Why did the Russo-Japanese war matter

Decision in the Russo-Japanese War

On May 27, 1905, the Russian fleet lost the battle of Tsushima in the Korean Strait against the Japanese Armada. This sealed the defeat of the Tsarist Empire in the Russo-Japanese War. It influenced the dissolution of tsarist rule and with it the outbreak of the October Revolution of 1917.

The conflict between Russia and Japan was already apparent at the end of the 19th century. The expansion efforts of Japan were directed towards the neighboring country Korea, at that time a vassal state of China, which led to the conflict and finally to the first Sino-Japanese war in 1894/95. Japan won this war - not least thanks to the superiority of its navy - and clearly showed that a new, serious power with hegemonic claims had emerged in the Far East.

Russia's expansion in the Far East

In the Shimonoseki Peace Treaty of 1895, China recognized Korea's independence. Japan got Taiwan and the Pescadores Islands. The land of the rising sun also claimed the Port Arthur naval base for itself. However, Russia received this under pressure from the great European powers, as Europe wanted to counteract a strengthening of Japan.

The conflict was made even more explosive by the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway, begun in 1891, which was supposed to enable Russia to quickly transport large contingents of troops to the Far East. As early as 1900, Russia dispatched 100,000 soldiers to suppress the Boxer Rebellion in China and to occupy all of Manchuria. The Japanese government saw the concentration of Russian units in Manchuria, Port Arthur and Korea as a serious threat. On the night of February 8th to 9th, 1904, Japan attacked the Russian fleet in Port Arthur without a declaration of war. The war had started.

From the Baltic Sea to East Asia

In the Battle of Port Arthur, neither party to the conflict could gain the upper hand. The Japanese admiral Heihachiro Togo imposed a blockade on the Russian fleet and thwarted all attempts by the Russians to break through it. Soon three Japanese armies invaded Manchuria. In the course of several skirmishes that lasted until October 1904, the Japanese inflicted heavy losses on the Russian units. The Russian army in Port Arthur under General Nikolai Stoessel finally capitulated on January 2, 1905. In the battle of Mukden (today Shenyang), which lasted from February 20 to March 10, 1905, 300,000 soldiers fought on each side. This was the biggest field battle of the time. The Russian army under General Kuropatkin lost the battle and withdrew from Mukden.

The final decision in the war brought the Battle of Tsushima. Since the Far Eastern Russian fleet was blocked by the Japanese, the Baltic Sea fleet was renamed by the Russian Tsar as the Second Pacific Squadron and sent through three oceans to Vladivostok under the leadership of Russian Admiral Zinovi Roschestvensky. During the voyage, this fleet merged with the Third Pacific Squadron under Rear Admiral Nikolai Nebogatov. The two squadrons counted 30 warships, including the most modern battleships of the Russian Navy such as “Fürst Suworow”, “Borodino”, “Aurora”, “Oryol”, “Osljabja” and “Imperator Alexander III”, as well as 15 other auxiliary ships. The squadrons sailed around Africa, crossed the Indian Ocean and reached the China Sea. The Russian fleet covered a distance of more than 18,000 nautical miles (around 33,000 kilometers).

Originally the Russian fleet was supposed to liberate Port Arthur from the siege. Since the port city had already been taken by the Japanese, the fleet received the new order to break through to Vladivostok. On May 27, 1905 at 2.25 a.m. the Russian fleet was sighted by the Japanese auxiliary cruiser "Sinano-Maru" in the Strait of Korea near the island of Tsushima. Without the slightest break after traveling halfway around the globe, the Russian fleet took up the fight and opened fire at 1:49 p.m.

Japanese superiority

On the Russian side, 11 armored cruisers, 9 cruisers, 9 destroyers and 1 auxiliary cruiser fought. They were opposed by a huge Japanese sea power: 4 armored cruisers, 24 cruisers, 21 destroyers, 42 torpedo boats and 24 auxiliary cruisers. The Japanese dominated the battle from the start thanks to their higher speed and the superiority of the Japanese artillery. The better mobility allowed the Japanese fleet to outmaneuver the Russians and to carry out the so-called crossing-the-T maneuver. The aim of this maneuver was to turn the Russians broadside and thus be able to use more guns without them doing the same. The desired line position is reminiscent of a T, with the maneuvered opponent representing the trunk and the attacker representing the horizontal line.

