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Asian and Pacific theatre of World War I

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Asian and Pacific theatre of World War I
Part of World War I
Tsingtao battle lithograph 1914.jpg

The Siege of Tsingtao.
DateAugust 3, 1914 – January 5, 1919a
(4 years, 5 months and 2 days)
Result Allied victory

 British Empire

 United States

Central Powers:

a Date of surrender of the Hermann Detzner's unit, major combat actions had concluded in 1914.

The Asian and Pacific theatre of World War I consisted of various naval battles and the Allied conquest of German colonial possessions in the Pacific Ocean and China. The most significant military action was the careful and well-executed Siege of Tsingtao in what is now China, but smaller actions were also fought at Bita Paka and Toma in German New Guinea.

All other German and Austrian possessions in Asia and the Pacific fell without bloodshed. Naval warfare was common; all of the colonial powers had naval squadrons stationed in the Indian or Pacific Oceans. These fleets operated by supporting the invasions of German-held territories and by destroying the East Asia Squadron of the Imperial German Navy.

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  • ✪ Invasions, Naval Battles and German Raiders - WW1 in the Pacific I THE GREAT WAR Special
  • ✪ The Ally From The Far East - Japan in World War 1 I THE GREAT WAR Special
  • ✪ World War II in the Pacific: Every Day
  • ✪ WWII Pacific Timeline
  • ✪ Jungle Warriors: Unconventional Warfare in the Asia-Pacific Theatre of World War Two


Very early in the war, the South Pacific witnessed a clash of empires. Compared to the battles in Europe, this was minor action, but it was significant for the region and its people, and really shows the global scale of the war. I’m Indy Neidell; welcome to a Great War special episode about the First World War in the Pacific. In the late 19th century, German interest in several south pacific territories became formalized under imperial rule. German New Guinea and German Samoa were annexed and many small islands like the Marshalls and the Marianas were acquired. They weren’t really strategically or economically important, though, and the real German regional military power when the war broke out was at Tsingtao, China - the German East Asia Squadron under Maximilian von Spee, which we’ve covered a lot in our regular episodes. There were no contingency plans to defend Germany's territories, though, which sat at odds with war plans for raids on places like Australia or New Zealand. Those plans were to target coastal facilities, disrupt shipping, demoralize the population, and keep the troops at home. German expansion in the region had prompted reactions from those two, and they believed that the Royal Navy’s dominance of the area was essential for regional security. They had made failed claims on German New Guinea, and New Zealand had a plan to seize Samoa in the event of war. Which now happened. New Zealand’s first military action of the war was sending the 1,400 strong Samoa Expeditionary Force to seize the wireless station there. They arrived August 29th and faced no resistance, though the wireless station had been rendered inoperable, and they occupied Samoa. This was not, as many think, the first occupation of German territory of the war - that happened days earlier in Togoland in Africa. The escort elements of this force then met up with a 2,000 men strong Australian force that had been assembled to take wireless stations at New Guinea, the Caroline Islands, Nauru, and New Britain. They reached New Guinea September 11th, and saw actual combat. Seven Australians were killed - the first of the war, one German, and 30 Melanesians of the native police. All of the outposts were occupied over the next two months, though German Leutnant Hermann Detzner, with 20 of the police, evaded capture for the duration of the war in the jungle of New Guinea. He surrendered in January 1919 in full dress uniform flying the flag of Imperial Germany. The occupation of Samoa apparently involved billiards, cricket, and drinking, though there were incidents of plundering. Colonel Robert Logan, the military governor, was pretty autocratic and belligerent and had a feud with nearby American Samoa. When the Spanish Flu arrived in 1918 and he refused assistance from American Samoa, nearly a quarter of the local population died and his refusal of assistance poisoned relations between his administration and the Samoans. Australia’s occupation of New Guinea also faced some difficulties. Colonel Holmes established a military government and garrison, but he re-enlisted and was eventually killed at Messines in 1917, and the garrison had disciplinary problems that included fairly common looting and drunken brawls. There were also accusations of brutality toward the locals. So, by late 1914, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan had occupied Germany’s pacific possessions, and the Pacific experienced the rest of the war in different ways. One is obviously the manner of deployment of soldiers from there to other regions. Australia and New Zealand had big commitments in Europe and the Middle East, and other Pacific islanders fought in the war; there were 500 Cook Islanders and 140 Niuean soldiers that served with New Zealand’s Maori Pioneer Battalion in France. There were also quite a few naval engagements in the area, with the East Asia Squadron at large and the British trying to neutralize it. Von Spee ignored the plans to attack Australia or New Zealand and tried to make it to Berlin via the Atlantic. His two modern cruisers shelled Tahiti in September 1914, and the squadron would fight and win the Battle of Coronel off the Chilean Coast before leaving the Pacific. Some elements of the squadron remained in the Pacific as independent raiders, though. The Emden, the Prinz Eitel Friedrich, and the Cormoran, for example, targeted Allied merchant shipping and infrastructure in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Though they managed to tie up considerable allied forces hunting them, by 1915 most were captured, destroyed, or non-operational. Then Germany began refitting freighters as commerce raiders on extended voyages. They relied on endurance and range rather than speed, and by 1916, they were operating in the South Pacific. The SMS Wolf had a 451 day voyage, beginning in November 1916, the longest voyage of a warship during the war. It sank 14 ships and laid mines that destroyed 15 more before returning to Kiel in February 1918 with 467 prisoners and its cargo of booty. There was also the SMS Seeadler. In December 1916, it began its voyage by slipping the British blockade of Germany. It would enter the Pacific in April 1917 after boarding and scuttling 16 ships. They always left the crews intact, though, and by this time the Seeadler was struggling to feed nearly 300 prisoners in addition to its own crew. It wrecked on a reef in August, and the captain, Felix Graf von Luckner, sailed a small open boat to Fiji. There he was apprehended and sent to a New Zealand POW camp. The men left behind on the reef hijacked a passing French merchant ship, but struck uncharted rocks off of Easter Island and were interned in Chile for the rest of the war. Luckner, though, managed to escape the camp in December, seized the 90-ton scow Moa, and with a handmade sextant and a map copied from a school atlas, made for the Kermadec Islands. His pursuers intercepted him the 21st, and a year after his voyage began, it was over for good and he was imprisoned for the rest of the war. We’ll do specials on Wolf and Seadler, and we already have ones the Emden, von Spee, and Guam, and you can follow things like the siege of Tsingtao and the Battle of Coronel in our old regular episodes; today was just a general overview of the actions and occupations of the region. In captured territories, the Australian and New Zealand invasion forces became occupation and administration forces, in some cases lasting long after the war. Samoa had a New Zealand mandate for decades and the Australian mandate over New Guinea would last until 1975, when Papua New Guinea gained independence, so you can see how the war had a long term lasting impact on this region, far from the battlefields of Europe. We want to thank Steven Loveridge for his research on his episodes, Steven actually wrote a whole book about New Zealand in World War 1 and you can find a link to that in the video description. If you want to learn more about Guam and SMS Cormoran in World War 1, you can click right here for our Guam Special. Don’t forget to subscribe and see you next time.


