Monday, 28 December 2015

Cornwallis' Retreat 17 June 1795

This is a very late battle review, for which I apologise. Mark of One-Sided Wargames fame has already posted a very fair review here so this is by way of addition and comment. I should also very much like to thank all my comrades in the ANF for once again agreeing to indulge my fantasy and participate in a Napoleonic Naval action. I was again allowed to choose the scenario: with the increasing size of my Sails of Glory fleet, the assistance of additional ships from ANF comrades, and a little confidence gleaned from our last action San Domingo that we could accomplish a full battle in a day, I now felt inclined to try out a medium-sized action to test the next set of rules, Form Line of Battle by David Manley, a very popular set of Napoleonic Naval Rules which has gone through several editions and is used by many wargames clubs, but of which more later. The action I chose was Cornwallis' Retreat, which, was, as Wiki tells us, 'a naval engagement during the French Revolutionary Wars in which a British Royal Navy battle squadron of five ships of the line and two frigates was attacked by a French Navy battlefleet of 12 ships of the line and 11 frigates in the waters off the west coast of Brittany on 16–17 June 1795'. A full account can be found here.

The main issue for me as the scenario designer was to ensure that an action took place at all, that the British were not allowed to escape easily, but equally, to ensure that the French did not position themselves perfectly, and catch the British between two fires. It was therefore absolutely fascinating to me that the French Vice-Admiral Villaret de Joyeuse, ably played by James, followed the historical deployment extremely closely. His subordinate, Rear-Admiral Kerguelen, took as critical a view of the deployment as his historical counterpart, which was also immensely pleasing from a scenario point of view.

Here's how we had it:

Three lines of ships with the frigates deployed around them. Apologies for the blocks in the pictures: my efforts to re-design our sea foundered rather with incorrect use of paints causing undue flex (as well as some quite spectacular wave formations, and drastic measures were required to hold the sea in place). At least we had some realistically grey, rough and miserable looking Atlantic weather as a result.

The French fleet came on in not a little confusion, as randomisation under full sail cut in.

On the British side, determination was the order of the day, as Admiral Cornwallis decided to turn and fight, a resolution which was much aided, I am sure, by the slow sailing of two of his ships, with which the rules coped admirably. We had sufficient players to allow Stephen to take over two ships of the line as Captain Charles FitzGerald whilst I played the commander of the British frigates, intent on replicating their actual deception, if I could.

Here is an initial view down the British line

No doubt, then, that there would be an action. I may have got the wind direction slightly wrong, but my decision was to keep it as it was. On reflection I should certainly have allowed ships to lower their sails, which would have made a huge difference - mea culpa.

The British line was challenging to maintain, given the different sailing capabilities of the ships.

There was almost a collision at one point:

Early shots at long range from the British line of battle had a devastating effect, with the 'Alexandre' forced out of line, on fire and eventually sinking. It was a huge initial blow to the French force and from a morale point of view, I do not think they entirely recovered. In fairness, the rules were new to everyone and the extreme unlikelihood of this event being repeated was not initially clear - I too was fairly astounded.

As the line closed, frigates took centre stage. As a result of their bold handling, the British commander ordered fire on frigates from his line, with the inevitable result that the French retailiated, the British ending up the losers as a result of this exchange.

One bold French frigate even ended up raking - somewhat ineffectually - the British line, ending up heavily damaged but escaping.

A confused melee ensued, with the British succeeding in making off to the North. A view from the French side:

The French commander continued to be rightly worried about the Channel Fleet making an appearance - that will have to wait, however - although in practice it was the wind direction that in his view prevented him from pressing the action.

And here is the historical action, or one view of it, at least:

Not too dissimilar a view, in fact, given the difference in perspective.

It was exceptionally depressing that other commitments forced me to leave at this point: never again! Quite understandably my comrades continued for another move and then called it a day. The net result though - one French ship of the line lost, one British frigate also lost, and some moderate damage all round otherwise - was highly realistic, and more than answered the niggling doubt I had harboured that Napoleonic naval rules would lead to mutual devastation. The action had indeed proved possible to fight within a day, as I had hoped.

There were however some very conflicting impressions regarding the rules. General sentiment appeared to lie in favour of Signal Close Action by comparison to Form Line of Battle, with the view being expressed that the element of chance was simply too great, the loss of the 'Alexandre' being cited to that effect, and the wind rules were too inflexible. The former was down to chance - such a thing could conceivably happen, although the chance was very slight - the latter I believe was my misinterpretation of certain aspects of the rules, especially the ability to down sails (detachable masts replaceable with downed sails would indeed have been a bonus for Sails of Glory ships). By contrast I was myself left with a warm and fuzzy feeling towards Form Line of Battle which I did not feel for Signal Close Action, similar to this reviewer from many years ago link, but this may just have been the experience of fighting a second battle or a personal sympathy with the kind of game mechanics David Manley designs. More experience evidently required, and I still have lots of work to do in scenario design. There are also a  few more rule sets to try out yet, however: we are deliberating between Heart of Oak, Blood, Bilge and Iron Balls, or Close Action. This action was ambitious enough: next time though I am dreaming of something even bigger. Come on Ares, let's have a few more ship types to help us!

