The Battle of the Yalu, 17 September 1894


The year 1862 was a momentous one. Civil war raged in America, Britain was in full flush of her Industrial Revolution, and continental Europe, as ever, hovered on the brink of internal conflict. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, a gauntlet was thrown down at the feet of Western interference. On the Japanese island of Kyushu, a British merchant, Charles Richardson, when about his lawful business in the port of Kagoshima, was murdered by locals. The British Government demanded recompense, but none was forthcoming, the insular Japanese did not even offer an apology for Richardson's murder. The inevitable retribution came early in the following year, when a British fleet commanded by Admiral Kuper sailed into Kagoshima Sound and reduced the port to a smoking ruin.

At that time Japan had no fighting ships to defend the realm, but the forts of Kagoshima, equipped only with primitive stone-shotted guns, hit back defiantly at Admiral Kuper's warships. Amongst those manning the guns of Kagoshima on that infamous day was 16-year-old Heihachiro Togo, a young Samurai of the Satsuma clan. When the battle was over, and lost, Togo swore on the graves of his ancestors that Japan would never again suffer the humiliation of being unable to meet an aggressor at sea, ship for ship, gun for gun. There were many in Japan who shared Togo's determination.

A few years after Kagoshima, Japan slipped into civil war as the Shogun Princes fought to subdue the emerging forces for change. The Princes failed, and the nation that for centuries had been content to stagnate in genteel isolation threw off the feudal yoke and began to industrialize along European lines. With industrialization came a swelling population and a desperate search for export markets. This led to a desire, again, following the European example, to reach out and colonize. As a means to this end, the new Japan first required a powerful navy.

Since Nelson's crushing defeat of France and Spain at Trafalgar more than half a century earlier, Britain had dominated the seas around Europe and beyond. No other nation had such expertise in the building of warships and the training of crew to man them, and so it was to her that Japan turned to for help in setting up her own navy. She ordered the best ships British yards could build and sent her officers to be taught the arts of seafaring and sea-fighting by the Royal Navy. With them went Heihachiro Togo.

Togo took command of his first ship in Japan's Imperial Navy in 1879, at the beginning of a period of great turbulence in the affairs of the Far East. Much of the trouble could be laid at the doors of the big European trading powers, Britain, France, Germany, and Russia, all of whom were intent on securing new markets in the East. As the end of the century drew near, the focus of attention became the Korean peninsula, long dominated by China but now showing an increasing tendency to lean towards its next nearest neighbor, Japan. Under the pretense of establishing peace and stability in Korea, Japan had been quietly working to take over her weaker neighbor by stealth. China, fearing the loss of her erstwhile satellite, was making threatening noises. While the two Eastern rivals were thus preoccupied, Britain had moved into Burma, the French had moved into Indochina and Russia was working on a takeover of Manchuria. All the ingredients for war were in the mixing pot, waiting for the catalyst to be added.

In the morning of 20 July 1894 a Japanese Flying Squadron of three ironclad cruisers was on patrol in the Gulf of Asan on the west coast of Korea. The ships were an impressive trio, led by the 4,150-ton Naniwa, which was under the command of Captain Heihachiro Togo. The Naniwa, British built and said to be one of the most powerful ironclad cruisers in the world, was almost 300 feet long and carried two 10.2-inch and six 5.9-inch guns, four torpedo tubes and fourteen machine guns. She had a top speed of 18.7 knots. Her consorts were the 4,180-ton Yoshino, armed with four 6-inch and eight 4.7-inch guns and also British built, and the Japanese built Akitsushima, a third rate cruiser of 3,150 tons mounting four 6-inch and six 4.7-inch guns. The latter had a speed of 19 knots, the Yoshino was reputedly capable of 23.

Togo's orders were to sweep the Gulf of Asan for Chinese transports rumored to be landing troops on the Korean coast. However, as, to the best of his knowledge, China and Japan were not as yet at war, the captain was somewhat unsure what to do should he come upon such vessels. But the sea was calm and the day promised to be pleasantly warm, and he decided to meet that challenge when he came to it. He did not have long to wait.

