The Komneniad: Fighting Retreat

August 12th, 1719
Somewhere in the Altai foothills
An hour after noon

Guns; always the damned Russian guns.

Andreas kept his face impassive as another salvo of mortar shells landed behind his cohort line. Signal flags waved from the Russian position on the ridge opposite. One short, one long, and now they had the range and could start firing for effect. The next one would be right on top of them. The Russian gunners knew their business, if nobody else in their army did.

He resisted the urge to look behind him for the courier who would bring word that the legion had got through the pass and they could retreat; it wouldn’t happen any faster for his fidgeting, and at this point looking calm and stoic was the only thing left for the officers to do. The men were arranged in lines by century, blocking the road (track, really) against infantry assault. His flanks were covered by impassable hills, dense with gullies and scrub, and not even a Russian would be mad enough to launch a cavalry charge uphill on this stonily treacherous ground, strewn with caltrops and stakes. There was nothing left to do but stand in ranks, ready for the inevitable bayonet charge, and endure the bombardment. Nothing left but to hope that it would be short.

The Russians had to be getting desperate; every half-hour was another century slipping from their grasp. Even if they broke Andreas’s cohort, they would only catch a single legion; the XII Victrix had been the rearguard for the army as a whole, even as the cohort was guarding the retreat of the Victrix. The main issue of the past month’s campaigning was long settled: The legions had gotten away with giving the Russians a bloody nose, killing thousands and taking tens of thousands prisoner, and slipping away behind a chain of rearguards when word came that they were being outflanked – slowly, the Russians had numbers like grass on the steppe but they also moved as fast as the grass grew – to the north. A single legion was pocket change in a campaign of this scale; but the Russians had had nothing but disaster and barren hills to show for their invasion so far, and they might grasp desperately for even a minor consolation prize like the rearguard Victrix.

Andreas could only hope that it was so, that frustration and impatience would lead his opposite number – whoever commanded the Russian battalion behind the ridge – to ordering a premature assault. If he kept his cool, if he allowed the bombardment to go on for half an hour or more, he might lose his opportunity to close the trap on the escaping Victrix; but he could batter Andreas’s cohort to flinders. Oh, he couldn’t kill them all; not with the five mule-portable mortars that Russian doctrine assigned to an infantry battalion. But standing in ranks to receive random death from above, with no possibility of retaliating or taking action to protect oneself, was one of the worst things that could happen to a soldier. His men would stand, yes, except the ones who were knocked down by shrapnel; they would close ranks around the dead and wounded, and block the road. But the horror and despair of it would mark them; they would stand for the necessary hours, but they would be useless for all but garrison and line-of-communications work for years to come, if it went on too long. A worthwhile bargain for the Victrix, to sacrifice a single cohort to extract the whole legion. But it was Andreas’s cohort, not an interchangeable counter to be moved around a map but a living, breathing thing; his work and his honour together. To contemplate it broken by Russian guns was to feel despair writhing in his guts like a bayonet.

Always the damn guns! The Russian infantry recruited no free citizens of the steppe, no ambitious men seeking the franchise, no volunteers for a life of glory and danger; they conscripted serfs by the tens of thousands, and drove them forward with whips and blows. Men of spirit would knock out their front teeth and cut off both thumbs rather than serve twenty years in the Czar’s regiments; a conscript’s family mourned him as one dead. Such men could not face the Khanate’s professional soldiery on anything like even terms. But the Russians cheated. The arsenals of the Don basin gave them guns by the thousands; every infantry battalion had its mortars, every regiment its three batteries. It slowed them, but their conscript infantry could not march fast in any case. And it multiplied their firepower enormously. If not for the thousands of Russian guns, the Khanate would have planned a stand in the Altai, not a fighting retreat that would slow and bloody the Russians but not ultimately stop them. If not for the guns, they would even now be driving for the Urals. And if not for the guns, Andreas’s cohort would be fighting it out with serf conscripts in volleys of musketry and stabbing bayonets; and that could have only one outcome.

