Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Soult; Napoleon's Maligned Marshal - Book Review

I've just finished reading Soult; Napoleon's Maligned Marshal by Peter Hayman (sorry, no cover image available). Having a new universtiy library join the collaborative borrowing system is great; even more books to read!
Again, it is a topic that I didn't know a lot about beyond the basics; ie. that he led the crucial attack at Austerlitz, but wasn't allowed to take the honour of being named the Duke of Austerlitz because Napoleon wanted the credit all to himself; he was a great organiser of troops, but not a great battlefield commander; that he had pretensions of royalty in northern Portugal; that he chased Moore to Corruna and fought the battle of Albuera; that he quarrelled incessantly with the other marshals and King Joseph while in Spain; that he was an incorrigable looter of Spanish artworks; that he fought a losing battle to keep Wellington from invading France; and that he replaced Berthier in the 100 Days campaign with disastrous results.

What I didn't know, and seems to be a theme with the books I read lately, is that a lot of the sources that historians use are written by people with an axe to grind. Soult himself didn't leave a memoir beyond his early days in the revolutionary army; his later political roles kept him too busy to finish his memoirs of his later career. Apparently his demeanor with his juniors and even with his equals was frosty at best and downright rude at worst, which didn't endear him to the people who did write their memoirs of their time with him.

Certain periods of his life have therefore become notorious, such as his supposed angling for the crown of northern Portugal and his wholesale looting of artifacts in southern Spain, but when examined in detail, the author points out that the main peddlers of these stories want to paint Soult in a bad light and spells out reasons why we shouldn't read these stories at face value. The whole 'Roi Nicolas' episode is explained in this biography as a way of involving the local population in the method of government, rather than imposing an administration of occupation on the Portuguese. Apparently, local civic leaders had been petitioning Soult for some sort of government that would offer an alternative to the chaos left by the collapse of the Braganza administration, and one of the options called for was for Soult to become king of the northern part of Portugal. (Interestingly, Soult's first name never was 'Nicolas' and doesn't appear on any of his birth, christening, investment to the rank of marshal, or death certificates; Nicolas being more of an insult a la 'old Nick' ie. the devil). The deal struck with Bourbon Spain to carve up Portugal also involved France taking northern Portugal, and as other marshals (albeit related by marriage to Bonaparte) had become rulers of other principalities, it wasn't a far stretch to see this as an option. The clinching arguments are, though, Soult couldn't crown himself king without the blessing of Napoleon and the fact that he wasn't summarily sacked for getting too big for his boots. The greatest spreaders of this canard were the soldiers and officers of Ney's VI corps who reflected their marshal's hatred of Soult.

Again, the accusation of corruption and avarice leveled at Soult during his time administering Andalucia also seem to be fabrications and exaggerations of those who wanted to pull him down. He did loot works of art, but no more than any other French general or marshal of the period. Where he differed was in the fact that he kept these works of art for himself and refused to hand them over to the state. He didn't embezzle funds or steal for his own gain as, like all the marshals, he was already a very wealthy man. Any funds forcibly requisitioned went to supplying his army, which he did reasonably well compared to many other French commanders.

His staff work for Napoleon has also been criticised by historians, but the fact is that the final responsibility was Napoleon's. Soult argued against sending a 3rd of Napoleon's foreces under Grouchy after Blucher, instead suggesting a smaller force to observe only. He also advised caution when dealing with Wellington, preferring a flanking movement instead, but both suggestions, as we know, were dismissed. Some details stand up like his lapse in sending only one messenger, not several with copies of the same order, which resulted in delays when the lone messenger got lost during the Ligny phase of the campaign, but otherwise, even Berthier would probably have struggled had he been in Soult's place.

He has also been derided as an opportunist who serve Bonaparte and the Bourbons in turn, and then turned his coat again to serve the July monarchy. This biography emphasises his sense of duty to France and not the rulers of the country. His career post-Empire is almost just as illustrious as that under Napoleon, serving as foreign minister, minister for war and prime minister right up into his 70s. During this time he cemented the foundations of alliance with Britain that eventually ebcame the Entente Cordiale, and was one of the most admired guests at Queen Victoria's coronation. He seemed to be more loved in Britain than at home in France!
However, the author does seem to be a fan and some of his explanations did smack of trying too hard to excuse his hero's faults, such as Soult's notorious rudeness. All the other marshals were wrong and Soult was always right when it comes to the arguments in Spain between the leading personalities of the French occupation. I'm still not savvy enough with all the ins and outs of the political side of this period to know if the author is justified in his arguments.
All in all, though, I learned a lot about another figure from the period about whom I had only the barest knowledge, and enjoyed the tale, too.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Aspern - Essling 2011

