Japan – Navy of the early 1890s

Battle of the Yalu River (1894)

For the most interesting practical lesson in tactics and the naval matériel of the early 1890s it is necessary to look east to Japan, another island nation with an industrious population in a mood of expansion. Although she lay in much the same position off Asia as Great Britain off the coast of Europe, she had until recently used the sea as a barrier instead of a highway; this had started in the seventeenth century when realization of the greater power of European guns and fighting ships had forced her into self-imposed total isolation. When in mid-nineteenth century she had been forcibly opened to western trade, the same realization of western fighting superiority had been the main spur behind a complete reversal of her former policy; she had plunged into forced industrial revolution and westernization, centred on ships, guns and heavy engineering. And as the European nations through the following decades penetrated into the neighbouring mainland of China and Manchuria, opening up spheres of influence for trade and annexing territories from that once great empire, Japan also developed an export trade, first in hand-made silks and cottons, then in machined products which undercut western goods in price and began to penetrate the rest of the Pacific to the west coast of America.

Meanwhile her shipping was able to prosper, as British lines had rather neglected the area, and from 1888 a system of shipbuilding and navigating subsidies provided further stimulation. At the same time she was acquiring a modern navy. She could not afford battleships, so she adopted a policy very similar to Italy’s, centred on fast but not-so-large cruisers with complete armoured decks below water, coal and cellulose or cork in cellular compartments about the waterline, and a heavy armament. The first of these were built by Armstrongs and launched in 1885. They were followed by six more powerful vessels, two built in France to French design, two in Britain, and two at her own yards at Yokosuka, as copies of each type. All these mounted broadsides of 6-inch or 4.7-inch QF guns; in addition the three to French design each carried one great 66-ton 12.6-inch gun in a 12-inch steel barbette on the upper deck. By 1894, with these advanced vessels as the spearhead of her fleet and with an equally well-equipped army, she felt able to take her new-found Western spirit of technology and commercial expansion a stage further, and like the westerners themselves lop off pieces of continental Asia for herself.

The first piece she chose was the peninsula of Korea, barely 100 miles from her southern islands and of great strategic value, flanking the southern entrance to the Sea of Japan, commanding the Yellow Sea and the northern Chinese commercial ports. She established disputes with China over this nominally independent territory, declared war with her guns in a manner to become familiar in the next century, and started landing troops in the north west of the peninsula. When the Chinese, finding they could not concentrate their own troops fast enough by land, also started moving them by sea, using their warships to cover the transports, they came in sight of the Japanese fleet off the mouth of the River Yalu, and battle ensued.

The main Chinese strength lay in two battleships, Chen Yuen and Ting Yuen, about 7,500 tons each, which had been built in 1881–2 as smaller versions of the Inflexible, but with their main armament mounted en barbette instead of in turrets. Their central citadels were protected by 14-inch compound armour and each mounted four 12-inch, 35-ton Krupp guns in two pairs arranged in echelon, so that they all had direct ahead and astern fire; their broadside arcs were, however, restricted by the opposite guns and the funnels and other obstructions. They also mounted a 6-inch breech loader at either end, some light guns and two torpedo tubes. Their unarmoured ends were closely subdivided, packed with cork around the sides, and protected below the water by a 3-inch armoured deck. They had been the Barnaby ideal of well-balanced second class battleships when originally commissioned. Now, their absence of QF guns and their speed, which had sunk to 10 knots at most, rendered them obsolescent. By contrast the latest Japanese cruiser Yoshino, built by Armstrongs, could make 23 knots.

Apart from the two big ships, the Chinese had another pair of smaller barbette ships each mounting two 8¼-inch Krupp breechloaders and protected by cork cellular subdivision and a short armoured belt whose top was flush with the waterline, therefore little use; and also six smaller cruisers. The fatal defects of all these ships were low speed and a complete lack of medium or large calibre QF guns; it was calculated after the battle that all together could only fire 33 rounds in 10 minutes, against the Japanese 185. Besides this the service was poorly maintained and corruption was rife in the administration; while the accommodation of the ships was exquisitely carved, lacquered and gilded, some of the shells for the heavy guns had been filled with sand instead of bursting charges, or left empty.

The Japanese fleet on the other hand was efficient to the point of fanaticism. Its officers had been brought up in the warrior code of the Bushi, which imposed knightly ideals of courage, simplicity, self-sacrifice and absolute loyalty to the Emperor above all personal interests. They despised luxury, even pleasure, as corrupting influences, and lived only for their profession, working longer hours than their men, exposing themselves to more danger, eating the same simple food, sleeping like them on a straw mat—all the time training and preparing for war. The naval service, like the army, was a simple extension of the intense nationalism of this emergent nation.

