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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

Oct 24, 2023

Last time we spoke about the Blagoveshchensk massacre and war over the Amur river. The Chinese began a bombardment of the city of Blagoveshchensk striking panic and fear into her Russian inhabitants. The panic and fear led the Russian commanders ordered the deportation of many Chinese over the Amur river and this soon became a large-scale massacre. Countless Chinese drowned or were killed under the orders of the local Russian commanders. After the horrors on the Amur river the russians gradually received reinforcements and began a large scale offensive over the river to stop the Chinese attacks. First to be hit was Sakhalian, sending its Chinese defenders fleeing towards Aigun and Tsitsihar. The Chinese tried to fortify mountain positions to stop the Russians, but each fell one by one until the Russians had taken the cities. More Russians were crossing the border into Manchuria, the minor conflict had become a full scale invasion. 


#70 The Russo-Chinese War Part 3: The Conquest of Northern Manchuria


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 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.

The conflict spread anywhere there was a Russian presence in Manchuria. The Manchu were gradually tossing their lot in with the Boxer cause and to be honest, the Manchu always hated the Russian encroachment in their homelands. Harbin held the headquarters for railroad construction in Manchuria. Its population swelled since the outbreak of the Boxer Rebellion, with refugees pouring in from the Liaodong peninsula, including other nationalities and Chinese christians. The month of june was rather peaceful for Harbin, the Chinese continued to work on the railway alongside their Russian colleagues. 60,000 Chinese laborers had recently come to Harbin to work and telegrams poured in from Manchu generals from Heilungchiang, Fengtian and Kirin guaranteeing the complete safety of the railway and Russians. But beginning in July, rumors spread of anti-foreign activity, telegrams from other Russian settlements being attacked flooded in. On July 5th, a report came in that the Roman catholic mission in Mukden had been destroyed and its Bishop was murdered. Civilians began to evacuate Harbin to Khabrovsk on steamers and barges. Harin braced itself for a Chinese attack, volunteer militias sprang up. Thousands of Chinese inhabitants of Harbin fled as Russian refugees flooded in from all over. Large numbers of Qing forces were reportedly converging on Harbin, so Captain Rzhevutskii came over from Tiehling with 6 officers, 250 Cossacks, militiamen and all of their families. His arrival bolstered the Harbin garrison who were only around 600 men, 300 of which had just come from Tsitsihar on July 14th. A force of 67 Cossack fought their way out of Kirin against a much larger force of Chinese. Their commander Savitskii was found at Laoshaokou on July 19th with only 38 Cossacks left, many wounded. Savitskii’s left eye was riddled with bullet splinters and his arm was in a sling. His men had rode out under the assurances of safe passage from the Manchu General of Kirin only to be attacked by 500 Manchu with artillery support. The Manchu fired shrapnel not just over the Cossacks, but their own infantry when they engaged in hand to hand combat. Savitskii claimed their killed some 200 Chinese before breaking through their lines and were pursued for over 5 days. A eyewitness to their arrival in Harbin had this to say “tears welled up in our eyes and anger began to boil in our hearts, when we saw the valiant heroes who had arrived. The men walked barefoot, with feet that were skinned almost to the bones, many only in their underwear, exhausted and emaciated. Truly one could not believe somehow that the Chinese had not succeeded in wiping this handful of men from the face of the earth”. Luckily for Harbin, on July 21st a steamer arrived to her dock from Khabarovsk carrying 1000 rifles, ammunition and 4 companies of reservists. Now Harbin counted 2000 defenders.

