The Japanese Attack on Port Arthur

The final Japanese appeal for peace failed to gain any ground with the Russians. Ito’s efforts met total failure as the Russians remained obstinate. Russia was confident of beating Japan in a military clash; more than that, it was confident that its great prestige would deter Japan from going to war against it at all. The Russian buildup at Port Arthur would not provoke war with Japan because of Russia’s great stature. Foreign Minister Muravev told the Czar: “One flag and one sentry, the prestige of Russia will do the rest.” The mixed message of reinforcing Russian forces in Manchuria but well short of an army large enough to intimidate the Japanese seems to have escaped him. The Czar himself uttered a phrase laden with meaning that he could not have guessed, remarking to the Kaiser that “there would be no war because he did not wish it.” The Czar’s expectation of waging a war against Japan entirely on his own terms, and really believing he would not have to wage war at all no matter his provocative actions, would be shattered by Japan’s offensive. Japan already had decided on war and to use a preemptive attack to start the war.

The lack of naval superiority and the need for control of the sea to undertake the war at all meant a Japanese ploy at the outset of hostilities: it decided to present a late declaration of war. The attack at Port Arthur and elsewhere would be underway before the official notification of war. Admiral Togo had pressed his government for this approach to increase the chances of the success of his opening attacks. The Japanese government acted accordingly. It severed diplomatic relations with Russia on February 6, the Japanese ambassador telling his Russian counterpart that Japan “had decided to adopt such independent action as was deemed necessary to defend its established rights and legitimate interests.” The same day the Japanese withdrew all of their civilians from Port Arthur in a British steam- ship. In response to both actions, the Russian commander of the fleet in Port Arthur, Vice Admiral Stark, ordered his ships to assume a heightened state of readiness, orders that his subordinates ignored. Consequently, the Russian Pacific fleet was unprepared to defend itself when the Japanese approached.

Togo set sail for Port Arthur on February 6 and he approached the city at night on February 8. Eleven destroyers made the first attack, a swift assault on the unprepared Russian fleet. Moored outside the harbor because of the limited ability of large ships to move in and out of the entrance, they presented excellent targets. Two Russian ships patrolled the area and did warn the fleet of the attack, but they raised the alarm at the same time the first torpedo hit a Russian battleship. They were too late to enable the Russians to repel the assailants and the first Japanese ships made un- molested passes on the battle fleet while the trailing vessels sought to take advantage of the confusion that soon surfaced among the prospective targets. Given the great opportunity, it is a telling comment on the inaccuracy of the torpedo that the Japanese damaged only three Russian ships, two battleships and one cruiser. The attack ended quickly and the Japanese sped away without loss.

Another Japanese surprise attack actually preceded the more famous torpedo strike at Port Arthur. The Japanese also attacked the port of Chemulpo (Inchon) in Korea, targeting two Russian vessels. Obviously these ships needed to be destroyed for the Japanese to land soldiers in the city. Togo assigned a strong force of cruisers to this task, calculating that they could easily overwhelm an unarmored Russian cruiser and an obsolete gunboat. The more difficult part of the assignment was ensuring the destruction of the Russian ships without harming any other ship belonging to a neutral power. These crowded the harbor. To solve this problem, the Japanese commander, Rear Admiral Uriu, summoned the Russians to sea for an engagement. He warned all parties that the Japanese would enter the harbor and attack the Russian ships should his ultimatum be rejected. Neutral ships would be responsible for themselves should the Japanese have to take this step. Captain Stefanov, the senior Russian officer, accepted his fate and led his ships to battle. Hopelessly outmatched, he returned to the harbor an hour later, both ships badly damaged but still afloat. The Japanese closed in to finish him off, prompting the Russians to scuttle their ships. A short time later, Japanese infantry disembarked in Chemulpo.

