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Chapter XVI-BATTLE OF TIENSUITEN
From "With Kuroki in Manchuria" by Frederick Palmer
At three on the morning of July 31st all baggage and even all correspondents and attaches forsook the little town of Lienshankwan, whose hospitality the Japanese had held with martial courtesy for more than a month, leaving flies behind than they found when the Russians evacuated it. On the 4th and the 17th, when our positions were attacked, the unexpected sound of firing had taken us over the pass. This time the engagement came as no surprise; since the orders of the afternoon it had become a set event like target practice.
All the ominous elation of night before battle was ours. Wakening from the few hours' sleep that a correspondent snatch had the thrill of anticipation replete with every possibility of the shock of arms. We had time for contemplation of the fact that we were assigned to an army corps which, after all, was only a unit in enveloping forces stretching for nearly a hundred miles.
From the summit of Motien we saw the first glow of light in the East. A thick mist had preceded it; a mist that might save infantry approaching position hundreds of lives and hold gunners in the awful leash of blindness at the hour toward which all their anticipations and preparations had been directed. But the mist had went as quickly as it had come, rising swiftly as if to salute the dawn of a summer's day, when mountain-top was as clear against the sky-line as the houses of the village against the foliage of a slope. Pack-laden and rifle-laden offence with the sun on its back-as the Imperial Guards realized bitterly before the day was over-was to have no cover except of earth and trees and growing crops from their watchful and waiting antagonists.
On the ride over we passed no guns or hastening infantry. The whole fighting army was on the other side of the pass. General Kuroki was already on the hill back of the new temple (which with the surrounding country I have already described). That thatch of tree branches which an infantry outpost had erected now sheltered the mind of the movement, who kept cool literally as well as metaphorically. What chess-player would not? On this hill, his chief of staff at his side, he was to remain all day. The chief of staff did the talking; he listened, and now and he gave an order. On this occasion all the carefully laid programme was not carried out. The central column of the Guards was checked; batteries had to change their positions. In the face of good and bad news he was the same unchanging Kuroki. No spectator's curiosity held his attention to any one part of the field. He was playing the greatest of all games with his mind on team play. The sound that interested him most was not that of firing, but the click of the telegraph instrument, which left nothing to the doubt of vision but told him exactly what each unit was doing. Meanwhile, the spectator, watching through high-powered glasses for flashes and smoke rings, saw the masses, the supers, the torch-bearers and heard a roar and compassed their meaning as you get the outline of the plot of a play in a tongue foreign to you.
From the left with the first streaks of light, between the speeches of the guns, came the drum-drum of infantry fire-but first to the simple outline of the day's problem! We held the higher of the two ranges of divide, and the lower the second, was our object. The taking of Yushu (Yushurei) Pass which commands the Mukden Road was left to the division on our right, the Twelfth, which operated beyond our sight and almost beyond our hearing. Yantsu (Yoshurei) Pass, which commands the Liao-yang Road, was the work of the central (Second) and the left (Guards) division. The right and the central division were to advance in line, and the left division was to strike Yantsu on the flank and the rear.
The spectator had the old citadel of observation which he occupied on the 17th-valueless for guns and infantry, and highly useful for attaches and correspondents, who could see the action as a whole. This conical hill was one of the heights which form the reach between the two ranges where there are sugar-loaves, turtle-backs and camel-humps, with ridges twisting in unexpected directions- a terrain like that of a loose cloth wrinkled with the hands till there was no set characteristics except that of irregularity.
At our feet lay the valley where some glacier once made a track for freshets to wear down, and at its end gleamed the tantalizing white base of the pagoda tower of Towan. For a month that landmark of our desire had tempted our eyes; and to-day we were to have it or know the reason why. Thowan lies at the junction of valleys, as well as at the gap that the old Peking Road follows in its final passage after its route in the shadow of mountains toward the plain. By the roads in the low places dwell the communes who plaster the slopes with the green squares of their tillage.
Now the force which follows the valley becomes a target for surprises and plunging fire. Except under the cover of darkness, the attacking force could not use the Towan valley as channel for bringing up its reserves. The Tiensuiten valley, running north and south and crossing that Towan in front of the tower, stood between Kuroki and the enemy as the Yalu had at Ku-lien-cheng. The Russian defenses, with guns in front and guns on the sides, a vast rise of mountainous heights, was as threatening as the bow view of a battle-ship, the white base of the pagoda being the bone in its teeth. On the right the angle was sharp in view of the gentler slopes which led up to the eminences almost on a line with the Peking Road, which was the center of the Russian position. Obviously the way to take this was with pressure of infantry on both sides if evacuation alone was desired; on one side if a "bag" was desired. The second way was tried, then the first was called into assistance, and the manner of this as I observed makes my story.
Morning found the batteries of our central division in position and their troops lining the bridges. It was not yet their turn. If division on the left was hidden from us as a body, we could at least see some of its chips fly. The crack of its guns and the bursting of its shells we heard as cries and their echoes. We located the first Russian battery to attract our attention by the burst of shrapnel smoke which it drew. Here in a "saddle" between two crests the gun positions had been cut out of limestone rock three or four hundred feet above the level of the plain. As the ugly blue curls of smoke shot out and vanished into thin vapor, others came to take their place and underneath them flashed the answers like the mirrors of heliograph in a burning sun.
The blue bursts were three to one against the flashes, which came slower and slower and then stopped. But still the thunder kept up. We had seen only one Russian battery. Scanning the heights for glimpse of the others, on the very sky-line one caught one, two, three, four malicious, hellish points of flame. There were as sudden as the flight of a rocket on a dark night in a little-traversed sea. Splendid was their message to any observing gunner, to whom they bespoke the apotheosis of his art. In a breath they told of arduous weeks of preparation for our coming.
There was a miracle of the spade, the effort that had carried artillery road in old, old China to that altitude! In the lap between two cones and on the crest of one of them, snug as eaglets in their nests, these metal mouths were vomiting death to objects six or seven thousands yards away. No shrapnel bursts went that high. Here were gunners coolly at target practice while their comrades in the "saddle" below took the revenge the enemy returned. Japanese skill in gunnery could not overcome the altitude or the obstacles which armories turn out and money can buy.
I had waited for months for some concrete illustration of the superiority of the Russian guns. Now it was emphasized as plainly as the speed of a forty-hors-power automobile and a light runabout. (The author of profound exclamations about the amazing feats of the Japanese artillery which have been going the round of the press for months have confounded guns with gunnery.) To-day, for the first time in five months' campaign of this army, the fact that Ivan Ivanovitch is a big, burly man and Nippon Denji is a little man notably counted in the Russian's favor.
If Ivan has big boots, big stretchers, big blankets, big commissary and hospital wagons, and big horses, he also has big guns. With the Japanese, artillery has been sacrificed to the size of the horses. His gun is small like everything else in his army. It is of an old pattern; the range is a thousand yards less than the enemy's; the shell three pounds lighter; the muzzle velocity 300 feet less a second; and it can fire only one shot were the Russian gun fires two or three. Nippon Denji had led the world to a false conclusion by the way in which he used a poor weapon. But on the 31st he was not against such clumsy adversaries as those who made their guns the sport of disaster at Yalu. Instead, he was against European trained men of that arm of the service which calls the best of the thin upper-crust of Russian intelligence for officers.
As a hydrant commands a street crossing, so the skyline battery commanded the mouth of the valley from which the central column of the Guards division, debouched at dawn. In confidence the gunners, who had plotted every distance within range, waited for their target to appear. One of the Japanese batteries took up a position on a ridge. From the bottom of the valley it was as obscured as a man in the middle of a flat roof from the street; from the Russian hill-tops it was as plain as the man on the flat roof from an adjoining church steeple. When that Japanese battery fired, the skyline battery turned on the switchboard of destruction.
One, two three, four went the screaming answers back over the fields of millet and corn, the groves and gullies to their mark. With the first discharge they were shooting as accurately as the even quality of fuses and powder-the exactitude of chemical processes and angles-would permit without harm to themselves. They could keep up the stream as ling as they had ammunition. The Japanese battery was a battery with its hands tight against a giant with free and militant fists. The skyline battery proved the overwhelming power of artillery when there is no adversary to take the venom out of its sting.
