Tuesday, 13 August 2019

White Tunis 31 BC - same outcome, different narrative

What we are told about this battle by Didorus Siculus is that the Carthaginians decided to fight in a relatively narrow pass, forcing them into double line. If true, given their numerical superiority, this would have been a decidedly unusual strategy, to say the least. They would surely not have been unaware of the legendary achievements of Leonidas' Spartans at Thermopylae, for one thing, and secondly, the terrain in the general vicinity would not necessarily demand such a sacrifice of their advantage.

We gave them every chance, the armies were not so vastly different in size. The Greeks: -

The Carthaginians:

And how both sides looked on the table, Greeks on the right. The Carthaginian strategy of strength on their own right is obvious. As Hanno I wondered if I ought not to be even more bold and place yet more troops on my right, but then the risk would be that the forces under Archagathus would outflank my dear friend and comrade-in-arms, Bomilcar.

As the armies advanced, the narrowness of the available frontage was already beginning to play on my mind. Initially, the chariot skirmishes were relatively indecisive on the Carthaginian right, and even that was something of a disappointment.

I retained high hopes, however, for my Numidian cavalry, where I had a superiority. If I could just get around the back of the hoplite phalanx, there might be a good chance of victory.

Rolling for initiative for Bomilcar brought only heartbreak, however, as his double one send him down to the very bottom of the league of generalship - only Agothocles' repeat of the same roll provided any comfort, although he was still adequately competent, which could certainly not be said of my comrade-in-arms, who was facing adverse odds: just look at that Cyrenian infantry moving up to support their chariots in the picture below.

As is the way with battles, especially ancients battles, the auxiliary forces' engagement seemed to go this way and that, with casualties on both sides, and nothing much decisive. I was beginning to wonder, as Hanno, whether nightfall might come (at the end of Move 10) before the Greek phalanx actually got into action. Indeed, delaying tactics were pretty much the sum total of my objectives. But the truth was, as the shot below of the Carthaginian right at the end of even Move 5 shows, that the winnowing out was moving inexorably in favour of the Greeks. There seemed little chance now that my depleted force of Numidian horsemen would actually make it to the rear of the Greek line.

There was worse news from the other flank, where on Move 7 the combined arms assault of Archagathus tore into my dear colleague Bomilar's depleted flank. The result was never really in doubt.

Agothocles spent one more move hesitating, but as the sun began to go down he recognised that victory lay in his grasp if was prepared to be bold, and my last hope was extinguished. A double move disordered much of his phalanx on the charge, but put him now perilously close to my line. How impressive it looks, as if it could envelop the hoplites at both ends. But the relative weakness of the troops is sufficient, in Impetus, to make the difference - as it should.

Left with little option, I charged myself, with further disorder, to my own men this time. The final clash of arms was upon us. Only Baal could save us now, I thought to myself. For Bomilcar certainly would not.

The Sacred Band were unimpressive, although some units fought bravely alongside them. The Carthaginian line began to crack, the photo below showing the North African evening sunlight picking out our units streaming from the field.

The following move, 10, it was all over: the Carthaginian army routed, and the strategically placed remaining chariots on the Greek right were in an ideal position to turn a rout into a massacre. Had Agothocles been able to fly, he would have seen his foe in flight across the entire field.

A magnificent Greek victory, exactly as historically. A wonderful day's wargaming - many thanks to Mark as usual for painting so many beautiful troops. Impetus 1 served the purpose perfectly well, and certainly seems to me a considerable improvement over WRG 7, which is what I used when I last played ancients a generation ago.

A lingering doubt remained for us over this question of the narrow frontage. Eventually, the Carthaginians were able to tell the story from their own standpoint. Blaming the terrain and the commanders was surely easier than blaming the inferiority of their own soldiers. Wargaming sometimes leads to a different perspective on the history. Though as Hanno I did no better than historically. White Tunis, a good place for Carthaginians to die.

Monday, 12 August 2019

Fire and Fury in the Kentucky Heartland

For our second ACW battle, and after Mark's usual superb painting on an industrial scale had added substantially to my original purchases, the ANF ventured a step up, to a Corps level encounter, the Battle of Perryville. Historically, a gallant, outnumbered Union force under Major-General McCook delayed the Rebel advance, with heavy casualties on both sides, until his opponent, the Rebel General Bragg, realised that he would be facing the entire Union army if he stayed where he was, and wisely withdrew. No mean feat, for as a result Kentucky was retained for the Union, so I was under considerable pressure to do at least as well - readers will have gleaned by now that you are likely to read an account from a Union perspective if I'm writing it. We used a scenario Mark adapted from one in Practical Wargaming in 1996, designed for Johnny Reb rules but easily adapted for Fire and Fury 1st edition. Wargaming's own history has now become a fertile source for research.

It's a cluttered battlefield. Cornfields, woods, and hills. For simplicity's sake we didn't place the roads, but it was all looking quite difficult enough for everyone by the time everything was laid out and the long Union line was deployed. My judgement was that Brigadier-General Terrill's men were way out of place, in advance on the Union left. By accidental misjudgement, the 80th Indiana had found their way into his brigade instead of lining up along the stone wall with the rest of Colonel Webster's brigade, a mistake that was to have serious consequences. 

The view from the Union line at the opening of the battle

As McCook, I formulated a grand plan, which was to allow Brigadier-General Terrill to fall back, get Brigadier-General Jackson to command Colonel Starkweather's seasoned men personally, and eventually to attack the Rebels on their flank when they made their predicted assault on the hill. Given the numerical superiority the Rebels enjoyed, and the importance of holding that hill in the centre of my position, there seemed little alternative to a counter-attack.

At first, things went really well for the Union. Appalling die rolls kept some Rebel brigades from advancing at all, leaving Brigadier-General Donelson's green men to climb through the high corn on their own.

The loneliness of the long-distance assault

General Terrill refused to retire, however, and instead used his numerical superiority to begin a prolonged, and ultimately highly successful, series of melées against Brigadier-General Maney's men, who were initially unsupported by a battery.

Overview of the Union left and centre - Peters Hill off to the left out of view

General Bragg's infuriation with his slow-moving brigades led to a piecemeal attack rather than the co-ordinated blow he had intended to inflict. 

Donelson's brigade was especially exposed in the centre.

Half-way through the battle, and General Bragg was feeling the heat. The Union command began to have a glimmer of hope that they would be saved by the fall of night, and still yet be able to cling onto their line, both at the stone wall and on the hilltop. But it was not to be. Finally, the Rebel infantry reached Colonel Lytle's men, and began their inevitable assault, assisted by now by a considerable superiority in artillery. 

The Union line under assault - a view from the South-West 

In a dramatic manoeuvre to pincer Cleburne's 2nd brigade, Webster's men charged their front, whilst at the same time Starkweather's brigade, having pushed back Johnson's 3rd brigade, about faced and crashed into their rear. Unfortunately, Starkweather's men were too far to the North-East when they launched their charge, and Cleburne slipped back through the gap. It saved the stone wall position, at least. And it gave me a magnificent feeling of place and participation: it is not often a plan like this comes to fruition in a wargame, albeit that I had envisaged a flank attack, not an about-face.

Before the Manoeuvre: Brigadier-General Jackson in the centre of the photograph looking earnestly at the rear of the Confederate line, before giving the call to about face and charge.

After the Union manoeuvre: interpenetration of Webster and Starkweather's brigades at the wall, and Rebels in retreat

Unfortunately, like so many excellent theoretical plans, it was quite insufficient to win the battle. For meanwhile it had finally all proved too much for the Union brigades holding the hill. The dispatch of Colonel Starkweather's brigade to the left flank, whilst it had brought limited success, came too late to prevent the loss of the central hill and the collapse of the staunch defence put up by Colonel Harris' brigade, which fled the field. Colonel Lytle's men had stood firm, but were now outnumbered 4:1, in evident danger of being outflanked and destroyed in detail, and had to retire.It was small comfort that over on the left flank, Terrill's men had had a great day, with Maney's brigade finally disintegrating. The inadvertent error of stationing the 80th Indiana with him had led to serious consequences: if they had been where they were supposed to have been, the envelopment of Cleburne would have been much more likely. Swings and roundabouts. 

