Despite having been in the military history business for over three decades and producing more than 500 titles, Osprey Publishing had been noticeably lacking in its coverage of the seminal Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. Indeed, Osprey has spent considerable ink covering and re-covering marketable but historically insignificant conflicts like the Zulu War of 1879. Finally, Osprey has decided to cover this important but heretofore neglected war in Geoffrey Jukes' latest volume in the Essential History Series. In short, this is a very good summary of the conflict. Jukes is primarily a Second World War historian but he is creditably able to cover this subject, although with more depth on the Russian side than the Japanese side.
The Russo-Japanese War 1904-1905 begins with a short introduction, a chronology, and a section on the background to the war. The one-and-a-half-page section on opposing sides is totally inadequate and does nothing to demonstrate the strengths and weaknesses of the Russian and Japanese military forces. The outbreak of the war is covered in only four paragraphs, which is also ridiculously short (if size constraint is such an issue in Osprey volumes, why is there so much blank white space in this volume - shouldn't pages be filled with text or information rather than nothing?). Despite the author's inauspicious beginning, the 52-page campaign narrative is solid and professional. There are a total of ten maps in this volume: the theater of war, the Battles of the Yalu River, Nanshan, Te-Li Ssu Fanggou, Liaoyang, Sha-Ho, and Mukden, the siege of Port Arthur, the voyage of the Russian Baltic Fleet and the Battle of Tsushima. The artwork and photographs that accompany the text are mostly mediocre, but do add slightly to the narrative. The final sections covering portraits of a soldier, Russian domestic turmoil, the impact on neutral China and the final diplomatic solution to the war are modestly successful in their intended purposes. Jukes at least bothers to list casualty figures for each side, but there is no mention of the economic impact. Jukes continues his trademark neglect of bibliographical material by listing only eight sources at the end (against the typical 20 source or so listed in most other volumes of this series). Furthermore, it appears that Jukes has based much of this volume on the Warner's Tide at Sunrise book, without conducting any new research of his own.
The Russo-Japanese War was an important conflict because it was the first major war of the 20th Century and the first defeat of a European power by an Asian one. Although many precursors of First World War military technology - such as machineguns, quick-firing guns and barbed wire - were used in battle in Manchuria, the war was not decided by technology. Indeed, both sides had roughly equal access to the same types of weapons. Certainly indecisive leadership and poor command control were a major weakness of the Russian side, particularly against the aggressive Japanese. However, it would be too superficial to claim that the Russians were mostly cowardly idiots and the Japanese were bold geniuses. Jukes alludes to the underlying cause behind Russian military weaknesses: illiteracy and inadequate education. Whereas Japanese conscripts were 100% literate and capable of operating modern equipment, only about 20% of Russian soldiers and sailors could read or write. Imperial Russia may have been larger in terms of land and population, but these potential strengths were greatly diluted by widespread ignorance and unfamiliarity with modern technology. This phenomenon of illiteracy undermining military effectiveness also appeared in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, where fewer than 50% of Iraqi soldiers were literate.
Jukes registers several other interesting points about the war, such as the exceptionally good treatment afforded to prisoners of war by both sides. Unlike the Second World War, Japan had not yet had decades of Bushido propaganda to alter their attitudes toward defeated foes. Another interesting difference in the times was that much of the European press applauded the Japanese surprise attack on Port Arthur without a declaration of war. How different from 36 years later when Japan did the same thing at Pearl Harbor! The Japanese also benefited from a superb military intelligence infrastructure that provided them with excellent information about enemy strength and intentions, while the Russians suffered from lack of information about their foe. Again, this was a major difference from the Second World War, where Japanese intelligence was generally mediocre but the Russians had developed a superb spy organization (obviously one of the lessons that Russia did take to heart). Japan also fought with a more realistic sense of the odds against it in the Russo-Japanese War and was eager to make gains and seek peace before attrition robbed them of their limited resources; in the Second World War the Japanese failed to make realistic cost-benefit calculations and based too much of their strategy on fantasies. Finally, Jukes also points out some of the few Russian successes, like the raids of the cruiser squadron from Vladivostok and Colonel Tretyakov's dogged defense at Port Arthur. The Russians were not all clowns and one wonders how their cause might have fared if the Tsarist regime could have rewarded combat merit with promotion. Indeed, the promotion of court sycophants over real fighting men was a serious weakness that could be attributed to Nicholas II.