Japanese Army Crossing – The Yalu River


The first major land engagement between Russian and Japanese forces during the Russo-Japanese War. It was fought 1-5 May 1904 and resulted in the first serious defeat of the Imperial Russian Army. The setting of the battle was decided following Japanese landing operations in Korea. At this stage the Russian Eastern Detachment under the command of Lieutenant General Mikhail Zasulich was deployed along the western bank of the Yalu River in an attempt to prevent the Japanese forces from crossing the river and invading Manchuria. On the eastern bank of the river, the Japanese First Army, under General Kuroki Tametomo, was deployed. On 15 April, General Aleksei Kuropatkin issued a memorandum stressing the importance of not allowing the Japanese a decisive victory in the first battle so as not to raise their morale. In the same spirit, however, Kuropatkin warned Zasulich to avoid a decisive battle and instructed him to determine the enemy’s strength, disposition, and marching lines, and “to retreat as slowly as possible to the mountains.”

The Eastern Detachment consisted of the Third Siberian Army Corps supported by the Trans-Baikal Cossack Brigade under Major General Pavel Mishchenko. The combined Russian fighting force amounted to 16,000 riflemen, 2,350 cavalry, 640 mounted scouts, 48 field guns, eight mountain guns, and six horse artillery guns. Based on military intelligence reports, Kuroki concluded prior to the battle that the Russian forces could be outnumbered at any point along the elongated front of about 275 kilometers [170 miles]. His First Army was stronger by far than its opponents, consisting of the 2nd, 12th, and Imperial Guards Divisions, over 40,000 strong. The Japanese troops marched for six weeks before arriving at the Korean border town of Wiju [Sinuiju, Uiju; Gishu], where they prepared for the battle and carefully monitored the enemy positions. Zasulich did not exert much effort to learn more about the Japanese dispositions, nor did he do much to conceal his own.

Kuroki decided to attack on 1 May 1904, three days after his forces finally succeeded in emplacing at the front 20 120-millimeter [4.7- inch] converted naval howitzers. On the night of 25 April and during the following day, Japanese troops took the islands of Kintei and Kyuri, located between the Yalu and the Ai Rivers. Their movement forced the Russians to evacuate also a stronghold known as Tiger Hill, which commanded the adjacent points of passage. The next day Japanese engineers threw 10 bridges across the relatively narrow Ai River, with much opposition from the Russian side. Early on 29 April, Lieutenant General Inoue Hikaru’s 12th Division accomplished its task of clearing the high ground up to the Ai River. Aware of the size of the force facing him, Zasulich neither retired nor concentrated his forces at this point, still convinced that it was a feint. That afternoon he dispatched a battalion to recapture Tiger Hill, and its success in doing so was one of the few reverses the Japanese experienced. It did not affect their tactical plans.

The next day Japanese howitzers redeployed on Kintei island battered the Russian artillery batteries and rendered them ineffective in the ensuing battle. Having lost his artillery, Lieutenant General Nikolai Kashtalinskii, commander of the 3rd East Siberian Rifle Division, who took command of the sector two days earlier, requested permission to withdraw. Zasulich declined, and during the night the entire Japanese First Army crossed the Yalu River and its channels. On the morning of 1 May, Kuroki began a full-scale attack, committing his three divisions. While crossing the narrow waters of the Ai, they suffered heavy causalities, but the attack continued. Broken up by superior numbers, the Russian line formed groups, each of which, after resisting for a while, was driven back. In this situation Zasulich ordered the retreat. By 10:00 the Russians had abandoned Chuliencheng, the Manchurian town facing Wiju on the western bank of the Ai River, where their headquarters were located.

Russian attempts to stem the rout farther to the west, near the little settlement of Hamatang, failed; under the growing pressure of the Japanese 12th Division, the smaller force under Colonel Gromov succumbed and began to retreat. For his decision, Gromov was later court-martialed. He was exonerated but later committed suicide. Further desperate attempts by Russian forces to form rear guards collapsed under local Japanese superiority, whereas the hesitant Zasulich made no stand even at the strategically important town of Fenghwangcheng [hoojo]. The Japanese occupied the site unopposed on 5 May 1904, although they did not pursue their demoralized opponents, who retreated northwest toward Liaoyang, thereby allowing the Japanese Second Army to begin landing in Pitzuwo on 5 May. Russian casualties numbered about 2,700 men, including 500 prisoners of war, whereas the Japanese lost 1,036 killed and wounded. The Russians lost also 21 guns and eight machine guns. Altogether, the battle of the Yalu marked the onset of the Russian defeat against the Japanese and would be remembered as such for decades to come. It was the first time in the modern age that an Asian force crushed a European force in a full-scale clash. The contemporary psychological impact of the debacle on the Imperial Russian Army was so immense that in retrospect some writers have treated this medium-scale confrontation as the decisive battle of the war.

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