[Photo story] Russo-Japanese War: A war fought on Chinese soil and its hard lessons

The Russo-Japanese War was in fact not fought in either Russia or Japan, but in China. It was the culmination of a fierce rivalry between a Eurasian power and an Asian country that showed it could hold its own against a much bigger opponent. Historical photo collector Hsu Chung-mao takes us through a painful period in history that saw many Chinese lives taken.
The cheers from the civilian Russians show that to Russia, there was no doubt of victory in the war. They called the Japanese “yellow monkeys”, and believed that Japan was too weak to dare to attack. They thought the Russian army had the absolute advantage and winning was just a matter of time.
The cheers from the civilian Russians show that to Russia, there was no doubt of victory in the war. They called the Japanese “yellow monkeys”, and believed that Japan was too weak to dare to attack. They thought the Russian army had the absolute advantage and winning was just a matter of time.

(All images courtesy of Hsu Chung-mao.)

In the early 20th century, as the Chinese empire weakened, the conflict of interest among the various powers in China intensified, with the biggest tussle between Japan and Russia.

After the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) which was won by Japan ended, there was strategic friction between Japan and Russia in the Korean peninsula and northeast China. These tensions intensified in 1900, when Russia took advantage of the Boxer Rebellion to take control of northeast China, sparking a full-blown land and sea war with Japan. Both sides used the latest weapons and military tactics, including trench warfare, machine guns, and observation balloons. The Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), which Japan also won, was practically an exercise in preparation for World War I, which is why it is also known as “World War Zero”.

This picture shows a pugilistic ring, depicting Europeans’ worldview and how they saw the Russo-Japanese War. The two contestants stand on their respective territories, with the huge, burly Russian wearing a belt saying “European champion”, hands behind his back, looking down on his opponent who barely reaches his waist. In the decade before the Russo-Japanese War, Russia’s annual military spending went up by 48%, while its navy spending increased 100% or more; War Minister Aleksey Kuropatkin even wrote to the Tsar guaranteeing an easy victory. In contrast, the scrawny Japanese has a faded “Asian champion” on his shorts, and his feet straddle Japan and the Korean peninsula. He has apparently expended much energy but still has his head held high and fists raised up in challenge. The Chinese in the top right does not even have the right to get in and watch the match, but can only climb the wall and peek in, in a show of “neutrality”, even though Japan and Russia are fighting on his land.
A primary school teacher divides his students into two sides representing the Russians and Japanese fighting, as distinguished by different hats. While they hold rounded sticks to prevent injury, in their young minds, this is not a game, particularly for the boys wearing the Japanese hats, who fight extra hard as they carry the pride of the country. The “Japanese soldier” in the centre has been tripped after throwing down two “Russians”, while three “Japanese” fearlessly rush into the enemy. Psychologically, such fights were happening on the front line as well, just on a larger scale and with lethal weapons. This war started patriotic education in Japan, and hostility toward enemies.

An example of Asian supremacy over a major power

The Russo-Japanese War had a major impact on China. It happened on Chinese soil, but China was powerless to prevent it and suffered great human losses. Such a reality added to its people’s sense of humiliation. On the other hand, the fact that a small Asian country could defeat a major power like Russia was encouraging for the Chinese. Especially since China’s intellectuals well knew that Japan’s success lay not just with a modern army, but with organising and preparing a people for modern politics, military, economy, and social culture, all of which China had much to catch up with. And so, after the Russo-Japanese War, with the unprecedented reform of the Qing empire and heightened activity among Chinese revolutionaries, there appeared to be great potential for the revival of a weakened China.

The Liaodong peninsula was ceded to Japan during the First Sino-Japanese War through the Treaty of Shimonoseki, made final in April 1895. But protests by Russia, France and Germany forced the Japanese to relinquish the claim to Liaodong in exchange for an additional indemnity of 30 million taels from China, while all the other stipulations of the treaty remained. Russian Foreign Minister Alexey Lobanov-Rostovsky and the Chinese viceroy Li Hongzhang further signed the Sino-Russian Secret Treaty (or the Li-Lobanov Treaty) in June 1896, which allowed Russia to build the Chinese Eastern Railway through Heilongjiang and Jilin, in the name of fighting Japan together.

