Saturday, September 10, 2005

To War?

What if the Russians Came?

Defending Melbourne in 1885

Setting the Scene
This article represents one of the “what ifs?” from history. What if war had broken out between Britain and Russia in 1885? What if a Russian force had been able to make an attempt on Melbourne either by land or by sea?

In the years before Federation in 1901, it is a relatively little-known fact that the Australian Colonies built up in some cases fairly considerable defence Forces. I will use this article to take a look at the Victorian Military Forces (VMF) and attempt to demonstrate how they intended to fight off an attacker.

In the Victorian (and more broadly, Australian) context there was by 1885 already a long-standing theme of looking toward a troubled Europe as a source of drawing Britain into wars. That the preoccupation of the Mother Country in such a hypothetical conflict could leave her widely-scattered colonies denuded of defence was often expressed as a source of alarm by the colonists.

Russia was at the centre of such a crisis in 1885. Since as long back as 1877 and even further, Britain had been increasingly concerned about Russian influence in Afghanistan. For many years this isolated and mountainous land had been regarded by Britain as a buffer between her own and Russia’s respective spheres of influence. In that year, Britain went so far as to invade that land in an attempt to oust Amir Shere Ali when they became convinced the Russians had too large a degree of influence over him. In any event the attempt failed and Ali was in turn replaced by the neutrally-minded Abdurraman.

In March 1885 Russian forces soundly defeated an Afghan force at the village of Pendjeh on the northern Afghan border.

On March 23rd the British army in India was preparing to march on the frontier. On the 25th, all British Naval commanders were telegraphed to the effect that they were to prepare all available warships for immediate commission.

In Victoria preparations were immediately put in effect to bring her Military Forces to a state of readiness.

Invasion fears and the Victorian Scene
The Victorian Colonists feared invasion in the latter half of the 19th Century:
“Since the 50s there was a degree of paranoia about the possibility of invasion; and the 80s with its unstable international situation & the widening interest of France & Germany in the Pacific caused alarm. This led to a rapid defence build-up in Victoria. Large fortified batteries were set up at Swan Island, Queenscliff, Point Nepean, and on the shoals at the entrance to the Harbour. Security was there provided the troops didn’t land along the undefended coast. The Victorian Volunteer Artillery was disbanded & replace with the Victorian Artillery Corps & the Victorian Mounted Rifles. Cadet corps were established in state schools and rifle clubs encouraged. More Batteries at Portland Port Fairy & Warrnambool were set up. 1884 saw the Victorian Navy purchase 2 gunboats and 3 torpedo boats. 2 barges on which gun platforms could be set up were established.

“It was all right to be prepared, but there was no one to fight. It was hoped that Victoria could help in February 1885 when news came from Sudan that General Gordon had been killed in the Sudan, but the offer (of two gunboats and a First Class Torpedo Boat, at the time in-transit on their delivery voyages) was rejected by Britain. By March however, people were talking about, and even hoping for, a defence against a Russian invasion. Victorians believed that if Britain were involved in an European war, Melbourne would be a prime target. When Britain and Russia came close to war over Afghanistan in 1885, fortification works at the Heads were speeded up, the channel at the heads was mined, foreign ships were not allowed to enter at night and a number of old hulks were purchased to be sunk at the Heads if necessary. A new division of the Mounted Rifles was established in the country; people armed themselves, drilled in the city streets and attended patriotic meetings. Terms arranged with Russia in May brought a sense of disappointed anticlimax. This sense of vulnerability lasted for the rest of the 1880s and started a small flood of literature setting out what would be the likely outcome of invasions by the Japanese, Russians, Chinese and others.(1)”

Possibility of Invasion
“The colony's defence forces were raised with one purpose only - protection against invasion. The question inevitably arises - was invasion ever a real possibility? This cannot be properly answered, but a memo by Major-General E. Harding Steward, dated 17 November 1884, and on a file of the Victorian Defence Department (0/2/1/1) gives an interesting but unfortunately unverified account of one such planned invasion. Obviously General Steward felt the incident to be true.

“The account states that the Russian Colonel Bodisco during his stay in Japan in 1878, married the daughter of an American lady from California. The Best Man was an officer of the Royal Marine Artillery. This officer gradually became friendly with Bodisco and with the Russian Admiral, and pieced together from their indiscretions the following information.

