The Battle of Tsushima: Odyssey to Tsushima

On the centennial of The Battle of Tsushima — a crucial battle in the Russo-Japanese War — Bryon King discusses the late-19th century history of Russia and Japan that led them to the conflict.

Odyssey to Tsushima“The groundwork for this important battle, waged over two spring days upon a cold sea, was decades in the making. The events that led up to the fight upon distant waters spanned vast continents and entire oceans. And in the end, the Battle of Tsushima illuminated, for all the world to see, the rise of one empire and, at the same time, foretold the collapse of another.”

THERE HAD NEVER been such a victory at sea. It was, and always will be, a shining moment in the history of Japan.

And there had never been such a naval defeat anywhere upon the waters of Earth. It was, and remains, one of the darkest days in the history of Russian arms.

The respective fleets were commanded by admirals’ admirals, whose names immediately became famous in every circle of society on the face of the planet. Adm. Heihachiro Togo led the Japanese. Adm. Zinovi Petrovich Rozhdestvenski commanded the Russians.

The combat was waged between some of the most modern warships of the age, armed with some of the best weapons of their time. These fighting ships were crewed and fought by sailors’ sailors.

The engagement at Tsushima controlled the destiny of Asia for many decades thereafter. And it is not overstating the case to divide much of the history of the modern world between that which occurred before Tsushima and what occurred afterward.

The raw numbers of the Tsushima battle are straightforward. Of 36 Russian combat ships that sailed north toward the Sea of Japan on the morning of May 27, 1905, 22 were sunk by Japanese warships, with great loss of life, and most of them before sunset of that day.

Six more Russian vessels were later captured, including one that carried the gravely wounded Rozhdestvenski. Six more battered Russian combatants limped into neutral ports, humbly lowered their flags and were interned under international law. And only two Russian ships eventually steamed to relative safety in the harbor at Vladivostok. Not quite 7,000 Russian officers and sailors died in the engagement. Almost 10,000 were wounded and captured.

By comparison, the Japanese navy lost three small torpedo boats and fewer than 200 sailors. It was, in short, a rout and a signal victory for Japan.

We will discuss the engagement and its tactics, and, of course, its heroism and tragedy, in due course. But no battle anywhere or at any time simply happens. And in particular, no culminating battle such as that of Tsushima, with all of its strategic import, simply occurs.

The Battle of Tsushima: Decades in the Making

The groundwork for this important battle, waged over two spring days upon a cold sea, was decades in the making. The events that led up to the fight upon distant waters spanned vast continents and entire oceans. And in the end, the Battle of Tsushima illuminated, for all the world to see, the rise of one empire and, at the same time, foretold the collapse of another.

Tsushima was not just a point on the map where great ships met for combat in a fleet-on-fleet naval engagement right out of the book of naval theorist Alfred Thayer Mahan.

Tsushima was, in greater perspective, a focal point for competing strategic forces. That is, the two-day war upon the waters embodied the competition of interests of not just Japan and Russia for local, ephemeral naval superiority in a relatively narrow strait.

Tsushima was where the national strategic interests of Japan met those of Russia, to fight over, and to decide, who would dominate Korea and Manchuria and who would control access to the trade around the coasts of China. Watching on the sidelines was a vitally interested Europe, particularly Britain and Germany, and of course, a deeply interested United States under its navalist President Theodore Roosevelt.

Would Japan, a rising industrial and military power that had actively commenced expanding its political and economic influence into Korea and Manchuria, prevail in its effort to dominate Northeast Asia? Would Russia, traditionally a European land power and of late a budding and aspiring world naval power, be able to effect its will against this rising sun of Japan?

“War,” wrote Clausewitz, is “a continuation of policy by other means.” War is also, according to Clausewitz, “an act of violence to compel the enemy to fulfill our will.” Thus is the nature of human struggle that some questions can only be answered by the men behind the guns.

The outcome at Tsushima determined the ending phase of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. Out of Tsushima came a Japan that was victorious on land and sea against the Russians but financially broken. Out of Tsushima emerged a Russia that held vast, untapped resources available for further fighting but little in the way of political will to continue the contest.

The terminal phase of the war, based upon the decision at Tsushima, established the destiny of Japan and controlled the fate of Russia. And Tsushima caused many other immediate and secondary effects to the vital interests of the European powers and the United States, both in the short and long terms, which we will discuss further along in this article.

