Friday, October 13, 2017

Belgian Crossroads, 1815 (Part Two, The Game)

Already a warm and muggy day, Jean-Baptiste Drouet, Comte d'Erlon nervously takes the telescope from his eye. His cavalry scouts were correct; there were Brunswick infantry and cavalry up ahead near the small village of Gosselies.  On the march since midnight while crossing the Sambre river at Charleroi, his troops were tired but committed to advancing ahead. They were, of course, brave French soldiers and thoroughly used to such rapid marching. It was now 11:30 am and d'Erlon braced himself for a fight. Although there was token resistance at Charleroi, it was evident that the enemy would resist the French advance all the way to Brussels. d'Erlon had only recently assumed command of I Corps of the Armee du Nord, but he realized from his long service that the Emperor Napoleon suffered no fools. If there were enemy troops ahead, he would smash the opposition and continue the advance. There was no time to waste; Napoleon's plan hinged on the element of surprise in order to defeat the combined British, Prussians, and their lesser allies. The commander gave the order to advance without delay and push these Brunswickers aside.

Frederick William, the Duke of Brunswick, patiently sat in his saddle watching the French cavalry scouts emerge from the woods.  "The frogs are on the march, and coming this way. Don't worry lads, we'll stop them." Although he was confident to all around him, he knew deep down that this would be an overwhelming force to deal with. Having just arrived in the area of Gosselies, the Duke gave orders to his division in order to assume a defensive position. After turning to one of his trusted aides, he sent a message to the Dutch General Chasse to march to the sound of the guns with his 3rd Netherlands infantry division and arrive in support. "We'll hold them here," he said quietly almost to himself. "If we can hold but a few hours, the Dutch, Belgians, and Wellington's lobsters will soon arrive." As he uttered this statement, the dust in the distance rose up to reveal what seemed like a full division of French infantry following the already substantial cavalry force that was gathering. With a sigh, the Duke set about to organize the defense.

Our current game features a defensive action made up of troops from Brunswick and the 3rd Netherlands division attempting to hold the area around the village of Gosselies in the face of a rapidly advancing French corps under d'Erlon. Gosselies lies between the town of Charleroi and the Quatre Bras battlefield, and lies directly in the path of the French objective: Brussels. This game was played out using the excellent rules General d'Armee and features multiple divisions on both sides. A meeting engagement, the scenario features reinforcements whose entry was planned prior to the game and were dependent on die rolls in order to enter the tabletop.

Full scenario details and orders of battle can be found in Part One of the blog:

The War Game

It is important to note that the opposing forces were organized differently when it came to command and control, which makes up a critical part of General d'Armee. The allied divisions (when the Dutch-Belgians finally appear) were independent of each other and therefore had no unifying Corps commander to add ADC's to the activation process. The French, on the other hand, had a Corps commander in d'Erlon, who was able to add up to 2 ADC's each turn to the division of his choice.

Randomly selected, it was determined that the French 2nd division under General de Division Donzelet would enter the battlefield first, behind the already formed cavalry division under Jacquinot. The 1st division under General de Division Quiot would arrive as reinforcements on the road to the right of Gosselies.

On the Brunswick side, the cavalry was placed on the extreme right flank, while the infantry was advancing to the right and left of the main village. The 3rd Netherlands division would enter the table on the left rear of the Brunswick position. The large wooded area opposite the French cavalry was noted to be very important to put the Jagers (with rifles) in order to control any flanking movement by the French.

The Opening Stages of Battle

On Turn 1, neither side received any reinforcements. On the French side, the cavalry and horse guns of Gobrecht's Lancer brigade maneuvered to cover the entry of Donzelet's division, which marched onto the left side of the table in maneuver columns.  In the center, Von Specht's brigade of Brunswick infantry formed into line and advanced toward the village of Gosselies. By Turn 2, the Brunswick jagers of Buttlar's light brigade moved through the woods on the French left and began to use their rifles to harass and weaken the horse guns that were deployed to cover the French deployment. In the center, Von Specht's brigade became Hesitant and was unable to advance further to Gosselies. Already, the command and control issues had begun for the allies. The French guns answered back and inflicted casualties on the jagers at the edge of the woods, while Gobrecht's Lancers began to take casualties from the Brunswick guns on the heights. It was obvious that the wooded area on the French left was a critical point to defend and, without French infantry support, the cavalry were powerless to eject the irritating jagers.

French cavalry form up opposite the Brunswick right

Brunswick jagers inflict casualties on French horse artillery from their position in the woods

Donzelet's division, led by General de Brigade Schmitz's brigade, advances up the slope towards the awaiting Brunswick troops. Brunswick cavalry on the French left also advance toward Bruno's hussars and chasseurs, obviously itching for a fight. 

