Friday, April 29, 2011

Book Review - Russia Against Napoleon

The latest book finished from the growing stack from my bedside table is Russia Against Napoleon by Dominic Lieven, a special request review for Jim. Well, Jim here it is!

As you may have noticed from the title of this blog and the figures in my collection, I focus mainly on the Peninsula War in particular, and the Napoleonic Wars between 1808-1812 in general, so I'm not altogether familiar with the later massive campaigns of  the period 1812-1814, especially from the Allied point of view. This book was a really good entree into the military and political realities faced by the Russians in the period post-Austerlitz and the Allies after the French disaster of 1812.

The author sets out to repair the damage inflicted on popular perceptions of the 1812 campaign by Leo Tolstoy's magnum opus War & Peace. General Winter gets more credit for defeating the French than any historical figure in Tolstoy's fictional account. Tolstoy was writing in the wake of the Crimean War where criticism of Russian leadership was justified, but Lieven sets out to correct the misconception that has become almost accepted fact. Napoleon's excuses that he was beaten by the weather and not by the Russian army has also gone a long way to muddying the waters of the truth of the Russian campaign as well.

Lieven takes the battles of Eylau and Friedland as the starting point of this epic and ends with the first abdication of Napoleon in 1814. He pops some historical bubbles along the way such as Emperor Alexander's infatuation with Napoleon after their meeting at Tilsit in 1809. The author makes the case that Alexander was just as good an actor as Napoleon, possibly even more so; Although Alexander was an autocrat, he needed to be a skilled manipulator of men in order to keep his throne as his father's demise at the hands of aristocratic assassins showed. The author's argument that he used his man-management skills on Napoleon rings true as his behaviour towards Napoleon cooled very suddenly after the Tilsit meeting. Lieven instead argues that Alexander was a lot more far sighted than he was given credit for; he knew that any peace with Napoleon was temporary as it was not in Russia's interests to have French forces on the western border. Also, he knew that peace with Napoleon was not in his own personal interest as the majority of the nobility were against it ans if he wanted to keep his throne he needed to appease these nobles. Mostly, however, the overriding argument for abandoning peace was the damage that acceding to the Continental System was doing to the Russian economy. All these factors made the resumption of war inevitable, as both sides quickly came to realise; it was just a matter of who blinked first.

Napoleon was only interested in fighting a limited war against Russia to bring her to heel, but Alexander was far-sighted enough to know that any war would have to be a war to the finish if the threat to Russia posed by Napoleon was to be ended. Alexander's far-sightedness required him to drag a considerable number of generals and politicians along with him due to their reluctance to do more than expel Napoleon from Russian territory. Kutuzov was one in particular who wasn't interested in liberating Europe.

Even though war was predicted, Russia was far from prepared for it when it did come. The Russian army was in the middle of restructuring and reorganisation led by the able administrator Barclay de Tolly when the Grande Armee invaded. The plan was to lure the French deep into the interior, wearing them down, stretching their communications, and smash them against prepared positions in the interior. The problem was that the French advanced too rapidly and the site chosen for the prepared position turned out to be impractical. The only other choice was to retreat further. Although there was much consternation at retreating in the face of the enemy, the reality was that the Russian lines of supply were shortening while the French lines were stretched to breaking point. While the Battle of Borodino could be seen as a tactical French victory, strategically it was a Russian victory basically because the Russian army still existed.

The chapters on logistics and recruiting show how badly Napoleon had misjudged his chances of success. Like Hitler in the 20th C, initial success gave way after the first winter to the overwhelming surge of manpower available to the Russians. Although it was nowhere near as densely populated as most of Western Europe, Russia still had reserves to draw on that would have made Napoleon weep if he had a true grasp on the numbers. Conscription was no problem as the soldiers came from the serf population. What was different in this war was that a large proportion came from state owned serfs, rather than just from those who belonged to the nobility. This was necessary to keep Russia from starving.

While you'd think that conscription in an authoritarian state would be a simple matter of tapping a peasant on the shoulder and saying 'You're a soldier now, tovarisch', the process was quite a bit more sensitive and nuanced than that; Families with only one bread-winner were exempted with the burden falling on those larger families with more younger men who could be spared. Of course there were the exceptions to this rule with corruption and the desire to rid communities of troublemakers not unknown, but the general process was surprisingly fair.

Getting these recruits to the depots and training them and then getting them to the frontline was a task of epic proportions in itself, especially once the fighting left Russian soil; Recruits could travel over 1500 miles before they reached their parent units!

