June 13, 2018

The Battle of Pungdo

After Lissa, fleets of ironclads didn't clash for almost three decades, and when they finally did, it was in the Far East. The Japanese, increasingly assertive in the wake of the Meiji Restoration, desired to end centuries of Chinese sovereignty over Korea. This tension spilled over into Korean politics, which became increasingly bloody, and in 1885, Japan and China signed the Convention of Tientsin, limiting troop deployments to Korea.

In 1894, a major peasant revolt broke out, and China sent 3,000 men to suppress it. Japan responded by sending 8,000 troops, claiming that the Chinese had not informed them as required under the Convention. These troops replaced the Korean government with a pro-Japanese one. At this point, war was inevitable.

Chinese cruiser Jiyuan

The general opinion was that the Japanese had no chance in the war. The Chinese Beiyang Fleet,1 which included two ironclad battleships, was considered the most powerful in the Far East, while the Japanese had only cruisers. However, the real picture was somewhat different. The Chinese had neglected their fleet since the Empress Dowager lost interest in 1888. The material condition of the ships was poor, and training varied between lacking and nonexistent. Officers were corrupt and selected only for their political connections. Meanwhile, the Japanese had modeled their navy on that of the British, producing a well-trained, modern fleet.

The resulting war began at sea. The Chinese troops were deployed south of Seoul, which forced the Chinese to supply them by sea. On July 25th, 1894, three Japanese cruisers encountered the Chinese cruiser Jiyuan and the gunboat Kwang-yi off Asan, their main supply port. Both sides claim the other fired first, although given their track record, it's reasonable to believe the Japanese were the instigators. Their first volley did terrible damage to the badly-outgunned Jiyuan,2 knocking out the steering gear and wounding many of the officers. The crew fled below the protective deck, and had to be driven back to their guns by the officers.

Japanese cruiser Yoshino

Eventually, the German liaison officer managed to jury-rig the steering, and Jiyuan turned for safety. Only her 5.9” gun could fire astern, and it was hampered by the stern awning, which had not been removed before the battle.3 The Japanese cruiser Yoshino pursued, but eventually abandoned the chase, due to either damage from Chinese gunfire or engine problems. Jiyuan suffered 16 killed and 25 wounded, and observers later said that she looked like a wreck.

The gunboat Kwang-yi engaged the cruiser Naniwa,4 fighting gallantly but ineffectually. She lost 37 men killed out of a crew of 55 before running out of ammunition. Her captain beached her as she was on the point of sinking, and the Japanese later destroyed the wreck.

Japanese cruiser Naniwa

At this point, the gunboat Tsao-kiang, escorting the chartered British transport Kowshing to Asan, arrived on the scene. The Japanese ordered Kowshing to follow them, and the crew was preparing to obey when the 1100 Chinese troops onboard revolted and demanded to be taken back to China. After a standoff of several hours, the Japanese opened fire, and the Europeans used the distraction to abandon ship.

The sinking of the Kowshing

What followed can only be described as shameful. The Japanese continued to fire until Kowshing sank, while the Chinese onboard opened fire at the Europeans in the water. Only three of the 43-man crew of Kowshing survived, along with a few other European advisors the Japanese picked up. 300 of the Chinese troops survived by swimming to nearby islands, but two full lifeboats were sunk by the Japanese, who showed absolutely no concern for the Chinese in the water.

Tsao-kiang was run down and captured by the Japanese, being renamed Soko in their service. Four days later, at the Battle of Seonghwan, the Japanese defeated the Chinese ashore. The formal declaration of war followed on August 1st.

Pungdo as a battle was of little interest, but it signaled the start of Japan's wars of conquest, beginning a pattern that would last until they were defeated by the United States in the 1940s. The next clash of fleets would see the Japanese fleet destroy their rival, and begin their overthrow of the traditional order in east Asia.

1 The Chinese had an unusual regional fleet system which, as far as I can tell, amounted to four independent navies, two of which hadn’t really recovered from the Sino-French War a decade earlier.

2 Jiyuan had 2 8.2” guns, a 5.9” QF gun and 4 torpedo tubes. The Japanese ships mounted a total of 2 10.3” guns, 14 5.9” or 6” QF guns, 14 4.7” QF guns and 13 torpedo tubes. I don’t have armament details for the Chinese gunboats.

3 Warships of the time often carried awnings above the deck for the comfort of the crew. They’re common in photos of ships up through WWII, when air conditioning began to be used instead.

4 Naniwa’s captain, Togo Heihachiro, would go on to command the Japanese fleet at Tsushima during the Russo-Japanese war.


  1. June 13, 2018Gareth said...

    I think you mentioned something about this in a previous post (superior officers' quarters and inferior crew accommodations perhaps), but in general would there have been a meaningful quality gap between theoretically equivalent ships produced for export vs. the shipyard's national fleet? Seems easy to imagine shipyards being more willing to cut corners when the client is an empire on the other side of the globe that doesn't necessarily have the technical knowledge to fully understand what they're buying (hence all the foreign liaison officers). But perhaps professional integrity is stronger than I expect.

  2. June 13, 2018bean said...

    It depends on what you mean by theoretically equivalent. If we're talking about equivalent numbers of guns and thicknesses of armor showing up in Jane's, then there's absolutely a quality difference, and everybody knows it, including the purchasing navy. Basically, there are navies that spend much of their time at sea, and expect to operate continually. And there are navies which spend most of their time in port, and expect to sortie only occasionally. The later tend to pack as much firepower into their ships as they can, without regard for things like crew comfort. This occasionally confuses people who ask why the USN or RN can't do the same. The answer is that we want to actually use the ship, instead of having it look impressive in harbor.

    If you're talking about someone coming in and buying a given class of ships for export, then I doubt that the contractor is going to do shoddy workmanship or cut obvious corners. The risk to their reputation is too high. The obvious area of difference these days is in electronics, which is a really complicated issue. If the buyer isn't a close ally, expect them to be worse, and everyone to know it.

  3. June 13, 2018Gareth said...

    OK, thanks. I was thinking about it more in the 19th century case like Pungdo, where both sides are using mostly foreign-built ships. Obviously in this case the Chinese are mostly suffering due to crew quality and experience, but I did wonder whether the Germans who built the Jiyuan used construction techniques or made mistakes that wouldn't have been deemed acceptable for vessels constructed for the Imperial German Navy.

  4. June 13, 2018bean said...

    I did a quick check of my one source on the German warships of the era, and it doesn't say anything one way or the other on the issue. A lot of that kind of stuff isn't much harder to do right than it is to do wrong, and it's probably easier for the workforce to just always do it right.

  5. June 28, 2020quanticle said...

    There's also the fact that it's not always clear who is going to be purchasing a ship when the order for the ship is submitted. If a shipyard starts cutting corners for the foreign buyer, then it stands a risk of being embarrassed (or worse) in the event of the order getting transferred to the domestic navy.

  6. June 26, 2021echo said...

    These obscure battles that are usually ignored are some of my favourite articles. Protected Cruisers seem to have seen a lot more combat use in asia and south america?

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