Friday, 28 December 2018

3 500 km to Austerlitz no. 2: Part 1

A couple of year's ago I was most fortunate to join the fellas from the Nunawading Wargames Association for their game of Austerlitz, the second of their annual grand-game weekends that I had participated in. They had a break from the big game this year (Jan. 2018), but will be back into it in the new year with Austerlitz II (this time giving the commanders licence to diverge from history from the start) and I have been lucky enough to be invited back!

This time I'm combining three passions of mine: a road trip, speedway racing and wargaming.

I left home on 24th December, allowing the better part of three days to get to Murray Bridge, South Australia for Round 1 of 'World Series Sprinters'.

In Western Australia, we like our roads nice and straight, but still have the odd 'scary' bend to deal with!

A few passengers (locusts) had tried to catch a lift at the Caiguna end of the long straight.

The first night, after 1 135 km, was spent at one of my favourite spots, overlooking Madura pass, on a decidedly chilling evening--no chance of seeing Santa's sleigh that night#
(#Pretty fortunate actually as it was 43ºC their two days later).

Had a beaut lunch on the 25th at a stop west of Nullarbor Roadhouse; the sound of the birds and wind in the trees only occasionally broken by a passing car on the highway.

A bit of tourism with a visit to Smoky Bay (and then Streaky Bay) on western Eyre Peninsula...

... before settling in for a mallee camp. Bloody bewdiful!

A bit more tourism on the way to Murray Bridge, taking in the northern agricultural, mid-north and Barossa regions. I discovered when reading up on the Peninsular War battle that the Barossa was named after it, but they got the spelling wrong!

'World's end highway' on the east of the mid-north looked the part on a dry summer's day.

Finally in Murray Bridge on a warm evening^ for Round 1 of World Series Sprintcars. The track looked an absolute picture.
^Fortunate again with the weather as it had only been 36ºC or so and cooled down dramatically through the evening—it was 44ºC the next day.

It was a fabulous night of racing. With a fast and furious 'A Main' resulting in a close win to SA driver Steven Lines over the favourite Kerry Madsen.

Round 1 over, it was on to Mt Gambier for a 'rest day' ahead of tonight's Round 2. I can't wait

Sunday, 4 November 2018

Who says history is always written by the victors? A memorable reversal of history at Elixheim (1705)

Normally, having dispensed with the preliminaries, a report on the blog might explain the order of battle - which we took from here scenario, running with regiments of both infantry and cavalry this time. Then, after a brief description of the historical battle or a link to it, a report on the blog might recount a glorious victory. Or at least a gallant defeat. In this case, however, the main purpose of the blog will be as a lesson for everyone, myself included, on how not to conduct oneself on the field of battle in the early C18th, and in particular, how not to lead a English cavalry force, superior in both quality and numbers, to virtual destruction. In sharp contrast with many wargames, it is at the beginning where the most significant photographs lie. Here is the opening scene:

The view here is from the West, towards the Lines of Brabant, with the English cavalry approaching from the North and the considerably numerically and qualitatively inferior French cavalry lined up nearer the camera towards the South. If you look carefully you will see not one, but two sunken roads, which would serve to sink hopes as well as travellers, especially the one on the English side of the battle, where the cavalry were jostling for position, Hay and Ross' Dragoons following Lumley and Wood's Horse, confident they would outflank to the East and then overcome the Gardes du Corps and the Bavarians. What could possibly go wrong?

Everything, of course, and here from Move 2 is the disaster just about to unfold. The English cavalry have managed to throw away their advantage in numbers by failing to deploy remotely properly behind an over-eager, over-confident Duke of Marlborough himself. We decided to allow oblique movement, but even without it, the French would have been able to concentrate on those leading Horse and defeat them in detail, which is exactly what they proceeded to do - aided somewhat by poor luck, to be fair to me. 