For our guns there was only one thing to do. Japanese courage does not bootlessly stick its head into the cannon's mouth; it is a quantity most skillfully used. So our guns ceased firing till they should have a better position and a clearer field. The skyline battery not only silenced them but it was the main compelling force, I judge, in making the news that rumor brought us at the conical hill. The fire of the left had died down at 9:30; and then we heard that the central column of the Guards had been checked. The "bag" seemed in danger. It was the turn of our Second Division to carry out its part. (Still all that we had seen give proof to report was the unanswered flashes of the unapproachable skyline battery; the wall of the Towan valley hid all else from us.)
While the left fought, we had watched the positions of our own reserves on the nearest ridge and scanned the Russian heights in vain for a glimpse of a single infantryman. On the Tiensuiten valley ridge was one of the Second Division batteries. This was approached by a gully leading from the valley of Towan. The slatey color of ammunition wagons chocked this gully at a point just beneath the crest. Officers and gunners had been loitering about at picnic ease. At ten-the most cheerful moment of the day for them-the Russian batteries began searching the valley of Tiensuiten and the Japanese ridge overlooking it. We saw the gunners taking their places in the Japanese battery. A minute later they let go. They had a few rounds of almost uninterrupted service while the enemy located their guns. Then a battery high up on the Russian right took a hand. The figures which sill loitered back of the Japanese battery did not seem much discomposed. They were at least taking their time to reach cover. But suddenly blue puff-balls were blowen out in every direction. From our safe position they were pretty to look at; their significance assaulted our ears when we heard the shrill flight of their projectiles. The figures disappeared as quickly as a colony of prairie dogs which had been sunning themselves. Men and horses having separated for a breath of fresh air now hugged cover as if it were an infant in arms-all because of the little blue rings of smoke, which would have been a strange and uncountable bit of witchcraft to one of Caesar's legions.
Into the guns, over the guns, this side of the guns, in nice spraying distance beyond the guns pointing above the bull's-eye like the hits of a good marksman on a paper target, with bursts above and spouts of earth beneath, the fifteen-pound monsters with their quarts of spreading bullets came.
"A little over! A little short! A little wide!" ran the comments of the spectators, all intent on the game and not thinking of life and death. (But it was life and death, however, that lent the game its spirit.) We saw units dodging up and down to fire, and that was all. But to fire was to draw more fire-fire that we could not adequately return. The thing was to move up and get better hold on these long-range, rapid-firing adversaries. Our battery became silent. Receiving no reply, the Russians stopped.
This round, so far as the guns went, had been decided in the Russians' favor, I think. There was a lull through both valleys. The army rested; it ate; it made new dispositions. An artillery duel consists of intervals of ear-wrecking noise and of silence which is like that of a tomb compared to the rasping, mechanical purr of factory room full of looms. The fusillade begins with first one and then another taking up the refrain, and then from the whirlwind height of action it dies down one by one till a last boom and shriek and crack introduces a recess. And by the way it dies down you may well judge which side is getting the better of the play. The rests in a combat of mechanical and chemical powers of destruction are as natural as the breathing spaces in brute conflict which take on the rude dignity of rounds in a prize-fight.
The lull on this occasion had an exception. One gun of the ridge buttery kept on firing in an assertive solo at regular intervals to make the Russians think all the guns were there, in fact, the others were moving away. We saw the General and his staff go riding up the gully to the battery position, and finally he and a part of the guns disappeared over the ridge into the valley where now our other batteries and the entire right wing of our division's advance was hidden. There he directed the advance to the final grip of the gentler slopes on the right of the Russian position.
