Russia’s Bloody Retreat from Mukden

One hundred and ten years ago today, the fall of the Russian-occupied Manchurian city of Mukden (now Shenyang, Liaoning province), sealed the fate of early 20th century Russian expansionism in the Far East. The forthcoming naval battle of Tsushima would create the atmosphere for peace negotiations.

The Battle of Mukden was one of the largest land battles to be fought before World War I and the last and the most decisive major land battle of the Russo-Japanese War. Involving more than 600,000 combat participants, it was the largest battle since the Battle of Leipzig in 1813, and also the largest modern-era battle ever fought in Asia before World War II.

Special correspondents working for Frank Leslie’s Weekly followed troops from both sides onto the battlefield. These “embedded” correspondents reported on the ferocity of combat, concerns for refugees fleeing the fighting and protection of religious shrines, the generals and the average life of the soldier in combat and bivouac. Images from the battlefield were captured by photographers and transmitted around the world.

These newspaper reports and images of the Japanese victory shocked the imperial powers of Europe. The battle proved that European powers were not invincible and could be decisively outmatched in battle by Asian armies.

The Bloody Retreat from Mukden

by James Reed Hull, special correspondent of Leslie’s Weekly.
HARBIN, MANCHURIA, April 25th, 1905.

TWELVE O’CLOCK at night in Mukden, and the date, March 9th. All day we had loafed about quarters while the guns boomed and the Japanese crept nearer and nearer to the doomed city. And no change came with the night, except, perhaps, the artillery fire in the north grew slightly more distinct to our ears, and the troops, passing to and fro without, more numerous. Now and then the spiteful crack of a rifle told us that probably some looter had gone to his last account, for until the last the Russians maintained order in Mukden. We—Verdiani, of the Italian Guards, and myself—had tried to sleep, but our eyes were glued open with excitement, and finally, when the rattle of infantry fire began a few miles down the Hsinmintun road, we threw on our accoutrements and took to the bottle and cigarettes, impatiently waiting for something to turn up. Our inclinations told us to venture forth and see the fight, but our instinct for personal safety kept us close in quarters, both of us being unequipped with Russian field passports.

And while the volleying continued and the thunder of the heavy field-pieces shook the ancient foundations of the temple in which we dwelt, we smoked, drank, and told stories, and tried to imagine how we would look and feel in a Japanese military prison. Suddenly there came to our street door a horse at full gallop, stopping with a martial stamping of steel against stone. We heard the well-known rattle of scabbard and spurs and a loud, masterful knock upon the door. The “boy” threw it open, and in stalked a Russian cavalry officer of the governor’s staff. He curtly informed us that his excellency was about to quit the city, and if we wished to accompany him we had best prepare at once. “At one o’clock his excellency and staff will evacuate the town,” said the officer, as he threw the door open and went out into the night.

Famous Tombs of the Chinese Emperors, near Mukden, the sanctity of which both armies promised to respect.

Famous Tombs of the Chinese Emperors, near Mukden, the sanctity of which both armies promised to respect.

We hurriedly turned to our packing, while the excited mafoos saddled and bridled our ponies, who were munching oats from Russia in the compound. Scarcely fifteen minutes elapsed before we were on the street ready for the start. A great change had come over the city. The streets were now vacant and, with the exception of the ring of our ponies’ shoes on the cobble-stones, silent as a tomb. Now and then we sighted the shadowy form of a prowling Celestial on plunder bent, dodging up a narrow, filth-ridden alley. At most of the street corners we passed stood gigantic Manchu policemen armed with pikes such as were used by warriors in the Middle Ages. Once a mounted Cossack galloped past at a breakneck pace, maintaining his right of way with leveled lance. Long after he passed from our sight the noise of his horse’s hoofs re-echoed through the otherwise silent streets. Beyond the wall was the governor’s house, and we found the escort already in saddle. Presently his excellency appeared, mounted on a snow-white stallion, and gave the word to begin the retreat.

The governor and his suite, preceded by four Cossacks carrying lanterns attached to lances, rode at the head of the column. These lights were our guides, even when the darkness of the streets was so intense that one could not distinguish the rider next to him. Up and down they swung, this way and that, until my eyes grew tired watching them. When they disappeared around a corner we of the rear felt more anxious than usual until they appeared again. And so following them we rode on through narrow, silent streets, a great uncertainty in our minds, for, with the exception of his excellency and a favored few of his officers, no one had the faintest notion where we were or where we were going. We spoke in whispers, as people do at a funeral or in the death-room, and when the sharp words of command for the battalion of infantry and the squadron of Cossacks guarding us rang out, it seemed almost as if a great sacrilege had been committed.

