Tuesday, 5 July 2022

"Joy of 1866": the Joy of Six show, then Skalitz

Been an intense couple of days wargaming-wise. Sunday: my second ever visit to the wonderful Joy of Six show; Monday: a tense and exciting BBB Austro-Prussian War battle.

Joy of Six

Joy of Six, for anyone unfamiliar with it, is (in normal non-COVD years) an annual event in Sheffield UK run by the excellent folk at Baccus. It is dedicated entirely to wargaming in 6mm scale. I went along with my old friend Colin and new recruit Luke. I was committed in advance to helping Tim Carne run his Gettysburg game. However, the day before the show I learned that a game had dropped out, so I decided to throw a box in the boot of the car in case. A good move, as it turned out. When we arrived I was introduced to Pete of Baccus, asked him if he'd like another game, he said yes. Fortunately, the gap in the ranks was next to Tim's game. I'd brought a specially printed battlemat so we were able to roll out the battle of Isaszeg (1849), from the Hungarian War of Independence, and set the whole thing up in about 10 minutes. That done, I left a note on the table saying to find me next door at Gettysburg.

Tim's game was much admired, especially his very effective woods - cut from soft 'pebble' bath mats and sprayed green (I guess this one from Dunelm) - his armies were very nice too and the whole layout looked good. Special mention of his ingenious and convincing cemetery arch. He had a regular stream of interested persons passing comment, asking questions, taking photos, and of course a number actually sitting down to play. The game rocked along; the Union lost several units entirely quite early on and even with copious reinforcements never really recovered from those setbacks, so the Confederacy managed to reverse history. But it's more about the journey than the destination and all the travellers aboard seemed to have a good time. Meanwhile at the Isaszeg table, in the afternoon Colin introduced Luke to his first game of BBB. We talked to a lot of people and evidently the two BBB games provided a lot of ideas and inspiration. The fact that our layouts were simpler than the many more lavish productions was a nice contrast and showed games that were very 'do-able' for the average gamer.

In between whupping them Yankees, we did manage a tour of the show, drinking in all the wonderful sights on display. Others have done good photo reports, eg Whirlwind's here or Ithoriel's here, which is just as well as I didn't take any pics. I particularly liked Per's Swedes in the snow; the fabulous Imjin hills and paddy fields; the Khorramshahr cityfight; the CWC townscape ... there were plenty of traders present too, apologies to them that they didn't get any of my £££ this time, but I'd like to think I steered some custom to them indirectly by stimulating others to start new projects.

All in all it was just a great day, enjoyed equally much by newbie Luke and old lags Colin and me. So good to catch up with so many old friends and new and to enjoy such a feast of 6mm goodness.


Skalitz (1866)

Then it was back to the club for a regular Monday night's gaming. Crispin laid on the sequel to last week's Nachod game, Skalitz. Like Nachod, this was one we had only fought once before remotely as a PBEM. I'd revised the scenario a bit on the strength of that first playtest. The new version gave us a game that was very one-sided in terms of casualties - just like the real thing - but utterly gripping game-wise. The tension came from the fact that the Prussians were up against the clock. Turn 6 was the first deadline, by when we (the Prussians) could achieve an early victory if we could take 3 objectives. It was a turn of high drama as we launched mass assaults which took a second but just failed to capture the third. On to the next deadline, then: Turn 8, by when the victory count was four. On Turn 8 we stormed into two objectives to take our total to five; Austrian counterattacks ejected us from one, but narrowly failed to retake the other. Thus we won a turn early. Had their second counterattack succeeded, that would have taken us into a final Turn 9 in which we would have needed to recapture both and claim all five objectives for victory - by no means guaranteed.

The Austrian army was thoroughly battered, though, and the Austrian players did query the scenario balance. I may have over-corrected after the previous playtest, but on reflection I think perhaps not. The Austrians were unfortunate not to inflict a couple more casualties on our Prussians by fire in the early turns, and they launched some assaults mid-game that could have enjoyed more success than they did, yet the end-game was still pretty tight. OK as it stands, I reckon.

There now follow half a dozen photos of the Skalitz game with brief captions. If those don't excite you, I suggest you skip past them to find two sets of Reflections: first on Joy of Six, then on Skalitz.

The battlefield. Austrian columns are visible around the top centre of pic (west edge), about to push forward to meet the thin dark blue lines of Prussians arriving from the east (bottom of pic). The five objectives are the two woods in the centre; the gentle rise south of them (brown contour line with a white objective counter); Zlitsch (the church upper right); and Skalitz station (top left/centre). The Prussians also earn an objective if they kill both Austrian cavalry units, which explains why those stayed well out of the fight until the desperate last turn.

The Prussian advance guard moves to envelop the Austrian jaegers' outpost in the woods. The numbers don't look good for the jaegers but they are playing at home. They lasted a fair while.

Austrian columns arrive to beef up the jaegers' resistance and hold the forward position until Turn 6. Other Austrians lurk around the Prussian flanks, hence those Prussian flank units facing out.

Smash! Charge and counter-charge as the Prussians try to expel the Austrians from the woods and capture the adjacent rise. The Austrians get a bonus in the assault for their Stosstaktik - but only if they manage to survive the defenders' fire and close with the bayonet.

The crucial Turn 6 and there are a lot fewer Austrians than there were. That is largely explained by the black counters indicating Prussian units now low on ammo, having done much execution. (Yellow is disruption, blue is spent because of casualties, red indicates a half-strength artillery unit.) The Prussians haven't quite managed to clear the Austrians off the rise, though, and suffered some casualties of their own in the attempt.

Two turns later and the Prussians have just managed to achieve their victory condition. The woods and the rise have been taken. Zlitsch is still Austrian-held, but the station has fallen and the cuirassiers and jaegers in the south were unable to retake it. Game over, man!

