This should have been posted last week, as it comes before the bayonet charge. (I have no idea why I apparently published it back in 2012; anyway, here it is again.) As is my custom in Victoria, which has a timespan short enough that a man’s life will covert most of it and long enough that the man can do a lot of different things, I start off by following the career of someone born in 1836, and aging with the game. The system does tend to break down around 1910, when my subject is over seventy and no longer plausibly very active. But here, with Lysandros 19 years old and riding the Circuit as the Cursus Honorum proscribes, it works very well.
July 3rd, 1863
Hills surrounding Latakia, Persian Syria
The thunder of the guns had faded slightly since the bombardment began – or was he just going deaf? Lysandros looked again at the Ethiopian position. He had to admit that the results looked very impressive, great spires of dust rising in the still morning air, flashes of red fire in their midst. The return fire was desultory, a muzzle flash here and there, unimpressive among the huge explosions; perhaps the colonel in command of the artillery was right and he had indeed suppressed the enemy batteries. If so it would be a first.
It wasn’t that he would particularly care to be on the receiving end of that fire… but he also knew that the Ethiopians were even deadlier with the spade than with their rifles, and that the Chinese fuses were often bad. Who could tell how much of that fire and fury was wasting itself on empty space, or merely frightening men safely entrenched? And now the tempo of the barrage seemed to be slowing as well. The Chinese gunners had begun their work hours earlier; not the three rounds a minute that broke armies and exhausted men, but even at once a minute they were shifting ton weights of metal to get their guns back into battery, and were inevitably tiring. The attack was supposed to have started by now.
Lysandros turned his attention back to the staff quarrel – staff discussion – ah, staff meeting, that was the polite phrase – behind him. He was attached to the Army of the Palestine ostensibly in order to learn how the Khanate’s allies conducted their wars; but he rather thought that the staff meetings would be filed under “do not emulate” when he gave his report. The Chinese general in overall more-or-less command was shouting at his Persian more-or-less subordinate, whose back was getting more ramrod stiff by the second.
“I ordered your division to be ready to attack at half past nine, sharp! So it should have been drawn up in ranks an hour ago. Where the devil are your men?”
They spoke, by a minor historical irony, in Greek. Speakers of that language were still, five hundred years after the Fall, a significant minority in Persia, and educated Chinese often learned the official language of their most important ally. Still, although both generals had been chosen partly for their command of the least-inconvenient common language, they had learned it as adults and often fumbled for phrases. Thus Lysandros saw the disaster in the making a good minute before the two generals realised their mistake.
“You ordered my division to be ready to attack at half past ten“, the Persian said stiffly. “And they are forming up now, and will be ready at the appointed time.”
“Half past nine, you imb – ” General Umar cut himself off before he could utter an unforgivable insult. The Chinese army was here to rescue Persia from foreign conquest; but the stiff-necked Aryan nobles liked foreign assistance only marginally better. The last thing they needed now was for yet another Persian officer to resign in protest, as they seemed to do at the slightest hint of criticism. Especially they could not afford to lose the general in command of the division they were about to launch into attack.
“If I may, sirs,” Lysandros interrupted. Both generals glared at him, but Umar gestured permission to continue; glaring at an observer not in the line of command was more productive than arguing with a chief subordinate. “I believe the source of the unhappy misunderstanding is that the esteemed general Umar thought the phrase in his native language, and translated into Greek, `half of ten’. But the esteemed general Azada translated, into his native language, `half past ten’. An easy mistake to make.”
General Umar compressed his lips, but nodded. Blaming the Greek language seemed to calm him, or perhaps he merely realised the futility of anger; at any rate he said shortly, “I believe you are correct, centurion. I apologise for my hard words.”
“I, too, apologise,” Azada replied. “The error may well be mine.” For an Aryan noble speaking to foreigners, that was a vast concession. “Still, an hour’s delay need not be fatal. It gives the gunners more time for their work.”
“True, but it also gives the monkeys more time to bring up reinforcements; and our gunners’ stamina is not unlimited, nor is their ammunition. Still, it cannot be helped. Let the attack go in at half past ten, then.”
“Sirs,” Lysandros said softly. The chances that they would listen to him were slim, but he had to try. “I must recommend against this attack. The enemy are well and truly warned, and well dug in. You cannot take that hill with any fifteen thousand men in the world.”
Umar looked him up and down, apparently taking out the condescension that it wasn’t safe to show the Persians on the ally who commanded no troops and couldn’t gum up his plan by getting in a temper. “Well, centurion,” he drawled; this time the rank was no title of respect, but a reminder that Lysandros held the most junior commissioned rank in the Legions. “I understand you have your opinion. But I’ve been leading armies since before you had hair on your balls, and so it’s my opinion that counts. And I say that the position is strong, but hardly untakeable. And what’s more, if we do take it our guns will command the road Mideksa is using to shuffle troops back and forth, and we’ll split his army in two and defeat them in detail.”
