The Russo-Japanese War

The Russo-Japanese War
Above, Japanese infantry assaulting Russian positions. Below: Russian infantry await them.

The Russo-Japanese War brought recognition to Japan as a major world power. Russia's defeat in the war increased the Russian public's dissatisfaction with the Tsarist government of which led to massive social upheavals in 1905. The Russo-Japanese War began on February 8, 1904 when Japan attacked Port Arthur in Manchuria. It ended on September 5, 1905 with the signing of the Treaty of Portsmouth.

The principal causes of the war were the conflicting ambitions of Japan and Russia in the area, primarily over the issue of increasing Russian acquisitions of commercial and military positions in Manchuria, and the desire of the Japanese to effectively control Korean trade and industry. Also of prime importance to the Japanese was the maintenance of effective control over the waters between Japan and Korea as Japan viewed Korea as being in her "backyard". Throughout the late 1800's Russia had been expanding it's holdings in Manchuria and it's interests all over East Asia generally. The Trans-Siberian Railway connecting Moscow and the farthest eastern port in Russia, Vladivostok, was begun in 1891. In 1896, a treaty between Russia and China enabled Russia to proceed to completion of the Chinese Eastern Railway across Manchuria, thus giving Russia partial control of that province. In 1898, Russia leased the Liaotung Peninsula from China and there built the naval base of Port Arthur and the commercial port of Dalny, while simultaneously expanding its influence in Korea. A further opportunity for expansion and solidification of Russian power in Manchuria came with the Chinese Boxer Rebellion of 1900-1901.

Japan, which also wanted to extend its power and influence over the area at the expense of China, as well as ensure the security of its commercial and military access to the Korean Peninsula through control of the contiguous waters, felt seriously threatened by these Russian moves.

The Sino-Japanese War of 1894 was fought, from the Japanese standpoint, to preserve the integrity of Korea from Chinese penetration. The treaty of Shimonoseki terminated the war in the Japanese favor and affirmed the independence of Korea, along with awarding Japan the year-round ice-free port of Port Arthur with the whole Liaotung Peninsula, which effectively gave her control of the Yellow Sea almost to the same degree that she controlled the Sea of Japan. However, subsequent pressure from France, Germany and Russia forced Japan to relinquish these gains back to China. These three countries had aspirations in that area and Japan was not yet strong enough to maintain her new "continental" position. Japan retained only Formosa and the Pescadores Islands, which extended her strategic archipelago southward, and she now saw that Korea was in danger of absorption by Russia as that country steadily increased its influence in Korean politics. Japan used the war indemnity paid her by China (financing arranged by Russia!) to build a new navy, initially six first-class battleships and six armored cruisers, to be delivered within seven years. In addition to her old naval bases at Kure, Yokosuka and Sasebo she established and improved torpedo bases at Makung in the Pescadores, at Ominato in the Tsugaru Strait and at Takeshiki on the island of Tsushima, and created a new fleet base at Maizuru in Wakasa Bay on the western coast of the main island. In February, 1896, Japan's heavy-handed efforts to influence the Korean court resulted in the Korean king fleeing to the Russians for protection. Deep, mutual suspicion prevailed as Japan and Russia began negotiations, with Japan primarily concerned with defending the Korean Straits while Russia was in reality focused on defending her Trans-Asiatic Railway.

Due to the tremendous distances involved in the projected northern route of the Trans-Asiatic Railway, with the terminus in the non-ice-free port of Vladivostok, Russia demanded (in return for financing China's war indemnity) that China permit the railway to run through northern Manchuria with terminus in the ice-free port of Port Arthur. With the Japanese armies of occupation still in Korea and southern Manchuria, Japan could conceivably threaten the poorly situated, strategically and geographically speaking, port of Vladivostok. Russia demanded the retrocession of the Liaotung Peninsula from Japan, with the idea of establishing a naval base at Port Arthur. A Russian squadron anchored at Port Arthur on Dec 15th, 1897. In March, 1898, China leased the Kuan-Tung Peninsula, including Port Arthur and Talien-Wan, to Russia for 25 years. The lease included the right to connect them with the Eastern Chinese Railway by a line through southern Manchuria. Japan, for it's part, already owned the Korean railroads and had sent thousands of Japanese settlers to Korea. In the immediate years leading up to 1902, when the Japanese made an alliance with Britain, Russian and Japanese diplomats made a series of agreements about Korea and Manchuria. But the Russians broke the agreements, and coupled with the rapid build-up of the Japanese fleet, preparations for war entered high gear, at least insofar as the Japanese were concerned.

One interesting aspect of the Russo-Japanese War was the political and economic influence of the so-called "neutrals", England, Germany, France, China, Korea and the United States being the principals in this regard. The neutral ports (many technically neutral) of Chemulpo, Shanghai, Chifu, Tsingtao, Saigon, and others were involved in diplomatic intricacies, problems of treatment of neutral shipping, sea chases, refuge and internment, even blockade (Shanghai). Many of the major neutral countries had substantial naval presence in the area, not only afloat but in terms of access to port and repair facilities such as those at Tsingtao, Kiao-Chau (Germany) Port Adams (Russia) Kwangchauwan (France) Weihaiwei, Shanghai and Hong Kong (British). Foreign embassies, settlements, concessions and private dock facilities in Tientsin, Chefoo and Shanghai provided bases of operation, refuge, diplomacy, and trade for the major powers. Although the Russo-Japanese War was essentially a local conflict, it had far reaching international consequence, particularly within the areas of naval and maritime affairs and international diplomacy.

The Russo-Japanese war was the biggest, most spectacular war the world had ever witnessed. The land battles, in terms of numbers engaged, dwarfed Gettysburg, Borodino and Waterloo. Siege and trench warfare in the muddy Manchurian terrain featured massive artillery barrages, dugouts, extensive undermining and excavation networks and massed "human wave" attacks against heavily defended positions. Breech-loading rifles, machine guns and quick-firing artillery pieces meant heavy losses to both combatants. Logistics factors and lines of communication were often critically threatened and difficult or impossible to maintain. Forced marches and large scale unit maneuvers over difficult terrain and great distances, often carried out in the severe Manchurian winter, were characteristic of the land actions.

At sea, armored battleships of the pre-dreadnought era equipped with twelve inch guns and the most modern optical sighting systems met for the first time in battle on relatively equal terms. The tactics of battleship, destroyer and torpedo boat warfare were defined and perfected in an extensive and complex naval warfare scenario acted out under difficult and challenging navigational situations featuring inadequate navigational aids, swift and dangerous currents and rock strewn coasts and shoal waters, all against the background of the characteristic fogs, rain, high winds and rapidly changing weather conditions of those latitudes, thirty-five years before the development of radar and six years before the first afloat test of the marine gyro compass.

The extensive, lengthy, and costly blockade of Port Arthur by the Japanese and the great battles of the Yellow Sea and Tsushima Straits were landmark engagements in the history of naval warfare, set against a complex backdrop of a naval compaign which featured hundreds of minor engagements, operations, and incidents, and saw the most sophisticated and effective use of the torpedo and contact mine up to that time.

On the diplomatic front, each new victory and defeat reverberated throughout the capitals of the world. The outcome of the Russo-Japanese War signaled a major shift in the balance of power, not only between the Asian nations themselves but also between Asia and the western nations, as well. For Russia, perhaps the ultimate consequence of defeat was the Russian Revolution, while for Japan victory meant a firm footing in a new era of expanding national influence and technological development.

from the Russo-Japanese War Research Society  

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