Battle of Dashan Plains (1)
“None but a coward dares to boast that he has never known fear.”
--Ferdinand Foch, Marshal of France (1918)
Chapter 92 – Battle of Dashan Plains (1)
From Tianxin City, a hundred thousand men marched through Tigertrap Pass and stepped into Wei. Previously when Huang Zheng left the pass, he immediately swerved away from the walled cities and instead stormed through the Wei countryside. His quick movements and seemingly haphazard direction changes confounded Wei, for they were confused as to his objectives.
On the other hand, Marshal Gao Fang’s grand army advanced in a straight line. He relentlessly drove his way towards Dashan Plains, a major artery of Wei. It had main roads and thoroughfares leading all the way to the Wei capital of Daliang. Any serious attempt to assault Wei’s capital had to go through this fertile plain, and many historical battles had been fought in its vicinity.
The reports of Wu’s march alarmed the King of Wei, but when he heard that the Wu invaders were on their way to Dashan, he was relieved. It meant Marshal Gao Fang was sticking to the tried and true, unlike the unpredictable movements of Huang Zheng. The King of Wei quickly appointed Ran Wei to take command. After the dramatic failure of Fei Yue, the King of Wei was in no mood to listen to those who had voiced doubts about the young general. Having anticipated this scenario and made his preparations well in advance, Ran Wei immediately activated his forces and converged upon Dashan.
Forty days after Huang Zheng had started the invasion, the full might of Wei and Wu finally faced each other in the rolling plains of Dashan…
When the two aged generals Huang Zheng and Zhao Tong and their troops joined the Wu camp, they were met with cheers from the Marshal’s grand army. Despite their dusty uniforms and unshaven faces from weeks of campaigning, the vanguard troops marched proudly into the camp with their chins up and their eyes still shining brightly with vigour. The marshal’s men looked at them with awe, knowing that these soldiers were true veterans who had made names for themselves.
Gao Fang the Wave-Queller’s displeasure deepened when he heard how well received his rivals were among his own troops. His plan to sacrifice the aged generals as martyrs had backfired spectacularly. He had an inferiority complex when it came to these two men, a feeling of inadequacy that originated from the days of the Chu invasion decades ago. Back then he took the credit for the accomplishments of others and reaped the rewards, culminating in his current rank of Marshal of the Army. Now he was their superior, but in his heart he knew he was still their inferior when it came to martial deeds.
“The time has come for a decisive battle with Wei,” the marshal said bombastically, sweeping his eyes over the assembled officers in the command tent. He saw their spirits were inflamed, their naked ambitions and greed were plain for him to see. Gao Fang knew full well the sort of characters that he had recruited and promoted over the years, filling the ranks with his own people that he could manipulate and control.
The obese marshal rested his gaze briefly on Huang Zheng and Zhao Tong, the two aged generals having chosen to lurk in the background instead of standing prominently in the front despite their seniority. Gao Fang did not know what they were thinking and did not care, this was his battle and his moment.
“No more flitting about, this time we will annihilate the enemy and march into Daliang itself!” the marshal continued, unable to resist inserting a verbal jab at Huang Zheng’s unorthodox tactics. The officers cheered enthusiastically, their excitement filled the air. Gao Fang allowed himself to bask in their fervour before beginning the strategy discussion proper.
Most of his officers were eager to give their suggestions for the upcoming battle, each wanting to secure their own moment of glory. After all, if Wei was terrorized by a mere forty thousand soldiers under Huang Zheng, what could Wei possibly do against a hundred thousand under Gao Fang? Thus there were many who asked to be placed at the forefront for the clash.
As the officers bickered among themselves, Huang Zheng and Zhao Tong stood at the sidelines to watch, not contributing to the discussion. Their faces were impassive but Gao Fang felt irritated by their silence, as if the two generals were quietly mocking the proceedings.
“Have the Great General no advice to add?” Gao Fang asked sharply.
Huang Zheng deliberately took a moment to stroke his long white beard before saying gravely, “We must not underestimate Wei in this battle.”
“Oh? We are on the cusp of achieving something great, why dampen our ardour with such words of caution?” Gao Fang asked with the barest of civility.
“Though Wei had suffered a defeat, they remain a force to be reckoned with,” Huang Zheng reminded him.
Gao Fang felt a rush of blood shooting up his head. It was if Huang Zheng was flaunting his recent success in his face.
“If you could defeat Fei Yue, surely we too can do the same,” Gao Fang said with a smile that was not a smile.
“The circumstances are different. Fei Yue was an incompetent, and we took advantage of his lack of ability. But I heard that the Wei commander this time is General Ran Wei. He is not the same as Fei Yue, and we would do well to err on the side of caution,” Huang Zheng said.
Such restraining words were unwelcome to the ears of Gao Fang and he snorted derisively. “I have heard of this Ran Wei. Truly, Wei must be desperate to have appointed him as a leader. He is just a bloodthirsty brute that slaughtered his way to the top.”
One of the officers stared fearlessly at Huang Zheng, a certain man called Du Fang. “It seems that the Great General is fearful of this Ran Wei. It is laughable for the Great General to be this afraid,” he said accusingly.
“Nonsense!” Huang Zheng roared. He turned towards Gao Fang and saluted. “Marshal, please give me the honour of leading the attack tomorrow!”
Marshal Gao hesitated. On one hand, he felt it was an opportunity to send Huang Zheng in a suicidal charge. Yet, he feared that Wei would be so feckless that they would crumble under Huang Zheng’s first blow, allowing him to get all the credit.
“Hold! You have already done enough, o’ Great General. If you were to lead the attack, what glory would remain for the rest of us?” Du Fang said, voicing out the marshal’s concerns.
“You are still young, you have your full life ahead of you. Do not be so reckless,” Huang Zheng said in a patronizing tone.
“When a tiger dies, it leaves behind its stripes. When a man dies, he leaves behind his name. I have no fear of death! Let me have the first merit of challenging the enemy!” Du Fang boasted.
“Well said, Du Fang!” Gao Fang exclaimed, his mind swayed. “Tomorrow you will have the first honour of challenging the enemy. We shall see if there’s anyone from Wei who would dare to fight you.”
Du Fang saluted, his face a mask of joy. His fellow officers looked on enviously, wishing that they too had prepared something dramatic to say and catch the marshal’s attention.
“As for you two veterans, you’ll be placed on reserve. Let the young ones get some experience, eh?” the marshal said mockingly. There will be plenty of other opportunities to send them to die, maybe at the walls of Daliang itself…
Huang Zheng and Zhao Tong held back their anger but saluted stiffly in acknowledgement, their faces were as if they had swallowed vinegar. Seeing their discomfort gave pleasure to the marshal, he thought they were utterly humiliated at being sidelined.
Little did he know that such arrangements suited Huang Zheng and Zhao Tong just fine. The ugly faces they had shown was just a facade, a show they had put on to inflate the marshal’s ego.
“The marshal’s first instinct would to throw us into a suicidal charge against Wei. You will need to prey on his insecurities, remind him of your victory over Fei Yue and volunteer to lead the fight. The marshal will be persuaded to put you elsewhere lest you steal his moment of glory,” Huang Ming had said.
Looking back, Huang Zheng and Zhao Tong marvelled at his prophetic words.
Eager to outdo,
Young ones take the cue.