Philo Norton McGiffin landed at the Chinese port of Tientsin in April 1885, 24 years old and in much need of a navy.1 He was a U.S. Naval Academy graduate but had not received a commission. So he now placed his hopes on an ancient kingdom struggling to adopt new technology without modernizing its political system.
While in Annapolis, McGiffin spent hours in disciplinary confinement on board the USS Santee. He once awakened fellow midshipmen by bowling cannonballs down the barracks’s staircase and later aroused the whole town by firing ceremonial cannons late at night.2 An admirer considered McGiffin’s avoidance of expulsion his finest achievement.3 As our small Navy of 1884 gave commissions to only the top dozen graduates, McGiffin—no scholar—received a diploma and $1,000.4
The money got him to China as two 7,220-ton battleships left Germany for Governor-General Li Hung-chang’s Peiyang (Northern) Fleet. Li, Governor-General of Chihli province, had suppressed the T’ai P’ing Rebellion with Western officers and arms and later helped create four provincial coastal defense fleets as part of China’s selfstrengthening movement. However, Li’s refusal to risk his Peiyang Fleet allowed France to defeat the Foochow Fleet before McGiffin arrived.5 Li’s responsibilities included defending the Gulf of Chihli, the seaward approach to Peking.
The two new battleships were his pride. Sheathed in 14-inch armor, the Ting Yuen and Chen Yuen mounted four 12-inch Krupp cannon in a pair of the briefly fashionable en echelon turrets amidships. This design permitted engaging a common target only when firing directly ahead, but this meant little to Li, who purchased warships without regard to speed or armament.6
McGiffin knew none of this when he persuaded Li to make him a junior lieutenant commanding a training vessel. McGiffin wrote a letter to his mother describing his safe arrival and promising career.7 He worked hard, earned promotions, taught gunnery at the naval college, and celebrated with lavish Thanksgiving Day o banquets.8
Li often ignored his foreign advisors, including McGiffin, and practiced the traditional Chinese tactic of pitting barbarians—as the Chinese viewed foreigners—against one another.9 Captain William M. Long, Royal Navy, who attempted to train the Peiyang Fleet, resigned.10 A German colonel’s recommendation to build the fleet’s main base at Kiaochow Bay was discarded.11 Ports were built instead at the exposed harbor of Weihaiwei and across the Gulf of Chihli at Port Arthur on the Liaotung Peninsula. Worse, Li selected Ting Juchlang—a cavalry officer—as his admiral.12
Across the Yellow Sea, Japan sought out British training. In 1873, Commander Archibald L. Douglas, Royal Navy, organized the Japanese fleet.13 Leery of relying on a single power, Tokyo then turned to French naval architect Emile Bertin, who established a shipyard and designed a trio of cruisers armed with a powerful 12.6-inch Canet cannon to counter Li’s new battleships.14 More important, Bertin’s ships mounted the newly perfected 4-7- and 6- inch Quick-Firers that more than doubled previous rates of fire.15
Li’s fleet, by contrast, found only trouble after 1889. The Dowager Empress Tz’u-hsi diverted $12,000,000 from naval budgets to rebuild her Summer Palace— and no more ships were purchased. Ammunition became scarce and was often defective.16 Admiral Ting openly admitted his inadequacies: “Here I am Admiral of the Fleet. Do I pretend? Do I assume to know anything about a ship or navigation? You know I do not . . . .”17 His counterparts in Japan needed no apologies.
Japanese militarists feared, with cause, European colonial appetites and sought to dominate Korea—a feat that would require command of the sea.18 China and Japan each had roughly a dozen Western-style warships on the Yellow Sea, but the Imperial Japanese Navy was more confident.
In May 1894, China dispatched 2,000 troops at Seoul’s request to put down a Korean insurrection. In response, Japan invoked her treaty right to send soldiers, hoping a foreign adventure would defuse a domestic crisis.19 As war approached, Japan’s Vice Admiral Sukenori Ito exercised his ships and discovered that his captains expected to ram Chinese ships, a popular concept of the era. Some Japanese cruisers, such as the Naniwa, had reinforced ram bows,20 but Ito dissuaded his officers from such folly against battleships. As Ito trained his fleet, China was not his only concern. Russia might intervene with its Asiatic Fleet from icy Vladivostock to gain a warm-water port. Japan’s fears eased, however, when England signaled its support. Russia remained silent.22
China closed its ports to Japan on 16 July. Li did not want war, but Peking demanded he preserve Ch’ing honor. Ch’ing (Manchu) Dynasty bureaucrats dismissed the Japanese as “dwarf pirates.”23 When Li sent 8,000 reinforcements by sea, Ito knew at once, because his agents bribed a Chinese telegrapher.24 Three fast cruisers of Rear Admiral Kozo Tsuboi’s Light Flotilla, also called the Flying Squadron, headed for the Korean port of Asan. When Japanese troops overthrew the Korean government on 25 July, Tsuboi had a confused encounter, which he considered hostile, with Chinese warships emerging from Asan. Simultaneously, he sighted the arriving convoy. No state of war yet existed, but no one at Asan could be certain.
The Naniwa, commanded by Captain Heihachiro Togo, sank the leased British steamer Kowshing. More than 1,000 Chinese soldiers perished—some machine-gunned in their life boats.25 It was an audacious act, because every naval officer knew that behind England’s merchant marine stood Queen Victoria’s Royal Navy. In London, the press denounced the Japanese for firing on a ship flying British colors. In Tokyo, ministers held their breath. Her Majesty’s Government, however, ignored the uproar, and merely conducted a routine inquiry. Japan retained Whitehall’s backing.
Anticipating war the following year, McGiffin bought a steamer ticket for America and was preparing for his first vacation in ten years when word of the Kowshing disaster arrived. He volunteered for duty, and Ting appointed him executive officer of the battleship Chen Yuen.26 When China declared war on 1 August,27 Li restricted his fleet to the Gulf of Chihli to safeguard Peking. Ting, no coward, cruised the gulf offering battle.28
Ito ignored him, staging diversionary bombardments of China to mask the arrival of troop convoys in Korea. Upon arrival, Japanese soldiers drove back the Chinese to the fortress city of Pyongyang, the strongest position south of the bordering Yalu River. Li grudgingly sent another convoy, this time protected by Ting, and although it arrived safely, Pyongyang had fallen. The Northern Fleet remained at anchor in the mouth of the Yalu overnight.
At 1100 on 17 September, Ting’s lookouts reported smoke on the horizon. Fifteen minutes later, Japanese lookouts spotted his ships. On board the flagship Matsushima, Ito hoisted an “enemy sighted” signal, followed by the Imperial standard, a gold chrysanthemum on a red field. As action stations sounded, his white-hulled ships shifted to line-ahead, the Royal Navy’s fighting formation.
With Ito’s cruisers closing at ten knots, their crews already fed, Ting interrupted his men’s lunch to order his grey ships to sortie. Above his flagship, Ting Yuen, fluttered the admiral’s personal colors, a yellow dragon flag. He had previously instructed his captains to meet the enemy singly or in pairs of sisters ships, hoping to offset his inability to maneuver as a fleet. Ting left his lifeboats behind, because after the Kowshing slaughter, he expected no quarter.29
Ting’s ships advanced line abreast, like charging cavalry, but even at six knots they failed to maintain station. His line became an arc, with the battleships at the center. The smaller vessels covered the flanks, partially blocking each others’ fields of fire, but the formation offered prospects for ramming.30
Ito watched the Chinese open fire at nearly 10,000 yards at 1245. Their shot fell short. Captain Liu Pu-chlan of the Ting Yuen not only missed; he fired without warning Ting or William F. Tyler, the flagship’s English executive officer, who stood on a wooden flying bridge above the guns. The concussion felled both men. As Ting lay unconscious in his bunk, a panicked Liu failed to direct the fleet.
Ito split his force. He signalled Tsuboi to speed the Flying Squadron past the approaching Chinese line, a task requiring 30 minutes before Tsuboi could engage Ting’s starboard vessels. During those anxious moments, Ito’s main flotilla withstood heavy fire.31 But finally, the light flotilla turned and attacked at 14 knots. Despite their modern guns, gunners of the day still aimed by squinting through iron sights while compensating mentally for the ship’s motion.32 Japanese Quick-Firers unleashed a devastating barrage at 3,000 yards, sinking one cruiser and driving off a second. A third, the Chih Yuan, fell silent, her gun crews cut down. Captain Teng Shih-Ch’ang tried to ram the Yoshino, Tsuboi’s flagship, but gunfire sank his ship without survivors. Two more Chinese vessels caught fire; then the cruiser Chih Yuan fled. Upon reaching Port Arthur alone with only stern damage, her captain, Fang Pai-ch’ien, was beheaded.33
Tsuboi turned again, placing the Peiyang Fleet’s remaining cruisers between his ships and Ito’s. Ting’s armorpiercing solid shot produced little damage as it passed through the thin-skinned Japanese vessels, but Ito’s explosive shells inflicted terrible casualties among Chinese gunners standing exposed in open gunmounts. The decks and ornate interiors of Ting’s ships caught fire repeatedly even though fire hoses had been left open.34
On board the Chen Yuen, McGiffin led his sailors in fighting fires on the bow. Turning around, he spotted a cannon aimed directly at him, about to fire. He flung himself to the deck, but the muzzle blast burned one eye, burst both ear drums, and left him unconscious briefly.35 McGiffin remained deafened and half- blinded for the remainder of the battle.
