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The Times That Try Men’s Souls:

The 1903 Russo-Japanese War

By Chris Oakley

Part 3



Summary: In the first two chapters of this series we reviewed the causes of the 1903 Russo-Japanese War; the circumstances leading up to the outbreak of hostilities between Russia and Japan; the initial Russian thrust into Korea and the Japanese counterattack; and the costly Russian victory at Chongjin. In this chapter we’ll look at the Imperial Russian Army’s drive on Wonsan and the assassination attempt on the life of Japan’s Emperor Meiji-tenno in late March of 1903.


With Chongjin firmly in Russian control, the Czar’s generals turned their attention to the next great objective in their Korean campaign: the capture of Wonsan, Tongjoson Bay’s most important seaport and a major naval base for the Japanese military contingent in Korea. If Wonsan could be taken, went the prevailing wisdom in Moscow, it would constitute another serious blow to Japan’s already reeling naval forces in the Korean theater. It would also put Russian ground forces that much closer to Seoul, once the capital of the old Joseon Dynasty that had ruled Korea for five centuries and now the nerve center for Japanese military operations in the Korean Peninsula. There was no dispute in the Russian generals’ minds the seizure of Wonsan was a worthwhile goal; the real disagreement was how to achieve that goal.

Most of the general staff favored a narrow thrust down the Korean coastline, concentrating the bulk of Russian army troop strength in a single mass that would act as a battering ram and punch its way past the Japanese in the shortest possible time. A dissenting faction, on the other hand, advocated a broad-front offensive which would utilize multiple columns to wear the enemy down in a long-term campaign of attrition; though it might take longer to reach Wonsan this way, the dissidents conceded, the broad-front approach significantly reduced the danger of Japanese forces being able to disrupt the main drive on Wonsan with a flank attack.

In the end, the "narrow thrust" camp won the day. The "broad front" strategies the dissenters had advocated were shelved-- at least temporarily --and the Russian expeditionary force in Korea marshaled its troops for a battering ram-style push down Korea’s western coast. In early March of 1903, the Imperial Russian Army launched the first phase of its coastal offensive, sending infantry and cavalry forces to attack the town of Kimchaek. Despite sustaining heavy casualties in the early phases of their attack, the Russian ground forces succeeded in making considerable headway against Kimchaek’s Japanese defenders in a relatively short time; within four days of the initial infantry thrusts on the city’s outer defense perimeters, Kimchaek was fully in Russian hands.

The fall of Kimchaek sent shockwaves throughout the Japanese military establishment. Conventional wisdom in Tokyo at the start of the war had held that the heavily fortified port city could last for weeks, even months, against anything the Russians might throw at it; however, Russian ground forces had succeeded in finding and then exploiting a gap in the Japanese defenses around the northeast sectors of the city. Once that gap was discovered, fortifications proved to be of little avail as the Russians systematically dismantled every last obstacle in their path.

No sooner had the Romanovs’ eagle banner been unfurled over the last remaining Japanese strongpoint in Kimchaek than the air in the offices of the Tokyo general staff became thick with recriminations over who was to blame for one of the worst defeats in the history of the modern Japanese army. Those officers who’d been killed in action were the lucky ones; they were spared the disgrace of getting court-martialed for their failure to repulse the Russian armies. Those who had the option of ritual suicide didn’t hesitate to take it. At least two regimental commanders were cashiered in the wake of the defeat at Kimchaek.

Conversely, Russian officers and enlisted men who survived the Battle of Kimchaek were lavished with medals and praise. Those men who’d fallen in the line of duty were given funerals worthy of a Roman caesar, especially if they were of noble descent; Czar Nicholas II personally gave the eulogy for a duke-turned-cavalry lieutenant who died leading a charge against the Japanese army on the second day of the battle. An entire Morskaya Pekhota regiment was renamed in honor of its deceased commander after said commander was killed while he was directing the capture of one of the last remaining Japanese defensive positions in the Kimchaek area.


