The Bloody Events of the Russo-Japanese War


By: Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius, Ph.D., University of Tennessee Knoxville

The Russo-Japanese War is regarded by many historians as World War Zero, the prelude to the two World Wars. The war was a turning point for the two countries involved as well, and played out in a way that had many far reaching impacts on world politics. 

Line drawing of Port Arthur, where the battle marked the commencement of the Russo-Japanese war.
Starting with the Battle of Port Arthur, the Russo-Japanese war saw a series of bloody and disastrous battles, which eventually ended with Japanese victory.
(Image: Morphart Creation/Shutterstock)

Since Japan was well aware of its position against Russia, it estimated a fifty percent chance of victory, and was prepared to lose half of its naval fleet. To improve its chances of victory, Japan planned to launch the war in winter, when it would have been hardest for Russian reinforcements to be brought in by the Trans-Siberian Railroad. 

 The Japanese began their war with a surprise attack on the Russian naval base at Port Arthur, on February 8, 1904, when Japan’s Admiral Tōgō shocked two Russian battleships with Japanese torpedoes, and the Russian defenders had no choice but to pull back. 

Another Japanese naval force attacked Russian positions at the Korean port of Chemulpo, sinking two battleships and landing an army on the same day. Two days later, Japan declared war on Russia. 

Advance of the Japanese Army into Port Arthur

To advance into Manchuria, the Japanese army landed in Korea and crossed the Yalu river, attacking Port Arthur soon enough. Through a series of unfortunate events, Russian efforts were thwarted and Japanese soldiers surrounded Port Arthur by land and mounted a series of attacks against the city. 

The Japanese army finally captured 203 Meter Hill, as it was called, a crucial vantage point above Port Arthur, in December 1904. After an initial toll of 20,000 in attacking Port Arthur, another 14,000 Japanese died in this attack. Port Arthur finally surrendered in January 1905. 

Print depicting the surprise attack of the Japanese fleet on the Russians at Port Arthur, signalling the start of the Russo-Japanese War.
The Battle of Port Arthur was when the Russo-Japanese war began, even as tens of thousands of casualties were registered on both sides. (Image: Library of Congress/Public domain)

The Battle of Mukden

Soon after the Japanese victory at Port Arthur began the Battle of Mukden, lasting from February to March of 1905. Mukden, called Shenyang today, was the capital city of the area for which the battle was fought. The battle is still the largest and longest one in modern military history, even surpassing the battles of the Napoleonic wars. With both armies having been reinforced, over half a million men battled for weeks.

Finally, Japanese frontal attacks wore down the Russian forces, but at the cost of 70,000 Japanese casualties, a quarter of their entire army. Then the climax of the Russo-Japanese war came with the naval Battle of Tsushima.

Following the attack on Port Arthur, the Russian Baltic Fleet had been ordered, in October 1904, to trek half the globe away from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific Ocean. This 17,800 mile trip took seven and a half months, a duration that could’ve been considerably shortened if Japan’s ally Britain had allowed the Russians to use the Suez Canal. 

Learn more about the Suez Canal.

Disasters Leading Up to Battle of Tsushima

This trip was full of disasters, starting with an incident off the coast of Britain, when Russian warships saw British fishing boats and fired on them and killed some fishermen under the assumption that they were Japanese Torpedo ships. It was only political diplomacy that prevented this from starting another war. 

When the Baltic fleet finally arrived off Korea on May 27, 1905, Japan’s Admiral Tōgō sank the fleet at Tsushima Strait, in one of the greatest naval victories of all time. Although the fleets were evenly matched in strength, the Japanese Navy’s new British-built ships and better training proved superior. 

This is a transcript from the video series Turning Points in Modern History. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

The Aftermath of Tsushima

This attack put in perspective the loss this war caused. Two-thirds of the Russian fleet, accounting for almost 50,000 sailors, was sunk.