Not how it was supposed to be: McCook stares at a sea of grey in front of him and a sea of blue behind him, and prepares to ride to save his own skin

We judged the battle a draw, after a very hard-fought action indeed, which was close to the historical result [...]. Overall Confederate casualties were a little higher than the Union, somewhat over 3,600 [3,396] compared to 3,000 [4,241], largely because of their failure to attack in a co-ordinated way in the centre early on, and some very unlucky die rolls at shooting as well - Union forces consistently outshot their opponents, even having to fall back to replenish ammunition on several occasions (a roll of 10 on the decimal die when firing). But these casualties were extremely close to their historical equivalents given the better luck on the day that the Union enjoyed compared to history, and reflected, I like to think, great competence shown by the brigade and divisional commanders as well. 

One of the many great things about the unmistakably ACW feel of Fire and Fury is the way an independent character quickly forms around the brigade commanders, as a result of their die rolls, which in turn enables an assessment of the divisional commanders as well. They come alive as personalities on the table. Of course as Major-General McCook I shall express my great thanks to my own commander, Major-General Buell, to the President, and of course to God. As for the Rebels, as historically, they were nowhere to be seen in the morning....

Sunday, 16 June 2019

The 17th May 1742, exactly as it was historically, only the complete reverse

The Battle of Chotusitz, the second, large battle of the War of Austrian Succession (First Silesian War) was the 'subject' of our most recent game set in the mid-18thC (aka 'Mark's period'). Fitting then that his newly 'rediscovered' (i.e. cleaned out) shed was venue for the game that he planned using information from Jeff Berry's marvellous 'Obscure Battles' blog and single-handedly staged using his now extensive Prussian and Austrian armies and his/our version of Zimmermann's 'Wargames Handbook'.

The historical action, began as an encounter battle in which Prince Charles Lorraine of Austria saw an opportunity to attack with his army of around 25 000 and destroy Prince Leopold's isolated advance guard of around 12 000.

 Leopold's command, with a 'sea' of white in the distance.

 Not bad odds; if you are Austrian.

 Cavalry on the Austrian left/Prussian right.

The Austrians began with my favourite, subtle tactic, 'advance everywhere'. I advanced my infantry slightly, so as not to be pushed from the board.

On the Prussian right, I pushed the cuirassiers forward slightly as I had a 'cunning plan'.

 Good news for we Prussians as the lead elements of the heavy cav. arrived on the left.

 Jeetze's infantry awaited the arrival of the white horde.

The following events left me feeling pretty happy with things at this early stage.

Waldow's lead 7th cuirassiers managed to deploy, with the 12th behind. Still outnumbered, but at least not in road column.

A sneaking unit of infantry loaned a hand, unseating some of the Austrian heavies who opposed Waldow's men.

Ha ha! My cunning plan. Prussian heavies on the right charged the Austrians, ensuring the advantage of the charge impetus not afforded to their foes. 
The Zimmermann rules operate in two 'cycles' in which the first player moves half distance, second then follows, any artillery/musket fire occurs, then second player moves second half, followed by the first and any mêlées are conducted. Troops that did not move in the first cycle may conduct a full charge move. This is what I did with my cuirassiers, fortunately getting the '2' to '3' on the die required for each of the three right-most units in photo. The Austrians did their part and 3/4 units failed to loose their carbines effectively.

Four mêlées in which we had the advantage, surely it should go pretty well?

What the phuck?! Apologies dear reader, but I was astonished and full of 'blue' language as 3/4 mêlées were lost, two Prussian units retreated in disorder, two standards lost, to one captured, while the only defeated Austrian unit retreated in order. So much for the cunning plan...

This was repeated on the left, admittedly where the Prussians had the lower odds thanks to the failure of the 12th cuirassiers to assist their fellows. This also left them (the 12th) 'stuck' in place (and effectively blocking the bridge, at the crossing of the creek).

At least the first exchange of volleys had not gone too badly for our 'boys in blue'. We had, however, taken more casualties where we needed to inflict more.

