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Posted on Dec 19, 2007 in Front Page Features, War College

Backwater Battles: Unknown Campaigns of the First World War

By Alex Wilson

When someone envisions World War I, certain stereotypical images almost always come to mind. Visions of trenches filled with mud and rain, clouds of poison gas wiping out entire armies, and, perhaps most importantly, gigantic armies fighting static and horribly destructive battles are overwhelmingly common. While scenes like these were more or less the norm during the course of WWI, there were quite a few exceptions, which are little remembered and even less discussed. They were campaigns in which forces fought for territory which some would call worthless or of no strategic value in the grand scheme of the “Great War.” They were the backwater battles of WWI.

Backwater Battle #1: Germans vs. Japanese in the Pacific

The First World War, contrary to what some people might think, was not merely confined to Europe, but extended almost throughout the whole of the globe. Some of this worldwide fighting was between the Japanese and the Germans, two peoples who would, 30 years later, find themselves united against the Allies during a second world war.


Though Japan was not obligated to declare war on Germany by the Anglo-Japanese Alliance of 1902, she did so anyway, mainly due to her desire to seize Germany’s colonial holdings in the Pacific, which included Samoa, the Bismarck Archipelago, some islands east of New Guinea, part of New Guinea itself, the Marshalls, Marianas, and Carolines islands, and—most importantly—the port of Tsingtao, in China. Tsingtao was by far the most important German holding in the Pacific, and boasted, besides port facilities, a fortress and a substantial garrison which was comprised of about four thousand German marines along with some Austro-Hungarians. It was for Tsingtao that Japan made its first, and greatest, move in the Pacific during WWI.

Japanese troops coming ashore near Tsingtao.

The battle for Tsingtao, which was one of the largest of the “backwater battles,” began in earnest in late October of 1914, two months after Japan declared war on Germany. Prior to this, the Japanese had been landing troops near the port since September 2, while the British had been bringing in their own troops, eventually gathering around 3,000 for the assault on Tsingtao. The Germans, who were equally determined – the Kaiser once said: “It would shame me more to surrender Tsingtao to the Japanese than Berlin to the Russians” – had concentrated all of their available native troops in the fortress port and had at their disposal, besides their own troops, an Austro-Hungarian cruiser with her crew, some of whom were used as land troops during the siege.

Despite the extensive preparations of both sides, the Siege of Tsingtao was over in less than ten days, in stark contrast to many other operations of World War I, such as Passchendaele. The German and Austrian defenders were swamped by over 25,000 Japanese and British troops and suffered bombardment from Allied ships and Japanese planes, the latter of which was a “startling innovation at the time.” The defenders of Tsingtao surrendered on November 7, 1914, and soon after the capitulation of the port, the Japanese captured numerous German islands in the North Pacific, some of which, like the Marianas, would go down in history during the Second World War. With the fall of German-held Neu-Pommern to the Australians and the capture of Samoa by New Zealand, German colonialism ceased to exist in the Pacific.

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1 Comment

  1. Another forgotten field of war is the War above the Clouds. This was between Austria and Italy in Tyrol. The rock formations there are metamorphosed at high pressure, so they fracture whenever hit by artillery shells. This was used during this campaign by both sides.


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