On a cold, dark night in February, 1904, Vice Admiral Oskar Victorovich Stark and the other elite members of the Russian East Asian society were gathered aboard the Admiral’s flagship to celebrate the birthday of Stark’s wife. The ship, the Petropavlovsk, was one of 16 ships that lay at anchor in the harbor of Port Arthur, Manchuria – a recently acquired naval facility acquired by the Russians from the weak Qing Dynasty of China. Stark and his superior, viceroy of the Far East, Evgenii Alekseev, knew that there were tensions between their country and that Far Eastern island upstart, but they did not feel the need to worry. The glorious Russian Empire controlled a full sixth of the land on Earth. Little, resource-poor, and recently arrived on the world stage, Japan couldn’t pose a threat to Russia, could it?
True, ten years ago, Japan had defeated massive China in a war. Quite the upset. But China was an ossified power, stuck in the past – not a modern military force with many recent wars under its belt, like Russia. True, Japan was still smarting from the diplomatic defeat they suffered after beating China. The Japanese military had won control over large portions of the Korean peninsula and the Liaodong Peninsula, including Port Arthur where the Russian fleet sat. In a master-stroke of diplomacy, the Russian government put pressure on Japan to be lenient on China – allowing Japan to maintain its unofficial sphere of influence over Korea and its territorial gains to the south, but the northern Liaodong Peninsula stayed with the Chinese. How selfless of the Russians, right? Helping their weak neighbors to the south to avoid losing a key piece of territory. Well, not so much. Just a few short years after this intervention on the side of the Middle Kingdom, Russia coerced the Qing Emperor to lease them the Port Arthur portion of the peninsula for a period of 25 years. The Japanese were not happy with this development – clearly the Russians had kept Japan from taking control of the Liaodong because the Russians wanted it for themselves. From their foothold in the warm water port at Port Arthur and from their Eastern headquarters in Vladivostok, the Russians extended their sphere of influence to cover much of Manchuria – a resource-rich land that the Japanese sorely coveted. The stage was set for tension and perhaps war.
As Admiral Stark and his friends celebrated his wife’s birthday, the Russian sailors were on a slightly heightened state of alert – but they were not expecting any sort of action. Two destroyers patrolled the surrounding sea while the remaining ships were at anchor at the entrance of the harbor. They were assisted by the light provided from the ships at anchor and the lighthouse on the shore. Otherwise, however, the Russians deployed no security measures. No antitorpeo netting or any other defenses. Admiral Stark was more concerned that his ships would collide with their neighbors in the dark sea than an attack. Stark, however, was not playing with all in the information. Two days earlier, Japan had recalled its ambassador to St. Petersburg an action that, given the tensions between the two countries, worried a combat commander. Stark never received word that this had happened.
Out in the waters of the Yellow Sea between the Korean peninsula and China, two fleets of Japanese war vessels were at sea. One of the fleets sailed into the port of Inchon, outside of Seoul to control the Korean coast. The second fleet commanded by Vice Admiral Togo Heichahiro headed for Port Arthur with the goal to damage Russian naval options in the Pacific and to limit its capability during the planned war. The Japanese fleet was divided into three flotillas – the first sailed in close to the harbor – protected by a late-rising moon, which meant the night was very dark. The first four Japanese ships fired six or seven torpedoes at the Russian fleet: scoring three hits. The second two flotillas were much less successful. They had lost the element of surprise because they were late arriving at the harbor. They had lost contact with the first after two ships had collided causing confusion. As they came close to Port Arthur, the Japanese ships fired their torpedoes, but doing so under duress, they were unable to hit their targets. Despite having near-perfect sneak attack conditions – a clear, dark night with light seas and the ability to get close without being detected – the Japanese attack was of limited success. Only three torpedoes caused any damage, but failed to sink any ships or to cause many casualties. Two of the damaged ships were battleships, the Retvizan and the Tserarevich. The third was a cruiser, the Pallada. All three ships were put out of action for a few weeks. Despite the near comedy of errors that struck the Japanese fleet as they approached Port Arthur and the meager results, the assault on Port Arthur was a clear victor for Japan. Russian morale plummeted – the soldiers and sailors in Port Arthur were stunned. No one had expected the attack. This gave the Japanese the time they needed to build up the strength they would need to win the upcoming conflict with Russia over Chinese Manchuria.
