Saturday, 19 November 2011

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Plans for 2012

The Avon Napoleonic Fellowship has an ambitious programme of games planned for 2012.

July 2012
Ostrovno, 25th July 1812 and/or Vitebsk 27th July 1812

August 2012
Smolensk, August 16–18, 1812

September & October 2012
Borodino, 7th September 1812

November 2012
Maloyaroslavetz, 24th October 1812

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Battle of Albuera, 16th May 1811

A Chess-Like Arm-Wrestle

Our re-fight of Albuera was much like the real thing. It was a great tussle, a near-run thing and a “damned nice thing” in my book—since the French won a minor victory! The outcome was determined according to the scenario rules. After the battle the French would have had to withdraw, as Soult did historically. The French army was not able to damage the British as much as they did in the real battle, but did manage to break all of the Spanish troops plus the British cavalry. They even captured Albuera and held it for seven turns, with the Anglo-Portuguese re-capturing it on the second last turn!
We based this game on the scenario in Fields of Glory. This scenario begins after Soult’s brilliant out-flanking manoeuvre and with only Zayas’ Spanish ‘division’ and Lumley’s cavalry turned to meet the new threat (map below).

Above: schematic map of Albuera from the Fields of Glory scenarios for Shako rules.
Below: a series of views of the wargames table. Firstly looking south towards Albuera; secondly Lumley’s cavalry on the Anglo-allied right; thirdly Latour-Maubourg’s cavalry on the left of the French attack and lastly Girard and Gazan’s infantry at the southern end of the tabletop.

Initially we used this game as a play-test of the de Bonaparte à Napoleon (DBN) rules, but we only completed two and a half turns with them, finishing the game using Shako instead. It had been a little too ambitious to use DBN for Albuera. I had only newly finished my translation of the rules and so was the only one who had read them. This meant that we could only refer to them by using my hand-written notes or by me doing a translation on the fly. It also soon became evident that they are better suited to a smaller action or section of a larger action—fighting in buildings may be ideal.

The battle opened with a large cavalry mêlée between Latour-Maubourg’s dragoons, hussars and chasseurs and the British dragoons/dragoon guards and light dragoons, supported by regiments of Portuguese cavalry, that had recently been placed under the command of Major General Lumley (photos 5 and 6 below). The British regiments came off the worst and broke at the end of second turn. However, Latour-Maubourg’s cavalry had also suffered during the extended mêlée and, following additional casualties from artillery, failed morale on turn 4 and retreated. They did not rally until turn 11; too late to have an further impact on proceedings.
Photos 5 and 6: the cavalry mêlée seen from the British and French sides

This left the unbrigaded Vistula legion lancers, understrength 27th chasseurs à cheval and a weak regiment of Spanish grenadiers à cheval as the only effective ‘French’ cavalry formations on the western side of the battlefield. Opposed to these were the Penne-Villemur's understrength regiments of Extremaduran hussars and Spanish dragoons from various regiments (photo 7).
Photo 7: Vistula legion lancers come to grips with Spanish dragoons

While these dramatic cavalry combats were taking place, Gazan’s and Girard’s divisions were attacking Zayas’ Spanish 'division' which occupied the Anglo-Allied right flank (photo 8).
Photo 8: Zayas’ ‘Army of Extremadura' attacked in force by Girard’s and Gazan’s French divisions

Meanwhile, Godinot’s diversionary attack on Albuera (photo 9) achieved unexpected results. The French drove von Alten’s KGL battalions from the town on turn 3 (photo 10). Cole gathered his Anglo-Portugese division and repeatedly attacked the town in an attempt to re-take it (photo 11). He was finally successful on turn 11 (photo 12). The survivors of Godinot’s troops broke on turn 12.
Photo 9 and 10: Godinot's independent brigade attack and capture Albuera

Photo 11 and 12: Cole's Anglo-Portuguese bring overwhelming numbers to re-capture the town

Fortunes continued to ebb and flow in the main, southern sector of the battlefield. Just as one side seemed to gain the upper hand, another result would switch momentum to their opponents.
After initially being successful against the Spanish dragoons, the un-brigaded French cavalry failed it’s ‘divisional’ morale on turn 4 and retreated to the rear of the French lines.
Rain began to fall at the end of turn 5, reducing the effectiveness of small arms and artillery fire, but the desperate infantry combat continued. As in the real battle, Zayas’ Spanish troops resisted doggedly, but the overwhelming numbers of French began to tell on these gallant men (photo 13).
Photo 13: Under sustained attack, Zayas’ ‘Army of Extremadura’ begins to crumble.

Around this time the unbrigaded ‘French’ cavalry rallied and re-entered the battle. As if controlled by the ghosts of their historical counterparts, the Vistula legion lancers, “Los Diablos Polacos”, charged and broke the square of the Voluntarious de Navarre (photo 14). This in tun broke the will of the ‘Army of Extremadura' which retreated from the battlefield. The lancers carried on to attack the 2/48th British Line managed to form a hasty square. The lancers fell upon them, but suffered terrible losses and broke, taking with them the remainder of the unbrigaded cavalry (photo 15).
Photos 14 and 15: “Los Diablos Polacos”.

