Saturday, 22 November 2014

The Assault on La Belle Josephine: Part One

All is in equilibrium;  the planets and stars are back in their proper places in the celestial firmament, and the natural order of the universe has returned.  

It was back to Napoleonics gaming with Black Powder this past Sunday. 
Rumble in the Jungle
And this time with a difference.  Having made all that jungle terrain for our Bolt Action Burma/ Pacific theatre games, and wanting to maximize the return on the investment, we decided to leave the green fields of Europe and instead do battle in the lush, disease-ridden tropical rain forests of the Caribbean.  

As Matt had recently finished a Royal Navy landing party to go with his battalion of Royal Marines, and I have been a life-long fan of C.S. Forester and Patrick O'Brian, this scenario practically wrote itself.

First the potted history bit (but don't check the sources too closely- I'm playing loose and fast with the facts here).   No apologies for its length.  I know a lot of people have neither the time nor inclination to read a lot of text, and if you are one of these people, stop here and move on.  Each to their own.  I like to place our games in some kind of context, and just enjoy writing this kind of thing.  This blog is the place I can do it.
1809, and with the decisive naval dominance of Great Britain, much of the French overseas empire has practically ceased to exist; a decade of conflict has seen territory after territory taken by the naval and land forces of His Britannic Majesty.  One of the few remaining French possessions is Guadeloupe, and the British government has its eyes firmly set on adding this Caribbean island to the rising tally.
Sugar, Spice, and Everything Malarial. Map from Wikipedia.
Service in this disease-ridden corner of the globe had long been seen as a practical death sentence, with many a soldier on all sides being carried away by the bloody flux without ever having seen any combat.

After years of campaigning, a shortage of manpower was beginning to become a major issue for Napoleon.  On top of that, war was looming once more on the continent as Austria was once again rattling its (by now somewhat dented) sabre.   

So it was decided at Fontainebleau that instead of sending experienced French troops to garrison the island- men who were far more urgently needed in Spain- Guadeloupe would be just the place to send some of the less desirable, undependable, and potentially mutinous "allied" battalions that were currently devouring the Emperor's rations and resources throughout Europe.  

The reasoning was that if these foreign outposts were inevitably to fall, better to lose expendable foreign riff-raff than to waste valuable French soldiery. Besides, most would probably succumb to yellow fever within weeks of their arrival anyway.

Two of the more particularly surly Confederation of the Rhine units were chosen for Operation Early Grave,  the Westphalian Regt. von Tippelskirch, still in their old Prussian uniforms, and the Anspach-Kartoffelkopf Feldjager Korps.  

These two units had never taken kindly to their French overlords, and had been giving trouble to the provosts for months.  Their French divisional commanders cheerfully nominated them for service overseas in the hope that they would see neither sight nor sound of the scoundrels ever again.

So the transports were loaded and their sullen human cargo sent on their way to the small island of Marie-Galante, off the coast of Guadeloupe.  From the main port of Grand-Bourg they were marched north to the settlement of Saint-Louis, and then sent on to garrison La Belle Josephine, an old but strongly-constructed 17th C. fort that lay on the north-west corner of the island.
La Belle Josephine
Looking out towards the neighboring Saints, the fort covered the area north and west of the island.  With its 48-pdr guns and facilities for making heated shot, La Belle Josephine dominated maritime traffic to and from the secure harbour of Pointe-a-Pitre in the middle of Guadeloupe.  
Marie Galante, from an old map
There they would spend the rest of their (potentially short) lives in boredom amongst the ague, delirium, and numerous creepy-crawlies in the dank, humid tropics. 

But fate was to intervene. Not long after the departure of the hapless Germans to Guadeloupe, back in Paris it was becoming evident that losing all ones overseas assets didn't exactly make for good reading in Le Moniteur, and that to give them up without a struggle was resulting in an unacceptable loss of Imperial prestige among the nations of Europe. 

