Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Monday, January 27, 2020

America's Future Commanders Observed the Russo-Japanese War

Capt. John J. Pershing (rt) and Correspondent
Frederick Palmer in Manchuria

Excerpted from: "The U.S. Army Military Observers with the Japanese Army during the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905)",  John T. Greenwood, Army History, Winter 1996

Searching for answers to the slaughter of the trenches during the First World War, many military writers and historians fixed on the Russo-Japanese War as an unheeded warning signal of what was to come ten years later. Without doubt, that earlier war provided many lessons that were relearned at great and tragic human and national cost from 1914 to 1918. However, the tactical lessons of the Russo-Japanese conflict were certainly more obvious after 1918 than they were before 1914. Between 1905 and 1914 they had not penetrated enough "military minds," staff colleges, or field service regulations, except possibly to a limited extent in Germany, to shake the dogmatic foundations of prevailing beliefs and doctrines. The war in Manchuria generated nearly ten years of intense but inconclusive debate about its exact military meaning, but few lessons were ever really learned. "Prior to the present European War," Judson said in a 1916 speech, "there does not seem to have been a very thorough appreciation of the lessons of the Manchurian War in some European armies or I might say in our own."

One of the U.S. Army's most significant and least known experiences in learning lessons was in the Russo-Japanese War (February 1904–September 1905). By April 1904, 34 foreign officers had gathered in Tokyo to accompany the Japanese field armies—ten from Great Britain, five from Germany, four each from France and the U.S., two each from Spain, Austria-Hungary, and Switzerland, and one each from Italy, Turkey, Sweden, Chile, and Argentina. Second only to the British team with the Japanese, which eventually numbered 17 officers, during the war the U.S. military dispatched 12 official observers—three Navy and nine Army: Col. Enoch H. Crowder, Capt. Peyton C. March, Maj. Joseph E. Kuhn, Capt. John F. Morrison, Capt. Charles Lynch, Maj. Gen. Arthur MacArthur, Capt. Parker W. West, Capt. John J. Pershing, and Lt. Col. Edward J. McClemand.

The Russian adoption early on of a largely defensive strategy meant that the Japanese infantry, with only rare exceptions, attacked the Russians in their prepared defensive positions. Thus the American observers with the Japanese often saw the infantry in the attack, while those with the Russians witnessed the infantry on the defensive. Based on experiences in the Boer War, some European military thinkers held that infantry could not attack and take a defended position in the face of modern small-arms and artillery fire. Other theorists, usually of the French offensive school, but also some British and Germans, contended that nothing could stop the offensive when undertaken by well-trained and highly motivated troops. To these prominent tactical questions of the day, Manchuria provided some interesting, yet contradictory and perplexing, answers.

After examining the Russian positions at the battle of Nanshan (26 May 1904), Joseph Kuhn noted that "according to the text-books it should be impossible to carry such a position by frontal attack and yet this was accomplished by the Japanese." He did not mention that this success cost General Oku Yasukata's Second Army over 4,500 casualties and was only won due to the incompetency of Russian leadership and, as John Pershing astutely noted, its poor handling of available reserves. John Morrison, who later become the most influential Army tactician and educator of the pre-World War I era, questioned Oku's tactical conduct of the battle after studying reports of the Nanshan fighting. Rather than repeatedly attacking along the entire Russian front, Morrison thought that the Japanese should have concentrated on one point, broken through, and rolled up the Russian lines—the result would have been a quick, cheap victory.

Two factors had really made Japanese frontal attacks successful—the attackers' aggressiveness and willingness to absorb staggering casualties to take a position combined with the repeated use of enveloping movements to outflank the Russian defenses, which often panicked inept Russian commanders into hasty withdrawals. Few observers saw that this critical interaction in Japanese military operations essentially led to prolonged stalemates rather than victorious conclusions. The threatening encircling movement on the flank only forced the enemy's withdrawal to a new fortified defensive line where the frontal struggle would resume anew.

