Untapped Tussles: The Siege of Port Arthur

In computer wargaming development an understandable fixation with A-List ding-dongs – Waterloo, Gettysburg, Bulge and the like – means a slew of singular scraps with considerable ludological potential remain unsimmed. In Untapped Tussles, a new sporadic THC column, I’ll be drawing attention to some of these snubbed battles and conflicts in the hope of sowing seeds. Casting about for an interesting theme for your next martial offering? Read on.

The Russo-Japanese War has inspired few computer wargames, and, viewed from a distance, the meagre selection of titles that is available gives the impression that the conflict was essentially a nautical affair. Inexplicably, no-one has attempted to translate the bloody, five-month land battle for Port Arthur into a desktop pursuit.

Protected from north, west and east by a broad crescent of fortress-studded hills, Port Arthurians were awoken by the sound of naval gunfire on the night of February 8/9, 1904. Admiral Togo’s surprise attack on the unsuspecting Russian Far East Fleet opened a conflict that had been brewing for decades. Russia’s determination to den-build in Japan’s backyard – Manchuria and Korea – had finally persuaded the Land of the Rising Sun to ditch diplomacy. A navy that had been modernising at flank speed since Japan turned its back on sakoku was facing its first real test.

Although it didn’t exactly pass that test with flying colours (relatively little damage was done to the Tsar’s warships on that first night) the blockade that followed the attack proved too stout for the Russians to break. For a spell in March it seemed the arrival of a brilliant admiral might tip the balance in favour of the bottled-up fleet, but when a minefield sent Makarov and his flagship to the bottom on April 13, hopes that Togo’s ships could be driven from the Yellow Sea without assistance from far-away Baltic or Black Sea assets began to fade.

With the Russian Navy unwilling to stray far from the protective parasol of Port Arthur’s shore batteries, the Japanese were free to undertake landings in Korea and on Manchuria’s Liaodong Peninsula. Tamemoto’s victory at the Battle of the Yalu River (April 30 – May 1), the first significant land battle of the war, was an eye-opener for the racist propaganda merchants in Saint Petersburg and elsewhere. The victory at Nanshan three weeks later owed more to defensive blunders than offensive brilliance, but removed the final obstacle on the road to Port Arthur.

The man tasked with taking the seaport now known as Lüshunkou had, on the face of it, ideal qualifications for the job. General Nogi Maresuke had captured Port Arthur before. In November 1894, during the First Sino-Japanese War, his army had conquered the place in a day and lost just 16 soldiers in the process. He was to succeed again in 1904-05 but it would take him five long months and cost the IJA a staggering 57,000 in casualties.

The factors that made the second reduction so expensive are the factors that would – if all went well – make a wargame about the siege a riveting experience. There’s the venue for starters. A whorl of gorges, peaks, trenches, moats, walls, and redoubts, the battlefield was an intricate puzzle the Japanese struggled to solve, especially in the months before their 11-inch siege weapons arrived.

“As for the strategic position, no one can say that any one fort at Port Arthur is the key. Nature assisted expert engineers in devising those forts. All are so arranged that each is commanded by two or three, and, in some cases, by a dozen others; thus when one was taken it drew Russian fire from its fellows until it became untenable.” (Barry, 1905)

Hefty butcher’s bills in the first weeks of the attack demonstrated to commanders more imaginative than Nogi, that courage, determination, and overwhelming firepower wasn’t, on its own, sufficient to ensure progress in such a complicated, contour-rich, cover-poor battlespace. They also testified to the fact that the defenders were using cutting-edge technology, sometimes fiendishly customised.