The whole process of feeding, clothing and supplying the frontline forces with ammunition, recruits and horses is just a story of heroically overcoming every obstacle that deserves to be remembered as much as the battles and generals do. The French lost because their logistics just weren't up to the task, while the Russians won because theirs were.

Then comes the chapters on the 1813-14 campaigns which focus on the diplomatic wranglings Alexander was forced to undertake to forge a coalition to take Germany back from the Napoleon. It is a mark of his personal touch and indomitable spirit that he virtually single-handedly carried the heads of Prussia, Sweden and Austria along with him into an anti-French alliance and kept them all focused on the goal of defeating the French and ultimately, of getting rid of Napoleon from the French throne. The descriptions of the massive battles fought during these campaigns are mind-blowing; the numbers of men involved weren't seen again until WW1. Before motorised transport, radio communication, modern medical knowledge etc., etc. these battles must have been hell on earth, even though all other battles up til then were hardly walks in the park.

A thoroughly enjoyable read from which I learned a great deal. This one earns 2 Rosbif thumbs up!

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Wellington I ain't!

After a week off down the coast at Dad's (the Easter Bunny found the kids thanks to his GPS Satnav apparently!) I'm finally attending to the backlog of stuff I need to post to get up to date, although Mrs Rosbif would say that I need to placate my blogging cravings after going cold-turkey for so long. I've got a book review to come, as well as a show-and-tell of 'What I did in the holidays' ie. finish the Italian Gardes d'Honneur and a 12-figure French infantry battalion using more Lancier Bleu head conversions. Stay tuned!

Quinny's running a campaign based on the situation facing Wellington in the Iberian Peninsula in 1809. I'm taking the British command while John R., Tim and Robin are taking the French commands respectively in the north, centre and south. So far we've played one battle, the weekend before Easter, that occurred outside Talavera (not equivalent to the real battle as the terrain was randomly generated) where Tim's command stopped my advance to Madrid.

I had a cunning plan that would take in hand my propensity to spread my forces too thinly in the attempt to guard every inch of the board, by concentrating my command to attack Tim's left flank with the intention to turn his defensive works and roll up his line. What I didn't take into account was that I was playing Tim! I should have taken it as read that he wasn't going to remain behind his earthworks if he saw a good opportunity for a counter-attack, and of course counter-attack he did.

I'd made the mistake of leaving my left flank wide open and allowing him to use his maneuver moves against me, suddenly filling the vacant space on my left with lots of cavalry accompanied infantry and artillery. I thought I'd pulled my cavalry back far enough to counter the worst of the threat, but a long range charge by his Chasseurs a Cheval caught the 13th LD in the f..k.n' flank, whereas if I'd left them en echelon and just withdrawn them slightly, I could have possibly survived his charge. What would have slowed him down was if I'd put the 13th LD further to the left accompanied by a couple of infantry battalions and possibly an artillery battery. That would have prevented his maneuver movement sweeping around on my flank and given me breathing space to counter his threat. As it was, he smashed the cavalry and crashed into my infantry causing two battalions of the Scots Brigade to break and flee, namely the 42nd Highlanders and the 1st Foot, both of which held family significance for Quinny. Not only did I play tactically abysmally with his figures, I disgraced the Quinn family reputation by having his Grandads' regiments flee from the table!

I tried to resist the oncoming tide with generals whizzing across the table to try and rally broken units, but the only thing to do was to issue a break-off order to try to preserve the rest of the army, otherwise it would have been a very short campaign indeed!

Starts off well; maybe I should have left it here!
Tim's entrenched infantry with cavalry support
Quinny's lovely Front Rank British infantry
His Front Rank Portuguese
and his Front Rank Highlanders
My cavalry leading
Earthworks with dastardly French infantry readying their evil plans!
Tim's left flank; the focus of my plodding attack.
The cavalry head up the hill, while the light companies and Cacadores skirmish ahead
The field from my right flank. His dragoons have ceded me the hill; I should have followed up more quickly.
The infantry followed in closed column just to be sure, which slowed things down.
The 9th LD on the extreme right flank advancing in echelon with a vedette on the forward slope
Infantry advancing behind the cavalry screen.
The Scots Brigade angling towards the lee of the hill with the 13th LD closing to provide flank cover (or I thought it was!)
The 42nd Highlanders and 1st Foot oblivious to their fate.
The guns that were going to sit on the hill and pound all that was before them.
The RHA battery on the crest were the only unit that did any damage to the French all day.
13th LD  trying to protect the flank
RHA battery in action against the French while the 9th LD goes forward.
Tim's French Chasseurs expand from column into line by the time they crash into the flank of my hapless Light Dragoons...
...then through a battery and into the flank of the Black Watch!
The gun crews flee with only a couple of guns per battery.
The rest of the army are caught with their pants around their ankles!
The Black Watch cross paths with the gunners as they both flee.
The Cacadores form square, but are faced by horse guns, too, while the other British battalions try to get in position to do something other than die.
Meanwhile, my flanking attack tries to go ahead with too little, too late. Tim's column tries to get in on the 9th LD's flank while the infantry is on the wrong side to help.
The rest of the army in all sorts of the bother. At least the Portuguese are in an anchored line, bubt aren't facing the right way to take advantage.

