From "With Kuroki in Manchuria" by Frederick Palmer


We had expected that the battle would come with the crossing, but the two were entirely distinct. The crossing was effectively secured on one day (April 30th), and the battle occurred on the next. Draw a line approximately north and south through Wiju and both banks to the east were already in possession of the Japanese on the night of the 30th. Opposite Wiju the Ai River joins its waters to those of the Yalu. On its bank the right flank of the Japanese rested at the end of the first day's movement. All that night troops were crossing into China till morning found Korea without the army that had been a self-invited guest for many weeks.

If the spectator on this famous First of May had some idea of what he was going to see, the vagueness of that idea added to the interest. He knew that the day before had been one of the great days of his life, and expected that this would be another. Rising at dawn becomes second nature when you are with an army. As I rode through the south gate of the city, Captain Okada looked at his watch and asked if the others are closed behind. He was a little worried, like a man who has guests to dinner. There was to be a charge and the time for it was almost as exactly set as that for the rising of a theater curtain.

The bluff above Wiju was no longer forbidden to the correspondent. Lifting your glasses to see what new tableau this ever-prepared army-that shows you nothing till it is finished-had in store for you, no glance was wasted on Tiger's Hill, which rises out of the river's bed to the height of thousand feet or more. Its sides are precipitous. On first thought, it seems an impregnable position of defense. But if infantry could not storm these steep, rock-ribbed ascents, no more could infantry escape down them. To take Tiger's Hill the Japanese had only to march around it. The Hotchkiss which the Russians had there was withdrawn on the 28th.

In the dark ages of Europe a robber baron would have built his castle on such an eminence and defied and ruled all the country round. In this conflict it was in the center of an artillery duel, with shells flying about its ribs, but none fired at it or from it. On the other side of Tiger's Hill there is a sandy bottom, and the AI River, flowing between heights, here enters the Yalu. On the western side of the AI the high bluffs, with the broken sky-line above and the stretch of river sand below, continue till they disappear in the haze. Four or five miles from the mouth of the AI are the white walls of a little village, Ku-lien-cheng. From this village runs the main highway toward Feng-wang-cheng and Liaoyang, which the armies must follow.

This then, was the position of the Russians who have evacuated the broad sandy islands in the river below Wiju two days before. They had formed on the road. The ease with which the Japanese had crossed on the previous day above Wiju, surprising the Japanese themselves, led to only one conclusion. The Russians had not intended to give battle on the Yalu. All that they had sought to gain was delay which should fatten the numbers of their guns and men at the point where they should make a stand. Whenever they could force the Japanese to elaborate preparation for a general attack they had gained days, perhaps weeks, for their over-worked railroad. Every mile the Japanese traveled inland was a mile farther for the Japanese and a mile nearer for the Russians to the all-commanding thing of all armies-the base of the supplies. That the Russians would fall between the two stools of a general defense and simple delaying tactics was not contemplated.

At the end of the first day you thought that all was over except deploying to brush the hills clear of the rear-guard. But the second day held surprise for the Russians and the Japanese. For the Russians the annihilation of two regiments and the loss of the twenty-eight guns, as reported. For the Japanese this made a success that was unexpected. The spectators are still in doubt whether to marvel most at Russian carelessness or at the marching power of the Japanese infantry.

On the night of April 30th the Japanese occupied the last of the islands without loss and crossed in force. The morning of May 1st showed us clearly the Russian position, how it was to be taken, and the force that was to take it. Along the crests of the Russian heights you could see the dust-colored line of the Russian trenches from three hundred to five hundred feet above the river bad. The trenches were long enough to hold a great force. They might be manned by a thousand or ten thousand men, who rested for the moment in peace and security, with their antagonists as clearly outlined before them as the streets of a town to a balloonist.

Every man there must have known that in the end he must fly. Meanwhile he must take as great a toll of lives as silent rifles, with magazines filled and waiting on the trigger's call, could command when they should speak. On the sand below, distinct to the naked eye, the cones of two field-hospital tents bespoke preparation for what the Russian rifles could give. Not a man of the Japanese side needed a doctor at that moment. In an hour thousands might, the numbers all dependent upon the size of the force hugging the dusty line on the Russian heights. All was to be real in this drama of the meeting of two organized groups of men who had marched far and carried heavy loads and lived on hard rations for the privilege of mutual destruction.

Lining the wall of Wiju, perfectly secured from fire, were the unwashed, non-committal Koreans, whose land was one of the subjects of contention. (When I crossed the river the next day, the first man I saw was another subject of contention-an old Chinese sifting out the sand and ashes the parched remains of the grain from the ruins of his house, which the Russians had burned.)

In the Japanese line were some thirty-five thousand men, forming an intact blue streak from up the AI-ho to Ku-lien-cheng. They remain as stationary as trees till the order came which should set them in motion as one machine toward the Russian position. Without glasses this line seemed no more than a long fence hung with blue, the Russian position only an uninhabited height, where storms perhaps had eroded the summits. Between the two, over the stretch of sands where the skirmish line and the reserves were to pass, and on the farther channel which they were to ford, was no moving object. It was a zone free of life which soon would be the scene of human activity that would hold the attention of the world-a stretch of river-bottom where was to be made the first infantry charge of account in the most picturesque of modern wars.

