An event in search of a POD: the fate of the Beiyang Navy

Discussion in 'Alternate History Discussion: Before 1900' started by Hendryk, Feb 8, 2007.

  1. Hendryk Banned

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    One of the initiatives taken by Li Hongzhang in the late 19th century was to equip China with a modern navy, an objective he very nearly achieved. The navy became known as the Beiyang Fleet; its flagship was the Dingyuan 定远 "Pacificator of Distant Places". This site provides a comparison between the Chinese and Japanese navies at the time of the Yalu battle in 1894.

    Anyone who feels like giving this respectable fleet a chance to make history is welcome.

    Ding Yuan.jpg
     
  2. Sargon Grand Master of the Stronghold Donor Monthly Donor

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    The problem with the performance of the Ch'ing fleet was not with the ships, but with training and quality of various support equipment.

    Shells for example were often of very poor quality because of money saving measures...some even had sawdust put in them instead of bursting charges by unscrupulous officials, which or course, affected their capacity to explode. In addition, training was lax: there are instances where laundry was being hung on vital parts of the ships such as guns, indicating a lack of discipline that often showed up in battle. And then of course, a large part of the budget for the Imperial Navy was squandered on building a marble boat at the Summer Palace as well as other renovations there, which also resulted in a shortage of ammunition.

    So, Ting Yuan and Chen Yuan were pretty good ships, and what needs to be addressed is corruption, quality control and training. The Chinese commanders were not particularly bad at all, however, they were unfortunately hampered by other factors. In fact at Yalu River, even some of their most heavily damaged ships continued to fight despite the poor ammunition situation, and they did inflict serious damage on at least 4 Japanese ships. However, the captain (not the Admiral) on board the flagship did make some errors, such as blowing his own bridge off the ship with his first shot by firing the guns in a position that the German builders had expressly said not to do causing the Admiral to become a casualty whilst doing so. Sort those problems out, and the Japanese could have suffered a very rude shock.

    However, it must be remembered that whilst the ships were pretty good at the time they were built, this battle was many years later, and they had been superseded in design by that time with the new pre-dreadnoughts that were appearing in the 1890s. They were still effective units though.

    For those of you who are interested, the Chinese have recently actually built a full size replica of the Ting Yuan that is a museum. There's a page about it here. Probably the only major ship in the world to be currently flying the flag of the Imperial Chinese Navy.


    Sargon

    A Timeline of mine: The Roman Emperor Who Lost His Nose

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    Last edited: Feb 8, 2007
  3. Hendryk Banned

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    Quite. China had a decent navy which could have been put to a number of uses, the most obvious of which being the protection of its sphere of influence and territorial integrity against encroaching powers. But the problem, as you point out, was the worsening deliquescence of the regime, which resulted in substandard training for the ships' crews, unreliable logistics and the embezzlement of much-needed funds. Which means that the POD would have to be political rather than military.

    But even then, it has been argued that the Japanese victory at Yalu was a close call, and that the Chinese could, with some luck, have brought the engagement to a stalemate or even a technical victory. China would still have lost the war itself but would have been able to negotiate more lenient terms, and this may have made a further difference in the following years. With a battered but still usable war fleet, a smaller drain on its already overstretched finances, and a credibility boost for the Self-Strengthening lobby, who knows whether the paralyzing stranglehold that Cixi had on the decision-making process could have been checked?
     
  4. Hendryk Banned

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    I found the following observation on Chinahistoryforum, and have extended to its author an invitation to develop his speculation further over at AH.com. He may or may not take it up, but I think his ideas deserve thinking about:

     
  5. Grey Wolf Writer, Poet, Publisher, Cat-sitter

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    IIRC the major reason for China's naval deficiencies despite its pretty good ships was to be found in the Dowager Empress' taking back of personal rule and her mis-appropriation of the naval budget. I used to know a lot about this, but as usual most of it has gone for a walk from my brain, but I recall she had not the slightest interest in the navy, and used its allocated budget for things such as a full-sized marble ship in the Forbidden City parklands. Again, IIRC the navies ended up being run mainly from provincial budgets, and the yards as far as possible as commercial enterprises so as to try and generate money - they weren't much cop at it tho', and couldn't build anything bigger than a small gunboat, tho' I think they tried. France's annihilation of one of the fleets in the Sino-French War removed the flexibility that was supposed to be there in having regional fleets and left the Northern Fleet as the only major force; Canton had a few ships I think, but in order to defend Shanghai ships were borrowed from the North.

    Memory is about exhausted now...

    Grey Wolf