The Russian army in Manchuria was led by the Minister of War, General Aleksei Nikolaevich Kuropatkin who held an outstanding reputation as a soldier and an administrator. He was not, however, a tactical leader. His indecisiveness was to cost the Russian army over and over again. His counterpart on the Japanese side was Field Marshall Oyama Iwao, who demonstrated a tactical brilliance that allowed his armies to routinely out-maneuver his adversary. Oyama had served as a military attaché to the Prussian army and he followed a distinctively Prussian mode of military operation – emphasizing superior firepower and maneuverability.
The Japanese strategy was to cut off Port Arthur from all communication and chance of relief by blockading it by sea and by occupying the peninsula north of the city. As such, Japanese forces were landed on the Korean Peninsula and marched north to Yalu River which divides Korea and Machuria. By late April the Japanese troops stared across the river, high with spring melt, at the Russian foes. The Prussian training of the Japanese officers showed during the artillery barrage that marked the start of the battle. Russian guns were woeful overmatched and were quickly silenced by the Japanese counterparts. Japanese troops were then order to ford the river in close order under heavy fire from the Russian infantry. Hundreds were wounded in the crossing, many so badly that they were swept away down river and drowned. But, the Japanese organization unnerved the Russian troops, who were already nervous of their foe following the sneak attack at Port Arthur. With strong artillery shelling at their backs, the Japanese forced the Russians back. General Kuropatkin of the Russians was furious with his field commander for not withdrawing sooner in the face of superior numbers. In a clear demonstration of his indecisiveness, Kuropatkin had also ordered his subordinates to stand firm. With contradictory orders such as these, it’s no surprise the Russian officer corps was less than effective.
Once they crossed the river into Manchuria, Field Marshall Oyama directed his forces to cut the railway that connected Port Arthur to the rest of Russian territory far to the north. As Oyama’s troops advanced, the Russian high command – Viceroy Alekseev and General Kuropatkin could not have been on more different pages. Alekseev wanted to save Port Arthur at all costs from being cut off by the Japanese. Kuropatkin was worried about the well-being of his most elite troops – the ones that would be most likely to be of great use should the tide of war be turned – his Cossack cavalry. Neither of these stances should be surprising: the navy-man Alekseev wanted to save the port and the army-man Kuropatkin wanted to preserve his troops. However, with no one, save the tsar thousands of miles away in St. Petersburg, over them, the two leaders entered a bickering match instead of fighting the enemy. Taking advantage of this, the Japanese forces slowly made their way across the Liaodong until, at the end of July they had succeeded in cutting of Port Arthur entirely.
Meanwhile, the Russian naval forces bottled up in Port Arthur harbor were not sitting by waiting to be rescued. Admiral Stepan Makarov had replaced the disgraced Admiral Stark after the sneak attack and the new commander, too, took the Petropavlovsk to be his flagship. Makarov enjoyed an outstanding reputation for being an intelligent and energetic admiral. Shortly after taking command, a Russian destroyer was attempting to sneak into Port Arthur harbor when it was cornered by Japanese vessels. The cruiser dispatched to help the troubled ship only succeeded in picking up five survivors. The rest of the destroyer’s crew was captured. Makarov was furious and sailed out of the harbor with two battleships and three cruisers, meaning to take the fight to the Japanese. In his haste to meet the enemy, Makarov did not take any precautionary measures to avoid traps set by the Japanese to prevent such an escape. The Petropavlovsk struck an underwater mine which caused the magazine on the mighty ship to explode – splitting the battleship in two. Makarov and most of his crew went down with the ship in a matter of minutes. Moments later, the second battleship also struck a mine and started to list badly. The accompanying cruisers thought they were under attack by submarines and started to fire indiscriminately into the water. Now the issue is – the Japanese had no submarines in the water that spring – not just in the waters around Port Arthur but anywhere. Their first submarines would not come online until December of that year.