Before the charge began, the onlooker had time to realize that he was about to witness a frontal attack with modern weapons which many tacticians hold to be no longer practicable. The Japanese had been marching and hill-climbing all the day before. Those who had slept at all had slept a little. Some had spent the night in getting into position. Now they ate their rations of rice and fish, and lay packed close in the convolutions of the river-bed, seeing the long levels that they had to cover at the double and the heights they had to conquer-a task set sternly before them in the clear light of morning.

Their guardians, the guns, still had suspicions of the conical hill battery that had been pounded to silence on the 30th. They spat fire with the viciousness of bitter memory. No answering flash broke through the columns of dust tossed up by the common shell from Japanese howitzers or the blue smoke rings of the shrapnel. The skirmishers had sprung to their feet, company after company of that visible line four or five miles long had deployed, and yet our breathless waiting brought no gunfire from the enemy's heights.

Had the Russians entirely withdrawn their guns overnight? If they had, then they meant to make no proper defense; they sought only to force the Japanese to a battle formation; to gain time for the increasing army on their chosen ground for decisive resistance. Or were the Russian guns waiting for fairer chance? This was a dramatic possibility, but it did not stand to reason. The frontal attack was to have no savage test. We were to see more of a field day than a battle, you thought, not counting on the determined resistance of the Russian infantry unassisted.

With smokeless powder, with field guns of the latest pattern, with all other modern accessories, we had two armies not in khaki. Every Japanese soldier on this arena was sharply defined as pencil marks on white paper. Could the mind have worked rapidly enough through the glasses, one might have counted them all. With reserves crowding in, they became like a young orchard. For the first fifteen minutes there was no rifle-fire. Was it really war or was it maneuvering? We listened for the rattle of musketry; at any second we expected to see some of the figures fall. With the undulations of the ground, and individuals avoiding bad footing, the line would grow bunchy in places, and then thin out again to better skirmish order.

But the units were much closer than the order of either the British or American armies. The Anglo-Saxons were seeing the German theory tried-the German theory of numbers and pressing the attack home in face of the enemy's fire as against ours of widely separated units. If there were five thousand Russians in the trenches on the heights, it seemed that they ought to mow that riverbed clean of Japanese.

Such was the distance that the line seemed to go ahead from the steady impulse of mechanics instead of being carried by human legs. Their double seemed a creep. At one and the same time you wanted them to hasten in order to bring on the dramatic finale, and you wanted them to wait in order to give you the time to grasp in full the panorama they afforded. They have two miles to go, with sand to their ankles in many places. The first rifle-fire came from far to the right up the AI-ho, where the end of the Japanese line was obscured.

Along the trench on the Russian heights we could still see the Russian officers moving back and forth. They were not nervous for the fight to begin, while they kept their men in tune with majestic opportunity. Soon we heard the rake of their volleys and the answering fire of the Japanese, who lay under cover of the drifts in the sand between their rushes. No faltering among the Japanese was evident, but you knew, you felt, even from the distance of the Wiju wall, that there the fire was hot. Something in the attitude of the advancing figures said as much. They were banding to their task as if pulling at ropes. For it was work now.

You turned from the effect to the cause, and, despite that living, pushing line of human flash on the river bottom, you scanned only the heights, trying to count the heads above the dust-covered streak of the Russian ridge. Such is the concentration of thought and gaze in the development of one particular phase such a spectacle, that you might be missing completely something new and vital to the whole which is passing at the other end of the field.

How long had they been coming? I wondered, when I first saw black objects about two feet high under the glasses scattered and running like a man out of the rain-out of safety into danger, in fact-over a knob at its left and plunging into the Russian trench. This was the greatest moment of all. Here were reinforcements: here was a prospect of resistance that provided another thrill in the drama. Every rifle added to the speaking ones in the trench meant more patients for the surgeons waiting in the hospital tents for the first arrivals. At the same moment we could hear rat-tat-tat of the Russian Maxims.

Here, too, was a mark to gladden the heart of the artilleryman. How long before the gunners would see it? Or was not the knob in the range of their vision? If not they must soon receive the signal from those who could see. There were no longer thirty-five thousand men about to assault a position. Nothing except batteries and some Russians running across a knob into trench-where they were to go through hell in order to keep an enemy in check for a quarter of an hour. Still they came, still the guns said nothing in protest. Seconds became minutes.

The altitude was great; the range was new. When the word was past the shooting was the worst I have ever seen Japanese gunners do. Higher and higher they lifted the bursts, which still did not reach the mark, while the Russians kept on coming as un-mindful as if shrapnel were fireworks. "That surely will be high enough," the gunners must have thought with each discharge, only to find that it fell short. They kept on lifting and lifting them-a progress of explosions up the hillside-till finally the blue smoke of shrapnel curled fairly over the heads of the targets. The Russians paid no attention to that, or the next, or the next. Then one exploded a little over them and a little in front of them, so that they got the full benefit of its spread.

