The Battle of the Yalu

The story of the Battle of the Yalu in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95 is interesting and germane to the history of American navies on two counts. Not only was it the first major battle between vessels of modern design -- and hence very instructive to the major powers of the time -- but the startling fact that the commander of one of the principal Chinese warships was American-born and Annapolis-educated Philo Norton McGiffin also caught the attention and interest of America in the last years of the nineteenth century. The following stories of McGiffin, of the battle, and of the vessels involved are derived from a variety of sources, all of which are listed at the bottom of this page. McGiffin's map of the battle as it appeared in Century Magazine is available here.



This was a war whose origins lay in the Korean question. In the Tientsin Convention of 1885 Japan and China had averted a war that had seemed probable by agreeing to withdraw their troops from Korea , where both parties had been building up sizeable contingents in Seoul , and by agreeing that if either country's future interests required intervention in Korea then the other country was to be forewarned and permitted to dispatch a comparable number of troops. In 1894 there occurred a rebellion in Korea in which the rebels defeated the regular army. The Korean king appealed to his suzerain power (China) to come to his aid. China responded , and fulfilled its treaty obligations by informing Japan of the dispatch of 2000 troops to Seoul. Japan reacted by occupying Pusan and Chemulpo. China restored the situation in Korea and recommended joint evacuation of the Chinese and Japanese armies , but the Tokyo government resisted , having grown nervous at the weakness of Korea and the prospect of other nations (including European ones) intervening in what she considered her essential sphere of interest. Japan asked China to initiate a number of reforms within Korea , to which China replied indignantly that the affairs of Korea were of no concern to Japan. Thus the two empires slid into war . . .

It was a short war lasting a total of 8 months

Captain Togo attacked a Chinese transport fleet in which 1200 soldiers and sailors perished. On land there was a 2-pronged attack: After the Battle of Pyongyang (15 Sep 1894) the First Japanese Army advanced northwest into Manchuria
, while the Second Japanese Army landed on the Liaotung Peninsular , 24th October 1894 . They joined forces 6th March 1895 to annihilate the Chinese at Tienchuangtai.

The Chinese Navy was also defeated at the Battle of the Yalu (Sep 1894) and Wei-Hai-Wei (besieged and surrendered February 1895).

With the Shantung peninsular occupied China sued for peace.


McGiffin's Century Article

In attempting an untechnical description of the battle between the Japanese and Chinese fleets which took place September 17,1894, off the Yalu River, I wish to disclaim for the narrative any pretension to a professional report. Not only would technical language probably be unintelligible to lay readers unacquainted with naval science, but I frankly confess my inability to make such a report with entire accuracy. In a battle which lasted five hours, every moment of which was full of interesting incident, and in which single-ship combats were frequent, no officer could spare time from his duties to note all that was going on. Moreover, during the latter part of the engagement I was suffering from wounds, one of which almost blinded me. Although I remained on deck, I could see only dimly, with interruptions. During this period the Chen Yuen was conned by my colleague, Yang Yung Ling, a gallant and spirited officer who, to his country’s loss, ended his life with a pistol ball at Wei-Hai-Wei just as the Japanese came alongside to take the ship after the surrender. I shall therefore at times be obliged to employ hearsay evidence; but in so doing I have taken care to use only that which I feel to be reliable.

About ten o’clock on the morning of September 15, 1894, the Pei Yang squadron, commanded by Admiral Ting Ju Chang, consisting of the two ironclads Ting Yuen (flagship) and Chen Yuen, the two armored cruisers King Yuen and Lai Yuen, the two protected Chih Yuen  and Ching Yuen, the two torpedo cruisers Tsi Yuen and Kwang Ping, the coast-defense ship Ping Yuen, the two Armstrong cruisers Chao Yung and Yang Wei, and the corvette Kwan Chia, with two torpedo-boats, arrived at Ta-Lien-Wan. Here we found four "alphabetical" gunboats and four torpedo-boats, besides five chartered merchant vessels which were busily embarking troops. The day was spent in coaling the fleet. Toward dark another chartered steamer arrived from Port Arthur with 80 Krupp field guns, 400 ponies, and 500 artillerymen. About midnight the embarkation was completed, and shortly before 1 A. M. (Sunday, the 16th), the fleet, consisting of eleven warships, four gunboats, and six torpedo-boats, weighed anchor, and proceeded to convoy the transports to the Yalu, arriving off the mouth of that river, without incident, in the afternoon. The convoy, escorted by the four gunboats and four smallest torpedo-boats, with the Ping Yuen and Kwang Ping, crossed the bar, and went up the river some fifteen miles, where the disembarkation was begun and carried on all night.

