Thursday, November 19, 2020

Guest Post: Mongols Win Battle of Bun'ei

This article by Tom Bornholdt first appeared on Today in Alternate History.

By 1274, the Mongol invasion of Japan was underway. In 1266, Kublai Khan, a grandson of Genghis Khan and ruler of the Mongol Empire under the Yuan Dynasty, had sent emissaries to Japan demanding that it become a vassal. At that time the real ruler of Japan was Hojo Tokimune, whose official post was that of Shikken, which was the regent of the shogunate. He sent the emissaries back without an answer. Meanwhile, he ordered Kyushu, the Japanese island most likely to be invaded because it was closest to the Korean peninsula to prepare for war. On November 2 , a Mongol invasion fleet with 22,000 soldiers and 7,000 sailors departed Korea. On the way to Japan, it captured Tsushima Island and Iki Island before landing at Hakata Bay on the north coast of Kyushu. There they were confronted by several thousand Japanese, who were soon confused by the tactics used by the invaders. This included phalanxes and the throwing of paper and iron-casing bombs, which disoriented the soldiers and made their horses uncontrollable. Though the Japanese fought bravely, by nightfall the Yuan had driven them a few miles inland and burned the town of Hataka. The Japanese prepared to make a last stand at Mizuki where there was a very old earthwork moat fort.

The three Yuan generals then had a meeting. Holdon wanted to keep pursuing the Japanese. Hong Dagu worried about his men being exhausted and getting ambushed during the night. He therefore advocated returning to the ships. After some debate, Liu Fuxiang agreed with Holdon and the attack continue. After midnight, a great storm arrived without warning. More than a third of the Yuan ships were dashed against the rocks and destroyed. Many others were blown far out to sea while a few were beached in repairable conditions. In the morning, generals realized that if they had moved their soldiers back aboard the destroyed ships they would have perished during the storm. There were not enough ships left to evacuate the entire army so the generals concluded they were stuck. Because of the loss of supplies, they needed to proceed cautiously. In the afternoon, they encircled the Japanese forces at Mizuki but made no assault, intending to starve them out while their soldiers finally got some badly needed rest. Eight days later, the Japanese sortied and were annihilated. In the meantime, the Yuan army had sacked Dazaifu, the political center of Kyushu.

By the end of the year they had defeated the Japanese in detail several times and gained control of the northern half of Kyushu. During the winter the army raided the southern part of the island resulting in a few small engagements.

In early March of 1275, the Yuan expedition received some reinforcements along with supplies. On March 26, they landed on the north shore of Nagato Province, which lay on the opposite side of Kanmon Straits. This resulted in a fierce 13-day battle which ended with the Yuan invaders being forced back to their ships and departing. The Japanese on Honshu had previously heard stories of Yuan atrocities committed on Kyushu, the majority of which were true. The fighting in Nagato Province produced more stories that were all the more frightening because they occurred closer to home. The failure of this operation made Kublai Khan realize that conquering Japan was going to be harder than he had expected. However, at this time he could not afford to further reinforce his expedition with anything more than penny packets since he was still at war with the Southern Song.

During the summer, Hojo Tokimune slowly moved samurai to southern Kyushu. The commander of the Japanese forces there mounted an invasion of the north in early September, despite being ordered by Hojo Tokimune to wait another month. This offensive surprised the Mongols and caused them some grief at first but were eventually able to soundly defeat it south of Dazaifu on September 15. After that, the Mongols concluded that they needed to conquer all of Kyushu before trying again to invade Honshu. This turned out to be a lengthy campaign with the Japanese increasingly turning to guerilla tactics. This, in turn, provoked the Mongols to commit more atrocities. It wasn't until the spring of 1277 that they felt that they could try again to invade Nagato Province. They attempted a landing there on May 25 and found to their dismay that the Japanese had greatly improved the coastal defenses there, including building a wall. The landing was costly failure for the Mongols. In October, the Japanese sent another expedition to southern Kyushu but within two months it was obliterated. After that, the war went into another lull with Mongols content to further consolidate their hold on Kyushu. The war was an increasing drain on the finances of both the Mongol Empire and Japan, but the Mongols were better able to afford it. Hojo Tokimune was forced to raise taxes and then raise them again. In late 1278, a few rich merchants decided to the move to the Kuril Islands to escape the burdensome taxes, bringing their guards with them to protect them from the Ainu inhabitants.

