The Russian forces available for the defence of Port Arthur were not inconsiderable. Counting the crews of the Russian warships, Stössel had almost 50,000 men and over 500 guns. He could also, if circumstances dictated, remove guns from the fleet and use them to bolster his land defences. Altogether, counting non-combatants, the total population of the port was around 87,000.
The ports defensive system, at least at first glance, appeared formidable, being drawn up originally by the hero of the Crimean War, General Todleben. However many of the redoubts and forts were still unfinished, and the means for making concrete, together with material needed for reinforcing were in very short supply; barbed wire was also scarce.
The outer defence perimeter of Port Arthur consisted of a line of fortified hills, the most prominent among these being Hsiao-ku-Shan and Ta-ku-Shan near the Ta-ho River in the east, and Namako Yama, Akasaka Yama, 174 Meter Hill, 203 Meter Hill and False Hill in the west. At a distance of approximately one mile behind this first line ran the original Chinese wall, which encircled the Old Town of Port Arthur from the south, to the Lun-ho River at the northwest. The Russians had continued this line on again to the west and south, enclosing the approaches to the harbour and the New Town. These lines had also been strengthened by the addition of concrete forts and connecting trenches to facilitate the defence.
At some 4,000 meters to the rear again stood the last line of entrenchments surrounding the Old Town. However by the time this, “Last Ditch” could have been defended the port itself would have been untenable.
The Japanese Admiral, Togo, had four battleships, eleven cruisers and an assortment of some forty-six other craft, including destroyers and torpedo boats. Not wishing to engage the enemy too closely, in case of sustaining heavy damage to his fleet which he knew he had to preserve in the event of the arrival of the Russian Baltic squadron, Togo chose to hold back his heavy battleships and cruisers, and rely on attacking the enemy fleet with his destroyers and torpedo boats. Noting that the Russian Admiral seemed to be trying to manoeuvre away from contact and seek to escape using the cover of night, Togo ordered his main armaments to close on the enemy fleet. At 4.15 p.m. a general action was brought on, and after one and a half hours of confused and constant shelling Vitgeft’s flagship, the Tsarevich was hit by a 12 inch shell, killing the Admiral outright. Thereafter the rest of the Russian fleet, owing to a total breakdown in their command structure, milled around in confusion. The Russian second in command, Prince Ukhtomski decided to try and make a run back to Port Arthur; however, the badly damaged Tsarevich, together with three destroyers made their escape to the Port of Kiao-chou, where they were interned, while three more Russian cruisers and a destroyer made it as far as Saigon and Shanghai respectively where they were also interned. Another cruiser, the Novik did manage to reach Russian territorial waters, only to be pounced upon by two Japanese cruisers near Sakhalin, and after a gallant fight her crew scuttled her.
The Battle of the Yellow Sea had one drawback as far as the lives of thousands of Japanese soldiers were concerned. It allowed General Nogi to instigate a plan for attacking Port Arthur before the arrival of the Russian Baltic fleet, which he considered he would be able to do by storming the fortifications at once. As General J.F.C.Fuller states, ‘Though such a decision is understandable, for this was the first attempt in history to storm a fortress held with magazine rifles, machine guns, and quick-firing artillery, there was little justification for General Nogi to suppose that it was likely to succeed against so determined an enemy as the Russians had proved themselves to be.’
Japanese camp outside Port Arthur
After summoning the garrison of Port Arthur to surrender, which was promptly refused, the Japanese assault came at dawn on the 19th August, and was directed at 174 Meter Hill, with other storming parties going in along the line that ran from Fort Sung-shu to the Chi-Kuan Battery. 174 Meter Hill itself was held by two East Siberian regiments and two companies of sailors from the Russian fleet under the command of Colonel Tretyakov, the same man who had shown his ability at Nanshan. The fighting was desperate, being mostly carried out at night, and some idea of its intensity and confusion can be understood when reading the correspondence of Frederick Villiers the English observer with the Japanese 3rd Army, “…Three of the nine searchlights that the Russians appear to possess are playing incessantly on this section of the battlefield, and star bombs or rockets are bursting continually, their incandescent petals spreading fanlike and falling slowly to the ground. So brilliant are the lights that the moon, now nearing the horizon, is but a faint slip of silver in the sky. The colour of this night warfare is what Whistler would have revelled in. The deep purple of the mountains against the nocturnal blue, the pale lemon of the moon, the whitish rays of the searchlights, the warm incandescent glow of the star bombs, the reddish spurt from the cannon’s mouths, and the yellow flash from the exploding shell, all tempered to a mellowness by a thin haze of smoke, ever clinging to the hill-top and valley, make the scene the most weird and unique I have ever looked on during all the many wars I have witnessed.”
Just as he had done at Nanshan, Tretyakov, although having his first lines of trenches overrun, clung on with grim determination to 174 Meter Hill. The following day, 20th August, Tretyakov asked for reinforcements, and just as at Nanshan none were forthcoming. With more than half of his men either killed or wounded and the Japanese showing no slacking in their assaults, the rest of his command fell back in some confusion, which Tretyakov managed to control, but not before 174 Meter Hill was overrun. The cost had been high on both sides, with the Japanese having some 1,800 killed and wounded, and the Russians over 1,000.
