Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Assembly of facts, raw and untainted

Book review: British Battles of the Napoleonic Wars 1793–1815: Despatches from the Front, compiled by John Grehan & Martin Mace

(Book cover art kindly provided by the publishers. Please do not reproduce without obtaining permission)

These two books present a collection of despatches written by British commanders (generals, admirals and captains) following selected battles that involved British land and/or naval forces during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars.

This is not a complete list of actions involving British forces during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. Grehan and Mace limit themselves to “reports of large-scale engagements from senior officers exercising independent commands” (p. viii), with ‘large-scale’ being in the context of the commitment of British forces over the 22 years covered by the books.

The 89 battles selected (53 in the first book and 36 in the second) include the well-known such as Glorious First of June, Cape St Vincent, The Nile, Alexandria, Trafalgar, Coruña, Talavera, Salamanca, Vitoria, Toulouse and, of course, Waterloo. However, less well-known actions are also included, with some relating to defeats for British arms, such as the battles of Bergen, Alkmaar and Castricum (1799) and Battle of Grand Port 1810—Walcheren (July-September 1809) is a notable omission, although the capture of Flushing is included.

The format of the two books is the same, with despatches from the selected battles presented in chronological order. Each simply comprises a heading with the name of the battle or action, followed by the note of the receipt of the original despatch and then despatch itself reproduced in full.

The book does not include a map of each battle, however a world map and a more detailed map of Europe indicate the locations of each. This is useful to help the reader to find a particular battle of interest, or to check the geographic location of a battle. It is also quite impressive and demonstrates the geographic reach and impact of the wars.

Included in the centre pages of each book are plates, most of them in colour, of paintings of some of the commanding officers who were the authors of despatches and of selected battles. Each plate has two images, either a commander and painting of a battle scene, two commanders or two battle scenes. While these images are now in the public domain, thanks to Wikimedia Commons, I found it helpful to have such plates included and they also add to the aesthetic value of the books.
"Battle of Cape Finisterre" by William Anderson, Collections of the National Maritime Museum (Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons).
Siege of Badajoz, Devil's Own 88th Regiment by Woodville (Wikimedia Commons)

These are the type of books that one is unlikely to read from cover to cover, but rather to ‘dip’ into when a need or interest arises. I have read about a quarter of the presented despatches, choosing those related to the battles that we have done as wargames, others that we may look to do in the near future or just to get some understanding of a previously unknown (to me) action.

One such case was following our game of San Domingo. It was edifying to read Admiral Duckworth’s despatch, having completed a re-fight of the battle on the tabletop. Our game largely followed the history, ‘though with some notable divergences. These became more obvious upon reading Duckworth’s descriptive account of the action and his despatch took on greater significance and had more clarity having recently ‘been there’ on the wargames table.

Another example is the Battle of Grand Port (August 1810). This has greater significance to me following a visit to Mauritius a few years ago. Reading the despatch spurred me to seek more information about the action. Who knows, we may even make it the subject of our next Napoleonic naval game?
Battle of Grand Port by Gilbert (Wikimedia Commons)

[Interestingly, despatches following the landing at Grand Baie in November 1810 and subsequent skirmishes that resulted in the capture of Ile de France on 3rd December 1810 are not presented.]

Lastly, as we approach the bicentennial of Waterloo, it was interesting and edifying to read the Duke of Wellington’s despatch in full and unedited. This is the last despatch presented in the second book.

The presentation of despatches, transcribed from the originals, provides a bonus for students of language. The despatches are replete with variations in spelling and the nuances of English writing of the time, all of which varied between the corresponding generals (or the staff officers who wrote the despatches). These include the copious use of capital letters, erratic hyphenation (such as Major-General) and the inclusion or exclusion of ‘u’ in words ending in ‘our’ (or). Grehan and Mace discuss this facet at some length in the introduction to each book, particularly since it is an aspect that has been maintained as the despatches presented are unedited transcriptions of the originals.
“It is the job of the historian not only to assemble facts and present them to their public but also to interpret those facts. Much is lost and gained in such interpretations. […] Where then lies the truth? […] But only one account will be authentic—that delivered by the man who witnessed the events in person. […] Only the most senior officers can have a holistic view of the unfolding events and their possible short-term consequences. It is to those persons that we must turn’ (p. vii).
This statement in the introduction to the first book, whilst of noble intent, must be tempered with the knowledge that the despatches were written with a particular audience(s) in mind. “To lie like a bulletin” may well be an accusation that was laid at the feet of Napoleon by his enemies, but the reality is that commanders from all of the nations, including Britain, were fluid with the truth.

