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I am Wan Tenshu of the Fire Nation. For thirty years I had two duties to my home nation, one lesser, one greater. The first was as administrator to the Fire Nation's Tenth Army, organising supply lines, communications, and other dull but essential work. The second, which has been my greatest honour, was to chronicle the successes - or, as many suspected then, the failures - of the Fire Lord's younger brother, 'General' Iroh.
Iroh's first task after his promotion was to avenge the shame incurred on the Fire Nation by the disastrous siege of Omashu. General Takashi Mura had laid siege to the city in late ASC 74, against all the advice of his advisors, since he recklessly decided to spend the Winter camped outside the city's gates. His army was decimated by cold and disease and Omashu, supplied from the North by hidden routes through the mountains, came no closer to falling.
As word always travels slowly in official circles, it was some time before the Fire Lord heard of Omashu's impenetrable defence, and recalled Takashi. But now Takashi stubbornly refused to abandon the siege, sending all messengers home although the heaps of dead grew every day. After a further 100 days, Takashi's first Lieutenant Jeong Jeong deserted in disgust with an entire regiment of 1,000 men, never to be seen or heard from again, and Takashi was left alone with his dying, disloyal men, and his own fixation on the impregnable city. Finally, the siege was lifted when his remaining Lieutenants mutinied by tying Takashi to a horse and riding him up to the city gates. They attempted to organise a retreat, but by now, in the spring of ASC 75, the army hadn't the strength to make it out of the mountains. Earth Kingdom soldiers from Omashu pursued them and captured thousands.
The catastrophe - to officials, at least - was not so much in the loss of Fire Nation troops as in the utter mockery this defeat heaped on the Fire Nation military. What was worse was that no pitched battle had even been fought. It was not as though the Fire Nation had been beaten by superior tactics; they had simply been shown up as fools, whose generals were mad, whose lieutenants had no loyalty, and whose soldiers had too much loyalty. Everything was wrong.
Ironically, the Fire Lord's answer to this was that Omashu must fall. Takashi's lunatic fixation had somehow passed up to the Fire Lord himself. He assigned General Iroh as head of several divisions and a number of talented lieutenants.
There was a dual purpose here. The Fire Lord could not be seen to do nothing about Omashu before his nation; but secretly he had no expectation of Iroh returning alive. The mutual agreement of the court was that Iroh, who at this late time in the war had only just been promoted to General, was, all said, a lazy, buffoonish, unpatriotic fool.
I confess that I thought this too until the very day that I met him. But he was always shrewd, especially about the officials and their behaviour. He also knew this was a suicide mission, and was disgusted that thousands of men under his command were being sent to their deaths. This is why he astonished us all on the first day of the march by defying his orders and setting a route that took us nowhere near Omashu. As us staff gathered round his map, in dim candlelight flashing in Iroh's eyes, I like to imagine we saw a prophetic vision of the revolution Iroh was to start within the Fire Nation.
It happened that in this same year, for the first time in many, there emerged a great Earth Kingdom General. His name was Bao Sang. For ten years he would be the scourge of the Fire Nation.
Owing to its capitals' absurd refusal to acknowledge the state of war, and therefore to educate recruits in tactics, the Earth Kingdom in ASC 75 was experiencing such a major drought of capable officers that all of their vast armies, still strong after seventy years, had ground to a virtual standstill, vulnerable to the formally trained Fire Nation generals. Bao Sang had changed this by uniting the South-Eastern armies into a great force and defeating Fire Nation outposts and armies wherever he found them. At the battle of Xiao Xie Fang he crushed a force of 10,000 Fire Nation troops with virtually no cost to his own army. It was now time for the Fire Nation to take notice.
Iroh's shocking deviation from orders took us past Omashu and out the other side of the mountains, onto the great Southern plain. The march had been gruelling and taken months; but it had a purpose. Iroh correctly predicted that the threat of enveloping Omashu from the outside - of cutting off its supply lines through the mountains from North or South - would be seen by the Earth Kingdom as far more dangerous than a direct attack. This prompted Bao Sang to advance his army to meet Iroh's head on. Our two armies met with the mountains still at our backs. A town several miles North-East of Iroh's position was hastily evacuated by Bao's gigantic force, which set up a camp opposite ours, the fires of which outshone the stars.
Night fell, with battle expected in the morning. Iroh's force had the mountains at our backs, and a river, running parallel to his and Bao's forces, run alongside our left flank. There was no escape for Iroh now, since even if he had wanted to retreat this would bring his fleeing troops too close to Omashu and block them between two armies. Bao knew that the feeling of entrapment would devastate Fire Nation moral, which it did to an even greater extent than he could have imagined; Iroh was now in a crisis which none of us could envision him escaping.
