La Belle Dame Sans Merci
I'm going to admit in public here to a sort of dalliance with an old flame. You probably know who I'm talking about; she is sophisticated and elegant and also maddeningly complicated and always out of reach, an infamous femme fatale... That's right, Napoleonics. She showed up in town unexpectedly and after one little flourish of a pelisse I found the King's Shilling in my hand, for the second time! Soon I was painting up a few units to fill out armies I had more or less put aside ten years ago. Is this a mid life crisis? ; )
In the 1990's, Napoleonics were my consuming interest. I painted quite a lot of figures and tried a few different rules sets and even a campaign or two before the flame cooled (or was it my eyesight declining?) and I moved on. I returned to wargames after a walkabout and have been very happily working on early to mid Horse and Musket (NYW to SYW) ever since. However, on a whim back in the fall, I responded to Marauding MurdocK's on-line call for players for a Leipzig campaign and have been lucky enough to take part in an interesting process since then.
We are well underway now, having wrapped up the game trial and embarked on the real campaign. I'm on the side of the Allies and currently in the boots of Schwartzenberg himself, commander of the Army of Bohemia (a task that looks to be a real challenge).
It has been quite lot of fun for me so far, especially to see how David (Mr. MurdocK himself) has set up his on-line campaign. It is my first such; David is quite clearly the veteran of many. We are doing our moves by email, using the Cyberboard campaign system, which is something I had not seen before, a program for handling campaign moves, army organization, etc. We have been playing the battles in various fashions; on tables, in groups, remotely in pairs, and solo through the aid of the internet. All in all, the campaign group has been trying lots of different ways of collaborating and it is a great learning experience for me as I try to keep up to them.
During the preliminary round, I played the part of Lt. Gen. Freiherr von Bülow, commander of the Prussian IV corps of the Army of the North. We fought a large battle in defense of Potsdam when Reynier's IV corps attempted to cross the river Spree and attack Potsdam. That battle was a Prussian victory due largely to weight of numbers but the bulk of troops on both sides were spent afterwards and had to collect themselves. The Corps of the Oder however came out of it in good shape and, the day after the first battle of Potsdam, they were ordered to push south, in order to gain a bridgehead on the south side of the Spree and to further disrupt or destroy the isolated Polish Cavalry brigade recovering itself there. This was a small and simple scenario which could have been resolved by an abstract roll of the dice but it nevertheless had potential to make for an interesting game, as both sides had clear vulnerabilities.
The French forces, as formulated for Shako, included:
7th Light Cavalry Division: Général de division Sokolnicki
-19th Light Cavalry Brigade: Général de brigade Tolinski
- 1 unit of Hussars (Poles)
- 1 unit of Lancers (Poles)
- 1 full battery of Horse Artillery
The Prussian forces included:
Corps of the Oder, commanded by Generalmajor von Wobeser
1 Infantry Division, commanded by Oberstleutnant von Plötz, comprising:
- 6 battalions of Landwehr Infantry
1 Cavalry Bde, commanded by Oberst von Jeanneret, comprising:
- 4 units of landwehr cavalry
- 6pdr Foot Battery #22 (1 full battery)
1 bty (1/2 bty foot and 1/2 bty horse artillery from Prussian IV Corps Reserve Artillery (these must stay north of the Spree and west of the bridge)
Although it is a very one-sided order of battle, it made for a interesting scenario. The Polish troops were too few to hope realistically for a complete French victory but were well capable of giving the Prussians a very bloody nose then escaping. The Prussians heavily outnumbered the Poles but their force was composed of landwehr infantry and cavalry stiffened by regular artillery. They made for fragile and cumbersome formations and were vulnerable to an embarrassing collapse if, for example, a couple of lost melees resulted in failed morale checks for the small divisions.
The Set Up
The Prussian orders were to cross the bridge in road column, deploy into battle formations and then advance toward the French. The infantry were to move in an arc to the SE, allowing them to take the town if needed, and the cavalry moving on a wider arc into the field's centre. After a little thinking before the battle (OUCH!) and some unease about hanging the whole attack on a single landwehr battalion holding the bridgehead by having to clumsily form square while under cavalry and artillery attack, von Woebser decided to move aggressively, putting the landwehr cavalry across the bridge first. von Woebser anticipated having to defend the bridgehead itself while his forces were deploying immediately upon their crossing. With their much greater speed of movement, he hoped that the cavalry brigade would clear the bridge more quickly, create a more fluid target for the French cavalry and give some space for the infantry to cross and themselves deploy. In particular, von Woebser distrusted the capacity of the infantry to stand up to an attack by regular cavalry. Successful charges followed by successful breakthrough charges by the two French cavalry units on unprepared and unsupported battalions would surely rout the entire division.
Eric, the French commander, provided a set of well thought-out orders that gave clear parameters for playing out the French side of the action. The French were to set up in the south center of the battlefield and then advance into the "shadow" of the town, where they could protect their flank and hide from artillery fire. Rather than contesting the crossing under cannon fire, they were to wait, using artillery fire where possible and giving ground if needed, waiting for a chance to attack with advantage. An attack order was timed for when two Prussian units had crossed the bridge. The cavalry were to avoid exposing themselves to artillery and to preserve their own artillery at all costs. A retreat was anticipated when four or more Prussian units had crossed the Spree.
