Eyewitness account of the Russo-Japanese War

There were official observers of the Russo-Japanese War whose documents contributed to our knowledge of the first Modern War. My grandfather was a soldier, and later an officer, in the Russian army during this war, and he kept diaries that detailed what life was like in the Russian-occupied territories, the motivation behind the war, and what it was like to fight in the Czar’s army. His account is in the award-winning book, The Accidental Anarchist.

Here is a list of others who documented the war:


Military attachés and observers in the Russo-Japanese War

Military attachés and observers in the Russo-Japanese War were historians creating first-hand accounts of what was arguably the world’s first modern war. They helped to create primary-source records of this war between Imperial Russian forces and Imperial Japan forces, which has been characterized by some as a rehearsal for the First World War.

The multi-national military attachés and observers who took part in the Russo-Japanese War were expressly engaged in collecting data and analyzing the interplay between tactics, strategy, and technical advances in weapons and machines of modern warfare. For example, reports evaluating the stationary battle at Port Arthur and the maneuver battle at Mukden demonstrate the lethality of modern warfare and foreshadow the combined effects of hand grenades, mortars, machine guns, and field artillery in World War I.Military and civilian observers from every major power closely followed the course of the war. Most were able to report on events from a perspective somewhat like what is now termed “embedded” positions within the land and naval forces of both Russia and Japan. These military attachés, naval attachés and other observers prepared voluminous first-hand accounts of the war and analytical papers. In-depth observer narratives of the war and more narrowly focused professional journal articles were written soon after the war; and these post-war reports conclusively illustrated the battlefield destructiveness of this conflict. This was the first time the tactics of entrenched positions for infantry defended with machine guns and artillery became vitally important, and both were factors which came to dominate in World War I.

From a 21st-century perspective, it is now apparent that tactical lessons which were available to the observer nations were disregarded or not used in the preparations for war in Europe and during the course of World War I.

In 1904-1905, Sir Ian Hamilton was the military attaché of the Indian Army serving with the Japanese army inManchuria. As the attaché to arrive earliest in Japan, he was recognized as the dean of the group. Also amongst the Western attachés observing the conflict were the future Lord Nicholson, Chief of the Imperial General Staff; John J. Pershing, later General of the Armies and head of the American Expeditionary Forcein the First World War; Douglas MacArthur, later a United States General of the Army; and Enrico Caviglia, later Marshal of Italy.

Press coverage of the war was affected by restrictions on the movement of reporters and strict censorship. In all military conflicts which followed this 1904-1905 war, close attention to more managed reporting was considered essential by the Japanese. These concerns were considered inessential by the Russian command. The Russian press frequently revealed information deemed crucial by the opposing commanders; and the Japanese profited from the lack of military censorship on the Russian side. Information gathered from Russian newspapers was telegraphed by the Japanese military attaché in the Japanese embassy in Berlin; and it was received by the Japanese armies in Manchuria within six days.

The Russian war artist Vasili Vereshchagin was invited by Admiral Stepan Makarov to observe the war aboard Makarov’s flagship Petropavlovsk. On April 13, 1904, the warship hit mines near Port Arthur; and nearly all aboard were killed. Vereshchagin’s last work was recovered. The salvaged canvas depicted a council of war presided over by Admiral Makarov.

Selected military attachés serving with Russian forces
Russian Imperial Army

American observers

  • Capt. Sydney Cloman, U.S.
  • Capt. William V. Judson, U.S. Captain William Judson arrived in St. Petersburg in early 1904. He was eventually attached to the Russian Army in Manchuria and was captured by the Japanese at the Battle of Mukden on March 10, 1905. He was returned to the United States by the Japanese.

Judson’s initial prediction about the Russians’ chances was positive. In a letter to the U.S. Ambassador dated July 26, 1904, he explained that the Russians were doing better than expected and believed within a few weeks they would have no reason to fear the Japanese any longer. He did cite that the war was not popular among Russian troops, but he felt their attitudes would change when the army went on the offensive. Upon moving to Manchuria, Judson’s opinion of the situation began to change. In a letter to the U.S. ambassador dated October 25, 1904, he described the tactical situation as a stalemate and was not certain as to which side would be victorious.Judson was shocked at the carnage produced by modern warfare. He said in his official report, “I saw one battle in which the Russian slain outnumbered the Union dead on twelve of the greatest battlefields of the Civil War.” Judson believed future wars would prove so costly that even victors would not be able to justify waging them. He viewed the Russo-Japanese War as conflict without a clear winner. According to Judson, both combatants were anxious to seek peace and had little to show for their efforts. He concluded that in order for the U.S. to promote peace, it must exercise diligence in preparing for war and be prepared for an international call for disarmament.

  • Col. Valery Havard U.S. – Colonel Valery Havard, an Assistant Surgeon General in the United States Army, arrived in St. Petersburg as a military attaché on December 7, 1904. He arrived at the front in Manchuria on February 8, 1905. After being embedded with Russian forces just over a month, Havard was captured by Japanese forces at the Battle of Mukden. Upon reaching Tokyo he was sent back to the United States.