Bao's force consisted of 60,000 men, all well-trained and courageous but not greatly different from one another. They were foot soldiers armed only for close combat. Bao's strongest troops were the Boa Warriors of the Great Plains, who made up 5,000 of his 60,000 strong force. They were a nomadic, warlike people with great abilities as earthbenders as well as with a variety of weapons. Before the era of the avatar it was rumoured that the tribes would make their homes by wandering the plains, driving Earth Kingdom villagers out of their homes in order to take their village. With the coming of the Avatar this practise ceased, but the Boas retained their warlike ways and were a constant problem for many generations of Avatars. Now, however, they fought alongside their fellow Earth citizens.
Such was his army; however, as Iroh himself observed, in this battle it was not the soldiers, but the officers who were the deciding factor. Bao Sang knew that, aside from himself, there were really no capable officers amongst his army; so he needed to keep his plans and formations simple in order to reduce the chance of mistakes. By contrast, Iroh's army was highly disciplined and extremely well drilled, and brimming with capable officers.
Iroh's army, numbering 25,000, was outnumbered by over two to one. Of these men, the 500 Fire Princes - an elite unit of heavily armoured, well trained Firebenders - were by far his strongest troops. He also had some trebuchets, which he placed on the high ground just outside the mountains; and a few skirmishers, light troops with ranged weapons. These were unlikely to inflict major casualties on the enemy.
Bao Sang's plan was simple. He would extend his line, splitting it into three divisions of 20,000 men each. The first division would advance parallel to the river, whilst the remaining two swung in on Iroh's right flank and rapidly enveloped them. He placed himself amongst the fanatical Boa warriors on the extreme left, planning to relentlessly lead the advance. Given his great advantage in numbers, Bao aimed to trap Iroh's smaller force between river and mountain and completely destroy it, since there was no way Iroh could defend against Bao's entire line advancing at once. He also wouldn't need to rely on his inferior, unimaginative officers to perform complex manoeuvres. Finally, his envelopment strategy had been used to great success at Xiao Xie Fang.
This is how the battle unfolded.
Following his plan, Bao's army began an immediate, rapid advance. The fanatical prowess and speed of the Boa warriors, egged on by Bao himself, meant that the left flank of his army swung quickly.
Contrary to expectations, Iroh's response to this was to order one division of 5,000 men, under the leadership of Zhao Zunfeng, to reform and advance towards Bao's approaching army of 40,000 on Iroh's right, Bao's left flank. The remaining 20,000 Iroh formed into a dense column formation with himself and his own elite troops, the Fire Princes, at the front. Iroh led this force in a headlong charge against the first division, facing him parallel to the river.
The rapid advance of both sides caught the Earth Kingdom troops completely off guard, since they were expecting Iroh to act defensively against such a large force. Bao had not anticipated any problems on his right flank and had left the first division with only the order to advance on Iroh's force along the river; faced with this unexpected turn of events, it began to falter and lose formation. Iroh's formation, by contrast, were emboldened by their size, the fact that they were attacking, and the presence of their leader.
On Iroh's right flank, the speed of Bao and the Boa warriors had caused them to become separated from the remainder of the division, where they quickly collided with the outside half of Iroh's 4,000 strong division under Zhao Zunfeng. As ordered, Zhao had split his division into two units, A unit and B unit, of 2,500 men each. The Boa warriors collided headlong with B unit and quickly began to drive them back.
By the river, Bao's first division were already being massacred. Although they were fairly even in numbers, Iroh's sudden attack had caught the first division by surprise, and they had not had time to reform for a concerted attack. Furthermore they were facing the most veteran troops of Iroh's army first; the fire princes wrought havoc amongst the Earth Kingdom lines. Finally, Iroh's personal presence on the battlefield was an inspiration to his men, whereas the first division of Earth Kingdom troops were miles from their leader. Under this relentless attack, they quickly began to retreat, taking tremendous casualties.
Meanwhile, the Boa warriors were wreaking similar havoc amongst Zhao's B unit, who quickly retreated towards the mountains. Thinking this was a rout, the Boa warriors pursued, carrying Bao along. Bao never even thought of stopping them, nor would he have been able to now the battle seemed to swing in their favour. However, this retreat was actually planned and carefully organised. Once into the mountains, fighting resumed on the steep slopes and treacherous precipices. Iroh's skirmishers were waiting in the mountains and used their ranged weapons to further harass the Boa warriors.
At this point, any general on the battlefield could see that a temporary withdrawal was necessary, since the Earth Kingdom advance was in chaos. But Bao, trapped with the Boa warriors in the mountains, now had no idea what was even happening in the battle below, or that along the river the first division of Earth Kingdom troops was being decimated by Iroh's attack. Whilst all this was happening, the second and the remainder of the third division had barely moved.
