Friday, 28 November 2014

The Assault on La Belle Josephine: Part Two

Continuing from my last post, the story of the attack on Fort La Belle Josephine.
Lt. Jackstaff supervises the disembarkation of the Royal Marines.
At the rising of the sun, the inhabitants of Grande-Bourg on the small island of Marie Galante awoke to the rare spectacle of a French ship-of-the-line and two frigates anchored offshore, and the unloading not the usual stores for the plantations, but rather boatload after boatload of armed men, cannon, and shot. 

The Emperor's army had arrived.

Their commanding officer, De l'Ague, knew that he could ill-afford every minute that it took to complete the disembarkation. It had been reported that the British navy had reached the island almost simultaneously, anchoring well over a three-day's march further up the coast. 

There they were seen putting ashore their own landing force with the object of taking La Belle Josephine, the vital fort that controlled the surrounding seas leading to the main island of Guadeloupe.

Aboard the 74-gun flagship d'Haupoult, Commodore Troud was hurrying about in a highly-agitated state, urging his men to more haste and constantly scanning the horizon for any sign of a dreaded white ensign.  The Royal Navy could be counted on to get their own troops ashore with a well-practiced efficiency; once this was completed their own commanding officer, Admiral the Lord Keelhall, would be certain to raise anchor and continue on to seek out the French squadron.

So for Commodore Troud it was imperative that the soldiers and their equipment get ashore quickly, and that his squadron once more set sail. For the French navy to be caught in harbour at Grande-Bourg would mean certain defeat and destruction.
"Plus vite!  Plus vite!"
De l'Ague had agreed with Troud that as soon as his men were ashore, the ships should return immediately to the shelter of the powerful defenses of Pointe-a-Pitre harbour in Guadeloupe.

The French commanders had gambled all on success here on Marie Galante.  Their control of Guadeloupe depended on a decisive victory; if the British seized La Belle Josephine, they would then have access to the harbour at Grande-Bourg, and a secure base from which to bottle up the French squadron at Point-a-Pitre.   

And there was the very real possibility that the Royal Navy might intercept, engage and take the French ships as they tried to make for the safety of Guadeloupe; De l'Ague had little faith in the likelihood of a French victory over the Royal Navy in any action at sea.

In either eventuality, De l'Ague's force would find itself marooned on the island, leaving its commander facing a stark choice; either surrender to the British, or see his men waste away from the effects of tropical miasmas and starvation.  This would mean the certain loss of the entire French colony, as Paris had made it clear that it would then cut its losses, and in no way commit any more troops or resources to the its defense.

By nightfall the French landings had been completed, and at sunrise the following morning they bid adieu to their navy, as Troud made his way in haste back to Guadeloupe. They were barely in open water when De l'Ague set his troops off northwards along the coast, all of them heartily glad to be on dry land once again. 

La Belle Josephine lay north of the settlement of Sainte-Louis.  In the heat of the tropics, it was a two-day march to Sainte-Louis from Grand-Bourg.  On reaching Saint-Louis the French force halted, exhausted from the heat of the march and its exertions of the previous three days since their landings.  They remained at Sainte-Louis for a day; there they prepared hot meals, refilled their canteens with wine from the local taverns, and awaited any news of the progress of the British force from local fishermen.

Thus rested, they then continued on their way, eventually bivouacking in an open field at the Anse de Mays. From here, the fort was a mere three-hours march away, but such was the heat they were unable to go on any further.

For a brigade of infantry, with all its guns and supplies, to continue on during the hours of darkness along narrow and unfamiliar jungle paths was not an appealing prospect with the enemy reportedly nearby.  To make matters worse, the first cases of fever had appeared among the ranks.


And nearby the British indeed were, although not as in such close proximity to the foe as they would have liked. 

At the same time Troud was anxiously pacing his quarterdeck in Grande-Bourg, Lord Keelhall had anchored his force off l'Anse Bois, some distance north-east of Saint Louis and the fort.  

