The Komneniad: Bayonet Charge

July 3rd, 1863
Hills surrounding Latakia, Persian Syria

The thunder of the guns had faded slightly since the bombardment began – or was he just going deaf? Lysandros looked again at the Ethiopian position. He had to admit that the results looked very impressive, great spires of dust rising in the still morning air, flashes of red fire in their midst. The return fire was desultory, a muzzle flash here and there, unimpressive among the huge explosions; perhaps the colonel in command of the artillery was right and he had indeed suppressed the enemy batteries. If so it would be a first.

It wasn’t that he would particularly care to be on the receiving end of that fire… but he also knew that the Ethiopians were even deadlier with the spade than with their rifles, and that the Chinese fuses were often bad. Who could tell how much of that fire and fury was wasting itself on empty space, or merely frightening men safely entrenched? And now the tempo of the barrage seemed to be slowing as well. The Chinese gunners had begun their work hours earlier; not the three rounds a minute that broke armies and exhausted men, but even at once a minute they were shifting ton weights of metal to get their guns back into battery, and were inevitably tiring. The attack was supposed to have started by now.

Lysandros turned his attention back to the staff quarrel – staff discussion – ah, staff meeting, that was the polite phrase – behind him. He was attached to the Army of the Palestine ostensibly in order to learn how the Khanate’s allies conducted their wars; but he rather thought that the staff meetings would be filed under “do not emulate” when he gave his report. The Chinese general in overall more-or-less command was shouting at his Persian more-or-less subordinate, whose back was getting more ramrod stiff by the second.

“I ordered your division to be ready to attack at half past nine, sharp! So it should have been drawn up in ranks an hour ago. Where the devil are your men?”

They spoke, by a minor historical irony, in Greek. Speakers of that language were still, five hundred years after the Fall, a significant minority in Persia, and educated Chinese often learned the official language of their most important ally. Still, although both generals had been chosen partly for their command of the least-inconvenient common language, they had learned it as adults and often fumbled for phrases. Thus Lysandros saw the disaster in the making a good minute before the two generals realised their mistake.

“You ordered my division to be ready to attack at half past ten“, the Persian said stiffly. “And they are forming up now, and will be ready at the appointed time.”

“Half past nine, you imb – ” General Umar cut himself off before he could utter an unforgivable insult. The Chinese army was here to rescue Persia from foreign conquest; but the stiff-necked Aryan nobles liked foreign assistance only marginally better. The last thing they needed now was for yet another Persian officer to resign in protest, as they seemed to do at the slightest hint of criticism. Especially they could not afford to lose the general in command of the division they were about to launch into attack.

“If I may, sirs,” Lysandros interrupted. Both generals glared at him, but Umar gestured permission to continue; glaring at an observer not in the line of command was more productive than arguing with a chief subordinate. “I believe the source of the unhappy misunderstanding is that the esteemed general Umar thought the phrase in his native language, and translated into Greek, `half of ten’. But the esteemed general Azada translated, into his native language, `half past ten’. An easy mistake to make.”

General Umar compressed his lips, but nodded. Blaming the Greek language seemed to calm him, or perhaps he merely realised the futility of anger; at any rate he said shortly, “I believe you are correct, centurion. I apologise for my hard words.”

“I, too, apologise,” Azada replied. “The error may well be mine.” For an Aryan noble speaking to foreigners, that was a vast concession. “Still, an hour’s delay need not be fatal. It gives the gunners more time for their work.”

“True, but it also gives the monkeys more time to bring up reinforcements; and our gunners’ stamina is not unlimited, nor is their ammunition. Still, it cannot be helped. Let the attack go in at half past ten, then.”

“Sirs,” Lysandros said softly. The chances that they would listen to him were slim, but he had to try. “I must recommend against this attack. The enemy are well and truly warned, and well dug in. You cannot take that hill with any fifteen thousand men in the world.”

Umar looked him up and down, apparently taking out the condescension that it wasn’t safe to show the Persians on the ally who commanded no troops and couldn’t gum up his plan by getting in a temper. “Well, centurion,” he drawled; this time the rank was no title of respect, but a reminder that Lysandros held the most junior commissioned rank in the Legions. “I understand you have your opinion. But I’ve been leading armies since before you had hair on your balls, and so it’s my opinion that counts. And I say that the position is strong, but hardly untakeable. And what’s more, if we do take it our guns will command the road Mideksa is using to shuffle troops back and forth, and we’ll split his army in two and defeat them in detail.”

