Constantine Pleshakov, The Tsar's Last Armada: The Epic Voyage to the Battle of Tsushima, The Perseus Press (2002), hb, 396pp, plates.For once, a descriptive sub-title doesn't over-egg the pudding - there really is no other word to describe the 18,000 mile voyage of the Russian Fleet than 'epic' ('epic folly' is a phrase that comes to mind). The Russo-Japanese War is one that catches the imagination of many interested in military history: it is the last major war before the Great War; it marks the eclipse of one great power and the rise of another; and it is the first real test of the rapidly-developed technology of a world-wide naval arms race. The dust-jacket of this book tells us in all seriousness that the Battle of Tsushima Straits "is among the top five naval battles in history".
The War started badly for the Russians in February 1904, when the Imperial Japanese Navy launched a surprise attack on the Russian Pacific Fleet based in Port Arthur, Russia's main hope for expansion in Manchuria and the Pacific. After suffering major losses, the Russians became bottled up in Port Arthur, whose fall was inevitable. St Petersberg could not suffer such a blow to its imperial aspirations, after a sortie from Vladivostok proved ineffective, the decision was made to create a new Pacific fleet from elements of the Baltic fleet and reserves, which would sail around the world, defeat the Japanese fleet, relieve Port Arthur and delay military advances until reinforcements could be send via the Tran-Siberian railway (and then home for tea and medals!). This ambitious task was given to Admiral Zinovy Petrovich Rozhestvensky, who the world's press would soon revel in referring to as 'Mad Dog'.
Of course, the whole enterprise was doomed. The ships released from the Baltic Fleets were not the best, there were practical and diplomatic problems in sailing around the world (not least once the Russians had misidentified the Hull fishing fleet as Japanese torpedo boats, leading to the 'Dogger Bank Incident').
|Hull fishermen taste Russian paranoia|
|A survivor - the Aurora in St Petersberg, Sep 2014|
So how does Pleshakov do in telling this story?
He appears to have access a number of Russian archival sources and gives a good account of the personalities involved (naturally he focuses on the domineering figure of Rozhestvensky). He is good at giving a feel for the Court and bureaucratic maneuvers that forced the whole enterprise forward. What he lacks is a naval touch. There is little said about the relative strengths of the clashing fleets; no attempt to explain the tactics used and (other than a very brief mention of advances in gunnery) no reason given for the scale of the Japanese success.
|Adm 'Mad Dog' Rozhestvensky|
There are a few moments when one wonders whether Pleshakov has understood naval terms and, more damningly, errors in English - 'censured' for 'censored' and 'semen' for 'seaman' (even if written in Russian, the editors should have picked these up!). The book itself is well-produced, but the four maps provided are laughably inadequate in a book that exists to describe a naval voyage.
|Included for comic effect?|