The Russo-Japanese War – Japanese Army I

To many informed observers the advent of the new twentieth century heralded the demise of the old China. Japan’s victory had exposed China’s military weakness, which the western powers were quick to exploit, placing the empire in danger of dismemberment. In January 1898 Germany secured a ninety-nine-year lease on the Shandong Peninsula as a settlement for the murder of two German missionaries. Two months later Russia negotiated a long-term agreement with the Chinese court for a leasehold on the Liaodong Peninsula between Dairen and Port Arthur (where Russian warships had been anchored since the previous December). Great Britain reacted by extracting concessions in April for a naval base at Weihaiwei. France carved out a sphere of influence in southern China, and Japan sought railroad concessions in Fujian opposite its Taiwan colony.

The Boxer Expedition

Popular Chinese resentment over thirty years of foreign humiliation boiled over in 1900 as a series of violent attacks against foreigners led by the Boxers, a secret society that enjoyed covert backing from the Qing court, tapped widespread local support with its antiforeign and anti-Christian rhetoric. The murder of the German ambassador to China and the subsequent Boxer siege of the foreign legation quarter at Peking caused the western powers (Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, and the United States) as well as Japan to send troops to north China to rescue the diplomatic missions, protect western missionaries, and punish the Boxers. The Japanese army would use the occasion to showcase its latest military reforms.

A small, hurriedly assembled allied expeditionary force under British command of about 2,000 troops, including approximately 300 Japanese, marched from Tianjin for Peking in early June. On June 12, mixed Boxer and Qing army forces halted the advance by destroying a bridge about 30 miles from the capital. The road-bound and badly outnumbered allies withdrew to the vicinity of Tianjin, having suffered more than 300 casualties.

Aware of the worsening conditions, the general staff in Tokyo drafted ambitious contingency plans, but the cabinet, with fresh and bitter memories of the Tripartite Intervention, refused to deploy large forces unless requested by the western powers. Three days later the general staff did dispatch a 1,300-man provisional force to north China commanded by Maj. Gen. Fukushima Yasumasa, director of the second (intelligence) department, chosen because his fluent English enabled him to communicate with the British commander. Fukushima’s detachment landed on July 5 near Tianjin.

During the interval, a few hundred naval infantry from the Sasebo Special Landing Force had joined British, Russian, and German troops to seize the Dagu forts near Tianjin on June 17, but four days later the Qing court declared war on the foreign powers. The dangerous circumstances compelled the British, then heavily engaged in the Boer War, to ask Japan for additional reinforcements. Overriding personal doubts about supporting what many Japanese thought amounted to a religious crusade by the western powers against the Chinese, Foreign Minister Aoki Shūzō calculated that the advantages of participating in an allied coalition were too attractive to ignore. Prime Minister Yamagata thought likewise, but others in the cabinet demanded guarantees from the westerners in return for the risks and cost of reinforcements. The cabinet alerted the 5th Division on July 6 for China duty but set no timetable for its deployment.

More ground troops were urgently needed to lift the Boxer siege of the foreign legations at Peking, and the Japanese had the only readily available forces in the region. As mentioned, the British army was tied down in South Africa, and it would take too much time and weaken internal security to deploy large forces from its India garrisons. On July 8, the British ambassador to Japan offered Aoki one million British pounds in exchange for more reinforcements. Shortly afterward, advance units of the 5th Division departed for China, bringing Japanese strength to 3,800 personnel of the 17,000-man allied force.

This second, stronger expeditionary army stormed Tianjin on July 14 and occupied the city. The allies then consolidated and awaited the remainder of the 5th Division and other coalition reinforcements. In early August the expedition pushed toward Peking where on August 14 it lifted the Boxer siege. By that time, the 13,000-man Japanese force was the largest single contingent, about 40 percent of the approximately 33,000-man allied expedition.

Japanese troops were on their best behavior throughout the campaign. The 5th Division commander (who had taken operational control from Fukushima) ordered the troops to demonstrate Japan’s brand of discipline, courage, and fortitude in battle to the world. Officers at all levels enforced draconian standards of discipline. Junior officers warned troops that the army would summarily and severely deal with violence against Chinese households, arson, or theft. Rape was punishable by immediate arrest and decapitation. Even minor infractions were harshly punished. Fukushima remained in China to enforce frontline discipline.

