The Komneniad: Across Tibet

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.

Battle of Lashio
Note the artillery.

Victory at Lashio
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,
Lionel Weaver,
(C) Oxford University Press 1978.

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One response to “The Komneniad: Across Tibet

  1. Pingback: The Komneniad: The Northwest Frontier | Ynglinga Saga

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