Friday, February 20, 2015

Viva España, October 1809

In the west of Spain in 1809, the French were not having a good time. Their defeat at Talavera was compounded by a further loss to a Spanish field army at Tamames. Led by the Duke del Parque, The Army of Galicia and Asturias went on to evict the French from Salamanca and bundled them back across the Duero in some disorder.

The man held responsible for this fiasco was Gen de Division Marchand, clearly promoted beyond his means to the temporary command  of VI Corps and truly the exception to Napoleon’s expectation that his generals should, above all else, be lucky… The demoralized army was taken over by Kellerman, and poor Marchand returned to command his division.

Kellerman has now marched his army south again to avenge their losses, and Gen. Marchand’s unhappy division is acting as advance guard. They have found at least some of the cursed Spanish, defending an important river crossing at the village of San Cristobel.

Astonishingly - for those of us brought up on the anglicised, Spanish-were-useless history of the Peninsular War, anyway - the background to this scenario is actually true. (The hapless Marchand was only in command because Ney was on holiday – you really couldn't make this stuff up!). It was just translated slightly in time and space from Medina del Campo where del Parque in fact went on to scub the French again - Kellerman’s vaunted cavalry were seen off by a highly-proficient and well-handled Spanish Infantry force - before VI Corps were evicted from Salamanca for a second time!

French enter from bottom, San Cristobel (1) at top right, Ventosa (4) centre. Note the French were unaware of much of the terrain, having only seen a much less accurate map in advance.
This scenario was basically a withdrawal under fire - the Spanish had to evacuate their division across the river, after doing some major damage to the French to prevent pursuit, while the French were anxious to secure the bridge, trap the Spanish on the wrong side of the river and exact some revenge…
The table, seen from the opposite direction with San Cristobel and the Spanish position in the foreground; the French will march on along the road seen in the far corner. The valley with stream and road on the Spanish centre-right was dead ground unknown to the French, and removed before the game. However, the French never tried to move over this area so avoided some nasty surprises!
Ross, commanding the French 1st Division and with the unfortunate Gen. Marchand as his on-table CinC, had a number of disadvantages built into the scenario such as unhappy and unmotivated troops, and a miserable AV of 1 (due to his subordinates  not being willing to follow his questionable leadership). In a spooky parallel with history, he also had to contend with very similar real-world problems from Geoff and Jim, who unknowingly played the parts of disobedient, distracted and unhelpful  subordinates to perfection! 

Paul J commanded his beloved Spanish, ably assisted by Paul C. Unfortunately for the French, the Spanish commanders also mirrored history by their well-coordinated execution of a clear and coherent plan...

The French also suffered from a protracted deployment – their troops were well spread-out on the march as they desperately tried to find forage, resulting in their arrival on table over a period of about 4 hours.  Deploying quickly in a restricted area while keeping the road clear to allow further brigades to arrive started show up cracks in the French command and control system from an early stage!
Geoff brings his first brigades on table
Geoff’s light infantry brigade was the screening the advance, and it moved smartly to investigate and secure the wooded  areas close to the where the road entered the table. Disconcertingly, they quickly spotted two well-formed Spanish cavalry regiments drawn up in parade order on the front of the hill to the French right.
Lacking any cavalry of their own at this stage, a French infantry brigade moves forward to force the Spanish cavalry back
 The Spanish cavalry were sadly rabble (they had only been persuaded to stay on the field at Tamames after their own infantry fired on them) but they put up a fine performance here (and it was a performance - if the French had ever pressed them, they would not have stood). Careful to never look too threatening, and falling back continually in the face of the French advance, they nevertheless delayed the French right significantly, at little cost. 
Pressure on the road builds as more French brigades arrive on the battlefield, and the French right is held back by the Spanish cavalry
The same could not be said for the French cavalry - when they finally reached the table, they were pushed right to face the Spanish horse - but by this time it had become something of a valley of death for them, with infantry lining the enclosures and a well-sited Spanish artillery position above them causing carnage among the hussars and chasseurs á cheval for several hours as they tried to move forward against a hail of iron.
Spanish artillery move into position to punish the French cavalry should they advance..
Meanwhile French brigades continued to pour onto the battlefield; but by now their command and control was coming apart at the seams. The French cavalry were rightly loathe to advance against the Spanish cavalry while enemy infantry held the enclosures on their left, but instead of being deployed to support their cavalry in a quick advance the available French infantry were pushed towards the farm complex at Ventosa. With an amazingly realistic display of gallic arrogance, the French players seemed to think that chasing the enemy out of the farm was a forgone conclusion and would allow them to continue an advance straight up the road. Of course, things didn't quite work out that way...
The Walloon Guards defend Ventosa like a rock against a flood of French infantry
In an astonishing demonstration of the way wargamers (as well as real generals) can suffer from the "Hougoumont Effect", a peculiar little private war began there which eventually sucked in - and badly delayed - two entire infantry brigades as the valiant Walloon Guards battalion defended the complex heroically for several hours. This obsession with Ventosa - which effectively paralysed the French centre for several vital hours - was a roadblock they simply couldn't afford.