A brisk exchange of carbines, out of which the English came off worst, occasioned some self-doubt about whether the Zimmermann ANF-WSS rules were exaggerating casualties - but we immediately recalled that previous actions had brought about very historically accurate casualty numbers, so these doubts were cast aside.

And thence to melee, where readers will scarcely be surprised to learn that the English came off worst again. We may have only been at the end of Move three of a ten move game, but the sense of defeat was already beginning to permeate through the English lines, and morale - not least mine, but also of the units involved - was about to crack. 

And so it did, with no fewer than four English and German cavalry units suffering a panic test as a result of a disorderly withdrawal from defeated cavalry in melee.Only Cadogan's Horse succeeded in rallying, the other three ended up off board for the maximum possible three moves. That's the brave Saxe-Gotha Horse you can see on the left front of the picture above. Now the English were at a decided point of inferiority, although I had already reached the point of actually being quite grateful that they were not completely lost, and unable to be sacrificed piecemeal as I seemed intent on doing with the rest of the force.

From the overall view above you can pick out Churchill's regiment advancing across the Lines of Brabant at the head of the English infantry; equally at the top right of the photograph the French and Bavarian artillery and infantry of Lt-Gen Caraman can be seen. Sensibly the Vicomte d’Alègre, who was having an excellent day, had already withdrawn some of his cavalry in order to prevent their total loss. 

Others continued to press the attack home, with considerable success.

Indeed, the Duke of Marlborough was almost himself captured by French cavalry, as the encounter in the West continued to go badly for the English. 

The result  by the end of Move 6 was that the French cavalry victory was already quite evident, even if it was also apparent that the opposing lines of infantry would not actually become engaged before the French would be forced under the scenario to withdraw at the end of Move 10. In keeping with the rest of my poor decisions in the battle, the French artillery was now able to make play with the exposed English cavalry formations.

Scratch the Hanover cavalry, despite their honourable performance until that moment. The Dutch artillery, far away behind the Lines of Brabant, had also made an appearance, and did also succeed in breaking a French cavalry unit, but it was scant compensation, as the level of casualties on the English reached the point by the end of Move 8 for an Army test at the 1/4 level to be required - which I passed, to be fair, but was now standing entirely on the defensive.  

Grateful for my returning cavalry, they were flung into action on Move 9 against the oncoming French dragoons, to some effect, but it was too little, too late. 

As dusk descended across the battlefield, and just as importantly, the sight of dense Dutch flags to the West alerted the Vicomte d’Alègre to the oncoming menace - his army also passed a 1/4 test, and the English, a 1/3 test. But only one more move remained to us, and there was no victory to be had for the Duke of Marlborough. His Tory enemies at home will have been animated by the dismal news of a thousand English cavalry dead, when it eventually reached them. Not enough, perhaps, to ensure his dismissal, but a tarnish to that illustrious reputation. And evidence, certainly, that War of Spanish succession battles are won by correct deployment, steady fire, and a measure of good fortune.

Many thanks to Mark for hosting, and for painting so many of the figures, borrowed from his Seven Years' War collection. And to James for stepping in with photos when my camera died on the day, along with my hopes.

Who says the vanquished never write the history?


Wednesday, 24 October 2018

First Algeciras - a reversal of historical fortunes and a tantalising counterfactual consequence

A squadron-sized battle in which the Royal Navy succeeded in losing a ship-of-the-line seemed an admirable case study for a further test of the Grand Fleet Action in the Age of Sail (GFAAOS) rules. I was very happy to take command as Rear-Admiral Saumarez, HMS Caesar heading the leeward squadron sailing SSW, the French moored to windward, gunboats approaching from the North along the Spanish coast, with a battle plan no more complicated than parading up and down in front of the French, but without crossing over the line in the sea (identified below in the top left of the photo) where began the shallows. 

By the end of Move 3 my prayers had indeed been answered, with the French taking up the challenge...

