Anthony Paul: The Battle That Shaped Asia's Century at 100

Roundup: Talking About History

Anthony Paul, in the Straits Times ( Singapore) (5-14-05):

ON A sunny Saturday afternoon a century ago, an extraordinary sight transfixed Singapore. Headlines in The Straits Times files of April 10, 1905 capture the city's excitement:

'Most magnificent sea spectacle since the Armada. Forty-four mighty vessels in battle array.'

Said the accompanying report: 'Never - according to all the chances of war and precedents of history - will ( Singapore) ever witness it again.'

The then British colony had been treated to the sight of Czarist Russia's Baltic Fleet passing through the Singapore Strait en route to teach a lesson to that upstart Asian empire, Japan.

The procession, about 10km long, took 50 minutes to pass a given spot. Because Britain had declared neutrality in the Russo-Japanese War then under way, the Russians were barred from revictualing in Singapore. So the 'Baltickers', as the fleet was known, steamed north to Vietnam's Cam Ranh Bay, where French colonists were more welcoming.

The ST reporter covering the fleet's passage through the strait filed a highly perceptive report. Despite the 'brave showing', he noted, most of the antiquated Russian fleet in combat with 'properly armed and armoured ships' would be 'as impotent as canal boats'.

And so it proved. By late the following month, all of the ships were sunk, captured or in flight.

Their disastrous engagement with Japanese navy units commanded by Admiral Heihachiro Togo is known as the Battle of Tsushima.

British naval historian Sir Julian Corbett called the Japanese triumph 'perhaps the most decisive and complete naval victory in history'. The event sparked developments that ultimately brought a Pacific war that engulfed Singapore in 1942 and - in reports of continuing frictions over Japan's wartime conduct, for example - reverberates to this day.

Having crushed Russian naval forces at Tsushima and land forces at the Battle of Mukden the previous year, a confident Japan accelerated its naval and military build-up.

In Russia, the Czarist government's debacle in North Asia sparked further discontent, leading to revolution and the Soviet Union's emergence.

Suddenly alert to an Asian power with world-class military efficiency, the United States launched a naval build-up.

When war finally did come in December 1941, the Japanese flagship Akagi unfurled ahead of the Pearl Harbor attack the flag Admiral Togo flew at Tsushima.

The Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) was a clash over rival plans to seize territory in Manchuria and Korea. Japanese victories culminated in Japan's siege of Russia's North China naval base at Port Arthur (now Lushun). ...

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