Frank Leslie’s Weekly, published from 1855 to 1922, was an American illustrated news publication started by publisher and illustrator Frank Leslie. While only 30 copies of the first edition were printed, by 1897 its circulation had grown to an estimated 65,000 copies.

Suddenly the lights came to a standstill, a general murmur arising as to the cause of the halt. What could be the matter? Had the Japanese trapped us? And if so, would we fight? Our anticipations, however, were soon set at rest by a whispered message to the effect that the head of the column had halted before the Russo-Chinese Bank and would await several employés of the same who were to join us. Presently the lights started forward again, every one following without question; wheels creaked, their tires striking sparks from the stones; commands to infantry and cavalry rang out sharply, and we moved forward again into the darkness and a labyrinth of winding alleys. In and out between mud and masonry walls we wound. It seemed the city would never end, when suddenly we swung into a street wider than the rest, and before us loomed the gigantic bulk of the ancient north gate of the capital of the Manchus. At its base I distinguished a group of bobbing lanterns as if many people were gathered there. An attaché riding near me grumbled something about the Japanese being wise enough after all, and made a laughing comment that he was heartily tired of vodka and would welcome a change, even saki. Subsequently it developed that the lanterns were borne by a number of Chinese soldiers who comprised the body-guard of the high Chinese officials of the city, who had gathered at the gates to bid his excellency Godspeed, and palaver. And before them the Russian governor of Mukden proved himself a brave man and a good diplomat, for in the face of excellent reasons to make haste he remained with them and talked calmly, the curious almond-eyed officials keenly watching his every movement for one indicative of fear.

General Kuropatkin, Commander of the Routed Russians, at the Railroad Station in Mukden Directing the Disposition of Troops. 1. Kuropatkin. 2. Chinese Viceroy.

General Kuropatkin, Commander of the Routed Russians, at the Railroad Station in Mukden Directing the Disposition of Troops. 1. Kuropatkin. 2. Chinese Viceroy.

“My friends,” said the governor, leaning a little forward in his saddle so that the lights might shine more fully upon him, “it is the will of God that we leave Mukden; but, believe me, my countrymen will come again, and the next time they come they will come to stay. It may be next month, next year, or next century, but the result will always be the same.” And, bowing right and left to the silk-clad officials, resplendent in their robes of many colors, embroidered with five-clawed dragons in gold, and surrounded by their medieval soldiery, the governor turned his horse’s head to the north and trotted through the gate; but he did not fail to return the salute of a Chinese infantryman who came sharply to a “present” as we passed the gate.

We trotted briskly for about two miles, our object being to overtake the column that had passed us at the gate. But presently white-coated infantry, marching four abreast and at right angles across the road, barred our way. As they marched they chanted in low tones, as all Russian soldiers are wont to do when moving to battle. We waited impatiently for them to pass, even his excellency not caring to make way among them. Suddenly the night grew to a pitchy blackness, due to the overclouding of a dim and lately risen moon, and even the white coats of the men were lost in the impenetrable blur; and then, all at once, the horizon at our left seemed to burst into flame that gradually subdued itself to a dull red, and against this we caught the gleam of the bayonets of the marching men, although they themselves were shrouded from our sight. We were told by an officer that the illumination was due to the Russians firing several of their large storehouses rather than that the contents should fall into the hands of the Japanese.

After the infantry came guns—guns of all weights and descriptions—drawn by neighing, plunging horses that were constantly feeling the lash. Like the infantry, they were to strengthen our left flank. The passage of this artillery was a marvelous sight. Numerous fires had, in the meantime, sprung up in the west and north, and the sky in these directions was aglow with blinding light, against which the guns gleamed and horses, riders, and the men on the caissons became gigantic silhouettes, tearing madly across the sand, unmindful of the broken bones many experienced during that headlong ride. At four o’clock our column halted and word was passed down the line that we would continue the march at daybreak. Presently other and greater fires sprang into existence to the south of Mukden, and as we watched them climbing higher and higher against the southern horizon the great walls of the ancient Manchu capital, now as black as ink, loomed up against the flame-swept sky. So clearly outlined were they that I could mark the pagodas over the gateways.

“My God!” exclaimed a Russian officer. “My father was with the Hussars and saw the burning of Moscow, but that event was child’s play to this.”

