A Conflict for the Ages: The First Sino-Japanese War

A Conflict for the Ages: The First Sino-Japanese War
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This Friday marks the 120th anniversary of the Treaty of Shimonoseki, the accord that sealed Imperial Japan’s triumph in the first Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895). Japan’s splendid little war was fateful, though, in that everyone—vanquished, victor, and European spectators alike—ended up being dissatisfied with its results. Shimonoseki and its aftermath set dynamics in motion that misshape regional politics to this day. Peace is not self-enforcing. A settlement proves perishable when neither combatants nor third parties have a stake in upholding it. Renewed strife is almost fated when everyone nurses a grudge stemming from it.

The biggest loser was dynastic China, which had to acknowledge Korea’s independence, cede Taiwan, the Pescadores, and the Liaodong Peninsula to Japan, grant Japan most-favored-nation trading status, and pay a large indemnity—an indemnity that Tokyo promptly reinvested in upgrading its battle fleet. That stung. Defeat clears the mind—and thus the defeated typically learn the most from traumas like the Sino-Japanese War. Unlike their counterparts across the Yellow Sea in Japan, consequently, history-minded commentators in China have been scouring histories of the war for lessons pertinent to China’s maritime renaissance.

And lessons there are. China is keen on avoiding past blunders, including those committed by China’s dynastic self. Japan’s limited victory upended the Asian order. Accordingly, some lessons Chinese commentators have drawn are world-historical in nature. These mainly involve who sits atop the regional pecking order in Asia. For centuries it was China. The verdict of Shimonoseki: now it was Japan. China wants to amend that verdict—and regain its former standing.

Still, many of China’s takeaways relate to strategy, operations, and tactics. Let’s spend these pixels on the functional lessons from the war, and particular from the catastrophic 1894 Battle of the Yalu.

How, that is, should a would-be sea power raise, equip, train, and deploy maritime forces to get its way on the high seas or, as in the case of the Yalu, to control events at the interface between sea and shore? The Qing Navy’s fate mostly furnishes negative lessons. Indeed, historian Bruce Swanson documents a disaster in the making. Among Swanson’s most telling critiques: Qing officialdom founded its nautical hopes on a hodgepodge of imported hardware and weaponry, an officer corps rife with factional enmities, and a motley assemblage of foreign advisers. This force put the fun in dysfunctional!

These shortcomings weren’t so obvious in peacetime. Indices of combat power can lull sea warriors into a false sense of security. For instance, China’s Beiyang (Northern) Fleet boasted heavier, longer-range guns than its Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) antagonist. By material measures it seemed to hold the upper hand. But Beiyang warships were non-standard in the extreme. Speeds varied widely, as did shiphandling characteristics. Ships have different “turning radii,” to name one. That’s the distance on the chart between the place the helmsman turns the rudder and the place where the ship comes onto the reverse course. Smaller, nimbler ships can make tight turns. Big ships need a wide berth. It’s the difference between a BMW roadster making a U-turn and a tour bus doing the same.


Bridge crews can adjust for such disparities. We do so all the time. But it’s tough to maneuver in company with unlike ships when those giving rudder and engine orders are oblivious to such basic facts about their vessels. And the human factor was in sad shape in China’s navy. Feuding between northerners and southerners divided the Qing officer corps against itself. Officers from Fujian Province predominated, while officials hailing from north China strove to tame Fujianese influence. Officers jockeyed for influence and graft rather than practice tactics and seamanship. Neither the imperial nor the republican navy ever fully subdued factionalism—yielding a cohesive, nationally minded fleet.

Nor did foreign advisers help matters. Qing leaders courted assistance from multiple Western countries, including Great Britain, Prussia/Germany, and America. Foreign advisers rendered disparate counsel because they came from different naval traditions with different outlooks. They also schemed against one another—in part, writes Swanson, because Chinese officials played foreigner against foreigner. Just as non-standard equipment bedeviled interoperability within the Beiyang Fleet, non-standard counsel inhibited fleet crews from acting together as a unit in battle—when doctrinal and tactical harmony is at a premium.

Slipshod organization compounded these material and human failings. China failed to combine the Beiyang with the Nanyang (Southern) Fleet, amassing sheer numbers to offset inferior quality. There was no mechanism for uniting fleets for action. And tragicomic scenes ensued as Beiyang crews cleared for action. Poorly manufactured projectiles didn’t fit into gun bores. Shells were oftentimes full of sand, their powder having been sold off for private gain. Ships’ magazines carried the wrong type of ammunition, much of which skippers wasted blazing away at the Japanese fleet from beyond effective firing range. Tactics flouted accepted practice—letting Japanese commanders concentrate overpowering fire despite their lightweight armament.

What took to the sea on September 17, 1894, then, wasn’t a 12-ship Qing fleet but 12 individual ships making battle tactics up as best they could. Notwithstanding the apparent Chinese material edge, the outcome was a foregone conclusion against well-drilled Japanese men-of-war.

One bright spot for China: the valor of ordinary seamen. An American adviser, U.S. Naval Academy graduate Philo McGiffin, was assigned aboard the Chinese cruiser Zhenyuan. (McGiffin remains a legend in Annapolis to this day.) In his after-action report he recounted how mariners “responded heartily” when Zhenyuan caught fire up forward. Volunteers headed topside to battle the blaze even though Japanese gunfire was raking the decks—and “not one came back unscathed.”

“No,” concluded McGiffin, “these men were not cowards.” You can draw inspiration from gallantry in a losing cause—think Leonidas at Thermopylae. And indeed, Chinese commentators commonly trace the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s lineage back to the imperial navy for precisely that reason. So the lessons-learned from the Battle of the Yalu may go something like this. Take heart in individual Chinese sailors’ deeds, sure. But build national allegiance in the ranks while crushing graft. Pick a single foreign armed force, if any, to supply advice. And for heaven’s sake, build, buy, and train with standard equipment and armaments.

Otherwise you may suffer the fate of the Beiyang Fleet. Uniform hardware and methods, uniform performance on the high seas. Pretty rich guidance from an encounter between coal-fired steamships lumbering across the waves over a century ago.



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