A well known example is Beresford’s report of the Battle of Albuera (16th May 1811). Recalling his meeting Beresford’s aide de camp, Major Arbuthnot, and reading the marshal’s original despatch Wellington said,
“I remember he wrote me word that he was delighted I was coming, that he could not stand the slaughter about him and the vast responsibility. His letter was quite in a desponding tone. It was brought to me next day, I think, by General Arbuthnot when I was at dinner at Elvas, and I said directly, this won’t do, write me down a victory. The despatch was altered accordingly. Afterwards they grew very proud of the battle, and with full reason. There is no doubt they had completely got the better of Soult”*.
*Stanhope, Philip Henry, 5th Earl (1888) Notes of conversations with the Duke of Wellington : 1831-1851. John Murray, London. 341 pp.

The expurgated version of the despatch that was reported to the government at home is the one included here.

By way of clarification (and rebuttal) the last word on this should go to Grehan and Mace.
“This then is our assembly of facts, raw and untainted. Their interpretation is yours alone” (p. ix).
A ‘student' of history cannot ask for much more.


Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Sails of Glory at the NWS

Last week found me in the big smoke again, so I was able to attend the Napoleonic Wargaming Society, my home away from home.

This time, the game was Sails of Glory. Mark H. (aka ‘Marc’) organised the game and acted as umpire and gamemeister. I took the French, naturellement, and Mark B. the British.

This was my first game with this rules system (although I have played a few games of Wings of War/Glory at the Club previously). It was good timing, given our recent game of San Domingo at ANF HQ.

Marc has a clear, full and detailed report on his blog, so I’ll merely add a few additional photos and some observations of my own about the Sails of Glory, based on this n = 1 experience.

The scenario laid out. Note wind blowing across the table (making for some up and back sailing) and the ‘control panel’ for each ship (French side shown).

The ships approach one another.

Généreux approaches the enemy.

First blood to les bons hommes français…

but Mark drew well from the damage chits; not the only time.

The two third-rates come to blows…

with results about even.

‘Control panel’ showing the damage apportioned to the French third-rate (Généreux).

The ships sailed around to make another pass of one another.

The frigates now had a ‘go’.

Then the big girls came in to support their little mates. Note the four zeros beside the British frigate; that’s four misses—good drawing by Mark.

Now bringing its port broadside to bear, appropriately loaded with ball (see report on Marc’s blog for significance of this comment), the Vanguard gets a raking broadside on Généreux.

Courageuese gave her big sister a hand, scoring some damage to Vanguard’s rigging…

only to become an RN sandwich!

She did manage to score a little bit of damage on HMS Meleager (damage chits laid out at rear).

It was all over for Courageuse.

The control panels for Vanguard (seriously damaged) and Meleager (little damaged). The Généreux had suffered less damage than her British third-rate counterpart.

To me, based on this one-of outing, the Sails of Glory system produced an engrossing and enjoyable game. It is ideally suited for the time limitations of a Club night. The system is simple to pick up, sailing works well, other factors are dealt with reasonably and it flows well. Interestingly, the counters and ‘control panel’, which should make the bookkeeping side of naval wargaming simpler/easier, actually seemed to make it more clumsy. I would have preferred a simple grid to cross off as damage was done, or even a blank page on which to note the changing status of the ships.

I’ll look forward to playing Sails of Glory again on another occasion at the NWS, particularly if Mark and Stephen start to ‘tweak’ the rules.


Lastly, some photos of other games at the Club on that night; American Civil War using Regimental Fire and Fury and two mediaeval games using Impetus.

Another most enjoyable evening catching up, albeit briefly, with old wargaming friends. Hopefully I’ll get down there again soon.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Battle of San Domingo

Battle of San Domingo

The ANF indulged me recently with the opportunity to start an extensive programme of rule-testing Napoleonic naval wargames rules. The motivation derived partly from the recent launch of the delightful Sails of Glory range of ready-made ships of the period, for which I have yearned since, no doubt, the manufacturers were not even born. There is an accompanying set of rules, which I have seen working at the NWS First up for testing were Signal Close Action (SCA), the rules produced by Rod Langton, ironically the owner of Langton Miniatures, which produces fine metal cast Napoleonic models. (Using these rules with Ares miniatures - the definition of guilt). Unfortunately my copy of the latest edition is overseas still, so we had to make do with the original 90s version of the rules, but we all still thought it well worth while to try them out. This rambling post is the resultant report - naval wargames take a lot of moves - twenty-two in this case and still without an absolutely final ending - and it's hard to explain without detailing every single move.

