Monday, August 23, 2010

Beware: Bibulous Boas on Board

In the annals of failed military expeditions, the voyage of Imperial Russia's Baltic Fleet to the Pacific during the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) has few peers. As Gavin Wrightman recounts in The Industrial Revolutionaries (New York, 2007), the fleet got off to a uniquely bad start when several of the ships therein somehow mistook English fishing boats in the North Sea for Japanese torpedo boats (no, I'm not making that up) and opened fire, killing two and wounding six. Russian diplomats agreed to pay reparations to the British government, but the Baltic Fleet's fortunes did not subsequently improve. Both Britain and France refused to supply the ships with fuel (which they had to obtain from German collier vessels en route), one of the ships severed a French submarine telegraph cable in Tangier, a number of crewmen died of heatstroke while loading coal off the African coast, and storms battered one squadron as it rounded the Cape of Good Hope. To lighten the gloomy mood, some of the Russians took shore leave during stops in Africa and "acquired a menagerie of exotic animals including a boa constrictor which apparently developed a taste for vodka" (p. 349). Russian sailors' interest in exotic pets was one they shared with naval officers in the contemporary British Navy, whose shipboard companions included baboons and at least one elephant.

Finally, after seven months of struggle, the Russian fleet reached the Straits of Tsushima, a few days from its destination of Vladivostok. There, on 27 May 1905, the exhausted officers and crew ran into a Japanese fleet under Admiral Heihachiro Togo, and suffered one of the most decisive defeats in naval history. Togo enjoyed several advantages over his opponents: his men were rested, his ships had a functional wireless telegraph system, and his fleet included several dozen deadly torpedo boats, which he deployed to good effect. In just 24 hours of fighting the Japanese navy virtually annihilated the Baltic Fleet, sinking or disabling 34 of 48 ships and inflicting over 10,000 casualties on the Russians. Alas, Weightman is silent on the fate of the boa constrictor. I fear the worst.

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