As we near the grim anniversary of World War I, let us remember the first great war of the blood-soaked 20th Century.
Shortly before midnight on 8 February, 1904, Japanese destroyers and torpedo boats launched a surprise attack on the great Russian Pacific naval base at Port Arthur. Located at the tip of Manchuria’s strategic Liaodung Peninsula, the port provided Russia with its only ice-free deep water harbor on the Pacific Ocean.
Three hours later, Japan formally declared war on Russia. A similar surprise attack, followed by declaration of war, occurred on 7 December, 1941 when Japan attacked the US Pacific naval base at Pearl Harbor. The example of 1904 seems to have been lost on Washington, or purposely ignored.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Japan and Imperial Russia were locked in bitter rivalry to control the vast, resource-rich region of Manchuria, then a semi-independent Manchu state, today China’s most northern region. Russian railroads were being driven down from Siberia to Mukden, Dalny and Port Arthur, all three newly built Russian cities.
Japan had offered to recognize Russian control of Siberia in exchange for Russia’s agreeing to Japanese rule over Korea.
But St Petersburg balked at making any deal with the upstart Japanese, whom it considered inferior, an arrogant attitude it would soon regret.
Japanese forces under Gen. Baron Nogi fought their way down the Liaodung Peninsula and laid siege to Port Arthur (today Lushun) in which was trapped the bulk of Russia’s Pacific Fleet, including five battleships.
Nogi began launching human wave attacks against the eastern line of Russian forts that guarded the port. These powerful forts and attendant field works were built atop very steep hills that are difficult, as I found, to climb even in peace time. Port Arthur’s 50,000 Russian defenders, mostly from tough Siberian rifle divisions, were armed with quick-fire artillery, machine guns and lots of vodka.
The Russo-Japanese War saw the first widescale use of machine guns, barbed wire, hand grenades, toxic gas, searchlights – all scourges of World War I, 12 years later.
As in the Great War, the generals of 1904 poorly understood the strength and lethality of entrenched troops using automatic weapons. Like the French in 1914, Gen. Nogi sent his troops to deliver bayonet attacks believing that their courage and ardor alone would overcome all defenses. The valiant Japanese infantry was mowed down in a horrible slaughter, as were French Zouaves in Alsace by German machine guns.
Gen. Baron Nogi was an old-school warrior of the emperor.
So much so that he committed ritual suicide (seppuku) when the Emperor Meiji died.
Nogi and many of his senior samurai officers had, in their youth, fought in armor with bows and arrows. Now, they were facing quick-fire guns and Hiram Maxim’s machine guns. Nogi continued attacking the port’s eastern line of forts when he should have attacked the northern defenses centering on the 203-meter hill that provided a panoramic view of the harbor below.
By November, Nogi had suffered over 50,000 dead and wounded. He finally realized, under prodding by younger officers, that the 203-meter hill was the key to the siege. This steep conical hill was barren of growth, swept by machine gun fire and artillery. After a titanic effort, that cost the Japanese 8,000 casualties, the 203-meter hill was finally stormed on 5 December, 1904. Japanese artillery spotters then began targeting the doomed Russian warships in the harbor below. One by on, they were sunk by Japanese 11-inch howitzers.
Soon after, Port Arthur surrendered. But the war was far from over: Japanese forces marched north into Manchuria where they fought a series of huge battles against Russian forces, the largest around Mukden (today Shenyang). The Japanese never had enough forces to outflank and surround the Russian armies, that kept retreating north in good order. As 14 years later on the Western Front, decisive victory was elusive while casualties grew to previously unimagined numbers. The vast battles in Manchuria, covering broad fronts, were another evil portent of World War I.
Since Russia’s Pacific Fleet was bottled up in Port Arthur, its Baltic Fleet was ordered to sail around the globe to relieve the besieged base and head to Vladivostok. As the Russian fleet was leaving the fog-shrouded Baltic, it blundered into British herring-fishing boats and, believing them Japanese torpedo boats that somehow had come to the Baltic, opened fire, sinking a number of them. Britain almost declared war on Russia.
Denied use of the Suez Canal by the furious British, Russia’s Baltic fleet had to sail 33,000 km around Africa and Indochina to finally reach the north Asian waters.
At the Tsushima Strait between Korea and Japan, the renowned Japanese admiral Togo Heihachirō ambushed the Russian fleet in the Tsushima Strait, sinking or capturing eight battleships, one of the greatest victories in naval history.
Both exhausted and bankrupt by the war, Japan and Russia signed a peace agreement at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in 1905 brokered by US President Theodore Roosevelt, who had his own plans for North Asia.
Russia was humbled, becoming the first western power defeated by an “inferior” Asian nation. Japan was suddenly on the world map, a new force to be reckoned with. Tokyo began dreaming of greater Asian conquests.
The Romanov dynasty in St Petersburg was not only humbled: revolts soon broke out in Russia (1905) and in Poland. The gigantic, creaky apparatus of czarist rule began to shake and groan. The fuse was lit for the 1917 Revolution.
Tragically, though there were many skilled military observers at the 1904-05 war, and real war correspondents, unlike today’s “embedded” hacks, somehow the terrible lessons from this first modern war were largely lost. The French and British would make the same mistakes as Nogi did at Port Arthur. Too many World War I generals remembered the Crimean War while ignoring the Russo-Japanese War.