Japanese troops acquitted themselves well on all counts, although a British military observer felt their aggressiveness, densely packed formations, and willingness to attack cost them excessive and disproportionate casualties. During the Tianjin fighting, for example, they suffered more than half of the allied casualties (400 of 730) but comprised less than one-quarter of the force (3,800 of 17,000). The story was similar at Peking, where they accounted for almost two-thirds of the losses (280 of 453) but slightly less than half of the assault force. The only major lapse in discipline occurred when all ranks joined their allies in the widespread looting in Peking, apparently with the understanding that whatever the westerners did, the Japanese could do too. A British correspondent noted, however, that the Japanese plundered “so nicely that it did not seem like looting at all.”

As part of the September 1901 settlement with the Chinese court, the coalition powers were allowed to station troops between Tianjin and Peking to protect their nationals and maintain a secure line of communication to the sea. The war ministry activated the China Garrison Army, the designation for army units stationed in North China under terms of the Boxer Protocol. The new army was a provisional unit, not a regular one (whose troop basis was fixed by imperial decree) and drew on elements from several homeland divisions assigned to it on a temporary one-year rotating basis. Other concessions included Russia’s right to retain its reinforced garrisons in Manchuria, pending a phased withdrawal.

The Boxer Rebellion revealed Great Britain’s growing difficulty in maintaining its influence in northeast Asia. The Boer War had drained the British army and forced diplomats to pay Japan to send troops to quell the Boxers and counterbalance Russian military intervention. The European alliance system had isolated Britain internationally, and in East Asia the combined Franco-Russian navies outnumbered the British fleet. Engaged in a naval race with Germany and wary of Russia’s meddling in China and the implications of the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railroad, the British needed allies. Japan was likewise diplomatically isolated after the Tripartite Intervention and had to deal with the Russian presence in Manchuria and its potential threat to Korea. By signing the 1902 Anglo-Japanese naval alliance, the parties agreed to respect each other’s interests in China, maintain strict neutrality in case one or the other became involved in a war, and to intervene if a third party entered the conflict. For Britain, the treaty restored the naval balance in East Asian waters and provided an army to check Russian expansion. For Japan, it allowed the army to address the Russian threat to Korea without fear of foreign intervention.

The treaty assumed greater significance when Russia did not withdraw the reinforcements it had sent to Manchuria to protect its railway zones and seemed intent on further expansion. Military engineers were improving the Russian naval base and fortress at Port Arthur, and the Trans-Siberian Railroad was nearing completion. Russia’s greatly improved strategic mobility, particularly the potential to move large units rapidly by rail to Manchuria, alarmed Japan’s leaders, and Yamagata’s repeated warnings of the dangers the railroad posed to Japan’s national interests seemed to be coming true.

Preparations for War

The army had regarded Russia as its traditional enemy, but the general staff only began substantive operational planning for war with Russia in 1900. Initial plans envisaged capturing Port Arthur, followed by a decisive battle near Mukden in Manchuria with secondary amphibious operations directed against Russia’s Maritime Provinces. After the arrival of additional Russian reinforcements in Manchuria during July 1900 and the completion of most sections of the Trans-Siberian Railroad, the general staff revised plans in 1901 to focus on the defense of Korea.

The next year Maj. Tanaka Giichi, recently returned from attaché duty in Russia, took charge of a small planning group within the general staff that worked under tight security. By August 1902 it had recast the staff’s war plans into a strategy that, much like the Sino-Japanese conflict, depended on Japan’s naval capabilities. If the navy could control the Yellow Sea, the army could safely deploy troops to the continent and Manchuria would be the main theater of operations. Should the navy only be able to control the Tsushima Strait, the army would land in southern Korea and defend Japanese interests on the peninsula.

For its part, the navy was dissatisfied with the arrangements for imperial headquarters, which, in case of war, would be commanded by an army general. Frustrated by playing second fiddle to the army-dominated IGHQ, naval leaders, especially Adm. Yamamoto Gombei, aggressively demanded changes to the IGHQ regulations to make the naval chief of staff coequal to his army counterpart, in effect the recognition of an independent naval general staff. Gen. Kawakami Sōroku adamantly opposed Yamamoto and insisted that wartime operations had to be based on peacetime plans prepared by a single authority—the army.

After Kawakami’s death in 1899, both services continually appealed to the throne for a resolution of command authority. Finally, in December 1903, with war with Russia looming, army Chief of Staff Gen. Ōyama and Prime Minister Yamagata petitioned the emperor to allow both the chief of the naval general staff and the chief of the general staff to advise the throne on matters of national defense and military operations. This change created a wartime headquarters in which the army and navy general staffs were independent of one another, but did not resolve fundamental issues of joint planning, joint operations, or command and control.

