Monday, 15 August 2011

Last Stand at the Chateau Pignon, 1813, Pt. 1

"The Roland of the Empire"
A letter written by GdeB Victor-Eugène Sardanapalus Bouillon-Cantinat, 13th Marquis de Sangfroid (1775- 1866), and dated Aug. 7, 1813.
Found among the Bouillon-Cantinat Papers, it now resides in the collection of La Bibliothèque Nationale de la Lorraine (carton #3204D)It is reproduced here with the kind permission and cooperation of Messers. J. Poinard and R. DeBrouiller,  Directeurs de la Science Archivistique.

To: Gen. le Comte de Nansouty.
Aboard H.M.S. Sheldrake, off the mouth of the River Loire.

7e Août

Mon très cher ami,

I write these words aboard the British man-of-war Sheldrake, under Lt. the Hon. James Marlinspyke, in whose company I have had the pleasure of dining since my exchange was negotiated last Monday.  He has been a most cheerful and considerate host, and the voyage has proved pleasant and uneventful, save the appalling damp, which troubles the wound I received in my arm all those years ago in Austria. 

This evening shall see me ashore in France once again, and I hope to obtain passage to Paris once I have had opportunity to dine and refresh myself with a change of clothes.  How I yearn for a decent Pinot Noir!

I am sure those scalawags in Paris under the machinations of M. le Duc d'Otrante [Joseph Fouché, Duke of Otranto and head of the Empire's secret police- Ed.] have already begun exercising their malevolent tongues in an attempt to poison the ear of the Emperor, and he will without doubt show me his wrath at the loss of the Eagle of the 28e.  

But you, my dear friend, know of my unswerving loyalty to France, and will readily recognize the hopelessness of the position in which I found myself, as well as the bravery with which the men conducted themselves against overwhelming odds.   

Fortunately, I was able to accept my fate in the glorious manner which has always been associated with the House of Bouillon-Cantinat, and I was always mindful of the spirit shown in adversity by my most revered forefather at the crossing of the Main at Seligenstadt in 1743, in the dreadful aftermath of Dettingen.

My tale runs thus. 

It was in the middle of July, not long after the victory of Milord Wellington at Vitoria and as the English were laying siege to the city and garrison of San Sebastián.  M. le Duc de Dalmatie, [Marshal Soult- Ed.] was in the midst of reorganizing what has remained of our army in northern Spain, and that part of the English army not involved in the siege was thought to be in need of a period of rest in preparation for a renewed offensive.  

During this apparent lull in hostilities in our sector, my brigade was called upon to garrison the paths leading north from Roncevalles, parallel to the River Nive, which stretched north to St Jean Pied au Port.   I was to be entrusted with reporting on any movement of the enemy, as well as to prevent raids, incursion, or any such attempt to turn our line of defence.

This news pleased me not at all, as in the course of the recent campaign my command had found itself woefully depleted, being much in need of rest and refitting.  I was further dismayed when a quick study of the map made it clear that the brigade would have to be dangerously dispersed in order to cover all possible approaches. 

We were perilously exposed to the English lines; while les Rosbifs could be upon us in mere moments, it would take some hours for us to concentrate our forces, much less expect timely reinforcement.

Despite my numerous protestations, I was assured by my Divisional commander, General Tallon, of the support of other brigades in the division.  However, given his exertions of the last few months he had prevailed upon our marshal to grant him a temporary posting along the Mediterranean coast, where he would be well distant from the coming fight.

Thus I found myself compelled to comply with my orders as given.  Of course, what could a professional soldier in the service of France do, but to serve?  I made my dispositions accordingly.

I established my headquarters at the the Chateau Pignon, situated in the shadow of the precipice that was the Leicar Atheca.  At the village of Los Carlos to the west, I stationed Colonel Louis-Jean-Baptiste Cornebise with the 16e Légère and the 1/40e de Ligne.  

At Loverdo, some distance southeast of the chateau, I posted the 2/28 Légère and both battalions of the 6e Légère under the capable command of Colonel Francois-Louis Zaepffel.  

M. le Marshal's staff were confident in their intelligence, which indicated that that any attack would be most likely to take place along this route.