Just before 9 o'clock the Japanese squadron was nearing the head of the gulf when two unidentified ships were seen emerging from the entrance to the port of Asan. As they drew nearer, it became clear that the approaching ships were Chinese men-of-war, and, purely as a precautionary measure, Togo ordered his men to stand by their guns. The Chinese ships were the 2,355-ton ironclad cruiser Tsi Yuen, carrying two 8.2-inch and one 5.9-inch guns, and the 1,300-ton Kwang Yi, a lightly armed sloop. Both ships were steaming at full speed for the open sea, and they had no transports with them. In the circumstances, Togo decided to let them pass unchallenged.

It was at this point that an uneasy peace changed to war, for the leading Chinese ship, the Tsi Yuen, suddenly altered course and headed straight for the Japanese squadron, her bow wave foaming and her funnels belching black smoke. Her actions caused Togo to assume that she was about to attack with torpedoes, and he gave the order to open fire. The Naniwa heeled under the blast as her great 10.2-inch Krupp guns thundered out in unison. The Yoshino and Akitsushima joined in with their lighter guns, the Tsi Yuen and Kwang Yi replied, and within minutes a full-scale battle was in progress, the first action ever fought by Chinese and Japanese ironclads.

The British trained Japanese gunners were soon bracketing the Chinese ships, and then scoring hits. The Tsi Yuen sustained heavy damage and the Kwang Yi was unscathed, but neither of the ship's captains had any stomach for the fight; before long they had turned tail and were fleeing back towards the shelter of Asan harbor, with the Yoshino and Akitsushima in pursuit.

The Naniwa did not join the chase, for Togo had seen two more ships entering the gulf from seaward. These proved to be a merchant ship flying the British flag, escorted by another Chinese warship. This raised serious problems for Togo, for, although, following the attack on his ships by the Tsi Yuen, he assumed that his country must be at war with China, he thought it unlikely that the British would be involved. Yet, through his telescope, he could see that the merchantman was crowded with troops, almost certainly Chinese, and on their way to Asan. They must be prevented from landing.

Togo opened fire on the Chinese warship, which turned out to be the sloop Tsao Kiang. Without more ado, the latter ran away at full speed, leaving her charge to fend for herself. Togo was reluctant to interfere with a ship flying the Red Ensign, but he patently could not ignore her military passengers. Holding her under his guns, Togo sent away a boarding party, which returned with the news that the trooper was the 2,134-ton Kowshing, owned by the Indochina Steam Navigation Company of London and commanded by Captain T. R. Galsworthy. She was under charter to the Chinese Government and had on board 1,500 Chinese soldiers, fourteen field guns and their ammunition and a German artillery officer, Captain C. von Hanneken. Galsworthy protested loudly against his detention, declaring that he was on a lawful voyage, Britain and Japan not being at war, and that Togo had no right to hold his ship. Galsworthy was technically correct, but Togo was not about to allow 1,500 fully armed Chinese troops to land on Korean soil. He demanded surrender.

The situation on board the Kowshing was chaotic. Galsworthy was in favor of surrendering, but he and his officers were surrounded by Chinese with loaded guns, who made no secret of what would happen to them if they refused to take the ship into Asan. The Chinese general argued that the Japanese would not dare sink a ship under the British flag, but Galsworthy was not convinced. Much as he feared the Chinese guns, he feared the wrath of his owners more. He declined to continue the voyage. It was a stalemate.

This dangerous confrontation went on for nearly four hours, with the Japanese threatening, the Chinese obstinately refusing to surrender and Galsworthy and the Kowshings British officers caught in the middle. Then Togo did something of which his Royal Navy mentors would not have approved. He torpedoed the helpless merchantman, pounded her with his big guns and, when she sank, machine gunned the troops struggling in the water. Only Captain Galsworthy, his chief officer, his boatswain, Captain von Hanneken and 41 Chinese survived.

Togo's ill-judged and brutal action elicited a howl of protest from Admiral Fremantle, commanding the British Far Eastern Fleet, and, later, rumbles of disapproval from the Foreign Office, but as far as Britain was concerned the incident was soon closed. For the Chinese, however, the attack on the Tsi Yuen and Kwang Yi, followed by the slaughter of more than a thousand of their troops in the Kowshing, could mean only one thing. China and Japan were at war.