Reflections on Joy of Six

Great to be back at a show again! Looking forward to my next one already (Colours, Newbury, 10 September - be there - free entry this year!).

Apart from the actual gaming, it is so stimulating to meet and talk with fellow gamers about all and sundry, including some legendary names in our hobby. Thank you to everyone who stopped by our two games to roll dice, to chat and share ideas, or just to say hello.

6mm has been my preferred scale since I was a teenager and I still love it. If I were to start again now, I might go with 10mm which still provides the mass battle effect I want but is easier for older eyes ... but I'm so invested in 6mm that I'm not changing now. It's still brilliant.

Huge kudos to Pete and Lindy of Baccus for such a wonderful show - and congratulations and best wishes for their impending nuptials!


Reflections on Skalitz

A super game for a Monday night, large enough to be interesting, small enough to be done and dusted in a couple of intense hours.

Asymmetry! Said it before, say it again: clashes between very different armies in terms of weapons and doctrine make for tactically interesting games.

The unusual victory conditions added extra drama. Usually it's saved up for the last couple of turns, but this delaying action scenario's phase lines meant more high points along the way. It could have backfired, I suppose: if we had actually taken three objectives for an early victory on Turn 6, we'd have been finished half an hour earlier, which might have been a bit deflating. So I wouldn't script every game that way, but for this one it worked well.

Potential campaign day? Dave W suggested running the two pairs of Bohemian border battles - Nachod & Skalitz, Trautenau & Soor - as linked micro-campaigns all on the same day, with teams of players rotating among them. People at Joy of Six were also asking about when we might run the next BBB Bash Day (our plans for Bash Day IV having been scuppered by COVID-19). Won't happen this year, but we should definitely start thinking about Bash Day IV for 2023.

Tuesday, 28 June 2022

Replaying scenarios: pros and cons?

Most of my wargaming for the past decade and more has been historical refights of nineteenth-century battles using the "Bloody Big BATTLES!" ruleset (BBB). Fortunately for us (if less so for many of the nations and peoples involved), the C19 covers a huge number of wars which generated a huge number of battles, so there's no prospect of us running out of fresh scenarios to game any time soon. Nevertheless, for various reasons, our group fights some battles multiple times. As we've done a couple of these refights this month, I thought this a worthy topic for another of my "Reflections on Wargaming". Basically, the question is: what is the point of going over the same ground again (and again and again)?

In my popular post on "Reasons not to refight historical battles", one of the main objections several commenters raised to any historical refight was "We know what happened": we already know what reinforcements will arrive where and when, which generals made what mistakes, there's no surprise element, it's obvious what one side or the other should have done. Replaying a scenario is effectively a refight of a refight, so if these factors are a problem the first time, surely they're a problem squared come the replay, right? Any novelty there might have been has to have worn off, the best plan for both sides will have been discovered if it wasn't already, we'll just be going through the motions. Why waste our time on such a tired game when we could be doing something new and different?

Well, let's take a look at this month's two re-refights and see how they played out and whether they were worth it. The games in question were Loigny/Poupry (Franco-Prussian War, 1870) and Nachod (Austro-Prussian War, 1866).


Loigny/Poupry

This is one of the scenarios in the BBB rulebook. I wrote it in 2013. Obviously we playtested it several times before publication, but it has made it onto the table several times since then as well. It has several virtues as a game: the terrain is reasonably easy to set up; both sides have plenty of manoeuvring to do and choices to make; it's a fun match-up of German quality vs French quantity.

I have never, ever seen it produce such an emphatic French victory as we saw this month. The battle revolves around three victory locations that define the German line. Two of them are vacant initially, as the only German troops on the table are the Bavarians around Loigny on the German right. It's a two-day battle, and on the first day the French only get one corps that arrives on their left to take on the Bavarians. Both sides get more troops on day two that arrive on the other half of the table around Poupry.

Initial setup. Bavarians deployed in the western (left) half of the table. French will enter from the south (bottom) edge. Three red counters barely visible are the three objectives. L-R: Loigny; Lumeau; Poupry.
 
Nevertheless, the German plan involved thinning their right immediately so as to race troops across to occupy all three objectives. There was certainly a logic to this: it is easier to defend villages than to take them, so stealing a march on the French in this way could have paid off. However, it meant that most of the German artillery was silent on day one, because it was moving away from the action around Loigny; and the troops left to defend Loigny were outnumbered and ultimately enveloped and overwhelmed. When the main forces arrived on day two, the Bavarian brigades that had raced across to Lumeau and Poupry found themselves isolated and outmatched in turn; the Hessians and Holsteiners doubling forward to help them chose to attack across the open ground on the extreme left instead of filtering through the woods and supporting the centre; massed French firepower drove them out of Poupry, and the Papal Zouaves led a massed assault to drive them out of Lumeau in the centre.


French left swings round to envelop  the Bavarians in Loigny (bottom right) who are about to be targeted by the French mitrailleuse. The opposing cavalry at top of picture did very little all game apart from cancel each other out. 

Western half of the table again, circa nightfall. The face-off in the villages top left lasted pretty much for all the next day with inconclusive mutual assaults, but that thick blue French line bottom of picture overwhelmed the defenders of Loigny and pressed on towards Lumeau.
 

Victors and vanquished alike were all stunned. Admittedly we had tweaked the scenario a little, treating the built-up areas as 'Villages' rather than 'Towns', which reduces their defensive value and makes it easier for the objectives to change hands. This perhaps favoured the French attackers more than the German defenders, but as there were lots of villages that the French could use from which to develop their attacks, it was a two-way street rather than a one-sided tweak, so we can't blame the German defeat entirely on that. The French may have had slightly the best of the dice, particularly in an artillery duel that developed in the centre and saw the German gun line driven back, but the dice weren't outrageously skewed either. It has to come down to the German plan misfiring.