Approaching La Belle Josephine within sight of its heavy guns was of course out of the question.  But a landing within a day's march of the fort had been impracticable for reasons both of the heavy surf and fickle tidewaters.  L'Anse Bois was chosen for its sheltered and wide beach, and was very suitable for such a landing to be made. 

However, it would mean a march of up to two days for the force to approach the fort from the landward side. But it would have to do.
l'Anse Bois- the British land in force
Once the British troops were all ashore, Lord Keelhall immediately raised anchor and set off in hot pursuit of Troud and his squadron, which was by this time itself now setting all sail possible in its dash back to the relative safety of Pointe-a-Pitre.

Command of the landing force had now devolved to Col. Lord Bayley Campion Whitelocke (half-brother of the ill-fated general who had commanded the disastrous Buenos Aires expedition three years earlier).
The British hold an inspection prior to getting into march order as they prepare to move out.

Whitelocke rested his men for the night, and the next morning assembled his force into order of march.  He had detachments of the 60th Rifles scout out the land, their captain accompanied by a Royal Navy non-commissioned officer, who in peacetime had been well-acquainted with the island through working on a merchant ship that traded in the region. 

This man had remembered talk of a narrow road that led through jungle and plantations past the hamlet of Cambrai and on towards Sainte-Louis.  
"What a damnable place for a fox hunt, hey what?"
The route was soon discovered.  However, it proved a narrow path for the force this size, and for all to use it would leave the British dangerously strung out should they contact the French.  So when his force reached the Grosse-Pointe, Whitelocke ordered the Royal Marines, the naval landing party, and von Romberg's Volunteers to march down via the coastal beaches.  Whitelocke would continue on via the plantation road with the remainder of the infantry and Capt. Trunnion's guns.

The main force was amply supplied with water, and made relatively good progress despite the heat. However, the force advancing along the beach were having a hard go of it. The beach- initially firm and making for good going up near Grosse Pointe- had become more waterlogged as they progressed southwards; the ground soon become too marshy for them to continue on.

The officer commanding this column, Lt. Aubrey Jackstaff, found it necessary to go inland instead, along a disused path that was overgrown with thick vegetation that had to be laboriously hacked away.

It was likely that Lt. Jackstaff's detachment would be late to their planned rendezvous just north of the fort.  As his party had been detailed to transport the explosives needed to destroy the fort, this was a potentially disastrous blow to the British plans, and the determined Jackstaff drove his men relentlessly on through the jungle.
"Come along now, no time to lose, eh?"
All this activity had been reported- with varying degrees of accuracy and contradiction- to the garrison of La Belle Josephine, and the mood there was tense.

Since they had reached La Belle Josephine, considerable antipathy had developed between the German troops in the fort, and the locally-raised Guadeloupe regiments who had been posted there in support. Neither much trusted nor respected the other, and after a series of incidents that threatened to escalate to outright blows, the Germans had refused the colonial troops entry to the fort, leaving the resentful islanders to billet themselves in the nearby storehouse.
"Lang lebe den Kaiser!" (...until further notice...)
Despite the ill feelings, Col. Graf von Liebtwurst, commanding the German contingent, had on his part expressed to the local authorities his determination to stay loyal to the Emperor in the event of any attack.  For him, it was a matter of professional honour.  

However, the colonel was in poor health from the effects of malaria, jungle sores, and the consequences of insisting upon maintaining a German diet in the heat of the tropics, and had recently become bedridden.  His second in command, Major Aufstander of the Anspach-Kartoffelkopf Feldjager Korps, felt much less inclined to have his men die for the French cause.

Bitterly resentful at the treatment meted out to his beloved regiment, Aufstander had been vociferous in his hope that the colony would fall, the regiment leave the West Indies, and that they could then go on to aid in the liberation of das Vaterland.  
Maj. Aufstander harangues the Anspach-Kartoffelkopf Feldjager Korps.
Indeed, it had been a bungled attempt by the colonel of the Chasseurs Coloniaux de Guadeloupe to place the popular Maj. Aufstander under arrest for such treasonous talk that had led to the Germans barricading themselves in the fort.

