The Siege of Port Arthur (1904-05)

Japanese howitzer battery at the Siege of Port Arthur, 1904

Japanese 28 cm siege howitzers batter away at the Russian stronghold's defenses. Dubbed "Osaka babies", the gigantic guns sat on slide-type carriages atop geared turntables. These 11-inch guns were manufactured in Japan under license from Armstrongs', at that time the world's biggest armaments consortium. Used at the sieges of Port Arthur and Qingdao, the huge howitzers were mounted at coastal defense forts in Japan between whiles.   Complete info

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Strategic Considerations

The city of Port Arthur (Lüshunkou), located at the southern extremity of the Liaodong Peninsula commanding the entrance to the Bohai Gulf, became a fulcrum of historic conflict a century ago when the Russians and Japanese fought a fierce and bloody war over control of its strategic harbor and the surrounding territory in southern Manchuria. The city had received its English name in 1860, when a British tea clipper took shelter in the then fishing village during a typhoon. The ship was commanded by a Capt. Arthur, who made note of the landlocked anchorage and communicated his findings to the Admiralty in London.

Why was Port Arthur so valuable that two of the foremost empires of the time would sacrifice up to 100,000 soldiers apiece and stake their navies and their national prestige on its possession? Location, location, location.

Guns at 203 Meter Hill Today
Click image to enlarge.

Strategic Location of the City

As can be seen from the map, the city controls a choke point on all waterborne trade with Beijing. It is closer to the Chinese capital than the Shandong Peninsula with its port of Qingdao (then occupied by Germany), which projects from the opposite shore of the Yellow Sea. Port Arthur also overlooks the western shore of Korea, with its chief cities of Pyongyang and Seoul. There could not be a more strategic location. Port Arthur had an excellent landlocked harbor with a back harbor and a basin suitable for drydocking and cleaning ships' hulls.* The harbor was shallow and subject to silting, requiring frequent dredging to be usable by the largest warships; a task the Russians readily undertook. The strategic harbor was surrounded by lofty peaks perfect for fortification with long-range cannon commanding the approaches by land and sea. The position thus became the key to controlling the mineral wealth of Manchuria -- enormous coal, iron, and copper deposits. The Russian administration of Count Sergei Witte was dedicated to vigorous empire-building in the region, building out the China Eastern Railway to Port Arthur and nearby Dalny (meaning "far, far away" in Russian), which was under development as an important commercial port to rival the German colony at Qingdao. Port Arthur was slated to become Russia's impregnable military fortress guarding Russia's assets in Manchuria. More than 10 million gold rubles (US $5M) were invested in rebuilding Dalny, with the Chinese inhabitants rudely uprooted to make way for the master plan; but the Russian Viceroy, Yevgeny Alexeiev, downplayed Dalny and chose to reside in a magnificent palace he built at Port Arthur. At the same time, Witte poured many more millions of rubles into developing Vladivostok and Harbin, both key links in the Trans-Siberian Railway. The rail link to the Russian homeland was opened in late 1903, just before war broke out with Japan, but some segments were still incomplete during the war.

For the Russians, there was the additional advantage that Port Arthur was a warm-water port, protected from the Siberian blasts by the brown, eroded hills of Manchuria: its harbor did not freeze over in the winter. Russia's other Far East port was Vladivostok, on the eastern side of the Korean Peninsula and some four degrees further north, on the Sea of Japan; its otherwise superb harbor was unusable in the winter months because of icing. With its fine double harbor, oceanic climate, defensible position, and ready access to the mineral wealth of the region, Port Arthur was a strategic prize of incalculable value to the Tsar.

Preliminaries to War

Port Arthur had already been the seat of conflict during the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95. During a 20-month occupation, the Japanese massacred the Chinese garrison and oppressed the inhabitants in reprisal for brutal treatment of Japanese POWs (an estimated 2,000 - 3,000 were killed in the massacre). Under the terms of the Treaty of Shimonoseki that ended the war, Japan was to have occupied the Port Arthur region and all Korea; but in the Tripartite Intervention of 1895, France, Germany, and Russia strong-armed Japan into relinquishing her demands on Liaodong and the Port. Soon afterwards, the Russians coerced a 25-year lease on Port Arthur from the decadent Chinese Empire, including a rail corridor through Manchuria. Russian military engineers moved in aggressively, building a rail line from Port Arthur up to the Trans-Siberian railhead at Harbin. The Russians proceeded to erect a chain of fortifications on the heights around the city, to build batteries on the spit that protected the harbor (the "Tiger's Tail") and all the surrounding headlands and hills in town, until the position was considered impregnable. Within this ring of concrete and steel, the Russians established a large naval base on the East Basin of the harbor, complete with graving docks, machine shops, ammo depots, fuel depots, torpedo boat docks, and all the support facilities their burgeoning fleet required -- and Russia was on a buying spree from 1898 forward, building up its eastern naval force with reckless speed and, dare one say, substituting flashy new weapons for the training and discipline to make it a battle-worthy force. The Pacific Squadron based at Port Arthur included seven modern battleships, one armored cruiser, eleven protected cruisers, and dozens of TBs and TB destroyers. 1904 fortifications are marked in orange on the map at right. A second cruiser squadron based at Vladivostok included three armored cruisers and two protected cruisers, although this was considered a second command and, as noted above, that port was iced in for much of the winter.