Lysandros nodded acceptance; there was no use in arguing, and anyway it would be undisciplined to do so after his suggestion had been so thoroughly squashed, even if Umar wasn’t strictly speaking his superior officer. Even after the setbacks of the past few weeks, neither Chinese nor Persians had really internalised what breech-loading rifles could do. Lysandros had been trained by the Legions, and if he had been in command of the other side, he would be praying to all the bodhisattvas for the allies to launch precisely this sort of blunt-force infantry assault into his entrenchments. But there was nothing for it; so Lysandros turned his attention again to the Ethiopian entrenchments being battered by the Chinese artillery.
Unfortunately, the sight did not really encourage him. The barrage had faltered noticeably even in the few minutes it had taken to discuss the timing of the attack. The battery commanders, no doubt, were waiting for the movement they had been told would start at nine thirty, conserving their mens’ strength for an all-out effort when the infantry launched itself across the killing field. Some of them would be looking nervously at their ammunition wagons, too; Lysandros knew that their supply was badly snarled by cavalry raids against the ridiculous single-track railroads. The Persians had one, count it, one, rolling mill in their whole vast country; replacing rails bent over a fire, the work of an hour for a single cavalry squadron, could take months.
After a minute or so someone came up to join him; he turned to see that it was Nicolaus, one of the aides on general Azada’s staff. The Persian officer was actually a Greek; in fact he was in a sense a Komnenos, a descendant of the stay-behinds who had made their peace with the Fall and retained their estates as vassals of the Shahanshah. It was just a family name now, common in Anatolia among the landowning class. It was sometimes unsettling to realise that there were thousands of ‘Komnenoi’ who did not give loyalty to Rome, and saw nothing wrong with the fact; indeed, they cheerfully and loyally served the Persians, the hereditary enemy. Lysandros had been uncomfortable around Nicolaus to start. But there weren’t many men of his own age or near his own rank in the staffs, and so they had become friends.
Nicolaus gestured grimly at the hills. “Do you think they’ll be suppressed enough?”
“No. I’m afraid not.”
Nicolaus nodded. “I don’t think so either. If I don’t see you again, then: Fare well.” It was a minor superstition among the Persian soldiers not to say ‘goodbye’, lest their god overhear and decide, indeed, to go with the one addressed.
“You’re joining the attack?” Lysandros was surprised; Persian officers led from the front in regiments and brigades, certainly, but for divisional staff to do so was unusual. But Nicolaus nodded confirmingly. “I think the general wants to make up for his mistake. Perhaps he’d be better arguing for that flanking march… well, the monkeys have a better road for that, anyway.” He shook his head, dismissing the thought; decisions had been made, and it was time for junior officers to obey orders.
“So they do,” Lysandros agreed, loyally not mentioning that Ethiopian troops also marched half again as fast as Persian, on any kind of roads. He looked again at the hills, still spouting fire against the increasingly choppy Chinese bombardment. He was no expert on artillery, it was true. But somehow the slow Ethiopian counterbattery fire didn’t feel suppressed. It felt like the calm, aimed shelling of men who were saving their powder for a moment of decision; who might even have been deliberately tapering off their shelling to fool enemies into thinking their barrage successful. Lysandros shivered, and was glad it wasn’t he who was about to walk into the killing zone; glad, and guilty. He looked again at his friend. “Luck go with you,” he said, carefully not mentioning what kind; good luck wouldn’t come if you called, but you always had some kind of luck. Nicolaus nodded and stuck out his hand to be clasped, then turned on his heel and left without further words.
It seemed to take forever to get the regiments in position, endless lines of brown uniforms tipped with white turbans, shuffling in the dust and growing heat. Bayonets glinted. The Persian conscripts still used muzzle-loading rifled muskets, a vast expense for the treasury of unindustrialised Persia twenty years before, when they had been the cutting edge of military technology. Now they were made obsolete by breech-loaders, and the Persian infantry could not compete in firepower with their enemies; but the loans that had paid for the rifled muskets were still being paid off. So the attack would succeed with the bayonet, or not at all; there could be no question of a duel of volleys.
At length they were ready. Lysandros looked at his watch; 1015. General Azada had been quick. Bugles blew, and twelve thousand men stepped out – not quite in unison, but close enough; it wasn’t a parade. Despite his doubts Lysandros felt his heart stir. Twelve thousand men was an amazingly large army when you could see them all at once. Even so it was only a tenth of the men under Umar’s command; but that was information, a number, not really real. To actually see twelve thousand bayonets glinting was something else again; to the hindbrain it looked unstoppable, invincible. And perhaps it was. The Ethiopians weren’t ten feet tall, even if they did march fast and shoot straight.
Then the guns, that had been hidden on the hilltops that anchored the Ethiopian line like fortress bastions, opened up.
Lysandros watched helplessly as the Persian line shrank and shrank. There was no wavering or trying to come back; the men fell as they marched, closed ranks, and marched stolidly on. He could imagine, all too vividly, being down there; the heat, the sun beating down mercilessly, the itching irritation of sweat and thirst that would somehow seem magnified by the death falling randomly all about. The constant dread, not so much of death, but of crippling wounds. The terrible noise of ton weights of metal and gunpowder; and the constant cry of “Close ranks! Close ranks!” And they did close. The advance had been a mile in length when it started. It was down to two-thirds of that now, as men instinctively flinched away from the deadly fire on either flank.