After the First Sino-Japanese War, while Japan managed to end Korea’s status as a satellite state of China, it did not end Russia’s special privileges in Korea, but ended up signing an agreement with Russia.

In 1897, after the German Navy entered Jiaozhou Bay, Russia also openly deployed its navy to Lüshun and Dalian, purportedly to help the Qing court to defend its land. Subsequently, it forced the Qing court to sign the Convention for the Lease of the Liaotung Peninsula, or the Pavlov Agreement, in 1898. The Russian Navy then heavily invested in building the port at Lüshun into Port Arthur, as a major base for its Pacific fleet. When the Boxer Rebellion broke out in 1900, Russia took the opportunity to seize Manchuria. At the same time, there was an intriguing shift in the international situation, with the various powers supporting Japan for their own interests. The turnabout gave the Japanese much confidence in going to war with Russia.

At dawn on 4 February 1904, Emperor Meiji summoned Prince Itō Hirobumi, who was then president of the Privy Council, to discuss the pros and cons of going to war. Prince Itō analysed the situation and felt that the conditions were advantageous for Japan, while Russia faced domestic political instability and an ill-prepared military. This confirmed the Emperor’s resolve in going to war against Russia.

Before the war, Japan had executed its ten-year plan for building its military and diplomacy. It deployed many spies to gather intelligence and issued 100 million yen worth of war bonds. It also announced several decrees relating to wartime military spending, as well as organisation and planning. From late 1903, military supplies were sent to Incheon in Korea. All was ready. Japan and Russia each conducted a nationwide mobilisation: tens of thousands of young men from the west crossed the rolling plains, while those from the east traversed the seas to take up new lethal weapons, and faced off against one another in a land that was foreign to both sides.

After Japan and Russia started fighting, Japan’s successes led to a rush of patriotism in the country. People looked forward every day to good news from the front. In this picture, civilians anxiously crowd around the Chu-O newspaper office to wait for the latest news, with the newspaper boy in the foreground holding a stack of newspapers. But the international media questioned if these “penny papers” for the masses exaggerated fake news, with The Times of Britain writing to the effect that “newspaper columns are full of gripping war reports, when the telegram is only 20 to 30 words in length”.

On 5 February 1904, commander-in-chief of the Combined Fleet Marshal-Admiral the Marquis Tōgō Heihachirō received a secret order and understood that the government had decided to protect its interests in Manchuria and Korea. The order itself was simple: destroy the Russian fleet in the East China Sea. In order to gain control of the sea and cover the landing battle, the Combined Fleet launched a series of attacks on Port Arthur. In early May, to cover the landing of Japanese troops on the Yalu River, the Japanese launched a third attempt at blocking Port Arthur, successfully restricting the movement of the Russian Navy, but at great cost.

At 1.49pm on 27 May 1905, the ultimate battle between the Japanese and Russian navies took place in the Tsushima Strait. Both sides sounded the call to arms at practically the same time. To seize the opportunity to attack, Admiral Tōgō had his fleet execute a turn in sequence, essentially a U-turn on the spot. The flagship that he was on took heavy Russian fire, but it bought the crucial 15 minutes necessary for the Japanese to move into formation.

And when the Japanese troops did get in position, the figurative tide turned in an instant. 24 hours after the start of the battle, 22 Russian ships had been sunk, seven captured, and six detained after escaping to neutral ports, with 5,000 human casualties and 6,142 taken prisoner. By contrast, the Japanese lost three torpedo boats, with 700 killed or wounded. This day marked the end of the fleet of the Russian Empire, and was commemorated in Japan as Navy Anniversary Day from 1906 to 1945, in honour of this victory.

