“Why are the soles of a man's feet paler than his face and his hands?”
--Cao Cao of the Three Kingdoms


Chapter 93 – Battle of Dashan Plains (2)

Huang Ming was not unfamiliar with war, he had experienced several lifetimes on many battlefields from the primitive to the futuristic; from a foot soldier in a shield wall to a general barking orders over a satellite phone.


But he had never experienced such a huge scale of ancient warfare directly, especially of the oriental variety. He had read novels and history books about ancient armies clashing in the field and found that there was a stark difference between the east and west.


In the west, ancient battles were described as punishing martial contests where the men were literally pushing against each other with their shields and long spears. It often boiled down to discipline and sheer strength to hold the centre of the battleground while the rest of the armies tried to outflank and ‘roll up’ each other. This sort of direct clashing persisted all the way to the 20th century on earth, where the spears and pikes were replaced by muskets and rifles, but still had thousands of men lining up in neat rows to fire face-to-face at each other. Such battles were really about seeing which side would break and run first.


In eastern history, warfare was all about mobility and trickery. Armies were said to have march here and there, only directly fighting once they have found an immediate advantage to exploit, or a city to besiege. Many military treatises and historical books have been written about their surprise attacks and stratagems employed, but the actual combat itself were not described in detail. Usually it would be ‘so-and-so lured this-and-that to this position using this trick, and won the battle’.


When comparing the two, Huang Ming was of the opinion that western military history was more concerned about tactical manoeuvring on the field of battle; while eastern history tend to focus on the strategical level. It meant a casual reader would generally know more about the western foot soldier than an eastern one. In fact, historians were able to reconstruct the tiniest of equipment used by a Roman legionnaire and even the martial tactics used: how they marched, how they threw their javelins, how they linked their shields, how they wielded their short swords.


Huang Ming was not sure about how an eastern soldier would fight beyond thrusting the spear or shooting the bow. Did they really just shouted and charged en masse towards the enemy? What sort of martial skills did they employ? What additional equipment did they carry, if any? Most of the stories he had read tend to focus more on the generals and their duels, strategists and their schemes… but there was precious little about the common soldier. The few skirmishes while he was with his father’s vanguard shed some light, but it was not today that he got the full picture. Even the battle with Fei Yue consisted of surprise attacks, this upcoming encounter was the first, true set piece battle that he would experience using the armies of this world.


Perhaps this was the reason Huang Ming found himself lost in thought as he stared at the battlefield. It was morning, and already the forces of Wu and Wei were drawn up against each other in the plains. Huang Ming and the rest of his father’s legions were stationed as the rearguard to guard the camps, but he could still see the entire field from his small hill.


Two huge forces were about to clash, but he was more fascinated by the individuals that made up the armies. He saw that the soldiers were slightly nervous, especially those standing in the frontline. The presence of their comrades on their sides as well as the veterans in their ranks helped to establish calm and order. Though these experienced men were valuable, Huang Ming was a little despondent when he saw there was little to distinguish them from each other; they were essentially of the same ranks. All wore the same unremarkable light scaled armour, all carried the same spears and shields. It showed just how little value was placed on them, something that Huang Ming had started to rectify with his father’s legions.


In contrast, the officers and generals were distinct in their clothing. Take Marshal Gao for instance. Now that he was actually at the battlefield, he was now using a chariot, sitting comfortably within its silk canopy curtains. Even from his distant position, Huang Ming could see the golden scales and twisting horns of the marshal’s suit of armour glittering in the rising sun. Most of his officers were similarly stylized to evoke images of fierce and mythical creatures. It seemed the more self-importance they felt they had, the more elaborate their costumes were.


Huang Zheng, Huang Ke, Zhao Tong and Sunli were more modestly dressed, their battlegowns were simple and moderately armoured to give the maximum mobility in close combat. In their eyes, Gao Fang and their creatures were like clowns unknowingly prancing about in a deadly stage.


Huang Ming smiled as he cast his eyes to his family and friends. As the rearguard, they were in the safest position and thus the furthest away from glory; just what they wanted even though Wei’s army was smaller than Wu’s. It was thought that Ran Wei’s hastily assembled force were still arriving piecemeal.


Then the drum rolls thundered in the air from both camps, a formal signal for the actual start of the battle. Huang Ming looked on with fascination. According to his father, this was the standard procedure. The hit and run tactics used by Huang Zheng earlier in the campaign were considered unorthodox, his father had initially complained that conservative historians would besmirch his name in the records. But the results spoke for themselves: his legions were intact and his men were extremely appreciative at the tactics that had minimized casualties.


Speaking of casualties, Huang Ming saw a man riding slowly forward to confront Wei. It was Du Fang, the man who had insulted his father previously.


“I am Du Fang of Wu! Who dares fight me!” he bellowed and shook his glaive in the air.


From Wei’s side, an officer appeared. Huang Ming was too far to see the details, but like Marshal Gao’s retinue this man was also splendidly armoured. He was carrying a spear, and he rode fearlessly to meet Du Fang in the middle of the two armies.


“I am Feng Liu of Wei!” he announced, and without further ado the two combatants met in the middle to duel.


The two riders exchanged several bouts, with Du Fang having the better of it. Feng Liu bravely fought on, but it was clear he was inferior to Du Fang in strength.


“Do you know the Wei officer?” Huang Ming asked his brother.


“There’s nobody worth remembering except for Ran Wei himself,” Huang Ke snorted. He was hugely unimpressed by the duel, having made snide comments about the combatants mistakes as he watched.


Huang Ming frowned.


Then Feng Liu broke off as if worsted. He was panting and sweating heavily, and he quickly retreated back to his side. The Wu soldiers jeered at him.


“Wei weaklings! Is this the best you have?” Du Fang said contemptuously. “Come forth, cowards! Who else dares to fight me?”


Another officer appeared, but before he could give his name; Du Fang roared and charged to initiate the duel. It was the height of arrogance, as it meant the officer’s name was unimportant.


Very quickly it was clear that Du Fang’s haughtiness was justified, the Wei officer became fearful and drew back.


Marshal Gao Fang was pleased. “Enough of this farce, we’ll crush them now!” he ordered. The drums beat once more and the Wu soldiers shouted as one as they advanced, the earth shuddering at their march.


The Wei soldiers put up a some resistance, but after a short exchange they actually turned tail and ran. The Wu soldiers cheered bloodthirstily and pursued, with Du Fang in the lead.


“Hah! Broken at the first blow!” the marshal gloated as he watched the Wei soldiers flee. His aides and officers quickly went to congratulate him.


In the rear, Huang Ke complained. “What are the those Wei fools doing? Where is Ran Wei?”


But Huang Ming was concerned. He remembered the day he met Qiong Ying in the Lichun long ago, when they had discussed about heroes of the day. Ran Wei’s name was mentioned… What was that about Ran Wei?


Brutal… and cunning…

 

They took to their feet,
What a quick retreat.​