On July 22nd a telegram came to Harbin from the Manchu General of Heilungchiang. It stated that while there had been cooperation with the Russian railway builders until this point, he regarded the Russian drowning of Chinese to be tantamount to a declaration of war and now both sides were free to attack the other. The message confused the Russians at Harbin for some time, having not heard of the Blagoveshchensk massacre. The rest of the message was crystal clear. The same Manchu General proclaimed the assault against Harbin would come soon and that the Russians should fight bravely for they would be exterminated without mercy. He did however offer safe passage for women and children out of Manchuria. 3000 women, children and wounded men departed Harbin aboard steamers on July 23rd. Meanwhile the Russians prepared their defenses and on the 25th the Chinese arrived. At 4am on the 26th the Chinese began firing their artillery from across the river. Their forces approached Harbin from the south and east successfully seizing the railway depot of the First Sungari Station and that railroad between the New part of the city and old Harbin. A Cossack counter attack during the afternoon drove most of the Chinese back in the direction of Ashiho. The Russians attempted to encircle the Chinese and quickly capture their artillery, but the Chinese withdrew in haste before they could. Countless Chinese who failed to rejoin the main body of their force were cut down by Cossacks. A smaller group of Chinese tried to hunker down at the railway depot and offered a stubborn fight until they were killed. 

The Chinese took up a new position at the Hanhsin plant which had some large walls with towers providing good defense. From their fortifications the Chinese fired back upon the Russians, but once they burst open the main gate the Chinese were again on the move. As Sergei Grudzinskii entered the plant he had this to say of the scene “The corpses of men and cadavers of horses lay strewn about everywhere. Sabers and bayonets sparkled. People jostled each other in disorder. All had agitated faces, as if drunk. The noise of voices and swear words filled the air, which was saturated with the heavy smell of blood, sweat and gunpowder. Frightened children, ducks, oxen and horses ran around. Now and then the short, whiplashed like shots of our 20 caliber rifles were heard. The men had gotten all excited. There was no mercy for anyone. Aroused, someone had set fire to a house, and thick, black smoke rose to the sky, as the bright sun beamed indifferently on the picture of death and destruction below”. The Russians captured many Krupp field guns, German rifles and other war materials. 

On July the 27th and 28th the Chinese continued to bombard Harbins dock from across the river and fired upon any trains going by. The Chinese were using any local infrastructure around for protection so the Russains began burning everything. By July 28th the Chinese were abandoning their positions on the other side of the river. Some skirmishing was done with rearguards and some Chinese POW’s revealed a second offensive, 25,000 men strong was scheduled to hit Harbin for August 3rd. But when the time came no Chinese army was to be found and steamers were coming to Harbin with relief forces, the siege of the city was over. With reinforcements on hand, the Russians sent word to nearby Ashih-ho where some 10,000 Chinese forces were gathering. The Russians notified them they wanted to re-establish friendly relations and called upon the Chinese to disband. They also wrote to the Manchu General of Heilungchiang who responded simply “I will be seeing you soon”. The commander of Ashihho responded by sending a small battery to fire upon Harbin.

On August 17th the Russians advanced upon Ashiho, Major General Gerngros led a Cossack vanguard; Major General Alekseev commanded the main body around a mile behind; and overall command was under Major General Sakharov. They were 16 companies, 12.5 sotnias and 16 artillery pieces. By the 18th they reached Ashihho, they sent word to the Manchu commander asking his surrender and he replied he would disband his forces when General Sakharov compensated China for the destruction of Pa-yen-tung, Sanhsing and other places damaged while withdrawing from Manchuria. It seems his words were braver than his actions, for when the Russians stormed the gates they would find the city in a state of evacuation. Cossacks with artillery support stormed around the city from the west and east to cut off the fleeing Chinese. A large number were killed, many others taken prisoner. The commander of the 4th East Siberian Rifle regiment was appointed commandant of Ashihho.

The major objections of the Russians in Manchuria by this point was to defeat the Qing forces allying themselves to the Boxers, to secure the railway construction and secure the Amur River navigation. For logistical purpose the job was divided in two; north manchurian campaigns were led by Lt General Grodekov and South Manchurian were under Vice Admiral Alekseev. Russia sought to recover the main railway line of the Chinese eastern railway that ran from the Transbaikal region, to Tsitsihar, Harbin, Pogranichnaia and Nikol’sk-Ussuriiskii. Alongside this the Russians also needed to seize Kirin and Mukden to consolidate control in the region. Now this was all a colossal task, the sheer distance from the Transbaikal region to Manchuria was incredible. There was a shortage of steamers, so barges and rafts had to be constructed, bad harvests resulted in less provisions and just getting men and supplies to the front was hellish. Nonetheless the job was to be done, and between June and July 16 battalions, 38 guns, 6 sotnias, 2 sapper companies and 2 railway companies were rushed from Priamur to Kwantung and Pechihli. To compensate for depleting the Priemur region, Siberia would need to send forces.  

