On the memorable Saturday of May 27, 1905, in far eastern waters in which the guns of war-ships had rarely thundered before, took place an event that opened eyes of the world as if a new planet had swept o its ken or a great comet had suddenly blazed out in the eastern skies. It was that of one of the most stupendous naval victories in history, won by a people who fifty years before had just begun to emerge from the dim twilight of mediaeval barbarism.
Japan, the Nemesis of the East, had won her maiden spurs on the field of warfare in her brief conflict with China in 1894, but that was looked upon as a fight between a young game-cock and a decrepit barn-yard fowl, and the Western world looked with a half-pitying indulgence upon the spectacle of the long-slumbering Orient serving its apprenticeship in modern war. Yet the rapid and complete triumph of the island empire over the leviathan of the Asiatic continent was much of a revelation of the latent power that dwelt in that newly-aroused archipelago, and when in 1903 Japan began to speak in tones of menace to a second leviathan, that of Eastern Europe and Northern Asia, the world's interest was deeply stirred again.
Would little Japan dare attack a European power and one so great and populous as Russia, with half Asia already in its clasp, with strong fortresses and fleets within striking distance, and with a continental railway over which it could pour thousands of armed battalions? The idea seemed preposterous, many looked upon the attitude of Japan as the madness of temerity, and when on February 6, 1904, the echo of the guns at Port Arthur was heard the world gave a gasp of astonishment and alarm.
Were there any among us then who believed it possible for little Japan to triumph over the colossus it had so daringly attacked? If any, they were very few. It is doubtful if there was a man in Russia itself who dreamed of anything but eventual victory, with probably the adding of the islands of Japan to its chaplet of orient pearls. True, the success of the attack on their fleet was a painful surprise, and when they saw their great ironclads locked up in Port Arthur harbor it was cause for annoyance. But if the fleet had been taken by surprise, the fortress was claimed to be impregnable, the army was powerful and accustomed to victory over its foes in Asia, and it was with an amused contempt of their half-barbarian foes and confidence in rapid and brilliant triumph that the Muscovite cohorts streamed across Asia with arms in hand and hope in heart.
We do not propose to tell here what followed. The world knows it. Men read with an interest they had rarely taken in foreign affairs of the rapid and stupendous successes of the little soldiers of Nippon, the indomitable valor of the troops, the striking skill of their leaders, the breadth and completeness of their tactics, the training and discipline of the men, the rare hygienic condition of the camps, their impetuosity in attack, their persistence in pursuit; in short, the sudden advent of an army with all the requisites of a victorious career, as pitted against the ill-handled myriads of Russia, not wanting in brute courage, but sadly lacking in efficient leadership and strategical skill in their commanders.
Back went the Russian hosts, mile by mile, league by league, steadily pressed northward by the unrelenting persistence of the island warriors; while on the Liao-tung peninsula the besieging forces crept on foot by foot, caring apparently nothing for wounds or death, caring only for the possession of the fortress which they had been sent to win.
We should like to record some victories for the Russians, but the annals of the war tell us of none. Out-generalled and driven back from their strong position on the Yalu River; decisively beaten in the great battle of Liao-yang; checked in their offensive movement on the Shakhe River, with immense loss; and finally utterly defeated in the desperate two weeks' struggle around Mukden; the field warfare ended in the two great armies facing each other at Harbin, with months of manoeuvring before them.
Meanwhile the campaign in the peninsula had gone on with like desperate efforts and final success of the Japanese, Port Arthur surrendering to its irresistible besiegers on the opening day of 1905. With it fell the Russian fleet which had been cooped up in its harbor for nearly a. year; defeated and driven back in its every attempt to escape; its flag-ship, the "Petropavlovsk," sunk by a mine on April 13, 1904, carrying down Admiral Makaroff and nearly all its crew; the remnant of the fleet being finally sunk or otherwise disabled to save them from capture on the surrender of Port Arthur to the besieging forces.
Such, in very brief epitome, were the leading features of the conflict on land and its earlier events on the sea. We must now return to the great naval battle spoken of above, which calls for detailed description alike from its being the closing struggle of the contest and from its extraordinary character as a phenomenal event in maritime war.
The loss of the naval strength of Russia in eastern waters led to a desperate effort to retrieve the disaster, by sending from the Baltic every war-ship that could be got ready, with the hope that a strong fleet on the open waters of the east would enable Russia to regain its prestige as a naval power and deal a deadly blow at its foe, by closing the waters upon the possession of which the islanders depended for the support of their armies in Manchuria.
This supplementary fleet, under Admiral Rojestvensky, set sail from the port of Libau on October 16, 1904, beginning its career inauspiciously by firing impulsively on some English fishing-boats on the 21st, with the impression that these were Japanese scouts. This hasty act threatened to embroil Russia with another foe, the ally of Japan, but it passed off with no serious results.