In an effort to be seen- well, making an effort, the authorities had a change of heart and resolved on sending an expeditionary force far across the ocean to Martinique in the West Indies to reinforce the garrison there, and if possible to turn the situation around.   While a risky policy, at the very least it was reasonably certain that the British themselves would have to divert precious manpower from the Peninsula to counter any threat to their own possessions.

This force, under Commodore Amable-Gilles Troude, consisted of the ships of the line Courageux, Polonais, and d'Haupoult, and two frigates, La Félicité and La Furieuse. Between them, these ships transported a brigade of six battalions; this time not of sullen and mutinous foreign rabble, but of experienced troops that were used to the rigours of service, and unswervingly loyal to their emperor.

However, it was a case of too little too late, and despite having successfully evaded the Royal Navy blockade off The Loire, the convoy sailed on undetected as far as the Leeward Islands only to learn from an American whaler that Martinique had already fallen to the British.  

Quelle dommage, but having gotten this far, it would mean an unacceptable loss of face to the Emperor if the squadron would turn back and brave the elements in an effort just to sneak ignominiously back to France. So after some considerable and heated discussion aboard the flagship, Courageux, it was agreed that the force would continue on and make landfall on Guadeloupe instead.

Walls have ears, and placed in the corridors of power in Paris was a young captain of engineers, Samuel Alphonse de Gravino, equerry to Maréchal Berthier.   A man whose bravery on the field of Austerlitz and Freidland had made him a favorite of the Marshal, trusted with many a top-secret dispatch.  

He was also a rather impetuous, rash young man fond of drink, women, gambling and of danger.  

This had made him a perfect target for British intelligence, who with the promise of taking over his ever-increasing gaming debts, had no problem in "turning" him. 
"'Ave another drink; c'mon dearie, you can tell l'il 'ol me.  What was the name of this 'ere big boat again, and where was it a' headin' to?"
In exchange for cold hard cash he soon proved a one-man Enigma machine; and soon, through its efficient network of spies and couriers, Whitehall was in receipt of the change in destination even before it had been reported to Napoleon.

They acted quickly.  A squadron was duly dispatched under the command of Admiral of the Blue Sir Troubridge Marlinspyke, Lord Keelhall, to intercept the French force, while a convoy carrying a brigade of infantry which had been originally intended for service in the Peninsula, was to be diverted instead to the West Indies.  The two would rendezvous at Jamaica.

All this was as the French command had anticipated, and it was with very grudging reluctance- and under pressure from the highest authorities (many said to have considerable business interests in the sugar trade)- that General Wellesley agreed to giving up the much-needed reinforcements.

So the stage was set for what was to be one of the most bitter campaigns to be fought in the West Indies. 

The French brigade, under the command of GdB Pierre Hippolyte De l'Ague, arrived at Guadeloupe, and disembarked at the port of Basse-Terre.  There they soon set to work on improving the island's defenses.  However, word soon came of the impending arrival of the British.  The Royal Navy was more experienced, and had made an easier crossing with more favorable winds, thus gaining on the French and arriving a full two weeks earlier than expected.

With landfall on Guadeloupe imminent, Lord Keelhall decided after a conference on HMS Belleisle that the weakest point in the French defenses was an attack from the south.  But first, the island of Marie-Galante would have to be secured if the force was to land in safety.  A daunting prospect, but thanks to their agent in Paris, one made easier by the knowledge that the fort there was held by the unenthusiastic Germans. 

Among the British units on board the transports was a volunteer contingent of German émigrésvon Romberg's European Rifle Volunteers.  These were of dubious quality, and quite ill-disciplined themselves; but they were united in their hatred of Bonapartist rule over their homeland, and could be counted on to try and encourage the disaffected garrison at Grand-Bourg to turn over the fort.
von Romberg's ERC.  Eurotrash maybe, but they have their uses.
It was thought that if the garrison could be convinced to surrender or even to change sides, the island could be secured at minimal cost to the British. 

