Thursday, August 11, 2022

Blucher and the Prussians at Waterloo

 A number of events conspired to keep us from playing a game last week. We shall see if another can be arranged next week. In the meantime, here’s a historical tidbit.


Lots of us have played at least one version of the Battle of Waterloo. Unless the game allows the decision to be reached before Blucher’s lads reach the field, the Prussians show up and begin making Napoleon’s task harder.



We often think of Wellington’s tactical finesse, giving not much thought to Blucher aside from him cheering on his troops marching through the mud. Many of our miniature rules count the tactical acumen of the leaders, Wellington getting a big bonus, Blucher not so much. Have you considered the risks that Blucher was taking in marching to Wellington’s aid?



Wellington was facing Napoleon in person for the first time. He had noted Bonaparte frequently threatened enemy supply lines, forcing them to retreat and then hitting them when they were on the back foot. He worried about his supply lines to the coast during the short campaign, leaving some 17,000 troops guarding his supply lines at Hal on the day of the battle, troops that would have given him quite a cushion at the desperate battle. Some of his Continental Allies, with experience fighting against (and some for) Napoleon were aware that he also had a penchant for getting between enemy forces and beating them in detail. Blucher had been the victim of just such an attack in 1814. Rebounding, a month later he defeated the Corsican at Laon.


Wellington had told Blucher he would fight at Waterloo if Blucher promised to come to his aid with one corps of his army. Blucher marched with 3 of the 4 corps in his army. While he did so, he left the fourth corps covering his line of supply (and escape) fighting against a much larger French force under Marshal Grouchy. When that Corps commander cried for help, Blucher said the decision was at Waterloo; the fellow must look to his own forces for help.


I cannot imagine Wellington, brilliant tactician that he was, ignoring a serious attack on his lines of supply/retreat.


Blucher had a track record of ignoring threats to his rear. The battle of Leipzig, which ended Napoleon’s 1813 campaign in disaster, kicking the French out of Germany, resulted from Blucher’s gutsiness. Napoleon was frustrated by the Trachenberg plan, where an Allied army facing him in person would give ground, but those facing his subordinates would attack. It was like the school yard game where the victim’s hat is grabbed and tossed back and forth to other kids as the victim tries to reclaim it. Napoleon might win a victory at Dresden, for example, only to find that his subordinates had been defeated at the Katzbach, Gross Beeren and Kulm.


Unable to force Blucher to fight him in person, Napoleon lunged around Blucher’s southern flank. Instead of falling back to the east into the trap, the wily 70 year old Prussian headed northwest, forcing Bernadotte to share supplies with him. He also goaded the nervous Bernadotte into advancing in support of him. This led to the final showdown at Leipzig, where the French were outnumbered better than 3 to 2 and nearly totally encircled. Blucher was aggressive, but otherwise an indifferent tactician. His operational moxie and guts set the stage for one of Napoleon’s greatest defeats.



Blucher also set the stage for the decisive final defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte. Defeated (and nearly captured) at the Battle of Ligny on June 16, 1815, he and his army fell back to the north, keeping within supporting distance of Wellington, who also retired in step. Some 10,000 young recruits, shaken loose during the twilight retreat, fell back east towards home. Enough of them, in fact, to fool the pursuing French under Grouchy into believing that the main army had retreated that way. The pursuing French lost much of the next day following the wrong group.


As an aside, I’m nearly the age Blucher was at this battle. If thrown from a dying horse and having enemy cavalry pass over my position twice at speed, I’m not sure how much fight I’d have left in me.


Assured of support, Wellington made his stand on the slopes of Mont St. Jean. Blucher then ignored the immediate threat to his rear as Thielemann’s III Corps fought against nearly two-to-one odds at Wavre. Focused on the defeat of Napoleon’s main army, he ignored the sound of the struggle in his rear, arriving at the main battle in time for the combined Allied armies to hand the French a crushing blow.


I’ve read accounts online from some gamers who apparently got their knowledge of the battle from movies. They believe that Wellington’s army defeated the French single-handed and the Prussians showed up in time to pursue the French. This version doesn’t explain the 7,500 Prussian casualties at the battle. Perhaps they tripped over their own shoelaces during the pursuit? It does mean the filmmakers got to save money by not having to produce many Prussian uniforms, while simplifying the script.  


The Prussians showed up in strength from 4:30 on in growing numbers. The village of Plancenoit in the French right rear changed hands 5 times during the battle. At the critical moment Ney captured the key to Wellington’s center and asked for more troops. Napoleon turned down the request; he was busy organizing the second (and last) French counter-attack on the village in the French rear. Later, he found some Imperial Guards to send in. By this time Wellington had managed some repairs to his sagging center. The attack failed, the Guards were routed.



