New Great War Episode: World War Zero - The Russo Japanese War

Posted by RTH Real Time History on

A group of Japanese warships slips silently through the night towards their unsuspecting prey. The Pacific fleet is at anchor, not realizing that Japan is about to launch a sneak attack to wipe out their main naval base and expand Japan’s influence in Asia. But it’s not 1941 – it's 1904, and the fleet in danger is Russian. The war that is about to break out will see dramatic sieges, the largest land battle in history up to that time, machine guns and modern artillery slaughter thousands, and one of the most crushing naval victories of all time. Japan will be vaulted to Great Power status, while Russia will quake with revolution. It’s World War Zero, the Russo-Japanese War.

By the late 19th century, Japan had emerged as a modern power after centuries of isolation. Under the Meiji Restoration, the government prioritized the adoption of western science, dress, and military technology. The pace of change astonished outsiders like journalist George Rittner:
“In less than twenty years Japan has acquired the knowledge it has taken us centuries to learn.” (Paine 49)
Japanese leaders decided to put the country’s new advantages to use and defeated Imperial China in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894. Japan was the now the strongest power in East Asia, and this new status led to rivalries with the European Great Powers – especially Russia. After its defeat in the Crimean War in the 1850s, the Russian Empire turned its attention to further expansion in the Far East. The city of VladivostOk was founded in 1860 and its very name made Russian intentions clear: “Lord of the East.” From 1894, Tsar Nicholas II tried to increase Russian influence in Manchuria and Korea despite the opposition of some ministers. After the Sino-Japanese war, Russian and the other European powers forced Japan to give up the strategic naval base at Port Arthur, which Russia then forced the Chinese to lease to it. Russian troops also participated in suppressing the Boxer Rebellion in China in 1900-1903, and stayed in Manchuria afterwards.
To Japanese leaders, the situation was intolerable. In their eyes, Russia was threatening Korea and Japan itself – a so-called “dagger pointed at the heart of Japan.” So Japan went looking for allies, and found one in Great Britain. The British were worried about potential Russian expansion towards British India, so in 1902 Japan and the United Kingdom formed an alliance. This agreement meant that Russia and Japan would face each other one-on-one if it came to war. The weak emperors of China and Korea decided it would be best to remain neutral even if fighting broke out on their soil.

So by 1904 Russian and Japanese ambitions in the Far East had reached breaking point. After brief negotiations failed, Japan began to prepare its new army and navy for war.

In 1904, 82 percent of Japan’s national budget went to the military, which had grown to around 400,000 men. The army modelled itself on the Prussian General Staff, prioritized education, leadership, and morale. They also tried to replace old clan loyalties with Japanese patriotism:
“The principal duty of soldiers is loyalty to Sovereign and Country. It improbable that anyone born in this country will be wanting in patriotism; but for soldiers this virtue is so essential that unless a man is strong in patriotism he will be unfit for service… [Remember] always that duty is heavier than a mountain […] while death is lighter than a feather.” (Hamby 344)
The Imperial Japanese Navy modelled itself on Britain’s Royal Navy and boasted state-of-the-art, British-built capital ships. In 1904, it had the fourth biggest fleet in the world, including 6 battleships and 6 battle cruisers. Britain also cooperated with Japan in intelligence, and the Japense built an effective network of informants in the Russian Far East.
Meanwhile Russia’s military was stagnating. There were some quality units in its 1 million strong army, but only 150,000 of these were in the Far East. The vast majority of the conscripts were poorly trained, motivated, and led. The officer corps was still the product of aristocratic favoritism, and non-noble officers were rare since they were considered politically unreliable. The situation was no better in the navy – many sailors came from landlocked provinces with little maritime experience, and they complained that the officers didn’t even know their names. In Port Arthur and Vladivostok it had 7 battleships and 11 cruisers, but these ships were of an older design than those of the Japanese.

So the Japanese set out to plan the coming war, and their strategic thinking was dominated by the navy. Its first strike would be planned in minute detail.

