Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Woodscrew Armies Campaign - Carnage on the Trail

Chinese 'West' Column approaching 
Following the twin combats of July 20th, Major-General Thomas J. Jackson hastily gathered his army in hand and issued his orders. Dispatching the cavalry that had been with him with him to march north at once to join Brigadier Bidwell's command, he sent with them an order to make a stand at or around a dilapidated place called Liaoyang on the road. Himself with the main body of Tenth Army he hoped to join with him before the pursuing Chinese column did.  
10th cavalry - horse holders at the rear.
For his part, Bidwell selected the twin hills northwest of the ramshackle town as a suitable defensive position.  Once the cavalry had recombined into a whole brigade, the 10th, he formed them up on the high ground to the right of the road. Thirty-seventh Brigade occupied the eminence left of the trail, with the machine guns covering the open flank.   
Main body, Tenth army: 39th Brigade marching 
through Lingyao
It was a full day and more before the Chinese column - the West Column - arrived, and could be observed on the heights during the afternoon of July 22nd shaking out into a line of columns.  Anxiously, Brigadier Bidwell began casting his eyes down the road south.  Were those dust clouds approaching?  

Chinese storming the heights
For his part, T'ai Kun Wu was determined from the outset upon an all-out attack, and issued his orders according.  The heights looked a deal more formidable than the enemy that stood upon them.  The slopes could be scaled; the enemy driven back and overrun.  See to it.

(This was the simplest possible 'programme' for the Chinese column: Lay out the columns, point them at the enemy, and say 'go get 'em.  Stop for nothing'.  Makes for plenty of tension!)
Attack upon 10th cavalry
'Saw to it' the Chinese columns did.  The sole rifled artillery in the Chinese inventory deployed soon into action at effective range, and even drew first blood in this battle, striking and causing casualties to the 37th Brigade line. For some reason, the two supposedly more efficient Union batteries in action took a while longer to get the range.
Pushing a little forward, the defenders' lines opening up a searing fire downslope against the attackers.  Yet, with men dropping everywhere, the columns pressed on, stepping over the dead and dying as they scaled the incline.  The Union lines seemed to be holding for a time, at least, but there was no stopping the oncoming tide of Chinese infantry.
Attack upon 37th Brigade
Not that the Union forces were emerging unscathed from the onslaught. Nor was 37th Brigade's machine gun fire proving very effective in stopping the more stately advance of the 'Blue Leopards' .  
39th Brigade infantry facing off against
Chinese 3rd Regulars (smoke premature - they aren't yet 
in rifle range),
Hoping to envelop the Union left flank, the 3rd Chinese Regulars had advanced towards the western end of the ridge, where the elevated ground descended into the level of the plain. There they encountered the infantry of 39th Brigade, arriving just in time to prevent that envelopment. The firefight that ensued kept the 37th occupied, but still left the 'Blue Leopards' space to force their way up the end the ridge.
Can 10th Cavalry hold...?
A further sinister development was unfolding in the gap through which the road passed. The sole defence was a gun battery, which, though causing casualties to an approaching column (11th Conscript) proved quite unable to stop them. Before they could extricate themselves, the guns were swamped by the Chinese and the crews that stayed with their guns were cut down. On the heights, both infantry and dismounted cavalry were being edged back, still cutting down the assailants in swathes, but themselves losing heavily.  
Chinese conscripts storming the pass defended 
by only a battery of guns
As the battle raged on for the ridgeline, the Chinese edging forward in the face of a terrific fire, the remaining reinforcements, 38th Brigade, were marching up the road towards the pass. They might have hoped to fill the gap in the Union line, but events overtook them.
38th Brigade arriving on the field

Battle rages for the heights, casualties heavy
on both sides.