The crumbling left flank awaiting it's fate
With the General trying to rally the routing 42nd Highlanders, and the French infantry threatening to outflank the remaining force, the only option was to issue the break-off order, so that I could live to fight another day.
With things wrapped up in our game I took some photos of the other mega-game taking place on 3 tables. Russo-Austrians against Franco-German forces.
This massive game ended up a stalemate.
Jenko's Rhinebund sausage-eaters. Wurttembergers and Wurzburgers (I think)
Jenko's Hessians.
Robin's Light infantry

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Gardes d'Honneur - Italian Royal Guard #1

I've just finished my first cavalry figure of the Italian Royal Guard's Gardes d'Honneur; a head conversion using an Italeri French dragoon rider and a Lancier Bleu ready-made head. The horse and rider were from a bunch of stuff inherited from fellow club member and 1/72 enthusiast, Ian. I'm not sure what kit the horse come from, but I'd say they were a HaT horse of French heavy cavalry description of some sort. Anyway, these two are a fairly good match, although a lot of the riders seem to be far too animated for the sedate pace the horses seem to be going!

The uniform this figure is wearing is of the Milan company of the Honour Guard. The other 3 companies were Bologna (white with blue facings), Brescia (blue with red facings) and Romagna (green with red facings). I'll paint up a representative of each of the companies, but as this unit will only feature one figure in our proposed 1/120 scale Battle of Wagram, I'll get to pick which uniform I like best and make it the representative of the whole unit!
The finished product; Milan Honour Guard of the Italian Royal Guard

Comparison of the original figure with the converted one.

Lancier Bleu's handy-dandy conversion heads

Monday, April 11, 2011

Russian lesson

My Velites of the Guard got their first outing last Friday, but again it was not the most auspicious beginning for one of my new units (again!).

The setting for this latest debacle was Russia, 1812. I was partnered by Robin with his Minifig French and facing a motley Russian crew of Malcolm, Tim and John W. using Tim's Minifig Russian army. I took the left flank, which had a couple of light woods and built up areas on the left and on my right flank, in the centre of the table. Robin had a more open field in front in which to battle with John W. That suited me fine as I only had one squadron of hussars, having a very infantry-heavy formation that night. I faced Malcolm,with Tim's reserves in the centre.

Tim had a finely balanced all-arms formation with which he divided amongst the 3 Russian players, and I can tell you, I regretted opting for being light on cavalry from the start! I started by sending everything forward with the aim of tackling the large amount of guns facing me. Luckily they weren't the 12lbers Tim had been promising (Robin has the pleasure of facing them!), but I still faced 2 x 12gun 6lber batteries both of which were protected by dragoon squadrons, just itching to charge any threat to the guns. This effectively blocked the most obvious and clear route between the BUAs and the woods, so I had to find another route. I sent the hussars and the light battalions of the left hand brigade up the edge of the world to seize the BUAs on the left in order to threaten the Russians right flank. Malcolm sent 2 battalions of infantry to try and thwart me, and there developed a merry dance with his troops in square and closed column while I moved up slowly in order to shed the disorders my infantry had gained by moving through the woods. The rest of that brigade stopped just on the cusp of  medium and long artillery range while I decided what to do. Eventually, that turned out to be an anchored line in order to counter the cavalry threat, while maximising my fire effect. The closed columns on either flank were more vulnerable to the artillery fire and started losing casualties, but luckily Malcolm's rolling wasn't that impressive, so I could absorb the damage.

Malcolm put his closed column into the BUA closest to his defensive line, leaving the square to block any advance, so I brought up the 2 legere battalions to charge the BUA with the hussars not quite poised to shield my flank. I brought the hussars as close a s I could to the square, who then shot at the column, wounding the attached general on a throw of 10 on the d10. This didn't really matter, as they weren't the ones charging. What did matter is that Malcolm did the same on the infantry charge, knocking off the general which then stuffed my chances of successfully charging the BUA. My dice rolling alone wasn't enough to get them in the BUA, but the general's bonus would have squeaked me over the line. AAARRRGHH!