  

Endex. All three red counters have turned blue to show they are now French-held. The German force has been reduced to a few scattered remnants in the top half of the picture north of the road between the objectives. French quantity beat German quality on this occasion.

So, was it stale and tired? No! Had the novelty gone? No! It was a most exciting and entertaining game that followed a most unexpected course. A previously untried German plan made for a very different battle from any of our previous refights and offered fresh grand tactical lessons. And, last but not least - it's always nice to field the Foreign Legion and the Papal Zouaves.


Nachod

This scenario is of more recent vintage: I wrote it in early 2020, just before COVID lockdown struck. Consequently it provided one of our first remote games that April (AAR here), but it hadn't yet made it onto the table for a face-to-face encounter. Crispin was keen to lay it on again. In fact he was the only one of our group this time who had played it first time round (I GM'd then), as we had some different personnel for the reprise, including a new recruit - Philip - whom we only met and roped in 5 minutes before kick-off.

It's a fun battle. The Prussians start with just a small advance guard on table, which has to deploy quickly into suitable positions to hold off advancing swarms of Austrians in increasing numbers until the Prussian main body arrives mid-game. This makes it a game of two halves, as the Austrians have to seize vital ground initially, then fend off the inevitable Prussian counter-attack. It also makes it a good game for a new player such as Philip, who was able to learn the rules while handling just a couple of units at first, then get more to do as more troops marched on.


Looking south across the battlefield. Prussians are marching out of the pass through Nachod, lower left; Austrian columns visible arriving from top right, with more to come on from the right. Pink lines are contour lines marking the edges of hills; white lines are roads; white counters are objectives.
 

The Austrians definitely had the rub of the green in the crucial early turns. A combination of dire dice on Philip's part and a careless error on mine, squandering von Wnuck's improvised cavalry brigade, saw the Austrians swiftly occupy the three (out of a possible six) objectives they needed for victory, inflicting heavy losses on our Prussians as they did so.

The tide turned, though. It took us half the game before we caused a single Austrian casualty, but once we got serious numbers on the table, Austrian losses mounted exponentially. Philip particularly remarked on seeing the asymmetry of weapons and doctrine between the two armies play out on the tabletop. In classic BBB fashion, several objectives were in play on the last couple of turns, thus all three results were still possible; but, again in classic BBB fashion, while we Prussians were able to kick the Austrians out of one objective, they comfortably held a second and just clung onto the tiniest toehold in another for a draw.

Game end. This scruffy table littered with counters and paraphernalia is an indication of how frenetic the game became as it entered the last few turns. The Prussians (on the darker bases) have retaken the wood in centre of pic, but have not quite managed to eject the Austrians from the square village to its right. The Austrian ranks have been thinned considerably, as they were historically: Ramming's corps was unfit to fight next day at Skalitz.

Given the mostly different players, it was only a refight of a refight for Crispin and me, but we certainly both got value out of it as we were playing different roles. It was also a rollicking seesaw game. It played out somewhat differently from the remote game too: in that, the Austrians steamrollered as far forward as they could and at their highwater mark held five of the six objectives, too many for the Prussians to roll them back from, hence a (suitably Pyrrhic) Austrian win; in this one, Crispin and Dave chose to consolidate once they had the minimum three for a win, but could only hang onto two for a draw.


Reflections

- The only real reason against (or perhaps two sub-reasons), (a) the risk of staleness/lack of novelty, and (b) 'we know what happened', were emphatically dispelled in both games. Both played out differently from their previous incarnations, Loigny radically so.

There turned out to be plenty of reasons in favour of wheeling out the same game again:

- It gives you a chance to try solving the same grand tactical problem with a different plan (which can backfire entertainingly, as the Prussian one did at Loigny)

- You can see the problem from the other side, as Crispin did by playing the Austrians at Nachod (he'd been Prussian in the remote game)

- If you've painted up some exotic unit like the Papal Zouaves that only featured in one or two battles historically, a refight may be the only way to get them on the table again in a historical scenario

- Refights allow exploring different 'what-ifs'. For Loigny, we tried a tweak that changed how the terrain effects were depicted (reducing the defensive value of the villages). Other scenarios offer historical options such as the arrival of troops that didn't quite get there historically, etc.

- Refights are obviously essential for playtesting. Nachod is still in draft. After the first outing, the remote game, I did a second draft that handicapped the Austrians by making them Passive. But we didn't apply that change in the second game, and having seen how that went I think it unnecessary.

- Some scenarios become 'old friends' because they offer enduringly enjoyable tactical challenges; others because they are easy and convenient to set up quickly for a club night. Loigny qualifies on both these counts; Nachod more so on the first (though Crispin had prepared another of his battlemats so actually we were able to just roll it out and set up in 5 minutes); the ones I always recommend as BBB 'training scenarios', Montebello and Langensalza, meet these criteria too.

- What is familiar to some may still be fresh to others. For Crispin, Nachod was a refight wearing a different hat; for me, it was a refight where I got to play rather than umpire; for Mark and Dave it was their first go at the scenario; and for Philip it was his BBB baptism of fire.

Final reflection:

- Saying it myself, I know, but BBB just makes for exciting, fun games - the HQGE. I hadn't played for a few weeks before coming back to these two games in succession. Both were dramatic and exciting in different ways: Nachod a classic ebb-and-flow, will-they-won't-they rollercoaster; Loigny more of an oh-my-god that just got worse and worse for the Germans to the extent that the German players had to laugh at their own misfortunes. The games were as fresh now as when we first started kicking rules ideas around in 2009, and showed why BBB has attracted such a diverse group of players to our corner of the club and remained our staple ruleset for over a decade.


