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Battle of Yalu River (1894)
Part of the First Sino-Japanese War
Battle of the Yellow Sea by Korechika.jpg
"Battle of the Yellow Sea" by Korechika
DateSeptember 17, 1894
LocationKorea Bay, near the mouth of the Yalu River
Result Decisive Japanese victory
 Qing China  Empire of Japan
Commanders and leaders
Qing Dynasty Ding Ruchang
Qing Dynasty Liu Buchan
Japan Sukeyuki Ito
Japan Tsuboi Kozo
2 battleships
8 cruisers
2 corvette
2 torpedo boats
9 protected cruisers
1 corvette
1 gunboat
1 auxiliary cruiser
Casualties and losses
850 killed
500 wounded
5 ships sunk
3 ships damaged
280+ killed
200 wounded
4 ships damaged

The Battle of the Yalu River (simplified Chinese: 黄海海战; traditional Chinese: 黃海海戰; pinyin: Huáng Hǎi Hǎizhàn; Japanese:Kōkai-kaisen (黃海海戰 lit. Naval Battle of the Yellow Sea?)), was the largest naval engagement of the First Sino-Japanese War, and took place on September 17, 1894, the day after the Japanese victory at the land Battle of Pyongyang. It involved ships from the Imperial Japanese Navy and the Chinese Beiyang Fleet. The battle is also known by a variety of names: Battle of Haiyang Island, Battle of Dadonggou, Battle of the Yellow Sea and Battle of Yalu, after the geographic location of the battle, which was in the Yellow Sea off of the mouth of the Yalu River and not in the river itself. There is also no agreement among contemporary sources on the exact numbers and compositions of each fleet.[1]


Even before the Battle of Pyongyang, Chinese Viceroy Li Hongzhang ordered reinforcements from the Beiyang Army to bolster the increasingly precarious Chinese position in Korea. As the roads were considered impassable, the only practical way to move a large number of men and equipment was by sea. However, he was constrained by orders from Beijing not to allow his ships to cross the line of the Yalu River, as the imperial authorities were reluctant to risk China's most modern western vessels in combat.

The Chinese fleet was bigger and armed with bigger guns. The Japanese fleet was much faster. As a result the Japanese would have an advantage in open water. So as the Japanese fleet closed in, Li recommended the convoys be stopped, and that the Beiyang fleet be kept within its naval stronghold in Lushunkou (Port Arthur). This narrow strip of water should minimize the Japanese fleet's speed advantage. This along with the stronghold's coastal defense should defeat the Japanese fleet. However Emperor Guangxu was enraged that the Japanese fleet was near Chinese territory, so he insisted that the convoys be continued and that the Japanese fleet be pushed back.

The Beiyang fleet had completed escorting a convoy to the mouth of the Yalu River, and was returning to its base at Lushunkou (Port Arthur) when it was engaged by the Japanese navy.[1]

On paper, the Beiyang Fleet had the superior ships, included two pre-dreadnought battleships, Dingyuan and Zhenyuan for which the Japanese had no counterparts. The Beiyang Fleet could also call on the assistance of numerous military advisers, including Prussian Army Major Constatin von Hanneken, recently from Korea, was appointed as the naval adviser to Admiral Ding Ruchang. W. F. Tyler, a sub-lieutenant in the Royal Navy Reserve and an Imperial Maritime Customs officer was appointed as von Hanneken's assistant. Philo McGiffen, formerly an ensign in the U.S. Navy and an instructor at the Chinese Weihaiwei naval academy was appointed to Jingyuen as an adviser or co-commander.

However, though well drilled, the Chinese hadn't engaged in sufficient gunnery practice beforehand. The lack of training was a direct result of a serious lack of ammunition. Corruption seems also to have played a major role; many Chinese shells appear to have been filled with cement or porcelain, or were the wrong caliber and could not be fired. Philo McGiffin noted that many of the gunpowder charges were "thirteen years old and condemned."[2] What little ammunition was available was to be preserved for a real battle. Live ammunition training was rarely carried out.

