Naval Battle of the Yalu River, 17 September 1894

The Naval Battle of the Yalu River (17 September 1894) was a Japanese victory that saw them inflict heavy losses on the main Chinese fleet early in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95.

The war had started with a Japanese victory at sea at Phung-Tao or Asan on 25 July 1894), before the official declaration of war. One Chinese cruiser had been badly damaged, one gun boat sunk and another captured and a troopship carrying reinforcements to Korea had been sunk. After this initial clash the Chinese Peiyang fleet had been ordered to sea, although it had been forbidden to cross a line between the Shantung Promontory on the Chinese coast at the Yalu River at the border between Korea and China. This meant that the Japanese fleet was able to operate safely along the western coast of Korea.

In mid-September Admiral Ting Ju-ch'ang, commander of the Peiyang fleet, led his ships out to see to support a troop convoy that was heading to the Yalu. On 15 September the Chinese fleet met the transports, and on 16 September the troops were safely landed. On the night of 16-17 September the Chinese fleet anchored ten miles south-east of Talu Island, off the Tayang River.

The Chinese fleet contained two battleships and eight cruisers. Most of these ships were older than their Japanese opponents, and they lacked modern rapid firing guns. The two battleships, Ting Yuen and Chen Yuen, were each armed with four 12in Krupp guns, but their layout made forward fire rather hazardous.

Many of the Chinese ships had their heavier guns mounted forward, so Admiral Ting decided to fight line-abreast, with his ten main warships fighting in pairs.

At the left of the Chinese line were the cruisers Tsi Yuen and Kuang Chia. The Tsi Yuen  had an armoured deck and was armed with 8.2in guns. The Kuang Chia was at best a light cruiser, and was armed with one 5.9in and four 4.7in guns. She is sometimes described as a fast sloop and sometimes as a dispatch vessel.

Next came the Chih Yuen and the King Yuen. The Chih Yuen was armed with 8.2in guns and had a protected deck and well-armoured barbette. The King Yuen carried the same gun but also had an armoured belt.

The two battleships were in the centre of the Chinese line. Admiral Ting was on his flagship, the Ting Yuen.

To the right of the battleships were the Lai Yuen and Ching Yuen. The Lai Yuen carried 8.2in guns and had an armoured belt. The Ching Yuen carried similar guns but only had an armoured deck.

At the right of the main line were the Chao Yung and Yang Wei, sister ships that were armed with 10in Armstrong guns and that were almost entirely unarmoured.

To the right-rear were the Ping Yuen, the Kuang Ping and a force of two torpedo boats and two gunboats.

A Japanese fleet, under Admiral Ito Yugo, had been escorting troop transports on the west coast of Korea. When he learnt that the Chinese fleet had moved east, Ito ordered his main fleet and flying squadrons to unite and head north, with the four faster ships of the flying squadron and his six slower ships in the rear. His flagship, the Matsushima, was thus fifth in line.

The Japanese had ten cruisers and two gunboats. They attacked in line astern, in the following order:

Yoshino (four 6in QF guns, eight 4.7in QF guns)
Takachiho (two 10.3in and six 5.6in guns)
Akitsushima (four 6in QF guns, six 4.7in QF guns)
Naniwa (two 10.3in and six 5.6in guns)
Matsushima (one 12.6in and twelve 4.7in guns)
Chiyoda (ten 4.7in QF guns)
Itsukushima(one 12.6in and eleven 4.7in guns)
Hashidata (one 12.6in and eleven 4.7in guns)
Fuso (four 9.4in, two 6.7in guns)
Hiyei/ Hiei (three 6.7in and six 5.9in guns)

Saikyo (a converted liner)and Akagi (a dispatch boat) were to the left-rear of the formation.

Admiral Ito Yugo couldn't match the firepower of the Chinese battleships, especially as his three 12.6in guns proved to be extremely slow firing (averaging one shot per hour during the battle!). However he had a large number of modern quick firing guns, so the Chinese cruisers were badly outgunned.

When the Japanese came into sight the Chinese got up steam and began to move south-west. The Japanese, who were approaching from the south, decided to turn to port and attempt to circle around the right-hand side of the Chinese fleet.

The battle began at 12.50pm when the Ting Yuen opened fire. For some reason Admiral Ting was still on a vulnerable flying bridge at this point, and the Admiral was wounded by the blast from his own guns.

At the Japanese sailed across the front of the Chinese fleet they came under fire, but the Chinese failed to inflict any significant damage at this time.

The Japanese opened fire at a range of 3,000 yards, concentrating their fire on the Chinese right. The lightly armoured Chao Yung and Yang Wei were both set on fire. The Chao Yung sank in shallow water. The Yang Wei ran aground on a reef and was later finished off by the Japanese.

At the same time the ironclad Hiyei and the two dispatch ships, had got caught up in the Chinese line of battle and were suffering heavy damage.

The pair of ships at the left of the Chinese line, furthest from the early action, both quickly fled from the scene. The Kuang Chia was first to flee, but she only managed to run aground and was later destroyed by the Japanese. The Tsi Yuen followed. She managed to reach Port Arthur, but her captain was beheaded for his actions.

This left the battleships and two pairs of cruisers in the main line (Lai Yuen and Ching Yuen to the right, Chih Yuen and the King Yuen to the left), and the Ping Yuen and Kuang Ping and the gunboats and torpedo boats to the far right. The Japanese flying squadron turned away from the threat of the torpedo boats, and instead moved around to help the Hiei.

The ships at the rear of the Japanese line suffered some heavy casualties. The Hiei had to retreat. The Saikyo was hit by four 12in shells, and was nearly out of control. The Akagi suffered heavy casualties, but did manage to hit the cruiser Lai Yuen, starting a fire that caused heavy damage.

In the later stages of the battle the Japanese main force concentrated on the two Chinese battleships, while the flying squadron focused on the cruisers Chih Yuen and King Yuen. The Chih Yuen was to sink at 3.30pm, probably by a 10in hit. The King Yuen may have had to flood her main magazine, and eventually capsized.

The battleships did better. Their 14in armoured citadels performed as expected. They managed to stay together, but their gunnery wasn't overly effective. The Matsushima was hit by one 12in shell at around 3.30pm and suffered heavy losses.

The battle came to an end at around 5pm. Darkness was beginning to fall, and Admiral Ito was aware that the Chinese torpedo craft were still intact and threatening. The Japanese didn’t have any torpedo boats of their own, so were potentially vulnerable to a night attack. By the following morning the surviving Chinese ships had escaped, and they were able to reach Port Arthur.

The Chinese lost five of the ten ships in their main battleline, and suffered 850 dead and wounded (many on the Chih Yuen and King Yuen).  Japanese losses were around 300, with the worst on the Matsushima, but all of their ships survived.

In the aftermath of the battle the surviving Chinese ships underwent urgent repairs at Port Arthur, but the port was soon threatened by the Japanese advance. Admiral Ting was ordered to sail to Wei-Hai-Wei, which was fortified but lacked a suitable dockyard. The Chinese sailed from Port Arthur on 24 October. A sortie in late October-early November ended in disaster when the Chen Yuen grounded while returning to port, and the Chinese fleet didn't attempt to break out to sea during the blockade of Wei-Hei-Wei early in 1885.

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (31 October 2013), Naval Battle of the Yalu River, 17 September 1894 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_naval_yalu_river.html

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