You might have then thought that the work was over for the day. Noonday shadows crept lazily over the valley of Towan. The Russians heights seemed as innocent of guns as the hills of resort viewed from the veranda of a summer hotel. On every hand was the silence of an uninhabited land. It was a silence more intense than any day of peace this stretch of the earth's surface had ever known. In ordinary times some native carts would have been creaking along the valley roads and the population, unhushed, would have been going about their usual labors. It was creepy silence though the blazing sun illuminated all things; a silence charged with the thought that stealthy antagonist was creeping toward waiting antagonist. You could hear the tick of your watch and the drowsy hum of insects quite plainly as you sought a little shade and rest under a tree back of the conical hill.
At 2:30 our guns broke out with fresh energy. Those of the ridge battery having moved nearer could now pay back their old assailant in coin of kind. One of its pieces spoke harshly, like an orator who had over-used his throat. Some imperfection in the bore, lately developed, must have cut the shell case a little and the revolution in transit produced a guttural that was out of tune with all the other shrieks.
Thirty-two pieces of Russians had in all; fifty-four the Japanese had in all. Every one joined in the swelling chorus. Smoke rings hung on the hillsides like thistle-blows caught by an upward zephyr. There was now no bad shooting expect from-from none other than the unapproachable skyline battery, which swung its muzzles around to play on the right. One, two, three, four-its shells burst four or five hundred feet above the line of the ridge and over the valley of Tiensuiten which the ridge hid from our eyes. Directly we learned its object and the cause of the outburst of all the guns on both sides on their full capacity. Through the corn and millet of the slopes approaching the Russians positions on the right we caught the movement of the Japanese infantry. Draw a line north and south through the tower of Towan and at right angles to the road leading through the pass, and this force was beyond the Russian gun position on the other side of the tower and the infantry supporting it.
The irregular terrain which had profited the skyline battery now made it the sport of its own satire. Its target was invisible to its gunners. It was firing by estimate from a position where the signals of results could not be easily received. The rapidity of the bursts still told that same tale of the slowness of the antedated Japanese guns. But the faster the fire the better for the morale of the Japanese. If the bullets had struck the advancing infantry from such a height they could not have done more than felled them. As it was, they were hundreds of yards to the rear of both skirmish line and support. The Japanese infantry, tired and hot the Japanese gunners especially in view of what they have suffered from these same guns, might well grin over a display of killing power as futile as tossing twelve-inch shells into an untraversed part of the Pacific Ocean. By silencing some of the aggressors it might have diminished the stream of destruction that was flowing into other Russian gun-pits; but the officers in the skyline battery evidently decided that they could better serve their country by indirect fire upon unseen infantry. Meanwhile, the Russian "saddle" battery was receiving more than it could return. The flashes from its muzzles were becoming infrequent. One imagined that each shot might be its death gasp. Seeing their man down, the Japanese increased their fire. Ten shrapnel to one that was sent were burst over the position.
With the dust from a ground explosion still hanging in the air I saw three curls of smoke, each fairly over one of the three guns, breaking in as quick succession as you would flip out three fingers of your hand form your palm. Such a bull's-eye score must have been accident. Neither human, chemical, nor mechanical accuracy would permit it. The "saddle" battery was the first to go out of action before a long lull in which antagonist again took account of shock. The skyline battery which made the morning artillery sessions in the Russians' favor, had now by its hopeless waste of power left honors even.
When the loud mouths spoke again, the infantry of the Second Division, with the cool of the evening at hand, were ready for the final act. Every Japanese gun was in action. Now and then, in a second when there were no reports from muzzles, no sound of the shrill cries of shells in flight or the "uk-kung" of bursts, we heard, as you hear the rumble of city traffic in the lull of conversation, the rattle of the rifles, with possibly the rake of a Russian volley. The infantry are the fingers that get the final grip of a position; the artillery removes the thorns form their path. We could still see our reserves on the slopes at the right. The advance line which had taken one trench must now be almost under the guns-hidden from our view and the Russians', perhaps, as well, by fields of grain.
Over the rise of a knoll, where the valley of Towan broadens into the plain before the gap of Yantsu, we saw a battalion or more of running figures disappear into the kowliang. To-day for the first time the kowliang played a part for this army-a little foretaste of a part that it will play in the military history of two nations if we fight a decisive battle with Kuropatkin on the plains of Liaoyang before harvest time. The seed of kowliang is like that of a millet that we have at home. Its aspect is that of Indian corn. With stalks a little thinner, with leaves as plentiful, it grows to a height of from eight to twelve feet. Only two months ago we saw the Chinese planting the season's crop at Feng-wang-cheng. Fierce sun and plentiful moisture have already sent it to more than the height of a horse's head.