The mobilization was incredible. In the Transbaikal region in 1900 there was roughly 25,000 Russians of working age, from these 5000 men made up 5 cavalry regiments, 4 cavalry batteries and 4 infantry battalions were tossed together to form the “Hailar detachment” called so because they would advance against Hailar. They all had military training, but lacked a lot of discipline. The men were notorious for smoking in front of their superiors and during saluting times would often just nod their head. The Cossacks amongst them would not let superior officers strike them which was a custom in the army. But the men were pretty crack shots and could live off meager rations. Furthermore most of them had dealings and were on good terms with Mongols and Manchu. The leader of the Hailar detachment was Major General Orlov who mobilized them on July 25th and they proceeded from Abagaitui to cross the border. They followed the Hailar rivers until they reached the Dalai Nor railroad station on July 27th. They captured there 51 well armed Mongols without resistance and sent them back to Russia to help construct the Transbaikal railroad. From here they advanced to Ongun whereupon they saw at a distance some Manchu and Mongol cavalry spread out in orderly lines of single rank, behind them were infantry. According to some Chinese prisoners, the force was around 10,000 strong under the command of a General in Hailar. The Mongol cavalry advanced and fired upon them from a great distance, not hitting very much. The Russians held their fire, so the Mongols drew closer and pelted them with bullets. This time the Russian returned fire, but the Mongols persisted and dismounted from their horses, beginning to dig foxholes. The Russians resumed their defensive stance, watching the Chinese pull up artillery. At 11:45am the Russian’s received some reinforcements, 2000 additional bayonets, 1000 savers and 6 cannons of the Verkhneudinsk Cossack regiment. The Chinese artillery was roughly 5000 feet away, their riflemen just 800 or so. The Verkneudinsk regiment rode out upon their right flank at 1:50pm signaling the Russian general attack. Orlov took the left flank performing a small envelopment maneuver. It was a bold and bloody advance. At 2:10pm the Russian artillery began to fire and it was deadly accurate, the Chinese artillery quickly evacuated, unable to properly return fire. At 2:25pm Orlov tossed some reserves into the advance and soon the Russians were charging across an open plain driving the Chinese from a hill position. The mounted Cossacks pursued any retreating Chinese forces who were seen tossing their weapons and equipment as they ran. Orlov got caught up in the chase and excitement and was almost shot while his staff officer screamed “Sir! You’re being shot at!” Some Boxer forces stood their ground defiantly against Cossack sabers, butchered on the spot. The Russians had only 8 deaths and 17 wounded and claimed an incredible 900 casualties for the Chinese.

Orlov sent his mounted forces to pursue the enemy and perform reconnaissance of Hailars defenses which his scouts reported was being abandoned. Orlov ordered a Cossack battery to rush to Hailar during the night of August 1st as he led more men against Urdingi. The roads were littered with abandoned equipment, but Orlov received a new report in the morning, Hailar was not abandoned after all. There was a call for help at the Hailar front, so Orlov sent two Sotnias of the 4th and 6th battalions and he personally came by August 3rd. Upon seeing the reinforcements, the Chinese began to abandon the city and Orlov would have his dinner inside Hailar on that day. Hailar was a small district city, but it was important strategically for the Chinese eastern railway’s construction. Orlov formed a supply depot at Hailar not only for his detachment, but for other Russian forces going through the area. Upon seeing the taking of Ongun and Hailar, the Mongols realized the Russians were stronger than the Manchu. The Mongols began abandoning the Chinese and fled to their homelands to wait out the conflict. 

