As we near the grim anniversary of
World War I, let us remember the first great war of the blood-soaked 20th
Shortly before midnight on 8 February, 1904,
Japanese destroyers and torpedo boats launched a surprise attack on the great
Russian Pacific naval base at
Port Arthur. Located at the tip of
Liaodung Peninsula, the port provided
Russia with its only ice-free deep water harbor on the
Three hours later,
Japan formally declared war on
Russia. A similar surprise attack, followed by declaration of war, occurred on 7 December, 1941 when
Japan attacked the
US Pacific naval base at
Pearl Harbor. The example of 1904 seems to have been lost on
Washington, or purposely ignored.
At the beginning of the 20th century,
Imperial Russia were locked in bitter rivalry to control the vast, resource-rich region of
Manchuria, then a semi-independent
Manchu state, today
China’s most northern region. Russian railroads were being driven down from
Port Arthur, all three newly built
Japan had offered to recognize
Russian control of
Siberia in exchange for
Russia’s agreeing to
Japanese rule over
St Petersburg balked at making any deal with the upstart
Japanese, whom it considered inferior, an arrogant attitude it would soon regret.
Japanese forces under
Nogi fought their way down the
Liaodung Peninsula and laid siege to
Port Arthur (today
Lushun) in which was trapped the bulk of
Pacific Fleet, including five battleships.
Nogi began launching human wave attacks against the eastern line of
Russian forts that guarded the port. These powerful forts and attendant field works were built atop very steep hills that are difficult, as I found, to climb even in peace time. Port
Arthur’s 50,000 Russian defenders, mostly from tough
Siberian rifle divisions, were armed with quick-fire artillery, machine guns and lots of vodka.
Russo-Japanese War saw the first widescale use of machine guns, barbed wire, hand grenades, toxic gas, searchlights – all scourges of
World War I, 12 years later.
As in the
Great War, the generals of 1904 poorly understood the strength and lethality of entrenched troops using automatic weapons. Like the
French in 1914,
Gen. Nogi sent his troops to deliver bayonet attacks believing that their courage and ardor alone would overcome all defenses. The valiant
Japanese infantry was mowed down in a horrible slaughter, as were
French Zouaves in
German machine guns.
Nogi was an old-school warrior of the emperor.
So much so that he committed ritual suicide (seppuku) when the
Emperor Meiji died.
Nogi and many of his senior samurai officers had, in their youth, fought in armor with bows and arrows. Now, they were facing quick-fire guns and
Hiram Maxim’s machine guns.
Nogi continued attacking the port’s eastern line of forts when he should have attacked the northern defenses centering on the 203-meter hill that provided a panoramic view of the harbor below.
Nogi had suffered over 50,000 dead and wounded. He finally realized, under prodding by younger officers, that the 203-meter hill was the key to the siege. This steep conical hill was barren of growth, swept by machine gun fire and artillery. After a titanic effort, that cost the
Japanese 8,000 casualties, the 203-meter hill was finally stormed on 5 December, 1904. Japanese artillery spotters then began targeting the doomed
Russian warships in the harbor below. One by on, they were sunk by
Japanese 11-inch howitzers.
Port Arthur surrendered. But the war was far from over: Japanese forces marched north into
Manchuria where they fought a series of huge battles against
Russian forces, the largest around
Japanese never had enough forces to outflank and surround the
Russian armies, that kept retreating north in good order. As 14 years later on the
Western Front, decisive victory was elusive while casualties grew to previously unimagined numbers. The vast battles in
Manchuria, covering broad fronts, were another evil portent of
World War I.
Pacific Fleet was bottled up in
Port Arthur, its
Baltic Fleet was ordered to sail around the globe to relieve the besieged base and head to
Vladivostok. As the
Russian fleet was leaving the fog-shrouded
Baltic, it blundered into
British herring-fishing boats and, believing them
Japanese torpedo boats that somehow had come to the
Baltic, opened fire, sinking a number of them. Britain almost declared war on
Denied use of the
Suez Canal by the furious
Baltic fleet had to sail 33,000 km around
Indochina to finally reach the north
Tsushima Strait between
Japan, the renowned
Togo Heihachirō ambushed the
Russian fleet in the
Tsushima Strait, sinking or capturing eight battleships, one of the greatest victories in naval history.
Both exhausted and bankrupt by the war,
Russia signed a peace agreement at
New Hampshire, in 1905 brokered by
US President Theodore Roosevelt, who had his own plans for
Russia was humbled, becoming the first western power defeated by an “inferior” Asian nation. Japan was suddenly on the world map, a new force to be reckoned with. Tokyo began dreaming of greater
Romanov dynasty in
St Petersburg was not only humbled: revolts soon broke out in
Russia (1905) and in
Poland. The gigantic, creaky apparatus of czarist rule began to shake and groan. The fuse was lit for the 1917 Revolution.
Tragically, though there were many skilled military observers at the 1904-05 war, and real war correspondents, unlike today’s `embedded’ hacks, somehow the terrible lessons from this first modern war were largely lost. The
British would make the same mistakes as
Nogi did at
Port Arthur. Too many
World War I generals remembered the
Crimean War while ignoring the
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