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Foreign Correspondent
by international syndicated columnist & broadcaster Eric Margolis


Copyright: Eric S. Margolis, 2004

12 October 2004

LUSHUN, CHINA - Exactly 100 years ago - Oct 1904 - Russia and Japan were locked in a series of ferocious land and sea battles for control of this strategic harbor, then known by its Russian name, Port Arthur.

Recently, I was the first westerner allowed into Lushun, a top-secret Chinese naval base whose missile-armed destroyers and submarines defend the maritime approaches to Beijing and industrial Manchuria.

My purpose: to explore the 22 Russian forts built on a 20-km arc of steep hills protecting this port at the southern tip of the strategic Liaotung Peninsula - and to commemorate the incredible valor and ferocity of the forgotten 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War, the 20th Century's first great conflict.

In 1900, the imperial powers were raping helpless China. Russia and Japan both coveted Manchuria, a vast, resource rich area in China's far north. Four years later, their ambitions collided at Russian-ruled Port Arthur, a magnificent, deepwater harbor sheltered from typhoons, and ice-free year round.

The Imperial Japanese Navy opened the war in Feb. 1904 by a surprise attack against Russia's Pacific Squadron at Port Arthur. Japan used the same tactic in its 1894 war with China, and would do so a third time on Dec 7, 1941 at Pearl Harbor.

The Japanese Fleet blockaded the Russian squadron in Port Arthur. A Japanese expeditionary corps under venerable samurai general, Yasusuke Nogi, landed at the small port of Dalny (today the booming Chinese resort city of Dalian), 50 kms north of Port Arthur. Nogi quickly invested Port Arthur, which was defended by 47,000 Russian troops, Cossacks, and sailors.

Three other Japanese army corps landed in Korea, crossed the Yalu River, and attacked the 150,000 Russian troops in Manchuria massed around Mukden.

The assault against Port Arthur opened in September with heavy Japanese attacks on the strong northeastern forts guarding the road and rail line into the port. These modern concrete forts - Ehrlung shan, Chikuan shan, Sungsu shan - resisted all attacks, thanks to valiant resistance by Russia's Siberian troops and to new weapons that made their world debut at Port Arthur.

The military innovations included 18-20 feet deep belts of dense, interlaced barbed wire, covered by Maxim machine guns and quick-fire fields guns, that protected the Russian forts and the deep, multiple trench lines connecting and surrounding them.

Powerful searchlights and star shells were introduced for the first time, illuminating with deadly clarity the night attacks favored by Japanese infantry. Hand grenades were also widely used for the first time. There were even rudimentary attempts to use poison gas.

All these new weapons would play lethal roles ten years later in World War I. Like the Great War's French and British generals, Japan's commanders at Port Arthur did not understand the murderous power of modern weapons against massed infantry and paid the price in frightful losses.

The Russians were an army of lions, led by asses. Gen. Stoessel was an incompetent defeatist. Russia's ablest general, Kuropatkin, was killed by a Japanese shell. The only aggressive Russian admiral, Makaroff, sortied out to attack Adm. Togo's blockading Japanese fleet. His flagship, battleship `Petropavlosk,' hit a mine and capsized, taking down Makaroff and the great Russian artist Vereschagin, who was sketching the battle. The loss of Makaroff and Vereschagin are still mourned to this day by Russians.

Unable to take the northeastern forts, Gen. Nogi turned his attention to the fortress' western side, dominated by the highest feature in the region, the 203 meter hill. Nogi belatedly understood that this hill, which overlooked the harbor some 4-6 kilometers distant, held the key to victory.

The battle for the steep 203 meter hill - up to 40 degree inclination - was one of the most murderous dramas of the bloody siege. I had trouble just climbing it. Japanese human wave attacks charged up the hill, led by special volunteer units called `ketshitai.' Their orders: `do not expect to return alive.' Some of the Japanese samurai officers leading the attacks had actually fought decades earlier in full armor, with swords.

Russian Siberian riflemen fought with equal valor, mowing down the attackers with machine guns, and grenades. The hillside was three or four deep in bodies. Eleven-inch Japanese siege guns relentlessly pounded the 203mm hill, as well as the northeastern forts.