Meanwhile General Bao, one of China’s more able commander, realized the loss of Hailar was significant and began to approach the region from the Greater Hsing-an Mountains with a force 7000 strong. Cossack patrols reported Bao’s advance to Orlov and Orlov decided to go out and meet him. On August 14th the Russian took up a position at Ya-koshih some 23 miles east of Hailar. The two forces would clash at 2pm and the battle would rage for many hours. The brunt of the fighting was felt by the Transbaikal Cossack battalions who charged into Bao’s left flank. A severe thunderstorm broke out during the battle and Orlov used it to conceal a held back reserve battalion to charge into the right flank of the Chinese. When both flanks were being hit Orlov called for a general forward assault. General Bao was a well recognized figure and some Russian sotnias came across his dead body on the battlefield before they crashed into a Chinese rear guard at 10pm. The Chinese had routed and enraged by the intensity of the battle the Cossacks ran them down hard. The victory at Yakoshih would give Russia control over the western part of Manchuria up to the Greater Hsing’an Mountains. On the mountains a newly formed detachment under General Chou Mien established a heavily fortified position. 

A flying detachment led by Bulatovich was sent to Hsing-an on August 19th and the approached the Chinese positions on the mountain to prod their defenses. Bulatovich personally led a small group to drive out a Chinese forward post near a bridge so most of his forces could get across a river to venture into the foot of the mountains. A full reconnaissance was performed, while the rest of the Hailar detachment were 40 miles away enroute. On August 20th, without waiting for reinforcements that were due to Hailar at any moment, Orlov advanced. Orlov took his forces to seize the Mien-tu-ho station, Ha-la-kuo station and I-Lieh’ko’te from which at a moment's notice he could help Bulatovich’s position, being just 10 miles away or so. Orlov ordered the forces to slowly push into the mountains proclaiming to the men “Well done Verkhneudinks Cossacks! With God, lets see what the mysterious Greater Hsing-an is like!” From the 3 different locations the men advanced. Orlov planned to cross over a ridge 20 miles south of the Chinese position to get behind their rear and cut off their road towards Tsitsihar. While planning his attack, Orlov received word that Beijing had just been taken by the 8 nation alliance on August 14th and that Harbin was occupied by Russians as well. 

At 5am on August 23d, Bulatovich began a envelopment maneuver while the main body advanced with Orlov. The Chinese would be unable to see the main bodies movements due to the mountain ranges. Once they approached the Chinese rear, Orlov began planning out artillery positions and watched with binoculars through some bushes at the Chinese positions. His report of the actions state the Chinese trenches were dug absurdly, in a line of square holes across the main road that could only face a frontal attack. He was also surprised to find out many nearby heights held no enemy posts, they easily could be used against them. Orlov took up a position that overlooked the entire left flank of the Chinese position. His artillery positions were perfect, nothing would obstruct their bombardment.

At 2am the next day Orlov sent forward companies to seize the nearby heights lest the Chinese grab them at the last minute. At 6:45am the Chinese had advanced forward on the right flank catching the Russian position in enfilade fire. Cossacks charged into them swiftly and at 7:30am the Russian artillery began its bombardment which quickly silence the Chinese artillery. Suddenly the Chinese right flank was hit with Cossack sotnia’s causing confusion. Chinese riflemen tried to get out of their trenches but were pinned down by the artillery shrapnel and soon the Cossacks were firing into the trenches butchering them. The battle was a brief one, the Chinese were simply not prepared to face attacks from multiple directions. After only 50 minutes the Chinese began a withdrawal. The Russians would have completely encircled and annihilated them, but the rear units rushed over to help a pinned down Russian company. Russian reported 3 deaths and 9 wounded, taking countless Chinese lives and seizing 5 artillery pieces and 120 carts of war materials. 

The Chinese fled to Tsitsihar the capital of Heilungchiang province. Manchu General Shou Shan held a very strong garrison there. A detachment led by Bolsheretsk was already advancing upon Tsitsihar and Orlov was to meet up with him. On September the 2nd, Orlov arrived to the outskirts of Tsitsihar and 2 days later he entered the city, as the Bolsheretsk detachment had already battled and taken the city by August 28th. Its large Chinese garrison had fled towards Petuna. The reason they had fled was due to the psychological impact of General Rennenkampfs daring campaign, as you will recall General Shou Shan had committed suicide having lost to him. Apparently Shou Shan swallowed gold to rupture his intestines, I’ve never heard of that one before. 

