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Subject: Liaoyang 1904: a scenario from the Russo-Japanese War rss

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Pete Belli
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Liaoyang 1904: a scenario from the Russo-Japanese War

The epic struggle at Liaoyang saw a relentless Japanese force squeeze an ineffective Russian commander out of a crucial transportation hub protected by strong entrenchments. This defeat of the Tsar's army ended all attempts to relieve the siege of Port Arthur and set the stage for the climactic battle of Mukden in 1905.

Liaoyang was one of the largest military engagements in history at that time. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers maneuvered across a battlefield stretching many miles. This scenario depicts the final phase of the struggle, after the Russian army had withdrawn from the outer line of entrenchments. The map is not exactly to scale but each hex represents just over a mile of actual terrain. The units represent brigades or divisions.

Kuropatkin was the Russian commander. He was fearless on the battlefield -- the general personally led an assault during a counterattack on the Russian left flank -- but ineffective as the leader of an army. Kuropatkin's basic strategy was sound (he planned to absorb the first Japanese attack then strike the depleted enemy force with his massive reserves) but the sluggish Russian command system and his clumsy handling of the available troops led to defeat.

Oyama was the Japanese commander. He was aggressive and planned to envelop the Russian defenders in spite of the fact his troops were heavily outnumbered. The highly motivated Japanese soldiers were part of a modern army with a professional staff system. The defending Russian army had inadequate maps and wretchedly poor intelligence concerning Japanese strength. A sophisticated Japanese intelligence system had provided Oyama with a good summary of Russian capabilities. However, he was facing time pressure because the Japanese government needed a victory to encourage foreign support for the war effort... and dreary news about the continuing stalemate at Port Arthur arrived in the middle of the battle at Liaoyang.

The city was heavily fortified. The approach to the Russian trenches was covered with barbed wire obstacles and minefields. Please note that the concertina wire shown here is not historically accurate... the Russian obstructions were crude entanglements held up by stakes. Some of the wire obstacles were electrified and many of the minefields could be detonated by remote control.

This observation balloon hovered over Liaoyang during the battle. It was considered to be a symbol of Russian technological advancement. The removal of the balloon just before the retreat began had an impact on the morale of the Russian soldiers. Yes, that element of the narrative is included in the rules.

Another line of less elaborate trenches had been constructed when it was discovered that the inner fortifications were too close to Liaoyang. This obviously contrived photograph offers a good view of the terrain in this region of Manchuria. The advanced position was anchored on a line of low hills and ridges. Russian artillery brigades were deployed in protected firing positions on the reverse slope of these elevations.

This photograph of the Imperial Guard advancing on Russian entrenchments south of the Taitzu River provides a good example of that defensive system. Russian brigades from the 10th Corps are supported by artillery and a significant infantry reserve. Even the heavily reinforced Guard Division will be only be able to launch a diversionary attack in this area. Each formation in the Japanese army represents a brigade. The figure in the Russian trenches waving a sword represents a staff officer. A staff officer may be dispatched anywhere on the board to activate a single formation. Russian staff work was uninspired but Japan used an efficient method based on the Prussian system; the Russian player has one staff officer miniature while the Japanese player has three figures!

Immense fields of tall millet known as kaoliang covered much of the battlefield. While it offered some concealment the kaoliang frequently hindered movement, particularly for inept Russian officers unable to navigate using their inadequate maps. Russian maneuvers were generally sluggish while the nimble Japanese were able to remain flexible. Russian infantry can move one hex and fire or move two hexes; Japanese infantry can move two hexes and fire.

Cairn Hill (aka Hill 693) was a crucial terrain feature on the Russian flank. It is shown here with the special target symbol for a major Japanese objective. This section of the line was defended by the First Siberian Corps. There were two basic organizations for a Russian division, Siberian and European. Siberian units were not rated as first-class units although the soldiers fought with typical Russian fortitude. Siberian regiments often had three battalions while European regiments had four. Divisions from European Russia were better equipped than the Siberian divisions. However, these new reinforcements were not acclimated to Manchuria. The expected performance of these formations is a reflection of cultural attitudes in 1904 because it was believed that Japanese soldiers would crumble when faced with European troops.

