Jun 5, 2023
Last time we spoke about about the first large land battles of the First Sino-Japanese War: the battles of Seonghwan and Pyongyang. The Qing’s plan to perform a pincer attack from the north and south of Korea was smashed when they lost Asan. However not all was lost, they still held the extremely formidable defensive position at Pyongyang with some of their best units and best equipment. The Japanese 1st Army deceived the Qing defenders and made an incredible victory at Pyongyang sending the remaining survivors fleeing towards the Yalu River. It was a tremendous blow to the Chinese despite their home press proclaiming every event to be a victory. Now the Qing have their backs against the wall along the Yalu, if the Japanese were to take it they could march right into Manchuria. While the Qing be able to rally themselves and hold the Japanese within Korea, or will this war see action within their borders?
#51 The First Sino-Japanese War of 1898-1895 Part 3: The battle of the Yalu River
Welcome to the Fall and Rise of China Podcast, I am your dutiful host Craig Watson. But, before we start I want to also remind you this podcast is only made possible through the efforts of Kings and Generals over at Youtube. Perhaps you want to learn more about the history of Asia? Kings and Generals have an assortment of episodes on history of asia and much more so go give them a look over on Youtube. So please subscribe to Kings and Generals over at Youtube and to continue helping us produce this content please check out www.patreon.com/kingsandgenerals. If you are still hungry for some more history related content, over on my channel, the Pacific War Channel where I cover the history of China and Japan from the 19th century until the end of the Pacific War.
Literally a day after the battle of Pyongyang, the second major battle of the entire war took place. The IJN had been trying to engage a very reluctant Qing navy who were under orders not to cross the Yalu-Weihaiwei line. Well the Japanese crossed it for them. The Beiyang fleet had difficulties operating in the open sea, where the IJN warships held an advantage in speed and better maintenance. The Beiyang fleet thus operated more so along the coastlines, with her two colossal German built battleships the Dungyuan and Zhenyuan only capable of hitting 15-16 knots speed. To give a comparison, the IJN ships had a rough average speed of 20 knots. Now in early September, Li Hongzhang decided to reinforce the Qing forces at Pyongyang and he had his Beiyang fleet escort their transports to the mouth of the Taedong River. On September 12th around 4500 Qing troops left Dagu aboard 5 transports heading for Dalian where they joined 2000 more troops. Admiral Ding Rucheng, initially wanted to send the transports with only a light escort, keeping the bulk of the Beiyang fleet in a safer position incase the IJN combined fleet offered battle. However reports of sightings of the Japanese cruisers Yoshino and Naniwa who were performing reconnaissance near Weihaiwei led to disaster for the Qing. The Beiyang Fleet commanders took these reports to indicate the IJN combined fleet were all around Weihaiwei, it just so happened the entire Beiyang Fleet was to head to Weihaiwei on the 13th. The Qing hunted down the cruisers for an entire day, but found no sight of them, so Admiral Ding turned back for Dalien arriving on the 15th.
The Japanese victory at Pyongyang meant the Qing land forces were concentrating at the Yalu River. Reports began to reach Admiral Ding about the supposed grand victory, but he read between the lines the truth of the matter when the reports also stated the transport of further troops to the mouth of the Taedong river was no longer necessary. Admiral Ding surmised correctly that the Qing line of defense would now be established on the Yalu River, so he decided to bring the troops there. At around 1:00am on the 16th the Beiyang fleet and the 5 transports departed Dalian Bay. The Beiyang fleet consisted of the 2 ironclad battleships, the Dingyuan and Zhenyuan, a smaller coastal defense battleship called the Pingyuan, the cruisers Laiyuan, Jiyuan, Jingyuen, Jingyuan and Zhiyuen, smaller cruisers Chaoyong, Kwan Chia, Yangwei and the gunboats Guangbing, Zhennan, Zhenzhong, Fulong and Zuo 1. Now I really need to take a moment here to explain a lot about the two opposing naval forces. These Qing ships I just listed, most of them were built before 1887, for the Japanese the majority would be built after 1890. About 10 significant ships from each side would take part in the upcoming battle; for the Qing the two battleships which each holding ⅓ more displacement than the largest Japanese warship. The Qing warships could only go as fast as their slowest, and the two battleships only pulled 15 or so knots, meaning the IJN would enjoy a massive advantage in speed.