Japan’s war plan was to defeat the Russian fleet, win decisive battles on land, and then achieve a favorable peace deal. Russia’s financial and manpower resources were far greater than Japan’s, so the Japanese wanted to win a short war to force the Russians out of Korea and China’s Liaodong Peninsula.
The Japanese high command planned to land troops in Korea, and push north into Manchuria. Further landings would cut off Port Arthur and open another line of advance from the Liaodong Peninsula. Japanese troops would then join forces for a major battle and push the Russians back to Harbin. The Japanese hoped that at that point the United States would intervene diplomatically and broker a peace treaty.
But for any of this to work, Japan’s maritime supply and logistical routes must be secured, this meant crippling the Russian navy in a surprise attack.
The Russian government, on the other hand, didn’t plan on war with Japan – in spite of encouragement from the German Kaiser. Saint Petersburg was convinced of its racial superiority and the Tsar assumed war would break out only if he decided to start one.
The Russian chain of command in the Far East was equally unprepared. Minister of War Aleksey KuropAtkin was in charge of the military, but in Manchuria he was subordinate to Viceroy YevgEni AleksEyev, and the two did not get along. In case of war with Japan, Kuropatkin wanted to retreat and wait for reinforcements from Europe. Alekseyev wanted to stand and fight, and his opinion counted for more since he was the Tsar’s favorite uncle.

Japan was ready, and declared war on Russian on February 8, 1904. Before the declaration arrived in Saint Petersburg, the Japanese Combined Fleet arrived at Port Arthur.

The Russian Pacific Fleet was not overly worried about a Japanese attack. The ships had anchored outside the main harbor and some torpedo nets had been laid, but few ships were on full alert and many sailors were ashore in Port Arthur’s bars – there was even a party on the flagship PetropAvlovsk.
Admiral Togo was worried that Russian coastal batteries might put his irreplaceable battleships at risk, so he planned a night-time sneak attack. The capital ships waited at some distance while 10 destroyers armed with torpedoes crept up on the unsuspecting Russian ships in the darkness. At 11:30PM, the first four Japanese destroyers launched their torpedoes from a distance of 650 meters. 6 missed their targets, but 2 hit the cruisers PallAda and RetvizAn. The Russians opened fire on the second group of destroyers, forcing them to fire their torpedoes from 1.5 km away. A Russian sailor recalled the moment the battleship TsesarEvich was hit:
“At 11.38 p.m. the commander heard the order “torpedo defense” in the cabin. To get dressed and on deck was a matter of two minutes. During this they opened fire (…). Barely on deck, the commander recognized two Japanese torpedo boats at the rear (…) and a torpedo aiming at the ship from port. A second later the explosion occurred.” (Jacob 29)
Togo ordered his fleet to close in, but the Russian coastal batteries soon forced the Japanese vessels back. No Japanese ships were lost, but only a few Russian ships were damaged and all could be repaired. Psychologically though, the attack had shaken the Russians and achieved its strategic goal, since the cautious Russian commanders ordered their fleet to stay in Port Arthur. This gave the Japanese a free hand to continue landing troops as planned.
In fact before the Port Arthur attack, the Japanese started landing 3000 troops at in Korea at the international port of Chemulpo. Two Russian warships watched closely but couldn’t intervene in a neutral port. Eventually, in contravention of international law, the Japanese told the Russian ships they had to leave the harbor or face destruction. The Russians faced impossible odds, but hoisted their battle flags and engaged the Japanese. British captain Captain Lewis Bayly witnessed the scene:
“Here were 694 Russian officers and men going to almost certain death - for no one expected them, or at any rate many of them, to survive the most unequal conflict - and yet they had their bands playing and were cheering, and their cheers were heartily returned by about four hundred British officers and men, who felt very sorry for them, and admired their pluck in giving battle.” (Warner 192)
The waiting Japanese defeated the Russians in the Battle of Chemulpo Bay, and the Russian commanders scuttled their ships.

The Russo-Japanese war began at sea, but without a decisive engagement. Instead, the focus of the war now shifted to the land.

