The Battle of the Yalu River (黃海海戰, lit. Battle of the Yellow Sea), also called simply 'The Battle of Yalu' took place on September 17 1894. It involved the Japanese and the Chinese navies, and was the largest naval engagement of the First Sino-Japanese War. The Yalu River is the border between China and Korea, though the battle was actually fought at the mouth of this river, in the Yellow Sea. A Japanese fleet under Admiral Sukeyuki Ito was attempting to disrupt the landing of Chinese troops protected by a fleet under Admiral Ding Ruchang.
The engagement continued for most of the day, and while it was not the first of pre-dreadnought technology on a wide scale (the Battle of Foochow in 1884 between the French and Chinese predated it), there were significant lessons for naval observers to consider.
At this time, the Japanese were confident in their own abilities. The Chinese, however, still had a number of foreign advisers and instructors. In particular, the German, Major von Hanneken, recently from Korea, was appointed as the naval advisor to Admiral Ting Ju ch'ang. 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 US Navy and an instructor at the Wei-Hai-Wei naval academy was appointed to Chen Yuen as an adviser or co-commander.
Prior to the battle with the Japanese, the vessels and armaments of the Chinese fleet were examined, and the ships were repainted. Philo McGiffin noted, at the time, that the Chinese vessels had been painted in 'invisible grey,' although contemporary photographs indicate a dark hull and a light superstructure, so perhaps only the white superstructures and the buff funnels were repainted gray, with the hulls remaining black. McGiffen also noted that many of the charges were 'thirteen years old and condemned.' The thin shields that had been covering the barbettes on some of the vessels were removed, as these had been found to splinter when hit by shells. The Tsi Yuen's return to port after recent action with the Japanese highlighted some of these problems.
The Japanese advanced on the Chinese with the flying squadron leading in line astern formation with the despatch vessels off to the port of the second squadron where the flagship was sailing. The Chinese were in two squadrons and in line abreast with the majority of the ships in a squadron, the "First Flying Squadron," consisting of Tsi Yuen, Kuang Chia, Chih Yuen, King Yuen, Ting Yuen, Chen Yuen, Lai Yuen, Ching Yuen, Chao Yung and Yang Wei. A second squadron, the "Principal Squadron", consisted of the Kuang Ping and Ping Yuen, with a couple of gunboats or torpedo boats.
The line abreast formation prevented the Chinese battleships in the center from firing because their smaller companions were between them and their opponents during this period. Simultaneously, the smaller, more lightly-armored ships were exposed to prolonged fire from the larger Japanese warships. Also, when the Japanese squadrons split, with the First Flying Squadron turning to the south of the Beiyang fleet while the slower Principal Squadron remained ahead of the Chinese, the main Chinese battleships 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. The account of Royal Navy Lieutenant William Ferdinand Tyler, an advisor on the Dingyuan, seems the best-qualified and corroborated. It states that “Admiral Ting Ju ch'ang 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.” Tyler reported, however, that Ting Yuen’s captain deliberately did not acknowledge this order or pass it on to the rest of the fleet.
Ting Yuen opened fire on the Japanese when the range between the vessels was about 6000 yards (5,500 m). This turned out to be a disastrous (and unnecessary) salvo from the Chinese flagship. When the German Navy took Ting Yuen out for gun trials in 1883 (Ting Yuen had been built in Germany) they noted that the main armament should not be fired on an ahead bearing. Firing on an ahead bearing resulted in the destruction of the flying bridge, and Admiral Ting Ju ch'ang became a casualty from the opening shot of his own vessel, along with a number of other officers on the bridge.
The Chinese fleet all 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 from 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 hand end of the Chinese line, with devastating barrages poured into first Chao Yung and then Yang Wei.
Both those vessels burst into flames, which has been attributed to too much paint and varnish applied over the years. 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 Ping Yuen along with the two 'alphabetical' gunboats and torpedo boats Fu Lung (built at Schichau) and the Choi Ti, a Yarrow built vessel diverted this maneuver.
The Japanese fast cruisers veered to port and were then dispatched by Ito to go to the assistance of the Hiei, Saikyo and Akagi which had been unable to keep up with the main line and had then been engaged by the lefthand vessels of the Chinese line. Early in the battle the Ting Yuen had lost her signalling mast as well, which helped to cause more confusion with the Chinese vessels. 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.
The Japanese fleet, for its part, ravaged the Chinese and fought with fierce determination. Japanese shells set many Chinese ships aflame, and were responsible for sinking or seriously damaging eight of them, either during the battle or during later mopping up operations. Some of the Chinese ships, caked with many coats of flammable paint and varnish and manned by inexperienced crews, suffered horribly from the effect of superior Japanese gunnery.
The Chinese seriously damaged four Japanese warships — Hiei being severely damaged and retired from the conflict; Akagi suffering from heavy fire and with great loss of life; Saikyo, the converted liner, urged on by Admiral Kabayama Sukenori had been hit by four 12 inch (305 mm) shells and was sailing virtually out of control as a result, did cosmetic damage to two more, and killed about 90 Japanese sailors and wounded 200 more.
The Chinese fleet retired into Port Arthur and then to Weihaiwei, where it was finally destroyed by a combined land and naval attack. The Japanese withdrew possibly due to fear of a torpedo boat attack from the Chinese at night and also from a lack of ammunition.
While the Japanese certainly did far more damage to the Chinese fleet, many foreigners at the time credited China with the victory. The Chinese had successfully carried out their troop landing, and the Japanese, for their part, had withdrawn after running low on ammunition. Many credit the prompt action of foreign advisers in the Chinese fleet (most notably McGiffin) for keeping even the most heavily damaged Chinese ships fighting till the very end of the engagement. Later research suggests that the Chinese ships fighting in pairs was something that had been planned ahead of time to cover the eventuality of communications being lost in the smoke and confusion of battle. At the same time, it is fair to note that the Chinese suffered more from poor quality munitions — some of the shells fired by the Ping Yuen, for example, hit the Japanese Matsushima but failed to explode, being filled with cement rather than high explosives - corrupt officials embezzling naval funds. These were made at the Tientsin factories.
The Chinese Government laid the blame for the Chinese defeat squarely on the shoulders of Viceroy Li Hung-chang and Admiral Ting Ju ch'ang. However, on 27 October 1894, Admiral Freemantle, the British Commander-in-Chief met Ting in Wei-Hai-Wei with Ting "still lame from the burns received in the Yalu action" and described him as a "brave and patriotic man".
Despite these assessments, the Battle of the Yalu River is remembered by the Chinese as a humiliating loss. The Beiyang Fleet ceased to exist as an effective combat unit, and the Japanese eventually defeated China during the Sino-Japanese War.