. . . In line with what the observers with the Russian side had observed so clearly, the Russians more often than not repelled numerous Japanese attacks until forced out by an endangered flank or a premature decision to retire. And yet, enough successful assaults were made to substantiate Kuhn, Morrison, and McClemand, and anyone else who claimed that frontal assaults worked against entrenched positions. So again, the lessons were confused and contradictory—the observers with the Russians watched defensive tactics and disclaimed the success of frontal attacks while those with the Japanese saw the very opposite. As with all such observations, much depended on where, when, and what the observers personally witnessed versus information they gleaned from other observers or received from detailed Japanese briefings. Such ambiguous "lessons" were difficult for any army to digest and accept as the basis for major doctrinal changes.

A View of the Future: A Japanese Trench in the War with Russia

From his Manchurian observations, Judson clearly saw that the improvements in field fortifications would force infantry tactics to change. In a prophetic description of the trench warfare to come, he wrote: "The properly fortified line then becomes practically continuous... These short trenches are not in a continuous line parallel to the front, but occupy what may be called a defensive belt, of a width between 200 or 300 yards and half a mile, depending upon the ground and importance of the sector...  With three or four thousand men to the mile of front, including all reserves, a fortified line of the belt type is invulnerable to frontal attack...

For many reasons, the lessons and recommendations that the American observers reported went largely unheeded. Even though many specific things that the observers mentioned were subsequently either introduced or implemented, often no obvious connection can be made to their recommendations. On the other hand, some recommendations had distinct impacts. Sometimes this was because the recommendations tipped ongoing debates in favor of a particular course of action, such as with the adoption of the sword bayonet as a standard infantry weapon or of a new entrenching tool.

At other times, the personal influence of an observer was clearly discernible as a deciding factor. One case of direct influence was that of Peyton March. Assigned to the Artillery Reorganization Board, March incorporated many ideas from his Manchurian experience into the Artillery Reorganization Act of 1907. The separation of field and coast artillery and the reorganization of artillery into regiments was partly due to March's experience in Manchuria. However, years of debate and discussion of the effect of technological change on artillery equipment, organization, and doctrine had also conditioned the artillerymen to the need for change and to these suggestions. Many artillerymen saw the Russo-Japanese War as critical proof of the need for additional change in directions they were already moving or seriously discussing. Few other such obvious instances can be singled out. Alfred Vagts has argued that the lessons and recommendations carried home by the observers from most countries could not percolate up through the chain of command. While his contention was only partly true in most cases, it was most assuredly not true for the U.S. Army. With a small and closely knit officers corps of only 3,709 officers in 1906, the observers knew and were known by most of the important officers of the General Staff, the various bureaus and departments, their own branches, and the War Department.

In addition, the American observers an spent some time on the General Staff upon their return from the Far East. Many of them gave lectures to the General Staff, at the Army War College, at various officers' associations, and to the public; and they wrote numerous articles for professional military journals. They also spoke at length about their experiences with the chief of staff, with the secretary of war, and with President Roosevelt upon their return to Washington. The observations and opinions of the American observers most likely percolated fairly well through Washington's military circles, the General Staff, and the Army. In the years following the Russo-Japanese War, debates over organization, tactics, doctrine, and equipment filled American military journals, lecture halls, and classrooms. Numerous articles and translations were published on all aspects of the war in Manchuria and its impact on American military doctrine. New books on the war were avidly reviewed and recommended. Students at the Army War College, and the School of the Line and Staff College at Leavenworth studied the war's campaigns in detail, and some officers even visited the battlefields to study the operations on the original terrain.

Because their observations provided the most cogent new information available on key tactical and technological issues, the works of the American ob servers were heavily read and used within the U.S. Army. The observer's Reports and articles were studied and used freely to support all sides of the various ideas then under debate, from the role and importance of machine guns to medical service, field fortifications, cavalry, the bayonet, and training. Where possible, the branches and schools incorporated relevant information into their manuals. The Engineer Field Manual of 1912 explicitly states that "much valuable information, especially as to railroads and field fortifications, was obtained from the reports of military observers with the Japanese and Russian armies..." While the observers' recommendations resulted in few concrete changes, their works certainly shaped much of the discussion of military organization and doctrine through 1916.

