Sunday, 18 December 2011

Clearing the Way to Salamanca

And so I dragged myself out of bed and into the bleak midwinter for a Napoleonic battle.

I'm glad I did as it was one of the most enjoyable games I have played in many a long year - even if I did nearly get frostbite waiting outside the hall because no one had the key.

Cue blurry photo...

The French side had three infantry brigades of 4 battalions, a cavalry brigade of 4 squadrons, and an artillery brigade of 3 batteries. Opposing this was an Allied army, which I estimate was two infanty brigades with an artillery battery, and a small cavalry brigade of two squadrons. The British brigade also had two sections of Riflemen.

The British were commanded by two players, while there were three on the French side.

I'll admit that I haven't looked at the Black Powder rules in ages, but from my previous experience with the rules I was clear about one thing, that at all costs the Allied Cavalry had to be contained, if the French infantry were to advance.

The game was played on a 6' by 8' table, lengthways. The orders we, the French commanders, were given was that we had to drive the British from the river and to proceed down the road towards Salamanca (or some such place). At least I think these were the orders, as we only gave them a cursory glance, as we realised that we were attacking, and spent the planning stage discussing how were were going to contain the Allied cavalry.

The tactical problem we had, was that the centre of the line was divided by hedged fields, which effectively meant that the two wings of the French army would have to act independently.

I was commanding one infantry brigade and the cavalry.

The plan we came up with was that I should fight a defensive action on the right flank with the infantry, to tie down Allied left, while the 2 remaining infantry brigades pushed down the road to force a crossing of the river. The artillery brigade was deployed in the centre. As was the cavalry, which was to act in support of both flanks, with the priority that they engage and drive off the Allied cavalry.

My infantry formed a brigade line in a wood on the right flank, drawn up in mixed columns with lines of skirmishers out in front, in true revolutionary French fashion. On the left the two other commanders opted for a formation of two battalions drawn up in line, with a battalion in column on each flank forming a brigade box. The artillery deployed in a line. And the cavalry in a brigade column on the right of the artillery, flanking my infantry brigade.

At which point came the first surprise - which on reflection was not that surprising - Riflemen took position in the hedges in the centre. I wasn't expecting the allies to deploy across the river. Then came the second surprise, the Allied cavalry also deployed across the river, directly in front of my infantry.

The remainder of the Allied army, drew up in a line along the length of the river bank, with meagre reserves behind to plug the gaps as and when needed.

And so the battle commenced.

One the left the leading French brigade failed to issue orders and did nothing. The supporting Guard's brigade, having nothing to support did nothing. The artillery held it's ground in order to fire on the Rifles in the hedges. Which meant it was over to me on the right.

The cavalry rolled forward, got two orders, formed a line to face off against the threat from the Allied cavalry, with the Hussars angled to charge the Rifles in the hedges.

This created a bit of problem, as the cavalry were now positioned in front of the infantry, seriously restricting their movement. As the plan called for me fighting a defensive action, I threw one infantry battalion foward and formed square on the flank of the cavalry. A second battalion attempted to do the same to the rear of the cavalry, but only had enough orders to move foward.

There was much merriment on the Allied side at this percieved over reaction to facing a mere two squadrons of cavalry, Light Dragoons and Spanish Hussars.

In the firing phase the artillery opened up on the Rifles and managed to disorder them.

In the Allied turn the British Dragoons did what British cavalry does - it advanced with all haste toward my lines. While the Spanish Hussars did what Spanish cavalry does - it retreated back across the river. Questa failed to give orders. In exasperation the British C in C - Wellsley - raced across the battlefield to lead a Spanish battalion from it's position in the centre, over to support the Guards brigade on the right, which would be seriously under pressure if the French left could be shaken from it's lethary; the French on that flank out numbering the British 2-1.

The French Cin C, Junot, was given a special rule for the battle. At the start of each turn a dice was rolled, the result of which meant that he would either act as an inspiring leader, have no influence, or a dithering fool.

On turn two he rolled a 6, and all French commands gained an extra two command points.

The result of which was that the left flank kicked into gear and shot down the road. Both the lead brigade and the Guards moved three feet towards the British line. The Thin Red line suddenly looked very thin indeed. The artillery manhandled their guns forward to close with the Rifles cowering in the hedges.

