Monday, February 17, 2020

Carnage at Elchingen

The games that Mark (author of the Chasseur blog) put on at his house are becoming something of an annual (or more) event.  And very enjoyable they are, too: fine table set-up, lovely soldiery to order into battle, and a genial host.  Last Friday but one (7 February 2020) was the occasion for one of the tensest tabletop battles I have ever fought.  Unfortunately my not very coherent series of pictures aren't going to do the thing justice.

The action was the first really major action fought at the beginning of the War of the Third Coalition, 1805.  Ordered to recross the Danube River to the north bank to cut off the main Austrian army being encircled around Ulm, Marshal Ney forced a crossing south of the twin Elchingen villages, stormed them and forced back the whole Austrian line commanded by General Riesch (and General Werneck, according to my, more ... erm ... general, source).  It appears that Mark got much of his information for the scenario from this very interesting and attractive resource:  Obscure Battles.

Mark opted here to umpire the game, whilst Paul ('Jacko' of the Painting Little Soldiers blog) and I chose sides.  I took the French - rolling a die and calling 'odds/Austrians-evens/French' - Paul the Austrians.  I can't say that the opening situation looked all that encouraging - masses of Austrians, none too many Frenchmen on the table.

The action opened with Loison's infantry Division having crossed the Danube, and advancing upon the Ober-Elchingen village.  Villatte's Brigade - brigaded skirmisher companies, 4 infantry (line and light) and two gun batteries - advanced directly upon the place.
Rouget's brigade - another unit of brigaded skirmisher companies plus 5 line and light battalions - moved up alongside towards the ridges east of Villatte's objective, where awaited a line of Austrian  infantry covered by a screen of skirmishing jagers or light infantry.  Accompanying Rouget was General Colbert's small brigade of light cavalry, 3rd Hussards, and 10th Chasseurs-a-cheval.
A considerable distance off to the right, General Laplanche's Divsion of Dragoons had been taking an interest in an Austrian brigade almost as isolated.  A quick charge by 19th Dragoons was quickly rebuffed by an Austrian square.  This was really a probing attack.  Two of the Austrians quickly scuttled into the Unter-Elchingen village, which place they began to prepare for defence.  The third, delayed by the dragoons, didn't make it before being crushed by Laplanche's horse guns.

Villatte's attack on Ober-Elchingen was immediately successful, if only partially.  One battalion broke into the southern quarter of the village, which was to remain in French hands for the duration of the action.  The attempted storm of the west end, however, was being held up.
It was about this point at which matters became very turnip-shaped for the French. The first forebodings, perhaps, could be seen in the advance over the difficult escarpment by a mixed force of Austrian cuirassiers, grenadiers and line infantry. Immediately to hand on the French side was the line of skirmishers, with a light infantry battalion set to support them. Perhaps Marshal Ney (myself) was a little too sanguine about his prospects of holding any Austrian counterattack in this region.
Meanwhile Rouget had also suffered a setback: the loss of his unit of brigaded skirmisher companies.  It was touch and go whether their rout - outshot by their Austrian counterparts - would carry off  some of the close-order foot behind them.

At this point I shall digress from the narrative to discuss something about morale rules, and what happens, or is supposed to happen, when units 'see' a rout.  Personally, I believe that units disappearing over the horizon because - and solely because - of other units routing, was vanishingly rare, except on occasions in which the routers actually burst through, as we might call it, the 'testing' unit.  I'm not talking individuals, here - the Napoleonic wars were notorious for people making off, under this or that excuse, to the rear.  But the units as a whole, I believe, would stick unless they themselves had good reason (taking heavy losses themselves) to apprehend their future at the enemy's hands.  Even if it were true that such things happened more often than I believe to be the case, I would still be inclined to error on the side of 'unit heroism' if only to make our war games less subject, shall we say, to Hexahedral caprice.*

Much less am I persuaded that skirmishers suddenly breaking to the rear would set off in sympathy  the supports seeing this.  Skirmishing clouds were flexible, constantly moving,  soldiers working in pairs, moving back to replenish, replaced by someone from the skirmisher reserve, and, if pressure mounted, sidling back behind the first main line.  No one would take much notice of what they were doing, being (a) used to the behavious of skirmishers to front and flank; and (b) more focused upon what might be coming out of the smoke in front of them.