A stranded Russian cruiser destroyed at Port Arthur, 1904. On 2 September, under a sudden attack by Japanese troops, Russian ships left Port Arthur and fought Japanese ships at Liaodong Bay. The Russian ships were beaten back to Port Arthur, and Admiral Tōgō Heihachirō arranged sunken ships at the passage and planted a vast area of sea mines, locking the Russian fleet in Port Arthur. On 18 April, Tōgō led a Japanese fleet towards Port Arthur, seemingly to attack the Russians, but in fact to lure the Russians into the mine area. Russian admiral Stepan Makarov failed to see the trap and led a fleet against the enemy, only to have his flagship sunk by mines and Makarov along with it. The Japanese gained control of the Yellow Sea, and were able to cover the landing of troops on the Korean and Liaodong peninsulas.
japanese ship
Plumes of smoke from a Japanese ship hit by a Russian ship, May 1905. When both fleets were four nautical miles apart, Admiral Tōgō ordered the Japanese fleet to change formation and execute a U-turn to first draw Russian fire. Three Japanese ships were sunk and one incapacitated. But once the manoeuvre was complete and the Japanese ships were parallel to the Russians, the Japanese ships sped up and unleashed wave after wave of full firepower, quickly doing heavy damage to the Russian battleship Knyaz Suvorov. Second Pacific Squadron commander Zinovy Petrovich Rozhestvensky was injured and communications equipment was broken, leaving the mighty Russian fleet without a commander.
A Japanese ship holding the Russian fleet at bay, May 1905. After the first few attacks, the Japanese focused their firepower with armour-piercing shells on the three lead battleships Knyaz Suvorov, Oslyabya, and Borodino. The injured commander Zinovy Rozhestvensky and other officers were quickly transferred to the destroyer Buinii. Subsequently, the deadly accurate Japanese fleet sought out targets, and Russian boats were sunk one by one. At about 7pm, the Knyaz Suvorov was finally sunk by two torpedoes.
At 9:45am on 13 April 1904, the flagship of Russian Admiral Stepan Makarov was sunk in a Japanese underwater minefield. Vladimir Semenov, captain of the battleship Poltava, recalled the powerful blast: “I heard at least three explosions… almost everything on the flagship flew into the air — bellows, stacks, masts, lifts, even the main turrets and the bridge.” With Makarov was Grand Duke Kirill Vladimirovich. As the survivor who was closest to Makarov, he recalled that Makarov was standing in command on the bridge at the time of the blast, but the only item rescued subsequently was his jacket. Following the incident, grieving sailors lamented the loss of a valuable commander rather than the cowardly royals, to which the commander of the cruiser Bayan replied: “Gold always sinks to the bottom of the ocean, only horse manure floats.”
In the battle of Tsushima, the flagship of Admiral Zinovy Rozhestvensky was sunk, and the injured admiral was transferred to the destroyer Bedovii, only to encounter the Japanese destroyers Sazanami and Kagerō. The picture shows Japanese lieutenant Tsukamoto Katsukuma stretching out his hand in surprise on finding the Russian commander on board the Bedovii, and the Russians stopping the Japanese from attacking. Rozhestvensky lies immobile and injured, supporting himself with the last of his strength while pressing on his wound. The commander of the Sazanami, Lieutenant Commander Aiba Tsunezō, had been bothered about not contributing to the major battle two nights before. He had thought it strange that the Bedovii had signalled that there were casualties on board when there were none following the previous battle, and got his men to investigate, only to gain credit by finding an enemy commander.

On land, however, the Japanese suffered heavier losses. The Japanese Third Army, led by General Nogi Maresuke, was prepared to attack Port Arthur. By July 1904, they had captured key locations surrounding Port Arthur, which was protected against Japanese bombardments by 19 kilometres of fortifications and concrete-and-steel batteries that dominated the rugged, hilly terrain, along with some 350 powerful cannons.

The Japanese launched numerous attacks, and on 2 January 1905, Lieutenant General Anatoly Stessel surrendered to Nogi. Port Arthur was lost. Japan mobilised a total of 130,000 troops in this battle; 15,400 were killed and 44,000 injured.

After Port Arthur fell, the land battle turned towards the Russian command centre in the Far East: Mukden. At this point, the Russians had 380,000 soldiers, 28,000 cavalry, 30,000 grenadiers, and 1,300 cannons, while the Japanese had 200,000 soldiers, 150,000 grenadiers, engineers, and assorted troops, and 1,100 cannons. This final battle began in late February 1905, along a front stretching over 100 kilometres. After about 20 days of fighting, the morale of the Russian troops flagged and they broke through to retreat to Harbin. Both sides mobilised nearly 600,000 troops, with over 40,000 casualties for the Japanese and 90,000 for the Russians. The Japanese won this battle that ended the war on land.

