We recently found hitherto unpublished photographs of the city shortly after it was bombed by the German cruiser
Archives of The Hindu can surprise even seasoned researchers and staff who deal with it. The catalogue and index are comprehensive, but there are hidden gems that regularly surface to everyone’s pleasure. Last week, archive staff, along with photo editor D. Krishnan, serendipitously discovered a cache of hitherto unpublished photographs depicting scenes of bombarded Madras in 1914.
The pictures appear to portray a city that was calm despite the shelling, but the reports reveal a different scene. The situation was similar to what we are witnessing now — people misled by rumours leaving the city in fear and great hurry.
The morning of September 22, 1914, was the third day of Navratri festival. The world was torn by a raging war, but Madras was going about its golu exhibitions as it always did. Moses and Company, the tailors on Mount Road, were advertising their woollen suits and woollen underwear for Europe-bound students. Madras Corporation was debating the closure of a road in Santhome. All this was to change in the night that followed.
About 20 minutes past nine, German cruiser Emden fired at the city and the ‘placid conditions’ at Madras were ‘violently shaken.’ There was panic and exodus. Rumour mills were active and news spread that the ship would target Madras again — and soon. Even announcements of reward for those who would help arrest troublemakers did not help. No amount of appeal worked.
Every day about 20,000 people left the city. The railway station was packed. Crowds went out of control and the railways had to summon special police. Those who could not get the train took the road — leaving on carts and on foot. Prices of commodities shot up. There was chaos and confusion.
Emden, weighing 3,600 tonnes and armed with 22 guns, was on a mission in the Eastern seas to sink commercial ships. Without any resistance or difficulty, it came close to the shores of Madras and fired a volley of shots. After striking at two oil tanks, it indulged in ‘fancy shooting.’
D. Scott, a contributor to The Indian Review, who witnessed the scene standing under the old light house battery, reported that shells lay scattered as far away as Poonamallee High Road, Choolai, Casa Major Road and Nungambakkam.
“The projectiles found many a billet in the buildings of Port Trust, Boat House of the Madras Sailing Club and facade of the new National Bank of India,” he wrote. A few unexploded shells were also lying around. In all, three died and 13 were injured.
Surprisingly, there was no report in The Hindu about the shelling on the following day or the day after. Possibly, the government had restrained the newspaper from reporting it. Such unwise moves only made things worse.
Rumours spread thick and fast. On the second night after the bombing, The Hindu reported that “an Eurasian dressed in the Madras Volunteer Guard uniform” was spotted in Mafzhurkhan Gardens, spreading false news that Emden would attack the city again. People, the paper said, “spent sleepless nights watching to hear the sound of first gun to get away from the town.”
None of this perturbed Lord Pentland, the governor of Madras, who was then camping in Ooty. He descended from the hills only on September 25, three days after the bombing. He met officials at Central station at 7.10 a.m., went to the harbour, visited General Hospital to meet the wounded, and by 10.15 a.m., was in the government house.
He assured a group of war fund contributors that Emden would not revisit the city and returned to Ooty after a couple of days. The Hindu quoted a citizen as saying, “If Madras is safe why not His Excellency remain here?”
Reports about Emden’s exploits continued to pour in: its cunning ways, audacity and ability to outwit the British Navy earned it grudging admiration and helped it find a place in Tamil lexicon.
On November 9,whenEmden was trying to disrupt cables on Cocos Island, it was engaged by Sydney, an Australian cruiser. After a fierce battle, Emden was sunk. The news reached Madras on the morning of November 11. The anxious public heaved a sigh of relief. The Hindu editorial summed up the popular mood: “Now that the Emden has been sunk, the vague fears and risks engendered in the popular mind would disappear.”