The cruel irony of the Asan Gulf incident was that it all came about as the result of an unfortunate accident. The Tsi Yuen did not intentionally charge Togo's Flying-Squadron, as it had appeared to the Japanese. The ships would have passed each other with no more than the exchange of hostile stares if the Tsi Yuen's steering gear had not jammed at the crucial moment, causing her to take an involuntary run at the Naniwa and her consorts. The Sino-Japanese War, although brewing for a long time, was, like so many wars, sparked off by an unfortunate misunderstanding, and the callous actions of Heihachiro Togo following the confrontation destroyed any hope of negotiation.

Togo's masters in Tokyo were certainly not pleased with his heavy-handed diplomacy. They feared that Russia might come to China's aid, in which case the Imperial Japanese Navy would have to face not only the Chinese Fleet in the Yellow Sea but also the Russian Asiatic Fleet operating out of Vladivostok, both of which were believed to have superior ships. But, for the time being, Russia stayed uncommitted, and the buildup to the war on land went ahead. At the northern end of the Yellow Sea, in Korea Bay, the Chinese Fleet under Admiral Ting, occupied itself with covering the landing of troops near the Yalu River, while further south Admiral Yuko Ito's Japanese ships did the same on the Taidong river. For six weeks after the declaration of war the rival fleets had no contact with each other.

On 16 September the Japanese Navy, having carried out a landing operation at Chinnampo, was returning to sea. Admiral Ito had with him a powerful force comprising ten cruisers, a gunboat, an armed merchantman and a flotilla of torpedo boats. Ito's flagship, the 4,277-ton Matsushima, mounted one 12.5-inch and eleven 4.7-inch guns, as did her sister ships Itsukushima and Hashidate. The Fuso and Takachiho carried two 10.2-inch and six 5.9-inch, the 2,200-ton Hiei one 10.2-inch and two 5.9-inch and the 2,450-ton Chiyoda ten 4.7-inch guns. Togo's Flying Squadron, the Naniwa, Yoshino, and Akitsushima, were also in company.

Having completed his mission, Admiral Ito, tired of playing nursemaid to flock of troop transports, took his ships north into Korea Bay looking for action. He had an unconfirmed report that the Chinese were landing troops at the mouth of the Yalu River, about 100 miles to the north. Steaming in line abreast, their immaculate paintwork gleaming and their funnels trailing black smoke, the Japanese ships stretched from horizon to horizon, an impressive site. Unfortunately, they were constrained by the speed of the slowest ship, the 1,650-ton armed merchantman Saikio Maru, and progress was made at little more than 10 knots. Ito fumed, for he was anxious to demonstrate the prowess of his fleet.

The report received of Chinese landings at the head of Korea Bay was correct. Six Chinese transports, carrying 4,500 troops and 80 pieces of artillery, had entered the Yalu River and were discharging their cargo as Ito steamed north. Offshore, at the mouth of the river, the escorting force of two battleships, nine cruisers, four gunboats and six torpedo boats had anchored, forming a shield to prevent any interference with the landings from seaward. Admiral Ting, in command of the expedition, flew his flag in the battleship Ting Yuen, a German built ship of 7,430 tons. She had a top speed of 14 knots and carried four 12-inch and four 6-inch guns in barbettes, armor-protected raised platforms on deck, her sister ship, the Chen Yuen, anchored close by, was identical. The larger cruisers, the King Yuen, Lai Yuen and Ping Yuen, each of 2,850-tons were 16-knot ships armed with 8-inch and 6-inch guns, while the 2,300-ton Tsi Yuen and Chi Yuen were similarly armed. The smaller Chinese cruisers, the Kwang Chia, Kwang Ping, Yang Wei and Chao Yung, the latter pair British built, were, at 1,300-tons, little more than sloops but carried an assortment of 10-inch and 4.7-inch guns. It was a large and formidable fleet, but the presence on board the ships of a number of British, American and German advisers, including Captain von Hanneken, late of the Kowshing, indicated some weakness in the caliber of the Chinese officers. That may have been so, but the fact that Admiral Ting had chosen to anchor his ships rather than stand off the river entrance with full steam up did not say much for the advice his foreign experts were presumably giving him.