Reinforcements arriving, but are they in time...?
Forcing their way to the hill crests, the attackers began to edge back the defenders. Although the line began to give a little, it still for the time being appeared to present a solid front. Yet despite appearances, it was scarcely possible that the thin line of cavalrymen could defend for long. Even with its artillery, the bluecoat cavalry - less their horse holders - were outnumbered nearly three to one by 1st Regular and 12th Conscript formations. Losing a quarter of their line in a matter of minutes, the cavalry drew back, briefly putting a short distance between themselves and their adversaries. Although giving out more than they were receiving, the respective attrition rates favoured the attackers.
Heights' defenders starting to give ground...
Such was the case on 37th Brigade's front, though there the Union was meting out a terrible punishment to the 3rd Regulars. That formation began the battle numerically stronger than any other in West Column. Confident in their numbers, they pressed 37th Brigade closely, ignoring their losses as they surged up the hill. Alongside them, 11th Conscripts pushed up just as confidently.    
... and rout
Then the Union line collapsed. Having taken heavy losses, and with the 'Blue Leopards' at last joining the battle, overrunning the machine gun company, it seemed nothing could stop the Chinese swarming over the hill. Even after the rout of 11th Conscripts, the surviving Unionists were left facing three to one odds. Their resistance broken, what remained of 37th Brigade tumbled down the hill onto the road.  There, appreciating that the hill line was lost, Brigadier General Lemar McKittrick formed the line of 38th Brigade east of the road where they stood, and directed his machine gun company around his right flank to link up with what was left of the cavalry.
The heights are lost; 10th Cavalry having lost 
The collapse of 10th cavalry was no less precipitate. The Chinese waves swept up the ridge and over the thin blue line. The close quarter fighting of bullet, blade and butt swamped the horse soldiers. Few emerged from the ruck to make it back to the horse-holder lines, the disorganised remnants galloping far into the plain. Not so hard pressed, the flying artillery limbered up and made off, where they were to form a gun line well to the rear.  
Chinese infantry swarming over the heights
and through the pass...
Having taken the heights, T'ai Kun Wu might have called a halt there, observing that a line almost as powerful as the one just overcome was facing him in the plain below. But the good T'ai Kun was not one to hesitate when there was a chance for a famous victory, and an end to a difficult campaign.  He ordered his troops onward - onward to victory!
... into the plain beyond
In this he was perhaps too sanguine. Two of his regular units (1st and 3rd)  were looking very tired, and the 2nd was about to enter fire fight against roughly equal numbers (39th brigade), and a huge deficit in firepower. The only really fresh unit was the 8th 'Blue Leopards', who were about to engage the newly formed Union line with their breech-loading rifles.  
10th Cavalry make off, leaving the flying artillery 
as rearguard.
Although it took time, the second Union line was reinforced with machine guns and artillery - the line teased out to the right by the 38th Brigade machine gun detachment, and farther off, the 10th Cavalry's flying artillery.  On came the Chinese: 1st and 3rd Regulars, much weakened, and the slightly fresher 11th and 12th Conscripts.  In raw numbers the Chinese might yet carry the day.
Tenth Army drawn up at the foot of the hill 

Firefight between Chinese 3rd Regulars and
39th Brigade 
It all went wrong for the Chinese army. For a space the 2nd Regular formation held its own against the firepower of 39th Brigade, even after the latter's machine guns joined the action. Not for long. At medium range, the muzzle loading rifles were no match for magazine rifles and machine guns. Losses mounting at a catastrophic rate sent the 2nd Regulars - such as who remained standing - reeling back in rout. At once, 39th Brigade wheeled to their right - right athwart the flank of the ridge, and consequently, of the Blue Leopards.

3rd regulars routed, leaves Chinese flank open...
Suddenly the Chinese 8th and 3rd formations found themselves in a desperate struggle with their inferior firearms against the vastly superior Union weaponry and supporting equipment. Their right flank enveloped, the Blue Leopards were massacred within minutes. Trying to press home against 38th Brigade, 3rd Regulars were simply swept aside.  On their left, the Chinese enjoyed some success. Braving machine guns and canister fire, they actually reached the gun lines, inflicting heavy losses among the crews. Though defending themselves with trailspike and rammer, pistol and Bowie knife, they had no chance against such fearsome odds.   
Chinese storm the Union gun and MG lines 
east of the road...

At the full tide of their onset, the Chinese column abruptly collapsed.  Abandoning the artillery and machine guns just taken, the assailants became hordes of fugitives. The tide receded far more rapidly than the onset, all but one formation, 1st Regulars, reduced to a fleeing mass.