After the anti-climactic letdown of the tied AFL Grand Final (extra-time anyone?), Rosbif and the junior Rosbifs went down to West Gippsland to Tim's place for the Aspern-Essling working bee. By the time we got there, work was already well underway with lots of hammering and screwing (of screws - oo-er!). I volunteered to do the transferring of the maps from John H. Gill's Thunder on the Danube of the 2 key villages of Aspern and Essling on to thinner boards of MDF. These boards will be placed on the tables, but not fixed, so that after the game the table tops can be altered for the next big battle recreation.

As it is such a featureless flood plain, the table tops are ideal for recycling. Tim has purpose built terrained boards for both Waterloo and Ligny/Quatre Bras, which can't be used for anything else, so his plan for future battles is to just build the terrain and use the Aspern tables as the base; hence the removable villages.

The best thing about these trips, besides the banter, is the full-on spread provided for hungry workers (and offspring) by Tim and his wife Jill. Jill's cooking is always a treat, and usually the highlight of the day. Unfortunately, if there is work to be done after lunch, it's very hard to get motivated again after such a scrumptious repast. So it's always a good idea to get as much done before lunch is served!

The area where Tim lives was pretty hard hit by the bushfires a couple of years ago, and in fact with a lot of planning, good luck and bravely staying to fight the fires, Tim and his family managed to save their property, losing only fencing but no buildings. Today, besides the trees putting on their fuzzy, post fire regrowth, you'd hardly know that this area was devasted in one of the worst fire disasters since European settlement. This winter and spring have been so damp and the regrowth so phenominal, that you'd hardly know that we've been suffering drought for ages.

Anyway, hats off to Tim and Jill and family for saving their house and for being such wonderful hosts!

The assembled tables. Tables on the edges on casters, enabling access to the centre tables, where all the action will be.


Junior Rosbif #2 making herself useful during the gridding of the tables

You lookin' at me?!
Rosbif trying to scare the horses, but only succeeding in looking thick!

The boys hard at work plotting the Danube (note the level of supervision required!)

Essling roughly cut out and placed in position

Aspern with some of the buildings in position

Plotting the Gemeinde Au

Plotting the eastern arm of the Danube.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Birthday Loot

I've had a pretty successful haul from my birthday (not surprising, as I forwarded my online wishlists to my nearest and dearest!) In time for opening on the day were Bloody Albuera and Charge! which I was disappointed to have to leave at home after only a quick perusal.

I'm still waiting on the Napoleonic Wars Experience and the Osprey book on the Portuguese army, but am assured it will come shortly. The Napoleonic Wars Experience looks like a nice big coffee table book with lots of shiny, shiny pictures, but I doubt if it'll have anything new in it. It is by one of my favourite authors, though,
Richard Holmes, who wrote Redcoat, Sahib and Tommy covering
the golden age of British infantry. He is brilliant in describing the everyday life of soldiers on campaign, putting their recollections in the context of the politics, campaigns and society of the day

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Scale variation

My order from Irregular Miniatures arrived yesterday and while the figures themselves are well sculpted and made with virtually no flash, they are too small to appear next to my Italeri plastic light dragoons. I'll see how they go next to the Italeri/ESCI Scots Greys, which are also smaller than the light dragoons, but light and heavy cavalry are not compatible, unfortunately.

I know scale creep is a problem and that Italeri and Zvezda are the main culprits, but on the boot to eye level of measuring, the Irregular figures are more like large 15mm figures. Not happy, Jan!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Anvil no more!

I was beginning to think that I sould change my avatar from 'Rosbif' and the picture of Pitt and Boney carving up the globe and change it to a portrait of Marshal Jourdan, who (according to a biography of Soult that I'm reading at the moment) was known by the common soldiers of l'Armee de Sambre et Meuse as the Anvil because he was beaten by the enemy so often. Luckily, this Friday past proved that I don't have to, as I beat my opponent, or at least had him in an untenable position by the time the evening's play finished.

It was a French vs. Austrian game with Tim supplying the Austrian forces, while he partenered Garry on the French side. I partnered Jim, who was getting back into wargaming after a long break and was new to our rules system. It was a tabletop baptism for my terrain boards, too. They attracted a lot of interest and complimentary remarks, which was pleasing! I'll have to find another sealing agent, as the spray on glue didn't dry as I expected, but has remained tacky, so that sticky flock came away every time it was touched (especially on our middle-aged spreads ;-) !). I'll try the spray on varnish that I use on my figures and see how that goes as an alternative. Still, not as much flock came off as I expected.

The French conceded the first move to the Austrians, so Jim and I moved our forces forward; Jim occupying an enclosure but stopping short of the built up area. I moved my forces to the base of the ridge while my Jaegers covered the main force by moving up onto the ridge. As Garry had 2 battalions of light infantry in skirmish order I didn't think I'd fare very well in skirmish combat so I didn't move up to take him on. I tried to take charge on the right flank by charging his lancers, which, if all things had gone to plan, I should have won handsomely as I had the numbers on him as well as a big overlap. Of course the Dice God doesn't like overconfidence, so once passing my pre-melee check I rolled a 1 to Garry's 6 in the melee which resulted in my chevaux-leger beating a hasty retreat with 20% casualties! At least it wasn't a complete rout and their services were still available to be called on later.

Garry had neglected to occupy the buildings on the right of his line, so his artillery weren't supported on that flank or to the rear, so I prepared my 2 left battalions to charge the battery, which they duly did, and although they copped some incoming fire, they were fresh units, and as 15 figure battalions, large enough to absorb a fair amount of punishment. Garry's gunners then fled to the nearest cover and left me in possession of his battery and threatening the flank of his line.

Garry decided that attack was the better form of defence and charged a pair of battalions on his left flank. Due to a misreading of the rules, I didn't reply to his melee as I had stood and fired. He therefore got a smashing victory and went battlemad ending up in the midst of my line while the battalion he faced ran for all they were worth. Fog of War! That left 2 of his battalions isolated in the midst of all of my army. I then deployed one of my battalions in line which then covered the flank of another battalion which turned 90 degrees to place itself on the flank of one of Garry's isolated battalions. He survived the resulting morale test after I fired on his flank, though not for long!

His other battalions on his left then charged my line, which I fired on as I had too many disorders from his skirmishers to effectively counter charge. The resulting pre-melee test left us both refusing to continue the charge and retreating 2". That was fine with me!

His 2 isolated units decided to break out by themselves, but in a sequencing boo-boo, he moved his threatened unit first, which then caused an opportunity fire by the unit in fornt as well as on its flank, resulting in a morale check failure and its breaking. However, that didn't affect the other unit which smashed into the Jaeger square in front of it and the Grenzer column behind that. Luckily, he'd left this unit in closed column because it ended its charge right under the nostrils of the cheveax-leger which had recovered from it's retreat and had about-faced ready to take his lancers, who'd been snoozing on the ridge, in the flank. Of course, this column now blocked my perfect charge!

By this time I'd brought my two left hand columns around on an angle preparing to charge his central columns, but as luck would have it, the evening's play ran out and we called it night. Although Garry had the honours in number of units broken, I had him in a position that could only be redeemed by a full divisional retreat.

Victory to Austria!

On the other flank, Jim had got himself into a bit of bother against Tim, but with a bit of tactical advice from Tim, he'd managed to pull the situation back and stabilised the line, even repelling acouple of Tim's attacks. If we'd had the time I dare say that the French would have had to break off leaving the field to the Austrians. Huzzah!

The initial Austrian dispositions on the right flanks

The field of battle, Austrians on the left, French to the right.

Tim's Front Rank French seen from his right flank

Jim's command seen from his left flank

My troops ascend the ridge, covered by the Jaegers in front and the cavalry on the flank

The enemy!

My cavalry hordes

My reserves

Jim occupies the enclosure and deploys on the ridge and in front of the village

Tim's French advance

Again, from the front

Jim's Austrians

Tim takes the village, behind, while advancing to the ridge

The result of my unlucky charge. Come back! The enemy are the other way!

The infantry redeemed the situation by capturing the French guns (indicated by an Austrian gun, as Garry's guns are attached to the base.)

Jim's forces about to receive Tim's charge!

My division seen from behind. Apart from taking out a couple of skirmishers, my artillery didn't play a big part in the attack.

Garry's brigade charge, met by my 2 battalions in the centre

Garry's charge left high and dry after the Fog of War incident.

My response: column in flank protected by line in front. Grenzers deployed in line in front of French column.

