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The Russian-Japanese War of 1904-05

Russia objected to Japan's territorial gains that came with the treaty that ended the Sino-Japanese War (the Treaty of Shimonoseki of 1895). Russia persuaded France and Germany to pressure Japan to return territory to China in exchange for a larger indemnity. The British and Americans were not interested in defending Japan's gains. Sensing its diplomatic isolation, Japan agreed its to the deal. Then the Russians surprised the Japanese by taking control over Port Arthur (today, Lüshunkou), the warm-water port it had wanted in the East Asian area. (And Germany opportunistically secured its hold on China's Shandong Peninsula. And from Indochina, France's navy moved into ports along China's southern coast.)

Japan's government felt it had been cheated of its spoils of war by the Europeans. Japan's patriotic public was outraged. Not all was harmony among the European powers, and Japan in 1902 moved to strengthen its ties with Britain. Britain was still hostile toward the competition of Russian naval expansion and looking to ending its "splendid isolation" and catching up in the alliance game. Germany wanted Britain to join its alliance with Austria-Hungary and Britain refused to tie themselves to an alliance that would commit it to war on the side of Austria-Hungary, so there was no alliance between Germany and Britain. Britain, instead, allied itself with Japan.

Russia's Tsar Nicholas was concerned about his empire's commercial interests in the Far East. His inner circle had commercial interests in the Far East and they persuaded the tsar that Japan would never go to war against the great empire of Russia. Nicholas underestimated the Japanese, seeing them as "yellow monkeys" and expecting them to yield in the face of Russia's superior power. Negotiations regarding control in Manchuria and Korea ended with the Japanese seeing futility in it.

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Japan decided on war to make up for its humiliation and to secure a position in Manchuria and Korea. On 8 February 1904, Japan sent torpedo boats against Russian ships at Port Arthur, three hours before the Russians received Japan's declaration of war (a surprise attack that was not criticized by the United States or by Great Britain). The following day the Japanese landed troops at Inchon in Korea, and from there they started north to the Yalu River, intending to do battle in Manchuria against the Russians.

The first big war of the 20th century had begun. Russia was thought to have interests in the direction of Tibet, and with Russia distracted by the Japanese, a British expeditionary force moved into Tibet and forced the Dalai Lama there to sign a treaty with Britain, a treaty that granted trading posts in Tibet to the British and guaranteed that Tibet would not concede territory to any other foreign power. China, which had historic involvement and interests in Tibet, was ignored.

Japan's gold reserves were modest, and a big portion of the total cost of the war was to be covered by money borrowed from the Britain, Canada, and the United States. Russia's war effort was to be funded primarily by France, its government and major banks viewing Russian and French economic interests as tied.

In April (1904) the Japanese began their siege of Port Arthur. Japanese troops tried frontal assaults on the fortified hilltops overlooking the harbor and were defeated. In May the Battle of Yalu River began. Around 25,000 Russian troops had arrived, facing a Japanese force of 42,000. The Japanese scattered the Russians. In August the Japanese and Russian navies fought the Battle of the Yellow Sea (just south of Port Arthur), history's first major confrontation between modern steel battleship fleets, with the Japanese having an advantage in the effect canon range. The Russian fleet was damaged and in need of help, and the Russian sent its Baltic Fleet speeding on a long journey to the East.

October 21, at Dogger Bank on the North Sea (off the east coast of England, between England and Denmark) the excited Russians mistook a fleet of British fishing trawlers for the Japanese navy and fired on them, and in the process on each other. The British navy prepared for war. The Russian fleet was barred from use of the Suez Canal and was making its way around Africa and across the Indian Ocean.

Meanwhile, by January the Russian Army at Port Arthur surrendered. And that month, labor unrest in St. Petersburg developed into what is called Bloody Sunday. The war had increased a strain on industrial production. Labor unrest was on the rise. On 22 January, unarmed crowds tried to serve Tsar Nicholas with a petition — for an end to forced overtime, for better wages, an eight-hour working day, universal suffrage and an end to the war with Japan. As timid men do, the Tsar overreacted. He ordered his soldiers to shoot. Something like 200 are reported to have been killed and many more wounded.