===

Update 2 July 2022: this was another popular post that generated a good 100 or so comments on various forums. These are the links if you want to see the full discussion there:

TMP

Pendraken

TWW

LAF

To summarise/paraphrase the negative ones first:

“You can’t actually do a historical refight” or “I don’t like historical refights” or “Is a refight just an exercise in seeing who can roll better dice?”. (I like your cynicism, hammurabi70!) I think this was sufficiently addressed in my previous post on “Bloody Big BATTLES Blog: Reasons NOT to refight historical battles” so I’ll say no more on that here.

“Historical battles are too big for my table”. Hmm: well, that’s why we created BBB, to fit pretty much any battle on a modest 6’x4’ …

“Generally not – there are so many battles to choose from, there’s no need to fight any of them more than once unless you feel like it.” Isn’t that “no but yes”?

“Don’t use dice. As random number generators they are indifferent at best.” A bit left field, John – where did that come from? There’s a discussion to be had there, but probably in a future post rather than this one.

Some scenarios lose their charm, particularly if not balanced or not many tactical choices, or once you’ve worked out the optimal play. Certainly true. Others lose their charm if they rely on some surprise event/element that can’t be repeated. Even more certainly true. Deephorse sums it up well: “Ultimately it’s down to the quality of the scenario”.

“No – each game should push me to paint more figures. That means minimum repetition!” I quite like this one. For me, the primary motivation is the game, but I can sympathise with those for whom the game is secondary to the aesthetic of the collection of armies. Bravo.

 

As for the positive:

“Yes, if only to play the opposite side.” Several made this point. I might add, if the scenario itself is unbalanced, playing it from both ends evens that out in a way. Or maybe it just gives players two chances to complain that the scenario is biased against them and they couldn’t have won anyway …

That “what if?” question. It’s the main reason for doing a historical game to start with; it still applies to refighting the refights to explore all the options or even see if a plan that failed can succeed with a bit of better luck.

Replaying the same scenario with different rules has value. Certain scenarios can become standard ones for testing rulesets.

Replaying the same scenario with different armies in a different period has value. Fighting Waterloo with the armies from Gettysburg was the example given. I’ve played Blenheim with Napoleonic armies.

Scenarios, historical or otherwise, are a good way to get a game started; replays reduce the (practical and mental) effort to set up.

Several commented from a gamemaster/umpire point of view. Of course if you’ve prepared a game for a convention, for instance, you probably want to run it a couple of times beforehand to test and practise it; and you might want to run the same game several times at one or more conventions, or even just for different groups of players at your club.

Yes, especially if you’ve invested in designing a scenario, creating bespoke terrain, painting specific armies or units for it – you should replay at least a couple of times to justify the effort!

 

Summing up: the consensus (among those who actually like to do historical refights at all) was that not every scenario is suitable, and you wouldn’t want to do the same one again and again forever, but there are so many good reasons in favour that “yes, of course you should do refights of refights”.

Huge thank yous to everyone who took the trouble to comment – it’s enthusiastic feedback like yours that keeps this blog going.



Sunday, 5 June 2022

Brittany: fortifications and museums

I took advantage of a week's holiday in Brittany to explore several centuries' worth of fortifications and museums. (See also my previous military museum raid on Brittany to St Cyr.) Most of this reconnaissance was done during day's tour of the Crozon peninsula along the Route des Fortifications. The Crozon tourism office provides a nice downloadable brochure here.

Captioned photos below give the details. In summary:

Wars of Religion: Pointe des Espagnols

C17: Tour Vauban

French Revolution/Napoleonics: coastal batteries and garrison towers; Musée Vendée Chouannerie; Phare d'Eckmühl

C19: Fort Kador; coastal batteries

WWI: 32cm gun

WWII: lots of coastal bunkers; Battle of the Atlantic museum; Lorient submarine pens.

(The photos are grouped by site rather than in any special chronological or geographical order, so if you're interested in one conflict or site in particular, sorry but you'll just have to search/scroll.)


The Pointe des Espagnols

Spanish Point commands the approaches to Brest. The placard below tells the story. In 1594 the Spanish landed; 400 of them fortified the place and defended it for a month against the Huguenots and their English allies. Subsequent centuries saw layers of batteries and fortifications added.

This massive piece of ordnance is a 32cm gun that was deployed here in the 1880s. During WWI it was used as a railway gun at the Somme. It fired so much, it wore out its rifling and was rebored to 34cm calibre!


Fort Kador

Morgat is the small port of Crozon on the south coast of the peninsula. In the mid-C19 a system of fortifications was built to defend it, including the upper and lower Kador batteries.


The upper battery actually dates back to the Seven Years War: a simple U-shaped mortar position supported by a garrison hut and powder magazine.

The battery (left of pic) - not much left to see!

... but the powder magazine is still there ...

... and so is this substantial casemate behind its earthen ramparts at the lower battery. This fortification now protects a bat colony.



On the west coast of the peninsula is a set of German bunkers. These were built on top of C19 mortar battery positions to house a coastal defence battery in WWII. Nowadays, one of them is home to the excellent Musée Mémorial Bataille Atlantique. 

The museum is approached via an avenue lined with anchors, mostly from French warships. These massive things are three times as tall as me. And it's not that I'm short.

The museum is also guarded by a sea mine and an 88mm off a U-Boat. (Not a very successful one - five missions, 64 days' sailing, no kills, captured in a French port, if I remember right.) The museum is absolutely packed with such treasures.

Stonework betrays the C19 ancestry of the position.


Fort de la Fraternité

On the west coast while heading up to Pointe des Espagnols we found this small fort complex. Originally built in 1793, then updated mid-C19, then taken over and added to by the Germans (of course) in WWII. The hyperlinked source explains better than I can.

The main fort has an extensive loopholed curtain wall (left of pic) and a central powder magazine (right of pic).