Back on the right, I sent the 3rd dragoons against the nearest Austrians (dragoons). Needed a '2' or better. Rolled '1'. Oh dear, that left them ripe to be charged in the next turn.

At this point the Austrians were, rightly, feeling pretty chuffed with the situation.

Then, the greatest captain of his age sprung his trap. On he came with the main Prussian infantry. Look at all those lovely grenadiers. Wvenge, wvenge, time for me to have some fun! In a turn or two we'd be smashing through that Austrian centre, I thought.

Not again? On the left, the 5th cuirassiers (heavily disguised) at full strength, charged the formerly victorious, now somewhat undermanned Austrians, who were unable to get the impetus bonus. I have to stop rolling '5's in mélée (two dice). Even though my opponents were only rolling '8's or '9's it was sufficient. More 'blue' language...

Perhaps a 'fit of pique'?
I figured that it was better for what remained of Jeetze's infantry to charge against the weakest Austrians rather than to stand and get 'blown' away or to withdrawal, since that would have left them ripe to be charged in the rear in the next turn.
It wasn't.

Another cavalry mêlée on the right. Combat factors around 70 to 60, so we were behind, but it only needed a few 'pips' more on the dice to win.
 Nah. *And* Buddenbrock was captured.

Of all things, it was a unit of pesky hussars that victoriously charged into the rear of the beaten Prussian cuirassiers. They panicked, as did three of their mates.
The language was bluer than a West Australian summer sky!

In what was to be the final act of the day, most of the cavalry on the left decided to withdraw along with the defeated 5th cuirassiers. Basically putting them back to the starting positions.

With only one unit of Leopold's (Jeetze's) infantry still on the board and five cavalry units gone, the Prussian losses required an army withdrawal test at over 1/4 losses. There is a 2/3 chance to pass. I rolled a '2'. Game over.

While basically decided by the die roll, it would have been a sensible decision for Frederick, as the photos below demonstrate. Leopold's command was shattered. In a repeat of the historical Mollwitz, the Prussian heavy cavalry had performed dismally. By withdrawing, Frederick could fight another day, keep his developing name intact, while laying the blame at the feet of Leopold.

The game statistics add weight to the sense of the die in this decision.

Captured two flags, lost 158 figures.
Victory points 8

Captured four flags, captured General Buddenbrock and suffered 89 figure losses.
Victory points 19

So, the game lasted four turns (hours) and ended with one army withdrawing. As Mark quipped, "...it was exactly the same as the historical action, only the complete reverse"!

I don't usually like to blame the dice, so reflected on what I did wrong. Since it was the accumulated losses that were the Prussian undoing, I guess my mistake was to leave Jeetze's/Leopold's men under fire for too long. I should have manoeuvred to form two lines and enabled a withdrawal/exchange. This may well have worked as the Austrians would have taken too long to outflank the Prussians, perhaps...

Sunday, 26 May 2019

Battle of Craonne, 7 March 1814: can one ever improve upon the Emperor's plans?

The scenario we picked was straight 'out of the box' - thanks to Chris Leach for producing a very easy to set up and finely balanced scenario out of the wider historical battle, optimised for Shako. Here it is:

And the order of battle here, heavy on Imperial Guard as historically:

As numerous historical sources attest, the historical encounter was both 'one of the most desperately contested battles in which Napoleon ever took part' (Maycock) and also one where it very tempting to believe that with a change of plan - something more ambitious, perhaps - it might be possible to outfox the Russians and win a more comprehensive victory than was achieved on the day. 

Such was my intention, anyway, as the surrogate Napoleon on the day. It was, however, an undoubtedly strong defensive position - below, viewed from the East. This was a battle where reputations could be very easy to bury. 

Historically, Ney attacked directly up the slope in the trees visible in the left background of the picture, with Grouchy in support. My plan was for Marshalls Ney and Grouchy to march north, to beyond the wooded area in Leach's map, and only then swing West to attack Gen. Vuitsch, in the left foreground of the picture. If he could be dislodged, I reckoned, then Gen. Laptiev would look dangerously exposed, whilst Gen. Boyer could be relied upon to dislodge Gen. Swarikin from Heurtebise, especially with the eventual support of Gen. Charpentier's troops after Move 5. It was nothing if not simple. But there were evidently huge risks. Who would want cavalry alone challenging a ridge, for example, as Gen. Nansouty would be asked to? 

