Ferocious Soldiers Roaring: Window of Difficulty

The civil disorders of the early thirties were finally resolved by recourse to an ancient Roman remedy, the election of a Dictator. There had never been any question of the purely physical power of the Senate to enforce its will and quell the riots; the issue was one of political division – in short, the factions of the Senate disagreed on which rioters should be quelled. When Konstantin Komnenos finally managed, by dint of suborning the Viator to summon the Senate at an unusual hour, to scrape a bare majority in a rump session that had a quorum only because three Senators were officially on the sick list, and thus win, if not the loyalty, then at least the acquiescence of the Legions, the Troubles as such were swiftly ended. The one thing the officers of the Legions could agree on was that legitimate authority must be obeyed, that even the victory of a faction they opposed was better than outright civil war. If the authority had been gained by means of barely-legal trickery, well, vae victis; the losing factions had, after all, had the same opportunities, and Konstantin had outmanouvred them. A three-year deadlock in the Senate had produced a climate in which an end to uncertainty, even what two-thirds of the officers thought was a bad end, was greeted with sighs of relief.

When Konstantin ordered the Sol Invictus to fire upon rioters in Beijing – pour la canaille, la mitrailleuse, he quipped, improving upon the original la mitraille – the legion went to with a will, leaving the streets strewn with bodies and almost literally running with blood, but also bringing the unrest to a decisive end. Once it was demonstrated that there was a will at the top to use deadly force, and a will in the Legions to obey, there was no hope that mob violence could succeed. The various agitators were no fools; they knew perfectly well that they had no chance of resisting a Senate without the “covering fire” of their political arms, now out of power. Street rioting was a viable tactic only, and exactly so long as, organised military force could be kept out of it; when the political battle ended, the paramilitary struggle was necessarily over as well. The Last Riot in Beijing seems to have been intended as a deliberate test of Konstantin’s resolve; had he wavered, there would almost certainly have been a wave of riots in other cities, just as had happened in 1931. When, instead, he demonstrated that he would not hesitate to kill to restore order, it became clear that rioting would be futile and would only waste scarce street-fighting manpower; the factions, therefore, very rationally decided to lie low and wait for better days. After all a Dictator was only elected for a limited term.

In spite of these immediate successes, Konstantin found himself Dictator of a much weakened Khanate. The climate of uncertainty and possibility of nationalisation had driven investment almost to a standstill and interest rates into the middle teens, with disastrous consequences for industrial output. Indeed, the resulting mass unemployment had been one factor making it easy for the factions to find warm bodies for rioting. Nor was the military situation much better: Although he was as gentle as possible, with more half-pay semi-voluntary retirements than verdicts of “unfit to serve the Senate and the People in any capacity”, and only three recorded executions, nonetheless, the purges left the officer corps desperately weak. “It would make a Russian smile to see our way of doing things,” ran a popular poem at the time, “we’ve Centurions (*) taking cohorts and Tribunes taking Wings, and decurions acting signifer, eight file to obey; for we’ve lots of quick promotion, on ten courts (**) a day!” Moreover, the official doctrine of the army was desperately antiquated, a consequence of the disputes that had riven it and left it unable to find a consensus on restoring order, much less on how to deploy tanks. Training, orders of battle, and handbooks were all geared to infantry-support tanks with a top speed of 5 miles an hour, horse-drawn artillery, and biplanes with hundred-mile ranges; a thorough and far-reaching reform was needed before the Legions would be an effective instrument of international power. For at least a few years, then, the Legions, while formidable enough against riots and strikes, could guarantee the security of the Republic only against a single foreign enemy, and even then expected a long period of “elastic defense” – that is, trading space for time – to cover the raising of a mass national militia. There could be no question, Konstantin was quietly informed, of fighting a two-front war or of projecting power beyond the Khanate’s borders.

Then, to pile misery upon misery, the Khanate was diplomatically isolated. Its recent allies in the war against Russia had their own troubles, and Russia itself was undergoing its own domestic upheaval after its loss of territory, and had no cause to love the Khanate which had just torn a hundred miles of steppe territory from its grasp. As for Japan, the islanders were characteristically quiet, but it was well known that many there felt the Rising Sun should have had a larger share of China after the “intervention” in the risings there, and that the civil unrest in the Khanate would have been a good time to press that case. After all, Rome, as chief beneficiary of the partition of China, could hardly complain if others followed the precedent it had been foremost in setting, that a nation weakened by rebellion was fair game!

Nonetheless, Konstantin did have some reason for optimism. The fundamental economy of the Khanate remained strong; here the old steppe ideal, of a state that kept minimal interference in its citizens’ economic affairs, proved a great help, for it meant that budgets could be reduced almost at will, without reference to domestic interest groups. In particular, Konstantin balanced the budgets of 1933-1937 by reducing the State dividend, the share of revenue paid to the Komnenoi by virtue of their joint ownership of the Roman state, to nothing. Since it was rare and much stigmatised to rely on the State dividend for one’s living, this caused little actual hardship, while demonstrating to the other ethnic groups of the polyglot steppe that the Komnenoi were still willing to sacrifice for the ideal of Rome. Moreover, the purges had been sufficiently gentle that there was a strong reserve of trained officers on half-pay, not necessarily estranged from the regime, who could be gradually called back to the colours as Konstantin’s reforms worked their way through the army. As often happens, the issue of doctrine and training standards, a matter of some controversy through the twenties, had become attached to the more political issues, with the Communist faction advocating mass attacks and elan, while the hardline imperialists wanted high-tech Legions consisting mainly of tanks and futuristic aircraft. (The issues of how these doctrines were to be, respectively, recruited for in a nation with a centuries-old tradition of voluntary enlistment, and fuelled, in a nation with scanty reserves of oil, were usually swept under the table.) Once the officers loyal to Konstantin had finished hammering out a workable doctrine, from deciding on the calibre of the small arm (6.5 mm, killing power being sacrificed for low recoil and the ability to carry more rounds in a standard infantryman’s load) to the top-level TOE of the Legions as a whole (90 infantry divisions, with strong artillery support by the standards of the day, 15 ‘Kataphrakt’ armoured divisions as a breakthrough and exploitation force, and 3 cavalry divisions for reasons of sentiment and capability in steppe winter), the remainder could be phased back in to the new organisation. With the debate effectively over, no political support, and an obvious need to, if nothing else, make the best of a bad job, private opinions, even strong ones, on the best way to employ the Khanate’s resources could do little harm; armies, after all, are organised precisely to hammer, if necessary, pegs of any shape into the standard-issue holes. Indeed, section XVI.8 of the 1935 Regulations dealt with the organisation of field brothels, and laid down that only the standard hole should be used due to the risk of tearing and attendant infections.

Konstantin had, then, not a window of opportunity but a window of difficulty: If he could survive the next few years without having to fight a war, the Khanate’s international position would be vastly improved.

(*) A rank usually equivalent to Lieutenant, and found in command of a century, ie a company, not a cohort, which is the equivalent of a regiment.
(**) That is, courts martial – a poetic exaggeration, since placing an officer on half pay could be done by administrative decree, without the need for a legal proceeding.

From The Road to War: Eurasian Diplomacy 1921-1941,
Adam Tewksbury,
Deutsch-Anglische Informations-Presse, (C) 1967.


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