On March 19, 1279, the Yuan Dynasty crushed the Song Dynasty at the naval Battle of Yamen. This was the end of the Song Dynasty. While this allowed Kublai Khan to focus on the conquest of Japan, it had no immediate discernible effect. Indeed 1279 was the quietest year of the war. This lull continued into 1280. In the autumn of that year Kublai held a conference at his summer palaces. A number of options were discussed. One of them was to incorporate Kyushu into their empire but to give up on trying to subjugate the rest of Japan. Another was to again try to land in Nagato Province but using a much larger force. Even if the landing was successful, advancing through the very rugged terrain of northern Honshu would be difficult. It was acknowledged by all that it would take over a year to reach the Imperial Court at Kyoto. Another option was to invade Shikoku next and only invade Honshu after it was captured and subdued. This was the plan that Kublai initially favored, but there were still others that intrigued him.

At this time public opinion inside Honshu was decidedly mixed. There was still a great deal of dread. However, there was also growing frustration with the shogunate's inability to liberate Kyushu from the grip of the Mongols. This was coupled with the growing dissatisfaction with the heavy taxes. 1291 started off as another quiet year, but Hojo Tokimune worried that with the defeat of the Song Dynasty another attempt to invade Honshu was highly likely. He concluded that retaking Kyushu was necessary to prevent an invasion of Honshu. Since the beginning of the invasion he had been working diligently to improve the Japanese navy in both quantity and quality. He did not believe that the enemy knew the full size of the fleet he had amassed. On August 7, most of this fleet arrived at Taka Island carrying a large force of soldiers. They quickly captured Taka Island. Two days later, they landed at Hakata Bay but sustained heavy losses. For the next five days there was a protracted bloody battle in the nearby countryside which favored the Japanese but turned into a stalemate.

Then on August 15 a typhoon, known to the Japanese as the akumakaze, struck this fleet at anchor and devastated it. By this time, most of the soldiers had landed but the commander of the expedition ordered the soldiers to retreat back on to the ships once the storm had cleared. However, there was not enough space on the surviving ships to cram everyone aboard. More than half of the soldiers were left behind. On the way back to Honshu two overcrowded vessels foundered. It took the Yuan army in northern Kyushu three more days to eliminate the Japanese soldiers who had been left behind.

The afternoon August 31 a large Yuan fleet carrying 54,000 men (incl. sailors) arrived off the Kanmon Straits which separated Honshu and Kyushu. The fleet's departure had been delayed nearly three months because Kublai Khan had trouble deciding which plan he wanted. He eventually asked the Polos for advice on this matter. Since the plan he finally chose was the one they favored, he decided to send them along with the expedition to witness firsthand the fruits of their counsel.

That night the great Yuan fleet carefully passed through the Kanmon Straits. Once it was through it sailed ESE inside the Inland Sea. During the day there were some skirmishes with small Japanese craft but they proved to be little more than a nuisance. When it arrived off Iwai Island, the great fleet split into two groups. The smaller group which was under the command of Fan Wenhu had about 20,000 men. It proceeded to Hiroshima Bay where it methodically proceeded to land its soldiers. Half of what was left of the Japanese navy was in the Inland Sea and most of them converged on Hiroshima Bay. There generated some naval action but it interfered with the landing only a little. The Yuan soldiers encountered very weak resistance on the beaches. Once they had landed, they were ordered to proceed northwest until they reached the Sea of Japan. Their mission was to cut the lines of communications between Nagato Province, where nearly half of what was left of the Japanese army was currently located, and the capital at Kamakura. It also succeeded as a diversion drawing away some of the Japanese reserves in central Honshu. Meanwhile, the larger part of the Yuan fleet under the command of Arakhan sailed SSE until it passed Okinoshima Island. It then turned to the east and swung around to the south of Shikoku. The afternoon of September 8, it began to enter Osaka Bay having fought off a few small Japanese warships during the morning. At dusk, it started to land its soldiers on Osaka's beaches where they encountered only weak resistance. They continued landing during the night. The following morning a substantial Yuan detachment was also landed on Awaji Island to the west of Osaka Bay. This would protect the rear of the Yuan army from Japanese forces on Shikoku. By nightfall the Mongols had captured the important city of Osaka. However, 30 miles to the northeast there lay an even greater prize: Kyoto and the Imperial Court!

