Friday, 30 March 2012

A fine dish, but watch for the bones

Review of Napoleon's Chicken Marengo: Creating the Myth of the Emperor's Favourite Dish by Andrew Uffindell

(Images courtesy of the publishers. Please do not reproduce without first seeking permission)

I like food and eating. I am even the cook of the house, but am not a “foodie”, so the title of this book did not immediately appeal to me. I began reading it because the Marengo campaign is one that holds particular interest to me and it is a battle that I am hoping we will play as a wargame in the future. Having begun my reading of the book feeling “luke warm” about it, I was more than pleasantly surprised and found it to be, in the main, an engaging read.
“Napoleon's Chicken Marengo” is a balanced critique of the events prior to, during and after the battle, with particular emphasis on its place in history. Over the course of the book, Andrew Uffindell slowly reveals the multitude of myths, stories and mis-conceptions that have arisen from the battle. These have their origins in Napoleon’s own re-writing of the battle—which Uffindell contests was done by Napoleon as he used his idealised version of Marengo in the development of his art of war—through to his contemporary and subsequent enemies attempting to discredit him for political or personal reasons. Throughout the book Uffindel uses the Chicken Marengo dish as the back-drop to the history of the battle and it’s place in the psyche of Napoleonic France and beyond.
The book reads like a series of essays that are connected (at times only loosely) around the theme of Marengo: the battle and the dish. The many stories and anecdotes that Andrew Uffindel relates in each chapter provide much “colour”, although at times the writing is verbose and he seemed to be making much of little, so I was left to wonder at the relevance. This, combined with a chapter structure that is not always logical, made the book long-winded and repetitive in parts.
Despite these criticisms, most of the stories, while seemingly asides at first, reward the reader with an item of interest or a humorous or quirky observation. For example, the story of Colonel Jean-François Jacqueminot and a group of friends, former aides of Napoleon, poking fun at newly-returned royalists after Napoleon’s first abdication in 1814, by pretending to be émigres and protesting a menu that included poulét à la Marengo  (pp 116–120), or the British orator who, overhearing someone say that beer had defeated Napoleon, said “beer and wine met at Waterloo... wine red with fury, boiling over with enthusiasm,... rose thrice against that hill on which stood a wall of immovable men, the sons of beer. You have read history: beer gained the day” (p 127). I had a particular chuckle at the description of the aversion of English tourists to French food with sauces compared with their stodgy, “natural” dishes (pp 128–131).
My biggest criticism of the book is not what it includes, but what is missing. Where is the description of the battle? Uffindel seems to assume that the reader knows the battle well. I am a ‘student’ of Napoleonic history, but would have liked a refresher’ description of the battle of Marengo that pointed out the areas of greatest contention. This is especially needed as a great detail of the battle is clouded with uncertainty and the perpetuation of myths and half-truths. One example of this is the supposed destruction of the Consular Guard, which has been repeated as recently as in the Osprey Campaign series publication “Marengo 1800—Napoleon's day of fate” (Hollins and Hook 2000). In his questioning of various participant’s versions of the battle, Uffindel seems to miss the key point that an individual’s recollection of battle is influenced by his position on battlefield as well as smoke, noise and generally limited visibility. Even in the rarefied environment of a wargame it can be difficult to recall all of the details of an action and opinions vary as to what occurred!

Two of the most famous paintings of the Napoleonic era and just one of the myths that Uffindel debunks.
The selection of paintings and photos in the centre plates of the book, which are all in black and white, provide excellent support to the text and all are clearly reproduced. In addition to these are clear, detailed black and white reproductions of famous paintings of individuals and units that are found at the end of most chapters. They are a welcome inclusion, reminiscent of the history texts of the late nineteenth and early 20th centuries, which add greatly to the overall appeal of the book and the reading experience.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

A rich source of information for wargamers, enthusiasts and budding historians

Review of Burnham, R (2011) Charging Against Wellington: The French Cavalry in the Peninsular War, 1807-1814. 