,,and then Desaix striking a rock and holding fast, no doubt much to Contre-Amiral Linois' displeasure, but then that's what you get for aggressive sailing in shallows. 

The two fleets closed fast. No British Admiral could have wished for an encounter on more favourable terms.

Even worse for my opponent, the French line rapidly then got out of position as a result

Although they must have been extremely grateful for the assistance of their Spanish allies to tow them slowly out of their predicament.

In characteristic naval wargame fashion, nothing seemed to have happened, but in fact everything that was to happen had already been largely determined by the sailing patterns of the ships. The following move, fire was finally exchanged, the French moving and firing first. Heavy casualties on the second ship in the British line, I rued my double line.

But the return fire on La Muiron, the 44 gun frigate at the end of the French line which had the misfortune to find itself at the receiving end of a broadside from two British ships-of-the-line, was simply devastating. 

Not only did I inflict the maximum possible damage, but the unlucky ship also rolled practically the worst devastating hit consequences - and began to founder. The moral of the story might well be, no frigates in the line. Or perhaps not to roll badly when it matters.

From this point onwards, however, the tide of war, both literal and figurative, began to turn inexorably against the British squadrons. Certainly, the French line was in total confusion, and one of my squadrons was able to round the back of it. On the other hand, my own squadron was now a considerable distance away from the action and a certain risk was evidently developing of being defeated in detail, especially given the damage my second squadron had already taken.

This was a feeling reinforced by a stern rake from the French ships-of-the-line as we struggled to turn to the North.

Levels of damage on my vessels were reaching unacceptable levels, and I hoisted the signal for general retreat. Not a moment too soon, as suddenly the sea was full of Spanish gunboats.

although gunboats are no match for a broadside from ships-of-the-line, and one was sunk.

just as the Desaix grounded again, to be pulled off again by its Spanish gunboat allies. I foresee no bright future for Captain Christy de la Pallière, as this would be the second time he would have commanded a ship that ran aground.

whilst clearly visible are the Britsh squadrons making off to the North, counting their dead and considering themselves very fortunate not to have had evident laggards or even vessels stopped in the water. 

In complete contrast to the historical action, this time the French had lost a vessel, the British none, but casualties on the British side were more severe, with at least two ships-of-the-line out of action for weeks, possibly months, and hundreds of dead and wounded. There would be no second Algeciras after this action. Rear-Admiral Saumarez could hardly be cashiered after sinking a frigate, but I expect his next command will be Naval Paymaster-General at Portsmouth, never rising to much more than Rear-Admiral of the Red, and certainly never Flag officer of the Victory. Naval buffs will already have raced ahead - with no Second Algeciras, those two Spanish First Rates will not be lost in the confusion, and will most probably end up at Trafalgar. How much difference they would have made, we can wonder, but certainly some. It is a hypothetical perhaps worth investigating.

I cannot forbear adding, the rules came through with flying colours. We are now set to use them for a full fleet action. 

Friday, 5 October 2018

Action at Abbach (Battle of Eckmühl) 22nd April 1809—a General d'Armée playtest

The last weekend in September was a significant one for the Eagles.

First and foremost was the victory to the mighty West Coast Eagles in the AFL Grand Final on Saturday 29th September!

One just does not tire of watching this...

Julian has already reported another victory to eagles (of sorts); the mercenaries, lead by "former Roman veterans", at the Battle of Utica. 

Later that same day, across the Avon River, John (of Serpentine War Game Club and honorary member of our ANF group) and I held the Action at Abbach (Battle of Eckmühl) 22nd April 1809: pitting the French vs Austrian eagles.

John brought the scenario and the majority of the figures while I provided the venue, the Ralph Fisher Memorial room (aka ANF annex B), food and essential beverages!

