The End of the War Chariot III

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The End of the War Chariot III

The Spring and Autumn period (770–481 BC) there differed in many ways from that of the Warring States, but they shared one thing in common: the frequency of fighting. Whilst the former witnessed the heyday of chariot battle, with engagements sometimes settled within the course of a single day, during the latter they were more prolonged as armies grew in size through the addition of massed infantry and cavalry. Manoeuvring and the ability to call upon reinforcements caused a number of Warring States’ battles to exceed a week. Conflicts themselves tended to stretch over several years. In 314 BC Qi took advantage of internal problems in Yan to attack that northeastern state, and overran it in a swift campaign. According to the Zhanguo ce, a collection of historical anecdotes concerning the Warring States period, this military opportunity arose because of the weakness of the Yan ruler, who preferred to leave everything to one ambitious minister named Tzu Chih. We are told that

the ruler of Yan called in all the senior officials’ seals of office and gave them to Tzu Chi. Then Tzu Chi faced south and was acknowledged as ruler. The former ruler pleaded old age, abdicated, and became a subject, while Tzu Chih conducted all affairs of state. In the third year of Tzu Chih there was a great rebellion in Yan, for its people had suffered, and they resented him … General Shi Bei and the heir apparent, Bing, attacked the palace with their supporters, but they failed to defeat Tzu Chih. In all this turmoil the common people even turned against Bing. General Shi Bei was killed and tens of thousands followed him to the grave. At last Yan became afraid and its people rallied to the heir apparent … By then troops from Qi had made an attack on Yan. Not a soldier nor an officer opposed them, nor were gates closed against them. So Qi gained a great victory, and Tzu Chih fled. Two years later the people of Yan raised the heir apparent to the throne, and Bing saved the state from extinction.

Although Yan put up no resistance, the ruler of Qi boasted that a miracle must have enabled him to conquer a state in ‘only fifty days’. Wars were obviously expected to last a long time. Thirty years after the Qi invasion a more conventional conflict occurred, when Yan revenged itself by attacking Qi, capturing the Qi ruler, and occupying half his territory. But Qi continued to resist and after five years of struggle the Yan army was finally expelled.

The bitterness between Yan and Qi, though more pronounced than the rivalry between the other feudal states, goes far in explaining why the northwestern state of Qin was allowed to expand its borders until they encompassed the whole of ancient China. Mutual antagonism made forming an alliance against Qin impossible until it was too late. The Zhanguo ce records the fear of Qin, which

shares customs with the barbarians. It has the outlook of a tiger or a wolf; it delights in cruelty, is keen to make gains and knows nothing of good faith, ritual, or virtuous behaviour. If an advantage appears, Qin will seize upon it with no regard to what happens to her kin, just like a wild animal. All China is aware of this … and the fact that Qin is a state which dislikes inactivity.

As this advice to a feudal ruler intent on attacking a small neighbour concluded, such a border war could only serve to weaken opposition to Qin, so that ‘the day when all face west as its vassals will not be far off’. In the event the logic of the argument prevailed and no war was started, but steps were not taken to strengthen resistance against Qin ambitions. Another northern state accused of barbarian tendencies was Zhao, one of the three states into which Jin had split. So difficult did the Zhao army find repelling nomad raiders that in 307 BC its ruler, Wuling, decided to introduce a thorough military reform. Not only was a large corps of cavalry formed but even more trousers were borrowed from the nomads in order to make it easier for horsemen to ride and shoot their composite bows. Wuling’s momentous decision is fully related in the Zhanguo ce.

One day Wuling said: ‘The way of rulers is to be mindful of the virtue of their ancestors while they are on the throne; the rule for ministers is to devise ways to enhance their rulers’ powers. Thus it is that a virtuous king, even when totally inactive, can guide his people and conduct his affairs with success; when active he can achieve such fame that it may exceed the past, to say nothing of the present … Now I intend to extend the inheritance I have from my forebears and make provinces out of barbarian lands; but though I shall spend my life in this enterprise, my eyes will never see its completion. I propose to adopt the horseman’s clothing of the Hu nomads and will teach my people their mounted archery. Just think how the world will talk! But though all China laughs, I shall acquire the lands of the Hu and the Chungshan nomads.’

When a distinguished and loyal minister expressed reservations about this policy, Wuling frankly told him of the vulnerability of Zhao along its northern border. ‘We share in the west river borders with the state of Qin and the Chungshan,’ the ruler said, ‘but command not a single boat upon them. From Chungshan to the state of Yan in the east, our border with the Hu has not a single mounted archer. Therefore I have collected boats and boatmen to guard the first, and deployed mounted archers in suitable clothes to guard the second.’ Abashed, the minister apologised for not appreciating the ruler’s reasons and instead having ‘the temerity to mouth platitudes’. A delighted Wuling immediately presented him with Hu garments.

Afterwards the balance of forces in the Zhao army tilted towards cavalry. Chariots are not mentioned again and the size of its infantry was actually reduced in number. Even though there were continued protests about these changes, Wuling stood firm in the knowledge that the terrain over which his forces had to operate was best suited to mobile archers. As he pointed out,

‘My ancestor built a wall where our lands touch on those of the nomads and named it the Gate of No Horizon. Today heavy armour and halberds cannot go beyond this wall. Since benevolence, righteousness and ritual will not subdue the barbarous Hu, we must go and defeat them.’

So it was that Wuling, ‘dressed in barbarian garments, led his horsemen against the Hu leaving the Gate of No Horizon’. The stunning success of this campaign opened up to Zhao the possibility of acquiring vast new territories, ‘even a thousand kilometres across’. Derision greeted Wuling’s innovation throughout China, but in the two other northern states facing regular nomad incursion, Qin and Yan, the advantages offered by the new cavalry were not entirely missed. They could see how greater mobility was the means to dominate the steppe and the marginal tracts of land adjoining it. Mounted archers remained, therefore, the specialised troops of the northern frontier, and especially for forays beyond the defences which eventually became incorporated in the Great Wall. One of their greatest triumphs happened in 121 BC when Huo Quling, a favourite general of the Han emperor Wu Di, led a six-day advance across the steppe with a cavalry force and captured the Xiongnu leader and 40,000 of his followers. But such victories were gained at enormous cost in terms of human and animal losses, which meant the line of the Great Wall was China’s effective northern defence.

Cavalry was used by all the feudal states during the Warring States period, although not as mounted archers as in Zhao. The standard cavalry weapon became the halberd, perhaps as a result of the arrival of the toe-stirrup from India. Yet cavalry was not the cause of the chariot’s decline, for purely Chinese battlefields were never dominated by horsemen: quite the reverse, the new power lay with armoured infantrymen, some of whom had in the crossbow a weapon capable of outranging the composite bow. Possibly because ancient China had such a variety of landscape, from the steppe in the north, through the great plain of the Yellow river valley, to the wet rice-growing areas of the south, its armies were bound to have developed in several distinct ways. Infantry rose to dominance first in the lower Yangzi valley, where lakes and swamps limited the use of chariots. The defection of Wu Chen in 584 BC to Wu, the feudal state straddling the estuary of the Yangzi, is usually cited as the reason for its early military success. This Chu turncoat in all probability brought the forces of Wu up to a high level of efficiency by introducing new tactics and ensuring a standardisation of weaponry, but he seems to have built on an existing infantry tradition. The Wu army under Wu Chen’s direction also improved its chariot skills, as the state of Chu was to discover to its cost by the close of the sixth century BC, but the tremendous punch it delivered in battle came from infantrymen. They were as famous as their equivalents in the northwestern state of Qin for a ferocity and determination that left opponents aghast. As one chronicler noted: ‘At this time Wu, following the advice of outsiders, crushed the powerful state of Chu in the west, filled Qi and Qin to the north with awe, and in the south forced the people of Yue to submit.’ The struggle with Yue, a state situated to the south of Wu, had long been a thorn in its side, not least because Yue’s strength resided in foot soldiers too. In 494 BC Yue was reduced to a dependency of Wu. The Yue people were not so easily subdued, however, and a sustained rebellion ended in the destruction of Wu. After 473 BC it was the Yue infantry which dominated the lower Yangzi and Huai river valleys, until in 333 BC a recovered Chu conquered the whole area. By then there were only seven major powers left: Han, Zhao, Wei, Qi, Chu, Yan and Qin; their loyalty to the Zhou king, the ruler of no more than a large estate at Luoyang, in the middle Yellow river valley, had entirely evaporated.