The armaments of the Beiyang fleet were created mostly at the Jiangnan and Fuzhou Shipyards and they were by far and large superior to that of the Japanese. They had foreign expertise overlook the developments, but because of the nature of the Qing navy this did not extend to the maintenance for the ships. Qing regional leaders were skeptical of Li Hongzhang and the naval board, and refused to pay anything more than the bare minimum required for the basic maintenance of the navy. Many of these regional leaders were not happy about the naval board having its director being the Manch Prince Chu’un, and his successor Manchu Prince Qing. Why were they not happy you might ask, well other than the regular ethnic rivalries. Neither Manchu director could administer funds properly nor prevent Empress Dowager Cixi for allegedly diverting funds for other purpose, now hold on a minute for those who might be screaming “thats a myth” I will get to it. A lot of rumors sprang up that the Empress Dowager had embezzled funds from the navy to restore the old summer palace, this is infamous to anyone who learns 19th century Chinese history. In fact, as the story goes Cixi had rebuilt the expensive Marble Boat in the palace garden with funds that were earmarked for modernizing the navy. It is alleged Cixi devoted 100 million taels to the purpose of rebuilding the summer palace and the Qing navy would not see additional funding after the year 1889. Some estimate the summer palace renovations took 11 million from the naval funds, enough to buy around 6-7 warships. To be honest I am a huge fan of a podcast called “Our Fake History” and I hope he tackles this myth one day. But it seems Empress Dowager Cixi was not wholly at fault for the decline of the Qing navy. No it seems Emperor Guangxu's quote “lack of interest” in developing and maintaining the military was to blame. Grand Tutor Weng Tonghe advised Guangxu to cut all funding to the navy and army, because he did not see Japan as a true threat, and during the 1890’s large natural disasters occurred which seemed a much more pressing issue to allocate funds to. After the Taiping Rebellion could you blame the emperor? Regardless its just to say its not black and white, there were numerous variables when it came to the funding scandals. But as a Chinese friend of mine put it once, “everyone learns about Cixi embezzling for the palace at the cost of the navy”, it certainly is the prevailing idea.
Li Hongzhang’s ordnance supply officer for the Beiyang fleet was his son in law Zhang Peilun who was referred to by Professor Wiliam Lockwood as a quote “champion swindler”. He described the man to so corrupt, sailors would often find shells filled with sand and quote “when the shooting began, the Chinese fleet found that its total supply of ammunition amounted to fourteen shells per gun. Two 7000 ton ironclads had only 3 shells in all for their 10 inch guns”. There is zero question on the issue of corruption when it came to the Qing navy in the late 19th century. They were hampered with shortages of ammunition, there are even reports some shells were filled with cement rather than explosives. Not only would the Qing sailors find little shells to fire during the battle of Yalu, imagine the lack of practice as a result of never having ammo? Poor accuracy and seriously questionable naval orders during battle would plague the Beiyang fleet. Alongside the lack of ammo it is also alleged the Qing warships had half their crews, because of salary embezzlement. So the Beiyang fleet would come into the battle undermanned, undertrained and underequipped, the recipe for disaster.
Now as for the Japanese, the IJN combined fleet consisted of 2 formations: the flying squadron composed of the 4 fast cruisers: Yoshino, Takachiho, Akitsushima and Naniwa led by Admiral Tsuboi Kozo. And the main fleet consisting of the cruiser and flagship Matsushima followed by Chiyoda, Itsukushima, Hashidate and the ironclads Fuso and Hiei led by Admiral Ito Sukeyuki. There were also two dispatch vessels, the Saikyo Maru led by the Swedish born captain John Wilson and the Gunboat Akagi. Unlike the Beiyang fleet which was 1 of the 4 non cooperating fleets that made up the Qing navy, the IJN combined fleet were consolidated under a single command, always unified, trained extensively together as a single fighting force. Although many of the Qing ships had more armor, they were slower and the Japanese specifically trained using the Jeune d’ecole strategy, emphasizing speed and quick firing guns to overcome larger opponents. The Japanese would be coming into this battle with adequate ammunition, better training and the specialization in fighting larger battleship class ships by outmaneuvering and outfiring them. I always found it easier using gamer terms, the Japanese adopted a glass cannon strategy, relying on speed over defense, but alongside that their enemy greatly lacked proper firing capabilities making the Japanese a charmander to the chinese bulbasaur. The Qing’s ironclads had short barrels as main armaments, meaning their shells had low muzzle velocity, resulting in poor penetration and terrible accuracy, especially at long range which they never should be firing at anyways.