To attempt a description of that great black city, with its background of blinding light, would be sheer madness on my part. But gradually the light lost its intensity, and the walls faded, spectre-like, from our view, and again we found ourselves peering into the murky night, flanked by a horizon of sullen red. At daybreak infantry opened fire on our left, and a little later the spiteful whirr of machine-guns began. But, as we sat our horses, watching the day broaden, and anxiously awaiting the command to march, heavy artillery burst forth, not two miles away. It seemed as if fifty or sixty guns were firing salvos, and that the earth, sky, and incidentally our heads, would split asunder. The horses became uneasy, and men looked inquiringly at one another—as much as to say: I wonder whose guns those are? Soon we learned they were Russian guns, firing against a body of the enemy that under cover of the night had gained a position within range of the railway over which trains were continually passing. Presently an officer rode up with the news that after a desperate struggle the Japanese flanking body had been driven back, and just then we heard the reassuring shriek of a locomotive’s whistle coming from the direction of the firing.

Shortly after six o’clock we gained the military road running parallel to the railway. We found it a broad, well-kept highway, and it gave our horses welcome footing after the Chinese trails we had followed during the night. The sound of fighting now seemed to come nearer, and every one instinctively put his horse to a trot, the carts rattling onward, the drivers slashing the jaded mules and ponies with long lashes, and filling the air with foul vituperation. The troops, however, moved without display of haste. They smoked, chatted, and sang as if going to a manœuvre. The retreat was conducted in five columns. On the extreme right and left were the cavalry and artillery. Following these moved the ammunition and forage carts. In the intervening space between the two flanks marched the infantry, accompanied by hospital trains and light-luggage vans, the latter mostly filled with the belongings of both officers and men. Approximately the distance between the two flanks was twenty miles. The morning passed quietly with us on the highway, and just when we were about to congratulate ourselves on having passed all danger, a gun sounded away to our right, where a hill arose and overlooked the road.

Scenes from General Linevitch’s inspections of the Russian entrenchments.

Scenes from General Linevitch’s inspections of the Russian entrenchments.

“It’s one of our pieces feeling for the enemy at long range,” exclaimed a wounded Russian officer from a cart. But suddenly we learned otherwise, for with the second report a shrapnel burst directly over our heads, every one ducking in a most idiotic fashion as the steel rain whistled about us. Fortunately no harm was done by the first explosion; but immediately the shells came thick and fast, bursting here and there over the column, and plowing the road and the fields to each side of us. Men and horses suddenly grew panicky, and in the next five minutes the orderly retreat had developed into an ignominious rout. Men lay close to their horses’ backs, their rowels dripping with blood, while the poor beasts, frenzied by pain and the booming of bursting shrapnel, sped on, dragging the clattering carts and their contents as if they were made of feathers, until the way was blocked by a river spanned by a rickety pontoon-bridge that had been constructed the fall before, and coated with blue ice through which the spring sun had already made many air-holes to the black water. But the pontoon was only large enough to permit the passage of one cart at a time, and the Russians debouched pell-mell on to the honeycombed ice, which gave way the next moment with a resounding crash and roar, and then men even forgot the Japanese shrapnel in their frantic efforts to escape from the icy flood. Fortunately the river was not deep, although the current was very swift. Horses on their backs in mid-stream kicked and squealed, vainly striving to extricate themselves from the harnesses, while bare-headed, swearing men, frantic with fear, waded about cutting them loose; but the instant one had secured a mount he threw himself upon its bare back and rode for dear life, with the terrifying din of bursting and singing shrapnel in his ears.

Strangely enough, few human lives were lost through this bombardment. Many, of course, were wounded, but few so seriously that they required help to continue the retreat. Horses and mules, however, were continually falling by the wayside, and sometimes it was impossible for those nearest them to tell where they were shot without dismounting. On one occasion, as I rode beside a carriage drawn by two magnificent Russian horses, glossy and black as polished ebony, I suddenly observed a yellowish substance discharging from the back of the nigh horse. Immediately the yellow became a vivid red, and I distinguished the outline of a shrapnel hole as the noble beast stumbled to his knees, and then pitched sideways in his traces, stone dead. On another occasion, while my eyes were fixed upon a soldier at work replacing a tire upon a cart-wheel, he suddenly shivered all over, turned a sickly white and gave a shout, his eyes fixed with great intensity upon his right hand. Two fingers had been shot away as neatly as if they had been amputated. But throughout it all I did not witness the death of a single man.