These were literally the warring states, whose conflicts lasted down to the Qin unification of China in 221 BC. Rising military expenditure was thus a factor in the replacement of chariots by infantry. Chariots were expensive to maintain, so that an army consisting mostly of them could be an impossible financial burden for a feudal state. An answer to the cost problem was an expansion of the infantry, which in turn lessened the importance of the war chariot. As a consequence of this change, a typical army comprised ‘one thousand chariots, ten thousands of cavalry and hundred thousands of foot soldiers’, according to the Zhanguo ce. Another reason for the replacement of chariotry by infantry concerned its vulnerability when assaulted by fast-moving infantrymen. In a parallel to the catastrophe experienced by West Asian and Egyptian chariotry, albeit on a smaller scale, a Chinese general suffered a serious reverse in 714 BC at the hands of northern barbarians fighting on foot. His chariots were almost overwhelmed by these lightly armed infantrymen. Well before Zhao abandoned chariotry for cavalry, Jin, the state from which it sprang, had realised the uselessness of chariots along the same northern border. Its earlier military solution was to form flying columns of infantry capable of intercepting the hit-and-run attacks of barbarian hillsmen. Their gradual reduction in previously unpenetrated mountainous terrain had the effect of removing a buffer zone which stood between the original core of China, the Yellow river plain, and the nomads who roamed the northern steppelands. The resulting increase in nomad raids explains the pressure on Zhao, which led its ruler Wuling to adopt mounted archery as a new means of defence, and also conquest.

So it was in the far north of China that cavalry came to enjoy a supremacy matched by infantry in the south. Over the Warring States period these new military formations steadily squeezed out chariotry. The aristocratic warfare of chariot-borne archers finally gave way to infantry tactics using armoured foot soldiers advancing with swords, halberds and crossbows. Such tactics required less individual skill but many more soldiers. They were in the main conscripted peasants, although these recruits supplemented professional foot soldiers, cavalrymen and charioteers. In the large-scale battles they fought there was no scope for courtesy, for the noble conduct that had typified the Spring and Autumn period encounters. No longer would a chariot warrior take care not to offend an enemy of superior rank, prior to an archery duel. War had ceased to be nothing more than a dangerous game as the feudal states now attacked each other without quarter.

Increasing numbers of the common people were drawn to the colours, since military life offered an escape from rural poverty and an opportunity for social advancement. Few successful commanders were of noble birth. There was no place for aristocrats in the deadly serious warfare that came to ravage ancient China, and threw up a new group of professional military leaders who understood strategy, supply and tactics. For them, and not only in Qin, which Shang Yang had virtually placed on a permanent war-footing, success on the battlefield meant social advancement. They did not need to be reminded of Shang Yang’s dictum: better to face the enemy than to fall into the hands of the police. Even before the deliberate destruction of the feudal order after Qin defeated all its opponents, the turmoil of the Warring States period had already transformed both Chinese warfare and society. Unremitting inter-state wars swept away much more than the war chariot, for in the remaining feudal courts a similar transformation akin to the one on the battlefield took place. The greater complexity of state affairs gave rise to professional administrators with little sympathy for courtly manners, and none at all for noble claims of precedence. Learning, not birth, was the new path to ministerial power.

Less information is available about the eclipse of the chariot as a war machine in India than China. Chariots were still operational on ancient Indian battlefields when Alexander the Great reached the subcontinent. But at the battle of Hydaspes river, in 326 BC, the chariotry commanded by one of Porus’ sons performed badly. Adverse weather conditions stopped its action before any damage could be inflicted upon the Macedonian vanguard as it was making a difficult river-crossing, since the Indian chariots got stuck in mud. The inability of the chariot to cope with heavy rain goes far to account for its eventual replacement in Indian armies by the horseman and the elephant.

