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This 1905 photo of a flag-waving crowd in Tokyo records the mixed outcome of the Russo-Japanese War. Smiles reflect Japan's supremacy over its Russian foe, while grim faces belie the high toll of that victory. (Library of Congress)

‘For all the talk of Bushido or Yamato damashii (“Japanese spirit”), virtually every victory was more expensive than it had to be’

Everyone knows that wars are supposed to teach us lessons, and that only a careful study of the last war allows armies to prepare for the next one. Consider our standard narrative of the 1904–05 Russo-Japanese War: It featured trenches and barbed wire, rapid-fire artillery and machine guns, and hundreds of thousands of casualties. European generals did not seem to learn much from it, however. Just 10 years later they led armies into World War I, and in many ways that conflict looked like a replay: the trenches and wire, the pounding artillery, machine guns chattering away and soldiers being sent to their deaths wholesale in senseless infantry assaults.

An open and shut case of military ignorance?


The notion that the generals of World War I failed to note the lessons of the Russo-Japanese War is laughable. Every single Great Power—including the United States—sent observers to the earlier conflict, and staff officers pored over their reports in excruciating detail. The intensive firepower, the strength of the defense, the monstrous casualties—the Great Powers knew all about these things. Indeed, the lessons they learned from “World War Zero” guided the fighting in World War I.

If you were handicapping a war between the Russian and Japanese empires in 1904, you probably would have picked the Russians to win. Russia held all the strategic advantages: three times the population (130 million to 47 million), five times the trained military manpower and virtually unlimited resources. Just as important to the contemporary world, the Russians (most of them, anyway) were white Europeans, and in the heyday of Western imperialism it seemed inconceivable for an Asian people to beat them in a war. When conflict did erupt, the smart money was on Russia—literally. Japan needed foreign loans to fight the war but found that international money markets were closed to them. No one in Europe was eager to loan money for a quixotic and probably doomed military adventure.

Japan itself was a question mark. Dragged out of centuries of isolation by the “black ships” of Commodore Matthew Perry in the 1850s, the country had embarked on a crash modernization program. It had abolished its feudal system, established a central government with a Western-style constitution, and formed a modern army and navy. Such rapid change is never easy, and the new state had to fight a series of nail-biting civil wars against remnants of the old samurai caste and southern rebels, an ordeal it barely survived. Since then Japan had fought and won a war with China in 1894–95, but to Western analysts that Asian-on-Asian conflict said little one way or the other about Japan’s military proficiency.

Japan’s leaders shared this uncertainty. They understood Japan’s weakness vis-à-vis the West, and they knew they could never survive a contest of numbers and materiel with one of the Great Powers. They had to find a different way to prepare the nation for armed struggle. If Japan could not contend in the material realm, perhaps it could rely on spiritual factors: its unique heritage, its unbroken imperial line stretching back more than 1,000 years; its sense of cultural and moral superiority to neighboring races. Japan had rid itself of the samurai during the civil wars, but now it had to resurrect something like the old samurai ethos and impose it on its peasant conscripts. It had to turn these ordinary soldiers into “human bullets” who were willing, even eager, to die in the service of the emperor.

And so Bushido (“the way of the warrior”) was born. Death before dishonor. No retreat. No surrender. It was an idealized samurai code, one that many samurai had failed to live up to in the past. While its roots are ancient, Bushido was also a modern invention, a conscious attempt by the Japanese military to create a spiritual equalizer on battlefields that it could never hope to dominate with brute force or numbers.

It is easy to shake our heads over this today, since we know how it all ended in 1945. But consider the course of the Russo-Japanese War: Tensions between the two empires had been rising for a decade. After Japan’s quick victory over China, the Western powers had stepped in and forced Japan to hand back key territorial gains, including the naval base at Port Arthur on the Liaotung Peninsula. Japanese anger rose when the Russians first occupied the port and then leased it from China for 25 years. Subsequent Russian railroad building in the region—the Trans-Siberian to Vladivostok, the Chinese Eastern through Manchuria, and the South Manchuria down to Port Arthur—seemed to herald a Russian grab for dominance in East Asia, and when Russian business interests pressured the Korean court into granting mining and timber concessions, the Japanese felt they had no choice but to strike.

On Feb. 8, 1904, Japan opened hostilities with a surprise attack on Russia’s 1st Pacific Squadron in Port Arthur. Ten Japanese destroyers approached the roadstead at night, loosed their torpedoes at the anchored Russian ships and sped off. The attack left two of Russia’s seven modern battleships (Retvizan and Tsesarevich) extensively damaged. A follow-up attack the next morning by the Japanese battle fleet under Admiral Heihachiro Togo was an inconclusive affair, however. The Russians refused to give battle, sheltering under the protective fire of their shore batteries. After damaging five more Russian ships, Togo withdrew.