There was no pursuit. For one thing, the Cavalry had been roughly handled, and was in no condition to pursue. Thirty-seventh Brigade had been almost destroyed, its artillery and machine guns overrun, its survivors routed. Torn between the bitterness of defeat and rage at the tardy support, Brigadier Bidwell was at least somewhat encouraged by his commanding general's soothing words, and subsequently by the unstinting mention in dispatches. As far as General Jackson was concerned, Bidwell's adamant defence had gone far to win the battle once the reinforcements arrived...

The Union victory had come at a very high cost, over 3000 casualties. The ambulance wagons and the hastily set up field stations and temporary hospitals two days' march to the southeast were going to be busy. The artillery and machine guns overrun were in turn abandoned by the retreating enemy, and some could be recovered and brought back into service. All the same, eight guns and four machine guns had to be written off as unserviceable. A certain amount of reorganisation was clearly indicated.

This was no Pyrrhic victory. There was no question but that in the eyes of most, this had been a shattering defeat for the Chinese West Column. Even in the tide of success, the losses had been great, and much of the army exhausted just in storming the heights. They could count themselves fortunate perhaps in achieving as much as they did by way of exploitation. Well over 9000 casualties that battle had cost - three times, as it transpired, the Union losses (actually 9500 [57 figures] to 3167 [19 figures] being the net losses respectively).  

Though disappointed,  T'ai Kun Wu, characteristically, was inclined to take the optimist's view. With anything like equality in materiel, he would have won that battle. That would be a matter to take up with the emperor upon the termination of this campaign. And he still had the whole of North Column in hand, as well as what remained of East Column. A little bit of rest and reorganisation - a few days only was all he needed - and he'd be ready to take the field once more.  

He would need to move fairly quickly. Already there was a trickle of traffic westward upon the long road to the Empire, some of it comprising members of the state service nobility.  Intriguers to a man, they would be ready when the time came to whisper into the Emperor's ear the words to bring T'ai Kun Wu's career to an abrupt end.



  1. Wow, that was an epic battle! The Chinese attacks reminded me of the human wave ones in the Korean War. I'm looking forward to the fallout from this in terms of the campaign, given the losses both sides took.

    1. Hi Steve -
      Yep: simple battle; no finesse about that one. Can't say the Union machine guns and artillery performed prodigies, but the rifle fire was at times formidable, by all three brigades. The Chinese army did pretty well, I thought, and once they carried the heights, reckoned they had at least the ghost of a chance of victory. But caught in the crossfire of 38th and 38th Brigades, the 'Blue Leopards' had no chance.

      The next instalment will involve reorganisations, refits and - just possibly - recriminations.
      Archduke Piccolo

  2. Seeing those Airfix ACW figures brings back happy memories. Fun looking game.

    1. Hi Mark -
      The Union are all Airfix, and so are the Chinese yellow-coated 'Regulars'. The rest of the Chinese army are Revel. The Chinese army makes use of stand-ins, my not actually having any Chinese figures.
      Archduke piccolo

  3. My poor cavalry !!!!!!! and heavy losses in the artillery !!!! Questions need to be asked why such well equipped and trained Union troops have not performed better. Although they won the Union has taken terrible punishment. Jackson needs reinforcements badley if he is to continue holding the Chinese who have performed far better than anyone expected. Super battle report as always. What exciting stuff. Regards.

    1. Hi Tony -
      I reckon the Chinese army is not there to be Aunt Sallies - that's no fun. The Emperor would scarcely attempt to reclaim his lost lands without he reckons to have some chance of success. I have a feeling, too, that had the supporting weapons not been risked, the Chinese might well have won that last battle - unlikely, maybe, but with a better chance at least.

      Personally, I don't reckon Jackson will need more reinforcements than those already sent. The two brigades being sent him will bring his strength up to slightly more than what he began with. The Chinese losses amount to over a quarter of what they began with, the Union a whisker less.

      I think with this response I'm starting to write up the next part of the campaign, so I'll leave further remarks until then. Suffice to say from my point of view, this campaign is shaping to something very interesting indeed.
      Archduke Piccolo.

    2. Ion...I think we all agree this campaign is shaping up to be very interesting as it has been from the start. The Chinese have certainly done far better than expected for sure. My earlier remarks were intended to be a lead into another "special correspondent" report in the Denver Chronicle !!!! That was such fun !!!. The map is on its way. Regards.