The assaults on the other sections of the Russian line had also cost the Japanese dearly. When Nogi finally called off his attempt to take the port by storm on the 24th August, he had only 174 Meter Hill and West and East Pan-lung to show for his sacrifice of more than 16,000 men, all other positions remained firmly in Russian hands. Nogi at last decided that he must settle for a formal siege.
While the Japanese settled down in front of Port Arthur, the two belligerents’ main field armies had clashed at the Battle of Liaoyang. Here, on the 25th August, the day after Nogi’s last assault had failed, Marshal Oyama had engaged the Russians under Kuropatkin. The battle lasted for nine days and cost the Japanese over 20,000 men killed and wounded, and the Russians almost 18,000. The result was a Japanese victory, which had forced Kuropatkin to retire in order to cover his communications with Mukden.
Back at Port Arthur Nogi had now ordered the construction of trenches, and also the commencement of tunnelling operations under the walls of the Russian forts to permit mines to be planted to blow them up. He also now had the additional benefit of several fresh batteries of artillery and a reinforcement of 16,000 fresh troops from Japan, all of which compensated for the losses sustained in his first bloody assaults. He could also feel a measure of extra confidence with the news that he would soon be receiving some powerful Krupp 11-inch howitzer, also en route from Japan.
As Stössel glibly stared defeat in the face, Nogi pressed forward with his siege works. His plan now was to take the Temple and Waterworks Redoubts in the east, and 203 Meter Hill and Namako Yarma in the west. Geoffrey Dukes, in his work, The Russo-Japanese War 1904-1905 makes the point that neither Nogi or Stössel seem to have realized the importance of 203 Meter Hill, as it commanded excellent views of the harbour, and, if taken by the Japanese, would enable them to bring down fire upon the Russian warships sheltering there. This fact was brought to Nogi’s attention when he was paid a visit by General Kodama, who immediately saw that the hill was the key to the whole Russian defence.
By mid September the Japanese had cut their trenches to within 70 meters of the Waterworks Redoubt, which they attacked and carried on the 19th, thereafter they successfully took and held the Temple Redoubt, while other strong attacking forces were sent against Namako Yama and 203 Meter Hill. The former was taken that same day, but the dense columns of troops sent against 203 Meter Hill were cut down in swathes and forced back leaving the ground covered in dead and wounded. After this the Russians now began to strengthen the hill still further, while Nogi settled down and began a prolonged artillery bombardment of the town and part of the harbour. However he did attempt yet another mass assault on the hill in October, which, if 203 Meter Hill had fallen, was to have been a ‘present’ for the Japanese emperor’s birthday. The only present the emperor received from Nogi was an increase in the casualty list after the attack once again foundered with the loss of almost 5,000 men.
As the defenders and civilians in Port Arthur were being subjected to bombardment and hunger, Kuropatkin had been receiving a stream of reinforcements for his main field army; these included two complete army corps. These troops had been acquired, in the main, by Kuropatkin’s falsification of his report concerning the battle of Liaoyang in which he had falsely claimed a victory. Unfortunately for the Russian commander this fresh acquisition of strength also came with orders to go onto the offensive once more and attempt to relieve the beleaguered town before it was forced to capitulate, thus freeing Nogi’s troops to join with the other Japanese armies in Manchuria.
The result was the battle of Sha-ho (7th-17th October), which once more proved a fiasco for Russian arms. Muddled orders and lack of proper communications resulted in the Tsar’s brave but disgracefully led battalions being slaughtered. The losses on the Russian side were 11,000 killed, and over 30,000 wounded. The Japanese losses were considerably lower, though still high, at 4,000 killed and 16,000 wounded. It must be remembered however that Russia could refill her ranks by drawing upon her massive reserve of manpower while the Japanese were without the benefit of this luxury. Once again Kuropatkin claimed a victory, and once again it seems that Nicholas believed him, but the truth of the matter was that whatever the Tsar or his commander in the field chose to believe, Port Arthur was now almost as good as doomed.
With the onset of winter both side’s main field armies settled into winter quarters. At Port Arthur Nogi had at last taken delivery of 18 of the Krupp 11- inch howitzers, which had been manhandled from the railhead by teams of 800 soldiers along an eight-mile narrow gauge track. These, together with another 450 guns as well as mortars now began to pound the Russian positions. The Japanese had centralised their artillery, which had its headquarters connected by miles of telephone lines with every battery along their front. The massive Krupp howitzers could throw a 227 kilo shell over 9,000 meters and during their period in front of Port Arthur over 35,000 of these “roaring trains” as they became known, were fired. In addition over 1,400,000 other types of shell were rained down on the port. As one Japanese officer wrote, ‘…with clockwork regularity, fantastic trees grew up every few minutes in different directions along the northeast front, and we heard the roars of dreadful explosions. Eight of them occurred in Erh-Lung-Shan and Chi-Kuan-Shan Forts this day (1st October) and did great damage to the casemates.’
