The Nature of Three Kingdoms Armies

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The Nature of Three Kingdoms Armies

Unread postby Jimayo » Tue Feb 18, 2003 3:13 am

From Generals of the South:

Rafe de Crespigny wrote:There is no question that minor skirmishes and raids could be carried out with intense ferocity, and middle-range engagements, such as those of Sun Ce and Sun Quan against Huang Zu, when the fortunes of a nascent states within a particular region depended on the outcome, were often hard-fought and bloody. Above this level, however, the armies and navies of the major contenders were neither trained nor equipped to inflict substantial damage on one another. Those masses of men were collected from a variety of different groups, there was no system of communication to co-ordinate their manoeuvres, and it was all their commanders could do to keep them together - frequently it proved to be more than they could do. Most campaigns were stalemated, and a result was achieved only when one side or another suffered a break-down of control, a collapse of morale, and a panicked retreat.
Of the three most important engagements in this period, none was decided in simple combat. Instead, victory was achieved by the commander who maintained his own force intact while his enemy's disintegrated.
At Guandu in 200, Cao Cao set defence lines and held off an attack by Yuan Shao, then sent a raiding party which intercepted the enemy supply trains; and Yuan Shao's great army dissolved and fled.57 At the Red Cliffs in 208, there was some indecisive early fighting, but Huang Gai's attack with fire-ships precipitated the retreat or rout of the invader.58 In the campaign by the Yangzi Gorges in 222, Lu Xun refused to battle against Liu Bei and waited until his enemy became jaded and careless; then he launched an attack at one strategic point, and the whole of the Shu position collapsed.59
One may argue exceptions to the general rule, and Cao Cao did achieve some remarkable successes in battle, as in his victory over the Wuhuan in 207,60 and his destruction of the northwestern warlords in 211.61 On both occasions, however, he was dealing with an unstable military alliance, and his success owed a great deal to the surprise effect created by his strategy of oblique approach. In ideal fashion, the enemy was demoralised by manoeuvre before the armies made physical contact.62
There is an occasion when one reasonably coherent Chinese army defeated another in combat, and that is the campaign in Hanzhong commandery during 219: Cao Cao's general Xiahou Yuan was defeated and killed at Dingjun Mountain, and Liu Bei took Hanzhong commandery. Cao Cao's forces, however, were rallied by Xiahou Yuan's lieutenant Zhang Ge, and they held their ground for several more months. In the end, it was the difficulty of supply through the Qin Ling passes, coupled with an increasing desertion rate among his troops, that compelled Cao Cao to order the retreat.63 The death of Xiahou Yuan was a notable event, and the achievement of Zhang Ge is a tribute to his own abilities and to the coherence of the army, but the example tests and proves the rule: the final result of the campaign was not determined by a single battle, but by more general questions of strategy, supply and morale.
For the armies of this time were ramshackle affairs. The regular forces of the Han dynasty, professional soldiers based at the capital and experienced troops on the northern frontier, were well-disciplined and efficient, comparable to, though not neccessarily of such a high standard as, the lefionaries of contemporary Rome.64 From the end of the reign of Emperor Ling, however, the mobilisations required to deal with rebellion and civil war brought vast numbers of men to the competing banners, and there were neither time nor resources to train them properly. Many men with experience in the old imperial army gained advancement as commanders of the new recruits, but their units were overwhelmed by the hordes of newcomers, and the traditions, skills and discipline were lost.
There was some minimal organisation in the armies of the contending warlords, such as the obvious division between horsemen and foot-soldiers, and we have observed that a commanding officer would surround himself with a core of Companions, skilled soldiers who owed him personal allegiance, and served as body-guard. As for equipment, uniforms, supply and general coordination, however, the texts indicate either that they were completely lacking or, when they were present, that this was considered exceptional. For the most part, these armies were simple armed mobs, with soldiers driven variously by loyalty or fear of their commanders, by personal desperation, and by the hope of plunder to enhance their miserable lives. And they were accompanied by a mass of camp-followers - sometimes these were wives and children, but more normally they were cooks and prostitutes, peddlers and gamblers, and a few who specialised in care of the sick and wounded.