Allied offensives


The German front line at Tsingtao.
The German front line at Tsingtao.

Tsingtao was the most significant German base in the area. It was defended by 3,650 German troops supported by 100 Chinese colonial troops and Austro-Hungarian soldiers and sailors occupying a well-designed fort. Supporting the defenders were a small number of vessels from the Imperial German Navy and the Austro-Hungarian Navy.

The Japanese sent nearly their entire fleet[citation needed] to the area, including six battleships and 23,000 soldiers. The British sent two military units to the battle from their garrison at Tientsin, numbering 1,500, and the Chinese who were unoccupied by the Germans sent over a few thousand troops on the side of the allies.

The bombardment of the fort started on October 31. An assault was made by the Imperial Japanese Army on the night of November 6. The garrison surrendered the next day. Casualties of the battle were 703 on the German side and some 3,600 POW; casualties on the Allied side were 2,066. One Allied protected cruiser was also sunk by a German torpedo boat and when defeat was certain, the Germans and Austro-Hungarians scuttled their squadron.


One of the first land offensives in the Pacific theatre was the Occupation of German Samoa in August 29 and 30 1914 by New Zealand forces. The campaign to take Samoa ended without bloodshed after over 1,000 New Zealanders landed on the German colony, supported by an Australian and French naval squadron.

Australian forces attacked German New Guinea in September 1914: 500 Australians encountered 300 Germans and native policemen at the Battle of Bita Paka; the Allies won the day and the Germans retreated to Toma. A company of Australians and a British warship besieged the Germans and their colonial subjects, ending with a German surrender.[1]

After the fall of Toma, only minor German forces were left in New Guinea and these generally capitulated once met by Australian forces. In December 1914, one German officer near Angorum attempted to resist the occupation with thirty native police but his force deserted him after they fired on an Australian scouting party and he was subsequently captured.[1]

By 1915, the only uncapitulated German force was a small expedition under the command of Hermann Detzner which managed to elude Australian patrols and hold out in the interior of the island until the end of the war, for which he became a figure of some renown.

German Micronesia, the Marianas, the Carolines and the Marshall Islands also fell to Allied forces during the war.

