Flashing lights of the lighthouse in the grounds of Madras High Court made the task of the Germans easier.
Little known, and more or less forgotten by both global and Indian war historians, is an incident that brought the repercussions of World War I to the shores of India. A one-time attack by a German cruise ship on the port city of Madras, now rechristened Chennai, sent panic waves not only throughout the city but also large parts of the Madras Presidency. The involvement of the British Indian troops in the War, especially in the Mesopotamian, North African, and European theaters, though downplayed in international history, is now reasonably well known. A case in point is the superlative role played by the Indian troops in the historic liberation of Haifa, now nationally acclaimed by both the Governments of India and Israel.
Against this backdrop, however, forgotten and buried in the annals of war history, lies the narrative of this attack on Madras. The attack caused substantial damage long before the Imperial Government had perhaps begun the process of mobilizing Indian troops for service in the theaters of war. Less than two months into the war, when the Indian population and the Imperial Government in India were complacent that guns, bombs, and action were still far away, the German cruise ship SMS Emden struck the port city on the night of 22nd September 1914, having silently entered the dark waters of the Bay of Bengal.
Today, few residents of Chennai are even aware of this, the generation that lived to tell the tale having long since passed on. Only a plaque, not too prominent, marks the exact spot on the wall where a shell struck the Madras High Court, perhaps symbolizing a mute narrative of this infamous attack, which struck a merchant ship, claiming the lives of five innocent sailors and injuring thirteen.
The German cruise ship, the 3,600-ton Emden, was actually on a mission to sink commercial ships in the Bay of Bengal. No Allied ships were guarding the port of Madras, then believed to be very safe. The flashing lights of the lighthouse in the grounds of the Madras High Court made the task of the Germans far easier. Armed with 22 guns, the SMS Emden dropped anchor just 2,500 meters off the harbor. The commander of the ship, Captain Karl Friedrich Max von Müller, then ordered his men to fire. As Captain von Muller later wrote, “I had this shelling in view simply as a demonstration to arouse interest among the Indian population, to disturb English commerce, to diminish English prestige.” His intention, he clarified, was to cause panic in the city, not to harm civilians.
The ship’s powerful beam brightly lit up three oil installations of the Burmah Oil Company, positioned nearby. Painted white with red stripes, they became easy targets for the gunners. Within minutes, two tankers, packed with 5000 tonnes of kerosene oil caught fire and were completely destroyed, while two others were badly damaged. According to official reports, the fire lasted three days, while eye witnesses testified that the flames had scaled such heights that they were visible from a long distance.
Overall, around 130 shells were fired. In addition to the merchant ship that was struck, several buildings were hit. The Madras High Court, the Port Trust, the Boat House of the Madras Sailing Club, and the facade of the new National Bank of India suffered considerable damage. A giant crater opened up in the ground, and unexploded shells lay scattered all around. A number of key roads around the harbor were rendered inoperational. The attack is said to have lasted around thirty minutes. The city’s defense systems, taken completely by surprise, were alerted and sprang into action albeit a little too late. By the time the field guns at Clive’s Battery returned fire, the Emden had withdrawn from the vicinity of the city’s shores. Nine shells were fired in all. Not a single one was able to hit the German cruise ship.
The attack, however, had the effect the Germans may have desired. Panic spread throughout Madras and the adjoining areas, leading to a mass exodus. Reportedly, nearly 20,000 people left the city every day, causing a serious law and order problem at the railway stations, where special police had to be summoned to bring the situation under control. Those who could not be accommodated in trains started leaving in bullock carts or on foot. Simultaneously, there was a shortage of essential commodities and foodstuffs leading to a sharp rise in prices.
Equally important, SMS Emden’s attack contributed two enduring legacies to Chennai. One was the addition of the word emden to the Tamil lexicon and yamandan to the Malayalam dictionary, both signifying ‘a person who dares and works with precision’. The second legacy was the glorification of Chempakaraman Pillai as an Indian patriot. Pillai, a nationalist and “revolutionary”, who was in Germany when the war broke out, had tried to exploit international balances of power to aid India’s struggle for independence. He succeeded in enlisting German support against British rule in India, just as Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose had during World War II.
The grapevine leading to an official claim had it that Chempakaraman was aboard the SMS Emden and helped coordinate the Emden’s attack. The credibility of this claim, however, has been challenged by many historians. Nonetheless, he joined hands with other “revolutionaries” like Raja Mahendra Pratap and Maulana Barkatullah to set up a provisional Government of Free India in Kabul in 1915. The provisional government naturally had to be disbanded after World War I, and its representatives were forced to flee Afghanistan. Chempakaraman Pillai returned to Germany where he continued to live until his demise in 1934.
Chempakaraman Pillai’s greatest contribution, which few may be aware of, was coining the slogan Jai Hind, later adopted by the Azad Hind Fauj, and now used as a National Slogan. In 2008, the then Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, M Karunanidhi, unveiled a memorial in honor of Chempakaraman Pillai at the Gandhi Mandapam in Adyar, Chennai. A national hero who too had faded into oblivion finally but belatedly won recognition for his role in the freedom struggle.