(Image courtesy of the publishers. Please do not reproduce without first seeking permission)

One of my favourite books of the Napoleonic period is David Johnson’s “Napoleon's Cavalry and its Leaders”. That book provides an overview of the French cavalry of the Napoleonic wars and some of its principal leaders. In a similar manner Robert Burnham’s book deals with the subject of Napoleon’s cavalry and its leaders in the Iberian Peninsula, but, unlike the selected approach of Johnson’s book, Burnham’s tome is effectively a dictionary on the subject and so is a rich source of information for wargamers, enthusiasts and budding historians. Despite the title of the book, which is somewhat misleading and was no doubt determined by publishing requirements, the book covers French cavalry in action against the British, Spanish and Portuguese.

Robert Burnham, who edits the Napoleon Series website, has drawn on his own resources and those of his extensive network of devotees of the Napoleonic period to produce this definitive account of the French cavalry during the Peninsular War. The book begins with the briefest potted history of the Peninsular War. As he points out, this is not intended to act as any sort of a history of the conflict, but rather to introduce the four distinct phases of the war from the point of view of the organisation of the French-Allied army and its cavalry.
The remainder of the book is divided into three parts; ‘Organisation of the French Cavalry in the Peninsula’, ‘ The Peninsular Cavalry Generals’ and ‘The Regiments’. The first four chapters that comprise Part One are an expansion of the introduction, but with much greater detail regarding the organisation of the French army, principally focussed on the cavalry. Each chapter contains detailed tables (from 9 to 28 tables in each chapter!) which detail the formations, units and strengths of the French cavalry in each formation that was present in the Peninsular War from 1807–1814.
Part Two, ‘The Peninsular Cavalry Generals’ begins with an overview chapter that provides a description of the French cavalry generals who served in the Peninsula, those who lost their lives and a list of the five best cavalry generals of division and brigade that served in the Peninsula, and the five worst. Such lists will always cause discussion and argument. There are some amongst the best that I completely agree with (Montbrun, Milhaud, Latour-Maubourg), some that I did not previously know enough about to pass judgement (Sparre, Saint-Alphonse) and some whose rating is surprising to me (particularly Kellermann the younger and Gardanne), although Burnham’s reasoning for judging them as such is detailed in the short paragraph about each (and later in Part Two). The one glaring omission, from my point of view, is Lasalle. Surely his record, in campaigns in Germany, Poland, Spain and Austria speaks for itself? I suspect that Mr Burnham has downgraded him due to his flamboyance and careless approach to casualties.
Chapters 6–9 of Part Two provide a biography of every French cavalry general who served in the Peninsula, from Arrighi to Watier. For each of them Burnham gives a table listing awards and honours, date and place of birth, regiments commanded, date attained rank of general, time in the Peninsula, command or post in the Peninsula, date, place and cause of death and place of burial. This is followed by a brief yet detailed biography for each general.
The last part of the book is a detailed description of every cavalry regiment that served in the Peninsula, whether cuirassier or chasseur, provisional or listed, French or allied. For each Mr Burnham provides a chronology of the colonels, locations of the squadrons, battles and officer casualties and date of departure from the Peninsula. This is information, which is simply not readily available and certainly not in a single volume, would be sufficient in itself, but is made all the more by Parts which proceed it.
Readers are unlikely to read this book from cover to cover, but rather browse through it or go to specific parts when searching out information for a particular point of interest or to design a wargame. As the author himself told me it “is designed to be more of a reference book than anything else. It is crammed with useful information for the wargamer, but doesn't lend itself to sitting down and reading it all at once. A few things I discovered, much to my surprise, was how many other sources got the information wrong, especially about the number of squadrons in each regiment, which brigade they were assigned to, etc. Oman was very loose at times.”
This book is a must for any buff of the Napoleonic wars whether to clarify orders of battle for a wargame, to check regimental histories, seek information as the basis to rate French cavalry generals, for general interest or to win an argument!

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

An engaging book, from cover to cover

Book Review Albuera 1811: The bloodiest battle of the Peninsular War, by Guy Dempsey
(Images courtesy of the publishers. Please do not reproduce without first seeking permission)

This is a fine example of how military-history books should be written. Guy Dempsey has produced a factual, balanced account of Albuera that is written in engaging and interesting prose.

The introduction not only sets the scene but also the tone of the entire book. Throughout the text Dempsey’s clear, readable and detailed description is interspersed with direct quotes or direct references to eyewitness accounts. These have been crafted perfectly into the text so that they fit with its flow and act to enhance the word picture produced.