The command structure and fighting techniques of these armies were based upon small groups of men dependent upon individual leaders. The heart of each unit of battle was the commander himself, supported by his Companions, and the most important tactic was expressed in the common phrase "break the enemy line". In aggressive action, the commander and his Companions acted as spearhead for a drive at the enemy array, and if they were successful they could hope to be followed by the mass of their followers, spreading out to exploit success and to attack the broken enemy from the flank and rear.
As a technique of battle, such a system is well known. It was certainly used by Alexander the Great, and in sophisticated form it was the essence of German Blitzkrieg in the Second World War: concentration of overwhelming force at a particular point, breakthrough by shock, and swift exploitation to roll up the enemy positions left and right and disrupt their lines of supply. In earlier modern times, one may observe a similarity with the "forlorn hope", establishing a position within the enemy defence line as preparation for a full assault.65
Though the tactics are the same, however, the method is disconcertingly different when it is used by men without the advantages of armoured transport or the confidence of disciplined support behind them. For a primitive army, such a style of attack requires immense courage by the leader and his immediate followers, and a high level of personal authority to attract the main body of his men to follow in the charge.
In one of Sun Jian's earliest engagements, the attack upon Wan city at the time of the Yellow Turban rebellion, we have a description of this form of attack against fortifications:
Sun Jian himself was responsible for one side of the siege. He climbed the wall and was the first to get in. The soldiers swarmed to follow him, and because of this they completely defeated the enemy.66
The story may over-emphasise Sun Jian's achievement, but the position of leader and followers is well displayed. And there are repeated accounts of personal heroism by the commanders of one side or another during later years. We may call to mind the gallant attack of Dong Xi and Ling Tong against the defences of Huang Zu at Xiakou in 208 and, from the other side, the sortie of Zhang Liao and his men which humiliated Sun Quan's army before Hefei in 215.67
This reliance of leadership, mass and morale is a natural technique for dealing with the problems of an ill-desciplined force, and the approach can be identified in the pre-Qin book of Mozi.68 For more recent times, Huang has given a similar description of the armies of the late Ming dynasty operating against the Manchus. We are told that Western observer regarded the Chinese forces as being of poor combat quality, and they sought to make up for this by simple numerical strength. The clumsy mass could not be maneuvred, but
It needed an elite corps of highly seasoned fighters to open up avenues of attack so that the bulk of the soldiers could then swarm in behind them, sustain the momentum of the attack, and exploit the results. These battle formations were nonetheless commanded by men of courage, who were themselves versed in the martial arts and who personally led their soldiers in valiant charges.69
Inevitably, the role for the high command of such an army was very limited. A major force, perhaps thirty thousand men, occupied a great area of ground, and placed heavy demands on the resources of an even wider territory. It was composed of disparate units with individual leaders, a great part of whose time was spent in foraging, while the poor techniques of communication limited all attempts at control and manoeuvre. And the cohesion of such a mass was particularly at risk when on the move: if an advance or an attack was checked, a notable leader discomfited or slain, numbers of men would be confused and uncertain, and they could rapidly fall into panic and flight. There was small opportunity for sophisticated tactics or strategy, there must have been a constant concern about morale, and every general had to recognise that the mass of troops and weapons at his command was both brittle and volatile.
So great advantage lay with the defence, and the sensible plan was to wait for the enemy to commit himself, to hope and expect that he would suffer some check, and to strike then at his most vulnerable point. Such a program, to wait for the right moment, to identify it, and to seize it, called from swift judgement and considerable moral courage, but in general terms the situation favoured the defence and, so long as there was no excessive commitment to any particular sortie, a minor set-back could usually be restored. In effect, a well-conducted and determined defence could expect to hold out for a substantial length of time, and there was always the possibility that the attacker could be caught off balance and driven to utter ruin.


57 A description of the battle of Guandu, taken from a number of texts, appears in ZZTJ 63, 2032-35; de Crespigny, Last of the Han, 203-208. See also de Crespigny, "Civil War in Early China", and Leban, "Ts'ao Ts'ao", 316-381.

