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The Last Century of Sea Power: From Port Arthur to Chanak, 1894-1922

The Last Century of Sea Power: From Port Arthur to Chanak, 1894-1922

by H. P. Willmott

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The transition to modern war at sea began during the period of the Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895) and the Spanish-American War (1898) and was propelled forward rapidly by the advent of the dreadnought and the nearly continuous state of war that culminated in World War I. By 1922, most of the elements that would define sea power in the 20th century were in


The transition to modern war at sea began during the period of the Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895) and the Spanish-American War (1898) and was propelled forward rapidly by the advent of the dreadnought and the nearly continuous state of war that culminated in World War I. By 1922, most of the elements that would define sea power in the 20th century were in place. Written by one of our foremost military historians, this volume acknowledges the complex nature of this transformation, focusing on imperialism, the growth of fleets, changes in shipbuilding and armament technology, and doctrines about the deployment and use of force at sea, among other factors. There is careful attention to the many battles fought at sea during this period and their impact on the future of sea power. The narrative is supplemented by a wide range of reference materials, including a detailed census of capital ships built during this period and a remarkable chronology of actions at sea during World War I.

Editorial Reviews


"In this first of three volumes on sea power, the author reviews the story of political, economic, and military oceanic control from the 1890s through WW I. Willmott employs a complex explanatory narrative analysis as he steams through a background that focuses on imperialism, national strategic aims, and international power politics over about 40 years.... Recommended." —Choice

War in History

"Overall the volume is a veritable mine of information and worth its relatively modest price for this alone." —War in History, vol. 17, no. 4


"The author, dean of naval historians, provides a sweeping look at, and analysis of, the transformation of naval power... [His] dry wit and sense of irony add spice to the impressive array of facts and analysis of the greatest period of naval warfare. Wilmott is fearless in his judgments." —Seapower, December 2010

Bernard D. Cole

"H.P. Willmott is the finest naval historian and among the finest historians of any discipline writing today. His latest work further strengthens that richly deserved accolade. This book, first of a series, contains a wealth of facts and opinions, the latter provided with Willmott's unerring analytical eye and mordant wit. Willmott states that his purpose as a historian is not just to describe events, but to explain them. This he does superbly." —Bernard D. Cole, National War College

From the Publisher
"H.P. Willmott is the finest naval historian and among the finest historians of any discipline writing today. His latest work further strengthens that richly deserved accolade. This book, first of a series, contains a wealth of facts and opinions, the latter provided with Willmott's unerring analytical eye and mordant wit. Willmott states that his purpose as a historian is not just to describe events, but to explain them. This he does superbly." —Bernard D. Cole, National War College

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The Last Century of Sea Power

Volume One: From Port Arthur to Chanak, 1894â"1922

By H. P. Willmott

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2009 H. P. Willmott
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-35214-9



The Sino-Japanese War, July 1894–April 1895, fits into the context discussed at the end of the introduction with one crucial exception: the racial dimension. But overall the background is provided by the obvious point of contrast: Japan, by a very deliberate process of imitation, had been able to absorb western organization and methods and to provide itself with a military capability that by the last decade of the nineteenth century marked it as perhaps the most powerful single state in eastern Asia, whereas China's process of fragmentation had assumed critical—if largely unsuspected —dimensions by this time. The war was not one that was sought by either side but arose from events in Korea that possessed singular importance to Japan: the Korean peninsula was potentially the point of invasion—the Mongol expeditions of 1274 and 1281 had shown this—and at the same time it was Japan's obvious point of entry on the mainland—as witness the Hideyoshi Toyotomi (1537–1598) expedition of 1592–1598. Both China and Japan saw Korea as lying within their own spheres of influence, China by right of historical precedence and Japan in terms of future intent. With the Tientsin Convention of 18 April 1885, the two states had agreed on a treaty that in effect provided for Korean independence but also for their rights of intervention in Korea and the obligation to consult with one another. But war was to come in 1894 as a result of a complicated power-struggle within Korea that prompted separate Chinese and Japanese intervention and that set in train a series of events that led to confrontation.