The Russian admiralty was not the only one, however, to have bad luck testing the limits of these relatively new maritime warfare methods – remember we are only about 50 years removed from the American Civil War where lumbering ironclads like the Monitor and Merrimack faced off. These battleships and cruisers had much higher capabilities than the ships that had come before. On May 15, shortly after the death of Makarov, one Japanese cruiser rammed another in dense fog – sinking the latter. This was only to be the start of Admiral Togo’s bad day. As the day progressed, a convoy of three Japanese battleships was being delivered to Togo by Rear Admiral Nashiba, the Hatsuse struck a Japanese mine and sunk almost immediately. Alarmed at the results of the poor visibility, the remaining ships in the fleet attempted to turn back, but another battleship, the Yashima, struck yet another mine and sank later after being towed to safety. You’d think that losing two-thirds of his charge to friendly mines would have made Nashiba’s day bad enough, but it got worse. Commanding his remaining battleship and accompanying vessels from a dispatch ship, Nashiba ran aground in the fog. Despite these almost comic mishaps, the blockade held – aided hugely by the fact that the Russian battleships damaged in the sneak attack had not yet come back online.
Throughout the summer and fall of 1904, Japanese forces continued to besiege the Russian defenders in Port Arthur. The siege of the city would prove to be the greatest tragedy of the war to this point. With around 100,000 Japanese troops surrounding some 50,000 Russians in defensive positions, the sheer size of the operation was immense. As with any siege, the defenders must find ways to get supplies in or they weaken to a point where they are not able to stand up against the enemy any longer. This was the fate that met many of the Russian soldiers in Port Arthur. When they finally surrendered in January 1905, the Russians had lost some 30,000 men. The Japanese, however, had thrown line after line of men against the Russian defenses. Being slow to grasp the differences that machine guns made to warfare, the Japanese officers led many men to their deaths. Some 60,000 Japanese soldiers lost their lives in the capture of Port Arthur. The real tragedy is that, having successfully, besieged the city, the port was not a militarily significant target any longer. Taking the city served no real purpose towards finishing the war. It was mostly just an operation of prestige – an exercise in regaining the face lost 10 years earlier when the Russians talked the Japanese into giving up this valuable piece of land. Finally, Japan had this foothold in Manchuria back in their hands – wrestled from a much larger enemy.
Asakawa, K. The Russo-Japanese Conflicts: Its Causes and Issues. Kennikat Press: London, 1970.
Schimmelpenninck Van Der Oye, David. Toward the Rising Sun: Russian Ideologies of Empire and Path to War with Japan. Northern Illinois Press: 2001.
Steinberg, John W. All the Tsar’s Men: Russia’s General Staff and the Fate of the Empire, 1898 – 1914. Woodrow Wilson Center: Washington, DC, 2010.
Westwood, J.N. The Illustrated History of the Russo-Japanese War. Sidgwick & Jackson: London, 1973.
Featured Image: “Map of Port Arthur.” Public Domain.
“Admiral Stark.” By Автор репродукции: Здобнов Дмитрий Спиридонович – http://photoarchive.spb.ru:9090/www/showChildObjects.do?object=2501737391, Public Domain.
“Field Marshall Togo.” By Unknown, Public Domain.
“Japanese Soldiers Attack the Russians.” By loki11 – Le Patriote Illustré, Public Domain.
“Admiral Makarov.” By unknown; photo retake by George Shuklin – State museum of political history of Russia, Public Domain.
“Petropavlovsk.” By Неизвеитен. – Архив фотографий кораблей русского и советского ВМФ., Public Domain.
“Hatsuse.” Public Domain.
“Siege of Port Arthur – Japanese Casualties.” By Underwood & Underwood, Inc. – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID ppmsca.07944. Public Domain.
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“Port Arthur: A Tragedy of Errors.” by Andy Smyser is licensed under CC By 4.0. https://historyisstrange.com/2016/06/08/the-emperors-greatest-fear