Strikes and demonstrations erupted across the Russian empire. In Baku, then a part of the Russian Empire, Azerbaijani Muslims set upon Armenian Christians, the Azerbaijani having long resented Armenian wealth and success. For five days, writes the British historian Simon Sebag Montefiore, "Azeri [Azerbaijani] gangs killed every Armenian they could find, with the frenzied hatred that comes from religious tension, economic jealousy and neighborly proximity."

Pogroms against Jews erupted across the Russian empire. In Georgia a young Marxist to be known as Stalin was back after having escaped from his exile to Siberia in late 1902. Montefiore writes about Stalin believing that the promised proletarian revolution was underway. Stalin had been making a name for himself among revolutionaries as a leader in organizing workers in the Caucasus region. A pamphlet distributed by Stalin's group warned that the Tsar was using "pogroms against Jews and Armenians" to "buttress his despicable throne on the blood, the innocent blood of honest citizens, the groans of dying Armenians and Tartars."

On February 20 (1905) the big land battle of the war was fought near Mukden in Manchuria, a battle that lasted 2 weeks and 4 days, the Russians said to have suffered 90,000 casualties, the Japanese 75,000. It ended with the Russians retreating, abandoning their wounded, weapons and supplies. Japan's army was exhausted. Its forces in Manchuria faced the problem of long supply lines. Its economy was strained by the war, and its foreign debts had been increasing. Japan passed word to President Roosevelt that Japan was ready to negotiate a settlement.

In dismay at its military setback, from the tsar came no expression of such readiness. In May, Russia's Balkan Fleet was finally in East Asia, off the southern coast of Korea (Tsushima Strait) when it was confronted by the Japanese navy. The Battle of Tsushima followed, which destroyed almost all of the Baltic Fleet, and Tsar Nicholas then decided to end the war.

The negotiations began at the in Kittery Maine on August 6 and produced the Treaty of Portsmouth, signed on September 5. The treaty recognized Japan's claims to Korea. The Russians were to be out of Manchuria, including Port Arthur, and to turn over the South Manchuria Railway and its mining concessions to Japan. Russia was to keep its railway in northern Manchuria. And Sakhalin Island was divided between the two.

Japan had military units stationed at points though much of Korea, including Korea's royal palace in Seoul. Japan had Korea's Emperor Gojong annul his government's agreements with Russia and had him sign an alliance with Japan. Japan promised to safeguard Korea from encroachment by any other foreign power in exchange for its ability to give "advice" to Korea regarding foreign affairs, military matters and police. And Japan took control of Korea's postal, telegraph and telephone services. Korea had lost its diplomatic sovereignty and had become a Japanese protectorate.

Japan's public, meanwhile, was concerned about Japan's honor and greatness, and news of the terms of the Treaty of Portsmouth appeared as insufficient reward for wartime sacrifices and as more weakness vis-a-vis the European powers. The public had been told of their country's military victories and heroism and sacrifices but little about the circumstances inspiring negotiations. On September 5 and the conclusion of the Portsmouth conference, Japanese frustration was expressed by the Hibiya riots. A crowd left Hibiya Park in Tokyo and rampaged across the city for two days. By January 7 there was the collapse of Prime Minister Katsura Tarō's cabinet.

In December 1906, Roosevelt would be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts at Portsmouth. There were complaints from the Left in Norway that Roosevelt was a "military mad" imperialist who had completed the conquest of the Philippines, and Swedish newspapers wrote that Alfred Nobel was turning in his grave.

The war left generations of Japanese children with patriotic poetry to recite, about military comradeship and the honor of dying in battle. In Russia humiliation of defeat for many was a sign representing the inadequacy of the country's autocracy. Years ahead, during Stalin's Party leadership, there was to be literature describing the valor of Russia's sailors on the ships of the Baltic Fleet and all the fleet's failures as the work of the tsar's corrupt officers.

Also in Russia, losing in East Asia against Japan produced a new focus and interest on success in the West and South — the Balkans — and this was to impact developments that led to a greater war.

CONTINUE READING: Origins of World War I: Empire in Europe to 1908

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