The Battle of the Sea of Japan – Part 2

The squadron got under sail on 13 August, 1904, and in the course of that month its composition was a matter of common knowledge. It was by no means of the same strength as when it left Libau in October. It had not then been joined by the battleship “Orel” the cruisers “Oleg”, “Zhemtshug” and “Izumrud” and several torpedo vessels. 

At that time many people said that Admiral Rozhestvensky himself was very much against the despatch of any more ships. What this opinion of his was based upon I cannot say. I only heard from him the doubt as to whether ships that were not in a thorough state of repair would ever be able to make the long sea voyage. He said that they would have to be interned in neutral ports, where they would be disarmed, which would be a new disgrace to our navy. Apparently his opinion only applied to obsolete ships, such as the “Navarin” which had defective boilers), the “Admiral Nakhimov” and the “Dmitri Donskoi,” and to others that had been hurriedly built and were far from being complete. In this latter category was the “Oleg” one of the cylinders of which had a crack (which had been officially reported to the Admiralt) and so could only go half speed when the engine had made countless revolutions ; also the cruisers “Zhemtshug” and “Izumrud” The latter had been turned out by the Nevsky works in a dirty and incomplete state. Anyhow, the Admiral set himself against the despatch of these vessels, which subsequently constituted Niebogatov’s squadron.

As it turned out, Rozhestvensky proved to be mistaken in his prognostications; all these ships stood the voyage admirably, and reached the scene of operations at a high rate of speed, as did also Admiral Niebogatov’s squadron. Consequently he may have been mistaken about the rest of the information which caused him to decide against any addition to his own forces. To my mind that is not the question at issue. Everybody has a right to his own opinion, including Rozhestvensky ; but how was it that all insisted only on the dark side of the situation, and contented themselves with that?

As if that could be any justification, from a large number of persons in the Ministry, some of them occupying the very highest positions, I heard the same protest against the strengthening of the fleet. “Was not the Admiral himself against it?” they said. I can understand that it must be very convenient to shake off such responsibility and take refuge behind someone else, but that it could be right I seriously doubt. What I mean is that if the Admiral was to blame for an error in judgement, then no one either could, or should, have  attempted to justify his mistake. That could not possibly be right. And how wretched must be the man who, working on a broad plan, can yet find no one who dare justify him, or dare point out to him his errors, and yet at the same time his name is employed as a cloak for everything. And again, why was Admiral Rozhestvensky hindered in so many ways when equipping his squadron? Why were his most reasonable requests refused, his hands tied over every trifle during a prolonged and exhaustive correspondence, and he himself insulted when he rightly desired to break certain hard and fast rules, to the benefit of the cause and the avoidance of loss of time? Why were his requests not complied with at the time? I know why! It was all owing to that ruinous and guilty dread of responsibility, the desire to shift it on to other shoulders, and an absorbing care for personal peace and quietness. 

For instance, suppose Rozhestvensky required something. There was all the less anxiety and responsibility for the officials for giving him what he required : “We shall not now” they said, “have to hush up our shortcomings before such and such higher officials” For instance, if he requisitioned three sets of signal-flags and the regulations only allowed two, then, even though such flags were only a penny apiece, the word “I agree”, must be affixed to his demand ; and how dreadful to sign one’s name to this criminal word and take responsibility for it! Then quibbles would arise. To be convicted of irregularity wounds one’s pride. Therefore, it would have been better to say “So-and-so granted, and so-and-so refused” and by saving face in that way make the refusal easier and more palatable.

Let us return to the opinion formed by Admiral Rozhestvensky as to the proper complement of the fleet. What was the Admiral’s exact position? That of Commander of the second fleet and nothing more. He was in no way responsible for the general conduct of the war, but only for his own feet. At that time another fleet still existed at Port Arthur, under Admiral Withoeft. His opinion was not of such very great importance, and his estimate as to what further force should be sent to strengthen his fleet was not final, though, owing to his experience of war in general, it was really of high value. merely mention this en passant. The burning part of the question is whether there was any admiral entitled to control both fleets as supreme Commander-in-Chief, urging them on to increased and united energy, activity and initiative; though even that would not have ensured success. 

As the personages to whom I have referred could not be gainsaid, as during the war these individuals were superiors for the time, they took advantage of their mischievous influence with this higher authority, which could not of itself directly settle such questions, and by so doing at once shifted the burden of responsibility from their own shoulders, and shielded themselves behind authorities against which there was no appeal. Of course if Admiral Rozhestvensky preferred that certain ships should not form part of his squadron, then it was quite right to give him carte blanche, so that the commander might have confidence in the ships he led. But a third squadron of all these remaining ships could have been entrusted to a separate commander, and it would have been right to invest the supreme command of these two squadrons in the Commander-in-Chief. Finally, Rozhestvensky was not the only one to be consulted, and, highly as I rate his opinion, the interests of the public could not be sacrificed to him in this matter, provided only that the higher authorities had realised the fact.

In August the State of affairs had materially changed. The Port Arthur Squadron and the Vladivostok Cruiser Squadron had been disastrously defeated, and the former was dismantled to reinforce the fortifications. To my thinking, from that time onward there was no reasonable chance of success. The Baltic Fleet had a terrible task before it, to dispute the command of the sea single-handed with the Japanese. Whether we liked it or not, we had to think the matter over, and under these conditions, when the fleet was ready to sail, a council was held, on 12 September, at which the question was debated whether the fleet should be despatched or not. Some of the members protested against its being sent; others against its being sent in no stronger force. It was finally decided, however, that it should sail – though another whole month passed before it got under weigh. It is highly interesting to note that there was one voice raised in favour of its non-despatch, because “our army would soon sweep the Japs before it” This, be it observed, was after Liao-Yang had been fought. 

