The Komneniad: Steppe Warfare

It is, as the tired old cliche has it, no joke to fight in Siberia, whether in winter or summer. That the Russian and Mongolian armies nevertheless managed, not only to fight, but to maintain in the field forces of the same order of magnitude as those which might settle affairs in a European campaign, and keep them supplied over an area ten times that of Europe, calls for explanation.

To some extent the feat is explained by the nature of the armies; both sides still recruited extensively among allied and subject nomads – on the steppe, the boundaries of loyalty, sovereignty, and alliance were, like the borders of nations, hard to delineate exactly – and the nomad ponies were capable surviving on forage even in winter, digging under the snow for the last bits of grass. Nevertheless, both sides also fielded regular heavy cavalry and infantry, and these required formal logistics in the European style. Why, then, did the combatants choose such a costly form of war, when light cavalry were effectively free and much better suited to the terrain?

The treeless steppe, offering neither strategic bottlenecks, easily defensible lines, or territory productive enough to force an enemy to fight for it, made clearer than ever the strategic maxim that the proper objective of war is the enemy’s army. However, skirmishing light cavalry was unable to inflict decisive defeat on a similarly armed opponent backed by a powerful state; although Genghis and Timurlane – and Alexandros Komnenos – had forced enemy tribes to submit, they did so by threatening herds and grazing grounds. This strategy was unavailable to either the Khanate or the Russians, who could move an allied tribe’s animals and noncombatants into secure territory and feed them from the surplus of their settled lands, at least for the duration of the war. With the capital assets of the tribes thus out of harm’s way, no amount of skirmishing could force a decision; the casualties of such combat were simply not high enough.

To overcome this besetting indecisiveness, both sides attempted to use their heavy cavalry as a hammer, to smash the enemy’s light cavalry and destroy a tribe’s ability to fight by inflicting massive casualties. This, of course, required an anvil, or the nomads would simply scatter and evade the blow; in settled lands the anvil is traditionally supplied by an obstacle such as a river or a narrow pass, but the featureless steppe offered no such. The cherta lines of fortifications, used in peacetime as bases for punitive expeditions to keep the tribes under control, were nowhere near concentrated enough to act as barriers. Nor could more forts be built quickly when every beam had to be imported from forests hundreds of miles away; enough to have built forts in supporting distance of each other over a fighting front that stretched for 500 miles would in any case have been a project for years or perhaps decades. Hence the final element in the armies: Regiments of regular infantry, armed with muskets and often fighting from laagered wagons, who could act as mobile forts against which the light cavalry, if outmanouvred or otherwise forced to retreat, might be crushed.

However, since both sides possessed regular troops, such success was rare. Infantry dispersed to act as a linear obstacle could not resist the attack of enemy infantry; infantry gathered together to fight their own kind could not cover a long enough front to prevent light cavalry from escaping. As is common when enemies of roughly equal capability meet, therefore, victory became a matter of local superiority. In the nature of things, the heavy infantry could not concentrate rapidly, and any attempt to gather an overwhelming force gave the enemy plenty of time to react. The war therefore became a struggle of attrition, with something like a recognised front line, permeable to raiding parties but not to regular troops. The regular troops had been brought onto the steppe in an effort to destroy the light cavalry; now, inverting that purpose, the light cavalry tried to drive the regulars out by raiding the endless supply columns that snaked their way across each side’s territory. But to slip a large party through the lines invited the concentration of heavy cavalry and supporting infantry to destroy them, in accordance with the analysis above; and small parties proved unable to inflict a serious check on the flow of supplies. The war therefore became a stalemate, in which the Khanate had some advantage because it could commit a larger force to the steppe front; the Russians, although their overall force was greater, had to keep substantial forces in Europe against rebellion and the risk of another Power intervening at a vulnerable moment. They also had to keep their southern border defended against the armies of Rome’s ally Qin; a combination of bribes and threats had allowed the Chinese armies to pass through ostensibly-neutral Punjab and Persia in what is certainly the most ambitious flanking operation in history. Although the maneuver looked brilliant on paper, its execution foundered in the face of a thousand miles of mountainous terrain and bad roads; nevertheless, in drawing off a large part of Russia’s armed strength, it enabled the Roman army to win local successes on the Siberian front by sheer force of numbers, moving the front line west by hundreds of miles.

Hundreds of miles, however, did not suffice to reach even the Urals, whose fortified passes would be a formidable challenge; and the brute fact remained that no amount of territory or men lost east of the Urals could force Russia to the peace table. Recognition of this fact, rather than any perceived need to shift troops south against already-overmatched Ethiopia, led Rome to cut its losses and negotiate a treaty leaving the borders essentially unchanged. The point had nevertheless been made, that the Khanate was now able to defy Russia without a European ally: There would be no more cessions of territory caused by disasters on the distant Oder. Henceforth Rome would stand or fall on events in Asia; the Komnenos state had thus again become master of its own destiny.

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