“Is it not magnificent?” someone said beside him. He turned and saw general Umar, watching stone-faced as his last fresh division marched into a maelstrom of fire.
“It is indeed magnificent,” Lysandros agreed, for it was: A magnificent show of gallantry and obedience to orders. But is it war? he added to himself, silently. Butchery, certainly, but not war as he understood it. Then they came within rifle range; and he could not hold back the exclamation. “It is folly!”
Umar looked thunderous, and for a moment Lysandros thought he was going to be ordered off the field in disgrace. Then the general’s eye was caught by the continuous blaze of muzzle flashes coming from the Ethiopian trenches, and he fell silent. Thousands of men were firing, professional troops trained to marksmanship, and with a massed target. Ten aimed rounds a minute, with training. The Persian ranks were crumbling, a man hit every second, visible at this distance only as ripples in the ordered ranks; but there were too many ripples. “Call them back, General!” Lysandros urged. “They can’t make it!”
“No,” Umar said, ashen-faced. “If I call them back now it’s all for nothing. They can reach the top of the hill, if they’ll only keep going. And see, they’re not stopping. Dying, but not stopping.”
He was right, Lysandros saw; the Persians had picked up the pace, running now to get through the beaten zone as quickly as they might. Their line had shrunk to half a mile; but they were halfway up the hill. If their nerve held they would reach the top. If they could take the stone wall there that sheltered the Ethiopian troops… the muzzle flashes changed, subtly. They were firing canister now, making vast tears in the Persian line where the shells had blown circular holes. But they were at the fence. Bayonets flashed. The Ethiopian batteries were silent, they couldn’t fire for fear of hitting their own.
Lysandros held his breath. Against all that maelstrom of fire the Persians had reached the top of the hill. But the Ethiopians held the crest, and were fighting from behind a wall; and they hadn’t marched a mile through horror to get to the fight. Yes – there. At the edge of the Persian formation, terror had become too much; men were coming back, peeling away from the fight for the fence and marching back, some in formed squads and some as individuals, but retreating from what had become too much for flesh and blood to bear. Like all routs it fed on itself; in a minute the retreat was general, the whole division recoiling from the crest they couldn’t take.
“Kyrie eleison,” Lysandros whispered; “Christe eleison”. If the advance had been bad, how many would die in a rout? But the Ethiopian guns were silent. Was there indeed mercy, then? The Ethiopians were Christians of a sort, he recalled. Perhaps they had heard his prayer; or perhaps they were offering a gallant gesture to match the gallant charge. Unmolested by pursuit, the Persians came back, gathering their wounded as they went.
At length Azada stood again before Umar, who flinched at his steady gaze. Nonetheless, there was steel in the Chinese general. He kept his voice steady. “General Azada, I am sorry; I accept full responsibility. It was all my fault. But we must prepare for their counterstroke. Put your division into line here.” He gestured to show the ground he wanted the Persians to occupy.
“General Umar, I have no division.” Azada turned and walked off with the remnants of his staff. Nicolaus was not among them.
From the New Byzantium Herald: This newspaper has hesitated to add its voice to the clamour surrounding the Qaratal Line, lest a hasty judgement should lead it into error. But the facts are now in, and we can state unequivocally that the obstructionist attitude of certain parties to the dispute is, not simply a hindrance to progress and industry, but also unpatriotic and even actively dangerous.
In defending the “traditional right of Rome’s allies to their ancestral grazing lands” there may, at least, be a certain, if possibly misguided, honour. It is true that these lands have customarily been understood as being, in some sense, the property of the tribes, even though they are not enclosed and the peaceful passage of other parties has always been permitted, facts which would weigh against any claim of property in settled lands. Thus, if the dispute were merely of one private party against another, the claims of the Alukhai against the right-of-way of the Qaratal Consortium, men of good faith might reasonably disagree, and this newspaper could remain above the dispute, taking no more interest in it than in any other public matter of the day.
But now the trumpets of responsibility to the State have been sounded, and this paper can no longer remain silent. Inter armes, silent leges; and we have heard, from no less a person than the Legate Herakles of the Sol Invictus, that the Qaratal railroad is “an absolute necessity to the defense of the Russian border”. In the face of such testimony, quibbles about private property must fade; where the defense of the State is concerned, the interests of private parties must give way. The Qaratal railroad must be built, and built at speed; and as for those obstructionists who stand in its way, our ancestors invented the excellent customs of decimation and crucifixion for precisely such cases.
From the Tempora Romanum: It is no light matter to suggest that the recommendations of a public servant may have been bent by private interest; and indeed no responsible journalist would dream of doing so. Your editor wishes, therefore, to completely disavow any claim of insight into the mind of the Legate Herakles. The worthy Legate has risen to command so famous a formation as the Sol Invictus; and it must be clear that the Senate and People of Rome do not give such a position to a man who is liable to be swayed this way and that by any consideration except hard military fact.
