Azure Three Bezants: The Siege of Cairo

In which old alchemical knowledge is given a modern application; and an officer of the invading army demonstrates moral courage.

August 17th, 1936
Outside Cairo, Occupied Egypt
Evening

The rumble of artillery had faded as night came on and the intensity of the fighting dropped; instead the shriek of the storm and the incessant spatter of wind-driven sand against the tent walls made the backdrop for the staff meeting. Eliezer had to speak loudly to be heard over it; the strain in the voices giving the reports he had just finished hearing was not all due to the tactical situation, it was also because these officers of the Sinai Defense Force had been conducting their army’s business in shouts for a week.

“Thank you, gentlemen. Let me put your minds at rest: I have not come here to find a scapegoat for the slow progress of this siege. It’s true that I have some messages from the Germans, expressing concern that a city garrison of a single division should be able to hold up our attack; but fuck the Germans. They’ve never fought the Egyptians in a real all-out war, no holds barred. The Milice di Venezia knows how these desert rats fight when they’re cornered. At least, those of us who’ve looked through the primary sources know it; it’s not really obvious in the official histories.” He smiled grimly. “A single division is, let’s say, ten thousand rifles; but it’s very difficult to actually kill ten thousand. Even with massed artillery. They have to surrender. And when they conscript the population of a world-city like Cairo, and their impressed militia will actually fight to the last man – and woman and child! – not just brag about it – and they are defending a city, house to house… that sort of fighting eats armies. So, yes, I understand your difficulties; but I have a solution for them.” He took the envelope out of his pocket, holding it up so they could see the wax seal with the Lion of St Mark. “This authorises your artillery regiments to open the crates marked ‘Chiano’s Revenge‘ and fire the shells they contain at Cairo.”

There was silence, excepting the eternal sand-noise, for perhaps ten seconds, while the officers of the Sinai Defense Force looked at each other, each clearly hoping for someone else to speak up. At last the logistics officer gathered his courage and launched the objection.

“Sir – there’s a reason we haven’t used chemical weapons. I mean, lots of reasons. Starting with the treaty. But aside from that, the Egyptians know all about gas defense now; we taught them that in the last war! They’ll have gas masks for everyone.”

“For the regular soldiers, certainly,” Eliezer agreed. “For the population of Cairo? A million, million and a half? There aren’t that many gas masks in all of Africa.”

“True.” The officer took a breath; Eliezer brought his name to mind, Niccolo Don Doloro. His dossier – not the official army one, but the one in the archives the Aiello maintained for their own use – had noted that there was no trace of any such family name before the Revolution; and suggested that his father, Giovanni, might be identical with Giovanni Dandolo, who had disappeared, “fate unknown”, when the revolutionary militias took Venice. The Dandolo family, who had been patricians when the Aiello were fishermen and dock workers, were no longer a power in Venice; but the “Don Doloro” had been prominent in the Syndicate of Military Experts and, after the Venetian Spring, in the Milice de Venezia. It was not impossible that Niccolo might be a remnant of that older patrician family; and, if so, that he might be corrupted. But then again, he might be exactly the loyal and hardworking officer that he appeared to be; Eliezer had no desire to launch a witch hunt in his own army. Instead he waited patiently to see what would come up; was he giving an enemy enough rope, or allowing a subordinate to find the moral courage to oppose an atrocity?

“There are women and children in there,” Niccolo continued. “Civilians. Gassing them – with respect, sir; I think that may be an illegal order.”

“Women and children who have taken up arms,” Eliezer pointed out. “That makes them a legitimate military target. In fact, since they’re fighting out of uniform, they’re not protected by the conventions on prisoners – not that it matters, since we haven’t taken any prisoners.” That wasn’t exactly true; occasionally an artillery shell would land so as to knock someone unconscious but not kill, and then they could be bound and removed from the fighting line. But it was close enough for practical purposes. “And now that I say so, I realise that it would sound really bad taken out of context, so let me just note that the reason we have no prisoners is that the enemy combatants are refusing to surrender even in the most hopeless circumstances.”

Niccolo clenched his jaw. “They have conscripted some children, yes. Boys of twelve, fourteen. Any younger than that and you’re shorter than the rifle. And yes, technically those boys are legitimate military targets; with respect, sir, just how many twelve-year-old boys would you like to make cough their lungs out? But leave that aside; what about the six-year-olds and the infants? Children, sir. You are proposing to use gas on children.” He straightened his spine. “That is atrocity; and I do not think I can be part of it.”

Eliezer adjusted his glasses, looking at Niccolo thoughtfully; apparently the man expected to be court-martialed for disobeying orders, and was nerving himself for disgrace, prison, perhaps even execution. Did that indicate an honest man who abhorred making war on children, or a sleeper agent realising that the time to expend himself had finally come? He wasn’t really any closer to finding out; he would have to let that project go, and get on with the siege. Before he could do so, Niccolo found another argument, and launched it desperately:

“And besides, sir, think of after the war! We might lose; and even if we win, chemical weapons against a city? There’ll be a trial, an inquiry, something; and you know the Senate won’t be the ones in the dock. It could mean your neck, sir!”

