Monday 2 July 2018

Guess which battle this is!

It is mid-June. The continent is in turmoil. Nineteenth-century Europe’s crowned heads are combining to crush an upstart; their overwhelming forces are converging on a defiant nation-state. The latter’s commander-in-chief decides to exploit his central position and interior lines to defeat his foes in detail. He plans to attack the enemy army to his northwest before that arriving from the northeast can join it.

He has the advantage of surprise. Unfortunately, some of his most trusted lieutenants from previous campaigns are no longer with him; his new subordinates are gallant but promoted to unfamiliar roles, their actions are indecisive and uncoordinated; soggy ground hampers his advance. Part of the enemy army fights an initial delaying action, one of his corps fails to reach the battlefield in time, and surprise is lost.

Still, the dice are cast and the battle must be fought. He attacks the enemy army, but again, part of his force is on a wild goose chase and ineffective. His climactic assault is pressed hard but cannot break the enemy. The first troops of the enemy’s ally arrive and turn the tide, he is forced to turn from attack to defence. A rocket battery plays a cameo role. Enemy numbers are now too great, the battle is lost, and his army reels back, defeated.

Although this sounds a lot like Waterloo in June 1815, it is actually Pered in 1849. The crowned heads are the Austrian Kaiser and the Russian Czar. The defiant nation is Hungary, fighting for independence from Austria, and its commander-in-chief is Artur Görgey. He wants to inflict a serious defeat on the Austrians before 250,000+ Russians arrive to make the arithmetic inexorable. In the past month his three corps have all received new commanders for various reasons, two of whom let him down badly through their lack of initiative and energy. II Corps fights alone in an initial action at Zsigárd as well as on the first day at Pered (now in Slovakia). III Corps joins in on the second day, but by then a division of Russians has arrived. Austrian rockets set fire to the village of Pered which the Hungarians have barricaded as the bastion of their defensive position, and it is carried by assault from two sides. The allies now greatly outnumber the Hungarians, who are forced to quit the battlefield and retreat to their fortress of Komárom.

I found the parallels between the Waterloo campaign and this episode from 1849 fascinating. I'm surprised they haven't been remarked on in any of the works I've read about it. I don't think Görgey mentions it in his own memoirs, so perhaps he wasn't consciously emulating Napoleon. I suppose if he'd remembered that Napoleon lost at Waterloo he might not have wanted to repeat that! 

Perhaps Banlaky is right in suggesting that Görgey would have done better to attack along the south bank of the Danube rather than north of it, and thus taken a more direct route towards Vienna, which might have put more pressure on the Austrian Emperor to call it a draw; but that could have left the road open for united Austrian and Russian armies to drive south through Buda into the heart of Hungary. Yet another challenging decision in this neglected conflict.

I have drafted a scenario for fighting Pered using the BBB rules. I haven't playtested it yet but it looks to be a fun game with lots of possibilities. It is in the files of the BBB Yahoo group.

Update 16 July 2018: well tonight we did play it. I confirm it is a fun game with lots of possibilities! We had a really exciting game. The scenario seems to capture the Hungarians' desperate resilience as the odds threaten to become overwhelming. While it is primarily a frontal push channeled between two rivers, the threat of Hungarian interventions from flank and rear keeps the Austrians on their toes, and in tonight's game the flank threat became real and turned an Austrian win into a draw. Both sides have some interesting options about how and when to reinforce, and the two night intervals allow redeployment and change the shape of the battle. The early turns are really crucial; if the Hungarians enjoy good fortune early on (tonight we didn't), they can get a serious numerical advantage mid-game before the Russians arrive. Ours ended in a classic nail-biter, cries of glee and woe as the last few dice were cast, and we all went home high on adrenalin. This one will be played again and again, for sure!

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