Prelude to war


1. Expansionist policy in the Fast East

During the 19th century, Russian imperial expansion had been concentrated in the Balkans, the Caucasus region, Turkestan and the Far East. Only in the Balkans and the Far East did Russia encounter the opposition of the other Great Powers. Twice in 1856 and 1878, Russia was forced to abandon her interests in the Balkan area, under great pressure from other European countries. Nonetheless, for Russia, given the decaying Chinese empire in the East, it did not expect any obstacles in its expansionist path there.

2. Desire for an ice-free port for its Pacific Fleet

As Vladivostok, Russia's main port in the Far East, was frozen for many months of the year, Russia was anxious to possess a ice-free port in the region. With the rapid modernization of Japan, Russia was concerned about the rise of a potential rival, and one with considerable audacity. This was displayed when Japan was able to seize Korea and the ice-free Port Arthur from the Chinese in 1895. Russia forced Japan to abandon its claim to Port Arthur, which it then occupied itself in 1897, by concluding a lease agreement with the weak Chinese government in 1898, giving Russia access to the port.

3. Russia's false sense of security and over-confidence 

Russia continued to adopt an aggressive approach in the Far East, as it assessed that Japan would not dare to go to war against a numerically superior enemy. The Russians' over-confidence was reflected in their contemptuous attitude towards the Japanese, whom they considered as an inferior Oriental people.  Both Tsar Nicholas II and his advisors were confident that the Japanese would not fight.

4. Tsar Nicholas II's weak leadership

Although scholars have disputed over whether Tsar Nicholas II had intended to use the war against Japan as a distraction from domestic problems, it was clear that his advisors were not supportive of such a war, given the logistical difficulties of fighting one thousands of miles from European Russia. Nonetheless, the ambivalent attitude and weak leadership of the Tsar led to many lost opportunities for peace during Russia's four-month long diplomatic negotiations with Japan.

Russia in Manchuria


1. The threat of Russia towards Japan's interests

Russia's aggressive foreign policy and its control of Manchuria and Port Arthur made Japan more determined to increase its armaments programme. In addition, in 1902, the Angl0-Japanese Alliance was concluded to ensure that Japan would be able to fight Russia, if necessary, in the future without any intervention from the British. 

By 1903, Russia also began to intervene in the economic affairs of Korea, then under Japan's sphere of influence. In order to forestall any conflict, Japan offered to recognise Manchuria as under Russia's sphere of influence if Russia would do the same for Japan's control of Korea. (In 1900, Russia occupied Mancuria, while the 8000-km Trans-Siberian Railway connecting European Russia to the Far East was completed in 1901.) However, Russia, confident of her own military supremacy, refused this offer.

Japan in KoreaCredit:

2. Japan's belief in the superiority of its own armed forces

Faced with an increasing Russian threat, Japan began to prepare for a limited war to halt Russia's expansion in the Far East and to gain revenge for its inteference after the Sino-Japanese War in 1894. A decisive victory over Russia would also ensure Japan's hegemony over Korea. 

By 1904, Japan was ready to act. As Japan's military deployment on mainland Asia was dependent on its command of the sea, it was deemed an essential first step to destroy the Russian Far East Fleet and capture the latter's base, Port Arthur, located at the tip of the Liaotung Peninsula. Since Port Arthur was Russia's only ice-free port on the Pacific coast, its capture would deprive the Russians from a winter naval base should they decide to send their Baltic Fleet to the Pacific. The second step of Japan's plan was to destory the Russian land forces in Manchuria, so that Russia would have no choice but to seek peace.

3. Japan's awareness of Russia's logistical constraints

The Japanese knew that the Russian's sole supply line to the Far East was the Trans-Siberian Railway, stretching over 5,500 miles from Moscow to Port Arthur. Despite Russia's massive manpower, the Japanese were aware that it could currently only deploy about 83,000 soldiers and 196 guns in the Far East due to logistical constraints. This meant that Russia could not really enjoy a numerical advantage over Japan in terms of its land armies, of which Japan could also more easily reinforce from its home islands. Given Japan's command of the sea, it could easily place on the mainland its entire army of 283,000 men (with 400,000 trained reserves) and 870 guns.

As for the naval forces, Russia's strength consisted of 7 old battleships, 9 armoured cruisers, 25 destroyers and 30 smaller craft. The main part of the Pacific Fleet was based at Port Arthur, with a few others at Chemulpo (now Inchon, Korea) and Vladivostok. Even if Russia were to send its Baltic Fleet to help, the journey would take so long that their arrival might be inconsequential to the battle outcome.

In comparison, Japan had 6 modern battleships with 12-inch guns, 1 old battleship, 8 armoured cruisers , 16 torpedo boats and smaller craft, which were all better-equipped and trained than their Russian counterparts. The Japanese also had the advantage of being familiar with the surrounding seas, where the naval battles would take place.

Japanese battleshipsCredit:

When Japan's plans for war against Russia were being formulated in 1903, Admiral Heihachiro Togo was personally selected by the Meiji Emperor to command the fleet that would begin the fighting. A descendent of an old samurai family, Togo enlisted in the navy upon graduation. Proving himself to be a talented officer, he was selected by the Japanese government to study naval tactics in Britain. By 1903, Togo had risen to the rank of Vice-Admiral.

Japan's land forces would be commanded by General Maresuke Nogi, who was well-known for his adherence to the samurai code and total dedication to duty, country and emperor. Nogi first achieved international prominence during the Sino-Japanese War in 1894 when he captured the 10,000-man garrison at Port Arthur, with only a loss of 18 Japanese soldiers.  Given that the key objective of the impending Russo-Japanese war would be Port Arthur, it was only natural that Nogi was given the opportunity to capture the port from the Russians, who had previously forced Japan to relinquish its control of the port.

With everything set in place, the war was about to begin.

Trenches in Russo-Japanese WarCredit: