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The Times That Try Men’s Souls:

The 1903 Russo-Japanese War


By Chris Oakley

Part 4





Summary: In the first three 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; the costly Russian victory at Chongjin; the beginning of the Russian drive on Wonsan and the assassination attempt on Japan’s Emperor Meiji-tenno; and the Japanese victory at Sanpo. In this installment we’ll review the Imperial Russian Navy’s campaign to choke off the shipping lanes between the Japanese home islands and Japanese military forces on the Korean Peninsula.


The Russian campaign to blockade the Japanese home islands in April of 1903 was one of the most important naval operations of the pre-carrier era of maritime warfare. With the aircraft carrier only a gleam in the eye of science fiction writers and the submarine a still relatively experimental weapon in 1903, the battleship was still the primary instrument of strategic naval combat; it would therefore act as the proverbial "tip of the spear" in Russia’s quest to close down the shipping lanes between the Japanese home islands and Korea--and in Japan’s fight to keep those lanes open. In fact, some of the most bitter naval clashes of the early 20th century would be fought for control of the supply routes that were used to ferry equipment, supplies, and troops to the Japanese armies in the Korean Peninsula.

The two battleships that would figure the most prominently in in the coming struggle were the Russian battlewagon Potemkin, named after 18th-century Russian military leader Prince Grigori Alexandrovich Potemkin, and the Japanese pre-dreadnought battleship Fuji, which had been christened in honor of Japan’s fabled Mount Fuji volcano. The Potemkin was the designated flagship for the Russian blockade force; Fuji led the Japanese naval squadron whose was task was to break that blockade before it could accomplish its goal of cutting off supplies from the home islands to the Japanese ground forces in Korea.

While all the sailors of the Imperial Japanese Navy felt what was known as Yamato-damashii("Japanese spirit"), this patriotic sentiment was particularly strong within the ranks of Fuji’s crew. They saw themselves as spiritual cousins of the samurai of Japan’s storied past; there wasn’t a man among them who wasn’t prepared to face the Russians in hand-to-hand combat if that’s what it took to thwart the blockade. They drilled every day with rifles and swords so that they could either defend their ship if the Russians tried to board her or board one of the Russians’ warships should the chance present itself. And they performed these drills with a dedication that bordered on obsession.

As for the Potemkin’s crew, while they felt a certain amount of national loyalty too, it was less to the Czarist regime than to the family, friends, and relatives who they’d left behind to fight Japan on the high seas. Some of the Potemkin’s sailors, in fact, secretly detested the Czar and hoped that the war-- regardless of how it turned out --would sow the seeds for a political change that would replace the Czarist autocracy with a more democratic system of government. Her captain, Evgeny Golikov, did not particularly like such  ideas; he was a die-hard believer in the Czar, and regarded any talk of replacing the imperial government as dangerously close to mutiny. Any sailor who dared criticize Nicholas II within earshot of Golikov could count on a severe tongue-lashing at the very least.

When the Potemkin took up its assigned spot in the Russian blockade line on April 7th, 1903 the atmosphere on her decks was almost as tense as that of the front lines of the ground war the Russian army was waging in Korea. While all of Golikov’s senior officers and many of his junior ones shared his pro-Czarist views, most of the petty seamen disliked the Romanov monarchy even if they were sometimes reluctant to say so openly; this dichotomy of feeling among the Russian battlewagon’s crew would subsequently hamper the blockade effort.

One sailor who particularly loathed the Czarist regime was Afanasy Matyushenko, a quartermaster in the Potemkin’s torpedo section who along with fellow petty seaman Grigory Vakulinchuk led a secret socialist cell within the ranks of the battlewagon’s crew. Right under Captain Golikov’s nose they spread socialist propaganda and held meetings for their shipmates in which they expounded on what they saw as the urgent need to dismantle Nicholas II’s autocracy and replace it with a social democracy; many of these meetings were also devoted to preaching the socialist gospel being advocated by Russia’s most prominent left-wing political leader at the time, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.

Their revolutionary endeavors weren’t going entirely unnoticed, however; Golikov, being a stern opponent of what he deemed "subversive activities" as well as a committed Czarist, had quietly deputized the ship’s chaplain to watch and listen for any signs that one of his crew might be plotting mutiny against him, Golikov’s first officer, Ippolit Gilyarovsky, also took part in the surveillance, determined to catch a "Red" in the act and eagerly looking forward to the opportunity to exercise his disciplinary authority as Potemkin’s second-in-command. In such a paranoid and uptight environment, it was almost inevitable that something would happen to throw the ship’s crew into turmoil and endanger the Imperial Russian Navy’s blockade plans-- indeed, in view of what we now know about the emotional and mental condition of the Potemkin’s crew it’s something of a miracle a mutiny didn’t erupt on her decks the second she left port.

On April 20th, thirteen days into the Russian battlewagon’s patrol cruise along the blockade line, she made her first contact with a Japanese vessel. Captain Golikov immediately ordered his sentries on the crow’s nest to identify the intruder; she was recognized by one of the sentries as the Matsushima-class cruiser Hashidate. An obsolescent though swift vessel originally deployed in the 1890s, Hashidate was to all intents and purposes a sacrificial lamb meant to distract Captain Golikov and his crew while more advanced IJN warships crept up on the Russian battlewagon to mount a surprise attack on its blind side. The plan was a dismal failure: despite Hashidate’s speed, the Potemkin’s forward batteries made short work of her, blasting her to pieces in a matter of minutes. With Hashidate destroyed, Captain Golikov directed his helmsman to come about to face the vessels that had tried to sneak up on Potemkin. They too were dispatched in quick order, with one IJN frigate literally being blown out from under her commander.