Although the Qing sailors were well drilled, they had practically no gunnery practice as a result of having no ammunition to work with. The lack of training in gunnery in combination to not having shells to fight with, or having the wrong caliber shells on certain ships and literally finding out some shells might be filled with cement or porcelain would lead to disaster. Aboard the Jingyuan was US naval advisor Philo McGiffin who went on the record saying “many of the gunpowder charges were thirteen years old and condemned”. Sadly Li Hongzhang had tried to delay a naval battle against the Japanese specifically to give his fleet more time to equip their ships with additional ammunition, but the Qing imperial court deemed this cowardice and forced his hand to press on. In the end, the Qing fleet was bigger and armed with bigger guns, but the Japanese would be faster, and capable of firing their smaller guns more so and more accurately.
Admiral Ding’s Beiyang Fleet reached the mouth of the Yalu River at around 2pm. The transports escorted by 5 warships: the Zhennan, Zhenzhong, Guangbing, Pingyuan and a torpedo boat landed the troops until the morning of the 17th. Meanwhile the other Beiyang ships anchored in some shallow waters around 8 nautical miles south west of the mouth of the Yalu river. At 9:20am on the 17th the fleet conducted a training exercise lasting for about an hour and a half, before returning to their anchorage, but soon after at 11:28am, observers aboard the Qing warships began to spot smoke coming from the south-west.
Admiral Ding attempted to form his fleet into a southward facing line abreast using his two battleships in the center. In the line going left to right were the Guangjia, Jingyuan, Jiyuan, Zhiyuan, Laiyuan, Jingyuen, Yangwei and Chaoyong. Another group of four ships led by the slow Pingyuan were escorting the transports upriver and were forced to try and catch up which they would around 2:30. Late in the morning the two fleet began approaching another in very different formations. The Qing were trying to uphold their line abreast, but there was enormous confusion in signals, no doubt to the fact all of their signal books were written in english and very few of the officers could speak or were familiar with english. Added to this was the differing speeds of the various ships, thus they ended up in a asymmetricalwedge formation with the two battleships at the fore and the other vessels trailing behind on two flanks. According to various accounts, there was a consensus that the formation was done in great disorder. In fact it may not have been a deliberate formation, but rather the order in which the warships simply foundselves in as they tried to form a line abreast. For the IJN combined fleet they approached in a single column formation with the flying squadron in the front, followed by the main squadron. The order of ships in line for the Japanese was first the fasted protected cruisers, Yoshino, Naniwa Takachiho and Akitsushima. Then came the flagship Matsushima alongside her two sisters, followed by Chiyoda, Fuso, Hiei, Akagi, and the Saikyo Maru.
With the Beiyang fleet in sight, Admiral Sukeyeki gave orders for the flying squadron to attack the Chinese right flank, hoping to annihilate their weaker boats at the end of the formation. Upon seeing the flying squadrons maneuvers, Admiral Ding ordered his ships to change course in such a way that it would have exposed his flagship, the Dingyuan, but put the rest of the squadron in a good position to fire upon the Japanese. However, Admiral Ding’s Captain aboard the Dingyuan ignored the order allegedly out of cowardice, instead he ordered the Dingyuan to fire its main guns well before the Japanese were even within range. The order to fire apparently caused great confusion amongst the other ships, seeing the Chinese right flank firing into a maelstrom against the IJN warships, but the CHinese left flank basically was left out of the action.
Now Admiral Ding aboard his flagship Dingyuan, alongside her sister Zhenyuan went straight forward against the IJN’s center hoping to tussle the most while the rest of the Beiyang fleet maneuvered around to avoid hits. In one source I was reading, they tell a tale that the initial firing of Dingyuans main battery was aimed directly forward and thus literally destroyed her own flying bridge and quote “thereby demolishing the temporary flying bridge on which Admiral Ding was standing. Ding’s leg was crushed so he could not stand, let alone walk, during the hositilities. This made it impossible for him to repeat his order in time. The wounds would also make it fiddicult for him to follow the battle”. However as pointing out by Pilo McGiffen in his memoris “Ding was merely catapulted by the shockwave of the guns going off”. Historians have come to a consensus today that the flying bridge was hit by the Japanese and Admiral Ding’s poor legs were crushed as result of their gunfire to it, alongside countless officers who were killed and injured.