The war is one that has commanded little in the way of western attention, a state of affairs that one suspects owed itself to three facts of life. First, the war was immediately overshadowed by the Triple Intervention and was then overtaken by the Russo-Japanese War, 1904–1905. Second, the war proved to be a one-sided affair and the victories that were won by the Japanese were simple and overwhelming; the war was nothing more than the story of successive and easy Japanese victories—Port Arthur, with a 10,000-strong garrison, was taken at the cost of 66 dead and 353 wounded—and hence there was little in the way of real historical interest or "lessons to be learned." Third, this was a conflict derisively known in the west as the Pigtail War, and with such a name there was an element of racial disdain that complemented the second point: clearly, for most westerners, there was little to be learned, and very little of interest, in a conflict between two manifestly inferior races. Nonetheless, this was a war that saw the first actions between major forces at sea since Lissa (20 July 1866) and the first action involving "modern" warships. In a perverse sense, however, this was a war in which naval power was of secondary importance, a state of affairs that sits uneasily alongside the very obvious fact that Japanese forces could not be deployed to Korea and northern China other than by courtesy of sea power.

The secondary status of naval power in this war stems from the fact that the initial deployment of military forces to Korea by sea by both China and Japan took place before the outbreak of war, and after the declaration of war on 1 August 1894 both sides used transports to move additional forces to Korea without let or hindrance by the other side. The immediate defensive commitment, to provide escort to troopships, and the limited range and endurance of warships meant that the first moves by sea were unopposed on both sides. And there was the episode of 25 July that obstinately refuses to accord with this portrayal of events.

Between 21 and 23 July ten Chinese transports left Taku for Korea, and early on the morning of 25 July the Chinese cruiser Tsi-yuen and gunboat Kuang-yi were off Phung-do Island, off Asan Bay, in anticipation of a rendezvous with the gunboat Tsao-kiang and transport Kowshing when they fell into the company of three Japanese cruisers, the Akitsushima, Naniwa, and the Yoshino. Apparently the Japanese salute was met by Chinese fire on the Japanese ships and in the resultant action the Tsi-yuen escaped while the Kuang-yi was run aground in Caroline Bay, where it was engulfed by a fire that set off the magazine. At the same time the Tsao-kiang and Kowshing appeared on the scene, the Akitsushima 's presence being sufficient to ensure the surrender of the Tsao-kiang without a fight; along with its auxiliary sail, it was to enter Japanese service as the Soko. The Kowshing, however, proved somewhat more difficult. A British ship flying a British flag, it had on board some 1,100 Chinese troops and, with the main action over, it was ordered to follow the Japanese cruisers to port. The Chinese troops tried to seize the ship in an attempt to return to Taku, and in these circumstances the Naniwa, the captain of which was a certain Togo Heihachiro (1848–1934), sank the Kowshing; there were very few survivors, whether Chinese troops or crew. Thereafter, with the declaration of war following this incident, both sides sent troops by sea to Korea, the Japanese via Fusan (6 August) and Chemulpo (12 September) and the Chinese via the ports on Korea Bay at the mouth of the Yalu. It might also be noted, en passant and because the episode seldom commands as much as a mention, that Japanese forces, in addition to the landings at Fusan in southeast Korea and Chemulpo, on the west coast, also landed at Gensan, on the east coast of northern Korea, on 26 August.

In the war that followed there was only one major action at sea, the Battle of the Yalu River/Haiyang, 17 September 1894, though most accounts assert that there were two major actions, the Yalu and Wei-hai-wei, 2–12 February 1895. In reality the latter was not so much an action, or even a series of actions; what happened at sea was the postscript in a siege that began with Japanese landings at Yung-cheng on 20 January 1895 and that resulted in the Japanese capture of the five forts covering the southern approaches to Wei-hai-wei by 30 January. The town, with its harbor, was taken, without opposition, on 2 February, but the naval dimension to this episode concerned the reduction of the forts on the twin islands of I-Tao and Liu-kung and dealing with Chinese warships as they sought either to give battle or to seek safety in flight. Once Japanese forces had secured forts, town, and port, and indeed even before they had done so, the possibility of the Chinese putting together an effective joint operation, involving coordinated efforts by their military and naval forces, was all but nonexistent. What was to happen was the progressive enfeeblement of the Chinese naval force at Wei-haiwei as a result of bombardment by Japanese forces ashore and a series of attacks by Japanese warships between 30 January and 6 February on Liu-kung and units in the outer anchorages. In this time, and as a prelude to February 1904, night attacks by Japanese torpedo-boats accounted for one of the two largest Chinese warships on station, the Ting-yuen, and three other units. With six Chinese gunboats sunk at various times when they tried to escape from the doomed base, the main Japanese effort began on 7 February, and two days later the protected cruiser Ching-yuen was sunk by fire from one of the captured Chinese forts; I-Tao was subjected to landings and cleared, and by 11 February the guns in the fortresses on eastern Liu-kung had been silenced, again primarily as a result of fire from the captured fortresses. On the following day the Chinese admiral, Ting ju-ch'ang, asked for terms of surrender, which were afforded on the 13th (and after Ting's suicide) and which were generous: a total of 5,124 Chinese service personnel were granted immediate parole. Less fortunate were the battleship Chen-yuen, the cruisers Ping-yuen and Tsi-yuen, the Kuang-ping, and six gunboats, which were surrendered.