The Japanese First Army landed 42,000 men in Korea, and planned to land more at DAlniy to cut off Port Arthur. For the additional landing, First Army would have to push back the 19,000 men of the Russian Eastern Detachment along the Yalu and Ai rivers. The first clashes pitted Russian Cossacks against the Japanese in wintery conditions. Despite the Cossacks’ fierce reputation, military translator Usa Ogihiko was unimpressed:
“The Cossack army is an army in name only. In fact they are nothing more than trick riders. There are several hundred thousand Cossacks, but if all of them were to come together, what would they be able to do? They are useless soldiers in a war.” (Hosokawa Gentarō, pp.141-2)
The fast-flowing Yalu river was a natural defensive position, but the Russian chain of command was disorganized. Kuropatkin ordered local commander General Mikhail ZasUlich to retreat if attacked, while Alekseyev told him to stand firm. Zasulich chose to stay and fight.
The Japanese dug artillery pits to hide their guns, and scouts disguised as Korean fishermen reconnoitered Russian positions. The Russians, on the other hand, moved around openly and didn’t camouflage their large artillery carriages. Japanese engineers also built a large bridge in plain sight of the Russian artillerymen, who opened fire and exposed their gun positions even further. Japanese counter-battery fire from concealed guns then knocked out many Russian positions before the main attack began.
Zasulich expected the Japanese to attack near the wide, shallow mouth of the river, within range of their naval guns. Instead, the Japanese used what would become a common tactic in the war: 12th Division crossed the Yalu quite some distance from the Russian flank. Zasulich thought this was a feint and held his position, which allowed the 12th Division to capture the high ground and cross the Ai river after fierce fighting. Japanese Captain Takemine recalled:
“The fierce battle lasted three hours, and all of those who fell were killed or wounded when crossing the Ai River. It is said that the soldiers, standing in the midst of the smoke and bullets, were in high spirits, and with a vigor that could never be seen in ordinary training, they chanted military songs in one voice and kept pace as they advanced. All is as it should be.” (Hosokawa Gentarō, p.102)
With the Russian left flank collapsing, on May 1 the Japanese launched a general assault in the center across the Yalu . They drove the Russians from their trenches, where the Japanese artillery fired on them from the heights. Russian forces retreated to the gorges behind the river, which was also a defensible position if it weren’t for the confusion in the Russian command. Japanese poured fire onto the Russian columns and the 12th Division began to surround them. Lacking clear orders, some Russian units surrendered.
The Battle of the Yalu river cost around 2000 Russian and 900 Japanese lives. Most Russian forces had escaped, but their most important positions in Manchuria were lost. The Japanese landings at Dalniy went ahead, and it seemed the war was going Japan’s way – foreign banks began to loan Japan much-needed cash as well.

After the battle on the Yalu, the Japanese were in position to move on the Russian naval base at Port Arthur from the landward side.

The arrival of Admiral StepAn MakArov at Port Arthur seemed to give the Russians some hope as he led aggressive naval sorties against the blockading Japanese fleet. But in April 1904 the flagship Petropavlovsk hit a Japanese mine and sank with all hands – including the admiral. To make matters worse, the Japanese Third Army moved up from Dalniy and besieged Port Arthur from the landward side. Japanese commander General Nogi, had captured the town in one day in the Sino-Japanese War, but in 1904 it would be a harder nut to crack. With concrete defences, barbed wire, machineguns, and hand grenades, the Russian garrison inflicted heavy losses on the first Japanese assaults. Nogi ordered suicidal human wave attacks, known as nikudan kogeki, or ‘human bullets’. In a single assault, the Japanese lost 16,000 men. Buddhist chaplain Mamiya Eijū recalled the carnage:
“Some of them were missing half of their bodies, some had one arm and one leg removed, some had their heads torn off with only the skin attached, and some had their shoes filled with the flesh of their feet and were abandoned. When burned, they look like blackened rotten fish, and you couldn't know whose son or husband they once were. No illustration of the Buddhist hells has ever portrayed such cruelties.” (Takagi Suiu, Jinsei hachimenkan, 940)
The Japanese government hid the scale of the losses from the public.
With Port Arthur under threat, the Tsar ordered Admiral WIlgelm VItgeft (Wilhelm Withoeft) to take his ships and make a run to join the cruiser force at Vladivostok. Vitgeft was not happy about the order, but on August 10 the Pacific Fleet steamed out with 6 battleships, 4 cruisers, and 8 destroyers. Admiral Togo’s Combined Fleet had 4 battleships and 2 cruisers and smaller ships. Togo had previously lost 2 battleships to mines so he was reluctant to take risks, but he could not allow the Russian fleets to join. The Japanese first tried to sail across the front of the Russians in a maneuver known as “crossing the T,” but ended up behind the Russian ships. The Japanese chased the Russians while the fleets exchanged fire, and a heavy Russian 12-inch shell hit Togo’s flagship Mikasa.
The Mikasa withdrew, but just as the Russians seemed to be slipping away, two Japanese 12-inch shells smashed into the Russian flagship TsesarEvich. Admiral Vitgeft was killed and the ship jammed in a port-ward turn. The Russian fleet panicked and lost cohesion, but was saved from disaster when the battleship RetvizAn charged at the Japanese. Pacific Fleet limped back to Port Arthur and decided to wait for reinforcements. Those reinforcements were the Baltic Fleet, which was re-named the 2nd Pacific Fleet and set off on an epic 8-month journey around the world in October.

