The Russo-Japanese War (1904-05), horrible enough in its own time, seems almost quaint in ours. World Wars I and II have redefined “horrible.”

It began abruptly and was soon over. “The victories on land and sea were dramatic and clear-cut,” writes historian Richard Storry in “A History of Modern Japan.” “Both sides fought with remarkable courage, and with some chivalry. Japanese treatment of Russian prisoners was more than correct: it was generous and humane.” The West looked on, intrigued and impressed, as “‘Gallant Little Japan’ (stood) up to the Russian Bear.”

Gen. Maresuke Nogi (1849-1912) is the name that, above all others, survives from that distant clash.

Nogi outlives his war. He outlives himself. The manner of his death conferred immortality. Myth never dies. In 1912, seven years after his capture, at such high cost, of the Russian fortress of Port Arthur in Manchuria and six weeks after the death of Emperor Meiji, Nogi and his wife, Shizuko, committed junshi — the ancient ritual of following one’s lord in death.

Gen. Maresuke Nogi | GETTY IMAGES
Gen. Maresuke Nogi | GETTY IMAGES

Historian Herbert Bix describes the scene in “Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan”: “On the day of the Emperor Meiji’s funeral (Sept 13, 1912), General Nogi and his wife closed the door to their second-floor living room and prepared to end their lives. He had removed his uniform and was clad in white undergarments; she wore black funeral attire. They bowed to portraits of Meiji and of their two sons killed in the Russo-Japanese War. While the funeral bells tolled, they proceeded to commit ritual suicide. Mrs. Nogi acted first; he assisted, plunging a dagger into her neck, and then he disemboweled himself with a sword.”

Historical novelist Ryotaro Shiba, in “Clouds Above the Hill,” jabs a poison pen into the Nogi myth.

“In the history of warfare,” he writes, “no battle plan is as idiotic as (the) third assault on Port Arthur carried out by Nogi and (chief of staff Kosuke) Ichiji.” The other assaults were little better, in Shiba’s view — “hurling flesh and blood at concrete.” So much, he says, for Nogi’s generalship.

For five months the siege ground on — wave after human wave repulsed by Russian artillery. Port Arthur was a prize harbor, ice-free in winter. Ten years earlier Japan had seized it from China, Nogi playing a leading role in the battle and subsequent massacre. There then occurred that fateful diplomatic coup known as the Triple Intervention. Russia, itself deeply involved in northern China, backed by France and Germany, demanded that Japan surrender the port. Japan grudgingly complied, nursed its wounds, bided its time and, in 1904, returned, seeking revenge.

The Russians fortified their new harbor in proportion to its value — very strongly. Most of the Russian fleet — overwhelmingly larger than Japan’s — was there, Vladivostok being iced over in winter.

Japan’s challenge was to destroy the fleet. Torpedoes were called for. But how could Japanese destroyers get close enough? An early surprise attack in February 1904 — likened in later years to the one at Pearl Harbor — did little damage. There were no shortcuts. The fortifications must be neutralized.

Enter Nogi — a 19th-century soldier fighting a 20th-century war. A contemporary memoirist, whom Shiba quotes, vents his fury: “It was our moment in the new 20th century. What in blazes were we doing with antiquated bronze cannons?”

“There was an inherent tendency in the army to look down on technology, even to take pride in countering enemy technology with Japanese courage and human bullets,” Shiba writes. “Each Russian battery was equipped with a large number of machine guns. For Japanese troops at the front line ordered to attack with bayonets, nothing was so fearful as this new weapon. … All the defenders had to do was mow them down as they came.” Which the defenders did, with merciless, mechanical, 20th-century speed and efficiency.

“Nogi was no coward,” Shiba adds. “To raise the men’s morale, he frequently rode his horse to the front amid a hail of bursting shells. But even when he saw with his own eyes the horrors of the front, working out a new strategy was beyond him.”

And so the human wave flowed on. “Even more surprising than (the) failure of leadership,” writes Shiba, “is the docility with which nameless soldiers of Meiji Japan went obediently to their deaths.”

Storry sketches a very different Nogi: “A particularly dedicated general who held steadfast to all that was best in the samurai tradition. Off the battlefield no less than on it, Nogi imposed an extremely high standard of discipline upon his troops — the slightest misdemeanor towards civilian life or property was very severely punished.” Japan’s World War II conduct was much less gentlemanly.

It took five months and 60,000 Japanese casualties, but Port Arthur was Japan’s at last. It fell on the last day of 1904. Now the Imperial Japanese Navy’s hands were untied. Adm. Heihachiro Togo, the other hero of the war, rose to the occasion, destroying the Russian fleet at Port Arthur and in the strait between Japan and Korea. Would either man have known, or cared, that Japan’s victory sped on one of the great convulsions of the 20th century, its impact still reverberating in the 21st — namely the Russian Revolution?

Nogi was evidently a man of deep and complex character. He was, among so many other things, a poet — a person of deep feeling, as poets tend to be. Of his siege of Port Arthur he wrote:

Million-strong Imperial Army on a crusade against powerful barbarians / the battle and siege resulted in a mountain of dead bodies/ I do not want to face those back home for I am ashamed/ that in spite of the triumph so few men have returned.

This is the second of two parts on the Russo-Japanese War. Michael Hoffman’s latest book is “Cipangu, Golden Cipangu: Essays in Japanese History.”

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