A Game of Battleships

Roger Hudson expands on an image of Russian ships destroyed by the Japanese at Port Arthur, 1904.

Two badly damaged warships of the Russian Far East Fleet lie in Port Arthur sometime in the middle of 1904. On February 8th Admiral Togo of Japan had launched a surprise torpedo attack on the fleet with his destroyers, hitting two old pre-Dreadnought Russian battleships as well as the 6,600-ton cruiser Pallada, on the left in the photograph. Only three hours later did Japan formally declare war (a trait that was to reach its culmination at Pearl Harbor in 1941). A series of inconclusive naval actions followed. On April 12th two old Russian battleships slipped out of Port Arthur, but both hit Japanese mines, the Petropavlovsk sinking within minutes and taking the Russian commander Admiral Makarov down with her. The Pobeda (on the right in the picture) got back into harbour, though badly disabled. The following month it was the turn of two Japanese battleships to be sunk by Russian mines.

The clash between the two empires came because of the weakness of a third, China. In 1894-95 Japan had roundly defeated China, taking control of Korea, Taiwan, the Pescadore Islands and the Liaodong Peninsula in Manchuria. Within days of the peace treaty being signed, however, Russia pressured France and Germany into joining her in a demand that the peninsula be taken back from Japan, since Russia had designs on it herself. Her Far East port of Vladivostok, terminus of the Trans-Siberian Railway, froze up outside the summer months and in 1898 she signed a lease with China allowing her to establish a warm-water base at Port Arthur, at the end of the peninsula, about 250 miles to the east of Beijing. She was also obtaining mining and logging concessions in Korea. China’s Boxer Rebellion in 1900 then acted as an excuse for Russia to bring 177,000 troops into Manchuria to ‘safeguard her interests’ there, while Chinese troops were ejected from the province. It was all too evident to the Japanese which way the wind was blowing and they saw they would have to act soon before it reached gale force when the remaining incomplete section of the Trans-Siberian Railway, around Irkutsk, was finished. Britain was also alarmed enough to force China to lease her the port of Weihaiwei, about 150 miles to the south of Port Arthur, from where developments could be monitored. Attempts in 1903-4 to agree that Manchuria should be Russia’s while Korea fell to Japan were wrecked by Tsar Nicholas II’s hankering after what he thought would be an easy war to bolster his position at home.

By April 1904 Japanese land forces, after completing the seizure of Korea, had started investing Port Arthur. The Russian fleet tried to break out in June and then in August, without success; by early December the Japanese had seized 203 Meter Hill, from which they could bombard the Russian ships below without them being able to reply. Four battleships and two cruisers, including the Pallada and the Pobeda, were quickly sunk. Russia’s Baltic Fleet had been dispatched to relieve Port Arthur in October, but while Port Arthur surrendered in January 1905, the fleet did not arrive until May, when it was promptly wiped out by Admiral Togo at the Battle of Tsushima. The peace treaty that followed, brokered by Teddy Roosevelt, required the Russians to evacuate Manchuria and Port Arthur, while back in Russia the defeat triggered the 1905 Revolution, a dress-rehearsal for 1917. In 1910 Japan annexed Korea.

It was not until July 1939 that Russia got her revenge, when the Japanese invaded Outer Mongolia. Marshal Zhukov, with 58,000 men, 500 tanks and 250 aircraft, inflicted 61,000 casualties on the Japanese at the cost of 23,000 of his own men at the battle of Khalkin Gol. It is labelled the start of the Second World War by some, just as the war of 1904-5 is claimed to be the first modern war because of the weaponry used and the numbers killed, about 130,000 in all.

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