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  • James Houser

February 9, 1904 - Beginning of the Russo-Japanese War

Updated: Jun 1, 2021

In retrospect, I really should have done more on this war.

February 9, 1904. The Japanese fleet launches a surprise attack on its Western foe, starting a war that will be longer and bloodier than anyone expects. No, I didn't get the date wrong. This is the Battle of Port Arthur - the beginning of the Russo-Japanese War.

Since 1868, the Japanese state had gone from a backward island nation on the fringes of the world to becoming a major industrial and military power. It had also become an imperialist power and sought to expand its sphere of influence across eastern Asia. A central theme in this thinking was that the Koreans and Chinese were "backwards" nations that would soon be Japan's first targets. Their first target was Korea. That meant dealing with Korea's chief protectors - the Qing Chinese.

First Sino-Japanese War, 1894-1895

When the Japanese routed their Chinese opponents on land and sent the Chinese fleet to the bottom of the Yalu River, the Chinese sued for peace. The Sino-Japanese War of 1894 to 1895 cemented Japanese control over Korea and Taiwan and completely upended Western expectations about the fate of East Asia - the betting markets had been in favor of China. However, the new treaty also ceded the critical Liaodong Peninsula and the key port of Dalian to the Japanese. This bothered some other parties.

Japan's new preeminence came with new opponents. Their primary new foe was Tsarist Russia, firmly committed to expanding its own influence in China. Under pressure from Russia, the Western powers of France and Germany joined with their European neighbor to force Japan to return the Liaodong Peninsula to China. Seething, the Japanese were forced to agree - they were not and would never be treated as an equal partner in the community of nations, and Europeans still felt entitled to interfere in Asian affairs. Wouldn't you know it, in 1897 the Russians occupied the Liaodong Peninsula and built a large fortress near Dalian - renaming it Port Arthur. The Russians claimed this was targeted at the British, but the Japanese didn't believe a word of it.

Over the next few years, Japan watched Russian power expand into northern China and the Pacific with growing concern. In Manchuria, the Russians began constructing railroads and building major cities, including the city of Harbin. They based a new and powerful Russian Pacific Fleet at Port Arthur. They began to link Port Arthur with their Siberian railroads - and therefore with Moscow itself. Soon it would be hard to undo the Russian spider slowly building its web to the Pacific.

Finally, the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 brought things to a head. When the Chinese people revolted and besieged the European embassies in Beijing, a multinational coalition assembled to free the beleaguered Westerners, but the chief contributors were Russia and Japan. Ostensibly aimed at the rescue mission, both nations contributed their troops with an eye to preventing each other's influence. The Russians were the real winners; barely participating in the actual rescue mission, they used the opportunity to seize control of Manchuria from the Qing monarchy, effectively shutting out the Japanese from China. They stationed a major Russian army on the Yalu River - the traditional border between Korea and China - threatening Japan's newfound possession of Korea. It looked like conflict was inevitable.

The Russian Reach into Asia, c. 1904

The Japanese were torn. On the one hand, Russia's diplomatic blunders had isolated it from European support; unlike 1895, no European powers would join it in suppressing Japan if war began. On the other hand, Russia had huge reserves of manpower and a powerful Western military. Negotiations broke down when the Japanese realized that Russia was using the delay to slowly build up its forces in Manchuria. The time to strike was now, not later, before the Russian forces in the East became overwhelming. The Japanese decided to strike their Western foe while they had the chance.

The final decision was to not only strike the Russians, but to strike just before the declaration of war - a surprise preemptive strike with no warning as a way of evening the odds. The overconfident Russians were not ready for such an attack, and the Japanese had the man to do it: Admiral Heihachiro Togo, who would soon become known as "the Nelson of the East."

On February 8, 1904, the Japanese crept into the harbor of Port Arthur, where the Russian Pacific Fleet lay sleeping at anchor. Togo's torpedo boats launched a sudden attack, crippling two of Russia's heavy battleships and several other vessels.

Russian battleship exploding under fire from Japanese at Port Arthur, by Torajiro Kasai, 1904

Nevertheless, the Russian fleet prepared for battle. Togo moved in but was held back by heavy batteries firing from shore. To his surprise, he learned that the Russian fleet was making full steam for his own vessels. Braced by both coastal artillery fire and the prospect of open contact with the enemy's battle fleet, Togo ordered a risky fighting retreat that nevertheless escaped with all ships intact.

So what's the big deal? The battle certainly wasn't conclusive. A slight Russian victory, maybe. However, the Japanese surprise strike at Port Arthur sent a shockwave through Russian morale - the Tsar refused to believe the Japanese would dare attack the mighty Russian Empire, or be so audacious as to launch a surprise attack. (The Japanese Declaration of War was not delivered until a day later). The psychological effect of the attack put the Russians on defensive for the remainder of the war.

On land, the Japanese quickly invaded Manchuria, beating the Russians in multiple bloody attacks. On the seas, Togo's fleet first bottled up then whittled away the Russians in Port Arthur; Japanese Army forces took the critical port several months later. Then, the Russian Baltic Fleet made a grueling odyssey across the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, only to be cornered and annihilated by Togo at Tsushima.

By 1905, the Russians had lost the war by every possible definition. They had been humiliated, severely damaging the Tsarist regime and leading directly to the Revolution of 1905; the Japanese had arrived on the stage as a major world power. It all started with the psychological strike on Port Arthur: not a victory in absolute terms but a victory in the Russian mind.

The Japanese would remember the effects of a surprise naval attack on an arrogant foe in their next war against a major Western adversary. They deliberately sought a "second Port Arthur." But Pearl Harbor, sadly for the Japanese, would not be a second Port Arthur.

A good popular book on the Russo-Japanese War is Richard Connaughton's The War of the Rising Sun and Tumbling Bear: A Military History of the Russo-Japanese War, 1904–05 (New York: Routledge, 1988).

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