Desperate to relieve Port Arthur, Czar Nicolas II ordered the Russian Baltic Fleet under Adm. Rozhestvensky, based in St Petersburg and Krondstadt, to steam three quarters of the way around the globe to succor the beleaguered fortress. While heading out of the western end of the Baltic, Rozhestvensky's fleet ludicrously mistook a flotilla of British herring fishing boats for Japanese torpedo craft, sank a number, and almost ignited war with outraged Britain.

On 5 Dec, 1904, Maj-Gen. Saito, samurai sword in hand, finally took the 203 meter hill after nearly all its defenders had been killed. Ten thousand Japanese and 5,000 Russian died there. Japanese artillery spotters on 203 quickly began raining heavy shells on the trapped Russian fleet in the harbor, sending all the battleships and cruisers sheltered there to the bottom.

Gen. Nogi renewed attempts to storm the three key northeastern forts. Round the clock Japanese assaults were repulsed by fierce hand to hand combat on the fort's ruined parapets, in their rubble-filled moats, and against the counterscarpe galleries (gun positions in the outside angles of the moats that enfiladed the walls). The defenders used bayonets, knives, rocks, and burning oil. Military history records no more ferocious battles: the Japanese kept attacking with suicidal courage, the Russians defending with dauntless courage.

The Japanese then resorted to the medieval tactic of mining under the fort's walls and counterscarpe galleries protecting the moats. The Russians counter-mined. An underground war ensured, fought with spades, explosives, and pistols. Finally, the Japanese managed to detonate huge mines containing 2.5 tons of dynamite under the main forts, blowing their forward walls and defenders to bits. Erhlung fort dissolved into rubble. Chikuan shan's heroic Russian defenders fought to the last man.

These bitter siege operations eerily presaged the murderous battles for Verdun's forts in 1916, and Canadian mining operations in 1917 at Vimy against German fortified positions.

Port Arthur had become, said a Russian journalist, `a living hell.' Only 5,000 Russians were still capable of combat - 15,000 lay sick or seriously wounded.

On 3 January, 1905, the garrison surrendered. In a last touch of 19th century chivalry, Russian officers were granted parole. Four battleships, two cruisers, and fourteen gunboats fell to the Japanese, whose total casualties reached 90,000.

Many foreign military officers came to observe the great siege. Unfortunately, their reports of the murderous effects of new weapons went unheeded in Europe or America, so that all the deadly tactical errors committed by the Japanese were repeated by the French in 1915 and 1917, the British in 1916 and 1917, and the Americans in 1917-1918.

Rozhestvensky's Baltic Fleet arrived too late to save Port Arthur. The Russian admiral, concerned he lacked enough coal to circumnavigate Japan to the eastward, headed for Vladivostok by steaming due north through the narrow Tsushima Strait between Japan and Korea.

Admiral Togo on his flagship `Mikasa' was waiting. In one of history's greatest naval battles, Togo sprang from ambush, crossed the Russian T(placed his battle line at right angles to the Russian fleet, thus bringing all his ships for and aft guns to bear), and destroyed the entire Russian fleet. I was able to sail over much of the area where this great naval action was fought and marveled at the narrowness of the Tsushima Strait.

Russia and Japan, both exhausted from the war and unable to achieve decisive victory in Manchuria, reached a peace agreement on 5 Sept, 1905, under the auspices of US President Theodore Roosevelt, at Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Disaster was complete. In a geopolitical earthquake , a European power was defeated for the first time by `inferior' Asians. Triumphant Japan longed for more military glory. A month after Tsushima, uprisings erupted across Russia that lit the fuse of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.

When Japan's God-Emperor Meiji died in 1917, loyal samurai retainer, Gen. Nogi, committed ritual suicide, or seppuku, to join his master.

In 1945, the Soviet Union defeated Japan's Kwantung Army based on the Liaotung Peninsula and reoccupied Port Arthur, which it held until 1955, when it was returned to Chinese rule.

To read previous columns by Mr. Margolis: Click here

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