Historic Battles Series: Battle of Guandu – 200 CE

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Mural showing cavalry and chariots, from the Dahuting Tomb (Chinese: 打虎亭汉墓, Pinyin: Dahuting Han mu) of the late Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 AD), located in Zhengzhou, Henan province, China

In Brief

The Battle of Guandu was a fight contested between the warlords Cao Cao and Yuan Shao in 200 CE in the late Eastern Han dynasty. Cao Cao’s crucial victory against Yuan Shao’s numerically excellent forces marked the turning point in their war. The triumph was also the point at which Cao Cao became the dominant power in northern China, leading to the establishment of the state of Cao Wei in the Three Kingdoms period.

The Build-Up

The inevitability of military battle between Cao Cao and Yuan Shao had become apparent by 196. Yuan Shao held power of the lands north of the Yellow River, particularly the Hebei region, while Cao Cao controlled most of the lands south of the Yellow River and kept Emperor Xian with him in the new capital city of Xu. The warlords saw each other as the apparent obstacle to their ambitions to conquer and rule China.

Some years before the battle, Yuan Shao’s advisors Ju Shou and Tian Feng warned that Cao Cao would become a threat to their lord in his hope to dominate China. They advised Yuan Shao to attack Cao Cao when the latter was still growing up his forces, but Yuan Shao ignored their advice as Cao Cao was still nominally an ally. Tension between Cao Cao and Yuan Shao increased after Cao Cao moved Emperor Xian from the old capital Luoyang.

The geographical position of Guandu made it a stragetically important position. It was near Yan Ford on the Yellow River and lay on the road leading to the capital city Xu. Cao Cao recognized its strategic importance and in the autumn of 199, he stationed troops there and prepared fortifications. Other deployments along the frontline included Liu Yan at Boma, Yu Jin at Yan Ford, Cheng Yu at Juancheng, and Xiahou Dun at Meng Ford. At the same time, Cao Cao sent Zang Ba to harass Qing Province, which was governed by Yuan Shao’s son Yuan Tan, to prevent his eastern flank from coming under attack.

In the first month of 200, Liu Bei revolted against Cao Cao and seized Xu Province after killing Che Zhou, Cao Cao’s appointed Inspector of Xu Province. Cao Cao, in an unexpected move, left his northern front exposed to Yuan Shao and turned east to retake Xu Province. Yuan Shao tried to use the occasion to start a campaign south, but was daunted by Yu Jin, the defender of Yan Ford.

When Cao Cao returned to Guandu after his victory over Liu Bei, who sought refuge under Yuan Shao afterwards, Yuan Shao determined to renew the campaign against Cao Cao. The aide-de-camp Tian Feng, who had urged Yuan Shao to attack Cao Cao while he was away, advised against such a crusade, reasoning that they had lost their chance and must wait. Yuan Shao ignored Tian Feng’s repeated remonstrations and imprisoned him under charges of demoralizing the army.

Shortly after, Yuan Shao had Chen Lin draft a document condemning Cao Cao in what was essentially a declaration of war, and marched his main army toward the forward base of Liyang north of the river. At the time, Yuan Shao’s army triumphed of numbers up to 110,000, including 10,000 cavalry.

The Battle

Yuan Shao’s general Yan Liang crossed the Yellow River and besieged Cao Cao’s fort at Boma. Heeding his advisor Xun You’s advice, Cao Cao led a battalion toward Yan Ford as a feint to trick Yuan Shao into believing that Cao Cao would attack his camp on the other side of the river. Yuan Shao split off his troops from Liyang to counter Cao Cao’s attack, leaving Yan Liang without any support at Boma. Cao Cao then struck eastward to lift the siege on Boma. In the ensuing battle, Yan Liang was killed by Guan Yu and Yuan Shao’s army was routed.

Cao Cao decided to abandon the fort and evacuate its occupants to the south. Taking advantage of the situation, Wen Chou and Liu Bei led 6,000 horsemen in pursuit. Cao Cao anticipated the attack and prepared a distraction tactic. He ordered his troops to evacuate their steeds, weapons and other valuables along the way. Yuan Shao’s forces broke their ranks to grab the valuables lying ahead. Just as they were claiming the items, 600 of Cao Cao’s elite cavalry that had been lying in ambush attacked them. Yuan Shao’s commander Wen Chou was killed and Liu Bei fled. Having lost two of their officers in these relatively minor skirmishes before the primary conflict at Guandu resulted in a crushing blow to the morale of Yuan Shao’s army.

Despite having won the preliminary battles, Cao Cao was still outnumbered. He abandoned the forward bases along the Yellow River in preparation for a determined defence at Guandu. Cao Cao also ordered his officials in charge of his lands in his absence to govern with lenience, to minimise chances of chaos within the civilian community that could affect his army’s morale.