Arakhan did not wait for the landing of soldiers and supplies to finish but set out at first light for Kyoto with the troops he had at hand. His route passed through the Kamo River Valley so he did not have any rough terrain to contend with. That evening Emperor Fushimi received word that Osaka had fallen and a large Mongol was heading his way. He was frankly told that the forces guarding Kyoto were too weak to withstand the enemy. That night Fushimi along with his retinue were evacuated to the east with the fortified capital city of Kamakura as their ultimate destination. The rest of the Imperial Court was left behind to fight to death to defend the Chrysanthemum Throne.

The next day, the Mongols' vanguard reached the outskirts of Kyoto. They made no attempt to storm the city but scouted it and, when more units arrived, began to surround it. Arakhan had been in a hurry to reach Kyoto, but he was in no rush to capture it. Once his soldiers had surrounded the city, he let them rest as long as they remained prepared to counter a sortie. He brought up supplies from Osaka. He sent out parties to scout and raid. He prepared catapults and constructed both an inner and outer circle of ramparts. Marco Polo was reminded of a cat playing with a mouse. Arakhan knew that the capital city of Kamakura was a natural fortress that would be very difficult to capture. His hope was that the Shikken would feel compelled to rush to this most sacred place with what forces he had available. Sure enough on September 22, Arakhan received word from his scouts that an enemy force was approaching from the east. This consisted of a mere 900 samurai plus their retainers as well as 700 sohei (warrior monks) and some armed civilians. Arakhan then ordered all work to cease on the catapults and the inner ring of ramparts and to concentrate solely on the outer ramparts. Two days later the Japanese army arrived at Kyoto late in the day. The samurai, many of whom were elderly, were mounted on horseback but the others were on foot and had been subjected to a grueling forced march for several days. The Shikken, Hojo Tokimune was leading them.

Arakhan did his best to hide the full size of his army from the enemy fearing it might scare them off. Despite this, Hojo Tokimune saw enough to realize he was very badly outnumbered. For not the first time in this war, he experienced fear. He had once asked his Zen Master, Mugaku Sogen, what to do to overcome his cowardice. Mugaku Sogen told him to sit in meditation and seek out the source of the cowardice within himself. The Shikken allowed his men and their horses to rest beyond the range of the Yuan bows for two hours. He spent the last hour in deep meditation. When he was done, he received final reports from his subordinates. By this time, the sun had set. The twilight illuminated the Yuan army to west but the Japanese were difficult to see in the growing darkness. Unfortunately this meant that he did not see the Yuan soldiers Arakhan was sending well to his east to cut off his line of retreat. He moved his army within bow range of the ramparts. He ordered a volley of arrows to be unleashed. The enemy did not respond. He ordered two more volleys. He shouted, "Katsu!" (Victory), then lead his samurai in a great charge on horseback. The sohei unleashed one more volleys of arrows then joined the charge along with the armed civilians.

Arakhan then gave the signal for the two bonfires he had prepared to be lit. The catapults flung bombs that exploded in the midst of the samurai while a dense mass of arrows rained down on them. Despite this, the samurai kept on coming. If they were unhorsed, they advanced on foot as best they could. A few managed to reach the ramparts only to contend with a line of polearms. In less than an hour, the slaughter was over. Only three samurai were captured, and that was because they had been stunned. All of the rest including Hojo Tokimune were either dead or dying. So too were most of the sohei. It was a different story with the armed civilians who had minimal training. Some of them fought fiercely albeit ineffectively inspired by heroic samurai but the majority of them soon panicked and fled. Most of those were caught by the soldiers Arakhan had sent to the east though a few managed to escape in the darkness. Marco Polo would later write of this engagement, "It was magnificent but it was not war. It was madness."

Having slaughtered the Shikken and his men, Arahan decided that the time had come to capture Kyoto. He let his men sleep late. Mid-morning, he sent one of his men to ask the defenders if they wanted to surrender. As expected, their commander refused. The Yuan catapults then started hurling bombs down on the city. From behind the inner ramparts, Yuan archers carefully fired at whatever targets they could see. There were only seven samurai, four of whom were in ill health, inside Kyoto. Several popular stories, all of them exaggerated, would be written about their exploits. A majority of the defenders were sohei from different sects that in the past had frequently fought each other over theological squabbles and imagined insults. This day they fought side by side with a common purpose. There were also members of the Imperial Court Fushimi had left behind. Some knew how to handle a weapon when the siege began but most did not. During the siege they received some training. When the Mongols failed to make a quick assault, the commander thought the enemy might be trying to starve them out and put everyone on reduced rations while resisting the urge to sortie.