The Japanese observed growing Russian influence in their region with mingled resentment and fear. The Japanese felt that Port Arthur was rightfully theirs after their hard-won victory over China. They viewed the Russians as usurpers, resented the overt racism expressed in the Intervention, and felt that Port Arthur as well as Korea should be integral parts of Dai Nippon, the powerful empire they were constructing in East Asia. Several years after the crushing of the Boxer Rebellion, an extensive European military presence was still evident in China. The Qing Dynasty was on its last legs, its realm a sovereign state in name only, desirable parts of its territory already carved up by western Powers which were not subject to Chinese law, or effectively broken off by local strong-men in a foreshadowing of the warlord era. With huge segments of their former revenues diverted into the pockets of crooked officials or earmarked to pay indemnities, with omens indicating the withdrawal of the Mandate of Heaven from the Manchu dynasty, China was tumbling into chaos. Small wonder the Japanese felt the need for a well-fortified buffer zone to prevent incursions on their own sovereignty. They were also anxious to exploit China's weakness and disunity to their own ends: they had been avid participants in the suppression of the Boxers, in fact leading the armed expedition against Beijing in 1900-01, and adamantly demanding their share of the indemnity used to settle the incident. Having endured years of delay, duplicity, and calculated insult from Viceroy Alexeiev at Port Arthur, Japan delivered an ultimatum to St. Petersburg in December 1903. The two sides recalled their ambassadors a few days before hostilities commenced.

Sneak Attack: War Begins

Japanese chromolithograph of naval battle, c. 1904

Period chromolithograph shows Russian cruisers being mauled by the Japanese battle fleet. Titled in Japanese, Battle of Port Arthur, it bears little resemblance to reliable accounts of the action, but instead represents a generic battle scene of the pre-dreadnought era. A Japanese torpedo boat attacks at right, although the most credible torpedo attack of the day was made by the Russian cruiser Novik. The previous night's Japanese surprise attack was far more of a Japanese victory than the fleet-versus-forts action of the 9th.    Enlarge

Japan launched war on February 8, 1904 with a surprise torpedo attack on the Russian naval vessels at Port Arthur, temporarily disabling three battleships and four large cruisers and exchanging fire with the Russian forts. This was a serious setback for Russia, since they had only one repair dock capable of handling the largest ships. The following day the Japanese fleet showed up and shelled the Russians through the harbor mouth from five miles' distance; Russian cruisers on picket outside fled with heavy damage.

Illustration of Togo and staff on the bridge during actionAt this point Togo's cruiser commander, Adm. Dewa, reported the Russians incapacitated and Togo closed to engage the big forts on Golden Hill; at left, Togo and staff on the bridge. However, by this time the Russian squadron had steam up and ventured forth to fight, while the forts simultaneously engaged the Japanese force with hot fire. Although this engagement is usually painted as another overwhelming Japanese victory in propaganda accounts, in reality it was more a draw, with both sides sustaining serious damage. One hit on the flagship Mikasa killed five key officers by shrapnel and wounded a dozen more crewmen; altogether, the Japanese lost 90 men, the Russians 150 with five direct hits on Russian ships, seven on Japanese. After 20 minutes of hell-for-leather firing, Togo withdrew his fleet. No ships were sunk but both sides claimed they had sunk enemy warships.