The next morning, Monday, the memorable 17th of September, was a beautiful day, a light breeze gently ruffling the surface of the water. The forenoon was passed as usual. At 9:15 each ship went to general quarters, cleared for action, and for an hour exercised the crew at the guns, no one dreaming that the results of our training were so soon to be tested. As usual, the crews were full of spirit, and eager to avenge, in a fleet engagement, the loss of the Kwang Yih and Kow Shing. The jeers which the "soldiers" at Wei-Hai-Wei and Port Arthur were wont to fling at us for not destroying the enemy’s fleet had not ceased to rankle. As certain newspapers did not at that time hesitate to accuse Admiral Ting of cowardice in failing to bring on an engagement by searching out the enemy, let me state that, after the so-called "bombardment" of Wei-Hai-Wei, a most positive order came from the Tsung Li Yamen (Office of Foreign Affairs) that he was on no account to cruise eastward of a line drawn from Shantung lighthouse to the mouth of the Yalu. The gallant old sailor resented this, and also disaffections existing in a certain clique of his officers, yet he could not disobey. But the Japanese were under no such order, and they could have found us when they pleased, as we cruised freely to the westward of the line mentioned. At that time it would seem that the enemy hesitated to attack. Our ships were well armed and protected, and our gunners made excellent practice, as had been seen during the summer evolutions. This does not imply any personal reflection upon the Japanese, who are as gallant a race of men as exists. Perhaps they had too much at stake. The destruction of the Japanese fleet would have given the Chinese command of the sea. The small Japanese army in Korea, thus cut off from reinforcements and supplies, would in that event have been overwhelmed by mere force of numbers. Before the battles at the Yalu and Ping Yang the Chinese equaled the Japanese in their eagerness to fight; but as the result of these battles gave increased courage to the one, in like measure it disheartened the other.

From the outbreak of hostilities, officers and men had worked incessantly to put our ships into as efficient fighting trim as possible. Profiting by the lessons taught in the Tsi Yuen and Kwang Yih‘s hapless encounter with the enemy off Baker Island, Korea, on July 25, all boats were left behind, save one six-oared gig for each vessel. In case of disaster, quarter was not expected, nor was surrender contemplated. The fate of the ship was to be the fate of the crew. The Tsi Yuen’s boats had been shattered and set on fire almost immediately, and had been extinguished only after much trouble, and after they had been rendered totally unserviceable. The heavy steel gun shields, one inch thick and over thirty feet in diameter, which covered the two pairs of 30.5 centimeter (12.2-inch) Krupps on the ironclads, were also removed. As they revolved with the guns a shot might easily jam them, and, being too thin to keep out any but light machine-gun missiles, they would have served only as man-traps, since shells which might pass directly over the barbette and on when meeting no resistance, if intercepted by these shields would have penetrated and, bursting, have filled the entire closed space with flame and fragments. Subsequent experience proved the wisdom of this removal, for many a shell passed close over the heads of the gunners. All unnecessary woodwork, rigging, etc., were taken away, the side wings of the bridge cut off; all hand-rails and ladders removed, and rope or wire life-lines and "Jacob’s ladders" substituted when possible. The shields on the 6-inch guns, bow and stern, were kept on to protect the gun crews from the blast of the heavy guns where firing ahead or astern. The ships bad been painted an "invisible gray." Hammocks were placed as a small protection to the men at the quick-firing guns, and within the superstructure sandbags were piled along the sides about three feet deep and four feet high. Lying inside of these on deck were kept some dozens of 100-pound shot and shell for the 6-inch guns, to promote quick service. Much of the glass was unshipped; the rest the Japanese unshipped for us in time. Coal in bags was also utilized for protection where possible. This protection by coal- and sandbags served admirably, a number of projectiles and fragments having been found in them after the battle. When the bugles sounded "action" but little remained to be done save to lower to the deck the ventilators, or wind sails (which obstructed the fire of the guns), to close scuttles, watertight doors, etc., and go to stations.

The accompanying tables show the comparative strength of the two fleets. It will be seen what an overwhelming superiority in quick-firing guns the Japanese had, while our seeming strength in heavy guns was more apparent than real in action, where ranges are uncertain. To explain this, let me digress a moment. It is well known that a projectile from a gun does not travel in a straight line, but, under the influences of gravity and the powder impulse, describes a curve. The greater the impulse, the flatter or straighter this curve, or "trajectory," will be. To hit an object at a certain range, therefore, a gun giving a shot a lower velocity than another will have to be pointed so as to make a greater angle upward with a line drawn from gun to target than will the one of higher velocity. In the diagram, let C represent one of the Chinese 12.2-inch Krupp guns of 25 calibers length of bore (25x12.2-in.), and J represent a Japanese 13-inch Canet gun of 40 calibers, the latter being of much higher power. A gunner at C, assuming J to be at J, fires, and the shot traces the curve CJ. Now if J, assumed at J, happens instead to be actually at J1 or J2, C’s shot will still strike the ship represented as carrying the gun J either at the upper deck or at the waterline. J, likewise, assuming C to be at C, fires, and his shot traces the curve JC. But if C is really at C1 or C2, instead of at C, J’s shot will, as in C’s case, either hit on the upper deck or at the waterline. It is evident that the space C1C2 is greater than J1J2, on account of the flatter trajectory of J’s gun. The distance C1C2 (or J1J2) is termed the "dangerous space," and it is at once seen that when ranges are uncertain the gunner at J has a great advantage, owing to his gun’s flatness of trajectory, over the one at C.

