Wednesday, 7 March 2018

The War of the Rising Sun and the Tumbling Bear - Richard Connaughton (1991)

As I don’t have any new books to read and there are none that currently interest me enough to buy, I decided to re-read something from my collection that I had purchased way back in the 20th century. The Russo-Japanese war is one of my side interests and I know that somewhere tucked away in a long forgotten dusty corner of my house are my two fleets for refighting Tsushima. (that doesn't narrow it down much, I still proudly have the original can of polish given to me by my parents when I moved in, its still half full, does polish evaporate ?)

Very kindly the protagonists of this war managed to neatly sandwich all of the land action in between the naval stuff which makes it so much easier to follow with none of that annoying jumping backwards and forwards.

The book starts as you would expect with the first couple of chapters covering the political situation and the causes that lead up to the war and then it goes on to outline the make up of the two opponent’s military forces with an emphasis on those involved.

The Russian army at this time was around 4.5 million men of which roughly 95,000 were initially in theatre but spread from Vladivostok to Port Arthur however all reinforcements would have to come from the West along a not quite completed Trans-Siberian railway along with all logistics, ammunition, supplies etc. The estimate for Japan was about 850,000 trained to various levels from Imperial Guard down to conscript reserve although not all of them were available for immediate deployment.

As for ships, both sides were evenly balanced in both quantity and quality, The Russian Far East fleet had seven battleships and six cruisers, all reasonably modern, Japan had six battleships and six modern cruisers, there were of course many other vessels of various types.

These opening chapters are quite good as along with the causes, strengths and characteristics of the two forces, they also outline the inherent problems in both the Russian army and navy which will hinder their performance during the war.

The first naval bit then is all about Japan's drive to clear the seas so as to allow its army a safe passage to Korea, this of course means attacking before war is declared, something you would have thought the Americans might have taken note of. The Russians do venture out on occasions but both sides are terrified of mines and also want to minimise the risk of losing any of their precious capital ships, which they then both managed to do, to mines.

Overall the Japanese achieve their objectives, the army lands safely at Inchon and the Russian Navy becomes even more reluctant to leave port. Another good chapter.

The bulk of the book is then about the war on land and I can roll this nicely into two lumps, the siege of Port Arthur and all the battles that clear the way to this taking place and then those that happen whilst it’s going on.

All the land actions are well covered and more or less follow the same course, the Japanese attack; the Russians fight for a while and then skilfully withdraw. Both sides grow in strength as reinforcements arrive but this just means that the same events happen but on an increasingly larger battlefield. You see all the pre-requisites for the first World War, barbed wire, trenches, artillery and machine guns all resulting in large losses, unfortunately what the international observers saw was something different, in order to win then you must attack, what they didn't see was a determined
defence which made frontal assaults suicidal because even after inflicting heavy casualties the Russians were always convinced that they were about to collapse and so fell back time after time.

The Japanese attacks were successful but at a great cost, by the time of the final battle at Mukden when the Russians at last were finally routed, they were drained of all reserves. A quarter of all the Japanese forces at Mukden were casualties, meanwhile the Russians were still reinforcing with another two corps on the way, Japan could now only muster a further one and half new divisions to replace its losses.

The siege of Port Arthur is the other main part of the land action, it follows the lines of what you now expect , bombardments, frontal assaults, concrete forts and huge losses; however hill by hill and fort by fort the Japanese advanced until their artillery eventually came into range of the harbour and could start to shell the fleet.

As with most sieges its down to the morale of the besieged, in this case it was the Generals rather than the troops and the Russians couldn't have had a worse collection of people in the wrong positions at the wrong time, once the last good general was blown to smithereens the rest couldn't surrender fast enough, much to everyone’s amazement.

A few interesting anecdotes I would like to pass on to you. One problem was how to get through the wire, Japanese pioneers would pretend to be dead and then snip the wire when the Russians weren't looking, very soon the Russians made sure that anyone who looked dead was very dead, so next the pioneers tried wearing 40 lb steel armour, this worked OK but getting hit knocked them over, resulting in helpless turtle impressions. The solution to this was to attach two bamboo poles to their waist which ran out behind them, now when they were hit the poles propped them up and stopped them falling backwards. Not sure I would be the first to volunteer to be a sideshow shooting target. In the end another bamboo invention solved the problem, it became better known in 1912 as a Bangalore Torpedo, talking of Torpedoes, the Russians took launchers off their ships and mounted them in one of the forts. Cynics changed their mind when a 70 lb warhead blew up a Japanese sap. Other novelties were Bamboo mortars and springy wire trampolines to bounce grenades away.

Chapter twelve covers the nonsensical idea of not only sending the Baltic fleet all the way to the Far East but to hinder it further with not just one but two reinforcements of utterly useless vessels. This is another good chapter as it covers in depth the political decisions, the make up and the difficult journey of the fleet including of course the infamous attack by Japanese torpedo boats at Dogger Bank (for those who don’t know this was actual the Hull fishing fleet and almost lead to war with Britain) In a foretaste of what was to come, one ship, the Orel fired over 500 rounds, mainly at its own vessels but was not even able to hit them.

Already by now the remaining Russian Far East ships had been defeated at the Battle of the Yellow Sea in a last desperate attempt to leave Port Arthur and with the cities fall soon after there was really no point in this new fleet even continuing on. Stopping to re-coal for one last time off the coast of Vietnam and to allow for the 3rd reinforcement fleet to meet up, they then sailed on to be utterly destroyed at the Battle of Tsuishima for the loss of just three Japanese torpedo boats.

The final two chapters cover the peace treaty, which unbelievably Russia managed to win hands down despite how badly they had been beaten and then the repercussions of the war including the lessons learned (or rather not learned) and events following the treaty.

There are some Appendices showing army structures and fleet lists both of limited use and an index.

You can see so many things that get subsequently repeated in WW1, the inability of the generals to suddenly have to control far larger forces than they had ever even considered, no systems existed to manage such vast armies and the total lack of both effective communications and credible intelligence. You see the complete uselessness of cavalry in modern warfare, the Russians had virtually no idea on what the Japanese were planning, where they were , how many they were or what units were present, cavalry could no longer achieve these objectives and so became mere line fodder for which they were not suited. At the start the Russian infantry were even trained to only fire in volleys. You do get an idea of the tough conditions they fought in as the war lasted long enough to be both bitterly cold and unbearably hot plus we can finally get some more use out of all those cornfields we made for ACW as both armies struggled with the kaoliang which was grown everywhere.

The author is best when explaining the naval side of things, I found these chapters quite interesting and whilst he covers the land actions well the overall tone doesn't have the same zip to the writing. The maps are reasonably adequate for once, if a little lacking in fine detail but then I didn't really use them as I am fortunate to have in my collection “The War in the Far East by the Military Correspondent of the Times” printed in 1905, now they knew how to do a map.

Overall a good history of the war for the price.

Readable pages: 285
Best price as of 7th Feb 2018: around £8.90 from either Amazon or ABE Books

This has been a Mr Steve presentation.


  1. Nice post, I've always found the russo Japanese war to be fascinating and an interesting foretaste of the future war to end all wars, I shall take a note of this book for a future purchase! Thanks a lot.
    Best Iain

    1. Thanks Iain, I think Mr Steve adds a lot of breadth to the blog with his book selections and this is not one you would find on my bookshelf.

      I can only claim a superficial interest in this, the First World War on land and the American Civil War so I am glad to be able to include posts about subjects I will read for interest in improving my general knowlege but am unlikely to play much.