War was declared the following day, Feb. 10. Thereafter the Japanese Navy continued to harass the Russians, depleting their fleet with mines and torpedo attacks, bombarding the town and port from long range, and inviting fleet action by sending weak squadrons to cruise close offshore, within sight of the harbor, while their battleship division lurked just over the horizon, ready to swoop down on unwary Russians who took the bait. Three times the Japanese attempted to block the port by sinking old freighters the narrow entrance, and each attempt failed despite heroic efforts by the volunteer crews. One of the signal Japanese successes was to lure out the Russians' charismatic and inspiring commander, Admiral Stepan Makaroff, and lead him over a freshly laid minefield. Makaroff's flagship, the battleship Petropavlovsk, detonated two mines and dissolved in a tower of grey-brown smoke, sinking instantly with all hands.

This catastrophe left the Russian navy bereft of its most capable and daring commander, as became apparent when the remaining Port Arthur fleet, attempting a breakout for Vladivostok, clashed with the Japanese in the Battle of the Yellow Sea, August 10, 1904. In the opening phase of the action, Japanese and Russian vessels appeared to inflict damage in equal measure. The Mikasa sustained several hits. After 90 minutes of this, the Russian C-in-C, Adm. Wilhelm Vitgeft, was killed by a shell splinter at 6:30 p.m.; soon after, all the flagship's bridge personnel were killed by a direct hit. These hits also disabled the steering of the Russian flagship Tsesarevich; helpless and smoldering, she steamed in gigantic circles as Japanese shellfire burst around her decks.

RETVIZAN & ASKOLD sortie, accompanied by destroyers

Witgeft's second-in-command attempted to assert command in the Peresviet, but this was not recognized by the other ships, and they diseregarded his signals, following the demented path of the Tsesarevich instead. The Japanese soon succeeded in shooting away Peresviet's signal-flag halyards altogether. The Russian line fell into confusion and retreated to Port Arthur. Evening was drawing on and Togo was running low on ammunition by this time, so he retired without clinching a conclusive win, but having inflicted heavy damage without suffering mortal injury themselves. Badly mauled, the Tsesarevich limped into Qingdao and was interned, while Askold and Diana also showed a clean pair of heels to pursuit. But the remainder of the Russian fleet turned back for Port Arthur, where it remained bottled up, its battle damage largely unattended, rusting and listing around the harbor: a premonition of defeat. Above left, the Pacific Fleet sorties to the battle. At left appears the Retvizan, perhaps Russia's best battleship, built by the Cramps yard at Philadelphia and half-sister to the famous battleship Potemkin; at right, the cruiser Askold, which suffered a punctured boiler and lost two of its five funnels in the action, but nevertheless reached Shanghai and safety on the 14th. At left foreground and far right, turn-of-the-century TBs bob in the heavy swell.

Port Arthur Besieged

Meanwhile the Japanese had been moving a powerful army up the Korean peninsula and across the Yalu to attack Port Arthur from the land. In a dramatic battle fought in a thunderstorm at Nanshan, outside Dalny, on May 25, 1904, Gen. Oku bested the Russian garrison of Chinchou and occupied Dalny (Jap. Dairen), only 23 miles from Port Arthur. Landing supplies and men at Dalny, the Japanese invested Port Arthur starting in late May. The well-trained Japanese troops mounted numerous suicidal frontal assaults on the forts north and east of town. These attacks were repulsed with great losses (in one case, 10,000 killed in 15 hours of fighting). Starting in Nov. 1904, General Nogi deployed his growing strength to tighten the siege of the fortress.

Movie re-enactment of the siege
Siege guns crash and thump in an accurate movie re-creation of the siege, as "Gen. Nogi" watches from the left.

Photo of sunken warships seen from the streets of the town during siegeThis was a deliberate, brutal example of modern siege warfare, foreshadowing the horrific Battle of Verdun and other clashes of the First World War. An extensive siege-works of trenches was dug around the Russian perimeter. Mortars and siege guns of ever greater size were moved up on specially-laid railroad tracks and emplaced to batter down the defenses. Japan's many batteries were coordinated by a central fire control command, linked by field telephones. All the technology of modern warfare was brought to bear: massive mortars that could shoot a 500-lb projectile five miles; rapid-firing howitzers, machine guns, bolt-action magazine rifles, barbed wire, and hand grenades. The Russians fought back with all the strength conferred by their occupation of the high ground. But gradually the Japanese drew the noose ever tighter. Blockaded by land and sea, the Russians started to run low on food and ammunition. They also suffered from unimaginative leadership verging on incompetence (Gen. Anatoli Stoessel, C-in-C Kuropatkin, Viceroy Alexeiev). With their 5,800-mile supply line -- the railroad to Moscow -- broken, first their means of fighting and then their will to fight began to flag.