north korea
In March 1904, the Japanese First Army landed in Chinnampo (modern Nampo) in Korea. The picture shows a transport craft unloading Japanese troops on shore.
After the Russian Army took northeastern China in 1900, Russia began to repair military fortresses in preparation for long-term occupation. Japan was worried that the completion of the Siberian Railway would hinder its own plans for northern expansion, and decided to quickly wage war against Russia. In February 1904, Japan formally broke off diplomatic relations with Russia, detaining Russian ships in Incheon and launching a sudden attack on the Russian Navy in Port Arthur, with both countries subsequently declaring war.
Japan threw itself into the war, appointing Prince Ōyama Iwao and Viscount Kodama Gentarō as supreme commander and chief of general staff of the Manchurian Army, with Marquis Tōgō Heihachirō as commander-in-chief of the Combined Fleet. On land, 300,000 Japanese troops were divided into four. The First Army was led by Count Tamemoto Kuroki, landing at Chinnampo, southwest of Pyongyang, under cover of the Combined Fleet.
The 19,000 Russian troops in east Manchuria around Jiuliancheng (northeast of what is now Dandong) attempted to stop the Japanese from advancing north. In May, the Japanese First Army launched an attack across the Yalu River on Jiuliancheng. The Russians retreated and the Japanese took Fenghuangcheng (now Fengcheng, Liaoning) and Kuandian, and rapidly advanced towards Mukden, the centre of the Russian Army in the Far East.
In June 1904, the Japanese Imperial Guard traversed the highlands towards southeastern Liaoyang. Russia’s First Siberian Army Corps in south Manchuria moved south to relieve Port Arthur, but was defeated by the Second Division of the Imperial Japanese Army at the Battle of Te-li-ssu (now Wafangdian). The Japanese 10th Independent Brigade landed at Dagushan in the Liaoning peninsula, to support the First and Second Armies. The following month, it expanded to form the Fourth Army, which took Hsimucheng and Haicheng. By August, the First, Second, and Fourth Armies had surrounded Liaoyang.
port arthur
Smoke from residences following the bombardment of Port Arthur by the Japanese Third Army, August 1904. After the Japanese took Port Arthur in 1894 during the First Sino-Japanese War, they slaughtered innocent civilians in Port Arthur; now, a decade later, the people were once again victims of Japanese bombardment. As for the Russians, after they got a lease on Port Arthur and Dalian in 1898, they built strong fortifications in Lüshun and over 20 concrete permanent batteries along 50 li around Lüshunkou, for which they mobilised about 60,000 Chinese workers each day. There were about 4,200 Russian troops in Port Arthur, with about 11,000 naval troops from its Pacific fleet subsequently deployed there, along with 646 cannons and 62 machine guns. The Japanese Third Army — including the First and Tenth divisions and three artillery regiments, along with the Ninth division and a special squad — numbered about 57,000. On 7 August, the Japanese began bombarding the town area and the Russian fleet in Port Arthur.
hard labour
During the war, Japan and Russia pressed Chinese civilians into hard labour. This group transporting dead bodies was one example. Here, the body of a Japanese soldier is wrapped with only a white cloth, carried back to the town by four Chinese to be buried. However, if there were too many bodies to be buried, they were cremated. In the Battle of Jinzhou, casualties were heavy on both sides, with bodies everywhere. The Japanese made the Chinese go outside of the town to transport the bodies. According to a father and son who were part of the group, all the bodies were thrown into a ditch in the northwest of town and burned. Dozens of vehicles were used to transport about 15 or 16 bodies each, and these vehicles ran non-stop for about five days.
port arthur
August 1904: Thick black smoke rises following an enormous explosion as the Japanese hit a Russian munitions bunker in Port Arthur. On 19 August, the Japanese attacked Port Arthur with the support of 300 cannons. The First Division formed the right wing attacking western highlands such as Mount Dadingzi and 203 Hill, while the Ninth Division attacked the Songshushan (Pine Tree Hill) battery and the north Longyan battery; the 11th Division formed the left wing attacking the north Jiguanshan (Cockscomb Hill) battery and east Longshan (Dragon Hill) battery. The battles were fierce, with the Japanese filling the air with screams as they rushed towards the heavy Russian artillery. The Japanese lost 15,000 men, about a quarter of the Third Army, but failed to take the area.
The Erlongshan (Twin Dragon Hill) battery in ruins after being taken by the Japanese, December 1904.
203 hill
Bodies of Japanese troops killed by Russian machine guns while storming 203 Hill, piled up by the Russians, 1904. While the Japanese ultimately won, the trauma of their soldiers rushing towards flying bullets left an indelible mark on the Japanese people. While right-wing Japanese glorified the Russo-Japanese War and Count Maresuke Nogi, anti-war writers used the tragic sacrifice of innocent, misguided young Japanese to criticise the ills of militarism. After the war, the Japanese anti-war movie War and Peace (《战争与和平》) depicted the tragic story of a young man with a bright future sent to the front — the scenes of the Russo-Japanese War were sad even for the victorious Japanese troops.
russian brigade
A photo of the Russian 23rd Artillery Brigade before leaving for the Far East as a support division, 1904. In the autumn of that year, Russian troops in Manchuria increased to about 210,000, with 758 cannons; the Japanese numbered about 170,000 troops with 648 cannons. With superior numbers, the Russians began to halt and then reverse their earlier retreat. However, the Japanese were more determined to win. In October, both armies met in a deadlock at Shahe. In early 1905, the Japanese Third Army took Port Arthur, and 100,000 troops turned towards Shahe, bringing the war on land to its final phases.
A group of Russian troops surrender to the Japanese, 1905. In early March, the Japanese launched a general offensive on Mukden. The Third Army took Xinmin, while the Russians retreated from Huairen. Soon after, the Japanese took Fushun and cut off the Russians’ northward route, and attacked Mukden. The Russians were heavily defeated and retreated to their base at Ssupingkai (now Siping), 175 kilometres north of Mukden. In this encounter at Mukden, the Russians suffered 90,000 casualties while the Japanese had 70,000 casualties. Both sides fought until they were too exhausted to continue.
port arthur
The fortifications at Port Arthur were strong, and with the geography favouring defence, the Japanese paid a heavy price when they attacked. In the photo, the few Japanese soldiers who managed to make it past the guns and cannons and reach the wire fence below the battery get out their wire cutters and axes to try and break through, but the Russians do not let up on their bombardment. The cannons and bullets land among those in the front, blowing the Japanese into the air and into the barbed wire. But despite the heavy losses, the Japanese troops keep rushing forward with a fearlessness unimaginable to the Russians. One Russian commander recalled: “After the signal was given, a fresh wave came. They no longer looked human, but like mad beasts. Our firing had no effect, as the human wave kept rolling forward.”
In July 1905, Masayasu Koizumi, representing the Japanese expeditionary force that attacked Sakhalin, with Russian General Mikhail Nikolaevich Lyapunov in a church. During the Russo-Japanese War, the Japanese sent troops to attack Sakhalin, and had plans to occupy the whole island. In the treaty following the war, Russia ceded the southern half of Sakhalin to Japan, with the 50th parallel north as the boundary line.

