World War Zero: The Russo-Japanese War

A declaration of war was made on the 8th of February, 1904, a war that occurred between the Russian Empire and the nation of Japan. It has been suggested that this was between these two powerful nations may have paved way for the first world war, and conclusively led to the second world war. The reason for this speculation is because some of the main points were at the root of the conflict during the wars that occurred later on.

At the start of the 20th century, Russia was under the rule of the autocratic Czar Nicholas II, and Japan was under the rule of the Japanese prime minister Katsura Tarō.

So what led to the birth of this conflict? Well, it all started when the Siberian shipping center of Vladivostok was forced to close down for most of the winter. When that happened, Russia was in need of a port where the water did not freeze during the winter months in the Pacific Ocean. The reasons for this were for trade and also so Russia was able to further grow its Navy.

The Russian Czar at the time had already selected his target, and said target was the Korean and Liaodong peninsulas. At the time the Russian empire had already chartered a port on the Liaodong Peninsula from China. Even though Russia had port Arthur available to use, it still wanted to have a site of operations under its full control.

Illustration of Chinese Generals from Pyongyang Captured Alive.jpg
“Illustration of Chinese Generals from Pyongyang Captured Alive”                 by Migita Toshihide

It was at this point that Japan started to grow with concern. This all goes back to 1895, the first Sino-Japanese War that took place. During this war Russia had provided the Qing Empire of China with military aid. Doing so also had placed Japan and China against one another.

At first the nation of Japan tried to come to an agreement, a deal of sorts with Russia, due to Russia’s well known military offence throughout history. Japan had proposed to relinquish rule over Manchuria in Northeastern China, although like with anything there are terms and conditions. There was really only one request… and that was for Japan to be able to still hold power over Korea.

Nevertheless, Russia rejected Japan’s proposal and stipulated for Korea to serve as an impartial area. Of course, not long after that, neither nation could come to an agreement in a peaceful manner and as negotiations crumbled, Japan chose to go and fight. The Japanese orchestrated a sneak attack on the Russian navy that was based at Port Arthur on the 8th of February and that was the formal declaration of war, however, due to the time and also lack of technology, we have at the tips of our fingers nowadays, the leaders of the Russian Empire didn’t know about Japan’s objective  and the attack on their navy at Port Arthur until a considerable amount of hours later.

To Czar Nicholas II knowledge, due to his advisor’s underestimation… he didn’t think that the Japanese would dare to confront Russia, even after the negotiations between the two nations had crumbled.

At the time, the law worldwide had nothing in place that stated the need for an official declaration of war before initiating an attack, that didn’t come into effect till the year 1907 when the second Hague Peace Conference took place, two years after the war between Russia and Japan had ceased.

The battlefields during the Russo-Japanese war

This attack turned into a major naval war, between these two great powers. It was the Japanese Imperial Navy against the Russian Far East Fleet, the purpose for this attack? It was to simply subdue the Russians.

At the head of the Japanese Imperial Navy was Admiral Togo Heihachiro and over 100,000 Japanese soldiers that followed him into battle, surrounding the port where the Russians were stationed. Togo ordered his torpedo boats to strike the Russian vessels, and by doing so the Japanese caused severe damage to three of the largest Russian vessels; Tsesarevich, Pallada and Retvizan and thus this was the start of the war.

Furthermore, the Japanese proceeded to perform attacks both by sea and land. Digging Trenches going on for miles on land, surrounding the area, putting pressure on the Russians via launches of various attacks, ranging from gunfire, mortars, tunnels, mines, everything they could throw at them they did. They also blocked them inside the port, leaving no way for the Russian navy to get out due to Japanese ships surrounding them.  They left very little room for any Russian ships to leave the port, any ships that managed to flee… did not do so untouched. 2 ships tried to escape… the Pobeda and the Petropavlovsk battleships… however, it didn’t have a very fruitful end. Pobeda ended up getting heavily damaged due to the mines in place in the sea by the Japanese and had to return back into port Arthur and Petropavlovsk ended up sinking.

A Japanese painting of the battle of Port Arthur

Japan had studied their enemy, and they did not underestimate them in anyway, and that showed in their preparation, battle formation and of course, the achievement of victory.

After copious weeks went by, Russia deployed its Baltic Fleet to the Asian waters, to defeat the Japanese and reclaim Port Arthur. During the process of this plan, the Russian fleet saw some fishing boats in the North Sea… these boats were British, but the Russians thought that it was a disguise and that in fact they were actually Japanese… waiting for the opportune moment to attack them.  Come to think of it, it could have been a plausible reason since the United Kingdom was an ally of Japan, however it was stated that even so, the United Kingdom was neutral… unless provoked.

However, this was not the case… they were in fact British fishing boats, the Russians launched an attack and unfortunately killed 3 fishermen. Due to this mistake England was almost drawn into this war as well.. but I mean the whole journey was just plagued by errors, they even fired upon one of their own ships by accident while they were doing fire drills just off the coast of Africa. This all happens due to the lack of technology back then and also underestimating your opponent doesn’t help, as it leads to lack of preparation.

This war, even though it was short compared to many wars that we have had in the past… it was formed of various battles; The battle and later siege of port Arthur, Battle of Yalu River, Battle of the Yellow sea. Once the Russians had redeployed the Battle of Sandepu followed, with the Battle of Mukden of which the Japanese had won, but had come out with many casualties, and finally the Battle of Tsushima of which brought an end to the war with a full Japanese victory thanks to their naval fleet, leaving only three Russian battleships able to escape back to their home port of Vladivostok. This critical victory forced the Russians to seek some form of a peace treaty.

The aftermath of this war… was a lot of casualties from both sides, valuable lives lost, over 150,000 of them to be more precise… and that’s not taking into account 20,000 odd civilian lives lost during this war too.

Theodore Roosevelt
Theodore Roosevelt, around 1904

Due to all of this the U.S president at the time, Theodore Roosevelt created the Treaty of Portsmouth during the Spring and Summer seasons of 1905. This treaties terms were, that the Russians had to acknowledge Japan as the superior power in the country of Korea, and to turn over the leased port Arthur and Liaodong peninsulas to Japan… the Russians also had to give up the southern half of Sakhalin island. With all of that, both nations agreed to return Manchuria to China.  Theodore Roosevelt won a Nobel Peace Prize for his role in the talks.

Even after the talks and the peace treaty, problems started to arise… and you will see how these led to the attacks that took place in the second world war. Czar Nicholas II refused to compensate Japan for any of their losses, and Roosevelt sided with the Russians on this matter, which then this led the Japanese to accuse the Americans of cheating them . This caused anti-American riots to take place in Tokyo… and during the lead up to WW2, this caused Japan to question Americas role in Asian affairs.



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