The Attack on Tsing-tau

By Jefferson Jones
(The Minneapolis Journal and The Japan Advertiser)

[The New York Times/Current History, January 23, 1915]

Japanese Headquarters, Shantung, Nov. 2.—I have seen war from a grand stand seat. I never before heard of the possibility of witnessing a modern battle the attack of warships, the fire of infantry and artillery, the manoeuvring of airships over the enemy's lines, the rolling up from the rear of reinforcements and supplies all at one sweep of the eye; yet, after watching for three days the siege of Tsing-tau from a position on Prinz Heinrich Berg, 1,000 feet above the sea level and but three miles from the beleaguered city, I am sure that there is actually such a thing as a theatre of war.

On Oct. 31, the date of the anniversary of the birth of the Emperor of Japan, the actual bombardment of Tsing-tau began. All the residents of the little Chinese village of Tschang-tsun, where was fixed on that day the acting staff headquarters of the Japanese troops, had been awakened early in the morning by the roar of a German aeroplane over the village. Every one quickly dressed and, after a hasty breakfast, went out to the southern edge of the village to gaze toward Tsing-tau.

A great black column of smoke was arising from the city and hung like a pall over the besieged. At first glance it seemed that one of the neighboring hills had turned into an active volcano and was emitting this column of smoke, but it was soon learned that the oil tanks in Tsing-tau were on fire.

As the bombardment was scheduled to start late in the morning, we were invited to accompany members of the staff of the Japanese and British expeditionary forces on a trip to Prinz Heinrich Berg, there to watch the investment of the city. It was about a three-mile journey to this mountain, which had been the scene of some severe fighting between the German and Japanese troops earlier in the month.

When we arrived at the summit there was the theatre of war laid out before us like a map. To the left were the Japanese and British cruisers in the Yellow Sea, preparing for the bombardment. Below was the Japanese battery, stationed near the Meeker House, which the Germans had burned in their retreat from the mountains. Directly ahead was the City of Tsing-tau, with the Austrian cruiser Kaiserin Elisabeth steaming about in the harbor, while to the right one could see the Kiao-Chau coast and central forts and redoubts and the intrenched Japanese and British camps.

We had just couched ourselves comfortably between some large, jagged rocks, where we felt sure we were not in a direct line with the enemy's guns, when suddenly there was a flash as if some one had turned a large golden mirror in the field down beyond to the right. A little column of black smoke drifted away from one of the Japanese trenches, and a minute later those of us on the peak of Prinz Heinrich heard the sharp report of a field gun.

"Gentlemen, the show has started," said the British Captain, as he removed his cap and started adjusting his "opera glass." No sooner had he said this than the reports of guns came from all directions with a continuous rumble as if a giant bowling alley were in use. Everywhere the valley at the rear of Tsing-tau was alive with golden flashes from discharging guns, and at the same time great clouds of bluish-white smoke would suddenly spring up around the German batteries where some Japanese shell had burst. Over near the greater harbor of Tsing-tau we could see flames licking up the Standard Oil Company's large tanks. We afterward learned that these had been set on fire by the Germans and not by a bursting shell.

And then the warships in the Yellow Sea opened fire on Iltis Fort, and for three hours we continually played our glasses on the field on Tsing-tau and on the warships. With glasses on the central redoubt of the Germans we watched the effects of the Japanese fire until the boom of guns from the German Fort A, on a little peninsula jutting out from Kiao-Chau Bay, toward the east, attracted our attention there. We could see the big siege gun on this fort rise up over the bunker, aim at a warship, fire, and then quickly go down again. And then we would turn our eyes toward the warships in time to see a fountain of water 200 yards from a vessel, where the shell had struck. We scanned the city of Tsing-tau. The 150-ton crane in the greater harbor, which we had seen earlier in the day, and which was said to be the largest crane in the world, had disappeared and only its base remained standing. A Japanese shell had carried away the crane.

But this first day's firing of the Japanese investing troops was mainly to test the range of the different batteries. The attempt also was made to silence the line of forts extending in the east from Iltis Hill, near the wireless and signal stations at the rear of Tsing-tau, to the coast fort near the burning oil tank on the west. In this they were partly successful, two guns at Iltis Fort being silenced by the guns at sea.

On Nov. 1, the second day of the bombardment, we again stationed ourselves on the peak of Prinz Heinrich Berg. From the earliest hours of morning the Japanese and British forces had kept up a continuous fire on the German redoubts in front of the Iltis, Moltke, and Bismarck forts, and when we arrived at our seats it seemed as though the shells were dropping around the German trenches every minute. Particularly on the redoubt of Taitung-Chen was the Japanese fire heavy, and by early afternoon, through field glasses, this German redoubt appeared to have had an attack of smallpox, so pitted was it from the holes made by bursting Japanese shells. By nightfall many parts of the German redoubts had been destroyed, together with some machine guns. The result was the advancing of the Japanese lines several hundred yards from the bottom of the hills where they had rested earlier in the day.