But where the minds of men, and especially of generals, are beyond the ken of responsible journalism, statements of verifiable fact are not. Your editor wishes to bring two facts to the attention of the public, which may conceivably have some interest. The first is that several Legates, commanding Legions perhaps less well known than storied Sol Invictus, but not without their own honour and merit, have stated the case for the Qaratal Line in terms much less emphatic than those used by the Legate Herakles. One might almost say that some of the alleged military support for the project is expressed in terms that, were they not uttered by the legendarily decisive officers of the Legions, could properly be called `lukewarm'; as when, for example, the Legate Kallistos (commanding the Victrix) testified to the Senate and the People that “it would certainly be better to have it than not to have it”. In the testimony of the Legate Lykurgos, placed at the head of no less a formation than the I Komnenoi, one might even detect a hint of what, if it were not for the fact that so sure a military judgement can hardly disagree with that of the Legate Herakles, one would call opposition; for in his sworn words to the Senate and the People, the phrase “possibility of other projects taking priority for the time being” occurs in a desirable sense.
The second fact that the public ought to know concerns the membership of the Qaratal Consortium. Although this is not a matter of public record, the Tempora has gained access to the accounts of the Consortium, and discovered there that, not the Legate Herakles, but his wife Leonora, holds no less than 10 per cent of its voting shares.
We feel confident, of course, that so upright a man as the Legate Herakles would not inquire too closely into the details of his wife’s portfolio; for like Caesar’s wife, our high officers do not content themselves merely with being incorruptible, but hold themselves to the higher standard of also appearing so. Nonetheless, we regretfully acknowledge that not every citizen shares our high opinion of the Senatorial class, and we therefore present this information in case anyone might think it has relevance to the question of whether private interests ought to be allowed to run roughshod – perhaps ‘rail-shod’ is the phrase for these modern times? – over the grazing lands of Rome’s sovereign allies.
April 23rd, 1843
Office of Papandopolous and Sons
New Byzantium, Roman Khanate
“Well, come now! Five percent of the net is exceedingly generous.”
“Fuck you, Greekie!” Remembering where he was, the chieftain of the Alukhai Tatars moderated his language, but not his demands. “Do you think we’re some sort of rubes from Utmost Siberia?” The Greeks in the room were forced to hide undiplomatic smiles, which perhaps had been his intent; with his belt full of knives, a musket over his back, and a powder horn slung over his chest, Timur did look rather like the stereotype of an unsophisticated tribesman. “We know what kind of tricks you pulled with the Nenet. We’ll have twenty percent of the gross, and we’ll have our own accountants checking it; or no deal.” He crossed his arms across his chest, making the knives rattle.
Papandopoulos, the lawyer, was slight and unimpressive compared to the squat tribesman, although like most Komnenoi he had served his time in the Legion. Nevertheless his careful adjustment of his rimless eyeglasses was as much a declaration of intent, and threat, as any ostentatious flaunting of weaponry. “I think you’ll find,” he said carefully, “that my clients’ friends in the Senate would not find acceptable such a contract, if it came to an open vote; and would instead vote for a straightforward expropriation of the lands in question. Which would leave you with precisely zero percent, gross or net.”
“Your client isn’t the only one with friends in the Senate. Do you know how many of the Alukhai are Equestrians?”
“When last I looked into the matter, you had six hundred and forty-three voters on the rolls; although only ten of them are here in the City.”
Perhaps Timur was a little taken aback at the lawyer’s ready command of the figure; but he shot back “Right. And our neighbours will back us; they know a precedent when they see one. So by all means, take it to the Senate; see who has the more friends when push comes to shove. You’ve got the money, but there’s still honour in New Byzantium.”
“Indeed there is,” Papandopoulos said levelly. “And I have personally heard five Senators, representing a total of one-hundred-fifty-two thousand, four hundred and sixty-eight voters, say that they would rather, and I quote, `expropriate the damn savages and be done with it’ than, you should excuse the expression, `give the sheepfuckers a single thin rouble’. I suggest, then, that your tribes, with their total of perhaps ten thousand Equestrians, are likely to be somewhat outvoted. Honour or no honour.”
Timur swallowed his bluff without a quibble, leaning back in the chair, which creaked under him. “Well. In that case, I suggest your friend with the straight-shootin’, hard-hittin’ mouth on him contemplates just why Herakles could make some kind of case for the `military necessity’ of the railroad. I mean, that’s horseshit, and the horse is pretty sick at that, and we all know it. But the reason he can make some idiots believe it is that we’re right on the Russian border. Maybe the Czar would see things our way, eh? Then your friends can watch their clients blame them and walk right off the rolls.”
“That possibility is, indeed, why we are here. But I suggest that you should not put too much faith in this method of bargaining. There are… certain elements… in the Senate who would like nothing better than a good casus belli for war with Russia.”
