The Russo-Japanese War (or Manchurian Campaign) was a conflict that arose from tensions between the Russian Empire and the Japanese Empire in regards to Manchuria and Korea. The Russian Empire's increasing economic influence over Manchuria, where their Finance Ministry was establishing a railway through a state-owned subsidiary corporation, was strengthening her hold over territories uncomfortably close to the Japanese Home Islands and the neutral but contested buffer state of Korea.
Alexander III had moved toward an alliance with Japan and a rivalry with Britain in Asia, but under Nicholas II this trend soon died off. His personal feelings (after the stupid attempt on his life during a visit in Japan) didn't help it either. The continued Russian presence in Korea was actually something of an accident. Imperial Russia was notorious for the way the various Ministries failed to consult or work with (if not outright work against) each other, the overall effect being that the policies of the ministries tended to counteract each other. This was okay, if inefficient, in purely internal affairs but in foreign affairs it was about to prove disastrous because Japan wasn't really sure about Russia's 'real' position on Japanese interests in Korea (not that 'Russia' herself knew either).
Interestingly, Nicholas II was advised that a war with Japan (to protect Korea's independence) would be a good idea following the First Sino-Japanese War, but the newly-founded General Staff told him that even holding out was unlikely before a Trans-Siberian railroad was completed. However, he did get the diplomatic service to get the other Great Powers on-side to pressure Japan into giving up the port of Dalian (late 'Port Arthur') in exchange for an increased financial indemnity from China. Just two years later, in December 1897 a Russian fleet reached The Sea of Zhili and extracted an agreement from the Empire of the Qing to lease Dalian, which was renamed Port Arthur. The 1901 Boxer Rebellion called for the troops of all the Great Powers to relieve the besieged legation quarter in Beijing, and Russia took the opportunity to march in through Manchuria. Once there they weren't in a hurry to leave, though, and they secured an agreement to build a railway linking Dalian/Port Arthur to Vladivostok and the main Russian rail network. The Ministry of Finance got to work right away, the projected completion date being 1906.
The Japanese became increasingly alarmed at the prospect that Russia might just ignore their various, vague agreements about respecting each other's interests in Korea and just take it for themselves when the railway was complete. Though they managed to get further assurances from the diplomatic corps that, yes, Nicholas II was cool with all that, his opinion hasn't changed, we've told you like 20 times already, you can stop asking now, the (acting independently) Ministry of Finance's actions in Korea and the Navy's fortification of Port Arthur caused them to doubt Nicholas II's actually-peaceful intentions. Desperate for more opportunities for her naval officers to train with the Royal Navy and get discount-price warships from British yards, Japan negotiated an Anglo-Japanese Alliance in 1902 - in which Britain agreed to fight on Japan's side if anyone intervened in a war between Japan and one other country. On the 6th of February 1904 Japan severed diplomatic relations with Russia as they finally decided that, with the Trans-Siberian railway just two years from completion and them not being able to trust Russia's word, it was now or never.
Japan declared war on Russia on 8 February 1904, but launched a preemptive attack on Port Arthur three hours before the declaration reached Russia (a tactic for which the country would later become (in)famous). This attack would mostly end in stalemate as the Japanese could not easily target the Russian forces in the port and the Russians would not move from their tactically superlative position behind its decent-ish coastal defenses. That said, with the fleet bottled up by Japanese mines the Japanese were free to make a landing at Chemulpo (Incheon) in Korea.
Tsar Nicholas II was stunned by news of the offensive. He thought his statements of intent regarding Korea had been quite clear, and that commercial interests in a place like Korea wasn't worth people fighting and dying for. Moreover, he was shocked that Japan would commit an act of war without a formal declaration (the requirement to declare war before commencing hostilities was not made international law until after the war had ended in October 1907, effective from 26 January 1910). Russia declared war eight days later and Montenegro did so as well, though their contribution was mostly in moral support due to logistical reasons and distance, and in return for Russian help against the Ottoman Empire.