Now all that remained was for the cavalry to deliver the coup de main against the plucky British Light Dragoons and the right flank could join their brothers on the advance. Unfortunately there was a mix up in the orders, meaning that the cavalry did nothing - perhaps they sipped a little brandy and smoked cigars who can say? The problem was that the failure of the Dragoons to charge, also meant that the Hussars could not drive in the Rifles picketted in the hedges.

On the plus side because the cavalry hadn't moved, the Infantry could move through them. Which three battalions did, and formed into squares to protect the indolent cavalry. The fourth battalion moved to face off against the Rifles.

At this point there was a rather fortuitious occurance.

Two of the squares managed to shoot at and disorder the Light Dragoons. This meant that the Dragoons were effectively pinned, being able neither to charge or retire on their turn.

Likewise the artillery pounded the Rifles in the hedgerows, and again forced them into disorder, meaning they were pinned.

The rapid advance of the French left against the British Guards brigade, led to some rather curious manouvres on the Allied side. The Spanish Hussars, instead of coming to the aid of their stricken comrades, heading toward the British left flank. Questa again failed to give orders. And Wellsley was forced to intervene to lead the Spanish Battalion to a poistion supporting the British lines. Taking the place of a British battlion which was committed to the furthest most point of the Allied right flank to ensure the French did not make an unopposed crossing of the river.

In the firing phase the British artillery opened up on the rapidly advancing French left wing, and missed. Again the Rifles proved ineffective in the centre. Though musketry from the Foot Guards did force a disorder on the right hand column of the leading French Brigade, stopping it from charging.

From the moment the battle opened, the commander of the leading French brigade had been urging anyone who would listen to 'throw them in' - they don't like it up them, if you will. And despite only having one column in a position to do so - the other being unable because of disorder - he threw them into the river in an attempt to throw the Highlanders back from their defensive positions. Unfortunately the column became mired in the crossing and only made it half way, leaving themselves dangerously exposed to Allied fire.

There was a brief exchange of views between the French commanders, with myself urging the commander of the Guard to move through the leading Brigade, but the Guard commander, wisely as it turned out, deciding to keep to his prefered option of supporting the attack.

On the right wing the Dragoons finally understood their orders and charged the British Light Dragoons. However the Hussars were clearly having problems with the order to charge the Riflemen in the hedgerow - "What Riflemen". And so it was left to the PBI to flush them from their hiding places.

The rest of the infantry remained in square, and in their previous positions, as I wanted to ensure that if the cavalry combat went awry, I could keep the British cavalry boxed in.

The problem for the artillery in the centre was that they were now left with very few targets, thus they began moving forward to support the left flank and try to get an aim on the Allied line.

The shooting phase was largely uneventful.

Which left the cavalry battle between the French Dragoons and the British Light Dragoons. It was a tight battle with the French narrowly coming out on top, forcing the British to retreat to the river. The French pursued, and this time resoundlingly defeated the British, who turned and fled the battle. The French them rallied back, bloodied, but victorious. The way was now open for the infantry assualt the Spanish and Portugese left flank.

The Allied response was swift and bloody.

The Spanish Hussars stooped their redeployment to the right flank and took up a position offering rear support to the Portugese line infantry.

The situation facing the French left was that they had advanced into an enfiladed position. They were drawing fire from four line battalions on the river bank, a battery of guns, and a section of Riflemen in the hedgerow.

Thus the battalion which had got stuck in the river was destroyed by musket fire. The column on the right of the battalion, which had previously been disordered, was shaken and forced to retreat, and the foward line of the central battalion was disordered, preventing the second line battalion from stepping through and engaging the enemy.

In short the brigade was on the point of shattering.

On the right flank the only thing of note was that the Spanish battery fired on one of the squares and inflicted wounds.

The battle had swung in favour of the Allies.

Again the French commanders had a discussion. The commander of the leading brigade was still calling for the bayonet, but couldn't do anything as his two line battalions were pinned on the river bank in disorder and his other battalion was fleeing with Junot in hot pursuit trying to rally them. I tried to impress on the Guard commander the urgency of the situation, and that he must move through the shattered brigade and at least cover it, to save it from destruction. The Guard commander was understandably cautious, having witnessed the deadly fire of the previous turn... and let's face it, it is easy for me to urge this bold self sacrifice, as they are not my troops being killed.