It is on the north shore of a cove. Looking south across the cove you can see the German bunker at the point, and a well protected building centre of pic. Incidentally, these sported some better-quality graffiti than the usual - quite artistic, in fact.



Toulinguet is the westernmost tip of the Crozon peninsula. Consequently for Vauban to install a battery, then more added in Napoleonic times, plus an enceinte and tower to protect the landward side; then further batteries in the late C19. A naval surveillance station still operates from the site, hence no entry past the enceinte wall..

The tower is outside the enceinte. This held 18 men.



The charming seaside town of Camaret boasts this fine tower and battery constructed by Vauban. It has a museum inside but time did not permit so I can't report on it. A pity, as apparently there was a serious battle here in 1694 with Vauban himself present. But I can report that Camaret has plenty of nice waterside bars and restaurants to refresh a thirsty student of military history.



Phare d'Eckmühl (Penmarc'h Lighthouse)

At the southwest corner of Brittany, near Penmarc'h, is the Eckmühl lighthouse - so called because it was built with funds donated by Marshal Davout's daughter to commemorate his exploits at the eponymous battle in 1809 which earned him the title of Prince of Eckmühl.

The Phare is just one of a series of four towers along the point. Two of the other three were previous lighthouses, superseded as taller lights were required. As at Toulinguet, the white tower at the end is still an active naval surveillance station.


Lorient U-Boat Base

A trip to Brittany would not have been complete without visiting the massive U-Boat pens at Lorient on the south coast. Three huge concrete bunkers had 17 docks in all and an elaborate lift and carriage mechanism to move subs between them.

K1 was closed on the day of our visit; K3 only visitable by guided tour in French; my French is OK but an hour and a half would have been too arduous; so we just went to the K2 exhibit about submarines in general.

That did include a tour of a 1950s French sub, the Flore. Sufficient to confirm that submariner would not have been an ideal job for me.

Didn't make it to Brest but here is a view of the Brest U-Boat pens across the water from Pointe des Espagnols:


Musée Vendée Chouannerie
(Saving the best until last - this one's for you, Vincent!) The Musée des Guerres de l'Ouest (as it also calls itself) is in a former hospital bunker, part of a large complex built by the Germans to defend Quiberon Bay. The museum is devoted to the Breton Chouannerie (a series of uprisings from 1794 to 1832) and the War in the Vendée (1793-1796).

The bunker complex:

I had not appreciated the scale of these conflicts. A map in the museum shows the locations of some 30 battles or significant skirmishes; the Vendéan army fielded 10s of 1000s of men; and well over 100,000 Vendéans died either in action, or of disease or hardship, or in Republican reprisals. Feelings can still run high today: while we were in the museum shop, one of the museum staff was in a heated argument with another visitor. It ran something like this: "The Vendéans were counterrevolutionaries - they had it coming." "What, the women and children burned to death in a church had it coming?" A grim business. As they say, war doesn't decide who's right, only who's left.

A French Revolutionary hussard de la mort - 'Death Hussar'

A distinctive feature of the museum is its rank upon rank of charmingly characterful model soldiers. Here we have some of the Republican forces sent to suppress the uprising.

Not so charming: Republicans pacifying a Vendéan village.

Towards the end, the Vendéan army tried to escape pursuit by crossing the Loire, as depicted in the painting and diorama below:

... and a close-up of the diorama:

The museum had far more than these pictures can do justice to, and more than we could absorb in a short hour's visit. Paintings, uniforms, documents, weapons, artifacts ... I came away armed with a book to learn a bit more about it all. Recommended!











Tuesday, 24 May 2022

The Unluckiest All Black

Surely all wargamers and amateur military historians enjoy reading about the deeds of braver and better men than ourselves. In that vein, let me depart from this blog's usual military scope and pay tribute to an illustrious forebear whose notable exploits were performed on the rugby pitch rather than the battlefield (his military service being on the home front).

Alexander 'Nugget' Pringle (1899-1973) played rugby for New Zealand, earning one All Black cap in 1923. He would surely have merited more, but fickle fate in the form of injury, illness or other misfortune thwarted him repeatedly - hence the title of his newly published biography, 'The Unluckiest All Black'. This is available in paperback for a modest £9.95 or as an ebook, eg on Kindle for just £4.99. It has been described as 'the latest addition to the New Zealand rugby canon' by noted author and historian, Dr Ron Palenski, who kindly provided invaluable assistance during preparation of the book.* I hope it will be of interest to some readers of this blog.

(Disclaimer: I helped prepare the book too, mainly with the graphics.)

* Incidentally, as well as his sports books, Dr Palenski is an authority in our usual military history domain as well. His military books include 'Kiwi Battlefields' and 'Men of Valour: New Zealand and the Battle for Crete.

Thursday, 19 May 2022

Smash, bang, wallop: Dresden!

As most wargamers and readers of this blog probably know, Dresden (1813) was one of the biggest battles of the Napoleonic Wars, with over 300,000 men engaged. This makes it a must-do for any serious grognard. Mark Smith duly obliged and ran a game of his BBB Dresden scenario for us.

Just as the historical battle was fought over two days, so was ours. In our case it was two remote sessions on successive weeks. Consequently the French command changed at half-time, with Colin taking over from Crispin as Napoleon to fend off the allies commanded by me and Graham.

It's very much a battle of two halves. On Day 1, the French are outnumbered but have all their best troops on the pitch - including the entire Imperial Guard - with which to prevent the Austrians, Russians and Prussians gaining a foothold in the suburbs around Dresden. On Day 2, both sides are reinforced, but the allies gain guards and grenadiers to stiffen them against the French counterattack.

Scenario map. Red stars indicate victory locations. NB - the redoubts only matter on Day 1. Inevitably there will be tough fighting around the city, but there is also room for manoeuvre on both flanks.
 
