The Battle of the Tsushima Straits is the most underrated moment of historical importance in the 20th century.
We’ve all heard lots of different explanations for the start of the First World War. The standard ones are as follows: Europe was a mess of alliances, imperial powers treated war like a game, and one unlucky arch-duke got offed by anarchists.
Less commonly mentioned is Russia’s lack of international prestige, a situation that made it desperate for military victories at the same time it made the Central Powers contemptuous of Russia’s strength.
Russia was the first country to mobilize in 1914 (with its “period preparatory to war”) after Austria issued an ultimatum to Serbia and it was arguably this mobilization that set the stage for a continent spanning war.
Why was Russia so desperate and the Central Powers so unworried?
Well, over 24 hours on May 27/28th, 1905, Russia went from the 3rd most powerful naval nation in the world to one that could have barely hoped to defeat the Austro-Hungarian Empire at sea (that doesn’t sound bad, until you remember that Austria-Hungary has no blue water harbours and never really had any overseas colonies). This wrecked Russian prestige.
What destroyed the Russian fleet so thoroughly?
Admiral Tōgō and the Imperial Japanese fleet.
In the Battle of the Tsushima Straits, Admiral Tōgō defeated and sunk or captured eleven battleships and twenty-seven other ships – practically every Russian naval vessel – at the cost of three torpedo boats (the smallest and cheapest ships used in early 20th century naval combat).
This lopsided victory was the first time a European power was conclusively beaten by an Asian one in an even battle since the Mongol general Subutai razed Hungary and smashed the armies of Poland in the 1200s.
Victory galvanized Japan. Barely fifty years before the battle, Japan had been forced open at gunpoint by Commadore Perry’s Black Ships. Shortly after this, western powers forced Japan, like China before it, to sign unequal treaties. Victory at the Battle of Tsushima showed that this era was clearly over. Japan was now a great power.
This is why I could claim that the Battle of the Tsushima Straits is the most underrated moment of historical importance in the 20th century. Not only did Russia’s defeat sow some of the seeds of the First World War; Japan’s victory also set the stage for Japan’s participation in the Second World War.
Admiral Tōgō’s message to Tokyo on the day of the battle, “In response to the warning that enemy ships have been sighted, the Combined Fleet will immediately commence action and attempt to attack and destroy them. Weather today fine but high waves.”, especially the last part, became as important to the Japanese Navy as Nelson’s remarks before Trafalgar (“England expects that every man will do his duty”) were to the British.
With such a lopsided victory under their belt, the Imperial Japanese Navy began to believe that they were invincible. They quickly became promoters of militarism and conquest.
As America began to act to check Japanese dominance in the Pacific and prevent Japan from entirely colonizing China, the Japanese Navy decided that America had to be defeated. This led to Japan taking Germany’s side in the Second World War, to Pearl Harbour, and eventually to the American occupation of Japan.
Had the Battle of the Tsushima Strait instead been a bloody stalemate, Japan may have risen less quickly and more cautiously. Russia may not have started the First World War when it did, nor succumbed to a revolution when exhausted by the same war. The Soviet Union may never have risen. Both World Wars may have happened differently, or not at all.
This is not even to mention that British naval observers at the battle used what they learned in the construction of Dreadnaught, the battleship that started a new naval arms race.
There’s too much that spilled from all of these events to predict if the world would be better or worse if Tōgō hadn’t won in 1905, but it certainly would have been different.
Today is a good day to reflect on how this single battle, the only decisive time battleships ever met in anger, helped to shape so much of the modern world. If this single moment, unknown to so many, shaped so much of what came later, what other key moments are we ignorant of? What other desperate struggles and last second decisions shaped this baffling world of ours?
History doesn’t just belong to the victors. It belongs to those who are remembered. Today, I’d like to remind you that even if events fall from history and aren’t remembered, they can still shape it.