Also in the balance at Tsushima hung the answer to a question that was often asked in the late 19th century: What is to become of China? And as history never comes to an end, that same question is still being asked today.

Looking back to the early years of the 19th century, China was a vast, yet backward and undeveloped land with a corrupt and ineffectual central government. At that time, China was, as nations go, weak. This weakness was exceedingly dangerous.

First and foremost, it was dangerous for China to be weak, because China was, to its great detriment, prey to nations that were strong. And it was also dangerous for strong nations to feel confident in assaulting a weak China, because political, diplomatic, or military miscalculation could, and did, lead to greater wars.

The Battle of Tsushima: Forcing Their Way into China

Thus, for much of the 19th century, European imperial powers literally forced their way into China, as often as not at the point of a gun.

In China, as elsewhere, on other continents, the colonial powers were in search of imperial expansion, resources, and trading opportunities. Competing viciously, they were jockeying with each other for power and control across the world. Portugal, Britain, and Germany, among others, laid claim to spheres of influence along the eastern and southeastern coasts of China.

From the west, Russia expanded into the Turkic lands adjacent to China’s far-west frontier. And from the north, Russia applied pressure to China along its long, undefined border with Siberia. China resisted, but ineffectually, as its territories were carved to pieces by foreign powers.

Similar to China, Japan had also entered the 19th century as a self-isolated land. From the mid-1600s until the mid-1800s, the Japanese severely restricted the ability of foreigners even to set foot upon their soil. The Japanese barriers to foreign contact were so severe as to permit local officials to issue and carry out summary death penalties against unfortunate shipwrecked sailors who washed ashore.

In another example of Japan’s conscious intent and policy to remain isolated, Japanese law forbade the construction of boats with the capability to sail much out of range of the Japanese coastline, lest Japanese fishermen visit foreign shores and interact with foreign cultures. The result of all of this was that whatever trade or commerce Japan had with the rest of the world was highly circumscribed and limited to a very select few and trusted members of the political and economic elite.

The Japanese looked with concern at what Western imperial powers did to China. In particular, the Opium War of 1839-1842 stood as a sobering example of the lengths to which Britain would go to force its will upon an unwilling land. The Japanese feared some similar force raining down upon their island.

By the late 1840s and early 1850s, the California Gold Rush, coupled with the extension of commercial whaling into the waters of the northern Pacific Ocean, turned those cold and formerly isolated waters into highways of international commerce. The perception of outsiders was that Japan, in its self-isolation, stood as a physical barrier to that commerce.

In the mid-1850s and 1860s, the United States, Russia, and Britain all made diplomatic overtures to Japan in an effort to convince the government of that nation to open its doors to foreign trade and commerce. The Japanese inclination was not to treat with the newcomers, but historical trends, if not tumultuous events, were not theirs to control.

The Battle of Tsushima: Not Commodore Perry, but . . .

It was not so much the diplomatic overtures, such as the American mission by Commodore Perry in 1853-1854, that convinced the Japanese to open the doors of their nation to outside influences. It was the realization by the Japanese leadership that their nation had isolated itself, to the detriment of their long-term national strategic interests.

Just the fact of Commodore Perry’s expedition to Japan illustrated the point of its own national weakness to the Japanese government, as well as to influential elements within the Japanese population.

Perry simply sailed his squadron of three ships painted black past the forts defending Tokyo Bay, ignoring warnings not to approach. Backed by the complete superiority in armament and technology of his three warships, Perry was able to walk ashore and demand that a senior minister of the Japanese government convey a message to the emperor. To the Japanese, this was an unprecedented breach of court protocol and constituted a shocking loss of face.

In 1868, Japan embarked upon the Meiji Restoration, during which period Japan commenced to make up for more than 200 years of lost time. Japanese students flocked abroad to study at Western universities and to work in Western industries, and then to return to Japan with their knowledge. The Japanese accumulated capital and across their society saved, invested, and created industries that would bring their nation into the first ranks of world power.

By the late 1800s, the Japanese had made vast strides in catching up to the West in industrializing their economy and adapting Western economic and social policies to fit a Japanese model. Many of the giant Japanese corporations, conglomerates, and trading houses of the present time trace their roots to businesses founded and established in the truly remarkable period when Japan worked under a conscious national policy of advancing out of its relative backwardness into a leadership role in the world.

