Torpedo boats the Hayatori and the Asagiri attacking a Russian ship at Port Arthur.
Russian fleets (centre) attacked by the Japanese combined fleet formation.
Important as the army was, for an island nation like Japan the navy was even more vital. It took impressive strides forward from the 1870s to the 1890s while Togo slowly progressed through its ranks. A naval academy was established in 1869, followed by a staff college, a naval engineering school, and other educational institutions. Ordinary sailors were a mixture of conscripts and volunteers. Officers were chosen based on competitive examinations and promoted (in theory at least) on merit. Rigorous technical training combined with the bushido spirit to create a formidable group of naval fighters.
Most of Japan’s warships until the early twentieth century were built abroad, but the country was rapidly developing its own manufacturing capacity. In 1885 Togo supervised the construction of one of the first warships made in Japan, and when it was completed he took over its command as a newly minted thirty-nine-year-old captain. His future seemed limitless. Two months later, his career seemed in ruins. Togo was felled by a paralyzing bout of rheumatoid arthritis that kept him more or less bedridden for several years. After a slow recovery, he finally returned to duty in 1890 at Kure naval base, just in time for a visit from two hulking German-built battleships of the Chinese navy. Disguised in plainclothes, Togo made a careful inspection of these ships—considerably bigger than any in Japan’s fleet—and he was not impressed by the quality of the Chinese crews, who hung their laundry to dry on the main guns. “Nothing to be afraid of,” Togo told a fellow officer, and he was soon proven right.
In 1894 Japan went to war with China in order to wrest Korea from its sphere of influence. Japan reversed the usual order of things by first attacking Chinese forces and then declaring war, a modus operandi it would employ regularly in the future. A small Japanese naval squadron, including the cruiser Naniwa commanded by Captain Togo, commenced hostilities on July 25, 1894, by attacking and sinking some Chinese ships near the Korean port of Chemulpo (now called Inchon). Following this initial success, the Japanese confronted the main Chinese fleet in the Yellow Sea near the mouth of the Yalu River on September 17, 1894. The Chinese armada was larger, and the Japanese still had no vessels as big as the two Chinese battleships, but their ships were newer and faster, and their officers and crews were much better trained. In a six-hour battle, the Japanese lost no vessels, while five Chinese ships were sunk and the rest were badly damaged. Japan had won the first major naval victory in its history, and Togo had emerged as a hero even before he led the subsequent successful invasion of the Chinese island of Formosa (Taiwan).
Under the Treaty of Shimonoseki, which ended the first Sino-Japanese War in 1895, China was forced to give up all claims to Korea, pay a large indemnity, and cede Formosa and the Liaotung Peninsula to Japan. But Russia, Germany, and France stepped in and forced Japan to disgorge the Liaotung Peninsula, including Port Arthur. Russia then swooped in and bullied China into giving it the Liaotung Peninsula under a twenty-five-year lease. Russia also flexed its muscles by occupying much of the rest of Manchuria and grabbing timber concessions in Korea. It became clear to Tokyo that if it wanted to secure its economic interests in Asia and become an imperial nation in its own right, it would have to push Russia out of the way.
Taking on the czar was a more formidable undertaking than defeating the decrepit Manchus who ruled China. In 1903 Russia’s population was three times bigger than Japan’s. Its iron and steel production was sixty times greater. It spent three times more than Japan did on defense, and it had the world’s largest military, with 1.1 million soldiers and sailors—almost six times more men than Japan. Japan could never hope to close the quantitative gap, but it could build a higher-quality force.
In 1896 Japan launched an ambitious ten-year naval program. By 1904, six battleships had been bought from England. The newest of them, such as the battleship Mikasa, were actually slight improvements over the Majestic class. In addition, Japan acquired twenty-four cruisers, twenty destroyers, and fifty-eight torpedo boats.
Chosen to lead this formidable armada in 1903 was Vice Admiral Togo.
He was fifty-five years old, a short, slightly stooped, soft-spoken figure, with close-cropped black hair and a beard that was turning white. He was known for being cautious, stubborn, and, above all, laconic; Helmuth von Moltke would have seemed a chatterbox by comparison. Togo had enjoyed a solid career, but he was far from Japan’s preeminent admiral. The navy minister, when asked by the emperor why he had been picked for this all-important post, reportedly replied, “Because Togo is lucky.”
Not the least of Togo’s luck was his choice of enemies. The Russian navy proved to be conveniently and consistently inept.
