Sunday, September 19, 2010

Rearguard at Santa Maria

After a lengthy break including (variously) earthquakes and holidays, another random VLE game sprawled onto the new, rather larger table at Waikuku. As the scenario was made up on the spur of the moment, and no-one really took any notes, discussion here will be brief!

We don't always field balanced forces in our games. Real life was never balanced, and we find more interesting games (and unusual conditions which find gaps in the rules) often develop from situations where the overall outcome isn't in much doubt and victory conditions need to be more imaginative. This was the situation here, although the French did not know just how weak the British were.

Picton's under-strength Division (commanded by Dave and Ross) was tasked (a little unfairly!) with fighting a rearguard action to hold off the pesky Frogs as long as possible; the position chosen was a nice, classic British-friendly ridge line overlooking the village of Santa Maria but the limited forces available to the British commander made it unlikely his position could hold for long.

The French  players (Ion and Geoff) commanded Gen. Delaborde's Division; this formed the Advance Guard of a Corps and was required to brush the pesky redcoats aside quickly so the Corps could advance unhindered.
Quiet and peaceful - the  previous day....
The view looking North shows the British position to the left (West) and the French to the East. Camera perspective has rather skewed the image - the village in the distance is actually close to the centre of the table! The two woods with dark-cloloured trees were dense and swampy (Bad Going), while the rest were open woods and Rough Going. All the hills were gentle slopes.

This view, from the French centre, better shows the area of the table where all  the action took place:
Santa Maria from the East, with Perdido in foreground and Derrida top right
Mostly hidden, the British had just three infantry brigades, plus a small cavalry brigade with one heavy and two light regiment, all under strength. Gen. Halkett's Light Brigade was concealed forward of the hill, holding the southern end of Santa Maria with the 95th Rifles in the enclosures. Gen. Barclay's 6th Brigade held the northern part of the village, while the Allied left flank was formed on the ridge to the south of the village and entrusted to Gen. Bradford's Portuguese Brigade, comprised of three small battalions of keen but inexperienced troops. The Division's KGL Brigade under Gen. von Alten was detached, and though ordered back was not expected to arrive in time to join the battle.

The French set up with their left and centre packed into the central third of the table, with three Infantry Brigades aimed directly at Santa Maria:
Gen. Merlot's and Gen. Medoc's Infantry Brigades, with Gen. Margaron's  Grenadiers, put on a fine show
The only French force to their left was a battalion from Gen. Merlot's Brigade and the Foot Battery which moved up the road to seize Perdido, and Milhaud's Dragoon Brigade, which due to some bad luck with the random troop quality rolls, were both Raw regiments.

The Dragoons were sent on a wide sweep to the left, and other than eventually discovering part of the sunken stream which protected the British southern flank, contributed nothing to the battle - probably wisely, given the superior quality of (most!) of the British.
Milhaud's Brigade looks impressive, but they are raw recruits
Geoff's force was to their right, and planned to turn the British left flank:
Gen. Thomiere's and Gen. Solignac's Infantry Brigades, with Gen. Colbert's Light Cavalry Brigade and Horse Battery on the right flank
The size of the new table allowed Ion's megalomaniac Napoleonic ambitions free reign, and a full-scale pin-and-envelop action ensued, culminating in a convincing French victory.

Gen. Merlot's Brigade advances in the centre, and finally some British appear - two artillery batteries open up from in front of the ridge line
Another nice view of the impressive French advance to contact
The view from the British gun line above Santa Maria. Unseen, the Light Brigade hold the enclosures and the southern part of the village
As the French pressure builds, finally the British come out to play. Gen. Barclay's 6th Brigade holds the northern part of Santa Maria, while Gen. Bradford's Brigade of Portuguese Conscripts holds the left flank. The Thin Red Line is stretched very thinly indeed...
Gen. Halkett's Light Brigade ambushes and destroys a French battalion on the southern flank...
... and the Portuguese conscripts (with some help from their friends) see off an initial French attack...
...but now the inexorable French pressure starts to build as they swing around the British left flank.
The British Heavy Cavalry are all but annihilated in a rash charge against the French horse battery, and the writing is on the wall...
Although one of Colbert's Light Cavalry regiments was routed, the British cavalry was neutralised and the final French assault could be launched. The Allied force was unable to withstand a second attack, and Picton ordered a full withdrawal covered by von Alten's KGL Brigade which had only just arrived.

Delaborde's Report on the action at Santa Maria

From: General Delaborde, at Santa Maria.
20 September, 1810

To: Marechal Massene, Prince d'Essling
Cuidad Rodrigo.

Your Highness:
I have the pleasure to report that we have successfully carried the village of Santa Maria along with the vital nearby road nexus to which your highness attached great importance. The Allies put up their usual stiff fight, but word has reached us that this only meant heavier losses to them, and made their defeat the more difficult from which to recover. Their retreat has been marked by much abandoned equipment and stragglers picked up by our pursuing cavalry.

Upon the evening of 18 September my Division, with attached cavalry and horse guns, lay a couple of miles east of the village we had been instructed to take. No sign of the Allies showed itself, but peasants in the vicinity that we questioned assured us that they were indeed ensconced in or near the place, but in what strength or composition we were unable to elicit.

A brief conference with my Chief of Staff (General de Brigade Geoffrey Sansnomme) led to the following plan being adopted (Map 1)
The dashed line was where we conjectured the Allies to form; the dotted line the extension we hoped to induce by our flanking manoeuvre.