Among other aspects of the Meiji Restoration, the Japanese followed a Prussian model in remaking their army and arming and equipping their land forces to fight along the most successful European lines.

At sea, the Japanese modeled their navy after that of Great Britain, purchasing warships from English yards and even patterning their naval uniforms after those of the British. Among many young Japanese naval cadets and officers who traveled to Britain to study at British naval schools was a young man named Heihachiro Togo, later the victorious admiral of Tsushima. But this gets ahead of the story.

WHEREAS CHINA,during the second half of the 19th century, languished in backwardness, economic and political weakness, and military defeat, Japan moved aggressively to establish its place among the first ranks of powerful nations in the world. While China was exploited and defeated by outsiders, progress in Japan was rapid and significant.

By the late 1860s, political support waned for the feudalistic regime that had governed Japan since the 1600s, and that regime fell from both grace and power. And in the next two decades, the Japanese nation made up for lost time. In 1868, Japan commenced on what came to be called its Meiji Restoration. (“Meiji” means “enlightened peace” or “enlightened rule.”)

Japan thus opened itself to the world at large. Then as now, for an undeveloped nation to enter the ranks of the industrially developed world required that it learn about and adopt Western technology and, to some extent, Western economic processes. The danger — again, then as now — was that with Western technology and economic processes would come many of the less savory aspects of Western cultures, resulting in a diminution of the local culture.

Today, we speak of “globalization” as an otherwise inevitable aspect of the penetration of Western technology and economics into the less developed world. But for many who live in that less developed world, certain elements of change are too much to bear. But this gets away from the focus of this article.

As a matter of national policy, in the late 1800s, Japan sent large numbers of Japanese men (and not a few Japanese women) out to explore and learn about what had occurred during their nation’s self-imposed isolation of more than two centuries. Japan discovered and obtained the knowledge it would need to begin to move ahead.

The Battle of Tsushima: “Everything”

To give some perspective to the Japanese mind-set, in 1895, a middle-aged Japanese nobleman, then holding a senior position within the government, wrote about the years during which he had traveled the world, and in particular studied in England, before returning to Japan. “When I returned home,” he stated, “the prince of Choshu asked me what needed to be changed in Japan. I replied, ‘Everything.'”

That Japanese man’s broad answer to a broad question — “Everything” — is as good a description as any of what changed in Japan in the late 1800s. And for Japan, the fact that “everything” changed came just in time to serve Japan’s self-interest. Aside from its historic rivalries with China, Japan’s regional and strategic interests were beginning to collide with those of another great nation.

Russia, the third great power of Asia, was “the dreariest land on this great Earth,” wrote a French commentator in the late 1800s. Looking at the faces of the Russians he encountered during his journeys, the Frenchman felt pity for “these poor devils” and went on to wonder, “What had man done to offend God, that so many of the human race should be condemned to live in Russia?”

But no one sentence, however pithy or even caustic, can accurately sum up all of Russia, which is a political jurisdiction spanning Earth’s two largest continents and 11 time zones. Russia is far too complex for that. Russia is a nation of many lands and peoples. For over a thousand years, Russia has been and remains great, in every sense of the word.

In the late 1800s, Russia was a place both ancient and modernizing. Many of Russia’s peasants still lived in feudal conditions as serfs tied to their land and masters, in a state of existence little changed since the Middle Ages. Many of Russia’s industrial workers lived similar lives of exploitation and daily oppression, except they labored in that nation’s mines and factories, instead of tilling that nation’s soil. Russia was a place where life was hard and the winters cold and dark, a land of ice and tears.

Yet many of Russia’s growing population were also living in cities, where they had the opportunity to become educated and to understand what else was happening in the broader world. Then as now, Russia produced brilliant scholars and scientists, outstanding artisans and engineers, hard-fighting soldiers, clever spies, and Byzantine bureaucracies to rival the best of those in any other land. Whatever Russia truly needed, it could muster from the ranks of its people, if not from the depths of its soil and bedrock.

By the late 1800s, Russia had spent three centuries expanding its territories south and southeast, into Turkic lands, and east and far east, into Asia and to the edge of the Pacific basin. Russian explorers had moved through Siberia to the Arctic and Pacific coasts, and thence to the peninsula of Kamchatka and the island of Sakhalin, north of Japan.