The Dingyuna opened fire at 5000 meters, which was ridiculously too far to cause damage to the Japanese ships. As soon as the Dingyuan opened fire, the rest of the Qing warships followed suit, wasting countless precious shells firing from too far a range to possibly hit the Japanese vessels. According to Vice Admiral G.A Ballard of the British navy, the Qing formation doomed her from the beginning, as the line abreast strategy required the strongest ships, not the weakest to be on the wings in order to prevent the weaker ships from being picked off, which the Japanese would do. The Qing also failed to change course in such a way as to prevent the Japanese from going around their wing allowing their vessels to deliver full broadside gunfire at close range. The Japanese held their fire for a full 20 minutes as they simply headed diagonally across the Beiyang fleet going twice their speed. On the signal of Admiral Ito the Japanese squadrons divided with the flying squadron led by Tsuboi ramping from 8knots to 14knots heading for the center of the Qing formation. The Qing were confused by this sudden bullrush towards them, but then Tsuboi’s formation turned slightly to port, moving around the right flank of the Chinese formation as they began to open fire on the weakest units from the effective range of 3000 meters or less. The Japanese gunfire first battered the Chaoyong and Yangwei, as Tsuboi steered his squadron northward to engage the Qing reinforcements coming from the Yali River, this was the Pingyuan group.
Meanwhile the IJN main squadron followed the same course direction as the flying, but to the Chinese left flank, making a full turn around them to circle behind and hit their rear. However their slowest ships, the Fuso and Hiei came instead came into a shorter range and boldly steered right between the two Qing battleships, passing through their line receiving and returning fire as they did. They would join their main squadron coming out on the opposite side. Unfortunately for the Akagi, she broke through the Chinese line towards the left its center and came across 3 Qing warships to her stern, just within 800 meters. Akagi was hit with a shell to her bridge which killed her Captain and several others; her forward magazine was destroyed and she tried to speed up to avoid more hits.
Over in the flying squadron, the Yoshino could see the peril of the Hiei and Akagi, so instead of leading down the enemy’s rear, she changed course more to starboard to come to their rescue, wedging herself between the enemy and the Akagi. As Yoshino did this she poured shells from her broadsides upon the enemy and now the Chinese right wing was enveloped between two fires. The flying squadron was now turning with starboard helm, passing a second time entirely around the Chinese right flank. The Hiei and Akagi signaled their damage and and received permission to retire out of action. Three Qing warships the Laiyuen, Zhiyuen and Kwang-ki tried to pursue the Hiei and Akagi, but despite their damage they managed to outpace them and returned fire from a distance. The Zhiyuen returned to the battle, the Laiyuen received too much damage had was taken out of the action and the Kwang-ki fled.
In the center and right of Admiral Ding’s fleet the gun battle was raging. The admiral had been wounded 20 minutes into the fight and because of his injured Commodore Liu Tai Tsan had to take command of the fleet. All four of Zhenyuans heavy guns were knocked out by IJN quick firing guns early into the fight, thus she was reduced to using her 6 inch guns. The Yangwei and Chaoyong who were stuck on the very outside of the right flank received the initial hellstorm from the Japanese as they passed by. Both ships were battered early and unable to fire back. The Chaoyong was ablaze and ran aground over a large rock while the Yangwei also ablaze beached to save herself. The Chaoyong was last seeing settling after, before sinking with her upper mast remaining above the surface. The Zhiyuen was forced to retire early as all 3 of her gun carriages were hit by IJN quick firing guns.
