On the morning of 28 October 1914 Penang awoke to the sounds of war. The German cruiser SMS Emden had been attacking ships in the Indian Ocean, causing problems not just for civilian shipping but troopships heading to Europe from Australia, New Zealand and Asia. The exploits of the Emden are well document but our interest is in Leslie Irvine Lumsden Thornton, one of our men, who witnessed the attach on Penang.
Irvine, as he was known, had been admitted to the Bar in Penang in June 1914. His father, Swinford Leslie Thornton, had for many years been a judge in the Straits Settlements and Irvine was born in Singapor. After his son's death, Judge Thornton privately published a book of letters from Irvine In Memoriam: Leslie Irvine Lumsden Thornton which is how the letter has survive.
Irvine Thornton before he joined up.
28th Oct., 1914
Penang has now seen her share of the war. The dreaded Emden came into harbour this morning and sank the Russian cruiser, the Jemchug, [sic] lying at anchor. I was awake at 5.30 a.m., when I heard what I took be thunder. Then boom! boom! again, and I knew it must be shells.
I rushed to the front of the E. and O., and saw one of the most awe-inspiring sights which I shall probably ever see. The sun was just rising and the sky behind Butterworth was a beautiful gold. About three quarters of a mile out lay the Russian cruiser, a black mass surrounded by smoke. Then boom ! boom ! boom ! again.
At first I could not see the Emden. Suddenly she appeared racing along from the direction of the harbour; and when about a quarter of a mile from the Russian cruiser (which as far as I could see, did not fire a single shot) she stopped dead and fired broadside. There was a huge sheet of flame about 100 feet high, followed by a terrific explosion. The Russian seemed to be almost lifted out of the water, split into two pieces, and sank.
The Emden then fired across the patrol boat (and, I hear, apologized for doing so), and then raced off up the north channel towards Muka Head. There she engaged and sank one of the French torpedo boats. She then went off at full speed. The Mousquet, another French torpedo destroyer, then started in full pursuit.
In the meantime I got into a sampan, and put out to the scene of the fight. The Russian mainmast was just showing above the water. The sea seemed alive with men. I took seven into my boat and brought them ashore. They were mostly clad, as I believe is the fashion in the Garden of Eden, in nothing but their own skins. About 150 men were saved—less than half. Three officers and four men have died this morning in the hospital, and there is a military funeral this afternoon.
The wily Emden came in disguised as the Yarmouth, and actually took her berth in the harbour. Some say she flew a Russian flag, and at the last moment lowered it, and ran up the German flag. She had four funnels, one of which was obviously false, and looked very groggy after she had been firing. She deceived all the look-out stations.
It was really a wonderful piece of work by the German commander. Every one says he received information from the Germans here, but no one knows. For the Russians, it was a most disgraceful affair. The commander slept in the E. and O. last night, and most of the officers were on shore drunk. They say the Russians did fire a few shots at the Emden, but hit her too high. Wonderful stories are about. Some say the Emden's firing was very bad at first. Shells are supposed to have landed at Butterworth, and also on the race-course.
This is all I can tell you of the part I saw.
Your loving son,
Irvine L. Thornton
A few days later Irvine sent a telegram asking for his parents' approval to join up. He became an officer in the 16th Cavalry, Indian Army in Mesopotamia and was killed on September 9 1915. He was 26.