The first three chapters of the book cover the background to the battle beginning with the French invasion of Portugal in 1810 stalling at the lines of Torres Vedras and Soult’s decision to launch an attack in Estremadura rather than to support Massena directly (as he considered that he had too few troops). Dempsey goes on to describe the French siege of Badajoz which lead to its unexpected capture following what he calls its “fortunate” surrender. This section concludes with the commencement of the British siege of the town and Beresford’s movement to intercept Soult’s relief, along with the crucial decision that the Spanish and British troops would cooperate.

Plan of the siege of Badajoz, a plate from Albuera 1811

The bulk of the book (chapters 4 to 9) is a detailed description of the battle. Using primary sources equally from both sides, Mr Dempsey describes the battle in great detail, whilst dispelling myths that have arisen as a result of nationalistic and political needs—such as Wellington’s insistence that Beresford re-write his report of the battle as a victory. Through his use of eyewitness accounts and quotes, Dempsey brings to life the personal stories of the battle, the emotion and the tragedy.

Map of Soult's flanking attack, illustrating the clear and detailed maps in the book.

The maps are excellent and support the text perfectly. These range from a map of the overall Peninsular theatre, to smaller scale maps of southern Spain and Portugal, to detailed maps of the overall battlefield and sections of the battle relating to specific actions that are described in the text.
The descriptions of the action also include some rare insights. For example, the fundamental mistakes by both sides, such as problems with formation changes and choice of formation, during Girard’s attack. This hIghlights the difficulties of manoeuvring large bodies of men on a Napoleonic battlefield and how, even after nearly five years of near-continuous campaigning, fundamental and basic mistakes could be made that had tragic and disastrous consequences.
Chapters 10 to 14 cover the aftermath of battle, numbers of dead, dying and wounded, accounts from survivors and eyewitnesses and the fate of these men and of the prisoners. This all makes for harrowing reading, but its impact is decreased somewhat by the fact that Dempsey effectively devotes three of these chapters to the same topic, including one entitled “Second Siege of Badajoz” in which only the last two pages discuss this important aspect of the campaign. The book concludes with the summary of “Controversy and Conclusions”.

The appendices are packed with further interesting, useful and detailed information, beginning with the orders of battle of the French-Allied, Anglo-Portuguese and Spanish armies, detailing units and commanders. These are followed by a listing of unit strengths and casualties for every unit engaged, a brief appendix on uniforms, ‘How the ‘Die Hards’ Got Their Name’, ‘British Colours Captured at Albuera’, ‘After Albuera’—with brief biographies of the officers and men quoted in the chapters, and ‘The Napier-Beresford Pamphlet Wars’ detailing a ‘history war’ of old between the British commander and budding historian, and between British officers arguing over their part in the battle. When reading the book I found the first two of these appendices particularly useful as I used them to revise our orders of battle for our second attempt to re-fight the battle.

Throughout the book there are numerous examples of pieces of information that are not usually included or considered in an account of a battle. The description of the opposing armies includes information on the age demographics of each. There is a table showing the relative effectiveness of the Brown Bess and Charleville musket from tests carried out by Colonel Gerhard von Scharnhorst in 1813. These data contradict statements that are often made regarding the superiority of the former without reference to any evidence. The numbers of troops assigned to protect the baggage and their reported resentment at being assigned to this duty (pp 98-99) is also discussed. The description gives the reader an impression of the ‘organised chaos’ that must have been a Napoleonic battlefield; the intense, life and death struggles at various points, noise, smoke and stray projectiles, soldiers in formation and others wandering about the battlefield.

Of course, no book is perfect. The repetitive nature of chapters 10 to 12, mentioned above, is disappointing after the chapters that precede them. Dempsey’s insistence that the French ‘chose’ to attack in column and then deployed into line when failed rather than realising that this was the standard drill and his conclusion that the battle was a clear Anglo-Allied victory, which seems to contradict much of his preceding discussion.

These though are minor in a book that, from the outset, shows itself to be amongst the best of non-fiction writing.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Playtest of General de Brigade

First published in 1998, General de Brigade (GdB) remain a popular set of rules for brigade-level games. Several of our wargaming friends and colleagues use them, so we were keen to try them in the expectation that they might become our standard set for smaller-scale battles; or at the very least provide some useful concepts and rules to incorporate into our developing Shako-ANF rules. For our test of the rules we played a game based on the Battle of Nehrung (see report) using the second edition, published in 1999.