The game started with the Prussians winning initiative and forcing the French to move first. Then, three Prussian landwehr cavalry moved across the bridge and fanned out to both sides. A turn was needed for them to change formation into regular formations and while they did so the last cavarly unit crossed, followed by the infantry. The french were now already committed to move and would have only a short opportunity to act before the Prussians had enough men across the river to force the French to revert to defensive (withdrawal) orders.
The battle begins with the Prussian landwehr cavalry crossing the Spree
The French move up their Horse battery to fire upon the deploying Prussians while remaining outside of cannister range from the C. of Order battery and outside of effective range of the Pr. IV corps artillery. The French plan is working well, they are safe from the big Prussian guns for the most part but they will soon have to attack or retreat.
While the Prussians conducted their crossing, the French cavalry advanced into the shelter of the urban area and pushed their horse battery forward to bombard the massed troops at the bridge head. The French battery did little of note (they stayed out of cannister range due to the presence of enemy cavalry) aside from gaining a stagger on a cavalry unit. In return, the Prussian guns managed one stagger on a French cavalry unit. The Prussian IV corps guns were out of effective range and began to screen the Prussians south of the bridge, much as the dastardly French had anticipated.
The Prussian cavalry moved, wheeled and deployed into formation (all of this takes them up to two whole turns). Some cavalry drill reforms are needed! The infantry began to cross the Spree in road column.
|The French side: Figures include Old Glory Russian Uhlans interpreted as Poles, AB French chasseurs à cheval, standing in for Polish Hussars, AB French horse artillery, Battle Honors Polish Horse artillery (painted as Italian Horse arty) and an Essex caisson. The Grande Armée is a polyglot affair, and while I have a respectable collection in hand from the old days, I'll have to do a lot of masquerading to meet the requirements of a Leipzig campaign.|
The French seized the opportunity to strike while the Prussians were figuring things out. They fired off a round of canister (hit and a stagger) and deployed into line. Off they go, the dashing Polish uhlans!
Trying to follow the cautious tone of the French orders, I had the uhlans charge while the hussars stayed in reserve in case of counter-attack the next turn. The uhlans fell upon the lead Landwehr cavalry unit who was alone and exposed as the unit behind it was still deploying and maneuvering. The Prussians (already with a hit and a stagger) were cut down in a rush, it wasn't even close. "Uh-oh" thinks the Prussian commander...
The victorious Poles chose discretion over valour here, they did not make a breakthrough charge and were recalled at the beginning of the subsequent turn. Their chances in the second combat would have been just a shade better than 50/50, and a win there would have forced a severe moral check upon the Prussian cavalry brigade. However, should the Prussians have won the combat or the morale check, the Poles would have been mauled by combat or fire and would likely have been charged in the flank by the fourth cavalry unit to the south, which had advanced in front of the others toward the centre of the table. The loss of the uhlans would have forced a check on the tiny French force and thus risked the loss of the artillery. The uhlans retired after losing one casualty from artillery fire.
|The Prussians begin to press the recovering Polish cavalry. Just for form, the Prussian landwehr infantry being to maneuver and a half battery moves across the river.|
|The final cavalry combat, the landwehr charges regulars. Brave lads!|
The Prussians maneuvered forward while the Poles recovered and reformed themselves (this takes a turn for the recalled unit). The brave hussars remained with the uhlans to support them. Quite noble! The Polish horse artillery retired to a safer distance.
Gaining the initiative, the Prussian cavalry counter-attacked the Poles, who didn't have time to turn and retreat. A pair of one-on-one combats resulted. The odds were even in both, as the Prussians were fresh while the Polish hussars (foreground) had a stagger and the uhlans had a casualty. Victory in both combats went to the Prussians; the uhlans lost a narrow fight and were thrown back while the hussars threw poor dice and were broken right away (somewhat unlikely event). This was only chance, it could just as easily have been the inverse. The Polish brigade passed its morale test easily and retreated in order toward the edge of the table. The Prussians were unable to come into contact with them again and so were left in total control of the field.
I now think that in this trial of the scenario, I sold the Polish side a bit short by not doing the breakthrough move or charging with both cavalry units in the initial French charge. Had I done so, I now think that it is fairly likely that the Prussian cav. bde would have been forced into a morale check at 50% losses. If they lost that, they would have been off the table and the brittle landwehr infantry division would then have been let on its own. A cavalryman's dream. In any case, the cautious plan I used here did not pay off enough to warrant the risk involved, in my opinion, and that is simply due to how I interpreted the French orders in the moment.
Subsequently, I played the scenario out in two different ways interpreting the orders a little differently. Once I depended on the Prussians to precipitate a determined attack maneuver, and the Prussian deployment alone triggered the French withdrawl before anything happened (Victoire prusse, alors!). A second time, I started the Prussian attack by putting the infantry across the bridge first. In this case, the Poles overran two squares outright and crushed two unprepared landwehr units in line (too terrified to try hasty squares!), bringing about a big morale check that the Prussians failed. Bye Bye to the infantry division. However, the Poles took a beating from artillery and then were themselves routed (they were now blown, disordered and stationary during their recovery) in a counter attack by a Prussian cavalry unit. Not such a great result for them either.
This was, in the end, a fun and instructive little refresher exercise in tactics, one that gave me much to think about about. There is no way to hide errors with such small formations. Many thanks to David and Eric, and to the other collaborators in the Leipzig project; I look forward to seeing the gallant Polish horse disappearing from the battlefield soon once again!