At the Yalu it proved its worth. The Chinese, led by Admiral Ting in the Ting Yuen, advanced to action at 6 knots in line abreast; no doubt because all the ships had been built in the ‘strong ahead-fire’ period. Ting had previously given three principal orders: that all ships should fight in pairs, fight bows-on if possible, and follow his movements if they could; thus he adopted the tactics of the French school, long since discarded in the British, German and even sections of the French service. He placed his two strong ships in the centre of the line, flanked by three smaller ironclads, flanked by the cruisers; the smallest, oldest and weakest were on the right wing.

The Japanese approached this formation in two divisions formed in one long line ahead. Leading was the fast Yoshino, with the Japanese-built cruiser of the same class and the two older Armstrong cruisers; these formed the flying squadron. After them came the main body containing the French-designed cruisers with 66-ton guns, led by the Matsushima flying the flag of Admiral Ito, and following them were four older and smaller ships which would have been better left out of the battle. Ito headed for the Chinese centre at first, but seeing the weak ships on their right, he altered course across their front and signalled his intentions to attack the right and fight at 2,000 to 3,000 yards; the fleets were then perhaps six miles apart, the sea between them smooth as glass. As the range came down to 5,000 or 6,000 yards the Chinese big ships opened fire, but the shots plunged harmlessly into the water and the Japanese did not reply until some 15 minutes later when the leaders came abreast of the Chinese right wing at something outside 3,000 yards. At the same time they altered to starboard. As they did so Admiral Ting led his two battleships out from the Chinese centre in an attempt to close and perhaps ram the main body of the Japanese.

Almost at once the Chinese force lost cohesion; trying to wheel their front round to face the Japanese attack on the right, they lacked the speed and simply turned in pairs to face the right, becoming hopelessly scrambled as rising waterspouts from the Japanese QF guns, at first several hundred yards short, moved up to them. The Japanese ships, mostly hidden in funnel and gun smoke, meanwhile kept perfect line ahead formation as they passed down the right wing. Then the flying squadron, running out of ships to fight, led around to port 180 degrees and opened their other broadsides as they came back to the weaker Chinese ships, many of which were already ablaze. In the meantime the main Japanese squadron turned to starboard and completed a full turn right around the Chinese, eventually returning to Ting’s pair of battleships, which they started to circle like hungry wolves at about 2,000 yards range, firing everything they had, and soon reducing the upperworks to shambles of torn, twisted metal and starting fires whose smoke made it difficult for the gunners to see. The Chen Yuen did, however, succeed in putting one 12-inch shell into the Matsushima’s battery, which burst with devastating effect, firing the ammunition, decimating the guns’ crews and forcing her to retire to put out the fires.

The flagship was the third Japanese to be so seriously damaged as to be out of the fight; previously two of the old vessels at the end of the line had come too close to the Chinese heavy guns. Meanwhile four of the Chinese had been destroyed by gunfire and one sunk in collision, and after over four hours of firing the Chinese admiral retired. Sunset was approaching and Ito decided not to pursue, possibly for fear of torpedo attack after dark. Nevertheless it was an undoubted Japanese victory, and while all except the three severely damaged Japanese ships kept the sea, the Chinese put into Port Arthur to effect repairs, only coming out again to retire across the Straits to the harbour of Wei-hai-wai.

As the first fleet engagement since Lissa, the battle attracted a great deal of professional comment and analysis, much of it restatement of previously held convictions. Probably the main verification was the great value of side armour; this was particularly noticeable in the engagement between the two Chinese battleships and the main body of the Japanese, for while these powerful cruisers had been circling and firing continuously, achieving some 200 hits with their QF guns on each of the big ships from short range, they had not destroyed the battleships’ flotation or stability, nor had they pierced the central citadel once—the deepest impression they made in the armour was about 3 inches, which makes it improbable that they hit at all with their 66-tonners—and although they had reduced the unarmoured portions to tangled, charred wreckage the total casualties from both battleships had only been 17 killed, 35 wounded. Against this the Matsushima had lost 57 killed and 54 wounded; she was however the heaviest sufferer. Among the jeune école, of course, the battle was held to prove that unarmoured ships could stand up to and even beat armoured ships. But this was an extreme and unscientific view as the Japanese had only been hit by 10 12-inch and some 60 smaller projectiles and many of these had failed to explode. For the British historical school the Japanese ‘hail of fire’ from ‘decisive range’ had been the battle winner—together with the spirit of their officers and men.

As for tactics, line ahead appeared to have proved indisputably the better formation; only a very few diehard theoreticians, noting the faulty disposition of the Chinese line abreast with the heaviest ships in the centre instead of at the wings, doubted it. Fewer still adhered to the ‘group’ ideas which had been tried by the Chinese, and had led to utter confusion, one fatal ramming and complete lack of cohesion. All in all, and despite the inequality in moral and matériel factors, the action suggested that in tactics, design and ordnance the battleship was developing along the right lines. It was noticeable, for instance, that neither ramming nor torpedoes had influenced the fighting at all; the Chinese had fired theirs at about 2,000 yards range, way outside any possibility of hitting and the Japanese had never approached closer than about 1,500 yards, three times Whitehead effective range.