Wellington’s army did not fight all of Napoleon’s 72,000. The Prussians put about 49,000 troops in combat before the battle ended. The French sent at least 15,000 to hold them off. Wellington’s 68,000 were pressed to the limit by some 57,000 French. Wellington called it a close run thing.


It was a good thing for the Allies that the French made the mistakes they did. First among them was Napoleon assuming that Blucher was down for the count. He had defeated him before. He should have recalled that Blucher was not in the habit of staying defeated for long.


In our games we consider the tactical acumen of generals. Not surprising, since our table-top battles are tactical exercises. But the operational skill of our leaders is not considered. I guess we need to have playable operational games for that. Some of you say we do. The ones I’ve seen are too complex and too time-consuming. At this point in my life, I prefer a simpler game that doesn’t take as many hours.


And that’s it for now. Hopefully in a week or two there will be another report of Late Romans vs. the hairy barbarians.

Monday, August 1, 2022

Twilight of the Romans II

OK, the rules are actually Twilight of the Britons. I figure the Dark Ages were similar on both sides of the Channel.  Plus my armies are all based on battles during the decline of the western empire. Saturday afternoon and evening we had another outdoor game in Red Hook, Brooklyn.


Jay showed up. He missed the first game a couple weeks ago. Andrew showed with his 8-year-old daughter Emily. He saw the second half of our last game but did not play. I was happy to umpire. Dice determined that Jay would take the Romans while Emily and Andrew would have the Gothic/Frankish confederation. He deployed the first warband, Emily/Andrew next and they moved first.


Jay deployed his infantry in long thin lines, with many having no rear support despite my pre-game suggestions. It looked more like an 18th Century deployment than the 5th century. Emily deployed in supported shield walls (good) though the cavalry was deployed in the center, rather than a flank.


The first game showed we needed markers to denote charges/impetuous advances and recoils. I made yellow arrows for recoils and pink ones (that was the color paper I had) for charges, etc. The digital camera renders them both the same so I added red stripes to the charge arrows with Microsoft Paint.  I’ll have to run a red highlighter over the arrows before the next game so the camera notices.


We played three turns rather slowly since a lot had to be explained as we went. Three turns in a tad over an hour and we broke for dinner. We had a fine time at dinner, joined by my wife. Some beer, tales of Brooklyn and such went down nicely.

I think we broke for dinner about here. A convivial event it was.

Emily wasn’t pleased when she failed her first couple morale checks but Andrew convinced her to continue. She was talking about going home after dinner. When we started again, Emily said she wanted to see what happened on the next turn. In the event she wanted to see the next three turns and was definitely rooting for a Roman defeat. She finally said it was time to go. The Romans had 4 units off the table to only one barbarian unit. I took over the barbarians. And here my troubles began. The photos will show what happened on the next two turns. The guys liked the rules. Even Emily warmed up to them as the game progressed. Hmm, the newest Fencible? The average age will plunge.

That's one win for each side. Hopefully we'll see the tie-breaker in a couple weeks. 

I compare the Roman army, with its varied types of units, to a Swiss Army knife.

The barbarian army is more like baseball bat. Or a cricket bat, for you Commonwealth types.


One mistake I made was forgetting that missile fire causes undisciplined units to make impetuous advances. I also fumbled an overlap situation later in the game, looking for a modifier (that didn't exist) when it should have been another attack. My single house rule (that wasn’t used) is horse archers can fire directly to the rear, the old Parthian shot.


Tactical lessons: always use rear support, with units doubled up on behind the other. There is firm history behind this, since this is a game about morale. Humans like to be in a large group when danger beckons. Something that might not have as firm a basis: move Javelin-armed units into range first and then charge the next turn. That way, if you fail the action test to charge, you can still throw javelins/darts/etc. And get around enemy flanks, blocking recoil if possible. This pays dividends and is firmly based on actual events.


In games like Memoir 44, it is good practice to take badly hurt units and hide them behind the line. It is not as effective in these rules. When a unit routs, the most beat up unit in their warband takes a hit. So beat up units behind the line can join the routers, perhaps putting your army over their breakpoint. I do like this rule.


I think we need at least one more game of Roman vs. Goths and Franks. Then maybe we can put Attila’s boys up against a force of Germans, perhaps with a wing of Romans a la Ch├ólons. I am waiting for a shipment of some figures from Old Glory 15s, some monks, Gothic javelin skirmishers, some more warriors, some cavalry to make period-correct heroes/leaders, and some more 4th/5th Century legionaries. Now to find a fairly simple shield design from the Notitia Dignatum, something easy to paint on a 15mm shield.