My Italian Guards brigade stayed in the centre supporting the artillery and acting as a reserve (much to Malcolm's disgust; he wanted to pick on my new boys!) while the right hand brigade kept moving forward through the woods to the road lined by hedges, where it stopped to try and shed the disorders. Tim moved a battalion in line to the edge of the opposite hedge, ready to guard against an attack from that side. If I charged over the hedges, I'd incur too many disorders for an attack to succeed against a battalion in line, so I decided to skirmish my light battalion to pop at the Russian line. I hoped that I'd be able to add enough disorders on them to make an attack over the hedge a worthwhile option. The plan started off well, with a disorder placed on the line, but after that I couldn't hit the side of a barn, my dice rolling was that bad! Meanwhile, Tim had popped one of his infantry battalions in the BUA closest to my right flank which impeded any lateral movement to threaten his flank, so after my cunning skirmisher plan looked like it was going nowhere, I decided to give the heavy mob a go and sent the Chasseurs and Velites of the Guard to evict the pesky Russians from their BUA. This charge went according to plan and resulted in an overwhelming victory and the easy occupation of the BUA.

Now things went to pot; I fell victim to a general's worst enemies: panic and wishful thinking. Malcolm launched a charge at my guns with one of his dragoon squadrons which careened through the battery unopposed after the crews fled. This cleared the way for the infantry reserve to come trooping out from the back line to advance on my anchored line, which was showing signs of wear as Malcolm's artillery began to find its mark. He also brought forward the front line infantry that had been guarding his guns, in order to protect the reserve's flank. I was determined to get into that flank with my guard grenadiers, then realised that that would offer up my flank to the protecting Russian line. I then moved up 2 columns in sequence to cover my flank, but neglected to think that Tim would launch a charge over the hedges on the roadside, which is exactly what he did! That charge only just succeeded in forcing the top column back, leaving the line with 6 disorders, but that's all he needed; the rest of the columns were then rolled up as the line swung like a gate and smashed into the the 2 remaining columns. The grenadiers may be elite troops but, they couldn't stand up to that sort of treatment!

While I was lining up my columns, preparing my coconut shy for Tim, I also removed both my Guard units from the BUA, thinking that this was the time to get around onto his lank in the centre. My wishful thinking happened here; assuming that John W. was concentrating on Robin and not paying attention to what was happening at the junction of Tim's and his commands. One day I'll know better to stop assuming anything where John's concerned! I should have learned it already, but still don't seem to have. I declared that both guards units were leaving the BUA and forming up in attack column on either side of the BUA. The Chasseurs facing John were then immediately charged in the flank by a battalion lurking with intent for exactly that purpose. POW! another guard unit sent fleeing! The victorious Russians then occupied the BUA I'd just left pointing their muskets at the Velites on the other side waiting for them to do something stupid, which they now did! I declared I'd move them too, but with all the units streaming away in bad morale, the morale test sparked by being fired in the flank caused the Velites to break and run!

Immediately after the game I new that I should have been more patient and fallen back in the face of the reserve attack, rather than try and immediately get in the flank. I should also have left the Chasseurs in the BUA and moved only the Velites on the Russians' blind side. Sould-a, could-a, would-a don't win battles, but hopefully I've learned my lesson now. I'll have to wait till my next battle to see if anything was learned ;-).

The only bright spark left was that Malcolm's reserve attack failed, not once, but twice! Fired on as they charged in, he rolled appallingly and halted 2" from my line. My left-hand closed column which was anchoring the line had been ground down by more than 50% casualties, but passed their morale check time and again. While the hussars charged and held off the advancing infantry which had chased off my legere battalions, the jig was up and I failed the resulting divisional morale test which ended the game.

Robin, meanwhile, had fought a ding-dong battle with John W. on the open right flank with divisional morale tests not once, but 3 times being asked for and passed; flanks a-plenty and lots of charges and counter-charges. His dragoons early on put in a magnificent charge on John's guns and scattered the crew, but in turn were fired in the flank by infantry sent to deal with the threat. His hussars and John's Uhlans clashed several times in the centre of the table, while there was a titanic infantry struggle conducted in the middle of his sector. One moment John had forced Robin back in a series of charges, only to have Robin counter-attack and force John's Russians back. Eventually, Tim gave John a break-off and defend order, that I think went against every instinct John has, but it allowed him to regroup (and to pop me as I came out of my BUA!), and to be in a better position when Robin counter-attacked later in the game.

