Tag Archives: Napoleonic

My French light cavalry

What a year 2020 was! From early March meeting up for wargames became impossible. Trapped at home with social activities drastically curtailed, most hobbyists had a ready outlet – preparing more figures for the tabletop (plus terrain items). Almost all of us have a “lead mountain” (though these days with a large plastic component in most cases) of miniatures waiting to be painted up, so this was a good opportunity. Alas many of us also browsed hobby suppliers online and added to the mountain as well. Hobby manufacturers were doing a roaring trade.

But for me it was different. I had (and have) a substantial lead mountain, but 2020 was the year we chose to move house. In January we readied the house for a sale; in February we were frantically sorting and packing our accumulated 24 years of possessions, and the lead mountain disappeared into boxes. In March we moved out. We had chosen but not legally acquired our new house in rural East Sussex, and lockdown slowed the acquisition process right down; we did not complete until the end of July. In the four month interval we stayed at a friend’s holiday home on the coast, with a small fraction of our possessions, and almost all hobby material in storage. Once we moved into the house the early priority was settling in, and getting on with the myriad of tasks associated with a new home, and then their was a health crisis with my father’s health deteriorated and he passed away (at 96 after a period of deteriorating health). It wasn’t until later in November that I was able to get back to painting miniatures. I have just finished my first lockdown project: upgrading my French light cavalry. This is a report on how the went. Warning: it is quite a long one, as I find it useful to keep a record of the main points – you’d have to be quite deep into the hobby’s obsessions to find most of it interesting!

This project has been a couple of decades in the making. My original Napoleonic armies, back in the 1970s, built up with my brother, were Airfix plastics for Waterloo. In the 1980s I decided to move to 15mm metal figures, with French and Austrian armies, using Minifigs. But I became tired of these fairly quickly – the figures were quite crude – so I decided to upgrade. This was mainly a mix of Old Glory 15s, Battle Honours and AB figures. This upgrade still hasn’t been finished for my Austrians, where my line infantry is still the old Minifigs, and the whole army is in a sorry state. But in a major push I have managed to upgrade the French, mainly with the OGs. While doing this I bought the figures I needed for the light cavalry. In those days OG sold their cavalry in packs of 30, with two sets of command figures. I bought one each of chasseurs and hussars. 12 of the hussars got painted up relatively early, but the rest languished as I was distracted by other projects. My Minifigs chasseurs soldiered on for quite a while but , but eventually I retired them as they were generally the only old Minifigs on the table for the French.

I have been short of French light cavalry ever since. My hussars (painted up as the 8th regiment) did sterling service, joined by a unit of AB Polish lancers and occasionally dragoons making up the difference. The 8th Hussars have green uniforms, so they resembled chasseurs from a distance, and it sort of worked. My main efforts went into upgrading the French infantry. After that the big push was to create an army of 1815 Prussians. while doing so my French cavalry was looking tired. So at the end of 2019 I decided that I really had to find those OG chasseurs and bring them into service. While doing this I found the other 18 hussars (or most of them), and started to think I could paint these up too, and bring in some more visually striking units than my faithful 8th. At this point I was thinking that the way to paint horses was to use large batches without riders (then glue primed riders to their backs and paint these mounted). So I decided to do all the horses in one batch; this morphed into doing all the riders in a single batch too. Normally I do two 8 figure cavalry units in a batch (though for infantry it is usually three 12 figure units). This time I wanted to do three chasseur units (of 8) and one hussar unit. The single hussar unit became two, as I decided to repaint four of my 8th Hussars, bringing it down to my new standard size and giving me an extra unit.

The horses

Many hobbyists struggle with painting horses. Look at the lovingly painted figures in wargames magazines (usually 28mm), and you will often see splendid riders sitting on very flatly painted horses, conforming to no common natural colour pattern. I have had my own struggles, and I still haven’t hit on a technique that I’m really happy with. This time I decided to paint a large batch without riders, with a white primer, and building up layers of relatively thin artists’ acrylic. I divided the group of 36 horses into subgroups: the biggest being bays, then a smaller group of chestnuts and smaller still groups of blacks and greys, with a single dun. I upped the number of blacks when I decided to mount the 4th Hussars on black horses, though four of these were to come from repainting the mounts from the 8th, and not the 36 new ones.