58 The story of the fireships is told, not in the biography of Huang Gai(SGZ 55/Wu 10, 1284-85), but in that of Zhou Yu, SGZ 54/Wu9, 1262-63, where PC note 1 also contains an extract from Jiangbiao zhuan quoting the letter which Huang Gai is said to have written to Cao Cao

59 SGZ 58/Wu 13, 1346; Fang, Chronicle I, 101 and 118.

60 See de Crespigny, Northern Frontier, 408-411.

61 See de Crespigny, Northern Frontier, 163-165.

62 One should not forget that Cao Cao wrote a notable commentary to the Book of the Art of War of Sun Wu.

63 A description of the campaign in Hanzhong commandery, taken from a number of texts, appears in ZZTJ 68, 2156-58; de Crespigny, Last of the Han, 337-338.

64 On the regular military organisation of Later Han, see de Crespigny, Northern Frontier, 45-52.

65 The English expression is a corruption of the Dutch verloren hoop "lost troop". This body of picked men, generally volunteers, was sent to establish a position within enemy lines, particularly inside the breach of a wall, and the main body of attackers would then seek to exploit this initiative.

66 SGZ 46/Wu 1, 1094; de Crespigny, Biography, 32-33. I have suggested, however, that the account of the campaign in Sun Jian's biography is certainly simplified, and the description of his achievements may be exaggerated: page 90 above.

67 SGZ 55/Wu 10, 1291. See also ZZTJ 65, 2078. SGZ 17, 518-19. Also ZZTJ 67, 2141-42.

68 See, for example, the chapter Bei yifu of Mozi.

69 Cambridge History of China 7, 579-580


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Unread postby CaTigeReptile » Tue Feb 18, 2003 5:02 am

Thanks. Now that's the reason why the TK generals and leaders were especially heroic - they were not armchair generals. Now I'll have to go look for 'Last of the Han'. . .It's probably only in Australia. . .
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Unread postby James » Tue Feb 18, 2003 8:21 am

Wow, that was a great read. Thanks!
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Unread postby Tianshan Zi » Tue Feb 18, 2003 2:47 pm

Thank you for sharing. Now we know why such emphasis is placed on the armies of Zhuge Liang, Jiang Wei, and Deng Ai being so disciplined in SGYY: such a reality was a rarity. :)
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Unread postby Lance » Tue Feb 18, 2003 3:16 pm

lol...I would never have guessed such things were so disorderly....
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Unread postby Jimayo » Tue Feb 18, 2003 7:21 pm

Lance wrote:lol...I would never have guessed such things were so disorderly....


No kidding eh? Strategy was not nearly as important as SGYY would lead you to believe.
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Unread postby Evil Comes » Tue Feb 18, 2003 7:48 pm

Wow, I sort of suspected the quality of armies during this period from my readings of SGYY and watching the videos but never anything like this. Is any of Rafe's works easy to obtain via the internet/libraries/bookstores?
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Unread postby Wen Yang » Tue Feb 18, 2003 8:03 pm

Evil Comes wrote:Wow, I sort of suspected the quality of armies during this period from my readings of SGYY and watching the videos but never anything like this. Is any of Rafe's works easy to obtain via the internet/libraries/bookstores?


http://www.anu.edu.au/asianstudies/books.html

I think a lot of his books are out of print, but a few are still available. I know most libraries dont carry any of his books (trust me i looked), there are some scattered in university libraries but dont get your hopes up in finding any. Amazon.com also sells a few that are stil in print last time I checked.
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Unread postby Jimayo » Tue Feb 18, 2003 11:26 pm

Not anymore. They are currently all out of print. And sold out too, unfortunately.
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Unread postby SmartMuffin » Wed Feb 19, 2003 12:59 am

The description almost makes me think that Dynasty Warriors is a lot more realistic then I ever imagined. All the little foot soldiers are pretty much useless unless one brave, powerful general sets an example, and in that cast, they sometimes come in handy :)
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