The Battle of the Sea of Japan – Part 12

The Emperor Nicholas knew what he was doing when he cashiered all the officers of the frigate “Raphael” for surrendering without striking a blow. In this way he read a lesson to the personnel of the fleet. They learned it, and no more of these ”incidents” happened after that. How thoroughly this lesson has been forgotten is shown by the fact that the admiral who surrendered flew his flag on board an armoured vessel bearing the name of the very Emperor who so decidedly expressed his views about surrender, who is responsible for the dictum “Where once the Russian flag has been hoisted, it can never be lowered.”

It is of no avail that Admiral Togo wrote in his report that Niebogatov acted well in surrendering his vessels. This was no doubt a good thing for the Japanese – such a glory, such an unheard-of triumph, four practically sound vessels as prizes. But here is the question – was it of any advantage to Russia?

Napoleon condemned surrenders very sharply and mercilessly. “In leaving to officers or generals the right to surrender on capitulation” he says (“Rules, Thoughts, and Opinions of Napoleon on the Art of War”,Military Library, vol. IV), “we inevitably expose the troops to very great danger: martial spirit in the people is extinguished, and the sense of honour is weakened. If military statutes condemned all generals, officers, and soldiers who surrendered on capitulation to humiliating corporal punishment, it would not enter the head of any one to save himself from danger by this means, and all would find their sole salvation in manliness and steadfastness. . …The question can be settled in no other way, if we do not want to weaken martial spirit and subject ourselves to very great dangers. It is most costly if a general saves himself from disgrace in this way – surrendering arms and flags by a treaty which, though securing some advantages for those under him, is unprofitable for the army and the country……such procedure must be prohibited, and punished by deprivation of honour and life: a tenth of the generals and officers, a fiftieth of the junior officers, and a thousandth part of the men. He who orders the laying down of arms is a criminal, and worthy of death”.

This side of the question is really of vital importance. The existing naval laws apply as relentlessly to departure from the scene of battle and to surrender. Here is what is laid down in Articles 274 and 279 of our present military and naval standing orders as to punishments:

“Article 274 – He who during battle or in view of the enemy turns to flight, and by his example excites disorder in the ranks, or gives occasion to others to retreat, is subject to deprivation of all rights of his rank, and to the penalty of death”.

“Article 279 – He who, commanding a fleet, squadron, or division of ships or vessels, lowers his flag before the enemy, or lays down arms, or concludes a capitulation with him, without fulfilling his obligations of duty under oath, and not in accordance with the requirements of military honour and the rules of naval law, shall be subject to dismissal from the service, with deprivation of rank: if such proceedings are carried out without fighting or in disregard of the possibility of self-defence, to the penalty of death”.

On reading the pleasant declarations of Admiral Togo, one involuntarily asks oneself; What would he have said if battleships of his squadron had surrendered? It is believed that General Nogi, near Port Arthur, shot officers and soldiers who did not surrender, but merely withdrew without sufficient reason. Why did a whole Japanese regiment, on board the “Khitatchi-Maru”, a transport, and consequently utterly helpless against our powerful cruisers (15 June, 1904, in the Straits of Korea), sink without surrender? Probably plain warning had been given to those Japanese officers who surrendered a month before on board the steamer “Kintchio-Maru”, and those in the “Khitatchi-Maru” knew well what to expect on returning to their country from captivity.

Page 68 of Book 16 of the Naval Regulations declares: A subordinate is made responsible for his own actions where, “in obeying orders, he cannot help seeing that his chief enjoins violation of oath and loyalty to the service, or the performance of some action clearly criminal”. However amazing at first glance may be the fact that commanders and officers found it possible to submit to Niebogatov’s order to surrender, in reality they no doubt showed that regard for discipline which has for so many years been undeviatingly inculcated among the personnel in our fleet. That is, “not to dare to reason about what the authorities may command. When once they give orders, the responsibility is off my shoulders, and whatever may result is not my business”. All personal initiative, all resolve to assume personal responsibility, although for the advantage of the situation, is destroyed among us when once such resolve is taken, irrespective of the orders of the authorities. It was possible to be culpably inactive and lazy, it was possible to be entangled in the most dubious transactions; all this was pardoned and overlooked. But to point out, even on most important occasions, that the authorities were acting criminally, making arrangements tending to the evident injury of the country – that was never pardoned. Here has been reaped what was sown. All are afraid of responsibility, all hide behind one another; all consider themselves right if they execute the orders of the authorities, even if these are clearly harmful. Napoleon, adverting to an occasion when a certain general obeyed an order to surrender from another already a prisoner, says “He was palpably in error touching the meaning of military subordination. A general in the hands of the enemy has no longer any right to issue orders, and he who obeys them is guilty”. And is not a chief, possessed by the power of his own self-love and the desire to preserve his prestige, even to the injury of the business in hand, in a similar position to the chief made prisoner by the enemy? Napoleon makes it clear: “Not a single sovereign, not a single republic, not a single military ordinance, authorises military chiefs to surrender; the sovereign or country orders subalterns and the rank and file to obey the chiefs in all that may serve to the profit or glory of arms. Arms are entrusted to a soldier under oath to defend himself to the last drop of his blood. A commander receives orders and directions to employ the army for the defence of the country. Whence does he derive a right to order those under him to lay down arms and accept chains in exchange?” 