No ordinary method of finding the range is of much use in a fleet action. Using "masthead angles," the range is found by measuring the angle subtended by the enemy’s masthead and waterline (the height of mast being known). The "horizon method" depends on measuring the angle between the enemy’s waterline and the horizon, the observer being stationed in a top whose height above water is known, In the latter case it is inconvenient to have the observer so far from the guns, and in either method the smoke on one side or the other generally conceals the enemy’s waterline. In using a quick-firing gun, the place where the projectile hits must be seen, and this is equally difficult when shots are splashing up the water all about the object aimed at. It is needless to point out the importance of practicing both officers and men in judging distances under all conditions at sea. But to resume, the Chen Yuen’s forenoon routine, drills and exercises, had been carried out, and the cooks were preparing the midday meal, when the smoke from the enemy’s ships was sighted by lookout men at the masthead. They were made out almost simultaneously from several vessels, and before even a signal could be made from the flagship the bugles throughout the fleet were sounding merrily the "officers’ call" and "action." Columns of dense black smoke shooting upward from our funnels told that in the depth of each vessel the stokers were spreading fires, and, using forced draft with closed stoke-holes, were storing up energy in the boilers, that breath might not fail when most needed in the coming fight. These black pillars of smoke must have signaled our presence to the enemy; for their "smokes" now increased in volume and height, showing that they also had put on forced draft, and, like ourselves, were preparing for the contest. For weeks we had anticipated an engagement, and had had daily exercise at general quarters, etc., and little remained to be done. There were woeful defects in our ammunition supplies, as will be seen; but had we kept the seas for a year longer before fighting, there would have been no improvement in that respect, since the responsibility for the neglect lay in Tientsin. So the fleet went into action as well prepared as it was humanly possible for it to be with the same officers and men, handicapped as they were by official corruption and treachery ashore. In far less time than is taken to read these lines signal had been made from the Yuen to "weigh immediately," and n[ ] cables shortened in and anchors wei[ghed ] speedily. The old Chao Yung and Yang Wei being always longer in weighing anchor, were left astern, and afterward, pushing on to gain station, probably gave to the fleet a seeming wedge-shaped formation for a short time, thereby giving rise to the report, widely circulated, that we used that formation in advancing to the attack. Our actual formation, which has justly been criticized, was an indented or zigzag line, the two ironclads in the center, as shown in the diagram. As the two fleets approached each other, officers and men eagerly strained their eyes toward the magnificent fleet of their country’s hereditary foe, and on all sides there were animation and confidence. Our fleet consisted now of ten ships, viz.: Ting Yuen (flag-ship), Chih Yuen, Tsi Yuen, and Kwan Chia, forming the left wing; and Chen Yuen, Lai Yuen, King Yuen, Ching Yuen, Chao Yung, and Yang Wei, forming the right wing. It will be noticed that the right wing, as such, was stronger than the left, or admiral’s. But the enemy, approaching from left to right, would thus receive the fire of our best eight ships before they could attack the Chao Yung and Yang Wei, justly considered our "lame ducks." The Ping Yuen and Kwang Ping, with the two torpedo-boats, the Foo Lung and Tso Yih, did not join us until after the fight was well under way. The gunboats and the other torpedo-boats did not appear [at all.]

The Japanese formed into two squadrons: The Flying Squadron, consisting of the Yoshino (flag), Takachiho, Naniwa, and Akitsushima, led, followed by the Principal Squadron, composed of the Matsushima (flag of Admiral Ito, commander-in-chief), Itsukushima, Hasidate, Chiyoda, Fuso, and Hiyei. On the unengaged side were the Akagi and Saikio. These twelve Japanese ships, forming apparently a single line and preserving station and speed throughout most beautifully, could not but excite a feeling of admiration. Our fleet must also have presented an imposing appearance to the enemy. Since 8 A.M. our ensigns had been flying from their accustomed halyards, but now there streamed from the King Yuen’s main-truck an immense yellow new national ensign, a similar one succeeding the smaller weather-worn ensign previously hoisted, the admiral’s flag at the fore-truck being also replaced by a larger one. A similar change was made on every other ship almost at once, and the Japanese promptly followed our example. These twenty-two ships, trim and fresh-looking in their paint and their bright new bunting, and gay with fluttering signal-flags, presented such a holiday aspect that one found difficulty in realizing that they were not there simply for a friendly meeting. But, looking closer on the Chen Yuen, one could see beneath this gaiety much that was sinister. Dark-skinned men, with queues tightly coiled around their heads and with arms bare to the elbow, clustered along the decks in groups at the guns, waiting impatiently to kill and be killed. Sand was sprinkled on the decks, and more was kept handy against the time when they might become slippery. In the superstructures and down out of sight in the bowels of the ship were men at the shell-whips and ammunition-hoists, in torpedo-rooms, etc. Here and there a man lay flat on deck, with a charge of powder — fifty pounds or more in his arms, waiting to spring up and pass it on when it should be wanted. These men were stationed at intervals to serve the guns quickly; for charges must not be massed along the deck, lest a shell drop in and make trouble. The nerves of the men below deck were in extreme tension. On deck one could see the approaching enemy, but below nothing was known, save that any moment might begin the action, and bring a shell in through the side. Once the battle had begun, they were all right, but at first the strain was intense.