The priming and very first coats were actually done in early January before I realised how incompatible this project was with getting the house ready for sale. With some of the horses I tried a bright orange undercoat. I have long wondered how to paint a horse to get that wonderful glow that some chestnut and bay horses have, so I though that a bright undercoat with layers of. duller paint on top was a possible way to go. It didn’t really work as the coverage of each layer was generally not quite 100%, so there would be tiny patches of bright colour coming through! The process of layering took a long time before I started to get anything that looked satisfactory. what I did learn was that it was easier to put on thin layers of pure pigment, rather than try to mix them in advance, except with a little white maybe. I use artists paints, and the main ones I used were Raw Umber, Raw Sienna and Burnt Umber, with Payne’s Grey for the black and grey, with some Titanium White as required. I also needed to introduce some red, but my Burnt Sienna (the most suitable pigment for this) had given out, so I used some old Venetian Red, which was a bit too bright and had to be used in sparing quantities.

The greys were he hardest. I started all but one with a thin coat of Payne’s Grey (which is actually a decent match for horses’ skin), and then built up lighter grey colours, with a bit of speckling. Grey horses a generally pretty textured, and moving from dark to light (rather than the more usual light to dark) is one way of achieving this. However my white came from a free sample tube, and I don’t think the quality was quite up to scratch. I had to rescue some of the models with a thin layer of Liquitex white. In the end I was more or less happy with the bays and chestnuts, though I did not achieve the glow I wanted, and the blacks were pretty easy (one I painted as a very dark bay, which turned out to be nearly indistinguishable from the others – as in life, as I remember noting from the Horse Guards in Whitehall). The greys, and the dun I was much less happy with, but they were OK to put on the table. I didn’t manage to achieve a proper white horse among the greys – I find these very hard to do; they look quite simple at first, but look closer and you see sort of textures an slight colour variations..

I have another batch of OG horses which I have started to paint in acrylic (bays and chestnuts); I will use these for a batch of Prussian cavalry using acrylic, but my next big experiment on horses is to use oil paint. I did think that doing large batches of horses worked though, especially when being a bit experimental. It’s easier to try different ideas out, though also have to do a lot of repainting. But many layers of paint is supposed to give depth, so I’m not stressed about this.

The chasseurs

9th Chasseurs
13th Chasseurs
16th Chasseurs

I was always going to do three regiments in my new standard unit size of eight. Initially I chose 13th, 16th and 23rd, all serving in Lasalle’s division at Wagram, alongside the 8th Hussars. But the 23rd had capucine facings – a sort of orange-brown. With the 13th having proper orange facings, I thought the contrast wasn’t enough on 15/18mm miniatures. So I picked an alternative colour, I’ve always liked pink, and chose the 9th regiment, which served in Army of Italy in 1809 (including at Wagram) alongside the dragoon regiments in my army. All the cavalry figures were to be painted as at 1809, approximately, since that was how the castings were made. In fact most of my future campaigns are likely to be 1813-1815, but that is a detail! The chasseur uniforms of 1809 were more interesting anyway, especially the trumpeters. I didn’t research the uniforms too heavily, as I wasn’t prepared to go in for head-swaps and other conversions that would doubtless have resulted (though I did exactly this for my French line infantry). So the uniforms are quite generic, based on the regulation facing colours, reversed for the trumpeters. My main priority was to get theses figures table-ready, and to finish in 2020 if possible. I didn’t try much detailing especially in the lower body, which is not so visible on the table.

As usual I used artists’ acrylics (mainly Liquitex). Each colour was mixed for the occasion. The most important colour was the green for the basic uniform. Since taking up artists’ pigments I have struggled with greens more than any other colour. I wanted a slightly blue hue for the chasseurs. The best place to start would have been Hooker’s Green, but my tube from Daler-Rowney had dried up. This is not the first time this has happened recently with Daley-Rowney paint, which I initially put down to poor cap design, but I think may be deeper. I am still using Liquitex and Winsor & Newton paints bought in the 1980s. That left a choice between Sap Green, a well-behaved pigment which is a bit warmer than I was looking for, and Viridian, a bluer green which I had bought following a recommendation form an artists’ book. I chose the latter because it was closer to the bluish hue I was looking for. I immediately regretted it, as it is a thin an nasty paint that needs multiple coats on miniatures. I mixed it with a bit of Venetian red to tone it down, and a little white – which these days I do for all paints I mix.