The rain storm ceased at the end of turn 10. This produced an immediate effect on the cannon fire, with the guns of both sides producing devastating results on turn 11. On the French side, the casualties from this artillery fire were enough to break the will of Girard’s division which retreated from the battlefield leaving a huge gap in the right centre of the French line.
The game ended after turn 12 and was declared a minor French victory under the scenario rules. It was a pyrrhic victory though as, like the real battle, the French would have withdrawn in the days following the battle.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Review of Talavera: Wellington's First Victory in Spain

Talavera: Wellington's First Victory In Spain, Andrew W. Field
(Images courtesy of the publishers. Please do not reproduce without first seeking permission)

This book is a rare treat; an objective view of the British in the Peninsular War written by an English author; and a serving military man to boot. Andrew Field’s account of the campaign and battle of Talavera is detailed, analytical and readable. It will make a fine addition to the collection of anyone interested in the Napoleonic wars, especially, but not exclusively, wargamers.

Talavera was typical of so many Peninsular battles; a closely-fought affair that was a pyrrhic victory for the Anglo-allied forces, leading as it did to a withdrawal and continuation of the long and costly war. Andrew Field’s book has a structure that will be familiar to many readers, comprising chapters of background, the armies, the commanders, detailed chapters dealing with the battle itself and the aftermath. In addition to these is a chapter on tactics, orders of battle and a tour of the battlefield.

The introduction and first chapter provide the background to the Talavera campaign. This will be of some use and interest to the general reader or ‘student’ of the period who knows little about the Peninsular and this campaign, but is too cursory to be of much use to others. This is disappointing as it results in the usual description found in any overview, presenting nothing either new or insightful. The content could have been covered in a paragraph or two about the campaign introducing the first chapter.
The book improves dramatically with the chapter two, ‘The Armies’. In this chapter the general, overview material that typified the introduction and first chapter gives way to some detail and interesting quotes including material that I, at least, have not seen before. For example, we were only discussing at the ANF the other day about whether to include rules for the ‘typically’ uncontrollable British cavalry in our preferred ruleset, debating how much of this is fact compared with wargamers’ myth perpetuated by successive rule-writers. From what Andrew Field presents, it appears that a combination of the two is probably correct. Another interesting detail that he presents are the figures on the numbers of horses required per gun and per battery. This is not something that I have considered before and it highlights the logistical and practical problems of campaigning in the period, especially in the Peninsula. This balanced, critical approach is continued in the subsequent chapter on ‘The Commanders’.
The book is worth reading for chapter four, ‘Tactics’, alone. Field seeks to refute the mis-information that was first generated by authors like Oman and has been perpetuated since then, especially amongst the early writers of rules for Napoleonic wargaming “...without being contested by further research until relatively recently” (page 49). As this quote states, his re-analysis is not new (featuring as it does in publications such as Elting’s “Swords Around a Throne” and in many issues of that fabulous magazine “Empires, Eagles and Lions”), but Mr Field presents it in a logical, concise and clearly articulated fashion.
The account of the battle itself is divided into three chapters. The first examines the night attack of 27th July. This is an oft-overlooked part of the battle which, Field suggests, is due to the poor performance of one of Wellington’s most trusted subordinates, General Hill. The next chapter covers the first, abortive French attack on the morning of 28th July, while the main attack of the afternoon and the aftermath are the subject of the third of these chapters. Throughout his description and analysis of the battle, Field refers to his chapter on tactics, providing an excellent reference point for the reader and one of the main bases for his critical assessments of the action (or in-action) of commanders and of the performance of troops at particular stages.
Chapter 11 is a tour of battlefield and description of key sites using both modern and contemporary maps and helpful photographs (e.g below). This is a fantastic resource for anyone who, like us, ‘popping’ over to Spain to look for ourselves is not such an easy option. This chapter and the appendices of army lists, along with the descriptions of the battle are invaluable for anyone putting together a scenario of Talavera for a wargame—as we will be in the near future.

An example of the helpful photographs that accompany the 'tour of the battlefield. In this case "part of the wall in the east of the town that was manned by Spanish troops to help anchor the allied right."