The rank and file, therefore, on board the surrendered vessels ought to have remembered not only their right but their obligation to refuse to execute the orders of Admiral Niebogatov. Perhaps it was impossible to oppose them – I do not undertake to judge of that; but to follow the example of the “Rurik” was certainly possible. Only one commissioned officer was left uninjured on board the “Rurik”; half the crew were hors de combat; yet all the same he succeeded in sinking his ship. On the contrary, in the coast-defence ships “Seniavin” and “Apraxin” all were alive and well, as the chief of the naval staff reported. If the combatant officers seemed irresolute in the matter, the engineers and artificers ought to have opened the Kingston valves on their own initiative. They were just as guilty as the rest for the shameful surrender. They had not for nought recently received officers’ rank. In other events of this war the engineers and combatant officers rivalled each other in self-denial and courage. Of all the officers involved in the surrender, only those were innocent who were so seriously wounded as to be hors de combat. There was, I have said, not a single one of these in the “Seniavin” and the “Apraxin”. I cannot in any way blame the rank and file. It would be asking too much. They obeyed their officers, and did not fulfil their duty to the country behind their backs. I protested when the surrender was ascribed to the mutiny of the lower-deck hands, and still protest if they are blamed on such an occasion for obeying their officers. However, I should certainly have admired them if they had acted as the Japanese rank and file acted on board the “Kintchio-Maru”, after their officers had surrendered. According to the report of Admiral Jessen, they opened fire on our cruisers, and he was obliged to sink the “Kintchio-Maru” by a torpedo but, after that, as long as she was above water, the Japanese soldiers continued firing, and none were saved. With regard to mutiny among the rank and file, I have received a letter containing an instance of expressed collective discontent among the crew of one of the cruisers, in consequence of not receiving their allowance of bread. I do not hesitate to believe this, knowing of similar instances; but I was not speaking of such events as these. However long-suffering our peasant is – and the soldier or sailor is himself a peasant-when he sees that he is openly robbed (and unfortunately such instances are not rare), he is capable of contriving something like a mutiny, abated, however, in a moment when his lawful demands are satisfied. I do not know of any such revolts in which the rank and file were not substantially right in their demands. I am perfectly convinced, though, that, should the enemy appear during such a mutiny, in a moment there would be an end of it. All would be at their posts, and would fight with complete self-denial to the last man.

A comparison with the case of the “Rurik” again involuntarily presents itself, and it is worth while recalling certain passages in the despatch of Lieutenant Ivanov on the 26th, about the “Rurik’s” last hours. These are they : “At 8 a.m., the rudder was damaged by a projectile (the protection by the armoured deck was very incomplete on board the Rurik’) and remained fixed on the port side (so that on steaming ahead the cruiser would turn abruptly off to starboard and thus keep turning round and round on the spot where she was). She sank from a hole below the waterline; the tiller and the entire steering gear were shot away, and the consequent steering of the ship with the engines was difficult in the extreme. The ship could not obey the Admiral’s signal to follow at full speed after the “Rossia”, and “Gromoboi”’ which were carrying on a battle with four Japanese cruisers. She therefore remained and resumed her fight with the two cruisers “Takatshikho” and “Naniva”’ who took advantage of the damaged state of the “Rurik’s” steering gear; maintaining a prolonged fire upon her on the starboard side and causing her great damage with their quick-firing guns of heavy calibre. Attempts to ram them were detected by the enemy, who without difficulty maintained their advantageous position. Our fire gradually weakened in consequence of the great number of guns put out of action, and at twelve o’clock it completely ceased. All our guns had been silenced and we had many dead and wounded among the officers and men. At this moment a torpedo was discharged from one of our tubes, but it did not hit, and then the torpedo-firing gear was destroyed. The commander and next senior officer were mortally wounded at the very commencement of the battle, and out of twenty-two officers six were killed and nine wounded. There remained unhurt one midshipman, one ensign, two artificers, two warrant officers and a chaplain. Out of eight hundred men, close upon two hundred were killed and 278 wounded.

“As there was no possibility of steering the ship, owing to the loss of the rudder, and as some of the principal steam pipes had been shot through (the engines therefore ceasing to work), I could not get away from the enemy. In consequence of the annihilation of all means of defence, in face of the approach of four armoured cruisers returning from pursuit of our own, and also of the reappearance of three second-class cruisers (in addition to the two which had been engaging the “Rurik”) and five torpedo-boats, I resolved to blow up the ship. I entrusted the carrying out of this to Midshipman Baron Schilling (the only naval officer remaining uninjured), but the attempt did not succeed. A portion of the supply of Bickford fuse (this fuse burns slowly, so that after igniting it one may get clear) had been destroyed by the bursting of a gun, and the remainder was stored in a compartment that had been flooded I therefore gave orders to sink the vessel by opening the Kingston valves, which the artificers effected. The interval before the ship foundered was devoted to saving the wounded and the crew, by the aid of the mattresses (sailors’ mattresses are stuffed with cork), life-belts, pieces of wood, etc., because all the boats were shot away. At noon the cruiser went to the bottom, and the survivors were taken up while swimming, by the enemy’s ships, which conveyed us to Sasebo with every care.”

Thus the “Rurik”, actually acted according to the Regulations. She did not lower her flag, even though deprived of all means of defence, and having in front of her nine hostile ships and five torpedo-boats. Likewise, the small “Admiral Ushakov”  refused to surrender, though having for antagonists two large armoured cruisers, excelling her four and a half times in displacement, and incomparably more powerful in guns and armour. Our ship heroically ended her career by sinking beneath a hail of the enemy’s projectiles. The miserably weak “Dmitri Donskoi” did not strike her flag to the fourth Japanese division and second torpedo-boat flotilla, but ran herself aground, hopelessly injured. 

After all this, the thought is still more tormenting that Admiral Niebogatov surrendered with four battleships. The most cruel and offensive rumours were circulated regarding the causes of this surrender. But this was not all. I expressed astonishment at the time that in the official intelligence nothing was mentioned about the “Grozny’s” arrival at Vladivostok. Apparently, she arrived there about 10 a.m. on 30 May, when special correspondents telegraphed the tenor of their conversations with her commander.

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