James and Mark let me choose the scenario, and in deference to the ANF view about the desirability of historical scenarios if possible, for which I now have considerable sympathy, I picked the Battle of San Domingo. There's a good account on Wiki, That would be a crushing British victory, then. Fighting unequal battles like this is a challenge for both sides, though, as we discovered when fighting unequal Napoleonic land battles, the original winner being under pressure to do at least as well as his historical predecessor and the underdog with all the opportunity to do better.

My particular problem was how to recreate the slowness of the French response, and although the French ships may not have been at anchor historically - accounts differ - I opted to work through the SCA weighing anchor and getting underway rules. The other issue was how long the French Admiral should take to reach his flagship, I put him ashore as historically, but how many moves should he take to reach his flagship? SCA do not specify the exact timeframe for a move, but everyone was happy enough for the boat just to row out with normal moves towards the imposing French flagship.

We were joined for the day by Steve and Marc (in ANF parlance) who are both accomplished SoG wargamers alresdy and who were keen to see how an 'old-fashioned' (relatively) set of rules would work. I decided to let James take the role of contre-amiral Corentin Urbain Leissègues whilst Markov would take the role of his illustrious British opponent, Sir John Thomas Duckworth. Steve would take the role of Duckworth's second-in-command, Thomas Louis whilst Marc was to take command of the French until Leissegues managed to reach his flagship. Fortunately none of my admirals was familiar enough with Napoleonic naval wargaming to know the scenario, which was of great benefit, although the appearance of British ships did not come as much of a surprise to Marc and James, of course, whilst Mark as Admiral Duckworth had the advantage, as historically, of knowing the strength and approximate dispositions of the French squadron.
The French fleet rested gently at anchor in the blue Caribbean waters, blissfully ignorant of the fate that awaited them. Nearest to the camera is Imperial (118) (one of SoG's actual issue, clearly San Domingo is actually one battle they thought of before releasing the miniatures), then Alexandre (74), Diomede (74), Jupiter (74) and Brave (74).  It's just so easy to set up a naval battle - the 2mm buildings were scale wrong, though, we went for 15mm buildings but in fact 6mm would probably be right in size terms for the 1/1000 SoG ships. Note the frigate lurking out to sea - just scenery, in this instance - the smaller French ships escaped historically and I didn't want additional unnecessary complexity on this occasion. The wind is coming from the North-West, that is, from the top right of the photo below and blowing to the bottom left. I decided, for the purposes of the rules test, to leave the wind in that direction throughout the action. The French might well have had a better chance if I had allowed it to fluctuate as the rules suggest.
Why did I not paint large polystyrene blocks blue when I was a boy? Oh yes, because my parents had a blue carpet, but it had to be cleared every evening, of course  (the sand for the beach wouldn't have been popular in the lounge, either) and available rules at the time (Navwar, a move-by-move order writing Quarrie-like set) gave one little hope that anything useful might be accomplished in one day.What would SCA bring?
One thing it brought was a very slow journey by the French commander to his flagship. I had intended, to be honest, that the frustration caused by the delay in reaching his flagship would result in dissension between the French commanders, but I think I miscalculated the distances somewhat and James found himself in a small boat for the vast majority of the action.
Move 6 and the whole British force was on table. Vice-Admiral Duckworth had elected, following the example of his illustrious late predecessor Vice-Admiral Nelson, to divide his force into two column. The port column he led with HMS Superb (74) in the lead, followed by HMS Northumberland, (74) then HMS Spencer (74) and finally - very wisely considering her poor sailing capability - HMS Agamemnon. (64). The starboard column was under the command of Rear-Admiral Louis in HMS Canopus (80), followed by HMS Donegal (74) and finally HMS Atlas.(74), a razeed former Second Rate with an appallingly incompetent Captain, which Mark (corrected, thanks Marc!) wisely put at the rear of his line. The British did have a couple of frigates, but as with the French, we put them out to windward and assumed they would not play a role in the action.
By Move 10 the British fleet had got into action with the cotton wool Marc brought coming in mighty handy to show broadsides. At long range little damage was likely to be done - but Rear-Admiral Louis' port division was bearing down on the French who seemed to have glue attached to their hulls, so immobile were they, The superiority of the British crews was already telling - over the next few moves a collision between HMS Agamemnon and HMS Spencer was only narrowly avoided by the splendid seamanship of both Captain and crew aboard HMS Spencer.
The British Admiral's general contentment at the progress of the action proved remarkably short-lived, however, as the following move, a chance shot carried him off, one of the very few casualties on HMS Superb, but dead for all that. Command passed to his flag-captain until a signal could be sent to Rear-Admiral Louis to take over - and as you might imagine from the title of the rules, SCA did that job excellently.
Rear-Admiral Louis' daring close to the coast dash brought its just reward on Move 14, when a devastating rake from his flagship brought the swift surrender of the Brave.