The scenario came from Michael Hopper's^ scenario books of the 1809 campaign (see end of this post). We used the game as a playtest (for me) of the General d'Armée rules.
(^In an interesting aside, we had some extensive correspondence with Michael a couple of years ago, firstly with Julian and David (of the Wargames Retreat) about War of Spanish Succession but moving to Napoleonics. He had mentioned producing scenario books, so when John said that he had some excellent scenario books for 1809 and told me more about them I said, "Hang on, there are not by Michael Hopper are they?" G'day to Mike if you are reading this!)

Game map from Michael Hopper's scenario book
This map of the final positions after the Battle of Eckmühl from the Jean Lannes website shows the location of Abbach (Abach) on the left flank of the French positions, bottom left of map, near the Danube.

Weber's powerful Austrian infantry division ready for the 'off' (Klenau's advance guard in front of them).
Opposed by Boudet's French, part of Oudinot's command.
Overview of the table looking west, Poigen in the foreground.
In the distance could be seen the impressive St Peter's cathedral at Regensberg—John would not let me put it on the table, something about it being too large, imagine.

The artillery exchanged 'pleasantries'.
(I'm not sure why we used the brown smoke for my French battery. It was a specific marker for a loss of 'fire discipline' (ragged volley, if you will), but that does not apply to artillery. Could have been something to do with beginning the game after the Grand Final...
Weber's men, supported by Klenau, moved to attach Boudet's out numbered defenders west of Poignet.
Klenau's advance guard.
Over on the French right flank (western side of the battlefield), Pajol's mixed division faced Vécsey.
Colbert's chasseurs soon arrived to add some support.
Pajol attached with the 5e and 7e hussars, supported by the 11e (heavily disguised as the 16e) chasseurs.
Austrian infantry formed square and drove back the 5e while the chevau-légers and 7e hussars/11e chass. fought an indecisive action, both retiring.

"Into the valley of death..." Colbert's 20e chasseurs charged the guns. A damned silly move and I realised that I had deployed them to the wrong part of the battlefield. More of that post Grand Final clouded thinking?!
Back on the French left, Weber's Austrians exchanged volleys with the defenders of Poignet.
Overview of the battlefield looking west (as we had left it having called it a night, Saturday night, to be precise).
Master of disguise: Pajol (disguised as Lasalle) leading the 11e chasseurs (disguised as the 16e) in a 'glory' charge! A 'glory' charge provides an extra mêlée die, should the charge result in a mêlée.

Defensive fire from the Austrians.
(Aside: this photo shows some more of that clouded judgement; this by John. At the rear of the photo you can see the log-jam created by his arriving troops (the Brady bunch) which he had simply 'plonked' down rather than bringing them on more skilfully,)
Back to the charge: no glory to be had.
You know those times when you do a move and realise immediately that it was a bad one—then it gets worse? That was me when I decided to move the squares of Boudet's left-most brigade forward to make room so that the lines behind could manoeuvre. A silly move with cavalry within 9" as it required a discipline test. "No worries," I said when John told me, in answer to my question as to whether it was a valid move. Trouble is, I did not roll well, there were negative modifiers for the losses inflicted by Klenau's battery so one battalion retreated and the other was unformed. I could not even blame those grand final beverages...
Boudet's stupidity awoke Klenau: the Archduke Charles Legion charged.

With success.
Buoyed by this, they went on (next turn) to firefight with the French line.
Bloody hell, they were all getting in on the act. The Hesse-Homburg hussars charged...
and there went the unformed square, in retreat.
Weber's infantry charged the defenders of the stream...
who retreated (in this case able to form up behind the gun).
Back on the right, Pajol had reformed his hussars for another charge: the 7e towards the Austrian chevau-légers and the 5e the infantry.
The 5e took fire from infantry and guns.
The chevau-légers did not stand before the mighty 7e hussars.
They break through onto the infantry behind.
Sending it packing and carrying on to the next.
They stood fast and the hussars withdrew a little.
Meanwhile, the 5e had not been so successful, so retreated back to their lines.
It had become the classic 'game of two flanks'.
Time was getting on, but we considered that the outcome could be clear with one more turn.
All-out assault on the left. Pajol's light infantry should defeat a square of infantry, surely? They got to 'charge with élan...

but the jägers performed brilliantly in the mêlée.