Russians had also explored North America along the coast of “Alyeska” and as far south as present-day San Francisco. Alyeska and the western coastline of North America were too far and too much for Russia to colonize actively, so in 1868, the Russian government arranged the sale of Alyeska to the United States. This was an interesting strategic move by Russia and one that truly altered world history, although no one could have known it at the time.

That is, Russia sold to the United States an immense, yet distant and poorly understood, territory that Russia did not have the capability to defend, let alone colonize or exploit. This sale thus created a U.S. territorial interest to the northwest of Canada, which met at least one short-term Russian diplomatic goal of irking the British.

But the true import of the sale of Alyeska comes when one ponders what might have happened to the timeline of history if Russia had sold Alyeska to the Japanese. Think about it. What if Japanese expansionism, driven during and after the Meiji Restoration by that nation’s need for mineral and energy resources, had been directed toward Alyeska, instead of into Korea and China? It would have made for a different 20th century. But of that we can only speculate. We can never really know.

The Battle of Tsushima: Imperialism by Land

Aside from its aborted foray into Alyeska, Russian expansion throughout the Turkic regions of Asia and across Eurasia into Siberia was as much imperial expansion as were the explorations and colonizing activities of Portugal or Spain or Holland or France or Britain in the Western Hemisphere and Asia. The main difference was that the Russian expansion was by land across Eurasia and not by sea.

That is, Western European imperial expansion was generally carried out across oceans by ship, with explorers and empire builders landing along coastlines and establishing the presence of their mother country at convenient harbors and ports.

Russian expansion was carried out by men on foot or horseback walking along ancient silk trails with supplies pulled by wagon. In a more modern version of the crusades, Russia’s Orthodox Christianity confronted Islam directly, the cross versus the crescent, as well as the multitude of other religions that lay in its path of eastward expansion.

With the development of suitable technology (Russians are taught that it was a Russian who invented the locomotive), Russia was quick to see the need to construct railroad routes into and through its territories. By the late 1800s, the British had coined the term “railroad imperialism” to describe the Russian penchant for expanding their access and ability to control in distant lands.

Constructing railroads required immense amounts of labor, and the Russian political and penal system was well suited to the task. Small armies of criminal and political convicts made the march east, there to labor for a time in the service of the czar and his efforts to tie the empire together with steel rails.

Constructing railroads also required immense amounts of capital, and for that, the Russians developed a warm relationship with the financial houses in France, mainly, and other nations of Western Europe.

In 1860, Russian pioneers established the new port of Vladivostok on the Pacific. It was a mere rugged outpost along a faraway coastline inhabited by a few hardy Russians and a mixture of peoples of many other ethnic backgrounds. (Many were Chinese or Japanese spies, but that is another story.)

But Vladivostok was also a strategic harbor that served as Russia’s toehold on the Pacific. As a matter of national strategic interest, Vladivostok had to be connected, somehow or another, to the motherland far to the west.

The Battle of Tsushima: The Trans-Siberian Railroad

By 1880, the Russians had identified the national priority of constructing the Trans-Siberian Railroad, to connect European Russia with this new but distant port and to serve as a trunk artery to its many other holdings in Siberia. The construction of this railway was a task of Herculean proportions, requiring immense funds, most of which were raised by selling bonds, and most of the selling taking place in France.

The French of that era had a penchant for investing in world-altering capital projects. Under the management of Ferdinand de Lesseps, French interests had raised funds and dug the Suez Canal between 1857 and 1869.

By the mid-1870s, de Lesseps and his partners were in the process of raising funds to start the ultimately unsuccessful project to dig a canal across the Isthmus of Panama, an effort that lasted from 1880-1888. Hence, there was a mechanism in place in France, and it was a somewhat natural flow of French capital for French investors to purchase bonds to fund the construction of a railroad in Siberia.

It took so long to raise funds and conduct preliminary surveys and engineering work that construction of the line did not begin in earnest until 1891. All aspects of the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railroad were simply enormous. The railway required immense amounts of labor, steel, construction equipment, rolling stock, and of course, political intrigue.

And the railway had to traverse some of the coldest and most inhospitable land on Earth, such as frozen tundra that could swallow railway locomotives in a spring thaw or all-but-impenetrable mountain ranges. Still, despite these hurdles, between 1892 and 1895, the Russian line of steel progressed east at an average rate of 387 miles per year.