“Bodisco, who was possibly a Russian secret agent, arrived in Japan in 1877 at the height of the crisis between his country and Great Britain. To the Admiral of the Russian Asiatic Squadron he carried two plans, one of which (at the Admiral's choice) must be carried out immediately news of hostilities between the two countries was received by wire. As the Japanese telegraph link to Europe was through Vladivostock, the Russian admiral should obtain the information ahead of the British. The first project was to attack Hong Kong, supposed to be "in an imperfect State of defence" and then Singapore, "not at that time provided with any fixed defences". This plan was rejected, mainly because the Russian admiral calculated that he might not be sure of leaving Singapore and getting well on his way across the Pacific in time to avoid meeting the British squadron.

“The second proposal, which was chosen by the Admiral, was an attack on Newcastle, Sydney and Melbourne. The five fast steam cruisers of the Russian squadron would leave Japanese ports singly, and rendezvous and call at one of the Ryukyu Islands. They would then make direct for Newcastle, shell the town, compel the port authorities to fill the bunkers of the cruisers, and seize two steam vessels and load them with coal to accompany the squadron. They would then go to Sydney, attack it, and if successful exact surrender of all the bullion in the bank. This operation was to be repeated in Melbourne, after rushing the Heads. The plan then was to circumnavigate Australia, destroying all British vessels encountered en route, to call again at Newcastle for coal, and then strike across the Pacific for San Francisco. Of course, war did not break out, and consequently the scheme was never attempted.

“Is the story authentic? It is known that a Russian squadron visited the Australian ports shortly before, diligently seeking information about each harbour. The Russian Admiral went so far as to exercise some of his officers in marine surveying in Port Phillip, and became most interested in the shoals and their possible alteration. He was also kind enough to allow the port authorities to compare his record of soundings with theirs. General Steward writes that what is not known is that in the winter of 1876, five of the Russian officers revisited Melbourne as private individuals, returning to their ships in the spring, and that Colonel Bodisco had with him while in Japan, a complete, set of Admiralty charts of the Australian ports. The Royal Marine Artillery officer, who is said to have obtained this information when friendly relations between the two countries was restored, speaks of the Russian admiral as one "who appears to have possessed the instinct of a true buccaneer" and who "became almost too frank, especially over his post prandial cups". He adds, "On one occasion he went so far as to say, Striking his thigh at the same time with considerable energy, "Fancy one, after all, missing such a chance! Six millions Sterling! Why, there would not have been such a coup since the days of the Spanish galleons!" (2)”

The Strategic Scene
The defence planners deciding how best to organise the defences of the Colony would have found themselves with the following parameters:

The attacker would be France or Russia
Of the European powers only France and Russia had the capability at this time of launching such an attack from the forces they deployed in the Far East.
The remaining independent or semi-independent, Asian Powers (Japan, China and Siam) either had not or did not intend to develop the trans-Oceanic capability needed to launch amphibious operations.
These were the only two Powers with whom the British Empire had any sense of animus against each other or where spheres of influence rubbed up against each other.

The Colony will never be attacked by more than a raiding force
The tyranny of distance means that an attacker would never be able to support a large invading army (considering the logistics of the time) that would be needed to overwhelm the local land forces (roughly a brigade of four battalions and three batteries of field artillery) and any re-enforcement the other colonies could send (especially New South Wales).
Attacking the Australian Colonies would never be more than an attack upon the prestige of the British Empire. I do not believe the Australian Colonies were a vital interest of the Empire, although the loss of the gold might hurt somewhat in the short term, I wonder if it'd make all that much of a difference in the sense of fighting a war at the time. Any Power capable of mustering the shipping and force to mount of attack would never spare so much on an attack that would never have more than a marginal effect upon the strategic scene.
No force will be able to remain for any length of time because the Australian Squadron will be beating a path toward them as fast as telegraph and fast steamer will allow.

The Attack will be upon the City of Melbourne
Apart from shooting up the coastal trade, what else is there to do? There are 6 millions in sterling in the bank, after all!
Landing a force anywhere but Melbourne means that it is stranded in largely unpopulated countryside that a European Army could not "live off" at the end of a very long logistic trail. Such a force would be very vulnerable.

In the next part of this series, I shall be looking at the fortifications of Port Phillip Bay.

1. Garden, D. “History of Victoria”, 1988 page 256.
2. Jones, C. "Australian Colonial Navies"
3. Millor, T.B. “History of the Defence Forces of the Port Phillip District and Colony of Victoria, 1836-1900”, M.A. Thesis 1957
4. Nichols, B. "The Colonial Volunteers: The Defence Forces of the Australian Colonies, 1836-1901"


Post a Comment

<< Home