04 Jun 21

The title of this book undersells it rather. What Phil Carradice has produced is a relatively short work (168pp) which tells the story not only of the battle, fought mainly on the 27th May 1905, but also the Russian fleet’s voyage to the Strait of Tsushima which had begun over seven months previously.

I’m not convinced that this battle is as unknown as the author makes out in his introduction; the successors of the Imperial Japanese Navy certainly hold the story dear to them, and the Mikasa has pride of place in their base at Yokosuka. His point that, had the clash taken place in the North Sea, it would be better known is certainly true, but the impact of the battle was felt across both maritime and diplomatic domains – which he carefully documents. Perhaps it is a plea for greater contemporary European understanding.

That understanding is certainly increased by this volume. Carradice draws on contemporary sources to offer a very vivid picture of life at sea in a turn of the century ironclad, through describing the privations suffered by the Russian fleet as they sailed thousands of miles from St Petersburg, around the Cape of Good Hope and finally to their doom just past the island of Tsushima in the Korea Strait. The challenges of this journey, in warships powered by coal-fired reciprocating engines, were significant, not least as the majority of the coaling stations en route were controlled by Great Britain. Britain was boarding on hostile to the expedition after the Russians managed to open fire on a group of British trawlers on the Dogger Bank, mistaking them for Japanese torpedo boats, though the French position was a little more flexible.

The story of the French Governor of Dakar forbidding the Russian Admiral, Rozhestvensky, from coaling at anchor off the colony, illustrates well the political and social realities of the day; having initially welcomed them, and been entertained lavishly onboard, the official returned with news of a change of heart from Paris, largely motivated by the need to maintain relations with Britain. The Russian Admiral, however, stated his intention to continue coaling “unless your shore batteries intend to prevent me” – with no shore batteries in sight, and the nearest French warship thousands of miles away, the two men resumed drinking champagne as the coal was loaded.

The social divide between officers and sailors in the Russian fleet and the stirrings of revolution are also well documented, with mutinous behaviour not only triggered by Marxist thought but also the harshness of Rozhestvensky’s disciplinary regime. There is more written about him than any other character in the story, and we get a very personal sense of his thoughts and mental state as his fleet grinds on eastwards.

The destruction of the Russian fleet is starkly described, and with real pace, though it badly needs some track charts to fully explain the effectiveness of Togo’s manoeuvres and thus his reputation as the “Nelson of the Orient”. The impact of the strikes and revolution of 1905 back in Russia act as a running background to sea campaign and there is a good attempt to document what was happening ashore in Kamchatka and China, to provide the context for the fleet’s deployment.  The land campaign continued once the fleet had sailed, but as it is largely confined to the early chapters, at times the chronology gets a little confused and a reference to one of the Russian junior commanders having “a girlish walk’ is unnecessary.

There is, however, a significant imbalance in coverage between the Russian and Japanese perspectives. To return to the book’s title, this felt more like a Rozhestvensky’s eye view of the deployment, than a history of the battle. We have the detail of the intrigue and machinations of the Russian court, and their impact on the Fleet – but nothing from the Emperor’s palace. Likewise, we get real insight into Rozhestvensky’s personality, but not nearly as much on Togo.

Nonetheless, what Carradice has produced is a narrative rich in detail about the Russian experience of the battle, seafaring in early ironclads and the experience of sailors and their commanders on deployment half way around the world, and there is much to enjoy in it.