He decides to adopt the bold approach, and the dice gods are in his favour. He gets the necessary command points to put his left hand column into the Highlanders, and his right hand column into the Foot Guards. Plus he manages to get the two line battalions through the leading brigade and into a position to fire on the artillery battery deployed between the two.

The Hussars finally get moving in the centre, and relieve the pressure on the left flank, by chasing the Rifles from their enfilading position, and back across the river. In doing so they also force a Portugese battalion to form square. Unable to continue further the Huassars retire back to the safety of the hedgerows.

The rest of the cavalry moves forward to positions from which they can support the infantry and stop the Spanish Hussars from coming back across the river.

I am now faced with a tough decision. I have an infantry unit in the hedgerow that is beyond my normal command distance, and three battalion formed up in square. I need the infantry in the hedgerow to drive off the riflemen - the only allied troops on that side of the river - but if I fail to issue an order, then I am left with three infantry units in square, under artillery fire, and an attack that has stalled.

I opt to drive off the Riflemen first, and manage to get the order off. They flee back across the river. I also manage to get two of the three battalions formed up in mixed column and marching towards the Spanish and Portugese on the other side of the river. The other unit fails it's orders and remains in square.

The artillery continues to move forward in a search for targets, by a combination of limbering up and manhandling.

At Junot's insistence, the panicked remnants of the leading brigade's column rallies, and due to the invention of the Guard brigade stepping in to shiled them from fire, the lead briigade is operational once more.

Again the French fire is less than impressive.

And so to the combat.

The fight between the Guards and the Highlanders is an epic. Both sides slaughter each other without mercy, but in the end a combination of the Highlanders having the advatage of height from the river bank and slightly better saving throws, means that they win the day. The resulting throw is pitiful and the guard column disintegrates into a mass of bodies floating in the river, with the odd survivor scrambling back across the river and fleeing for safety. However the Highlanders have paid a heavy price, being shaken and disordered.

Elsewhere the fight between the French Guards and the Foot Guards, is much closer. The French win the fight but the Foot Guards are made of stern stuff, and stand their ground to fight another round.

And so to the Allied turn.

The Riflemen who have been chased back across the river move to support the British Guard's brigade. The Spanish/Portugese brigade, as yet largely untouched, hold their ground and prepare to drive off my assualt.

In the shooting phase the Guards continue to inflict casualties on the Guard brigade, disordering the leading line battalion in addition. On my right the mixed columns do their job. The skirmishers are driven in from one of them by artillery fire, which also inflicts casualties, And disordering the other unit that is in a position to charge.

Again the combat with the Foot Guards proves inconclusive. This time the French lose the combat, but it their turn to show their worth.

With the leading brigade now back in action, but their path to the river blocked by the disordered Guard, they are forced to manourve around their comrades, and take up a position threatening the battlion on the extreme right of the Allied line and the shaken Highlanders. In theory this will give the brigade an advantage of 3-2, but is reliant on the the Guard holding under whithering fire from the artillery.

The Guard hold their position, something in part forced upon them by the inconclusive fighting with the Foot Guards.

I decide to take some bold action with my cavalry.

The victors of the encounter with the Light Dragoons, having rallied, are ordered to charge the Portugese battalion to the left of the Foot Guards. My intention is to drive them into square to make it easier for the infantry to assualt. But the Quesada calls my bluff and the Portugese declare they will take the charge in line formation and take the opportunity to fire.

The Cuirassiers are ordered to charge against the Portugese battalion on the extreme left of the Spanish line, they form square and the cavalry fall back. The Dragoons move up along side the Cuirassier. However the Hussars in the hedgerow fail to charge the Foot Guard, and do nothing.

The chance to charge infantry in square with infantry in column is to good an opportunity to pass up. So I order the charge, but the infantry get bogged down in the river and fail to make it.

Elsewhere, the artillery continue to move up and seek targets of opportunity.

Having seen the battle swing away from them, the action reaches it's critical moment. Though at the time I doubt any of the French commanders thought so.

In the shooting phase the shaken Highlanders had their morale broken and were forced to fall back.

The battle between the Guard and the Foot Guards reached it's conclusion with the destruction of the French battalion. The Dragoons were driven back by the Portugese infantry, despite wining the combat because of the resolve of the infantry.