The Beiyang fleet as a whole was caught between the two IJN squadrons who were unleashing their broadsides upon them to devastating effect. The Qing were evidently tossed into a state of chaos with some ships fleeing, others dueling, some sinking already. The Japanese kept up their column formation, making circles around their enemy, they would make 3 full circles during the battle. After some time the DIngyuan attempted to close in on her enemy, to the Japanese it looked like she was trying to ram one of them. She broke the formation with 3 other ships charging at full speed. Admiral Ito reported in his action report “that at half past 2 the Jingyuan steamed past the front of hi squadron, but she received such a storm of projectiles that her crew seemed to fall into a state of the greatest confusion, and presently she took fire” The Jingyuan was battered too badly that she adopted to try and flee at the last moment, but the Japanese flying squadron chased her down battered her until she sank. It is said her gunners kept returning fire until she was under the waves. At 3:20 the severely damaged and burning Zhiyuan had returned to the fight after chasing the Akagi and attempted to ram the Naniwa or Yoshino depending on the source, but she would be shot upon until she sank in the process taking with her Captain Deng Shichang. Captain Shichang was one of their greatest commanders and spent some time overseas evaluating foreign fleets, his loss was a grave one.
At 3:30 the two flagships were in close range and the Matsushima’s main turret was hit by a 12 inch shell. There was not great damage, but fires began over the deck. Another shell hit Matsushima’s forward 4.7 inch rapid fire gun killing some men and hurtled the turret across the ship violently. The Japanese flagship had been the target of many of the Qing warships from the offset of battle and received numerous hits. Her commander and first Lt were killed alongside 120 men. Admiral Ito was forced to transfer his flag to the Hashidate. Also at 3:30 firing ceased on both sides as many were putting out massive fires. It took around an hour for the gun duels to really pick up again. 5 IJN warships of the main squadron were fighting back and forth with the 2 Qing battleships until around 6pm.
The Dingyuan and Zhenyuan were able to resist the punishment because of their heavy armor, but all the sailors on deck were decimated by shells and fragments going everywhere. When the Qing opened fire upon the Japanese as they passed from port to starboard, they failed to score any significant hits using their 12 inch and 8.2 inch guns. The two IJN squadrons had made full circles of the Beiyang fleet, using their quick firing guns, smashing the Qing warships superstructures and swept their deck’s with carnage.
During the melee, quite a few of the IJN warships received devastating hits as well. The Yoshino, Akagi and Saikyo Maru were put out of action from sustained hits. The Hiei who was a much slower ship than the rest, received severe damage and it did not help her captain had decided not to follow the flying squadrons sweep maneuver, but instead pass directly through the Qing line. This poor decision made the Hiei a very easy target as she ran a gauntlet. By late afternoon the Beiyang fleet was tipping to the point of collapse, many warships had literally fled for their lives or had been sunk. The Dingyuan and Zhenyuan were nearly out of ammunition. Aboard the Dingyuan, Admiral Ding was pretty much out of commission and their foremast was destroyed making it impossible to signal to the rest of the fleet. The rest of the Qing ships began forming up into pairs of 3 to mutually support another in the duels.
When the Japanese had begun firing, the Jiyuan turned to flee from the offset, and upon seeing this the Guangjia joined. Jiyuan was hit only once, as for Guangjia, she quickly became lost and ran aground, forced to be scuttled by her crew later. There are also claims, the Jiyuan may have collided with the Yangwei causing her to sink during this process. The Saikyo Maru tried to finish off the Yangwei which managed to beach itself. The Saikyo Maru got roughly handled from the beginning of the fight. She had first opened fire from a long range, but then got close to the Qing ironclads. After an hour of combat, her steering gear got damaged sending her sailing off uncoordinated. Upon seeing her in distress the Pingyuan tried to hunt her with some torpedo boats. Torpedoes were fired at the Saikyo Maru, they all missed with some getting within 40-50 yards of her. The Saikyo Maru fled for her life and would escape.
The better trained, better maintained IJN rapid firing guns simply out performed the Chinese, who had limited ammunition, ill maintained equipment, less gunnery training and well when you find out some of your shells have cement or porcelain in them, I would say demoralized as well. While the Japanese were certainly scoring better and more significant hits, this did not mean the Qing were not fighting for their lives however. The Qing warships continued to fire everything they had. The Laiyuan, despite being a burning wreck continued to fire upon the enemy to the bitter end. The primary armaments of the Qing battleships fired 197 rounds, scoring around 10 hits. While this is extremely low, when they did hit they knocked out the Japanese flagship from the battle, but unfortunately for the Chinese they were unable to deliver killing blows. Overall the Beiyang fleet scored about 10 percent of their hits. The Japanese scored roughly 15 percent, but take into consideration the Japanese were firing at a rate 3 times to that of the Chinese.