An attempt by French light troops to work around the central massif also came unstuck when they unexpectedly found themselves facing the red and green jackets of the British light brigade, concealed in the central forest. After a brisk exchange of musketry, which saw fairly equal casualties on both sides, the British slowly pulled back towards San Cristobal, and the French were content to let them do so!

If you go down to the woods today...
The British brigade was an interesting sideline - they certainly flummoxed the French and foiled an attempt to work around the top of the massif, but this was a only ever a distraction - they were never intended to be a major force, and Paul bluffed with them very well. The idea of the scenario was a  "what-if" - that Wellesley, instead of simply retreating to Portugal and sulking, had maintained an interest in supporting successful Spanish generals, but only if British troops didn't start to suffer major losses!

Overall, the French attack was moving forward but too slowly. Eventually they realised Ventosa was a distraction, and abandoned it - the defenders eventually marching out in good order to successfully evacuate up the central road without major loss and with quite a story to tell! As planned, the Spanish were withdrawing - two entire brigades in fact never even being placed on the table, so little pressure did the French put on this process.
The British Light Brigade does what it does best....

Finally, the French approach San Cristobal - and see little except Spanish dust and an impassive line of red coats...
Eventually, as dusk descended around 7pm, the last Spanish brigades were pulling back across the bridge, with a British battalion forming line in front of San Cristobal as it waited its turn, keeping the advancing French at a respectful distance.
At last, the open road beckons...
Right on the last two turns (39 & 40, 7.45pm & 8pm), the French were able to throw infantry at San Cristobal in a last, desperate attempt to dislodge the garrisons before night fell. A quick rush by a Légere battalion secured the older, less well defended eastern side of the village, but unfortunately both the larger but uncoordinated brigade assaults on the western area were spectacularly unsuccessful, with not a single 6 being seen among the (literally dozens) of attack dice thrown by the French!
San Cristobal - The Final Conflict! A final, desperate French assault on the western area fails as night falls.
The outcome, in game terms, was very close; a better-coordinated (or just averagely lucky) French assault on San Cristobel in the final turn could have snatched some degree of success in points terms from what was otherwise a clear tactical defeat.

The post-mortem...

How did it all go so wrong again for poor Marchand?! Well, in an unintended but accurate parallel of French organisation and professional relationships in the Peninsula, Ross's brigade commanders seemed almost willfully disobedient, ignoring most attempts at a central direction of strategy. Like their historic counterparts, they also had an unhelpful tendency to get easily distracted by their own personal interests (in this case, the first game in the Cricket World Cup!) 

Overall though the major cause was the failure to properly support their cavalry brigade, who were basically hung out to die in the centre in a killing ground of Spanish artillery and musketry fire. After taking substantial losses, the remnants of both regiments eventually - and understandably - broke and routed off the field. If the infantry brigades  which had become obsessed with Ventosa had either been tasked with clearing the enclosures instead, or had actually mounted a second major assault instead of hanging around looking embarrassed for two hours, the French might well have reached San Cristobal earlier and with plenty of time to mount a coordinated attack after bringing up their artillery.

As might be expected, final Spanish losses were very low while the French lost 1,000 men killed and wounded overall, with as many again routing off the table.

A good (and long) day's gaming was had by all, although the French side definitely suffered from rather more frustration and friction than the Spanish! As ever, thanks to all who took part. Paul has suggested that the "return match" be an Anglo-Spanish attack on a French position in the Pyrenees, but I have a hankering for a proper stand-up battle first... Tamames anyone?!