July 23rd, 1290
West bank of the Ingulets, near the Dniepr confluence
The Cossacks would have to fight.
Roman organisation was well up to supplying twenty thousand men across the Black Sea, as long as they kept to navigable rivers – even now two galleys were unloading flour and beans at the temporary dock within the walls of the encampment – but the Cossacks, boat people though they sometimes were, could not draw on vast agricultural districts. The past week’s skirmishes had yielded prisoners from two dozen different stanitsas, one from as far afield as Luhansk. That likely meant the Czar had called up all the Cossacks of the Don Host; as many as fifty thousand sabres. The thinly-settled lands around the Dniepr held no food for such a horde. They must either attack and defeat the Roman army, capturing its supplies; or disperse, yielding the land. If they did so, the Romans would never catch them; Roman armies had been destroyed that way many times, chasing light-armed horsemen into trackless wilderness. But Konstantinos cared nothing for holding the steppe, and Czar and Cossack alike knew it; he wanted only to hold the mouths of the Don, the Dniepr, and the Dniestr, to stop the raids at their source. To do that, he needed to defeat, not the Cossacks in their home environment, but the regular war-levy of the Czar.
A task which would not be made any easier by fifty thousand howling Cossacks.
If he could defeat the Cossacks before the Russian boyars arrived in full strength, then, so much the better. That was why he had advanced to this spot, just south of the bend in the Ingulets, where his left flank was covered by the marshes. The Cossacks would have to either fight or disperse – and the boyars would be reluctant to allow them to disperse; mobilising a Cossack host to do battle, as opposed to raid and razzia, was not an easy task, and once scattered they might not be so easily gathered again. They would come to him, on this ground of his own choosing. They would come to him, and they would pay for the burned farms, for the columns of smoke rising within sight of Constantinople’s walls, for the humiliation of being unable to defend his people.
From his command tower he could see the whole of the Roman position, three miles long; five thousand cataphracts on the left flank, then a long line of infantry to the river, drawn up on the very slight swell that was the highest ground for miles around. Immediately around him, in reserve against breakthroughs, were his personal guards, the Scholai and the Excubitores. To the north was a vast dust cloud, through which came an occasional glint of metal: The Cossack Host of the Don, fifty thousand strong.
The preliminary skirmishing was over; the Cossacks had driven his few Bulgar and Pecheneg mercenaries back behind the cover of his infantry, and were advancing to archery range of his lines. They were in no kind of order, clumps and clusters around individual chiefs, some in family groupings, others under horsetail banners; a vast contrast with the ordered ranks of the Romans. But they were terribly numerous. And Cossack boys were given their first bow on the third day of their lives, and exposed to the steppe if their fingers could not grasp it. They were in and out of the saddle, herding and hunting, from before they could walk. At ten they were sent out with one arrow to catch their own supper, and went hungry if they missed. There were no finer archers in the world – and no bigger targets than the Roman ranks, thousand of men packed shoulder to shoulder. The skill of the Cossacks would be wasted, in a sense; there was no need, in this massed battle, for the superb marksmanship that could hit a rabbit at full speed from atop a galloping horse.
And that was well; for his infantry had no such training. But the Cossack host, too, was a vast target, unmissable; and civilisation had its own advantages. As the Cossacks passed the ranging stones the Romans had laid out, the crossbows began hurling their missiles. There was no skill in it; the regular infantry of the themes were conscripted from the peasantry, whose weapons training consisted of, at most, a few brawls with cudgels. But that was precisely the advantage of the crossbow: It could be learned in a week of practice, and the forges of Constantinople could turn out thousands of them in months.
The Cossacks were no cowards; they did not flinch, even though they could not have expected Roman infantry to shoot back so effectively. And their bows still fired faster than a crossbow, if not with as hard a punch. But his men were armoured and the Cossacks weren’t; the poverty-stricken steppes had to import every flake of iron, and it was a lucky Cossack who had so much as a boiled-leather breastplate. That counted heavily against them, in this sort of exchange. Worse, from the point of view of someone wanting the Cossacks to stand their ground and take the casualties, their horses were bigger targets than the men; and horses were a Cossack’s capital assets, their wealth and livelihood. Their own skirmishes were often fought over horse-stealing, and one reason they used relatively light bows was that a hit from their arrows was unlikely to kill the large animals. The crossbows observed no such nicety; their quarrels were meant to punch through armour, and would do nicely to break equine bones and pierce lungs. The cataphracts on the left flank, likewise, were firing much heavier arrows than the Cossacks customarily used; and firing as fast as the Cossacks themselves, to make it worse.
It wasn’t possible to actually kill fifty thousand men, nor even a fraction of that number; not if all the soldiery of Europe had been lined up on the banks of the Ingulets with crossbows. But that was hardly necessary. All that was needed was to convince the Cossacks that their usual harassing tactics would not work; that the Romans could match them shot for shot, kill their valuable horses, and hold their ground without breaking ranks or trying to charge. Nor did it take long; the Cossack atamans were neither stupid nor foolhardy, especially where the safety of their horses and men was concerned. In short order, the front of the Cossack host was retreating out of crossbow range; cornicens blew among the Roman ranks, signalling “Cease Fire”.
To be continued tomorrow.