How one night in 1904 changed the 20th century

One interest I have (other than following the latest political news) is alternative history and one particular event has often intrigued me. During the Russo-Japanese War, a Russian Fleet sailing in the North Sea sank a British fishing vessel, killing two fisherman. The outrage over the Dogger Bank Incident of 21-22 October 1904 almost led to war between the two powers. Here is my interpretation of what might have happened if they had.

115 years ago today saw an event which would shape the course of the whole of the 20th century, from the creation of the Soviet Union, the rise of fascism in France and Italy, and the collapse of communism in the final years of the century. Here is the story of how one evening in October 1904 changed the world.

In October 1904, Russia was eight months into a war with Japan, which it increasingly found itself on the back foot. To aid in its efforts, they called in the nation’s Baltic Fleet, leaving for the Sea of Japan on the 15th of October. However, it is when the fleet entered the North Sea where the course of history was determined.

On the night of the 21st/22nd October, the fleet, in a panic and after false reports of Japanese activity in the North Sea, fired on a number of British fishing trawlers believing them to be Japanese torpedo boats, sinking one vessel and killing two fishermen.

The United Kingdom, an ally of Japan at the time, was outraged and the British press called for revenge. Cruiser squadrons of the Royal Navy shadowed the Russian fleet and demanded that the ships dock in Portsmouth while an investigation took place. However, when the Russians received a message from Tsar Nicholas II to head to Japan or face disciplinary action, the fleet broke away from the British escort.

In their haste, they fired on and sank a British merchant vessel that was crossing their path in the English Channel, believing it to be a cruiser attempting to blockade them. The Royal Navy engaged the fleet, sinking most of them, and resulted in a declaration of war by Britain against Russia.

France, Russia’s close ally, attempted to mediate between the two countries – having also signed an alliance with Britain just six months earlier. However, this attempt failed when the British signed an alliance with Germany to help in the conflict, and France declared war against both countries on December 4th, sparking the First World War.

With German forces focused on the Eastern front, the French were able to make early gains, particularly through invading neighbouring Belgium to avoid the Ardennes Forest near the Franco-German border. However, Russian forces were ill-prepared for a war on two fronts and morale crashed among the public. Calls for an end to the war resulted in mutinies and the start of a revolution against the Tsar. Separatist rebellions, sponsored by the British and Germans, also gained ground in Finland, Poland and Ukraine, further weakening the Russian position.

Russia finally surrendered in November 1906, with the Treaty of Hamburg granting independence to Finland, Belarus, Poland and Ukraine, with the Baltic states becoming German puppets. In the east, Japan seized the Chinese region of Manchuria, along with Russian territory south of the Amur River, including the city of Vladivostok.

Political turmoil gripped Russia in the wake of its defeat, with the revolution gaining further ground. Tsar Nicholas II gave into calls from protesters to abdicate and a civil war between loyalists and communist revolutionaries began. The communists would eventually win in 1913, with Leon Trotsky forming the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics – the world’s first communist state.

Although France’s deployment of poison gas on the battlefield, along with a new military weapon – the tank – initially allowed their forces to breakthrough the stalemate on the battlefield, the country became isolated after the surrender of Russia. With Germany invading from the north, Britain landing forces at Dunkirk, and now Italy staging an invasion on the island of Corsica and along the south coast, France agreed to an armistice on September 24th 1907.

In the punitive Treaty of Portsmouth, the country was forced to give up all of its colonies, with the exception of Algeria, Madagascar and its territories in the Caribbean. France also had to surrender land to Germany, Belgium and Italy, grant independence to Corsica and pay millions in reparations to the victorious powers.

The war left over seven million dead, one of the deadliest in human history, and was at the time dubbed ‘the war to end all wars’. However, animosity from France’s surrender and a global financial collapse in the early 1920s sowed the seeds of a second world conflict almost 30 years later, followed by a division of Europe between east and west on ideological lines which only came to an end 22 years ago.

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