Battle of Yalu River (1894)

The Battle of the Yalu River, also called simply 'The Battle of Yalu' took place on September 17 1894. It involved the Japanese and the Chinese navies, and was the largest naval engagement of the First Sino-Japanese War. The Yalu River is the border between Korea and China, though the battle was actually fought at the mouth of this river, in the Korea Bay (Yellow Sea). A Japanese fleet under Admiral Isokuru Ito was attempting to disrupt the landing of Chinese troops protected by a fleet under Admiral Ting Ju ch'ang.

The engagement raged for most of the day, and while not the first engagement of pre-dreadnought technology on a wide scale (the Battle of Foochow in 1884 between the French and Chinese predates this) there were significant lessons for naval observers to consider.



On paper, the Chinese had the superior ships, and included numerous ten-inch and eight-inch gun mounts. However, the Chinese had not seen fit to engage in gunnery practice in months prior, and the Chinese guncrews were somewhat unprepared for the stress of gunnery under fire. Corruption seems also to have played a role; many Chinese shells appear to have been filled with sawdust or water, some Chinese officers fled the engagement area shamefully, one vessel appears to have used its guns to store pickles, and in at least one case, a pair of 10-inch guns seem to have been hocked for cash on the black market.

At this time, the Japanese were confident in their own abilities. The Chinese, however, still had a number of foreign advisors and instructors. In particular, the German, Major von Hanneken, recently from Korea was appointed as the naval advisor to Admiral Ting Ju ch'ang. W. F. Tyler, a sub-lieutenant in the Royal Navy Reserve and an Imperial Maritime Customs officer was appointed as von Hanneken's assistant. Philo McGiffin, formerly an ensign in the US Navy and an instructor at the Wei-Hai-Wei naval academy was appointed to Chen Yuen as an advisor or co-commander.

Prior to the battle with the Japanese, the vessels and armaments of the Chinese fleet were examined and the ships were repainted. Philo McGiffin noted, at the time, that the Chinese vessels have been painted in 'invisible grey' although contemporary photographs indicate a dark hull and a light superstructure so perhaps only the white superstructures and the buff funnels were repainted grey with the hulls remaining black. It was also noted that many of the charges were 'thirteen years old and condemned'. The thin shields that were covering the barbettes on some of the vessels were removed as these had been found to splinter when hit by shells. The Tsi Yuen's return to port after recent action with the Japanese highlighting some of these problems.

The battle

Admiral Isokuro Ito had his flag aboard Matsushima with the despatch vessels Saikyo (a converted liner) and Akagi (a gunboat). The Japanese Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Kabayama was on a tour of inspection and aboard the Saikyo. The rest of the main body consisted of the cruisers Chiyoda, Itsukushima, Hashidate, Fuso and Hiei. A flying squadron of Yoshino, Takachiho, Akitsushima and Naniwa led the Japanese vessels.

The Japanese advanced on the Chinese with the flying squadron leading in line astern formation with the despatch vessels off to the port of the second squadron (where the flagship was). The Chinese were in two squadrons and in line abreast with the majority of the ships in a squadron consisting of Tsi Yuen, Kuang Chia, Chih Yuen, King Yuen, Ting Yuen, Chen Yuen, Lai Yuen, Ching Yuen, Chao Yung and Yang Wei. A second squadron consisted of the Kuang Ping and Ping Yuen along with a couple of gunboats and torpedo boats.

Ting Yuen opened fire on the Japanese when the range between the vessels was about 6000 yards (5,500m). This turned out to be a disastrous (and unnecessary) salvo from the Chinese flagship. When the German Navy took the Ting Yuen out for gun trials in 1883 (Ting Yuen had been built in Germany) they noted that the main armament should not be fired on an ahead bearing. Firing on an ahead bearing resulted in the demolishing of the flying bridge and this is what happened. Admiral Ting Ju ch'ang became a casualty of the battle from the opening shot of his own vessel, along with a number of officers also present on the bridge.

The Chinese fleet all opened fire on the Japanese fleet as they passed from port to starboard across the bows of the Chinese vessels. They failed to score any significantly damaging hits on the Japanese from their 12-inch and 8.2-inch guns. At about 3000 yards (the Chinese had been steadily closing the range), the Japanese concentrated their fire on the right hand end of the Chinese line, with devastating barrages poured into first Chao Yung and then Yang Wei.