It was only a partial success, but with the Russian fleet bottled up in Port Arthur, the Japanese could now transport armies to the mainland. On February 16 First Army landed at Chemulpo (present-day Inchon) in Korea. Led by General Count Tamemoto Kuroki, it comprised the 2nd, 12th and Guard Divisions, 42,500 men in all. After entering Seoul, Kuroki launched his army north. He soon reached the Yalu River and in late April engaged a Russian force—the 3rd Siberian Corps, 16,000 men plus a 5,000-man brigade of Cossack cavalry—dug in along the north bank. Even granting the edge in numbers, Kuroki handled his attack skillfully, using a flanking maneuver upriver by the 12th Division to get the Russians to commit their reserves, then launching a brisk frontal assault by the 2nd and Guards Divisions that cracked the position and drove the defenders back in disorder from the Yalu.

It had been a tough little fight. Russian defensive fire had meted out major punishment to the 12th Division’s flanking attack, and the Guards Division, too, had run into a buzz saw in its frontal assault. Both sides were firing artillery with the new shrapnel shells, and the casualties were not only high but also often horrible to look upon. But the fight also showed Japan might not be a bad investment after all, and the country began to find eager lenders in the foreign banking community. Moreover, it set the pattern for the rest of the war: The Japanese would take all the risks, launch virtually all the attacks and drive the Russians from one defensive position after another.

On May 5 the Second Army landed at Pitzuwo on the Liaotung Peninsula. As General Baron Yasukata Oku’s men marched south, advancing on the key port of Dalny, they soon reached one of the world’s great military bottlenecks. As the peninsula extends southwest, it narrows into an isthmus just 3,500 yards wide at its narrowest point. Looming over it is Nanshan, a ring of hills about a mile in diameter. The bare, open slopes provided the Russians with a perfect field of fire, and they had also fortified the hill with trenches, barbed wire and machine guns. Artillery was plentiful, the guns dug in deeply and connected by telephone, and fronting the position were dense minefields and a double fence of barbed wire. Russian engineers had even hauled up a generator to power searchlights, in case the Japanese tried a nighttime coup. As a military observer for the The Times of London put it, if a Russian army could not hold Nanshan, “It is hard to say what position it can expect to defend with success.”

Needless to say, Nanshan was not a battle of finesse. Thick waves of Japanese infantry, three divisions abreast, stormed the hill, only to be mowed down by Russian machine-gun fire, as well as by artillery deployed to the rear in one of history’s first uses of indirect fire. The Japanese came up again and again over the course of the day, launching nine separate charges and reeling back each time with heavy losses. Only the 4th Division, on the right flank, managed to move forward, due mainly to fire support from a nimble flotilla of Japanese gunboats in Chinchou Bay. In an unusual 20-minute amphibious assault the men actually had to enter the water, wade with rifles held high and then re-land. They made just enough progress to prompt the Russian commander at Nanshan to blow his ammunition dumps and order a retreat. The Japanese had taken Nanshan, but losses had been grievous—nearly 5,000 men on a very small field.

Brisk maneuver, aggressive frontal assaults, contempt for death: This was the Japanese recipe for success. It was costly, but it worked, and even if it did not “force” the enemy to retreat in any real sense, it seemed to put Russian commanders in the mood to flee. It would be the same in the next three battles, each one larger than the last, each one bloodier, and each ending in Japanese victory.

Consider the fight for Port Arthur itself. The next Japanese army to arrive in the theater was the Third, its 90,000 men commanded by General Baron Maresuke Nogi, the same crusty old warrior who had wrested Port Arthur from the Chinese during the previous war. Nogi landed at Dalny, marched his three divisions (1st, 9th and 11th) south toward Port Arthur and on August 19 launched an assault on the outer works.

Given his desire to seize the fortress quickly, the size of the forces involved and the available firepower, losses were bound to be high. But even an assault on a fortress can have some subtlety. Nogi went for a short bombardment followed by a single thrust along the eastern approaches to Port Arthur, the most heavily defended point in the Russian line. He seriously underestimated the strength of the defenses—concrete and steel bunkers, fortified villages, lunettes, barbed wire, trip wires and electric mines. The result was predictable, and horrific. Japanese infantry came up with their usual verve, three divisions abreast, and were shot to pieces. Back they came and then again. The fighting raged for six days, or, to be more accurate, six days and nights, as searchlights were now part of the arsenal. In the end Bushido bowed to firepower, and Nogi called off the assault. In taking a few outlying forts, his army had suffered more than 18,000 casualties.

There would be a second assault on Port Arthur in September and a third in October. The latter sacrificed more than 4,000 men in a vain attempt to take 203 Meter Hill, the dominant height on the left of the Russian line. With winter coming on, Nogi made one last try in November. His army now bulged with 100,000 men, backed by the fire of 11-inch Krupp howitzers. This attack, too, left thousands of Japanese dead in front of the Russian trenches, but bit by bit Nogi’s infantry, braving enemy fire and ignoring their losses, fought their way to the top of the hill. The cost, again, had been high: another 8,000 men.

It was the decisive moment in the siege. With a direct line of sight down into the harbor, the Japanese could now call down artillery fire onto the Russian fleet, and they destroyed it, a ship at a time, in December. In January 1905 Port Arthur surrendered. Disease and six months of fighting had cost the Japanese 90,000 men, a high price to pay even when driving an enemy out of a supposedly impregnable position.

