6 September 2023

War cart regiment of Zeng Xian (曾銑)

Satellite map of Hetao region
Satellite map of modern Hetao region. 

The plan to reclaim Hetao

The region known as Hetao (河套) is a collection of flood plains located in northwestern China. Consists of vast grasslands in stark contrast to its arid desert/steppe surroundings, Hetao region has historically been of utmost strategic importance to both China and its nomadic enemies, as its fertile grasslands are suitable for pastoral and agricultural activities, making it an ideal staging ground for nomadic incursion into China's heartlands, while at the same time also served as an important source of warhorse for sedentary Chinese dynasties as well as allowing the Chinese to station large numbers of troops here as the first line of defence against steppe incursions.

Unfortunately, the advent of Little Ice Age changed everything as Hetao became increasingly cold and arid by late Yuan-early Ming period. Although the region remained in Chinese hands since the founding of Ming Dynasty, it had become a financial burden to the fledgling Ming Dynasty due to decreasing agricultural output, eventually forcing the Chinese to vacate the region. For a time, this wasn't a big problem because Ming Dynasty decisively smashed Northern Yuan into fragmented feuding tribes during Battle of Buir Lake in 1388, relieving much of the military pressure from the north and forcing the nomads to also vacate Hetao. However, as the Mongols slowly consolidated despite near-constant power struggle and emerged stronger under a series of competent leaders such as Esen Taishi and Dayan Khan, they began to probe into Hetao again by 1430s. The balance of power finally shattered in the 16th century as Tümed Mongols under Altan Khan officially moved in and settled in Hetao and even founded the city of Hohhot, putting the safety of Ming's northwest border in peril.

It was during this time that the prospect of reclaiming Hetao became a hotly-debated topic within Ming court. Zeng Xian (曾銑), a veteran Ming commander and one of the handful that could and did defeat the dreaded Altan Khan, was a huge proponent of it, writing no less than four memorials to the throne to promote his idea to the emperor between 1546-1548. The war cart regiment was thus the centrepiece of his plan to reclaim Hetao.

The war cart

Zeng Xian's war cart is known as Pi Li Che (霹靂車, lit. 'Thunderclap cart'), possibly the same one or closely related to Xian Feng Pi Li Che (先鋒霹靂車, lit. 'Vanguard thunderclap cart'), an earlier design created by Fan Ji (範吉) in 1503. While its detailed specifications are unfortunately lost, it is known that Zheng Xian laid out a detailed list of weapons used by the war cart, shown below:
  • 18 Pi Li Pao (霹靂砲, lit. 'Thunderclap handgonne'): a type of early Ming single-barrel handgonne that shoots five lead bullets per shot.
  • 1 Da Lian Zhu Pao (大連珠砲, lit. 'Great rapid bead cannon'): an early Ming cannon or heavy handgonne that shoots ten lead bullets per shot.
  • 1 Er Lian Zhu Pao (二連珠砲, lit. 'Second rapid bead cannon'): smaller version of Da Lian Zhu Pao that shoots five lead bullets per shot.
  • 2 Shou Ba Chong (手把銃, lit. 'Handheld gun'): a type of early Ming single-barrel handgonne that shoots two lead bullets per shot.
  • 4 Zhan Kou Jiang Jun (盞口將軍, lit. 'Bow-mouthed general'): a type of early Ming bombard. During Zhen Xian's time the bombard was already adapted to launch explosive shells, and Zhan Kou Jiang Jun was able to launch up to twenty explosive shells per shot.
  • 200 rockets.
Interestingly, all weapons used by Zeng Xian's war cart regiment were of indigenous Chinese designs, even though his contemporary, Liu Tian He (劉天和) already introduced Western-style Fo Lang Ji (佛朗機) to northwestern China for quite some time.

The regiment

Zeng Xian's war cart regiment consisted of two core elements: the Pi Li Che Dui (霹靂車隊, ;it. 'Thunderclap cart platoon'), or war cart platoons, as well as Xuan Feng Qi Bing (選鋒奇兵, lit. 'Chosen edge unorthodox troops'), elite troops that served as organic units in support of the war cart platoons. It should be noted that the entire regiment was mounted.

Pi Li Che Dui (霹靂車隊)

A Pi Li Che Dui consisted of a total of 52 personnel, including:
  • 1 platoon commander,
  • 1 standard bearer,
  • 5 archers,
  • 10 handgonners,
  • 5 gunners manning Da Lian Zhu Pao,
  • 5 gunners manning Er Lian Zhu Pao,
  • 8 artillerymen operating four bombards,
  • 10 shieldmen handling five Pang Pai (旁牌) shields in paired teams,
  • 5 horse catchers/handlers.
  • 5 assigned war carts.
A war cart regiment would have 40 war cart platoons (2,080 troops), grouped into 32 defensive Pi Li Zhu Che (霹靂駐車. lit. 'Thunderclap stationing cart') platoons and 8 offensive Pi Li Zhan Che (霹靂戰車, lit. 'Thunderclap war cart') platoons.

Xuan Feng Qi Bing (選鋒奇兵)

A Xuan Feng Qi Bing also consisted of 52 personnel and was assigned 14 Shou Ba Chong and 8 Er Lian Zhu Pao. As the elite organic element of the regiment, all troopers of Xuan Feng Qi Bing were expected to fulfill a variety of combat roles, both mounted and dismounted.
A war cart regiment would have 16 such platoons (832 troops).

Other personnel

The war cart regiment was led by a Zhong Jun Guan (中軍官, lit. 'Central army official'), who was aided by 2 Qian Zong (千總) vice commanders and 12 Ba Zong (把總) sub-commanders. Beside the commanders and various platoons, a regiment also had up to 100 Ye Bu Shou (夜不收) and drummers.
The war cart regiment also contained unspecified numbers of supply carts and pack mules.

Eight battle formations of Zeng Xian's regiments

As part of his proposal, Zeng Xian also devised eight battle formations to better prepare his war cart regiments for the variety of combat situations they would inevitably encounter during Hetao reclamation campaign, which will be explained below. Do note that all formations are facing left.

Since all the formation diagrams below are drawn with a mess of Chinese characters, I created a legend to help with understanding them.

Li Ying (立營, lit. 'Standing regiment')

Li Ying formation, from 'Wu Bian Qian Ji (《武編前集》)'.
Li Ying was the "default" formation of Zeng Xian's war cart regiment that can be readily adapted to other formations as situation demands. A hollow rectangular formation with deep front and rear but relatively thin flanks, Li Ying's foremost and rearmost rank consisted of five Xuan Feng Qi Bing platoons each, followed by three Xuan Feng Qi Bing platoons and two Pi Li Zhan Che platoons at second and second last ranks, followed by eight Pi Li Zhu Che platoons at third and third last ranks. Conversely, its flanks only consisted of a single file of eight Pi Li Zhu Che platoons and two Pi Li Zhan Che platoons each. At the centre of the formation, there was a smaller, secondary square formed by supply carts. Horses and other beasts of burden were placed inside the secondary square for extra protection, and Zhong Jun (headquarters unit) would also oversee and command the entire formation from here.

Yu Di Zhu Zhan (遇敵駐戰, lit. 'Defensive battle [formation] during enemy encounter')

Yu Di Zhu Zhan formation, from 'Wu Bian Qian Ji (《武編前集》)'.
Yu Di Zhu Zhan formation was a defensive formation used when the war cart regiment's scouts detected an impending enemy attack. The formation was a compact double square (although it can also take other shapes such as circle, semicircle, wedge and rhomboid, depending on terrain), with the outer primarily square formed by Pi Li Zhan Che platoons, while the inner secondary square was formed by Pi Li Zhu Che platoons. All Pi Li Che war carts were chained together, with Pang Pai shieldmen positioned in front of the chains to protect the gaps between carts. Twelve platoons of Xuan Feng Qi Bing cavalry were positioned at the four corners of the square (i.e. three platoons per corner), both to reinforce the weakest points of the formation and to serve as flanking forces, while all other troops would dismount and occupy the space between primary and secondary square. Horses, mules, supply carts and Zhong Jun were placed inside secondary square.