Russian divisions contained two infantry brigades and each brigade had two infantry regiments. This "square" organization was more awkward than the "triangular" organization of three brigades used by most modern armies. This problem was aggravated in the weaker Siberian divisions. To compensate, Kuropatkin and his corps commanders frequently created improvised reserve formations containing several regiments. Unfortunately, these groups often included regiments from different brigades within a division or from different divisions within a corps. This led to obvious command problems. To represent this system in this scenario a Siberian division contains three formations with four figures in each unit.

Japanese divisions also used the square organization but Japanese "army" commanders (each Japanese "army" of two or three divisions was the size of a European corps) were better at maintaining brigade integrity.

Superb order of battle information for each belligerent is available on the internet.

The token with the Maxim gun and crew represents a Russian strongpoint. A high percentage of Japanese infantry casualties were caused by Maxim guns when the soldiers of Nippon conducted frontal assaults. Any formation attacking a strongpoint automatically suffers one casualty. There are two strongpoint tokens and each token may be placed in a separate Russian fortified hex at the end of a Russian turn... proper tactical planning is required.

The smaller Maxim guns used with these miniatures were only available late in the war. During the battle of Liaoyang the deadly Maxim guns were mounted on carriages like the one shown in this illustration. Maxim guns were organized into batteries like artillery and were not considered to be infantry weapons.

Special rules depict Japanese infantry assault tactics. While the Japanese did conduct wild bayonet charges on occasion (particularly when Russian infantry was caught up in a battle frenzy) they also used classic fire and movement to overcome Russian defenders. Japanese infantry units may choose to advance one hex and "dig in" or "take cover" to avoid heavy losses. This might reflect simple concealment in the tall kaoliang or finding a defilade position in a ravine. It can also represent a shallow trench scratched out of the ground following a short rush toward the enemy line.

Such maneuvers are marked with a token. These units receive a -1 defensive benefit on the battle dice. In this photograph two infantry brigades have charged the Russian line while two other brigades move into firing position. Since the Japanese roll a 4-3-2 pattern on the battle dice a unit two hexes away from an entrenched hill can still fire and roll a single die. Please note that a bloody close assault on the Russian strongpoint was avoided by the Japanese commander.

While artillery played a crucial role in the battle only heavy guns are represented in the scenario. The firepower of field artillery is factored into the combat strengths of the infantry units. In the finest Russian tradition artillery formations conducted themselves well during the 1904 campaign and attempted to deliver heavy volumes of fire on every Japanese penetration. Russian tenacity was astounding. In 1904 there was a single telephone line running from the Russian observation post on Cairn Hill. When the pace of phone traffic became too intense written messages were passed down the hill to Russian artillery batteries by long chains of soldiers crouching on the reverse slope. As often happened in that country's history, the Russian artillery did the killing while the Russian infantry did the dying.

Japan faced a shortage of heavy artillery at Liaoyang. This unit represents the 1st Artillery Brigade and is the only Japanese artillery formation. Four captured Russian guns were assigned to the Imperial Guard. Another group of captured 4.2 inch heavy guns (the Hijikata battery) were mounted on railroad cars and accompanied the Second Army on the march to Liaoyang.

Here is a military history tidbit. Railway cars were plentiful in Manchuria. After hard experience the Russians determined that it was usually more cost effective to abandon railway cars in Manchuria than transfer them back to European freight yards. While the Japanese captured many railway cars they had few locomotives... these heavy guns were hauled forward by gangs of men pulling on ropes!

This is the Japanese 1st Cavalry Brigade in action. Japan has just a one cavalry formation. These mounted troops performed well during the campaign by advancing to seize the village of Wuluntai and open an enfilade fire on the Russian position at Cairn Hill.

Most of cavalry serving with the Russian army in Manchuria were Cossack troops. These horsemen had a fearsome reputation but they were largely irrelevant during the battle. Since these Cossacks were more interested in gathering plunder than actual fighting they only roll two battle dice.

Kuropatkin divided his cavalry into three groups with one on each flank and one in reserve. The mounted troops guarding the crucial left flank melted away as the Japanese approached. The reserve cavalry near Liaoyang was most active when Japanese artillery fire hit the railroad station; the resulting confusion gave the Cossacks an opportunity to loot the supply of liquor.