At the Chateau, (a place which, I was further assured, was unlikely to attract the attention of the English due to the forbidding nature of the terrain), I billeted my battalions most in need of rest and rebuilding; the 1/28 Légère and 2/69th de ligne.  We also had with us a 6 pdr. section of the 2/8e Artillerie au Pied, and the 7e Chasseurs à Cheval.  The latter had just received a number of new and evidently unwilling recruits, such being the decay into which France's cavalry has fallen since the dreadful campaign in Muscovy.  

To make matters worse my trusted subordinate, Col. H-P Debroullier of the 28e, had fallen ill as a result of an ill-judged encounter with a woman of evidently easy- and generous- virtue in the days after Vitoria, and Dr. DeLancette informed me that this gallant officer would be incapacitated for a fortnight at least.  This was grievous news, as it left me with no officers of experience who could assist me in the coming action.

It was with this small contingent that I would find myself taking the brunt of the English attack.
I had the foresight to order the construction of a small redoubt next the Chateau, overlooking a mountain meadow and the path that stretched to Roncesvalles.  The ground was broken and hilly, in many parts covered in trees and brush. 
It was in the early dawn of July 17th.  I had just awoken to write some tedious report or other to M. Tallon, when a picquet of the 28e reported breathlessly that he had seen enemy troops, formed in assault columns, advancing inexorably up the sides of the mountain pass.  Despite his agitation, he was a soldier of considerable experience in such duties so I immediately mounted my horse and rode out down the meadow, along with my ADC, Lt. Delalande, to see for myself what devilry the English may have put afoot.

My worst fears were realized when I saw the English army coming at me in force- two brigades at least, with supporting cavalry and artillery.    

French arms had been caught in a trap of our own making, and my small detachment was to pay the price.  Like Leonidas in ancient times, I determined to hold the pass for as long as I could, secure at least in the knowledge that posterity would judge the worth of our sacrifice.  Vive l'empereur!  Vive la France!


After an almost two-month break,  Matt, Pete and I had another game of Napoleonics using Black Powder.  Achilleas wasn't there this time, as for some weeks now he has been hard at work soaking up the sunshine in Crete (a tough job, but what can a man do but his best).  This means that most of our French forces were not available.  Brits and Brunswickers were abundant, but French were in short supply.  

So the question was whether Black Powder would be workable with so few troops on one side.  Well, it was!  We had a lot of terrain, so we set up a scenario based on the fighting in the Pyrenees during the closing stages of the Peninsular War.  We used 3/4 distances for movement and firing, gave the British one fairly useless commander, but otherwise made no significant changes to the rules.  

We had originally thought that the scenario would be a quick one, and that we would even get through a couple of games during the day.  But as it turned out the game lasted for some hours, and although a French defeat was a given,  it was a lot tougher for the British to pull off than I had dared expect.  

The dice rolling had its ups and downs for both sides (I managed to roll three "ones" on a critical throw at one point- groan!), but the rules proved very much up to the task of making for a challenging, yet fun, game.

You'll have to forgive the use of unfinished units.  As I am pretty much the terrain guy for the Napoleonic games, I have mostly been working on trees and buildings, as Achilleas' phenomenal output has seen us more often than not outnumbering the Allies in our games anyway.  As a result,  I myself only have one fully painted unit of French, with a cavalry unit almost done and only one battalion of the 69e de Ligne that was mounted on bases- many figures in the unit have been painted and are finished or near finished, but they still mounted on plastic bottle caps for ease of painting and varnishing.

I must also confess to having lost some painting "mojo" recently, as the heat here in Tokyo is really nasty, especially in my hobby room.   So while I would would have liked to have fielded all painted units, it wasn't to be.  Shoganai.

I'll post the rest of Bouillon-Cantinat's "letter" later today, along with some more photos, some notes on how the game played and comments on the scenario.  Suffice to say that Matt's new 5th Foot came out with flying colours- one of them previously owned by the French!


paulalba said...

Don't worry about not being able to get more painted it will all come in its own time. I am going through the same thing myself. Still a very enjoyable read. Very interesting scenario.

The Angry Lurker said...

Very well done, good read.

Christopher(aka Axebreaker) said...

I like the picture of the troops in the redoubt.


Robert said...

Great read indeed!
Nice scenario as well.

Actually I think there are an awful lot of interesting 'small wars' still to be 'discovered' along the Franco/Spanish border during 1813/1814.