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The Times That Try Men’s Souls:

The 1903 Russo-Japanese War


By Chris Oakley

Part 1



It is a conflict that to some extent isn’t fully understood even today, more than a century after it happened. It involved two neighboring and mutually antagonistic monarchies and would see the United States undertake its first serious diplomatic mediation effort in modern history. It was a war whose outcome would shake one nation to its foundations and set the other irrevocably on a path towards revolution. It would call into question many beliefs about race and military science which had been taken for granted up until that point. In short, the Russo-Japanese War of 1903 gave birth to the world that we know today.

The war’s repercussions extended well beyond the immediate confines of the battlefields and seas where its major engagements were fought; the lessons gleaned from its key battles would sharply influence the land and naval tactics employed in the First World War, and the stiff resistance put up by the Japanese in the face of numerically superior Russian forces for much of the 1903 conflict challenged long-standing European prejudices about the supposed inferiority of Asian peoples. At least two decades of rebellions and revolutions would unsettle the global political landscape thanks to some of the new ideologies which would grow in the soil of discontent over the war and its aftermath.

There is sharp disagreement among history scholars about just what led to the outbreak of the 1903 Russo-Japanese War; however, there’s also a widespread consensus among those same scholars that one of the key factors that triggered the conflict was the opposing territorial claims in Asia of the belligerent countries. To name just one example, Russia and Japan both sought control over Manchuria; furthermore, the Russians regarded Japan’s presence on the Korean Peninsula as a menace to their Siberian frontier and wanted to get rid of it.

Japan had been shocked by the Commodore Perry expedition of 1854 into starting a crash industrialization effort; by the start of the 20th century that effort had transformed the island nation into one of the fastest-growing economies in the world-- and a potential adversary of the Russian Empire. Some modern historians suggest that the "jolt to the system" the Perry expedition triggered within Japan’s borders may have indirectly helped accelerate Russia’s own industrialization process. In any case, by the time U.S. president William McKinley was assassinated in September of 1901 Moscow and Tokyo were already well along the path to war....


...and they would be pushed still further along that path in the spring of 1902 by an incident in which Russian naval vessels fired on and heavily damaged a Japanese fishing trawler off the shores of the Sakhalin Islands after said trawler strayed into Russian territorial waters. Moscow accused the trawler’s crew of intentionally violating Russia’s borders to conduct espionage missions in Russian waters; in response, the Japanese foreign ministry asserted the trawler’s brief incursion into Russian territory had been simply a navigational error and leveled countercharges the Russian navy had fired on her without provocation. Various outside parties-- including Great Britain’s King Edward VII, a distant cousin of the Russian czar Nicholas II --tried to persuade Japan and Russia to negotiate a diplomatic resolution to the trawler dispute, but their pleas fell on deaf ears because of the hostile atmosphere that prevailed in Russo-Japanese relations.

In fact, the Sakhalin incident prompted the Imperial Russian Army general staff to draw up strategic plans for a pre-emptive attack on the Japanese Empire to forestall any attempts by Japan to invade the Russians’ Siberian territory. Initially, popular sentiment within the Czar’s high command favored using the Sakhalin Peninsula as a jumping-off point for an amphibious invasion of Korea; however, this idea was soon dropped when a staff colonel pointed out that a Korean invasion could just as easily be launched, and without nearly as many logistics headaches, from overland positions along the Manchurian-Korean border. Moscow had enjoyed a sphere of influence in Manchuria ever since the Boxer Rebellion in China was crushed back in 1900, and the Russian- controlled seaport at the coastal town of Port Arthur-Dairen made an excellent staging area for a potential invasion of Korea by the Czar’s armies. With just the right amount of diplomatic nudging by Russia’s embassy in Chungking1, it was thought, the fragile Chinese government could be readily pressured into letting Russia launch its assault on Korea from Manchurian soil.

Simultaneously the Russian navy, which had vigorously working to expand its Pacific fleet even before the Sakhalin incident, stepped up those expansion efforts fourfold; in particular there was a great deal of work done to strengthen the fleet’s battleship force, commissioning new battlewagons and upgrading existing ones to give them more of a fighting chance against their Japanese counterparts. Meanwhile, the Morskaya Pekhota or "naval infantry" corps2 staged training exercises designed to school its troops in the kind of coastal assault tactics that would be used for the diversionary landings the Russians intended to mount on the Korean coast in conjunction with their overland attack on the Manchurian border. Everything was primed for an explosion; it was just a question of when and where the fuse would be lit, and who would be the one to strike the match to light that fuse....


The steadily building tension between Moscow and Tokyo finally hit critical mass on February 16th, 1903 when a Japanese border patrol encountered a detachment of Russian troops on what was at the time thought to be an attack on Japanese-occupied Korea but what is now known to have been only a reconnaissance probe. Tempers flared, shots were fired, and when the smoke cleared there were eight Japanese men dead and twelve wounded; Russian casualties totaled five dead and seven wounded. When Czar Nicholas II was informed of the clash that evening, he exploded; in his eyes the Japanese Empire had committed a wanton act of aggression against his homeland, and such aggression could not be tolerated. He immediately convened an emergency meeting of his general staff, and within twenty-four hours of that meeting he would inform his subjects a state of war now existed between Russia and Japan...


To Be Continued



[1] China’s capital at the time the 1903 Russo-Japanese War broke out.

[2] The amphibious troop branch of the Russian armed forces, roughly analogous to the U.S. Marine Corps or Britain’s Royal Marines.


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