Donzelet's division advances toward the Brunswick infantry, supported by Lancers

French and Brunswick cavalry begin to engage each other as the pesky jagers continue their harassing fire

On Turn 3, Quiot's infantry division enters the table on the right of Donzelet's division. There is no sight of the 3rd Netherlands division at this point. Brunswick artillery and skirmish fire was beginning to take a toll on the advancing French. The jagers were hammering the horse guns from their covered position. Schmitz's brigade continued to advance toward the heights and the village. 

On Turn 4, d'Erlon passes 2 ADC's to Donzelet, who promptly uses the "Forwards" command for Schmitz's brigade, allowing for a faster advance. The 2/13th Legere uses this opportunity to push into the town before Von Specht could react (another Hesitant status). The French beat the odds and entered Gosselies first !  On the French right, Quiot's division was advancing toward the left flank of the Brunswick position, which was anchored by infantry and artillery. In the center, the 1/13th Legere boldly pushes up the slope, taking a ragged volley from the Brunswick 3rd Light battalion. 

French hussars suffered a setback as they charged the Brunswick Uhlans, who promptly countercharged and forced the French to retreat, throwing the French light cavalry into temporary disorder. 

There was still no sign of the Dutch-Belgian troops and the French were advancing very aggressively !

The 1/13th Legere can be seen in the distance pushing up the slope towards the awaiting Brunswick infantry

The French advance takes shape

Quiot's division on the French right begins to engage the Brunswick troops in this sector

Turn 5 sees the 3rd Netherlands division arrive onto the table.During the next two turns, the action would see-saw back and forth. After multiple charges on the French left, the Brunswick cavalry brigade would become Faltered and Retire, but the French cavalry facing them had problems of their own and became Hesitant and unable to follow up. The 1/13th would charge up the center slope but become stopped with heavy casualties. The 3/13th would arrive alongside their brothers on the slope as the Brunswickers rained musket balls downhill. After a failed attempt to dislodge the 2/13th Legere from Gosselies, Von Specht's brigade became Hesitant and had to reform for a new assault on the town. The Jagers in the woods on the French left (having forced away the horse guns due to high casualties), began to focus their aim on the hussars and chasseurs who found themselves Hesitant. The jagers were winning the fight on this flank !

On Turn 7, the Brunswick troops renewed their attack onto Gosselies and, after 2 vicious melee rounds, forced the weakened 2/13th Legere to retire. The Brunswickers now held the town!  Also in the center, French voltigeurs had inflicted casualties on the Brunswick battery commanding the heights. The Lancers of Gobrecht's brigade had already maneuvered closer in anticipation of knocking these guns out. The 2/3rd Lancers then struck, but the Brunswick artillerists aimed well, inflicting heavy canister casualties on the Lancers, forcing the French cavalry to retire. On the French right, the voltigeur screen had been eliminated due to the fire of the Brunswick guns. But the added time allowed Charlet's 1st brigade to deploy in Ordre Mixte. 

The French advance gains steam

The Voltigeurs die in front of the Brunswick guns.....

.....but buy enough time for Charlet's brigade to form up for an attack

The French attack in the center is in full swing by Turn 7
If the Duke of Brunswick's troops fought stubbornly for the first two hours of combat, inflicting severe casualties on the approaching French, Turns 8 and 9 would see the momentum shift to d'Erlon's force. By now, all of the French infantry were under Infantry Assault orders (with designated objectives), a testament to having a Corps commander in the rules system. A brigade of infantry operating under Infantry Assault is able to conduct multiple and/or supported charges. If there is one thing I've learned with the General d'Armee system, attacks need to be planned for and supported properly.
By this time, the full division of French cavalry had swung around to meet the weakened Brunswick cavalry, putting it into a Faltered state. At the end of Turn 9, French chasseurs were beginning to envelop the right flank of the Brunswickers. Donzelet's 2nd brigade was advancing through the woods, forcing the Brunswick jagers back, and following up with formed infantry in attack columns.
French cavalry prepare to sweep around the Brunswick right flank
On the French right, Charlet's brigade advanced and charged in Ordre Mixte, but were stopped cold by Brunswick artillery. The Dutch-Belgian troops were just beginning to form up behind this defensive position and were throwing Belgian jagers into the woods to threaten the French flank. Two French batteries were preparing to bombard the Brunswick troops that had occupied the town of Gosselies.
The action heats up on the French right

The initial charge by Charlet's brigade fails

The most dramatic turn of events came from the charge of the 1/17th Ligne in the center. Having repulsed the 1/13th Legere and stalled the 3/13th Legere, the 3rd Light infantry battalion was charged and routed at the top of the heights by the 1/17th Ligne, who not only had proper support in its charge, but was led personally by General de Brigade Schmitz. The 1/17th Ligne not only routed this Brunswick battalion but continued to break through in Turn 9, crashing directly into the unformed 2nd Light battalion and routing them as well. The entire center of the Brunswick position had been breached. To make matters worse, the Brunswick Light brigade's only artillery battery was severely weakened by French voltigeur fire and dispersed. 

