ON THE EVE OF THE RUSSO-JAPANESE WAR
Russia’s interference, as well
as that of Germany and France, in the Sino-JapaneseWar, as a result of which
in 1895 Japan lost all the fruits of its victoryover China, engendered in
the heart of every Japanese hatred primarilytowards Russia as Japan’s
main adversary in the Far East. Again, when seekingto increasingly establish
itself in the region, Russia in 1898 leased thesouth of Liaotung Peninsula
with Port Arthur from China for twenty-fiveyears, this concealed hatred turned
into open fury. Realization of thefact that as a result of the Shimonoseki
Treaty Russia had not only deprivedJapan of its gains, but also had shortly
appropriated them, was intolerablefor the national self-respect of the Japanese.
Indeed, this self-respectand the national objectives of the leaders of the
Land of the Rising Sunaimed at creating a great Japanese Empire on the Asian
continent went handin hand, mutually feeding and inspiring each other. From
Emperor Mutsuhitoto the last ricksha—everyone in Japan understood that
plans to expand thenation’s “lebensraum” could be implemented
only by force of arms.
Unlike the Russians, thepoliticians who implemented Japan’s foreign policy with Marquis Ito, the“Japanese Bismarck” at the head, did not seek to do much good to the Universe with pacifist utopias. They cared only for the interests of their nativecountry and did that remarkably well. Using the international situationto their greatest advantage, in 1902 they concluded an alliance with GreatBritain and secured moral and economic support from the United States.During 1898-1903, the Japanese created a homogeneous and top-quality armorednavy, rearmed their army with the excellent rifle of 1898, and organizedand trained significant reserves 1).All this was totally overlooked by Russian observers.
And not only observersfor that matter, but most importantly by the Russian government. Like Russian society, from the time of the ill-fated Hague Conference of 1899 2),it was permeated with lulling and weakening pacifism. No one contemplatedwar seriously. And moreover of a war in the Far East. Russia’s militaryplanning from 1895 to 1903 was subjected to significant changes. First,Russia thought that the troops from her Amur Military District alonecould cope with Japan (the notorious Russian “walkover” policy). Then thegovernment decided to reinforce those troops with six reserve corps fromthe Siberian and Kazan Military Districts, and later resolved to enhancethe quality of the reinforcements by sending to the Far East two more fieldcorps, the 10th from the Kiev Military District and the 17th from the MoscowMilitary District.
As for Russia’s naval forces, in 1902 its Pacific squadron was considerably weakened by purelycommercial considerations. True, by the end of 1903 it was strengthenedagain. Yet, the then almighty Finance Minister Vitte insisted that thewarships be transferred to the status of so-called “armed reserve”, which greatly weakened the fleet’s readiness. Moreover, Russia’s naval forceswere dispersed. The cruisers were based in Vladivostok, and the main shockwarships—the battleships, cruisers and destroyers were shortsightedly transferredto the shallow and almost unequipped Port Arthur. There they had no workshops,no docks, and even the slightest damages threatened to prove deadly towarships. Port Arthur’s small and shallow roadstead had only one narrowoutlet to the sea, accessible to big ships only at high tide, and the fortresswas poorly defended from the sea and, particularly, from land. Onthe eve of the war, only 116 cannons covered Port Arthur from the sea,and only eight from land. The garrison consisted of incompletely recruited4th and 7th East Siberian divisions.
Based in Port Arthur byJanuary 1904 were the battleships “Tsesarevich”, “Retvisan”, “Sebastopol”,“Petropavlovsk”, “Poltava”, “Pobeda” and “Peresvet”. Also based there werethe cruiser “Bayan”, the light cruisers “Askold”, “Boyarin”, “Novik”, “Diana”and “Pallada”, the small mine cruisers “Vsadnik” and “Gaidamak”, the pocket coastguard cruiser “Zabiyaka”, and also the gunboats “Giliak”, “Bobr”,“Otvazhnyi” and “Gremiashchii”. Also based in Port Arthur were twenty-fivetorpedo boats and transports
“Amur”, “Enisei” and “Angara”. Being training vessels,the cruisers “Dzhigit” and “Razboinik” were moored in Dairen, and cruiser“Variag” and torpedo boats “Koreets”, “Sivuch” and “Manchzhur” in Koreanand Chinese ports. Finally, the battlecruisers “Gromoboi”, “Rossia” and“Riurik” , as well as the light cruiser “Bogatyr”, the transport “Lena”and ten torpedo boats were based in Vladivostok to make up a total forceof sixty-nine units.
