*Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Early in the first Sino-Japanese War, the Qing Dynasty of China and Meiji Empire of Japan were both looking for a key strategic victory to give them a leg up on the enemy. With the Battle of Lushunkou on November 21, 1894, the Japanese built on a string of triumphs in the three-month-old conflict by capturing a major Qing port.
Two months after the Japanese pushed the Chinese army back across the Yalu River into Manchuria, it was only natural for the Meiji generals to seek out another high-value target. Moving to the southwest along the Liaodong Peninsula, Lushunkou — the primary Qing naval station in the north — was the clear choice.
With a strong, German-built fort in the hills above the only harbor in China with dry docks for ship repair, a Japanese victory would severely cripple the Chinese Beiyang Fleet’s ability to regroup after a battle. Further, the naval stronghold acted as the last real barrier between opposing ships and the capital, Beijing. It was a gateway to the mainland of central China, one the Qing had to hold onto if they were to have any hope of winning the war.
In the weeks before the battle, the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) seized a handful of small towns on the peninsula, methodically isolating Lushunkou. As the Meiji troops pushed further toward the target, they uncovered plans for the city’s defense in the notes of retreating Chinese, providing the IJA with a serious advantage beyond its superior tactics and advanced training.
Just days before skirmishing began, the Beiyang Navy received word to raise anchor and sail for Weihaiwei on the opposite side of the Gulf of Bohai. Fearing utter domination by the Imperial Japanese Navy, Viceroy Li Hongzhang hoped the Qing warships would be used to fight another day, essentially abandoning the soldiers in Lushunkou to the whims of the IJA.
In the early morning hours of November 21, 1894, the Japanese launched their siege. Making quick work of a leaderless army — Qing officers had slipped away the evening before — the IJA controlled large parts of Lushunkou by nightfall. The few defenders left, realizing what they were up against, abandoned their positions after dark to blend in with the civilian population.
Forced into house-to-house combat after facing hostile Chinese on the march in, the IJA leadership elected to execute many of the adult men in the city. Though perhaps blown out of proportion by Western journalists covering the war, the “Port Arthur massacre” diminished the reputation of the Japanese among observers.
With thousands of Chinese dead, either through military action or murderous activities, compared to just 29 killed in action for the IJA there could be little doubt the Qing Dynasty would be unable to defend itself for long. Three months later, in February 1895, negotiations for peace would begin after another Japanese victory.
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