After the engagements at the river, Yuan Shao’s army pushed to Yangwu, directly north of Guandu, and began constructing earthen fortifications. He ignored Cheng Yu’s bastion of 700 men at Juancheng and missed an opportunity to attack Cao Cao’s eastern flank, exactly as Cheng Yu’s predicted earlier when he guessed that Yuan Shao would ignore a position with so few men. Yuan Shao’s Attendant Officer Ju Shou had reservations about concentrating all of the main army at Yangwu, and suggested leaving a garrison at Yan Ford as an anticipation in case the attack on Guandu did not go well. Yuan Shao ignored the suggestion again. Ju Shou, in despair, tried to excuse himself by claiming to be ill, but Yuan Shao became irritated at him and would not grant him leave. Instead, he divested Ju Shou’s men and divided them under the commands of Guo Tu and Chunyu Qiong.

Yuan Shao restructured his forces and sent Liu Bei with an army to support the rebellions against Cao Cao in Yinjiang, just 20 li south of the capital. Although Cao Cao was concerned about such improvements in his rear, his cousin Cao Ren observed that Liu Bei could not have too much control over his new men given by Yuan Shao. So Cao Cao sent Cao Ren to deal with the rebellion. Cao Ren arrived, killing the rebel leader Liu Pi and routing Liu Bei. Yuan Shao also tried to cut off Cao Cao from the west by sending Han Meng southwest. Cao Ren again responded to the threat by defeating Han Meng at Mount Jiluo. Yuan Shao did not send any detached force into Cao Cao’s territory after this.

At Yangwu, several war plans were presented to Yuan Shao. Ju Shou observed that Cao Cao’s men were running out of grain, and thus it would be proper to enter a war of decline, denying Cao Cao a decisive battle. Another advisor, Xu You suggested that Yuan Shao should maintain the front at Guandu but at the same time send men to circle and capture the emperor in Xu. Yuan Shao accepted neither plan, saying he preferred to capture the emperor with a direct advance.

In the eighth month, Yuan Shao’s army slowly advanced southward from Yangwu and engaged Cao Cao’s men in trench warfare, behind the earthen embankments that both sides made. Both sides harassed each other with engines of war. Yuan Shao had erected siege-ramps and high platforms which allowed his men to rain arrows onto Cao Cao’s forces. In response, Cao Cao’s men had to carry their shields above their heads, and retaliated with traction trebuchets that destroyed the archer platforms. Yuan Shao also tried to tunnel under Cao Cao’s fort, but Cao Cao had a large ditch dug within his lines to block the tunnels. Subsequently, neither side could overcome each other as Cao Cao and Yuan Shao became locked in a stalemate.

Before long, Cao Cao’s army began to run short of supplies and Cao Cao was in a dilemma on whether to retreat to lure Yuan Shao deeper into his territory. Xun Yu, the defender of the capital Xu, sent Cao Cao a letter dissuading him from retreat. He wrote, drawing historical examples from the Chu–Han Contention:

…your military supplies are low, but they are not as bad as the situation of Chu and Han at Xingyang and Chenggao. At that time neither Liu nor Xiang were willing to be the first to retreat. The first to retreat reveals that his strength is exhausted. You, Duke, with one-tenth of the enemy’s force you have held the ground you marked, and gripping him by the throat, have not let him advance for already half a year. In this situation his strength will be exhausted and there must arise some crisis. This is the time for employing unexpected stratagems; you may not miss this opportunity.

Cao Cao followed this advice and held fast to his ground. In the ninth month, Xun Yu pointed out that Yuan Shao had been storing supplies at a depot in the village of Gushi, guarded by Han Meng. Cao Cao sent out small cavalry units led by Xu Huang and Shi Huan to attack this position. They succeeded, routing Han Meng, disrupting Yuan Shao’s supply lines, and burning his grain carts. Yuan Shao was forced to call for relief supplies in response to this raid.

Aftermath

Cao Cao’s victory at the Battle of Guandu was a crucial one and marked the turn of the tide in his fight for power with Yuan Shao. Yuan Shao died two years later and his youngest son Yuan Shang was made his successor. His oldest son Yuan Tan was furious with the continuation and fought with his younger brother. This resulted in internal conflict within Yuan Shao’s forces. Yuan Shao’s pool of talented advisors and generals were also split into two sides by the conflict – one supported Yuan Shang and the other supported Yuan Tan. Cao Cao seized the opportunity to launch an attack on Yuan Tan’s base at Liyang. Though Cao Cao eventually withdrew, Yuan Tan came to envy Yuan Shang even more during course of the battle, which led to open warfare between the brothers. Yuan Tan eventually allied with to Cao Cao against Yuan Shang, but Cao Cao accused him of infringing some terms of the alliance and killed him in battle. On the other hand, Yuan Shang suffered defeats at the hands of Cao Cao and fled north to join his second brother Yuan Xi. Cao Cao’s forces pursued them and destroyed the Wuhuan tribe, the Yuan brothers’ ally, in the Battle of White Wolf Mountain. Yuan Shang and Yuan Xi fled to Liaodong to seek refuge under the warlord Gongsun Kang in 207, but Gongsun killed them instead and sent their heads to Cao Cao. By then, most of northern China was united under Cao Cao’s control, and Cao Cao could begin to turn his thought to the south.

Source: Britannica, Wikipedia, History of China-Cambridge Press

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