There was a substantial gap in the Russian line near Tassu Brook. This opening between the First Siberian Corps and the Third Siberian Corps was deceptive... one of Kuropatkin's trademark reserve formations under Putilov was waiting near Liaoyang to block any advance while artillery covered each exposed flank. The commander of the Japanese Fourth Army probed this area and bumped against both Russian positions without facing a disaster. The decisive action at Liaoyang would be on the flanks, particularly the Russian left where the railroad line that supplied the Tsar's entire army was vulnerable.

The key terrain feature on the Russian left flank was a low elevation called Manju Yama (Rice Cake Hill) that dominated the plain stretching away to the railroad. Hill 920 and Hill 1057 were also important Russian positions but the struggle for Manju Yama was the psychological center of gravity for the Russian high command. The hex is marked with the special symbol for a major Japanese objective.

The defending Russian player can win the game in three ways:

-- demoralize the Japanese with heavy casualties
-- capture the villages of Anping and Shaho, fracturing the Japanese command structure and supply line
-- hold on until the end of the session is randomly determined by the appearance of an event card

The attacking Japanese player can win the game in two ways:

-- demoralize the Russians with heavy casualties
-- capture vital terrain objectives and force Kuropatkin to issue an order to withdraw

There were several Kobi brigades in the Japanese army. These were reservists called up to serve in Manchuria. The reinforced Guard Kobi Brigade shown here fought as an independent formation. Most of the other Kobi regiments were fed into the battle as reinforcements. There is a special rule that allows the Japanese player to use these reinforcements to replace lost figures in regular Japanese units.

This image of the Russian defenses protecting the river crossing south of Hill 1057 makes the need for a Japanese envelopment perfectly clear. Kuropatkin had little reason for concern about the center of his position. The fact that he was slow to deploy his ample reserves against the Japanese advance on his flank led to his disappointing performance as an army commander... and Kuropatkin should certainly been aware of the tardiness inherent in any Russian attack.

Here is an image of the Japanese assault on Manju Yama. Kuroki was the pugnacious commander of the First Army and his river crossing was bold to the point of recklessness. The 15th Brigade of the 2nd Division is supporting the assault. The 23rd Brigade and the 12th Brigade of the superb 12th Division are assaulting the hill. The Kobi brigade is driving the Russians away from the objective hex on the edge of the board that represents the approach to the Yentai position beyond the Russian flank.

This is the situation at the end of the turn. Two automatic losses were suffered during the advance on the strongpoint. The Kobi brigade dispersed the Russians defending the objective hex. However, the supporting fire from the 15th Brigade caused the Russians to withdraw from Manju Yama. This prevented a final assault by the 12th Division to take the hill.

That is a great narrative! Russian units often withdrew unexpectedly in the confusion of battle (clashes between bewildered Russian units were also common) so the vacated hex is quite appropriate. These retreats frequently caught the Japanese by surprise and pursuit was often delayed.

After a number of interesting event cards appeared (Rally, Artillery Bombard, etc.) the Japanese were able to push against both Russian flanks. Losses were heavy but the Japanese were not demoralized. With both Cairn Hill and Manju Yama under enemy control and Japanese artillery within range of Liaoyang the Russian player was forced to announce a withdrawal. At this point the Russians still controlled the objective hexes representing the railroad supply line. The Russians never withdrew from their Taitzu River positions but otherwise the session was a good match with the historical outcome.

The entire Liaoyang 1904 campaign would provide an outstanding subject for a conventional wargame. While a hex-and-counter version would be interesting a carefully crafted block game might offer a fascinating challenge to both players.

I decided to include an optional rule for Japanese machine guns. Japan deployed fewer machine guns than the Russian army and the Japanese used the lighter Hotchkiss weapons developed by France. During the conflict innovative Japanese officers realized the offensive potential of these weapons (Hotchkiss guns could be carried forward by the crew) and used them during assaults. To reflect this I allowed the Japanese commander to use one Hotchkiss token to support one attack at any point during the session. Like the Maxim guns, the Japanese automatic weapon scores a guaranteed hit on the Russian defenders. Bits of chrome like this add something special to a scenario!
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Pete Belli
United States
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Here is an uncluttered view of the board...

...using the BattleLore: Epic BattleLore system with terrain tiles from Commands & Colors: Napoleonics.
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