Admiral Keelhall was very experienced in amphibious operations in the West Indies, and knew that speed was of the essence before disease would start to decimate the ranks of his hard-to-replace troops.  He did not have the numbers to occupy both Marie-Galante and Guadeloupe, so his intent was to destroy the fort in a bold hit-and-run attack, to burn a nearby camp which was used to store cordage and supplies for local trade, and after re-embarkation to sail on to the main island and begin the invasion proper.

His squadron tacked along the Guadeloupe passage, and then set a course south down the eastern coast, where it sailed past the island of Grande Anse.  Here it was seen by a local fisherman who- for a small consideration- brought word of the approaching force to the French commander De l'Ague, who was now setting up a camp at Petit-Bourg for his men.

De l'Ague was a man of action despite his large bulk, and quickly devised what the British were up to.  He made the bold decision to immediately embark four of his six battalions, sail over to Marie-Galante, and inflict upon any landing force a sharp reverse which would buy time for the defense of the main island.  
Men of von Tippelskirch's Battalion mount guard
He knew that only a few days earlier the Governor of the island had sent a unit of local Chasseurs Coloniaux de Guadeloupe and a half-battery of the Voluntaires d'Artillerie Coloniaux de Guadeloupe over to the island with the task of stiffening up the resolve of the garrison to hold out against any attack, so he felt confident he could deal with any attempted descent upon the fort.
The French break camp.

In the glory of a magnificent West Indian sunset, the rival squadrons could see each other off in the distance as they both approached Marie Galante from opposite directions.  The British force was embarked aboard the 74's HMS Belleisle, HMS Pompee, and the frigate HMS Acasta.  In the distance they could just make out the shapes of the French 74-gun d'Haupoult, accompanied by two frigates, La Félicité and La Furieuse.
Trouble ahead...
Aboard the British ships, and once landed to be placed under the command of Col. Lord Bayley Whitlocke, KB, MP, were the following:
  • 1/45th Foot
  • 1/74th Foot
  • 1/88th Foot
  • Capt. Blunt's company, the 60th Rifles
  • Capt. Trunnion's composite battery, Royal Foot Artillery. 
  • Converged Battalion, Royal Marines
  • Naval Landing Party,  HM ships BelleislePompee,  and Acasta under the command of 1st Lt. Aubrey Jackstaff, HMS Belleisle  (including two 9pdr naval guns)
  • von Romberg's European Rifle Volunteers

Aboard the French vessels, De l'Ague had embarked the following units:
  • 1er et 2e Battailons, 39e de ligne
  • 1er et 3e Battailons,  29e de ligne
  • 8e batterie d'artillerie

In the camp near Sainte-Louis:
  • 1e Batt. Chasseurs Coloniaux de Guadeloupe 
  • Vol. d'Artillerie Coloniaux de Guadeloupe
 Garrisoning La Belle Josephine:
  • Regt. von Tippelskirch
  • Anspach-Kartoffelkopf Feldjager Korps


With both French and British ships laden with troops waiting to be landed, neither commander was in a position to fight a naval engagement; but nor were they prepared or willing to sit out a siege of La Belle Josephine and to watch their respective forces waste away in the malaria-ridden jungle and plantations.

It was evident to all present they would soon find themselves with a serious fight on their hands.

This post is too long already, so next will be the report on the battle and how it turned out.  Lots of pictures!


John said...

Can't wait for the pics! This looks fantastic!

Wargame News and Terrain Blog, said...

Excellent terrain and miniatures, looking forward in seeing some more pictures of the great fort!

DeanM said...

Very, very cool game with beautiful terrain and figures. This arena as well as the Egyptian Campaign are scenarios I am keen on - although have no proper figures for. So very nice to see them gamed so nicely by others.

Achilles said...

Robert! your battle reports are always a joy to read!

Too bad I am not there to participate in that carnage...

Miss your company and games a lot!

say hello to everyone!

Baconfat said...

You're teasing us; can't wait for the impending battle.

Johnny Rosbif said...

Wow! What a backstory! Waiting with bated breath for part deux.

Phil said...

A great pleasure for me to read this beautiful post, great job!

Schogun said...

Is there a Part 3? And can you provide what figures you used for the various not-French and not-British troops? Thanks.