Russian and Japanese Overconfidence: 1905 CE – 1945 CE

One of my sisters held her wedding ceremony and reception at an early 20th century mountaintop mansion known as Castle in the Clouds, located in Moultonborough, New Hampshire. It was built in 1913 CE – 1914 CE by a wealthy shoe manufacturer who later went bankrupt following a series of bad investments, including a significant position in Imperial Russian bonds recommended to him by Theodore Roosevelt.

Teddy should have known better. He was instrumental in arranging the discussions that ended the Russo-Japanese War of 1904 – 1905. In 1906 Roosevelt was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his contributions to the Treaty of Portsmouth [New Hampshire], which was actually negotiated in facilities of the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine.

The conflict basically arose over competition for Manchuria. It is typical of the times that the nominal ruler of the area, Qing Dynasty China, was not a significant player in events there. Korea was a secondary cause.

Japan initiated the war in February 1904 with a surprise attack on Russian boats in the harbor of Port Arthur, which is now known as Lüshunkuo, a district of Dalian in China’s Liaoning Province. Russia’s best ships in the East were disabled or trapped in the harbor.

Racism in Russia, Europe, and North America fed public consensus that Asians were not able to withstand modern military forces. Many westerners were surprized by Japan’s initial success, though the more perceptive had noted the effectiveness of the Japanese contingent sent to join the Allied campaign to suppress the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. Conventional wisdom outside of Japan expected that Russia would eventually emerge victorious, despite the inglorious record of the Russian navy.

After the death of the capable Vice Admiral Stepan Makarov, who was lost with his flagship to Japanese mines, Russian troops were thoroughly depressed by the demonstrated incompetence of their leaders. Russia’s bungled response to the Japanese fomented the discontent that ultimately led to the 1905 Revolution. This had a peculiar effect on the literary tastes of the nation: Milton’s Paradise Lost became a best-seller in Russian translation.

The Japanese destroyed Russia’s Asian fleet through torpedo attacks, mines, and land-based artillery targeting the Russian ships bottled up in Port Arthur’s harbor.

They subjected the city of Port Arthur to a siege that quickly evolved into a battle of attrition, with the Russians using barbed wire and machine guns to devastate Japanese frontal attacks. British observers of Japanese infantry forces at Port Arthur, including Sir Ian Hamilton, seem to have learned nothing from the battle, as their bungling at Gallipoli, remarkable even by English standards in World War I, would demonstrate.

In October of 1904 the Tsar sent Russia’s Baltic fleet to Asia in an attempt to reinforce Port Arthur.

Port Arthur, after a brave defense against land attacks, surrendered on January 2, 1905. Japanese casualties were heavy: about 58,000 killed and wounded, and approximately 40,000 more men lost to disease. The Russians casualties were higher than 31,000. Russia’s generals in Manchuria managed to lose Mukden [Shenyang] and most of their heavy equipment after the capitulation of Port Arthur. Their troops did, however, inflict casualties on Japan at a rate that the island nation could not long sustain.

Despite the fall of Port Arthur, the Baltic fleet was not recalled.

The Baltic fleet’s trip halfway around the world to Asia was from the start an epic journey that ranged from black comedy to bitter farce. Two ships ran aground in port. Mishaps at sea started in earnest when, fearing attack by Japanese torpedo boats, the Russians fired on some English fishing vessels while passing by Dogger Bank. The Russians were simply paranoid: there were no Japanese naval forces anywhere near the North Sea or English Channel. That only three English fishermen were killed, along with a Russian priest and sailor hit by friendly fire, is a testament to abysmal Russian gunnery: one battleship fired 500 shells without hitting anything.

War with Great Britain was narrowly averted, but the English closed the Suez Canal to the Russian fleet. This forced the Baltic armada to steam around Africa.

Coaling proved to be a major issue. When the Russians could obtain fuel, they piled their decks deep with it, a practice that created problems even before the time came for battle. Sailors died from the coal’s noxious fumes, as well as sunstroke, dysentery, suicide, and the suppression of mutiny. Admiral Rozhestvensky was told in Singapore that he would be relieved of command when he reached Vladivostok, a peculiar recognition of his accomplishment in bringing a motley fleet with green crews halfway around the world.

Lack of coal forced Rozhestvensky to route his fleet to Vladivostok between Japan and Korea, rather than safely east of Japan. Admiral Togo patiently and meticulously prepared an attack in the Tsushima Straights. His ships overtook the Russian fleet, dangerously turned in sequence before the Russians, then crossed the T on the Russians, positioning the Japanese ships to fire broadsides that the Russians could not answer.

The Russian armada had steamed over 6 months and 18,000 miles [29,000 km] to be utterly defeated by the Japanese fleet in the first half an hour of battle. By the end of the afternoon, Russia had lost four of its battleships, arguably the most modern in the world at the time.

By the end of the battle, Russia lost all eight battleships under Rozhestvensky’s command. Twenty-one Russian ships had been sunk; seven captured; six disarmed or interned. About 5,000 Russian sailors had been killed, with roughly 9,000 more captured or interned. Three Japanese torpedo boats were lost. Japanese dead totaled 117; wounded 583. Togo visited the severely wounded Rozhestvensky in a Japanese hospital, accompanied by a junior officer, Yamamoto, who was to lead Japan to victory at Pearl Harbor in 1941, and to crushing defeat in the Battle of Midway in 1942.

The peace negotiations Theodore Roosevelt arranged were less favorable to Japan than expected. Japan received Port Arthur, a free hand in Korea, and Southern Sakhalin Island, but no war indemnity from Russia. The Japanese negotiating team was not pleased by the results, but Japan’s economy and military were temporarily exhausted from the war.

There were riots in Tokyo when the terms of the treaty were publicized. The annexation of Korea in 1910 and increasing Japanese predominance in Manchuria eventually reconciled most of the country to the peace treaty. Japan’s invasion of Chinese Manchuria in September 1931 marks the start of World War II in Imperial Japanese records.

Japan developed illusions of invincibility which helped set the stage for their disasters at Nomonhan [Khalkhin Gol] [1939] and Midway [1942], to say nothing of Japan’s fatal arrogance in trying to occupy China proper [1937 – 1945].

Leaders around the world prepared for the most recent war rather than the next conflict by building battleships as the core of their naval forces, often at the cost of developing aircraft carriers, which Midway proved to be the crucial type of ship for World War II’s naval battles.

The Russians seem to have learned more from their experience in 1904 – 1905 than the Japanese: Stalin and Zhukov did not underestimate their Asian enemy.

Further Reading:

• Constantine Pleshakov’s The Tsar’s Last Armada chronicles the ongoing disaster that was the voyage of the Baltic fleet to Tsushima with a wealth of detail. His treatment of the battle itself is brief. It is one of those rare volumes that readers wish were longer.

• Alistair Horne’s Hubris: The Tragedy of War in the Twentieth Century is a welcome addition by a master of narrative history, constituted of concise treatments of Tsushima [1905], Nomonhan [1939], Moscow [1941], Midway [1942], Korea [1950 – 1953], and Dien Bien Phu [1954].

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