One of the more interesting personal stories encountered while I have been revising my 1976 book The Citizen General Staff: The Australian Intelligence Corps 1907-1914 concerned Captain Moreton John Godden Colyer, who was an officer of the New South Wales section of the corps from November 1910 until the AIC formally disbanded on 1 October 1914. It was during the two months after the First World War began at the start of August 1914 that Colyer took part in the little-known campaign by Britain and Japan to sieze the German naval base at Tsingtao (now called Qingdao) in Shandong Province, North China.
The Tsingtao campaign was not hard-fought or long in duration; it involved only a two-month blockade and a week-long siege, and was all over by 7 November 1914. It was nonetheless important because Germany was deprived of the concession on Kiautchau (Jiaozhou) Bay, from which the East Asiatic Squadron of the Kaiserliche Marine (Imperial Navy) operated in support of German colonies across the Pacific – including New Guinea and other localities of strategic interest to Australia.
Colyer only came to be involved in this enterprise because he was living and working in China when the war began, as Professor of Engineering at the University of Changsha, in Hunan Province of south central China. By all accounts he, with his new wife, had taken up this post some 18 months earlier, which explains why their first child was born at Changsha in February 1914. He was still technically and officially an Australian intelligence officer when he offered his services to the commander of the British garrison at Tientsin and became attached to the British forces from 13 August – initially as a war correspondent.
Colyer still held AIC status when he sailed from Wei-hai-wei on 21 September, bound for Laoshan Bay where the British force sent against Tsingtao was landed the next day. The British Army contingent of 1500 men, commanded by Brigadier-General Nathaniel Barnardiston, was dwarfed by a force of 24,000 troops sent by Japan – along with a large column of siege artillery. By then Colyer was working as a staff officer on Barnardiston’s headquarters, where, he later claimed, he constructed ‘practically all the extra maps required’ by the British force (very much an intelligence officer’s duty).
Left: General Barnardiston pictured at breakfast at his headquarters, 2 October 1914; right: Japanese forces formally enter Tsingtao following its fall in November 1914.
Once in the siege lines in front of Tsingtao, however, Colyer seems to have been employed as a guide leading troops around the battlefield to the scene of fighting (another role commonly performed by an Intelligence officer). This probably explains how he suffered a light wound to the face during a night action on 5 November, although sources conflict over whether his injury was a gunshot wound or from a scrap of shrapnel. Whatever the cause, Colyer’s wounding came the day before the Japanese gained a breakthrough of the base’s defences which caused the Germans to surrender.
Following the end of the campaign, Colyer returned to Sydney on 4 January 1915. In May he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force as a staff captain on the headquarters of the newly-raised 7th Infantry Brigade. Embarking on active service again on 20 June, he served on Gallipoli, and when the AIF was withdrawn to Egypt at the end of that campaign he transferred to the 4th Divisional Engineers, as officer commanding the 13th Field Company, on 1 March 1916.
Although his focus was clearly elsewhere, Colyer still harkened back to his Tsingtao adventure. In April he made representations to the senior engineer officer of the 4th Division that he feared he had missed out on a Japanese award, a decoration in the Order of the Rising Sun, that was due to British participants in the China campaign. He pursued the matter until advised by the War Office at the end of May that ‘no such recommendation was ever considered or submitted’.
In June 1916 Colyer moved with his unit to France but served only a month at the front line before a succession of health issues dating back to his time in Egypt, and complaints from superiors about his temperamental unsuitability for command, caused the 44-year-old to be returned to Australia. Shortly after his arrival in October, his AIF appointment was terminated. He became manager of the Gocup Estate at Tumut, NSW, where he remained for many years before retiring to Killara, Sydney, where he died in January 1947.
As one of only 133 officers who served as members of the Australian Intelligence Corps during its existence, Colyer’s story has been told in a lot less detail in the revised version of The Citizen General Staff than it has been possible to include here.