History: Chemulpo and the First Shots of the Russo-Japanese War

Words BY Robert Neff

Photos courtesy of the Robert Neff collection

A skirmish between Japanese and Russian warships in February of 1904 was the first clash of the Russo-Japanese war, a conflict whose outcome would determine the fate of Korea.

The Russian ships before the battle, from Collier's Russo-Japanese War, ca. 1905

Just before noon on February 9th, 1904, two Russian warships, the Variag, an American-built cruiser, and the Koreetz, an obsolete gunboat, made their way past the chunks of floating ice in the Chemulpo (modern Incheon) harbor toward certain defeat. The crews frantically threw overboard tables, chairs and other items in an attempt to make the ships as fireproof as possible. Gone was the crews’ laundry that had just hours earlier hung from lines running from the masts and in their place were Russian battle flags rippling smartly in the wind.

Awaiting the Russians was a powerful fleet of fourteen Japanese warships that had taken up position just outside of the harbor. The previous afternoon (February 8th), the Koreetz, unaware of the Japanese presence, had tried to set sail for China only to be fired upon by the Japanese fleet. It was only later that evening that the Russian government received Japan’s declaration of war – a full six hours later. Gone was the illusion of peace.

Korean junks anchored safely in Chemulpo Harbor during the Russo-Japanese battle, from Illustrated News 1904

Despite being badly outnumbered, the Russian commander elected to confront the Japanese rather than allow his ships to be captured. The sailors fatalistically wrote farewell letters to their wives and families in Russia, convinced that they would never see them again. These letters were entrusted with the commander of the British warship Talbot, which was anchored in Chemulpo’s harbor.

As the Russian ships steamed past the anchored Western warships in the harbor, the Russian band bravely began to play the Russian national anthem as the sailors raised their voices in a show of defiance. This drew the attention and praise of the Western sailors. Cheers of admiration were heard from the decks of the French, Italian and British warships, for all knew that many of the Russians were going to their deaths. The Russian sailors returned the cheers and the band played each of the other nations’ national anthems in appreciation.

The battle – if it could be called that – lasted just over an hour. Crowds of people lined the streets along the waterfront and braved the cold to witness the beginning of the war between the two powers. The sounds of the great warships’ guns echoed across the bay and shook the city’s buildings and then it was over.

The Variag, badly damaged and on fire, limped back into the port, but it was obviously sinking. The Koreetz had fared better but like its larger companion, it would not survive the night. Even as the Russian sailors began to hastily paint the ship to cover up the damage, the Russian commander issued orders to scuttle the ship along with the Sungari (a Russian steamship that also happened to be in the harbor).

Postcard showing wounded Russians approaching the Japanese Red Cross Hospital at Chemulpo

The wounded were quickly transferred to the British and French ships, but the American ships – the U.S.S. Vicksburg and Zaphrino – were not allowed to take on the survivors due to overcrowding and legal concerns. Many Americans living in Korea were ashamed of the navy’s decision not to aid the Russian sailors.

The Koreetz was scuttled first at around 3:30 pm. The explosion rocked Chemulpo and sent up a huge cloud of smoke that darkened the sky and rained debris onto the roofs and heads of the spectators. The Variag sank quietly and gracefully just after sunset to the sound of the Russian bands playing from the sanctuary of the French and English warships, and the crowds watching from the shores and boats applauded in appreciation for her bravery.  Accompanying her to her watery grave were forty-one Russian sailors killed in battle that had been laid to rest in one of her large cabins. The Russian steamship, Sungari, was set on fire and burned throughout the night, finally sinking in the early morning.

Some of the seriously injured Russians were treated in a Japanese hospital in Chemulpo.  For this act of kindness, the Russian government, through the French Minister in Seoul, donated $1,000 to the Japanese Red Cross. The Russian sailors were eventually repatriated to Russia aboard neutral nations’ vessels and were treated like heroes. As for the Russian ships, the Variag and the Sungari were salvaged and repaired by the Japanese and re-commissioned as Japanese ships.

Postcard with wounded Russian sailors in the Japanese military hospital at Chemulpo

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