As the fighting raged at Port Arthur, the main Japanese drive to the north had begun. Three armies, the First, Second and the newly arrived Fourth (General Viscount Michitsura Nozu), now converged on the city of Liaoyang. Field Marshal Iwao Oyama, chief of the Japanese General Staff, had arrived in theater and was acting as supreme commander. His aim was not merely to drive back the enemy or to seize Liaoyang, but to destroy the Russian forces in Manchuria and end the war. To that end he had two armies (the Second and Fourth) advance directly upon the city, moving up the line of the South Manchuria Railway. They would launch a frontal assault to pin the Russians in place, while Kuroki’s First Army made a wide flanking maneuver on the right, crossing the Taitsu River and getting into the Russian rear.

It was a solid plan, but again the Japanese underestimated their enemy. Kuroki started out on August 26, but rather than pass cleanly around the Russian flank, he had to fight his way up to the river. When he finally did cross, a storm blew away the bridges to his rear. It was a tight spot, with Russians to the front and a swollen river to his rear. But as grimly as the Russians defended, they never managed any sort of counterstroke. Kuroki’s losses were heavy, but he was able to grind his way forward, posing a threat to Liaoyang and compelling the Russians to retreat. As for those armies launching the frontal assault, their men died in droves, and the final casualty toll for both sides topped 40,000 men.

Once again the Japanese had pried the Russians from a heavily fortified position. It was clear, however, they were reaching their limit. They had made an epic march deep into Manchuria but were no closer to ultimate victory. The Russians had lost every battle but remained in the field, and their army was growing with the arrival of every troop train. Oyama knew it was time for a decisive win.

In early 1905 the Japanese once again marched up the South Manchuria line and met the Russians, entrenched this time in front of the city of Mukden. The resulting battle, opening on February 20, was the largest of the war and among the largest in history: 330,000 Russians facing 270,000 Japanese. Oyama now had five full armies under his control, a suitable battle array for this gifted commander. The newly arrived Fifth Army (General Baron Kageaki Kawamura), on the extreme right of the Japanese line, led off the attack with a thrust through the rough terrain southeast of Mukden. When the Russians countered by shifting reserve formations to block it, Oyama launched a frontal assault by the three armies in his center. Advancing directly on the Russian trenches, they took heavy losses, but their Krupp howitzers dished out some serious pain to the entrenched Russians.

With the defenders pinned frontally, and their reserves committed far to the east, Oyama launched his main blow—a wide turning maneuver to the west by Nogi’s Third Army, aiming to outflank and destroy the Russians in a battle of encirclement. Nogi set out on February 27, but as at Port Arthur he moved a bit too slowly, a function of raging snowstorms, his own nature and tough enemy resistance. The combination allowed the Russian commander, General Alexei Kuropatkin, to organize hasty counterattacks by small reserve detachments, often comprising rear-area personnel, supply troops and cooks, men not used to the rigors of tactical combat. They slowed but did not stop Nogi’s advance. The Japanese gradually drove in the Russian flank, and soon the line was bent into a tight crescent some 100 miles long. On March 9, with the Japanese nearing the railroad and his reserves used up, Kuropatkin ordered a retreat through a very narrow corridor. In fact, it was a nightmare—a gauntlet peppered with Japanese fire from both sides.

The Japanese had won their war, but it had been a grueling contest. Initial plans had gone awry. The failure to destroy the Russian fleet in Port Arthur had led to a bloody land campaign to take the town itself. For all the talk of Bushido or Yamato damashii (“Japanese spirit”), virtually every victory was more expensive than it had to be, including 75,000 more casualties at Mukden. Not everyone was happy to serve as a human bullet in Manchuria, and publication of the casualty rolls was the occasion for serious unrest and even rioting in Japan.

But let us return to our original notion of war’s lessons. Imagine being a European staff officer in 1910. It is a tense era, and a general war seems inevitable. You are a diligent student of the military arts, and you recognize the importance of military history. What lessons would you draw from the Russo-Japanese War? Could you honestly look at it and say machine guns and entrenchments are too terrible? That they have rendered the attack obsolete? You would be far more likely to conclude that victory had gone to the side that attacked, kept attacking and had stomach enough to tolerate casualties. You would think a lot about Port Arthur: one failed assault after another with losses that would have crushed many armies, until the Japanese had apparently willed themselves to final victory on 203 Meter Hill. You would vow that, when your chance came, you would be equally determined.

World War I was horrific, especially the blood-drenched fighting on the Western Front. It wasn’t because the generals ignored the Russo-Japanese War, however. On the contrary, they studied it carefully and drew what seemed to them logical conclusions about how to achieve victory. Perhaps the lessons of war are more complex than we like to think.

For further reading Rob Citino recommends Rising Sun and Tumbling Bear, by Richard Connaughton; Japan’s Imperial Army, by Edward J. Drea; and The Russian Way of War, by Richard W. Harrison.