The riflemen advancing towards objectives such as Table Fort, Golden Hill, Two Dragons and Lion’s Mane were amongst the very first soldiers in history to find their paths blocked by thickets of barbed wire. When the Japanese responded by sending out armoured, wire cutter-equipped pioneers to snip corridors through the entanglements, the Ivans directed such fierce torrents of lead at the plucky knights, the unfortunates were knocked off their feet. The next phase in the arms race was bracing poles attached to the backs of the pioneers’ protective suits to keep them upright – a development that prompted the Russian to resort to shock tactics:

“Across the valley we halt at the foot of a hill and then turn into the fort. Chloride of lime is sprinkled here over the human effluvia that nowhere else can be deposited, but a bone sticks out of the trench wall. I look closely. It is a human femur. From it projects a heavy coil of rubber-insulated cable. The officer explains that this formed the electric communications with the barbed wire entanglements through which we are passing, and that on the day of the fight it was charged so that when the Japanese pioneers tried to cut the wire with pincers they were prostrated with the shock.” (Barry)

There were numerous other examples of innovation and experimentation during the five-month contest. Homemade grenades quickly became a vital tool for both sides. Russian engineers devised crude but effective trench mortars which were promptly copied and improved by Nogi’s chief artificer, Colonel Imazawa.

“Imazawa’s most effective device was the wooden grenade gun, an invention to save assaulters from death by their own explosives. He found that a soldier carrying hand-grenades of guncotton up a slope under fire, if properly hit, became a more frightful menace to his comrades than an opposing mine. So he made a wooden barrel three feet long, erected it at an angle of forty-five degrees on a wooden upright, and by a catch-spring tossed the balls of guncotton from it several hundred yards into the Russian parapet.” (Barry)

Contemporary reports contain descriptions of primitive flamethrowers, precursors of the Bangalore torpedo, attempts to create poison gas by burning arsenic, even occasions when naval mines and torpedoes were adapted for use ashore. Serious battle sims seldom come with tech trees but in this instance perhaps one is justified.

Night attacks compromised by restless searchlight beams and flares would have to be modelled in some form, that’s for sure.

“By day the sun shone; by night the moon, assisted by searchlights and star shells, kept the plain of death as light as day. The light showed the loopholes of the trenches so well that they could not be used, for the moment a shadow appeared behind one a marksman from the other side would put a bullet through it…

…A flash in the eyes and the mountain is thrown into a silhouette of fire, then plunged into blackness. From the extreme Russian left the searchlights are wheeling into position, one by one, until the whole seven are out, playing day over the battlefield, throwing suspicious investigation into the little squads of brown. Science has intensified war. Formerly men could get their fill of fighting by day, but now they needs must flare the candle at both ends. Like Joshua, these generals are deciding their empires’ fates under light of their own ordering” (Barry)

And, to be truly realistic, the silicon searchlight batteries would need to feign destruction from time to time, in the hope of luring attackers onto the “plain of death”.

Their day assaults shredded by steaming Maxims (the Russians had ten times more MGs than their opponents) and their night attacks betrayed by blinding spotlights, the Japanese eventually realised they would need to swap rifles and bayonets for picks and shovels in order to gain ground. Saps – trenches designed to shorten dangerous advances over open terrain – began zigzagging towards forts and sangars, their courses complicated by Line of Sight considerations and geology. Bored of hex wargames that, scraped with a pocketknife, reveal Panzer General just below the surface? Picture one in which you spend more time pondering and constructing trench extensions than trading blows with adjacent counters.

Many of the “what-ifs” that make Port Arthur so wargame-worthy are intertwined with the personalities of the various commanders who orchestrated the battle. In real life the Russian ‘AI’ had four levels – Smirnov (Very Hard), Kondratenko (Hard), Stessel (Historical) and Fok (Easy) – all of which were in play simultaneously. Stessel’s defeatism, dislike of the Navy, and general mismanagement, and Fock’s belief that the port’s outer ring of defences were unimportant, unquestionably helped the Japanese gain their prize.

Modern historians like Connaughton are almost as critical of Nogi as they are of Russian supremo, Stessel. Aware that he couldn’t sit back and let starvation or disease do his fighting for him (The Third Army was needed elsewhere in Manchuria and the Baltic Fleet was on its way) the plucked-from-retirement, poetry-writing hero of the Sino-Japanese War, wasn’t – initially at least – short of offensive spirit, but a lack of imagination and success eventually caused his boss to intervene.