Li wanted to delay the battle against the Japanese fleet, so they would have more time to equip the ships with enough ammunition. However the royal court called him a coward and his recommendation was turned down.

The battle

Japanese print depicting the Matsushima (left) attacking Chinese warships

Admiral Sukeyuki Ito had his flag aboard the cruiser Matsushima with two dispatch vessels as escort; the converted-liner Saikyo Maru, Swedish-born British Captain John Wilson commanding; and the gunboat Akagi. The Japanese Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Kabayama Sukenori was on a tour of inspection and aboard Saikyo. The rest of the main body consisted of the cruisers Chiyoda, Itsukushima, Hashidate, Fusō and Japanese corvette Hiei. A flying squadron, composed of the cruisers Yoshino, Takachiho, Akitsushima and Naniwa, led the Japanese vessels. The Japanese advanced on the Beiyang Fleet in a column with the flying squadron leading in line astern formation with the dispatch vessels off to the port of the second squadron where the flagship was sailing.

Admiral Ding attempted to form his fleet into a southward facing line abreast with the strongest ships (Dingyuan, Zhenyuan) in the center. Newer Jiyuan, Guangjia, Chih Yuen, Jingyuan, Laiyuan, Jingyuen, and obsolete Chaoyong, Yangwei, lined from left to right. The 4-ship group led by Pingyuan had to catch up from having escorted a convoy upriver and only joined around 14:30, in time to chase off the Saikyo.

With his main squadron to the left of the Chinese, Admiral Itoh ordered the Japanese flying squadron to strike at the weak right Chinese flank. Observing his enemy's tactical movements, Admiral Ding realized that his formation prevented the Chinese battleships in the center from firing, because their smaller cruisers were between them and their opponents, and also exposed the smaller, more lightly armored ships to prolonged fire from the larger Japanese warships. In addition, with the Japanese squadrons split, the Chinese were forced to divide their fire between the two groups.

Several different explanations have been put forward as to why the Beiyang fleet did not change their formation to react to the Japanese tactics more effectively. Per Royal Navy Lieutenant William Ferdinand Tyler, stationed on Dingyuan, Admiral Ding ordered his ships to change course in such a way that would have exposed his ship, the flagship, but put the rest of the squadron in a good position to fire on the Japanese fleet; however, that Dingyuan’s captain out of cowardice deliberately did not acknowledge this order or pass it on to the rest of the fleet. Instead, he ordered Dingyuan to fire its main guns before the Japanese were in range. As captain, he was aware of the consequences – when the German Navy took Dingyuan out for gun trials in 1883, it was discovered that firing the main battery directly forward resulted in the destruction of the flying bridge. In what is now known as fragging, Admiral Ding’s legs were crushed under the wreckage of the flying bridge from the opening shot of his own vessel, and was thus out of combat for the remainder of the battle.[1] Most of his staff officers on the bridge were likewise injured or killed. The situation was worsened when the Japanese destroyed Dingyuan’s foremast, making it impossible for the flagship to signal the rest of the fleet. The Chinese fleet, with some foresight, had anticipated something like this happening and formed into three pairs of mutually supporting vessels to carry the fight on.

According to an account from James Allan, an officer aboard the U.S.-flagged supply ship Columbia, who witnessed the battle, rumors abounded that Admiral Ding deferred command to Major Constantin von Hannecken. He opined that it was not surprising that the Chinese had suffered such losses if an Army officer was directing a Naval fleet.[3]

The Chinese fleet opened fire on the Japanese fleet as they passed from port to starboard, across the bows of the Chinese vessels. They failed to score any significantly damaging hits on the Japanese with their 12 inch (305 mm) and 8.2 inch (208 mm) guns. At about 3000 yards (2700 m) (the Chinese had been steadily closing the range), the Japanese concentrated their fire on the right flank of the Chinese line, with devastating barrages poured into the Chaoyong and Yangwei. Both those vessels burst into flames, because of their heavily varnished and polished wooden surfaces.[4] Burning fiercely, both tried to save themselves by beaching.