The scenario design puts pressure on the allies to attack initially, rewarding them with 1 or 2 Victory Points if they manage to hold 1 or 2 of the redoubts at the end of Day 1. Graham and I calculated that attacking offered other advantages too: once in the Gross Garten or the suburbs, our troops would benefit from cover; and compressing the French front line would make it hard for the enemy to use all his combat power.

We therefore launched multiple serious attacks: against Friedrichstadt in the northwest, against the Gross Garten in the south, and against the three redoubts between them. After a couple of turns of attack, counter-attack, and counter-counter-attack, we had got into but not gained control of the Garten and the 'stadt; all three redoubts had changed hands, but we only held onto one of them. Still, at least that was one VP in the bank that could not be taken away from us.
 
 
Webcam view late on Day 1. Plenty of fog of war! Looking south from behind Dresden. The rectangular hedge left centre is the Gross Garten, with both sides' troops contesting it. Austrians and Prussians line the ridge in the distance; blue 'Spent' markers are the legacy of the Old Guard retaking a redoubt from Kleist's Prussians. Masses of French hold Dresden. Their high quality is shown by the green cubes ('Aggressive') and purple counters ('Shock' cavalry).

For Day 2, Colin inherited something of a traffic jam, with the French army virtually all in the semi-circle of Dresden and its suburbs. On the French right there was some space to breathe and a chance for Marmont to break out and threaten the objectives behind the Allied left wing. Unfortunately for him, stalwart Austrian defence and some lamentable French movement rolls meant Marmont never managed to eject Gyulai from Friedrichstadt. This in turn impeded French efforts to attack in the centre towards the bridge at Plauen and caused losses in precious French cavalry who were exposed to fire against their rear. On the allied right, late in the piece the French did attempt to send some troops around the flank against the objective at Seidnitz, but this was too little too late, as by then the Russian heavy cavalry was there to counter this. Added to the mix were some lethal allied firing and combat dice at a couple of crucial moments, wiping out potent French cavalry formations.

Real-world fatigue on the French side meant we couldn't play the last turn, so "at that point we called it": Mark's assessment as umpire was that it would probably be an allied win, though with a reasonable possibility that the French might have taken enough objectives to salvage a draw. Given what I think was a decent allied plan plus some help from the dice, that seemed a fair result.

Reflections:

Claustrophobia! The high troop density provided a very different feel from more open battles. With so many units packed into a narrow frontage, the French especially suffered from masking their own guns and struggled to attack out of the difficult terrain of the city in anything like a coordinated manner. Whenever either side attacked, instead of sweeping manoeuvre and knockout blows, it was more like two boxers in a clinch exchanging repeated body-blows. Every attack left the attacker disrupted and vulnerable to a counterattack, and the troop density meant there was usually a second enemy line ready to deliver one. Real punch and counter-punch.

Despite the compressed front line, the nuances of terrain and different troop types meant there were still plenty of tactical decisions to be made. It was pleasing that BBB produced the right level of granularity to achieve that but still fight a big-picture grand battle.

Guns that aren't firing are guns wasted; putting them in the right place to start with is crucial. Napoleon was an artilleryman. He knew.

The fog of war of remote gaming. Colin overlooked units that were behind houses. For our part, a couple of times Graham and I advanced our cavalry into range of enemy guns that were off-camera. These were minor frustrations that actually enhanced the game in a sense, in that such blunders are a feature of real battle and it is more realistic than our usual perfect 'helicopter view'.

The time-inefficiency of remote gaming. With Mark having to dance around the table carrying out moves for all of us one at a time, and having to explain what we could see or do, it took us two evenings to not quite finish a game that could comfortably have been concluded in a single session if we'd all been round the table. But it's still way better than no game at all.

How nice to have a battle where you legitimately field the entire Imperial Guard! (Mind you, they were seen off by my iron Landwehr.)

Great game, very atmospheric. Big thanks to Mark for laying it on.

***

If you enjoyed this AAR, you can use the 'Napoleonic' label on this blog or search by year label (e.g., '1813') to find reports of our other Napoleonic BBB battles.

Tuesday, 10 May 2022

V-E Day visit to Musée de la Libération de Berjou

This V-E Day, 8 May 2022, was a suitable day for a pilgrimage to a hidden gem of a museum in Normandy:

The Musée de la Libération de Berjou is dedicated to the history of the battle around Berjou on 15-17 August 1944. This was the moment when German 7th Army was scrambling to escape the Falaise Pocket, which was about to be sealed. The British Operation Bluecoat had covered the flank of the American breakout (Operation Cobra) and brought British 2nd Army down past Vire. To cover their retreat, the Germans had tried to establish a new defensive line facing west, anchored on Flers and Condé-sur-Noireau. Now 2nd Army launched Operation Blackwater to cross the River Noireau (i.e., "black water") and breach this last German line.

Berjou is on steep wooded high ground 5km east of Condé, covering the flank of the German line. At dawn on 15 August, 214 Brigade of 43rd (Wessex) Division crossed the Noireau at several points. The next morning, the German 276 Infanterie-Division launched a violent counter-attack. The arrival of the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry's tanks helped to repel this. Then, after a powerful artillery barrage, 1st Battalion the Worcestershire Regiment liberated Berjou. The battle cost the lives of 70 British troops, several hundred Germans, and between 15 and 30 civilians.

