Sino-Japanese War 1894-1895 Part I

Chinese soldiers of the reformed units.

Comparative strength of belligerents and their war plans


In the decade of the Opium Wars and the Taiping Rebellion, the Chinese army differed considerably from European-style forces. The differences were not so much in the armament or equipment, but mainly in the organisation and command system, adapted from the existing political system.

The Chinese army was essentially divided into separate formations and only some of those were under the control of the central government. The rest remained under the orders of provincial authorities, a fact which seriously hindered the ability of the force to be placed under a single command and sometimes even prevented it altogether. Thus, the optimal use of the country’s military potential was practically impossible. Dependence of particular units on provincial authorities was the result of the paternalistic structure of the army, where the officer corps was selected on the basis of personal loyalty. Consequently, in the Chinese armed forces, personal dependence on a specific commander was dominant, unlike modern European armies which could rely on strict subordination to orders. At the same time, command over larger military units was given to officials who had undergone little or no military training. This was the result of the low social status accorded to people devoted to military service, which had not previously been considered an honourable profession.

This all amounted to low combat effectiveness in the Chinese army, despite its considerable numerical strength and sometimes even good weaponry. Even the Chinese, who were convinced of their civilisational superiority, and generally despised any achievements of the ‘barbarian nations’, were compelled to acknowledge the fact. To remedy this, in 1861, the ‘Self-Strengthening Policy’ was introduced, which was mainly limited to providing the army with modern equipment purchased overseas or manufactured locally, organising new Western-style units, building a modern navy, and creating the necessary armament industry base and infrastructure for a modern armed force. The introduction of those reforms was intended to equalise the technological differences between the Chinese army and those of the European nations. That, according to their supporters, would allow for the possibility of defending the Middle Country against aggressive actions by the European powers. Chinese policy-makers saw their weakness only in the military aspect, completely ignoring those of the political, social and economic systems.

Implementation of the ‘Self-Strengthening Policy’ encountered serious difficulties from the very beginning. Interestingly, these problems were not financial. People were the problem – mainly imperial officials, a majority of whom were unable to break free from the previous cultural and behavioural norms. Consequently, the sums allocated to reforms were mostly wasted due to prevailing corruption, incompetence and lack of organisation. Paternalistic relations in the army were also often difficult to overcome. The new units were usually created by reforming the old ones, keeping their composition intact. As a result, despite new armament and regulations, the old personal connections and habits were retained, which seriously reduced the reform’s efficiency. However, it would not be true to state that the ‘Self-Strengthening Policy’ was without success. The combat effectiveness of the Chinese army was increased, but mainly because of the introduction of modern armament and Western-style training (and the extent of the latter was usually insufficient). Discipline, morale and logistics, on the other hand, still left much to be desired. In comparison to the effort required to implement it, the results of the ‘Self-Strengthening Policy’ can be considered unsatisfactory.

On the eve of the outbreak of the war with Japan the Chinese army was divided into four basic military units and irregular militia forces. Theoretically, its core was the Manchu Eight Banners Army which officially consisted of approximately 250,000 soldiers. In practice, however, there were no more than 100,000 troops. The Manchu Eight Banners Army was complemented by the exclusively Chinese Green Standard Army, which in theory had one million troops, though in practice its strength was no more than 600,000 soldiers (and may have been as low as 450–470,000). The troops of the Eight Banner Army were stationed mainly in the capital province of Chihli, Manchuria and Eastern Turkestan (in the latter there were no more than 15–16,000), while those of the Green Standard Army were stationed at various provinces where they mainly performed police duties. The banner units were traditionally reinforced by local militias performing vital duties in the defensive system of Tibet, Mongolia and Manchuria, which were theoretically numerous, but in reality numbered no more than 300,000 troops. Contrary to appearances, these were not worthless units – some of them were quite well-armed and trained, exceeding even the banner units in combat effectiveness, though this was by no means true of all of the militias.

Based on experiences of the Opium Wars and the Taiping Rebellion, new units, armed and trained in the Western style, were created. Thus, a new unit, named the Brave Army, composed of local volunteers, came into being. Since its elements were generally under the control of local authorities, the so-called Trained Army was founded to keep the balance, as it remained under the control of the central government. Both of these armies, along with some non-permanent, militia-style units undoubtedly constituted the most valuable component of the Chinese army, although as far as combat effectiveness was concerned, they were still not up to the standards of European-style forces. On the eve of the outbreak of the war with Japan, the numerical strength of the Brave Army was estimated at approximately 120,000, while that of the Trained Army numbered no more than 100,000 troops. Thus, the imperial armed forces had a total of about 1.2–1.3 million troops3. In the area where future military operations would take place (the territory of the capital province Chihli, Manchuria, Shantung province) the government had roughly 350–360,000 troops at its disposal, including approximately 125,000 serving in reformed units. However, at a later time, the figure could be increased by about 145,000 recruits called to arms (mainly to serve in the reformed units) shortly after the outbreak of war.