As the Japanese ships opened fire, the Jiyuan turned and fled, followed by the Guangjia. The Jiyuan was hit only once, while the Guangjia got lost, ran aground and was scuttled a few days later by its own crew.

The Japanese had intended on swinging the flying division around the right flank of the Chinese line in an encirclement but the timely arrival of the Kuang Ping and Pingyuan and torpedo boats Fu Lung (built at Schichau) and Choi Ti, a Yarrow built vessel diverted this maneuver.

The Japanese fast cruisers veered to port and were then dispatched by Admiral Itoh to go to the assistance of Hiei, Saikyo and Akagi which had been unable to keep up with the main line, and had then been engaged by the left-hand vessels of the Chinese line when Saikyo tried to finish off the beached Yangwei.

The Japanese fleet had tactical advantage in their more reliable, better-maintained ordnance(especially outnumbering rapid-fire ordnance) over the Beiyang fleet, which fought with limited stocks, consisting of older foreign ammunition and shoddy domestic products.[5] Japanese shells set four Chinese vessels ablaze, destroying three. However, firefighting was well organized on the Chinese vessels. For example, the Laiyuan burned severely, yet kept firing.[6] Dingyuan stayed afloat and had a casualties of 14 dead and 25 wounded, but a total of about 850 Chinese sailors were lost in the battle with 500 wounded.

The Chinese severely damaged four Japanese warships and while two more were only lightly damaged. Japanese loses were roughly 180 killed, 200 wounded. The Japanese flagship Matsushima suffered the worst single-ship loss with more than 100 dead or wounded after being hit by a heavy Chinese round; Hiei was severely damaged and retired from the conflict; Akagi suffered from heavy fire and with great loss of life; Saikyo, the converted liner, urged on by Admiral Kabayama Sukenori despite its lack of offensive armament, had been hit by four 12 inch (305 mm) shells and was sailing virtually out of control as a result.

The Aftermath

The remnants of the Beiyang Fleet retired into Lüshunkou for repairs, but was withdrawn to Weihaiwei to avoid a second encounter with the Japanese fleet during the Battle of Lushunkou. The Japanese did not pursue the retreating ships, as Dingyuan and Zhenyuan were only slightly damaged, and the Japanese had no way of knowing that the battleships suffered from a lack of ammunition.[1] The Beiyang Fleet was finally destroyed by a combined land and naval attack during the Battle of Weihaiwei.

The defeat of the Beiyang Fleet at the Battle of Yalu River was a major propaganda victory for Japan, with many major European newspapers, including the London Times, Le Temps and Sankt-Peterburgskie Vedomosti providing front page coverage and crediting the Japanese victory to its rapid assimilation of western methods technology.[1] Many credited the prompt action of foreign advisers in the Beiyang Fleet (most notably McGiffin) from keeping the fleet from total annihilation, and for keeping even the most heavily damaged Chinese ships fighting till the very end of the engagement. Some military analysts, notably U.S. Secretary of the Navy, Hilary A. Herbert called the battle ‘nearly a draw’ – although the Chinese had lost several warships, the Japanese had suffered considerable damage, and if the Chinese ammunition had been of higher quality, the outcome might have been different.[1]

The Qing dynasty government, after initially denying that its fleet had been defeated laid the blame for the Chinese defeat on the shoulders of Viceroy Li Hongzhang and Admiral Ding Ruchang, both of whom were demoted and stripped of honors. Their subordinates and relatives also suffered from the same fate. However, both men remained in their posts, and would oversee the final destruction of the Beiyang Fleet at Waihaiwei. While it was not the first battle involving pre-dreadnought technology on a wide scale (the Battle of Foochow in the 1884 Sino-French War predated it), there were significant lessons for naval observers to consider.

