Battle of the Yalu River (1894)

This article is about the naval battle of the First Sino-Japanese War. For the first battle of the Russo-Japanese War, see Battle of Yalu River (1904).
Battle of Yalu River (1894)
Part of the First Sino-Japanese War

"Battle of the Yellow Sea" by Korechika
Date17 September 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 severely damaged

2 ships lightly 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 17 September 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 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 composition of each fleet.[1]


Japan's initial strategy was to gain command of the sea, which was critical to its operations in Korea.[2] Command of the sea would allow Japan to transport troops to the mainland.

Even before the Battle of Pyongyang, Chinese viceroy Li Hongzhang had called for 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 Chinese government was reluctant to risk China's most modern 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 Lüshunkou (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, the Guangxu Emperor 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 Lüshunkou 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 Constantin von Hanneken, recently from Korea, who 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 Weihaiwei naval academy, was appointed to Jingyuan as an adviser or co-commander.

Though well drilled, the Chinese had not engaged in sufficient gunnery practice beforehand. This lack of training was the direct result of a serious lack of ammunition. Corruption seems 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."[3] What little ammunition there was, was to be preserved for real battle. Live ammunition training was rarely carried out.

Li wanted to delay the battle against the Japanese fleet, thus allowing the Chinese more time to equip their ships with additional ammunition. However, the imperial court called him a coward and his recommendation was turned down.


Japanese print depicting Matsushima (left) attacking Chinese warships

Composition of the Fleets

The Japanese Combined Fleet consisted of two formations. A flying squadron, composed of the four fast cruisers Yoshino, Takachiho, Akitsushima, and Naniwa, was under the command of Tsuboi Kōzō. The main fleet consisted of the cruisers Matsushima (flagship), Chiyoda, Itsukushima, Hashidate, the ironclads Fusō, and Hiei, under the command of Admiral Sukeyuki Ito. There were also two dispatch vessels, the converted liner Saikyo Maru under the command of Swedish-born Royal Navy Captain John Wilson, and the gunboat Akagi. The Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Kabayama Sukenori was on a tour of inspection and aboard Saikyo Maru.

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

Initial contact and engagement

Late in the morning the two fleets approached each other, in contrasting formations. The Chinese had intended to form a line with the ships side by side, but due to confusion in signals and the differing speeds of the ships, they were in a wedge formation, with the two battleships at the fore and the other vessels trailing behind on both flanks.[4] The Japanese were in column formation with the flying squadron in front, followed by the main squadron.[4]

When the enemy was well in sight Admiral Sukeyuki Ito ordered the flying squadron to attack the Beiyang Fleet's right flank.[4] The Chinese opened fire at a range of 5,000 metres (5,500 yd), which was far too great to cause any damage.[4] The Japanese, meanwhile, held their fire for another twenty minutes as they headed diagonally across the Beiyang Fleet at twice the speed.[4] On the signal of Admiral Ito, the Japanese squadrons divided. The flying squadron under Tsuboi increased speed from 8 to 14 knots (15 to 26 km/h; 9.2 to 16.1 mph) and headed for the very centre of the Chinese formation; the tactic held the puzzled enemy in position.[4] Turning slightly to port, the flying squadron then moved around the right flank of the Chinese formation to strike at the weakest units there. Holding fire until they were in effective range, the cruisers battered Chaoyong and Yangwei.[5] The flying squadron then moved northward to engage Chinese reinforcements coming from the Yalu river.

British illustration of Dingyuan and Zhenyuan under fire from the Japanese cruisers

The main squadron of the Japanese fleet initially followed the same course as the flying squadron towards the Chinese left but completed the turn all the way round to circle behind the Chinese fleet. As the flying squadron again turned south, the Beiyang Fleet was caught between the two Japanese squadrons. Dingyuan and Zhenyuan resisted the heaviest bombardment as a result of their armour; however, the quick firing Japanese guns decimated crews on their decks.[5]

The Flying Squadron meanwhile re-engaged, sinking the cruiser Zhiyuan that had attempted to ram one of the Japanese cruisers, then set off in pursuit of one of several ships on the Chinese left which were deserting their fleet and had fled toward the shallow waters to the north. The squadron successfully hunted down and destroyed the cruiser Jingyuan, but in doing so inadvertently allowed the other Chinese vessels to escape.[5] By this time the main Japanese squadron under Admiral Itō was circling what remained of the Chinese force, the major Japanese ships fired their heavy and quick-firing guns that swept the decks of the Chinese ships and smashed their superstructures. Many of the Japanese ships, however, also received major damage. The Yoshino was hit and the Akagi and Saikyo Maru were put out of action. Hiei also sustained serious damage as a result of her inferior speed, her captain decided not to try to follow the Flying Squadron on its sweep around the Chinese fleet, but instead to pass directly through the Chinese line. This maneuver made the Hiei an easy target and sustained a number of serious hits before the ship moved out of range.[5] The damage to the Matsushima, however, was the most severe; where the lack of armor was made apparent when she was struck by two 12-inch shells that tore open the deck and ignited ready ammunition causing nearly one hundred casualties and forcing Admiral Itō to transfer his flag to the Hashidate.[5]