Kodama’s arrival at the front precipitated a shift in focus. Nogi was persuaded to turn his attention away from the stubbornly defended forts to a pair of mutually-supporting peaks – 203 Metre Hill and Akasaka Yama – that overlooked the harbour. Using heavy artillery, saps, and infantry assaults, the eminences were eventually taken albeit at dreadful cost. British Lieutenant General Sir Ian Hamilton, an observer of the conflict, visited 203 Metre Hill shortly after it had fallen:

“First the hill had been sliced into numberless deep gashes, and then these trenches and their dividing walls had been smashed and pounded and crushed into a shapeless jumble of stones; rock splinters and fragments of shells cemented liberally with human flesh and blood. A man’s head sticking up out of the earth, or a leg or an arm or a piece of a man’s body lying across my path are sights which custom has enabled me to face without blanching. But here the corpses do not so much appear to be escaping from the ground as to be the ground itself. Everywhere there are bodies, or portions of bodies, flattened out and stamped into the surface of the earth as if they formed part of it, and several times in the ascent I was on the point of putting my foot on what seemed to be dust when I recognized by the indistinct outline that it was a human form stretched and twisted and rent to gigantic size by the force of some frightful explosion.”

With artillery observers atop 203 Metre Hill, the Japanese were, for the first time, able to effectively engage the warships that regularly flung shells into their lines. Russian war correspondent E. K. Nozhin watched the inevitable unfold:

“The huge projectiles could be seen falling one after another, either in the water near the ships, raising great pillars of water, or else striking them. The punishment began. The enemy’s siege batteries set to work to destroy the squadron, which perished under the eyes of the whole Fortress, and the sailors now holding the land positions watched, helpless and with sad hearts, as their ships were struck, and one after another our great giants went to the bottom. A column of smoke was seen to shoot up from the Pallada, an explosion was heard, and a fire broke out on her. She struggled for life, Admiral Wiren himself superintending the extinguishing of the fire, but efforts were in vain, and she slowly perished. The Bayan was sunk under Golden Hill; close to Quail Hill lay the Retvisan on her side, and beyond, again, were the Pobieda and Poltava, turrets half a-wash, guns pointing dumbly to the sky. Alongside stuck out the masts of the Zabiyak; the inner harbour was, in fact, a cemetery.”

The loss of the fleet followed by the destruction by mine of several key forts, drained what remained of Stessel’s resolve. Aware that Kuropatkin, commander-in-chief of Russian land forces in Manchuria, was in no position to raise the seige, and keen to act before he was deposed (Smirnov’s clique was keen to fight on), Stessel surrendered Port Arthur on New Year’s Day, 1905. Many, including the Tsar, regarded the capitulation as premature (stocks of ammo and food in the port were healthy and around 24,000 men marched into captivity). On his return to Saint Petersburg, the disgraced baron was arrested and, in February 1908, charged with cowardice.

While Stessel was doing what he could to avoid a death sentence, his Japanese counterpart, ashamed of his “long display of military unskilfulness” and deeply affected by the loss of both of his sons in the fighting in Manchuria, was requesting permission to impose one on himself. Reporting directly to Emperor Meiji after the Russo-Japanese War’s final act – the IJN’s emphatic victory over the Baltic fleet in the Tsushima Straits – Nogi asked to be allowed to kill himself in atonement for his mistakes. The Emperor refused, insisting that his loyal general remain alive, at least as long as he himself lived. His ritual suicide postponed rather than abandoned, ‘The Defender of Port Arthur’ spent the remaining seven years of his life mentoring the young Hirohito, and financing the construction of war memorials, and hospitals for wounded soldiers.


  1. Fantastic! It’s content like this that makes me a subscriber- where else can you get this kind of intelligent discourse on the Internet? I would love to see a Port Arthur game- TOAW is the only game I know of that touches the Russo-Japanese War in any way whatsoever.

  2. I love the tactics of wargames but am an avowed Pacifist. It’s so depressing to read the horrors that the rank and file had to go through to ensure someone somewhere had an extra 0 on the end of their bank account.

    Fascinating read about a battle i knew nothing about.

    Are there any good books about tactics btw? I have Archer Jones The Art of War in the Western World, but i love reading about tactics and plans often with the aid of maps.

