The Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 was fought between the Empire of Japan and the Russian Empire. It started on 10th February, 1904 and continued till 5th September, 1905. It was a direct result of the conflict that was taking shape due to the imperialistic ambitions of these two nations over Korea and Manchuria. The war originated since the Russians wanted to expand their control over eastern Asia but were faced by the Japanese who also wanted to gain their hold over the mainland of Asia. While Russia wanted to increase her acquisition over the military and commercial position in Manchuria, Japan wanted to gain control of the flourishing industry and trade of Korea. Japan also wanted to maintain her effective power over the sea waters between Korea and Japan since Korea was part of Japan’s vicinity.
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Right from the Sino-Japanese War up to 1903 negotiations between Japan and the Czars of Russia proved to be pointless. Thus, Japan waged war in order to protect her elite domination over Korea. Another possible reason why Russia chose war was to distract the public from the various patriotic rallies and government repressions resulting from strikes. (Suyematsu, 134-7)
Right from the late 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, most of the European countries competed with each other for trading, influencing and gaining territorial control over the Far East. Although Japan struggled to be accepted as a great power, her location enabled her to focus her ambitions over northern China and especially on Korea. This put her into a competition with her neighboring country, Russia. Russia was constantly in the look out for a warm water port, which would be ice free and thus, can be used throughout the year, on the Pacific Ocean, not only for their navy but also for marine trading.
The Vladivostok seaport in Russia could only be used in the summer seasons but the harbor city of Port Arthur in China could be used year round. This was the reason Russia wanted control in China. On the other hand, due to its ever growing population, Japan required new markets, raw materials, food and territory. Thus, both of them wanted to control Korea and Manchuria. In 1895 Japan had already won the Liaodong Peninsula from China which projects between China and Korea into the Yellow Sea.
But she was forced by Russia and had to return it back to China. Also in 1898 Russia was successful in taking over the Liaodong Peninsula along with leasing Port Arthur from China. Russia installed its troops in Manchuria making her intentions of taking over the region obvious. Russia was faced with objection from Japan as she tried to extend her influence over Korea and finally when negotiations did not have any affect, and on 8th February, 1904 Japan declared war on Russia by attacking their troops at Port Arthur. (Suyematsu, 129-134)
First Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95
The long term causes of the Russo-Japanese War originated from the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895 which took place when Japan tried to occupy Korea. In 1868 when the Meiji Restoration took place in Japan the government encouraged Western customs, ideas and technologies which quickly industrialized Japan and also brought her out of isolation. Thereafter, Japan not only wanted to protect their sovereignty but also wanted to be accepted as equals by the Western world. On the other hand, Russia which was already a leading Imperial nation wanted control in the East and after the Trans-Siberian Railway was constructed Russia wanted to further strengthen her presence and influence in the East.
Korea was geopolitically near Japan and was regarded as an important part of Japan’s national security. After Japan successfully defeated the crumbling Chinese Empire in the First Sino-Japanese War China was made to sign a severe treaty due to which she even had to abandon her rule over Korea and also gave up Taiwan and the Liaodong Peninsula including Port Arthur to Japan. After the war ended Japan had effective control over the Yellow Sea like she did over the Sea of Japan.
However, the European powers did not want Japan to gain control of port Arthur since they had their own imperialistic ambitions in that area of China and in 1895 Russia, backed by France and Germany, opposed to Japan’s claim over Port Arthur and by applying diplomatic pressure over Japan forced her to return Port Arthur to China in return of a larger indemnity through the Triple Intervention. Japan, although reluctantly, agreed to this decision and withdrew her troops from the Liaodong Peninsula.
But to Japan’s dismay and astonishment after two years, in 1897, Russia occupied the Liaodong Peninsula and moved her fleets to Port Arthur. China was forced by Russia and had to lease out Port Arthur, for the next 25 years to Russia, which was instantly fortified. Since Japan was only left with the control over Pescadores and Formosa Islands which is in southeastern Asia, Japan realized that she faced the danger of Russia absorbing and taking control over Korea.
Russia started to build railways to Port Arthur and also inroads in Korea. By 1898 they had even acquired the forestry and mining grants in some areas of Korea which alarmed the Empire of Japan. Since Japan felt humiliated due to these actions of Russia and the other European nations, she decided to attack Russia before the completion of the Trans-Siberian Railway. Thus, this was one of the direct causes of the Russo-Japanese War. (Suyematsu, 176-183)
Chinese Boxer Rebellion of 1900-01
A further opportunity for expanding into the Far East came for Russia with the Chinese Boxer Rebellion of 1900-01. Throughout the late 19th century Russia expanded her holding over Manchuria. In 1891 the construction of the Trans-Siberian railways was started for connecting Moscow and Vladivostok, which was their farthest eastern seaport in the Asian part of Russia. Since Russia financed the indemnity China had to pay to Japan, she demanded that China allow the Trans-Siberian railways be permitted to be constructed through northern Manchuria.