The fleets closed on each other rapidly. My crew was silent. The sublieutenant in the military foretop was taking sextant angles and announcing the range, and exhibiting an appropriate small signal flag. As each range was called the men at the guns would lower the sight-bars, each gun captain, lanyard in hand, keeping his gun trained on the enemy. Through the ventilators could be heard the beats of the steam pumps; for all the lines of hose were joined up and spouting water, so that in case of fire no time need be lost. The range was about four miles, and decreasing fast. "Six thousand meters!" "Five thousand eight hundred" "six hundred" "five hundred!" "Five thousand four hundred!" The crisis was rapidly approaching. Every man’s nerves were in a state of tension, which was greatly relieved as a huge cloud of white smoke, belching from the Ting Yuen’s starboard barbette, "opened the ball." Just as the projectile threw up a column of white water a little short of the Yoshino, a roar from the Chen Yuen’s battery seconded the flagship’s motion. It was exactly 12:20 P.M. The range, as found on the Chen Yuen, was 5200 meters; on the Ting Yuen it was assumed to be 5300. On our side the firing now became general from the main batteries, but it was about five minutes before the Japanese replied. As they opened fire, the Chinese quick-firing Hotchkiss and Maxim-Nordenfelt, 3- and 6-pounders, joined in, and thenceforward the conflict was almost incessant. Like ours, the enemy’s first shots fell short; but with an exultant chuckle we noted that a shot from one of our 12-inch guns had struck one of the Japanese leading ships. The bridge of the Chen Yuen, although some thirty feet above the water, was very soon soaked, as was, indeed, the entire exposed surface on the engaged side, by spray thrown up by line shots that struck the water a little short. Many of the men at the guns on deck were wet through, and indeed the water was flung on board with such violence as to sting the face and hands like hail. Every one in the conning tower had his ears stopped with cotton, yet the din made by projectiles rattling up against the outside of its 10-inch armor was a serious annoyance.

During this early part of the engagement, the Chinese fleet as a whole kept their indented line, and preserved intervals fairly well, steaming at about six knots -- the Chao Yung and Yang Wei being still out of station on the extreme right. The Tsi Yuen, with her faint-hearted commander, Fong, had bolted very soon after the enemy had opened fire. At 2:45 we saw this vessel about three miles astern on our starboard quarter, heading southwest toward Port Arthur. She was followed by a string of Chinese anathemas from our men at the guns. She reached Port Arthur at 2 A.M. next day (seven hours in advance of the fleet), spreading there a wild tale that we had been overwhelmed by a vast Japanese armada, etc. Upon our arrival, Captain Fong claimed that his entire battery had early been disabled, and that he had been obliged to run to save his defenseless ship. But upon an examination of his battery by a detail of line and engineer officers, it was found in perfect working order, excepting the six-inch stern-chaser — the one projectile which struck his ship having passed beneath the trunnions, lifting the gun from its seat. But this shot had entered from the stern, having evidently been received after the retreat had begun — administered, it would seem, as a contemptuous parting kick from the enemy. Captain Fong’s outrageous example was at once followed by the commander of the Kwan Chia, whose courage was scarcely exceeded by his knowledge of navigation; for, about midnight, he ran upon a reef outside of Ta-Lien-Wan, which he said was a most unaccountable mishap, as he had laid his course (in a 100-mile run) "to clear it by one and a half miles"! This vessel had not been struck at all, but some days later was blown up by her crew upon the approach of some Japanese vessels. Our force had thus early been reduced to eight vessels.

As the Japanese fleet approached, it steamed along our front from left to right, at perhaps double our speed, and each vessel thus could exchange shots with each of ours in turn. The Japanese Principal Squadron, as will be seen from the diagram, kept at closer range, upon the whole, than did the Flying Squadron. The latter, upon reaching our right flank, turned it and poured in a heavy cross-fire on the extreme wing, the Chao Yung and Yang Wei receiving the most of it. From the first these two old-fashioned cruisers were doomed. Two passageways in each superstructure connected the bow and stern 10-inch guns, on the outboard side of each being officers’ quarters, etc., the partitions and bulkheads being of wood highly varnished and oiled. The vessels were early set on fire, and the draft down these passageways at once turned them into alleys of roaring flame. The machine-guns overhead were thus rendered useless, the deck being untenable, and the bow and stern guns were isolated from each other and from their magazines. As a forlorn hope, the ill-fated vessels made for the nearest land. The Japanese armed transport Saikio, seeing their plight and intention, made for them; whereupon the Chinese ironclads fired a few shots at her at long range, making fair practice; for, according to Japanese report, she received at least four 30.5-centimeter projectiles. Then the Ping Yuen and Kwang Ping, with the two torpedo-boats that had been inside the Yalu River at the beginning of the engagement, came up and headed for her, and her amiable intentions toward the burning vessels were frustrated. By this time the Flying Squadron had altered course sixteen points (180°) to port, and were returning, evidently to succor the Akagi, which was in a sad plight, having pluckily engaged us at pretty close range, and was now steering wildly, her mainmast gone, her commander, and a considerable number of her crew killed, and her battery disabled.

