Tuesday, 13 August 2019

White Tunis 31 BC - same outcome, different narrative

What we are told about this battle by Didorus Siculus is that the Carthaginians decided to fight in a relatively narrow pass, forcing them into double line. If true, given their numerical superiority, this would have been a decidedly unusual strategy, to say the least. They would surely not have been unaware of the legendary achievements of Leonidas' Spartans at Thermopylae, for one thing, and secondly, the terrain in the general vicinity would not necessarily demand such a sacrifice of their advantage.

We gave them every chance, the armies were not so vastly different in size. The Greeks: -

The Carthaginians:

And how both sides looked on the table, Greeks on the right. The Carthaginian strategy of strength on their own right is obvious. As Hanno I wondered if I ought not to be even more bold and place yet more troops on my right, but then the risk would be that the forces under Archagathus would outflank my dear friend and comrade-in-arms, Bomilcar.

As the armies advanced, the narrowness of the available frontage was already beginning to play on my mind. Initially, the chariot skirmishes were relatively indecisive on the Carthaginian right, and even that was something of a disappointment.

I retained high hopes, however, for my Numidian cavalry, where I had a superiority. If I could just get around the back of the hoplite phalanx, there might be a good chance of victory.

Rolling for initiative for Bomilcar brought only heartbreak, however, as his double one send him down to the very bottom of the league of generalship - only Agothocles' repeat of the same roll provided any comfort, although he was still adequately competent, which could certainly not be said of my comrade-in-arms, who was facing adverse odds: just look at that Cyrenian infantry moving up to support their chariots in the picture below.

As is the way with battles, especially ancients battles, the auxiliary forces' engagement seemed to go this way and that, with casualties on both sides, and nothing much decisive. I was beginning to wonder, as Hanno, whether nightfall might come (at the end of Move 10) before the Greek phalanx actually got into action. Indeed, delaying tactics were pretty much the sum total of my objectives. But the truth was, as the shot below of the Carthaginian right at the end of even Move 5 shows, that the winnowing out was moving inexorably in favour of the Greeks. There seemed little chance now that my depleted force of Numidian horsemen would actually make it to the rear of the Greek line.

There was worse news from the other flank, where on Move 7 the combined arms assault of Archagathus tore into my dear colleague Bomilar's depleted flank. The result was never really in doubt.

Agothocles spent one more move hesitating, but as the sun began to go down he recognised that victory lay in his grasp if was prepared to be bold, and my last hope was extinguished. A double move disordered much of his phalanx on the charge, but put him now perilously close to my line. How impressive it looks, as if it could envelop the hoplites at both ends. But the relative weakness of the troops is sufficient, in Impetus, to make the difference - as it should.

Left with little option, I charged myself, with further disorder, to my own men this time. The final clash of arms was upon us. Only Baal could save us now, I thought to myself. For Bomilcar certainly would not.

The Sacred Band were unimpressive, although some units fought bravely alongside them. The Carthaginian line began to crack, the photo below showing the North African evening sunlight picking out our units streaming from the field.

The following move, 10, it was all over: the Carthaginian army routed, and the strategically placed remaining chariots on the Greek right were in an ideal position to turn a rout into a massacre. Had Agothocles been able to fly, he would have seen his foe in flight across the entire field.

A magnificent Greek victory, exactly as historically. A wonderful day's wargaming - many thanks to Mark as usual for painting so many beautiful troops. Impetus 1 served the purpose perfectly well, and certainly seems to me a considerable improvement over WRG 7, which is what I used when I last played ancients a generation ago.

A lingering doubt remained for us over this question of the narrow frontage. Eventually, the Carthaginians were able to tell the story from their own standpoint. Blaming the terrain and the commanders was surely easier than blaming the inferiority of their own soldiers. Wargaming sometimes leads to a different perspective on the history. Though as Hanno I did no better than historically. White Tunis, a good place for Carthaginians to die.

Monday, 12 August 2019

Fire and Fury in the Kentucky Heartland

For our second ACW battle, and after Mark's usual superb painting on an industrial scale had added substantially to my original purchases, the ANF ventured a step up, to a Corps level encounter, the Battle of Perryville. Historically, a gallant, outnumbered Union force under Major-General McCook delayed the Rebel advance, with heavy casualties on both sides, until his opponent, the Rebel General Bragg, realised that he would be facing the entire Union army if he stayed where he was, and wisely withdrew. No mean feat, for as a result Kentucky was retained for the Union, so I was under considerable pressure to do at least as well - readers will have gleaned by now that you are likely to read an account from a Union perspective if I'm writing it. We used a scenario Mark adapted from one in Practical Wargaming in 1996, designed for Johnny Reb rules but easily adapted for Fire and Fury 1st edition. Wargaming's own history has now become a fertile source for research.