With its initial plans underway, Japan declared war on Russia on February 10. Now came the more difficult task of blockading Port Arthur. Following up his advantage, Togo attacked the port with his fleet the day after the torpedo attack, but he achieved little. The Russians were alert and the fire from shore batteries was very effective. Togo then looked for a way to keep the damaged Russian fleet in the harbor. Japanese volunteers attempted to sink a number of merchant ships in the path of the harbor, but this hazardous effort to block the entrance failed on two occasions. In April when the Russians sallied from the port, mines claimed victims on both sides, something that worked to the Japanese advantage. Two Russian battleships were lost to mines as well as a new admiral, the capable Vice Admiral Makarov, killed on his flagship, the battleship Petropavlovsk. Makarov had replaced the disgraced Stark, and his death further reduced Russian morale; the fleet did not leave port again until August. The Japanese also lost two battleships to mines at this time, but Togo remained on station before the harbor.

This success would prove decisive since Port Arthur fell to ground assault in late December 1904. Before the city surrendered, Japanese guns positioned on land had destroyed the five remaining Russian battleships. In a very close contest, the Japanese had used a combination of arms to eliminate Russian naval power in the Pacific. Yet the war continued as the Russians committed additional resources to the fight. Japan now faced a fear present before the onset of war, and that was a long war, one that favored Russia. How best to deal with this difficulty occupied Japanese strategists as a new Russian fleet made its way to the war zone.

The Japanese attack on Port Arthur that opened the Russo–Japanese War of 1904–1905 defied a material measure of success since only three Russian ships were damaged. One would expect the Japanese to have inflicted more damage, given that they had achieved complete surprise and the Russian fleet was vulnerable to attack. Additionally, while the three damaged ships did then sink, Russian workers repaired them and they all returned to action. What the attack did gain for Japan was the initiative. It never lost this advantage and it reaped much benefit from it.

The first benefit was the preservation of the Japanese fleet. Togo could not afford to risk his fleet in an action before Port Arthur that, if it went badly, meant Japan would lose the war in the opening moments of the conflict. But without control of the sea, there could be no Japanese offensive. The task became one of containing the Russian fleet. The Japanese soon turned their attention to making sure the Russian fleet would never emerge from Port Arthur, or if it did, it would face a battle of annihilation. Togo, however, expected the Russians to play it safe and remain in the harbor. The change in Russian naval commanders only temporarily altered this standoff. By this measure, the surprise attack of February 8 was a great strategic victory for Japan.

The second benefit was that naval supremacy allowed the ground war to unfold. The immediate aim of the offensive on land was to ensure the conquest of Korea, and this occurred rapidly. Chemulpo fell quickly and a Japanese army began to march north toward the Yalu River. Another Japanese army landed on Chinese territory at Pitzuwo and headed south to the Kwantung Peninsula to invade Port Arthur. A third army landed nearby at Takushan, near the top of the Liaodong Peninsula, and moved north to meet the Japanese army advancing from Korea. Altogether the Japanese armies sought out the Russians hoping to force them into a decisive battle.

This goal of decisive battle would cost the Japanese army dearly as two great battles sapped its strength. To the south, the struggle over Port Arthur became a lengthy siege, something the Japanese had hoped to avoid to minimize casualties. Things had started well enough when the Japanese won a key battle at the neck of the peninsula, isolating the city. The next task was taking Port Arthur itself, defended by 30,000 Russians. The Japan- ese formally laid siege to the city on August 7, 1904, with General Nogi’s new Third Army. First Nogi tried to seize the fortress by storm. Several assaults failed, with very heavy Japanese losses. Nevertheless, the Japanese continued to besiege the city, and it fell five months later, the Russian garrison surrendering on January 2, 1905. But Japan lost close to 60,000 dead. Nevertheless, the sacrifice was worth it from Japan’s point of view. In October 1904, Nicholas had sent his second fleet, the Baltic Fleet, to relieve Port Arthur. If that fleet had arrived in the Yellow Sea with Port Arthur still in Russian hands, Japan would have found itself pressed by two different fleets and outnumbered at sea. The loss of Port Arthur ended this less than desirable scenario.