Both those vessels burst into flames and this has been put down to too much paint and varnish applied over the years. The Japanese had intended on swinging the flying division around the right flank of the Chinese line in an encirclement but the timely arrival of the Kuang Ping and Ping Yuen along with the two 'alphabetical' gunboats and torpedo boats Fu Lung (built at Schichau) and the Choi Ti, a Yarrow built vessel diverted this maneouvre.

The Japanese fast cruisers veered to port and were then despatched by Ito to go to the assistance of the Hiei, Saikyo and Akagi which had been unable to keep up with the main line and had then been engaged by the lefthand vessels of the Chinese line. Early in the battle the Ting Yuen had lost her signalling mast as well, which helped to cause more confusion with the Chinese vessels. The Chinese fleet, with some foresight, had anticipated something like this happening and formed into three pairs of mutually supporting vessels to carry the fight on.

The Japanese fleet, for its part, ravaged the Chinese and fought with fierce determination. Japanese shells set many Chinese ships aflame, and were responsible for sinking or seriously damaging eight of them, either during the battle or during later mopping up operations. Some of the Chinese ships, caked with many coats of flammable paint and varnish and manned by inexperienced crews, suffered horribly from the effect of superior Japanese gunnery.

The aftermath

The Japanese sank five Chinese warships, severly damaged three more and killed about 850 Chinese sailors with 500 wounded. The Ting Yuen had most casualties of the Chinese vessels still afloat with 14 dead and 25 wounded.

The Chinese seriously damaged four Japanese warships - Hiei being severely damaged and retired from the conflict; Akagi suffering from heavy fire and with great loss of life; Saikyo, the converted liner, urged on by Kabayama had been hit by four 12-inch shells and was sailing virtually out of control as a result, did cosmetic damage to two more, and killed about 90 Japanese sailors and wounded 200 more.

The Chinese fleet retired into Port Arthur, the Japanese withdrawing possibly from a fear of a torpedo boat attack from the Chinese in the night time and lack of ammunition.

While the Japanese certainly did far more damage to the Chinese fleet, many foreigners at the time credited China with the victory. The Chinese had successfully carried out their troop landing, and the Japanese, for their part, had withdrawn after running low on ammunition. Many credit the prompt action of foreign advisers in the Chinese fleet (most notably McGiffin) for keeping even the most heavily damaged Chinese ships fighting till the very end of the engagement. Later research suggests that the Chinese ships fighting in pairs was something that had been planned ahead of time to cover the eventuality of communications being lost in the smoke and confusion of battle. At the same time, it is fair to note that the Chinese suffered more from poor quality munitions - some of the shells fired by the PingYuen, for example, hit the Japanese Matsushima but failed to explode, being filled with cement rather than high explosives. These were made at the Tientsin factories.

The Chinese Government laid the blame for the Chinese defeat squarely on the shoulders of Viceroy Li Hung-chang and Admiral Ting Ju ch'ang. However, on October 27, 1894, Admiral Freemantle, the British Commander-in-Chief met Ting in Wei-Hai-Wei with Ting 'still lame from the burns received in the Yalu action' and described him as a 'brave and patriotic man'.

Despite these assessments, the Battle of the Yalu River is remembered by Chinese nationalists as a humiliating loss. The Japanese eventually won the First Sino-Japanese War which triggered outrage at China's weakness after the Self-Strengthening Movement and eventually led to the end of the Qing dynasty.

Ships involved

Japanese ships:
Hashidate (4277t)
Itsukushima (4277t)
Matsushima (4277t) - damaged
Yoshino (4150t, 4-6in)
Akitsushima (3150t, 1-12.6in)
Fuso (3718t, 4-9.4in)
Naniwa (3650t, 2-10.2in)
Takachiho (3650t, 2-10.2in)
Chiyoda (2450t, 10-4.7in)
Hiei (2200t, 3-170mm) - damaged
Akagi (615t, 1-9.4in)
Saikyo (cargo ship)
Chinese ships:
Ting Yuan (7430t, 4-12in, 2-5.9in)
Chen Yuan (7430t, 4-12in, 2-5.9in)
Yang Wei (1350t)
Kuang Chia (1300t, 2-5.9in)
Chih Yuan (2300t, 3-8.2in, 2-6in) - sunk
Ching Yuan (2850t, 2-8in, 2-6in) - sunk
Chi Yuan (2355t, 3-8in)
Lai Yuan (2830t, 2-8.2in) - damaged
Kuang Ping (1000t, 1-4.7in)

See also

External links

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zh:黄海海战 (1894年)


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