Since the Japanese army was still occupying Korea and some parts of Manchuria, Russia feared that they would be able to threaten the Port of Vladivostok which was geographically and tactically poorly positioned. China and Russia later signed a treaty in 1896 enabling Russia to complete the extension of Trans-Siberian railways into Chinese Eastern Railway across Manchuria which meant that they gained partial control over the area.
When the Russians started building the Trans-Siberian Railway the Chinese angered by their decision, led to the Boxer Rebellion. To completely crush the rebels of the Boxer Rebellion, Japan and Russia also became a part of the Eight Nation Alliance. Due to this involvement Russia again found an opportunity for making its control strong in the East and with the aim of protecting the interests of Manchuria she sent her troops there.
Russia had promised the other nations of the Alliance, including Japan that she would leave Manchuria after the crisis died out. But years passed and by 1903 after the fighting got over it became clear that Russia would not set any proper time for withdrawing its troops from Manchuria. Thus, it became evident that with the excuse of suppressing the Boxer Rebellion, Russia was actually fortifying her place in Manchuria so that she could use Manchuria as a catalyst to further expand her interest and influence over the Far East. This was also one of the reasons Japan attacked Russia as they too had an eye on Manchuria.
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But Japan was already busy with Korea and was successfully spreading her interest over Korea. Just like Japan wanted Manchuria, Russia also wanted to control Korea. But, Russia, while leasing the Liaodong Peninsula from the Chinese, was able to build their naval base at Port Arthur and also at the commercial port in Dalny. This enabled her to further expand her influence over Korea. These Russian moves completely threatened and alarmed the Japanese Empire since she wanted to ensure that her military and commercial access into Korea was secure by controlling the adjoining water areas.
Till now the two nations had somehow managed to coexist peacefully but within a couple of years tensions grew on both the sides and this led to further aggression. The Japanese even agreed to negotiate with the Russians in 1902 since they thought that they were weak and thus, would not be able to force the Russian troops out of Manchuria. They agreed to have Russia’s control in Manchuria if in return they were given the control of northern Korea. Again on 13th January, 1904 a similar proposal was made but Russia did not respond to either of the offers. Instead on 6th February, 1904 Count Lamsdorf, the Russian Foreign Minister, was directly asked to leave by Japan, which severed all diplomatic relations among Russia and Japan.
Russia along with the other European powers had once already tried to prevent Japan from gaining control of Korea. But when after the Boxer Rebellion, Russia did not keep her promise of leaving the Chinese territory of Manchuria Japan once again had to face humiliation. When Japan was unable to reach to a favorable agreement after a number of negotiations with Russia, which even included a staged withdrawal by the Russians from Manchuria, they decided to go with a military action.
Thus, on 8th February, 1904 a surprise attack was launched by the Japanese navy upon Port Arthur and they later completely blocked the Russian naval fleet. War was formally declared by Japan on 10th February, 1904. The Russo-Japanese war resulted in a shocking victory for the Japanese and established them as one of the major powers of the world in the beginning of the 20th century.
During the negotiations between Russia and Japan, Russia least expected Japan to go to war with her since she was a developing country and was thought to be weak. But Japan had reinforced her position through an alliance with Britain and according to the Anglo-Japanese Alliance of 1902 between Japan and Britain if Japan went to war with Russia and any nation formed an alliance with Russia then Britain would side with the Japanese. (Figes, 89-102)
When the Japanese Imperial Navy struck the Russian Far East Fleet on 8th, February, 1904, positioned at Port Arthur, the Czar could not accept that a weak country like Japan would risk going to war with a strong nation like Russia. But Japan knew that although they would not be able to fight a long war and face the entire Russian forces, they were surely capable of winning a localized war since most of the Russian troops were stationed in Europe. After eight days Russia also declared war on Japan. The following are the list of events that took place during the Russo-Japanese War:
Campaign of 1904
- Battle at Port Arthur – Japan first aimed at neutralizing Russian naval fleet at Port Arthur to gain control over the sea and thus, on 8th February the war was opened by Japan by a torpedo attack which severely damaged the heavy battleships and cruisers of Russia. Since the Russians could not leave the harbor into the seas on 13th April it resulted into the death of their Admiral Stepan Osipovich Makarov. The Japanese were able to land near Incheon, Korea and from there they were successful in occupying Seoul and other areas in Korea. By the end of that month, the Japanese Imperial army was all set to cross over Yalu River and enter Manchuria which was occupied by the Russians.