Four moves later, and Rear-Admiral Louis was able to bring HMS Atlas alongside his second prize, the Jupiter. Unfortunately for him, his squadron had now advanced so far, with the wind filling their sails from the North-West, that the Brave was eventually able to take another morale test and recover their nerve, hoist the French flag, and make off! But here is the Jupiter about to be boarded, and she did not escape.

At the same time, the commander of the other squadron, now Rear-Admiral Cochrane (uncle of the Sea Wolf) found himself in the position Nelson dreaded at Trafalgar, being fired on whilst being unable to reply. The rules having permitted 'delay fire' once to the manoeuvre phase and 'delay twice' to the move fire, any ship that gets into a raking position can almost inevitably rake twice in these rules (at least the advanced version that we used) and HMS Superb (right centre below) was battered, losing her captain as she retreated, all of which Markov, at least, found most peculiar, Worse, HMS Superb  eventually struck whilst making off, a morale oddity to the rules that none of us much liked - there needs, I think, to be a 'inert' rule for ships out of enemy fire range in place of strike - simple enough to arrange but very peculiar, we thought.

Move 21, and the heavy broadside of the Imperial (I love the Ares models, and this one is a star) started to tell, with a fire broken out on HMS Canopus, though it was swiftly extinguished.
Markov therefore determined that the other ships in his command would at least secure one prize, especially having watched Rear-Admiral Louis take two (though one was to escape) and his determination to surround the Diomede (admirably commanded by Marc who very nearly escaped) was absolutely striking to note (if you excuse the pun).
 This is where we left the action, Move 22. Rear-Admiral Louis had managed the impossible and swept HMS Canopus and HMS Donegal round the sandbar without grounding - quite an achievement, whilst the atrociously commanded HMS Atlas is rightly confined to taking the French prize, the Jupiter. Top left you can see the Alexandre making off, whilst out of view is the Brave, beating a retreat.  Come to think of it now, we didn't insist on a signal for them to escape, nor did we insist on a Tactical Initiative test. Perhaps we should have done: their captains historically did no such sensible thing as escape.
So final score was two French ships, the Brave and Alexandre, escaped, two captured, the Diomede and the Jupiter, and one presumed beached by its crew and under the Admiral's orders, the Imperial. A knighthood for Rear-Admiral Louis, without doubt: the French had been defeated, and decisively, but the heroism of the Diomede, distracting the successively more junior commanders of the British main column after Admiral Duckworth's death, was not to be forgotten. The decision to exclude the frigates had implications, too, as had Rear-Admiral Louis had them available, no doubt he would have used them rather than HMS Atlas to grapple with the prize, and the Brave would not have escaped.
As we ended, rather late at night, we were all left wondering, whether the 4th edition of SCA would demonstrate significant improvements in playability, as Trafalgar with these rules really would be quite a protracted endeavour, or whether, perhaps, another set would bring greater playability without any sacrifice in verisimilitude or undue compromises. Form Line of Battle is on the list to try, for example. We shall see. In the meantime, thank you Mr Langton, Ares Games, and my ANF and NWS colleagues for a wargame for which I have waited for forty years.

There are two other blog reviews of this action that I can recommend, and am delighted have been posted, one from each of the subordinate commanders. here from the British side (where you can see some splendid pictures of the brief fire on the Imperial)  and here from the French side.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Impetus at NWS

I was in the big smoke the week before last, so was able to attend a club night at the Napoleonic Wargaming Society. Carlo (pyjamas) had organised another game using Impetus and kindly allowed me to join in. As followers of his excellent blog will know, he has recently begun using the rules and is enjoying them immensely, so is attempting to introduce them to other members at the club.

