The Action of 27 May Off the Island of Matsushima

That battle and its details for some time were quite enigmatical. The very short official communications clearly contradicted one another, and the headquarters Naval Staff did not find it necessary to explain these contradictions. At the same time, the event of the Tsushima battle was a very great blow to our prestige, as was also the capture of one of the chiefs of our fleet without a fight, in the presence of a force which was equal to that of the Japanese. The first Russian official news, indeed, published on 2 June, was from the commandant at Vladivostok, General Kazbek. This is what he said:

“According to the captain of the “Grozny”, he went north with the torpedo-boat-destroyer “Biedovy,”, on board which were Admiral Rozhestvensky and his staff. North of the island of Dazhelet (Matsushima) our destroyers met two larger Japanese destroyers, which offered battle. At the time of the encounter we saw that the “Biedovy”, was destroyed by an explosion. The fate of the Admiral is unknown. In the course of the action the “Grozny” sank one destroyer.”

On the other hand, on the eve of the date given, i.e. 1 June, according to the report of Admiral Togo, published by the Japanese Embassy in London, the destroyer “Biedovy”,  with Admiral Rozhestvensky was captured. It was a surprise for us that the chief of the fleet should be taken prisoner. We can, however, console ourselves with the thought that the Japanese captured Rozhestvensky after a hard fight, and after the torpedo-boat-destroyer in which he was had been shattered by an explosion, i.e. that they picked him up out of the water; and the battle continued, even after this: while the Japanese, on their side, lost one torpedo-boat. That the Japanese could only have picked the Admiral up out of the water is evident from the report of General Kazbek – in the words of the commander of the “Grozny” – that “the fate of the Admiral is unknown”. To be sure, how was he to trace the fate of the Admiral when, after the blowing up of the “Biedovy”, the battle was prolonged? Besides, up to the time when the “Grozny”, sank one of the Japanese torpedo-boats, she had to deal with two enemies. So, at least, everyone had a right to think who had read the telegram from General Kazbek. 

Meanwhile, on 4 June, Reuter sent a telegram from Tokio, which was as follows :

“The “Sadanashi” and “Kadzhero” kept up the search all night. In the morning they noticed two torpedo-boats, one of which steamed away ; the other was evidently badly damaged. The vessel proved to be the Russian torpedo-boat “Biedov”, on which were Admiral Rozhestvensky and his staff. The “Biedovy” gave the signal that her engines were damaged, and that she had neither coal nor water. The Japanese then sent an armed detachment to take possession of the torpedo-boat. The Russians asked that Admiral Rozhestvensky and the other sailors might not be removed from the “Biedovy”, on account of the wounds they had received. The “Sadanashi” took the “Biedovy” in tow.”

After two days further details appeared from Sasebo, in the words of officers of the torpedo-boat-destroyer “Sadanashi”.

“Drawing near to the Russian torpedo-boats, the Japanese opened a terrible fire from all their guns. They failed to overtake one torpedo-vessel, which succeeded in escaping. The other did not change its course, neither did it reply to the cannonade. But after a short time the white flag was hoisted at her mast-head, and the Red Cross astern. On the Japanese giving the signal, “What is your condition?” the Russians answered, “The vessel has been damaged by shells striking the engines; we have with us Admiral Rozhestvensky and his staff”.

“While the Japanese made preparations for receiving the wounded, the Russian officers encircled Rozhestvensky, and, holding up their hands, entreated, “Spare the wounded Rozhestvensky, whose wounds are so serious that, if he is moved into the Japanese vessel, they may open, and his condition will then be dangerous. The Japanese took the Russian vessel in tow, and made for the nearest island off the Korean coast. In the words of the Japanese, they determined to speed away, “lest they should meet the remainder of the Russian fleet, and be overcome by it”.

All this seemed so absurd, after the report of the “Grozny” commander, sent by General Kazbek, that, on reading these telegrams, we were only righteously indignant at the unfair boastfulness of the Japanese. According to their account, there was no battle; they alone opened fire: one of the torpedo-vessels, the “Grozny” escaped, while the other surrendered because her engines had been damaged by the Japanese shells. There was no word about the sinking of a Japanese torpedo-vessel. Then suddenly, on 8 June, there appeared the report of Admiral Rozhestvensky from captivity, where it was mentioned that “Part of my staff and myself, who had swooned away, were placed on board the “Buiny”. I was transferred to the “Biedovy”, which went ahead with the “Grozny”. On the evening of the 28th we knew that the “Biedovy” had surrendered to two torpedo-boat-destroyers. The “Biedovy” was taken to Sasebo.” This telegram produced a stunning effect. It meant that the surrender actually took place without a fight, or rather that Rozhestvensky was given up without one, for he himself was in an unconscious condition. What, then, did the telegram from General Kazbek signify, which was founded on the report of the commander of the “Grozny”? He said that the “Biedovy” was destroyed by an explosion at the time of the battle, while Rozhestvensky himself declared that she surrendered. About the battle, and the sinking of the Japanese torpedo-boat, Rozhestvensky did not say a word. If we suppose, which is more than probable, that the Japanese did not mention the loss of their own torpedo-vessel, would not some member of his staff have told him about it? All the same, his report bore more resemblance to that of Togo and of the commander of the “Grozny” than to that of the commander of the “Sadanashi”. Was it possible that the commander of the “Grozny” could have allowed such a material mistake to appear in his report; or that General Kazbek could have sent erroneous information? If this were possible, it might be that the whole report was untrue, and that what the Japanese declared was the truth. What was the truth?

