Sunday, June 8, 2014

Big Battles for Small Tables - continued (2)

Before I continue with further discussion on developing my rule set, I propose here to digress a little, and indulge myself in a little bit of nostalgia.  It will illustrate, I hope, the kind of thing to which I would like to return - with improvements, of course.

Way back in 1975, I was winding up my University studies (having already gained my undergraduate degree in Mathematics the year before).  That year was the founding (and I think dissolution) of the University war games club, the Contubernium Club.  It was thought that, after a few introductory battles, we would celebrate the club's founding with a Napoleonic campaign.  The guiding light in all this was a Law student name of Philip (If he ever reads this and recognises himself, I ask him please leave a comment:  I'd like to get back in touch). 

Except it wouldn't be Napoleonic, for, in the early years of 1812, Napoleon died - it was never explained how (possibly an infernal machine. probably some disease).   Philip was the campaign organiser and arbiter; the armies were his (except for the few figures that were my contribution, and were the the beginnings of my own collection), and the rule set was his, based more-or-less on Young & Lawford's Charge!

With Napoleon's demise, the nationalist fervour throughout Europe burst into life, and at once a formidable coalition of Austrians, Russians, Prussians and British mobilized once and for all to crush French imperialist ambitions.  Only the Kingdom of Westphalia (my own guys, though they looked a bit more like Italians at the time - they have since been repainted as French) remained actively loyal.  The remainder of the Confederation of the Rhine sat out the campaign.  No figures for them!

The way the armies were organised was like this.  A regiment (strictly speaking a battalion) comprised an officer and 8 other ranks.  Four such regiments formed a 36-figure division, which, in a four-deep column very much tended to be the tactical unit of choice.  Three Divisions made up an Army Corps.  I don't recall that these army corps included integral artillery or light horse - the wherewithal was there, but I think Philip tended towards the Cavalry Corps concept, and such attachments were strictly ad hoc. Cavalry regiments comprised an officer and 4 troopers. His French Army comprised, then, 4 Army Corps, a large corps of cavalry, and the Imperial Guard - an over-strength 'Division' of 5 regiments.  The Allies, more or less similarly organised, each contributed much smaller forces, but their overall strength outmatched the French by 15-20%.

The whole enterprise developed on two independent fronts.  In the east, a large combined army of Prussians, Russian and Austrians would invaded the Rhinelands and entered France by way of Strasbourg.  In the north, a British army landed in Holland and marched south, combining their operations with a Prussian Corps.  There was no strategic link between the two fronts that I was aware of at the time.

Road Pursuit
As the 'Westphalian' commander, Graf Ritter von Borlz (myself), and my single Division (36 figures),  began the war in an exposed and isolated position (in Westphalia), it was directed to march south to join the main French Army of the East (some of the names I have coined here, as I have no recollection of what names were used at the time). Unfortunately, in the interests of joining quickly, I chose a more easterly route than was prudently advisable.  

Lo and behold, several days into the march, the distant ridges to the east of the road were suddenly crowned with masses of Allied cavalry, supported by a battery of horse guns, ready to sweep my puny force into oblivion.   So began a frantic march and pursuit, played one evening on the floor in Philip's shared student flat.  The diagram doesn't really show it, but the thing was played out on a 'scrolling' games area.  As my guys reached the end wall of the room, the thing would be scrolled back and the chase continued.  At last a stream hove into view, obviously unfordable for it was in spate, and if my troops could make it across it was held that they would reach safety.  

I don't recall exactly how the thing ended, by my memory tells me it was not well.  I got pretty close to the river bridge but by this time I had already taken some loss, and the enemy cavalry was getting dangerously near.  I know how I would tackle the problem now, but at the time I don't think I made the best of it at all.

Operations in Belgium
Meanwhile, there had been a lot of manoeuvring and indecisive messing about in Belgium.  Unfortunately, the commander of the French Army of the North - let's call him Marshal McMack - had fallen into dithering about, and allowed himself to be trapped between the British and Prussian armies, with the latter athwart his line of communication to the south.  Enter General Duchesnois (me, because 'Marshal McMack' couldn't make it that day) to see what he could do to retrieve the situation.
The Army of the North began the day concentrated about the North Village (see map).  The road south crossed a stream, ascended an escarpment on the far bank, and continued on into France.   Lining the escarpment was the Prussian Army, some 160 figures (16,000 troops).  The British, 17,000 strong, began the day marching onto the battlefield from the north.

The French had one advantage: the central position, and, at 190 figures, slightly stronger (19,000) than both enemy armies individually.  The army of the North comprised 4 infantry Divisions, and I think 4 batteries (model cannon), and possibly 6 cavalry regiments.  I do recall the overall numbers, and this organisation seems to fit.

The situation assessed ('What the hell, Philip??!') Genl Duchesnois hit on his plan.  Leaving a Division with some horse and guns (if memory serves) to hold up the British, the remainder of his army marched hotfoot to the weakly held East Village at the extreme right of the Prussian line.  The desperate ferocity of the French attack quickly forced the river crossing, stormed the village and broke through into the country beyond.  Pulling in his rearguard, Duchesnois pressed on, trying always to swing westward to regain the south road.

That objective proved beyond the strength of the French Army.  The Prussians reversed their lines and the whole corps swung back like a door to oppose the French envelopment.  In this they were ably seconded by the British, who, pursuing the enemy rearguard with perhaps a third to a half of their strength, used the rest to sustain the Prussians.

Once more a running fight developed, the French never quite able to overreach the Allied lines, nor yet to break through.  As the Allied strength developed, the French movement began to resemble the action of a modern caterpillar track, the lines flanking the march southward struggling to hold the Allies at bay, whilst the rearward troops made their way behind them to extend the protective line beyond.  This action, as the first, also ended up being played on a 'scrolling' table, until at last we found a road heading east.  Not ideal, it was the best the Army of the North could hope for, and so they made their escape.  Not a moment too soon!

Given the circumstances, that was a considerable tactical success by the Army of the North.  We had fought our way out of a very parlous situation.  But it was a strategic disaster, all the same.  Losses were about equal on both sides (90 figures each), but the Allies' casualties were at least shared.  I don't recall them exactly, but the Prussians obviously took the greater damage;  though not quite enough to discourage the Army (70 figures out of 160, maybe).  The British got off pretty lightly, about 20 figures.  Ninety out of 190 figures lost to the French was a very serious matter.  It was as well we got off when we did, for another 5 figures lost would have demoralized the Army.

It is true that after battle returns would have brought some of these losses back into each army, stragglers and lightly wounded rejoining the ranks overnight.  As holders of the field at the end of the day, the Allies recovered half, bringing the Prussian Corps up to 125 figures (12,500), the British to 160 (16,000).  Having quitted the field, the French would have got a third back, bringing their strength up to 130 (13,000).  A sixth, 15 figures (1500 troops), became prisoners of war.  

It is very doubtful, then, that the Army of the North, still in good heart, but now outnumbered more than two to one, would have been in much shape to maintain a credible opposition to the Allies in Belgium.

To be continued: the adventures of the Army of the East.


  1. Ahhhh, of such games are fond and long lasting memories made of, ripe to be recounted beside a roaring hearth over a mug of ale or a noggin of rum.

    1. I did hope to evoke perhaps a sense of nostalgia in whoever read this account. But the warming trio of spirits, flames and swashbuckling tales of derring do are just the thing for one's twilight years... Not that I've quite reached them yet... :-)