Under my own hand were the Brigades of Merlot and Medoc (4 battalions apiece), who were, with the support of the 8pr guns of the foot battery, to conduct a holding attack directed against the village and it flanking enclosures. The inexperienced Dragoon Brigade (2 raw regiments), under its very able commander, General Milhaud, would cover our open left flank.

Meanwhile, a task force of our best troops were sent to develop, engage and if possible envelop the Allied right flank [this force, though not large, was given no raw troops: half the infantry were veteran; the light horse experienced]. The hope was to commit any reserves the enemy might have available, to stretch their line and thus weaken the entire northern flank. This force was alloted the Brigades of Solignac and Thomieres (3 battalions each), Colbert's light horse (2 regiments), and the horse battery. As we deemed the task beyond the capacity of our gallant Brigade Commanders, Chief of Staff Genl. Sansnomme was charged with carrying out this vital mission.

Finally, I also retained under my own hand the veteran grenadiers of Margaron's small Brigade (2 battalions only). This was to be our masse de rupture with which to effect the breakthrough at or near the hinge we hoped would develop in the Allied line.

The approach march began prompt at dawn 18 September. It was not long before the Allied guns revealed themselves as they brought the heads of Genl. Thomieres's columns under fire, after which the left-hand battalion of Merlot's Brigade (which had marched up the Perdido Road covering the foot artillery) also drew fire once it passed through the defile west of the hamlet. Meanwhile, my foot artillery swung off the road to deploy behind a convenient stone wall.

We received an early surprise when 4th Dragoons passed close by a dense wood and were shot up by a battalion of 95th Rifles ensconced therein. Fortunately, Genl Milhaud was able to keep the shaken recruits in hand, and drew them off to the south, still with the view to finding the Allied right. The Rifles, themselves coming under canister fire from our 8pr guns that had deployed betimes, withdrew into their thick woods, after which nothing further was seen of them for a considerable space of time.

All this while, Col. Sansnomme was making rapid progress. Though under a galling gunfire from the ridge north of Sta. Maria, Thomieres brought his brigade close, preparing to carry the eminence by storm. Swinging right around the line of hills to the far north, Colbert was able to see into the enemy right rear, where two battalions of Portuguese and two small horse regiments had drawn up at right angles to their main line to face him [Actually, there were 3 x 4-stand regiments, as the picture confirms. The map shows only two]. This was exactly as we had planned. Colbert soon brought his horse guns into action on the ridge flanking that which Thomieres was about to assault, and a brisk cavalry action soon developed on the extreme right of our line.

Progress on my front was rather slower than I had hoped, held up by a wood facing Sta. Maria, and the awkward angle of a V-shaped wall, which took the ordre mixte of Medoc's brigade a considerable while to negotiate. All the same, it served to fix the Allies in position: none dared succour the beleaguered northern flank in the face of the immense array before them. The British showed two battalions at the angle in the village, and another in the enclosures at the southern end, facing Merlot's left flank battalion of 47th Line Infantry. [It transpired there was another battalion in the village, making a continuous line from the north angle to the southern enclosures. We never actually discovered this hidden unit!]

The 47th was to come under tremendous pressure late in the day. Although keeping out of musketry range of the enemy, they had no answer to the gunfire from the ridge, to which own counter-battery in response was about as effective as one might expect, though perhaps it kept up the spirits of the 47th infantrymen. But when the enemy rifles re-emerged to their flank, and the 47th swung to face them, they strayed into the musketry range of the enemy foot in the enclosures. Losses swifly mounted, yet the gallant 47th were to hold and protect Merlot's fank for far longer than we had good reason to expect. By this time, Milhaud's little force, which might have been of assistance, had swung right around the enemy line, and was approaching Sta. Maria from the south. Breasting the rise of the hill just to the south of Sta. Maria Ridge, however, they were disconcerted to find a stream flowing in the valley between them and the open flank of the British artillery.

However, all was set for the final push. (Map3)

Merlot and Medoc were finally clear of the obstructions, but prudently kept out of musketry range of the village, hoping to draw the enemy out. Thomieres had been subjecting the Allies (a battery and a British and a Portuguese battalion) to a terrific assault. True, two of his battalions were to withdraw battered from the fight, but his remaining unit gallantly, and to good effect, carried on the unequal struggle.

On the far right, Colbert, though equal in numbers and doing a fair bit of damage, got rather the worse of the cavalry fight. This was no very serious disaster so far as the overall battle was concerned, as the much weakened enemy horse could make no head against Colbert's horse battery, and were soon seen off. All the while, Solignac's Brigade was drawing ever closer to the Portuguese line.

The remnants of Thomieres's brigade was still in action when the first of Margaron's Grenadier battalions ranged alongside and flung themselves up the slope. They brushed aside the weary and much reduced British battalion facing them, smashed into the Portuguese unit beside them, flung them back, and in a trice had cleared the eastern face of the ridge.

At the same time, Margaron's 2nd grenadier battalion, and the 25th Line of Medoc's Brigade stormed into the angle of the village itself. The British there defended with their usual phlegmatic vigour, but the ferocity of the French attack carried them back through the village and beyond, much reduced in numbers and morale.

The breakthrough against the enemy left-centre was complete and decisive. The Portuguse Brigade, what was left of it, was isolated to the north-west of the village; such British that remained intact, to the south. The Allies rather hastily began to pull out. Colbert's Brigade being in no condition to pursue, the task was given Milhaud's troopers, who bagged a considerable number of stragglers.

Though Thomieres's Brigade took heavy losses, and Colbert's troopers were much knocked about, our losses were rather light taken overall, compared with the damage inflicted upon the enemy.

We are holding the ground about the village against possible enemy counter-attack. I await your further instructions.

I remain as you find me,
General Delaborde.