17 September – On this day

The Battle of the Yalu River, was the largest naval engagement of the First Sino-Japanese War, and took place on this day in 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. There is also no agreement among contemporary sources on the exact numbers and composition of each fleet. 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. The Japanese were in column formation with the flying squadron in front, followed by the main squadron.

When the enemy was well in sight Admiral Sukeyuki Ito ordered the flying squadron to attack the Beiyang fleets’ right flank. The Chinese opened fire at a range of 5000 metres, which was far too great to cause any damage. The Japanese, meanwhile, held their fire for another twenty minutes as they headed diagonally across the Beiyang Fleet at twice the speed. On the signal of Admiral Ito, the Japanese squadrons divided. The flying squadron under Tsuboi increased speed from 8 to 14 knots and headed for the very centre of the Chinese formation; the tactic held the puzzled enemy in position. Turning slighty 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 the Chaoyong and Yangwei. The flying squadron then moved northward to engage Chinese reinforcements coming from the Yalu river.

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. The Dingyuan and Zhenyuan resisted the heaviest bombardment as a result of their armour; however, the quick firing Japanese guns decimated crews on their decks.

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. Japanese shells set four Chinese vessels ablaze, destroying three. However, firefighting was well organized on the Chinese vessels. For example, the Laiyuan burned severely, yet kept firing. 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, 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. 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. The Beiyang Fleet was finally destroyed by a combined land and naval attack during the Battle of Weihaiwei.