The dismounted troops, who were primarily handgonners, would be divided into three squads. When enemy approached the first squad would move outside the formation to open fire, then return to the formation and replaced by the second squad, then the third, to create a continuous volley fire. If the enemy were not deterred by handgonne volleys and continued to advance closer, then Pi Li Che war carts would also join in the firing with more handgonnes and rockets, while Xuan Feng Qi Bing at the appropriate corners would also move out to outflank the enemy.

Qian Feng Che Zhan (前鋒車戰, lit. 'Vanguard war cart battle [formation]')

Qian Feng Che Zhan formation, from 'Wu Bian Qian Ji (《武編前集》)'.
Qian Feng Che Zhan formation was a formation designed for frontal engagement, used when the enemy launched a major frontal attack against the war cart regiment. It was a rectangular formation with a heavily reinforced front, and consisted of three parts. The front of the formation was a rectangle formed by Pi Li Zhan Che war carts, supported by dismounted spearmen and glaivemen and a core of mounted cavalry positioned within. Behind the front rectangle was a large contingent of cavalry (mounted Xuan Feng Qi Bing) that served as reserve as well as flanking force. 

The larger rear rectangle was known as Lao Ying (老營, lit. 'Old camp'), which served as an anchor where the rest of the formation can rally around. In addition to war carts, it also contained a secondary square formed by Pang Pai shieldmen supported by infantry handgonners (divided into three squads for volley fire), as well as a small tertiary square of supply carts. Horse handlers and mules were placed inside secondary square, while horses and Zhong Jun were positioned inside tertiary square.

Similar to its more defence-oriented counterpart, Qian Feng Che Zhan formation was able to shower enemy attackers with volleys upon volleys of handgonne fire as they get close. However, by concentrating most Xuan Feng Qi Bing to the front, it was also able to execute countercharge and pincer movement once enemy's momentum was spent.

Qi Bing Zhu Zhan (騎兵逐戰, lit. 'Cavalry pursuing battle [formation]')

Qi Bing Zhu Zhan formation, from 'Wu Bian Qian Ji (《武編前集》)'.
Qi Bing Zhu Zhan formation was an offensive formation designed for scenarios whereby the war cart regiment decided to countercharge an exhausted enemy, pursue a fleeing foe, quickly defeat a smaller force, or attack a lightly defended position, but still wanted some form of security. The formation consisted of a strong contingent of cavalry (mounted Xuan Feng Qi Bing) at the front, followed by a rectangle of Pi Li Zhan Che war carts with additional Xuan Feng Qi Bing (also mounted) positioned within, followed by Lao Ying at the rear.

Bu Bing Bo Zhan (步兵搏戰, lit. 'Infantry fighting battle [formation]')

Bu Bing Bo Zhan formation, from 'Wu Bian Qian Ji (《武編前集》)'.
The infantry counterpart to Qi Bing Zhu Zhan formation, Bu Bing Bo Zhan formation was used when treacherous terrain prevented proper deployment of war carts and cavalry, and/or bad weather hampered the use of firearms. It was identical to Qi Bing Zhu Zhan formation in most aspects, except that its front was largely replaced by infantry (dismounted Xuan Feng Qi Bing), with a heavy emphasis of archers and glaivemen and only minimal presence of cavalry and firearms (mostly rockets).