Negotiations by the respective commanders had so far failed to significantly defuse tensions, which were coming under increasing strain as rumours of the approach of a British landing force spread.

The rival forces continued their way forward.  In due course, and with contact imminent, both sides were up before dawn.  In the humid air the smell of cooking from the the men of the colonial battalion wafted through the air towards the advancing British, who knew from the distinctive smell of garlic that the old enemy was near.

On their part, The French infantry under De l'Ague were soon upon the final stage of their journey, and were looking forward to the chance to put the British to flight and to enjoy a few days of subsequent rest.  

But the previous evening word had reached their commander of the troubles that had been afflicting the garrison of La Belle Josephine.  He was deeply disturbed by the news from Col. de Clouseau,  the hapless leader of the Chasseurs Coloniaux de Guadeloupe, that the garrison had shut itself up in the fortress.  

De l'Ague was beside himself with rage with the colonel for having mishandled the situation. He decided to go on ahead of the main body and to return to the fort along with Col. Clouseau, and he himself would command the forces there until his men could come up and join them.

He entrusted his aide, Col. des Dragons Claude Rênes,  to bring up the rest of the brigade.  Although a cavalryman, Rênes had always worked closely with the infantry and his commander had faith in his ability to lead them.
"En avant, mes braves!" Col. Rênes urges the French infantry up to the fort.
The battlefield looked roughly like this.
The storehouse and French camp to the south, with La Belle Josephine situated to the west,  near the mouth of the stream.  on the western end of the stream were patches of scrub and vegetation.  East of the fort and stretching to the north were with two  areas of jungle terrain.  The battlefield would be mostly open sugar cane fields, just recently harvested.

The British would be entering from the north above and/or below the forested area contiguous to the plantation building. The French brigade would enter from the left, beyond the storehouse and/or along a coastal path that necessitated crossing the stream to reach the fort.  The stream was fordable at its southern end.
The table before the game, looking southwest.  The British forces are laid out, but these would be entering from the table edge once play began.

Day of Battle 

Lord Whitelocke had been camped within hours of the fort for the last thirty-six hours, waiting as long as he could for word of Jackstaff and his wayward column.

But with a force of unknown size approaching from the south, he felt that he could no longer delay any attack.  Advanced parties from the 60th Rifles had already ascertained the presence of infantry and some artillery in the storehouse and encampment.  
De l'Ague and the 8 pdr. guns of the Vol. d'Artillerie Coloniaux de Guadeloupe await the British attack.
As time was of the essence he gave the order for the 74th Foot to attack the storehouse and see off the men assembling there. 
The sweepings of the Glasgow slums; the ill-starred 74th Regt. of Foot.
It was to do so without support; at this point in time Whitelocke believed that no other seasoned French unit was in the immediate vicinity.  One battalion would be enough to do the job while the rest of his force was employed against the fort.  Once the fort was taken, the storehouse would then be burnt almost as an afterthought.  For now, the 74th would go in as a diversionary attack.

Despite subsequent events- and the criticism that was to follow- Whitelocke would later receive praise in military circles for not losing sight of his main objective.
"You will retain your neck-stocks, damn your impertinent eyes!!"
Defending the storehouse were the French colonial troops, the Chasseurs et Artillerie Coloniaux de Guadeloupe.  These were the sons of merchants and planters, as well as other assorted residents of European descent who had been encouraged, ordered, or impressed into service to defend the Emperor's overseas interests.  They were to give a good account of themselves this day.  
The Chasseurs Coloniaux, in uniforms remarkably like those of the Tirailleurs du Po from Piedmont
The action began around 10:20 AM.  To the thunderous beating of drums, the doughty Glaswegians hurled themselves at the storehouse.  No mean objective, for it was a substantial structure with thick walls, into which many loopholes and barricades had been prepared.  The defenders poured a murderous fire down into the redcoats.
Two veteran regiments- the Connaught Rangers and The Nottinghamshires.
Meanwhile, the rest of Whitelocke's force advanced in line towards the fort.  He was hoping that the Germans there would either lay down their arms or even come over to the British.  But he could not discount the strong possibility that they might remain loyal to the Emperor and resist the attack.  