The mechanics of GdB were immediately familiar to us since the rules clearly have been derived from the Quarrie and WRG sets of the 1970s. Anyone who has played such rules will be familiar with a turn sequence that includes: writing of orders for each brigade, declaration of charges, movement of chargers half-way to their objective, defensive fire, testing for determination to charge and willingness to stand, closing to mêlée, all other movement, all other firing, resolution of mêlées and morale consequences of firing and combat. This familiarity meant that the rules were easy to grasp. After only a few turns each of us was comfortably working through the tables and able to take the lead in conducting a game turn.  
Despite this general familiarity with older sets of rules, GdB has numerous advances over them, reflecting developments in wargaming since the popularisation of the hobby some forty-odd years ago. For example, casualties are taken simply as whole figures or half figures, tables are much simpler than the rules of old, the continuing effectiveness of a brigade is taken into account (via morale test) and command and control is structured and limits the players’ ability to utilise the “all-seeing eye”. The inclusion of risks to generals, initiated by a double-six, adds colour and rare, random but important impacts on command and control to further challenge the player. Unfortunately these positives were spoiled by a number of aspects of the rules that we found frustrating, tedious or erroneous.
The first frustration was minor and quite surprising. The quick reference sheet, which was clear and easy to use, did not include the turn sequence. This necessitated constant referral to the rule book. Fortunately, this appears to have been rectified in the ‘deluxe’ edition that was published in 2010.
Another aspect, and one that impacted negatively on playability, was the large number of tests required to determine the result of each combat, viz. morale test to charge, morale test to receive charge and the mêlée itself. These tests, with several modifiers to check each time, slowed the rate of play to the point of becoming tedious. Naturally this problem would be reduced by greater familiarity with the rules, but a more elegant system would improve playability substantially.
More problematic was that, despite the relatively long list of factors for each test, some obvious and important ones were missing. While the presence of nearby friendly units in retreat or rout is taken into account, the battlefield situation of a unit, such as supporting units and security of flanks, is not. In addition the ‘halt’ and ‘falter’ results, which are common for a ‘low level’ failure of morale, rather than being a temporary state before a unit either regains resolution and attacks, or retires away from the enemy, instead lead to units being stuck in place, unable to move forward and blocking supporting troops. This does not seem to reflect the ‘ebb and flow’ that was common on a Napoleonic battlefield where troops would advance, engage in firefight and either attempt to close with the bayonet or retire (or even retreat or rout) if their resolution failed.
Lastly, we found that the weighting in the tests was too far towards the random factor. In each test two six-sided dice are used, while other factors range from -4 to +5. One effect of this was that, while there was a slow loss of combat effectiveness through the accumulation of casualties, units needed to lose well over 30% casualties and often over 50% before they failed morale. This produces non-historic results since, in most Napoleonic battles units lost fewer than 30% casualties and only in a few rare cases did they suffer anything like half of their strength as casualties.
All in all we found GdB to be a fairly workable set of rules. They are easy to learn and relatively easy to use. We completed an enjoyable game which played logically and largely historically. Our conclusion was the same as most other reviewers (and players) of GdB: they are ideal for people who wish to play a small-scale game with large scale units in a relatively short period of time (3–5 hours). However, they are ill-suited to larger scale games—and indeed are not intended for such. For us though, even a brigade-scale game became tedious due to the large number of tests and factors in each test and the problems discussed above.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Borodino Around the World

Can you hear it? That is the sound of maps unfurling, paint tins opening, figures being counted and game plans developing as wargamers around the world plan to mark the 200th anniversary of the terrible battle of Borodino in September this year.

We have put together our orders of battle and are compiling our special scenario rules. Read all about this and find links to the activities of other wargamers from around the world at the Wargaming Waterloo 2015 blog.