Timur smiled grimly. “So we all know where we stand. Why don’t you make me an offer.”
“I am authorised to offer you as much as five percent of the gross.”
“And an accountant we hire, to check it.”
“That is acceptable.”
“Very well, then we have a deal.”
The lawyer smiled, reaching across the table to shake hands. “I am glad to hear it. Emotions have been running quite high here lately. It is a pleasure to negotiate with someone not married to dubious points of principle.”
Timur grinned. “Well, I’m not saying I’m above using some editor’s idea of the sovereign rights of Rome’s allies to put a bit of pressure on. A vassal tribe has to use the weapons it has. But yeah, in the end we wanted a cut. The sacred-ancestral-lands bit was for show. Pff, don’t any of these City people read books? We moved onto that land in my father’s day.”
From the City Tribune: The recent settlement of the Qaratal Line dispute must fill patriots with joy; once again the democratic process of Rome has proven its merit in amicable resolution of conflicting claims. Indeed peaceful arbitration, in open Forum, of the friction of modernisation is among our greatest strengths, and sure to grant us a long-term advantage over our rivals, whose processes often feel the influence of smoky back rooms, political maneuver, and mere bribes…
Although most of the day-to-day work of the Khanate’s army was done in the flat steppe landscape of the crumbling frontier with Russia, its founding legend gave a certain resonance to struggling through mountainous terrain with a battle at the end. Cohortal histories of the Tibetan Campaigns are filled with allusions and comparisons to the beginning of the Long March. Many note that Alexandros’s army had only the relatively low Caucasus mountains to cross, which while difficult enough for an army burdened with women and young children hardly compares to the Tibetan plateau; we may infer that such comparisons were deliberately circulated – at least among the officers – to keep up morale. Alexandros, after all, had to fight his way through the pass; the men of the Army of Tibet had only frostbite and low rations to contend with, and perhaps the occasional recalcitrant yak. The Cambodian high command, having learned from its experience in the War of 1821 – most of the high officers had commanded regiments and divisions in five fruitless attacks on Qamdo – simply abandoned the entire plateau and concentrated on repelling Japanese landings in the Malay peninsula, relying on distance and cold to weaken the Khanate’s attack.
When the Legions did eventually reach the headwaters of the Mekong, the Cambodians, in accordance with their prewar plans, used their internal lines to mount a rapid counterattack. In a sense this worked very well: Using the excellent internal infrastructure of Khmer, the Royal Army did indeed catch the Legions marching down the narrow valley of the Mekong, with little room to maneuver, tired from long months of cold and short rations, and at the end of a long supply line through some of the world’s worst terrain. There, however, the plan fell apart. The Khanate’s rifled muskets outranged Cambodian smoothbores by a factor of four; the new artillery had twice the rate of fire; and, most crucially of all, the Khanate’s officer corps had been taught speed. To march instantly to the sound of the guns; to concentrate all force on the decisive point; and above all, never to let the desire for a perfect order outweigh the need for an immediate one – these habits, learned in the Dniestr Delta and the War of 1821, and practiced through a decade of skirmishing, made the Legions flash like quicksilver against the sullen grey lead of their enemies.
Note the artillery.
Why yes, that is rather a lopsided casualty ratio.
Cohortal histories are an abundant source, but as noted above, they often reflect the official word and always tell us, not only what officers were thinking, but what officers thought it desirable to commit to paper. The Tibet Campaign, however, is interesting for having the first infant murmurs of literature from the ranks. It is worth noting that letters to families, even ones written in the very week of the Cambodian collapse, scarcely mention the battle; much more prominent both in letters and in interviews collected after the war are complaints about the cold, the bad rations, and the lack of firewood. Indeed, while it’s true that all preindustrial wars killed more men from disease than battle, the ratio seems to have been particularly lopsided in the Tibetan Campaign.
It seems quite possible that the Khanate by itself might have forced the Cambodians to negotiate; the Japanese invasion of the Malay Peninsula and the English blockade of their long coastline piled disaster on catastrophe. With its army in ruins and two separate foreign armies standing a hundred miles from the capital, south and north, the Cambodian court sued for peace. As might be expected in such circumstances, it was harsh; neither New Byzantium nor Kyoto had forgotten Cambodian promises of aid against European invasion, nor the dead of Qamdo. All Khmer’s gains in the War of 1821 were returned to the Japanese empire, largely in the form of concessions to its vassal Qin; additionally, the Khanate gained control of the mouth of the Ganges, one of the most fertile and densely populated areas in the world.