But this abandonment of the war chariot was a slow process because of the status accorded to chariot warriors in the ancient Indian epics. Their deeds remained the exemplar of bravery. Utterly familiar were the elaborate rituals involved in duelling on the battlefield: blowing on a conch to challenge a worthy adversary; the sharp exchange of words before the loosing of arrows; a first blow provocatively knocking down an opponent’s flagstaff; then the disabling of his horses or charioteer prior to aiming at his person. When the Pandava prince Arjuna shot the entire chariot team of Kripa, in a duel arising from a cattle raid, he stopped firing until his adversary had recovered his balance. For the wounding of the chariot horses sent Kripa reeling. Once Arjuna was certain that he had fully recovered from this setback, the duel continued with great ferocity, not least on Kripa’s side. But a victorious Arjuna did nothing to prevent his wounded opponent from being carried away. Honour was satisfied, and there was a chance that Kripa would live to fight another day. Such restraint obviously removed some of the risks from chariot battle, although it proved insufficient to stay the general slaughter on the plain at Kurukshetra, the site of the great battle which forms the climax of the Mahabharata. In this epic poem the focus of the battle scenes is always the exploits of the aristocratic chariot warriors. Foot soldiers hardly receive a mention; their death at the hands of chariot warriors is simply regarded as a commonplace event. Yet they were critical to the clash of chariotry, as Kripa’s rescue by his followers shows. Like the squad of infantrymen which accompanied each Chinese chariot, their presence was essential for the support of a fighting vehicle so prone to accident and damage.

In India then the chariot continued to play a secondary and comparatively insignificant role in warfare right down to the arrival of Muslim armies in the eighth century AD. Hide-bound though Indian armies certainly remained, chariotry had fought well alongside cavalry before the Arabs arrived, and indeed before Alexander who preceded them. From the long passage Herodotus devotes in The Histories to the description of King Xerxes’ army, it can be seen that the Persians valued both Indian horsemen and charioteers. Herodotus places the army review in Thrace, on the plain of Doriscus, where the father of Xerxes, Darius I, had built a palace and left a garrison. On that spot, Xerxes took a census of the expeditionary force which in 480 BC invaded Greece.

Accordingly the Persian king drove in his chariot past the contingents of all the various nations, asking questions, the answers to which were taken down by scribes, until he had gone from one end of the army to the other, both foot and horse.

Amongst the horse Xerxes inspected an Indian contingent, ‘some of whom rode on horseback, others in chariots drawn by either horses or wild asses’. They were accompanied by foot soldiers ‘dressed in cotton’, who ‘carried cane bows and cane arrows tipped with iron’. After the naval reverse at Salamis, the Persian king rushed back to Asia in order to forestall any rebellion that news of military difficulties in Greece might encourage to break out. He left behind as commander his brother-in-law Mardonius, who was given the pick of the expeditionary force. He chose to keep

first, the Persian regiment known as the Immortals … next, the Persian spearmen and the picked cavalry squadron, a thousand strong; and, finally, the Medes, Sacae, Bactrians, and Indians, both horse and foot. These contingents he took over whole; from other nations he picked a few men here and there by their appearance or by their reputation for valour, till he had a total force, including cavalry, of 300,000 men.

This force was soundly beaten at Plataea in central Greece, in the early summer of 479 BC. The Indians, who at the battle faced Greeks from the island of Euboea, may have perished in a rout which Herodotus claims cost 260,000 men their lives on the Persian side. Whatever the fate of the Indian contingent, its selection by Mardonius is witness to the high regard the Persians had for Indian military prowess.