Japanese troops storm a fort in a fog of dust & gunsmokeThe beginning of the end came on December 6, when Japanese sappers succeeded in tunneling under the ramparts of the fort on 203-meter Hill, the key to the entire position. With a great boom and huge clouds of dust, charges exploded, demolishing the rampart and sending a generous slide of dirt down the steep hillside. This afforded the Japanese a natural ramp upwards as they rushed the fort. In a desperate spate of bayonet work and hand-to-hand fighting, the Japanese stormed the fort and turned its guns on the doomed city. No longer fearing bombardment from the heights, they brought up colossal 11-inch siege guns and began a relentless cannonade of the port and its surrounding forts and batteries. The ships caught in harbor were damaged and sunk in the shallows. One by one the Russian hilltop forts were pummeled into dust.

Things were not good behind Japanese lines. The malnutrition-related disease beri-beri had devastated thousands of the Emperor's best soldiers. Grieving for the loss of his son in a fruitless assault on 203 Meter Hill, Gen. Nogi contemplated suicide, but steadied by words from the Meiji Emperor himself, he continued to press the campaign. Among the troops, morale held firm, with faith in their commanders and a quasi-religious fervor in the rightness of their Emperor's cause. On the Russian side, by contrast, things were falling apart. Three quarters of the garrison of 40,000 had been killed or wounded. Ammunition was running low. Starvation was taking a dreadful toll. Morale collapsed.

On December 20, the outer ring of forts capitulated. The city and harbor held out until an armistice could be signed on December 30, formally surrendering on January 2, 1905. In Japan, where the effort to supply and field their great Army had placed considerable strain on society, rejoicing and fireworks greeted the news. The long-cherished objective was now gained, a jewel in the crown of the Mikado's empire.

But the cost had been steep: 57,780 sons of Japan killed and wounded in action, plus some 30,000 dead of beri-beri The Russians had suffered 31,306 casualties at Port Arthur and were about to suffer many more in other defeats around the theater. Although Russian writings and telegrams from within the fortress had shown a defeatist perspective setting in, the Japanese discovered vast untouched hordes of food, medicine, and ammunition within the walls after the surrender. This suggests sabotage or, at the least, treasonously poor management by the Russian commanders. In the outer forts of the vast and complex Port Arthur system, many of their troops had died of starvation and long run out of ammunition that fall. They were past defending their posts in the final weeks of the siege.

The main objective may have fallen, but the war ground on for many more months, with the centerpiece being the Battle of Mukden (Shenyang), the ancient Manchu capital. In this 21-day siege, the largest land battle in history prior to WWI, the combined Japanese armies attacked on all sides simultaneously, picking off the well-fortified buffer erected by the Russian C-in-C, Gen. Alexei Kuropatkin, one village at a time. Eventually Kuropatkin found himself surrounded and his outlying troops cut off or surrendered; though he had started the battle outnumbering the Japanese 3:2, he was now outnumbered and outflanked; his only option was to abandon the position and retreat. The retreat soon became a rout, with the Japanese driving the defeated Russian army up the rail line toward Harbin and the Siberian border.

The Tsar could not acknowledge defeat, certainly not to members of an Asian race. He replaced Kuropatkin with his subordinate, Gen. Gripenberg, and commanded his remaining Baltic fleet warships to sail from Europe all the way to the Far East, to avenge the defeat of the Pacific Squadron. In reality, the Tsar signed the Baltic fleet's death sentence; they sailed not to victory but to annihilation at Tsushima. Meanwhile in Manchuria, the Russians were forced back ever further by battle-hardened Japanese armies (at right, a journalist's impression of a Russian column's retreat through the winter -- click here for a beautiful enlargement). Even then, facing defeat in the East, starvation and revolution at home, the Tsar mulishly stuck to his guns, while the Tsarina Alexandra purred in his ear, "Be more autocratic, darling!"