When night was coming upon them, Admiral Ding gathered the remnants of his Beiyang fleet and steered towards Lushunkou. The Japanese had 4 ships severely damaged, with some light damage to two. The Japanese had around 180 deaths, 200 wounded. The flagship Matsushima suffered the worst amount of casualties at around 100, after receiving a 12 inch shell. Hiei would have to be retired from combat because of her injuries; Akagi lost many men and required repairs; the Saikyo Maru which was not really a warship, she was actually a converted liner that lacked offensive armament, but came into the fray nonetheless was hit by 4 12 inch shells which knocked out her steering sending her wandering for quite some time. The Qing had lost the Zhiyuen, Yangwei, Kwang-ki, Chaoyong and Jingyuan, with 850 deaths and 500 wounded.
The Dingyuan was reported to have been hit with no less than 200 hits, but her thick armor protected her from serious damage. The deepest dents were around 3 inches. Her upper deck was completely destroyed by fire; two secondary battery guns were disabled, all of her signal halliards were shot away, but her engines were in perfect working order. The Zhenyuen was hit approximately 120 times, but her injuries proved worse than her sister. Her main battery was crippled and when she made it to anchorage she was nearly sinking. The Laiyuen suffered most from fire damage, she had to be gutted fore and after with the deck and bulkheads about her magazines being found red hot. The Pingyuan according to Admiral Ito’s report suffered horribly from fires, but she took little part in the fighting. Of the entire fleet only 3 escaped without serious injury, the Jingyuen, Jiyuan and Guangbing.
The Yantai correspondent of the Shanghai based newspaper, the China Gazette had this to say after the battle "There is no doubt the Chinese fought bravely, but they were no match for the Japanese whose tactics were admirable throughout the fight...The unfortunate Chinese gunners lost their heads and fired wildly, their officers left their ships at the mercy of the enemy by their clumsy seamanship while, on the other hand, almost every shot of the Japanese told." A reporter for The Japan Weekly Mail said this "The Japanese men-of-war preserved their battle array intact from first to last, but the Chinese were soon compelled to fight without any tactical order." The New York Times ran the headlines, "China's Waterloo in Corea. Japan's Great Naval Victory."
After the battle the Japanese discovered to their intense interest that some of the Chinese shells were filled with cement instead of explosives. They also reported finding some ammunition filled with porcelain, others being the wrong caliber for the guns on the ships. It seemed to the Japanese military leadership they had grossly underestimated the degree of corruption and incompetence within the Qing dynasty. Admiral Ito chose not to pursue the fleeing Beiyang fleet because he knew his fleet lacked weapons capable of sinking the two ironclad battleships. Unbeknownst to him the Beiyang fleet had basically fired all of their ammunition and the two battleships were sitting ducks. According to Sir Robert Hart, the inspector general of the Qing maritime customs, on the eve of the battle of the Yalu quote “the Chinese had no shells for their Krupp artillery and no powder for their Armstrong guns, these were some of the main offensive weapons of their fleet”. The IJN would be criticized for not pursuing the Qing later on, but the admirals were making decisions based on the knowledge they held at the time and that knowledge was that they could not take down the two battleships.
The loss at Pyongyang on land and at Yalu upon the sea were devastating to the Qing and absolutely dazzled foreign presses. It was recognized that after the battle of the Yalu, it was Japan who controlled the sea. Meanwhile the official battle report handed back to the Qing imperial court was this “the Chinese fleet had defeated a numerically superior fleet of the Woren...sinking three of the enemy's ships and severely injuring the rest, but losing four of our own in the battle." The Japanese would actually find an official dispatch to Li Hongzhang later on in Port Arthur that said this concerning the battle of Yalu "more terrible than any to be found in the Naval records even of Western countries. The ships of both sides were considerably damaged, especially those of the enemy. The enemy retired first, so that victory may more or less be said to have rested with us. Had not our rear become disordered, the entire victory would have been ours." The dispatch also went on to recommend rewards for those who fought bravely at Yalu.
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While the Qing had the bigger ships, bigger guns and more armor, the Japanese managed to defeat them because of better training, better maintenance and well, having ammunition seemed an important variable also.