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Guest blogger (8): Battle of Tolentino, 2–3 May 1815—Part 2

We left Phil at the end of part one of his bicentennial game of the Battle of Tolentino (2nd May) with Murat having 'beaten' Bianchi’s army, in a rather close-run thing in which "his (Murat's) forces were rather depleted". Will he be as successful on 3rd May against Bianchi, reinforced by General Neipperg?

Phil takes up the photo-commentary for part two.

It’s hard to imagine it on this dreary rain swept afternoon but I refought the second part of the battle of Tolentino on the actual 200th anniversary back in May. Once again I opted for a largely historical deployment. D’Ambrosio, who historically was wounded in the first battle, was replaced by D’Aquino. His lesser talents are reflected by a -1 morale, one less dice for firing and a command roll whenever they are asked to take a fresh offensive action.

Lecchi was sent on a wide flanking movement (as in 1815).

Neapolitan reinforcements are expected from 12:00...


Lecchi’s flanking move gets off to a slow start

D’Aquino’s demoralised troops refuse to move from Monte Milione.

An exchange of artillery achieved nothing – just getting the range I guess!

The Austrians remain in their strong defensive position and their heavy fire destroys the 4th Light Infantry Regiment – Things are not going well for Murat!

Turn 2

Lecchi’s flank move (its movement determined randomly) is progressing at a snail’s pace.

A fierce fight develops over Castello del Rancia on the Austrian right...

The Guard cavalry spearheads the attack on Murat’s left, bowling over the Austrian Hussars and destroying them.

The Guard Voltiguers attack one of Eckhart’s Regiments which retreats but the Velites are held up by Casone’s stout walls:

Things go badly for the Neapolitans as both of their attack columns are repulsed with losses.

On the right D’Aquino is finally moving (if slowly) but the presence of an Austrian Dragoon regiment forces his right-hand unit to form square.

Turn 3

D’Aquino’s remaining units press home their attack and force the enemy to retreat.

In the centre Pignatelli’s division fail in their attack and fall back but The Velites take Casone and the Guard Voltiguers force back their opponents.

The Light cavalry fails to take the Austrians unawares and are sent packing (rear of photo).

The Flanking move progresses (5 whole inches!).

The Tuscany Dragoon Regiment presses home its attack on the square but are defeated:

Along the whole front the action degenerates into desultory skirmishing.

Turn 4

Murat cranks up the pressure and the Austrian right disintegrates under the attacks of the Royal Guard and suffering (in game terms) permanent disorder- the remnants flee towards Tolentino.

In the centre however Pignatelli’s men stay put, out of range and on the right D’Aquino’s attack grinds to a halt as his men will not close with the Austrians.
(The skirmishers in blue coats are the Duchy of Modena Regiment)

Their position now outflanked, the Austrians retreat.

Turn 5

The Guard cavalry catch and destroy the units fleeing to Tolentino.

D’Aquino’s troops finally come to blows with their opponents on the Austrian right and cut it to pieces.

It is at this point that, from an Austrian perspective, I become aware of the enormity of the error in commiting the Dragoons to attack a fresh unit of troops in square as they are unable to take advantage of the successful but damaged and disordered units of D’Aquino’s division, who now rally undisturbed.

Pignatelli’s troops in the centre advance cautiously and the Austrians retire to their final defensive line while their light infantry maintain a harassing fire across the line.

Turn 6

Well, Napoleon said you should never underestimate the Austrians. This turn they fought like cornered rats and threw back the Royal Guard, destroying the Voltiguers and their Light Infantry did enough damage to Pignatelli’s troops for the division to count as exhausted (in Volley & Bayonet terms this basically prevents them from taking any further offensive action – it doesn’t happen very often!)

Turn 7

Both sides consolidate their positions and there is little action.

Turn 8

The Flanking move finally materialises and attacks Castella Del Rancia and the Neapolitan reinforcements arrive at last - once again things are looking pretty dicey for the Austrians.

Turn 9

D’ Aquino gets a lucky roll and his depleted troops launch an attack on the Austrian left, forcing them back  and the Guard Artillery cause another points worth of casualties. Bianchi now has a total of 4 points of infantry and one artillery battery remaining (plus 4 skirmishers).

The Neapolitans are also pretty battered with 2 divisions now at exhaustion point and unable to attack. However Murat has fresh troops arriving and Lecchi’s flanking force is now also in play it has to be said that only the Neapolitans are in a position to carry on so I must award victory to Murat. To be honest it is hard to see how he lost the historic battle (even he could hardly believe it).

I think in a wargame, even if you give one side a handicap it is rarely sufficient to overcome a significant numerical superiority. On balance it could be said that the Austrians were lucky to win in 1815 and in 2015 they just weren’t...