In 1896, the Russians completed almost 850 miles of the Trans-Siberian Railroad. It was not that the tundra had become easier to penetrate or that the mountain ranges had become less resistant to passage, but that the Russians were spurred on by the realization that Japan was rapidly becoming a first-rate industrial and military power. That is, Japan was becoming a rival to Russia for domination in northern China, Manchuria, and the Pacific regions of Siberia.

In 1894, long-festering issues between China and Japan over claims to territory and trade concessions in Manchuria and Korea resulted in a war that lasted into 1895. At first, this Sino-Japanese War was viewed by many outsiders as simply a minor contest, in the nature of a curious military sideshow, between two relatively weak Asian nations.

On paper, at least, the correlation of military forces favored China over Japan. China possessed the larger army and superior tonnage of naval equipment. But the Japanese were well schooled in the latest Prussian land tactics, as well as in the latest British naval doctrine. The Japanese also had conducted a comprehensive study of the writings of the U.S. naval theorist Alfred Thayer Mahan.

Not to understate the difficulty of the challenge, but the well-trained and highly effective Japanese military machine rapidly everywhere prevailed over Chinese forces.

Ashore, Japanese troops enveloped and wrecked entire Chinese armies and captured large swaths of territory and significant numbers of prisoners and equipment. At sea, the Imperial Japanese Navy dominated the water space to gain complete control over the coastlines and adjacent seas.

It did not help the Chinese cause, during the war with Japan, that their government was almost incomparably corrupt. For example, during a key naval battle in the Yellow Sea near the mouth of the Yalu River, Chinese ships had fewer than 15 rounds of ammunition per gun. Even worse, many of the rounds were packed with sawdust, instead of high explosive. This was because the funds otherwise earmarked for procuring ammunition had been misappropriated by China’s Dowager Empress and used to rebuild the Summer Palace at Peking (Beijing).

In the aftermath of naval defeat, one senior Chinese government official remarked of the poor state of logistics within the Chinese navy, “What does it matter? The Japanese would have beaten us all the same. As it is, we have the Summer Palace.” It is useful to recall these cavalier words and the shame that they brought upon the Chinese nation, because they have been part of the education of every Chinese nationalist for over 100 years.

In the peace treaty that formally ended the Sino-Japanese War, the Chinese agreed to pay an utterly onerous indemnity of gold and silver to the Japanese. There was no way the Chinese government, let alone the Chinese economy, could afford it. So the Russians agreed to “loan” the Chinese government the indemnity funds in return for, among other things, railway concessions in China, particularly in Manchuria, and the use of Port Arthur as a Russian anchorage.

There was no way that the Russians could have afforded to provide such funds to China either, except that the Russian finance minister, Count Witte (later Russian premier), established the Russo-Chinese Bank to make the loan. Witte’s Russo-Chinese Bank raised funds mostly through French financiers.

And the Japanese took most of the 1895 indemnity paid by China, borrowed from Russia, and raised in France and used the funds to procure new naval vessels from Great Britain. It was, in short, a very complicated world.

Thus, by the late 1890s, the stage was mostly set for its next major act, the world-changing war between Russia and Japan.

Japan had spent several decades restoring itself, breaking out of its previous isolation and building an economy and military force that would place it among the first ranks of the world. To the utter surprise of many, the Japanese were accomplishing what they had set out to do. Japan was expanding. And the nation required resources and markets for its industries.

China was weak and getting weaker, subject to military defeat and political and economic exploitation by outsiders from both near and far. Russia had seized what it could from China during part of the 19th century and used opportune events such as the Sino-Japanese War to negotiate its way to other commercial and military advantages in Manchuria and elsewhere. European powers had also established their spheres of influence in China and were doing all that they could to extract from China whatever wealth was available to take.

Russia had expanded into formerly Chinese areas, and its territorial claims and strategic interests were bumping against those of an expanding Japan. But Russia’s lifeline to its Far Eastern territories was a thin ribbon of steel, the single-track Trans-Siberian Railroad. Whatever Russia hoped to accomplish at the far end of such a long logistic trail would be both problematic and expensive. As it turned out, it was very expensive.

Until we meet again…
Byron W. King

May 25, 2005