The next salvo landed, as Andreas had expected, right in the middle of his fourth century. The Russians had cut their fuses with deadly skill, and two of the explosions were air bursts at the perfect height, spreading the shrapnel with the optimal tradeoff between the radius of the burst and the speed of the metal pieces, not wasting any of their killing power on ground or air. Men went down, half a dozen under each blast. Most of them got up again under their own power, but not all; the noncombatants who’d been told off to form stretcher parties came forward now, to make the first of what would be a steady trickle to the rear of his position and the waiting ambulance carts. The nearest doctors were three hours away over bumpy roads. It would be a lucky man who took a wound that kept him out of the line, and lived. But soldiers lived by luck, and swore by it; to deny them their ambulances was to court mutiny, even though they did little good and took up horses and carts that could have carried ammunition.

“Twenty-nine, thirty,” Andreas counted under his breath, and the first shot of the next salvo whistled in right on schedule. The Russians were firing independently now, and minor differences in loading speed spread the shells slightly in time. Two rounds per gun per minute, to conserve ammunition and break armies; that was the rhythm the Russians would be striving for. The mortars could be fired faster at need, if only at the risk of overheating and perhaps exploding; but the Russian commander could afford to ignore that. It was ammunition that would be his concern. Each shell was three pounds of expensive gunpowder and iron; an hour of bombardment at this rate meant using a ton of ammunition – which would have to be replaced by laboriously dragging it over the deliberately terrible roads of the Altai, badly maintained precisely to hinder Russian invasions.

A cornicen blew, and fourth century started moving – backwards. Andreas tensed. The centurion was trying to get his men out of the target area, as they had discussed before the battle began; but he was taking an unnecessary chance, and Andreas cursed himself for not specifying that the first movement should be forward, to get the men used to maneuvering under fire. A backwards movement could all too easily turn into a rout. But endless drill paid off; when the signal blew again, the men stamped their heels and stopped as one, thirty meters behind their first position – on which the next salvo came down harmlessly. More flags waved on the ridge, and Andreas wished uselessly for even a single one-pounder popgun, so he could at least make the observers keep their heads down.

The dance of shifting bombardments against shifting positions went on for a timeless interval; Andreas could not have said how many times the shells had come whistling down to maim and kill his men, nor how many times the centuries had shuffled forward and back to gain a temporary reprieve until the Russians found the new range. At last, though, the interval between shells shortened; Andreas found himself counting fifteen, then ten seconds – the maximum ‘drumfire’ speed of the mortars, which would overheat and crack them in a few minutes, but meanwhile rained fifty kilograms a minute of gunpowder and iron on his line.

It was a reliable signal; the opposing commander might as well have sent him word by courier that his attack was coming. “Dress the line, prepare to receive infantry,” Andreas ordered, and his trumpeter blew; the centuries moved in response, a little disjointedly – many of the men would be shocky or dazed after so long under the hammer – but fast enough. Over the hill came the shakos of the Russian infantry, black plumes nodding; then the bearded faces, then the green jackets with their white-and-gold trim, finally the white trousers. They crested the ridge and began to descend. Still out of musketry range, they did not rush as they would have done through the beaten zone if Andreas had had any guns; they marched stolidly in columns of companies, taking their time and letting the drumfire do its work.

Andreas’s mouth was dry; he swigged from his bottle – water cut one-fourth with wine – before shouting, “Right lads, now they’re coming out where we can kill them. Centurions, volleys at fifteen paces.” A rough barking cheer went up from his line, and the cornicens blew – not signalling now, but just making noise to defy the continuing crash and snap of the mortars. The Russians were coming up the hill, picking up speed in readiness for the charge; their neat formations broke up a little as they encountered the caltrops and stakes. Seeking something to do with his hands, Andreas brought out his pistol – no single-shot flintlock but a rare and expensive five-shot revolver, an officer’s weapon – and checked the priming. Around him his aides were doing the same; his primus pilus was profanely checking the weapons of the headquarters contubernium, getting it ready to reinforce any weak spot in the line.

