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Tuesday, June 19, 2018, 16:37 (GMT+7)
The art of establishing the posture in the battle of Bach Dang 938

1,080 years ago, responding to the request for reinforcements by traitor Kieu Cong Tien, Southern Han dynasty launched an invasion of our country again in 938. Learning from their previous failure (930-931), they made elaborate preparations ranging from force, food to method of combat. To quickly conquer Dai Viet, they organized 2 arms in the two directions. The first arm led by Hongcao consisted of a large, elite naval force with tens of thousands of troops and hundreds of large warships crossing the sea to our country via Bach Dang river mouth. The second arm, led by the Emperor of Southern Han Liu Gong, consisted of a large force of ground troops and cavalry deployed up to the frontier as the reinforcements. With the strategy of “combined internal and external attacks”, Southern Han troops were eager to quickly crush the resistance by troops and people of Dai Viet dynasty.

Ceremony to celebrate the 1080th anniversary of victory of Bach Dang battle in Quang Ninh province (photo: qtv.vn)

With the vision and sound strategy, Ngo Quyen and the Staff of the resistance war had carefully studied, analyzed and assessed the terrain and weather conditions, particularly the principle of the tide as well as the enemy’s strong and weak points to formulate the strategy for operations. First, to foil the enemy’s wicked plot, Ngo Quyen concentrated on destroying reactionaries and traitors as well as the enemy’s strategy of combined internal and external attacks and mobilizing all resources in the decisive battle. Correctly anticipating the enemy’s intentions and grasping the advantage of the harsh terrain, the principle of the tide and our strong points and capability, Ngo Quyen and our commanders selected the Bach Dang estuary to organize the decisive battle. Following that strategy, our troops secretly prepared the force and established an inter-connected, solid, in-depth posture in a large area of the Bach Dang estuary in a bid to tap the synergy of the forces and the entire people to destroy the enemy’s main attacking direction. As anticipated, relying vaingloriously on the large number of troops and warships, the arm led by Hongcao impetuously advanced towards and quickly fell into the battlefield organized in advance by us. In spite of taking the initiative, the enemy suffered from disadvantages both on land and in water, and encountered strong resistance of the people’s war, which quickly led to their failure. After knowing that the elite arm led by Hongcao was defeated completely, Liu Gong and his reinforcements on the frontier were panic-stricken and hurriedly withdrew. It is clear to see that the battle of Bach Dang commanded by Ngo Quyen is one of the most excellent, rapid, and effective battles in our country’s history of fighting against foreign invaders and gives us valuable lessons, especially on the art of establishing the posture as follows.

First, striving to achieve a sense of consensus and unanimity among the people to defeat the powerful enemy. We all know that the second resistance war by the people of Dai Viet against the Southern Han took place in difficulties as the result of Chinese domination for nearly a thousand years. Dai Viet’s fledgling army was mainly equipped with bows, crossbows, harpoons, sticks, knives, swords and a small number of low-quality warships. Meanwhile, Southern Han was a major power in both economic and military terms with a seasoned army. Moreover, their military forces, especially the navy, were regularly consolidated and equipped with a huge number of large warships, and staffed by elite archers. To create the strength against the enemy, Ngo Quyen, with his prestige and talent, made an effort to win “hearts and minds” of the people from all walks of life and regions, and mobilize them in the resistance war. Right after knowing that troops of Southern Han were about to wage an invasion of our country, Ngo Quyen conducted the work of propagating patriotism, justice of our resistance war, and a sense of self-reliance against the enemy to the people. Besides, he strived to stabilize the domestic situation and establish a network of local governments nationwide. As a result, our people across the country actively contributed human and material resources to the resistance war. Typically, young people from Gia Vien where Ngo Quyen’s army was headquartered and Lam Dong (Thuy Nguyen district, Hai Phong province today) brought weapons and ships to his army. Three brothers of House Ly in Hoang Pha (Hoang Dong, Thuy Nguyen) and the ancestor of House Pham in Dang Giang (An Hai, Hai Phong) actively recruited troops for Ngo Quyen’s army. Influential people, patriarchs and heroes all over the country ardently joined the army. There even appeared on-spot militia teams. Although Ngo Quyen’s army was just founded, it was fully supported by locals and increasingly developed in both manpower and weapon, thereby quickly transforming his armed team of Ai Chau into a national army.