The museum commemorates this action in a building absolutely packed with artifacts, all recovered from the battlefield. Because it has so much stuff now, they are planning to extend it. The building itself had a German gun position next to it and still bears the scars of battle damage. Exhibit highlights include an intact 81mm mortar, a rare Gw-43 German automatic rifle, an SS colonel's uniform, and (bizarrely) half a German sea mine (apparently jettisoned by a German plane, it blew out every window in the village), but these are just a few out of hundreds of items of kit, weaponry and miscellanea of all kinds. This is a very substantial collection which is still being added to: just last week, two Lee-Enfields, a Kar-98K and a Sten in good condition were discovered in a case concealed in a building wall. Our group was treated to a personal guided tour by the grandson of the man who owned the building during the war. (The owner was serving in the French military and was taken prisoner by the Germans in 1940, I believe; his uniform, POW documents etc are on display.) Our guide himself was responsible for many of the finds retrieved from locals' attics or metal detecting in the fields around about, and his knowledge and enthusiasm made the visit even better.

 

The museum is only open on Sunday afternoons, 14:00-18:00, from May to September. If you should find yourself in Normandy in those months, do make the effort to go to Berjou - it's well worth it and much better than some bigger and better-known museums in Normandy.

The museum has a Facebook page here.



.

Tuesday, 5 April 2022

Hungary 1848 #15: Temesvár - an army disintegrates

 And lo, 'tis done: the final battle in our 15-month, 15-game Hungary 1848 campaign has been fought.

The climactic battle of Temesvár (nowadays Timisoara in western Romania) is notable in a couple of ways. It is the decisive final battle of the war and also the largest, pitting about 30,000 Austrian and Russian attackers against 60,000 Hungarians. It is remarkable in that it was decided entirely by the artillery and cavalry, with the infantry scarcely firing a shot and certainly not crossing bayonets. This is because many of the Hungarian infantry were unarmed raw recruits, and all of them were exhausted and demoralised by constant retreating. The action opened with the usual artillery duel along the whole front; there was considerable manoeuvre by both sides, including several Hungarian spoiling attacks, one even by infantry; but ultimately the Hungarian artillery ammunition ran out, some raw troops on the right broke under fire, and this turned into an infectious rout covered by the hussars. Allied casualties were light, Hungarian losses devastating (mostly prisoners or just 'missing'), and most of the Hungarian formations were left worthless for combat.

Translating such a battle to the wargames table is a challenge. Do you script in the infectious rout? Do you make the Hungarian infantry unfit for combat from the start? Or do you give them a real chance of inflicting a bloody nose and pause for thought on the allies as their commander, General Bem, intended?

I opted to downgrade the Hungarian infantry's combat abilities significantly but not cripplingly. Any 'Aggressive' ratings were stripped away (even from the fabled Polish Legion). Even the best units were made Fragile, penalising them in both assault and movement. Most were rated XF - 'Extra Fragile' - making them much more likely to run away once disrupted. Many were rated as Ragged Volleys to reflect their armament with scythes rather than muskets.

The result was an excellent game, but one that only partly matched the history. Much of the Hungarian force was routed but, as the Austrian commander, I made some poor decisions that earned me a very bloody nose indeed. If you're interested in the detailed action, read the photo-AAR below. If not, you might want to skip to the end to see my reflections on the game. 

The battlefield is bisected by the marshy Nyárad stream, the line the Hungarian C-in-C Bem tried to defend. Off-table to the SE (top edge) is the Austrian-held fortress of Temesvár, whose epic siege is about to end. The yellow patches indicate that much of the battlefield was covered by tall maize, limiting visibility. White counters are the objectives: at top, the bridges leading to Temesvár; below them, an inn on each road, roughly representing the Hungarians holding a line; bottom right, two villages on the allied line of communications; and on the left, the stone bridge on the highway leading to Arad and the possibility of Bem linking up there with Hungary's other remaining field army under Görgei. All the Hungarians are on top half of the field already. Allied advance guard is lower right of picture. Main body arrives bottom right Turn 1; others bottom left T1 or 2 and (out of view) left edge T 2 or 3.

Ramberg's III Cps on the start line on the Austrian right.

The "10,000 scythe-armed national guards" around the Szt András inn on the Hungarian right wing
(in reality probably the several battalions of unarmed recruits belonging to X Corps). These are the troops who historically sparked the Hungarian rout. 

 Lázár's IX Corps in the Hungarian centre (including the Polish Legion) links up with Kmety's division which is about to cross the Nyárad on their left.

End of Turn 2. All of the Austrian left wing, Liechtenstein's IV Corps, has arrived. His grenadiers march onto the heights above Szt András (bottom right) while Brigade Siegenthal pushes forward on the left (bottom left). The Hungarians brace themselves to receive the attack. Note the wagon and white counter next to the line of poplars: this represents the Hungarian baggage train trying to escape to Arad. In the unlikely event that the wagon manages to cross the Nyárad and survive, the Austrians will lose a victory point. Meanwhile, top right, Panyutin's Russians are visible advancing to the Nyárad.

End of Turn 2 on the allied right: a formidable Hungarian force under Lázár and Kmety is debouching across the Nyárad (top right) to threaten the allied line of communications. The Italian Legion has been left to hold the Besenyő inn (top left). Wallmoden's cavalry (bottom right) have given ground while the infantry march up and the guns deploy along the road. Top centre, I pushed Brigade Dossen forward to delay the Hungarian advance. This was careless - what I thought was a unit of hapless raw recruits was actually the honvéds of Division Jászvitz with their dangerous jaegers. I would soon rue this move.

End of Turn 3 and things are looking good on my (allied) left. Siegenthal has stormed across the Nyárad (left of photo), rendering a raw Hungarian unit Spent (blue counter) and disrupting the honvéd line behind it (yellow counters = disruption). Herzinger's grenadiers press forward to the Nyárad (bottom centre). That unit in line in the maize field, upper right, is a bold Russian jaeger regiment.

 Also T3:  more Russians push forward in my centre to threaten the Besenyő inn (left of picture). The corps heavy artillery has deployed to soften up the Italian Legion defending the inn. (Green counters = Devastating 12-pdrs.) However, the Hungarians have rumbled up two artillery units - 48 guns - to canister Dossen and drive home just how serious an error I had made.