A deep-throated massed “Oooorah! Ooooorah!” came from the Russian columns as they threw themselves forward across the killing ground, bayonets first. To ears part deafened by the continuous bombardment, the shout wasn’t so loud, and the Roman line didn’t flinch. Instead they brought their muskets up steadily at the word of command, and fired once, a close-packed series of six century volleys going off like hammers. The Russian columns staggered under the blow, the front ranks collapsing, others stumbling over the corpses suddenly in their way. They were close enough now to be taking casualties from their own drumfire, still coming down like iron rain; that was the best way to ensure that artillery supported your men right to the last second, if they had the discipline to charge into their own fire.

Then the cornicens blew once more, signalling the attack. “The kites know well/that long stern swell/that bids the Romans close”, Andreas quoted absently to himself, glancing up; there really were kites circling above the battlefield. He leaned forward intently; everything hung on the next minute. Were his men too dazed by the bombardment to mix it in properly with the Russians? Alternatively, had their volley hammered their enemies hard enough to cause collapse at the sight of bayonets coming for them? Neither side had yet taken many casualties; he had lost around fifty dead and wounded in the bombardment, the Russians perhaps the same in the volley. The question was which side had the moral ascendancy, which side’s willpower and weaponry would cause the hearts of the other to break.

Many of the Russians, muskets still loaded, managed to get off shots before the two lines came together. That hardly mattered; uncoordinated snap fire would kill a few, but wouldn’t add much to the horror and despair his men were feeling, which was the decisive factor. There was a dreadful iron clatter as bayonets punched out on either side, and a vast brabble of shouts and screams. The mortars had stopped firing at last.

Andreas felt the thin-stretched tension of enduring the bombardment go out of him as he listened to the tenor of the shouts. His men were screaming in rage, not fear. The bombardment had not been enough to break their spirits. He thought he even detected a certain amount of satisfaction at finally getting to kill the bastards who had kept them under fire for so long. The Russians’ deep “Oooorah” was becoming shriller, less a challenge and more a defiance. The headquarters contubernium wouldn’t be needed for shoring up the line; he could use it for a decisive counterattack instead.

“We’ll go around there, try to get into their flank,” he shouted, pointing. Thirty men charging into the deadlock might well produce an effect out of proportion to their numbers, especially if they struck at a flank. He spurred his horse into a fast walk, and the headquarters troops followed, fixing bayonets as they went.

They weren’t fast enough. Pressed down the slope by the Roman countercharge, the Russians’ nerve broke with the abruptness of crystals forming in a saturated solution – it only took one man to turn in sudden panic and claw his way backwards. The infectious panic swept through their ranks, and in a few seconds the massed ranks of green and white had turned into a fleeing mob. Andreas shouted in triumph, reminded that the root word of ‘panic’ was Greek. The madness of Pan had taken the Russians, the wild fear that comes out of the deep forest.

His men pursued the Russians a short way, but the panicked enemy was throwing away muskets and even shakos and running unencumbered. Without cavalry, he could not complete the rout; on the other hand, he also didn’t have to worry about keeping a pursuit under control. After all, the Russians had presumably not sent a single battalion to try to trap the Victrix; he had beaten their spearhead, all that they could usefully send into a single attack, not their entire army.

The bombardment did not pick up again as he redressed his line; perhaps the Russians had exhausted their ammunition. If so, he had probably accomplished his mission; there would be no point in sending a beaten battalion to try again without artillery first hammering his cohort some more, and it would take time to get a fresh battalion into position in this narrow pass. Maneuvering bodies of hundreds of men past each other, or more especially the wagons carrying mortar ammunition, was surprisingly time-consuming even over short distances. An hour, perhaps two, would pass before they could get new shells for their mortars, or muster men for a renewed assault. And behind him, the Victrix was making its escape. He felt a grinning exultation build; he had held them, by God! He, Andreas son of Pericles, and no other! There would be toasts in the legion mess, perhaps a corona aurea to add to the lustre of his house.

