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As we near the grim anniversary of World War I, let us remember the first great war of the blood-soaked 20th Century.

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 Manchuria’s strategic Liaodung Peninsula, the port provided Russia with its only ice-free deep water harbor on the Pacific Ocean.

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, Japan and 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 Siberia to Mukden, Dalny and Port Arthur, all three newly built Russian cities.

Japan had offered to recognize Russian control of Siberia in exchange for Russia’s agreeing to Japanese rule over Korea.

But 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 Gen. Baron Nogi fought their way down the Liaodung Peninsula and laid siege to Port Arthur (today Lushun) in which was trapped the bulk of Russia’s 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.

The 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 Alsace by German machine guns.

Gen. Baron 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.


By November, 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.

Soon after, 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 Mukden (today Shenyang). The 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.

Since Russia’s 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 Russia.

Denied use of the Suez Canal by the furious British, Russia’s Baltic fleet had to sail 33,000 km around Africa and Indochina to finally reach the north Asian waters.

At the Tsushima Strait between Korea and Japan, the renowned Japanese admiral 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, Japan and Russia signed a peace agreement at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in 1905 brokered by US President Theodore Roosevelt, who had his own plans for North Asia.

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 Asian conquests.

The 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 French and 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 Russo-Japanese War.

(Republished from by permission of author or representative)
• Category: History • Tags: Japan, Russia 
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  1. Nice article, I always like to be educated on important yet often overlooked details in history. What this war most reminds me of is the later humiliating disaster experienced by the USSR in Afghanistan, which paved the way for a similar collapse in government in the USSR.

  2. Holy sh*t but this was well written. It had the drama of an eye witness account. Bravo!

  3. Just an addendum. I believe that the Japanese used the same surprise attack tactic against Germany in WWI. This makes the American debacle of Pearl Harbor all the more inexcusable.

  4. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:


    America knew about the Pearl Harbor attack and allowed it too happen as a pretext to enter WW2

  5. Steve says:

    Good piece on a neglected but significant topic.

    Omitted was the fact that Japan was an ally of Britain at the time, and the Japanese navy had been built and trained with British aid. Something which would later rebound to British detriment (amongst others) in 1941-2. Another classic example of foreign policy folly.

    Also, more info on the mentioned use of gas would have been of interest.

  6. colm says:

    Both of Nogi’s sons were killed in that fruitless assault, something no big brass in the military now suffer.

  7. Dan says:

    The war ended in defeat and revolution that nearly swept him from power. The Tsar should have learned his lesson and avoided war at all costs in the future if he hoped to hold on to his ramshackle empire and dynasty. Instead he allowed himself to get caught up with Serbia’s intrigues less then a decade later that invariably led to another war. This time he lost his throne, family and his own life. What a blind fool Tsar Nicholas was.

  8. “The anti-Ford boycott was but a commercial skirmish compared to the international financial war waged against Russian Czar Nicholas II by Jewish banker Jacob Schiff and the American Jewish Committee. The war began when Jews were blamed for Russia’s social and economic chaos in the 1880s. The classic scapegoat scenario developed. Quotas for Jews were decreed in academia and commerce. . . .Bloody pogroms followed . . .

    “Although America’s German Jews detested the unkempt Russian Jews, they were nevertheless infuriated by the barbarism of the czar’s persecution. Among the Hoffjuden who considered themselves the custodians of Jewish defense, Jacob Schiff stood out as a central figure. A major factor in international finance, Schiff’s greatest weapon was money: giving it, denying it. After the notorious Kishinev pogrom of Passover 1903, Schiff decided to personally lead a crusade to force Czar Nicholas to abandon his antisemitic campaign.

    “Schiff used his influence with friends and family in Europe to commit major Jewish and even non-Jewish financial houses to a banking boycott of Russia. And before long, Russia’s loan requests were systematically denied in most French, English, and U.S. money markets. In 1904, after war broke out between Russia and Japan, Schiff lobbied tirelessly among commercial adversaries and cohorts alike to grant high-risk war loans to the Japanese. About $100 million, suddenly infused, quickly armed the under-equipped Japanese, allowing them to score a series of humiliating victories. Schiff’s loans were officially recognized as the pivotal factor in Japan’s victory, and the Jewish leader was commemorated in Japanese newspapers and history books as a new national hero.” –(“The Transfer Agreement,” by Edwin Black, p. 30)

  9. (continued)

    “The banking boycott and the financing of Japan’s victory were only the first rounds. In 1906, Schiff and other influential Hoffjuden formed the American Jewish Committee. Their first major objective was abrogation of the Russo-American commercial treaty, the legal basis of all friendly relations with Russia. The Committee asserted that the czar’s denial of Russian visas to Jewish American citizens was an affront not just to America’s Jewish citizens but to the United States itself.”