A Group of Foreign Observers at the Siege of Port Arthur

Actually, one of the most prominent pressures against the acceptance of the observers' recommendations came from the man most intimately interested in the Russo-Japanese War and the observers' experiences therein. President Theodore Roosevelt wrote to Chief of Staff Adna R. Chaffee on 3 July 1905 expressing his concerns about accepting the apparent lessons of the victorious Japanese Army:

I think we must be careful about following in anything like servile fashion the Japanese merely be cause the Japanese have won. Doubtless you remember how, after the Franco-German war, it became the fashion to copy all the bad points as well as the good ones of the German Army organizations, so that in our own army they actually introduced the preposterous spiked helmets for the army; as foolish a kind of headgear for modem warfare as could be invented. We should be on the lookout now not to commit a similar kind of fault as regards the Japanese. Not all of the things they have done have been wise, and some of the wise things they have done are not wise for us.

While the recommendations derived from the Russo-Japanese War were of relatively little immediate benefit to the U.S. Army in doctrine, organization, or equipment, the service of these officers in Manchu ria constituted an important career experience. Duty as an observer in the Far East was not the determining factor for future promotion and a successful military career. A number of the American attachés were later to hold important positions in the Army, but most of them were already considered exceptional officers and that is why they were selected for such critical duty in the first place. Pershing, March, Morrison, Crowder, Kuhn, and Judson all played significant roles in World War I. March and Pershing were successive Army Chiefs of Staff from 1918 to l924. Yet it would be most difficult to assess the exact impact that service as a military observer in Manchuria might have had upon these officers' careers. So closely witnessing history's greatest war to that time must have left deep and lasting impressions on the more astute observers—as obviously happened with Peyton March, John Pershing, and John Morrison.

In a series of lectures on his role as the Army's wartime chief of staff to the Army War College during the 1930s, March frequently returned to the importance of his tour with the Japanese armies in Manchuria. In April 1933, he said:

There I began a careful and practical study of the operations of a General was soon apparent to me that our General Staff was not either organized along modern lines at that time, nor did anyone who had the power to reorganize it have the knowledge necessary to effect such a reorganization.... I found myself regarded, upon my return from Japan, as a firebrand, because of my outspoken opposition to many things which then existed; but I was not successful in forcing any reorganization of the General Staff at that time.... The conception of a true General Staff, which I acquired in my observations of a General Staff in operation in the field in Manchuria formed the basis of the orders which I issued on the organization of our own General Staff when I became Chief of Staff of the Army."

As with March, John Pershing subsequently acknowledged the value of his duty as an observer in Manchuria. Pershing told Frederick Palmer, his friend and colleague whom he had first met in Manchuria, that his Manchurian experiences had been "Invaluable!" Although he had missed the major battles, Pershing had seen for the first time large modem armies in a wartime setting with all the problems of command, logistics, training, manpower, and so on played out on the battlefield. He would carry those impressions with him to France and beyond. Frank Vandiver, in his biography of Pershing, concludes of his experience in Manchuria; "He had gone to Manchuria an accomplished small-unit leader, a master of light tactics; he came out skilled in the management of mass."

In Morrison's case, his experience in Manchuria was the primary reason that Army Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. J. Franklin Bell selected him to go to Leavenworth as an instructor in tactics in 1906. During his next six years at Leavenworth, Morrison personally shaped the development of the Army's Leavenworth schools, the content of the basic Field Service Regulations, and the tactical thinking of a generation of Army leaders who became his disciples, including General George C. Marshall, the Army's chief of staff during World War II.