The one action that has always been noted, the Battle of the Yalu River or Haiyang Island, depending on individual preference, was fought in the immediate aftermath of the Japanese victory over a Chinese force in front of Pingyang, which forced a general Chinese withdrawal northward to the Yalu. On the morning of 17 September a Japanese formation, operating in support of the army formations then advancing north from Pingyang, intercepted a Chinese formation that the previous day had put men and supplies ashore at Tatungkao. This Chinese formation consisted of two squadrons deployed in line abreast with one line consisting of the of the third-class unprotected cruiser Tsi-yuen, the dispatch vessel Kuang-chia, the third-class protected cruiser Chih-yuen, the armored cruiser King-yuen, the second-class battleships Ting-yuen and Chen-yuen, the armored cruiser Lai-yuen, the third-class protected cruiser Ching-yuen, and the third class unprotected cruisers Chao-yung and Yung-wei, and the other line with the Kuang-ping and armored cruiser Ping-yuen along with the torpedo gunboat Kuang-yi and two "extra units," the Fu-lung and Choi-ti, which apparently were torpedo-boats. The Japanese force consisted of three formations, a scouting group that consisted of the Akitsushima, Naniwa, Takachiho and the Yoshino, a battle force that consisted of the cruisers Chiyoda, Fuso, Hashidate, Hiei, and the Itsukushima, and a command group with the formation flag in the cruiser Matsushima, which was in the company of two dispatch vessels, the gunboat Akagi and the armed merchant cruiser Seikyo. Perhaps rather strangely, the last of these ships had a British master and the passengers on board included the chief of staff of the Imperial Japanese Navy (the Kaigun).

Accounts of this action generally have described events under four headings. The first, simply, is that the Chinese opened fire at a range of about 6,000 yards/5,500 m, which was extremely long-range for that time, but failed to record any hits, and second, the Japanese formation, with marked superiority of speed, was able to close range and to concentrate against part of the Chinese line, with predictable consequences initially for the Chao-yung and then the Yung-wei. Third, no account is complete without the Chinese commander leaving his bridge and failing to exercise command, which evolved upon one of his foreign assistants, a former ensign in the U.S. Navy. It is very western, and most certainly very American, that such a person, of obviously exalted rank, should have been called upon to exercise a command that was beyond the Chinese admiral. And, finally, no comment on the Chinese force is complete without various references to alleged corruption relating to guns and the state of the ships. One is at a loss to assess the credibility of some of these allegations—such as that some of the guns on one ship had been sold on the black market and that there were shells that hit Japanese ships but failed to explode because they were packed with cement and not explosive. But in a sense assessment is unnecessary because these matters describe rather than explain, and the description and explanation of the outcome of this action may be given in a single sentence. The battle was not an action between two fleets or two formations: it was an action between a Japanese fleet or formation and a collection of Chinese warships. In this sense and in terms of tactical handling and result, this action was very similar to Manila Bay in May 1898 and Tsushima in May 1905.

The contrast between the two forces at the Yalu is no more obvious than with reference to the types of ship that were present. The Japanese scouting force consisted of one third-class cruiser, the Akitsushima, and three second-class cruisers that had rated at time of construction as the most powerful (the Naniwa and Takachiho) and fastest (the Yoshino) cruisers in the world. The main force consisted of two units (the Fuso and Hiei) that were almost twenty years old, one of which had been rebuilt, and were a cross between cruisers and coastal defense ships. The remaining units, plus the Matsushima, were cruisers that stood comparison with their contemporary opposite numbers in foreign navies. The Chinese ships defy ready definition. In the main force there were, it appears, three pairs of sister ships—the Chen-yuen and Ting-yuen, the King-yuen and Lai-yuen, and the Chao-yung and Yung-wei—though the difference between these pairs was such that obvious questions of compatibility in handling and role present themselves even before such matters as the breakdown of communications within the Chinese force, on account of the Ting- yuen losing its masts and yards, and the fact that there appears to have been no gunnery practice by Chinese ships for several months, are weighed on the scales.