Eliezer nodded. “That’s true. My defense, in that trial, would be this: That the shells in Chiano’s Revenge are chemical, right enough, but they’re not lethal. Well, I mean, unless one lands right on top of you; they’re still packed with explosives. But the actual chemicals are harmless. I’ve tested them myself. You can bathe in the stuff without so much as coughing.”

Niccolo opened his mouth, raising his hand as if to say “Hang on a moment;” the picture of confusion. “But then why bother?” he finally asked. “If it’s not going to kill them?”

“Because we don’t want to kill them, particularly,” Eliezer said. “We want them to surrender. Which, as you know, almost any human would do, in their position. Surrounded by five divisions with heavy artillery? Their friends three hundred miles away? No food coming in? Would you fight on?”

“Well, no,” Niccolo conceded. “And even if I did, my men wouldn’t. Conscripted city militia? Ridiculous.”

“Yes! It is ridiculous! And yet they’re still fighting!” Eliezer’s voice dropped. “It’s not natural. The Egyptians have got something, some kind of secret weapon. Mind-control rays, so to speak. Some kind of radio signal that makes people fight when it means certain death. We don’t know exactly how it works. But we know how to stop it. Chiano’s Revenge? It’s not a weapon, really; it just interferes with the signal. Makes people behave the way they naturally would. In this case, damn well surrender when fighting is hopeless!”

Niccolo let his breath out in a gusty sigh, and sat down. “In that case, sir… I withdraw my objection.”

Eliezer nodded. The man might still be a sleeper agent, smart enough to figure out what a loyal officer with a strong conscience would do, and a good enough actor to fool Eliezer; but that way was madness.

“No names, no pack drill,” he said. “I appreciate your moral courage in making it. Now let’s take Cairo so we can run supplies through to the Nile front.”

“Yes, sir,” Niccolo said. He looked up, curious. “What is in those shells, anyway?”

Eliezer shrugged. “None of us need to know the details; I’ve only been told the code name. But, for your education, it is called ‘moly powder’.”

Azure Three Bezants, superimposed Fasces Sable

Our session start was somewhat delayed by technical problems; in particular, a hungover GM who had not done the mod edits he said he would do, tried to pack them in at the last minute, and then couldn’t get the same checksum everyone else got with the mod version he had just created. Not that I would dream of lambasting anyone for failures of autonomic systems; I’m sure this happens to every GM at some point in their lives, maybe mostly after they’ve been married for a while and the newness has worn off. You just have to have some patience, realise it’s not their fault, maybe give some encouraging words. Find something else to do for a bit, until their system recovers; there’s all sorts of fun things a player group can do together that don’t actually involve tank-in-defensive position gameplay, as such. Bitching on TeamSpeak, for example; very popular, lots of fun! Reminiscing about how this is like that one time in CK1 when we rehosted ten times and got two years of gameplay! In some Eastern philosophies they recommend not doing any actual gaming at all, they concentrate on the whole experience surrounding it instead – TeamSpeak, edits, AARs – and it’s said that they can achieve a level of fun even more intense than marching your tanks into the enemy’s capital, plus of course it lasts much longer. That said, though, Bruce: If this happens again next week I would definitely look into those drugs.

Anyway! We did finally get moving, and the war broke out pretty much on schedule; in April 1936 India declared war on Japan and Egypt declared war on Venice. The respective allies joined, leaving only England and Denmark neutral. I thus had two fronts, one in the Arabian Peninsula (including the Sinai) and one in Persia; before the war I had committed most of my army to Arabia, leaving only nine divisions in the Persian mountains to hold my fortified line there, a garrison on each of the Italian ports plus the mountainous border with England, and a small strategic reserve. You can see from these dispositions that I intended to do the bulk of the fighting against Egypt, but was prepared for two contingencies: English attack in Europe, and a strong Indian counterattack westward. Neither of these materialised; in fact there were no Indian troops on my border at all, so I moved my nine divisions up and started a cautious advance toward Delhi. This caused diplomatic difficulties; it turned out that Tazzzo, playing Fox, had negotiated with Jacob, playing Germany, that the Indian-Japanese war was to be one-versus-one – and I hadn’t been told. I stopped my advance, which had taken perhaps three provinces; there was some acrimonious argument, in which the GM’s hangover featured prominently for reasons not clear to me; our Indian player ragequit.

After some confusion we acquired a skilled sub for India; thanks to Limah for coming in at short notice and to Blayne for recruiting him. Then we were able to play. We have a sub for India for this week, but I think the position is open for anyone wanting a challenge.

