Skep's Place


Chapter 30: Tattletale Horses

The last couple chapters have been pretty rompy, but we're now going to take a hard pivot into one of the most influential battles in this story. I've been teasing Yuan Shao's march on Cao Cao for a bit now, but we're finally ready to get into it.

So here's where we're at: Yuan Shao's army is advancing toward the capital. Cao Cao's won a few minor skirmishes and killed two excellent generals in the process, but Shao's army outnumbers his ten to one. Cao Cao decides to hole up in Guandu, which is the final stronghold before reaching the capital.

We see that Yuan Shao's advisors always have differing opinions on how to handle matters, and Shao isn't always the best at following through with their ideas. For example, he has the advantage in both manpower and supply. His best play is to sit tight and starve out Cao Cao's army, who will have to do something risky to secure a quick, decisive victory.

Except he decides that now is apparently the best time to advance, so okay. This actually works out well enough though; Cao Cao—looking to prevent a siege—meets Yuan Shao out in the field, but Shao takes a win and forces Cao Cao back into Guandu.

Here they sit for two months as Yuan Shao harasses the stronghold with archer fire and sappers, and Cao Cao holds him off with ballistae and ditches. Of course, Cao Cao is still looking for an opportunity to take advantage of, and eventually his spies capture an enemy soldier who lets slip that Yuan Shao has a supply shipment coming in.

Cao Cao sends out a squad, and they burn up THOUSANDS of wagons of grain. It shores up the morale of his troops a bit, although Yuan Shao isn't actually particularly concerned about this, because he has more grained stored nearby in Wuchao. But he sends an advisor back to his capital to make sure the shipments are still good anyway.

Around this time, Cao Cao writes to his capital trying to get more grain, because his supplies are pretty much done. But Yuan Shao's scouts intercept the message, so the grain won't be coming anytime soon.

At this point, one of Shao's advisors, Xu You, is like, heeeey. You know. We have way more guys than they do, and they don't want to risk marching out at us. We should totally pin them in place here, and have a smaller force march behind and take their capital. That will completely cut them off from their grain, and Guandu won't stand a chance.

But Yuan Shao says, eh, I'm pretty sure that message we intercepted is just one of Cao Cao's tricks. Attacking his undefended capital is what he wants us to do.

Right at that moment, a letter comes in from the guy Yuan Shao had sent to the capital, which reads, "Yep, the grain's all sorted. Hey, I know this is entirely out of the blue, but are you aware Xu You is taking bribes?"

Xu You—who is not, in fact, taking bribes—rolls his eyes and defects to Cao Cao. Because every dang time Yuan Shao should have hit Cao Cao's capital while the latter was distracted—either when he attacked Lu Bu, or when he attacked Liu Bei, or right the heck now—Yuan Shao didn't do a goddamn thing.

Hell, even Cao Cao says "oh yeah, if he'd attacked the capital right now we'd be dead."

Xu You tells Cao Cao that Yuan Shao is keeping every last bit of his grain in Wuchao, guarded by a guy who has all the shortcomings of Zhang Fei but that the audience hasn't accepted as a loveable rascal, and wouldn't it be a shame if something happened to those grain stores.

And Cao Cao says yes. A real shame.

(Like, while turning to face the camera, revealing a wicked grin. Just picture that too.)

Meanwhile, one of the advisors Yuan Shao had jailed even though his strategies are the good ones is like, seriously, you need to send some guys to Wuchao, Cao Cao would be crazy not to strike there.

And frickin' Yuan Shao.

Like, this is the one thing that could easily cripple your huge army, and you know Cao Cao is seeking a decisive strike to turn the tide of this war.

But Yuan Shao's just like, nah, anyway I thought I jailed you.

So Cao Cao sets up defenses at Guandu and leads a small force out to Wuchao dressed in Yuan Shao's colors, being all super-sneaky. They even gag the horses. I dunno, I don't think the horses are gonna tell the plot to the enemy, but whatever.

This strike team rocks up to Wuchao all like "Hey, we're the reinforcements a reasonable commander would have sent."

Of course that night Wuchao completely goes up in flames, and the guy in charge gets sent back to Yuan Shao minus ears, fingers, and a nose. Apparently it's funny? I don't get the joke.

After this, Yuan Shao is consulting with his generals and trying to decide how to respond. Zhang He is like, we need to reinforce Wuchao; but Guo Tu says, nah, Guandu is probably completely undefended now, go attack while nobody is there. Well, Yuan Shao attacks Guandu and sends his army straight into Xiahou Dun and Xiahou Yuan's meat grinder, while Cao Cao's troops at Wuchao close in and cut off their rear. It's a disaster.

Guo Tu is like, oh shit, Zhang He is gonna rat me out for having a terrible strategy. So he tells Yuan Shao they only lost the battle because Zhang He did a bad job general-ing (which is not the greatest excuse since you were so stupidly sure that Guandu would be empty and you were clearly wrong, but it works anyway because Yuan Shao is a dumb-dumb). Word gets back to Zhang He that he's going to be executed for this failure, so he figures, may as well join Cao Cao. So he defects with another guy, and they help Cao Cao mop up and chase Yuan Shao back to his own side of the river.

And that's the Battle of Guandu. Despite a severe disadvantage, Cao Cao pulls out a huge upset because his men are loyal and disciplined, and he listens to sound advice.

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