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Old Embers

Old Embers for New Torches: The Voyage of Forgotten Men
By Fritz Spencer
May 13, 2009 - 11:04:52 AM

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The Voyage of Forgotten Men by Frank Thiess

A wise philosopher once said that books are the true wealth of mankind. If so, then the pastime of browsing through an old bookstore is like a search for hidden treasure. The glossier and finer a book looks, the less it is likely to be worth. The best books are often the ones that are the most worn, or that have been carefully wrapped in a plain paper cover and tucked away in a dusty corner.

One of my best finds happened in the basement of a bookstore near Boston Commons. Near the top of a tall book shelf was a book with brittle yellow pages, and on the cover was a simple drawing, the silhouette of a black warship sailing out from between the rays of the rising sun. Across the top, in bold, red letters was written the original title "Tsushima - a Novel of Naval Warfare."

The many insights in the book were as deep and illuminating as the cover was worn and dilapidated - reason enough perhaps for the novel to make many lists of the "One Hundred Greatest Books of All Time." Though the book is called a novel, it is an accurate account of the events which led up to the annihilation of the Russian Navy at the hands of Admiral Togo in the Russo-Japanese War.

The Battle of Tsushima marked a turning point in world history, the first time an Asian nation defeated a European power. While Czarist Russia was in a period of decline, Japan was modernizing, and eager for all things Western. Above all, Japan sought out Western science and military technology. Both Japan and Russia were imperial powers, and they eventually came into conflict over disputed territory in Manchuria and Korea.

The first blow fell at Port Arthur, where the Japanese and Russian armies fought a struggle to the death that lasted six months. The surrender of Port Arthur led to the destruction of the Russian Pacific Fleet, a disaster which brought with it the prospect of total defeat. The solution of Czarist Russia was to dispatch a second fleet, the hastily cobbled-together Second Pacific Fleet.

In this poorly-conceived plan lay the seeds of a tragic defeat. The Russian warships were poorly designed and obsolete. On the day the fleet sailed, three of the largest ships returned to port because of engine malfunctions. Instruction in the use of the guns had been purely theoretical, and incredibly, the fleet put to sea without the gunnery crews having once fired their guns. All this was done to save ammunition.

Diplomatic intrigue left the fleet without opportunities to refuel, as British and French ports refused the fleet entry. The Russians resorted to buying coal and refueling in the tropical heat of Madagascar. Russian sailors, accustomed to a brisk, wintry climate, hauled sacks of coal in temperatures well over one hundred degrees, and one hundred percent humidity. Covered in soot from head to foot, many sailors died from heat stroke, while others succumbed to the tropical fevers and loathsome diseases endemic to the appropriately-named port of Hellville.

The entire fleet, from the lowest deckhand and galley assistant, to the commander of the fleet, Admiral Rojestwenski, knew that the arrival in Japanese waters would signal their demise. Nevertheless, the naval officers, many of them Latvians, Estonians, and Lithuanians, remained loyal to their Czar, as did Admiral Rojestwenski, who heroically guided his fleet through the battle from the bridge of his ship while ill with yellow fever.

Though an exciting tale of naval warfare, "The Voyage of Forgotten Men" has also been called "a philosophical novel." The book provides deep insights into how character shapes the destiny of individuals as well as nations, and reveals why some individuals succeed through meticulous planning and perseverance, while others fail through negligence, inattention, and an over-reliance on fate.

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