Thursday, July 30, 2020

In Deo Veritas game test Boldon Hill 1644

This is the first toy soldier game I’ve managed since the pandemic hit. Long story short, I’ve been away for a while and upon return to the city various tasks awaited that had priority. They are now mostly done. I purchased the new pike and shot rules In Deo Veritas (IDV) and in time got to play the introductory scenario posted online, Boldon Hill 1644. The Scots Covenanters take on Newcastle’s Royalist Army.

The rules call for infantry and cavalry brigades mounted on 3” wide stands. Our figures are DBX style so I figured 4 stands of infantry in two ranks and 2 stands of cavalry, both 80 mm wide would be close enough. The introductory scenario left enough troops in the box for 2 more infantry brigades and 8 cavalry brigades. I can manage two of the smaller scenarios in the rule book if I borrow a few figures from other periods. The scenario calls for 4 X 4 space, which is good because the remaining 2 feet of my gaming table has other stuff on it right now. The bunch of hills on the Royalist position should really be one plateau, but with other stuff on the table I didn’t get a mat out. It’s not my best looking table.

Below you can see the starting lineup and early turns. My photos are not up to the usual because the new PC has Windows 10 and everything is a bit different than my old unsupported Windows 7. I had the hang of the old one just fine… You might note the Scots are not Scots. Hey, they're not WWII figures.

I came up with some problems. They may be explained in the rules somewhere but it has evaded me so far. I don’t see what happens when a combat result is scored against a routed unit. I decided it dissolved after making a rout move and possible running through friends. Also, routed companies (instead of brigades) are removed from the table after being routed by fire. The same if routed in melee? Makes sense but I didn’t do that yesterday. Another issue was officers are at risk if they are attached to units that take hits. But I had an unattached officer (D. Leslie, Scottish cavalry wing CO) that had routing friends run past him followed by pursuing enemy troopers. I decided he would test for a single hit and if not hit would relocate to outside the path of the pursuit, closer to the nearest friends. If hit he would be captured.
Another issue: units may only rally when they are beyond 4” of enemy and in control. The successful Royalist cavalry wing came apart at the seams since they invariably pursued routed enemy. The rules state that units pursuing off the table return once they have rallied back to sound status. I decided off-table troops could rally. But those on the table beyond reach of officers can’t. This led to Lucas riding alone through the battered Scottish cavalry line to gain control of his pursuing units while a disrupted unit remained in his rear without making any attempt to rally. Strange, but the resulting chaos sounded a lot like descriptions of ECW battles I’ve read.

Things went badly for the Scots. Their dice were pretty cold, except the time two raw brigades whacked a Royalist brigade.

Scottish cavalry leader D. Leslie managed to pass his wing cohesion tests several times but eventually failed and became fatigued. Lumsden’s infantry wing followed suit and both were incapable of attack orders. Both soon became exhausted, even worse. Both Royalist wings became fatigued at the same time and no attacks were possible on either side. A. Leslie, the Scottish CO passed his first will test on turn 6 but failed miserably on turn 7 and called a retreat. I misread the pursuit rules and added a D6 to each side’s score. The Covenanters lousy dice continued with a 3 to the Royalists’ 6 and the result was a close pursuit/major victory. The Royalist dice finally went cold; one routing cavalry brigade was dispersed and the infantry wing leader was captured in the rout. After dinner I consulted the rules again and discovered no dice result was added. It was a limited pursuit and a minor victory. If the Scots had retained a single cavalry brigade in good order there would have been no pursuit and both sides would claim victory. Now there’s a reason to keep a reserve.

It took slightly under 3 hours to play 7 turns. The scenario called for up to 10 turns. It was the first time I’ve played the rules and spent some time going back and forth through the rules, in some cases only to find the pertinent data was on the 4-page Quick Reference Sheet. With practice I could get faster than 25 minutes a turn. I did enjoy the flow of the game. It produced a chaotic and exciting battle. I could have made better use of the commanding officers, who need to go about dealing with units that need commanding and /or rallying. As noted above, there are one or two small gaps in the rules. I’d really like to know if the designer is on an online forum somewhere so I could ask questions. A FAQ would be nice. Failing that, house rules can easily patch the small gap. I plan on playing the second version of Boldon Hill with In Deo Veritas, which includes an extensive set of enclosures for the Royalist foot to deploy in.  if time permits before we decamp again, I’d like to try the scenario with Steven Thomas’ rules for the period. Tilly’s Very Bad Day. I suspect IDV has more flavor and Tilly will go faster. In both cases rebasing will be in the pipeline for sometime in 2021 or whatever year this virus gets sorted out.

