In 1897, Mark Twain penned the famous quote, “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.”
I doubt Twain had the Russian Navy in mind when this thought first popped into that fluffy ol’ head of his. All the same, I imagine his reaction to hearing about the disastrous 1904 voyage of the Baltic Fleet was probably a nod and a flat, “Yup.” The 18,000 mile trip ended in ambush and tragedy, but the events leading up to that heartbreaking climax were some of the strangest, most cringe-worthy, and most retrospectively amusing in history. And history is a strange, cringe-worthy, and amusing place.
Let’s first look at why the hell Tsar Nicholas II would want to send a fleet of 45 ships from Libau, in modern day Latvia, all the way to Port Arthur, located in what is now Lüshunko, China. Even if you don’t know much about geography, I’m sure you realize that’s a really long freaking way.
Nick wasn’t the most popular kid on the block. He was a committed tsar who believed himself to be divinely appointed to the role, but by all accounts he was a bit of a tool. One thing he had managed to do was convince the troubled Chinese state to lease out Port Arthur in 1898. This was a big deal because, before this, Russian ships were forced to dock either in the Black Sea— where there were a ton of restrictions placed on them—or in places that had a nasty habit of freezing over during the winter—which was a bummer for everyone involved. Once they had control of Port Arthur’s decidedly sexy warm water port, it looked like things would be smooth sailing from then on out.
Except that Russia wasn’t the only country who wanted a piece of that Port Arthur action. Following the Anglo-Japanese Alliance of 1902, Japan made it pretty clear that Russia was now persona-non-grata in the Pacific unless they were willing to play ball. Russia was not willing to play ball. In fact, they more or less ignored the existence of the ball. Presumably safe behind their fortifications—and probably experimenting with vodka-based fruity drinks—the Russians flipped the Japanese the bird and continued on their merry way.
Tsar Nick was about to learn the hard way, through two years of war and a decisive defeat, not to piss off the Japanese.
On the 8th of February, 1904, the Japanese orchestrated a surprise attack on the base at Port Arthur. Much like a more famous Japanese surprise attack decades later, they did so without submitting a formal declaration of war. The attack was the declaration of war, and it was a bold move. That bold move paid off. Before long, the remaining ships of the Russian Far Eastern Fleet had either fled or were stuck inside the harbour. And what’s a tsar to do when his ships can’t get through? Send more ships, obviously.
Now at this point it should be mentioned that the Japanese Navy was trained largely by the British. And the Royal Navy may have been known for “rum, sodomy, and the lash”, but it was also known—particularly in this period—as a power to be reckoned with.
In contrast, the Russian Navy was composed mainly of uneducated peasants. The senior officers weren’t much better. The Baltic Fleet’s commander, Admiral Rozhestvensky, once called Rear-Admiral Folkersham “a manure sack”. And that was one of the nicer things he said about his colleagues.
If it wasn’t bad enough that the sailors were subpar, many of the ships suffered from major design flaws. For example, several of the fleet’s battleships were way too heavy, compromising both their ability to attack and to defend. These kinds of problems were typical of many navies during this period as they struggled to create the most bitchin’ combat vessel, but everybody knows that being typical and being manageable are two different things. Unless you’re Tsar Nicholas II, at least.
I imagine that when somebody first proposed the journey to the tsar, the conversation went a little something like this:
Advisor: I know that Port Arthur is 18,000 miles away and we wouldn’t be able to get our fleet there without having to resupply and refuel (which is a problem because we have no foreign bases and we can’t stop at a friend’s place because treaties), but have you thought about sending the Baltic Fleet to take on the Japanese?
Nick: Sounds risky.
Advisor: If you pull it off, it’ll make you look like a badass in front of all the fine foreign honeys.
So the autobots rolled out, and the world sat back to watch spectacle unfold. Not long after leaving port on October 16th, 1904—nearly a year after the Japanese first attacked—the fleet’s flagship ran aground. Then another vessel lost its anchor. If that wasn’t bad enough, one of the destroyers gave one of the battleships a little love tap while they waited for the first two boats to get their act together. And by little, I mean it was enough to necessitate repairs.
So began one of history’s most baffling series of unfortunate events.
The further bungling of the Baltic Fleet (henceforth called the Second Pacific Squadron) would result in the first crocodile sailor, periods of frequent dragon chasing, and a temporary severing of communication between Morocco and Europe. It would even bring Russia close to the brink of (another) war.
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