From German Raiders of the South Seas, by Robin Bromby (Highgate, 2012), Kindle Loc. 52-108:
ON 31 JULY 1914 as the shadows of war rolled in, the German cruiser SMS Emden slipped its moorings at the port of Tsingtao in northern China. The previous day had seen Austria-Hungary declare war on Serbia following the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Germany followed with declarations against France and Russia, and Britain and its empire would join in on 4 August.
Emden’s captain, Karl von Müller, was anxious to avoid being bottled up in the harbour by the British naval squadron should war be declared. The Royal Navy was based not far away at Weihaiwei — the British territory on the North China coast which had been leased in 1898 for a coaling station (and would be returned to China in 1930). Although the Germans in China were aware that war was threatening, the timing of its declaration seems to have caught them by surprise; the main force of the East Asiatic Squadron was away on a three-month cruise of the Pacific to show the flag along the impressive string of German territories that spread as far as Samoa.
In 1884, the Emperor had proclaimed his sovereignty over the northern part of New Guinea. In 1897 the murder of two German missionaries in China had provided the pretext for the Germans to seize Kiaochow and extract a ninety-nine year lease on the bay at Tsingtao along with extensive railway and mining concessions in Shantung province from the beleaguered Chinese government. Kiaochow, while a German colony, was administered by the Reichsmarineamt and the governor of the territory was not a ministry official from Berlin but the commanding naval officer. Following the murder of the missionaries, Germany had sent a naval force and forced the weak Chinese government to accede to a 99-year lease on the territory; moreover, Germany was given the right to construct two railway lines into Chinese territory and have the rights to any minerals over a 30km-wide corridor through which those lines would run. The German victory set off another round of territorial claims for pieces of China: the Russians took over Port Arthur, France demand Kwangchow and Britain both expanded its land area at Hong Kong with a 99-year lease over what would be known as the New Territories and also took control at Weihaiwei in the north of China.
Meanwhile, in 1899 the Germans bought Marshall and Caroline Islands (now separately the countries of Palau and Federated States of Micronesia) from Spain and then Western Samoa was wrung from the British to complete the new and what would be a short-lived German empire in the east.
Nevertheless, the imperatives of the European situation were such that Germany could give only scant attention to its Pacific possessions. This may explain why the German fleet was scattered at the beginning of August. The armoured cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, each of 11,832 tons and launched in 1907 and 1908 respectively, were on the flag-showing cruise and the Emden was in Tsingtao, along with the armed merchant cruiser Prinz Eitel Friedrich and several colliers. The light cruiser Nurnberg was steaming from North America and due to meet up with Scharnhorst and Gneisenau at Apia in Samoa, while the other light cruiser, Leipzig, was en route to Mexico.
([Photo caption:] When the Nürnberg was ordered to rejoin the East Asiatic Squadron at the outbreak of war, one of her first jobs was to cut the cable at Fanning Island, a relay station for the vital Pacific cable. On 7 September 1914 the cruiser landed a party of sailors, the Germans smashing the operating room, dynamiting the generating plant, dredging up the cable and cutting it. [Paul Schmalenbach Collection])
Impressive though it was, Germany’s naval squadron in the Pacific was dwarfed in size there by the country’s merchant fleet operating in that vast ocean. At this time, Germany was second only to Britain in merchant tonnage there. In the Pacific the presence of the German territories as well as the normal international trade meant that German merchant ships were frequent visitors to British empire ports; many of the supplies needed by the German settlers in New Guinea came from Australia, and it was the German shipping companies which provided the transport for those supplies. The merchant ships, at least those with radios, could keep in contact with Berlin. In the early years of the twentieth century the Germans installed a network of wireless stations to link their possessions and their ships, the main stations being at Yap, New Guinea and Samoa. In 1908 all German merchant captains had received instructions that in time of war they were to head immediately for a German possession or a neutral port. In February 1914 all German ships equipped with wireless were told to listen to German stations at 0700, 1300 and 2310 each day.
On 3 August 1914, literally the eve of war, there were many German merchant ships around the coast of Australia. The Seydlitz, a Norddeutscher-Lloyd (NDL) mail steamer, was berthed at Sydney’s Circular Quay. Also in Sydney that night were other NDL steamers: the Elsass at what was then the NDL wharf, the Melbourne at Garden Island and the Osnabruck at Woolloomooloo. The Sumatra had arrived from Hamburg the previous day, while the Germania was just in from the Caroline Islands. The Stolberg was docked at Fremantle and the Scharzfels and the Iserlohn had berthed at Adelaide, with the Cannstadt tieing up at Brisbane. The Pommern was at sea between Brisbane and Sydney.
From 3 August the Port of Sydney was closed at night. Three minutes after midnight on the previous day, at the other main port in New South Wales, Newcastle, the collier Luneberg had slipped out of that harbour with empty holds while the captain on the Ulm was so anxious to leave Newcastle he left two-thirds of his cargo on the wharf. The Australian authorities had already instructed the Navy to examine all ships entering or leaving defended ports.