Rozhestvensky’s telegram was published two days after it had been sent, or, taking into consideration the difference in time, rather more than two days. The telegrams from Tokio were published in London the day they were sent. Perhaps, however, this was done and the unfavourable results and the supplementary report of the commander of the “Grozny” kept back all that was quite possible when one considers what happened earlier. That meant that we should not know the truth, since the authorities would continue to hide it. Such were the thoughts, doubts, and questions which occupied the minds of Russian society and the Press. People were suspicious of everything, ready to listen to every tale, accused every one, and even of the most terrible things.

It was surely the duty of the headquarters Naval Staff, from a sense of justice to those who have been subjected to absolutely unjust and unmerited recriminations, to dispel these doubts; a duty which was easy to fulfil. But they well knew that General Kazbek had erroneously reported the information received from the commander of the “Grozny”, that the detailed report of the latter had a whole week before been transmitted by telegraph. Finally they knew that Admiral Rozhestvensky might have been inquired of at Sasebo, and that if he had been unable, on account of his wounds, to draw up his own report, his staff could have done so. But, indeed, instead of alleviating the excited state of the public by a clear and true explanation, they paid no attention to any one, and only added fuel to the flame. For instance, the partial conversations between the commander of the “Grozny” and the correspondence which appeared in print, received no answer in the later official reports. 

On 12 June a long telegram appeared in the papers from the Commander-in-Chief about the Tsushima battle, based on written reports, among which we may reckon that of the commander of the “Grozny”, but at the same time there was no word about the circumstances under which Rozhestvensky was taken prisoner. This tended to increase the conviction that there was something improper in the affair which they found it necessary to conceal. It meant that they did not believe the report of the commander of the “Grozny”, or that there was something in it of a compromising nature, which would not look well in print. It is not possible to imagine any other reason, for the Japanese were not silent about the circumstance of Rozhestvensky’s surrender. On the contrary, it would seem that this communication should have been published, in order to disprove the boastful assertions of our enemies, and show that there was a fight, in which one of the Japanese torpedo-vessels was sunk. Thus people would know of the “Biedovy’s” surrender from Russian sources, and not only from Japanese, which clearly asserted that the “Grozny” sailed away and did not take part in the encounter. As this report was not published, we had to suppose that it did not prove all this. When at last it did appear – on 23 July – we saw that there had been no reason for concealing it. Still, during all the time it was kept back we were supposing the most dreadful things. What were we to do? The Japanese speak the truth, and we cannot refute them. Is it possible the authorities did not understand what reproaches were being heaped on the commander of the “Grozny”, who, being wounded and far off, could not even suspect that he was being placed in such a false position by his own superiors?

The consequences of this were not long in making themselves. The Press could not keep silent on such a matter as the surrender of Admiral Rozhestvensky, a matter which troubled the whole community. The untrue reports of General Kazbek and the Japanese were unrefuted when each understood that the means for refuting them were at hand. Recriminations were scattered broadcast, and very serious ones too, although they were unjust, especially against the commander of the “Grozny”. This probably was because he could easily have communicated the truth about his action, as he was at Vladivostok. If he had been so seriously wounded as not to be able to write a detailed report, which he did on 30 May in spite of his wounds, the report might yet have been made by his assistant, Lieutenant Koptevy. From personal assurance which has been given me, I have no hesitation in stating that this was withheld, and this has led to the blame being laid on the “Grozny”. According to the Japanese instead of on the “Biedovy” report, even the “Biedovy” may have been to a certain extent justified in her action. She only lowered her flag after the Japanese shells had damaged her engines. The “Grozn ” was the by this time out of sight. No one knew of the report of commander of the “Grozny” in which it was clearly stated that the “Biedovy” lowered her flag as soon as the Japanese opened fire. This report was kept back for some unknown reason, while everyone thought it was being withheld because it did not contradict the report of the Japanese.

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