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The Times That Try Men’s Souls:

The 1903 Russo-Japanese War


By Chris Oakley

Part 2



Summary: In the first chapter of this series we reviewed the causes of the 1903 Russo-Japanese War and the circumstances leading up to the outbreak of armed conflict between Russia and Japan. In this segment we’ll recall the initial Russian attack from Manchuria into Korea and the Japanese counterassault.


Like a well-oiled machine the Russian armed forces quickly sprang into action following Czar Nicholas II’s declaration of war on Japan. On February 18th, 1903, two days after the border incident which had started the hostilities and one day after the Czar officially declared war on the Japanese Empire, the chief of staff of the Russian Imperial Army sent telegrams to his field commanders in Manchuria authorizing them to send troops across the border into Korea; within minutes after those telegrams were dispatched, the commander-in-chief of the Russian Imperial Navy’s Pacific fleet received a similar message giving him clearance to deploy his warships against Japanese naval facilities on the Korean coast.

The scope of the Russian ground offensive alone was enormous; the first wave of the assault on Korea involved no less than four armies-- two of which were composed primarily of hardy Siberian soldiers whose genetic makeup and cultural background made them ideally equipped for fighting in the extremely harsh environment of the Korean Peninsula. Their morale was high; a sergeant with one of the Siberian contingents is said to have boasted "The war will soon be over, for the Siberians are here." Many of them were also hunters and thus had a considerable proficiency with rifles even before they had been given any formal military training: they would turn out to be one of the most dangerous enemies the Japanese Empire had faced in its centuries-long history.

Accompanying the four armies that went in with the first wave of the invasion of Korea were two cavalry corps whose highly ferocious demeanor brought new meaning to the term ‘saber-rattling’. They knew no fear, charging at even the most forbidding defensive position as if it were only a house of straw. And however many casualties they might sustain in their own ranks, they inflicted an equal or greater number of losses on their Japanese foes. Equally adept with a sword or with a rifle, they too would prove formidable adversaries for the soldiers of the Rising Sun.

While Japanese land forces fought tenaciously to eject the Russian invader from Korean soil, Japan’s navy dispatched a number of its most powerful warships to face the Russian Pacific fleet at Tongjoson Bay, where naval intelligence experts in Tokyo had reckoned Russia planned to direct the main blow of its opening maritime campaign. It was about 12 noon Tokyo time on the afternoon of February 18th when the advance elements of the two fleets finally made contact...


...and it wasn’t long after that before the respective admirals commanding the Russian and Japanese squadrons ordered their captains to open fire. At 12:06 PM the Russian advance flotilla’s flagship, the battlewagon Potemkin, aimed and shot her forward batteries at the bow of her Japanese counterpart, the Asahi; Asahi quickly returned fire, and from that point on the two fleets were locked in the biggest naval battle the world had seen since the French and British navies squared off at Trafalgar in 1805. "It was like every demon in the underworld was let loose all at once." a Japanese ensign would recall twenty-plus years after the fact1, and many a Russian sailor would have agreed with him on that score. Before the Battle of Tongjoson Bay was an hour old, a dozen ships had already been sunk outright and at least five others were burning from stem to stern; within 90 minutes after Potemkin’s opening salvo against Asahi a Japanese cruiser exploded and sprayed two of her sister ships with jagged debris.

At 2:37 PM Asahi took a direct hit to her stern, setting off an explosion that ripped a gigantic hole in her starboard side and made her list severely to port. Less than ten minutes later the wounded battleship was finished off by three torpedo strikes from Russian fast attack boats; she went down with most of her crew still on board. The Asahi’s sinking would instantly change the course of the battle-- and the Russo-Japanese War. The commander-in-chief of the Japanese advance flotilla, Admiral Togo Heihachiro, barely managed to escape to safety on another vessel before Asahi sank; at 3:22 PM, Admiral Togo ordered his surviving warships to regroup and set course at flank speed for Wonsan, Tongjoson Bay’s largest seaport and the nearest available safe harbor for his squadron. Determined not to let their quarry escape, the Russian naval advance unit pursued Togo’s battered vessels as fast as their boilers could tolerate; they caught up with the Togo flotilla around 4:10.

At 5:00 PM that evening Togo would be forced to change flagships a second time when four Russian torpedo boats ambushed the Mikasa, the battlewagon to which the admiral had been evacuated just before Asahi went down; although Mikasa wasn’t sunk, she was damaged so severely by the Russian torpedo attack that Admiral Togo had to order her scuttled to keep her out of enemy hands. However, Togo was more fortunate than many of his fellow officers in one respect: he was able to get home in one piece, whereas many of his fellow officers were either killed in action or captured by the Russians.2

Around 6:00 AM on the morning of February 19th Admiral Zinovy Rozhestvensky, commander of the Russian naval advance squadron, gave his ships the order to retire northward to Port Arthur for refueling and replenishing of other supplies. The Battle of Tongjoson Bay was over, and the Russians had gained what then-Imperial Navy minister Fyodor Avelan called "the greatest naval victory in our motherland’s history". It was certainly the most important such moment Avelan had been involved in since assuming the naval minister’s post.

While the Japanese navy was licking its wounds after its defeat at Tongjoson Bay, the Japanese army was massing for a counterattack against the advancing Russian invasion force. The focal point for the opening phase of this counterattack would be Chongjin, a coastal town whose capture was eagerly sought by the Russians; conventional wisdom within the Russian general staff headquarters in Moscow held that the town’s proximity to the Sea of Japan made it a good vantage point from which to deploy ships as part of a potential future blockade of the Japanese home islands.

