Tuesday, March 27, 2018, 08:54 (GMT+7)
Waterborne warfare - a key characteristic of our resistance wars against the Mongol-ruled Yuan Dynasty

Resistance wars waged by the soldiers and people of Dai Viet against the Mongol-ruled Yuan Dynasty in 1258, 1285 and 1288 serve as an epic in the history of our Homeland defense. They, which have contributed to the country’s fully-fledged military art, are partly characterized by waterborne warfare.

The Mongol-ruled Yuan Dynasty invaded our country three times for over 30 years in the 13th century, which ended in catastrophic defeat due to patriotism, resilience, indomitableness, solidarity and military art by the soldiers and the people of Dai Viet and clear-sighted leadership of the Tran Dynasty. Strikingly, our victories were mostly attributed to waterborne warfare. The Mongol-ruled Yuan Dynasty was known to have possessed superior strength in cavalry. The cavalry would rush en masse straight towards the opponent’s formation. Reinforcements in hordes would be sent in the event of the first attempted attacks. Moreover, they employed the “unrelenting strategy”, attacked flanks and attacked en masse the intended target from different directions. The soil throughout Asia and Europe was trodden by the hooves of the Mongol horses as their highly seasoned warriors enabled the Mongols to impose imperial direct rule from the Pacific to the Mediterranean region. However, on invading Dai Viet, they failed to bring into play their strength due to our harsh terrain characterized by rivers, lakes, swamps, which the people of Dai Viet knew best. Besides, the people of Dai Viet were expert in swimming as well as rowing boats. Before the inception of Dai Viet, the Tran Dynasty had formerly been a guild of fishermen and salt-makers in the downstream areas along the Red River, now known as coastal areas of Provinces of Thai Binh and Nam Dinh. As a result, they were fully aware of the importance attached to waterways and waterborne forces.

In time of the first resistance war against the Mongol-ruled Yuan Dynasty in 1258, the soldiers and the people under the Tran Dynasty made a strategic withdrawal following an attempted attack in Binh Le Nguyen (presently Phu Tho Province) in order to avoid the enemy’s forte. At the same time, the policy of “Empty gardens, empty houses” (that is to say the withdrawal of all residents from the capital city of Thang Long) was carried out to bring the enemy’s planned siege to initial failure while many roadblocks were set up to hinder the invaders from catching up with the soldiers and the people under the Tran Dynasty. Together with the policy of “empty gardens, empty houses”, a section of regular forces in combination with the militia and the infantry were deployed to raid the front, rear and flanks of the enemy, thereby leading to their force dispersal, fatigue and shortage of food supplies. The enemy reached Thang Long only to find the capital city of Thang Long empty. When trying to plunder food supplies, they encountered fierce resistance from residents of surrounding localities. Having occupied Thang Long for 9 days only, the invaders lost their will to fight.  They had to pitch camp in Dong Bo Dau, instead of Thang Long, along the bank of the Red River, which created favorable opportunities for the soldiers and the people under the Tran Dynasty to wage key battles to achieve victory. On the night of January 29th, 1258, a flotilla of boats led by King Tran Thai Tong stealthily sailed along the Red River from Thien Mac (Khoai Chau District, Hung Yen Province) to Thang Long and suddenly attacked the enemy’s camp. The attack caught the enemy off guard, inflicting huge losses on them, forcing them to flee from the capital city of Thang Long. The battle of Dong Bo Dau decided the victory of our first resistance war against the Mongol-ruled Yuan Dynasty as it plunged the enemy into precariousness and retreat from Thang Long following their 9-day occupation. The battle of Dong Bo Dau took only one night to win since the soldiers and the people under the Tran Dynasty utilized a navigable waterway for troop movements and deployment in a secret manner. Our amphibious raid was masterly in the sense that it forced the enemy troops to dismount their horses to fight back without backup from their waterborne forces, thereby ensuring victory for ourselves.