Monday, 19 March 2012

Twin Battles of Pultusk & Golymin, 26th December 1806

Battle of Pultusk, 26th December 1806
Just under 204 years to the day (19th December 2010) we played a game based on Pultusk, one of the 'twin' battles that, along with Golymin, was fought in Poland on 26th December 1806. The battles of Pultusk and Golymin, which were only about 15 km apart, were fought in knee-high mud and involved rear-guard actions by separate wings of Benningsen’s Russian First Army. These battles marked the beginning of the winter campaign of 1806-7, which culminated in the terrible Battle of Eylau.
The scenario was produced for the Shako rules and was designed to enable the battles to be fought simultaneously. However, for simplicity and ease we chose to fight them as two separate actions, beginning with Pultusk (Figure 1).
Figure 1: Map showing the initial dispositions of the French (blue) and Russian (green) armies for the Battle of Pultusk. The squares are 300 x 300 mm2, ground scale 1 mm equals 1 m.
At Pultusk, Lannes attacked a superior Russian force under Benningsen. This was our first attempt at designing a scenario for Shako and, unfortunately, we did not quite get the scale right. This resulted in a cramped battlefield as can be seen in Photos 1 and 2 below. The imposing strength of Benningsen’s force before Pultusk is in clear evidence.

Photo 1 and 2: The lead elements of Suchet’s and Treilhard’s troops of Lannes’ corps move to attack Baggovout’s 6th division occupying the left of Benningsen’s position before Pultusk.
The battle opened with a cavalry mêlée which saw Treilhard’s light cavalry driven off by Baggovout’s dragoons, leaving the flank of Suchet’s infantry column exposed to attack from the Russian cavalry (Photo 3 and 4).

Photo 3 and 4: The Kiev & Pskov dragoons proved too strong for Treilhard’s light cavalry, exposing the flank of Suchet’s infantry.
While the battalions on his left flank formed square to protect them from the Russian cavalry, Suchet’s remaining battalions attacked the Russian position on the ridge in front of Pultusk which was heavily defended by troops of Sacken’s 5th division in successive lines (Photo 5).
Photo 5: Suchet’s right-hand battalions form square to meet the threat from Baggovout’s cavalry whilst the remainder of the division attack Sacken’s position on the ridge.
Regrouping after their mêlée with the French light cavalry, Baggovout’s cavalry attacked Suchet’s column, dispersing the French artillery, but failing to break the squares protecting the French right flank (Photo 6).

Photo 6: The Alexandria Hussars from Baggovout’s 6th division easily disperse Suchet’s artillery, but are unable to break the infantry squares.
After being held up by Suchet’s column, Becker’s French dragoons counter-attacked against their Russian counter-parts from Baggovout’s division, successfully driving them away (Photo 7, 8 and 9).

Photo 7, 8 and 9:  Belated success for the French as Becker’s dragoons defeat their counter-parts from Baggovout’s 6th division.
This minor success for the French marked their ‘high-watermark’ of the battle. The attack on the ridge faltered and, with no way French will take ridge, attack called off.
Benningsen’s troops had held firm and the game was declared a major Russian victory.

Battle of Golymin, 26th December 1806

Pleasingly we got the scale right for our re-fight of Golymin, the second of the 'twin' battles of 26th December 1806. This battle saw a large French force, sans artillerie, attacking Gallitzin's rearguard in front of the town of Golymin. Historically Gallitzin conducted a great defensive action and held the French at bay. In our version Mark did even better!
Figure 1: Map showing the initial dispositions of the French (blue) and Russian (green) armies for the Battle of Golymin. The squares are 300 x 300 mm2, ground scale 1 mm equals 1 m.
The French began with part of Murat's reserve cavalry (Lasalle, Milhaud and Marulaz's light cavalry brigades and Klein's dragoon division, all without artillery) against Gallitzin's own large, mixed-arms Russian division (complete with six batteries of artillery, two of them heavy) and two small brigade-sized formations from Dokhturov and Pahlen's divisions (photo 1). The beau-sabre's of the French light cavalry did what they do best and attacked the Russians, focussing on Pahlen's 'brigade' (21st jagers, Soum hussars and Little Russia cuirassiers) on the Russian left. Unfortunately, for the French, the combination of some devastating artillery fire (Mark's dice were 'on'!) and well-timed charges by the Little Russia cuirassiers saw Marulaz's brigade break in turn 1, with Lasalle's and Milhaud's following by turn 3 (photo 2).
Photo 1: The dispositions at the beginning of the battle viewed from the Russian lines. Gallitzin’s 4th division is in strength in front of Golymin with Pahlen’s cavalry on the left. Murat with part of the reserve cavalry (Milhaud and Marulaz's light cavalry brigades and Klein's dragoon division) are the only French troops on the board.