The internal political situation in Japan was growing more tense with every setback the Japanese forces in Korea were suffering at the hands of the Russians. While few people were daring enough to criticize the Emperor or his generals openly, an increasing number of ordinary Japanese were doing so behind closed doors-- and some were doing more than just criticizing. A group of young radicals calling themselves the National Redemption Movement, who’d been against the war with Russia from the start and were now also turning against the monarchy, had decided to assassinate reigning Emperor Meiji-tonno in hopes that such an assassination would scare the Japanese government into ending hostilities with the Russian Empire and sharply curtailing the Japanese emperor’s power to rule.

In the end the assassination conspiracy, which in hindsight some modern Japanese historians have suggested was doomed to failure right from the start, would accomplish precisely the opposite results from what the conspirators had intended. Far from wanting to quit the war, many in the Japanese government were convinced that the attempt to bomb Emperor Meiji’s personal carriage as he was arriving in the port town of Nagasaki for an inspection of the local naval base was a sign Japan should step up its attacks on Russian forces in Korea; rumors floating around in the immediate aftermath of the attack suggested the assassination attempt and the establishment of the National Redemption Movement had been brought about partly by undercover operatives of the Russian secret service in a bid to disrupt the Japanese war effort.

And any talk of limiting the Chrysanthemum Throne’s power to even a modest degree was effectively silenced in the aftermath of the bomb attack as the Japanese population united behind their somewhat shaken but unharmed monarch. The National Redemption Movement soon collapsed in the face of this renewed surge of patriotism; those of its members who weren’t arrested by the police or dead by their own hand after the assassination plot failed sought to conceal their former revolutionary leanings by going into the Shinto priesthood or, ironically, enlisting in the army to fight the very war they had previously opposed.

In early April of 1903 the Japanese armed forces pulled off a stunning victory that greatly upset the Russian army’s timetable for capturing Wonsan. A combined contingent of Japanese army infantry units and Imperial Navy landing troops halted and then turned back a massive Russian assault force northwest of the Korean coastal village of Sinpo. In spite of being outnumbered 2 to 1 by their adversaries, the Japanese forces were able to blunt the Russian attack thanks in part to a combination of utter fearlessness and well-timed machine gun and grenade attacks. The repulsion of the Russian advance on Simpo was a much-needed tonic for the Japanese military; hopes of victory over the Russian Empire, which had been dwindling since the fall of Chongjin, began to rise again.

Czar Nicholas II was horrified by the Japanese victory at Sinpo; he feared it might signal not only the disruption of his army’s battle plans for capturing Wonsan but also the start of a major reversal for his ground forces on the Korean front. Some of the more pessimistic spirits in his cabinet even began to worry that if things continued along this course the Japanese army might eventually be in a position to invade Russia’s Siberian territories. That, the czar bluntly told his generals and admirals, could not be allowed to happen.

Accordingly, Admiral Zinovy Rozhestvensky, the hero of the Battle of Tongjoson Bay, was tasked with devising a strategy for interrupting the flow of supplies between the Japanese home islands and the Korean battlefront. It was thought that by sinking naval transport vessels or blockading key port cities along the Japanese coastline, the Russians could choke off the Japanese military’s maritime supply routes to the point where Japan’s ground forces in Korea would "wither on the vine", as it were, and find themselves with no choice but to pull out of the Korean Peninsula.

Of course, the Japanese navy, in spite of the blows it had taken during the early days of the war, wasn’t about to simply roll over and play dead for Rozhestvensky’s squadrons. Though Meiji-Tonno’s admirals didn’t yet know the specifics of the Russian blockade plan, they were all too well aware that sooner or later the Czar’s warships would try to cut the maritime lifeline between the home islands and the Japanese land forces in Korea, and accordingly the IJN shifted the deployment patterns of its battered but still highly potent main fleet to counter any blockade the Russians might attempt....


To Be Continued


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