Burroughs Battles III:
The Battle of Lodidhapura Clearing
by Alan Hanson
“There are only Pnom Dhek and Lodidhapura
in all the world.” Thus did Fou-tan relate to Gordon King the belief
of those few thousand lost souls who live deep in the jungles of Cambodia.
Believing as they do, warfare must be a limited thing, never decisive or
final. For should Pnon Dhek consume Lodidhapura on the battlefield, all
of Pnom Dhek would ask the same question uttered by Fou-tan. “Against
whom else might we make war?”
The basis of war in this Asian jungle
is not the soldier; it is the elephant, the war elephant. The kings of
the two cities each have thousands of them and their soldiers go into battle
on them and fight from their backs.
If time really does exist deep inside
this hidden forest, then there was a major battle fought there sometime
during the first part of the year 1929. We’ll call it the Battle of Lodidhapura
Clearing, although it certainly was not the first such battle fought on
that ground. Numerous others there marked the ageless conflict between
Pnom Dhek and Lodidhapura. If there was anything unique about the battle
we read about in Burroughs’ Jungle Girl, it is that an outsider,
an American, not only saw the battle, but also fought in it. Having won
the boundless gratitude of Lodivarman, Gordon King found himself in the
service of Lodidhapura, the commander of 500 Khmer warriors.
battle to avenge a woman’s honor
Down through the ages, it took no great
political crisis to bring the war elephants of Pnom Dhek and Lodidhapura
to the battlefield. In 1929 the cause was a woman’s honor. “Beng Kher
comes with a great army to avenge the insult to his princess,” were
the words of a fatigued messenger to the captain of the gates of Lodidhapura.
When Fou-tan had been his captive earlier, Lodivarman had tried to rape
her, and for Ben Kher only the blood of many men could expiate the act.
A thousand elephants soon filed
through the colorful streets of Lodidhapura and out into the jungle. Northward
they went, carrying upon their backs grim archers and spearmen, among them
Gordon King. Coarse and grim and silent, the men sat in their howdahs,
their burnished cuirasses and ribboned spear shafts glimmering in the sunlight
as it filtered down through the jungle growth above them. Booming drums
and blaring trumpets announced the approach of the army to the enemy.
The armies converged at the appointed
place, a great clearing that for ages was the battleground whenever Pnom
Dhek attacked Lodidhapura. Both sides understood that the battle was to
be fought according to age-old customs. The first encounter must occur
in the clearing. Should the Lodidhapuran line be broken, Lodivarman and
his men would retreat to the city to make their final stand. Should they
turn back the elephants of Pnom Dhek, the Lodidhapurans could purse the
enemy through the jungle or not, as they chose.
Tactics were also governed by tradition.
Khmer warfare consisted primarily of individual encounters between elephant
crews. Flanking, surprise attacks, and the like were not allowed, the confining
nature of the jungle and the size of the elephants making such movements
bloodlust of men and elephants
The battleground was about two miles
in length, with the two armies lining up on the northern and southern sides
of the clearing. They three-quarters of a mile between them was slightly
rolling and nearly devoid of vegetation, as it was regularly used for training
war elephants. Here the warriors of Lodidhapura awaited the coming of the
enemy. The stink of the elephants, the smell of leather, and the ever increasing
boom from the approaching enemy’s drums all served to stir up the bloodlust
in men and elephants alike.
In orderly fashion, the elephants
of Pnom Dhek entered the clearing and lined up opposite those of Lodidhapura.
The only preliminaries were the blaring of trumpets from both sides, and
then the lines advanced on each other. All sense of discipline disappeared
as the elephants broke into a trot and battle cries came from 10,000 throats.
As the two lines approached each other and the bowmen loosed their arrows,
the battle cries gave way in volume to the cries of the wounded, both men
and elephants. Gordon King earned the respect of his men at once by sending
his javelin through the cuirass of an enemy officer.
When the two lines finally came
together, the force of the collision overthrew a score of elephants. The
battle then resolved itself into a series of individual encounters, as
warriors on both sides sought to maneuver their elephants to provide an
advantage in hand-to-hand combat. At times, a wounded and maddened elephant
would bolt into the jungle with warriors jumping from its back rather than
risk near certain death as the elephant stampeded through the undergrowth.
King’s experience must have been
typical of the individual warriors in the battle. One arrow grazed his
arm while a dozen others glanced off his helmet and his cuirass. Savage
faces flashed all around him. Blinded by sweat and choked by dust, the
American thrust out at the enemy with his javelin. It seemed to King that
he could not survive in the vicious melee, but the advancing elephants
of his own men eventually began to push the enemy back. The Pnom Dhek line
gave and then held again, losing a little ground with each give and take.
American becomes a Cambodian king
Finally, the line of Beng Kher
gave way completely, and the elephants of Pnom Dhek turned and streamed
to the north on well-worn jungle paths. Lodivarman chose not to send his
elephants in pursuit. Gordon King, however, still filled with the excitement
of battle, urged his elephant into the jungle after the enemy. In doing
so, he was to witness the mortal wounding of the king of Pnom Dhek. Beng
Kher was struck down not an enemy spear but by the knife of one of his
own men. Bharata Rahon, desirous of both Beng Kher’s throne and his daughter’s
hand, plunged his knife into the neck of his king, sending him tumbling
from his howdah to the ground below. Gordon King stopped to comfort Beng
Kher and even transported him to a place of safety to recuperate, but the
wound proved fatal in the end.
The Battle of Lodidhapura Clearing
was in itself a decisive victory for Lodidhapura. However, subsequent events
were to bring a generation of peace to the cities. Beng Kher’s death and
Gordon King’s marriage to the princess Fou-tan resulted in King becoming
the new monarch of Pnom Dhek. With the American having previously won the
undying gratitude of Lodivarman for curing his “leprosy,” a bond
of friendship existed between the two Khmer kings. No doubt, during the
remainder of their respective reigns, when the war elephants of the two
cities came to Lodidharpura Clearing, it was to compete in spirited games
and not to battle to the death.
— the end —