Battle of Jieqiao
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|Battle of Jieqiao|
|Part of the wars at the end of the Han dynasty|
|Yuan Shao||Gongsun Zan|
|Commanders and leaders|
Yan Gang †
|40,000 infantry||30,000 infantry, 10,000 cavalry|
|Casualties and losses|
|Unknown||Unknown, at least 1000|
|Battle of Jieqiao|
The Battle of Jieqiao, also known as the Battle of Jie Bridge, was fought between the warlords Yuan Shao and Gongsun Zan in 191 in the late Eastern Han dynasty. It was the first significant clash of arms between the rival warlords in the contest for dominion of Ji and Qing provinces in northern China. The site of the battle is generally considered to be a site east of Guangzong County, Julu Commandery (present-day Wei County, Xingtai, Hebei).
Late in the winter of 191, following a victorious campaign against remnants of the Yellow Turban rebels, Gongsun Zan took the pretext of his cousin Gongsun Yue's death in the Battle of Yangcheng to declare war on Yuan Shao. His army marched southwest between the Qing and Yellow rivers into Ji Province. Very quickly a number of cities under Yuan's control were compelled to change sides. Yuan Shao hurriedly made conciliatory gestures, in a bid to forestall a full blown war. He gave his official position as Grand Administrator of Bohai to Gongsun Fan, a cousin of Gongsun Zan. Gongsun Fan, however, took the Bohai garrison to join his clansman.
Soon Yuan Shao himself came in force and the two sides met 40 km south of Jie Bridge, a crossing on the Qing River. Gongsun Zan's army had a reported strength of 40,000, consisting of 30,000 infantry and 10,000 cavalry. He arrayed his infantry in a square and divided his cavalry between the left and right wings. In the centre were placed his "white horse volunteers" (白馬義從), an elite mounted unit which formed the core of his fighting force. Whilst the numbers may have exaggerated, their appearance must have been impressive; Records of Three Kingdoms describes how their "flags and armour lit up Heaven and Earth". Though Yuan Shao's army was of comparable size, it consisted almost entirely of infantry. His commander Qu Yi was placed at the vanguard with 800 crack troops and 1,000 crossbowmen. Behind them stood masses of footsoldiers, numbering in the tens of thousands, commanded by Yuan Shao himself.
Observing that Yuan's vanguard was thinly spread, the experienced horseman Gongsun Zan ordered a charge by his cavalry. The aim was to "break the enemy line" - destroying the core of an opposing army and then rolling up its retreating multitudes. Qu Yi's men formed a shield wall and awaited the onslaught. When Gongsun's cavalry was a mere ten paces away, the crossbowmen loosed waves of bolts, followed by the footsoldiers, who rose with their spears. After a general melée the front of Yuan Shao's line was littered with cut down horses and Gongsun Zan's dead. Gongsun's general Yan Gang (嚴綱) was killed in the fighting. Yuan Shao's army is said to have taken 1,000 heads. Having failed to breach the enemy line, Gongsun's cavalry wheeled around and streamed away from the battle, followed by the infantry.
Gongsun Zan attempted to regroup and hold the line of the Qing River. His rearguard clashed with Qu Yi's men at Jie Bridge itself and were driven into retreat. The abandoned Gongsun camp was quickly overrun, its yak tail standard (comparable to the regimental colours of European armies) lost.
Seeing that Gongsun was all but defeated, Yuan Shao advanced with a bodyguard of several tens of crossbowmen and a hundred men-at-arms. He was caught by surprise by 2,000 horsemen who had been detached from Gongsun Zan's main force. According to the Records of Three Kingdoms, the aide-de-camp Tian Feng was about to support Yuan Shao behind a low wall for refuge. Yuan threw his helmet to the ground, and said, "A real man should die in front of the ranks. To be idle behind a wall, that is no way to live!" The enemy horsemen, ignorant of Yuan Shao's identity, were beginning to withdraw when Qu Yi arrived on the scene to drive them away. This story, somewhat detached from the main battle sequence, emphasises Yuan Shao's bravery.
The Battle of Jieqiao halted the southern advance of Gongsun Zan but it was by no means decisive in the protracted struggle between Gongsun and Yuan which lasted until 199. Gongsun returned a year later, in the winter of 192, along the same route. Even though the battle was a setback for Gongsun Zan, it did not impact significantly on his army. Many of the soldiers who fled must have found their way back to Gongsun in the days and weeks after the battle.
The battle is unique in that it is described in detail in Records of Three Kingdoms. The arrangement of the armies and the tactics used, usually neglected by traditional Chinese histories, are reasonably clear. The battle demonstrates the ineffectiveness of even an experienced cavalry force against a disciplined infantry unit with competent leadership. It is also significant to note that although the numbers involved are very high, the actual fighting is decided by only a small elite portion of the entire army. Once the core was defeated, the demoralised masses quickly follow.
- Chen Shou. Records of Three Kingdoms, Volume 6, Biography of Yuan Shao.
- Fan Ye. Book of the Later Han, Volume 73, Biography of Gongsun Zan.
- Fan Ye. Book of the Later Han, Volume 74.