Saturday, March 10, 2012

From the Archives: 'Black Powder' First Play: Rearguard Action on the Minho

(originally posted on the Home Page, Dec. 19 2010)
This is a repost from a report I did for The Fawcett Ave Conscripts that I wanted to put on this blog to bookend with my upcoming 'Republic to Empire' first-play report.

This past November Dan, John and Sylvain came over to my place to try out a small Napoleonic scenario using my unblooded copy of the 'Black Powder' rules. The scenario I came up with is a fusion of Clarence Harrison's starter scenario and a series of historical rearguard actions that the British conducted during their retreat to Corunna in January of 1809. During the retreat it was not uncommon for the British to attempt to forestall the French by fighting a delaying action at a river crossing, fall back and then demo the bridge. Accordingly, the scenario has a small British force trying to buy time for the engineers to rig the bridge to blow while a large force of French press on in an attempt to push the rearguard aside, force the bridge crossing before it is destroyed and carry on to threaten the main British force up the road.

In this action the British have two infantry battalions as their mainstay. One is the solid 28th which historically fought in many of these rearguard engagements. They are solid regulars. The other is a composite battalion made up of bits and scraps of several battalions that have largely disintegrated during  the retreat. I classed them as 'Untested' which means that once they take their first casualty they test to see how they react for the rest of the battle. This can range from near-collapse to raising-up to fight like heroes. The British line infantry is also aided by two companies from the 95th Rifles. These specialized skirmishers can either fight on their own or be attached to any battalions to reinforce their own light companies. The British infantry is also supported by two sections (4 guns - basically a half battery) of Royal Horse Artillery, one section of 6-pound canons and the other of 5.5 inch howitzers.

The French vanguard has a full brigade of infantry composed of four line battalions (roughly 2400 men). One battalion is considered large in size and all are classed as Regulars. In addition the French force benefits from being supported by two squadrons of Dragoons (around 160 troopers). The French commander, a General of Division, knows that the Emperor wants the British 'brought to ground' so I've rated him as a bit of a fire-eater to help keep the French moving forward aggressively.

We rolled for sides with John taking the British while Sylvain and Dan having joint command of the French.

Though this scenario could easily be played on a 4x6, or smaller, we played down the length of a 5x8 table with the bridge about 2 feet away from one end. The British (John) set-up first with one battalion, the 28th, a bit forward of the bridge with a 6 pound section of guns from the Royal Horse Artillery in support. The 28th also benefited by having the both companies of 95th Rifles in skirmish order to their front. John chose to make the 95th as in integral part of the battalion so they would benefit from the rules of 'mixed order' but risk the same fate if things went bad. The RHA howitzer section was deployed behind the river on the British right flank. The remaining British composite battalion was also back behind the river, arrayed in line next to the bridge.

The 28th positioned in front of the bridge with the 95th Rifles acting as skirmish screen and a section of 6pdrs as artillery support.

The untried British composite battalion arrayed in line near the bridge awaiting orders. Note the local monks cajoling the heretics and helping the engineering party with the powder kegs. Better the devil you know...
The French deployed 12" in from the opposing narrow edge. They chose to place the majority of their battalions in attack columns so they would benefit in the better command roll modifier (the rationale being that the compressed nature of an attack column makes it easier to manage as opposed to the more fragile and disjointed battleline formation). I believe the Dragoons also started in column as well to facilitate greater mobility.

The base mechanics for Black Powder are reminiscent of Warmaster but perhaps a little more streamlined and sophisticated. Basically each unit only gets one chance with a command roll but if the roll is especially good (i.e. low) they can benefit with up to 3 actions (moving, formation change, charging). Alternatively if the roll is pooched then that unit does nothing and the commander is done for the turn. This mechanic makes the command phase entertaining as there is much arguing of who should 'lead off', general nail biting, groans and cheers. It also makes movement and charging interesting as a lucky unit can potentially take the bit by the teeth and streak across the table to engage the enemy while other poor souls can have an unlucky streak and flounder.

The French roll forward to attempt to push back the lead British battalion and gain access to the bridge.

The French moved first and decided to keep their formation as tight as possible for maximum impact. The British opened up with long range artillery fire causing a bit of disruption in the French ranks but nothing that a few bawling sergeants couldn't handle. The rifles tried a shot at the cavalry but were just short of their maximum range. The Dragoons arched their collective eyebrows at the rifles' longer range and knew they had to get these fellows sorted quickly.