This purely regional shift in the balance of power, impressive as it might be to the countries involved, was not the main effect of the war, however. After all, apart from the Ganges Delta the exchange of territory merely restored the borders of 1820. Rather, the main effect was on the domestic politics of the Khanate. The fact that the war had been fought mainly to restore the strength of an ally was forgotten; that the Ganges Delta is as distant from New Byzantium as Newfoundland from London, and even further as the ship sails, was ignored. Un-photogenic deaths from frostbite and aggrieved yaks were shunted aside. All that mattered was the the Legions had again blazed their old glory through a vast host of barbarians; the phrase ‘spear-chucking wogs’ did not actually appear, but in some of the more aggressive newspapers it was clearly a near-run thing. (In fairness to the editors, a Cambodian army armed with spears might at least have kept its distance and thus avoided taking vast casualties to no purpose.) Even among the cooler heads of the Senate there was a renewed sense of commanding a vastly powerful instrument, and a determination to use it before it decayed. No country, the argument ran, could expect to maintain a monopoly on new weapons or tactics for very long; defeat is a swift and harsh teacher. The more reason, then, to act aggressively while the going was smooth, and to build an unassailable position for the inevitable time when other Powers learned the virtues of speed and rifled muskets.
Guns, Shovels, and Steam: The Military Revolution of the Nineteenth Century,
(C) Oxford University Press 1978.
Here begins Victoria; it is my custom to write something taking a long view of history when we switch games.
The Khanate is still north of Qin. I lost Best Korea to Kongo and one province to Punjab; Russia, fortunately, wasn’t in the war. Or it would have been rather shorter. Although, to be fair, their neutrality did force Bavaria to keep considerable forces in Europe.
Briefly, the Great Powers – Ethiopia, Bavaria, Catalunya, and Croatia – with some yapping jackals in support, decided that Qin should be stripped of its ability to intervene in the affairs of Europe. They therefore ended the war that we had at the start of the session by demanding a chunk of Chinese coast – the blue bit in the screenie – to Ethiopia; additionally Khmer was rewarded for its lies (Ike had promised to fight on Qin’s side) with another five provinces, and Kongo got Best Korea. We were then told that the attacks would continue while China had a coastline. In an attempt to comply with this outrageous demand while maintaining some semblance of sovereignty, China signed over South Korea to Japan, and agreed to sign over its remaining coastline to the Khanate. We were then informed that this was insufficient, that the coast had to be given to the coalition; all pretence of concern for the balance of power was thus abandoned, and the contours of the naked land grab became clear. China then became a vassal of Japan, and Asia cast its defiance at the Great Powers.
Alas, our powers were not sufficient. Attacked by Bavaria and Ethiopia from the southeast, and by lapdog Khmer and Kongo from the southwest, we nevertheless stood firm on the Asian mainland. But Japan alone could not keep the seas against the combined fleets of Ethiopia and Catalunya, and in short order groaned under the boots of invaders. Jackal Punjab was bought off with the single province of Altishar; but when Croatia joined its forces to the Kongolese attack out of Korea, even the 180 regiments freed by that surrender were insufficient to defend the Khanate. With Japan effectively out of the war, we therefore perforce accepted the Unequal Treaty dictated to us.
Some images from the war. At the beginning, believe it or not, Khmer actually had the temerity to attack us – in Dangla, at that, some of the best defensive terrain in the world!
That was over pretty quickly, to be sure. We then went in and seized Qamdo, also some of the best defensive terrain in the world, not that this did Ike any good:
and held it against a rather monotonous series of counterattacks:
At some point Kongolese troops joined the Khmerese ones, with very similar results:
As you can see, it wasn’t the fighting quality of our enemies that forced us to accept their diktat. Rather, it was sheer numbers. Here is a glimpse at the Taklamakan campaign, in which the Punjabi jackals treacherously stabbed me in the back and forced me to pull troops from the victorious advance into Khmer to deal with them:
As you can see, Punjabis fight about as well as Khmerese. Alas, in the end 90 regiments cannot stand against 230.
Finally, the early stages of the Korean campaign, in which I’m driving back the initial Kongolese attack:
Unfortunately, once Japan lost control of the seas, Croatia reinforced the Kongolese with about 300 regiments, and I couldn’t stand against that.
The signs had long been clear to internal observers of the Khanate, especially those born early enough to have fought in both the successful American War and the abortive Polish Campaign. However, to the armies of Europe, Legion tactics in what became known as the battle (more accurately the siege) of the Lines of the Dniestr Delta were a most unpleasant surprise; especially so, if briefly, to the more than fifty thousand Croatian troops who died in the six months of the siege.
Khanate armies were not a new enemy to the regular forces of the European empires, but in previous conflicts they had defended Asia from Western invasions, rather than launching their own attacks on the Ukraine. Moreover, when fighting in China, in India, and especially on the crumbling Russian border, the Legions had taken a form that, over their centuries of ruling the steppes, had become stereotyped: A swarm of light cavalry with a core of kataphrakt lancers, with a relatively lightly-armed and fast-marching infantry for logistical support and to act as a base of fire in swirling cavalry engagements often many miles wide and deep. This organisation gave excellent results on the steppes, where mobility was at a premium and there was no particular point that had to be defended or attacked. An opponent seeking a set-piece battle could be foiled simply by avoiding the place where he had set his pieces.
