The Echoes of War

LAST YEAR, I wrote several articles for Whiskey & Gunpowder on the topic of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. They are archived at Odyssey to Tsushima and The Sound of the Guns. I have referred, on occasion, to the Russo-Japanese War in other articles in W&G, and have discussed it in talks and interviews that I have given in other media. I would like to take this opportunity to discuss more about the echoes of those guns.

World War Zero

Some historians have labeled the Russo-Japanese War as “World War Zero.” The war was, in many respects, a dress rehearsal for the Great War (World War I) that would break out in 1914. Its consequences are still with us, more than a century after the last shot was fired. In this article, I want to discuss why this is so.

The culminating battle of the Russo-Japanese War was the naval engagement at Tsushima, an island at the southern end of the Sea of Japan. In earlier articles, I have discussed the details of the battle itself. Now I want to discuss why it changed the world, but such a discussion has to begin at some point. So permit me, dear readers, to choose a particular time, and to zoom in upon a rather remarkable event with which to commence my review of the matter. Let us go back to the first week of June 1905, and look inside a hospital located in Sasebo, Japan, run by the Imperial Japanese Navy.

A Visit to a Badly Injured Man

There was abed in this Japanese hospital a badly injured man. His head and upper body were wrapped in bandages. Japanese doctors had recently operated on him to remove a plethora of steel splinters, the residue of several massive explosions that the wounded soul stood too near. The title and name of this man was Rear Adm. Zinovy Rozhdestvenski (1848-1909), most recently the commander of a massive Russian naval fleet called the Second Pacific Squadron, most of which was now sitting on the bottom of the Sea of Japan off the island of Tsushima. Rozhdestvenski had been wounded in a sea battle with the Japanese fleet; transferred from his sinking flagship by his assistants; and eventually captured while lying injured, below decks, in a Russian ship that could not elude its Japanese pursuers.

Into the hospital room walked another man, intending to pay a visit to the wounded Russian admiral. All in attendance made way with great deference for this visitor, as the rather smallish fellow walked up to the side of the hospital bed. This visitor was, at that moment, an object of adulation in Japan, as well as, in certain other circles, of the political and military capitals of the world. He wore a relatively simple uniform, but on his breast was a large, bejeweled medal in the shape of a chrysanthemum.

“I apologize to you, sir,” said Adm. Heihachiro Togo (1848-1934), vice admiral and commander of the Imperial Japanese Navy, “for the absence of comforts due to such a distinguished patient.” The Russian nodded his head slowly. The Japanese admiral stared at the Russian, who in return smiled weakly, and with a visible look of great sadness upon his countenance. But the Japanese admiral had come to see the Russian for a reason, and there were more words for the commander of one of the world’s most powerful fleets to say to the commander of another, ill-fated assemblage of now-lost ships.

“There is no need for a warrior to associate an honorable defeat with shame,” said the Japanese naval leader. “We fighting men suffer either way, win or lose. The only question is whether or not we do our duty. During the battle, your men fought most gallantly, and I admire them all, and you in particular. You performed your great task heroically until you were incapacitated. I pay you my highest respects.”

The Russian sailors “fought most gallantly,” said Togo? The Japanese have a way of expressing important things through understatement. In truth, the Russians fought like lions. For example, at one point during the engagement to which Togo referred, Japanese ships surrounded a disabled Russian vessel. There was nothing else to be done, so the Russian crew determined to die. They refused to hoist the signal of surrender. Bathed in a shower of shells, they waited for their ship to sink. The captain had been killed, the commander mortally wounded. The Russian vessel gradually heeled over. Most of the surviving sailors jumped into the sea, there to drown in the ice-cold waters. Only then did the circling Japanese ships cease fire.

Never Such a Victory, Never Such a Defeat

There had never been such a victory at sea. The naval Battle of Tsushima, fought in late May 1905, was, then and always, a shining moment in the history of Japan. This epic battle was the culminating military engagement of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. And except perhaps at Lepanto on Oct. 7, 1571, there had never been such a naval defeat anywhere upon the waters of the Earth. Tsushima was, and remains, one of the darkest days in the history of Russian arms. The word itself, “Tsushima,” has entered the Russian lexicon as a synonym for massive, debilitating defeat.