Once again, Bao's absence from the battlefield cost him dear. The A unit had advanced into the town ahead of the Earth Kingdom, who now had to effectively mount a siege by driving them out house by house. The divisions could not advance past the town because if the troops attacking the town were defeated, the Fire Nation's A unit would be able to attack them from the rear; splitting the divisions in such a haphazard way, without Fire Nation discipline to rely on, would also further disorganise the advance. Meanwhile, Iroh's artillery turned the town into a smouldering ruin, leaving mounds of debris twenty feet high blocking streets and alleys. Although this caused few casualties in itself, because both sides quickly retreated to the outskirts of the town, it delayed the siege even further and made the fighting even more treacherous and grinding. This brought two divisions of 30,000 men to a complete standstill, the majority standing by uselessly, with nothing to do but watch the battle for the gutted town unfold.
After two hours of fighting, Iroh's force had totally destroyed the first division, which routed. Iroh now organised a force of 1,000 men to search for the enemy camp, whilst his remaining troops, still numbering over 20,000, wheeled right and attacked the Second division in the flank from a completely unexpected angle. Because of the battle raging in the town, and again because of a general lack of leadership, the second division, like the first, had become disordered. Furthermore, Iroh had used the brilliant Fire Nation discipline to rotate his column, so that the freshest troops who hadn't fought against the first division were now at the front. For the second time that day, the Earth Kingdom forces began to buckle, with their general and their strongest troops nowhere to be seen.
Iroh could see now that he had won. Fire Nation artillery stopped its bombardment of the town and began to attack the remainder of the third division, creating more havoc and confusion. The second division, reeling under an onslaught, began to fall back on the third, adding to the overall chaos ranks and creating a mass of panicked, disorganised troops that were easy prey for Iroh's elite troops. After a period of massacre, these divisions finally surrendered when they saw the tremendous plume of smoke caused by their burning camp.
Soon after this, Bao and the Boa warriors emerged from the mountains, having completely destroyed the B unit and routed the skirmishers.
Iroh now merged the remainder of the A unit, which had been in the town, with the rest of his army and advanced on the exhausted Boa warriors. Bao's heart sank as he realised the carnage that had been inflicted on his force. Showing, for the first time in the battle, his tactical skill, he managed to organise a rearguard of 1,000 warriors that allowed him to escape with his Boa warriors intact.
Iroh's great victory was a masterpiece in Fire Nation hammer-and-anvil tactics: defence and attack working in conjunction to utterly crush the enemy. Of Bao's army of 60,000, only the Boa warriors and a few remnants of the 1st division escaped. 10,000 troops of the second and third divisions were captured, along with thousands more - wounded, officials, non-combatants - from the camp. Over 40,000 Earth Kingdom troops had perished.
The battle was also a reminder of Fire Nation callousness. Iroh's main force had suffered 3,000 casualties, including heavy damage to the fire princes, who were almost always in the thick of the fighting. The major losses, however, were to Zhao Zunfeng's division: the B unit was completely wiped out, and of the A unit who defended the town, over 1500 were killed, including Zhao himself. Incidentally, Iroh would later meet Zunfeng's son after his early retirement and partial disgrace; but I do not know if he recognised the resemblance. Few people remembered the casualties for long. Nor did they remember Iroh's blatant disregard for his orders. All of this was swept away in a torrent of manic joy at the succession of this new General into Fire Nation legend.
I was honoured to speak to Iroh after almost every battle that he commanded. He had the most peculiar expression. He was never happy after a battle, not in the conventional sense, although he enjoyed the challenge of war. His eyes glimmered darkly in the flickering candlelight of the General's tent. He told me that he was disappointed because Bao Sang had escaped, and so the Fire Nation was guaranteed more battles like this one. He had also been hampered with a quarry of prisoners half as large as his own army. Ideally, Iroh had envisioned using these hostages to negotiate the return of Fire Nation prisoners held in Omashu from the previous campaign; but Bao's freedom changed everything. The possibility of executing them was never discussed, at least not to Iroh's face. For now, the celebrations would wait; Iroh faced a new problem from within his own ranks. We had become prison officers, escorting this multitude to who-knows-where, sharing our rations with them... it was a bitter reward for victory, and the soldiers wanted a quick solution.
I hope you enjoyed this tale from Iroh's history, which to my knowledge is largely a closed book in the original series. I had always asked myself, 'how was such a nice man once such a feared general'? The only answer is that he was a different man. If there is sufficient interest (from me as well as readers), I could continue to write episodes from Iroh's history. How did he join the White Lotus? When was Lu Ten born, and when did Iroh marry? He clearly supported the Fire Nation initially, since he fought their wars; when did this change?