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Battle of Red Cliffs

Battle of Red Cliffs

During the winning years of China’s Han dynasty, a powerful warlord named Cao Cao from Northern China was making great strides in conquering the rest of the nation. By 208 AD, his army had secured the entirety of Northern China and the Northern Frontier, and had their eyes set on invading southwards. Through the initial successes of the Southern campaign, Cao Cao had secured the key naval asset of Jiangling, allowing him to amass a massive army and fleet to continue the push south. Sun Quan, the founder of the eastern region of Southern China was joined by warlord Liu Bei to create an allied force against the invading Cao Cao and his armies.

Although Cao Cao boasted a force of 800,000 men, more realistic figures estimated around 230,000 soldiers. Although this was a much smaller force, it still meant that the allied force of 50,000 men led by Sun Quan and Liu Bei were heavily outnumbered. The battle took place in the winter of 208 AD, and was mostly fought over water on a basin along the Yangtze River. The two belligerents first met at a skirmish at the Red Cliffs. No side could gain a clear advantage, so Cao Cao retreated northwest to Wulin and the allies regrouped towards the South.

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Following this initial engagement, Cao Cao was sent a letter of surrender by an allied divisional commander named Huang Gai. Unbeknownst to Cao Cao, this was all part of a ploy by the allies to set up an ambush against the numerical superior northern army. A squadron of allied ships were converted into fire ships, packed with incendiary materials such as dry reeds and fatty oil. 

These ships were set to sail towards Cao Cao’s fleet under the guise that they were Haung Gai’s defecting forces. As they approached Cao Cao’s ships, southern sailors set their fire ships ablaze and escaped back south on smaller boats they had prepared. The flaming southern ships crashed into the northern fleet, causing a fiery inferno to ensue. This was compounded by the fact that Cao Cao had chained all of his ships together in an effort to lower seasickness being experienced by his northern soldiers. 

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During the pandemonium the allies led an assault on the disorganized northern army, and were able to score a huge victory due to the chaos. Many northern soldiers burned to death or drowned before this assault.

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Cao Cao ordered a retreat after realizing that the battle was lost, and his army began to flee up the Huarong Road. This was equally as disastrous for the northern army as rain had made the road almost impossible to traverse. The allied forces pursued the retreating forces, and a combination of disease and famine took a heavy toll on Cao Cao’s army. A complete destruction of Cao Cao’s forces was prevented by a rearguard defense.

Although many factors attributed to Cao Cao’s defeat at the Red Cliffs, major factors included inexperience and disease. The northern army was totally lost at fighting over the water, as many northerners rarely had the need to utilize naval combat. Seasickness compounded the issue and morale stayed low. Furthermore southern diseases decimated the northerners, who unlike the southerners did not have immunity to these diseases.

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This defeat meant that Cao Cao couldn’t threaten the vital waterways in Southern China such as the Yangtze River. Although there are no exact figures on the casualties of the battle, it is certain that Cao Cao’s forces suffered heavy losses not only in the naval engagement but also during the retreat. Allied losses were considered light, only losing men during the skirmish and the naval assault that came after the ambush.

Written by Tony Cao

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