On the way to meet its fate at Tsushima, and under the command of Rozhdestvenski, the Russian navy had set a record by sailing an all-steel, coal-powered fleet of battleships over 18,000 miles through the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific oceans to engage an enemy in decisive battle. It was an astonishing achievement. At Tsushima, the respective fleets, Japanese and Russian, were commanded by admirals’ admirals, whose names instantly became famous in every circle of educated society on the face of the planet. Adm. Togo led the Japanese. Adm. 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. But as with most battles, there was a winning as well as a losing side.

The raw numbers of the Tsushima battle are straightforward. Of 36 Russian combatant 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 Russian fleet commander 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, the sad and broken remnants of a fleet of dozens, eventually sailed to relative safety in the harbor at Vladivostok, with the crews tossing the wooden furniture, and even their uniforms, into the boiler fireboxes to make steam. Not quite 7,000 Russian officers and sailors died in the engagement at Tsushima. That number and more were wounded and captured.

By comparison, at Tsushima the Japanese Navy lost three small torpedo boats, and fewer than 200 killed in action. It was, in short, a rout and a signal victory for Japan. It was an event that astonished and captured the attention of the world.

Echoes and Ghosts

For many weeks after the Tsushima battle, the bodies of Russian sailors washed ashore on the coasts of Korea and Japan. Some remains were recovered by local residents and turned over to Japanese authorities. These agents of the emperor, basking magnanimous in their ascending nation’s splendid victory over the Russians, in turn saw to it that their dead opponents were buried in marked graves. More often than not, there was some semblance of Christian last rites, and even military honors on occasion.

At other times and in other places, the hard waves of the Pacific Ocean washed Russian bodies upon the less frequented inlets along the water’s edge. Without pomp or ceremony, and in the due course of time and tide, these lost sailors were buried beneath the shifting sands of a distant shoreline. Their war was over. They went back to the Earth and found whatever peace was theirs, sadly, in unmarked and unsanctified graves far from home.

But it takes more to bring a war to end than merely burying the dead, whether by nature or by design. In a modern world of nation-states at war, peace can only come when the belligerent parties so decide. And the evolution of a war shapes the ensuing peace. Thus it is the nature of things that even great battles can be relegated to the realm of “tactical” matters in the context of larger-scale operational issues and strategic goals. That is, a battle may be won or lost, by one side or the other, but the larger-scale issues of time, space, and force still may transcend and control the ultimate direction of events.

In the case of the Russo-Japanese War, Tsushima was, in retrospect, a battle of battles. The engagement at Tsushima shaped perceptions across the world, and certainly 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 that which occurred afterwards. But this gets ahead of the story.

The Origins of War

The Russo-Japanese War had been a costly adventure for both sides of the conflict. Its origins were in 1898, when one day Tsar Nicholas II mused to his able adviser and foreign minister, Count Witte, “You know, Sergei Yulevich, “I have decided to occupy Port Arthur.” This was just after Japan had waged and won a costly war against China, with the goal of gaining Japanese control over Korea and reducing Russian influence, if not Russia’s meddling interference, in Manchuria. The tsar of Russia was planning to break a treaty obligation to Japan.

“Your Highness,” replied Witte curtly, “Remember this day, because you are taking a fateful step that will have disastrous results.”

Perhaps only in Russia of the 1890s could a regent have made such a whimsical and poorly thought decision, to send his troops into a region of vital importance to Japan, and this just after Japan had fought and won a war over the issue. And perhaps only in the Russia of that time could a trusted minister have spoken truth so bluntly to power.

But one event followed another. The Russians moved in force into Manchuria. They occupied Port Arthur (now called Dalien), on the Chinese coast along the Yellow Sea, somewhat west of where the Yalu River empties after flowing down out of the northeast. The Japanese attempted to negotiate with the Russians. The Russians were, characteristically, intransigent. By late 1902, the Japanese began to sense that their hold over Korea was untenable, all because of Russian interference. As that year turned into the next, the Japanese government, its military, and the Japanese people as a whole generally sensed that the Russian actions in Manchuria and Korea were a vital threat to the Japanese homeland. Thus, with strong support within their political system, the Japanese strategists in 1903 determined that it was necessary to use military force to dislodge Russia from Port Arthur, and from Manchuria to the north.