At daybreak on the 17th the Japanese fleet was in sight of Hai-yang Island, 35 miles off the coast at the northern end of Korea Bay and 100 miles east of Port Arthur, China's main naval base. As the gray light of dawn paled and the first rays of the rising sun touched the tall peaks of Hai-yang, Admiral Ito's lookouts were on full alert, but they could see no sign of the Chinese fleet. The gunboat Akagi was sent to check the deep-water anchorage on the western side of the island, but here again there was no trace of the enemy. Ito decided to continue on towards the mouth of the Yalu River, some 70-miles to the northeast. It was typhoon season, but as the sun climbed in a flawless blue sky it showed the promise of a fine autumn day unmarred by strong winds. With the Matsushima impatiently in the van, the great fleet swept on majestically, eager for confrontation.

Hai-yang dropped astern, and for the next three and a half hours the fleet steamed at full speed, working up to 18 knots and leaving the hard pressed gunboat Akagi and the Saito Maru straggling in its wake. The enthusiasm of the Japanese stokers sent tall columns of smoke drifting skywards, where, trapped by a temperature inversion, the smoke merged to form an extensive black cloud in an otherwise unmarred sky.

Ito's unintentional warning beacon was sighted by Admiral Ting's lookouts at around 10.30 that morning, by which time the disembarkation of the troops and their equipment was nearing completion. Ting recognized that the smoke signaled the imminent arrival of a large enemy fleet, which left him in something of a dilemma. He could not leave the transports unprotected, but, on the other hand, if his fleet remained at anchor it would be a distinct disadvantage. After some deliberation he gave the order for all ships to weigh anchor and steam out to sea. Forty minutes later the Chinese warships, in some disarray, had formed a ragged line of battle across the entrance to the Yalu River. Behind them, with the landing operation suspended, the transports had also weighed anchor and were seeking refuge in the shallows.

The opposing fleets came in site of each other at 11.40, ten ironclads on each side and probably the greatest concentration of guns seen afloat since Trafalgar. The Japanese mounted in all three 12.5-inch, seven 10.2-inch, eight 6-inch, twenty 5.9-inch and fifty-seven 4.7-inch, while the Chinese mustered eight 12-inch, five 10-inch, thirteen 8-inch, eighteen 6-inch, one 5.9-inch and sixteen 4.7-inch. In weight of firepower it was a fairly even match, but it was the men behind the guns who would decide the outcome of the day, and Admiral Ito, leading his ships in his flagship Matsushima, harbored no doubts as to who would see victory.

Heihachiro Togo, whose Flying Squadron formed the rearguard of the battle fleet, supported the Admiral's view. He had the advantage of having inspected the Chinese ships when they were on a courtesy visit to Yokohama before the war. He had been amazed by the casual attitude of the Chinese officers, the lack of discipline of the men and the generally slipshod state of the ships. Furthermore, the experience of the Gulf of Asan, when he had easily put to flight three Chinese warships, was proof enough of their reluctance to fight. From the neat, orderly bridge of the Naniwa Togo could see nothing to frighten him.

Admiral Ting, the quality of his ships and men apart, was already at a great disadvantage. If he kept his ships close inshore he would be unable to maneuver freely for fear of running aground on the numerous shoals off the river entrance. On the other hand, if he steamed out to meet the Japanese fleet there was the risk of some of the enemy's smaller ships slipping through his line to get at the transports. He compromised, advancing a few miles out to sea, then forming his cruisers into line abreast, with the two battleships at the center of the line. The smaller cruisers Kwang Chia and Kwang Ping, with four torpedo boats, he sent back to guard the transports against attack.