The cornicens blew again, and the signal for “No enemies in sight” was a salute to victory.


It may be worth pointing out that Andreas’s tactics are not necessarily optimal. He is, perhaps, a little conventional in his thinking; stodgy, even unimaginative. After all, which cohort would you select as the one to (possibly) expend in saving your legion? Right, the one with the least valuable officer. (And unimaginative stodginess is perhaps not a bad thing in a rearguard.) Told to defend a position for a certain amount of time, Andreas does the straightforward thing: He marches his men to a suitable spot, forms line of centuries, and settles down to wait for the enemy either to beat him to flinders, or be themselves beaten. It does not occur to him, for example, to have his men set up on the reverse slope, with only some observers forward to give warning when the Russians attack; true, the mortars would still reach – one of their chief advantages – but their observation would be hindered. Likewise, he doesn’t think in terms of a spoiling attack, nor of sending forward skirmishers to snipe at the Russian observers. Mobility is a state of mind as much as a physical capability; bereft of cavalry or room to maneuver, Andreas retreats into a purely static defense, digging in his heels on a chosen spot and gambling that his men are more stubborn than the Russian conscripts. And so they are; but a better officer might have won more handily. That said, let those who have themselves commanded a cohort against the weight of a full-dress Russian drumfire and assault, and emerged victorious, criticize; and let others be silent!

About the ranks and unit designations: The Khanate deliberately invokes the armies of republican (not Byzantine, in spite of its immediate ancestry) Rome in its nomenclature, but its more complex rank structure does not directly map onto that of the ancient legions. The smallest unit likely to be committed independently is the cohort, what the black-powder generals of OTL would have called a battalion; it comprises six centuries of a hundred men each, divided into contubernia (platoons) of twenty-five. There, however, the resemblance to an ancient legion begins to fade. Marius’s legions had officers primarily for the purpose of leading by example, so that the centurions, leaders of centuries, were in effect NCOs, and the senior centurion, the primus pilus, was also in charge of a cohort. To the extent that Rome observed a strong distinction between officer and NCO, men of the officer class were only found in the staff of the legate, the legion’s commander. A black-powder army requires more unit articulation and complex drill, and thus centurion is an officer’s rank in the Khanate army, while the primus pilus is an NCO and not a centurion – roughly equivalent to a Battalion Sergeant-Major in an OTL army. Cohorts are commanded by tribunes, a rank with three internal grades denoted by the width of their rank stripes; these correspond more or less to our captains and majors, while centurions are roughly speaking lieutenants. Notice that there is no equivalent of a colonel; above the most senior tribunes are only Legates, commanding legions of several thousand men (up to two dozen cohorts), and Prefects, in overall command of an entire campaigning theatre. This reflects the lack of an equivalent to the regiment or brigade. If several cohorts are brigaded together, the most senior tribune takes overall command as well as commanding his own cohort.

Now, some screenies:

The Victrix holding up the Russian advance while my other legions recover their morale:

Rearguard Victrix

Just in case anyone thought I was exaggerating about the professionals-vs-conscripts thing:

Roman Discipline

NB, nobody is at tech 53 yet. No Esprit de Corps. The Russians sure have a lot of guns, though:

Lots of guns

Did I mention the Russian guns?

Guns, guns, guns

Agh! As many artillery regiments as I’ve got infantry!

Hovd Result

No wonder the Russians are depending on foreign subsidies to keep their armies in bread and gunpowder.


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  1. Pingback: Azure Three Bezants: Groundhog Day | Ynglinga Saga

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