Such Legions had, nonetheless, been quite unsuited to the cramped battlefields of Europe; in particular, their lack of artillery had allowed Bavarian, and earlier Russian, troops to hammer them with impunity and then punish them for seeking to close the range. “Lack of guns” was the constant complaint of the Komnenos strategoi in the American War, and although the actual materiel shortage had been considerably rectified by the time of the Polish Campaign, the Legions were still feeling their way into the best use of their new weapons. Thus, in 1813, Khanate armies were still perceived in Europe as an unruly steppe rabble, to be brushed aside by the discipline and firepower of regular soldiers. This, however, was quite inaccurate. Whatever their flaws, the Komnenoi cannot be accused of being slow learners, and they had been studying the lessons of the Polish Campaign quite closely.
The expeditionary forces that were sent to the Ukrainian Campaign to form the southern flank of the Russian defense were very light on cavalry compared to the traditional Legion order of battle, although what cavalry they had was excellent; most of the nomad levies were simply not called up, and a large portion even of the Komnenoi kataphrakts were kept at home to maintain order – a sad comedown for the pride of Aleksandros’s exiled army! The bulk of the Legions now consisted of infantry, recruited from Korean and Chinese city-states, from Siberian tribes which were only semi-nomadic and often fought on foot, and from younger sons and poorer families among the nomads proper, who might inherit only two or three ponies and thus were of little use in a traditional swarm formation, which required every man to have a good dozen remounts. The infantry were commanded by those Komnenoi of Equestrian rank who preferred an officer’s commission, even if in the infantry, over serving in the rank and file of the prestigious kataphrakt cohorts – which, of course, rapidly lost their prestige when it was realised how few of them were committed to the European front. More importantly, they were supported by a vast artillery, with gun-to-men ratios that even the Bavarians considered excessive; the Khanate, for all its reputation as a featureless wasteland, was (and is) actually rich in iron and copper deposits, and had the State industries to develop them by forced draft and conscript labour.
Still more central to the sudden success of the Legions were the changes in their tactics. The suddenness of the shift to infantry enabled the Romans to look at foot warfare with fresh eyes, and find methods which had eluded those whose emphasis had changed more gradually. In particular, the spade was raised to co-equality with the musket, and Roman infantry were trained to throw up earthen ramparts whenever they stood in one spot for more than an hour. For halts intended to last more than a week, the old custom of the fortified camp – and the associated jest, that barbarians were more easily defeated by seeing the Legions encamp than by fighting – was revived; Roman infantry thus acquired skills which in other armies were more associated with engineers.
In the Dniestr Delta these new methods burst upon Europe like a shrapnel shell – also an invention of the period, although not used by the Khanate. “Strategic offensive, tactical defensive” had been a maxim of Rome since the days of Belisarius, but had not been very practical for a cavalry-based army which could not force its enemies to attack any particular point. In seizing the Delta, however, Adai Quygungge had found a point which the Croatian army had to attack. At first this was because doing otherwise was to let slip a rich prize, the large Persian force trapped in the Balkans by the Ethiopian closure of the Straits. Later, it appears, the Croatian commanders were angry and not thinking clearly, and as the campaigning season ended they may have been influenced by the belief that the defenders of the Delta must be at their last gasp, and would surely be forced to retreat in the face of one more strong push.
In fact the Lines of the Dniestr Delta were one of the strongest defensive positions in recorded history, the more remarkable for being built largely with hand labour over the course of a single summer. The rich loam of the Delta was well suited for rammed-earth fortifications and trenches; timber was shipped in, along with uncounted tons of other military supplies, across the Black Sea from Georgia and from Russian Ukraine. Strategos Quygungge intended, at first, only to form a solid base for the battered Persians to stream past, forcing the Croatians to break off their pursuit lest a large force in their rear turn hunter into hunted. But, the Persians having passed into safety, he found the Croatians very obligingly continuing to attack his line of cohort redoubts; and, nowise wishing to pass up a good thing, gave orders to “dig in our heels and heap piles of grannies to the Heavens”. As he later remarked, “it is a capital error to interrupt an enemy who is making a mistake”, and indeed one might say that his later reputation as the finest general of his age was built, in large part, on his counterpart’s inability to believe that the despised nomads could stand against a sustained assault by the armies of the True Successors of Rome. So it goes; it takes a Terentius Varro as well as a Hannibal to make a Cannae!
