Never Underestimate Your Enemies

Russian and Japanese Calvary meet on the battlefield during the Battle of Yalu River

As I went about trying to figure out how I was going to approach the discussion of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904 and 1905 I came across the picture above, which I later discovered was part of a collection of Japanese woodblock prints that depicted portions of this war. I was further intrigued by the collection in to determining what part of the Russo-Japanese war this painting depicted. I discovered that the battle from the painting was the Battle of Yalu River, which had a great impact in the Russo-Japanese War.

The Russo-Japanese War was initiated in February of 1904 when the Japanese, as they would do at Pearl Harbor during World War II, launched a sneak attack on the Russian naval vessels located at Port Arthur, a warm water port located on the east coast of present day China. The result of this attack was a declaration of war by both Japanese and Russia parties involved. The next course of action for the Japanese were military incursions into Manchuria, which the Russian’s occupied. These actions set the stage for the first major land battle of the Sino Japanese War: The Battle of Yalu River.

Map of the Battle of Yalu River

The battle of Yalu River took place over the period of two days. Contact was initiated by Japanese troops with Russian troops on April 30, 1904 and the battle officially ended on May 1, 1904. Major General Kuroki Tamemoto and his 42,000 Japanese soldiers outnumbered Lieutenant General Mikhail Zasulich and his 25,000 soldiers. The Russians, who were greatly outnumbered, were also ill prepared for the battle just as then had not been prepared for Japan’s sneak attack on Port Arthur. Since the Russian empire covered so much territory, General Zasulich’s mission was to delay the Japanese advance in order to buy enough time for Russian troops being transported via the Trans-Siberian railroad from the western portion of the Russian empire to reinforce the troops under his command. The strategy employed by General Zasulich was one of static defensive positions along the bank of the Yalu River. The problem with this strategy was that “this force was spread out piecemeal over a 170-mile front, whereas the Japanese could concentrate its efforts on any single point of its choosing” (Battle of Yalu River). While the Russian troops were setting up their static defensive positions on the Yalu river, the Japanese were gathering intelligence for the upcoming battle using forward deployed scouts disguised as Korean fishermen. Due to Japan’s effective use of scouts and the Russian’s poor attempts to hide their defensive positions, the Japanese were able to gain excellent intelligence in the days before the battle, which enabled the Japanese to be able to pinpoint the exact positions of Russian troops and determine the best point of attack on the Russian positions.

Employing several pontoon bridges that spanned the width of the Yalu river at several different locations, Japanese troops began to move across the Yalu river under the cover of darkness and fog. By April 29th, the Japanese First Army had crossed the river and began their assault on three different Russian positions. The consequences of the Japanese assault was a Russian retreat. Due to poorly timed counter attacks by Russian troops, the Japanese were able to punch more holes in the Russian lines and the Russian began a full retreat. The Russian’s were now on the run, the battle was over, and the Japanese now had a foothold in Manchuria. This battle showed that the Russian’s were not prepared for a war with Japan and that the Japanese could match European powers in battle.



7 thoughts on “Never Underestimate Your Enemies”

  1. I like how you highlighted failures in the Russian military. To be honest Russia was never really a military power until after WW2. In WW1, while the Western front was at a stalemate, Germany made large advances in the Russian front even before civil war broke out. German Captain Adolf Von Schell wrote a book that described the tactics that the Germans used against Russia in WW1 titled, “Battle Leadership.” Lessons taken from this book are still used and studied today, even by the U.S. The point is, it seems that Russia is a slow learner when it comes to fighting wars.

  2. Great images! I really learned a lot about this topic by reading your post. It’s something I never really knew much about since I’ve never taken a Russian or Asian history class before. I liked how you focused on one particular battle instead of trying to cover the entire war; I’m sure that would be a much longer post. I don’t know much about military strategy or maneuvers, but the language you used was simple enough for someone like me to understand. Also, good job highlighting Russia’s military failures; there seem to be many.

  3. I really liked that link of Japanese pictures. That’s not something that one would general find or get a chance to see. I also liked how you described why it was so easy for the Japanese to win/ the Russian’s strategic weaknesses. It’s something that isn’t really discussed when talking about this war.

  4. I enjoyed reading this post. I liked how you focused on one particular battle of the war, and a very momentous battle at that. After reading your description of the strategies employed by both sides it is not surprising to me that the Russians were defeated at the Yalu River. The struggle to move troops from western Russia to the east made fighting a war in the east a logistical nightmare, and I feel that a bit of hubris also contributed to the defeat. I feel that the Russians thought themselves superior to their Japanese foes. This could have contributed to the poorly disguised defensive positions and the thinly-defended lines. The Russo-Japanese war also interests me because one can see the beginnings of an expansive Japanese state that would continue to gain territory until the Second World War.

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