So the Japanese had bottled up the Russian Pacific Fleet in Port Arthur and had the town surrounded. The Baltic Fleet was on the way, but before it arrived the fate of Port Arthur and the Pacific Fleet was decided.

In a series of battles throughout the summer of 1904, the Japanese army gradually drove Russian forces away from Port Arthur to defensive positions around the Manchurian town of Mukden. Then in January 1905, Port Arthur capitulated and Japanese artillery sunk the Russian Pacific Fleet in the harbor. The string of defeats caused much tenson amongst the Russians, including between Generals Samsonov and Rennenkampf, whose relations would not improve by the time they commanded at the Battle of Tannenberg in 1914. Interestingly a German military observer of this campaign was Max Hoffmann who later helped met the Russian generals again at the same battle during the First World War.
Japan had won a string of important victories so far, but they had suffered heavy casualties. Russia’s much larger reserves meant it could replace its losses by sending fresh troops east on the Trans-Siberian Railway. Now that Port Arthur had fallen, five Japanese armies could join for the decisive battle their army staff had envisioned to avoid a long war. Japanese commander General Ōyama Iwao knew the Russians were planning a counterattack, so decided to strike first at Mukden.
For the coming battle the Japanese concentrated 200,000 men, 7,300 cavalry and 1000 artillery pieces. The three Russians armies had around 275,000 men, 16,000 cavalry and 1,200 artillery pieces. The Japanese however, had about twice as many machine guns as the Russians.
Ōyama planned to once again outflank the Russian position, and trap them in a pincer movement so that this time they could not escape. On February 17, the Japanese Army of the Yalu began to move through the hills of the Russian eastern flank. A strong artillery barrage pinned the Russian center and Kuropatkin assumed the main Japanese thrust was in the east. He shifted units across the 100km-long front, which weakened his western flank. And it was in the west that the Japanese Third Army launched its primary effort. General Nogi swung around Mukden to threaten the Russians’ lines of retreat. German military observer Captain von Beckmann recorded the Japanese use of machine guns in the advance:
“The Russian fire was silenced, but broke out again whenever the machine gun fire slackened. The Japanese infantry used these pauses in the enemy’s fire to press forward to close range under cover of their own machine gun fire.” (Ivanov & Jowett 10)
Russian troops began to panic. Officers tried to organize counterattacks, but the chaos turned into a rout. Fleeing Russian troops burned supplies and looted supplies of vodka. Colonel Anton Denikin, who would later lead the Whites in the Russian Civil War, recalled the chaos:
“Individual soldiers, sometimes in small groups, then scattering again, helplessly looked for a way out of the trap […] The whole field, as far as the eye could see, was littered with abandoned boxes and heaps of luggage – even from the commander-in-chief's baggage train. Wagons and carts, ambulances, and riderless horses all rushed about in different directions […] For the first time in the war, saw panic.” (Деникин 197-198)
Despite the disaster, Kuropatkin was able to put together a rearguard to prevent total defeat. The fighting had been hard, and the Japanese were once again too exhausted to pursue the weakened Russians. The Japanese had won, but most of the Russian army had escaped and Japanese casualties were an unsustainable 25%. The battle of Mukden was likely the largest in history up to that point in terms of troop numbers and ammunition expended. The Japanese fired as much ammo at Mukden as the entire German army in the 6-month-long Franco-Prussian War – and the Russian used even more.

The Japanese were again victorious at Mukden, but the land war had turned into a meat-grinder they could not continue for long. It was up to the navy to bring the victory that Japan so desperately needed.