Blackpowder armies, it is true, are harder to destroy than consular Legions; the Lines of the Dniestr Delta was neither a battle of annihilation, as Cannae was, nor decisive in the sense of destroying Croatia’s ability to continue the war – as Cannae also wasn’t. Like consular Rome, the Radomirs could stamp new armies out of the earth and fight on. Nevertheless, like Cannae in its time, the moral effect of the battle was huge, perhaps even out of proportion to the actual result. The image of waves of European soldiers being cut down by grapeshot and musket fire from redoubts manned by, in the parlance of the times, `natives’ (less politely, `wogs’), and of their generals ordering yet more regiments into attacks on the same positions – all luridly conveyed by daily newspapers, still another innovation of the era – sent shockwaves through Croatian society. What was the use, people asked themselves, of being the most superior nation in the world, if your soldiers couldn’t drive a few poxy nomads from your borderlands? Army reform quickly followed, starting with a much sharper emphasis on religious discipline (*); both pay and standards for chaplains were increased, weekly masses were made mandatory, and a new book of sermons for the army was approved, emphasising the rewards that waited for those who fell in battle against the heathen and heretic. But this was the least of the changes; Croatian civil society was swept by worries about decadence and a fresh wave of enthusiasm for the Noble Savage, as embodied by the “simple, hardy tribesmen” who had, presumably, demonstrated the military advantages of the nomadic lifestyle. (This was, of course, based on a misunderstanding – Roman infantry, as noted above, were primarily recruited from the Khanate’s Korean and Chinese possessions, which, although a small fraction of its geographic extent, weighed very heavily in its demography.) Mountain-climbing guilds, weight-lifting societies, cold-bath clubs, and even in extreme cases flagellation fraternities (!) were all the rage, on the theory that deliberate hardship and self-denial was the way to military preparedness.
In the cool light of hindsight, all this is a little overblown. True, fifty thousand dead in a single campaign, and one which failed of its object at that, is a blow to any army. But as in all blackpowder warfare, most of the casualties were from sickness rather than battle. What killed so many ‘grannies’ was not the superior fighting quality of nomads, nor even the strength of the redoubts (formidable as this undoubtedly was), but rather the high command’s insistence on keeping vast forces concentrated in a small area, and the consequent logistical difficulties. There were, it is true, repeated attempts to seize individual redoubts by assault, as well as three large-scale attacks on a front of many miles in an attempt to overwhelm the defenders’ ability to rush in reinforcements to threatened points; and these engagements did indeed go badly for the Croatians. But on the other hand it is worth noting that Adai Quygungge never contemplated leaving his fortifications and taking up the assault; he could hold off superior numbers, but he could not inflict such a crushing defeat as to seize the initiative, or even force his opponents to the negotiating table.
For the historian, the Lines of the Dniestr Delta are chiefly noteworthy as a herald of the return of Roman armies to European battlefields, and their consequent abandonment of the cavalry emphasis they had clung to since Byzantine days. Of course, given a history as long as Rome’s, practically anything could be, and was, justified as a “return to ancient practice”; but in the case of infantry tactics the break with existing tradition is both unusually clear and unusually parallel to an actual historical example. Moreover, with the decreasing military importance of nomad cavalry, Khanate recruiting – and with it, prestige and power – began for the first time to match its demographics, with ripple effects that were still being felt a century later.
The Twain Damn Well Will Meet: Occidental and Oriental Influence on Roman Military Thought,
monograph by Tegus Burulgi,
Beijing Military Academy Press, 1923.
(*) That is to say, Croatia became Defender of the Faith, increasing army morale from 8.70 to 9.2 (numbers approximate).
I found it hard to get going on this installment. It didn’t seem like quite the thing to write another veteran’s tale so soon after “Feud Across the Ocean Sea”; if nothing else, I don’t have four weeks to work on it, and I find it difficult to write a convincing memoir style in short form. So I tried a dialogue style and an impersonal-narrator-overview style, but couldn’t quite see where to take either one; I ended up with the history-book discussion by default. (What can I say, I’m an academic; I punch out reams of dryly formal exposition at the drop of a hat.) Below my two false starts, in case anyone wants to see what writer’s block looks like for me. :) You’ll see that I’ve been working with the same basic ideas in each form.
August 23rd, 1814
Delta of the Dniestr
The grannies were driven from the Delta only a short month ago; but the Legions have not been idle. Already the marshy ground is dotted with redoubts, hastily packed up out of rammed earth, but bristling with guns. Individually they are no great obstacle either to deliberate siege or even to a determined assault; there are limits to what can be done in a month. But several hundred of them, in easy supporting distance, are a formidable military fact. Long ago it was said of the Legions that barbarians were more easily defeated by watching them go into camp, than by fighting. Since then much blood has been shed, and if the truth were told the art of field fortifications is no ancient tradition handed down through Aleksandros’s kataphrakts from the legionnaires of Caesar. The Legions have been an instrument of control on the endless steppe for half a millennium, and the nomad swarms they have contended with there are not easily defeated by redoubts they can easily avoid. But nobody has ever accused Romans of being slow learners, and a new-invented art kills as readily as a hoary lesson of military tradition. The hard battlefields of Kansas and Poland have taught the kataphrakts to abandon their horses and take up cannon and spade, as once they abandoned gladius and pilum for stirrup and lance.
August 23rd, 1814
Delta of the Dniestr
“You have not been idle,” Anatoliy observed mildly, managing to keep his eyebrows from rising. The nomad troops had only seized the Delta a month earlier, yet already the marshy ground was dotted with their fortresses and redoubts, bristling with guns. And since when did the nomads have a heavy battery for each regiment – each cohort, in their barbarous language – anyway?
“Nor do we intend to be,” Mikhael replied; the liaison officer spoke passable Russian, accented but fluid. “The redoubts are a good start; next is the construction of good timbered roads between them, for mutual support.”