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.