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Posted on Nov 4, 2007 in Front Page Features, War College

The Goguryeo-Sui Wars

By Joshua Gilbert

Meanwhile the strike force was having their own problems. Fairly early on in the march the supply of food ran out. As the soldiers had earlier buried the heavy extra rations the specter of starvation reared its head by the time the strike force had reached the Yalu. By now the Goguryeo where fully aware of the new threat, but did not know how to deal with it. Eulji Mundeok, the mastermind behind Goguryeo’s defenses so far, had a plan. He faked a surrender to the Sui forces, asking for parley. Emperor Yang was well aware that Eulji Mundeok was responsible for the embarrassment he had suffered in the Manchurian sieges and had left orders for him to captured if at all possible. But the advisory staff that had been attached to Yu Zhongwen and Yuwen Shu believed it impolite and unwise to capture an enemy general in parley. Eulji Mundeok scouted the Sui camp and then left to report to King Yeongyang unharmed. Yu Zhongwen later regretted this, and tried to capture Eulji under the pretense of parley later, but was unsuccessful.


General Eulji Mundeok.jpg
General Eulji Mundeok

Some days after the parley the Sui strike force began moving again. On the other side of the line the trip had been a fruitful one and Eulji Mundeok now had a good idea on how to defeat the looming threat. He had his men dam up the Salsu River. Once this was accomplished he led his men north to engage the Sui. In the course of several battles Eulji pursued what has been classified as yudo, that is, drawing the enemy in deeply. Goguryeo forces would engage the Sui several times, and each time fake retreat. The Sui soldiers would grow overconfident and continue to advance, oblivious to what was happening. When the strike force had come within 10 miles of Pyongyang they were tired from the constant skirmishes and hunger had finally caught up with them. Although Generals Yu and Yuwen tried many times to engage the defenders of Pyongyang in battle they refused to come out. A poem then arrived from Eulji Mundeok to Yu Zhongwen in which he praised the ability and endurance of the Sui soldiers and their generals, while at the same time mocking them. This poem read:

"Your divine plans have plumbed the heavens
Your subtle reckoning has spanned the earth
You win every battle, your military merit is great
Why then not be content and stop the war?"

Almost immediately the command staff of the strike force broke down and Yuwen Shu and several others refused to believe the letter. Eulji Mundeok had tricked them before with false surrenders and fake praise, why believe him now? However Yu Zhongwen effectively pulled rank and turned around to deliver the good news to the Emperor. However it was not long before Yuwen’s misgivings were proven correct. Almost as soon as the Sui forces had turned around had the Goguryeo light cavalry fell on their flanks. As the Chinese forces desperately tried to get back across the Yalu and Sui occupied territory the harassment on their flanks only increased. Meanwhile Eulji Mundeok and the royal army had taken up position along the Salsu River in ambush. When the strike force was about halfway across Eulji ordered his men to spring the trap. The royal army, swelled to 300,000 strong, then burst from their hiding places. At the same time the dams on the river were removed, and the water surged forth.

In the resulting battle the entire strike force, except for some cavalry and the commanding officers, was annihilated. In the space of a single day Eulji Mundeok had wiped out nine armies which, though significantly reduced, was still a formidable force. When news reached Emperor Yang at his camp of the defeat he was enraged, both Yu Zhongwen and Yuwen Shu were put in chains and reduced to the status of commoners, although Yuwen’s former status was soon restored. With the defeat of what was basically his best troops, and the rainy season having already begun, Emperor Yang was forced to order the expeditionary forces to abandon their sieges, and rejoin the main body. Beginning the return to China on August 27th . The great invasion of Goguryeo, one of the largest of its kind in the history Eastern Asia, had been defeated. Goguryeo still stood defiant and Eulji Mundeok, and those who fought with him, became national heroes. In Sui China the strain of the invasion, in conjunction with several natural disasters all along the Huang He, put the first cracks in the Sui Empire, sparking agrarian revolts. It was during this time that the first major rebellion against the Sui, that of Dou Jiande, began.

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  1. You guys are brilliant!!!! This is exactly the page that I have been looking for. Thank you so much for posting, now I can use this as part of my final presention project.

  2. Also it should be noted that while Chinese fortifications during this era were built from bricks baked out of mud, Goguryeo fortifications made from stones which were denser and harder material. Therefore Chinese siege equipments which were designed to besiege Chinese fortresses were ineffective in sieging Goguryeo.

  3. Also Goguryeo used scorched earth tactics extensively against Sui. During retreat Goguryeo army burned all grains, buried alive all livestocks, and even poisoned the water supplies in order to prevent them being captured by the opponent.

    This was particularly the reason why the 300,000 men Sui strike force was doomed, as they were unable to resupply themselves locally.

    Unlike modern era, ancient warfare consistently faced challenges in supplies in logistics, and often times the armies relied on the supplies captured locally. Even Sun Tzu in his art of war stated that supplies captured from the enemy was worth 20 times that of one’s own supplies. This was a sound assessment, due to the combined factors of gaining the supply + reducing the supply needs required in order to supply one’s army + reducing the supply of the enemy.

    Goguryeo’s scorched earth tactics were particularly effective against large armies such as Sui, as larger armies are often more vulnerable to supply shortages. This is the reason why later Tang Taizong opted to field smaller forces of elite units in frequent raids rather than fielding gigantic armies like Sui had. As effective a tactic scorched earth is, the toll is also significant to the defenders as well. Decades of war against Tang in this scenario eventually ended with succumbing of Goguryeo.


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