Andrew Field’s summary of the battle, its aftermath and the performance of the armies and commanders is one of the most honest and impartial accounts that I have read. I was particularly interested to read such an objective assessment, from an English author, of the contribution of the Spanish.
Talavera was a classic case of a ‘minor victory’ or a ‘winning draw’ in wargames parlance. Both sides suffered high casualties and neither wished to continue the battle. The ‘loser’ (French) withdrew but the ‘winner’ (British & Spanish) were not in a position to pursue nor pressure them. Field goes as far as to propose that it was a pyrrhic victory. He admits that the campaign was a French “success” as the supply situation, Soult’s outflanking manoeuvre and Venegas’ failure before Madrid meant that Wellesley’s attempt to capture Madrid only resulted in a withdrawal to Portugal. Thus it was similar to all of Wellesley/Wellington’s victories prior to the decisive battles of Salamanca and Vitoria—a sound defence that checked a French attack, but ultimately resulted in the retreat of the Anglo-Allied army(ies) because they were unable to exploit the success. Conversely, due to divided command, poorly co-ordinated attacks and solid defence, the French failed to take advantage of one of their best opportunities to inflict a serious defeat on an Anglo-allied army in the Peninsula.
The maps in the book, such as the one above of the final French attack, are excellent. In this particular map the 9ème légère are labelled as the 7ème légère .

The book is replete with clear maps that, most pleasing to me, include most of the towns and features that are mentioned in the text! There are few typographical errors evident. One exception is where the 9ème légère becomes the 8ème ligne in a schematic of the main French attack on the afternoon of 28th July. This is repeated with the same unit, 9ème légère, which is listed as 7ème légère in both the text and on the map on pages 116 & 117. Fortunately these errors are easily clarified by the army lists, but it is disappointing that they have slipped through editing.
Overall this is an excellent book with loads of detail, a clear description of strategy, tactics, troop distributions, movements and key actions during the battle, complemented by numerous quotes from eye-wtinesses, analysis of the tactics, detail of points of dispute from various sources and interesting and sometimes harrowing observations; such as the exchange of casualties following the first abortive French attack on the 28th (p 97) and the horrendous fire at end of the battle (p 122).
Highly recommended.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Review: Napoleon as a General

Napoleon As A General, Jonathon P. Riley
This book claims to be different because it focusses not on Napoleon’s campaigns, career or legacy, but specifically on Napoleon as a general. Yet Riley presents little that has not been covered in earlier secondary sources on same subject such as Count Yorck von Wartenburg (1902) “Napoleon as a general”, James-Marshall Cornwall (1965) “Napoleon as military commander” and David Chandler (1966) classic study “The Campaigns of Napoleon” with its section on Napoleon’s art of war. That said there are some useful insights and ideas that make it a worthwhile read.
Riley begins with a mediocre, workmanlike account of generalship and leadership which comprises many long quotes, but little analysis. This is followed by a reasonably interesting critical analysis of Napoleon’s generalship, leadership, logistical management and co-ordination of a multi-national force. The chapter on strategy provides some useful and interesting insights with regard to the continental system, the sale of the Louisiana territory and relationship with the US.
I found the case studies of most value. There are well-written and detailed accounts of Italy 1796/7, Jena-Aüstadt 1806 and Dresden and Leipzig 1813. None of this is new, of course, but a new author always brings some fresh perspectives. The choice of these three as subject matter is of itself an interesting combination rather than the more usual ‘suspects’ of say Italy 1796/7, Austerlitz, Russia, 1814 and Waterloo.
I had a few real gripes with this book. Firstly is the so often repeated tendency by English authors to over-estimate the role of the British army in the defeat of Napoleon. I am not trying to downplay the impact of the Peninsular War and Waterloo, but they are relatively small when compared with the sustained role of the Austrians, Russians and Prussians assisted by British gold and the blockade by the Royal Navy.
The second is Riley’s tendency to make too many irrelevant references and analogies to past and recent/current campaigns. He makes the point that WWI generals are commonly lambasted for losses that are comparable with those which frequently occurred during Napoleon’s time. This misses the crucial, key difference that actions in the age of Napoleon, especially those involving Napoleon himself, achieved a strategic result, while WWI did not. He also makes frequent reference to the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan, while missing the real analogy of Napoleon’s War in Spain and those modern guerrilla wars; the similarity of an ‘enlightened super power’ seeking to ‘liberate’ a nation from a dysfunctional regime but under-estimating the domestic response and the use of the campaign by its enemies, seeing the pyrrhic victory of conventional war, rapidly falling into a protracted ‘insurgence’.
Thirdly are some of Riley’s statements and opinions that range from unsupported and unsupportable to down right outrageous. The oft made assertion that Napoleon’s enemies’ mistakes made him look good ignores the real genius of Napoleon: his ability to react quickly to changing circumstances, his flexibility and clear thinking and his rapid and decisive responses. Riley’s statement that “... many of those who did gain access to his inner counsels–such as Lannes, Reynier and Junot–were mediocre commanders” is astounding. Junot and possibly Reynier may be justified in this, but Lannes?!
Lastly is the use of maps that are poor with most of the places that are referred to missing! I am astounded that this frustrating mistake seems to be made again and again in so many books. It is almost as if the maps are an after-though or merely some form of decoration.
My final assessment: this book is worth a read, but I’m glad that I borrowed it from the library and did not bother to add it to my personal collection.