After this action the naval war was confined to troop transporting, Japanese naval bombardments in support of their troops ashore, and torpedo boat attacks on the thoroughly demoralized remnants of Ting’s ships in Wei-hai-wei; here the Chinese boom and mine defences proved ineffective and as there were no anti-torpedo boat patrols nor net defences, nor medium calibre QF guns, the Japanese boats were able to get right into the harbour and sink the flagship, Ting Yuen, and one other ship for the loss of only two boats and twelve men.

The complete ascendancy that the Japanese Navy attained at the Yalu and subsequently allowed them practically undisputed movement by sea, and they used this to encircle and take Port Arthur and then Wei-hai-wei, where the only remaining Chinese ship of force, the Chen Yuen, fell into their hands. Then, holding all the keys to the Yellow Sea Japan imposed a treaty on China which gave her not only Korea and the island of Formosa way to the south, but also the spur of Manchuria just to the west of Korea known as the Liao-Tung peninsula which terminated at Dairen and Port Arthur; she also extracted a cash indemnity perhaps 50 per cent more than the cost of the war.

This sudden triumph of a colonial intruder came as an unpleasant shock to the European powers already in China, particularly Russia: Vladivostock, her principle maritime outlet in the East and the terminal to which the trans-Siberian railway engineers were slowly progressing, was now completely surrounded by Japanese territory and at the mercy of a Japanese naval blockade; moreover Japan had established a commanding foothold in Manchuria, which Russia had long disputed with China, and which she had expected to acquire for herself now that China had become, in the words of one of her contemporary statesmen, an ‘outlived Oriental State’. So when the established colonial powers protested at the Japanese treaty it was Russia, together with her friend and financial partner France, and also Germany in a violently expansionist and opportunist mood, who forced Japan to give up some of her gains, particularly the Liao-Tung peninsula. Russia and France then joined to pay China’s war indemnity, as a reward for which the Chinese allowed the trans-Siberian railway to be built straight across Manchuria to Vladivostok. This was a major triumph for Russian diplomacy; when complete the railway and its hinterland became an extension of Russian power in the heart of the disputed province, and gave her a new mobility of force and influence in the area. Not content with this, a Russian fleet two years later took over Port Arthur, the key base which their diplomats had denied the Japanese, and following this Moscow forced a railway concession up the length of the peninsula to become eventually the southern extension of the trans-Siberian.

These cynical and dangerous Russian gains not only increased tensions around the carcass of China, but thrust Japan firmly into what the French and Germans regarded as an Anglo-Saxon orbit: Great Britain and America wanted to preserve China so that she would be open to the trade of all nations, and as Russia became the most immediate threat to this policy, so their interests coincided with Japan’s, still smarting with resentment at being denied some of the chief fruits of victory.

Meanwhile Japan was on the way to becoming a first class naval power: in 1895 she had ordered from Britain two 12,300-ton battleships, virtually reduced ‘Royal Sovereigns’ with 12-inch main armament and 6-inch QF as a secondary battery, and two years later three 15,000-ton ships similar to the British class which followed the ‘Royal Sovereigns’. The Russians could scarcely allow such a strong force to go unchallenged if they wished to retain Port Arthur so they introduced a new naval programme in 1898, headed by eight battleships. In keeping with their French entente these were in the French style with long or complete waterline belts, great tumble-home, high and mostly unprotected sides, and towering superstructures. Like the French ships their stability was suspect: they were narrow and their main belts rose less than a foot above the waterline. Both main and secondary batteries were, however, protected in turrets.

From the British point of view the emergence of two battleship powers outside Europe, where they could not be blockaded or brought to battle by the Mediterranean or Home squadrons, threatened to compromise the policy of command given expression in the 1889 Naval Defence Act. Although the immediate response was to strengthen the China squadron with second class battleships and to build a class of smaller, lighter draft battleships which could traverse the Suez canal and quickly reinforce the eastern ships, realization was coming that complete sovereignty over the oceans of the world could not be maintained for ever. It was not expressed thus, indeed ‘navalists’ and ‘jingos’ were having a high time urging the British public to reckon up their battleships (‘Ten, twenty, thirty, there they go . . .’) but in the background there were voices in favour of a formal alliance with Japan to safeguard British trade and interests in the East.

Equally significant, there were stirrings within the Admiralty, again not expressed in policy, for an unofficial alliance with the United States Navy, or at least a pooling of information so that both services could act in concert in support of free trade and the status quo in the Pacific. No doubt behind this was a feeling that America and England should spread Anglo-Saxon ‘civilised’ values throughout the world, but it was also a practical response to the emergence of yet another ocean-going battlefleet outside Europe.


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