Thursday 12 September 2019

Clausewitz at Arcole

Regular readers of this blog will know of my active interest in Clausewitz: specifically, the publication a year ago of my translation (together with Professor Murray) of Clausewitz's history of Napoleon's 1796 campaign, and the series of operational-level scenarios I have written to refight it.

After a bit of a lull, I am back on a Clausewitz kick again, so we tried the latest in the 1796 series, my scenario for Arcole.

There was supposed to be a pic here of Colin's beautiful 6mm Napoleonics,
but he didn't get a photo to me in time. See Colin's own blog here.

The actual battle of Arcole was a rather remarkable action in its own right, lasting three days; having failed with his attack on the first day, Napoleon then repeated it on the second with exactly the same forces, exactly the same plan, and exactly the same result. It wasn't until day three that he executed the outflanking maneuver he should have started with and finally drove off the exhausted Austrians.

My scenario is set at a larger, operational scale, so does not necessarily reproduce the tactical situation of the battle of Arcole, as players' operational-level decisions can produce very different situations. It covers 3 weeks of action in an area about 100x150km. It uses stripped-down BBB mechanisms - no shooting, no formations, units just move and assault like boardgame counters - so the game is pretty swift.

The armies are a splendid contrast of quality vs quantity. Alvinczy's Austrians have 15 units to the French 10, but the Austrians include a number of raw newly raised Landwehr and the garrison of Mantua weakened by sickness; they are also crippled by the usual ponderous Austrian passivity. The French thin blue line is indeed pretty thin - and has to face in two directions, as it is besieging Mantua in its rear - but its units are veteran, they include some tough aggressive grenadiers, and they have Napoleon plus more competent generals than they know what to do with, so their army is very agile and resilient.

At the start, the more defeatist of the two Austrian players thought the game looked rather grim and limited (especially for them). However, as it went on it became more and more interesting, and built to a really tense and exciting climax.

Initially it was difficult for the Austrians to get their forces into action en masse. Once they did arrive in force on the plain around Vicenza and Padua, though, they put the outnumbered French under real pressure. The French responded by bringing one division through the mountains against the Austrian rear (rather like Napoleon's astonishing march through the same terrain that historically led to the battle of Bassano earlier in this campaign); that division swiftly died, but meanwhile the French had also pulled troops away from Mantua, both to strengthen their front line and also to tempt the Mantua garrison to sally and perhaps expose the fortress to an assault.

The Austrians did indeed sally. While their main force ground inexorably southwards, a division of the Mantua garrison came out to threaten the French rear. It was beaten in the field, but with one turn to go it was able to fall back and capture Verona, cutting the French line of communications.

At that point the Austrians were looking good for a draw or even a win, depending what casualties each side might inflict on the last turn. Unfortunately for them, the conquerors of Verona then rolled snake-eyes. In their debilitated state, that meant the unit vacated the city, fled northward (presumably more concerned about their own line of communications than about interrupting the French LOC), and became Spent. The French were able to retake Verona, and the casualty balance was sufficiently in their favour that they claimed victory.

Mark J remarked how playing at this operational level provided insights which we don't usually get from our tabletop wargames. In particular, the interaction of the field operations and the siege was an unusual element that the game brought out well.

The scenario only needs minor tweaking, and will certainly be played again. Meanwhile the (untweaked) version is available in the BBB Yahoo group files as usual.


  1. Sounds fascinating Chris and look forward to more of the same.

  2. Last year we got as far as Bassano before running ran out of gas. But all enjoyed the Italian scenarios. Sounds like we should give Arcole a try after the tweaked version is posted - and I return from my travels.

  3. I understand the Fencibles have had some turnover in the ranks and interests have moved on; but it would be nice to see you return to 1796 (and do more of your fine AARs for it.) Meanwhile - bonnes vacances.

  4. A first instalment of French Revolutionary infantry & Cavalry are now on the "Colin the Warmer" blog. I'm looking forward to gaming more 1796 battles in the real world soon.

    1. While googling "Colin the Warmer" finds fascinating items such as a gas heated umbrella and a jet heated toilet paper dispenser, I think you mean "Colin the Wargamer"? (and did you really mean to title that post "Recent Paining"? I suppose you might!)


Comments welcome!