The Conduct of War

On Feb. 8, 1904, after extensive preparation, the Japanese attacked the Russian fleet, lying at anchor in Port Arthur. The Russian fleet was badly damaged and rapidly bottled up. The Japanese army followed almost immediately with troop landings in Korea, which routed the Russians. The Japanese army moved northward from Korea into Manchuria, and then westward toward the region encompassing Port Arthur, there to set that city and its harbor to siege. Toward the fall of 1904, the Russians sent almost all of their Baltic fleet from Europe, under the command of Rozhdestvenski, to attempt to relieve the fleet at Port Arthur.

After great loss of life on both sides, however, Port Arthur eventually fell to the Japanese in the early days of January 1905. This was while Rozhdestvenski’s fleet was in transit. Thus, with Port Arthur having fallen, the goal of the voyage of the Russian fleet, formerly to relieve Port Arthur, became simply to sail past Japan to the Russian port at Vladivostok, and, once there, to await further tasking.

Meanwhile, with Port Arthur secured, the Japanese army began to march to the north, through Manchuria. During the months of a bitter Siberian winter, in 1905, the Japanese and Russian forces fought several massive battles, with the Japanese generally prevailing. Among key battle sites were Sha-Ho and Mukden. These were some of the largest battles ever fought, to that date, in all of recorded history. Literally hundreds of thousands of troops were engaged on both sides, along fronts that ran for dozens of miles.

Everything about combat under these circumstances was tough. Climate was brutal. Food and water were scarce. Forage was difficult to obtain. Equipment was difficult to maintain. Transport was primitive. Communication was difficult. And the Russians forces were far from their European home, living off the relative trickle of supplies that could be moved across the not-yet-completed, one-track Trans-Siberian Railroad.

Through a combination of careful preparation for war, excellent training of land and sea forces, adequate logistics, exceptional intelligence gathering and analysis, and a lot of good fortune, the Japanese were prevailing in this war. For all their efforts, the Japanese had conquered Port Arthur, and followed up with victories on land and the smashing triumph at Tsushima.

The Costs of War

Despite whatever you might think you know about why nations go to war, there is no simple decision by any nation to do such a thing. As Karl von Clausewitz (1780-1831), the master of the theory of war, wrote in his book On War (first published in 1832), “The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish the kind of war on which they are embarking. They must neither mistake it for, nor try to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature. This is the first of all strategic questions and the most comprehensive.”

The Japanese had gone to war over issues that they considered to be of supreme national strategic importance. The control over Korea and Manchuria were, to the Japanese of that era, issues of national survival. For a purpose such as that, they took the risk of committing forces to the field for a fight. Into the effort, they threw the cream of the resources of their powerful nation. The series of campaigns against the Russians was, for the Japanese, as near as a nation can come to waging a total war, albeit for a limited goal, which was to remove Russia as a strategic threat in Manchuria and to Korea. That is, Japan would never defeat Russia in such a way as to destroy it. But Japan believed that it had to reduce Russian influence in Manchuria and Korea. The future of the Japanese nation was at stake.

For Japan, the war was immensely costly, and all but drove that nation to the verge of state insolvency. By mid-1905, as the fleets of the two warring nations were preparing to meet at Tsushima, the monthly cost of fighting the war approached 50% of the entire prewar annual budget of the Japanese government. Japanese belts were pulled tight, and taxes were high and going higher. Most men of a certain age were at the front, under arms. The Japanese government was borrowing funds on international markets, but the Japanese economy could not afford more than a few more months of war before the national treasury and national credit would be ruined for what might be decades.

And then came the glorious news from Tsushima. The gods of war, the ghosts of their ancestors, the winds and waters of the Earth were evidently favoring the fortunes of the Land of the Rising Sun. With this confluence of events for the Japanese, it was time to end the war. And they had every reason to believe that they could dictate favorable terms to the much-defeated Russians. Prudently, the Japanese had sent an ambassador to the United States many months before, to plant the seeds of “peacemaking” in the mind of President Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt, in turn, had announced that he was eager to lend his efforts to assist in bringing about a peaceful settlement of the conflict.

To be continued….

Until we meet again…
Byron W. King
October 4, 2006