By sunset the Beiyang fleet was near the point of total collapse, most of the fleet had fled or had been sunk and the two largest ships Dingyuan and Zhenyuan were nearly out of ammunition.[5]


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, Dingyuan's captain 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. There is a long-repeated legend that firing the main battery directly forward resulted in the destruction of the flying bridge, but it was a mistranslation of Philo T. McGiffin's memoir, which says that he and Ding were "catapulted" by the shockwave.[6] Now historians agree it was Japanese gunfire that destroyed the flying bridge, leaving Admiral Ding with his legs crushed under the wreckage and 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.[7]

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 2,700 metres (3,000 yd) (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 Chaoyong and Yangwei. Both those vessels burst into flames, because of their heavily varnished and polished wooden surfaces.[8] Burning fiercely, both tried to save themselves by beaching.

As the Japanese ships opened fire, Jiyuan turned and fled, followed by Guangjia. Jiyuan was hit only once, while Guangjia became lost, ran aground, and was scuttled a few days later by its own crew. Some sources also say Jiyuan collided with Yangwei, causing her sinking.[9]

The Japanese had intended to swing the flying division around the right flank of the Chinese line in an encirclement, but the timely arrival of the Kuang Ping and Pingyuan, along with the 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 Maru 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 Maru tried to finish off the beached Yangwei.

At 15:20, the severely crippled and burning Zhiyuan tried to ram Naniwa (Chinese source says Yoshino)[10] but failed. She sank along with her captain, Deng Shichang.

The Japanese fleet's more reliable, better-maintained ordnance and overwhelming superiority in rapid-firing guns gave it tactical advantage over the Beiyang Fleet, which fought with limited stocks, consisting of older foreign ammunition and shoddy domestic products.[11] Japanese shells set four Chinese vessels ablaze, destroying three. However, firefighting was well organized on the Chinese vessels. For example, Laiyuan burned severely, yet kept firing.[12] Dingyuan stayed afloat and had casualties of 14 dead and 25 wounded. A total of about 850 Chinese sailors were lost in the battle with 500 wounded.

The Chinese severely damaged four Japanese warships and lightly damaged two others. Japanese losses were roughly 180 killed, and 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, with great loss of life. Saikyo Maru, 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 left sailing virtually out of control as a result.


The remnants of the Beiyang Fleet retired into Lüshunkou for repairs, but were withdrawn to Weihaiwei to avoid a second encounter with the Japanese fleet during the Battle of Lüshunkou. 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.[13] 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.[14] 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 Chinese government, after initially denying that its fleet had been defeated, put the blame for the Chinese defeat on Viceroy Li Hongzhang and Admiral Ding Ruchang, both of whom were demoted and stripped of honors. Their subordinates and relatives suffered similar fates. However, both men remained in their posts, and would oversee the final destruction of the Beiyang Fleet at Weihaiwei.

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
  • Zhiyuen (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
  • Jingyuen, 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


  1. 1 2 3 4 Paine 2003, pp. 179–189.
  2. Evans & Peattie 1997, p. 40.
  3. 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.
  4. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Evan & Peattie 1997, p. 42.
  5. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Evan & Peattie 1997, p. 44.
  6. "马吉芬:大东沟海战丁汝昌重伤因被炮风震倒". Retrieved 5 October 2014.
  7. James Allen (1898). Under the dragon flag: My experiences in the Chino-Japanese war. Frederick A. Stokes Company. p. 34. Retrieved 7 August 2011.
  8. McGiffin
  9. "(转帖连载126)大清海军的落日辉煌——"济远"撞坏"扬威"考正". Retrieved 5 October 2014.
  10. Jukkoku Matsuda,Tōgō heihachirō to akiyama saneyuki ,PHP Kenkyūjo, 2008, p.187
  11. War History Studies (Chinese) Vol.2 P56
  12. McGriffin
  13. Paine 2003, p. 181.
  14. Paine 2003, p. 182.


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