Sunday, 15 January 2012

Fighting the Rear Guard

And so today I ventured back to the Peninsular war.

Cue blurry photo....

The scenario was of my devising. We were playing Black Powder rules. However I wanted to get away from the notion of a set battle, and though I was never specific about it in setting up the game or while the game was happening, my intention was to act as more of an umpire than an opponent.

Before the game, I gave my opponent Dean, of the TooMuchLead blog, a brief tactical assessment, and a breakdown of the forces available to him. He had four commands, of which only two were stated as ready for action. He was then invited to say at what time he would order his troops to march.

The tactical assessment stated that spies had reported Massena's troops in front of the Torres Vedras fortifications were preparing to withdraw and that he should march out and engage the retreating troops. Depending on what time he gave the order to march, would depend what French forces would be deployed at the start of the game.

I added to the scenario three extra elements; Portugese civilians, random events, and mines. These were marked on the table by markers. When a civilian was encountered he could question them on anything he wanted to know. The random events were either the troops discover a wine cellar and get drunk, or they discover the site of a civilian massacre. In the case of discovering a wine cellar, the whole command was disordered, and the unit closest to the wine cellar suffered D3 wounds. Once disordered the troops had to pass a morale test in order to be issued with further orders. If they discovered a massacre, the gained the ferocious charge special rule. In the case of the mines, on a 4,5, or 6 they would explode, the subsequent damage would the road and the burning house would be dangerous to nearby troops. I did work out a dice roll for difusing the mines, but this didn't come into play.

In the event the British did not enter the battle until the latest possible time, so all the mines were in place - four in all, three in the village and one in the nearby convent.

Another element was that random French commands would enter on the eastern or western road, on the roll of a D6. Were I to replay this game, or a similar scenario, I would roll for the HTH, Shooting, and Stamina of the units. As these units were supposed to be stragglers, but because they had the standard unit characteristics they were too strong. Though this was balanced out by the commanders that came with them, their command ratings were D6 +3. This generally resulted in weak commanders, which in a sense was flavourful.

As the French player my objective was to retreat to the bridge, and plant mines, blow it up and get off the table. In order to plant the mines, I had to get light infantry onto the bridge and roll a 4,5,or 6. When three mines were in place, on the roll of 4,5, or 6 the bridge would blow up.

As the game was played on a 6' by 4' table, I reduced the movement rates. The reason for this was twofold. I wanted to give the French a fair chance to blow the bridge, and I didn't want the the British to march rapidly to the village and get decimated by the mines.

As to the game.

The British began the game with two commands deployed in such a way as to trigger two of the random events. The cavalry got immediatly plastered, the Flying column - 3 rifle detachments, and a battlion of Scots - rolled to join the bachanal, but I figured that this would spoil the game too much, so instead I said they discovered a massacre (who said there's no marality in wargaming ;)).

The French retired back across the river and set to work trying to mine the bridge.

Eventually the British got the cavalry moving, and the flying column moved up. The rest of the British forces arrived and began moving foward. Well I say moving forward, because the Militia brigade, backed by the Foot Guards, blundered and marched back of the table. Which was obviously a bit of a setback, particularly as French stragglers had begun arriving on the table (what was curious in the game was ability to roll 6's for French troops arriving (which I didn't really want to happen) and my inability to roll 4,5, or 6 for the plantingof the mines on the bridge). So we decided that the Militia brigade could come back onto the table in two turns on the roll of 4,5, or 6.

Another curious feature of the game was the number of 10's and 11's rolled when giving orders. I have no idea how many turns we played, it was probably around 12 or 15, but for long periods of the game there was only very minimal shooting, and very little movement, as command after command failed to issue orders.

Two of the mines in the mines in the village went off, blocking the road. I said that the British could attempt to clear the rubble but no attempt was made to do so.

The flying column managed to get into firing positions near the village, and twice drove the light infantry of the bridge. However the arrival of some Dragoons and a subsequent short cavlary battle to their rear, meant they moved forward to find safer ground. Unfortunately in doing so, one detachment suffered casualties from a burning house collapsing onto them, and another unit discovered a cache of Portugese Brandy. Whether or not this discovery affected a combat between a group of riflemen and a squadron of Dragoons, I cannot say, but the riflemen heroically charged and massacred the Dragoons. Unfortunately for the Flying column this, combined with artillery fire, and the Highlanders being a little too close to the convent when it blew up, forced the brigade to retire.

On the British right flank the Militia brigade and the Cavalry got caught up in a losing fight with some units of straggling infantry. The cavalry did manage to take one of the battalions by surprise before they could form square, but lost the combat and were driven off. However this unit then blundered int he command phase and ran off the table.

The British left flank managed to finally clear the village and get to the river. By the time they got there only two charges had been laid. And so the Rear Guard were ordered to retreat.

It was a close victory for the British, as they had captured the bridge intact, but the French had given them a bloody nose and retreated in good order.

It was an enjoyable game. And as I have said, if I were to play it again I would look at the mechanism for dealing with the stragglers. Whilst it is true that their intervention gave the rear guard plenty more opportunities to lay the mines, by delaying the British advance, I can't help feeling that they influenced the game a little too much.

The mechanic for the drunkeness worked pretty well, and such matters were a matter of concern for the officers in the British army at the time, it was perhaps a little excessive - as witnessed by Dean's expression when the riflemen fighting the dragoons succumbed to the demon drink, despite being a good foot from where the cache was discovered. It certainly added an extra element of friction. Though perhaps I should have added more than the two options for the outcome of the event.

However I was pleased with how the game played out. As it did capture somewhat the flavour of battles of the period, without it being a standard wargame in which both sides line up and fight each other. One of the things I would like to explore further in wargaming this year is working in the wider context of the battles and fitting them into a civilian context. Many years ago when I dabbled in the Vietnam war, with the Bodycount rules, I liked the way in which this element of warfare was handled.

And it shouldn't be forgotten that as a result of the British scorched earth policy in Portugal as they retreated into the Torres Vedras, and the subsquent French occupation and retreat, many thousands of Portugese civilians were killed. And hopefully the inclusion of a few friction mechanics went to way to trying to replicate this.


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