied was intersected by small ravines which soon became watercourses; the sides of the ravines often collapsed burying equipment, ammunition and weapons under layers of thick mud.  Apart from using artillery and occasional machine gun fire the German troops stayed on the defensive, only once moving forward to counter-attack.

The Japanese siege gunners were ready on 31st October and a heavy bombardment of the first enemy inner defensive line began that night.  Meanwhile at sea the Japanese and British ships added to the bombardment with their firepower, or else engaged targets of opportunity that were observed.  The allied naval gunners hit the Tsingtao dockyards and fuel storage tanks, causing thick smoke to arise over the port.  After expending their ammunition the Germans in the first inner defensive line covertly withdrew, allowing the Japanese infantry to seize the empty positions without a fight.

The allied line moved forward but the German artillery fire became more accurate, and on 4th November the Sikhs lost two Sepoys killed and two officers wounded.  One of the Sikhs killed had his head blown off by a shell that hit his two-man bivouac, but his companion in the bivouac was unscathed.  During the following night as working parties prepared an attack start-line along a river bank the German gunners again engaged them, killing eight and wounding 24 of the South Wales Borderers and wounding a few Sikhs.  Five Welsh soldiers received Distinguished Conduct Medals for gallantry displayed on this night as frantic efforts were made in the darkness to return enemy fire and to retrieve wounded men.

The final assault on the second and last German inner defensive line was planned for the 7th November and during the preceding night British officers’ patrols ascertained that the German redoubts facing them were manned effectively, as the German defenders fired at the patrols.  However the Japanese had their own agenda and elsewhere along the attack line they were making substantial gains that did not involve the British.  Suddenly during the morning of 7th November white flags were displayed by the Germans on Diederich’s Hill signalling station and the other defensive posts that the Japanese had not yet taken.  Kapitan Alfred Meyer-Waldeck had surrendered Tsingtao.

Above: 36th Sikhs at Tsingtao

The Allied victory

Tsingtao town was quickly occupied by the Japanese and all surviving German combatants were incarcerated as prisoners of war.  This had been an impressive Japanese victory.  Many observers and commentators expressed the opinion that the Germans had given-in too readily.  One German excuse was that ammunition stocks had been expended, but subsequent Allied inspection teams found that this was not the case.  Certainly the lack of aggressive action by the Germans as the Allied attackers advanced showed that the defence lacked fighting spirit.  The Germans knew the ground and could have successfully ambushed Allied sub-units even though they could not have halted the advance.  Perhaps Alfred Meyer-Waldeck knew in his heart that his was a hopeless task, and so after withstanding several weeks of siege he limited the loss of German life for the future good of his nation.  Just before the surrender Meyer-Waldeck had ordered Gunther Pluschow to fly away into China with despatches for Berlin.

The Japanese had lost 236 men killed and 1,282 wounded; the British, 12 killed and 53 wounded. The German defenders suffered 199 dead and 504 wounded whilst over 90 German prisoners of war subsequently died in captivity in Japan, where their treatment was humane.  The two dead men of the 36th Sikhs were Sepoy No. 2806 Udham Singh and Lance Naik No. 2819 Bishn Singh; both are commemorated on the Sai Wan (China) Memorial in Hong Kong.

Left: A German forward position during the Siege

Awards to the 36th Sikhs

Lieutenant Colonel E.L. Sullivan was appointed to be a Companion of the Order of Saint Michael and Saint George (CMG).
The following officers and men were mentioned in Brigadier General Barnardiston’s despatches, and this list shows some of the senior regimental personalities who participated in the Tsingtao Expedition:

Lieutenant-Colonel E. L. Sullivan.
Major E. F. Knox.
Captain A. D. Martin.
Captain J. Gray (Staff officer).
Lieutenant and Adjutant S. des Voeux.
Subadar Gurmukh Singh, I.O.M.
Jemadar Sundar Singh.
Jemadar Jaimal Singh.
No. 1707 Havildar Massa Singh.
No. 2711 Lance-Naik Bhagat Singh.
No. 2757 Lance-Naik Harman Singh.
No. 2829 Lance-Naik Hari Singh.
No. 3126 Sepoy Fakir Singh.
No. 3785 Sepoy Ram Singh.
No. 3782 Sepoy Bant Singh.

Observers were unanimous in the opinion that all ranks of the 36th Sikhs got on very well with the Japanese, who respected both the Sikhs’ military professionalism and their positive attitude towards hard work in extremely unpleasant conditions.  Sadly this familiarity and mutual respect was not a feature of the relationship between the South Wales Borderers and the Japanese.

Above: The Iron Cross 2nd Class award document to Oskar Rösch, awarded after his return from captivity

The aftermath

The British had made a late entry into the Tsingtao campaign, and they were so under-resourced on the ground that they could not have operated without generous Japanese logistical support; the British presence had been a token one in a successfully planned and directed Japanese campaign.

The Japanese remained in Tsingtao until December 1922 when, after strong international pressure, the territory reverted to Chinese control – but the Japanese were back in occupation again in 1938!  The South Wales Borderers sailed away to fight the Turks at Gallipoli.  The 36th Sikhs returned to garrison Tientsin before the regiment was also sent to fight the Turks but in Mesopotamia.  After the Great War the South Wales Borderers and the 11th Sikhs, the successor regiment to the 36th Sikhs, were both awarded the exclusive battle honour TSINGTAO.


Barnardiston, N.W., Brigadier General: Despatches on Operations of the Tsingtau Expeditionary Force. (London Gazette Supplement dated 30 May 1916, page 5401, on-line at: ).

Cook, H.C.B.: The Battle Honours of the British and Indian Armies 1662-1982. (Leo Cooper, London 1987).

Dane, Edmund: British Campaigns in Africa and the Pacific 1914-1918. (Hodder and Stoughton 1919 and on-line at: ).

Dixon, John: A Clash of Empires. (Bridge Books, Wrexham 2008).

Hoyt, Edwin: The Fall of Tsingtao.  (Arthur Baker Limited, London 1975).

Jones, Jefferson: The Fall of Tsingtau. With a study of Japan’s ambitions in China. (Houghton Mifflin Company, USA and on-line at: ).

Lucas, Sir Charles: The Empire at War. (Oxford University Press 1926).

Naval Review: Narrative of the events in connection with the siege, blockade and reduction of the Fortress of Tsingtau. (Available on-line at: and at ).

Pluschow, Gunther: My Escape from Donington Hall. Preceded by an account of the Siege of Kiao-Chow in 1915. (John Lane The Bodley Head Limited 1922 and on-line here: ).

Singh, Colonel Kanwal Jit and Ahluwalia Major H.S.: Saragarhi Battalion. Ashes to Glory. (Lancer International, New Delhi