While the Japanese moved forward the Russians focused on stalling as reinforcements were slowly moved in - something made difficult by the way the line was still incomplete around Lake Baikal, and the fact that the line was a thin-gauge single-track one (meaning that the railway cars on it were thinner, and thus had less capacity, and could not go very fast lest they derail on turns. Moreover, a single engine breaking down could mean serious delays along the line). The Japanese launched an offensive with the Battle of Yalu River, but the Russians stood their ground, not moving to counter attack the repelled forces. Confrontation would continue at Port Arthur as the Japanese attempted to make entering and leaving the port impossible. They succeeded to an extent, two Russian ships returning to the port after a mission being struck by mines, the one sinking, taking Admiral Makarov, the top Russian commander and their best admiral, with it, and the other put out of service for extensive repairs. In turn, on 2 May 1905 the minelayer "Amur" made a night sally and the next morning two Japanese battleships were sunk by its mines—which was two more than the whole fleet managed to bring down at Tsushima. Then again, it was one of the most modern ships in its fleet.
Eventually the siege of Port Arthur came to a head as Russian ships were moved out to face the Japanese. The ships exchanged fire, eventually a direct hit on the Russian flagship resulted in the death of the fleet commander, and though no ships were sunk the Russians retreated back into Port Arthur. The Japanese eventually captured the outward land fortifications of the port, using them to launch an attack on the Russians (from which they could not retaliate); five Russian ships were lost as a result.
With Port Arthur captured the Japanese 3rd Army progressed northward, instigating the Battle of Sandepu and Battle of Mukden. Both victories for Japan, the Russians made a continued retreat. With news of the defeat at Port Arthur reaching the reinforcements sailing past Madagascar en route, the Japanese prepared to intercept the demoralized Russian force. 27 May 1905 the Second Pacific Squadron (formerly Baltic Fleet) attempted to sneak through the Tsushima Straits under cover of darkness but was detected by the Japanese... and mostly demolished — only three vessels made it to Vladivistok. The battle of Tsushima is the single-most decisive naval victory of the 20th Centurynote , almost completely destroying the Russian navy. It was to be decades before Russia was taken seriously as a sea power again (though in practice, by the time the Anglo-German arms race ended in 1912-13 the Russian Navy was stronger than it had ever been).
Believing victory far-off and not worth the cost, Tsar Nicholas II elected to negotiate peace and focus on internal conflicts. The American President Theodore Roosevelt volunteered to act as a mediator (winning a Nobel peace prize for his efforts). The Treaty of Portsmouth was soon signed to signify peace. Ironically, in its bid to cut their losses and avoid the Sunk Cost Fallacy the Russian government effectively decided not to win the war. The war was extremely heavy on the fledgling Japanese economy, to the point that they had hardly any bargaining power during the peace talks, and the top Russian negotiator, Count Sergey Vitte, was able to obtain such favorable peace terms that the Japanese envoy, Baron Komura, quipped: "I don't know who's really lost here!" (the spiralling costs, barely-favourable peace, and unrealistic expectations were the reasons for the riots mentioned below). In short, mosts analysts speculate that war was economically unsustainable for Japannote and even in the wake of the horrific military disasters that were Tsushima, Mukden and Port Arthur, Russia could still win, had they persisted just a couple of months more.
Infantry weapons had apparently been established as the most important tactical weapon in the Crimean War of 1853-55 (rifled muskets), American Civil War of 1861-65 (rifled muskets, breech-loading rifles), Austro-Prussian War of 1865 (breech-loading rifles, bolt-action magazined rifles), and Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 (bolt-action magazined rifles). This had reversed the trend established in The Napoleonic Wars, in which artillery dominated the battlefield. However, since the Austro-Prussian War the trend had actually been towards rifle-artillery parity and then artillery supremacy. In the The Second Boer War of 1899-1902 artillery had finally achieved mild superiority over rifle fire, with handfuls of ultra-modern (then called 'quick-firing' pieces due to the reduced reloading times caused by recoil-absorbing springs) artillery pieces employed by Boer troops able to single-handedly suppress hundreds or even thousands of British troops and their older artillery pieces. This was due to their range (greater than rifle-range), rate of fire (up to six shells a minute), and lethality of fire (death within 20m of blast).
'Doctrine' is a useful shorthand in military matters for the training and guides to action which the members of a military force are generally aware of. Russian Artillery and Infantry doctrine required them to act as entirely separate combat arms. This explains the poor results of the Russian Army's overall tactical performance, despite their relative competence when evaluated individually. Japanese Artillery doctrine was somewhat stunted, being totally subordinated to the demands of the Infantry. Fortunately, in this particular war that lack of development produced enough Tactical competence to ensure passable Operational performance.