At 2 p.m. local time, the Russians succeeded in incapacitating the Japanese cruiser "Asama". At 2:30 p.m., the Russian flagship armored cruiser “Fürst Suvorov” was fired at by six Japanese warships at the same time. Soon the ship was burning from bow to stern. The Russian cruiser “Bujny” was only able to evacuate the seriously wounded Admiral Roschestvensky and other survivors at 5 p.m. Rear admiral Nikolai Nebogatov took command.

The Japanese fleet succeeded in performing the Crossing the T maneuver for the second time. As a result, the Russian warships "Osljabja", "Imperator Alexander III", "Borodino" and "Ural" did not survive May 27th. The Russian fleet was soon dispersed across the entire Korean Strait. At nightfall, the Japanese admiral Togo ceased artillery fire and sent his torpedo boats into action. The remaining Russian ships were sunk or captured by Japanese torpedo boats on the night and morning of May 28. Rear Admiral Nebogatov, who was on the cruiser "Bujny", surrendered to the Japanese on May 28 at 5:05 pm local time. The armored cruiser "Admiral Ushakow" and the cruiser "Dmitri Donskoi" resisted until the last shell and were finally sunk.

Mediation through Theodore Roosevelt

Few Russian warships could escape destruction. The cruisers “Aurora”, “Oleg” and “Shemchug” reached the neutral port of Manila in the Philippines and were quarantined there. Only the cruisers "Almaz" and "Isumrud" made their breakthrough to Vladivostok. The balance on the Russian side: 5045 dead and 803 wounded. Three Russian admirals and 7,300 sailors were captured. The Japanese recorded 116 sailors dead and 538 wounded.

After this devastating defeat, the Russian Tsar Nicholas II accepted the offer of mediation by the American President Theodore Roosevelt for peace negotiations. Not only Russia but also Japan was at the end of its tether: Japan lost 70,000 men in the Battle of Mukden alone. After the peace conditions agreed on September 5, 1905 in Portsmouth, America, Japan gained dominance over Korea. Russia evacuated Manchuria and ceded its lease rights in Port Arthur and half of Sakhalin Island south of 50 degrees north latitude to the victor.

Japan's rise to world power

Since Admiral Roschestvensky was seriously wounded, Rear Admiral Nebogatov was declared the main culprit for the defeat. He came before the military tribunal and was sentenced to death. However, the death penalty was replaced by ten years in prison. After two years, Nebogatow was pardoned by the tsar. A few years after the war, Roshestvensky commented on the journey of the Russian Baltic Sea fleet through three oceans: “If I had had only a spark of moral courage, I would have shouted loudly: Guard the last resources of the fleet! Do not send them to perdition! " The amazing victory of the Japanese showed the Europeans and Americans that a new world power had emerged in the Far East. For European politics, the consequences of the Russo-Japanese War were of significance that could hardly be underestimated. After nearly 80 years of expansion in Central Asia and the Far East, Russia has now shifted the focus of its politics back to Europe. Russia was no longer a rival for English politics in Asia. This allowed Russia, France and Great Britain to merge to form the so-called Triple Entente, which shaped the European alliance system until the First World War.

Success in this war influenced Japanese strategy until World War II. As in Port Arthur, the Japanese attack on the American naval base Pearl Harbor in Hawaii took place on December 7, 1941 without a previous declaration of war.

"Russia needs a brief, glorious war," asserted Russian Interior Minister Vyacheslav von Plewe in 1904 to counter the impending revolution. However, the revolution broke out before the defeat of Tsushima. On January 22nd, 1905, the Russian Tsar shot a peaceful demonstration for better working conditions in St. Petersburg. More than 1,000 deaths were to be mourned. This day went down in history as "St. Petersburg Blood Sunday".

Harbingers of the October Revolution

In response to this cruelty, there were widespread protests against the tsarist rule. The Russian Empire was covered by strikes, uprisings, mutinies, and murders of landowners, industrialists and officials, which lasted until 1907. Under public pressure, the Tsar issued the so-called October Manifesto on October 17, 1905, which granted a constitution and the establishment of a legislative representative body (Duma). However, the tsar was allowed to dissolve the new parliament at will. The defeat in the war against Japan further fueled the revolution of 1905. This heralded the October Revolution of 1917 and the bloody Russian Civil War from 1918 to 1922.

Symbolic for this connection between the defeat against Japan and the October Revolution of 1917 is the fact that the cruiser "Aurora", which survived the Battle of Tsushima, gave the starting signal for the October Revolution in Russia on November 7, 1917 (according to Soviet mythology) according to the newly introduced Gregorian calendar). Thereupon the Bolsheviks stormed the residence of the tsar, the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg.

* The author is a historian and specialist in Russia. He lives in Felben-Wellhausen, Canton Thurgau.