In all these cases, there was a sense of moral victory for the French, yet apart from the gap left by the Highlanders, still the Allied line was continuous along the river back, and still it had flank and rear supports to offer bonuses in combats, against what would by necessity be increasingly piece meal attacks.

And this sense was only increased during the allied turn when musketry and grapeshot shook one of the two remaining units of the Guard brigade, and the unfortunate column that had failed to cross the river to engage the Portugese square.

And so we reach turn six.

The tactical situation from the French p.o.v is this.

The lead brigade is moving out to the extreme left of the French line, it is hinged on the shattered remnants of the Guard. The Guard have to take a leadership test, which - vive l'Emperor - they pass, or they are shattered and have to retreat.

The artillery after moving around like the Israelites in the desert trying to get a line of sight around the hedgerows, now has two batteries in position to fire, with a third possibly being in position in the centre depending on charges.

The cavalry have one shaken unit of Dragoons. One unit of Dragoons and the Cuirassiers are in a decent position to force the infantry to form square. The Hussars, in the centre, are in a similar position. However the command is strung out making it not easy to give commands or co ordinate the attacks.

My infantry have one shaken unit. And of the other three units, all have taken casualties. And like the cavalry it will be a lottery as to whether I can get them all to do what I want.

Junot does not help matters, by rolling neutrally on his influence. It is worth bearing in mind that Junot has only influenced the battle on this roll once, when he gave +2 to command and allowed the left wing to rapidly advance.

In short, in my opinion, the French have fought well but ultimately we have come on in the same old way and been off in the same old way.

True to form the commander of the lead brigade gives his orders. The column, which having rallied is on the verge of being shaken, charge the Guard infantry across the river. The two remianing units mve around to offer fire support.

A quick note. The Allied commanders are exceptionally cheerful. I realise that time is getting on, and no doubt the game will be called at this end of this turn if the assualts don't gain leverage - it is the last game still running, people have increasingly become involved in chit chat, etc.

But still....

And so it is the turn of the Guard commander.

He has saved his command from breaking. He has two units left, one of which is shaken. He has already stated, and I agree with him, that firing is as effective as combat. And so he starts to issue his orders. The shaken unit will hold it's ground and shoot. The Allied commanders and various bystanders begin to jeer - come on be bold. At which point he and I have a little conflab. Though why he would listen to me, after having advised him earlier on a course of action that lead to the almost destruction of his command...

"What about if you form the Old Guard into column? And charge the Foot Guard? They're disordered and shaken. It'll take three command points."

I like him. He is a cautious commander. He is like me, he likes to play the game at his own speed and in his own way. But more importantly he has sacrificed his command and in doing so he has paved the way for this one last desperate act. Go on... please... pretty please....

He rolls the dice, he gets three command points.

We've lost but we're in.

He doesn't even move the troops, the Allied commander does it for him.

As for myself, I put in a couple of charges, the infantry who have been lurking in the hedgerow charge the Portugese who drove off the Dragoons. The infantry who were disordered but used their mates as a meatshieild pile in on the extreme right.

It don't matter we've lost.


The battery in the centre fires grapeshot at the Portugese line infantry, who had been shaken by the Dragoons. Two hits. No saves. Roll the dice. 5. They are off.

By this time I have been in and out for a fag, having a cup of tea, chatting with a few people, I'm not really up with what is happening in the game. I barely notice that the Duke of Wellington is with them. A quick bit of searching through the rules to see if he is killed by the grapeshot. Nope. He is running with the Portugese.

Much merriment.

Lead battalion in on the Guard. Many hits, no saves. Guard against Lead battalion, few hits, many saves.

My combats.... see above.

Oh btw, says the Allied commander, who had set up the game and designed the scenerio, on turn six British reinforcements arrive under the direct command of Wellsley behind French lines, but as he is not on the table they don't arrive.

The Allied line is to all intents and purposes - smashed.

I have enough troops, and of the right type to roll it up.

Game over.

The French win.

Cue random picture....

Perhaps those on the other side of the river might disagree with some of the specifics of the narrative - meh that's what history is all about.

It was certainly a damned close run thing.

It was certainly an epic game that justified the time and effort put into painting the figures.

Well worth traipsing out on a winter morning.


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