Over the years, I often found In Vino Veritas.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Military Machismo and the Collapse of the Imperial French Army in 1870

The cream of the regular French Army was captured in the first few months of the Franco-Prussian War, either at the debacle of Sedan or virtually in the surrounded fortress of Metz. Most accounts lay all the blame to incompetent French generalship. While Napoleon III was quite guilty and it trickled on down, there is more to the tale. Most accounts tell of the chaotic French mobilization. Then the French deploy at the frontier, the battles commence and we assume the problems of the mobilization are done and gone. But they continued to plague the French, something glossed over in most accounts and ignored by most gamers.
Last Stand at Gravelotte-St. Privat

An item caught my eye some years back while re-reading Howard’s “The Franco-Prussian War”. French troops deployed near the border were going through the streets of nearby towns begging for food. This indicated a serious problem. Then Wawro’s account of the war noted that French troops of the I Corps were told to fill their knapsacks or saddle bags with any supplies from the railroad trains before moving up to the front. French troops were going hungry in their own country, before hostilities began.

The chaotic mobilization can be largely attributed to the machismo culture of the French Army. Staff officers were looked down upon as military clerks and time-servers. Organizations widely deemed incompetent tend to attract those types.  French officer Ardant du Picq’s writings are immersed in his front-line experience without a word on staff work.

The usual tale of the bungled mobilization tells of recruits riding trains hither and yon across France before finally reaching their destinations. This must have had unfortunate effects on morale. But there was worse. Adriance’s “To the Last Gaiter Button” tells the story of how the bungled mobilization continued to plague the French for critical weeks after.

In comparison the Prussian mobilization looks like a well-oiled machine. It was not without errors, but it functioned.  Officers in the Prussian general staff served some years on the staff and then rotated into the line for some years. There might be friction but line and staff knew each other. Staff officers had meetings with civilian railroad executives from time to time long before war broke out. They discussed plans and again knew each other. Prussian railcars had bills of lading attached to their exteriors, in transparent waterproof covers. These mundane details aided victory. More to the point, ignoring them opened the door to defeat.

The French Army had been fitting out expeditions to invade and create colonies in North Africa and other places. Sending a division or two always involved a lot of improvisation. This had been dignified with the term “se debrouillier”, loosely translated as “we’ll muddle through somehow”. It was further mockingly noted as “le Systeme De”, or System D. Last minute planning sufficed for forces of 20-40,000 troops being sent against tribal enemies. Improvisation would be found woefully lacking for deploying a quarter million troops and their equipment against the Prussians. Mobilization weaknesses had been detected in the 1859 war against Austria, but were ignored after the French managed to defeat the hapless foe. The Prussians looked through their 1866 win against the same enemy and corrected mistakes.

Why were French troops begging for food in the streets of their own towns? French farmers could grow enough food. French railroads could provide enough trains. The French General Staff’s improvisation could not load those trains properly or unload all the equipment that was forwarded.

Orders of battle for this period show French units weaker than Prussian ones. They actually had similar strengths but the flawed build-up could not deliver full strength units to the front. The railroads provided enough cars for 1,000 strong battalions but the staff was unable to coordinate all troops being present at loading times. This resulted in trains that could hold 1,000 being sent to the front with 750 troops. Priority was given to combat troops. Horse drawn supply wagons and teams waited for later trains. In most cases, that meant they did not arrive at all before combat broke out. Understrength units were deposited at the front without their supply wagons. Once they marched away from the railhead, they had no more food or ammunition than they carried. That is why the troops begged for food in the streets. Each French unit commander was dealing with an existential crisis before the enemy came within view. This would have been of little importance if the Prussians gave them time to recover. But the enemy did not. This also helps explain ghe inability of French Corps to come to each other's aid during the frontier battles. They were immobilized by lack of supplies.

What supplies were forwarded were not loaded by a uniform system. They did not have a bill of lading. The only way to know what a car contained was to unload it. When Metz finally fell, the rail sidings had 30,000 cars loaded with mystery cargo. Mundane mistakes like this, the indecision of Napoleon III and the basic functionality of the Prussians combined to bring the Second Empire down.

The Republic didn’t have a miraculous improvement by the staff, but the prolonged resistance of the garrison of Paris allowed them the time to assemble their poorly trained (but better led) armies. Later in the war when they attempted a lightning strike east with Bourbaki’s army, the mobilization was just as haywire, compounded by frigid winter weather. In addition to being poorly equipped and so late the element of surprise was lost, the troops were racked with illness.

The lesson was finally learned. Though the term “Systeme De” continued in use to describe the usual foul-ups in any large army, the French Army of 1914 was mobilized with full strength units that had their supply elements present. The staff was able to rapidly move an entire army by rail from the eastern wing to form the Sixth Army outside Paris. This derailed the German Schlieffen Plan, saving France. A large modern army needed its “clerks”, and those clerks needed to be as well trained and drilled as any combat troops.