It was not until the third day of the bombardment that those of us stationed on Prinz Heinrich observed that our theatre of war had a curtain, a real asbestos one that screened the fire in the drops directly ahead of us from our eyes. We had learned that the theatre was equipped with pits, drops, a gallery for onlookers, exits, and an orchestra of booming cannon and rippling, roaring pompons; but that nature had provided it with a curtain that was something new to us.

We had reached the summit of the mountain about 11 A.M., just as some heavy clouds, evidently disturbed by the bombardment during the previous night, were dropping down into Litsun Valley and in front of Tsing-tau. For three hours we sat on the peak shivering in a blast from the sea, and all the while wondering just what was being enacted beyond the curtain. The firing had suddenly ceased, and with the filmy haze before our eyes we conjured up pictures of the Japanese troops making the general attack upon Iltis Fort, evidently the key to Tsing-tau, while the curtain of the theatre of war was down.

By early afternoon the clouds lifted, and with glasses we were able to distinguish fresh sappings of the Japanese infantry nearer to the German redoubts. The Japanese guns, which the day before were stationed below us to the left, near the Meeker House, had advanced half a mile and were on the road just outside the village of Ta-Yau. Turning our glasses on Kiao-Chau Bay, we discovered that the Kaiserin Elisabeth was missing, nor did a search of the shore line reveal her. Whether she was blown up by the Germans or had hidden behind one of the islands I do not know.

All the guns were silent now, and the British Captain said: "Well, chaps, shall we take advantage of the intermission?"

A half-hour later we were down the mountain and riding homeward toward Tschang-Tsun.

To understand fully the operations of the Japanese troops in Shantung during the present Far Eastern war one must be acquainted with the topography of this peninsula, as well as with the conditions that exist for the successful movements of the troops.

Since the disembarkation of the Japanese Army on Sept. 2 everything has seemingly favored the Germans. The country, which is unusually mountainous, offering natural strongholds for resisting the invading army, is practically devoid of roads in the hinterland. To add to this difficulty, the last two months in Shantung have seen heavy rains and floods which have really aided in holding off the ultimate fall of Kiao-Chau.

One had only to see the road from Lanschan over Makung Pass, on which the Japanese troops were forced to rely for their supplies, partly to understand the reason for the German garrison at Tsing-tau still holding out. The road, especially near the base, is nothing but a sea of clay in which the military carts sink up to their hubs. Frequent rains every week keep the roadway softened up and thus render it necessary for the Japanese infantry to rebuild it and to construct drainage ditches in order that there may be no delay in getting supplies and ammunition to the troops at the front.

The physical characteristics of Kiao-Chau make it an ideal fortress. The entrance of the bay is nearly two miles wide and is commanded by hills rising 600 feet directly in the rear of Tsing-tau. The ring of hills that surrounds the city does not extend back into the hinterland, and thus there is no screen behind which the Japanese forces can quickly invest the city. Germany has utilized the semicircle of hills in the construction of large concrete forts equipped with Krupp guns of 14 and 16 inch calibre, which, for four or five miles back into the peninsula, command all approaches to the city.

The Japanese Army in approaching Tsing-tau has had to do so practically in the open. The troops found no hills behind which they could with safety mount heavy siege guns without detection by the German garrison. In fact, the strategic plan for the capture of the town has been much like the plan adopted by the Japanese forces at Port Arthur they have forced their approach by sappings. While this is a gradual method, it is certain of victory in the end and results in very little loss of life.

The natural elevations of the Iltis, Bismarck, and Moltke forts at the rear of Tsing-tau have another advantage in that they are so situated that they are commanded by at least two other forts. All of the guns had been so placed that they can be turned on their neighbors if the occasion arises.

A Japanese aeroplane soaring over Tsing-tau on Oct. 30 scattered thousands of paper handbills on which was printed the following announcement, in German, from the Staff Headquarters:

"To the Honored Officers and Men in the Fortress: It is against the will of God as well as the principles of humanity to destroy and render useless arms, ships of war, merchantmen, and other works and constructions not in obedience to the necessity of war, but merely out of spite lest they fall into the hands of the enemy.

"Trusting, as we do, that, as you hold dear the honor of civilization, you will not be betrayed into such base conduct. We beg you, however, to announce to us your own view as mentioned above."

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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