And now all the guns had the range. Common shell tossed the earth skyward; shrapnel was scattered from above. Like so many paper figures under a bellows, one burst blew a half-dozen Russians down. Then we saw no more except those who came out to bring in the fallen. The dare-devil Slav had taken the straight path, while the breaking roar of muzzles mocked his temerity. Afterward we learned that he could have gone round under cover, but that would have lacked aplomb, which is important in old-fashioned war.

Unremittingly the Russians held to their task. The Japanese line, which had moved out in a semicircle to envelope the whole Russian position, had to deal with the situation as it developed. The adversary's defense had been outlined exactly. Every man on the plain knew the limits of its length. At either side of this Ku-lien-cheng trench-the one which focused my attention-were ravines leading up to either end.

The most natural human instinct-or animal instinct, for that matter-will seek to get an opponent on the hip, that is, on the flank. Pressing under cover of the heights, we soon saw a column passing up either ravine. In the feet of reaching the base of the heights there had been no faltering step. It was done with such drill-ground exactness that the dropping units seemed a part of the evolution. Those who pressed up the ravines were only a part, a sensibly delegated part, while the extreme left of the line filed on into the little town of Ku-lien-cheng, and the right-we saw little of the right, which extended up the AI River, thought little of it in the occupation of nearer impression, little anticipated the part it was to play before nightfall.

What one asked then was: Did those in the trench know of the streams of blue-coats, each with a big Japanese flag at its head marking every foot of ascent like an indicator?

Mindless of fire as of raindrops, a solitary Russian officer now stood on the parapet stiff as a watch-tower. A shell-burst sent him down for a moment; but he came back. It was plain that he was counting the minutes and proposed to use every one with the vengeful opportunity it gave. The ravine at the right was deep enough to show only occasional moving blue spots, and always that defiant flag which rippled and rose and fell with the color-bearer's scramble over the rocks. The flanking column at the left had arrived on the summit of a broad knoll certainly not more that five hundred yards from the trench. There with Japanese precision they were nicely forming into close order preparatory to rush. But their rush was never made. One of those accidents-those keen, murderous satires frequent in great engagements-dealt this flock of warring humanity a crushing blow from its own side.

Deftly the Japanese gunners had covered the Japanese advance; now the black powder used in the howitzers shows its inferiority to the Shimose powder of native invention, which, such is its evenness of quality, will with the same length of fuse land shell after shell in the same place in a manner that seems superhuman in its application of theoretical mechanics. The charge did not carry the howitzer's projectile as far as mathematics-war is made by mathematics in these days-indicated that it should. At the edge of the closely formed men on the knoll a column of earth and smoke flew skyward. We saw the scattering of forms through the dust; the disruption of mass into its parts, and before the air was clear-fired before the result of the first was apparent-came a second shell.

Down the hill-side the blue figures came running-not out of lasting panic, because they immediately reformed. Sixteen blue spots we counted prostrate behind them. Within the stone's throw of where the Russians had gone out to pick up their own wounded, some of the Japanese with the common gallantry that makes bitter enemies akin, ran back to their fallen comrades one by one. Some they knelt over for only a moment; these were beyond help. Others they knelt over at length, applying "first aid." The next day we counted eleven new made graves with wooden tablets on this spot. A few already had sprays of plum blossoms stuck in the fresh earth. It is cherry blossom time in Japan now and plum blossoms are grateful in the strange land. These deaths were tragic sacrifices to a protecting fire, yet in the great game of the general conflict they counted for little besides the lives the guns had saved silencing the enemy's fire.

Could the Russian officer, that sentinel unmoved amid the lightnings, have seen this accident it might have meant a streak of silver for his cloud. Was the flag at the head of the stormy party at the right also hidden from his view? He remained so long that his surprise and capture seemed certain, and I think that there was no member of the Japanese staff-such is the admiration of courage for courage-who did not hope that one Russian might have the deserved reward of escaping unharmed. He must have been the very last to go, steadying his men-his big, helpless, untutored, fair-haired children-with his own rock-ribbed fearlessness. One moment you saw him still and erect, a lone figure poised between the forces of two empires. Then he was gone.

The flag which had zigzagged and bobbed up the ravine appeared at the end of the trench. That climber, the color-bearer, was not too out of breath to walk the length of the trench, swinging aloft his flag in order that all on the plain below might see that he had arrived.

It was not yet ten o'clock. Less than three hours had been occupied in a business which you had seen as a whole with panoramic fidelity. It was like seeing Lookout Mountain fought without the mist. You wanted the charge made over again, and made slower to give you more time for appreciation. You had seen the reality, and at the same time you felt a detachment from it which was at once uncanny and unsportsmanlike. The spectator had been as safe as in an orchestra chair when carnage reigns on the stage. It was as if the battle had been arranged for him and he had been taken to the best position for seeing its theatrical effects.