Before looking to fight another sea battle, Japan faced some additional hard fighting on the ground. The Russian stand at Port Arthur created strategic problems for Japan since Japanese troops diverted to the siege of that city could not be used in battle against the remaining Russian forces in Manchuria. Additionally, the fall of Port Arthur was unlikely to end the war so the Japanese had to wage a campaign to the north and do so at reduced strength. Even the amalgamation of all Japanese armies in the area netted strength inferior to Russian arms, some 175,000 Japanese soldiers opposed by 200,000 Russians. Nevertheless, the Japanese commander, General Oyosama, expressed confidence in securing a major victory that would end the war. He believed that the great mobility of the Japanese army meant it had an opportunity to surround a major portion of the Russian troops and force a peace on Japanese terms. With this goal in mind, the two enemies fought a series of battles over the course of eight months that followed a pattern. The Japanese advanced on prepared Russian positions, attempted to turn the flank of these defenses, and won the battle. But each time the Japanese failed to destroy a large piece of the Russian forces as the bulk of that army retired north. The main reason for this failure was Japanese exhaustion; they lost too heavily in the attack to then pursue effectively. Nevertheless, a climatic three-week battle came in February 1905 as Japan pushed into Manchuria. This clash resulted in another Japanese victory at Mukden on March 10, though again the Russians defending the town escaped destruction. This battle consolidated Japanese control of Korea but cost the Japanese a staggering 70,000 casualties and therefore underscored Japanese weakness instead of strength. Japan could not win battles on land that would force the Russians to make peace.

Japan hoped to achieve this result at sea by winning a decisive naval battle. It had good reason to be optimistic. Russia’s Second Pacific Fleet mirrored the one trapped in Port Arthur in terms of numbers but also in the poor quality of the ships and the training of the crews. The fatalism of the man in charge, Admiral Rozhdestvenski, ensured that a gloom accompanied the fleet on its long voyage from its home waters off St. Petersburg to the coast of China. While the fall of Port Arthur ended this fleet’s relief mission, it sailed on to meet the Japanese in battle nonetheless. The Czar hoped a crushing victory at sea might yet undo Japanese successes and win the war for Russia.

Rozhdestvenski attempted to oblige his monarch by taking the most direct approach to Vladivostok, the new destination of the Russian fleet. He ordered the Russian fleet to pass through the straits of Korea. There, near the island of Tsushima, the fleets met in battle on May 27. At end of two days of fighting, the Japanese had sunk or captured thirty-four of thirty-seven Russian ships with minor losses to themselves. Almost 5,000 Russian sailors died, the Japanese losing only three torpedo boats and 110 men killed. The catastrophe stemmed from a number of factors, such as obsolete Russian ships manned by poorly trained sailors suffering from low morale. Russian leadership also contributed greatly to the disaster, such as Rozhdestvenski appointing a man who had died days before the battle as second in command. When Rozhdestvenski was himself injured early in the battle and no longer able to issue orders, the Russian fleet had no one to coordinate its action and it lost any semblance of order. Each Russian ship soon became a solitary target for multiple Japanese ships working in unison with one another to bring a tremendous amount of firepower to bear on the targets. Togo’s fleet hunted down the Russian ships one after the other and destroyed them. It indeed was a battle of annihilation.

The Japanese preemptive strike at Port Arthur had contributed significantly to the success at Tsushima. By trapping the Russian fleet in Port Arthur where it was eventually destroyed, Togo ensured a struggle of equal numbers at Tsushima. This engagement favored Japan, given its superior ships and crews. The Russians did have a greater number of battleships at Tsushima, seven to four, but this advantage did them little good. However, a force of three times the battleships the Japanese could muster might have produced a different result. Without the ships from Port Arthur, the Russians could hope for only a slight numerical advantage that gave Japan a good chance to win the battle. In the end, preemption allowed Japan to snatch a victory from a potentially unfavorable military situation.

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