Siege of Port Arthur: Verdun in Manchuria

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Siege of Port Arthur: Verdun in Manchuria

A crucial battle in the Russo-Japanese War anticipated many technological and social changes we now associate with WWI.

Siege of Port Arthur: Verdun in Manchuria
Credit: Tōjō Shōtarō

The recent centenary of the Great War has prompted much reflection on its social, technological, and military implications. Yet many of the battlefield technologies and social innovations we associate with World War I had already emerged a decade earlier in Asia, during the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War. These included the dominance of the machine gun on the conventional battlefield, the importance of the media, wireless communications, radio jamming, and even the emergence of submarines. All factors of conflict throughout the 20th century. In particular the defining battle of that conflict – the Siege of Port Arthur, which lasted from August 1, 1904 to January 2, 1905 – saw many innovative uses of technologies along with bloodshed on a scale that made it a precursor to World War I trench warfare.

Had Western observers chosen to take notice, it was here that important lessons on the future of warfare first emerged.  Yet, it was not the siege of Port Arthur that occupied the attention of most contemporary observers. Instead, the land battle that received the most attention was the 1905 Battle of Mukden, the largest fight the world had seen since the three-day Battle of Leipzig in 1813.

Mukden involved 600,000 combatants and would be the largest battle fought by an army organized along modern lines in Asia until World War II. The Japanese Imperial Army (trained by German officers) sought to turn Mukden into a decisive encirclement battle. Their blueprint was the victory won by Prussian-Bavarian forces at the Battle of Sedan. After an exhausting 19-day battle, however, the Japanese failed to achieve this. The changing defensive nature of warfare allowed the dug-in Russian Army to avoid a “Second Sedan” by inflicting heavy causalities on Marshal Iwao Oyama’s forces and escape with much of the Russian Imperial Army still intact.

If Mukden sought to reflect the battles of the past, the five-month Siege of Port Arthur anticipated the future of war. The Siege of Port Arthur, as China’s Lyushunkou District was then known, proved to be iconoclastic. Here, more than a decade before the Somme, the futility of frontal assaults against dug-in troops supported by artillery and machine guns was established. The Russian troops worked constantly to improve their fortifications. While modest trench systems were factors in the battles of Liaoyang and Mukden, at Port Arthur more than 75 kilometers of trench work was dug by both sides, some of it protected by barbed wire entanglements and electric fences. Searchlights helped the Russians fend off Japanese night assaults. To overcome these defenses, the Japanese resorted to tunneling under Russian fortifications.

Much of the trenches and defensive works dug by the Russians focused on defending the highest point within their perimeter, a site known as 203 Meter Hill. When the Japanese commander of the besieging Third Army, General Maresuke Nogi realized the outcrop’s importance, he concentrated Japanese efforts on seizing it. The defense of the area stretched from September to December. To seize the position the Japanese sustained as many as 14,000 casualties, while the Russian defenders lost perhaps 5,000. Not until the Battle of Verdun in 1916 would so many lives be traded for such a small piece of real estate. In fact, all Japanese assaults on Port Arthur failed, save when morale not firepower was the deciding factor.  According to The Russo-Japanese War in Global Perspective, an edited volume on the conflict, while the Battle of Sedan had inflicted a Prussian casualty rate of 7.3 percent and the French casualty rate of 18.9 percent, Japanese casualty rates at the Battle of Mukden reached 27.2 percent. The carnage was even higher during the Siege of Port Arthur, in which Japanese Imperial forces suffered a casualty rate of 45.6 percent. Major General Anatoly Stessel’s decision to surrender his force of 33,000 soldiers and seamen despite adequate supplies shocked both the Japanese and Russian commands equally. In World War I, few entrenched forces the size of the Port Arthur Garrison would be surrounded.

Media played a role in the 1904-1905 conflict in a way not apparent in earlier 19th century conflicts. Both sides struggled with press leaks. Not only did both the Russians and the Japanese have access to wireless communication, but so did a London Times correspondent who used a radio aboard a civilian vessel to cover the Port Arthur battle. Meanwhile, Japanese agents provided future Bolshevik leader V.I Lenin with 50,000 yen to fund the newspaper Vperyod, which appeared on January 4, 1905. The second edition of the paper covered the fall of Port Arthur in depth. The news of the defeat was a further blow to Russian national morale. Coupled with the events of Bloody Sunday 1905 and Leon Trotsky’s abortive St. Petersburg Soviet, Russia was forced to the peace table.

Prior to the surrender the Japanese had gained control of commanding heights such as the 203 Meter Hill. From there, newly imported Krupps howitzers with  11-inch (280 mm) howitzers bombarded the Russian fleet with 500 pound shells, destroying it piecemeal. The last remnant of the Russian Pacific Fleet and survivor of the Battle of the Yellow Sea was the battleship Sevastopol. Scuttled in deep water just after the surrender, the Sevastopol was the only Russian battleship to not later be refloated by the Japanese; it rests in the same place to this day.

Among the prizes captured by the Japanese was an inoperable Russian submarine. Indeed, both sides had developed a submarine warfare capability before the start of the war, according to another book on the subject, Rotem Kowner’s The A to Z of the Russo-Japanese War. Japan had ordered five American-made Holland-type submarines before the outbreak of hostilities. The first of the vessels arrived in November 1904, but the capture of 203 Meter Hill meant it was not used to attack the Russian fleet harbored at Port Arthur. Meanwhile, Russia used the Trans-Siberian railway to deploy 14 small submarines to Vladivostok by the close of the war. The problems posed for Japan in attacking the Russian Pacific fleet at Port Arthur harbor had important ramifications for the future of naval warfare, and certainly encouraged the British Royal Navy’s interest in submarines as an offensive weapon.

Notwithstanding that, most European observers actively chose to learn the wrong lesson. British Lieutenant General Sir Ian Hamilton, an observer of the conflict, invoked the Battle of Sedan when he wrote, “War is essentially the triumph, not of chassepot over needle-gun, not of a line of men entrenched behind wire entanglements and fire-swept zones over men exposing themselves in the open, but of one will over a weaker will, the best defense to a country is an army formed, trained, inspired by the idea of attack.” In those words lay the bloodbaths of the Somme and Verdun.

Similarly, the Russian military failed to make any substantial changes following the Russo-Japanese War. Indeed, the feud between two competing commanders – Alexander Samsonov and Paul von Rennenkampf – in the Russo-Japanese War at the Battle of Mukden spilled over into the Great War, leading to negligence. Rennenkampf dallied in rescuing Samsonov at the Battle of Tannenberg, resulting in major German victory in the first battle of the Eastern Front.

And while some sources continue to suggest that World War I was the first conflict in which battlefield casualties exceeded those lost to disease, that grim achievement had already been recorded on the battlefields of the Russo-Japanese War. But the bloodshed of the Russo-Japanese War was soon forgotten along with its lessons, and a decade later the world faced a far greater tragedy.

Joseph Hammond is a freelance writer and former correspondent for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

* Corrected several instances of “Macarthur” instead of “Point Arthur.”