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Lessons in Modern Warfare

The Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 brought changes to warfare that reverberate even today. In the century preceding 1904, the way in which wars were fought changed little. Armies consisted mainly of men and guns, artillery, and horses. Tactics remained static; combating armies, afoot or on horseback, one rifle per man, stood on open fields face-to- face and fired away. Warfare at sea changed little, too. Oak-walled sailing ships fired smooth-bore canons at one another. Wood gave way to iron and steel. Sails gave way to steam. Artillery with improved ballistics replaced canons aboard ships and that allowed opposing navies to blast away at one another over greater distances.

The American Civil War is often called the first "modern" war because it was fought with weapons spawned by the Industrial Revolution. Steam railroads and ironclad ships played key strategic roles. But basic Civil War battlefield tactics remained little changed from the early nineteenth-century Napoleonic Wars.

Effects of twentieth-century technology on weaponry were becoming obvious. The most recent innovations and improvements in killing machines and tactics debuted on the Manchurian plains and hills. Machine guns, for decades the tinker toys of gunsmiths, were of limited value in actual battle conditions. By 1904, they emerged as effective weapons of mass slaughter and changed forever the way land battles were fought. Rapid-fire mobile light artillery and heavy siege guns extended the potential for even more mayhem on land and sea.

Submarines capable of firing torpedoes from a safe distance were another byproduct of the Russo-Japanese War. More effective magnetic mines at sea presented challenges to attacking ships and created an advantage for defenders. Electric searchlights enabled night warfare; field commanders had mobile field telephones close at hand. Observation balloons aloft and portable heliographs below—strategically placed mirrors—brought wartime communications to a new level of efficiency.

In my Spring 2024 historical fiction novel The Unfrozen Sea, the protagonist Temple Hayden, U. S. Marshal in pursuit of an American fugitive, finds his life abruptly turned upside down by modern warfare. Nothing from his law enforcement career on the American frontier could prepare him for what he experiences in Manchuria. The setting provided me opportunities to explore these historic events through fictional characters and highlight the magnitude of those events still reverberating today.

1 Comment

Hi Wayne: Very interesting blog post about the modern warfare changes that came out of the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905.

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