French flee after suffering frontal and flank fire..

..however, the 2nd French column goes battle mad, smashing both units in front and ending up blocking my cavalry's lovely flank charge!

My lovely flank position which I couldn't exploit before the game was called off.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Cuirassiers #2

I know some of you want to see the figures and I promised to post pictures, but I think until I paint them, PSR's pictures of figures awaiting review do them more justice than my poor photography skills can ever do!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010


I received my Zvezda cuirassiers in the mail this week! They are the dog's whatsits as far as I'm concerned. I just wish that Zvezda did more, a la HaT, but they seem to concentrate on only the elites and only from the 1812 Russian campaign. A small gripe for a kit that is just about the most perfectly produced set ever! I've seen Zvezda kits described as 'wargaming porn' and I wouldn't dispute it.

To celebrate, I've posted a YouTube clip from the French film Le Colonel Chabert of the cuirassier charge at Eylau 1807. Epic stuff, even if not accurate; charging full pelt from the start leaves them completely unformed by the time they reach the Russian infantry. I also wish the poster had left the original soundtrack, not covered it with his music, even if it is very stirring.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Rain and rest

While the earthquakes in NZ trump anything happening here, I still had a nervous weekend, vicariously, as my mother's place in NE Victoria was under threat from floods as rivers rose alarmingly all over the state. My sister and her family had gone up to visit her and go to the snow, but due to the state of the weather and imminent threat of floods, they stayed and helped Mum sandbag the house which is just across the road from a branch of the river that flows through the town. Saturday night they received the official robot call from the emergency services to evacuate and spent the night in the local sports centre. Luckily they took the bag that had all the Father's Day presents for my nephews to give to my brother-in-law! The house survived and fingers crossed the worst has passed.

Yes, Sunday was Fathers' Day here in Australia and I had a nice relaxing day courtesy of my kids serving me breakfast in bed and giving me the artwork they'd been busy working on all week, and my wife who gave me the day off from the usual weekend chores. I managed to put the finishing touches on my terrain boards and started painting up the Italeri stone wall set I bought last week (below, from Italeri website).

Terrain mat.
Since this picture, I've reflocked the edges, joins and some mangy patches in the centre that may not be so noticeable in this photo.

I've come to a bit of a halt figure painting-wise as my last battalion of Portuguese is taking me a long time to finish. I've only got 3 more figures to paint, so it shouldn't really be taking me that long to finish, but I can't seem to find the time at the moment. I will knuckle under and try to finish them this week, then start on the 13th Light Dragoons.

This Friday I'll be using Tim's Austrians to get some game practice for our big New Year Battle which in 2011 will be the 201st anniversary refight of Aspern-Essling. Hardly ever having played Austrians before this'll be a learning expeience for me. I also hope to give the terrain tiles their first outing, too.

Another bit of news that I haven't passed on was that our campaign came to a close and my team was the most successful in conquering territory and raising armies, so as a consequence, we were declared the winners! Huzzah!

Friday, September 3, 2010

Spring is sprung, the grass is riz

First week of spring and it's been bloody cold and wet! Maybe a good omen for a mild summer, but also means that the undergrowth will grow too. We don't want anymore fires like happened a couple of years ago.

Anyway, I've finally flocked both sets of interlocking rubber floor mats and after shelling out a bit more than I expected in flocking and spray-on glue I've spent around AUD $150 (is there any way to make this unreadable to the female of the species? I think my wife won't be too impressed when she reads this!) Still, it's about $100 cheaper than the custom made one from The Terrain Guy. It still could do with a bit more flocking around the edges and along a couple of the joins, which I'll add to later, but I'll give it a run on the next Friday meeting to see how it goes in action.

I've also found some 20mm British heavy dragoons in bicornes made by Irregular Miniatures (sounds like they should eat more fibre) of which I've put an order in for 16 (see far left figure, from their website). My previous plan was to stick French infantry bicornes on the bodies of the Scots Grey plastic figures, of which I've inherited a squillion. They seemed a little small, wielding butterknives, alongside the Light Dragoons I've painted. I just hope that the heavies I've ordered are better looking than my original conversion option.

I've also put in an order for Zvezda's latest brilliant offering of French cuirassiers. I still have their Polish lancers unpainted, but it's more of a Gollum scenario; I just need to possess the 'Precious' figures. After I finish with my British and Allied forces, I'll go back and add to my French and Allied armies

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Gritting my teeth makes my jaw hurt

I've been slowly listening to the Napoleon 101 podcast and have reached episode 24 of the 50-something episodes that Cameron Reilly and J. David Markham have produced so far. I say slowly because I find I can't listen for any extended period without shouting at them (if I'm alone) or at least gritting my teeth (if I'm on the tram, say).