This same possibility had also occurred to-- and alarmed --the Imperial Japanese Army general staff in Tokyo. On top of that, some of the gloomier spirits in their ranks had started contemplating the grim scenario of their Russian enemies possibly using Chongjin as a staging area for a future assault on Japan’s home islands. As it turned out, Czar Nicholas’ field commanders weren’t even considering such a move at that early stage in the war, but it made little difference to the Japanese: the invasion of Korea had to be turned back at any cost. So on February 22nd, 1903 three of the Japanese Army’s finest infantry divisions and four of its toughest cavalry units faced the Russians head-on five miles from the outskirts of Chongjin. Backing up these assaults were artillery barrages from long-range cannons behind the Japanese lines and an improvised network of machine guns strung out in hidden emplacements along the Russian left flank.

At first, the Japanese seemed to have the upper hand in the Battle of Chongjin. Their first artillery salvo tore a massive hole in the right wing of the Russian battle lines, while the second killed at least four high-ranking Russian officers; their initial machine gun fusillade inflicted substantial losses on Russian infantry troops who had the misfortune to get caught unawares by the hail of bullets which rained down on their left flank. But as Napoleon once said, no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy...


....and the Japanese strategy for defending Chongjin was about to go seriously awry. At the time the 1903 Russo-Japanese War broke out, Japan had been trying to annex Korea for almost two decades, and over that time the Korean people had become increasingly resentful of such attempts; when the Imperial Japanese Army marched to face the Russians for possession of Chongjin, the more militant factions among the local population saw it as the perfect opportunity to strike a blow in the defense of their homeland’s independence. Early on the morning of February 23rd, these militants mounted a guerrilla attack against the Japanese rear flank.

Though ultimately crushed, the brief uprising by the Chongjin militants gave the Russians the opening they needed to take back the initiative in their struggle to wrest the city from the Japanese. At 12:20 PM that afternoon Russian cavalry units, backed up by a Morskaya Pekhota contingent which had landed on the Korean coast the previous night, hit the right wing of the Japanese front lines full blast and disrupted them as badly as the Russians’ own lines had been disrupted by the Japanese artillery salvos of the day before. By 3:45 PM, the Japanese were in full retreat and Russian advance patrols had reached the outskirts of the city. In the process, both sides had sustained casualties that would eerily presage the death tolls of World War I. Around 6:00 that evening Russian troops entered Chongjin proper; by 2:30 AM on the morning of February 24th they controlled all but three square blocks of the city.

The last pocket of Japanese resistance in Chongjin was finally overrun by Russian troops around 1:15 PM on the afternoon of February 24th. It had cost the Czar’s armies a great deal to bring the Korean seaport under control, but it was a price the Czar was very willing to pay. And if it were up to him, he promised himself, the Japanese would pay an even higher price for their aggression against Mother Russia...


As for Nicholas II’s subjects, they were in a state of euphoria following the victories at Chongjin and Tongjoson Bay. The priests of the Russian Orthodox Church hailed the Imperial Army and Navy’s early triumphs against the Japanese as proof of the Czar’s divinely inspired leadership and a sign God wished for the Rodina(motherland) to prevail over the Japanese. Newspaper editorials, echoing the famous boast "the war will soon be over for the Siberians are here", confidently foresaw Russia achieving final victory over Japan by the first day of spring if not sooner. In schoolyards many boys imitated their older brothers’ battlefield exploits and dreamed of fighting in Korea themselves. At Russia’s great universities, professors encouraged their students to join the Imperial armed forces. And any man who walked into a bar or tavern wearing a soldier’s or sailor’s uniform was assured of getting free drinks all night long-- or at least until he passed out. Members of Russia’s radical leftist Social Democratic Party, who detested the Czarist regime and had hoped that failure in Korea might clear the way for the Czar’s eventual overthrow, felt a heartrending despair as the masses instead embraced an overwhelmingly pro-War and pro-Nicholas II mindset. Even Russia’s Jewish community, who’d been persecuted by the Czarist government for generations, lent its support to the war effort in hopes that this might change for the better popular perceptions in Russia about Jewish culture.

The prevailing belief in speedy final victory over Japan found one of its most memorable expressions in a speculative fiction article published by a well-known Moscow literary magazine the week after Chongjin fell. Titled "Kostrivitch’s Luck: A Running Account Of The Battle Of Tokyo", it chronicled the exploits of the fictional Far East Imperial Expeditionary Force as it swiftly conquered the Japanese home  islands following a surprise amphibious landing on Hokkaido; the title character, an army platoon leader, climaxes the story by hoisting the Czar’s flag above the ruins of the Japanese emperor’s palace. The men of the Russian Imperial Army, foot soldiers and generals alike, were very eager to make this scenario a reality-- and many Japanese feared (though few dared say so) it might be an all-too-accurate portent of things to come...


To Be Continued



[1] From the book Memoirs Of A Japanese Seaman, copyright 1924 Houghton Mifflin of Boston.

[2] The traditional Japanese honor code considers being taken prisoner in wartime a disgrace, and most of the officers who fell into Russian hands subsequently committed suicide rather than endure the dishonor of being sent to a Russian POW camp.


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