Category Archives: Historical analysis

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!

A Bold and Ambitious Exercise – the British in the low countries in 1813-1814

This book covers a neglected episode in the Napoleonic wars: the British Bergen-op-Zoomexpedition to the low countries (on the modern Dutch-Belgian border), which had its climax in a disastrous attack on the fortified town of Bergen-op-Zoom. It is written by Andrew Bamford, and it is a thoroughly competent work. It forms an intriguing backdrop to the Waterloo campaign rather over a year later.

There isn’t a huge amount of history to tell. The book briefly covers an earlier episode when British troops cooperated with Wallmoden’s force, including the battle of Gohdre. There were three actions of significance. Two attacks on the Antwerp suburb of Merxem, and the attack on Bergen-op-Zoom. Mainly the book is about the dealings with the nascent government of the Netherlands under the Prince of Orange, and various Prussian, Russian and Saxon allies, as well as Bernadotte, as Crown Prince of Sweden. This is an interesting vignette on how allies behave to each other, weigh strategic priorities and behave with incomplete information. The way in which the British scraped together the forces required for the mission, in spite of Wellington’s still raging campaign in Spain and the south of France, as well the USA’s attack on Canada, is also interesting. The force was an odd mix of veterans and raw troops. Its leaders, from Peninsular veteran Graham down, where generally quite capable.

The writing of military history in this era is no longer a mainstream pursuit, and is largely left to enthusiasts and amateurs, with the odd professional whose main expertise is elsewhere. So the quality tends to be very uneven. Mr Bamford handles his task confidently, being able to tackle grand politics down to small-scale tactics with ease. Some of his arguments about who was to blame for what, building on old controversies, is a bit laboured, but overall the book is very well written. Thankfully he resists the temptation to fill in colour (“the sun glinted on the frosted trees, etc. ..” Yuk!). In common with so much British writing, the sources are almost entirely British; for all that it does not feel biased.

I have only a few quibbles with the book. The maps aren’t very good. A strategic map would have been useful; the general map of the campaign area is very bare. The plans of Bergen-op-Zoom are not as helpful as they should be (I can’t tell the difference between ditch or rampart; there are no streets) – though the ones of Merxem are good. On the great battle itself I was left with a puzzle. The most important question to my mind was whether if the largest incursion, made by General Cooke with the Guards, amongst others, had been more active, could the town have been taken? This is mentioned as question, and Cooke’s passivity is criticised – but an analysis of his options and how plausible each was would have been useful. Could he have forced his way through to the Antwerp Gate and secured it?

What else did I get from this book? I am struck with how well even this scratch British force performed, which says a lot for the traditions of the British army. Command broke down in the battle of Bergen-op-Zoom (generals behaving like subalterns was one contemporary criticism), but troops and officers behaved bravely and fought well. I would like to understand a bit more about how this sort of success was achieved.

Another intriguing point is how the political connectedness of the Guards casts a shadow on the writing of history. The conduct of the two senior Guards men, Cooke and Lord Proby, was questionable to say the least. But all the official criticism was heaped on others (especially the dead General Skerett) – and history has tended to follow their lead. And the whole episode is neglected, lest serious questions are posed. Some say that too much glory is given to the Guards at Waterloo (largely the same units – the second battalions) – which seems to reflect the same phenomenon, if with rather less justice. Also that Guards generals (the convention was that Guards could not be led by mere line officers) were often unenterprising, as Cooke was in this case. Proby, who was duly promoted to generalship later, is portrayed as downright defeatist and even (though Mr Bamford does not use the word, I will) cowardly. This Guards immunity is something historians and simulators need to allow for.

The attacks on Merxem lack the meat to make into a good wargame.  The attempt on Bergen-op-Zoom is another matter. It would be hard to do. You would need a much better map of the town than the ones in the book, though. And how you would allow for the fog of war and difficulties in communication I don’t know. But the forces are well balanced, and it should be an exciting game.

Three of the four British attacks gained entry to the town, and the forces on the failed attack were switched rapidly to one of the successful points. That gave the British more troops in the town than the French – but the British did not seem to know what to do once they got in. The French did not understand where the British were coming from at the start, and tended to overreact. But they acted decisively and made use of their central position. These are exactly the elements of a good game.

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Wagram 1809

I have just finished reading Eric Gill’s account of the battle of Wagram in the third volume of his Thunder on the Danube series. I want to use this post to reflect a bit on some of the implications of this battle for those interested in simulation.

Ever since I first read about Wagram as a teenager in David Chandler’s Campaigns of Napoleon, I have been deeply fascinated by it. It has massive scope, the second biggest battle of the era, and with more coherent narrative than the Leipzig, the biggest.  It resembles Borodino in some ways, but is less linear. And it shows the Austrian army in a good light – an army that is a bit of an underdog in its treatment by historians in the centuries since, lacking a major national champion. They lost, but with honour intact – no worse than what the Russians achieved at Borodino – though in a strategic context that meant an honourable defeat was not good enough, unlike the Russian battle.

Also this is a battle taking place on a nearly featureless plain – closer than most real battles to the sort of thing we try on a tabletop. It begs to be refought as a simulation – though it is just too big. One day I might give it a try! May be I can develop a doubled up version of DTN to bring it within the range of feasibility. Episodes from the battle could be used as a testbed for rules – though since the various sub-battles tend to blend into each other, this would be a challenge.

Mr Gill has made good use of sources on both sides, and is on the whole pretty objective. He is a little too judgemental for may taste – but then almost all historians of Napoleonic military history are. I prefer my history to be about what happened and why, to quote AJP Taylor. Mr Gill has lots of bad things to say about Charles and the Austrian decisions when compared to Napoleon and the French. This is not unjustified – but I find this type of writing a bit of a bore. I would like to understand why they reached the decisions they did. And there is always a slight suspicion that the Austrians are being judged to a higher benchmark that the French.

