On 18 August we played a day-long refight of the battle of Ligny, using Honour Games’ Blücher rules and 20mm plastic figures. We began around 10 and finished at 6, with the French just meeting their victory conditions. Oddly, the Prussian players seemed happier at the end of the day than the French.
Rules, figures and scales
Blücher is a grand tactical rules set where each unit represents roughly a Brigade. It focuses on the level of detail that would interest an army commander rather than a brigadier or battalion commander. It’s pedigree is excellent. Sam Mustafa’s first grand tactical set was called Grande Armée, which came out some years ago. He then produced the simplified Fast Play Grande Armée, which dropped a lot of detail. Finally came Blücher, which stripped back the detail even more. At each stage the rules have become more elegant but they keep a period feel and are a subtle challenge to master.
Blücher’s ground scale is adaptable but I use 1” to 100 yards, the scale of Grande Armée, Volley & Bayonet and Napoleon’s Battles. This produces 3” Square unit bases. The figures are all plastics by various makers, collected over many years, with quite small unit sizes. This was a deliberate choice, partly to save cost and partly to encourage my sons who were young at the start of the project. Most of my Napoleonics are 15mm but I have never collected figures for the Waterloo campaign in the smaller scale.
Keeping the players guessing
Three of the players know the Waterloo campaign very well so I had to set up a way for them genuinely not to know whether either side would be reinforced from Quatre Bras, where Marshal Ney faced Wellington’s steadily reinforcing army. I wrote a decision tree for the events off table, which could have ended in a range of outcomes, broadly: French reinforcements, Allied reinforcements or nobody, at least in time to affect the game.
Huw took the role of Napoleon, supported by Tim (Gérard) and Ian (Vandamme). Keith was Blücher, with Matt (von Zieten) and Nick (von Pirch). I like each player to have a characteristic so made Tim inspiring, Ian vigorous, Matt steadfast and Nick heroic. If you don’t know these rules, these traits translate as good on the attack, good at getting troops moving, good on the defensive and capable of rallying lost combat power. Napoleon was a legend but not on his usual energetic form; Blücher was also a legend and mobile, which made it easier for him to send in the troops than a standard C in C. Being a legend improves your army’s break point.
For orders of battle I used a few histories, mainly volume 1 of Peter Hofschroer’s Waterloo Campaign and a French language history of Ligny by Alain Arq and others. For starting strengths and general organising I used the 100 Days unit cards, released by Honour at the same time as Blücher. These cards make sorting out and deploying the army very easy.
The Prussians were obliged to deploy 1 Corps first, strung along the river Ligne. The French were then to deploy 3 and 4 Corps and their three cavalry corps anywhere on the field up to 4 base widths from a Prussian unit. Finally the Prussians deployed 2 and 3 Corps then the French had the first turn.
How it went
The game began with Tim/Gérard attacking the Prussian right, while Ian/Vandamme screened Ligny along with the three cavalry corps. Evidently the French didn’t want to get bogged down fighting for this village. However the screening force was much the biggest French formation and while it sat watching Ligny, Tim bled his Corps dry on the French left. The Prussians meanwhile made several counter attacks against Tim, then Keith sent Nick/Pirch over the Ligne on the Prussian left to put pressure on Ian. This worked well as it constricted the French position and put their right wing on the back foot.
As the elan of Tim’s units ran down trying to dislodge Matt and Ian’s wing faced off against Nick, Huw was reinforced by the Guard and, not long after, by 6 Corps. We learned after the game that Huw had ambitions to use the reserve rule to deliver a wide flanking attack with these reinforcements, but felt thwarted by his narrow deployment zone and after a couple of turns’ delay, he launched an attack up the Prussian centre.
Meanwhile, off the table...
Each French turn after turn 11, I rolled on the decision tree. Every roll went in favour of reinforcements arriving with Napoleon. In summary, the story grew as follows. Ney began his assault on Quatre Bras early. He kept his whole command together (meaning no enthusiastic ADC gave D’Erlon verbal orders to march eastwards) and used both 1 and 2 Corps to overwhelm the Netherlands contingent before it could be sufficiently reinforced. He then carried out his original instructions from Napoleon and directed D’Erlon towards the Ligny battlefield. Rolling for losses and delays, I concluded that in the end two divisions and the Light cavalry of D’Erlon’s Corps would arrive at Ligny, late in the afternoon but in time to influence the outcome.
News reached Huw that Ney had taken the crossroads at Quatre Bras and despatched D’Erlon towards the Ligny battlefield. When these arrived on the table he gave their command to Tim, who found the fresh troops a great boost.
With the revelation that he would not be reinforced by Wellington as expected, Keith took stock. His left was doing well against the French right, which continued to retire before 2 Corps. But the right was now paper-thin, facing fresh troops, while the centre was buckling under the punch of the Imperial Guard. Keith ordered his army to withdraw, under the cover of 2 Corps.
When we reached the last turn of the gaming day, the Prussian line had started to contract from the right and rotate clockwise, as it withdrew on Sombreffe. The French meanwhile had finally cracked the Prussian centre and were advancing to cut off the Prussian right. The Prussians were close to their break point and the day went to Napoleon.
Hail the happy losers
And here is the curious thing. The French victors seemed to feel a bit flat as the day ended, whereas the Prussian team was brimming with good humour and pleased with its performance. Why was this? Well, I think the players on the side that lost in history may feel less pressure to win the game: the Prussians did very well and cooperated effectively, with messages flying in all directions throughout the day. They didn’t win but were well placed to fight another battle.
The French on the other hand came close to a bigger victory than they achieved: an earlier assault by the Guard could have cut off half the Prussian army. Also, I fear that Huw felt thwarted, not by the performance of his side but by the scenario and rules. His first hope was to send the Guard on a sweeping reserve move to fall upon a Prussian flank, but the field was constricted by the table edge and he couldn’t calculate a ‘legal’ route that would deliver his units unobserved on the enemy flank. I do sympathise and can’t change the fact that the table was 4 feet wide so he did not have space at the rear to flank March. That said, the French right could have deployed much further forward than they did and on top of that they were then soon retreating from their starting positions.
When the umpire’s happy, everybody is happy
Overall I was very pleased with the day. I think the game was well balanced and both teams played in good spirit. The decision tree for events at Quatre Bras gave a plausible result and I will use the idea again. I think the Blücher rules are perfect for a multiplayer game like this. Between 1030 and 6pm with a break for lunch, we played the full 28 turns and had very few rules quibbles. We had all played the rules before but not for some time and they came back easily.
My note to self for future games is that I should check in with Commanders in Chief a few times during play, to check if they feel able to do what they wish. It hadn’t occurred to me until he said it at the end that Huw felt unable to act because of the table size. Had he told me his outflanking plan I could have worked out a way to make it possible or to explain why it wasn’t. When the game isn’t a tournament, I think the umpire should show a bit of flexibility if this helps the story to flow.
I was grateful to all six players for giving up a summer Saturday and pitching in with such good humour. Multiplayer Wargames are a rare event but they have to be my favourite part of the hobby.
Getting the figures together
Three years after we replayed Waterloo using Honour Games’ Blücher, I will be hosting a multiplayer refight of Ligny later in August. I have started organising the units, which has been nice and straightforward using the 100 Days unit cards. The figures are soft plastics from Airfix, Revell, Italieri, Esci, Zvezda and Hät. Some of them are 40 years old or more, since my friend Keith presented me with his boyhood Airfix Waterloo collection.
My original plan at the start of the 1815 project had been to make a separate figure base for every Brigade in the campaign. To be able to refight Ligny, this would have required me to paint up the Prussian III Corps and French III and IV Corps in their entirety. That makes a lot of work and I don’t have that much time to prepare. Also, while there might be satisfaction in completing the whole Orbat, when would I actually play using every unit that took part in the campaign? So I decided to recycle some existing units. First I decided to relabel the French II Corps to cover most of the 3rd and 4th Corps, since one habit veste is pretty much like another. For the Prussians I already had II Corps from the Waterloo game, along with a few I Corps units. If I repurpose my IV Corps units I can make most of III Corps and a fair chunk of I Corps.
