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Charles Morris

The Battle of the Iron-Clads

In these latter days the world seems overturned. Events of startling interest are every year taking place, new discoveries are made, new inventions produced, new explorations completed, peoples and tribes formerly not even known by name are becoming prominent in daily history, and nations which seemed sunk in a death-like slumber are awakening and claiming a place among the leading powers of the world. And of all these events perhaps the most astounding is that which took place in September, 1894, the battle of iron-clads in the Yellow Sea.

About forty years before there had begun among Western nations a remarkable revolution in naval warfare, the substitution of the iron-clad for the wooden man-of-war. During the interval this evolution of the iron-clad had gone briskly on, until by 1894 the nations of Europe and America possessed fleets of such wonderful powers of resistance that the naval artillery of the past would have had no more effect upon them than hailstones upon an iron roof. But a revolution in artillery had also taken place. The old smooth-bore guns had been replaced by great rifled cannon capable of sending a heavy ball for ten or twelve miles and of piercing through steel plates of moderate thickness as through so much paper. With these came the quick-fire guns, from whose gaping mouths cannon-balls could be rained like the drops of a rapid shower, and the torpedoes, capable of tearing ruinous holes in the sides and bottoms of the mightiest ships.

Such was the work that was doing in the West while the East slept calmly on. But no occasion had arisen for putting to the proof these great floating engines of war. Theories in abundance were offered of the probable effect upon one another of two modern fleets, but the dread of terrible results had a potent influence, and fear of the destructive powers of modern ships and armies had proved the strongest of arguments in keeping the nations of the world at peace.

The astounding event spoken of is the fact that the iron-clad battle-ship of the present day was first put to proof in the waters of the Yellow Sea, in a war between two nations which half a century before were hardly beyond the bow-and-arrow stage of warfare, and were still novices in the modern art of war. The naval inventions made in Europe and America had their first trial in a conflict between China and Japan, and the interest with which maritime nations read of the doings of these powerful engines of war in those far-off waters was intense.

Japan had been alert in availing itself of all the world knew about war, providing its army with the best modern weapons and organizing them in the most effective European method, while purchased iron-clads replaced its old fleet of junks. China, though doing little for the improvement of its army, had bought itself a modern fleet, two of its ships, the Ting-yuen and Chen-yuen, having fourteen inches of iron armor, and surpassing in size and strength anything that Japan had to show. These vessels were all armed with the most effective of modern weapons, were handled by men trained in the theories of European war, and seemed capable of the most destructive results.

On the 17th of September, 1894, an epoch-making battle of these iron-clads took place. It was a remarkably different event from the first engagement of this sort, that between the Monitor and the Merrimac in Hampton Roads, for the guns now brought into play would have pierced the armor of those vessels as if it had been made of tin. The Japanese squadron had just convoyed a fleet of transports, bearing ten thousand troops and thirty-five hundred horses, to Chemulpo, near the Corean capital. The Chinese squadron had similarly convoyed four thousand troops to the Yalu River. These were landed on the 16th, and on the morning of the 17th the fleet started on its return. On the same morning the Japanese fleet reached the island of Hai-yang, leaving their torpedo-boats behind, as there was no thought of fighting a battle. About nine o'clock smoke was seen in the distance, and at eleven-forty the Chinese fleet came into sight.

The Japanese fleet consisted of ten vessels, the First Flying Squadron, consisting of four fine cruisers of high speed, and the Main Squadron, composed of six vessels of lower speed. There were two smaller ships, of no value as fighting vessels. The Chinese fleet was composed of twelve vessels and six torpedo-boats, though two of the vessels and the torpedo-boats were at a distance, so that the effective fighting force on each side was composed of ten ships-of-war. The Chinese fleet included the two great ships already named, the Ting-yuen and Chen-yuen. The latter, as has been said, were heavily armored. The other Chinese ships were lightly protected, and some of them not at all. None of the Japanese vessels had external armor, their protection consisting of steel decks and internal lining down to the water-line.

On perceiving the enemy's ships, Admiral Ito, of the Japanese fleet, at once gave orders to his captains to prepare for action. Ting, the Chinese admiral, did the same, drawing up his fleet in a single line, with the large ships in the centre and the weaker ones on the wings. Ito, who proposed to take advantage of the superior speed of his ships and circle round his adversary, drew up his vessels in a single column with the Flying Squadron at the head.

The action began at 1 p.m. , the Chinese opening fire at about six thousand yards, the Japanese reserving their fire until at half that distance. Ito beaded his ships straight for the centre of the Chinese line, but on drawing near they swerved so as to pass the Chinese right wing, their speed being at the same time increased. As the Yoshino, which led the movement, came up, she became a target for the whole Chinese fleet, but her speed soon carried her out of danger, the Flying Squadron sweeping swiftly past the Chinese right wing and pouring a deadly fire on the unprotected vessels there posted as they passed. The stream of shells from the rapid-fire guns tore the wood-work of these vessels into splinters and set it on fire, the nearest ship, the Yang Wei, soon bursting into flames.