In the next turn the French managed their initial moves but did not get the rolls to allow them to charge home. John 'held his bottle' a bit longer to give the approaching cavalry and march columns some more galling fire, all the while risking the coming charge. Next turn, the French used their initiative moves to declare a series of charges from both the infantry and cavalry. The fact that the cavalry were threatening caused the British battalion to automatically recall the Rifle skirmish screen and attempt to form square. The Brits made their roll and formed a solid square to repulse the cavalry. BUT the wily French, knowing the English were vulnerable in this compressed formation have also sent in their infantry to take advantage of the situation. The Brits gave a good account of themselves but were forced to fall back from the combined arms threat. But here was the rub: The bridge hampered their retrograde movement in square and with nowhere else to go the men panicked. The 28th's square broke and its men were swept aside by the French assault columns (the Rifles sharing their fate). The now isolated British horse artillery section fired canister at short range and scampered back to redeploy at the river's edge. The remaining British battalion gaped at the slaughter in front of it while its commander screamed ineffectively at his men to move to the bridge to thwart the French. The Brits needed to hold for three more turns to have the bridge ready to be blown.

The golden moment had arrived for the French. The screening British battalion had been shattered, its supporting artillery pushed aside and the bridge was wide open. To make matters worse for the British their isolated battery was assaulted on its flank and silenced by a French regiment using its own initiative. Dan duly picked up the dice to send in the first column across the bridge - and uttered something unmentionable as (of course) his roll failed. John breathed a sigh of relief as he knew he had just been given a new lease on life. (Note: Particularly astute BP players will notice that the entire British force should have been 'broken' at this point as half or more of it's numbers were now out-of-action. I pointedly ignored this as the scenario was so small and I wanted to have as long a game as possible. I also reasoned that both combatants knew that the 'stakes were high' and would have greater resiliency for this action. Besides, why let a petty truth get in the way of a good story!)

In his turn, John rolled for a 'follow me' order and moved his command stand to join the British battalion (they used three actions to change formation, move to the bridge and shake-out into line). The howitzer section had a perfect target with the French battalion that had just silenced their brother unit. They fired canister which caused the battalion to fall back in disorder, out of the action. Two turns left.

Dan rolled for the French Brigadier and he led the leading column across the bridge to assault the British on the other side. The Brits fired a closing volley and prepared for the assault. As the French were on a very narrow frontage in order to cross the bridge they could only bring a limited amount of men to the fight whereas the British were arrayed in full battle order. The result was that the French battalion was shattered on the British line. Nonetheless they did cause enough casualties for the British to have to test their mettle as they were a composite battalion. If John rolled poorly they could route leaving the bridge entirely undefended. John's luck held and so did the British. John then redeployed the howitzers to enable them to give enfilading fire on a French column marching to the bridge. In a spectacular roll the artillery tore the guts out of the French formation making it combat ineffective. The French were running out of troops and they had only one turn left before the British could see if they could demo the bridge.

The 1st Neuchatel assault the bridge while the British prepare to give close range volley fire.

Sylvain suggested trying to soften the British up with musketry but Dan was chomping at the bit wanting to force the issue with the bayonet (watching the two 'debating' was as entertaining as the game itself). Dan won out and another French battalion was sent in, but alas it too was sent back reeling from the steady British volley fire. In his turn, John had the British stay put, give harassing fire and basically waited for the turn to end. The engineers completed their preparations and John rolled to see if the bridge would go up. The roll was too high so he girded himself to hold for at least another turn to try again (at this point we speculated that during the assault some French rear-rank fusilier had dropped his trousers while on the bridge and put out the fuse).

Things were getting desperate for the French. Dan and Sylvain decided to move the commander to the two squadrons of Dragoons to entice them with medals and easy women and then led them in a pell mell charge across the bridge to see if the British would fail in forming square. They did not. The square was formed and the cavalry were compelled to recoil. John rolled the dice for the bridge and was relieved to see it finally blast apart ending the French pursuit for that day.

The French Dragoons try to force the issue with the British. Note the Engineer by the bridge lighting the fuse with his cheroot...

We had a load of fun with the game with the result going right down to the last turn. The rule's mechanics were very easy to pick-up with us basically using the single quick-reference playsheet after only a few turns. Later I noticed I made a few slips here and there but I attribute that to the natural learning curve on any new ruleset and it did nothing to hamper the enjoyment of the game. I think they would be great for a large group of players as the command rules are quite streamlined promoting quick resolution of turns. On our part I think I can safely say that we'll be giving them another try.