We could quite understand the fleet being held back on account of its inadequacy, but the reason here cited is simply too absurd. It is only by the blending of opinions that I can account for the one valid objection being set aside, viz. the weakness of the force, and in no other way can I account for the subsequent resolution to send it as it was, for then there were only two courses possible, either instant reinforcement by making the utmost efforts, or, if that was out of the question, not to send it at all.

The circumstances under which the fleet at last got under weigh, receiving, instead of a send-off, an ill-omened hint from the Technical Committee as to the possibility of its best and most modern battleships being recalled are these. It was weak in itself, had not been reinforced, and was despatched in defiance of the opinions of a large number of the highest authorities on naval matters. That being so, what could the Press do except point out by every possible means the weakness of the fleet, and clamour for its immediate reinforcement at all costs? To point out that it should have been recalled was for the Press an imperative necessity. Then all its shortcomings would have been made public, which meant the betrayal of military secrets. In No. 165 of the “Slovo” Mr. N. A. Demtshinsky says that the defects of the personnel in particular were what made the fleet’s despatch most perilous ; but at the same time the tragedy of the situation, as it then was, lay in the fact that we could say nothing at the time. Only one thing remained to us, viz. to demonstrate the weakness in matériel, relying on the data at our command, which consisted of manuals accessible to all. Only the Government could recall the fleet, and only then if convinced of its weakness, and on receiving from the Ministry of Marine a full and candid admission of its defects, both in matérviel and personnel. 

But this did not occur. The feet continued its voyage. It became necessary, in consequence, to demand, even more urgently and definitely, the despatch of reinforcements. This ought not to have been the guiding sentiment, since the ships sent were going to their destruction. Were they not enough “to be their country’s loss”? Why, then, send more to the same doom? Who would have had the courage to talk like that? If what was weak could be kept back and could be made moderately strong, the natural course was to give it support of some kind, if not in quality, then in quantity. Perhaps it was expected that Rozhestvensky would insist explicitly on the absolute necessity of turning back, and by so doing take upon himself the responsibility of a retrograde movement. If such was the expectation, it was distinctly unfair to him. To decide upon such a course was the most difficult thing that could be expected of him, for he would have been accused of cowardice. This should have been realised. When so much was at stake, he had had the courage to take upon himself a grave responsibility.

But meanwhile time passed, and the fleet sailed farther and farther on its route. It was neither stopped nor reinforced. In Russia people expected Rozhestvensky to take the initiative : he naturally expected it to come from home. A close circle existed, which could only be broken through by a strong will and determination.

When a signal to retreat was reported to Nelson during one of his battles, he put his glass to his blind eye and said, “D -d if I see Admiral Parker’s signal. Keep mine for closer action flying. If necessary, nail it to the mast. That’s how I answer such orders”

“It is owing to this noble daring” says an English historian, “that the English Fleet came safely through the battle” 

Both Admiral Parker and Admiral Nelson showed manliness, each in his way, in assuming responsibility for his procedure. And it was just this rivalry in high-mindedness, and that precious quality of readiness to take responsibility, which the Ministry of Marine should have given an example of. 

So anyone will agree who has the most elementary knowledge of naval history. In this respect, though, the ignorance in our naval service baffles description. The Ministry should have understood that, as regards the despatch of a second squadron, if it was impossible to send adequate reinforcements – not owing to the wind and current, as in Parker’s case, but owing to slowness and irregularity – then it had all the greater reason to follow Parker’s example, and take the responsibility upon itself, even if its reputation suffered thereby. But, as things were, the future historian will hardly speak of our Ministry’s conduct as Admiral Jurien de la Gravière did of Parker’s. 

To such a noble outburst on the part of Admiral Rozhestvensky there would have been no occasion to make the same rejoinder as Nelson did to Parker’s signal. In this case the obstacle was quite a different one, and he, of all persons, realised this, and allowed it to be seen in his reports, which openly set forth the squadron’s deficiencies. 

If, however, such had not been the case; if Rozhestvensky, though not having the same reasons as Nelson, had, nevertheless, followed his example by pretending to turn a deaf ear to instructions from St. Petersburg, then the Ministry should have taken a high-minded course, and been still more precise in its instructions. (I have alluded to Nelson’s signal more in connexion with Admiral Niebogatov’s signal as regards surrender. The commanders of ships should then have given him the same answer as Nelson gave) The despatch of Rozhestvensky’s squadron, and the Government’s action with regard to the whole conduct of the war, showed up the impracticable method of conducting operations from the capital. So I pointed out at the time with regard to the abolition of the naval general staff, when the command of all the naval and military forces passed from Admiral Alexeiev to General Kuropatkin. 

The Commander-in-Chief himself, who is immediately responsible for the general conduct of operations on land and sea, ought to have directed the general lines of the squadrons proceeding to the Far East, not St. Petersburg. Of course, for this purpose he ought to have had a naval staff of the same importance as that for military operations, and not merely a flag officer’s entourage. Then the Commander-in-Chief ought, with the help of his naval staff, having before them the categorical information demanded by him from the Ministry of Marine, to have decided when and in what order the squadrons should sail. The Commander-in-Chief ought certainly to have had manhood enough in himself to undertake responsibility for his decisions, he being actually and immediately responsible for the conduct of the operations. Direction of affairs in war by different people jointly is condemned by all military history. It has never led to anything but disorder, confusion, and misfortune. And this has been fundamentally forgotten by us, and the Ministries have had excellent opportunities of vitally crippling the work of their commanders-in-chief.

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