Having no way of observing the effect of their fire on the Russian fleet in the harbour, and now well aware that the Russian Baltic fleet was on its way, the Japanese fully understood the necessity of destroying what ships were still serviceable in the port. To this end therefore it became essential that Nogi captured 203 Meter Hill.
Once again the Russians defenders dug-in on the hilltop were commanded by the intrepid Colonel Tretyakov, and consisted of five companies of infantry with machine gun detachments, a company of engineers, a few sailors and a battery of artillery. The hill itself, although having taken a terrible pounding during the previous attacks, was still formidable. As well as being of great natural strength, it was also well protected by a massive redoubt and two keeps, all of which was surrounded by thick wire entanglements. It was also connected to the two other forts on False Hill and Akasaka Yama by well dug lines of trenches and smaller field works.
After their costly attacks on the hill during October in which thousands of men had been killed and wounded, Nogi, under threat of replacement, now came under the orders of General Kodama who, although not replacing Nogi outright, nevertheless exercised strong pressure upon him to take drastic action, therefore Nogi saw no other option than to attempt one more all out assault upon the pock marked and blood soaked height. After weeks of tunnelling the Japanese sappers were now fighting to clear part of the underground defences, and on November 26th, the same day that the Russian Baltic fleet was entering the Indian Ocean, the Japanese commenced their attack on 203 Meter Hill.
The bombardment lasted until 5 p.m. on the 27th November, when, ‘The position resembled a volcano in eruption.’ Suddenly the guns fell silent as ant-like masses of Japanese troops poured out of their trenches and up the sides of the Akasaka Yarma and 203 Meter Hill. The attack was carried out in darkness enabling them to get up as far as the Russian line of wire entanglements. Here they held their ground throughout the following day, while their artillery redoubled its efforts to reduce the defences to rubble. The Japanese soldiers, ‘…fought like fiends, fought till they lost consciousness, one of their battalions being literally swept away from the face of the earth.’ The attackers managed to enter both forts, only to be driven out with appalling losses. The Russians rained down hand grenades into the seething mass of Japanese soldiers who poured into their forward trenches, while well positioned Russian machine guns mowed down hundreds more who were endeavouring to push forward, forcing them to relinquish their hold on the hills.
On the 30th November more assaults were carried out, and continued until the 4th December when it became so grim that one commentator noted, ‘…it was a struggle of human flesh against iron and steel, against blazing petroleum, lyddite, pyroxyline, and mélinite, and the stench of rotting corpses.’ But still the Russians held on.
Finally, at 10.30 a.m. on December 5th, after another terrific bombardment by their artillery, the Japanese managed to capture 203 Meter Hill, finding only a handful of dazed and bloody defenders still left alive. By 5.00 p.m., ‘…over the rubble on top of the hill the Rising Sun of Japan was seen flapping in the dusty air.’
Ellis Ashmead Bartlett, an eye witness to these events has left us a vivid and haunting description of the scene in his book, Port Arthur, The Siege and Capitulation, ‘This mountain would have been an ideal spot for a Peace Conference. There have probably never been so many dead crowded into so small a space since the French stormed the great redoubt at Borodino…The Japanese are horrible to look at when dead, for their complexion turns quite green, which gives them an unnatural appearance…There were practically no bodies intact; the hillside was carpeted with odd limbs, skulls, pieces of flesh, and the shapeless trunks of what had been once human beings, intermingled with pieces of shells, broken rifles, twisted bayonets, grenades, and masses of rock loosed from the surface by the explosions.’
The cost had indeed been great. Over 11,000 Japanese dead, and almost 10,000 wounded, which shows the severity of the fighting, and the fact that the Japanese literally fought to the death. The Russians lost over 6,000 in killed and wounded.
For Nogi the price was justified by the fact that he could now bombard the harbour and the Russian fleet by placing his heavy howitzers on the summit of 203 Meter Hill. This done he commenced to turn the Russian ships into scrap metal, leaving the way clear for Admiral Togo’s fleet to return to Japan for a refit, and then confront the Baltic Fleet with some chance of success.
Meanwhile in Port Arthur, Stössel held a council of war at which he was advised that the port could only hold out until the middle of January 1905. Choosing to disregard any opinion other than his own, Stössel decided that they should hold on until the very last. However at yet another council, on December 29th he was finally persuaded that surrender was now the only option, since the Japanese had by this time already captured part of the Chinese Wall, and were already preparing for a full-scale assault on the last Russian lines of defence. On January 1st 1905, Stössel sent a message to Nogi asking for terms of surrender, which were duly agreed and signed on January 2nd. With this the Russian garrison was taken into captivity, but civilians were allowed to leave, and Russian officers given the choice of either going with their men or giving their parole and taking no further part in the war. All told some 878 officers, 23,500 soldiers and 9,000 sailors, together with 14,000 sick and wounded surrendered to the Japanese.