The basic tactical unit in the Chinese army was a detachment similar in size to the battalion of European armies. (In theory each detachment had 500 men, though on average it was generally 350 for infantry and 250 for cavalry). Up to a dozen of such ‘battalions’ formed an independent corps, which as far as numerical strength was concerned, was usually equal to a European-style brigade or a weak division. Only at that level of organisation were the Chinese troops equipped with artillery, the numerical strength of which (similarly to that of the corps) was not precisely specified. Chinese troops used a variety of firearms, which could differ even within the same unit. Infantry used mainly modern Mauser, Remington, Snider, Martini-Henry, Chassepot and Maxim rifles of various patterns. However, old flintlocks could also be found (especially the long chinkai rifles, operated by two soldiers). Apart from fire-arms, the banner armies still used traditional ‘cold steel’ weapons. The reformed cavalry units were generally armed with Mauser rifles and sabres, while the banner army units had cold steel weapons and bows.

Chinese artillery units were relatively numerous and armed with diverse range of equipment. The most modern guns in their arsenal were their 75mm Krupp field and mountain pieces and the 88mm guns of the same manufacturer. Moreover, the Chinese had a considerable number of various 67 to 76mm British pattern guns, both muzzle and breechloaders, as well as 88mm Krupp field mortars and 8cm mountain and field pieces with muzzles made of hardened bronze, manufactured at the Nankin armaments factory. That arsenal was supplemented by a number of mitrailleuses, Hotchkiss revolver guns and multi-barrel Nordenfelt naval machine-guns on field carriages. Also in use, mainly in forts, were a large number of obsolete smoothbore guns of various gauges. Despite the number of weapons, artillery was not a strong point of the Chinese army, which was unable to effectively use its advantages (which was generally the case with modern firearms of all kinds), mainly dispersing the guns along their positions.

Definitely the weakest point of the Chinese army was its training and the morale of its soldiers, which was considerably lower than in European-style armies. Admittedly, there were situations in which Chinese soldiers could attack or defend with the utmost dedication, displaying bravery and fortitude. However, more often they lacked perseverance in combat and broke down after initial failures, quickly panicking or becoming discouraged and losing faith in victory. In combat they preferred defence to attack in the belief that victory could only be achieved by defensive actions which would gradually exhaust enemy forces. Consequently, the Chinese army was usually rather passive in the field, lacking determination and quickly allowing the active enemy to seize the initiative. Combined with poor leadership and inefficient logistics, it was obvious that despite numerical strength, it could not be considered a dangerous enemy for modern European-style armed force of comparable size.

Defeats suffered by the Chinese during the Opium Wars led them to realise the need to possess a modern navy. The first attempt to create one, undertaken in 1861 (the so-called Lay-Osborne6 flotilla composed of eight steamers), misfired due to issues around jurisdiction. Consequently, creation of the navy became the responsibility of individual governors of coastal provinces and thus, in the 1860s, separate provincial fleets were created in Canton (Kwangtung province), Foochow (Fukien province and Taiwan) and Woosung near Shanghai (Chekiang province and Kiangsu). Although quite large, the navy thus created was not adapted for the military needs of the entire empire and mainly served the local feudal-military coteries.

Li Hung-chang, who since 1870 had been a Viceroy of the capital province Chihli and one of the leading Chinese politicians of that period, tried to change the situation. After the Taiwan crisis of 1874, he took advantage of his good relationship with the Court and called for reorganisation of the Chinese navy, and the creation of three fleets controlled by the central government, composed of six large and 10 smaller warships each at Tientsin, Woosung and Amoy. The idea was not realised, but a year later Chinese territory was divided into two military districts: northern Peiyang and southern Nanyang. Li Hung-chang and his Huai coterie took control over the former, while the latter (which was formally created later) fell under the control of the Hunan coterie. Simultaneously, a naval defence fund was legislated for, which would receive 40 percent of maritime customs tariffs, amounting to approximately four million taels annually.

The cruiser Chih Yuan. Along with her sister Ching Yuan, she was the fastest warship in the Peiyang Fleet.