Photo 2: Pahlen’s cavalry, supported by accurate artillery fire, have driven off Marulaz’s and Lasalle’s brigade and are manoeuvring to complete the defeat of Milhaud’s troopers.
In the centre, Klein's dragoon division (1st, 2nd, 4th and 14th regiments) attacked the right of Gallitzin's main Russian division (photo 3). They were faced off by the Moscow dragoons from Dokhturov's 'brigade', supported by the St. George cuirassiers, Pskov dragoons, Polish uhlans  and two regiments of cossacks (Grekov IX and Grekov XVIII) from Gallitzin's division. This support was not needed. The Moscow dragoons, who shall henceforth be known as “the mighty”, fought off the 1st and 4th dragoons, then charged and pushed back the 2nd (photo 4). Fresh from this success, “the mighty” regrouped and counter-charged against an attack by the recently rallied 1st and 4th dragoons, pushing them back again. Full of self-belief, they charged on to attack the 2nd dragoons once more, this time breaking them (photo 5)!

Photo 3, 4 and 5: Klein’s dragoons attacked the right of Gallitzin’s position, only to be countered and driven off by the Russian cavalry led by the “mighty” Moscow dragoons.

Meanwhile, the French 14th dragoons charged and broke a Russian foot battery. They rallied and charged the St. George cuirassiers, who were supported by the Polish uhlans. It was a close run thing (all rolled a 1!), but the 14th dragoons were broken.
Thus at midday and midway through the battle the Russians had a clear upper-hand. Klein's two regiments of dragoons are all that is left of the once sizeable French cavalry force. The Russians are in command of the north and east of the battlefield (photo 6 & 7). It was looking pretty worrying for the French, but two divisions of Augereau's VII Corps were coming through the woods to the south, traipsing through the mud (seen in photo 3 and 5 above). In addition, elements of Davout's III Corps were expected to arrive before the day's end. Could these infantry, without artillery support, combine with Klein's shaken dragoons and snatch victory from defeat?

Klein’s dragoons attacked, in an attempt to wrest the initiative from the Russians. The 1st charged against the mighty Moscow dragoons, and the 4th dragoons against the Polish Uhlans. Both of the French units were driven back in closely fought battles, but this defeat was enough to break spirit of the units and they fled the field. Thus Augereau’s infantry was left without cavalry support...

Photo 6 and 7: The situation at midday, half-way through the battle (right) and a close-up of the remains of Klein's dragoon brigade (below).

The French infantry slowly moved through the woods and debouched on the other side to attack Dokhturov’s small division, while throwing out squares to protect the right flank from cavalry attack. Finally the French had some success, Desjardin’s 17e légère pushing back Dokhturov’s Moscow musketeers.

Photo 8 and 9: A rare French success as Desjardin's 17e légère push back the Moscow musketeers.

The last hurrah (and laugh) was to go to the Russians who decided to attack the French infantry squares that were protecting Augereau’s right flank with the Little Russia cuirassiers and 'the mighty' Moscow dragoons (photo 10 & 11). The dragoons broke the square of 1/44e ligne (of course!) and then attacked two squares, of the 1/14e ligne and 2/44e ligne, but were forced to retreat. They rallied easily once they reached the Russian front line once more. The cuirassiers were not as successful and were pushed back, although they too rallied.

Photo 10 and 11: The Little Russia cuirassiers and "mighty" Moscow dragoons attack French infantry squares, the latter breaking that of the 1/44e ligne.

Photo 12: Davout's troops arrive on the battlefield too late to impact on proceedings
Thus, as with Pultusk, this was a smashing Russian victory—and a cracker of a game!. It was amazing (and a lot of fun) that the one regiment of Russian dragoons almost single-handedly one the battle. They would have been promoted if the battle had been part of a a campaign.

Photo 13 & 14: The situation at the end of the battle

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Swords and Sabres

I have recently become aware of this marvellous blog from Yves Casa (Swords Collection blog). Each piece is photographed from numerous angles, showing detail such as inscriptions, decorative hilts and scabbards. The photos are accompanied by text and images of paintings related to each piece. A must see for any enthusiast of the Napoleonic period.