With the Chinese formation bound by the 6 knots of its slowest members, the Chao-yung and the Yung-wei, and unable to take advantage of the superior number of heavy (12-in./305-mm, 10.2-in./259-mm, and 8.2-in./208-mm) guns, the Japanese were able to close to a range of 3,000 yards/2,750 m. the Chinese problems of coordination being confounded after the Ting-yuen 's misfortune by the pre-arranged recourse to the Chinese ships fighting in pairs and thus leaving each pair liable to defeat in detail. The Chao-yung and Yung- wei and the Chih-yuen and the King-yuen were sunk, while the Kuang-chia was run aground in order to avoid sinking but was lost; the Ting-yuen and Lai-yuen were both seriously damaged, but the surviving Chinese warships were able to reach the safety of Port Arthur. They did so primarily because the Japanese did not press what was a clear advantage, presumably because the Japanese commander, Admiral Ito Sukeyuki (1843–1914), was only too aware that what he had under command was not to be risked inasmuch as it represented more or less the sum of national strength and a clear victory had been won. The fact that Japanese ships had been fairly liberally peppered—though only the Hiei was obliged to withdraw from proceedings on account of its damage—was also a factor in Ito's calculations. Moreover, given the fact that the action lasted most of the hours of daylight on this single day, the Japanese warships must have been low in ammunition and probably could not have prevented the escape of Chinese ships, but the latter was inconsequential: the Chinese naval forces in the north had been neutralized and reduced to little more than fugitive status. The Japanese, with the advantages of geography, placed their warships in a position of dominance of these northern waters and won a comprehensive victory.

The measure of Japanese success can be gauged by the fact that in the aftermath of this action the Japanese force advanced into northern Korea and, with the flank now secured, was able to cross the Yalu into Manchuria (24–25 October). At the same time another force, the equivalent of two divisions, was put ashore at the head of the Liaotung peninsula, Port Arthur itself being taken on 19 November after a Chinese defense that varied between the feeble and nonexistent. The Japanese warships were unable to prevent the escape of the Chinese warships from the base, but these chose to make their way not to the north or west but to the south, to Shantung province and Wei-hai-wei where, to mix metaphors, they were no more than condemned men after sentence.

At the time the official Chinese line was to place responsibility for defeat at the Yalu upon the responsible commanders, specifically Ting ju-ch'ang. In one respect that was accurate: it seems that the Chinese admiral suffered some form of concussion when his flagship fired its first shells, the blast demolishing his bridge and killing a number of officers there assembled. But if Ting's conduct of operations, or perhaps more accurately his failure to conduct operations, was indeed in part the cause of defeat, this line of argument really is misrepresentation. The Chinese could have had the most gifted of commanders and intact communications but the result would have been essentially the same because the difference between forces, the margin between victory and defeat, was not personal but systemic. The basis of Japanese victory lay in the simple fact that in terms of poor organization and quality the Chinese force that was put into Korea Bay was a force that could trace its pedigree to Chinese defeats at French hands off Foochow in 1884 —an action all but unknown to history—and at British and French hands between 1839 and 1860. Therein was the point of surprise: the extent to which Japan had implemented change and had absorbed western form in order to avoid subjugation was but little understood at the time. Certainly China, in spring 1894 when its leadership took what was a conscious decision to deal with matters Korean and Japanese by force, had never anticipated Japanese power and effectiveness. But the same was true of the watching occidental powers, and hence the subsequent events.


Excerpted from The Last Century of Sea Power by H. P. Willmott. Copyright © 2009 H. P. Willmott. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Meet the Author

H. P. Willmott has written extensively on warfare in general and on World War II in particular. Among his books is The Battle of Leyte Gulf: The Last Fleet Action, a Society of Military History prize winner (IUP, 2005). He lives in Englefield Green, Egham, England.

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