At noon, the Yuan assault began after three dense volleys of arrows. With very few exceptions, the defenders fought bravely. By nightfall, the attackers had breached the outer defenses but there were still pockets of resistance that managed to hold out well into the following day. Kublai Khan had made it very clear to Arakhan that any unarmed courtiers that were captured inside Kyoto were not to be harmed. Furthermore, they were to refrain from looting except for taking useful items like food, horses and weapons. With only a few exceptions, these policies were obeyed. By this time, Arakhan had received word from Fan Wenhu that there was heavy fighting underway in the Iwami and Aki Provinces with the Japanese army that had been in Nagato Province trying to reach Kyoto. Fan Wenhu was making excellent use of the advantage of being on the defensive in very rough terrain. Furthermore the warships that Fan Wenhu commanded were making good progress in eliminating the Japanese warships in the Inland Sea. This would make it easy for Arakhan to receive supplies form the large dumps in northern Kyushu. Once Kyoto was taken, Arakhan left behind a strong garrison force at Awaji Island, Osaka, and Kyoto, then headed west with the bulk of his army. His first objective was Ise Bay which the army reached without significant opposition on September 29. Arakhan then let the most of his army rest there for three days while sending a piece of it south to capture Ise Jingu the most important of all Shinto shrines. As with Kyoto, Kublai Khan had commanded that unarmed clerics at that shrine were not to be harmed. The Mongols left behind a modest garrison at the shrine.

Arakhan's ultimate objective was to reach the Kanto Plain. He proceeded along the coast where there were hallway decent roads and only a few mountains. When he reached Mikama Bay, his fleet dropped off some supplies brought from dumps in southern Kyushu while he rested for two days. From then on, the fleet would protect him from a seaward attack. On October 15, the army's vanguard reached the base of Mt. Fuji. The Polos saw it the next day and were deeply impressed by its beauty. By this time, Arakhan had decided that he still didn't want to make an assault on the formidable fortress of Kamakura when he reached the Kanto Plain. He didn't know that it was very weakly defended at this time. He decided that he would unleash his Mongols once they reached the open spaces of the Kanto Plain letting them rape, pillage and plunder as they pleased. He had been relatively restrained at Osaka and downright nice by Mongol standards at Kyoto and Ise Jingu, but that was about to end. If there was indeed a strong Japanese force at Kamakura or anywhere else nearby, this would force them to fight in the open where the Mongols could eradicate them. Furthermore, it would give whoever was currently running the show at Kamakura an incentive to submit to Kublai Khan.

When Hojo Tokimune had departed Kamakura for his ill-fated appointment at Kyoto, he instructed his rensho (assistant regent) Hojo Shigetoki to assume the duties of Shikken should he perish. Unfortunately the rensho was more optimistic about the Shikken's chances than the Shikken was. It wasn't until a month later that he learned about the Mongols claiming to have killed Hojo Tokimune. Up until then, he made the minor humdrum operational decisions to which he was accustomed but put off any major strategic moves not wanting to be viewed as being presumptuous. For a few days he was unsure as to what to make of the Mongol claims and so continued to act hesitantly. Emperor Fushimi could sense this weakness and saw this as an opportunity for him to reassert some Imperial authority.

The Polos were appalled by what they witnessed after they left Mt. Fuji. Marco would later write of what he called the "Rape of Kawasaki." The fall of 1281 was a period of unmitigated horror throughout most of the Honshu. Many people living in the Kanto Plain fled in terror into the mountains. Commerce broke down throughout the island while brigandage waxed. In the prior years, a few hundred anxious souls had departed Honshu for Hokkaido where they soon found themselves contesting with the Ainu. In the fall of 1281, this migration blossomed. A handful of warships that technically belonged to the Japanese navy helped facilitate this development. The migration numbered over 2,000 by the year's end. They succeeded in carving out a partially fortified enclave in southern Hokkaido that managed to repel the initial attacks by the Ainu. Some of the wealthier refugees were attracted to the Kuril Islands as an alternative.

Reports of what was happening in the Kanto Plain reached Emperor Kishimi at Kamakura. The suffering of his people caused him to weep. Many of the important figures of the very powerful Hojo clan had perished at the Battle of Kyoto alongside the Shikken, which made it easier for him to reclaim authority. On November 28, he decided that for the sake of his people he must agree to become a vassal of Kublai Khan. He then browbeat the rensho into going along. The next day he sent an official message to Arakhan of his decision.

Author's Note:

In reality Liu Fuxiang sided with Hong Dagu that fateful night and the Yuan soldiers retired to their ships. The losses caused by the storm made them abandon the invasion and return to Korea.

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