Russo-Japanese War: Death of Admiral Makarov

"Sinking of the Petropavlovsk," by Yamada Hampo, 1904.

“Sinking of the Petropavlovsk,” by Yamada Hampo, 1904. The painting uses an ingenious triptych format.

In my ongoing series about the RJW, I had planned to make only a brief note about Makarov’s death before moving on to the Battle of Yalu River. But the circumstance of his death caught my imagination, so I have dedicated a post to the subject.

Vice-Admiral Stepan Osipovich Makarov arrived in Port Arthur on Tuesday, March 8, 1904, to take over Russia’s beleaguered Pacific Fleet. He went into action right away, leading an attack on the blockading Japanese squadron. Nothing definitive resulted in the military sense, but mighty clouds of lethargy and confusion started lifting away from the garrison.

What was it about Makarov that inspired such confidence? He was, in reality, three men rolled into one: hero of the 1877-78 Russo-Turkish War; oceanographer and author of many scientific papers; inventor of naval devices. He pioneered the use of torpedoes in his fight against the Ottomans. He led research expeditions to Arctic waters. He designed the two icebreaker ferries that helped to get the Trans-Siberian across Lake Baikal. Clearly, this was a man of genius who wasted precious few minutes in his day.

SS Baikal, the larger of the two ferries. Photo courtesy of Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums.

SS Baikal, the larger of the two ferries. Photo courtesy of Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums.

Makarov and Admiral Togo Heihachiro continued their skirmishes throughout the rest of March and into April. Two Russian destroyers were sunk, but the Japanese vessel “Fuji” also sustained serious damage, and  Togo’s fleet failed in its ongoing efforts to clog the entrance to the harbor by sinking old transports filled with concrete and stones.

On April 13, Makarov left port with eight ships to assist a Russian destroyer under attack. When they encountered the better part of Togo’s fleet, the vessels were forced to retreat to the protection of the shore batteries. The Japanese had laid mines in that area the day before. Commander Tikowara Hesibo aboard the “Akusuki” watched as one of the retreating ships burst into blazing red flames. Aiming his telescope toward the masthead, he made out the admiral’s flag: the vessel was the flagship “Petropavlovsk.” It happened so fast that Tikowara found himself distracted by the time lag between the sight and the sound of the explosion. “With my telescope I could see the ship settling down, first by the bows and then to one side. It all took place with incredible rapidity. I could see the screws and rudder out of the water. The masts inclined more and more; the hull kept getting smaller and smaller, and at last disappeared.”*

The flagship explodes.

The flagship explodes.

The “Petropavlovsk” had struck two or three mines, sinking within a couple of minutes and carrying to the bottom Admiral Makarov with approximately 635 officers and men. The Japanese were of course glad to have struck such a crushing blow to Russia’s fleet, but they recognized that a great man was lost. Togo decreed a day of mourning and ordered flags to be flown at half mast.

For Captain Vladimir Semenov, whom we met in our last post along with Tikowara, it was utter tragedy. Aboard the destroyer “Diana”—he’d been spared the threatened transfer to a lowly transport ship—he’d watched, earlier that fateful morning, as the faster “Petropavlovsk” steamed past. “A suppressed ‘Ah!’ passed through the ship’s company. The Admiral came over to the port side of the bridge, that is, to the side nearest to the ‘Diana.’ He wore an overcoat with a fur collar. The wind was blowing about his big, fair beard. ‘Your health, my lads!’ came in his mighty voice. Every word was clear and distinct. ‘We wish your Excellency good health!’ sounded back in specially hearty, cheery voices. ‘God grant a happy issue!’ ‘Respectful thanks, your—‘”#

The next word would have been another “Excellency,” but the flagship was moving too fast, so the crew of the “Diana” saved a few syllables and burst forth with hurrahs.

“The Admiral had already left the bridge and gone into the chart-house,” Semenov continued. “He now came out again, went right out to the end of the bridge and took off his cap, waving it at us with a smile…. The men clambered on to each other’s shoulders to see ‘Little Grandfather.'”

"Petropavlovsk" at the Russian port of Kronstadt, 1899.

“Petropavlovsk” at the Russian port of Kronstadt, 1899.

Two hours later, Makarov was gone. After the explosion, the squadron’s orderly formation fell apart. Suddenly guns went off: a gunner had lost his head and sent a shell toward a neighboring ship, and others fired in response, having no idea what they were firing at. “Submarines!” someone shouted. Torpedo-wielding subs were the latest invention. In fact, both sides possessed them but they were never deployed in this war.

Men tore life-belts out of each other’s hands and prepared to jump overboard. A quaking bugler was ordered to sound a cease-fire, but he choked as he blew into his bugle, finally managing an audible tone. Even that did not restore calm. At last men were forcibly pulled away from the guns—they’d been shelling each other’s ships.

The fleet never recovered from Makarov’s death. At length, Admiral Nikolai Skrydlof was  appointed to replace him. But Skrydlof was unable to reach Port Arthur, due to the Japanese blockade. Instead, the post went to Rear-Admiral Vitgeft, whose bureaucratic habits had irritated Semenov. Even if Vitgeft had possessed initiative, he would have been overruled by Viceroy Alekseev, who ordered the fleet to avoid all risks.

Meanwhile, after the Japanese won the battle of Yalu River and moved to cut off Port Arthur from rail communication up the Liaodong Peninsula, the viceroy fled northward to Mukden by one of the last trains.

* Tikowara Hesibo, Before Port Arthur in a Destroyer. New York: E.P. Hutton, 1907.

# Vladimir Semenov, Rasplata [The Reckoning]. London: John Murray, 1909.

Soviet-era stamp of Makarov.

Soviet-era stamp of Makarov.

About Jenny

I am an off-trail hiker, a student of history, and author of "Transvaal Citizen," "Murder at the Jumpoff," and "The Twelve Streams of LeConte."
This entry was posted in History, Japanese History, Military History, Russian History and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Russo-Japanese War: Death of Admiral Makarov

  1. gary howell says:

    What a beard !! Admiral Togo sounds familiar — still active 40 years later in World War II ?

    • Jenny says:

      Yes, the Russians had all kinds of interesting beards. The Japanese concentrated on long moustaches with only a goatee at most. Togo died in the 1930s. His two wars were the Sino-Japanese and the Russo-Japanese.

  2. Pat H says:


    i’ve been eagerly waiting for this blog to appear, and now realize I’d missed it!

    Congratulations on the launching! And sorry I’ve been so slow to notice!

    • Jenny says:

      Not a problem! Welcome to the blog. As you see, we are deeply involved in a conflict of 1904-05.

      • Pat H says:

        I’m in the odd position of having to say that I’ll have to “catch up to 1904”. Great looking blog, and I’m looking forward to reading the entries.

  3. Brian Reed says:

    Fascinating that the Japanese declared a day of mourning for Makarov. It’s hard to imagine, say, the Americans doing that for Yamamoto.

    • Pat H says:

      It is, but it’s also notable that Russian martial attitudes were different during the Russo-Japanese War as opposed to later. It’s difficult to imagine the Japanese, for example, doing this for any of their World War Two combatants.

      By the same token, the Russians took Japanese prisoners of war during the Russo Japanese War and there doesn’t seem to have been a stigma attached to it on the part of the Japanese. This is considerably different from their later views.

  4. Jenny says:

    I just saw a review of a new book titled “Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy” by Eri Hotta. The title sounds sensationalist, but it’s supposed to be very good. According to the reviewer, the book shows exactly how the Japanese made a series of bad decisions that drove them into a war they couldn’t win. A consensual leadership style made it possible for individuals such as the top navy officers and the foreign minister to avoid individual responsibility for these decisions. The Japanese mindset had changed dramatically since the early 1900s, and Japan became involved in atrocities such as at Nanking.

    • Brian Reed says:

      Interesting. A Taiwanese woman tried to explain to me why many older people there have mild, even fond memories of the Japanese period whereas Koreans and mainland Chinese have…. different views on the subject. Something to do with Japanese occupation beginning in an earlier period that set a better tone than in other areas. I didn’t understand that completely, partly because of Korea’s occupation not being long after, but I don’t know much about the development of Japanese Militarism.

      • Jenny says:

        Yes, what was it that made Japanese attitudes change? Did Japan’s success in the war with Russia lead to a fatally flawed national pride? Interesting questions.

      • Pat H says:

        I’d distrust that recollection. At least in the early 1950s, when my father was stationed in Taiwan, the Japanese were so hated that they wouldn’t let Japanese merchant ship crews come shore in Taiwan. I know that when I was in the ROK on a war game in the mid 1980s, the Japanese were still very dislied there.

      • Pat H says:

        On Jenny’s question, I’m curious as to the answer as well, but one thing to keep in mind is that there’d been a titanic internal structure in Japan in the early 20th Century that was still working itself out about the nature of its sovereignty, which lead it to be more focused on the emperor over time, and finally more militaristic. Civil administration actually lost ground.

        It was imperial, however, the whole time, and always maintained control of regions of mainland Asia.

      • Brian Reed says:

        Was surprising to me as well, but I’ve heard the same thing twice. Remember this would be people from native (pre-WWII) Taiwanese families who as I understand did not run the country including the military after the Kuomintang came and were often hostile to it.

      • Pat H says:

        The point about the native Taiwanese is interesting, and indeed the native population is not Chinese but a separate ethnicity. They’re a minority in modern Taiwan, and have been for quite some time.

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