In a couple weeks we'll give "Republic to Empire" a run through using the same scenario. We'll let you know our thoughts.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Napoleonic Scenario: Vandamme's Assault on the Stare Vinohrady, Austerlitz December 2nd, 1805

(Originally posted on the Home Page Feb 13, 2012)
Last weekend Greg and his lovely wife, Linda, came for a holiday weekend visit to which we all ate and drank to excess and caught up on our sleep. Greg and I also took the requisite time to game like men possessed. On top of a suitably bloody game of SAGA, and reacquainting ourselves with 'Conflict of Heroes' we also played a cataclysmic 'Spearhead' scenario set in the opening hours of Kursk. These were all great fun, but undoubtedly the main event was our Napoleonic scenario based on the French attack on the Allied center at Austerlitz in December 1805.

Historically, Vandame's assault on the Stare Vinohrady was virtually a non-contest. The remnants of the mauled Allied IV Column, composed of six battalions of the IR#23, five severely reduced Russian battalions and their attached artillery, tried to hold the heights, but the French had both the numbers and the quality to quickly overwhelm them. Nevertheless, in reading the numerous accounts of the engagement I thought there were a few 'what-ifs' that  if cobbled together could make a viable, if somewhat asymmetrical scenario. The following is what piqued my interest:
  • Scott Bowden's 'Napoleon and Austerlitz' describes the Austrian and Russian contingents as separate actions even though they occurred very close to one another on the Pratzen Heights. I think much of this had to do with both the difficulty of communication between the Austrian and Russian partners along with the fact that the Allies wanted to cover-off as much of the heights as possible. Nonetheless, what if the Allies had drawn themselves closer together to better support one another, would it have helped?
  • Bowden further describes that the two Allied contingents did not make good use of the available ground, which had several vineyards below the summit (thus the name 'Vinohrady'). These would have slowed down infantry attacks and pretty much nullified threats from cavalry. Historically the Allies deployed well back from the vineyards, surrendering their advantages to the French light infantry. So what if the Allies had positioned their forces to take better advantage of the available ground, could it have aided their defence of the heights?
  • In David Chandler's 'Austerlitz, 1805' he obliquely mentions another unit of Kolowrat's command, Infantry Regiment #24, being in support of IR#23. Reportedly this was a depot battalion of around 400 conscripts, but I reasoned that every man would have helped to spread out the line on the Heights and so included them in my Order of Battle. I also added cavalry support to both sides. The French had access to Boye's Dragoon brigade (which was historically on-hand) and the Allies now have two regiments (Dragoons and Hussars) originally from Liechtenstein's V Column of cavalry and Wodiansky's Advance Guard. So, finally, what if the Allied High Command had released more cavalry assets to the defence of the Heights?
So for our scenario I incorporated the above conjectures and worked with the hypothesis that Kolowrat and Miloradovich have decided to concentrate and coordinate their efforts thereby bringing their forces together - forcing Vandamme to engage them as a combined force on the summit, on advantageous ground of their choosing. 

A map of the rough dispositions of the two armies as seen at the start of the action. 
For our game we used our home-grown rules, 'Food for Powder', which do a very good job of reflecting unbalanced engagements. This battle was actually fairly large for a battalion-level game (24 battalions, 4 regiments of cavalry and 3 batteries of guns) so we played it on a 6x10 surface to give us enough room to maneuver. Some may notice that I did not model the Heights on the tabletop - in my reading it seemed to suggest that the path Vandamme took on his assault was along a very gradual slope and therefore would not have granted much tactical superiority to the Allies so I decided to leave out modeling the Heights for sake of clarity.

The Stare Vinohrady today as seen from Vandamme's initial positions.
For our battle we had John and Dan on the French side, while Greg and Sylvain ran the Austrians and Russians respectively.

Here the French commanders, Dan and John, look on with Stacy (on the right) assisting as umpire.
Greg and Sylvain commanded the Austro-Russian force.
The first turn was fairly quiet, seeing the French move towards the heights along their entire front, including their guns. For the Allies, they stayed in place but were very lucky in their reinforcement roll and an composite brigade of cavalry (Austrian Hussars and Dragoons) arrived on their right flank. Greg formed them up in column of squadrons, with the Hussars leading and the Dragoons in support.

In the second Turn the French brought in their own cavalry in the form of Boye's bigade of Dragoons (under Dan). They deployed on the French right flank, in extended column of squadrons, diagonal to the Austrian cavalry. This choice of deployment had a critical impact in the following turns for both sides as the cavalry had free reign in each of their sectors. Eyebrows were duly raised with this heap of snorting cavalry showing up on the tabletop all at once.

Boye's Dragoon Brigade heading towards the Russian line.
Amongst our group, Sylvain is legendary for his caution so you can imagine the hoots of derision when he began to retrograde his Russians in response to the arrival of the French Dragoons. (As you will see Sylvain had the last laugh as his refusal of the left flank probably saved the Allied line.)