    [Taft made a campaign promise to abrogate but refused to honor the pledge once elected. Thereupon, Schiff and the American Jewish Committee lobbied Congress to for the resolution.] “Within weeks, after the House voted 300 to 1 to abrogate, Taft capitulated . . . and terminate[d] the treaty.”

    [Still the czar would not yield.] “Massacres continued, and the Jewish death toll rose. So the banking boycott was tightened. Its effects became most destructive, however, during World War I, when the czar needed multimillion-dollar military loans. Committee members were criticized for the stubborn continuation of their boycott even as it threatened the Allied war effort. But the boycott remained in effect until the monarchy was toppled in 1917.” (Black, p. 31)

  10. KA says:

    Kevin Macdonald of California State University ( Psychology ) have a different take on the Russian pogrom of late 19 th century. So had been the impression of Solzeninistyn .

  11. KA says:

    Kennedy commented that the failure was an orphan and success had many fathers. In the same vein, it could be said that scrutiny or criticism goes AWOL / missing from late night and Prime Time shows when victory results but with minimum economic casualties ,insignificant losses or injuries as were the case in two world wars and first Gulf war. But the drubbings both psychological,physical,and economic hits US had to endure during and following Vietnam and Iraq war2 forced US to look for answers reasons,expose the irresponsibles , mark the liars ,and question the doctrines behind the wars. If American lost world wars , Wilson and Roosevelt would have found themselves in the same dog houses where Nixon, Johnson, Bush 2 ended up being banished . We would have had more exposures and scandals rivaling that of the neocons.

  12. Chiron says:

    A Wall Street jewish banker helped Japan win the Russo-Japanese War, his name was Jacob Schiff, jews really hated the Czar and Imperial Russia, the Bolshevik Revolution and the first Soviet Government was made mostly of jews.

  13. Kiza says:

    If I understand commentators here correctly, it is the Jewish bankers who decided who would win a war, any war. Hmmm, I am a bit skeptical. Besides, Jews have experienced pogroms and expulsions in most European countries: Spain, France, Germany and so on. Why would the Jews single out Russia? When reading history, I would subscribe to ‘follow-the-money’, not ‘follow-the-emotion’. As a universal rule, if something happened, it happened because someone with a lot of money wanted to get even more money/power.

  14. Yakov says:

    The article didn’t mention the Jews, the commenters, on the other hand, went on to put the blame for Russian defeat on the Jewish financiers. Growing up in Russia I’ve never heard this accusation. However, what is historically indisputable is that an early Zionist military leader Joseph Trumpeldor had fought in that war, lost and arm in combat, returned to the ranks after recuperating to complete his service and was highly decorated for it. And he didn’t fight for Japan.

  15. Yakov says:


    Please tell us what is their take and for what reason?

    • Replies: @SolontoCroesus
  16. KA says:

    Recounting the experiences of the Jewish people in 20 -th. – 21 st century , centuries later-

    – ” Europe solved the Jewish problem by creating a homeland later turned into a state in the heart of ME. It was fiercely opposed by the local and also by many westerners.. It was opposed vehemently by the Jewish population who wanted to settle in Europe or US . It was also opposed by Jewish officials in the British,French,and American governments. It was opposed by the religious Jews and also by non -practicing Jews . But some diehards Jewish people along with some crypto Antisemites in Truman government and Stalin Polituburo went ahead . They gathered supports of the elite from judiciary,from media,and even from lawbreaking American citizen with skills in flying and in handling weapons of world war 2.Corruption ,blackmailing,and physical threats were also used .British wanted to use Jews to guard its empire and create more . It was a capitalist endeavor.
    It was a dismal failure the new country was attacked by the neighbors. It was ditched by US later by Soviet and later by France. It was supported only by America But American rulers would demand money and bribes particularly during election. America would encourage more settlement and encourage Jews to move there . It would allow tax break,more loans,grants,and encourage Russian Jews to move there . It would allow dual citizenship to people living in West Bank and Jerusalem. America never wanted the Jews in its midst.
    For West, Isarel was the new ” ghetto ” a new ” settlement of Pale” to isolate and remove the Jewish people . before Farrah Khan or Pat Buchanon there was Henry Ford and he was was not alone. The Ivy League was closed for a longtime. The Presidential candidate lost election for having Jews as running mate . EricCantor was defeated for religion.
    Jews would be living in secluded and isolated geographical areas in NY or in IL or in Cleveland or LA or Florida Jews could only progress by choosing fields that preclude them from coming in regular contact with local average middle class American.
    Jews faced violence . Homeland Security earmarked 90 percent of discretionary budget on protecting Jewish holy places and Jewish schools. No other group needed -Shikhs , Moslem or Mrxican .
    Anti Jews sentiment was so rampant that Powell had to go out in public with statement that war in Iraq was not caused by Jews when war effort was hurting America.
    Jews also lived in fear in France and Eukraine . Jews were threatened with Neo Nazi in Greek and Northern Europe.”-

    2300 AD –

    Yes history could be selectively chosen and expanded in one direction.
    Jews experiences in Central Europe and pre Bolsevic Russia and in post Lenin – Soviet have been selectively analyzed and distorted .