I like the fact that they are two enthusiasts who love to talk about their chosen subject like a couple of blokes in the pub would with lots of banter as well as telling the story of Napoleon's career in a linear style.

What I don't like, that sets my teeth on edge and causes bursts of shouting, is their complete bias to all things Napoleon. I don't understand why they have him on such a pedestal and are blind to all his faults, or have excuses for them when they do recognise fault. It's not unreasonable to admire a historical figure, but to do so so one one-sidedly makes me hot under the collar. The fact that they refer to the Peninsula campaign as 'the bad stuff' to be dealt with in an episode or two never to be referred to again ("do we have to talk about this?") made me wince; any historian worth their salt should be willing to examine a subject from all sides with the minimum of partisanship. I like revisionist histories because they usually come up with different ways of looking at old subjects, often using primary sources not before used, or at least digging deeper using existing sources. Reilly and Markham (but Reilly, especially) use cherry picked sources without a lot of analysis or context to support their contentions.

They also don't seem to put Napoleon's and his enemies' actions into historical context, looking at history from 200 years on and from modern sensibilities. St. Napoleon has no faults and everyone else, especially the British (boo-hiss!), just want to pull him down. No mention of how Revolutionary and especially Napoleonic France had turned the old established diplomatic and military world on its head and how this threatened the ruling houses of Europe immeasurably. No mention of the threats to entrenched national interests, such as domination over the Low Countries, domination of Germany, domination over Poland which threatened respectively British; Austrian and Prussian; and Russian and Prussian interests. Not to mention the horror of upsetting ruling thrones and replacing the crowns on his relatives' heads. This tidal wave of interference in political affairs throughout Europe was way above the limit of what the arch-conservative ruling houses of Europe could put up with. The fact that he was tolerated for so long, especially in the period between 1809-1812 was mainly because Napoleon had beaten all comers and had no enemies besides Britain. That didn't necessarily mean that all was sweetness and light and that everyone now loved Boney; the major powers were hedging their bets or biding their time, or any number of cliches, but mainly they didn't want to challenge French power, at least not until their own power had been regenerated. Notice how I am not putting value judgements on my argument, just stating the obvious?

They emphasise his codification of laws and his bringing liberty and justice to the areas he ruled, but they don't mention the crippling taxes or the burdensome conscription enforced on ally or conquered foe alike. The average European, whether he be Polish, Bavarian, Westphalian, Dutch, Italian etc., etc. probably didn't care too much who ruled, but certainly did care about steadily increasing taxes and requisitions as well as the distinct possiblity that he might be stuck in a uniform and given a musket and sent to the farthest extremities of Europe to fight in Napoleon's battles and suffer extreme deprivation, disease and possibly death.

They don't even cover the negative side to Napoleon's personality; the man who had to win so badly, he cheated at cards; the man who blamed Marshal Berthier when he (Napoleon) accidentally shot Marshal Massena in the face, blinding him in one eye, during a hunt; the man who could not compromise when offered peace by the Austrians in 1813.

So far the podcast hasn't covered any of this, or if it has, it has been excused with justifications for their own biases.

One of my favourite personalities of the period is the Duke of Wellington. I admire his military acumen; his eye for terrain; his diplomatic skill; the way didn't uselessly throw his mens' lives away; the way he carefully ensured his army's logitical support.

However, that doesn't blind me to his faults. He was a product of the British establishment and as such had no interest in political reform or meritocratic promotion in the army; he was an arch-Tory; he was dismissive of anyone not from his social class; he didn't give praise easily, but was quick to damn shortcomings; he remained aloof from his troops who admired him for his victories, while using their lives sparingly. There are probably more faults that don't spring to mind right now.

I just wish that the presenters were a bit more open to admitting their hero's faults and looking at history in the context of the time, not with a would-a, could-a, should-a revisionist yearning for a time that never was.

Episode 22 introduced me to another podcast called History According to Bob by Prof. Bob Packett who has a more eclectic historical show covering everything from Ancient Greece to the Cold War and everything in between. He has quite a few episodes on Napoleonics, too. I haven't yet listened to them so I can't offer an opinion, but will once I have.
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