Vice Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Tamura Iyozō was the brain behind the army’s operational and mobilization concepts for the war. Having spent six years as a junior officer studying in Germany, Tamura was one of a handful of Japanese officers well versed in Clausewitz’s theories of war and had matured into a first-rate if conservative strategist. To keep Tamura’s work secret, the army’s annual report submitted to the throne continued to describe a defensive national strategy, even while the general staff rewrote its offensive contingency plans.

When Russian troops did not leave Manchuria as the Boxer Protocol stipulated, on April 21, 1903, the prime and foreign ministers met with senior statesmen at Yamagata’s Kyoto villa, where they agreed to seek a diplomatic solution. If diplomacy failed, they would resort to war. Maj. Gen. Iguchi Shōgo, director of the general affairs department, a hawkish short-war proponent, pressured Tamura to notify the cabinet that the army was ready for war at a moment’s notice. Tamura, however, harbored serious reservations about the army’s combat readiness—the new, enlarged force structure had just become operational—and used the Russian threat to justify greater army expansion.

Army Chief of Staff Field Marshal Ōyama Iwao notified the emperor that Russian meddling in East Asia would erode the overseas gains Japan had made since the restoration and that Russian domination of Korea would directly threaten national security. Immediate military preparations for war were necessary. Amidst these conflicting military assessments, an imperial conference on June 23 concluded that concessions to Russia were possible regarding Manchuria, but Korea was a vital national interest and therefore nonnegotiable.

Tamura died suddenly in October 1903, having literally worked himself to death. His loss was a crushing blow to the general staff coming as it did at a critical juncture in Japanese-Russian relations that found leadership in disarray. Prime Minister Katsura Tarō was indecisive, Yamagata was depressed, and Ōyama was not psychologically ready for war. Gen. Iguchi lamented that the army and the navy were at odds over strategy, and the navy minister was placing parochial service interests above the national good. The only bright spot was Lt. Gen. Kodama Gentarō’s willingness to accept a demotion in order to replace Tamura, an act that Iguchi regarded as proof that “heaven has not yet abandoned our empire.”

Kodama resigned two ministerial portfolios and took a two-rank demotion to serve as army vice chief of staff. Under his guidance in February 1904 the general staff finalized a two-stage campaign plan that sought the destruction of the Russian field armies in Manchuria as well as the Russian Pacific Fleet. During stage one, the First Army would advance to the banks of the Yalu River to prevent a Russian invasion of northern Korea. The Second Army would establish a base of operations on the southeastern Liaodong Peninsula; then the Third Army would land, advance to Port Arthur, isolate the fortress, attack it if necessary, and support the other armies. As the First and Second armies moved north into Manchuria, the smaller Fourth Army would land between them along the northeast bank of the Bohai Gulf to secure their flanks and protect the rail line of communication.

Kodama’s objective was to encircle and destroy the Russian Siberian Independent Corps and the Second Corps near Liaoyang before reinforcements from European Russia could arrive and overwhelm the Japanese with their superior numbers. Staff officers calculated that it would take about six months to move eight divisions from Europe to Manchuria, giving the army that much time to achieve Kodama’s objectives. There were no specific plans for a second year of campaigning.

Unable to resolve the impasse with Russia through diplomacy, the February 4, 1904, imperial conference decided on war. For several days afterward Emperor Meiji was unable to sleep or eat, dreading the possibility of having to report a defeat to his ancestors. He later told the empress that it was not his wish to fight Russia and worried about facing his subjects if Japan lost. Senior army officers were also well aware that Japan could not win a protracted war. Amidst uncertainty and trepidation Japan severed diplomatic relations with Russia on February 6, and two days later, without a formal declaration of war, the navy launched a surprise attack against the Russian squadron moored in the harbor at Port Arthur.

The surprise attack aimed to destroy the Russian fleet at anchor or at least neutralize the enemy fleet by sinking obsolete Japanese transports to block the harbor entrance. Maritime supremacy would then pass to the Japanese navy and permit the army to ship troops safely to Korea’s west coast and the Liaodong Peninsula. Russian contempt for the Japanese led them to underestimate the seriousness of the threat and leave Port Arthur unprepared for a sudden raid. Still, the Japanese naval attack neither destroyed the Russian squadron, although it did heavily damage three capital ships, nor closed the harbor. The Russian fleet-in-being at Port Arthur remained a strategic liability for Japan that would extract a terrible toll on the emperor’s army. On February 10 Meiji issued a memorial declaring war against Russia.

Imperial General Headquarters was established on the palace grounds the next day. Unlike the case during the Sino-Japanese War, the prime and foreign ministers were excluded from the headquarters and the army barred civilian ministers from officially attending IGHQ meetings, although, as will be discussed, informal networks kept civilian leaders well apprised of developments. IGHQ became the official operations center where senior staff officers reported to the emperor on strictly military matters rather than the locus of civilian-military policy formulation. Strategic decision-making occurred during the deliberations of the senior statesmen that usually preceded an imperial conference and made the meeting in the emperor’s presence the highest decision-making mechanism for wartime military and foreign policy issues. There was no formal apparatus to connect military and civilian policy, and the system depended on informal personal relationships cemented by years of working together in the government.

Three subsequent attempts by the navy—in late February, late March, and again in May—to seal the Port Arthur channel by sinking old transports in the mouth of the harbor also failed. The army general staff had scripted a tightly sequenced deployment schedule that depended at every stage on the navy’s support, and with each disappointment, army-navy relations deteriorated. In mid-March, for example, the First Army landed safely near Pyongyang. The general staff then was shocked and dumbfounded when the navy announced that it was postponing further blockship operations against Port Arthur until mid-May. Unable to delay the Second Army’s scheduled May 5 landing on the Liaodong Peninsula, the army had to risk its slow-moving troop transports to possible attack by the Port Arthur squadron in order to meet its short-war timetable.

Meanwhile, the First Army moved north from Inchon and in two days of fighting over April 30 and May 1 pushed the Russians back along the Yalu River near Andong. This minor engagement had major ramifications. The Japanese, regarded by many in the West as quaint little people from an exotic land, had defeated Caucasian troops of a world-class power. Stock markets in New York and London suddenly realized Japan was a sound investment, and foreign purchases of government bonds and offers of loans buoyed the wartime economy. On the home front, however, the public was shocked and critical because the more than 900 Japanese killed or wounded exceeded total battle casualties for the Sino-Japanese War. Vice War Minister Lt. Gen. Ishimoto Shinroku defended the troops’ performance to reporters by attributing the losses to modern weapons technology, not incompetent leadership.

On May 25, the Second Army’s three divisions attacked an entrenched Russian infantry regiment defending Nanshan on the narrow neck of the high ground that separated the northern and southern halves of the Liaodong Peninsula. Fighting began early in the day with a three-hour artillery preparation, followed by a textbook frontal assault against the still mostly intact Russian positions. By midmorning the Second Army had thrown its final reserves into the battle but still could not break the defenses. As artillery ammunition dwindled, casualties mounted, and the troops became exhausted, staff officers recommended that Gen. Oku Yasukata, the Second Army commander, withdraw and regroup. Oku instead ordered renewed attacks, regardless of losses.

Tactical doctrine depended on dense columns to build up sufficient fire superiority to carry a defensive position, but Nanshan’s limited maneuver space canalized infantry attacks into direct frontal assaults. The combination of tactics and terrain left massed attackers exposed to withering Russian fire that inflicted staggering losses before the Russians finally retreated in the late afternoon. The army later described these assaults as “human-bullet attacks” and claimed for public consumption that they epitomized uniquely Japanese virtues of courage, determination, and self-sacrifice. In fact, when staff officers at imperial headquarters received the first official reports of 3,817 casualties in the Nanshan fighting, their immediate reaction was that a careless cipher clerk had mistakenly added an extra digit.

The army’s tactical doctrine was mismatched against modern weapons technology. According to a young captain attached to the Second Army, “It’s not our human-bullet tactics that throw away brave warriors’ lives. It’s the superior Russian fortifications and equipment and our lack of machine gun firepower that gives us no chance of winning. With machine guns extending the distance [of the killing zone], table-top tactics can no longer have any practical application.” Extended lines of skirmishers soon replaced the densely packed columns, and intervals between individual soldiers increased. Some tactical commanders, such as Col. Ichiwara Shinichirō, quickly adapted. Ichiwara’s nonchalant attitude had embarrassed his junior officers during peacetime maneuvers, but at Nanshan he repeatedly rallied his men, ignoring heavy Russian fire. In real fighting, he later remarked, the enemy was less cooperative than on exercises.

Army Chief of Staff Yamagata, Prime Minister Katsura (concurrently an active duty general), War Minister Terauchi Masatake, Manchurian Army commander Ōyama, and his chief of staff, Kodama, gathered at Imperial General Headquarters on June 10 to set the operational direction of war. Katsura participated in IGHQ conferences in his capacity as a retired general officer but was not kept informed officially about operational matters. However, he received accurate information from the senior statesmen (Yamagata and Itō) because the army did provide them accounts of the military situation. Katsura was also a close friend and drinking companion of War Minister Terauchi, who likely passed him information. Because of the cumbersome and exclusionary bureaucratic system, informal personal relations played a crucial role in coordinating military, political, and diplomatic initiatives. A brief review of operations highlights these deficiencies.


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