With the Hailar detachment and Bolsheretsk detachment together at Tsitsihar, they now had a force of 12 battalion, 14 sotnias and 22 artillery pieces altogether. Orlov sent orders for Rennenkampt to take 12 sotnias and 6 cavalry guns to advance upon Petuna while he would follow behind. Petuna was around 200 miles away and the Russians would have to ford the Nonni and Sungari rivers. Rennenkampft managed to get to Petuna in 5 days and found it sheltered 1500 Chinese Infantry and 150 cavalry units. A Qing official named Li rode out to parley with Rennenkampt, asserting to him they had 5000 men and asked for a armistice of 2 days. Rennenkampf replied that his detachment would be within Petuna that very evening and that by 6am all of the Chinese must come to their camp and lay down their arms. Rennenkampf really does seem like a badass doesn't he? At 6am on september 12th, the Chinese cavalry fully armed approached the camp and made a display of surrendering their arms. Then the Chinese infantry followed suit. The Chinese forces were herded away to help construct the railroad. On the 19th the main body reached Petuna, there Orlove and the other commanders decided to hit Kirin city, the capital of Kirin province. Mounted Cossacks were sent south of the Sungari river to hit Kirin from the south while the main body would advance north of the Sungair to hit Kirin from the north. Rennenkampf elected himself to perform a reconnaissance and set out on September 22nd with two sotnias. At 3pm the village of Tashuiho which lied on the junction of Mukden and Kirin was attacked by Rennekampfs force. Rennekampf was nearly speared to death during the attack, but they managed to fight off the Chinese. At 7am on the 23rd Rennenkmapf arrived to Kirin and a bearer of a flag of truce came out. The flag bearer asked for an armistice and again Rennenkampf rejected this and literally galloped into Kirin and headed for the Governor's mansion. This guy fancies himself Julius Caesar I guess. 220 Chinese cavalry who guarded the mansion were quickly surrounded and disarmed. Within Kirin Rennenkampf captured 69 modern rifles and 5000 other rifles of various dates which he tossed into the Sungari river. Rennenkampf had thus taken a fortified city of 120,000 inhabitants with 200 Cossacks, an unbelievable feat. But in reality, Prince Qing had actually ordered the governor of Kirin to suspend all hostility against the Russians. I bet Rennenkampf forgot to mention that part in his action report. Like I said a Julius Caesar kind of guy haha. 

With Kirin in their hands, Orlovs detachment turned back to Harbin, where he would soon receive orders to return home so the Transbaikal Cossacks could tend to their farms, just in time for harvesting. Rennenkampf would remain in Kirin until the arrival of Major General Kryshanovskii with 4 squadrons of dragoons, 1 Chita Cossack sotnia, the 3rd Transbaikal cossack battery and a mounted train of artillery on September 26th. Rennenkampf took his small force to Tiehling where Russian forces were preparing for a large offensive against Mukden. Orlov’s campaign was an extremely fast one, his forces covered extreme distances, going 20 miles or so per day. A telegram from Lt General Matsievskii, the commander of the Transbaikal Cossack forces told Orlov his men had broken all records in the campaign. Casualties for the Hailar detachment were 468 in total. The Chinese had been routed, not by cowardice however. They fought bravely and were well armed, it seemed to Russian eye witness accounts they lacked proper marksmanship. The Qing officers seemed to be ignorant of modern military tactics and this heavily affected their organization. The Manchu General of Heilungchiang had sent troops simultaneously in three directions against the Hailar detachment, the Bolsheretsk detachment and the Khabarovsk detachment, not to mention sending other dispatches against Harbin. Orlov believed the Chinese could have won if they consolidated and hammered the Russians one force at a time. With the capture of Kirin, Qing officials now tried to ingratiate themselves with the Russians, giving them the old wine and dine treatment. 