Had there been greater trust between Potemkin’s officers and crew, the destruction of Hashidate could have been the beginning of a string of impressive victories for the Russian battlewagon. But as time went on the Hashidate engagement would prove to be the exception instead of the rule, given that the men on board Potemkin were growing to despise their officers and the officers in turn were viewing the sailors as a pack of willful children who needed to be kept in line by the harshest possible disciplinary means available. In this kind of hostile social and psychological climate, it was just a question of time before there was a confrontation between the opposing factions on board.

That confrontation took place on May 2nd, just thirteen days after the Hashidate was sunk. The day before, the Potemkin had rendezvoused with a supply ship to take on food and fuel; among the cargo was meat intended to be used in the borscht soup served at lunch every day in the crew’s mess. Unfortunately for Captain Golikov and his officers, much of that meat was contaminated with maggots; outraged, the petty seamen angrily refused to eat it. When an obstinate Golikov insisted the sailors eat it anyway, tempers flared and Gilyarovsky threatened to have any man who defied Golikov’s order shot. The standoff between Potemkin’s officers and enlisted crew would continue for several more minutes before Grigory Vakulinchuk gave a rousing speech pleading with the ship’s guard detail not to obey Gilyarovsky’s execution order. In a fit of blind rage Gilyarovsky snatched a rifle away from one of the guards and fired it twice into Vakulinchuk’s chest-- and at that point the situation deteriorated into absolute chaos.

Infuriated by Gilyarovsky’s cold-blooded murder of one of their fellow sailors, Matyushenko and his crewmates launched themselves at their officers like rabid dogs. The ship’s doctor, whose inaccurate verdict that the maggot-ridden meat was fit for consumption had laid the groundwork for the crew’s uprising against their officers, tried to escape in one of the lifeboats only to be seized by a trio of petty sailors and lynched on Potemkin’s quarterdeck. Golikov made a frantic dash to the relative safety of his cabin and barricaded himself inside with a revolver in one hand, shooting at anything that moved. As for Golikov’s first officer, Gilyarovsky wound up meeting the same macabre death he himself had inflicted on Vakulinchuk-- two bullets through the chest courtesy of a rifle taken from a ship’s guard. Before the mutiny was finally put down, more than half of Potemkin’s officers and at least sixty percent of her enlisted crew would be dead or gravely wounded. Captain Golikov would succumb to an aneurysm just three weeks after the mutiny; Matyushenko would be court-martialed for treason and hanged.


There was, of course, no danger of a Potemkin-style uprising on board the Fuji. Indeed, the most serious disciplinary incident which took place on Fuji’s decks during the blockade campaign was when one of her petty crewmen was reprimanded by her captain for having come to roll call one day with an untidy uniform. To a man, every last member of her crew from the lowest petty seaman to the ship’s captain himself were all unswervingly loyal to their emperor and highly competent at their respective jobs on the ship. Some of the crew, in fact, were old enough to remember the bygone days when wooden vessels were still the predominant type of warship on the earth’s oceans.

On May 6th, four days after the Potemkin revolt was crushed, the Fuji scored its first confirmed kill of a Russian warship. Just after 1430 hours that afternoon, one of Fuji’s lookouts sighted the cruiser Boyan off the Japanese vessel’s port side; the IJN battlewagon quickly altered course to intercept and engage the Boyan. Despite the valiant efforts of the Russian cruiser’s officers and men to defend her, the Boyan was seriously outgunned and she sank after taking a direct hit to her bow from Fuji’s forward batteries. When word of the sinking was received in Tokyo that evening, Fuji’s captain and crew were lauded as national heroes. A host of medals and promotions awaited her men when they returned to their home port; in fact, one particularly fortunate Fuji officer would go on to finish his naval career a 3-star admiral.

Fuji’s victory in its skirmish with the Boyan proved to be a great inspiration to the rest of the Japanese Navy. Not long after word of the Boyan’s sinking reached Tokyo, one of Fuji’s sister ships, the Shikishima, attacked and crippled the Russian Borodino-class battlewagon Oryol in a fight so brief and bitter that most of Oryol’s crew and officers were killed in the first minutes of the attack. When the Shikishima returned to her home port for a temporary refueling and re-supply stop, she found a huge crowd of civilians gathered near the docks to salute her accomplishment.

As the weeks progressed, the Japanese navy became steadily more assertive about challenging the Russian blockade line. By mid-June the blockade was, if not entirely broken, certainly weakened to the point where the Russian naval high command was greatly concerned about their Pacific fleet’s ability to protect Russia’s own maritime supply lines to the Korean Peninsula. On July 1st the Russian Black Sea and Baltic fleets were instructed, over the strenuous protests of the commanders of both fleets, to transfer a number of their warships to temporary assignment in the Pacific theater pending completion of the building of new vessels to replace the ships that had been sunk in the Russian effort to enforce the blockade.

But while things might have been going Japan’s way at sea, on land they were taking a noticeable turn for the worse. The Russian push to take Wonsan, which the Japanese army had successfully managed to stall for months, was starting to pick up steam again....


To Be Continued


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