All this seemed a formidable force. However, on the eve of 1904, the Japanese navy in the Pacific consisted of six battleships and armored cruisers, twelve light cruisers, eight torpedo boats, twenty-eight destroyers, nineteen minelayers and a considerablenumber of auxiliary vessels. Japan also had two obsolete battleships andthree cruisers. In March 1904, the Japanese navy commissioned two morebattlecruisers to make up a total of eighty-six units. The main forceswere based in Sasebo. 3)
Unfortunately, the Russian squadron was inferior to the Japanese Navy not only in the number, butquality of vessels. The Japanese ships were faster. Whereas all theJapanese battleships could move at a speed of 18 knots and more, only threeRussian battleships could move at 16 knots. Moreover, the area of the armoredside of Russian battleships of this class was almost thirty percent lessthan that of the Japanese vessels. Russian battleships were inferior tothe Japanese in main caliber firing rate. Finally, Japanese shells hadgreater penetrating and destructive power than Russian shells.
This was so because Russian shellswere lighter than the Japanese shells by twenty percent, and at great firingdistances their penetrating power was considerably weaker. Japanese explosiveshells had up to 14 percent explosive substance, while Russian shells onlyslightly over 2 percent. Moreover, Japanese shells used trinitrophenolas explosive substance, while Russian guns used pyroxylin, a substancetwo times weaker in explosive power.4)
Hopefully, the readerwill forgive me for citing so many figures and tactical details, but Ibelieve that without them some collisions of the impending war would notbe quite clear.
In a sharp ultimatum, on December 31, 1903 Japan demanded the withdrawal of Russian troops from Manchuria.Petersburg deemed it unnecessary to respond to “this impudence”. Then on January 24, 1904 the Japanese government notified Russia that it seversdiplomatic relations with her. On the following day, January 25, CountV. N. Lamsdorf, Russia’s Foreign Minister, in reply to a request by AdmiralE. I. Alexeev, the Russian Emperor’s viceroy in Port Arthur, to permitmobilization and declaration of martial law in Liaotung Peninsula, cabledhim as follows: “Severance of diplomatic relations with Japan by no meanssignifies war”.5)
But Marquis Ito thoughtotherwise. He broke off relations with Russia with quite a clear and specificobjective in mind, namely to attack the Russians by surprise on the followingday, January 26.
Meanwhile, on that day,all the commanding officers of the Russian naval base in Port Arthur gathered in good mood to celebrate the birthday of the spouse of Rear-Admiral Stark, Commander of the Port Arthur squadron. All were happy and gay. The bandwas playing loudly, and the most honorary guest, Admiral Alexeev, the viceroy, glided along the parquet with the heroine of the day with surprising grace for his rather obese figure. When the dance reached its apogee, and theviceroy stood on his knee to circle the lady, the windowpanes suddenlyshook from the thunder of the cannonade. Everyone applauded surprised bysuch a timely salute, and the overall excitement increased. The ball continuedto the accompaniment of the orchestra and artillery fire.
1) A. Kersonovsky. A
Historyof the Russian Army. Vol. III. Moscow, 1994, pp. 53,54.
2) First Hague Conference (there were three) was held in 1899 with participation of 26 nations. It adopted three conventions on laws and customs of warfare. Military Encyclopedic Dictionary. Moscow, 1983, p.175 (in Russian).
3) Red-Banner PacificNavy. Moscow, 1981, p.p.29, 30 (in Russian).
4) Ibid. p. 30 (in Russian).
5) Russo-Japanese Warof 1904-1905. Naval Operations: Documents, Section III. St. Petersburg. Ed. 2, p. 5 (in Russian).
Photographs: Battleship “Petropavlovsk”; Armored Cruiser“Riurik”.
A.V. BORODIN, Leading Editor, Institute of History,Archeology and Ethnography of the Peoples of the Far East, F. E. Branch,Russian Academy of Sciences, Colonel (Retired), Pacific Fleet veteran.
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