    All the old ‘Military Blunder’ books were a great read too.

    • For tactics and plans with maps you’re probably better searching out historian’s accounts of old battles – e.g. pick a random country, look on wikipedia for a list of wars they’ve been in, find ones from the 19th century and there’ll be various battles listed.

      Wikipedia itself will often have a page but there are a number of other sites out there that explore specific wars or eras or technologies, and then of course you can search for books describing them too.

      For a more generic strategy and tactics discussion it’s hard to argue against starting with Clausewitz. He was relevant throughout the 19th century, was still important in the 20th century and the 21st century advocates of alternate approaches often still articulate why they’re deviating – and it’s usually because of technology and political changes, rather than because he was fundamentally wrong.

      (He was at times, but it’s still a solid foundation. Just a very dry read.)

  3. I always think there should be more (on computer at least) on the Seven Years War. Such an important conflict, the first unarguably global war (on a larger scale to earlier eighteenth century tussles) and it basically established GB, rather than France, as the premier world power for the century and a half – but there is barely anything that recalls it.

    So much scope from naval combat at scale, squadron and blockade, to land combat across three continents and myriad climes, to the entire Diplomatic Revolution that enabled it.

    So many individually famous elements (Plassey, Heights of Abraham, Frederick the Great) but as a conflict as a whole it’s virtually unheard of.

  4. Cracking read – I’m ready to play this hypothetical wargame now, someone just needs to make it!

  5. Chapeau Tim! Fantastic piece. Great research – what was your bibliography? You should award yourself one of your bespoke cranium covers.

  6. Thank you for a fascinating read! Any chance of covering the Soviet-Afghan War? It’s another under-explored area of history I’d love to see more of, and I’d love for more wargames to explore insurgent conflicts.

    • The Bear Went Over the Mountain: Soviet Combat Tactics in Afghanistan (1996) and
      The Other Side of the Mountain: Mujahideen Tactics in the Soviet-Afghan War (1998)
      both by Lester W. Grau

      The Wikipedia page
      seems to have link to a pdf in the “External Links” section. (Going to the second book’s Wiki page via the author, provides a link to that too).

      From what I remember, they were quite readable, certainly as far as simpler operations, and might appeal to Nutfield above. The maps left a bit to be desired, as they seemed to be photocopies of photocopies to the nth degree.

      However, it’s possible that I’m confusing it with a dodgy pdf copy of an old Osprey title. One or other was written by a six-foot American ex-serviceman smuggled into the country disguised in a burka (before John Simpson thought of it)…

      (Sorry, this is all a bit half-forgotten and I’m moderately surprised the synapses are still working).

      • Those are good recommendations! I was reading those and William Dalrymple’s ‘The Return of the King’ about the Anglo-Afghan War. Next on the list is Afgantsy by Roderic Braithewaite. TLDR is that Afghanistan has experienced war for a long, long, long time.

        Lester Grau’s focus is (by design) entirely on the tactical aspect, with incidental mentions of the human/social aspect. I found it really fascinating how mujahideen and Soviet accounts of the exact same battle could differ so widely, especially in terms of casualties taken/inflicted. I suppose that’s one reason why it’s difficult to write an objective history, when your primary sources tend to be quite biased.

  7. Another excellent read from Tim!

    I had no idea how brutal and barbaric the siege of Port Arthur was, sounds an awful lot like the Gallipoli campaign and the tactics of the Australian Imperial Force versus the heavily entrenched Turkish forces. The major difference being of course that the allied forces withdrew after making little ground, and the most successful action of the entire campaign being the withdrawl without loss of life.

    Again it’s not a campaign I’ve seen covered much in games but I suspect the reason for this (and WW1/Japanese-Russian war) lack of game coverage is due to the static nature of trench warfare, although you’ve noted a few excellent ways to approach these unconventional scenarios.

    Thanks again Mr. Stone for another thought-provoking article.

  8. I’m pretty sure there’s a scenario covering some actions in the Siege of Port Arthur in the classic Wargame Construction Set Age of Rifles.

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