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Emden Plaque, Madras High Court, Chennai

Emden Plaque, Madras High Court, Chennai

The only attack on Indian soil during World War I

Also see: FAM Trip of Tamil Nadu and WWI Memorial in India

Over a million Indian soldiers served the British Army during the First World War (WWI), which was initially known as the Great War of 1914 – 18. Over 70,000 died fighting in different war theatres spread across Europe, Middle East and Africa.

Emden in 1910 (wikimedia commons)

Emden in 1910 (wikimedia commons)

Today numerous meorials and plaques dot the entire landscape of the sub-continent in memory of the fallen Indian soldiers who died fighting for the King of another country in far off lands.

This memorials consists of well known land marks like the India Gate, Delhi or the towering Glourious Dead Cenotaph, Kolkata.

They consist of elaborate memorials like the Teen Murti Memorial, Delhi and also include a tiny nondescript plaque on the walls of a health centre in Mehruli region of Delhi

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Strangely the first India casualties of First World War didn’t happen in far off lands but on India soil and it happened long before the first troupes were disposed to far off lands. Journalist and author Shrabani Basu mentions in her book For King of Another Country: India Soldiers of Western Front, 1914 – 18.

For King of Another Country: India Soldiers of Western Front, 1914 – 18 by Shrabani Basu
The first casualties of First World War were not on the Western Front. Nor did they happen in the harsh deserts of Mesopotamia or Africa. They happened on Indian soil, before the troupes have even reached the frontline.

It was less than two months into the First World War (started on 28 July 1914) and the guns seemed far away from British India. But things took a dramatic turn on the night of 22 September 1914. German Cruiser SMS Emden silently entered the Madras harbour without being noticed.

Emden attack, Madras port on fire (wikimedia commons)

Emden attack, Madras port on fire (wikimedia commons)

The 3600 tonne ship loaded with 22 guns was led by Karl von Müller sneaked in almost unnoticed as there was no allied ships guarding the entrance of the harbour.

The port was well lit giving the German cruiser a clear visibility. Karl von Müller spotted three oil tankers of Burma Oil Company and immediately fired at them.

The cargo of 5000 tonnes of Kerosene oil went up in flames alerting the port authorities of the deadly attack.

But before the allied forces could retaliate the Emden fired a volley of shots hitting a merchant ship in the harbour killing 5 and injuring 13. The shots also hit several nearby buildings including the Madras High Court.

The raid lasted only half an hour by the time the guns at the Madras port fired back Emden was already on its way out of the harbour and into the black waters of Bay of Bengal.

Although the raid was a short one and casualties were few but it created panic in Madras, expecting more attacks people fled the city in thousands. Panic spread across British India paralyzing ship movement across the Bay of Bengal. Shrabani Basu further mentions

For King of Another Country: India Soldiers of Western Front, 1914 – 18 by Shrabani Basu
A plaque on the eastern wall of Madras High Court building still marks the spot hit by the Emden shell. So powerful was the effect of the bombing of Madras, the word ’emden’ entered the Tamil lexicon meaning a ‘person who dares and work with precision’. The residents of Madras would not forget the day that German guns attacked their city.

Plaque of Emden attack, Madras High Court, Chennai

Plaque of Emden attack, Madras High Court, Chennai

The small plaque is located on the eastern wall of Madras High Court (Google map location). The plaque is located at ground level and is tilted from the boundary wall. People visiting the plaque from the south side may overlook it.

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