Xing Ying Jin Gong (行營進攻, lit. 'Mobile regiment offensive [formation]')

Xing Ying Jin Gong formation, from 'Wu Bian Qian Ji (《武編前集》)'.
Xing Ying Jin Gong formation was an offensive formation used when the entire war cart regiment decided to launch an attack as one single mass. It was a column formation with cavalry (mounted Xuan Feng Qi Bing) positioned at the front and rear, four files of Pi Li Che war carts at the flanks (two on each flank), and handgonners on foot positioned in-between two rows of war carts. The formation still maintained a secondary square formed by supply carts and flanked by horse handlers and mules, with horses as well as Zhong Jun positioned inside the square.

Bian Ying Chang Qu (變營長驅, lit. 'Changing regiment long chase [formation]')

Bian Ying Chang Qu formation, from 'Wu Bian Qian Ji (《武編前集》)'.
The inverse of Xing Ying Jin Gong formation, Bian Ying Chang Qu formation was used when the war cart regiment had to traverse difficult terrain that limits turning and maneuvering. All Pi Li Zhan Che platoons were moved to the front and rear and supported by Pang Pai shieldmen, while cavalry (mounted Xuan Feng Qi Bing) were assigned to protect the flanks. At the centre of the formation, there was a tripled square formation formed by handgonners on foot at the outer layer, Pi Li Zhu Che platoons at the middle layer, and supply carts at the inner layer. As usual, horse handlers and mules were placed inside the middle square, while horses as well as Zhong Jun were positioned inside the inner square.

Huo Gong Shou Bing (獲功收兵, lit. 'Withdraw [formation] after acquiring gains')

Huo Gong Shou Bing formation, from 'Wu Bian Qian Ji (《武編前集》)'.
Huo Gong Shou Bing formation was used when the war cart regiments had accumulated gains from previous engagements (such as from a Dao Chao [Note: Patrons-only article] operation) and was in the process of returning to friendly territories, but was trailed or caught up by enemy pursuers. Interestingly, regiment would split into two square formations for mutual support. The first square, formed by Pi Li Zhan Che platoons with all Xuan Feng Qi Bing hiding behind the war carts, was used to protect the spoils of war. The second square continued to serve as Lao Ying/anchor and maintained the same same configuration it had in other formations. The purpose of this formation was to hide all vulnerable personnel, mounts and materiel out of sight, presenting nothing but strongly defended war carts to the enemy to dissuade attack.

In case the regiment needed to spend the night in the wild, both squares would once again merge into one for increased security. In addition, around 2~300 Xuan Feng Qi Bing, organised into teams of fifty, were tasked with sentry duty to keep the regiment safe.

The great injustice and death of Zeng Xian

Regrettably, while Zeng Xian was a very capable commander and his proposed plan to reclaim Hetao was militarily sound, as a frontier general he had little idea of the political intricacies inside Ming court, and his proposed plan cannot solve the fundamental issues (i.e. cost) that caused Ming Dynasty to retreat from Hetao region in the first place. In his overeagerness, Zeng Xian underreported the cost of executing such a plan to Jiajing Emperor, who happily approved his plan but soon realised the massive budget overrun that will surely entail should the plan be put into motion. Angered but unwilling to go back on his word as the emperor, Jiajing Emperor took advantage of the intense political struggle within his court that eventually dragged Zeng Xian into the mess and executed him for treason in 1548, and the reclamation plan was scrapped before it even had the chance to see the light of day. Mere two years later, Altan Khan rode pass the Great Wall and besieged Beijing, and Ming Dynasty was never able to reclaim Hetao.

Nevertheless, many military tactics either pioneered or first codified by Zeng Xian, such as the practice of forming a secondary square/fort inside the formation (which was almost unique to Chinese-style wagon fort formations), incorporation of firearms, organising war carts, infantry, cavalry, firearms and logistics into a self-contained combined arms regiment, as well as devising different formations for to suit different tactical needs, would live on and being further refined by those that came after him to effectively counter the Mongols.

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