Category Archives: Historical analysis

Two books on Sicily 1943

My 1943 project focuses on British troops in the Mediterranean that year. I started it as a teenager in the late 1970s, but suspended it, like so much else, when I left home in 1979. I have so far focused my research on two campaigns: Tunisia in January to May (and especially the First Army) and Salerno in September. Between these two comes the battle for Sicily in July to August, which I have neglected. I bought these two books to start to fill the gap.

The first is James Holland’s Sicily ’43. Mr Holland seems to be one of the most popular British historians of WW2 at the moment, but this is the first of his books that I have read. I am impressed. This is how history should be written for general consumption. Wargamers will find that it lacks detail, but it should offer inspiration for further research – or may put them off trying to recreate the combats on the tabletop altogether – more of that later.

The 38 day battle for Sicily (starting from the date of the invasion itself rather than the pre-campaign, as the cover of the other book does) has been somewhat neglected by historians – along with the rest of the subjects of my 1943 project. In between the battles of the Western Desert 1940 to 1942, and Normandy and north west Europe 1944 to 1945, and the Russian Front 1941 to 1945, Tunisia, Sicily ad Italy don’t get much of a look-in. Inasmuch as historians have dealt with it, they have tended to be very critical of the Allied command. They have suggested they were too cautious, and should not have let so many Germans and their equipment get out at the end. Mr Holland seeks to set the record straight.

In this he is mainly convincing. Only on one issue do I think he needed to say more – could the Allies have succeeded with a smaller invasion launched earlier? The Axis defence was in disarray at the start of the attack, and things would have been even worse if the attack had been conducted earlier. The key is the Etna area in the north east. This was very easy to defend, and the Germans managed to do so successfully with reinforcements sent in shortly after the invasion started – and most of all with airborne troops. The Allies would have had to get there very quickly to head this off, across terrain that made movement difficult. It probably was too risky, at a time when the Allies did not want defeats – but it would have been worth exploring this a bit more by looking at the resources available to both sides. Incidentally one of the interesting aspects of Sicily was the use of airborne forces. Theses were an innovation for both Allied powers, who learnt the hard way the difficulties of inserting them directly into enemy territory. There were disasters, especially for the British glider troops, and the shooting down of many American transports by friendly fire by the navy. The Germans showed that they had learned the lesson by using airborne forces for a rapid insertion behind their own lines, mostly landing the troops in airfields. It turned a rout into a hard-fought battle which bought time and cost the Allies many casualties.

Mr Holland’s style is to range from the top command to the front line, not neglecting the experience of civilians caught in the middle. He looks at all participants sympathetically – this is the best way to draw out telling insights. Too many histories just look at one participant (based on the sources most readily accessible to the author); this can be good for drama, but not so much for understanding what was happening and why. Another mistake is historians being too eager to criticise the decisions of participants. My rule of thumb when doing historical analysis (which I developed as a history student) is that unless you understand how you yourself could have taken a decision, especially a bad one, you have not understood why it was taken. That requires a sympathetic approach. It also makes more enjoyable reading – though that may just be down to my personal taste. Mr Holland scores well on both counts. It is fluently written too, another plus in an era when history writing is often badly edited. I found some clichés, such as the frequent use of “to say the least”, a bit annoying, but that’s small stuff.

The second book, which is shorter, and which I read first, is not so well-written: Eagles over Husky by Alexander Fitzgerald-Black. It concentrates on the air campaign, and plays to my increasing interest in the use of air power in support of military campaigns. It too seeks to set the record straight – as a number of authors criticised the Allied air effort in the campaign. The air forces were accused of fighting a private war and not supporting the armies well enough, and then letting the Germans get away at Messina. Mr Fitzgerald-Black has little difficulty in putting the counter-arguments. For my taste he overdoes it; Mr Holland comes to the same conclusions, but with much less argument. Mr Hamilton-Black feels it is necessary to take apart the criticism line by line, showing how it is not based on facts. This is a bit tiring for readers like me, as it just seems to give air time to nonsense.

That’s my only real criticism of this work though. It draws heavily from sources on all sides to give a convincing picture. Like Mr Holland he combines a strong strategic narrative with many vignettes of the action. He makes an interesting case that the Allies forced the Germans to make a similar commitment of resources to this theatre as the eastern front (while Kursk was going on) and the north (where the Allied strategic bombing had got going), but suffered vastly more losses than in either other theatre. The campaign was an important step in the breaking of the Luftwaffe across the whole continent. Perhaps that argument can be challenged – but I’m not the person to do it!

So what is in the Sicilian campaign for wargamers? There is quite a bit of interest at a strategic level – but his can only really be tackled in a board game (which I think has been done). A Rommel-style grand-tactical game may be feasible, most easily for the Axis counterattack against the Americans at Gela, where you even get to use a unit of Tigers. (Incidentally Tigers proved hard to use in the difficult terrain and primitive roads – they mostly broke down through being over-worked). The early battles are pretty unsatisfactory from a gaming point of view though, one or two episodes excepted. The defence was very disorganised; the Italians have little stomach for a fight, and the Germans lacked decent leadership; the main challenge for the Allies (and it was considerable) was logistics. Later the fighting got much tougher; a Rommel game would encounter the sorts of problems with mountain warfare that I described for Longstop Hill in Tunisia.

Tactical gaming is more promising, but a bit limited in a different way. There are a lot of important clashes at company and even platoon level, as it was hard to deploy larger formations in the terrain. The problem for the Allies was crossing open (but rough) terrain which exposed their troops to concealed weapons and indirect fire, while canalising them onto mined roads. Their trump card was plentiful artillery and air power. I don’t think this makes for a great tabletop game. There is much less of the Normandy-style fighting in close terrain. Still you can create a game with orchards, olive groves, farms and villages. It should really involve hills and rocks too. A battle for a hilltop village could be visually very attractive, if much harder to recreate than a bit of bocage country. You get to use German paratroops too.

As for air power the key is finding a game where the player chooses between air superiority, interdiction and close support – out of scope for a tactical game, but a possibility in an expanded Rommel-style game perhaps. Air superiority was settled very quickly though.

I have not settled on rules for my 1943 project. I have just bought a second-hand copy of Chain of Command, and this looks very promising. There are other good systems for one-to-one games (Battlegroup and I ain’t been shot Mum) which I’m a bit less convinced about. Rommel also looks quite exciting – but hard to use out of the box in this theatre. I would like something in between – Rapid Fire! and Fistful of TOWs nominally fill that space, but I’m not that happy with either. The long journey continues.

John Hussey’s Waterloo Vol II – a flawed offering

And now I have finished volume two! I have to say I’m rather disappointed. As with the first volume, the book’s strength is that it tackles the high politics with confidence. But there is a lot less politics in this stage of things. And after a while Mr Hussey’s style starts to grate, on me anyway.

The biggest problem is one that he shares with most other histories of the Napoleonic Wars. It’s too judgemental. This is not done in a sneaky way by hiding facts, but he is too quick to present his conclusions on whether particular actors were good or bad at their job. He is especially harsh on the Prussians. This is how 19th Century histories tended to be written, when the events were still quite fresh, and had some sort of bearing on political and military events. But the distance of time should change the tone, so that the focus, in the words of the great 20th Century historian AJP Taylor, is “what happened and why”. The reader should be given insight. Instead most modern historians, who tend not to be academics, feel the need to join in the ding-dong started by those judgmental 19th Century historians. Mr Hussey has disappeared down this rabbit hole.