Lysandros nodded acceptance; there was no use in arguing, and anyway it would be undisciplined to do so after his suggestion had been so thoroughly squashed, even if Umar wasn’t strictly speaking his superior officer. Even after the setbacks of the past few weeks, neither Chinese nor Persians had really internalised what breech-loading rifles could do. Lysandros had been trained by the Legions, and if he had been in command of the other side, he would be praying to all the bodhisattvas for the allies to launch precisely this sort of blunt-force infantry assault into his entrenchments. But there was nothing for it; so Lysandros turned his attention again to the Ethiopian entrenchments being battered by the Chinese artillery.

Unfortunately, the sight did not really encourage him. The barrage had faltered noticeably even in the few minutes it had taken to discuss the timing of the attack. The battery commanders, no doubt, were waiting for the movement they had been told would start at nine thirty, conserving their mens’ strength for an all-out effort when the infantry launched itself across the killing field. Some of them would be looking nervously at their ammunition wagons, too; Lysandros knew that their supply was badly snarled by cavalry raids against the ridiculous single-track railroads. The Persians had one, count it, one, rolling mill in their whole vast country; replacing rails bent over a fire, the work of an hour for a single cavalry squadron, could take months.

After a minute or so someone came up to join him; he turned to see that it was Nicolaus, one of the aides on general Azada’s staff. The Persian officer was actually a Greek; in fact he was in a sense a Komnenos, a descendant of the stay-behinds who had made their peace with the Fall and retained their estates as vassals of the Shahanshah. It was just a family name now, common in Anatolia among the landowning class. It was sometimes unsettling to realise that there were thousands of ‘Komnenoi’ who did not give loyalty to Rome, and saw nothing wrong with the fact; indeed, they cheerfully and loyally served the Persians, the hereditary enemy. Lysandros had been uncomfortable around Nicolaus to start. But there weren’t many men of his own age or near his own rank in the staffs, and so they had become friends.

Nicolaus gestured grimly at the hills. “Do you think they’ll be suppressed enough?”

“No. I’m afraid not.”

Nicolaus nodded. “I don’t think so either. If I don’t see you again, then: Fare well.” It was a minor superstition among the Persian soldiers not to say ‘goodbye’, lest their god overhear and decide, indeed, to go with the one addressed.

“You’re joining the attack?” Lysandros was surprised; Persian officers led from the front in regiments and brigades, certainly, but for divisional staff to do so was unusual. But Nicolaus nodded confirmingly. “I think the general wants to make up for his mistake. Perhaps he’d be better arguing for that flanking march… well, the monkeys have a better road for that, anyway.” He shook his head, dismissing the thought; decisions had been made, and it was time for junior officers to obey orders.

“So they do,” Lysandros agreed, loyally not mentioning that Ethiopian troops also marched half again as fast as Persian, on any kind of roads. He looked again at the hills, still spouting fire against the increasingly choppy Chinese bombardment. He was no expert on artillery, it was true. But somehow the slow Ethiopian counterbattery fire didn’t feel suppressed. It felt like the calm, aimed shelling of men who were saving their powder for a moment of decision; who might even have been deliberately tapering off their shelling to fool enemies into thinking their barrage successful. Lysandros shivered, and was glad it wasn’t he who was about to walk into the killing zone; glad, and guilty. He looked again at his friend. “Luck go with you,” he said, carefully not mentioning what kind; good luck wouldn’t come if you called, but you always had some kind of luck. Nicolaus nodded and stuck out his hand to be clasped, then turned on his heel and left without further words.

It seemed to take forever to get the regiments in position, endless lines of brown uniforms tipped with white turbans, shuffling in the dust and growing heat. Bayonets glinted. The Persian conscripts still used muzzle-loading rifled muskets, a vast expense for the treasury of unindustrialised Persia twenty years before, when they had been the cutting edge of military technology. Now they were made obsolete by breech-loaders, and the Persian infantry could not compete in firepower with their enemies; but the loans that had paid for the rifled muskets were still being paid off. So the attack would succeed with the bayonet, or not at all; there could be no question of a duel of volleys.