Second, studying and grasping the situation, proactively establishing a barrier of poles to cause surprise and defeat the enemy. Bach Dang river is the gateway in the Northeast and an important riverine route from the East Sea to inner Vietnam with the large mouth and various tributaries. Its two sides and surface are covered by cliffs and luxuriant trees. Grasping the terrain and carefully studying the previous wars launched by Chinese army, Ngo Quyen anticipated that Hongcao’s fleet would cross the sea and enter our country via Bach Dang river mouth. Therefore, he determined to make use of the difficult terrain of mountains and rivers in the Northeast to establish the posture in Bach Dang estuary with a view to completely destroying the enemy there. However, one important issue was how to restrain the enemy in the river to concentrate our force to defeat them while they had large warships and a huge number of elite troops. Against this backdrop, Ngo Quyen decided to plant a barrier of poles in the bed of the river which operated under the law of the tide. To that end, he directly selected experts in geography to help him regularly monitor and grasp the principle of the tide on a daily basis to identify the position of the barrier of poles properly. In addition, he calculated the enemy ships’ draft to exactly identify the height of the barrier of poles in order that the enemy ships could enter the river mouth easily, but we could halt them at low tide. To implement that plan, Ngo Quyen encouraged troops and people to cut down trees and forge steel points. In a short time, in spite of the harsh, cold, rainy weather at the end of that year, thousands of spiky, armoured poles were secretly set up in the bed of the river by our military and people as planned. Realities of Bach Dang battle showed that the secret establishment of the barrier of poles in the bed of the river by our military and people completely surprised the enemy and pushed them into passivity. Accordingly, the enemy’s fleet was stopped and thrown into chaos when our forces launched counter-attacks. That was a creative, unique posture in the national history of fighting against foreign invaders.  

Third, organizing and deploying forces properly, creating the synergy to annihilate the enemy and end the war. To win the victory in the key battle, in addition to establishing a barrier of poles, Ngo Quyen organized and deployed forces in a close, scientific manner to form a large-scale ambush posture in the Bach Dang estuary. The forces were employed to block the enemy formation’s front, rear, and two flanks while closely cooperating with one another in halting the enemy’s advance and carrying out counter-attacks to annihilate the enemy’s entire fleet. In the river head, Ngo Quyen organized and directly commanded a force to halt the enemy while deploying an elite naval force led by Duong Tam Kha laying in ambush in the left bank of Bach Dang river. In the right bank of the river, he deployed a combined naval and infantry force led by Do Canh Thac to closely cooperate with local militia forces in engaging the enemy. These two arms were tasked with attacking on the enemy’s two flanks and pushing them into the middle of the river, thereby creating a favourable condition for our naval forces to annihilate them. It was the way Ngo Quyen organized, used and deployed our forces in association with the barrier of poles that set a trap of “sky net” making the enemy unable to find way back.

The battlefield had been organized in advance, but how would we entice the enemy into our trap without realizing it? To do so, Ngo Quyen organized a provocative force led by Nguyen Van To, who was an expert in swimming and knowledgeable about Bach Dang river. Having experienced seamen, he used small, light warships to attack and lure the enemy into the area of pole barrier and contain them there, creating a favourable condition for our main forces to launch counter-attacks to destroy the enemy at low tide. In fact, when the enemy was lured into our ambush posture, our forces quickly conducted counter-attacks to destroy their formation and prevent them from deploying troops. Falling into passivity, the enemy hurriedly fled in vain to the sea due to the barrier of poles, thereby being plunged into chaos. Seizing that opportunity, we quickly attacked to annihilate all the enemy’s forces and victoriously end the war.

The victory of Bach Dang battle went down in national history as a legend and gave us valuable lessons to learn, especially on establishing the posture in water. Those lessons remain valid and should continue to be studied and applied to building the military posture in defensive zones and to building the defensive posture for protection of seas, islands and Homeland today.

Sr. Col. Pham Duc Truong MA, Military History Institute of Vietnam

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