It's a cluttered battlefield. Cornfields, woods, and hills. For simplicity's sake we didn't place the roads, but it was all looking quite difficult enough for everyone by the time everything was laid out and the long Union line was deployed. My judgement was that Brigadier-General Terrill's men were way out of place, in advance on the Union left. By accidental misjudgement, the 80th Indiana had found their way into his brigade instead of lining up along the stone wall with the rest of Colonel Webster's brigade, a mistake that was to have serious consequences. 

The view from the Union line at the opening of the battle

As McCook, I formulated a grand plan, which was to allow Brigadier-General Terrill to fall back, get Brigadier-General Jackson to command Colonel Starkweather's seasoned men personally, and eventually to attack the Rebels on their flank when they made their predicted assault on the hill. Given the numerical superiority the Rebels enjoyed, and the importance of holding that hill in the centre of my position, there seemed little alternative to a counter-attack.

At first, things went really well for the Union. Appalling die rolls kept some Rebel brigades from advancing at all, leaving Brigadier-General Donelson's green men to climb through the high corn on their own.

The loneliness of the long-distance assault

General Terrill refused to retire, however, and instead used his numerical superiority to begin a prolonged, and ultimately highly successful, series of melées against Brigadier-General Maney's men, who were initially unsupported by a battery.

Overview of the Union left and centre - Peters Hill off to the left out of view

General Bragg's infuriation with his slow-moving brigades led to a piecemeal attack rather than the co-ordinated blow he had intended to inflict. 

Donelson's brigade was especially exposed in the centre.

Half-way through the battle, and General Bragg was feeling the heat. The Union command began to have a glimmer of hope that they would be saved by the fall of night, and still yet be able to cling onto their line, both at the stone wall and on the hilltop. But it was not to be. Finally, the Rebel infantry reached Colonel Lytle's men, and began their inevitable assault, assisted by now by a considerable superiority in artillery. 

The Union line under assault - a view from the South-West 

In a dramatic manoeuvre to pincer Cleburne's 2nd brigade, Webster's men charged their front, whilst at the same time Starkweather's brigade, having pushed back Johnson's 3rd brigade, about faced and crashed into their rear. Unfortunately, Starkweather's men were too far to the North-East when they launched their charge, and Cleburne slipped back through the gap. It saved the stone wall position, at least. And it gave me a magnificent feeling of place and participation: it is not often a plan like this comes to fruition in a wargame, albeit that I had envisaged a flank attack, not an about-face.

Before the Manoeuvre: Brigadier-General Jackson in the centre of the photograph looking earnestly at the rear of the Confederate line, before giving the call to about face and charge.

After the Union manoeuvre: interpenetration of Webster and Starkweather's brigades at the wall, and Rebels in retreat

Unfortunately, like so many excellent theoretical plans, it was quite insufficient to win the battle. For meanwhile it had finally all proved too much for the Union brigades holding the hill. The dispatch of Colonel Starkweather's brigade to the left flank, whilst it had brought limited success, came too late to prevent the loss of the central hill and the collapse of the staunch defence put up by Colonel Harris' brigade, which fled the field. Colonel Lytle's men had stood firm, but were now outnumbered 4:1, in evident danger of being outflanked and destroyed in detail, and had to retire.It was small comfort that over on the left flank, Terrill's men had had a great day, with Maney's brigade finally disintegrating. The inadvertent error of stationing the 80th Indiana with him had led to serious consequences: if they had been where they were supposed to have been, the envelopment of Cleburne would have been much more likely. Swings and roundabouts. 

Not how it was supposed to be: McCook stares at a sea of grey in front of him and a sea of blue behind him, and prepares to ride to save his own skin

We judged the battle a draw, after a very hard-fought action indeed, which was close to the historical result [...]. Overall Confederate casualties were a little higher than the Union, somewhat over 3,600 [3,396] compared to 3,000 [4,241], largely because of their failure to attack in a co-ordinated way in the centre early on, and some very unlucky die rolls at shooting as well - Union forces consistently outshot their opponents, even having to fall back to replenish ammunition on several occasions (a roll of 10 on the decimal die when firing). But these casualties were extremely close to their historical equivalents given the better luck on the day that the Union enjoyed compared to history, and reflected, I like to think, great competence shown by the brigade and divisional commanders as well. 

One of the many great things about the unmistakably ACW feel of Fire and Fury is the way an independent character quickly forms around the brigade commanders, as a result of their die rolls, which in turn enables an assessment of the divisional commanders as well. They come alive as personalities on the table. Of course as Major-General McCook I shall express my great thanks to my own commander, Major-General Buell, to the President, and of course to God. As for the Rebels, as historically, they were nowhere to be seen in the morning....