Arriving at the village of Pan Ko I turned in my saddle and looked back over the highway that stretched level before my eyes to the river. The road was strewn with dead and wounded horses, mules, and donkeys. Occasionally some poor stricken beast would lift his head and gaze after us, and then, as if dissatisfied with what he saw, he would slowly lower himself from view behind a bulwark of dead and wounded ones of his own kind. And still others would attempt to rise and follow, some even gaining their footing to totter and fall heavily, the blood frequently bursting from the nostrils. The roadway was also littered with boots and the heavy overcoats of the soldiers. In the first moments of the panic men had divested themselves of everything that could be hurriedly thrown off Boots were kicked off as the wearers ran; blanket-rolls and knapsacks were pitched unceremoniously away. The panic, however, was not of long duration. By the time the retreating mob had passed the village, Colonel de Vizinsky had assembled a squadron of Cossacks and a battalion of infantry and made a frontal attack on the Japanese battery. A portion of the Cossack command made an attempt to turn the enemy’s left; but the Japanese, recognizing the weakness of their position, hastily withdrew with their guns, and presently four Russian guns, coming from the left flank took up the position, not thirty minutes after the Japanese had evacuated it.

All the morning there had been heavy firing on our left flank, which the Japanese were again striving to turn in order to get at the railway, but in the early evening the word came that their most desperate attacks had been repulsed and they had withdrawn. A little later our ears were gladdened by the rattle of a hospital train pulling up from the south. That night found us in a little Chinese village about thirty versts from Tiehling. Here we bought vegetables and chickens, and made soup after the Russian fashion. Our Cossack orderly fed and stabled the ponies, and after looking to the condition of revolvers and rifles we fell sound asleep on a friendly kang . At five o’clock next morning the Cossack awakened us by pounding with the butt of his rifle on the door. Our first idea being that the Japanese were about, we hastily unrolled ourselves from the blankets and opened the door, revolvers ready. The Cossack grinned and pointed to our saddled horses and a shadowy column of retreating Russians marching up the road. We made a hasty meal of the remnants of the soup of the night before and some flinty Russian biscuits, and were in the saddle at five-thirty. That morning we covered the thirty versts to Tiehling without hearing a shot. The troops marched in good order, singing their monotonous songs. On the way we passed a number of large pontooning boats, loaded on carts drawn by six horses each. These, we were told, belonged to General Lienivitch’s army and came direct from the Shaho.

Great Stronghold of Mukden lost by the Russians

Great Stronghold of Mukden lost by the Russians

At Tiehling the greatest confusion prevailed. Leaving our horses in charge of some Cossacks on guard at the railway station, we went in search of food. The three better restaurants of the town were filled with ravenous Russian officers, it being impossible for others to secure attention. At last we came upon a small café managed by a villainous-appearing Montenegrino. The fellow, however, proved himself an excellent cook, and we went forth from his place decidedly at peace with the world. On our return to the depot we witnessed the arrival of a hospital train that had been fired on by the Japanese. Many of the windows had been shot away and the woodwork was perforated with bullet-holes. We also saw several sisters of charity who had been wounded while attending to the wounded on the train. All of them had been shot in the upper part of the body. A guard told us that several of the wounded had been killed in their cots, and that the last hospital train to leave the front the enemy had blown up with dynamite.

All that afternoon and evening troops continued to pour into Tiehling from the south, while from Harbin came fresh regiments—real Russians from Russia— who encamped near the railway station. Evidently Kuropatkin had no intention of immediately evacuating Tiehling. The next morning early ten regiments were drawn up outside the general’s private car and the bands played merrily. Presently the commander-in-chief dismounted from his car. His expression was serious, but calm, and I failed to detect a trace of worry upon it. The men received him with hearty hurrahs, and he made a short speech before starting on a tour of inspection. A few hours later the news spread that the Japanese were within ten versts of the town, and that the Russians were withdrawing their heavy guns from the heights about the town. Then we knew that, despite the brave show of the morning, the retreat was to be continued. Gazing up the railway, I beheld the rear end of Kuropatkin’s private car whizzing toward the north.

Source: Frank Leslie’s Weekly, June 15, 1905, The Bloody Retreat from Mukden, by James Reed Hull, special correspondent of Leslie’s Weekly.

Top Image: Retreat of the Russian Army after the Battle of Mukden, P. F. Collier & Son for Russo-Japanese War: A Photographic and Descriptive Review of the Great Conflict in the Far East

All images included in blog posts are from either Accessible Archives collections or out of copyright public sources unless otherwise noted. Common sources include the Library of Congress, The Flickr Commons, Wikimedia Commons, and other public archives.

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