  A waterborne warfare festival in the river of Luc Dau depicts warships of Tran Dynasty in the second resistance war against the Mongol-ruled Yuan Dynasty                    (photo: haiduong.gov.vn)

Perpetuating that valuable lesson, in time of our second resistance war against the Mongol-ruled Yuan Dynasty in 1285, the soldiers and the people under the Tran Dynasty mounted a strategic counter-attack by creatively combining waterborne warfare with ground warfare. In the wake of their catastrophic failure in the above-mentioned first aggression, the Mongol-ruled Yuan Dynasty’s aspiration for expansion into the South failed to wear down. In 1285, 500,000 Mongol troops were mobilized to invade our country again. With his grand military vision and deep patriotism, Tran Quoc Tuan, the commander-in-chief of the Dai Viet’s armed forces, creatively and flexibly put into practice valuable lessons drawn from our history of resistance wars against foreign aggression. Accordingly, closely following the motto of “pitting leisure against tiredness, the few against the many, the small against the big” and maximizing the enemy’s unfamiliarity with our terrain, he decided to take inland waters as the main battlefield to deal decisive blows, where the majority of the enemy cavalry were unable to be deployed to flex their muscles. In fact, it took the enemy a lot of physical effort to run after the Tran Dynasty’s regular troops moving by boat, appearing and disappearing all the time, which made the former worn out. As the opportunity presented itself, Tran Quoc Tuan launched a strategic counter-attack to break through the enemy lines to the South of the Red River such as A Lo, Tay Ket, Chuong Duong. In the battle of Chuong Duong, a large number of our waterborne forces were secretly deployed to raid the enemy’s camp to trick Toghan into sending reinforcements from Thang Long whereby we managed to annihilate them and to retake the capital city.

After those defeats, the Mongol-ruled Yuan Dynasty decided to suspend the invasion of Japan and focused all the resources on the third invasion of Dai Viet in 1288. Accordingly, apart from a large number of the powerful cavalry and infantry, they mobilized about 700 warships of different kinds, including 70 transport ships carrying tens of thousands of food supplies. Fully aware of the enemy’s planned invasion and lessons from the two previous resistance wars, the soldiers and the people under the Tran Dynasty entered the third resistance war in self-initiative. When asked by King Tran Nhan Tong about how to deal with the enemy, Tran Quoc Tuan confidently replied that it would take little effort. His confidence resulted from his awareness that the enemy’s willingness to fight riverine battles means their renunciation of forte. Tran Quoc Tuan waged preventive and attrition battles in combination with strategic retreat (between December, 1287 and March, 1288) while conducting numerous activities to lure the enemy into his trap. At the same time, Tran Khanh Du’s flotilla of boats was employed to engage in waterborne warfare, destroying Zhang Wenhu’s transport ships, cutting off the enemy’s food supplies. Besieged in Van Kiep, Toghan’s troops were threatened with starvation and panic, which led to their retreat by land or by water. The Tran Dynasty decided to deal a decisive blow as planned to the enemy army who were retreating via the Bach Dang River, where their cavalry was unable to flex their muscles but our waterborne forces managed to closely cooperate with the infantry. At the same time, Toghan’s army was run after by our royalty’s armies and militia in the direction of Van Kiep – Lang Son.  The reality is that the crushing blow our army dealt to the enemy at the mouth of the Bach Dang River succeeded in luring the latter to the showdown venue in our favour just as we had wished, thereby enabling our forces to maximize their combined strength to wipe out the enemy, contributing to the victory of our third resistance war.

Nowadays, the war-fighting art and method have made progress. Our forces and opposing ones are expected to be subject to considerable changes. So are the war-fighting duration and space. Together with new awareness of the war-fighting art, the lesson in the art of waterborne warfare, which was drawn from the resistance wars by the soldiers and the people under the Tran Dynasty against the Mongol-ruled Yuan Dynasty, still retains its significance to be further applied to today’s Homeland defense.

Sr. Col. Nguyen The Vy

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