Beside them Colbert's 7e chasseurs charged a column, unformed at the prospect,

... they retreated, but were not broken.
The 11e (16e) chasseurs will deal with this square...
or perhaps not.
Surely the mighty 7e hussars will be too good for a few Austrian dragoons?
Bien sur, mes amis! La gloire!
Over on the (French) right, the Hesse Homburg hussars expected to over-run Boudet's guns, but were driven off due to the defensive fire.
Weber's infantry charged the weakened defenders of Poignet...
and captured the town!
Conroux's division of fourth battalions arrived, too late for Poignet, but in time to relieve Boudet.
While back on the left, Albert's infantry could be seen in the distance.

The game was a draw by the scenario conditions as each side controlled an objective town and no brigades/divisions had been broken. I claimed it as a French victory, though, as they were in the best table-top position and were being reinforced. Strategically, Oudinot's aim was to protect the right flank of the army and this had clearly been achieved.

We had completed nine turns of what was a close and extremely enjoyable game. It had also been successful as a first play-test of the rules. Having watched the videos describing them, which seemed to indicate some bizarre mechanics and approaches that do not appeal to moi, I had been extremely hesitant, bordering on skeptical about them.

After we stopped on Saturday night I had progressed to thinking that they were a set that I'd be happy to play when doing a game with John. By half-way through our Sunday session, I had changed to considering them well worth another game, preferably with larger forces and to read them (always a good idea).

My concerns over the combat system quickly evaporated and I ended up finding it to be really darned good. The two-step process is easy to work through and, often, the result is determined by the 'charge' bit (morale effects) without the need for actual 'pointed sticks'—which sounds a bit like the descriptions from battles, hey? Cavalry seem to 'work' particularly well, most often in a fairly evenly matched contest they did a bit of damage, or not, and went back to "lick their wounds" and prepare for another go. On occasion they did much more. Most telling in this game was the devastating charge of the mighty 7e hussars (are they on everyone's list of favourites?), which severely disrupted the Austrian right. This was no mean feat, resulting as it did from some beautiful dice rolls by me—following on the heels of a series of most ordinary rolls on my right.

The tables in the rules at first glance, by which I mean simply looking over John's shoulder, seemed pretty daunting. Use during the game showed that looks can deceive. By turn seven, or so, I was able to 'predict' the result, from memory, particularly with firing. To me this was a good indication of ease of use.

There remain a few doubts in my mind regarding the ADC system, but I became more comfortable with it over the course of this game. The description of 'the player's command focus' does not gel with me. To me it encompasses a whole heaps of aspects. Chiefly, good command, overseeing the deployment of the troops, co-ordinating movements—or perhaps the opposite, being paralysed and failing as leaders. Then there is the bit where aides officers, commanders wave their sword, exalting the men to greater efforts. The 'special' command actions such as a 'glory' charge are not ovewhelming, a commander adds a bit to a unit in combat but is not more valuable than the troops. No plus 7s here! Finally it is about time. Good command keeps things moving, hesitant command means that formations may 'muck about' a bit, attacks falter or occur in an unco-ordinated manner. It is possible, with more use, that this system will show itself as a mechanic that is too stylised for my liking. Alternatively, further playtesting may lead me to appreciate it more and more.

A big thank you to John for setting up the scenario, bringing his lovely figures for the game and, most particularly, for backing his judgement and certainty that I would 'like' the rules.

I look forward to testing them with a larger battle. They work as general de division (single corps actions), but will they work for general d'armée (multi-corps actions), or will the added detail make them 'tough' for those bigger games?

Scenario book
Hopper M. & Griner T. (2018) Eagles Over Bavaria 1809.