23 Jun 2017

One hundred and twelve years ago on the 27 May 1905 the Imperial Japanese Navy achieved a major victory at the Battle of Tsushima, destroying or capturing much of the Russian fleet that had sailed 18,000 nautical miles from the Baltic in an attempt to reinforce the Russian Pacific Squadron at Port Arthur.

Photograph of Japanese fleet on the morning of the battle - PKM/2/9

Amongst the manuscript collections here at the Caird Library and Archive are the papers of Sir William Christopher Pakenham, then a Captain in the Royal Navy who was present on board the Japanese battleship Asahi as an observer during the battle. The collection includes many drafts of his report on the battle and observations from earlier in the war. These are mostly concerned with trying to establish how the battle unfolded in terms of which ships were firing at each other at a given point or when did they change course. Only occasionally does he include descriptions that give a hint of what it was like to be involved that day from the weather:

'A very stiff breeze was blowing from the south and west, and though, owing to the proximity of land, no heavy sea was able to rise, great inconvenience was suffered throughout the day from the water dashed through turret and casemate ports, and from the spray that constantly wetted the object-glasses of the sighting telescopes.' 

To the horrors of war at sea:

'An explosion under the after-bridge of the Asahi filled the air with flying fragments. Of these one fell underfoot. It was the right half of a man’s lower jaw, with teeth missing. Everything and everybody for 20 yards around was bespattered with tiny drops of blood…'

He seems to have greatly admired the Japanese commander Admiral Togo but also praised the bravery of the defeated Russian sailors. Pakenham also developed good relations with his Japanese counterparts who were at the time allies of Great Britain and received a note of thanks for donating money to aid sailors wounded in the battle. The victory contributed to Imperial Japan winning the Russo-Japanese war and this defeat of a European power also served to embolden Imperial Japan whose aggressive expansionism would lead to the wars in China and the Pacific in the 1930s and 1940s.

The crew of the Asahi watch as a captured Russian ship passes - PKM/2/9

Search the Pakenham collection on our Archive Catalogue

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Mark Benson

Library Assistant