Saturday, 27 May 2017

Good Beans, Wellington! or: The Assault on "les Haricots", 1815

'It was the General himself who broke the tense silence.
"The attack will proceed."
Addressing the assembled officers of his staff, he had looked wearily up from a rain-sodden sheet of paper, the contents of which was to have fateful consequences for many of them.
They were all huddled under the inadequate shelter of an elderly oak tree, its saturated leaves and branches almost touching the ground under the weight of accumulated water. All around them was the incessant beating of the downpour, punctuated by sudden thunderclaps, and the clamour of seemingly endless columns of men and horses marching wearily past them along the almost impassable lanes.
Everyone was prodigiously covered with clinging clods of liquid mud. The much-cursed rain had been beating down on the bleak fields of Belgium since the previous morning, and far from showing signs of easing up, it appeared only to be increasing both in volume and ferocity.
Greatcoats and hats had long since lost their warmth and any pretense of shape, and wet uniforms chafed the procession of chilled bodies who now, like the rain, flooded this corner of the Belgian countryside. The General's black-clad warriors now resembled more a flock of bedraggled and dejected crows than an army.
But for the General's staff beneath the dubious shelter of their solitary oak, their present discomfort was far from their minds. They had more pressing concerns as they now gazed apprehensively at their commander, a look of annoyed determination coming over his rain-streaked face.
The General had just read a last terse order from none other than His Excellency himself, brought by an exhausted and evidently ill courier. 
Blucher's Prussians were at this time reported to be marching in an attempt to link up with the Anglo-Allied army, despite only recently having been defeated in a bloody battle by Napoleon's himself.
News had come of a well-fortified French garrison at the farming settlement of Les Haricots, situated directly between the approaching Prussians and Wellington, and which dominated the road along which the Prussians were to have to pass.   
An experienced and capable soldier, it was the General and his small and weary division which had been tasked with reducing this threat- and he had serious misgivings.
His scouts had indicated that the French were there in brigade strength, and had quickly rebuilt and improved upon two 18th C. earthworks, creating two formidable and mutually-supporting positions.  And it now appeared that these would likely have to be attacked without the benefit of any artillery of his own. 
The General had been pressing hard for a delay in the attack until the guns could be brought up to support it; for the past seven hours there had been an exchange of riders passing increasingly heated messages as to the feasibility of carrying out an assault at this time, and under these dreadful conditions.  
But the die had been cast. In his hand was a dispatch stating categorically that the French in Les Haricots must be destroyed, and that any delay in evicting them would most certainly be disastrous for the Allied cause.
So preparations now needed to be made at once for the bloody assault that was now certain to take place.  And succeed it must, regardless of the price to be paid.
The General stood tall; "The attack will proceed!", he declared again, the tone of his voice leaving no room for any doubt as to his intentions.  "And we, gentlemen, are going to carry out our orders whatever the cost. I will not see the honour of the Duchy compromised."
"Have all battalion commanders assemble here at once..."'
Thankfully for those of you who appreciate good writing, that's as far as any literary aspirations I may have for Napoleonic fiction goes. 

This post sees Serrez les Rangs once again return to the True Faith- Napoleonics. And about bloody time, I hear some of you say.

What follows is an AAR (with loads 'o pictures) from a game we played last year, and I only just recently came across the photos and some notes I had taken- they had been lost deep in the labyrinth of embedded folders on my computer. 

I do remember that at this time the planets lined up so that Matt, Sada and I were able to schedule in a game of Napoleonics- it was the first one we had in almost a year,  the first on my 4' by 8' table, and the first one where we actually had a proper scenario!

We were of course using Black Powder, but with 28mm figures on a relatively small table it was clear that coming up with a workable and entertaining game would require some (uncharacteristic) forethought: but help was at hand.

The previous week I had received my copy of Neil Thomas' One Hour Wargames rules. I had been reading a lot of positive things about it on various fora and blogs out there, and it intrigued me. So I had decided to order a copy. I'm glad I did.
Just as reading material alone, I enjoyed this book a lot. I like his writing style and found his rationale behind his game design clearly explained. For some reason I was reminded of the wargaming books I read in my teens by Don Featherstone; Neil's enthusiasm for the hobby is infectious, and I found myself itching to give the rules- and especially the scenarios- a try before I even finished reading it.

The rules in the book as written seem very simple, but are in fact quite well thought out. Having had tried them "as is" for some Dark Ages games, they are fine for when I want something light and fun, or for just dabbling in unfamiliar wargaming periods. Although should I want to tinker around with them as wargamers do, the system looks robust enough to stand tweaking.

But the real winner for me are the thirty scenarios, campaign ideas, and the suggestions for solo gaming. In the book Neil writes:
"There is a paradox at the heart of wargaming, in that many players are absolutely and rightly fascinated by finding the right set of rules, but pay far less attention to the type of battle (or scenario) they play"
Don't I know it, as this has been true of many of our own games. Too many "scenarios" have been half-assed, "set 'em up, plonk down some hills and buildings, and kill more of them than they do of us!" affairs. 

All too often, the time spent leading up to games has been taken up more by panicky last-minute painting, or trying to get a grip on/ brushing up on the rules, rather than thinking overmuch about scenario design.

But not this time. We had the figures and the terrain, so no last-minute painting frenzy. For this game, I selected one of the scenarios from the book: Scenario #15, Fortified Defence (p.94).

The object of the game was for Blue to seize two fortified villages, while Red had to prevent this from happening.

This scenario was inspired by the Battle of Fontenoy in 1745- a battle in a war that has always held a big fascination for me, so I was anxious to give it a go.

It is a tough scenario for an attacker, seeing as the scenarios in OHWG generally involves opposing forces of equal strength. So for this scenario there is a unique twist; at any point in the game, Blue can announce a "reset"- all his forces are removed from play, and appear again at full strength along his start line. These in effect represent a second assault wave entering the fray. 

No such joy for the Red player, who has to make do with what he's got. But of course Red has the advantage of defending from two, strongly-fortified positions.

With a bit of tweaking to suit our circumstances, our table ended up looking like this:
The roads were purely for aesthetics, they were considered to be in poor condition due to days of torrential rain, and would give no advantage to movement.

We had to make some adjustments to the Black Powder rules in order for the scenario to be workable. We were using 4' by 6' of my available table space, and the scenarios in Neil's book assume a 3' by 3' playing board. Additionally, the rules in OHWG assumes unit frontages between 4" to 6", with musket range equaling frontage at 6".

Our own battalions are usually organized on about a 1:20 ratio, so have a frontage of around 10" or so. Ranges as written in Black Powder are 18 inches for muskets.

Given the size of our table and the layout, that would have resulted in the villages enjoying interlocking fields of fire, and it would have been more like assaulting Omaha beach than Fontenoy. 

In an effort to give both sides a fighting chance, not only did I move the villages farther apart, but in the end we decided to reduce all move and firing distance by 50%.  We had also decided to allow a maximum of two actions a turn rather than the three allowed in the rules (when lucky enough to roll for it).

This put the unit frontages out of whack with move rates and firing ranges, but we put it down to heavy rain having churned the Belgian countryside and dirt roads to a quagmire, and having gotten into the powder so that both sides were having to resort to reduced charges in their cartridges.

At the beginning of the game, we rolled to see which side would be attacking, and which would be the defender, highest dice roll taking the role of the Blue player.

Once that was done, then we rolled for force composition.  In all of the scenarios in the book, each player fields up to six units from a maximum of ten units per side (although in some scenarios games with as few as four units a side are possible). 

So in the horse and musket period, any given force is randomly selected from a total of ten possible units, as follows:
4 infantry battalions
2 artillery batteries
2 light infantry units
2 cavalry (heavy or light- it doesn't matter)
Accordingly, for each side we again rolled a dice (1D6), and the result was checked against a table that determines which six of the ten units available would be used in the game.

For this game, the Red defenders (the valiant, dashing French) rolled a three. The Blue attackers (a motley and reactionary collection of Brunswickers, Glaswegians, and other sweepings of Empire), a six.

A roll of three meant the French had the following force; four infantry battalions, one skirmishing battalion of light infantry, and a unit of cavalry (my chasseurs à cheval). Two of the infantry would be garrisoning the towns, and the scenario stipulated that they would stay there for the duration of the game, or until wiped out. The rest could be deployed anywhere within the zone as seen in the map above.

By rolling a six, the Allies found themselves with three battalions of infantry, one unit of Jägers, and two of cavalry- KGL hussars and some light dragoons. Not the best combination for assaulting buildings! If necessary, this same force would resurrect itself to form the second attack wave.

Both sides had in fact rolled for the only possible selections that did not include any artillery- and this for a scenario involving an assault on fortifications! Obviously the same heavy rain that had turned the battlefield into an early 19th C. version of Passchendale had also left both sides' artillery bogged down and immobile in the mud, thus unable to take part in the days engagement. 

As always, we can just blame it on the weather.

I dispensed with the special rule in the scenario giving the defenders an additional bonus when firing from the villages. We've played many games of BP that involved attacking BUA's, and they had proven to be tough nuts to crack indeed without needing any additional help from scenario conditions, and this proved to be the case once again this game.

All brigade and overall commanders had a CV of 8. The garrison in Le Petit Haricot was given its own brigadier, to mitigate the distance from the C-in-C.   I suppose we could have given it a Marauder rule instead, but as the unit could not leave the safety of the village it really was moot.

The scenario states that the game should last 15 turns. I ignored this, and didn't even bother mentioning it to the others as I thought that there was no way we would get close to this many turns in.

I was wrong. The turns played very quickly, and if I had adhered to this condition of the scenario, the game may have had quite a different outcome.

First we had to gently shoo-off the lads.  Cat ownership pretty much rules out any thoughts of building a sandtable, God forbid.
"We've been kicked out of better places than THIS!"
Here's the layout at the opening of the game, just before the first wave of the Allied assault steps out onto the mud-soaked approaches to Les Haricots. 
It's clear to see that using normal Black Powder musket ranges would have result in a bloodbath for any attacking troops.  As it was, the Allies had to move very carefully to try to avoid flanking fire, and they weren't always successful.

The French line awaits...
...while the garrison at Le Grand Haricot steel themselves for the onslaught, the regimental Eagle glittering gloriously against the leaden sky...
First move, and the French cavalry cautiously advance. Don't want the Allies getting any ideas... 
On the Allied side, the Brunswicker skirmishers advanced through the woods on the right, intent on flanking or even getting behind the French at Le Grand Haricot; there to do as much mischief as they can.  Meanwhile the main force, with the Allied cavalry on their left flank, advanced on the hamlet,

Advance to contact!

Scratch one unit of Allied cavalry...

The Allies had been bleeding profusely, and with most of his force either broken or close to their break points, Matt decided to call off the attack and press the reset button for a second assault.

The first game saw the French hold off the attackers- just- but they had taken lots of casualties themselves. And unlike the Allies, they were not to get reinforcements for the follow-up game.

After having stood off to lick their wounds, the bugles sounded, drums were beaten, and on again the Allies came. 

Round II...
If at first you don't succeed...
Last stand...
Time to say "Goodbye"...
The day was a bad one for French horseflesh.

Allied combined arms savage an unlucky battalion of line infantry.

The Brunswickers  take Le Petit Haricot in a  frontal assault.
 Despite being practically ignored in the first game, the defenders lost their collective bottle, and fled disgracefully.
In this second game, the Allied skirmishers had it all their own way.
"Sauve qui peut!"
The French had held off the first attack, but at a high price; the second wave of fresh troops proved too much as a black tide (with a few shades of red & blue) inundated French hopes.  The second game was a clear victory for the attacking Allies, largely due to French errors in deployment, and from the French having barely any un-battered units left to deploy.  

Although the battalion defending le Petit Haricot had choked and fled as a result of abysmal dice throws, over the course of the game the Dice Gods were fair and consistent, alternately blessing- and cursing- both sides alike. 

But all in all, I remember it as being a very enjoyable game.  Since then we have frequently used Neil's scenarios (and rules) for a number of games set in different periods, and the book has proved to be worth way more that what I paid for it.  



Phil said...

Very nice report, wonderful pictures and minis!

NW Crew said...

Grease stuff! /Mattias

Anthony Miles said...

Nice looking battle and figures.

Robert said...

Thanks gentlemen!

It was a fun game, and an interesting scenario. We'd like to give it another go someday.

Gonsalvo said...

A fine looking battle, and a very interesting scenario!

DeanM said...

Robert: I'm also thinking about revisting Napoleonics. Having sold off half of my Napoleonic collection - I kept most of the Perry and Victrix figs :), I'm now looking for something a bit smaller-playing than Black Powder. Although BP can be scaled down too, of course. I missed out on a Chosen Men game this past weekend at Enfilade!, but heard good things about it. I may be picking up the rules.

Norm said...

Enjoyed, thanks - following. I like the aim of putting the larger scale into a small space, something I am working on myself.

Robert said...

Thank you, Norm; very pleased that you like the place.

Another Napoleonic AAR coming up this week- I'm just sorting out the photos now!