Battle between Japan and Russia but an awakening for China

After the Battle of Mukden, Japan and Russia were under pressure to engage in peace talks. Japan’s finances were in bad shape, and it was unable to afford the costs of conscription and military supplies. On Russia’s part, it had the edge in terms of troop strength, but domestic revolution and unrest had broken out since its defeat at Port Arthur. As for the other powers, ending the war would also be good.

On 5 September 1905, the Treaty of Portsmouth was signed at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. In the treaty, Russia acknowledged Japan’s rights of “guidance, protection and control” over Korea, turned over the lease of the Liaodong peninsula and the rights to the South Manchuria Railway to Japan, ceded to Japan the southern part of Sakhalin Island, and acknowledged Japan’s fishing rights along the coasts of Russian possessions in the Far East. The Japanese and Russian governments each ratified the treaty on 10 and 14 October 1905, and the documents were exchanged on 25 October in Washington, officially ending the Russo-Japanese War.

However, the benefits exchanged between Japan and Russia were in fact the blood and tears of the Chinese people. Although this war was between Japan and Russia, it was fought in northeast China, over special privileges in that region and in Korea. Many Chinese people in the northeast were killed or injured and made homeless amid the fighting. Their country and their homes were destroyed, and they knew only too well the helpless feeling of their lives being at the mercy of others.