Those actions led to creation of the uniform Peiyang Fleet subordinate to the central government (in practice to Li Hung-chang and his coterie). However, in the south, the force was still divided into three autonomous fleets: the Nanyang Fleet proper, based at Wusung near Shanghai and the provincial Fukien Fleet at Foochow, as well as the Kwangtung Fleet at Canton. Each of those operated in a different basin, was under separate command, and had distinctive structure and tasks.

The furthest south was the Kwangtung Fleet, subordinate to the governor general of ‘Two Kwangs’ (Kwangtung and Kwangsi provinces) and based at Hoanpu near Canton. It had a relatively large number of warships, but these were mainly small, often obsolete, units used mainly for customs service patrol or police duties such as protection of the mouth of the Sikiang River against pirates. Consequently, combat effectiveness of that fleet was low.

Another provincial unit was the Fukien Fleet with its main base in Foochow and auxiliary ones at Amoy and Swatou. Developed on the basis of its own shipyard and arsenal at Foochow, it was initially one of the stronger of the Chinese fleets. During the war with France in 1884–1885, the Fukien Fleet was almost completely annihilated (along with the shipyard and the arsenal) and consequently lost most of its importance. Even when rebuilt, it never regained its former relevance and its tasks were limited to coastal protection of the Fukien province and Taiwan.

Second in size on the eve of the outbreak of the war with Japan was the Nanyang Fleet, with its main base in Woosung and auxiliary bases at Ningpo and Hanchou. It was subordinate to the governor general of the Kiangsu and Chekiang provinces and its main task was coastal protection of the said provinces and navigation on the Yangtze River. Composed of rather outdated warships, it nevertheless had a military potential which could not be underestimated. The fleet remained under the direct command of Admiral Kuo Pao-ch’ang.

The Peiyang Fleet, which was created after 1875 as a result of Li Hung-chang’s reforms, was the youngest Chinese fleet but the most powerful on the eve of the outbreak of the war with Japan. Using a significant part of the naval de-fence fund (the Peiyang Fleet was entitled to half of the 40% of annual income from maritime custom tariffs, which in theory amounted to about two million taels) it was developed rapidly. Li Hung-chang, being aware of the weakness of the national shipbuilding industry, opted for the purchase of modern warships, including battleships, abroad. Initially, he wanted to order them from British and French shipyards, but following the recent war with the latter country, and problems the British raised due to the Sino-Russian border dispute over Turkestan, Li Hung-chang finally decided to place the majority of orders with German shipyards. At the turn of 1870s and 1880s, two modern battleships, three cruisers and a number of torpedo boats were ordered there. Another four cruisers, a number of gunboats and torpedo boats were ordered in Great Britain. Moreover, some warships, including one small battleship, were ordered in native Chinese shipyards. Consequently, by the end of 1880s, the Peiyang Fleet had become a serious force, capable of facing its likely main adversary, the Imperial Japanese Navy, in a struggle for the control over the Yellow Sea. However, further development was discontinued for several reasons. Firstly, maintaining so many modern and large warships required considerable resources, reaching approximately 1.8 million taels in 1888, which was almost all the amount allocated to the Peiyang Fleet by the naval defence fund. Further development could have been financed by other means. However, since 1889, a substantial amount of money from the naval defence fund had been semi-officially embezzled by the court and spent on the development of the Empress T’zu Hsi’s Summer Palace (in fact on the palace complex). This, to all intents and purposes, halted further development of the navy.

The main bases of the Peiyang Fleet were the strongly fortified harbours at Port Arthur (Lushun) and Weihaiwei. Moreover, the harbours at Talien, Chefoo and Yingk’ou and the mouth of the River Peiho near Taku had also been fortified. The growth of China’s shipbuilding base could not keep up with that of the Peiyang Fleet. Nevertheless, in 1894, it had suitable infrastructure at Port Arthur (with dry docks which could accommodate Chinese battleships) a small shipyard at Taku and repair shops at Weihaiwei.

The Peiyang Fleet itself was divided into seven squadrons, including three combat squadrons (centre, right and left wing), torpedo, training, transport and harbour (coastal de-fence). Supreme command was exercised by the chief of Naval Defence Department of the Tsungli Yamen, Viceroy of the capital province Chihli and Chief of the Peiyang armed forces, Li Hung-chang himself. He was undoubtly both an outstanding personality and a controversial figure whose characteristics were said to include greed, lust for power and hon-ours, and putting his own interest over those of the country. Direct control over the Peiyang Fleet was in the hands of Li Hung-chang’s supporter Admiral Ting Ju-chanag. He was a former Taiping Rebellion-period cavalry officer, distinguished by personal courage and energy, but without training to command the navy. Therefore, his decisions were largely based on the opinions of the foreign advisors he surrounded himself with.