The Japanese admiral, keeping at a distance from the large central vessels with their heavy guns, and concentrating his fire on the smaller flanking ships, continued his evolution, the Main Squadron following the Flying Squadron past the Chinese right wing and pouring its fire on the second ship in the line, the Chao-yung, which, like its consort, was soon in flames. This movement, however, proved a disadvantage to the slower vessels of the Japanese fleet, which could not keep pace with their consorts, particularly to the Hiyei, which lagged so far in the rear as to become exposed to the fire of the whole Chinese fleet, now rapidly forging ahead. In this dilemma its commander took a bold resolve. Turning, he ran directly for the line of the enemy, passing between the Ting-yuen and the King-yuen at five hundred yards' distance. Two torpedoes which were launched at him fortunately missed, but he had to bear the fire of several of his antagonists, and came through the line with his vessel in flames. The Akagi, a little Japanese gunboat, hurried to his aid, though seriously cut up by the fire of the Lai-yuen, which pursued until set on fire and forced to withdraw by a lucky shot in return. Meanwhile the Flying Squadron had wheeled to meet the two distant Chinese ships, which were hastily coming up in company with the torpedo-boats. On seeing this movement they drew back and kept well out of reach. Somewhat later these vessels took part in the action, though not an important one. At 2:23 p.m. the Chao-yang, which had been riddled by the fire of the Main Squadron, sank, the cries of the drowning men sounding above the roar of the cannon as she went down.

As a result of the Japanese evolution, the two squadrons finally closed in on the Chinese fleet on both sides and the battle reached its most furious phase. The two flag-ships, the Japanese Matsushima and the Chinese Ting-yuen, poured the fire of their great guns upon each other with terrible effect, the wood-work of the Chinese iron-clad being soon in flames, while a shell that burst on the Matsushima exploded a heap of ammunition and killed or wounded eighty men. Fire broke out, but it was soon extinguished. Almost all the Japanese gunners were killed, but volunteers pressed forward to take their place, among them even the band-players.

On the Chinese flag-ship the flames drove the gunners from their pieces, and she would probably have been destroyed had not the Chen-yuen come bravely to her aid. The fire was finally extinguished by the aid of some foreigners who were on board. It may be said here that the fire-drill of the Japanese was far superior to that of their foes.

The Japanese continued their circling movement around their slower antagonists, pouring a concentrated fire upon the weaker vessels, of which the Chih-yuen was sunk at about 3:30 p.m. and the King-yuen at 4:48. By this time the Chinese fleet was in the greatest disorder, its line broken, some of its vessels in full flight, and all coherence gone. The fire of the Japanese fleet was now principally directed against the two large iron-clads, but the fourteen-inch armor of these resisted the heaviest guns in the Japanese fleet, and, though their upper works were riddled and burnt, they were able to continue the battle.

In the fight here described the Japanese had shown a discipline and a skill in naval tactics far superior to those of their foes. They had kept at a distance of about four thousand yards from their antagonists, so as to avoid their heavy fire and make the most advantageous use of their larger number of rapid-fire guns and also of their much better marksmanship. The result of the battle was not due to greater courage, but to superior skill and more effective armament.

At nightfall, as the torpedo-boats had now joined the Chinese fleet, the Japanese drew off, not caring to risk the perils of a battle at night with such antagonists, both sides being also exhausted by the long fight. The next morning the Chinese fleet had disappeared. It had lost four vessels in the fight, and a fifth afterwards ran ashore and was blown up. Two of the Japanese ships were badly damaged, but none were lost, while the total loss in killed and wounded was two hundred and eighteen, nearly half of them on the flag-ship. The Chinese lost far more heavily, from the sinking of a number of their ships.

Thus ended the typical battle of modern naval warfare, one whose result was mainly due to the greater speed and rapid evolutions of the Japanese ships and the skill with which they concentrated a crushing fire on the weak points of the enemy's line. The work of the quick-firing guns was the most striking feature of the battle, while the absence of torpedo-boats prevented that essential element of a modern fleet from being brought into play. An important lesson learned was that too much wood-work in an iron-clad vessel is a dangerous feature, and naval architects have since done their best to avoid this weak point in the construction of ships-of-war. But the most remarkable characteristic of the affair is that the battle was fought by two nations which, had the war broken out forty years before, would have done their naval fighting with fleets of junks.

It may be said in conclusion that the Chinese fleet was annihilated in the later attack on the port of Wei-hai-wei, many of the vessels being destroyed by torpedo-boats, and the remainder, unable to escape from the harbor, being forced to surrender to the Japanese. Thus ended in utter disaster to China the naval war.


The Pekin Gate.