Battle of Yalu 1894

The Japanese ships

The Japanese had a mixed force of modern protected cruisers and several older ships, some of which should not have been included in the battle line. As yet they had no battleships that could compare to the two Chinese ships.

The protected cruiser Yoshino was a very fast Elswick design, an improvement on ships built for South American navies. The protected cruiser Akitsushima was a smaller version of the American Baltimore/Philadelphia type. These ships had mainly smaller, quick-firing guns. The Naniwa class mounted heavier main guns but were combined with the former ships as the fast or 'flying' squadron that could operate independently of the rest of the fleet. These ships were improvements on the Elswick "Esmeralda" (a Chilean ship which Japan would purchase to add to their fleet for this war).
The flagship and two other French-built cruisers each had a single heavy gun--mounted to the front or to the rear depending on the ship--but were otherwise just protected cruisers, not battleships. These heavy guns were meant to counter the Chinese advantage in armored ships, but had such a slow rate of fire that they were almost useless in battle.
The Chiyoda was a small, lightly armed armored cruiser. It is much weaker than most later armored cruisers, being armed more like a small protected cruiser.
The old ironclad Fuso had been rebuilt just before the war; its masts had been changed and armament reduced. The Hiei was another old ironclad; the Japanese also included a small gunboat (Akagi--note, this ship may have been re-armed with smaller guns by time of battle) and an armed liner (Saikyo) in their fleet. These weaker ships were at the end of the battle line and were punished severely by the oncoming Chinese fleet.

The Chinese ships

The Chinese fleet was built around the two powerful German-built battleships (which resembled the British battleship Inflexible). These ships were tough and well-armed. These ships and many of the supporting cruisers could fire most oif their main guns straight ahead, and the Chinese used a formation that took advantage of this (some have compared it to the Austrian formation that opened the battle of Lissa, the previous ironclad fleet engagement). The battleships were side-by-side in the center with the remaining ships alongside (spreading into a sort of arrowhead shape)--unfortunately the weakest ships were placed on the flanks of the formation and were pounded by the Japanese line as it circled around the Chinese fleet.
Supporting the battleships, the Chinese had several armored cruisers and protected cruisers. Some of these would have been decent ships except that they had been designed smaller than similar ships in European navies. This limited their ability to take as much damage as the two battleships. The weapons on the more powerful cruisers (the armored cruisers King Yuan and Lai Yuan, and the protected cruisers Tsi Yuen--sometimes written as 'Chi Yuen'--and the Ching Yuan and Chih Yuan) were heavy 8.2in guns, but these had a slow rate of fire compared to the numerous smaller guns (6in and 4.7in) on the Japanese cruisers.
The Chinese fleet included some additional lightly-armed ships, plus several torpedo boats which did not hit anything but influenced the Japanese tactics (they avoided the torpedo boats and the cruiser and gunboats that sailed with them).

The most well-known story behind this battle is the corruption of the Chinese (Manchu/Ch'ing Dynasty) government. It is rumored that funds meant to buy more warships--which would have made the fleet much more formidable against the Japanese cruisers--was instead used to decorate the palace of the Manchu emperess. Also, many of the shells on the Chinese ships were filled with sawdust, or other materials other than explosives, since the cheaper shells obviously meant more profits for the manufacturer, regardless of the misery for the Chinese crews. [Stuff like this happens every day around the world--thousands have died in recent earthquakes in Turkey and Taiwan due to high-rise apartment buildings constructed with substandard materials]. It is generally said that the crews of the Chinese ships fought bravely, and were let down by their leadership--one widely reported example being the captain of the protected cruiser Tsi Yuen, who turned his ship around early in the battle and fled for home--ramming another Chinese ship along the way. He was beheaded for supposed cowardice. On the other hand, the Chih Yuan's captain got the opposite reputation, because this ship reportedly charged the Japanese cruisers and was battered and sunk.

The Chinese did manage to deal damaging hits to the Japanese ships, and with more reliable ammunition this would have been more effective. The flagship Matsushima and several of the weaker ships (especially the old ironclad Hiei, the gunboat Akagi, and the armed liner Saikyo) were forced to withdraw after heavy hits. Also, the Japanese failed to stop the two heavily-armored Chinese battleships from returning home. But the Chinese cruisers suffered badly, not being large enough to take the number of hits from the relatively small but relentless quick-firing guns that the battleships had endured but survived. The two major Chinese losses were the armored cruiser King Yuan and the protected cruiser Chih Yuan. The smaller, obselete cruisers Chao Yung and Yang Wei and the lightly-armed Kuang Chia were also sunk or grounded and finished off later.

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