The final Russian offensive would be mounted in southern Manchuria. Major General Fleisher, was appointed commander of the newly formed South Manchurian Detachment. On August the 8th after Yingkou was taken, Mishchenko joined up with Domrovskii at Tashihciao. The Chinese had consolidated around Haicheng with a strength of around 4 battalion and 4 artillery pieces. The Russian forces at Tashihciao did not have many mounted Cossacks to perform a proper reconnaissance and as a result would not have a good idea of the Chinese strength. Thus the Russians overestimated the enemy. Fleisher ordered 3 columns to advance, in the middle was Colonel Aurenius leading the 3rd East Sierian rifle regiment with 8 guns and a section of Cossacks; on the left was Mishchenko with two companies, two Cossack squadrons and the 1st Transbaikal Cossack battery; and on the right was Dombrovskii with 4 and a half companies of the 11th east siberian rifle regiment, 4 guns and a squadron of Cossacks. The three columns departed Tashihciao on August 10th. Aurelius’s central column ran into a Chinese outpost who upon seeing them began to flee north towards Haicheng, only to run into Mishchenko’s forces. Dombrovskii’s column were advancing through some difficult mountain terrain to try and block escape routes for the Chinese. Mishchenko’s force suffered casualties from Chinese artillery, but when the Chinese tried to press an attack, the 1st Cossack Battery battered their formations. Aurelius tried to advance faster to catch up to the Chinese, but they kept slipping away. In the face of the advancing Russians, the Chinese evacuated Huchuangtun, destroying all useful war materials there. On August 11th the Russian columns reunited for and made camp, then the next day continued towards Haicheng in two columns. The main column commanded by Fleisher consisted of his detachment, Dombrovskii’s detachment and sotnia of Cossacks. They advanced northward along the railway line. The other column led by Mishchenko traveled parallel with the main column to the left. 

General Shou planned to lure the Russians over towards Newchwang and spring a trap, but his subordinates refused to abandon Haicheng without a fight. Yun assumed command over the Haicheng militia and had his forces harass Mishchenko’s smaller column as they advanced. Yun set up an ambush for Mishchenko, deploying some artillery on a mountain range, but the Russians quickly overran them. While Mishchenko was fighting in the mountain range, a large force of Boxers from Haicheng tried to recapture the Chinese artillery. The Russians saw a hoard of yellow sash wearing Boxers, most of whom were prepared for hand to hand combat. The Boxers charged the Russians furiously, and Russians reported seeing very old men, some young boys and even a few girls amongst their force. Cossacks reported the Boxers tried to grab them down from their horses, but were no match for sabers. At 2am on August 12th the Russians were brushing off the attacks and ambushes and continuing their advance. By this point the Chinese had roughly 4000 regular troops, 8 artillery pieces and 1000 Boxers who had all retreated during the night for Haicheng. When the Russians reached Haicheng, the Chinese defenses collapsed. The Russian artillery had only just begun firing as the Chinese artillery crews abandoned their equipment and began fleeing. The only real resistance would be rear guard actions as the Russians stormed into Haicheng. Patrols were first sent into the city to see what kind of state it was in. Many inhabitants were known to the Russians as they were workers on the railway and the patrol forces assured them all they would see no harm. As the Russian main force entered the city, the Chinese came out with gifts of chicken, eggs and vegetables and both sides were quite relieved by the outcome. Konstantin had entered the city and met with some Chinese families he knew from railway work, gave them all assurances there was going to be no violence within the city. Railway guards were initially stationed in the city, but soon relieved whereupon regular Russian troops came in. Konstantin had departed Haicheng for some meetings and when he returned some days later, he went to a Chinese family acquaintance to find they had been butchered inside the home. Konstantin recalled “two old men lay in puddles of blood, bayoneted to death, while a young boy, about eight years old, with his belly ripped open, squirmed in agony”. Konstantin was livid, and went to the nearest sergeant major to ask where the other Chinese were and was told “they are farther away from their sin”. That same day a doctor in Konstantins regiment was called upon to revive an old woman and younger girl. Both had been expelled for the city, ran into solders who killed the older womans husband and raped the younger girl. In agony the two tossed themselves into a river to commit suicide. The old woman was revived, and the girl died. Konstantin bitterly watched as more innocent bystanders died.

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Northern Manchuria is firmly under Russian control and gradually southern Manchuria is falling to the same fate. The price of war as usual is always felt heaviest on the innocent civilian populations. Unfortunately Manchuria will face such horror for decades to come.