Being in command of the largest fleet, Li Hung-chang made efforts to subordinate the remaining fleets to himself. He even managed to bring about joint naval manoeuvres under the command of the Peiyang Fleet (which took place in 1891 and 1894, shortly before the outbreak of war), although ultimately no fixed rules of cooperation among all four fleets were formulated, much less was there any chance for taking control over the remaining three. Consequently, only the Peiyang Fleet and the warships of the Nanyang (gunboat) and Kangtung (small cruiser and two torpedo gunboats) Fleets which had been stationed in the north faced the Japanese in 1894. The lack of backup from the merchant navy to provide transports and auxiliary vessels, was an additional problem for the Chinese. At the beginning of 1895, there were 35 steamers with a total tonnage of about 44,000 GRT, in the hands of Chinese shipowners, which was definitely not enough to satisfy the needs of the navy (all the more so, because most of those vessels were of no military use). Admittedly, the Peiyang Fleet owned some transports, but these were already obsolete, and during the war they had to charter foreign vessels which caused numerous complications.

Tactics of the Peiyang Fleet were based on European standards from the 1870s. Consequently, it was assumed that Chinese warships would go into battle in the line abreast formation and while in combat, the units abeam of the flagship would copy its manoeuvres. Leaving aside the fact that manoeuvring in line abreast formation in combat was extremely difficult, the signal books of the Peiyang Fleet were written in English, which was not spoken by all of its officers. Taking into consideration the different general and combat characteristics of the Chinese warships which were supposed to fight and manoeuvre in a similar fashion together, it all did not augur well for the Peiyang Fleet’s effectiveness in combat.

The outbreak of the war came as a surprise to the Chinese and therefore, they had no specific plan of action. A plan only began to crystallise after military operations had already been in progress and since the situation on the front was constantly changing, so were the plans. However, the actions of the Chinese high command were highly influenced by the classical Chinese philosophy of war, which had its roots in the teachings of Confucius. According to them, the Chinese saw war in a broader perspective. Ideological, psychological and propaganda warfare were as important as the actual combat and arguably a greater priority. In that situation, successes achieved in military operations were treated mainly as arguments, which could be presented during diplomatic bargaining.

Thus, the result of the military operations was not supposed to be physical annihilation of the enemy, but rather accomplishment of goals which could be used in negotiations that would lead to the termination of the conflict. Following these guidelines, the Chinese assumed that strategic victory could be achieved mainly by defensive actions designed to wear down the enemy, limiting offensive operations to local counter-attacks judged rather for their propaganda effects than military advantages.

Adopting such a strategy was favoured by the lumbering military bureaucratic system, which preferred schematic actions since they reduced risk.

The initial plan of operations was formulated at the beginning of August at the meeting of the Tsungli Yamen. It postulated sending the Peiyang Fleet to Korean waters, where it was supposed to cooperate with General Yeh Chih-chao’s corps at Asan and paralyse further operations of General Oshima’s brigade at Chemulpo, which would be unable to launch any serious operations without reinforcements and supplies delivered by sea. Simultaneously, the corps stationed at Phyongyang was to be reinforced. At the right time it would, according to the development of the situation, support General Yeh’s corps, deciding the outcome of the campaign or stop further Japanese northern-bound offensives.

Nevertheless, the Peiyang Fleet had significant fighting strength and was on paper an equal adversary for the Japanese navy – all the more so, because the training and morale of its crews was significantly better than those of the army.

The plan quickly came to nothing due to General Yeh’s corps’ defeat and Li Hung-chang’s resistance due to the fear that, while undertaking offensive actions in Korean waters, ‘his’ fleet would suffer significant loses. Consequently, Admiral Ting was ordered to take defensive action only and patrol the waters between Port Arthur and Weihaiwei. Any offensive operations beyond the line marked by the mouth of the Yalu River and Shantung Peninsula were forbidden. As a result, on land, the Chinese were to stop Japanese troops at Phyongyang, while at sea, the Peiyang Fleet was to prevent Japanese landing on Chinese soil and protect communication lines with troops stationed in Korea.

That plan was only in effect until mid-September and collapsed after Japanese victories at Phyongyang and Yalu. Later, the Chinese high command would try first to organise the land defence at the line of the River Liao (Liaoho) and then, when this failed, at the Shanhaikuan line, to block the access to the capital and wear out the Japanese troops through attrition. In fact, after the battle of Yalu, Admiral Ting’s only objective was to save the remains of the Peiyang Fleet, which would by its very existence serve as an argument in peace negotiations. Consequently, after 17 September 1894, the Chinese navy passively awaited further events.