The descriptions of the battles (mainly the great day itself) are quite brief. That’s fine: the book was always intended as a strategic narrative. But he still could have presented more clearly what we do know and what we don’t. Too often he simply follows an old narrative that he must know is questionable. For example, when he describes the great cavalry attacks we get a completely conventional British version of events. The cavalry came on; the plucky British gunners fired at them, then escaped to the nearby squares wheeling one of gun’s wheels as they went; the cavalry than retired and the gunners went back to their guns an recommenced firing. This is a very problematic account, that many historians reject (where were the limbers and the ammunition supply train?), and leads neatly into one of the more interesting Waterloo controversies, which is why Wellington seems to have thought that he was let down by his artillery. The suggestion is that many gunners abandoned their pieces never to return, and had to be replaced by Wellington’s reserves of horse artillery. This controversy does not get mentioned. In fact not a hint of this debate is presented. I would also have liked a discussion of the French account of this period of the battle, which talks of their cavalry controlling the ridge for a substantial period, rather than the quick in-and-out of a number of waves, suggested by the British version. Mr Hussey does present a few of the controversies, such as the performance of the Netherlands troops, but the selection seems distinctly random.

On one matter he does choose to stick his head out and break free from the standard British account. He suggests that both commanders failed to realise the significance of the farm of La Haye Sainte, in the centre of the field. He suggests that the French should have pulverised it with artillery and taken it quickly, allowing them to press an infantry attack on the centre. Meanwhile Wellington failed to fortify it, unlike Hougoumont. Leave aside the point that these criticisms are mutually exclusive (if the farm was so easy to demolish, why waste time fortifying it?), and I think this account presents problems. My first thought is that I don’t think I can think of a case where massed field artillery (mainly 6pdrs) ever demolished a brick-built farm – this job was usually left to howitzers, which could set the buildings ablaze. Then again, I’m not sure that a relatively small farm in the open ever proved to be a decisive strongpoint in this era, before that day – maybe that was because they were vulnerable, unlike the much more substantial villages, like Aspern and Essling, that so often dominated battles. There is another issue though – the farm was in a distinct hollow, and sheltered by orchards and gardens. It was not as visible as many assume. From the French side the main feature providing the shelter was the “grand-battery ridge”, a low rise which is where most, including Mr Hussey, assume the French placed their artillery, even if “grand battery” is not an accurate description. At the left end of this feature the farm would have certainly been visible, but only one or two hundred yards from it – and quite vulnerable to rifle fire from the farm and the nearby sandpits. Further to right and the lining up and visibility would have been a problem, as the feature curves back a bit. This seems to sum up the problem of Mr Hussey’s whole approach. If your focus is what happened and why, you would start to look for explanations as to why La Hay Sainte might have been neglected, and why the French made no attempt to concentrate artillery on it. And if you had, you might well have spotted the problem. Instead Mr Hussey wants a bit of ding-dong. Incidentally, I tumbled on the visibility issue when setting out wargames terrain using a contour map.

So given this it is no surprise that Mr Hussey has nothing to say on what I think is one of the big puzzles of the battle – the speed with which the Prussians reached Plancenoit. At 4pm, according to this book (and it is generally accepted) the Prussians were nowhere to be seen. They then started to merge from the Bois de Paris; that is over 2km from Plancenoit. They faced Lobau’s forces of two divisions of cavalry and two of infantry. They had numerical superiority but they had decided to press forward before they had consolidated IV Corps for the attack – with only two brigades (actually sizeable divisions) and some cavalry available. By 6pm, according to Mr Hussey they hadn’t just reached Plancenoit, but they had taken it the first time and then been thrown out. Something about this account does not add up. Unfortunately records on both sides are very sketchy. I think Lobau must have pulled back very quickly without putting up any real fight when the Prussians first emerged.

And of course the book was published before Paul Dawson’s recent research suggesting that French casualties were lower than generally thought (though making sense of that book would be a big project, so Mr Hussey was perhaps fortunate there).

Overall Mr Hussey brings forward little fresh evidence. He has unearthed some neglected insights from some secondary sources from Germany and the Netherlands. His coverage of the more strategic aspects of the campaign – right up to the peace treaty – is welcome, given how many people focus on just four days in June 1815. Here his judgemental style can grate, but it I don’t generally disagree. His account of the climactic day is distinctly weak. Waterloo is one of the most written-about battles in history, and I have still to find a satisfactory account of what happened and why.

John Hussey’s Waterloo Vol I

I’ve just finished reading this book. It is Volume I of 2, so I’d normally wait to read the second book before reviewing here. But it proved too good to wait.

There is no shortage of books on Waterloo. Modern ones are often disappointing, while older ones have their own flaws. John Hussey’s aim is to look at the campaign as a whole, and to get the big picture right. This volume sets the scene in 1814, and covers Napoleon’s return up the the battles of 16 June 1815, at Ligny and Quatre Bras. This does mean taking a look at the what happened and why of the battles, but he avoids a lot of the detail, which is what most books on Waterloo take on.

Mr Hussey is not an academic, but he is a serious historian – which sets him apart from most modern writers on the Napoleonic Wars, who don’t get beyond being hobbyists or controversialists, or both. I like that. I am an avid follower of politics, and studied History in my final year at Cambridge. I enjoy the top-level stuff, along with the military narrative. Mr Hussey handles this confidently. The tensions between the main powers occupies a lot of the book, and some readers might think he overdoes it. There is also a lot on Wellington and Blucher/Gneisenau’s planning for the campaign – again this might be too much for some. But I was left with a very clear appreciation of the agendas of the various parties. By contrast there isn’t so much on Napoleon, after he reaches Paris.

But eventually we get into the meat: the day before the campaign starts (the 14th), and the first two days. Mr Hussey paints a compelling picture of this. The Allied deployment was flawed, because each commander was working to a different agenda. Wellington’s army was deployed in depth, so that he would concentrate his army for the second or third day of the campaign to defend Brussels, the critical objective from his point of view. Wellington’s main error was not picking up the evident signs on the 14th of what Napoleon was up to. He had the intelligence but he didn’t act. Mr Hussey doesn’t get to the bottom of why – but he just seems to have been too busy. The Prussians (and it is hard to distinguish between Blucher and Gneisenau), on the other hand, deployed forwards, with I Corps very close to the border. That pointed to concentration earlier and further forward than Wellington; they were not so bothered about Brussels, but more about their communications with Germany. They did respond to the intelligence (much gathered by Wellington’s men, especially Dornberg in fact) on the 14th, which ultimately allowed them to concentrate three corps at Sombreffe on the second day (their intended concentration point, near Ligny). Their massive mistake on the 14th was not giving clear orders to the fourth and more distant corps (Bulow’s), meaning that it couldn’t be there for another day or two.

Napoleon seems to have understood the weaknesses in the Allies’ deployment, as he so often did, and decided to hit the Prussians first before Wellington could help them. But muddled orders meant that he didn’t concentrate properly, and Gerard’s corps in particular was a day late. One important feature of the Allies’ deployment concerns the main road from Charleroi to Brussels – which went through Gosselies, Quatre Bras, Genappe and Waterloo. At the border up to Gosselies, this was in the Prussian sector; after this it was in the Anglo-Netherlands sector. On the 15th Ziethen, the Prussian I Corps commander, abandoned this road in his hurry to get to Sombreffe, without higher authorisation and without warning Wellington. The road to Brussels was left wide open and Wellington didn’t realise this until very late in the evening, and got quite a shock (“Humbugged, by God!”). He managed to concentrate a large part of his army with remarkable speed to get to Quatre Bras the following day however – this was critical to both cover Brussels and the Prussian flank.

A huge amount of ink has been spilt over two centuries about who is to blame for what in these first days. A lot of it is nonsense. Mr Hussey feels he has to deal with the main controversies (such as what did Wellington promise to the Prussians?). But from a grand tactical perspective the Allies got the better of things. Blucher managed to get three corps to Sombreffe, and significantly outnumbered Napoleon. Wellington stopped two French corps from joining the battle (or strictly one, the other was more a French shot in the foot). The problem was that the Prussians still managed to lose.

One disappointment is that Mr Hussey doesn’t spend much time trying to understand why so many of the French were slow to get going on the morning of the 16th. This delayed the serious fighting to the afternoon. The 15th had been a long and tiring day, but the troops were carrying three days of rations. Was it that distrust between commanders and troops meant that the former did not feel they could push as hard as they might in 1805?

