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Triumph of a fledgling navy

16 November 2013 1,228 views No Comment

MIKE Carlton is a well-known journalist and broadcaster who has a passion for naval history. His previous book, ‘Cruiser’, the story of the HMAS Perth in World War II, was a bestseller.

For his follow-up, Carlton initially had planned to write an account of the short and bloody 1914 sea battle between the dreaded German raider Emden, which had been wreaking havoc on the maritime trade of the British Empire, and the HMAS Sydney, the result of which represented an emphatic, and widely celebrated, first victory for the newborn Royal Australian Navy.

Fortunately for the reader, ‘First Victory’, a meticulously researched, finely illustrated and well-indexed book, does not merely deal with the Sydney-Emden engagement but also examines what Carlton terms “the spirit of the times, the things that were done – or not done – to prepare us for war”. He also writes about how “we, the people, carried ourselves when the great guns began firing”.

‘First Victory’ is a pleasure to read. And as a historian it is gratifying to be told, in some detail, how men of foresight had campaigned for our new nation, which had only federated on January 1, 1901, to have our own navy. This achievement, as Carlton reminds us, was “the first for any of the King’s dominions”.

These farsighted men included the athletic, handsome naval officer William Rooke Creswell – who at 13 had joined the Royal Navy as a cadet – and two of our early prime ministers, the Collingwood-born spiritualist Alfred Deakin and Labor’s Queensland-based Andrew Fisher, who was Scottish, teetotal, Presbyterian and a miner.

As Carlton explains, against all odds, they and others like them succeeded in building a truly Australian navy. Carlton’s basic thesis is that in what was supposed to be “the war to end all wars”, the first Australian victories were “won by sailors”.

This absorbing book argues eloquently that the destruction of the Emden by the Sydney off the Cocos Islands in the Indian Ocean on November 9, 1914, was not only an emphatic affirmation of the reach of Australian sea power, it was “the first true victory of the war”.

In contrast to the taking in 1914 of a handful of largely undefended German island colonies, it was “a full-blooded fight at sea in which Australians had emerged triumphant, and earned the applause of the empire”.

For the “navalists”, including Creswell, Deakin and Fisher, there was a profound satisfaction that their vision of Australia as a relatively independent sea power had been vindicated. Moreover this occurred, as Carlton puts it, “where it mattered most, in an ocean that washed our shores”.

As Carlton maintains, from 1915 it would be our army that primarily took up the battle against the enemies of king, country and empire. As with the establishment of the RAN, the formation of the Australian Imperial Force had also been a remarkable achievement, spurred by national pride and loyalty to what most Australians then regarded as the “home country”.

All in all, although Carlton’s engaging narrative is far from a complete history of Australia at the beginning of World War I, ‘First Victory’ is a finely written and engrossing tale. It is useful to be informed that, after its great success in defeating the Emden, most of the rest of Sydney’s wartime life was relatively uneventful. It finished its working life as the RAN’s flagship until it was decommissioned in 1928 and, a year later, as the Depression began to grip Australia, it was broken up at Cockatoo Island dockyard in Sydney.

As Carlton informs us, a few relics of HMAS Sydney remain. Its stem head, for’ard jackstaff and fairleads, painted grey, are mounted on the stone seawall beneath the northern pylons of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. One of its six-inch guns stands in front of the Army Museum in Perth, while another is on display at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.

Perhaps more important, the story of this ship’s great victory lives on thanks to writers of the calibre of Carlton. As well as acknowledging a swag of sources used for researching this important book, it is pleasing to note that he pays due respect and thanks to “Trove”, the aptly named online collection at the National Library of Australia. As Carlton points out, Trove offers “swift, searchable access to almost every newspaper and periodical published in Australia between 1788 and the latter half of the 20th century”.

First Victory, 1914: HMAS Sydney’s Hunt for the German Raider Emden
By Mike Carlton
William Heinemann, 467pp, $45 (HB)

Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University.


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