- Battle at Yalu River – The Russians were delaying their military actions as they were waiting for reinforcements which were scheduled to arrive via the Trans-Siberian Railways. Battle at Yalu River marked the beginning of the land battle in the Russo-Japanese War and began on 1st May, 1904. The Russians had to retreat and the Russian Eastern Detachment was completely destroyed. Japanese troops were able to drive the Russians to Port Arthur through number of battles, like the Battle of Nanshan fought on 25th May. While the Russians focused on defending, the Japanese focused on attacking.
- Blocking of Port Arthur – the Japanese tried to restrict the Russians from using Port Arthur. On 13th and 14th February they blocked the opening of Port Arthur and sunk a number of cement-filled steamers. Another attempt was also made in May but both failed. Even the Russians failed at their attempts to break out of Port Arthur when two of their battleships were heavily damaged. The Japanese battleships also suffered losses since they were also damaged by Russian mine fields. In June another attempt to breakout was made by Russians and then the Japanese started to fire shells onto Port Arthur.
- Siege of Port Arthur – In order to isolate Port Arthur, when the Russians attempted to breakout a fourth time they were met with the battleships of admiral Togo. The Battle of the Yellow Sea or the Battle of 28 July took place where the battleships of both sides fired at each other. But when the Russian flagship was directly hit and her fleet commander, Admiral Vitgeft, was killed they had to turn around. The Russians were again blockaded at Port Arthur and the Japanese navy was ready to face new Russian fleets.
- Fall of Port Arthur – The Russian combat ships at Port Arthur were completely destroyed by the surrounding Japanese army and Russia was also unable to defeat the Japanese army on land. The Battle of Liaoyang was fought in the end of August which forced the Russians to retreat to Mukden in China. On 2nd January, 1905, Port Arthur fell as the Russians surrendered to the Japanese.
Campaign of 1905
- Final battles – After Port Arthur fell, the Japanese army continued to move northwards so as to strengthen their position in the southern areas of Mukden which was under the Russians. Between 25th and 29th January the Russian army attacked Japan by surprise in Sandepu but since the Russians did not have much support from other units the attack was stalled. On 20th February the Battle of Mukden ended and the Japanese realized that they had to destroy the Russian forces before reinforcements reached Manchuria. Japan for many days continued to attack the Russian army wings. Realizing that they would be encircled by the Japanese, the Russians began to pull back and fought a number of detached battles resulting in confusion and their deterioration. The Russian army soon collapsed and after 3 weeks of fierce battles the Russian General Kuropatkin retreated towards northern Mukden.
- Victory at the Battle at Tsushima –Although the Russians retreated they were not completely defeated. In order for the Russian naval reinforcements to arrive at Manchuria they had to pass through the Tsushima Straits which was very near to Japan. The Japanese understood this and started repairing their battleships to stop the Russians. Although the Russians tried to pass through the Tsushima Straits at night, they were discovered by the Japanese who re-located their own fleets so that they could intercept the Russians. Between 27th and 28th May the Japanese attacked the Russian Baltic fleet and almost annihilated them.
Treaty of Portsmouth
The Treaty of Portsmouth signed on 5th September, 1905 ended the Russo-Japanese War. United States’ mediation was accepted both by Japan and Russia, and Russia agreed to leave Manchuria. She also had to cede southern part of the Sakhalin Islands and give up her lease of Port Arthur. Russia agreed to acknowledge Japan as the superior power in Korea and both the nations agreed to restore Manchuria to the Chinese Empire. (Guy, 119-126)
Although the Russo-Japanese War mainly resulted out of the long time rivalry between the nations of Russia and Japan, it was also due to the economic and political influence of neutral nations, which are Britain, France, Germany and China. Thus, from the above it is quiet clear that although the immediate cause of the Russo-Japanese War during 1904-05 was the attack by the Japanese navy on Russia at Port Arthur, its major long term cause is the concurrent decision of both the nations of Russia and Japan to expand their individual sphere of power and influence over the Asian mainland largely at the cost of the Chinese government.
Figes, Orlando. A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924. LA: Penguin Books, 1998.
Guy, Leopold and Francis Maynard. An Eye-witness in Manchuria. London: E. Nash, 1988.
Suyematsu, Kencho. The Risen Sun. CA: E.P. Dutton & co., 1985.