As he approached the enemy, Admiral Ito maneuver his ships into two parallel lines ahead, the heavier cruisers, with the Chiyoda, Hiei and the torpedo boats, bringing up the rear. In every ship men stood to their guns, loaded and ready to fire on the command. At the Matsushima's yardarm a huge Japanese Imperial Standard, which carried a gold chrysanthemum on a deep red background, whipped defiantly in the breeze. The flag provided the only frivolous splash of color in the well drilled formation of somber painted ships. The Chinese ships, on the other hand, with their gaily painted, ornate woodwork on deck and multicolored displays of bunting at the halyards, might well have been taking part in a carnival. But even carnivals must be organized. Ting's undulating line of battle appeared to lack all coherence, and its advance was now noticeably lacking in enthusiasm.

Ito had eased back the speed of his ships and the opposing fleets moved towards each other at a closing speed of 17 knots. The sun was nearing its zenith and, without a single cloud to veil its brilliance, reflected back from the mirror like sea with a dazzling glare. This put the south facing Chinese ships at a double disadvantage, which might have accounted for some of their lack of coordination. There was, however, a great deal of apprehension on both sides, for, with the exception of Togo's Flying Squadron and the foreign advisers in the Chinese ships, most were yet to hear a gun fired in battle.

For the next 45 minutes the two fleets stood slowly on towards each other, the distance between them closing yard by yard, but, so it seemed, each resolving not to be the first to fire. It was a silent game of poker, played out on a silver sea. The stakes were high, the penalty for the loser certain death and destruction.

Ting was the first to crack. At 2.15, unable to bear the tension any longer, he gave the order for a ranging shot to be fired. Instantaneously, the Chen Yuen's gunners had been nervously fingering their lanyards for some time, one of the battleship's 37-ton, 12-inch guns thundered out and slammed back in recoil, scattering its unwary crew to the four corners of the barbette. The heavy shell screeched through the still air, reached the top of its trajectory, curved downwards and fell half a mile short of the leading Japanese ships. At 6,000 yards, the range was far too great for the 12-inch, but, the flagship having fired, and in the absence of orders to the contrary, the rest of Admiral Ting's ship now opened up with every gun they could bring to bear. It was a noisy exhibition of indiscipline that served only to provide rich pickings for the fishermen of Korea Bay when they came sailing out to cast their nets.

The Japanese ships made no response to the provocation but continued to bear down on the Chinese in their impeccable line ahead formation. Then, when Ito judged the range to be right, a string of flags was broken out at the Matsushima's yardarm and the two lines of Japanese ships wheeled to port and formed line ahead, exposing their full broadsides to the enemy. Speed was increased to 14 knots and, on another signal from the flagship, the guns of the fleet roared out in unison, adding a disciplined voice to the ragged cannonade begun by the Chinese. The battle had commenced.

Much of the Japanese fire was directed at the two battleships Ting Yuen and Chen Yuen, and both were hit repeatedly. As Ito's ships were now steaming across the bows of the Chinese vessels they were at a temporary disadvantage; their line might easily have been pierced, with disastrous results, if Ting had increased speed, but he made no attempt to do so. The Chinese fleet in fact appeared to be in a state of paralysis, plodding doggedly on at 6 knots and throwing out a wall of shot and flame they hoped would clear a path for their advance. The truth was that, since the outbreak of the war six weeks earlier, the Chinese had not thought it necessary to exercise their ships, and, face to face with the enemy for the first time, they had no clear plan of action. The cruiser Tsi Yuen, survivor of the brush with Togo's Flying Squadron at Asan, was the first ship to be hit, and, true to form, she broke away from the line and ran for the sanctuary of Port Arthur. She was closely followed by the Kwang Chia.

The gap in the Chinese ranks left by the fleeing ships offered the Japanese an unexpected opportunity to break through and attack from behind. Ito was quick to act, and he sent in the cruisers Yoshino and Akitsushima with three torpedo boats in support. Panic broke out in the Chinese fleet. The Chi Yuen and Chao Yung went full astern, and all ships in the immediate vicinity turned their guns on the Japanese infiltraters, who were beaten back by the sheer weight of fire directed at them. In the melee the Chao Yung twisting and turning to avoid the Japanese torpedo boats, ran ashore, and all efforts to re-float her failed. She was soon reduced to a blazing hulk by the accurate fire of Ito's gunners. The battleship Chen Yuen was hit several times above and below the waterline, and her 12-inch guns were put out of action, but she fought on, using her smaller guns to some effect. Her determined fight was in no way due to her commander, Commodore Lin, who had deserted the battleship's bridge in blind panic when the shells began to fall. Lin's American adviser, Commander Philo N. McGiffin, had taken over, and would fight the ship to the end.