We had now (about 2 P.M.) six vessels, viz.: the Ting Yuen, Chen Yuen, King Yuen, Lai Yuen, Chih Yuen, and Kung Yuen, -- the Ping Yuen and Kwang Ping not yet having joined us. The flagship Matsushima, leading the Principal Squadron, had now reached our right wing, and, flanking it, steamed down again on the opposite course. The Hiyei, the last of the Principal Squadron, was now almost ahead of the Ting Yuen, having been engaged by the Chih Yuen on our flagship’s left. Her distance from her next in line ahead was increasing, and her captain, presumably seeing that his slow old ship could not keep up with the rest, and, being already on fire, fearing to continue on and receive the fire of both ironclads and of the King Yuen, Lai Yuen, and Ching Yuen, boldly decided to make a short cut between the two ironclads and rejoin his comrades on the other side. This was splendidly done. As his ship passed between our two big ships we fired into her point-blank. It was impossible to miss, and flying material showed that we did not. The smoke increased in volume and rolled up from the Hiyei’s quarter-deck and poop as high as the mizzentop, the ship yawing wildly at the same time. We considered her "done for" — as doubtless she would have been had we used shell — one shot, for instance, passing diagonally through the ship from one bow to the opposite quarter, doing various minor damages. Had it been a live shell the result may be imagined.

From this time, I regret to say, the Chinese formation was broken into an irregular group. Bearing down on the one hand were the ships of the Principal Squadron, "in line ahead," keeping perfect station, while on the opposite side were those of the Flying Squadron. We were thus between two fires. As the Principal Squadron turned and altered course, the two Chinese ironclads turned also, keeping bows on to their van, the Chen Yuen preserving her station and distance from the flagship, as indeed she continued to do throughout the battle. The Japanese willingly bear witness that the two ironclads preserved their formation, and that the Chen Yuen by her movements and gun practice covered the Ting Yuen when in straits, and in fact prevented the fleet from suffering annihilation instead of its actual heavy loss. The Principal Squadron now seemed to ignore the four smaller Chinese vessels, and its five ships steamed around our two ironclads, pouring in a storm of shell. Time and again fires broke out, but, with one notable exception, the flames were subdued without much trouble. Some of the enemy’s ships used melinite shells, the noxious fumes from which could at once be distinguished from those of powder. One ship, for a time, practiced "broadside firing by director"— i.e., each gun is laid by its crew on the object, and the entire battery, joined in one electric circuit, is fired by pressing a key. This system, though doubtless hard on the structure of the ship using it, was most effective — the result of so many shot striking at once, and producing perhaps several fires, being very annoying.

During the confusion of our line consequent upon being out-maneuvered, the Chen Yuen passed under our stern and joined the Lai Yuen and surviving ships of the right wing. The Ping Yuen and Kwang Ping, now coming up, threatened the Akagi and Saikio. Signals were made on the Matsushima, and the Flying Squadron maneuvered to cover the endangered vessels. About this time the Chih Yuen boldly, if somewhat foolhardily, bore down on the Flying Squadron’s line, possibly to attack the two mentioned vessels. Just what happened no one seems to know, but apparently she was struck below the waterline by a heavy shell — either a ten-inch or a thirteen-inch. Be that as it may, she took a heavy list, and, thus fatally injured, her commander, Tang Shi Chang, a most courageous albeit somewhat obstinate officer, resolved at least to avenge himself and charged one of the largest vessels, intending to ram. A hurricane of projectiles from both heavy and machine guns swept down upon his ship, the list became more pronounced, and just before getting home to his intended victim his ship rolled over and then plunged, bows first, into the depths, righting herself as she sank, her screws whirling in the air and carrying down all hands, including the chief engineer, Mr. Purvis, a gentleman and a most efficient officer, who was shut up in the engine room. Seven of her crew clung to one of the circular life-buoys kept on the bridge, and were drifted by the tide toward the coast, where they were rescued by a junk. The stories of these men vary so much in general as to be unreliable, but all agree on one incident. Captain Tang had a large dog of a most vicious temper, unruly at times even with his master. After the ship sank Captain Tang, who could not swim, managed to get to an oar or some small piece of wood — enough to have supported him had not his dog swum to him, and, climbing up on him, forced him to release his grasp and thus miserably drown, the brute sharing his fate — perhaps the only case on record of a man drowned by his dog.