This might, on the surface, be surprising, since Russia had much more experience with war at sea than Japan did. Peter the Great (r. 1682–1725) had created the Russian fleet in the 1690s, and since then it had scored some impressive victories, principally against the Ottomans. Russia had adopted ironclads early on, and it was considered a world leader in torpedo and submarine warfare. In the decade before the Battle of Tsushima, Russia, like Japan, had undertaken an ambitious naval construction program, producing the world’s third-largest fleet—one that had more battleships in the Far East than Japan had in its entire navy.
But this paper strength was deceptive. Russia had not managed to modernize as effectively as Japan had. The czar’s armed forces had fallen far from the pinnacle of power they had reached in 1814, when they had marched into Paris as conquerors. Russia’s 1856 defeat in the Crimean War showed that it lagged far behind the other Great Powers in taking advantage of the Industrial Revolution. This setback triggered a series of reforms, the most notable being the abolition of serfdom in 1861. But, despite the best efforts of skilled bureaucrats such as Finance Minister Sergei Witte (who served from 1892 to 1903), Czar Nicholas II’s government remained a ramshackle affair that was better at repressing dissent than at mobilizing Russia’s almost limitless reservoirs of men and materiel. In particular, the czar’s navy suffered from three crucial disadvantages in confronting the Imperial Japanese fleet.
The first of these was fleet speed. The Russian navy was made up of a polyglot of ships. The newest were as fast as anything in the Japanese navy, but the older ones were much slower. Because the Russians chose to maximize their total numbers by using old as well as new ships, their fleet was limited by the speed of its slowest members. This gave the Japanese an advantage of at least three to four knots (3.5 mph to 4.6 mph) in any engagement, which proved as important as having the wind gauge in the days of sail: Whoever had superior speed could take the initiative and dictate the pace of the battle.
A second Japanese advantage was their ordnance. The Russians relied on armor-piercing shells. Their delayed fuses were not supposed to explode until after they had penetrated armor plate. In practice many of them turned out to be duds, and when they did explode they did not cause that much damage to the heavily armored Japanese ships. The Japanese, on the other hand, had developed an explosive powder known as Shimose that was placed in thin-skinned shells with fuses designed to explode at the slightest contact. These shells could not penetrate heavy armor, but they could inflict great damage on the unarmored parts of a ship. With four times the explosive power of Russian shells, they would take a heavy toll on Russian crew members not only with their shrapnel but also by releasing clouds of toxic gas. The Japanese advantage in this regard was magnified by the fact that Japanese crews could fire almost twice as fast as their Russian counterparts.
This was a consequence of the third and perhaps most important Japanese advantage: the high quality of their personnel. Many of Japan’s sailors were volunteers, while all of Russia’s were conscripts. All else being equal, volunteers generally fight better than draftees because they are more motivated and spend more time in the service. The Russian navy was not quite as dominated by the aristocracy as the army—middle-class naval officers could rise based on their performance—but it was less meritocratic than the Japanese service. There was also a much wider gulf between officers and men in the czar’s navy. Japanese officers slept on mats, ate the same simple food as their men, and, “[w]hen off duty,” a British correspondent wrote, “the officers fraternise with the men almost as if they were equals.” Russian officers, by contrast, acted as if their sailors were serfs. Officers ate elaborate meals on fine china washed down with expensive wines, while their men were forced to swallow what one sailor described as “rotten biscuits and stinking decaying meat.”
Japanese sailors, indoctrinated in the cult of bushido and the religion of Shinto, were fiercely loyal to their emperor. A growing number of Russian sailors, inspired by socialist calls for revolution, were disenchanted with their czar. One of them, seaman Novikoff-Priboy, later savagely denounced his officers: “These noblemen’s sons, well-cared for and fragile, were capable only of decking themselves out in tunics with epaulettes. They would then stick their snouts in the air like a mangy horse being harnessed, and bravely scrape their heels on polished floors or dance gracefully at balls, or get drunk, in these ways demoralizing their subordinates. They didn’t even know our names.” A Russian engineering officer named Pleshkov fully returned this contempt. “I was dumbfounded by the convict-like appearance of the crew,” he wrote of the sailors aboard the cruiser Aurora. “Their clothing is almost always terribly dirty. Their faces are pale and puffed and often wear the expression of an idiot.”
Whatever the literal truth of these broad generalizations, suffice it to say that any fleet that included both Paymaster’s Steward Novikoff-Priboy and Lieutenant Pleshkov was not likely to be a terribly happy one. The sorrows of the Russian fleet would only grow after their first meetings with the Japanese navy.