I have occasionally thought about writing in my tactical level Napoleonic rule set a simplified system for grande-bandee minor tactics, but probably even then it's not really practical at higher than brigade level games.
Having said all that, I should probably have formed my battalion columns into line, and had a go a battering my way up and over the escarpment (represented as a ridge-line in this game).  However, apprehending the possible eviction of Villatte's battalion clinging on to its section of Ober-Elchingen, Rouget send across his left hand battalion to relieve it.
 On the right, Laplanche was disinclined yet to engage the enemy too closely.
Events developed suddenly and rapidly west of Ober-Elchingen.  Although the French infantry caused some damage to the Austrian foot, the cuirassiers cleared the difficult slope of the escarpment, and surged straight into the nearest close order foot, just as the latter were about to drive into the abandoned west end of the village.  The French skirmishers scuttled out of the way, the line infantry failed to form square betimes, the cuirassiers rode straight over the top of them.  Ploughing on, they rode down a second laggard unit, before finally making off.  These disasters very nearly broke Villatte's Brigade.  It seemed that they would be unable to undertake any further positive action.  Yet, perhaps there was still some fight left in what remained.  (Unfortunately, in all the excitement I failed to take pictures of the unfolding drama.)
Rouget's brigade was to share Villatte's misfortune - only more so. My persisting with the battalion columns had to do with the hope of bashing through the Austrian lines at some point, but I also had my eye on the east end of Ober-Elchingen. Villatte was unlikely to take the place with what remained of his force.  Possibly that distraction led to my allowing events to get out of hand.
Although the enemy skirmishers were driven off, the subsequent firefight with the Austrian lines pretty much settled the hash of the leading French battalions.  One of the centre battalions broke, and carried another with it from the field. This left the right hand battalion isolated but for Colbert's light cavalry, and Colbert was not about to hazard his small brigade against Austrian foot at the top of a difficult slope.  It was not long before that lone battalion, too, departed the field of battle.
This was getting embarrassing.  Villatte's Brigade badly knocked about; Rouget's actually broken, though he managed to keep a couple of battalions in the field, one of them still holding on to a part of Ober-Elchingen.  So reduced had the available French forces become, it was very tempting, perhaps, to call the battle right here, before the arrival of Malher's Division astride the Unter-Elchingen road.  Mark even suggested it, with the idea of restarting, I think, but I much preferred to carry on.  If we were to go down, let's go down big.
Malher's Division was as powerful as Loison's.  On and to the right of the road marched Marcoginet's Brigade: 3 light and 2 line battalions and the brigaded legere companies.  Advancing to the left was Labassee's 4 line battalions, plus the divisional artillery, also screened by a cloud of skirmishers. Flanking this Division: Colbert's light horse covering the left, and Laplanche's dragoons, ready, now, to sweep around the Unter-Elchingen village, into the Austrian flank.  The stage was set for Act II of the Carnage at Elchingen...

This seems to me a good moment to pause in the narrative, to resume later on.

* Hexahedra, the Goddess of Random Number Generation using Dice.


  1. Enjoyable battle account, thus far! I agree with your assessment of the routing of nearby supports especially when skirmishers are the triggering event. Some rules seem to replicate the tipping over of a line of closely spaced dominoes. One topples and the whole thing can go into the bin. A dramatic event but not much fun and likely not too historical.

    I await your Part 2.

    1. Cheers, Jonathan. This battle felt a little bit like the domino thing.... In the end - well, we'll come to that!

  2. Great job Ion, entertaining as always and looking forward to part 2!

    Re domino routs, it's an interesting point of difference between rules and interpretations of history. My first version of rules did not have such brutal possibilities, so likely to revert to that earlier version if it is more enjoyable for people. :)

    1. Sounds good. I think, though, that if you MUST have domino routs, that the testing takes place AFTER all combats are resolved, and units requiring to test, test once 'for seeing a rout' even though there might be more than one in the neighbourhood. Whatever modifications there are to the test, there should be no cumulative effect for the number of routs.

      The element of chance is one thing, but we have to bear in mind there is no balancing 'long run' in war games. I've long ago lost count of the number of times I have won or lost games on ONE single roll, or series of rolls (especially in DBM!). Remember Granny Weatherwax's Law: million to one shots crop up nine times out of ten... :-D

    2. Yep that "test once" was what I was thinking as a possible compromise, thanks!

  3. As usual, reading back, I see I left something out. What to do if a unit, seeing a rout, departs hastily for the tall timber, and its neighbour, otherwise out of range for testing the original rout, now 'sees' this new one. I'd suggest ignore it. Or, if thought really necessary, leave it for the following turn.