As the Principal Squadron circled around us, the range varied from 2800 meters (nearly two miles) to perhaps 1000, at times even less. At about three o’clock the Matsushima closed upon the Chen Yuen to about 1700 meters, and we fired at her, from one of our 12.2-inch guns, a steel shell of 5 calibers (5x12.2-inches) length, having a bursting-charge of nearly ninety pounds of powder. The Japanese flagship was struck by this missile, and as a burst of flame arose from her, followed by a great cloud of white smoke, hiding her entirely from view, our gun’s crew yelled their satisfaction. This shell indeed wrought frightful havoc. From the Japanese report it totally disabled the big i3-inch Canet gun and swept the decks. Several charges of powder for this gun had been massed on deck, and these, exploding, gave the gunners a true "hoist with their own petard." By this one shell forty-nine officers and men were instantly killed, and over fifty wounded; the gunnery lieutenant was blown into the sea, his cap and telescope being all trace of him ever found on the ship.

Soon afterward the Principal Squadron withdrew toward the southeast, seemingly having had enough of fighting. Our two ironclads followed them, firing. When they had gone a distance of two or three miles the Principal Squadron turned, and, circling about us, poured in perhaps the most destructive fire we received during the day. We had now used up all of our 6-inch ammunition, having fired 148 projectiles of that caliber. There were left for the 12-inch guns (one of which was disabled) only some 25 steel shot, and no shell. The Ting Yuen was in a similar plight. In half an hour we would have none left, and be at the mercy of the enemy; for to ram agile, well-handled ships of 17½ knots speed with our slower ships was out of the question. We fired carefully, but having no shell, comparatively little damage was done. It was now nearly five o’clock. After about a half-hour’s cannonade the enemy again with- drew, we firing our last shot at them, save three left in the guns for the last moment. This withdrawal at about 5:30 P.M. has always been a mystery. It would seem that the Japanese could scarcely help noting that our bow and stern 6-inch guns were silent, and that our fire was slowly delivered from the barbettes. Had they stayed with us a quarter of an hour more, our guns would have been silent and the ships defenseless. The enemy apparently were not in want of ammunition, as their firing up to the last had been animated.

We now turned back and gathered up the surviving ships of the fleet. These vessels had fared badly at the hands of the Flying Squadron. After covering the Saikio, Hiyei, and Akagi, the van bore down on the King Yuen, which had been burning for some time, and the Yoshino with her next astern engaged the King Yuen at close range (less than 2000 meters). A heavy fire from the Yoshino’s three 6-inch quick-firing bow guns told upon her with terrible effect. One after another of the 100-pound shells tore up her sides, and after yawing about wildly, as if her steering gear was useless, she burst into flame and sank.

During this time the three crippled Japanese vessels had withdrawn toward Ping Yang. After the sinking of the King Yuen, the Flying Squadron were recalled by signal from the Principal Squadron, else the Lai Yuen and others could hardly have escaped destruction, since the ironclads, having no more ammunition, could not have succored them. As the sun was setting the Ting Yuen, with the battered Chen Yuen, the Lai Yuen (still desperately fighting the flames that threatened to devour her), the Ching Yuen, Ping Yuen, and Kwang Ping, set course for Port Arthur. As darkness set in the flames from the still burning Chao Yung showed luridly across the moonlit sea. The Japanese Principal Squadron of five vessels kept in sight on our port beam until darkness set in, but made no effort to reengage. In fact, both fleets had fought themselves to a standstill.

The question is often asked, Why did the Japanese win? I reply, because the Japanese had better ships, more of them, better and larger supplies of ammunition, better officers, and as good men. As to the practice, it was on both sides bad; but, as the Japanese have admitted, the Chinese excelled. The Japanese percentage of hits (excluding 6-pounder and lighter projectiles) was about twelve; the Chinese perhaps twenty. But the latter had only three quick-firing guns in action — viz., the Kwang Ping’s 50-pounders. An enormous number of projectiles could have been fired by the enemy. It must not be forgotten that the Japanese had twelve ships against our eight, as the Tsi Yuen and Kwan Chia ran away almost without having fired a shot, while the Chao Yung and Yang Wei were in flames before they had time to do much more.

Admitting freely and heartily the courage of the Japanese crews and the dash of their commanders, I must also say a word for the despised Chinese sailor. The Japanese stood to their guns throughout; but their decks were not almost continuously swept by a storm of missiles, as were those of the Chinese. Had they been, it would have made no difference, I am sure. But owing to our paucity of ships and guns, especially quick-firing guns, they were not often so tried; while on the two ironclads, at least, a shower of missiles searched the upper works almost continuously, yet the men fought on, as a few incidents will show.

The captain of one of the 12-inch guns, while training or laying it, lanyard in hand, had his head dashed, off its fragments striking those about him. As he toppled over, a man on the step below caught his body around the waist, passed it down into the arms of those below, and, catching the lanyard from his stiffening grasp, took his place, corrected the aim, and fired.

A brother of the Chen Yuen’s gunnery lieutenant, a mere lad, had been taken by his brother on board for this cruise, as a change from his home at Wei-Hai-Wei. When the action began the lad took up a station on the barbette, in rear of the guns, eagerly taking the sponge or rammer from the men using them, and passing them back as required, making himself generally useful in whatever way his small body permitted. When his brother (Lieutenant Tsao Kai Cheong) was wounded, he helped pass him below, and after seeing rum bandaged up returned to his work till the fight was over. Wonderful to say, he escaped without a scratch, being probably the only unwounded one of those who had been in the barbette from the first.