Mr Hussey’s accounts of the battles are quite high level. He gets a decent overall perspective. He doesn’t quite manage to explain how the Prussians lost at Ligny, though he does point to mistakes in their deployment, which he thinks should have been further back – this had been the original plan in fact. How the Prussians lost bothers me, as I want to be able to simulate it on the tabletop. I have conducted a few games based loosely on Ligny, and the problem is always the same: the French are short of infantry, especially since the Prussians are defending built-up areas, which get quite a big bonus under many rules systems (such as Blucher). I suspect that there is a vital aspect of simulating larger battles that is missing from the rules systems – but I haven’t found it yet! Mr Hussey follows the conventional story that Vandamme’s two divisions attacked St Armand from the west, alongside Girard. Personally I’m convinced they came in from the south. But that’s a detail. All that we can say is that Prussian tactical management in this battle was weak, and they fed their reserves in too quickly – whereas Napoleon’s management was masterly.

What if d’Erlon hadn’t backed off when he approached the battlefield in the early evening? Mr Hussey does not address this question. Almost every commentator suggests that the Prussians would have been annihilated – but I think this conventional view needs to be challenged. It was late; the French were tired and the Prussians hadn’t yet exhausted their reserves (which Blucher did as soon as d’Erlon backed off). The Prussians may simply have started their retreat earlier.

The battle of Quatre Bras gets rather more coverage than Ligny (30 pages to 20), which shows up the book’s greater interest in the British story. In a couple of places I don’t think he quite gets it right. In describing the battlefield he misses the hedges to the north of the Gemioncourt stream – which I think are a tactically critical feature, as they blocked cavalry, as well as providing an important obstacle to infantry. Also he describes two charges by Kellerman’s cuirassiers, where most people think there was only one. But, as he says, untangling the sequence of events at this battle is very difficult given the very scrappy nature of the evidence.

There’s not a huge amount for gamers in this book, apart from getting a better understanding of the context, and the controversies surrounding the campaign. But here are some thoughts that the book provoked in me, relevant to gaming:

  • The French corps commanders seem remarkably uncommitted to the cause and hesitant, when confronted with uncertainty, when not directly under Napoleon’s eye. They remind me of what people say about Austrian generals in their earlier encounters with Napoleon. They are more afraid of getting it wrong than keen to do the right thing. Once in the battle French tactical handling (more down to divisional commanders perhaps) was top rate, however.
  • The role of wing commanders under Napoleon (i.e. Ney and Grouchy) was a problem because they lacked staff and proper authority. Ney was initially energetic in pushing the French practically up to Quatre Bras, but seems to have lost his way the following morning. He really needed his corps commanders to be on the ball. How to reflect all this in command systems on the table is an interesting challenge.
  • The command of I and II Corps for the Prussians got very entangled at Ligny. Often brigade-level integrity was lost too. This was function of having so many units in a tight space, and using the nearest units to hand to cover gaps. This again presents a challenge. Something similar, though more deliberate, is evident in Wellington’s army at Waterloo.
  • There is also the question of feeding in reserves to bolster tired units, as opposed to using fresh unit to conduct operations on their own. Both sides used both ways of using reserves at Ligny. Feeding is isn’t well simulated in rules systems, however, which like to deal with brigade or division sized units as a whole.
  • Artillery often seems to be used at longer ranges than the oft-quoted “effective” range of up to 700 paces or so, and had tactically significant effects these longer ranges. I noted this at Wagram too. Also overhead firing played an important role at Ligny (and also significant at Quatre Bras), something that some rules writers suggest was not done.
  • On the subject of artillery, Mr Hussey suggests that the Prussians were outgunned at Ligny, with their grand battery being initially effective but subsequently outclassed by the superior quality of French artillery. I wonder if quality difference was not so important as exhaustion and management of reserves. This is something that Blucher covers well (unlike BUA fighting) and most rules systems don’t. Most rules (including mine) don’t bother with quality differences in artillery – but I do find the issue quite hard to relate to hard evidence as opposed to boastful claims by contemporary commentators, which so often turn out to be based on hot air.

I’m looking forward to volume 2 – though I might read something else from my extensive library of books I haven’t read yet first.

Review: Patton versus the Panzers

This book is written by US author Steven Zaloga, who is an expert on WW2 armoured warfare. As I try to get to grips with warfare in this era, especially in the Western theatre (including Italy), I thought this would be an interesting study. It has indeed given me a lot to think about.

The main purpose of this study is to use a series of battles in 1944 to gain an understanding of the dynamics of tank battles between the US and German forces, and in particular the idea that German tanks were vastly superior to their US counterparts. Somewhere there is a powerful meme that the Americans (or Allies perhaps) lost five Shermans to every Panther they engaged. Mr Zaloga shows that this is nonsense; his main case is that tactical factors determined which side fared better, more than the quality of their tanks.

The subject is a series of encounters between General Patton’s Third Army and an attempted counteroffensive by the Germans, in September 1944, in the French province of Lorraine, near the border with Germany. It is interesting because it is a rare encounter battle between two forces moving forwards, and it stands alongside the bigger Battle of the Bulge as being one of the very few big tank battles that the US Army experienced in Europe in the WW2. In Normandy the Germans concentrated their tanks against the British/Canadian forces. Mr Zaloga concentrates on the main tank engagements, rather than providing a complete picture of the campaign. It starts with two disastrous attacks by the Germans on the US 90th Infantry Division and the French 2nd Armoured Division. The main substance is a series of battles against the US 4th Armored Division around the town of Arracourt. The book is topped and tailed by discussions of US v German armoured clashes and the relative merits of the main tanks involved (the US Sherman and the German Panther and Panzer IV). This includes a contemporary article by an American tanker Lt. Col. Albin Irzyk on why the Sherman was a superior tank to the Panther or Tiger tanks.

The quality of the account follows the availability of the evidence. There is a fair amount of detail on the plans and senior command decisions of either side, and tallies of vehicles involved (quite a few tables, not all of wh9chnadd much value), but not all that much on the tactical detail. There are maps (though the topography is a little hard to make out) and photos of the ground now, as well as what photos there are of the fighting in Lorraine. At this stage in the war the Germans didn’t produce after-action reports, so there is only the sketchiest detail from that side, mainly highly exaggerated claims of tanks knocked out. There is more from the US side, but this is very patchy; I wanted much more detail on what happened, but at least the outcomes of each phase are clear.

The whole episode was a disaster for the Germans in terms of losses, though they did stabilise the front, which had been completely open – though this has as much to do with stretched US supply lines as German action. It has received little attention from historians. For the Germans it was doubtless forgettable; the Americans didn’t realise the significance of their success, and for them it was overshadowed by the heroics of the Bulge. At the time was also overshadowed by the Arnhem offensive further north. Mr Zaloga has interesting things to say on this, and on armoured warfare generally. The only fault I would pick is that I would be interested to know how the US experience differed from the British one; we only get some airy references which only invite more questions.

As wargames scenarios there is a big problem with these battles. This is in spite of the fact that they are encounter battles over relatively open ground – the easiest sort of battles to game. The problem is that they are too one-sided. The Americans destroyed large numbers of German tanks while losing very few of their own, and a lot of these were the obsolete M5 Stuart light tanks, even though the Germans generally had a numerical superiority. It’s lambs to the slaughter, if your rules are going to reflect the reality at all. Actually not so different from sending British tanks into the German trap in Normandy, or the US experience in Kasserine.

Of course the interesting question was why were the battles so one-sided? The Germans were mainly equipped with newly manufactured Panthers, and the Americans (and French) with old 75mm Shermans with only a few of the better armed M4A3 76mm. There were quite a few Panzer IVs too, and M10 and M18 tank destroyers on the US side (as well as those Stuarts). Under the war-games rules I was brought up with, the battles would have been one-sided all right, but not in the US’s favour.

There were two main reasons. The most important was that the Germans were mainly fresh recruits with very little training, and mainly in freshly raised units that had only been together for days – whereas the Americans and French were confident, well-led veterans. A lot of the German leadership had been drafted in from the Russian front, so not used to fighting Americans, and besides they were not being given any latitude by the German High Command, who insisted on premature attacks (of course Patton’s constant movement forward made the German command problems even more difficult). In the fighting it is clear that the Americans often got the first shot in, and were able to achieve several shots to every German one. Their leaders often charged in with heavy concentrations of armour but little reconnaissance – an approach that may have worked against the Russians, but were fatal in this theatre. The Americans were often able to counterattack the Germans in the flank. The second reason for the one-sided outcome was that the Americans had vastly superior artillery support, as well as air support. The Germans often didn’t have any of either; even when they did have artillery it often ended up in the wrong place and unable to assist. American artillery in quantity and doctrine was the best of any army in the war. Air support was intermittent because of the weather, and Mr Zaloga suggests that its effect was exaggerated especially by the Germans (as a convent excuse), but its effect on inexperienced tank crews was clearly considerable. They sometimes abandoned their tanks under air attack.

There are specific points that are highly relevant to wargames rules, apart from the importance of troop quality. The 75mm and 76mm guns were effective enough at the ranges used, generally about 800 yards, and often closer. Irzk reckoned that the problem with superior German armour and guns was at ranges in excess of 1,500 yards. A lot of popular rules systems (Battlegroup, Iron Cross, I Ain’ Been Shot Mum and Bolt Action, for example) reflect smaller scale actions at shorter ranges. At 1mm to 1m, for example, 1,500m would be five foot; some of these rules have an even bigger distance scale. The 75mm/76mm weapons should be quite effective at these ranges: I’m not sure how well rules reflect this. On reflection the issue may be the number of shots the US tanks can fire to each German one.

Which brings me to another interesting point, which is the effect of such things as gunsights and turret rotation. The Sherman’s were much superior (the periscopic sight gave the gunner much greater situational awareness; the rapid traverse enabled it to line up on target much quicker, even on the move). This surely allowed the Sherman to get more shots in and quicker, but I haven’t seen it reflected in any rules. One further thing intrigues me. Mr Zaloga isn’t very interested, but the US tank destroyers (M10s and M18s armed with the 3in AT gun) seem to have performed very well, doing more than their fair share of the killing. This is interesting because I had read that the US doctrine that tank destroyers should do the heavy lifting in tank hunting was considered a failure because they were too lightly armoured. Mobility was not a substitute. In war-games the life expectancy of these weapons is pretty short, in my experience, as wargamers use them as if they were tanks. But in the context of these battles, and with correct tactical use, the US doctrine looks sound enough. Interestingly in one engagement later in the battles a unit of M18s refused to get engaged; the tactical context was wrong (in this case charging over a ridge line to engage tanks already in action). Actually it’s quite hard to use a tank destroyer correctly on the confines of a war-games table – you need to move them as soon as they’ve revealed their position. But I’m convinced of a further point too: their open-topped turret gave the crews better situational awareness, so that they could react to battlefield events more quickly than tanks. In wargames rules open-tops are a purely negative characteristic.

And finally, Mr Zaloga mentions some of the tactics developed by Sherman crews – such as firing white phosphorus smoke shells at German tanks, or even HE shells. These served to distract the German crews and give the Sherman time to get out or work round the flank (something that slow German turret traverse wouldn’t have helped them deal with); inexperienced tank crews might even think their tank had been damaged and even abandon it. There was also an incident where a German tank was forced back by small arms fire, after its commander was killed. Modern wargames rules have a useful concept of “suppression” or being “pinned”. This clearly applies to tanks, though these have the option of retreating, and can arise from fire that is very unlikely to do serious damage to the tank.

So a lot to ponder. Do I want to recreate these battles on the tabletop? They would be a good test of wargames rules. My 20mm WW2 armies are 1943 British and German. But I do have a job lot US 6mm miniatures, and some German models that might be used. 6mm armies are quick to build, so I might well give it a go in this scale. Maybe it is a good opportunity try out Battlefront rules, which seem to have been designed with US-German encounters in mind.

Waterloo – the Truth at Last by Paul Dawson

This is an utter disaster of a book. I was very critical of Paul Dawson’s companion book on Quatre Bras, but I started this one on the main battle of the campaign more hopefully. But that wasn’t to last. I have gained a few new insights, but I would only recommend this book to Waterloo fanatics who don’t have a blood pressure problem.

Mr Dawson’s claim to have found the truth rests on some new data that he has unearthed in 2016 from the French archives, with unit rolls and casualty reports. The best bit of the book is the Introduction where he explains what these are and what he did with them. If he had confined himself to presenting this material along with some basic interpretation, then this would have been fine. Alas he wanted to write a much bigger book in too short a space of time – a task that would have defeated a more talented writer than Mr Dawson.

What to say? Based on another book I have been reading, it is a very left-brained affair. Right-brained skills of common sense and grounding in context are absent, as is any empathy for the reader, or anybody else. There is a lot of formulaic repetition, and the book is padded out with short biographies of the French participants that really don’t tell you very much at all. A few of these would have provided a bit of colour: repetitive lists should be in an appendix if they are to anywhere, rather than interrupting the main text. A lot of his conclusions look very shaky. For example he rightly puzzles about the high casualties suffered by Donzelot’s division in d’Erlon’s corps. He points out that it was not hit by the cavalry charges which destroyed Marcognet’s division – something that I did not know, but for which he provides compelling evidence. He then assumes it must have come from attacks on the farm of La Haye Sainte. Elsewhere he criticises historians for describing the battle for Hougoumont as a version of Rourke’s Drift. But if he’s right about Donzelot, the battle for La Haye Sainte, was a Rourke’s Drift with muzzle-loading muskets and rifles in place of the Martini-Henrys. In fact the issue is mainly to do with large numbers of men posted as missing – and I suspect this has something to do with being caught by the Prussians at the end of the battle while the French army was disintegrating. That’s just one example of how he makes breathtaking leaps to conclusions, while criticising others for wandering beyond the evidence.

Alas weak analysis and loads of extraneous data are far from the only problems. There appears not to have been an editor. This is not something publishers do these days, so authors have to rely on their own self-criticism and make use of friends. But Mr Dawson doesn’t seem to be a good self critic, and probably was in too much of a hurry to allow friends to do much editing. The book is disorganised (the chapter heads are random), riddled with errors and in places incoherent. There are many quotes, which Mr Dawson mostly leaves uninterpreted (he said something somewhere about letting them speak for themselves). Often these are in the wrong places, sometimes they appear more than once, and frequently  it isn’t clear how he draws the conclusions from them he does. And much of the analysis is contradictory. For example he bangs on quite a bit about how Lobau held off the Prussians for hours near Frischermont, before later concluding that he must have retreated rather rapidly, given his low casualties. There are no maps. Maps are more than just a decoration. They make things much clearer for a reader and force authors to face up to contradictions in the evidence. This failure is evident in his extremely confusing account of the Prussian advance to Plancenoit.  Contrast this with Mark Adkins’s account (which Mr Dawson likes to pick holes in), where maps are central to the narrative, and he presents a clear account of the same episode.  Of course, trying to put together a clear account of this complex battle with its many contradictory sources, with maps, and disciplined editing takes time – and this work was published not much more than a year after its central research. So he should have attempted something much less ambitious.

So what were the useful bits? The new data clearly has value. But it is problematic. The casualty data was compiled in chaotic conditions after large numbers of men had deserted, and others and had been rounded up as prisoners. There are large numbers of missing. So it is very hard to separate the battle from the aftermath. Mr Dawson does try to take this on, but not very successfully. The most useful thing I learned was about d’Erlon’s first attack. I have already mentioned that he shows that Donzelot’s division was not broken by cavalry at this time, which almost every account I have read has suggested. The data also help clarify what happened to the other divisions. This is very helpful. When devising wargames rules, I keep coming back to this episode to see how well any new system copes. That it now appears that the three regiments of the Union Brigade concentrated on just Marcognet’s division (and then moved on to one of Durutte’s brigades) makes much more sense of things. Another valuable insight comes at the end of the book when he looks at the data on the level of experience of the French army. He convincingly shows that it was not composed largely of veterans – but was comparable in experience to the Prussian, Netherlands and Hanoverian contingents (and unlike most of the British, which were in true veteran formations). The Guard seems to have been a shadow of its former self. This is contrary to what many historians have claimed, but does help make sense of both Waterloo and Quatre Bras.  I am also a bit clearer on what happened at Hougoumont, where the involvement of the different French regiments was very variable; not all of them seem to have been fully committed.

That’s about it. I am left with a number of mysteries. First and foremost is the advance of the Prussians. I really can’t make sense of the sequence of events – though Mark Adkins’s version looks entirely plausible. I want to do more work on this, and maybe I will find some nuggets if I trawl back through Mr Dawson’s book. But the absence of evidence from the French side must itself be quite revealing. I haven’t been able to find much from the Prussian side either – and Mr Dawson doesn’t seem to have bothered much with the Prussians, in spite of lecturing us on how important this episode was to the whole battle. This runs alongside the other big mystery of the campaign, which is why the Prussians did so badly at Ligny. One theory, that the French had tougher, more experienced troops is now looking shaky. Back to Waterloo  another mystery is why Bachelu’s attack was beaten back so easily. Mr Dawson makes a big deal on how this episode is overlooked by historians, but doesn’t throw light on how the whole division appears to have been beaten back by four battalions of the KGL in square formation. One theory is that they had been messed up by the fighting in Quatre Bras – but in his other book Mr Dawson suggests that they were not as heavily engaged as many thought. Perhaps they were low on ammunition?

Waterloo is the gift that keeps on giving. You would have thought that after all this time we would be quite clear on what happened. Alas no. This book offers some new evidence, but isn’t worth over 500 pages.

Ligny 1815. The failure of English language historians

I like to focus the development of my Napoleonic rules around specific battles. Waterloo and Quatre Bras are regulars. My most recent finished rules were developed to refight Vitoria. As my latest rules stagger towards the playtest phase, I am focusing on the battle of Ligny on 16 June 1815.

This battle was fought on the same day as Quatre Bras as Napoleon attacked three out of the four corps of Blücher’s Prussian army. In spite of being outnumbered for most of the day, he scored a remarkable but costly victory – which might have been enough to win him the campaign, had not the Prussians withdrawn towards their British-led allies, instead of on their line of communication. In spite of its importance, and a scale that matches Waterloo, this last victory of Napoleon is rather neglected by historians. But it is an interesting battle nevertheless. At the heart of it is a mystery: how did the French perform so well against a numerically superior enemy?

I have four English language books focusing substantially on the battle. There is Andrew Uffindel’s The Eagle’s Last Triumph, my edition published in 1994, though I think there is a later version out there. Then there is Peter Hofschröer’s 1815, the Waterloo Campaign, the first in a two part account of the Waterloo campaign published 1998. Next is John Franklin’s Osprey: Waterloo 1815 volume 2, published 2015. Lastly, relatively fresh off the press, is Andrew Field’s Grouchy’s Waterloo, published 2017. Alas all these accounts are deeply flawed. There is a further important resource: Pierre de Wit’s website, The Waterloo Campaign.

I am at the beginning of my study of this battle, and I have focused mainly on is opening stages. But it is enough to  confirm the usual flaws in Napoleonic military history in the English language. Actually these flaws are almost certainly not confined to the Napoleonic era, and not tot he English language either; it just what I know. There are three problems: “lamppost syndrome”, a lack of forensic analysis, and poor maps.

By lamppost syndrome, I am referring to the story of the drunk found at night scrabbling around under a street lamp. “What are you doing?” he is asked; “Looking for my keys,” he replies. “Did you drop them there?”; “No, but I can see here”. Historical writing concentrates too much on where the evidence is, and especially if there are first hand accounts. And yet important things happen in places where these accounts do not exist, and you can’t understand what is going on until you try to work out what happened where the evidence is thin. The second problem I have called lack of forensic analysis. The word “forensic” really means associated with criminal justice, but it has now assumed a wider meaning that I am using here. And that is a careful piecing together of the witness evidence with other evidence, and an understanding of what is physically feasible. In the history of this era this  evidence includes the lie of the land, casualty figures, and an understanding of the technology and human capabilities. On top of this must come the persistent examination of motive: why did somebody do that? All this is familiar enough to viewers of television crime dramas or readers of detective fiction. Given the popularity of these genres, it is very surprising that so few modern military historians want to turn detective. Not all writers are as bad as each other. For an example of how it should be, there is  Rory Muir’s masterpiece on the battle of Salamanca, though even this lacks a decent map, a problem I will come to.

But what we usually get is mistakes by one author being repeated by the next uncritically, and very little in way of genuinely new perspectives. There is one interesting example in the early stages of Ligny: the defence of the village of St Armand, where the battle started. The normal story is that the village was defended by three battalions of Jagow’s brigade, and the French attack encountered bitter resistance. In fact a careful study of the evidence (as Mr de Wit makes clear) shows conclusively that these three battalions were in the nearby village of St Armand la Haye (or Longpré), which was more defensible and closer to the Prussian positions. And all the other Prussian infantry is accounted for. In fact the French faced artillery fire from the hill behind the village, and few skirmishers, and that was all. They quickly took the village, but found it impossible to move beyond it. The Prussians (Steinmetz’s brigade) then counterattacked.

So how do our four accounts handle the episode? Mr Uffindel gives us a lot of drama (“corpses littered the streets”) and sticks to the story that they had to fight hard to push out the unidentified Prussians. Overall his account is extremely thin on this stage of the battle. Mr Hofshröer, a German speaker, makes much more use of Prussian sources. He initially says that Jagow’s three battalions were in St Armand, he then goes on the say that the French found the village largely unoccupied, and then gives a very muddled account, including quotations from officers of those three battalions. At various points he suggests the fighting was in St Armand, St Armand la Haye, and then the neighbouring St Armand le Hameau (or Beurrre). Mr Hofshröer is a controversial author and in my view completely unable to tackle his subject forensically. His value is in his extensive quotation of German language sources. Mr Franklin is a more careful author, but tends to focus on French sources. He suggests that the French had to fight hard to capture the village, with the first brigade of Lefol’s division having to call in the second. Again there is extraneous detail (“the front files were decimated”) . Finally Mr Field: he is explicitly majoring on the French sources, and he likes to quote at length; there are two accounts of this episode: one from General Lefol, and one from Captain Gerbet of the 37 Ligne. This reveals the source of  a lot of the colourful detail of Messrs Uffindel and Franklin. After these extensive quotes Mr Field says that the village (though a strong position, he says) was lightly held and the French did not face determined resistance. But he makes no attempt to reconcile this with Gerbet’s account of a rather fierce struggle. I suspect it conflates episodes from later in the battle. Incidentally the statement that St Armand was a strong position is not my view, and that is one reason why the Prussians decided not to hold it strongly. As with other works, Mr Field is unwilling to pull apart his witness statements, but at least he is more transparent than other authors, and he is careful with his facts.

And the maps? Wargamers love a good map, from which they can create a decent table. 19th Century historians did too, but they generally compiled them without properly surveying the ground, and with only a schematic representation of relief. A simple matter, surely, to take modern contour maps, and use these as a basis for updated maps? Alas, far too often not. For Vitoria I had to do this for myself, and the two maps I did are now nearly top of the Google ratings for maps of the battle. All the offerings on Ligny are flawed.

Mr Uffindel doesn’t try. He illustrates his work with schematic diagrams that do not attempt to give a feel for the terrain. Mr Hofshroer gives us two detailed maps. One gives us a representation of relief, but taken from Ferraris map of the 1760s, and with no detail of the extent of the villages, and with a later highway missing; this is not actually all that helpful: what you need is a contour map. There is then a reproduction of a Prussian military map, with lots of detail, including the initial troop dispositions. But no contours. The Prussian dispositions look accurate to the battalion – but it shows Jagow’s three battalions in St Armand and not la Haye. This may be the source of the error in other accounts; perhaps these battalions went there first but were moved to somewhere less exposed. Hofshröer does have a proper modern map showing both Quatre Bras and Ligny, which is decent enough but lacks detail for the individual battles, though it illustrates what Napoleon intended with d’Erlon’s corps very well. Franklin has only Osprey’s 3-D maps, which promise more than they deliver. You can’t see the folds of the ground. He has Habert’s division of Vandamme’s corps in a different place to everybody else, interestingly enough. This is clearly wrong in my view. It is shown on the right of the corps, in a position that looks exposed to artillery fire; it came into action on the left. Of course it may have started out on the right.

And what of Mr de Wit? This is a very valuable resource, as he squeezes as much as he can from from the evidence. It is pretty heavy going, though. He can be quite forensic, but he suffers severely from lamppost syndrome. This is less a defect for Ligny, so far, than it is for the Prussian advance at Waterloo, which has big gaps. There are no maps. He does include some very nice surveys of the terrain, mentioning anything from the era that has survived, and including some old photographs of various features.

And so, like Vitoria, I am going to have to piece together my own account, and map. This will take a while, but it is a part of the hobby I love.

1871 – a lesson in the art of wargames design

As winter draws on and daylight vanishes, my pursuit of the 1943 project has come to a halt. The next step involves a lot of painting, and daylight is a big help. Also I need 2-3 hour sessions, and these have been in shorter supply over the last couple of months. Instead I have returned to my original project: writing rules for army-level Napoleonic games. After so many false starts, I have had a bit of a breakthrough on this, and I am closing in on a prototype version that I can try out solo on the tabletop. It has been my main activity of the quiet Christmas period. Alas this is fast drawing to a close, and progress may halt again.

I have allowed myself one diversion, however. I bought a copy of Bruce Weigle’s latest rules: 1871. Bruce’s rules cover a later period than the one that I am interested in, but they have intrigued me. I have bought them all, apart from the original 1870 rules (apart from 1871, these are 1866 and 1859). These are fascinating wars, which I would take to the table if I had time. The evolution from Napoleonic times is interesting, and the struggle to adapt tactics to changes in technology is of real interest. I have not been very interested in the contemporaneous American Civil War, but these battles between the professional armies of old opponents in the Napoleonic wars seems to offer something that conflict doesn’t. One of the many aspects that makes it so interesting is that the armies were deeply interested in what actually happened so that they could develop tactics. That has left historians with a lot of detailed accounts of what happened; and the wars were short, which meant that fewer participants were killed before they could describe what they had seen (though the battles were often very bloody). No doubt it helps that standards of literacy had advanced too.

Two things drew me to Bruce’s rules. First was the simply wonderful presentation of his games, with huge trouble taken over terrain boards, for his 6mm figures. These look, much, much better than the fashion for 28mm miniatures allows; the pictures of these in wargames magazines leave me cold, in a way that I find pictures of bruce’s games inspiring. Even though I struggle on with my 15mm figures (20mm for WW2), there are many lessons to be had from his terrain boards. The second interesting thing is the rules themselves. They have been carefully calibrated against the course of historical battles, move by move. At the same time Bruce tries to make them as playable as possible. This is a struggle that I deeply appreciate, when so many rules focus on playability and half-baked ideas of historical authenticity. There is much to learn from this. I have played a few games of 1870 and 1866 with my friend George, who built up 6mm armies for the games, which has given me a better understanding of the system.

These new rules are particularly interesting. Not so much for the period covered – I’m less interested in the Franco-Prussian war than in the other conflicts – but for how the rules have been developed. Bruce’s mission is radical simplification. He says that they are much faster to play, while leading to similar results. That looks evident. The quick reference sheets are down to two sides from four. This means chucking a lot of detail and nuance overboard – things that historians may say were important, but which turn out not be. For instance: there is little distinction between different types of artillery. The Germans get a longer maximum range and a dice advantage. The French mitrailleuse is simply treated as an artillery piece with a shorter maximum range. This is ruthless, given how much ink has been spilt on this early machine gun. There is much to learn from how Bruce has achieved his stripping down. Incidentally, I see a similar ruthlessness in Chris Pringle’s Bloody Big Battles (BBB), though the choices are different. It covers the same period, but it is a very different game. My aim is to achieve something between the two for the Napoleonic era.

There was an unexpected bonus to 1871. At the back there is familiar section on how Bruce builds his boards (there are delicious examples in the book – including a table for Sedan with its city defences). He says little about these exhibition boards in this publication, but he does describe a much quicker way of creating quite respectable “test” boards. There may be some answers here for the creation of my tabletops, though these will never be in Bruce’s league. He uses a cloth pinned over polystyrene formers, with tape roads and acetate rivers pinned on top.

What of the rules themselves? They are what I describe as Corps-level rules. A single player will struggle to control more than one large army corps, though multi corps games feature in the scenarios, these will work best with more than one player per side. The ground scale is 1 inch to 100m (or 4m per mm). The basic playing piece is a stand with 30mm frontage which is nominally a battalion, organised in regiments of three. In common with earlier rules the 1871 rules give a “half-scale” and “quarter scale” variants. Both use the same distance scale, but the main units are battalions of two or four bases respectively. More interesting perhaps is the “two-thirds” variant, in which the main unit is a brigade of four bases, losing the correspondence of playing pieces with individual battalions. This is to allow bigger battles, like Sedan. There are a couple of interesting issues raised by this. First is whether the number of playing pieces should be based on army organisation (i.e. battalions), or on the numbers of men. Bruce has gone heavily for the former, as has David Ensteness his Napoleonic system Et sans Résultat. The argument is that the organisation structure drove the way battles were fought, and were written about. I’m not persuaded, and I would prefer to see the number of bases based on the number of men, setting the ratio to approximate to a battalion. Still, Bruce has made his system work, albeit he allows for a difference in average battalion size between the French and Prussian armies. How this works amongst the depleted formations of the later battles in 1871 I would be interested to know. A second issue is how well a rules system translates between different levels – how well does 1871 work at army and division levels? I suspect this is harder the more streamlined you make the rules, because different aspects are important at different levels. My view (following the world’s leading games designer, Sam Mustafa) is that different levels need different designs.

A further point about 1871 is its simultaneous move structure. When I started wargaming in the 1970s this was very fashionable. But since then (as indeed before then too), games have usually been based on alternate moves. I don’t want to develop the arguments here: but Bruce’s simultaneous system helps give the rules a simulation flavour, which is a nice contrast to the fashion the very “gamey” fashion of modern rules, such as Sam Mustafa’s. But it comes at a cost. It does require a certain standard of gentlemanliness  between the players (which, to be fair, I haven’t found lacking in my games) – and quite a lot of if-you-do-that-I-will-do this discussion. In fact quite a lot depends on who gets their move in first on the table. While playing I it did yearn for a bit more structure. But that’s just a quibble. I haven’t played them, but these new rules look a real advance on the previous versions, and they are better written too (the earlier ones left us with quite few “what does he mean?” puzzles and gaps), though the proof of that pudding is in the eating.

Could 1871 be used for Napoleonic battles? I’m tempted to try, especially when and if Bruce publishes his adaptation of the 1859 system to the new approach – the Sardinian army is pretty close to the Napoleonic smoothbore standard. Still, reading the book (which has welcome levels of explanation and historical illustration, I am very struck by how different the Franco-Prussian War is from was Napoleonic predecessor. At the moment I think David Ensteness’s system is the best for Napoleonic corps level games (to be clear, they are meant for army games, but with one player per corps). The 1871 system offers the potential for something more streamlined.

It is worth contrasting these rules with the other I have been studying for this period, if only for lessons in game design, which is BBB. BBB is an uncompromising Army-level game, though it is based on the Fire and Fury system for ACW, which is a corps-level game. By comparison, this feels much more gamey, with a less precise correspondence to historical reality. In particular the move distances look a bit low if the average turn is supposed to represent one hour. I have used the system in a full scale game only once, for Waterloo, and it was impossible for the Prussian advance on Plancenoit to be accomplished in the historical time. But its advocates use it to refight historical battles, and claim that it works well enough in general; I can’t dispute that.

If I ever do start wargaming this period (I fancy building an Austrian army), I will look no further than the 1871 system for gaming, with BBB as a backup.

 

 

Can WWI be a wargame?

Newfoundland Park, Beaumont-Hamel, Somme valley, France

On 1st July 1916, the Newfoundland Regiment, part of the second wave of assault, crossed from the second line of trenches, in the foreground of the picture,  to the first line, which you can see in the middle distance, over the top because the communication trenches were clogged with wounded from the first wave attack. They did so under fire from the German positions, in front of the main line of trees, and suffered heavy casualties. They then went over the the top again to attack the German positions. They only got as far the small group of trees you can see between the positions. They suffered 85% casualties from their 780 men, including all the officers: the highest ratio of a dreadful day.

Last week I went with my wife and a friend on a battlefield tour of the Western Front to WW1, conducted by Tim Wright (his company is Lost Generation – and I can heartily recommend, including the bed and breakfast managed by Tim’s wife Gill). The scale of the loss of life is completely breathtaking, and made so visible in the graveyards and memorials. Moving as that was, I am also a wargamer with an interest in military history. The experience made me reflect on the nature of the war, and how it compares with what came before and after. And always the question: how do you wargame it? And as this is  wargaming blog, it is these reflections that I am going to concentrate on in this post.

WW1 (1914-1918) forms one of the two main links between the two periods that I have been studying in particular: the Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815) and WW2 (1939-1945). The other link are the wars fought in Europe and America in the 1860s or thereabouts – which I am also taking a growing interest in. What struck me on this tour was the similarity between WW1 and the Napoleonic era in one special respect: the compactness of the battlefields. The British Somme theatre was a matter of a dozen kilometres; this compares with the larger Napoleonic battlefields, and the density of men to frontage occupied wasn’t much less. The gap between the two sides at the art of the battle was if anything even closer than in Napoleon’s time, as the picture shows. WW1 battlefields were deeper though – as artillery ranges were so much longer, and the artillery lines were a few kilometres back from the front. This is in contrast to WW2, where the densities were quite low, and a large part of the task of field commanders was finding out where the enemy was. Reconnaissance forces played a critical role, and patrolling became an important task for most troops, instead of being reserved for specialist forces like light cavalry. In WW1 troops had to stay under cover for as much time as possible, or suffer devastating casualties from artillery – but you would hardly describe the battlefields as “empty” in the way of WW2 ones.

A second observation from the tour was how terrain dominated the fighting. The ground around the Somme could not truly be described as hilly, but it definitely rolls. In England the closest comparison is probably Salisbury Plain (where my father lives, and which I have just returned from) – which is where the British forces trained. There is quite significant relief, fairly frequent villages and farms and lots of woods; the field boundaries are minimal (unlike the Wiltshire countryside off the Plain); there are hollow roads and ravines that can provide important cover. One point of interest is how well the Germans selected their ground; that takes a good eye, since the differences between the strong and not so strong positions are often quite subtle. As they were retreating from the Marne, they did have the luxury of choosing the ground – but our guide Tim wonders whether they had developed ideas on this before the campaign was even opened – a Plan B. Moving north from the Albert region, the northern Somme valley, where the British fought, to Arras and Ypres, the main other regions of the fighting for the Commonwealth troops, the ground flattens out considerably – it becomes more like East Anglia or Lincolnshire in British terms. But there is still relief, and the same principles apply. The hardest fighting was over positions which offered better visibility, such as Vimy Ridge near Arras, and Passchendaele near Ypres. This is something WW1 shares with earlier and later periods. There is an obvious reason for this in WW1 and WW2 – the provision of positions for observe and direct artillery fire. But it is more than that. It matters for shorter range weapons too, like machine guns – or smoothbore artillery come to that. And there is the psychological effect of being able to  seem more or less; this was very apparent from our walking of the fields. We might add that soldiers before the era of motorised transport (and often after) tended to be heavily-laden. Walking up slopes takes its physical toll (a fact mentioned by the French at Bussaco, for example – the slope was steep but distance quite short). Wargamers struggle to do the effects of relief justice, though. It is often very hard to represent accurately on a tabletop, never mind reflecting it in the rules. The ground around Ypres shows that even subtle slopes can matter a lot.

My third big observation from our tour is the issue of command and control. WW1 is an important moment of transition. Before then men and junior officers were supposed to follow orders to the letter regardless of how stupid they looked. Relatively few men were allowed, and mentally equipped, to take big command decisions. In the 18th Century, when armies coordinated through forming great battle lines, this mattered little. In the Napoleonic era there became a  pressing need to articulate armies with corps and divisional levels of command, and also to develop greater tactical initiative in light troops. But by the start of WW1 things seem to have moved on little. At the Somme this took the form of detailed plans of attack, which were supposed to be followed regardless of local glitches (like not having knocked out the enemy machine gun posts). The men were not briefed at all; which was a problem given the rate at which officers became casualties. The Somme showed how disastrous this approach was, and new methods were developed – and not just by the British; the Germans had their own problems, even though their thinking was already ahead. Clearly there were similar issues in the French army too, from some of the fictional dramas I have seen – though I know a lot less about them. It became crucial that battalion, company and even platoon commanders could take decisions based on what the enemy actually was and what he was doing.

And so what does all this all mean for wargaming? The main lesson that I took away was not even to try. WW2 is hard enough, but at least you can create interesting skirmish games which are not so unrepresentative of the fighting, since the troops were so dispersed. But it is very hard to see how you get a decent game out WW1 battles – at least on the Western Front in 1915-1917. The openness of warfare on other fronts and at the beginning or the end of the war may offer fewer problems, and offer a clearer idea of what the point of a game is. One of the issues with the type of fighting in these mid-war battles is working out who won; people still argue over it. So much of it was about the relative expenditure of resources. That is not a promising basis for a game.

I have already taken on too much with WW2; I will not be tempted into WW1, even though the era has its own very special fascination.

Barossa and Bussaco: unsatisfactory histories

Back to the Napoleonic Wars. I have been doing a little steady reading of accounts of the Peninsular War. English-language histories of battles between the British and French are very stereotyped – one of my ambitions is to develop an alternative narrative of the infantry tactics in particular. My hope is that my reading will shed some light on. This time there was less light than I hoped.

The first book was The Battle of Barossa 1811 by John Grehan and Martin Mace, published in 2012 by Pen & Sword. This battle near Cadiz was dramatic and historically important – though often overlooked by historians, because it was away from Wellington’s main army. Though the book centres on the battle, it takes on the whole siege of Cadiz – which is interesting enough. But the book is a big disappointment. Though quite well written it is little more than a rehash of British accounts of the affair, with no attempt to extend the usual sources; all the (limited) primary sources are British, as were the overwhelming majority of secondary sources. If recent Napoleonic history teaches us anything, it is that new insights are likely to come from overlooked foreign sources. Since this particular campaign is neglected, that would be particularly the case. So far as the main historical narrative is concerned, the main feature is the tense relations between the British and the Spanish, and between various Spanish factions. This very nearly led to disaster in the battle itself, where the British contingent ran into a superior force of French, with the Spanish failing to come to their aid – they nevertheless secured a remarkable victory. Alas this book throws no new light on proceedings, and contents itself with condemning the Spanish inconstancy. 200 years on we really should do better than that. And as for the battle itself, the narrative is the familiar one. There are no new insights, and no attempt to pull the usual accounts apart and put them back together again. Tactically it is an interesting battle, but I’m going to have to do that pulling apart myself if I want to get to the bottom of what happened and why.

