The importance of the battle of Mukden (1905)

The Russian Empire, 1904

The carnage of the first world war wasn’t inevitable. The horrendous losses suffered could have been avoided by high commands sensitive to the evolution of warfare techniques. Their ‘war games’ were a hapless iteration of previous obsolete military experiences. Nine years prior to the First World War, in 1905, the Russo-Japanese War was an industrial era war in all its grim reality. The direction of travel began with the battles of Gettysburg (1863) and Omdurman (1898) where the devastating use of machine guns showed the limitations of ‘brave’ attacks. Mukden was a precursor to the First World War with trench warfare, mass armies and the use of machine guns bringing enormous casualties. The First World War (1914-18) replicated the carnage of those three battles because of the hide-bound intellectual poverty of European high commands.

The Russo-Japanese War (1904-5) was the first modern war with mass armies using high impact weapons, extensive use of trenches and huge numbers of casualties. Mukden was a pivotal battle and one of the bloodiest in history:

The final battle of the land war was fought at Mukden in late February and early March 1905, between Russian forces totalling 330,000 men and Japanese totalling 270,000. After long and stubborn fighting and heavy casualties on both sides, the Russian commander, General A N Kuropatkin broke off the fighting and withdrew his forces northward from Mukden, which fell into the hands of the Japanese. Losses in this battle were exceptionally heavy, with approximately 89,000 Russian and 71,000 Japanese casualties*.

The Russo-Japanese War: Mukden 1905

Mukden, along with Gettysburg and Omdurman, was a missed opportunity for military high commands. Enormous casualties at Gettysburg illustrated the impact of mechanised weapons, which brought unprecedented slaughter. Likewise Omdurman. The Maxim gun at Omdurman meant that the incredibly brave Dervish charges were suicidal. Mukden, as a ‘recent’ battle, ought to have been an essential case study for European high commands. It was essential because it involved a first rate European power against the German trained Japanese army. However the Russo-Japanese war was ignored as a mere sideshow. The paradigm shift brought about by machine guns, used in all three battles, was misunderstood. Machine guns weren’t decisive at Mukden which clouded their critique. The general staffs of European high commands were myopic, missing the single most critical point that machine guns were battlefield ready, transformative and scalable:

There were only 54 and 254 machine guns in the Russian and Japanese army groups respectively at Mukden, a fraction of what similar-sized formations would possess in 1914** The Russian army fielded 330,000 men with 54 machine guns so the lack of impact is hardly surprising. Gettysburg, Omdurman and Mukden were transitional battles but the direction of travel was inexorable. The Russian high command was especially inflexible. For example, the Russians used radio communications without encryption (see addendum) which meant that Russian industrialisation hadn’t produced a literate and numerate working-class unlike Germany and Britain. Similarly the iron hand of seniority in the British army sent to Belgium of 1914 was commanded by cavalry officers*** the epitome of obsolete warfare. There is an obvious difference between people who work within the limitations of their time and those who accept limitations which should be set aside. Every European high command entered the First World War knowing about machine guns but ignored that knowledge because it jarred with their concept of ‘war’.

The endemic racism brought about by colonial war experiences meant the Japanese were under-estimated. The scale of the Japanese success at Mukden was under-played despite it being a great military victory. The inability of European high commands to recognise the changes brought about by industrial era warfare, even when it was staring them in the face, was extraordinary. They are especially culpable because those changes began in 1863. Their failure was catastrophic for the millions of men sucked into the maelstrom of the First World War.


“…the Russians resorted to sending messages by wireless radio – but not in code because their divisional staffs lacked cryptographers. To the Russians, the risks of using codes which the recipient might not decipher, seemed more of a danger than German monitoring of every possible frequency. Moreover, poorly trained telegraphers were unable to send simple messages
without confusion, let alone coded ones. Thus, wireless messages in the clear became a standard Russian practice, to the delight of permanent listening stations of the Espionage and Counterintelligence Department of the German General Staff at Thorn, Posen andKonigsberg, which tracked Russian radio traffic”
. file:///C:/Users/Chris/Downloads/ADA393520.pdf p11
This plausibly implies that the Russians at the battle of Mukden were similarly incompetent.

* The casualties equate to circa 27% for the Russian and slightly less (26%) for the Japanese. These are exceptionally high. The five and a half month battle of the Somme (1916) had circa a million casualties with total involvement of circa 4.5 million men or about 22%. The battle of Gettysburg, 1863, is probably the bloodiest battle in history with circa 32% casualties.

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2 Responses to The importance of the battle of Mukden (1905)

  1. It was highly unfortunate that the multitude of European observers did not learn the lessons given by the Russo-Japanese war. Much was made of Tsushima, but the power of machine guns and tyranny of trench warfare was ignored.

    • odeboyz says:

      You’re quite right about Tsushima. The British Dreadnought programme showed that the Royal Navy wasn’t hidebound. Unlike the army they didn’t have a direct equivalent of a General Staff dominated by cavalry officers. What was sickening was that the tactical impact of machine guns wasn’t just predictable there was a living example in front of them.
      Thank you for your comment

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