Order of Battle


Flying Squadron:

Main Fleet:


  • Akagi (615t, 8 knots (15 km/h), 2-4.7) (Sakamoto Hachirota)
  • Saikyo Maru (merchantman, 2913, 10 knots (19 km/h), small guns) (Kano Yunoshin)

China (Beiyang Fleet)

Left Wing, left to right

  • Jiyuan (2,355t, 15 knots (28 km/h), 2-8.3, 1-5.9, 10MG, 4TT) (Fang Pai-chien) - Fled at start perhaps then collided with Caoyung
  • Kwan Chia (1,290t, 16 knots (29.6 km/h), 1-4.7, 4-5, 8MG) (Wu Ching-jung) - Fled at start, ran aground, scuttled
  • Zhiwyuen (2,300t, 18 knots (33 km/h), 3-8.3, 2-5.9, 16MG, 4TT) (Teng Shih-chang) - Sunk
  • Dingyuan (flag, 7,355t, 15 knots (28 km/h), 4-12.2, 2-5.9, 12MG,3TT) (Ding Ruchang & Liu Pu-chan)

Right Wing, left to right

  • Zhenyuan (7,430t, 15 knots (28 km/h), 4-12.2, 2-5.9, 12MG, 3TT) (Lin Tai-tseng & McGiffin, Philo) - Left group to join flag. Damaged
  • Laiyuan (2,830t, 15 knots (28 km/h), 2-8.3, 2-5.9, 16MG, 4TT) (Chiu Pao-jen) - Aft on fire, damaged
  • Jingyuan, 1887 (2,850t, 15 knots (28 km/h), 2-8.3, 2-5.9. 8MG, 4TT) (Lin Yung-sheng) - Caught fire, sank
  • Jingyuan, 1886 (2,300t, 18 knots (33 km/h), 3-8.3, 2-5.9, 16MG, 4TT) (Yeh Tus-kuei) - Stayed back to avoid shelling
  • Chaoyong (1,350t, 16 knots (30 km/h), 2-10, 4-4.7, 6MG) (Huang Chien-hsun) - Quickly caught fire, sank or beached
  • Yangwei (1,350t, 16 knots (30 km/h), 2-10, 4-4.7, 6MG) (Lin Li-chung) - Quickly caught fire, beached, wreck torpedoed next day

Joined Halfway, front to rear, moved to the right flank

  • Pingyuan (2,100t, 12 knots (22 km/h), 1-12.2, 2-6, 8MG, 4TT) (Li Ho-lien)
  • Guangbing (1,000t, 16 knots (30 km/h), 3-4.7, 8MG, 4TT) (Chen Pi-kuang)
  • Fulong (torpedo-boat, 128t, 15 knots (28 km/h), MGs, 3TT) (Choy)
  • Zuo 1 (torpedo-boat, 69t, 16 knots (30 km/h), MGs, 3TT) (?)

See also


  • The Battle of the Yalu, Personal Recollections by the Commander of the Chinese Ironclad Chen Yuen - Philo N. McGiffin, Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, May–October 1895
  • The Imperial Japanese Navy (1904) - Fred T. Jane
  • Modern Chinese Warfare, 1795-1989 - Bruce A. Elleman, Routledge, London, 2001
  • Paine, S.C.M (2002). The Sino-Japanese War of 1894–1895: Perceptions, Power, and Primacy. London: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-81714-5. 
  • Wright, Richard N. J. (2000). The Chinese Steam Navy 1862-1945. London: Chatham Publishing. ISBN 1-86176-144-9. 

Works cited

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 Paine, S.C.M. (2003). The Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895: Perception, Power, and Primacy. Cambridge University Press. pp. 179–189. ISBN 0-521-61745-6. 
  2. McGriffin, Philo N. The Battle of the Yalu, Personal Recollections by the Commander of the Chinese Ironclad Chen Yuen, Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, May–October 1895.
  3. James Allen (1898). Under the dragon flag: My experiences in the Chino-Japanese war. Frederick A. Stokes Company. pp. 34. Retrieved 7 August 2011. 
  4. McGiffin
  5. War History Studies(Chinese)Vol.2 P56
  6. McGriffin

External links

Coordinates: 39°12′50″N 123°07′35″E / 39.21389°N 123.12639°E / 39.21389; 123.12639

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