More seriously, I could have done with the account providing a bit more detail; it could have added 50% in length easily. This contrasts with the excellent detail the author provides in some of the smaller engagements of the campaign. As a result I find a number of things puzzling. Why did the Saxon infantry collapse on the second day? They don’t seem to have been directly attacked. There is also a lack of detail over the encounter between Oudinot’s corps and Hohenzollern’s – even though the former suffered very high percentage casualties. Gill vaguely alludes to artillery being responsible in both cases – but this does not seem to be based on solid analysis. A third mystery is that in Massena’s march from the centre to the flank, he reports them coming under heavy artillery fire. But they were covered by the famous Grand Battery – which surely would have drawn the fire, and masked the movement?

Unfortunately I don’t think any of the other books I have that cover the battle will do much to illuminate these issues. For a simulator it is this habit of historians to drop into airy explanations that is particularly frustrating. We want to look at the data! One reason to try to simulate episodes from the battle.

Three issues from this battle struck me particularly: command and control; panic; and weapon ranges. I have already reflected a bit on command and control in my thinking aloud piece on my new rules. The difference between the two sides seems mainly to be a the corps level. The Austrians had only recently introduced a corps system, and they seem to have had very limited planning capability, relying on detailed plans drawn up by army HQ; it says something for the strength of the Austrian army HQ that they were able to produce these detailed plans as quickly as they did. But Napoleon found it much easier to watch and wait – and then give his corps instructions at a high level. This difference explains a lot about how the battle unfolded. As the second day got going Charles was chasing around adjusting the plan to take care of events – while Napoleon was able to calmly direct things from a distance. This difference is certainly worth trying to replicate in a simulation.

It is interesting, though, that when Napoleon made a spur of the moment decision to attack the (concealed) Austrians on the first evening, that the hastiness of it all meant that the French attacks were conducted inefficiently, especially by corps commanders less able or less trusted than Davout (who only made a gentle probe – perhaps all Napoleon intended). The corps needed to be given time to digest orders in order to deliver them efficiently.

As for panic, this poses a particularly interesting problem for simulation. Mr Gill’s account points to two particular occasions when substantial elements of the Austrian army started to panic and flee, having to be rallied by the senior officers, up to Charles himself. The first was on the evening of the first day when the Army of Italy  caught the Austrians off guard. The second was early on the second day (featuring many of the same troops, perhaps significantly) when the French retook Aderklaa and launched an attack beyond. The problem isn’t explaining these events – it’s understanding why these are the only two. As the battle developed, the Austrians suffered many further reverses, from one end of the line to the other. But they held firm. Disorder might appear, but as the French cavalry arrived to take advantage, the Austrians recovered composure and beat them off. In the general withdrawal the Austrians did lose a few battalions crushed by cavalry attacks, but their overall composure is quite striking. What made troops panic on a few occasions, and but not on many others?

There were panics on the French side too. Both the attacking forces in the two Austrian panics suffered the same fate, as the Austrians successfully rallied and counterattacked.  It is worth adding that on both occasions the French pulled themselves together and play a key role later in the battle. The Saxon infantry gave way on both days; the second time, it would appear, based just on an artillery bombardment. These panics don’t cause the same difficulty. They resulted from attacks that got out of hand and became vulnerable. The Saxon collapse on the second day is more of a problem – since ordinarily it takes a flash of cold steel to cause a disorderly retreat – though these men had suffered very badly the previous day. These incidents will repay study when assessing the way combats and higher level morale work.

The issue on artillery and musket ranges is based on a general impression rather than detailed  evidence. The quotes Mr Gill uses (especially from French witnesses) stress a lot about the strength of artillery and fire and bullets that the men endured – borne out, of course, by the high casualty figures. A striking figure is that the French artillery fired something close to 100,000 rounds – about 200 per piece present. That sounds a lot, but Austrian losses were about 38,000. Most of them would have been as the result of artillery fire. So the hit ratio for artillery was at least 25%; the Austrian rate would have been very similar. Each artillery piece cause 50+ casualties. That strikes me as being quite high given the generally primitive technology. Both sides reported instances of the opposing artillery firing too high at even close ranges.

Now one of the issues with creating simulations is that the quoted effective ranges are quite short: 100-200m for muskets, 500-1,000m for artillery. It is often stated that it was waste of time engaging targets at greater ranges than these. In terms of my wargames rules these maximum ranges are about 1 inch for infantry weapons and 3-7 inches for artillery. Not far at all; most units, most of the time are out of range.  Now while there were some close encounters at Wagram, particularly in the key villages, my impression is that a lot of the combat took place at longer ranges. Something doesn’t seem to be adding up; the usually quoted effective ranges seem to be too short.

One potential resolution to this puzzle is the idea that projectiles were still lethal at well beyond the effective aimed range, especially artillery – but also musketry which was often aimed too high by inexperienced troops (veterans advised to aim for the feet). Perhaps in the flat and open terrain of the Marchfeld a lot of the casualties were caused by projectiles that had missed their primary target. Though we read of lucky artillery shots that might kill a dozen in a single blow, we don’t read of entire infantry units collapsing under fire – even in front of the French Grand battery. This all speaks of a generally high and widespread attrition,n rather than artillery units crushing anything in their path. However, being caught in an “en potence” position with fire from two directions, as happened to Rosenberg’s and Oudinot’s corps and the Saxons, seems to have been particularly lethal. Since simulations tend to focus on direct hits and ignore the effects of indirect fire, this is interesting. But then again, the slow casualty rate from indirect fire was not as disruptive to morale as sudden impact.

Plenty to reflect on from this epic battle.

 

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