At about 1500, Ito’s cruisers edged closer. Seeing Ting’s flagship ablaze, McGiffin, despite fresh wounds from shell splinters, ordered the Chen Yuen to maneuver as though out of control to lure the Japanese. McGiffin had assumed command when his superior lost his nerve: “Commodore Lin was our captain,” he later wrote, “but he was not to be seen at Yalu.”36 As Matsushima moved in for the kill, McGiffin’s men surprised her with a 12-inch round, silencing the Canet gun and damaging her steering and killing scores. Heroic measures prevented the ship’s magazine from exploding, but she was finished as the flagship.37
Ito transferred to the Hashidate, but his attack never regained momentum. Low on ammunition and lacking nearby ports for repairs, he did not know that Ting’s fighting battleships were also down to their last rounds. With darkness and Chinese torpedo boats approaching, Ito broke off the engagement. He headed for Weihaiwei, but Ting retired to Port Arthur.38
Japanese officers named the battle for the nearby island of Haiyang, but it is remembered elsewhere as the Battle of the Yalu. It was the first fleet action at sea by modem warships.
Naval experts were relieved that mechanically operated heavy guns performed reasonably well but disappointed by the failures of ramming and torpedoes.39 Armor’s successful resistance to modern shot came as a shock, as did the battle ending with both sides having exhausted their ammunition.40 Despite the close range, Ito credited his gunners with only 15% hits while granting his foes about 10%. McGiffin agreed on the Japanese figure, but believed his men doubled Ito’s estimate.41 Casualties had been heavy. China estimated its losses at 22%; Japan reported 8%.
Peking announced that the Foochow Fleet would reinforce Ting, but it repaid Li by remaining at anchor. While McGiffin and foreign officers struggled to repair their ships, Western observers reported the Chinese showed little enthusiasm. Ting failed to oppose the landing of a Japanese army sent to Port Arthur and by mid-November convinced Li to permit withdrawal to Weihaiwei. McGiffin found sanctuary on board the USS Monocacy.
Ito promptly blockaded Weihaiwei. A night torpedo boat attack sank Ting’s flagship on 6 February 1895, and the Chen Yuen succumbed to Japanese Army shore batteries three days later.42 Ting surrendered on 12 February. Ito offered him fair terms, but Li’s admiral responded with an overdose of opium. Ito left the Peiyang Fleet one vessel to transport his adversary’s body, but all other ships entered Japanese service.
Li Hung-chang concluded the war on 12 April. China lost Taiwan, the Liaotung Peninsula, and pledged an indemnity of £30,000,000. In Shanghai, the English-language North China Herald observed that the defeat ended “the fiction that China was a great power. . . .”43 Six days later, the French, German, and Russian ambassadors simultaneously presented Tokyo memorandums “advising” that the Liaotung Peninsula be restored to China. The Tsar mobilized his Asiatic Fleet; London professed neutrality; and on 29 April the Japanese yielded.44 China called the post-war scramble for concessions qua-fen, “the carving up of the melon.”45 Great Britain occupied Weihaiwei, and France took the Bay of Kwangchow.46 The Kaiser’s East Asian Squadron seized Kiaochow Bay.
When St. Petersburg later pressured Peking into leasing Port Arthur to the Russian Navy, the embittered Japanese started building the battleship fleet that Admiral Togo used to avenge the Triple Intervention at the Battle of Tsushima in 1905.47
McGiffin never knew of Tsushima. Outraged by Ch’ing corruption, he returned home amidst great acclaim to write and lecture about the war. Elis article in Century Magazine won a glowing review, but this gave little comfort, however, as his deepest fears came true. Shortly before sailing for the Yalu, McGiffin wrote to his brother, “You know it is four killed to one wounded since the new ammunition came in. It is better so. I don’t want to be wounded. I hate to think of being dreadfully mangled and then patched up with half my limbs and senses gone.”48 McGiffin survived the battle, but his health steadily deteriorated.