French troops, led by the 1/17th Ligne, push through the Brunswick center

At the end of Turn 9, two out of three Brunswick brigades were in a Falter status. The 3rd Netherlands division, due to arriving late onto the field, was just beginning to deploy. After approximately two hours of combat,  the French were winning.

As we approached Turn 10, it was obvious that this would be a critical point in the battle. In the command phase, disaster continued to strike the Brunswick contingent.  The cavalry suffered a "retire" result, but were dispersed due to reaching their demoralization point. Buttlar's Light brigade received a "sauve qui peut" result (loosely translated as "run for your freakin' lives") and was also dispersed due to its demoralization point. The Duke of Brunswick's right flank and center literally crumbled. At this point, the game was called and the Duke called for a general retreat.

Although the allies had given d'Erlon's corps a bloody nose, the French prevailed, clearing the way forward to Brussels. After calculating losses (I have a standard method for percentages of hits as casualties--it seems roughly accurate when compared to actual battlefield casualty statistics) and factoring in a French cavalry pursuit, the estimated casualties for the allies came to 957 men and 2 guns. The French suffered 858 casualties and 2 guns lost as well. A sharp little fight indeed!

As for honors, General de Brigade Schmitz's charge with the 1/17th Ligne extended the boundaries of glory and was the deciding factor in the collapse of the Brunswick center. For the allies, the Brunswick jagers were especially tough in the woods and hurt the French cavalry significantly until infantry support could engage. Also, the infantry and artillery on the Brunswick left flank proved to be very stubborn in holding off the attack of General de Brigade Chartel's brigade.

Post-game observations

Although I had play-tested General d'Armee prior to this game, I expanded the scope of the battle in this one.  Adding built-up areas, a corps commander, cavalry combats, and oodles of skirmishers really forced me to dig deeper into the rules. I realized that there is a deep subtlety to this system with tons of Napoleonic flavor in the details. I was pleased with how the mechanics modeled combat in this era;  I was sold on the rules before, but now I am turning into a fanatic. Specific points noticed include the following:

-  A corps commander makes a tremendous difference, especially when attacking. I used the ADC's from d'Erlon to inspire the troops to march faster (Forwards), enable a brigade commander to lead his men to victory (Glory), and to commit brigades to a full-scale attack (Infantry Assault). These precious command initiatives made a huge difference in how the French were able to overwhelm the Brunswickers.
- Skirmishers (especially armed with rifles) are nasty in rough terrain and must be dealt with by committing resources. I felt that this simulated Napoleonic conflict especially well.
- Charges need to planned well and supported in order to achieve success. This is evident more in General d'Armee than in any other rules system that I know of.
- Artillery, although batteries can also dish out some damage, are especially vulnerable to enemy skirmishers. The guns need to be supported to be most effective.

As for the scenario, the late arrival of the Dutch-Belgian troops hurt the allies. Also, it would probably strengthen the Brunswick position if they were able to garrison the town of Gosselies from the start (the French totally surprised the allies at how fast they were able to advance and capture the town).

What a great game !  I am definitely looking forward to more battles with General d'Armee !

The Duke of Brunswick sat motionless as he saw his center and right flank deteriorate. The French had demonstrated their usual ferocity and had prevailed this day. Frederick William took comfort that his troops were able to make the enemy pay dearly for this ground. His left flank was still standing firm, but the Dutch and the Belgians weren't even in the fight yet. He reluctantly gave the order to retreat and fight another day. As a good German, he would wholeheartedly look forward to the next battle.

d'Erlon surveyed the field of carnage before him. French strength of arms had driven off the enemy on this day, but at an unacceptable price. The way to Brussels was clear again and his men would need to continue the march shortly.  d'Erlon knew that if the Brunswickers and Dutch would fight this hard, that when the British and the Prussians joined in, there would be hell to pay. After experiencing the discipline and stubbornness of Wellington's men in Spain, he knew that this would not be an easy campaign.

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