What are our Japanese men going to do when they no longer have hills to screen the sudden flank movements of their agile, tireless limbs, has often been asked? The answer is the kowliang, and when not kowliang Indian corn, which is also plentiful in Manchuria. We had an object lesson to-day. All through the fight, with increasing curiosity we had noticed (past the gully which led to the ridge battery) an artillery ammunition train hugging the cover of a bend in the valley. It seemed as unattached in this action as if it were lost, strayed, or stolen. All through the fight we heard the reports of a Japanese battery-whose cough-cough-cough told the hill-gazers it was on low ground-which we tried in vain to locate.
It was in the kowliang back of the knoll over which we had just seen the battalion which supported it pass to the charge. The perfect concealment not only included the men and guns, but the flashes themselves, which broke under the cover of green leaves. You gunners of the skyline battery, so triumphant in the morning, it will be more gall to you to know that your fairest mark you never saw at all! These pieces in range of twenty Russian guns were as unmolested as you on your eminence, and their deceit made the sport of the satire have finer edge than yours. Need I say again that the Japanese never wait on the enemy but go to him-which is the first instinct with a martial race? Need I enlarge on the nerve of that artillery commander who serenely took his battery into that position? It is by such nerve that victories are won.
Advancing infantry could have had no better protection than that line, making its way steadily across the plain toward the mouth of the pass, received from its coughing friends in the kowliang. When they should reach the pagoda they had the Mecca of their advance. The finish of the day's work was in sight. The skyline battery was still throwing mirrors out of the window while the Russian house blazed; still bursting shrapnel harmlessly high over stretches of field already clear of our advancing right; and the desperate rapidity of its fruitless fire became the final touch of the irony of the battle. But the voices of the Japanese guns were now the loudest; the Japanese infantry were forcing near the hour of flight.
On the other side of the tower was wooded hill with four guns. These and the Russian infantry trenches in front became in the last moments the kowliang battery's fair prey. Our infantry appeared and reappeared until we saw a line forming at the base of the ridge on the point on which stood the pagoda like a light-house on a little promontory, with the field of the plain for a calm, though a green, sea. Time was short for the wooded-hill battery opposite.
We saw the Russian infantry that supported it flying up the valley in scattered groups and figures, with men on horseback directing them and shrapnel bursts from the kowliang battery remorselessly pursuing them.
Suddenly something dark with horses attached was shot out of the wooded slope, and as suddenly stopped like a toboggan full of people striking a stone wall. There was a moment's melee and then we saw horses galloping up the valley. (The Russians had still another gun added to their list of lost, as we learned next day.)
On the left the Russian artillery and infantry still held that division and their line of retreat safe-destroying all hope of a "bag". Evacuation for the Russians was inevitable from the moment that we saw a Japanese officer with soldiers streaming after him ride up the ridge to the tower. It was good to think that the pagoda was ours. Now we should see what it was like; we should not have to look at it again as the landmark of forbidden spot-though firing from the left where the Russians were covering their retreat still continued.
We might see no more. That was the verdict of the espionage which keeps the foreigners from too far exposing themselves. Riding back to where the pack-horses waited for us with a meal, we saw the staff at dinner in the court of the temple of Kwantei. An officer who had just ridden in was silhouetted in the doorway. Evidently he had brought great news-possibly of the success of the brigade of the Second, which, assisted the Twelfth, killed, captured, or wounded a thousand Russians in a cul de sac in ten minutes with loss of twenty on its own part. The chief of staff was interrogating him; other members looking up from their plates exclaimed their interest. The General himself was listening unmoved, just as he had all day. He had done a characteristic day's work. Against our total of eight hundred casualties, the Russian loss, besides the five hundred dead they left on the field, must have been fifteen hundred, including the mortally wounded general in command.
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