In 1904 Russian Artillery doctrine focused on destroying the enemy's artillery to achieve total artillery supremacy, whereupon it could annihilate the enemy's infantry with impunity. There were a number of reasons for this. The Russian Artillery was, virtually from its inception, world-class. It was quite easily the most competent branch of the entire Russian military and had a long tradition of excellence, but more importantly its ability to get results meant that it was held in high regard and so found it relatively easy to get funding (from a state which was among the richest in the world, no less). It had therefore not so much stuck to Napoleonic doctrine throughout the 19th century as it had recently returned to it (in the late 19th century) when it recognised that technological improvements made artillery the more powerful weapon once again. Moreover in 1904 the Artillery, Infantry, and Cavalry had long acted as separate forces which rivalled one another. It was therefore in the Artillery's own self-interest to develop a doctrine which enabled it to play the most important possible role on the battlefield. Luckily for them, from about the 1860s onward artillery really was the most important combat arm. Not-so-luckily for the Russian Army as a whole, however, artillery wasn't (and never became) powerful enough to win battles completely alone.
Japanese Artillery doctrine focused exclusively on supporting the Japanese infantry by suppressing the enemy's infantry. This is because they viewed the rifle as the primary weapon of war. They literally aimed to help the infantry defeat the enemy's infantry. There were a number of reasons for this. Prussian, and later German, artillery doctrine had precisely this focus - the Japanese Army was modeled on them and sent many of its best and brightest students abroad to study at their Kriegsakademies. The Japanese had also closely studied the post-Napoleonic conflicts for themselves. But perhaps most importantly of all, Japan simply didn't have the money (or domestic industries) for a large or particularly modern artillery force.
Russian Infantry doctrine focused on defending against enemy infantry because they viewed artillery as the primary weapon of war. They had their own reasons for doing this. For a start they recognised that the renewed power of artillery fire meant that there was no need for them to do most of the work against the enemy any more. They were not blind of the lethality of modern warfare either, and recognised that taking the primary role against the enemy would entail both questionable chances of success and potentially heavy losses - which would look very bad. Also, to some extent they had a characteristically (if not stereotypically) aristocratic contempt for their men's abilities note
The Russian Infantry expected the artillery to do most of the work of defeating the enemy in both the attack and the defense. When defending they didn't expect to receive any support from the artillery until the enemy's artillery had been destroyed, so they chose defensive positions which would enable them to handle their own defense against rifle fire. This generally meant positions on the 'near' side of hills where they had good vantage points from which to see, and shoot, the enemy with their rifles. While this exposed them to attacks from enemy artillery, they expected their own artillery to handle the enemy's. After destroying the enemy's artillery, the Russian Artillery would destroy the enemy's infantry. The Russian Infantry would then attack and rout the survivors.
Japanese Infantry doctrine focused on attacking the enemy's infantry. This is because they viewed the rifle as the primary weapon of war. They expected the artillery to help them defeat the enemy's infantry.
What ended up happening was that the Russian Artillery managed to inflict heavy losses of manpower and material on the Japanese Artillery, but the Russian Army lost every battle anyway because the Japanese Artillery and Infantry had both been focusing on attacking and defeating the Russian Infantry . Russian artillery losses were not always light, as some failed to flee the battlefield with their guns after the infantry had been defeated. Russian Infantry losses from Japanese artillery fire were high because their defensive positions exposed them to attack, but Japanese infantry losses were also high because they were attacking excellent anti-infantry defensive positions with weak and rapidly-diminishing artillery support.
If the Russians had regained the initiative and started attacking the Japanese would have been Tactically (and not just Operationally) unable to stop them. Russian emphasis on suppressing the enemy's artillery before attacking their infantry was utterly disastrous when defending because of the impossibility of totally destroying the enemy's artillery before the enemy's infantry had defeated the Russian Infantry, but it would ensure success and minimise infantry losses when attacking. The Russian Army continued to neglect defensive doctrine right through World War One, but was reasonably effective when on the attack - even against forces with reasonable artillery assets of their own.
The Japanese Army continued to neglect both Tactical defense and the importance of Artillery Suppression (artillery attacks against the enemy's artillery) right through the Second Sino-Japanese War and World War II. This is because it (wrongly) assumed that the infantry had won the battles of the Russo-Japanese War on their own, and that the role of the Japanese Artillery had been unimportant (when in fact it had been absolutely critical). This (and the proliferation of machine-guns) is why Japanese Army forces repeatedly failed to defeat Guomindang and Warlord forces in the Second Sino-Japanese War despite Japanese artillery superiority or supremacy in almost every instance.