At length they were ready. Lysandros looked at his watch; 1015. General Azada had been quick. Bugles blew, and twelve thousand men stepped out – not quite in unison, but close enough; it wasn’t a parade. Despite his doubts Lysandros felt his heart stir. Twelve thousand men was an amazingly large army when you could see them all at once. Even so it was only a tenth of the men under Umar’s command; but that was information, a number, not really real. To actually see twelve thousand bayonets glinting was something else again; to the hindbrain it looked unstoppable, invincible. And perhaps it was. The Ethiopians weren’t ten feet tall, even if they did march fast and shoot straight.

Then the guns, that had been hidden on the hilltops that anchored the Ethiopian line like fortress bastions, opened up.

Lysandros watched helplessly as the Persian line shrank and shrank. There was no wavering or trying to come back; the men fell as they marched, closed ranks, and marched stolidly on. He could imagine, all too vividly, being down there; the heat, the sun beating down mercilessly, the itching irritation of sweat and thirst that would somehow seem magnified by the death falling randomly all about. The constant dread, not so much of death, but of crippling wounds. The terrible noise of ton weights of metal and gunpowder; and the constant cry of “Close ranks! Close ranks!” And they did close. The advance had been a mile in length when it started. It was down to two-thirds of that now, as men instinctively flinched away from the deadly fire on either flank.

“Is it not magnificent?” someone said beside him. He turned and saw general Umar, watching stone-faced as his last fresh division marched into a maelstrom of fire.

“It is indeed magnificent,” Lysandros agreed, for it was: A magnificent show of gallantry and obedience to orders. But is it war? he added to himself, silently. Butchery, certainly, but not war as he understood it. Then they came within rifle range; and he could not hold back the exclamation. “It is folly!”

Umar looked thunderous, and for a moment Lysandros thought he was going to be ordered off the field in disgrace. Then the general’s eye was caught by the continuous blaze of muzzle flashes coming from the Ethiopian trenches, and he fell silent. Thousands of men were firing, professional troops trained to marksmanship, and with a massed target. Ten aimed rounds a minute, with training. The Persian ranks were crumbling, a man hit every second, visible at this distance only as ripples in the ordered ranks; but there were too many ripples. “Call them back, General!” Lysandros urged. “They can’t make it!”

“No,” Umar said, ashen-faced. “If I call them back now it’s all for nothing. They can reach the top of the hill, if they’ll only keep going. And see, they’re not stopping. Dying, but not stopping.”

He was right, Lysandros saw; the Persians had picked up the pace, running now to get through the beaten zone as quickly as they might. Their line had shrunk to half a mile; but they were halfway up the hill. If their nerve held they would reach the top. If they could take the stone wall there that sheltered the Ethiopian troops… the muzzle flashes changed, subtly. They were firing canister now, making vast tears in the Persian line where the shells had blown circular holes. But they were at the fence. Bayonets flashed. The Ethiopian batteries were silent, they couldn’t fire for fear of hitting their own.

Lysandros held his breath. Against all that maelstrom of fire the Persians had reached the top of the hill. But the Ethiopians held the crest, and were fighting from behind a wall; and they hadn’t marched a mile through horror to get to the fight. Yes – there. At the edge of the Persian formation, terror had become too much; men were coming back, peeling away from the fight for the fence and marching back, some in formed squads and some as individuals, but retreating from what had become too much for flesh and blood to bear. Like all routs it fed on itself; in a minute the retreat was general, the whole division recoiling from the crest they couldn’t take.

“Kyrie eleison,” Lysandros whispered; “Christe eleison”. If the advance had been bad, how many would die in a rout? But the Ethiopian guns were silent. Was there indeed mercy, then? The Ethiopians were Christians of a sort, he recalled. Perhaps they had heard his prayer; or perhaps they were offering a gallant gesture to match the gallant charge. Unmolested by pursuit, the Persians came back, gathering their wounded as they went.

At length Azada stood again before Umar, who flinched at his steady gaze. Nonetheless, there was steel in the Chinese general. He kept his voice steady. “General Azada, I am sorry; I accept full responsibility. It was all my fault. But we must prepare for their counterstroke. Put your division into line here.” He gestured to show the ground he wanted the Persians to occupy.

“General Umar, I have no division.” Azada turned and walked off with the remnants of his staff. Nicolaus was not among them.


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