German naval actions

Retreat of the German East Asia Squadron

In the Pacific

Scharnhost's and Gneisenau's path across the Pacific.
Scharnhost's and Gneisenau's path across the Pacific.

When war was declared on Germany in 1914, the German East Asia Squadron withdrew from its base at Tsingtao and attempted to make its way east across the Pacific and back to Germany. After concentrating the majority of its force at Pagan Island, the fleet raided several Allied targets as it made its way across the Pacific.

Detached cruisers raided the cable station at Fanning and then rejoined with the squadron. Later the German forces would attack Papeete where Admiral Maximilian von Spee with his two armoured cruisers sank a French gunboat and a freighter before bombarding Papeete's shore batteries.

Chile and the Falklands

The next engagement was fought off Chile at the Battle of Coronel on November 1, 1914, Admiral Spee won the battle by defeating a British squadron which was sent to destroy him. His two armored and three light cruisers sank two Royal Navy armored cruisers and forced a British light cruiser and auxiliary cruiser to flee. Over 1,500 British sailors (all hands aboard both cruisers) were killed while only three Germans were wounded. The victory did not last long as the German fleet was soon defeated in Atlantic waters at the Battle of the Falklands in December 1914. Spee himself went down with his own flagship SMS Scharnhorst.

The only German vessels to escape the Falklands engagement was the light cruiser Dresden and the auxiliary Seydlitz. Seydlitz fled into the Atlantic before being interned by neutral Argentina, while Dresden turned about and steamed back into the Pacific. The Dresden then attempted to act as a commerce raider, without much success, until March 1915 when its engines began to break down.

Without means of getting repairs, the German light cruiser sailed into neutral Chilean waters at the island of Mas a Tierra where it was cornered by British naval forces. After a short battle in which four of her crew were killed, the Dresden was forced to scuttle and her crew was interned by Chilean authorities.

SMS Emden in the Indian Ocean

The cruise of the Emden.
The cruise of the Emden.

SMS Emden was left behind by Admiral Graf Maximilian von Spee when he began his retreat across the Pacific. The ship won the Battle of Penang, in which the Germans sank a Russian cruiser and a French destroyer. Emden also harried merchant vessels of the Allies and destroyed over thirty of them. She went on and bombarded Madras, India, causing damage to British oil tanks and sinking an Allied merchant ship. The attack caused widespread panic in the city and thousands of people fled from the coast, fearing that the Germans may have begun an invasion of India as a whole.

After a very successful career as a merchant raider, Emden was engaged by HMAS Sydney at the Battle of Cocos, where the German vessel was destroyed. A group of sailors under the command of Hellmuth von Mücke managed to escape towards the Arabian peninsula which was then part of the Ottoman Empire, an ally of the German Empire during World War I.

The cruise of SMS Seeadler

The SMS Seeadler, an auxiliary cruiser windjammer and merchant raider, commanded by Felix von Luckner managed successful attacks on Allied shipping in both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. During her career she captured sixteen vessels and sank most of them.

In August 1917 SMS Seeadler was wrecked at the island of Mopelia in French Polynesia so the Germans established a small colony on the island which housed them and several Allied prisoners, most of whom were American. Eventually when starvation proved to be an urgent concern, Luckner and his crew left the prisoners on the uninhabited island, from which they were eventually rescued, and set sail in a lifeboat for Fiji. There, on September 5, Luckner captured a French schooner named Lutece and renamed her Fortuna.

After that they headed for Easter Island and again their ship was wrecked when it grounded on a reef. Subsequently, the Germans were interned by the Chileans on October 5, 1917 which ended the journey. During the entire cruise only one man perished, due to an accident.

The scuttling of SMS Cormoran at Guam

SMS Cormoran
SMS Cormoran

The United States was involved in at least one hostile encounter with Germans in the Pacific during World War I. On April 7, 1917, the SMS Cormoran was scuttled in Apra Harbor, Guam to prevent her capture by the auxiliary cruiser USS Supply. The Americans fired their first shots of the war at the Germans as they attempted to sink their ship. Ultimately the Germans succeeded in scuttling the Cormoran with a loss of nine men dead.


The German government was accused of being behind Zhang Xun's monarchist coup in China to prevent Duan Qirui's pro-war faction from supporting the Allies. After the coup failed in July 1917, Duan used the incident as a pretext for declaring war on Germany.

The German and Austro-Hungarian concessions in Tientsin and Hankow were occupied and their nationals detained. An even more serious plot was Germany's funding of the Constitutional Protection Movement, which geographically split China into two rival governments for eleven years.


See also


External links


  • Falls, Cyril (1960). The Great War, pgs. 98–99.
  • Keegan, John (1998). World War One, pgs. 205–206.
This page was last edited on 2 April 2019, at 11:51
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