Welcome to the second installment of our two-part series on the Russo-Japanese War sponsored by Rowan Technology, the makers of The West Point History of Warfare digital apps and textbooks. While part one of this series brought you some incredible information about the Battle of Tsushima, the fierce fighting on land also provides fascinating historical facts for those interested in the odd ways in which wars play out.
HISTORIANS HAVE ARGUED that the 1904 to 1905 Russo-Japanese War could fairly be considered the modern era’s first true ‘world war’. Many point to the trans-hemispheric nature of the conflict, not to mention its use of mass armies, modern tactics and 20th-century weaponry as evidence. If nothing else, the 19-month-long struggle, which claimed more than 100,000 lives, certainly presaged the horror and mass destruction the Great War that would follow just a decade later. This is why some refer to the fight between Russia and Japan as “World War Zero”.
The war sprung from a long and intractable rivalry between Russia and Japan, both of which sought greater control over Manchuria and Korea. After years of sabre rattling, brinksmanship and diplomacy, negotiations between the two powers finally collapsed in early 1904.
On Feb. 8 of that year, Japanese destroyers launched a surprise torpedo attack on Russian vessels harbouring in Port Arthur. The fighting quickly escalated and spread across the region. Over the next year and a half, more than a dozen major battles would be contested both on land and at sea. In addition to engagements between modern warships in the waters off Korea, more than a half-million men would cross swords at Mukden in Manchuria — the largest land battle since the Napoleonic Wars.
Following a crushing naval defeat at Tsushima in May 1905, Russia finally sought an armistice. The humiliation of one of Europe’s most powerful empires at the hands of what was then considered little more than an international novice shocked the West. But for Japan, its decisive triumph over Russia was the opening act in a 40-year saga of brazen military expansion that would ultimately end with mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Yet despite its military significance and far-reaching geo-political consequences, the Russo-Japanese War is often relegated to the margins of the history books, largely overshadowed by the more momentous events of 1914. Following up on last week’s article about the Battle of Tsushima, here are some more amazing facts about this frequently forgotten conflict.
20th Century arsenals
While not as advanced as the military hardware fielded in World War One, the weapons employed in the Russo-Japanese War still represented a massive leap forward technologically. Machine guns, giant steel battleships and even submarines were in their infancy during the Russo-Japanese War. Though not all of these cutting-edge war machines proved decisive, their presence on the battlefield provided valuable lessons that would go on to define how future wars would be fought.
David vs. Goliath
At the outset of the Russo-Japanese War, the cards were stacked in Russia’s favor. In terms of national strengths and resources, Tsar Nicholas II had three times the warships, six times as many soldiers, and three times the population of Japan. Yet the bulk of Russia’s power was half a world away facing Europe. Moving men and material to the front proved a momentous task. As mentioned previously, one 40-ship squadron spent nearly half of the war in transit from the Baltic to the Pacific — a voyage of nearly 18,000 sea miles.
Russia’s sole form of ground transportation for men and material to move from the West to the Pacific Ocean was the single-track Trans-Siberian Railway. At nearly 10,000 km, (6,000 miles), it was the longest railroad on the face of the earth, spanning the length of the world’s largest country. It took at less a week for an army to travel from one end of the line to the other – an unprecedented feat at the time.
Japan: The empire strikes back
Despite its relative small size, Japan outgunned its opponent in a number of ways. Case in point: The Japanese army fired a staggering number of artillery shells during the conflict — exponentially more than it used in the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894 to 1895. The Japanese lobbed 16,800 artillery rounds at the armies of China, while in just one battle against the Russians at Mukden, Japan burned through 344,855 shells.
Triumph of arms — Failure of logisitcs
In what was perhaps an example of foreshadowing of Japan’s greatest weakness in World War Two, the Japanese in the Russo-Japanese War focused little on logistics. Tokyo’s generals prioritized set-piece battle over logistics. In fact, their staff college neglected the subject altogether. Instead they relied on hundreds of thousands of Chinese and Korean laborers to carry out logistics like the transportation of arms and matériel.
Russia calls it quits
The Russo-Japanese War was rare in that the Russians admitted defeat, yet on the day the Tsar’s ministers asked for peace, they still fielded an army in Manchuria three times the size of the entire Japanese military.
Watch for Rowan Technology’s The West Point History of Warfare: The Russo-Japanese War, 1904–1905, the latest installment of the West Point History of Warfare series. The 71-chapter collection covers wars from Ancient Greece to Afghanistan and Iraq and includes more than 500 interactive battle maps, video and audio content, along with commentary from nearly 50 military historians. Over the coming weeks, MHN will preview samples from this impressive and immersive library, all of which was compiled by historians at the United States Military Academy. For more on the West Point History of Warfare, CLICK HERE.