Peace and Consequences

In Japan, meanwhile, the continuing prosecution of the war was severely straining the economy, but the government continued to borrow in order to protect Japanese gains made to date. But there seemed no honorable way out for either side. Enter U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt. On June 10, the Chief Executive offered to act as a mediator between the two sides too proud to talk to each other (at left, TR flanked by emissaries from Russia and Japan). Indeed it was high time to end the war: total killed in battle exceeded 25,000 Russians and almost 50,000 Japanese; wounded, some 150,000 Russians and 175,000 Japanese. Informal talks aboard the presidential yacht Mayflower flowered into full-blown peace negotiations at the U.S. naval base in Portsmouth, N.H., with the Russian delegation led by Minister Sergius Witte, the Japanese by Baron Komura. By the terms of the peace treaty, the defeated Russians gave up their claim to Port Arthur and the railway line through Liaodong, and also ceded half of Sakhlin Island, stormed by Japan in a surprise offensive during the final weeks of the war. The Japanese had been confidently expecting to impose a huge indemnity on the Russians for causing the war (much as Bismarck had done on the French for the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, and as the western Powers had continually done in their incursions upon China, up to and including the Boxer Rebellion of 1900-01). Roosevelt refused to back Japan's demand for reparations, and it was not incorporated into the Treaty of Portsmouth which was signed August 29, 1905. When they were made public, the terms of the Treaty caused outrage in Japan. Anti-American riots and demonstrations tore the country for several weeks. Ever sensitive to western racism, the Japanese felt betrayed, just when their arms had triumphed and established them as a rising world power. The residual mistrust from this episode formed an essential piece of the background to the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor 36 years later, as explicitly mentioned in Japan's 1941 note declaring war. For the moment, however, the Japanese swallowed their pride, becoming exemplary hosts when the Great White Fleet visited their ports three years later on a good-will trip partly intended to impress the island nation with America's overwhelming naval might, only ten years after the U.S. had become a neighbor by taking over the Philippines and Guam. The Japanese carefully looked over the American ships and remained privately unimpressed.

Bloody Sunday - horrible episode of the 1905 Russian RevolutionIn Russia, the throne was rocked by a nationwide worker's revolt sparked by the hardships and deaths caused by the war, and starting in many cases within the Navy. The Tsar remained in power only by agreeing to become a constitutional monarch, ruling in concert with an elected legislature -- in effect, by agreeing to "be less autocratic." A forward-looking government headed by the Tsar's western-educated minister, Sergius Witte, was put in place, and the nation pitched in to repair the damage done in the war. Under the new arrangement, the Tsar would govern with the consent of an elected legislature, the Duma. Old habits die hard, however. The Russians had no practical experience of democracy on a national level. The ink was hardly dry on the October Declarations when Duma deputies visiting Britain to observe parliamentary procedure, were surprised by the news that the Tsar had dissolved the Duma -- the first of many such expressions of imperial displeasure. The Tsar and Tsarina soon reverted to their old ways, becoming ever more imperious, ignoring the extent to which their legitimacy had been undermined by war and unrest. Eight years later, in 1914, the Russian Empire had reverted to autocratic monarchy with only a window-dressing of representative democracy. Such was the nation-state which lurched into the disaster of World War I. The Romanovs stepped willingly into the trap set by Austria-Hungary and Germany. Confronted by strains its corrupt and outdated structure could not bear, their dynasty foundered in a vast social upheaval, pulling down with it the entire autocratic order of Central Europe.

Nobel Peace Prize medalMeanwhile, President Roosevelt received the Nobel Peace Prize for brokering the 1905 peace. And in East Asia, Japan was recognized as the leading Power, with an empire including Korea (annexed 1910), Taiwan, the southern half of Sakhalin, and the hard-won foothold in Manchuria. The Liaodong Peninsula and railroad complemented the great naval base Japan had captured at Port Arthur, called Ryojun in Japanese. This territory was technically "leased" from the Chinese government until 1931, when the Japanese military moved to take over all Manchuria, eventually establishing the puppet state of Manchukuo. In 1905 Japan had upset the white-supremacist theories underlying 19th-century imperialism, and bested a European Great Power at its own game. The shock waves of Japan's victory reverberated throughout the "civilised world," and the island empire began to command a grudging respect in the West. Port Arthur remained under Japanese rule until the end of WWII, when Stalin's troops barged in to take their surrender and loot all they could of the great industrial base Japan had built up in Manchuria over 40 years. Soviet troops occupied the Liaodong area until 1950, handing it over to the newly proclaimed Chinese Communist government that year.

Lüshun today is a much quieter place, having been outpaced by nearby Dalian (the former Dalny), now the chief port and provincial capital of Liaodong. But handsome European-style buildings constructed by the imperial powers still stand in Lüshun, and the city is attempting to build a tourist trade based on its spectacular scenery and fascinating history. Dalian too has sought to capitalize on its seven-year Russian heritage, restoring vintage colonial buildings and adding false Tsarist-style façades to communist era structures in the same district. Though lately recovering from a nasty oil spill, the region makes an interesting tourist destination for all who thirst to know more about the imperial rivalries that shaped the 20th century.

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