As early as the Rig Veda, India’s original text, we find reference to heroes fighting on horseback as well as from chariots. One of its hymns beseeches Indra, the god most worshipped by chariot warriors, for victory on the battlefield: for ‘heroes winged with horses’ as well as ‘warriors in chariots’. Light cavalry should not be a surprising feature of ancient Indian armies, considering the esteem in which the Indo-Aryans always held the horse. After all, the name of the Asvins, the twin horse-headed gods of India, derives from the notion of horse ownership. Asvin means owing a horse of one’s own. And like Chiron, the wise horse-man in Greek mythology, the Asvins were renowned doctors, even physicians to the gods. Doubtless this reputation had something to do with the veterinary skills necessary for the breeding, training and welfare of horses, whether used by cavalrymen or charioteers. When in 303 BC Megasthenes was in Pataliputra as the ambassador of Seleucus I to the Mauryan court, he was deeply impressed by Indian methods for training horses. He reports how

it is a practice with them to control their horses with bit and bridle, and take them at a measured pace and in a straight line … Professional trainers break horses in by forcing them to gallop round and round in a ring, especially when they show marked signs of displeasure. Those who undertake this work need a strong hand as well as a thorough understanding of horses.

From other sources we are aware of the extent of veterinary knowledge at this time, and not just animal diseases and their treatment, but also the best ways of feeding, grooming and exercising horses. There was additionally a science of signs, interpreting the auspicious or inauspicuous marks on each animal’s body.

Fighting on horseback in ancient armies usually ended as fighting on foot, however. Without stirrups it was impossible for horsemen to fight man to man, as both riders would be knocked off their mounts. Cavalry engagements usually began with a gallop towards the enemy, which slowed at javelin range so that the missile could be safely hurled. This might occur several times before riders dismounted and fought like foot soldiers. When, or how, the toe-stirrup came into use in India is still a mystery. Only mounted archers had no reason to be anxious about falling off their mounts. Their accuracy of fire, however, was less than an archer on the platform of a chariot. Apart from bouncing around on a horse’s back, the mounted archer had to carry his quiver on his shoulder, and twist round whenever he needed another arrow. He also had to let go of the reins when shooting. That is why the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal went hunting on horseback with a squire, whose task was to hand the ruler arrows and keep an eye on the royal mount. When Ashurbanipal rode in a chariot, he could more easily balance himself on its leather platform and steady his aim. Whilst the extra quivers the chariot carried removed any worries about wasting arrows, the vehicle’s movement was in the hands of an expert who knew the best approach to the quarry. Where horses were of course better than chariots was in uneven terrain, a shortcoming wheeled vehicles could never overcome, no matter the efforts made by the Assyrians to strengthen the hubs of royal chariots. It was an insoluble technical problem which accounts for the presence of both chariotry and cavalry in so many ancient armies.

Chariots had long disappeared from Greece by the time the Indian contingent of chariotry, cavalry and infantry took part in the battle of Plataea. So complete was the obliteration of chariotry in the Greek consciousness that, as we have noted, Homer was at a loss to explain the function of the chariot on the battlefield. The palace-strongholds of Mycenae and Tiryns were no more than impressive ruins, whose great walls of large boulders and hammer-dressed blocks of stone seemed to later Greeks the work of giants, the one-eyed Cyclops. Given this stark break in the historical tradition, there is no possibility of tracing the relationship in Europe between chariotry and early cavalry. After the catastrophe of the Sea Peoples which engulfed Mycenaean Greece as well as the island of Crete, all that can be said concerns a preference among the succeeding Greek city states for infantry combat. It was this emphasis on the foot soldier which gave the Greeks victory at Plataea. Once it was clear to the Spartan king Pausanias that the Persian infantry had no room for manoeuvre, pressed as it was from behind by a mass of other contingents, he led the Spartan phalanx forward. The fighting at first centred on a hedge of wicker shields. This breached, desperate hand-to-hand combat was the order of the day as Persian infantrymen were reduced to snapping the Spartan spears with their bare hands. Lacking heavy armour, they were no match for the finest infantrymen in Greece, despite showing the courage that had made them masters of a great empire. As the Athenian dramatist Aeschylus remarked, the spear had overcome the bow. In such an engagement there was little room for horsemen, and none at all for chariots.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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