And my real concern was that Gen. Vorontzov would order an immediate attack and cut Ney off - a risk that I seemed to have averted, as the movement began.

And so the plan was on its way, or rather, Ney and Grouchy were on their way, the latter commanding my favourite French troops, the dragoons. .

At the end of the second move, they had got this far, and seemed out of danger from a flank attack - even the Russian artillery firing had been sporadic and relatively ineffective, whilst the skirmisher exchange had been even-handed:

Apparently there had been orders to the Russian reserve under Gen. Stzawitzski, although what they were, I never found out - I was told they were later contradicted.

Events were about to supersede them in any event. Gen. Boyer, acceding to the command as historically, was about to press his attack on Heurtebise. How long to cross the woods, I wondered, how long?

The next move brought Ney almost into action. The 1st Young Guard Regiment, seen on the left of the picture heading up the 1st Young Guard Division, were to cover themselves with glory in the battle. 

But I can assure you, those Russian lines looked steady and formidable, and with additional defence benefits, this was to be a mighty difficult obstacle. Maybe that gun might be the weak point? It won't get the defence bonus.

I must not omit events on the French left, though. Gen. Nansouty's cavalry were engaged in the wide outflanking manoeuvre they'd been ordered to execute, with the objective of disruption rather than actual achievement. The Guard cavalry had not performed especially well, the Russian 2nd Hussar Regiment distinguishing itself with courage and verve. Here the position at the end of Move Four.

Events then moved apace. Marshall Ney's attack began, and it must be admitted that from now on, the die rolls were with me. In the picture below Marshall Grouchy is in the foreground, rounding the corner and preparing to assist in the attack. How many divisions would they put to flight between them? 

There was the undisputed bravery of the 1st Young Guard Regiment, about to engage in the decisive moment of the day, the storming of the heights by taking the Russian gun and establishing a foothold on the scarp. Gen. Meunier's finest moment: as he said privately of the Regiment, «Ils ont gagné la bataille par eux-mêmes».

Combined arms was the objective, however: 

And combined arms the achievement, as the French gun finally got into action and 5th Dragoons and 1st Young Guard, having gained the heights by overwhelming the gun, between them crashed into hapless Russian battalions.

Marshall Grouchy's dragoons, which had rolled 6 after 6 for initiative and ended up swamped in staff officers, continued to sweep round the flank:

And now indeed the overall position was beginning to look perilous for the Russians, with Vuitsch's division being pushed back and Gen. Swarikin under attack from both Gen. Charpentier and Gen. Boyer, by Turn Six. The mass French artillery, however, though they looked mighty impressive, achieved absolutely nothing during the entire game. Dice can be so cruel.

As late afternoon beams of sunlight crossed the battlefield, the plight of Gen. Voronzov became clear. Here, the overall position on Move Seven.

And here, the desperate defence of Gen. Laptiev, who succeeded in extricating himself, to the general relief of the Allies. 

But with two Russian divisions broken by Move Nine, we decided to call the battle for the French - a victory, but not a glorious victory, which would only have been possible if three Russian divisions had been broken in the same turn. If not, the action would have continued until the end of the day, traditionally twelve turns in Shako, and every Russian division left on the table would have been broken. The numerical advantage of the French, the way that the Russians had been forced into square, was clear:

And equally, the risk to the Russians of being completely surrounded as the gamed ended:

It was time to take stock. For all my boldness, it had become clear that the Emperor had sized up the situation correctly. There was little to gain for all Marshalls Ney and Grouchy's marching, nothing that could not have been achieved equally well by a straight attack on Gen. Swarikin from Move One, which would probably dislodge him and enable pressure to be placed on Gen. Laptiev earlier. I was left with two consolations: first, that I had at least equalled the Emperor's achievement; and second, that I still believe I achieved it with less risk of defeat. A hugely enjoyable day's wargaming, and yet further evidence, should it be needed, of how well Shako can work in delivering outcomes close to their historical equivalents, details of which in this case may be found here: