Russo-Japanese War

Russo-Japanese War
   A conflict between Russia and Japan that epitomized the violent struggles between powerful nations in the age of imperialism. As China ’s strength and prestige ebbed in the face of Western aggression, the tsar’s government attempted to consolidate its Maritime Provinces around Vladivostok, which it had founded in 1860. Accordingly, the Russians planned to control Manchuria and Korea, which the Chinese were unable any longer to protect. Japan had defeated the Chinese in 1895, but its own plans to take over Port Arthur and to dominate the rest of southern Manchuria were thwarted by the intervention of the Russians, Germans, and French. Bitterly humiliated by losing the fruits of its military success, and by the lease that the Russians subsequently acquired over Port Arthur, Tokyo determined to go to war to expel the Russians from Korea and southern Manchuria.
   Japanese success in the ensuing conflict astonished most Western observers who had exaggerated Russian and deprecated Japanese power. Russia had, after all, long been considered one of the most powerful European nations with the largest army; Japan had been forced to open its ports to outside trade only in the 1850s and still tended to be bracketed with China, despite its victory over the Chinese in 1895. Negotiations between Russia and Japan for a compromise were broken off and, on February 8, 1904, the Japanese landed troops in Korea, despite half-hearted opposition from the Russian gunboat, Korietz. They also launched a preemptive, nighttime torpedo boat strike on the Russian fleet moored outside Port Arthur. The Japanese won every subsequent battle of importance on land and sea. They secured their position in Korea and, despite opposition from 30,000 Russian troops, crossed the Yalu river into Manchuria in May 1904. Here they fought numerous lesser battles and two decisive ones, involving hundreds of thousands of soldiers, at Liaoyang in August 1904 and at Mukden in February and March 2005. In both cases they forced the Russians out of their entrenchments back along the railway to the north. General Alexey Kuropatkin, the Russian commander, could not allow his rail communications to be menaced or his forces to be encircled. The Russians’ withdrawal by 40 miles from Liaoyang in August was reasonably orderly, but, after the loss of Mukden, Russian troops panicked and the retreat turned into a rout. Even though the retreating forces consolidated their position further north around Harbin, morale was, not surprisingly, very low and Sir Montagu Gerard, the senior British officer with the Russian forces, commented that “all the foreign officers, whom I have met, consider the defeat at Mukden to be absolutely decisive and that nothing short of a brilliant naval success can ever change the situation.” In the south of Manchuria, Russian forces in Port Arthur had been cut off in May and besieged from June 1904 onward. The port acted as a magnet to General Maresuke Nogi’s forces because it was here that the powerful Russian Pacific fleet was based. At great cost the Japanese drove the port’s defenders backward until they could bring their siege train to bear on the fleet using observers on 203 Metre Hill. This was the key point in the defenses and was finally captured after bitter fighting on November 30. Previously, the Russian warships had made one serious attempt to escape to Vladivostok on August 10, 1904. They might have succeeded, according to Captain Pakenham, the British officer observing the battle from the Japanese fleet, but the flagship, Tsarevitch , was disabled at long range, throwing the Russian line into disorder, and their ships retreated again into harbor. The fleet was destroyed by the Japanese artillery in December 1904, and with its principal raison d’être gone, the port itself and 25,000 Russian personnel surrendered the next month.
   Tsar Nicholas II ’s government sent mass reinforcements thousands of miles along the newly built Trans-Siberian Railway, raising the carrying capacity of the line from 9 trains a day each way to 16 or 17 during the course of the fighting. For the tsarist regime, the line was usually under the management of someone who had been appointed for his efficiency, rather than rank. “Prince” Khilkoff had risen from poverty, gaining experience of running railways in Pennsylvania and Venezuela before returning to Russia. In contrast, Russian efforts to send reinforcements by sea to East Asia, typified the incompetence of the regime. In October 1904, the Baltic fleet began its 21,000-mile journey around the world to challenge Admiral Togo’s warships. The Russians achieved notoriety by firing on British fishing boats in the North Sea in October 1904 after mistaking them for torpedo boats. In the volatile political atmosphere, this might have brought Britain into the war and thus compelled the French to help their Russian allies. Fortunately, a compromise was reached under which the Russians paid compensation for the damage. Thus Rear-Admiral Zinovy Rojestvensky’s ships made their way slowly round the world, coaled with Welsh fuel by the Hamburg-Amerika Line, until the jumble of old and new warships, pressed into service because of Russia’s desperate situation, was obliterated by the Japanese in the Straits of Tsushima on May 27, 1905.
   Most of the Great Powers had no interest in seeing the war spread or even continue. The French government feared their alliance with Russia would embroil them with Britain just when they were hoping to improve relations. Britain had allied with Japan in 1902 to deter Russian expansion in East Asia without increasing its own forces there, but it had not expected its new ally to attack. It was content to see Russia weakened but not to the point where Germany would dominate the continent. President Theodore Roosevelt asserted Washington’s international position by bringing the belligerents to the negotiating table at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in August 1905. The Russian negotiators were led by Count Sergey Witte, the former Minister of Transport and Finance, who had been largely responsible for the rapid industrialization of the country; the Japanese were led by the Foreign Minister Jutaro Komura. The Russians quickly accepted the verdict of the war, including Japan’s paramount position in Korea, the evacuation of southern Manchuria, and the handing over to Japan of the lease on Port Arthur and the Liaotung Peninsula. But the Russians refused to pay reparations or to accept formal limitations on their naval forces in the Pacific and, under pressure from Roosevelt, the Japanese gave way.
   The Treaty of Portsmouth, signed on September 5, allowed Japan to dominate Korea for the next 40 years, despite the bitter opposition of the Korean people, which began as a guerrilla uprising by what the Koreans called the Righteous Armies. Japan was also predominant in southern Manchuria, but Russia was left in control of Vladivostok and of the northern part of Sakhalin. Given the utter failure of Russian armed forces and the widespread revolution that ensued in Russia, Witte had played a weak hand to brilliant effect, and Japanese nationalists demonstrated their disappointment by staging mass riots. After 1895, the Japanese had paid for their war against China, the expansion of their armed forces and the costs of their royal family, by squeezing indemnities out of the Chinese, but it was many years before the loans raised for the war against Russia were repaid.
   Militarily, the Russo-Japanese War was important because it presaged many of the features of World War I including trenches, barbed wire, machine guns, heavy artillery, and the comparative impotence of cavalry. It demonstrated the diffi-culty of advancing against well-prepared troops and of controlling the hundreds of thousands of soldiers whom modern technology could move to the battlefield. Geopolitically, it was important because it was the first time that a European power had been defeated by Asiatics using modern technology, and it encouraged anticolonial nationalists from India to Egypt. Diplomatically, it meant first that Japan had to be considered one of the Great Powers and its views taken into account. Second, Russia’s weakening paved the way to the Triple Entente of France, Britain, and Russia, which confronted Germany and Austria-Hungary in the run-up to World War I. The Russo-Japanese War was also important for what it did not do. While European and American commentators were shocked by the number of casualties and the suffering caused to the Koreans and Chinese, they chose not to dwell so much on the horrors of war and thus the danger of a conflict between the European nations. Rather, the numerous war correspondents and editorial writers who followed the war’s progress mainly saw it as a proof of Social Darwinism, that international relations were a constant struggle for survival and that the weak would be destroyed. China and Korea could no longer protect themselves, so they would be crushed and colonized by the strong. Russia had proved itself too weak and must rearm and develop its industry to reassert its position among the nations. Thus the war made a significant contribution to the political atmosphere and diplomatic tensions that led up to the greater catastrophe in August 1914.
   See also <>; <>; <>.
    Connaughton, Richard. Rising Sun and Tumbling Bear: Russia’s War with Japan. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2003;
    Ethus, Raymond A. Theodore Roosevelt and Japan. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1974;
    Warner, Dennis, and Warner, Peggy. The Tide at Sunrise. London: Frank Cass, 2002;
    White, John Albert. The Diplomacy of the Russo-Japanese War. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1964.

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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