The exact value of their Manchurian experiences on later career and actions of Pershing, March, Morrison, and the other observers defies accurate appraisal. Detail as an observer with either army in Manchuria provided valuable personal and professional experience for the American officers. Such a unique career experience had to affect each officer's perceptions of his own army, its doctrine, organization, tactics, and equipment, and also his future role therein. For those observers with the Japanese, it was also a rare opportunity to watch closely as a vastly different, complex, non-Western culture and society organized, planned, and conducted war. The observers came away with great admiration for the spirit and discipline of Japanese soldiers, the skills of their officers, and the preparedness of the nation but also with great fears about the future course of Japanese-American relations and growing Japanese hostility toward Americans.

Dr. John T. Greenwood at the time of this publication was Director of Field and International Programs at the Center and Chief, Field Programs and Historical Services Division.



  2. This helps to explain why, in spite of the examples of the Civil War and Russo-Japanese wars, the frontal attack was still used at tremendous cost so many times during the Great War.

  3. Agree with you, David: so many have, including myself, assumed the the U.S. Civil War was never properly assessed in terms of the need to avoid frontal attacks by masses of troops against the new quick firing weapons: This persuasive thought that this war almost 40 years later had more impact on tactical thinking is novel and very significant. Perhaps it can just be said that the success of Japanese troops who were almost uniquely (culturally?) capable of performing'Banzai' attacks should not have been seen as tactics to be successfully emulated by European 'rank and file'?

    At 87 now, I still recall the astonishment that met the news reports of Japanese troops advancing heedlessly to death in the face of American machine guns during our assault against Attu Island. The Japanese had already lost nearly a thousand KIA, when the entire remaining Japanese contingent of 2000 chose to die in a hopeless massed attack against a far superior number of our troops. There is no doubt that the Japanese military were of the opinion that their possession of such a spirit of self sacrifice was of a nature to become a primary weapon in the war they began with the U.S. in 1941.
    As a side note: Their confidence prevailed despite the fact that Japanese massed infantry attacks were far less successful in their campaign against the Russians as consequence of the Nomohan Incident and the following major battles of the late 30's. The Russians depended upon the weaponry developed in the Great War, armored vehicles and aircraft,to thwart the massed infantry deployments by Japanese. The Japanese Armed Forces leadership never deviated from their confidence that the Bushido spirit was a element that would prevail over Western technology: A greatest of examples of misplaced confidence when competing against the American techno-military array of proximity fuses, radar gun guidance, the incredible production of ships, aircraft and other armaments, and ultimately, nuclear weaponry?

  4. Additional note: As re my above remarks concerning the 'American techno-military array' deployed against Japan: I have just become aware that the Japanese fleet possessed a incredible superiority in night optics. The common lore of WWII, as written by Western naval historians of the Pacific War, in remarking upon inordinately successes by the IJN in night actions, has consistently suggested that IJN personnel were routinely subjected to extensive screening by navy optometrists and those who had exceptional night vision were selected to serve as special observers for night time duty watches aboard ship. Mention has always been made of "their special diets including extra Vitamin C, etc". However, if a on line search is made using the term 'Big Eyes', it can be found that the Japanese navy had an astonishing advantage in their powerful optical technology which provided more capability than the much vaunted 'Radar' as was expensively deployed by Allied forces. It was a most recent visit to the 'Quora' site that the scope of the deployment of very large, permanently mounted (not merely small hand held binoculars) and numerous ("as many as sixteen per vessel") capability of this technology allowing effective, 'friend or foe' vessel identification over the straight line 21-22 miles of range (until visually constrained by encountering the curve of the horizon) is discussed in manner that brings a completer understanding of the several night time routs of our naval units, especially in the disastrous darkness of the 'Battle of Savo Straight'. It is stated that even up to these present times, our fleet utilizes optical equipment directly inspired by the 'Big Eye' developed by the IJN for their fleet in WWII. Hope this revelation is of interest to others and strongly recommend the Quora material for details of the tactical effectiveness of this military'object of optical wonder', which must be attributed to Japanese advanced technology (possibly, of course, a derivative of previous German lens development?) not obviously to be found elsewhere, on line.