The purpose of Colonel Havard’s observations was to ascertain important information about the changing battlefield and how to apply it to the Army Medical Corps. In his official report, Havard compiled a list of lessons learned from the Russo-Japanese experience. He noted the lack of frontal assaults that were the result of improved weaponry, particularly the machine gun. Flanking movements became more necessary to avoid the machine gun, which necessitated increased frequency and distance of forced marches. In previous wars, soldiers were able to rest at night and armies saw little action during winter months. Both practices had become antiquated. Attacks were often ordered at night and the waging of war never ceased, even in sub-zero temperatures. According to Havard, the result of these trends was soldiers experiencing an increased amount of battle fatigue, as well as resurgence in the usefulness of the bayonet in night assaults. The Japanese claimed seven percent of their casualties resulted from bayonet wounds.According to Havard, casualty trends were changing with the employment of modern weaponry. Hard-jacketed rifle bullets were deadly at greater ranges. Despite this fact, the number of soldiers killed in action by the rifle diminished due to the increased effectiveness of artillery. The advancements in field artillery technology made it necessary for battle lines to be farther apart, resulting in rifles being outside of their effective ranges. The increased accuracy of modern artillery pieces led to increased ratios of artillery casualties. In some battles during the war, fifty percent of casualties were the result of artillery fire. Havard claimed that during Russo- Japanese War, both belligerents experienced higher levels of casualties than had been noted in earlier wars, with a great ratio of killed to wounded. According to Havard, one out of every four soldiers wounded during the conflict died from their wounds.

Because of his observations in Manchuria, Havard recommended changes to the U.S. Army’s Medical Corps. He suggested the war department devise a plan to train and mobilize large numbers of medical personnel for war and to promote the development of civilian organizations like the Red Cross. Because of the increased number of casualties resulting from modern weaponry, Havard stressed the significance of training enlisted soldiers in assisting medical officers in field hospitals. He also spoke to the importance of devising an adequate evacuation system from the battlefield to military hospitals. He explained that railroads were of important in this process. Havard also advocated the implementation of telephone technology in order for hospital staff to have quick access to information from the battle.

British observers

Other observers

  • Capt. Nils Edlund, Sweden
  • Capt. Carl von Hoffman, Germany.
  • Capt. Oskar Nyqvist, Norway
Russian Imperial Navy
Selected military attachés serving with Japanese forces
Japanese Imperial Army

American observers

  • 1Lt. Granville Roland Fortescue, US Army
  • Maj. Joseph Kuhn, US Army
  • MG. Arthur MacArthur, Jr., U.S.A
  • 1Lt. Douglas MacArthur, US Army
  • Capt. Peyton C. March, US Army
  • Anita Newcomb McGee
  • Capt. John J. Pershing, US Army Captain John Pershing arrived in Tokyo as an attaché to the Japanese Army on March 5, 1905. At that time he claimed the outcome of the war was uncertain, as both sides were bogged down after months of indecisive fighting. During his first days in the country, the Japanese achieved a pivotal victory at the Battle of Mukden. According to his memoirs, the way the Japanese celebrated led him to believe they had actually expected defeat at the hands of the Russians. Pershing’s observations as an attaché were significant because they provided a first-hand account from the perspective of a company grade officer who had previously seen combat during the Indian Wars and the Spanish–American War.

According to Captain Pershing, the military attachés assigned to the Japanese were treated like royalty when possible. When not in the field, servants were provided and they were given the best provisions available. When they were embedded with the army, the Japanese exercised due diligence in ensuring their safety from battlefield dangers. Eventually Pershing complained of the overprotective measures employed by his hosts. When he attempted to write to his Army superiors about his dissatisfaction, the Japanese intercepted his correspondence and responded by allowing him more freedom to move about with Japanese troops. On occasion Pershing was present with Japanese cavalry reconnaissance patrols during minor skirmishes with Russian forces.In his memoirs, Pershing noted that most American observers were surprised at the tactical success experienced by the Japanese during the war. He explained that the world military minds held the Russian Army in high regard ever since its defeat of Napoleon’s Grande Army almost a century earlier. Though he praised the Japanese for their achievements, he felt they were not as significant as future history books might claim. In his estimation, the Japanese had defeated one of the poorest armies in Europe. The Russians lacked the proper equipment and organization to achieve victory against a modern power. He believed these shortfalls were compounded by the lack of motivation in the Russian ranks, caused by internal domestic strife. The war ended with both the Japanese and the Russians eager to seek peace. Pershing felt that if the war had continued, the Russians may have gained an upper hand as resupply of Japanese troops in Manchuria had become more difficult at the end of hostilities.

  • Louis Seaman wrote a book entitled The Real Triumph of Japan describing the Imperial Japanese Army Medical Department’s success in preventing infectious diseases, especially in relation to casualties sustained. Seaman later wrote, “The supreme test of an army’s medical organization comes, of course, in time of battle. The severer the clash of arms, the greater is the strain made upon the medical organization. In no great battle in history has the medical organization proven adequate to the demands made upon it; but the best record ever made in that direction, embodying as it did an approach to perfection, was that of the Japanese in the war with Russia.” Seaman’s praise, intended to push reforms of the U.S. Army Medical Department, overlooked the reasons for the apparent success by the Japanese Medical Department. Seaman noted that although wartime soldiers throughout the nineteenth century were generally more likely to die from disease rather than from combat trauma, eight percent of the Japanese army died from enemy fire while less than two percent died from disease. However, he attributed the success to Japanese efficiency and did not consider other factors that may have affected the statistics.

British observers

French observers

German observers

Austro-Hungarian observers

aus dem Russich-Japanischen Krieg 1904-05 (Druck des VII. Korpskommandos, Temesvar, 1911)
Italian observers

Ottoman observers

  • Colonel Pertev Bey, Ottoman EmpireEdward J. Erickson, ”Defeat in Detail, The Ottoman Army in the Balkans

1912–1913” (Westport, CT: 2003), 25.
Swedish observers

Japanese Imperial Navy
War correspondents
See also

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