  17. Excellent article on an always-interesting (and sorely neglected) topic.

    A few thoughts:

    Pearl Harbor was not merely the 2nd time the Japanese used a sneak attack to great success in the initating of modern warfare, but rather the 3rd. The first time was in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95.

    “Russia was humbled, becoming the first western power defeated by an ‘inferior’ Asian nation.”

    This is technically correct, as it is qualified by the term “Asian,” but more to the point, the first war in which a modern Western nation-state was defeated by a nonWhite people was actually the First Italo-Ethiopian War (of 1894-95, again).

    Kiza says: “If I understand commentators here correctly, it is the Jewish bankers who decided who would win a war, any war. Hmmm, I am a bit skeptical. Besides, Jews have experienced pogroms and expulsions in most European countries: Spain, France, Germany and so on. Why would the Jews single out Russia?”

    That is an excellent question; I do not know why the Jews seemed so particularly vexed about Russia. But they did seem to be particularly vexed about Russia, for whatever reason. Perhaps because Spain and France were no longer pursuing anti-Semitic policies at the level of intensity that Russia was?

  18. KA says:

    We could add the use of Israel by US in Central American and S American dirty civil- dictatorship wars, Iran Contra arms shipment ,and the remarks of Nixon-Graham . We can include the ” blame Israel” crowd by senators and congress and military for Iraq war( Hollins, Jones,and Gen Zinni ) to rehas the same points that Jewish were used by the empire and used Israel to do the dirty works of the empire but still got blame and put at harms way repeatedly . We can say the rise of antisemitism was the price Jews paid for living in US and for being offered a token of protection from UN and from Arab world ,despite repeated efforts by Robins,by Oslo architects, by Lavon, by American anti Zionist American Council for Judaism -Lessing J Rosenwald to reach understanding and coexistence with Arab, they were ignored . As was Olmert from money sent from US.
    We can twist the reality and claim that when faced with opposition ,Obama turned to AIPAC to get the country to war against Syria despite lack of interest by Israel . That history could easily claim that how the neocons were used by Cheney to increase the value of Halliburton . That porttrayal will absolve Israel or Jewish power . America would be depicted as the worst enemy of vulnerable Israel and Jewish population in 20 th century.

  19. Yakov says:

    @Dave Chamberlain

    ‘What this war most reminds me of is the later humiliating disaster experienced by the USSR in Afghanistan, which paved the way for a similar collapse in government in the USSR’.

    What similarity do you see here? USSR went into Afghanistan to remove from power an extreme faction of the Afghan communist party that was destroying the country and to replace it with a moderate one. Had US not supplied the Mujahideen with weapons the Soviets might have succeeded. Imagine if Russia had supplied the Taliban with with weapons of comparative quantity and quality what would have been the level of US casualties? Do you think the US would still be in Afghanistan?

  20. @Yakov

    Yakov —

    My comments included sources, even page numbers: read the material to get the full context.

    Summary information:

    The quoted passages are from “The Transfer Agreement,” by Edwin Black. Black is Jewish and staunchly pro-Israel. His purpose in including the above material about Jacob Schiff in his book was to demonstrate that Jewish financiers used their wealth to achieve their goals, even it if meant a short-term loss for the Jewish people or Jewish interests.

    Black used the example of the power of Jewish wealth to demonstrate why and how “international Jewry” used their financial power to inflict financial harm on Germany, beginning as early as mid-March 1933. Black called an economic boycott “the weapon Hitler feared most.” Black recounted how Germans had already suffered the loss of 800,000 German civilians to famine in WWI, a result of the Allied blockade on Germany that included foodstuffs.

    “For what reason” did Schiff take action against the Russian czar?

    The quoted material included the answers: ” America’s German Jews . . .were . . .infuriated by the barbarism of the czar’s persecution. . . . ***After the notorious Kishinev pogrom of Passover 1903, ***Schiff decided **to personally lead a crusade to force Czar Nicholas** to abandon his antisemitic campaign.”

    re the “notorious Kishinev pogrom of 1903: 49 Jews died in 2 days of mob violence that culminated months of tension between Jews and non-Jews in Moldova. read more here:

    As the article states, those 49 deaths mobilized Jews around the world and ushered in what Yuri Slezkine called “The Jewish Century.”

  21. Yakov says:


    I’m not disputing the fact that Jews used financial pressure and incentives to achieve better treatment for their brethern, nor do I see it as inappropriate for any other nation in a similar situation.

    Please tell me how your comments are germane to the point that the article is trying to make?

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