The game on Wednesday 22nd was played by me and three novices to the rules. Mark (of one-sided fameaka 'Marc' to the ANF 'family') and Stephen Y., took the Sassanid Persians, while Stephen B. joined me with the late imperial Romans. Carlo umpired, with me, being an experienced player of Impetus, 'assisting'.

Overview of the board. Figures all from Carlo's collection, mainly pained by Vinnie (Lonely Gamers).

Seasoned player? Assisting? It became clear on turn 1 that I, (actually Mark, aka ‘Markov', and I both) had a different interpretation of a key aspect of the rules—permanent losses of VBU (base unit effectiveness).

When explaining this important aspect to the new players, Carlo mentioned that it determines the fighting capability and resilience of a 'unit'. It is the basis of a cohesion test, which determines if 'damage' from firing and mêlée is converted into permanent losses.

All good, exactly as Mark and I play them, except that he went on to say that the unit in question has its VBU reduced for all remaining calculations, i.e. its effectiveness is permanently reduced in addition to permanent losses (which it can ‘absorb’ up to its original VBU, before it is considered routed).*

* This may read like double-Dutch here, but I can assure you, dear reader, that it is a simple and quite elegant mechanic.

“Wot? Really? That’s not how we play it.” I re-read the rule:
A Unit that fails the test [cohesion] is disordered and loses a number of VBU equal to the difference between the number rolled on the dice and the Critical Number. If a Unit’s VBU drops to 0 or less then the Unit is Routed and is immediately removed from the table. […] A Unit… that is Disordered a second time while passing the Cohesion Test caused by receiving fire [or from damage in a mêlée] also takes a permanent loss to their VBU.
Yes, I could see his interpretation, but I could also see ours. “Are you sure?”

Carlo consulted with Geoff, Andrew and Dave, all dedicated players of ancients and, more recently, converts to using Impetus. They concurred. Andrew had even checked on the Impetus forum. 

Now, I did not wish to doubt them, nor to be particularly ‘argumentative’, but I’d have to check for myself. This is fundamental. It could wait until after the game though, so more on it later.

Back to the game...
We arrayed our troops, legionaries and supporting archers in the centre, with medium and light cavalry on each flank. I took the right, Stephen the left.

The Persians had their cavalry strong in the centre and their left, with a few light horse archers on their right.

We advanced boldly, at first… those blokes in armour on heavy horses all shoot!! Fortunately for me, Stephen Y’s firing dice were not performing well.

I sent my equites against Stephen Y’s cataphracts. A slightly ‘crazy’ move, not helped by me erroneously allowing him support units in both mêlées, so that one of his units was able to be a main and support unit—silly me. It was the VBU thing, my confidence and concentration were ‘shot’…!! :)
Still, one of my units of equites bravely fought on, thanks to a roll of 1 for the cohesion test, see die on base, the only roll that would save them.

I managed to repeat the dose… twice more!

On the left, Stephen was doing well against Mark’s light cavalry (at left of photo).

 His legions resisted the attack of Mark’s cataphracts…

While his equites got the better of the Sassanid levy spearmen.

These minor successes not withstanding, it was looking like a(nother) Persian victory when we called time on a most enjoyable evening’s game.

After the game I searched the Impetus forum and, by jingo, it seems that the NWS fellas are correct in their interpretation!

It is there in the on-line tutorial. In the step-by-step description of turn 3, Charlie’s (blue) unit CPa in step 2 of image 9 only rolls three dice (original VBU 7 - 1 for demoralised - 3 for losses = 3).

One should not question one's elders and betters, hey?! (hehe).

When I was first ‘digesting’ the bombshell from Carlo, I had thought, “that will make for an even more ‘brutal’ game that is potentially all over sooner”. Interestingly, and importantly to me, it does not seem to make the game more fast-play (based on the n=1 experience of the game reported here). We’ll have to see what happens the next time we play a game of Impetus at the ANF.

So, provided that it does not turn them into an ultra fast-play set, we'll be using the rules  (more) correctly from now on! :)

Coming next: our re-fight of the Battle of San Domingo, 6th February 1806.

Vice-Admiral Sir John Thomas Duckworth’s British squadron descends on the French fleet at anchor outside San Domingo bay.

Will Contre-Admiral Corentin-Urbain Leissègues’ jolly little boat.. err little jolly boat reach his flagship, Impérial, the most powerful ship in the world, in time to take command and save his fleet, his reputation and the ire of the Emperor?

Watch for Julian’s report soon…