However. Ever since I bought David Nash’s Prussian Army 1808-15, published by Almark, back in about 1970, I have loved the varied uniforms of the post-1812 army. I am proud of the fact that every Prussian unit painted to date has the right uniform for the regiment represented. Could I bring myself to relabel Silesian Landwehr as Westphalian, without overpainting the facing colour? Who besides me would notice, still less care if the uniforms didn’t fit? As it turns out, I realised I couldn’t do it. Even if others didn’t notice, I would know that the Prussian uniforms are wrong. I have therefore started a programme of repainting, adapting and adding to my Prussian collection so that every unit is properly dressed.
And there are some great uniforms to recreate. I started with the 28th and 29th Line in I Corps, who until 1814 had been regiments in the Duchy of Berg and still wore their white Rhine Confederation uniforms. I used some of the old Airfix French that Keith had passed on. Next comes the 30th and 31st regiments in III Corps, which had previously formed the Russo German Legion and wore Russian uniform. I have ordered a box of Zvezda Russian infantry to cover these units. For the rest, I am repainting facing colours where this is easy and painting more demanding colour combinations from scratch. I also need to add more Prussian horse so have painted the West Prussian Dragoons and am about to start some Landwehr lancers.
If this sounds like amazing dedication, bear in mind that I represent foot units with only 8 to 10 figures and cavalry with 4 or 5 horsemen. So I can complete a unit in an evening as long as I don’t have distractions. The clock is ticking however and I can’t afford to slack.
Meanwhile, I am thinking about aspects for inclusion in the scenario. There are two main what-ifs: D’Erlon’s I Corps movements and the arrival of Lobau’s VI Corps. D’Erlon barely contributed to the day because of countermanded orders, while Lobau only arrived from Charleroi as the battle ended. Both could have arrived earlier and contributed to the action.
To help decide what, if anything, I do about these absent formations, I have been rereading Colonel Charles Chesney’s Waterloo Lectures, first published in 1868 and reprinted in the 1990s by Greenhill. Chesney is fascinating. His book is not a conventional narrative history of the campaign and in fact he presumes the reader already knows the main events. Chesney’s purpose is to analyse the various myths and assertions about the battle that were already manifold by the mid 19th century. His main target are those historians who placed blame for the French defeat on everybody else but Napoleon.
It is striking how much of the mythology is still current, including in some modern histories of the campaign, not to mention in the entertaining hogwash that is De Laurentis’ film of Waterloo. I suppose two world wars didn’t help the British to give due credit to Blücher and his army, or indeed the Germans under Wellington’s command, for their contribution to victory. In this Chesney is scrupulous: he stresses the immense achievements of the German-speaking troops and places Wellington’s personal relationship with Blücher at the heart of the success. He also argues persuasively that neither Ney nor Grouchy were to blame for the alleged errors of judgement and action that were later used by Napoleon to explain away his defeat.
Where is D’Erlon?
In the case of Ligny and Quatre Bras, Chesney points out that Napoleon’s order to Ney on the 16th was only to detach a Force towards Ligny once he had taken Quatre Bras with both Corps. It may have been unfortunate that due to countermanded orders D’Erlon was unable in the end to contribute on either field, but Napoleon was not counting on his arrival at Ligny, at least for some hours. Indeed, when the head of D’Erlon’s column first appeared in the distance, Napoleon was surprised to see it and delayed an attack on the Prussians until he found out who it was. Given this interpretation, I am not inclined to make D’Erlon’s arrival a particularly significant factor in the scenario.
Lobau’s VI Corps spent most of the 16th in reserve a short distance from the Ligny battlefield and came up too late in the day to contribute to the outcome. In his case I think the French should be able to use him if they wish, since he had not been given a competing task for the day.
Another ‘what if’ is whether Bülow’s IV Corps could have been present at Ligny if he had shown more energy or his orders had been clearer. I think the answer is ‘probably not’. He had the furthest to travel from his cantonments and his orders did not tell him to come to Ligny. It seems to me that the only circumstances in which he could have been present on the field would have been if the army had been ordered to concentrate sooner than it actually was. This takes the ‘What If’ so far into alternative events that we could at that point change any number of factors and end up fighting a different battle altogether. Fine if we were to refight the campaign but we will only be looking at the battle of Ligny.
So in summary, Bülow is out, Lobau can arrive early and D’Erlon might appear but he also might be recalled and/or arrive late, having stayed with Ney until Quatre Bras was taken. I’ll try to turn these possibilities into a series of dice rolls, to keep our generals guessing.
I will be painting hard over the next several days and must then think what we need for the battlefield. There must at least be a windmill for Napoleon’s use....
There is a charity bookshop in our High Street, run by the Woking Hospice, that carries a particularly good history section. I have picked up some great books there over the years. Recently they started selling second hand games as well. This week I picked up Waddington’s Campaign, in excellent condition but for a slightly tatty box. I had no choice: my memory made me do it.
As a teenager I loved this game. It came out in 1971 and I was given a copy soon after. It was a good time for a newcomer to Napoleon, thanks to the film Waterloo, Airfix’s range of Waterloo figures and Bruce Quarrie’s Napoleonic Wargame rules. Waddingtons gave the game a Napoleonic flavour, suggesting players could refight the conquest of Europe.
In fact the game is pretty abstract and could as easily have been linked to another period. It is a great game nevertheless. Each player begins in their capital with an army of infantry and cavalry pieces plus a general. Their aim is to capture cities (some of which are recruitment centres), defeat the enemy’s armies and occupy their capital. The mechanisms borrow a little from chess and a bit from Diplomacy. In order to remove an enemy piece a player must neutralise all adjacent enemy pieces and still have two pieces attacking the target. No dice are involved. Clever deployment can block invasion routes and make it very hard for the enemy to pick off your pieces.
I suppose I should persuade somebody to play it with me to see whether it is as fun to play as I remember. But to be honest, just owning the game again after a break of 40 odd years is pleasure enough.
I played the Markkleeberg scenario twice over last week, first with Matt and then with Keith. This was Matt’s first game with Lasalle and he picked up the rules very quickly. This was more of a training exercise than a full game and we played a reduced scenario, without Russian or French reinforcements. As Kleist, Matt broke into Markkleeberg and duffed up several of my Polish units. For a newcomer to the rules, he did very well and got the hang of the challenges of combined arms combat. Matt successfully evicted my Poles from the village and took out enough units to break my morale.
I played the Poles again in the next game against Keith. This time we used a bigger table and all the reinforcements. Keith set up his artillery to bombard the town and advanced his infantry on their right, to leave a clear field of fire for the guns. The Prussians prepared to assault the town from the east with two battalions while with the rest of their infantry they advanced on the Polish left. In two turns I lost 3 battalions: one in the town and two ridden down by Prussian cavalry, working in close partnership with their infantry. The Polish cavalry rode across the field one turn too late to save the infantry but destroyed the Prussian Horse. Keith’s occupation of Markkleeberg triggered the arrival of his reinforcements, followed shortly on my side by Semelé’s French Brigade. The game ended with the Prussians still in Markkleeberg and sending two battalions past the town down the Polish flank. While a draw under Lasalle’s rules, I conceded as I had both taken more losses and my flank was turned.
These were two entertaining games and I was pleased with the way the story unfolded. I did tweak the scenario between the first and second games to delay the arrival of Prussian reinforcements. On the day, the bulk of 12th Brigade was held in reserve until Markkleeberg was occupied. Allowing the whole command to be on table from the start did weight the first game in Prussia’s favour. Of course the Poles lost both times but the second game was a lot closer.
I am inclined to change the victory conditions for future Lasalle scenarios. The rules as written are complicated and, because the victory test requires a comparison with the turn number, only work within a limited range of game lengths. The main problem for me is that both sides can hit their break point and each continue to take the victory test for a few turns and regardless of further losses, the loser will be the first to fail their dice roll. I think later rules by Sam Mustafa provide cleaner victory conditions. So taking a leaf from Longstreet, I might just set a higher break point and just say that the first to reach their break point has lost.
Every so often, we return to gaming the Napoleonic period. Recently, I was reading Digby Smith’s history of Leipzig and got taken right back to an obsession that had lasted for most of the 1990s. Back then our rules of choice were Napoleon’s Battles, then published by Avalon Hill. One of the supplements for these rules included several scenarios for refighting Leipzig. My friend Keith and I agreed to collect the whole Leipzig Orbat in 15mm between us. We managed to paint all the units present on 16 October 1813 (admittedly at a scale of 1 figure to 120 men), but we didn’t get around to the Army of the North or other latecomers, so alas, no Swedes. Over five years or so we played several good games based on the events of the first day of the battle.
After rereading Digby Smith, I felt the urge to give Leipzig another go. I decided to start with the attack on Markkleeberg, which was made by a Russo-Prussian column under Kleist, mostly against Poniatowki’s VIII Corps, supported by Semelé’s division of Augereau’s Corps. I pulled together the other sources in my bookcase, which included Scott Bowden’s Grande Armee of 1813, the Osprey Campaign Book of Leipzig by Peter Hofschroer, Lorraine Petrie’s 1813 and two Polish language histories, one of the battle and the other about Poniatowski’s Poles throughout 1813.
I had three options for the rules: Napoleon’s Battles of course; Honour Games’ Blucher; or their older, tactical set, Lasalle. Plan A was to adapt the Napoleon’s Battles Orbat for Blucher and I do hope to do this at some stage. But having read about the exciting exploits of individual battalions and cavalry regiments around Markkleeberg, I decided to start with Lasalle, using my small collection of 6mm figures.
It proved tricky to work out the detailed order of battle and decide on deployments and reinforcement schedules. The accounts differ widely about exactly who was where and what happened on the day. No two books agreed on the troops involved. On the Allied side, some books just list the formal order of battle, which places Kleist at the head of the whole 2nd Prussian Corps, whereas Smith and Lorraine Petrie explain that at Leipzig, Kleist’s Brigades were shared out among the four Allied attack columns, to bolster their numerically depleted Russian allies. According to these sources, all Kleist had with him was the 12th Brigade, alongside Helfreich’s tiny Russian division. I decided to go with this version as it makes sense of the accounts in all of the books about how the engagement fought out. Had Kleist been in control of his full Prussian Corps, I suspect he would have overrun Poniatowski in no time at all.
On the Polish side, again, every book has a different Orbat. Bowden, whose research into French returns is exhaustive, touches only lightly on the Poles and his returns for them don’t match with any other source I could find. I think the trouble here is that several theoretical orders of battle that were decreed for VIII Corps were never implemented because events moved too fast. Mariusz Łukasiewicz, in his book “Armia Księcia Józefa 1813”, carefully examines the true shape of VIII Corps throughout that year. I therefore decided to go with his list.
As for the sequence of events, all sources agree that Kleist initially succeeded in taking Markkleeberg, was counterattacked in the course of the day and that by nightfall, he had been pushed back to his start line except he still had a toehold in the village.
The resulting scenario is here.
We have played it twice and a report and some photos are in my next post.
On our last full day at Waterloo we visited the Wellington Museum in Waterloo town and Napoleon's HQ at Le Caillou. The Wellington Museum is under renovation and felt a bit dowdy compared to the slick venues on the battlefield, but it had real charm and atmosphere, particularly the rooms where Wellington wrote his despatch while his ADC lay dying in the bed next door. The church opposite the museum has several memorials, mostly to British and Dutch Belgian officers and there was one plaque dedicated to all the French dead. We ate lunch at the Brasserie du Couvent, highly recommended for hearty pig-related dishes. We almost gave the Emperor's HQ at Le Caillou a miss but were so glad we didn't as it was another beautifully presented little museum with excellent audio guide.
On the last evening, Keith and I replayed D'Erlon's attack on the dining table of the Gardeners House, using the Cigar Box Battles Waterloo mat, Sam Mustafa's Blucher rules and his 100 days card set. It was a never-to-be-repeated chance to play Waterloo at Waterloo. I will choose figures over cards whenever possible but Sam's unit cards are perfect for a situation like this.
We had a wonderful few days and my enthusiasm for the 1815 campaign is back on fire. I have probably read more about Waterloo than any other battle but still learned masses from the museums and walks around the field. I would never have dreamed it might be possible to be staying in the chateau of Hougoumont, looking out over the courtyard with a glass of wine and some kettle chips. Magical!
Here are some thoughts and pictures after last weekend at Waterloo. As we were staying in the Chateau grounds, I will start at Hougoumont. It looks lovely after the renovation. The refurbished buildings are fantastic and the approach to the South Gate, which was under constant attack on the day, looks as it did in 1815. The North courtyard, missing several buildings that caught fire during the battle, is interesting for the surviving chapel and the memorial to the Scots Guardsmen who closed the gates at a critical moment, trapping a group of French infantry inside and saving the chateau from capture. The walled garden was bigger than we expected and overall, we were struck by how large the combined position of chateau, garden, woods and orchard must have been. The multi media show in the Great Barn was clever, absorbing and actually very moving. It was a highlight of the holiday.
We spent a whole day at the Mémorial in the centre of the Allied position, which covers the Lion Mound, Panorama and museum all in one ticket. We climbed the Lion because it was there but it didn't thrill. The Panorama was impressive. Pause for a Wellington sandwich and beer at the brasserie on site, then back for more. The museum was a revelation, with slick interactive displays and some great use of multimedia. There are dozens of uniformed mannequins, with extensive written and audio information about the armies, men, their uniforms and equipment. The 4D film is great fun. I especially enjoyed being under the guns of a French battery as it fired. The massive shop had a mixture of good books, expensive replica firearms and cheerful tat. The Napoleon T shirts are on sale there; you need to go to Hougoumont to pick up a Wellington.
On day three we walked from the Allied ridge cross country across to La Belle Alliance, then down to Plancenoit and the Prussian monument. Back up to the Brussels road, past La Haye Sainte and on to the crossroads. We had an excellent lunch at L'Estaminet de Josephine, washed down with Waterloo beer, brewed at the Mont St Jean farm.
We came back to Hougoumont just ahead of the 2eme Régiment de Chasseurs à pied, a reenactment group of twenty or so men and a dozen family members dressed as vivandières. The group demonstrated drill and musketry in the chateau gardens off and on for two hours. They were friendly and informative, happy to tell us about the details of their uniform and the life they recreate. Alongside the Chasseurs were a couple of gendarmes, a Guard pontonnier and, a little surprisingly, a customs official in a green uniform. They also serve...
We got back last night from 4 nights staying in the Landmark Trust apartment at Hougoumont, on the battlefield of Waterloo. It was a fantastic trip. Lots of photos and trinkets (Napoleon eraser, anyone?). Must think a bit before posting again. Meanwhile, these gentlemen gave us a great show on 1 May. They are the 2nd Chasseurs of the Guard reenactment society, based in Northern France. A pleasure to talk to them.
On Friday we are setting off for a five day holiday in Belgium, spending four nights on the battlefield of Waterloo. I am ridiculously excited at the prospect. As a teenager my family lived only a few miles away and I visited often with my Dad, - thirteen times, or so he tells me. He gave me my first Napoleonic history, David Howarth's Near Run Thing, which is still one of my favourite Waterloo accounts. But I haven't been back since 1975 and I am looking forward to seeing all the changes. My wife Caroline arranged the break and is gamely preparing for it. We recently watched Waterloo the movie together (in three instalments) and she is reading Georgette Heyer's An Infamous Army. I am so touched by her readiness to embrace the battlefield tour experience! I will try not to abuse her goodwill as who knows what further tours might follow?
We are going with our good friends Keith and Fran. He is as dedicated a gamer as I am and Fran is as unmoved by military history as Caroline is. It may be tempting to suggest we split into boys and girls' parties but I know that would be a bad call. The better approach will be to take the history in small slices, with a lot of good food and at least a few non-Napoleonic diversions.
My wife and I recently watched a TV programme about the Landmark Trust, a UK charity that refurbishes historic buildings and then rents them out to holidaymakers. We hadn't previously known that the Trust has some properties overseas. It turns out one of them is the Gardener's House at Chateau Hougoumont on the field of Waterloo.. Before the programme finished, my amazing wife had booked us in for four nights next Spring. Not cheap and it's booked up for a long time ahead, but I can't resist the chance to sleep in a building that survived 18 June 1815.
If I'm the last to find out about this, I'm sorry for wasting your time. But if it's news to you too, check out the website. I last visited the battlefield in 1975. Lots to look forward to next Spring...