My reading on Bussaco, the main battle during Masséna’s invasion of Portugal in 1810 is a bit different. This is an important battle, and much has been written about it. It is usually characterised as a standard French column versus British line encounter – but I wanted to understand how much that was based on actual evidence, and how much people were filling in the blanks with how they think it must have happened. It started when I picked up a translation of Colonel Pelet’s account of the campaign. Pelet was a senior aide to Masséna. I was drawn to this book because it contained a very interesting account of Ney’s attack, describing an intense skirmish duel between the French troops and the Light Division. This account is widely quoted in forums and such. It is an interesting and colourful account of the campaign from the French perspective. It was translated by the American academic Donald Horward. This drew me to Horward’s account of the battle: The Battle of Bussaco, published in 1965; I managed to find a second-hand copy, formerly belonging to the late Paddy Griffiths.

Horward’s book is quite slim but interesting. This is proper history, unlike so much of the amateur stuff published these days (including that book on Barossa). The sources have been properly compared, and the disagreements and controversies tackled head-on. It is quite interesting because it is written mainly from the French perspective; and in fact there seem to be a lot of French sources. His account of the battle itself has a very different feel to the normal ones based mainly on British sources. I only wish that more history of this quality was written today. For comparison I read the relevant chapter of David Buttery’s 2007 work Wellington against Massena, which I had bought but not read, and René Chartrand’s Campaign Osprey, which I had read before.

Chartrand and Buttery do not see the need to pick apart the standard British account, nor refer to controversies – but prefer to dramatise things a bit. For the former, that rather goes with the Osprey format, which allows little space for analysis. Buttery can’t resist filling in the blanks a bit – though Horward does that a bit too. Horward always describes the British artillery as raking the French with “grape and canister”; in the same cases Buttery says they fired shot. (This was also the first battle in which shrapnel was used, though Wellington was unimpressed). In one passage Buttery describes the British using rapid fire tactics – even though this was against British doctrine at the time. And I’m afraid that reveals a major limitation in all three works. They aren’t actually interested in the French and British tactics, and so they don’t press the evidence very hard.

My working hypothesis on Bussaco was that French tried to use heavy skirmish tactics to beat the enemy, but were thwarted by the superior skirmishing ability of the Light Division. The evidence doesn’t really hold up for this. There was indeed a lot of heavy skirmishing (in contrast to Vimiero and Talavera), but the most important encounters were between denser bodies of men. And the French suffered a clear disadvantage from exposed flanks, even though they had superior numbers. This fits the column and line thesis – but that doesn’t quite work either. The terrain was very broken, by steep slopes, crags and gorse. It was very difficult for either side to hold formation. Descriptions come through as disorderly melees. The tiredness of the French advancing up steep slopes with packs may have been a factor, as well the momentum of the fierce Anglo-Portuguese counterattacks. And the Allies did not have it all their own way. Foy was able brush aside the Portuguese 8th and 9th Regiments (probably only one battalion of the 9th); Buttery and Chartrand dismiss this as being down to overwhelming strength but that looks far too glib in view of how the French struggled to use numerical superiority elsewhere (Foy outnumbered the Portuguese by about 2:1).

Foy’s attack, effectively the third and last wave of Reynier’s corps was actually remarkably successful, capturing the plateau at the top of the ridge. It looks to me that at this point Reynier had Picton beaten. It required well-time reinforcements from neighbouring divisions (especially Leith) to restore the situation. If the French had reinforcements at the ready, perhaps the outcome would have been different. But Junot’s corps was in completely the wrong place. And that leads me to an observation relevant to the grand tactical level, and more relevant to my rules project. The Anglo-Portuguese were able to beat off the French easily enough, but at the cost of considerable disorganisation. If there were French reserves ready to exploit this disorganisation, then they had an opportunity. That’s how Foy’s brigade captured the summit at Bussaco – though by then the French were themselves disorganised.

I have less to say on Ney’s attack. It strikes me that the terrain here was much more complex, and that I need to look at it again to get any new insights.

Borodino by Alexander Mikaberidze

This book (published in 2007) has become the definitive book on the great battle of 1812, as the Russians downloadsought to stop Napoleon as he approached Moscow. It is not quite the biggest or bloodiest battle of the era – but it wasn’t until the First World War that as many combatants were killed in a single day.  It lies almost at the point when Napoleon’s military career turned from triumph to disaster. Both sides claimed victory. Tactically the French had the better of the day – with the Russians abandoning the field overnight. But the Russian army was unbroken, and soon enough turned the tables on the French.

One of the many recent developments in the writing of Napoleonic history has been the availability of Russian sources. The Russians kept rather extensive records, perhaps contrary to western European prejudices. However in the Soviet era history was regarded as a purely political exercise. Access was restricted only to historians who would offer a politically correct version of events – which meant glorifying the Russian achievement rather than trying understand what happened and why. Mr Mikaberidze examines the sources afresh, as well as giving interesting details on the historiography of the battle.

The book mainly focuses on the events of the the three days: the battle of Shevardino on 5 September, the main battle on 7 September, and the moves on the day in between. Events leading up to the battle, and after it, are covered only briefly – though he does review the criticism of Barclay and his replacement by Kutusov in some depth. The point of view is distinctly Russian, which compensates for the distinctly French-sided view of earlier histories in English – reflecting the availability of sources, as well as the language skills of British and American historians. Which is not to say that the French-Allied side of things is neglected in this book.

What the book does best is to analyse each episode. He describes the various accounts, and then evaluates which he thinks is closer to the truth. This is good, solid history. He doesn’t follow the fashion of adding colourful novel-like descriptions of events, filling in the missing bits from his imagination. Or the alternative fashion of relying too heavily and uncritically on eye-witness accounts to carry the narrative. He does quote eye-witnesses extensively – and this gives a lot of colour – but he evaluates them too. Controversies are dealt with in some depth. By the way various myths are dealt with – for example that the early death of Russian artillery commander Kutaisov meant that many Russian reserve batteries were never deployed. This is just untrue.

If the book has a failing, it is that the analysis does not go up a level. I find two issues of particular of interest. The first was Napoleon’s conduct. Mr Mikaberidze pretty much accepts the standard view that had Napoleon been more vigorous he could have achieved a much more decisive result, missing more than one opportunity – most famously not committing the Guard, but also exploiting some of his earlier success more decisively. Interestingly this view is not shared by the great military philosopher Clausewitz – who was actually at the battle, working for the Russians as a staff officer. This is quite interesting. What would have been the practical outcome of a “more decisive” result? It would not have hastened the capture of Moscow, which Napoleon thought would end the war. Neither, on the way things actually worked out, would it have made much difference to the catastrophe that enveloped the French later. It might have taken a little longer; the French might have got a few more men out. Would these extra achievements have warranted extra risk or damage to the Allied army? A discussion on this would have been illuminating – and may have gone some way to explaining Napoleon’s apparent apathy. He surely was physically ill – but perhaps he saw no reason to rise above that. The reason that the French Empire’s glory days were behind it was less perhaps that his generalship deteriorated, and more that his opponents made fewer mistakes.

A second question I find of interest, given my interest in simulation – though it’s not one that I have seen discussed properly anywhere – is the discrepancy in losses between the two sides. The French-Allied losses across the two days of battle were in the region of 35,000 men from an army of over 130,000. The Russians had a similar number of men, or perhaps more, although it included 30,000 or so Opolchenye – militia of much diminished military value, that was not heavily engaged – but their losses were significantly higher – perhaps as many as 45,000. Given that they adopted a defensive posture, this raises the question of why they suffered higher losses. A similar discrepancy does not emerge in the great battles on the Marchfeld against the Austrians in 1809. The Russian tendency to use dense formations in the face of artillery fire is often mentioned – but the French clearly attacked in dense formations as well. To me it speaks of the highly effective use of artillery by the French army in support of its attacks – though it is still a bit of a mystery. It also is striking that no major formation on either side broke. This may reflect the nature of the fighting, as much as the motivation of the troops.

These are quibbles though. There is a lot of material in the book that will allow simulators to gauge the realism of their models. This book inspires me to take this battle on as a future project. Even if hat will not be for some time to come!