Shown here are three of the five understrength and exhausted Russian battalions that held the Allied left flank.
The third turn was a corker. First thing you have to understand that Dan is the antithesis of Sylvain. I like to think of Dan as the General Haig of miniature wargaming. To Dan's way of thinking 'If the first assault does not break them then the twelfth will certainly do the trick...' As such Dan's French Dragoons duly charged the Russian left flank as soon as they got the chance. Since the charge began from a long distance away (practically in Vienna) the Russian battalions had enough time to form squares. Undeterred, Dan noted that most of the Russian squares were not well-formed (our rules differentiate between 'solid' and 'hasty' squares) and so sent in the leading regiment of Dragoons to see if the Russians would loose their bottle. It was not meant to be. The Russians held their position and repulsed the Dragoons, but not without suffering some casualties and disorder in their ranks.

The nervous Austrian line, jammed full of conscripts and raw troops.
Meanwhile in the center, one French battalion decided to take the bit by the teeth and move ahead of the advance in line formation... While up the slope the two Allied artillery batteries hammered away at the approaching French columns, who inexplicably neglected to shake-out into less target-rich line formations and so consequently paid the price.

Back to the Allied left, Greg noted the impetuous advance of the solitary French battalion with an arched eyebrow, and thought it was too good of an opportunity for his Austrian Hussars to pass up. Greg knew he'd have to 'roll Vegas' to get the requisite moves in order to close, but he rolled the dice hoping they'd be kind to him. Well, the dice gods were smiling on Austria and Greg managed change formation, sound the charge and head for the French battalion.

The Austrian Hussars receive their order to charge...
Several French squares watch apprehensively as the Austrian Hussars begin to move across their front...
Again, as the charge originated from so far away the French battalion had a very good chance to form square. In 'Food for Powder' there are Impetus Dice (good mojo) and Friction Dice (bad mojo). Both Impetus and Friction are drawn from unit quality, officer rating and environmental conditions. Both are rolled simultaneously and you literally have to take the good with the bad (or vis a vis). Well, John rolled well enough with his Impetus dice, but the Friction roll was completely off the register - to the extent that the French battalion continued to trudge along, wondering why the ground was shaking, trumpets were blaring and their comrades to the rear were waving their arms and shouting...

'Ah! Zee target is in sight - Sound ze Charge!!'
A French ADC tries to warn the battalion of its imminent danger...
As John would say later, his battalion 'had the distinct misfortune of being ridden down by the 'flyboys' of the Horse & Musket era'. The only thing that saved the French battalion from complete annihilation was that the Austrian Hussars were at the end of their tether and very fatigued, so the mauled survivors were able to make their escape.

... but too late - the Hussars are upon them!
Turn four saw the French grind forward, closing with the Allied positions while the Russian and Allied guns gutted a French column. Nonetheless, the 1st of the 57th 'Le Terribles' got into action against the Russians and quickly broke a battalion that had been forced into square by the nearby French Dragoons. The French guns were dragged forward 'by bricole' and unlimbered in preparation to punish the tightly packed Russian formations. I'm sure there were many muttered prayers in those formations...

The unlimbered French artillery ranging in on the Russian squares. 
In the center Greg knew his victorious Hussars were desperately exposed and winded so he committed his remaining cavalry, the Dragoons to try to cover their retreat.  This turned out to be a little Pyrrhic as the Dragoons were shot to pieces by every French battalion's voltigeurs on their 'Death Ride' to the Hussars' support. Nonetheless, the exhausted 'flyboys' of the game managed to get extricated and began their ride back to Austrian high command to present the French colours they had captured.

Kolowrat receiving the news of the capture of a French eagle.
I'm sorry I cannot give a final account of the scenario as this is where we decided to break for the evening (we spent a lot of time laughing, eating and drinking.) Nonetheless, we looked over the field at 'halftime' and surmised that while the French had certainly been rebuffed in a few areas they were still in an excellent position on the Allied left flank to start an envelopment with combined arms. The fragile Allied line composed of reduced battalions and conscripts had not yet been truly tested and it would be touch-and-go to tell how it would turn out for them. It was really anybody's game.

Looking from the French left across the battlefield.
It was great fun, and all of it due to an excellent bunch of guys to game with. I extend my thanks to them all for making the night so entertaining. A special thank you goes to Greg and John who both travelled great distances to attend and brought many beautiful toys from their own collections in order to make the game that much more colourful - bravo! 

I had such a good time that I'm already planning for the next Napoleonic weekend...