Entering the Mediterranean and passing through the Suez Canal, the fine fleet under Rojestvensky, nearly sixty vessels strong, loitered on its way with wearisome deliberation, dallying for a protracted interval in the waters of the Indian Ocean and not passing Singapore on its journey north till April 12. It looked almost as if its commander feared the task before him, six months having now passed since it left the Baltic on its very deliberate cruise.
The second Russian squadron, under Admiral Nebogatoff, did not pass Singapore until May 5, it being the 13th before the two squadrons met and combined. On the 22nd they were seen in the waters of the Philippines heading northward. The news of this, flashed by cable from the far east to the far west, put Europe and America on the qui vive, in eager anticipation of startling events quickly to follow.
Meanwhile where was Admiral Togo and his fleet? For months he had been engaged in the work of bottling up the Russian squadron at Port Arthur. Since the fall of the latter place and the destruction of the war-ships in its harbor he had been lying in wait for the slow-coming Baltic fleet, doubtless making every preparation for the desperate struggle before him, but doing this in so silent and secret a method that the world outside knew next to nothing of what was going on. The astute authorities of Japan had no fancy for heralding their work to the world, and not a hint of the movements or whereabouts of the fleet reached men's ears.
As the days passed on and the Russian ships steamed still northward, the anxious curiosity as to the location of the Japanese fleet grew painfully intense. The expected intention to waylay Rojestvensky in the southern straits had not been realized, and as the Russians left the Philippines in their rear, the question, Where is Togo? grew more insistent still. With extraordinary skill he had lain long in ambush, not a whisper as to the location of his fleet being permitted to make its way to the western world; and when Rojestvensky ventured into the yawning jaws of the Korean Strait he was in utter ignorance of the lurking-place of his grimly waiting foes.
Before Rojestvensky lay two routes to choose between, the more direct one to Vladivostok through the narrow Korean Strait, or the longer one eastward of the great island of Honshu. Which he would take was in doubt and in which Togo awaited him no one knew. The skilled admiral of Japan kept his counsel well, doubtless satisfied in his own mind that the Russians would follow the more direct route, and quietly but watchfully awaiting their approach.
It was on May 22, as we have said, that the Russian fleet appeared off the Philippines, the greatest naval force that the mighty Muscovite empire had ever sent to sea, the utmost it could muster after its terrible losses at Port Arthur. Five days afterwards, on the morning of Saturday, May 27, this proud array of men-of-war steamed into the open throat of the Straits of Korea, steering for victory and Vladivostok. On the morning of Monday, the 29th, a few battered fragments of this grand fleet were fleeing for life from their swift pursuers. The remainder lay, with their drowned crews, on the sea-bottom, or were being taken into the ports of victorious Japan. In those two days had been fought to a finish the greatest naval battle of recent times, and Japan had won the position of one of the leading naval powers of the world.
On that Saturday morning no dream of such a destiny troubled the souls of those in the Russian fleet. They were passing into the throat of the channel between Japan and Korea, but as yet no sign of a foeman had appeared, and it may be that numbers on board the fleet were disappointed, for doubtless the hope of battle and victory filled many ardent souls on the Russian ships. The sun rose on the new day and sent its level beams across the seas, on which as yet no hostile ship had appeared. The billowing waters spread broad and open before them and it began to look as if those who hoped for a fight would be disappointed, those who desired a clear sea and an open passage would be gratified.
No sails were visible on the waters except those of small craft, which scudded hastily for shore on seeing the great array of war-ships on the horizon. Fishing-craft most of these, though doubtless among them were the scout-boats which the watchful Togo had on patrol with orders to signal the approach of the enemy's fleet. But as the day moved on the scene changed. A great ship loomed up, steering into the channel, then another and another, the vanguard of a battle-fleet, steaming straight southward. All doubt vanished. Togo had sprung from his ambush and the battle was at hand.
It was a rough sea; and the coming vessels dashed through heavy waves as they drove onward to the fray. From the flag-ship of the fleet of Japan streamed the admiral's signal, not unlike the famous signal of Nelson at Trafalgar, "The defense of our empire depends upon this action. You are expected to do your utmost."
Northward drove the Russians, drawn up in double column. The day moved on until noon was passed and the hour of two was reached. A few minutes later the first shots came from the foremost Russian ships. They fell short and the Japanese waited until they came nearer before replying. Then the roar of artillery began and from both sides came a hail of shot and shell, thundering on opposing hulls or rending the water into foam. From two o'clock on Saturday afternoon until two o'clock on Sunday morning that iron storm kept on with little intermission, the huge twelve-inch guns sending their monstrous shells hurtling through the air, the smaller guns raining projectiles on battle-ships and cruisers, until it seemed as if nothing that floated could live through that terrible storm.