In the mist of their nightmare, the Chinese found another weakness in their ships exposed. The profusion of carved and painted woodwork on their decks showed itself to be a serious hazard, any shell-burst almost certainly leading to a fire. In the Chao Yung and Yang Wei, fires on deck prevented ammunition reaching the 10-inch guns, thereby rendering these ships all but useless as fighting units. The Yang Wei, engulfed in flames, followed the Chao Yung ashore.

The cruiser Chi Yuen, commanded by Captain Tang, and with Chief Engineer Purvis, a Scot, in the engine room had taken a severe battering from the Japanese guns and was making so much water that Purvis feared she would sink. He conveyed his fears to Captain Tang, who then foolishly decided to inflict some damage on the enemy while he was still able to do so. Ringing for full speed, Tang charged at the nearest Japanese ship with the intention of ramming. Unfortunately for the Chinese captain, he had chosen as his target the 23-knot Yoshino, the fastest ship in Ito's fleet. The Japanese cruiser had no difficulty in avoiding the Chi Yuen and opened fire on her with all guns at close range. Other Japanese ships joined in, and the Chi Yuen was quickly reduced to a burning hulk. She sank, taking most of her crew with her.

And so the battle raged on throughout the afternoon, with the Chinese, having recovered some of their nerve, giving as good as they received. The cruiser Lai Yuen was ablaze from end to end but her guns fired on; her sister ship, the King Yuen, took a plunging shell through her decks, caught fire and capsized. The two battleships Ting Yuen and Chen Yuen each received between three and four hundred direct hits. On the Japanese side, the flagship Matsushima was hit by a 12-inch shell which exploded among some ready use ammunition and caused terrible carnage. Otherwise, only the Yoshino and the armed merchant ship Saikio Maru sustained heavy damage. By nightfall the opposing sides had fought each other to a standstill, many of the ships being out of ammunition. The battle ended with Admiral Ito withdrawing his ships to the south, leaving the remains of the Chinese fleet to limp back to its base at Port Arthur.

One who was later to express his puzzlement over Ito's decision to discontinue the action when darkness fell was Commander McGiffin, adviser to the faint hearted Commodore Lin of the Chen Yuen. The American reported that by then the Chen Yuen was down to her last twenty rounds of ammunition for her big guns, while her smaller guns were without a shell among them. This was, in fact, the situation in many of the Chinese ships. Additionally, they had suffered heavily, losing the 10-inch gun cruisers Chao Yung and Yang Wei, the Chi Yuen, Admiral Ting's fastest ship, and the 2,850-ton cruiser King Yuen. Most of the remaining ships had sustained major damage, and Ting had lost nearly 1,000 men, with another 500 wounded, including himself. The Japanese fleet was relatively intact, having only three ships damaged, 90 men killed and 204 wounded. If Ito had chosen to press home his advantage that night he might well have destroyed the Chinese fleet altogether and thus shortened the war considerably. As it was, Ting's surviving ships were repaired within a few weeks, and although they were reluctant to put to sea again they remained a real threat to Japanese troop movements around the coast.

Interested observers, especially the Europeans, considered the Battle of the Yalu River to have been a victory for the Chinese, for although the Japanese appeared to have won the day they failed to prevent the landing of Chinese troops, which was the primary object of their attack. For those same Europeans, certainly the British and Germans, having built many of the ships and guns involved, Yalu River, regardless of its final outcome, was of great significance. It was the first major encounter involving ironclad ships using heavy breech-loading guns. The battle had, in other words, been a test run for much of the new maritime technology coming out of Europe at the time. The lessons learned would be of considerable value in the future.