About the middle of the fight the Lai Yuen caught fire aft, and burned fiercely. The broadside guns could not be manned, being surrounded by flames; but the bow guns were worked steadily, while the crew persistently fought the flames on the quarterdeck. Below, in the engine rooms, with the ventilators stopped on account of fire overhead, and, in darkness, receiving orders only by voice-tube transmitted from the deck through the stoke-hole, the engineers stood to their duty, hour after hour, in a temperature bordering on 200°. After several hours the fire was extinguished; but these brave men were in several cases blinded for life, and in every instance horribly burned and disfigured. There was no surgeon on board, and until Port Arthur was reached they suffered terribly. Many such incidents could be cited did space permit.

When the Chen Yuen was desperately on fire in the forecastle, and a call was made for volunteers to accompany an officer to extinguish it, although the gunfire from three Japanese ships was sweeping the place in question, men responded heartily, and went to what seemed to them almost certain death. Not one came back unscathed. No, these men were not cowards. There were cowards present, as there have been on every battlefield; but here, as elsewhere, there were brave men to detest them.

The battle being over, there was time to look about, and indeed the ships were found to be in a sorry plight. On the Chen Yuen there had long been no sign of life in the military foretop, where five men and an officer had been stationed, the former to work the two 1-pounder Hotchkiss guns, and the latter to find the enemy’s range. Two gaping holes in the top gave an ominous meaning to the silence, and on investigation it was found that a shell had penetrated and had killed every one of the six. [Pictures of Chen Yuen in dock and closeup of damage].

A curious accident saved the crew of the bow 6-inch Krupp gun. Twenty-four rounds had been fired when, upon opening the breech to load for the twenty-fifth, the guard-chain that prevents the breech-block from coming all the way out became unhooked and the steel block was pulled out and fell on the side of the carriage, breaking a locking-screw and totally disabling the gun. The crew, their occupation gone, came into the barbette and asked for orders. They were needed to fill vacancies at the 12-inch guns, and were at once stationed. Scarcely had they reached the barbette when a 10-inch shell entered beneath the gun which they had just left, and, exploding, rattled fragments about inside the shield like dice in a box. Afterward other shell penetrated and burst in the shield. Had the crew been there, not one would have escaped.

It is safe to say that the damage done to the Japanese vessels far exceeded their statements of it. As they patched up their vessels as well and speedily as they could, putting painted canvas over shot-holes, and wisely avoided the exhibition to foreigners of their most serious injuries, the relative amount of damage is misunderstood. The Chinese, on the other hand, from the first allowed many visitors to examine and visit their ships while at Port Arthur under repairs. For weeks the ships lay in the steam-basin, each gun dressed with a band or scarf of red bunting around its muzzle (a ceremony having some religious significance), all but the craven Tsi Yuen, which lay in the western basin, apart from all the others, in disgrace.

The Japanese claim a victory at the Yalu, and with justice. But with the going down of the sun on that day seemed to disappear the ease with which they broke our formation in the early afternoon. As has been said, no attempt was made to renew the battle during the night. Four of the torpedo-boats, which (from the reports of the Japanese) seemed such a bugbear to them, never left the river; and it is hard to believe that so dashing a commander as Admiral Ito would have allowed the two boats with us to frighten him. They say that, imagining us to be bound for Wei-Hai-Wei, they kept, as they considered, a parallel course, intending to renew battle and oppose our entering the harbor in the morning. But why, in the name of common sense, should we have gone to Wei-Hai-Wei, which is over eighty miles farther than Port Arthur, and had no docking facilities, nor any place where ships could be repaired, save a small yard for trifling damages, while Port Arthur, on the other hand, possessed ample facilities for repair, and abundant stores? Moreover, the course we steered — direct for Port Arthur, even before dark—should have indicated to the enemy our destination. Perhaps they were in little better condition for fighting than ourselves. The next morning a Japanese squadron from Ping Yang, which probably had not been in the battle of the day before, reconnoitered the field of battle, and, like a kick administered to a dead animal, exploded a torpedo against the stranded, fire-gutted wreck of what had been the Yang Wei. No attempt whatever was made on the transports, the four gunboats, and the four torpedo-boats up the river, which, some five days later, arrived safe at Port Arthur and Taku.

As may be imagined, a study of the battle teems with lessons to the naval architect and the seaman. It established the value of high-power rapid-firing guns of 4.7-inch caliber and upward, and the destructive effect of shells with large bursters. The value of quick-firing guns smaller than the 3-pounder is questionable, little if any damage being done by such guns. In the opinion of the writer, they have no place on any ship of war except torpedo-vessels.

On the other hand, with regard to the ships’ defensive armament, superiority may be claimed for the Chinese ironclads. These vessels were struck both on the 14-inch belt and the 10-inch conning tower by dozens of armor-piercing projectiles from the enemy’s 13-inch Canet guns (for which thirty inches of penetration is claimed), as well as from their 10-inch Armstrong guns and from smaller guns, but not a single shot penetrated more than four inches. With this success for thick armor comes the failure of minor steel protection. The gun shields and conning towers of one and two inches of steel were simply man-traps. As I have said, by removing the shields from the heavy guns on the two ironclads many lives were saved. At 3000 meters’ range, on July 25, the Tsi Yuen’s conning tower was pierced from side to side by a 4.7-inch projectile, shattering its inmates into a shapeless mass. The need of a protection of four inches at least, or none, would seem to be the lesson taught.