Friends finally hospitalized McGiffin in New York City to protect him from his own increasingly erratic behavior. While under treatment for growing blindness and psychological problems, he obtained his service revolver by a subterfuge and committed suicide on 11 February 1897. His body, dressed in a Chinese lieutenant commander’s uniform, was returned to his home town.49 As he had requested, an honor guard from the United States Navy attended his funeral.50
1. Richard Harding Davis, Real Soldiers of Fortune (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1911), p. 130.
2. Ibid., pp. 122-124.
3. Maj. Eames L. Yates, USA, “Philo McGiffin Lore,” United States Naval Institute Proceedings, September 1955, p. 1051.
4. Davis, Real Soldiers, pp. 127-128.
5. John L. Rawlinson, China’s Struggle for Naval Development, 1839-/895 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1967), Ch. VI passim.
6. Robert Gardiner, ed. dir., Conway's All the World’s Fighting Ships, I860'1905 (London: Conway Maritime Press, Ltd., 1979), p. 395.
7. Davis, Real Soldiers, pp. 131-137.
8. Ibid., pp. 138-139.
9. Jonathan Spence, To Change China (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1969), p. 118.
10. Rawlinson, China’s Struggle, pp. 163-165.
11. Bruce Swanson, Eighth Voyage of the Dragon (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press. 1982), pp. 91-92.
12. Rawlinson, China’s Struggle, p. 90.
13. H. J. Jones, Live Machines: Hired Foreigners and Meiji Japan (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1980), pp. 33, 85.
14. Hansgeorg Jentschura, Dieter Jung, and Peter Mickel, trans. by Antony Preston and J. D. Brown, Warships of the Imperial Japanese Navy (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1977), pp. 96-97.
15. Norman Friedman, U. S. Naval Weapons (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1982), p. 17.
16. Ssu-yu Teng et al., China’s Response to the West (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979), pp. 88-90.
17. Rawlinson, China’s Struggle, p. 166.
18. VAdm. G. A. Ballard, RN, The Influence of the Sea on the Political History of Japan (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1921; reprint ed., Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1973), pp. 125-126.
19. Bonnie B., “Sino-Japanese Rivalry in Korea, 1876- 1885,” in The Chinese and the Japanese, Akira Iriye, ed., (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), passim.
20. Jentschura, Warships, p. 95.
21. Swanson, Eighth Voyage, p. 106.
22. Morinosuke Kajima, The Emergence of Japan as a World Power (Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1968), pp. 37-39.
23. Joseph W. Esherick, The Origins of the Boxer Uprising (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), p. 73.
24. Immanuel C. Y. Hsu, The Rise of Modem China (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970), p. 404.
25. Stephen Howarth, The Fighting Ships of the Rising Sun (New York: Atheneum, 1983), p. 24.
26. Davis, Real Soldiers, p. 139.
27. Rawlinson, China's Struggle, p. 171.
28. Philo N. McGiffin, “The Battle of the Yalu,” Century Magazine (August 1895), pp. 586-587.
29. George Blond, trans. by Edward Hyams, Admiral Togo (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1960), pp. 108-111.
30. Rawlinson, China’s Struggle, pp. 178-179.
31. H. W. Wilson, Ironclads in Action, 2 vols. (London: Sampson, Low, Marston and Company, Limited, 1896), 11:91.
32. Elting E. Morison, Admiral Sims and the Modem American Navy (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1942), Chapters 8 and 9.
33. Blond, Togo, pp. 114-116.
34. McGiffin, “Battle of the Yalu,” p. 595.
35. The Philadelphia Inquirer, 12 February 1897, p. 7.
36. Quoted in Ens. Frank Marble, “The Battle of the Yalu,” United States Naval Institute Proceedings (No. 3, 1895), p. 518.
37. Wilson, Ironclads, 11:94, 306.
38. McGiffin, “Battle of the Yalu,” pp. 601-603.
39. Wilson, Ironclads, 11:113-114.
40. Morison, Sims, pp. 41-42.
41. Wilson, Ironclads, 11:113-114.
42. Hsu, Modem China, p. 406.
43. Esherick, Boxer Uprising, pp. 73-74.
44. Ian Nish, A Short History of Japan (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, Inc., 1968), pp. 108-110.
45. Kajima, Emergence, pp. 15, 21.
46. Esherick, Origins, pp. 123-124.
47. Kenneth Scott Latourette, The Chinese: Their History and Culture (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1964), p. 310.
48. Evening Repository (Canton, OH, 1 May 1898), p. 19.
49. The Evening Post (New York, 12 February 1897), p. 8.
50. Capt. Richard O. Patterson, USNR, “A Commander for China," United States Naval Institute Proceedings, December 1954, pp. 1374-1375.