80,000 Japanese and 70,0000 Russians died in the war. Russia lost much political esteem and respect after its defeat. The humiliation of Russia's defeat at the hands of the Japanese contributed (along with some economic problems) to the Russian Revolution of 1905, which forced the establishment of Russia's first national legislature, the Duma, in 1906, and an (ultimately ill-fated) experiment with constitutional monarchy that would not survive contact with World War I a decade later. (Interestingly, Russia's poor performance in this war led Germany to underestimate Russia's capabilities in the Great War; that said, the Germans did ultimately force Russia to come to terms.)
In Japan, the result was met with mixed feelings. There was considerable public outrage as the public had been led to expect a great victory over Russia, when in fact what they got was little better than a stalemate - though news of the outbreak of war had been met with dismay and despair in the general populace, as the war went on and the tactical victories mounted they came to expect (and were encouraged to believe) that their continued sacrifices would result in a truly fantastic peace treaty of the kind we now know Japan could never have gotten. Riots, protests, and sporadic assassinations persisted for some months after the war's conclusion, and the Japanese economy took a decade or so to overcome the 'hit' caused by the war and the massive debts the country had run up fighting it. Other problems from the war would take much longer to become apparent; the "lessons learned" of the Russo-Japanese War would lead the Imperial Japanese Navy, and Japan herself, to utter ruin three decades later when facing an eight-year war with a resurgent China and a Hopeless War with the United States.
Depictions in media:
- The first part of Erast Fandorin novel The Diamond Chariot book is set in Russia during the Russo-Japanese War, with Fandorin hunting a Japanese spy.
- The second and (partially) third episodes of Reilly, Ace of Spies deal with British spy Sidney Reilly's purported involvement in the attack on Port Arthur.
- Several of Valentin Pikul's novels are set in this period, most notably Cruisers, starring Russian naval officers, and Wealth, where an idealistic journalist is appointed the governor of Kamchatka, which is barely settled, full of Corrupt Hicks and dangerously close to Japan. A Japanese landing ensues and is repelled by breaking out some old rifles from an unused depot, but the hero is booted from Kamchatka nevertheless by said hicks.
- Battle Of The Japan Sea, notable for being the final film Eiji Tsuburaya of Godzilla fame worked on. Focuses on the final few battles of the war.
- Port Arthur, Toshio Masuda and Teruyoshi Nakano's 3 hour anti-war film dealing with the battle for Hill 203, focusing mainly on Maresuke Nogi(played by Tatsuya Nakadai) featuring Toshiro Mifune as Emperor Meiji.
- The "interquel" Nihonkai Daisakusen: Umi Yukaba is basically a remake of Tsuburaya's 1969 effort done by Teruyoshi Nakano and Toshio Masuda.
- Mentioned off-handedly in The Battleship Potemkin when one of the sailors exclaims that, "Russian prisoners in Japan are fed better than we are!"
- Italian writer Emilio Salgari (better known for the Sandokan novels) wrote the novel L'Eroina di Port Arthur ("The Heroine of Port Arthur") about the initial battles of the war (until the death of Admiral Makarov). Differently from other examples on this page, Salgari was a contemporary and published his novel during the war, and, due to his opposition to European colonialism, took the Japanese side.
- Saka no Ue no Kumo's third season focuses on the Akiyama brothers during the war; it covers the Port Arthur naval battle and siege; the Liaoyang and Mukden land campaigns; and the Tsushima battle.
- In An Instinct for War, the short story Human Rain is set during the war, focused on the Battle of Nanshan.
- Russian film Admiral, centered around Admiral Alexander Kolchak, starts with the Battle of Chemulpo.
- The naval simulation game Distant Guns is set during the war.
- One of the main protagonists of Golden Kamuy, Saichi Sugimoto, is a veteran of the war who earned the title of "Immortal Sugimoto" after single-handedly taking out a Russian machine-gun position during the Siege of Port Arthur. In fact, the scars of the war play a major role in the story; several other major characters also fought at Port Arthur, and one of the main factions looking for the gold are rogue veterans seeking reparations for the blood they spent.
- Season 10 of Revolutions is about the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917. Because the Russo-Japanese War is the proximate trigger for the Revolution of 1905, it gets a lot of attention.
- Hardcore History: Dan Carlin discusses this war in some detail in his "Supernova in the East" series of episodes about Japanese imperialism and the Pacific War.