The voyage of the Russian Baltic Fleet had taken it around the world, but by the time it reached the theatre of war in May 1905 it was in a poor state. Its 29,000km journey had seen it accidentally fire on British fishing trawlers and face mutinies, refuelling problems and mechanical issues. Its commander, Admiral ZinOvy “Mad Dog” RozhEstvensky, even referred to some of his older ships as “self-sinkers.”
The Japanese fleet was well informed of the Russians’ journey, and used the time to make repairs and train. Admiral Togo planned to ambush the Russian ships as they passed through the 50-km wide Tsushima strait on their way to Vladivostok. Torpedo boats would harass the Russians at night, and the main Japanese Fleet would strike the next day.
When the Japanese sighted the Russian fleet early on May 27, the sea was too rough for torpedo boats, so it would be an all-or-nothing attack with the main fleet. That afternoon the Japanese fleet centred on 4 battleships, 8 armored cruisers and 4 protected cruisers crossed in front of the Russian force led by 8 battleships and 10 cruisers, and performed a bold u-turn on its port side.
For Admiral Akiyama Saneyuki this was the culmination of years of preparation:
“The navy had been built up through many years of painstaking [work], but it all came to a head in a mere 30 minute maneuver. The decade I spent training in tactics and strategy was also all for the sake of those 30 minutes. […] It could not have happened without a decade of preparation, so we could think of it as a decade-long war.” (Akiyama Saneyuki, 79-81)
The Japanese ships steamed obliquely towards the leading Russian vessels and opened fire on the battleships. Both sides scored hits, and the Mikasa was badly hit. The Russians had the heavier guns, but the Japanese had a superior rate of fire and better fire control. The angle of attack also meant the Russians could also fire from their foreturrets while the Japanese could fire broadsides using all available guns. The effect was devastating, as Admiral RozhEstvensky recalled:
“The paint burnt with a clear flame on the steel surfaces; boats, ropes, hammocks and woodwork caught fire; cartridges in the ready racks ignited; upper works and light guns were swept away; turrets jammed.” (Corbett Volume II 249)
In the first hour of battle, the Russian flagship SuvOrov was hit and Rozhestvensky wounded. Shortly afterwards Japanese shells sank the battleship OslyAbya - the first modern ship to be sunk by gunnery alone. A Russian sailor on a nearby destroyer watched his comrades abandon ship:
“The whole of the starboard side as far as the keel was laid bare, her bright plating looked like the wet scales of some sea monster; and suddenly, as if by command, all the men who had crowded to the starboard side jumped down upon these scales… Most of them were dashed against the bilge keel and fell crippled into the sea. In the water they formed an unimaginable mass… and the enemy’s shell never ceased the whole time from bursting over them. A few more seconds and the OslyAbya disappeared beneath the water.” (Corbett Volume II 253)
The battleship AleksAndr TrEtyi charged the Japanese line with all guns blazing, which brought a temporary reprieve for the hard-pressed Russians. At 7:00PM the battle started up again, and damaged Russian ships were easy prey. The Japanese sank the Aleksandr III, then the battleship BorodinO. As night fell, Togo sent in his torpedo boats.
The next morning, only 2 Russian battleships remained and the Japanese had surrounded the remnants of the Baltic Fleet. As there was no hope of reaching Vladivostok, the Russian fleet surrendered. The Japanese victory at Tsushima was staggering. 34 of 38 Russian ships were sunk, captured, or interned in neutral ports, including all the battleships. About 5000 Russian sailors were killed. Japanese losses were three torpedo boats, and 110 dead. The Russian navy was all but gone, and Tsar Nicholas II agreed to negotiate peace terms.

The United States mediated the peace talks in New Hampshire, and President Teddy Roosevelt was heavily involved. Both belligerents needed to end the war quickly: Japan was victorious but militarily exhausted, and revolutionary unrest was brewing in Russia. Japanese troops occupied SakhalIn Island in July to pressure the Russians, while the Russians sent fresh divisions to Manchuria to pressure the Japanese. Eventually, the Treaty of Portsmouth was signed on September 5, 1905. Russia would withdraw from Manchuria and the Liaodong Peninsula, and grant most of the railway concessions to Japan. South Sakhalin would remain Japanese, while Russia recognized Japanese dominance over nominally independent Korea. Russia, however, refused to pay a war indemnity to now-bankrupt Japan. President Roosevelt received the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts, with the citation referring to Japan as “one of the world’s great powers.”
In Japan, shock at the supposedly lenient treaty led to riots and martial law – but the public was not aware of how tenuous the Japanese position had become. The treaty was not as controversial in Russia, but the defeat strengthened opposition to the autocratic regime and helped spark the 1905 revolution that nearly toppled the Tsar.
The Russo-Japanese War was a deadly conflict: about 50,000 Russian and 80,000 Japanese soldiers died in combat or of disease. It also had a global impact, hence the nickname World War Zero. Colonized peoples took inspiration from the defeat of a European power, while western military observers noted the destructive power of modern weapons like the machine gun. It weakened Russia, made Japan into a major power, and caused some to conclude that modern wars could be won relatively quickly and decisively – developments that would cast a long shadow in the years leading to 1914.

1904 The Great War

← Older Post Newer Post →