The Indochinese front almost instantly bogged down into an attritional stalemate; while Golle had finally gotten his build more or less right, he had pumped out a large amount of basic infantry divisions with little artillery, able to hold a line but not advance it much. Conversely India’s army, while better, was sufficiently smaller that it couldn’t punch holes in Golle’s line and make encirclements stick. (Or at least, it didn’t. I make no assertions about what Ragatokk might have done with the same troops.) This situation map from the beginning of the war is almost identical to the end-of-session front.

Indochina front

In the Middle East, however, things moved with much more dispatch. This time Kuipy did not attempt to attack in the Arabian Peninsula, leaving the Empty Quarter empty; he stuck a small garrison in the southwest corner, the mountains around Aden, and called it good. I occupied the rest of Arabia, stuck some subs in the Red Sea to interfere with his supply lines, and tried a couple of attacks; between mountains, my need for troops elsewhere, and the uselessness of level-1 subs, the Aden garrison was able to hold out until the order came to evacuate, for reasons which will become clear. Meanwhile Kuipy took the Venetian holdings in east Africa, which are even more indefensible than Arabia, so I’d left them undefended.

Both sides tried attacking across the Sinai, just to see what would happen; this being the most densely fortified area in the game world, neither side made any progress. That left us with an apparent stalemate, until the Venetian Navy blazed a trail of glory across the Red Sea and landed in the Egyptian rear:

Red Sea Invasion

Shortly thereafter I had a reasonable foothold in the Nile Valley, though with some supply difficulties owing to having only one port:

Nile Valley beachhead

Notice the immense sandstorm, courtesy of the Jackal’s control of Egyptian weather – a classic defensive measure, intended to delay my advance until the bulk of the Egyptian army could rush north from its “victories” against undefended Zambezia and Zimbabwe. To some extent this worked; the sandstorm, together with my supply difficulties, made it hard to get a decisive advance to the coast, and for some time the frontline went back and forth:

June 9th
June 25th

Notice that in the second screenshot, June 25th, my perimeter has actually shrunk relative to the June 9th one; worried about those seven divisions attacking my flank, I voluntarily pulled back my northern hook so it wouldn’t be encircled if I lost that battle. These two weeks, between June 9th and June 25th, were the worst-looking for my invasion; I seriously contemplated evacuation. It doesn’t look so bad in the June 25th screenshot, where the flank attack is green (ie, I’m winning); but a week earlier my western flank was across the Nile, and here it has been driven back. Moreover, there is continuous fighting on my southern flank, weakly held by a few basic infantry divisions, threatening my one and only supply port for this whole army. The amazing feat of my second-line infantry in holding these mountains against heavy and sustained attack by three to four times their number of Egyptians, without which the entire Nile Valley Campaign would have been a failure, should not be forgotten, even against the backdrop of the glorious advances by my elite troops in the north, which I’m about to relate. However, at the time I believed that they could not hold out very long, and yelled for help. Germany promised troops, and England (with Denmark as its ally, obviously) now entered the war on the Fascist side, declaring war on the American powers. This wasn’t an immediate help, since it took time to move English troops to Africa; but it did free up my strategic reserve, on the assumption that England wouldn’t enter two wars at once and I therefore wouldn’t have to defend Italy. (Which being said, my ports and mountain border there are still garrisoned, so as not to tempt anyone.)

However, by this time I had gotten some tanks across, and was able to take a second port:

July 3rd

This both eased my supply difficulty, and gave me some room to maneuver – with two ports I could, at a pinch, lose one of them. With tanks, the ability to take some risks, the increasing exhaustion of the Egyptian divisions, and my strategic reserve, I formed a daring plan for another naval invasion:

July 25th

Notice the English landing in the west. Notice also that the Egyptian division which should be (and which initially was) garrisoning my target port is, for reasons entirely unclear (but possibly involving PLOTS SPANNING CENTURIES), one province west, leaving me with an unopposed landing into a province I can supply. From there the road to victory was clear:

July 29th
August 5th

Leading inexorably to the Siege of Cairo (Cairo is urban and max fortified, which may partly explain the persistence of its garrison; but mainly, obviously, it’s the mind-control rays) described above, and the pocketing of twenty divisions:

August 17th

By the end of the session the pocket was gone and the road south into the Nile Valley was clear. I note for the record that although the Germans are now arriving, just in time to reinforce victory, the Nile Valley Campaign was fought with Venetian troops only. However, while the loss of twenty divisions is obviously a major disaster for a power the size of Egypt (or Venice), I do not count Kuipy out yet; he is a past master of drawing out desperate defenses to the last possible moment. And even now Egypt commands far more resources, allies, and space to trade for time, than Hentzau’s Bavaria did on its best day.

War situation, September 1936

War situation, September 1936; Entente division counts censored. Note the immense war contribution of Venice, smallest of the Entente powers. I have no idea how Fox manages to have more casualties than me or Egypt; if they’ve been fighting it’s news to me.

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Filed under Azure Three Bezants, One With Nineveh and Tyre, Recessional

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