REMEMBER PORT ARTHUR! REMEMBER THE SHARFS!
It comes almost naturally for American history students to “Remember the Alamo,” “Remember the Maine,” and, of course, “Remember Pearl Harbor.” These embarrassing military defeats were transformed into rallying cries for vengeance. Not so for the Japanese surprise attack on Port Arthur.
Although the treaty ending the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) had ceded the Liaodong peninsula and Port Arthur to the Japanese victors, in the wake of the war Tsarist Russia quickly moved to counter the growing power and influence of their Japanese neighbors in the Pacific. Stationing a naval force off the peninsula, the Russians pressured the Chinese into ceding control over this important warm-water harbor to them in 1898 and immediately began to fortify the port. To strengthen their position, the Tsarist regime also worked to extend the Trans-Siberian Railway through Mukden toward the port. While some of the tracks were destroyed during the Boxer Rebellion (see my earlier blog this week), the Russians used the war as an excuse to “temporarily” occupy Manchuria to protect its railway.
The Japanese were unwilling to concede Russian control in this region or to allow the Russian usurpers to hold Port Arthur and to thereby threaten their naval dominance in the Pacific. Consequently, in the dark of night on February 8, 1904, the Japanese Imperial Navy under Admiral Togo Heihachiro launched a surprise torpedo boat attack against the Russian’s Far East Fleet in Port Arthur—hours before Japan’s declaration of war reached the Tsarist government. (Sound familiar?!)
Although the Japanese navy successfully bottled the Russian Fleet up in the harbor by means of mines, wave after wave of Japanese soldiers died in frontal assaults trying to capture the heavily fortified port. Finally, in December of 1904, the Japanese were able to capture a hill overlooking the port and to fire down upon and sink all but one of the Russian battleships and cruisers. While the Russians probably could have maintained the defense of the heavily-fortified port, the major general in command of the garrison surprised his besiegers (and enraged His Majesty, the Tsar) by negotiating surrender. Defeat of Russian land forces at the Battle of Mukden in February and March of 1905, and the Japanese destruction of a second Russian relief fleet ultimately brought the Russians to Teddy Roosevelt’s peace table in Portsmouth, N.H.
Rather than stiffening Russian resolve, the military disaster at Port Arthur was not one the Russian people chose to memorialize. Rather, the destruction of their Far East fleet and the humiliating surrender and defeat of their land forces inspired demands for reform and helped ignite the Russian Revolution of 1905.
While this blog is not likely to inspire many history buffs to “Remember Port Arthur,” we do hope it will serve as a reminder of the generosity of Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf, whose generous gift has added hundreds of books on the Russo-Japanese War to our collection. In addition to those few pictured in this blog, I would encourage those interested in learning more about this conflict to consult Fred’s A Much Recorded War: The Russo-Japanese War in History and Imagery (Boston: MFA Publications, 2005).