He had been counting on the efforts of von Romberg and his men who, it had been hoped, would be able to persuade the garrison to defect, but they were as yet nowhere in sight.
Whitelocke's men approach the fort.  But where is Jackstaff?
Should the garrison decide to make a fight for it, he would have no choice but to take the fort by escalade before the French reinforcements could arrive.  And as most of the ladders, powder, and other engineering equipment were also with Jackstaff's missing column, it was questionable if he could succeed.
Capt. Trunnion's Composite Battery.  Not enough heavy metal to take on a fort, but they would soon demonstrate how well they could shred French infantry columns.
But at this point, events were to start moving quickly.  

The skirmishers of the 60th Rifles had been ordered not to fire at the fort without provocation; however, and in response to some sporadic shots from the walls, they had been putting up an increasingly accurate fire.  Suddenly, the musket and rifles in the fort fell silent, and a voice was heard calling out for a parley. 

From the fort, Major Aufstander had seen not only Whitelocke's force, but also Jackstaff's tardy column emerging from the distant undergrowth.  He could also make out, from his vantage point atop the tower, the approaching French columns.  

With Col. von Liebtwurst incapacitated with a malarial fever, Aufstander realized that it was now or never if the garrison wanted to break away from their French overlords.   It didn't take him long to convince his colleagues to rise up- the sooner they could leave this accursed island, the better.
The Navy's Here!
No sooner had the message been delivered to a relieved Col. Whitelocke, when from the British left came word of the arrival of French skirmishers.  Their old foes were upon them.
Les Français arrivent!

The situation that greeted the arriving French columns was mixed.  Fighting was fierce at the storehouse, but it was clear that the British force attacking it was alone and unsupported.  This indicated that it was either a feint or forlorn hope, and the sudden absence of gunfire from the direction of La Belle Josephine was a very worrying development for De l'Ague.

On the British side, it was soon learned that the garrison was not merely content to surrender, but that the charismatic Aufstander had persuaded his men to actively join the British in fighting against the hated French.  
Deutschland über Alles!  von Rombergs men arrive to find that their fellow countrymen have already seen the light!
Now Whitelocke was known for his excellent strategic brain, and with this sudden change of situation, he soon decided to abandon his original plan to destroy the storehouse and its contents.  The French force now upon him was too strong for him to carry out both objectives.  

His priority was the destruction of the fort, and in getting as many of his men off the island as he could, so as to leave enough manpower for a descent on Guadeloupe.  
"Ge' yerselves a move on, ye lubbers!"
He was sure Admiral Keelhall knew his business; with the fort out of action, Lord Keelhall would then deal with the French navy in his own time.  Whitelocke could simply leave the French here to perish from hunger and yellow fever.

As for the 74th, they would be on their own.  Sacrificed, if needs be, to buy time for the destruction of La Belle Josephine.  Every French unit that engaged them was one less to hinder Whitelocke in his efforts to achieve his goal; it would be blood well-spilled, and if it was their duty to die for King and Country- well, what better epitaph?

De l'Ague was not going to give up easily, however.  The battle was about to reach a critical stage as the French prepared the pas de charge.  And Jackstaff still had to get into the fort with his demolition party. 

France means business.  The French were happy to wear their greatcoats- kept off the mosquitoes!

To be continued- enough for one more post!  I also want to post the mechanics of the scenario for posterity- it's one we might want to come back to in the future.


Grigork said...

Love the write up. The figures are lovely too.

DeanM said...

Very cool! Love seeing these great looking troops in such an exotic locale.

Brian S. said...

Amazing post Robert! I hope to see some more Napoleonic games in person next year.

Doc Smith said...

Great scenario - Anspach-Kartoffelkopf Jaeger's has won my vote for 'Best Name for a Regiment in a Wargame'!
Terrific fort model too. Looking forward to part 2.

RMacedo NoVember said...

Very nice terrain, and the figures are superb!