Painting depicting Japan's Admiral Togo aboard his battleship with his lieutenants, at Tsushima Strait off the coast of Korea.
While the Battle of Tsushima, led by Japan’s Admiral Tōgō, was a decisive moment for the outcome of the war, there was no denying the fact that it resulted in huge losses for both sides. (Image: Tōjō Shōtarō/Public domain)

 One of Admiral Tōgō’s young lieutenants from that day, Yamamoto Isoruku, would later come up with the idea for the attack on Pearl Harbor. The war devastated the civilian populations of China and Korea, with both armies hogging resources, while also shooting suspected local spies. The fighting created countless refugees.

The Russo-Japanese war invoked different emotions in Japan and Russia. While Japan was filled with enthusiasm and prints of battle scenes were everywhere, reception in Russia was grim.  Eighty percent of Japanese films in 1904-1905 were about the war, amounting to over 270 films lauding the war and the army. 

On the other hand, the defeat in Russia brought depression and the desire for a reform. On January 22, 1905, however, petitioners in St. Petersburg were shot down by soldiers of the Tsar, sparking the Revolution of 1905 in the event remembered as Bloody Sunday, almost bringing about the downfall of the empire. 

Negotiating for Peace

Both sides were ready for peace after the Battle of Tsushima, given how heavily the war had cost them both. Japan had been heavily reliant on foreign loans to finance its war, and had drafted about 20 percent of its male work force. Russia, in turn, had been wracked by internal crisis and revolution in the wake of the Russo-Japanese war. 

Finally, a peace treaty was negotiated by the American president Theodore Roosevelt, who offered to mediate the negotiations for the two parties, and ended up later winning the Nobel Peace Prize for his peacemaking efforts.

Talks of peace began in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on August 9, 1905. The Town of Portsmouth was chosen as the location for the treaty because it was much cooler than Washington DC, and also had a naval base, complete with an underground telegraph cable for fast and efficient international communications. 

After a series of rounds of negotiations, the treaty was finally signed on September 5, 1905. Japan had won control over Korea, which became an official Japanese colony by 1910. It also won Port Arthur and the Russian-built  railroads in Manchuria, along with the southern half of Sakhalin Island. However, Russia was not made to pay any indemnity, and did not have to give up any Russian mainland territory either. 

The Treaty was viewed as an enormous failure in Japan, and was met with huge public outrage, resulting in riots and protests in the cities. The main bone of contention for the protesters was that Japan had not won what it had deserved for its victory in the war, and many blamed America for shortchanging Japan in its negotiations. 

Despite this, Japan’s indomitable strength as a Great Power in the world was obvious to all its spectators after its victory in the Russo-Japanese War.

Learn more about the Russo-Japanese War.

Commonly Asked Questions About the Events of the Russo-Japanese War

Q: How did the Japanese Army begin its attack on the Russian forces in Port Arthur?

One of the first and most important victories for Japan in the Russo-Japanese War was that in Port Arthur. The Japanese army landed in Korea and crossed the Yalu river to advance to Manchuria, attacking Port Arthur. Russian defense efforts were thwarted and Japanese soldiers surrounded Port Arthur by land and mounted a series of attacks against the city. After heavy casualties were recorded on both sides, Port Arthur finally surrendered in January 1905. 

Q: Why was the Russian Baltic Fleet’s movement important to the outcome of the Russo-Japanese War?

The Russian Baltic fleet had to travel all the way from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific Ocean, over 17,800 miles, to fight in the Russo-Japanese War. First, the fleet almost started another war with Britain, and later, when it arrived off Korea, it was immediately sunk by Admiral Tōgō in the Tsushima Strait, in what is still remembered as one of the biggest and most influential naval victories of all time. This played a huge role in Japan’s victory in the war.

Q: How was peace negotiated for after the Russo-Japanese War?

By the time Japan emerged victorious from the Russo-Japanese war, both sides had seen many casualties, Russia had seen a revolution, and both countries wished for peace. So, a peace treaty was negotiated and mediated by the American president Theodore Roosevelt, in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on August 9, 1905. However, the treaty was not viewed as fair in Japan, where residents felt that America had shorthanded them in the negotiations in a bid to concentrate western imperialism.

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