The Komneniad: Lines of the Dniestr Delta

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.

Dniestr Delta I
Dniestr Delta II
Dniestr Delta III
Dniestr Delta IV

(*) That is to say, Croatia became Defender of the Faith, increasing army morale from 8.70 to 9.2 (numbers approximate).

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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.

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August 23rd, 1814
Delta of the Dniestr
Midday

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.

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August 23rd, 1814
Delta of the Dniestr
Midday

“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.”

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