Robin kindly sent his hussars over to deal with the pesky dragoons who scared off my gun crews, but got whacked in the flank by Malcolm's guns by way of thanks!

Another great game that looked like it would go to the wire, let down by losing my head at the critical moment of the battle! It was late on a Friday night when I'm not exactly thinking at my clearest; that's my excuse and I'm sticking to it!

Hussars covering my left flank
Artillery unlimbers while the left brigade exits the woods
Italian Guards brigade with the right brigade beyond that
Robin's hussars keep a watch on the Uhlans while protecting my rear

Robin's legere brigade
Robin squaring up early in the game
Macolm's dragoons protecting the guns with infantry behind
Tim takes the BUA early on
Guns, guns, guns!
Russians rushin' here, rushin' there (an old gag, but a good one!)
Left brigade en chequier
The right brigade approaches the hedge-lined road by advancing through the woods, while the guards hod the centre
Robin's hussars supporting the guns
Robin's flank showing his dragoons heading off to glory
John's Uhlans on the guns' flank
John's Jaegers advancing up the flank
Robin's dragoons waiting for a target
John's 12 lbers and reserve infantry
Facing Robin's hussars...
...but they charge anyway!
Copping flank fire from the BUA...
...they break for the rear.
On his other flank, the dragoons face unlimbered artillery...
...but charge them...
They take the breakthrough, past the square.
But this battalion shoots into the dragoons' flank...
...causing them to retreat.
The hedge-lined road that stopped me.
My right brigade angling towards Malcolm's guns.
There was just too much cavalry to think about an unsupported infantry attack, though.
Plan B; send out a flanking foray on the extreme left.
Malcolm reacts by sending in a square and closed column.
Meanwhile Robin makes an anchored line to face the cavalry threat.
The left hand square gets blasted, but stands.
John's defensive line
The legere battalion of the right brigade goes into skirmish action.
Robin's legere brigade stuck in closed column in front of John's guns
Closer view
Here comes support.
I feel a charge brewing!
And here it comes! The French column with the flag is charged by the Russian line...
...and is broken...

...but Russians are charged in turn by 3 French battalions...

...even if Robin's luck with the Dice God continues badly...

...who continue the charge into a threatening column.

The legere then charge the line in front of them...
...sending them scattering.
Robin's extreme left battalion of legere continue the charge into the teeth of the guns, but are bloodily repulsed.

My Velites on debut

The 3 line battalions of the left brigade go into l'ordre mixte
I attempted to get my guns closer under cover of the guards, but succeeded only in receiving casualties, so thought the better of it
Chasseurs still in reserve
The scene at the hedge
The skirmish line attempting, ineffectually, to add disorders on Tim's Russian line
The skirmishers closest retire from in front of the guns to a safer distance.
My legere and hussars shape up to take the BUA, while Malcolm's dragoons try to influence proceedings at the rear.
I advance the hussars right up to the square to attempt to cover the impending charge. Malcolm rolls the dreaded 10 knocking the cavalry brigadier out of action!
I've attached the general to the battered battalion before the charge to add some steel to their damaged morale...
...but the general is wounded in the charge, which fails and ends up where it started, with an extra 2 disorder points! GRRRR!
The charge on the other flank, however...
...was a lot more successful
The closed columns anchoring the line suffering under artillery pounding. If the charge on the BUA was successful, these battalions would have been moved to the left in an attempt to exploit the gap on the flank.
Back on Robin's side things are getting messy, with a counter-charge pushing his previously successful regiment into flight.
The line is breached!
The dragoons are forced from the field again.
Robin's legere troops in all sorts of bother with Russians on both flanks...
...but help is at hand! Robin gets in on the Russians' flank too!
Mexican standoff!
Panorama of the battlefield just before everything turned to poo
Malcolm's dragoons go in and my gunners flee!

The reserves steam in while the line forms on their flank to guard against exactly what I did next!
On the other flank, I move my Chasseurs precipitately and suffer the consequnces!
My Velites now hung out to dry
One of my legere battalions caught in the flank in the middle of maneuvering break and run

Robin's hussars provide temporary relief...

...before regretting it!

Malcolm's big attack sputters to a halt 2" from my line offering another big juicy target...

...but my column is getting more and more fragile! Hussars are charging left front.
The straw that broke the camel's back: all the other battalions in this area have been vapourised, while this one is about to meet the same fate, sparking the divisional morale test that ends the game.
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