The important part played by fire in this action is well known. The convenient disposition and protection of fire hose in battle are shown to be imperative. On the Chen Yuen the ship’s life was several times saved by the fact that the lines of hose were coupled up and the fire-pumps were working continually. Thus ready, our fires were extinguished, as a rule, before they had attained large proportions, which, in action, they do in a marvelously short time. Every line of hose, however, was cut by shot through and through before the close of the battle.

Another question introduced by our experiences is, What should be the situation of the conning tower? Between, rising above, and dominating the two barbettes in which lay the ship’s main battery, that on the Chen Yuen was struck by many projectiles, which, breaking up or bursting, rebounded into the gun-pits in a deadly shower. Two thirds of the casualties at these guns were caused by rebounding missiles.

From the beginning nearly all the signal halyards were shot or burned away. The Chen Yuen’s were nearly all gone, and she entered Port Arthur next day with a small riddled ensign flying from the starboard signal yardarm on the foremast. There should be an armored place for signalmen in full view of the conning tower, from which signal numbers could be shown, chalked on a slate for example; and its signal halyards should be rove up part of the way through the steel mast.

There has been considerable misapprehension of the part taken in this engagement by torpedo-boats. The Foo Lung, the larger of the two torpedo-boats which took part in the action, was commanded by Captain Choy, a gallant and capable officer, educated in America. According to his report the Foo Lung, following the Ping Yuen, Kwang Ping, and Tso Yih into action, came up with the Kwang Ping a little after two. Captain Choy says:

Five of the Japanese were seen going in line ahead, being hotly engaged with our Ting Yuen and Chen Yuen. . . . They were five or six miles from us. Other clouds of smoke were seen farther to the westward. . . . We then made for the Japanese ships which separated us from our fleet, and when about 3000 yards off the Ping Yuen opened fire, . . . and seemed to hit one of the larger Japanese ships. . . . Presently the Kwang Ping opened fire also. . . . At this time the Chen Yuen hit a Japanese ship, which was immediately covered with white smoke, and could not be seen afterward. She was burning all ablaze. . . . At this time a Japanese armed transport was seen ahead, cutting across our bow, and seemed to be heading for one of our ships [the Yang Wei], which was ashore, burning W.S.W. of Ta Lu Tau. The Kwang Ping opened fire. The transport replied to the fire. The Foo Lung then steered direct toward the transport, and at about 400 yards one torpedo was fired at her, but it deviated toward the right, the Japanese also steering to avoid the missile. A second torpedo was fired, and passed her side about fifteen feet. . . The Hotchkiss guns and Gatling guns were fired at her, she firing at us at the same time, . . . all the shots passing over our heads. . . . We ported the helm and passed her on our port side about thirty or fifty yards off, and fired the broadside torpedo at her, but it passed under her. She then steered southward, trying to join the Japanese fleet. It was now between 3:30 and 4:00 P.M.

All the Foo Lung’s torpedoes were now fired. The probable explanation of the firing under the Saikio’s bottom is that the torpedo-boat listed over in answering her helm, thereby pointing the broadside torpedo downward. The Tso Yih had also tried to use her torpedoes, but leaked so that it was easy for the enemy to avoid her.

China’s fleet is now a thing of the past, and many gallant men have perished with it, striving vainly to save their country’s credit, with fate against them, and handicapped by corruption, treachery, and incompetence on shore. Chief among those who have died for their country is Admiral Ting Ju Chang, a gallant soldier and true gentleman. Betrayed by his countrymen, fighting against odds, almost his last official act was to stipulate for the lives of his officers and men. His own he scorned to save, well knowing that his ungrateful country would prove less merciful than his honorable foe. Bitter, indeed, must have been the reflections of the old wounded hero, in that midnight hour, as he drank the poisoned cup that was to give him rest.

Philo N. McGiffin

[1] In the engagement of July 25, a Japanese shell with base fuse, fired at long range, had plumped down on top of a similar shield of the Tsi Yuen (covering the two heavy how guns), near the rear part of it, and had burst, the point going out through the side of the shield, while the remainder of the shell, in fragments, had hurtled about inside, killing seven, including the gunnery lieutenant, and wounding fourteen, thus disabling every one of the crew inside at the time. Had the shield been removed, this shell would have gone clear.


The Battle of the Yalu
Personal Recollections by the Commander Chinese Ironclad “Chen Yuen.” in Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, May-October 1895, as posted on the "Making of America" website of Cornell University library at

"Japanese Prizes from the Sino-Japanese War 1895" at

"A Very Short History of the Sino-Japanese War , 1894-5" at

"Real Soldiers of Fortune" at

"Battle of the Yalu 1894" on the Ironclad Pirates website at

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