On 5 September 1905, with heavy defeats for the Russian Army and Navy, Japan had reached its limits and was not keen to keep fighting. With US President Theodore Roosevelt as moderator, the talks were held between Japanese foreign minister Komura Jutarō and Count Sergei Yulyevich Witte as plenipotentiary to the Russian emperor. The Portsmouth Treaty was eventually signed in Portsmouth, US. The main points included Russia recognising the Korean peninsula to be within Japan’s sphere of influence, with the southern part of Sakhalin island going to Japan. The rights of lease and all public properties in Port Arthur, Dalian and the surrounding land and waters all went to Japan. The talks involved Chinese land, but Japan and Russia both ignored protests from the Qing court, and subsequently even signed several secret treaties to distribute interests in China.
qing soldiers
Chinese patrols at a Chinese camp cannot stop the enemy, and can only fall in with Japanese and Russian troops, 1905. The Qing soldiers in the photo are still wearing traditional uniforms and raising their standards. Compared to the Japanese and Russians, especially the modernised Japanese troops, they seem to be stuck in ancient times, in terms of equipment and appearance. In the ten years since the First Sino-Japanese War of 1895, Japan had become much more powerful. Its defeat of Russia shocked the world, while China was unable to recover from its war defeat. The incompetent Qing court lacked the knowledge and resolve to reform. From the Hundred Days’ Reform led by officials Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao, to the Boxer Rebellion, things went downhill and China was unable to extricate itself. The intellectuals of the time lost all hope for the Qing court. After the end of the Russo-Japanese War, Sun Yat-sen established the Tongmenghui in Tokyo, and Chinese students in Japan flocked to join. The Tongmenghui had over 300 members at the start; this number grew to over 10,000 in less than a year. Their revolutionary efforts made great progress, driving a new wave in history.
zeng qi
A Chinese general and troops during the Russo-Japanese War. At the time, the most senior official defending northeastern China was Zeng Qi, who held the rank of General of Shengjing (now Shenyang). The rank was later abolished and replaced by the post of Governor of Northeast Provinces. However, the photo caption refers to him as “General Ma”, while the standard in the picture reads “Li”. Possibly the error was made because the reporter was not familiar with China. There is another interesting reason: as Russia took advantage of the Boxer Rebellion to take northeastern China, Zeng Qi wanted to negotiate peace with Yevgeni Ivanovich Alekseyev, viceroy of the Russian Far East, but did not dare to appear personally. A minor official, Ma Zhongjun, volunteered to be the representative and held his own during the talks, gaining the admiration of the Russians, who agreed to stop their advance and allow the Chinese government to maintain local order. Ma Zhongjun was promoted and known as “Daotai” Ma (马道台, an old official title). The “General Ma” here could be the journalist mistaking Ma for Zeng Qi.
chinese delegation
In July 1905, to salvage the dire situation, the Qing government sent five officials — Duke Zaize, Vice-Minister of Revenue Dai Hongci, Vice-Minister of War Xu Shichang, Hunan governor Duan Fang, and assistant to the grand councillor of the right for trade Shao Ying — to visit other countries to learn more about their political systems. However, the trip was delayed due to an attack by the revolutionary Wu Yue. Shao Ying was injured in the attack, while Xu Shichang was subsequently commissioned to be the minister of police; they were replaced by Shandong commissioner Shang Qiheng and Shuntian prefect Li Shengduo. Dai Hongci and Duan Fang set off on 2 December, heading for the US, Germany, and Austria. On 11 December, Zaize, Shang Qiheng, and Li Shengduo left for Japan, the UK, France, and Belgium. They returned the following year, and on 1 September 1906, the Qing government announced preparations for establishing a constitution. The image shows Zaize and his delegation in France.

But while China’s status hit rock bottom with this war, there was a general awakening among China’s intellectuals. There was a deep sense that China had a lot to improve on in its politics, military, economy, society, as well as education and culture, in order to modernise. The old system and old way of thinking were crumbling; change and revolution became the driving force of China’s progress. The tide of history was not to be reversed, as the land took on a new vitality.

Over a century later, the Russo-Japanese War remains painful for the Chinese. Especially with the current complexities in Northeast Asia, such historical wounds are a constant reminder to the people of China that staying united and building up the country and its people is the only way to avoid getting bullied and maintain world peace.

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