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Russo-Japanese War Historical

Russo-Japanese War Historical


I recently read an excellent article on the Russo-Japanese War written by Dr John Greenwood for ‘Army History’. He looks at the differing accounts of US military observers during the war. I have picked out some of the more interesting elements here which might be useful in recreating the war on the wargame table.    

“Like Britain, the US sent military observers to each side of the Russo-Japanese War, amongst them John J Persing. They either personally saw or were present during some of the major battles such as Liaoyang, the Shaho, Sandepu (Heikoutai) and Mukden.

 Infantry Attack. Based on experiences in the Boer War, some European military thinkers held that infantry could not attack and take a defended position in the face of modern small-arms and artillery fire. Other theorists, usually of the French offensive school contended that nothing could stop the offensive when undertaken by well-trained and highly motivated troops. To these prominent tactical questions of the day, Manchuria provided some interesting, yet contradictory and perplexing answers. Those observers with the Japanese saw strongly defended and entrenched Russian positions taken by frontal assault. Observers on the Russian side emphasised the Russians, often markedly inferior in numbers and artillery, repulse repeated Japanese attacks. Some thought that the ‘right kind of infantry can carry anything’ but at a cost, for example, at the Battle of Nansham (26 May 1904) the successful Japanese Second Army lost 4,500 casualties. Pershing and others also noted that this success was due in part to the ‘attackers’ aggressiveness and willingness to absorb staggering casualties’ but also due to the incompetence of Russian leadership, poor shooting and ‘poor handling of available reserve’.

Night Attack. A unique feature of the fighting in Manchuria was the frequency of night actions. Observers noted that the Japanese use of night attacks and manoeuvres was something to be expected because of the destructiveness of modem fire arms. The Japanese in particular used the cover of darkness to bring up and deploy troops close to the Russian lines and thus to escape the losses that would have resulted from similar movements during daylight hours. As a consequence, it was seen by observers as one of the most significant development of the war.

Field Defences. Russian defensive work inspired comment that ‘it may be truthfully said of both sides that the soldiers dug when they did not march or fight.’ Even on the Japanese side, observers saw that ‘once in the presence of an enemy the entrenching tool seemed next in importance to the rifle and ammunition. The rule of both sides seemed to be always to cover their positions with entrenchments as soon as taken up, even when held only for a short time’.

Artillery. On the Manchurian battlefields, the artillery of both sides, though not of the latest quick-firing designs, played a larger role in the final decision of battle than ever before. Japanese artillery was frequently massed on Russian defences to obtain an intensity of fire hitherto unknown in modem warfare. Artillery fire on opposing batteries, as well as on the defenders, covered infantry attacks. The defending infantry was more and more forced to entrench for protection both from artillery and infantry fire, while defending artillery exacted very heavy losses among the ranks of the attackers. All in all, artillery had come to assume a place in battle second only to that of the infantry, and some observers even questioned whether it was not now the major key to success in modern battle. The Americans saw little to leam technically in Manchuria, aside from the new importance of high explosive shells and the need for heavier caliber artillery and shells to destroy field fortifications. However, they reversed their stands when it came to tactical employment of artillery. They saw as one of the primary lessons of the war the growing necessity for indirect rather than direct artillery fire. The range of opposing artillery and infantry weapons led to serious losses if and when batteries deployed in the open to use direct fire.

Machine Guns. It was agreed that machine guns ‘played a useful but not great part in the war. Colonel Macomb thought ’they were limited to 2,000 yards range and were helpless against artillery’. Addressing a point then in dispute, he equated the machine gun's fire to that of 50 infantry men, not the 100 some experts claimed. He also pointed out that it took 12 infantrymen to handle the gun to get the added firepower, so the net increase was equal to 38 infantrymen. Machine guns were to be used in pairs, not singly, and their most valuable quality was that they supplied ‘a means of suddenly and unexpectedly increasing the volume of fire without overcrowding the firing line, thus extending the scope and flexibility of the fire actions’. Macomb concluded that the gun's ‘greatest physical and moral effect is produced when it is employed suddenly against massed troops...or in enfilading lines of any kind’. Military experts already appreciated the effect of machine guns as a defensive weapon, but Macomb also thought it was equally valuable on me offensive ‘to an active moving force which knows how to use it’.

 Combined Arms. Observers emphasised the growing importance of combined arms of the battlefield. ‘The Japanese artillery and infantry work together splendidly, the artillery keeps up its fire during the infantry advance, sometimes even until the infantry walks into the burst of their shrapnel’. From talks with Japanese officers and other observers, Pershing came away with conflicting views. On the one hand, he agreed that artillery could help the attacking force by suppressing enemy fire until it reached the enemy's lines. But he also cautioned ‘the preparation of the infantry by artillery is not as easy as is usually believed. All their efforts to destroy the enemy's artillery and trenches is of little avail, it seems to be very difficult....’.

US Army Impact. Observations and lessons from the Russo-Japanese War were published in the US in 1906 and 1907 and generated nearly ten years of intense but inconclusive debate about its exact military meaning, but few lessons were ever really learned. ‘Prior to the present European War there does not seem to have been a very thorough appreciation of the lessons of the Manchurian War in some European armies or I might say in our own.’ Frank Vandiver, in his biography of Pershing, concludes of his experience in Manchuria; ‘He had gone to Manchuria an accomplished small-unit leader, a master of light tactics; he came out skilled in the management of mass’.”

‘The U.S. Army Military Observers with the Japanese Army during the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905)’, John T. Greenwood, Army History, No. 36 (Winter 1996), pp. 1-14, U.S. Army Center of Military History.

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