End of Turn 4 and on my left, it just gets better and better. Siegenthal has inflicted another blue Spent counter on a second raw Hungarian unit. Herzinger's grenadiers are across the stream and ready to join in the fun. The Russians in the centre are fending off weak Hungarian counterattacks and preparing for their own assault on the Besenyő inn (top right).

But on my right, the tragic waste of Brigade Dossen is complete and they are back in the box. On the positive side, the Hungarian flanking move has barely moved at all, as my horse artillery is compounding their poor movement rolls to delay them.

Not satisfied with squandering Brigade Dossen, on Turn 5 I committed an even worse sin on my left. Siegenthal's success caused a rush of blood to my head. I launched both my potent grenadier brigades against a honvéd line that looked thin but was armed with jaegers and two artillery units. The jaegers repelled one brigade with loss and the combined canister fire wiped out the other entirely - note the embarrassing gap in my ranks in front of my general by the road. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

Turn 5 was quite exciting on the right too, but better for me. My 12-pdrs began tearing holes in the Italian Legion (top left). The Hungarian left-flanking force tried to assault Wallmoden's cavalry division. The cavalry prudently evaded to safety; their guns smashed back the infantry attacking them frontally, then managed to survive the hussars' charge as well. My gallant horse artillery can be seen heading for the line of poplars, leaving a cluster of yellow-countered Disrupted Hungarians behind them. One of the yellow counters belongs to my Brigade Wolf (white coats, top centre, near their general). Undeterred by the loss of their sister Brigade Dossen, I sent these on another spoiling attack, this time with greater success.
 

Turn 6: the good news on my left is that the Hungarian jaegers are low on ammo (black counter). The bad news is that they've used it all to wipe out the rest of my grenadiers (big gap lower centre). Brigade Siegenthal by the Arad bridge looks very lonely. With hussars creeping towards my left flank (top left and top centre-left), barring the way to Arad just got much harder. 

Progress on my right, though. With only two turns remaining and quite a lot of my troops in the way, the Hungarians at top right are probably still too far away to threaten my line of communications seriously. Two Russian regiments have ejected the Italian Legion from the Besenyő inn (top left) and captured their guns. Thus, the three objectives in this picture are looking secure; I need one more for a draw and two to win. Also, notice the single-base cavalry unit on the bridge at centre left, Brigade Veigl. This will shortly have an important part to play.

End of Turn 7. The disaster on my left gets worse. Now Siegenthal's brigade has gone as well - those whitecoats you see on the bridge to Arad are the victorious honvéds, closely followed by their baggage train. All is not lost, though: the Russian jaegers have driven back their foes in the centre, then wheeled left to storm the Szt András inn - my fourth objective - while Haynau himself canters forward with Veigl's cavalry (centre-right), seeking to dash across a bridge for that fifth objective to claim a win.

Turn 7 on the right: the Hungarians have the consolation of overrunning my horse artillery but are forced to accept that my line of communications is out of reach and secure.

End of Turn 8, the final turn of the game. The Hungarian baggage crosses the Arad bridge, costing me an objective! Drama around the Szt András inn as well, which desperate scythemen briefly recaptured, only to be definitively expelled again by the Russian jaegers. I have four minus one = three objectives, one short of a draw ...

... and it is the commander-in-chief who achieves it, just as Haynau did historically when, as dusk fell, he led a mad dash through the debris of the Hungarian army to the gates of the fortress to relieve the siege!

Reflections


As a game, it was great: plenty of options and decisions and movement for both sides, see-saw action, and a rollicking finish with objectives changing hands repeatedly and the result in the balance right to the end. Don't change the scenario!

Yet, as history, it felt strangely unsatisfactory. It reproduced the Hungarian thrust around the allied left, and recreating Haynau's mad dash at the end was wonderful. But the intense infantry fights we had just didn't happen in the real thing, and it's hard to know how (or whether) to prevent that. I think the answer is to offer a scenario option that ups the Austrian victory target while (probably) handicapping the Hungarian infantry further, making them either more shaky under fire, or even worse in close combat, or even more reluctant to move, or a combination of the above - all depending on a random die roll. This could be a good way to represent the imponderables of army morale and come closer to the historical event for players who want that and who don't mind if the game is a bit more one-sided as a battle.

Good to field Crispin's new Hungarian army for the first time. That now makes three of us at OWS with full armies for both sides for the '48. I doubt any clubs outside Hungary could match that.

Exotic troop types enhance a game. Those extra-fragile scythemen may not have had much combat value, but they provided plenty of entertainment value. The baggage train was a nice addition too.

You can't legislate for stupidity. I am still shaking my head at my own recklessness in squandering not one but three brigades with such rash advances. I bet my opponents Mark and Crispin couldn't believe their luck. I don't know how I got away with a draw despite that. Maybe my judicious use of Haynau and Veigl's cavalry made up for it.

We completed a campaign! Inevitably, travels and lockdowns and other real-life inconveniences meant it took a little longer than planned and some of the core group missed out on some of the games. Because of these interruptions, we also lost some of the feeling of campaign continuity, though we managed to retain the overall 'story arc'. Even so, one campaign battle a month (and some of them being fought more than once) for fifteen months is a respectable achievement. Generals and formations acquired personality and character in our eyes over time and became old friends. After spending so long immersed in the drama of the '48, we have absorbed its history. No doubt we will visit it again, but for now: Mission Accomplished!

 
Next mission: compile all the campaign scenarios together, write an introduction, design a cover and publish "Bloody Big Hungary 1848 Battles!". Actually, that work is almost all done already in anticipation of this last game. I should therefore be able to get BBHB published very soon. Start saving your forint/Schilling!


PS - if these reports have got you interested in the Hungarian War of Independence, you might want to take a look at my books on it from Helion: