Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Chemulpo: Last Stand of the Varyag and Korietz

In the annals of Russian Naval history, there is perhaps no greater example of sang-froid in the face of the enemy than that shown by the heroic defiance of the Cruiser Varyag and the Gunboat Korietz, when met by superior Japanese forces in the bay of Chemulpo (Modern-day Inchon) on February 9th 1904.

The opening move of the Russo-Japanese War was the mission by Rear Admiral Uriu's flotilla to land troops for the invasion of Korea at Chemulpo. The Japanese force consisted of the Naniwa Class Cruisers Naniwa and Takachiho, the Suma class Akashi, the Tsushima Class Niitaka, the Asama and Chiyoda (own classes), the armed merchant Chihaya, at least six torpedo boats, and three transports carrying 25oo troops.

Ranged against these powerful vessels, Imperial Russia had the obsolete Gunboat Korietz, (Captained by G.P. Belyaev) whose 8" muzzle loaders were only augmented by the 6" guns of Captain Vselevod Rudnev's Varyag. This was as opposed to the modern 8" guns of the Asama, let alone the combined weight of fire of the whole Japanese force.

The Russian paquet boat steamer Sungari arrived in the roadstead at Chemulpo on February 7th, and reported the presence of the Japanese fleet; the Cruiser Chiyoda had already been in attendance for some months, keeping an eye on Russian activity. Interestingly, the Russians were not the only occupants of the bay, in that there were vessels from four other nations anchored at this port that served as the maritime outlet for the Korean capital of Seoul.

From Britain was the Eclipse Class Cruiser the Talbot, under Captain L. Bayly, from France was the Descartes Class Protected Cruiser Pascal, from Italy the Lombardia Class Protected Cruiser the Elba, and from the United States, the Gunboat Vicksburg under William A. Marshall.

Opinion varies as to exactly what happened next; either the Korietz was despatched on a voyage to Port Arthur to warn the Russian fleet there and engaged the Chiyoda, or she merely blundered out onto the Japanese flotilla, mistook them for friendly ships, yet somehow entered into a fruitless exchange of fire; in any event, the gloves were apparently off - yet how could the two Russian ships prevent the landing of the Japanese invasion force?

To be frank, they could not, would not, and did not, indeed they remained aloof whilst Uriu's troopships landed their charges - at this point the port was still officially neutral, and no offensive action could be taken within the roadstead with the various vessels of the other nations present.
This quaintly Victorian situation of trying not to show either concern or interest at the activities of an enemy under your very nose came to a head when the Japanese Admiral sent a written warning and ultimatum to the captains of the neutral ships.
He stated that he intended to take offensive action against the Russians, giving the exact time he intended to do this, and advising those uninvolved to move their vessels out of harm's way.

Captain Bayly, in rather Colonel Blimpish fashion, took umbrage at the bad form shown by the Japanese Rear Admiral, and no doubt moustaches bristling, sent a strongly worded letter in reply. This was countersigned by the French and Italians, who obviously understood these things, and what constituted a 'good show' or not; the notable absentees here were the representatives of the young nation of America, who refused to join in with this comedy of Manners.

Given that the English had signed the Anglo-Japanese Naval Treaty in 1902, had built most of Japan's Battle Fleet, and had a permanent flotilla based off their islands, Bayly's decision to stick up for the Russians seems incomprehensible, yet entirely explainable in a world dominated by Gentlemen's Clubs rather than strategic think-tanks.....and quite right too...... "It's all very well being an Ally....but that's dashed bad form don't you know, old chap...."

In any event, the Russians themselves would save the blushes of the other nations when they did what was perhaps the 'honourable' thing, and decided to fight - a glamorous, romantic act, given the odds ranged against them, yet really the only thing they could have done. At least that was what their hearts told them, but in cold reality, it would be a fruitless and downright suicidal run out to sea, where the Japanese were awaiting them....

I'll be looking in detail at what happened next in coming posts, and hopefully having a run-through of the action using Damn Battleships Again, and some of the minis I gathered for the Boxer Rebellion Naval Project, so keep a good lookout!

For those of you who might be interested, there is a good overview of things here:

and also a fascinating account of the background to the action, and the events themselves from a more neutral perspective, including astonishing original photographs taken at the time here:

The postcard view at the top of the post is from my personal collection, the title reads: "French sailors from the Cruiser Pascal rescue Russian sailors at the Battle of Chemulpo". Interestingly, the artist also depicts an Italian flagged whaleboat helping out in the left middle distance, and has the neutral shipping ranged beyond.

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