Never in the history of naval warfare had so frightful a cannonade been seen. Its effect on the opposing fleets was very different. For months Togo had kept his gunners in training and their shell-fire was accurate and deadly, hundreds of their projectiles hitting the mark and working dire havoc to the Russian ships and crews; while to judge from the little damage done, the return fire would seem to have been wild and at random. Either the work of training his gunners had been neglected by the Russian admiral, or they were demoralized by the projectiles from the rapid-fire guns of the Japanese, which swept their decks and mowed down the gunners at their posts.
This fierce and telling fire soon had its effect. Ninety minutes after it began, the Russian armored cruiser "Admiral Nakhimoff" went reeling to the bottom with the greater part of her crew of six hundred men. Next to succumb was the repair-ship "Kamchatka." Badly hurt early in the battle, her steering-gear was later disabled, then a shell put her engines out of service, and shortly after her bow rose in the air and her stern sank, and with a tremendous roar she followed the "Nakhimoff" to the depths.
Around the "Borodino," one of the largest of the Russian battle-ships, clustered five of the Japanese, pouring in their fire so fiercely that flames soon rose from her deck and the wounded monster seemed in sore distress. This was Rojestvensky's flag-ship, and the enemy made it one of their chief targets, sweeping its decks until the great ship became a veritable shambles. Admiral Rojestvensky, wounded and his ship slowly settling under him, was transferred in haste to a torpedo-boat destroyer, and as evening came on the huge ship, still fighting desperately, turned turtle and vanished beneath the waves. As for the admiral, the destroyer which bore him was taken and he fell a prisoner into Japanese hands.
Previous to this three other battle-ships, the "Lessoi," the "Veliky," and the "Oslabya," had met with a similar fate, and shortly after sundown the "Navarin" followed its sister ships to the yawning depths. The fiery assault had quickly thrown the whole Russian array into disorder, while the Japanese skillfully manoeuvred to press the Russians from side and rear, forcing them towards the coast, where they were attacked by the Japanese column there advancing. In this way the fleet was nearly surrounded, the torpedo-boat flotilla being thrown out to intercept those vessels that sought to break through the deadly net.
With the coming on of darkness the firing from the great guns ceased, the Russian fleet being by this time hopelessly beaten. But the torpedo-boats now came actively into action, keeping up their fire through most of the night. When Sunday morning dawned the shattered remnants of the Russian fleet were in full flight for safety, hotly pursued by the Japanese, who were bent on pre-venting the escape of a single ship. The roar of guns began again about nine o'clock and was kept up at intervals during the day, new ships' being bagged from time to time by Togo's victorious fleet, while others, shot through and through, followed their brothers of the day before to the ocean depths.
The most notable event of this day's fight was the bringing to bay off Liancourt Island of a squadron of five battle-ships, comprising the division of Admiral Nebogatoff. Togo, in the battle-ship "Mikasa," commanded the pursuing squadron, which overtook and surrounded the Russian ships, pouring in a terrible fire which soon threw them into hopeless confusion. Not a shot came back in reply and Togo, seeing their helpless plight, signalled a demand for their surrender. In response the Japanese flag was run up over the Russian standard, and these five ships fell into the hands of the islanders without an effort at defense. The confusion and dismay on board was such that an attempt to fight could have led only to their being sent to the bottom with their crews.
It was a miserable remnant of the proud Russian fleet that escaped, including only the cruiser "Almez" and a few torpedo-boats that came limping into the harbor of Vladivostok with the news of the disaster, and the cruisers "Oleg," "Aurora," and "Jemchug," under Rear-admiral Enquist, that straggled in a damaged condition into Manila harbor a week after the great fight. Aside from these the Russian fleet was annihilated, its ships destroyed or captured; the total loss, according to Admiral Togo's report, being eight battle-ships, three armored cruisers, three coast-defense ships, and an unenumerated multitude of smaller vessels, while the loss in men was four thousand prisoners and probably twice that number slain or drowned.
The most astonishing part of the report was that the total losses of the Japanese were three torpedo-boats, no other ships being seriously damaged, while the loss in killed and wounded was not over eight hundred men. It was a fight that paralleled, in all respects except that of dimensions of the battling fleets, the naval fights at Manila and Santiago in the Spanish-American war.
What followed this stupendous victory needs not many words to tell. On land and sea the Russians had been fought to a finish. To protract the war would have been but to add to their disasters. Peace was imperative and it came in the following September, the chief result being that the Russian career of conquest in Eastern Asia was stayed and Japan became the master spirit in that region of the globe.