To finish the figures I used a wash of Winsor & Newton Peat Brown ink. This went on undiluted from the bottle – a little risky but it worked. This has a sightly reddish hue, which worked fine against the green of the uniform, as well as the brown and flesh, but stained the white belts in an unhelpful way; these needed to be restored with some white highlight paint. It was a disaster on the pale grey and roan horses, which I had rescue with some white paint. Apart from these snags the wash lifted the figures beautifully, and brought out the details very nicely. I decided not to try a dry-brush highlighting. I’m not sure this makes enough difference on figures of this scale; I’m often too impatient and start with too much paint on the brush; and it is expensive on brushes. The ink wash left a slight sheen, which I don’t mind on Napoleonic miniatures, and helps bring out the detail (for example the breast buttons on the pictures above, which I had not attempted to pick out in paint). I decided not to try applying varnish either, as I was OK about the sheen from the ink.

The hussars

4th Hussars
5th Hussars
8th Hussars

Hussars are irresistible for collectors of Napoleonic miniatures, with their flamboyant uniforms, and I chose to paint up more units than I will ever be likely to need on the table at one time – simply because I had the castings. I had originally picked the 8th Hussars as this was the hussar unit most engaged in the 1809 campaign against Austria, the main focus of my collection at the time. It turned out to have the dullest uniform of all the French hussar regiments. This was made worse by the fact that I decided to paint the legs in overalls, rather than boots and breeches – the breeches were red. The detailing of the OG casting on the legs is a bit vague, and it wasn’t clear which it was. There was a uniform from this regiment on display in the National Army Museum in Paris, which showed the overalls, so I decided to follow this. As noted above, this unit served as generic light cavalry, frequently standing in for chasseurs, so predominantly green uniform was appropriate.

The first of the new regiments I chose to depict was easy: the 5th. This regiment with its white pelisses, has always been my favourite. My brother and I painted up a unit of this in our original collection, converted from Airfix figures. I now want to replicate all the identifiable regiments from this original collection in my current one, though in this case an earlier uniform will be depicted, as the shakos are in an earlier style (a shame, as I like the later cylindrical shakos for the hussars, and the 5th had them in red). But which other unit? The main candidates were the 4th, which served alongside the 5th in the Waterloo campaign in Pajol’s division, and the 3rd, whose grey and red uniform I have long been attracted to, ever since it was depicted in a film about two feuding French light cavalrymen, whose title I can’t remember [It was The Duellists, directed by Ridley Scott]. But the 3rd wasn’t part of the French army of the Waterloo campaign, and it was in Spain in 1809. What tipped it was when I read that the 4th was mounted on black horses. It is doubtful that the regiment would have been able to sustain such pickiness in wartime (though at least it wasn’t in competition with the heavy cavalry regiments, which loved dark horses, as it would have used smaller mounts), but it was an appealing idea for the table. It also solved a problem about repainting the four the horses from my old 8th Hussars unit – a repaint to black is much easier than trying to replicate my layering technique for bays and chestnuts.

For uniform details I consulted a number of sources, plus googled images. This gave a bewildering number of alternatives and variations for both regiments. In the end I went for a version that was close to Martinet’s depiction in his series of contemporary prints, though not the elaborate officer’s dress uniform shown for the 5th.

The main colours for the 4th were blue and red. The blue is usually depicted as being brighter and richer (a Royal Blue) than the standard infantry uniform blue (or that used by the various French heavy cavalry units, come to that), so I based my colour on Ultramarine, a very bright pigment, compared to my normal Prussian Blue hue (and a bit redder). It needed toning down, though, which I did with raw umber, plus a little bit of white. I also toned down the red (with green from the chasseur uniform, and white). The four newly-painted figures were undercoated in Payne’s Grey, to help them match with the 8th Hussar conversions, which also had a dark undercoat. All of this meant that the figures ended up quite dark (though the blue is nice and rich), so I didn’t think the Peat Brown wash would be strong enough. I decided to use Daler-Rowney black ink instead – but this needed a lot of diluting with water. This worked very well in picking out the lacing on the pelisses (which were done in Yellow Oxide, a close match to Yellow Ochre).

For the 5th I needed a sky blue for the base of the uniform, which was also needed for the facings of the 16th Chasseurs. I tried mixing a bit of white in the deep blue used for the 4th – but this came out a bit on the red side – a distinct hint of an unmilitary violet. It looked OK after mixing in some green; generally the best way of getting sky blues for uniforms is to mix white with Prussian Blue. The white for the pelisse (and in fact all the white elements on all the uniforms) was in fact an off-white made by adding a little Raw Umber in with the white. The yellow lace work was Yellow Oxide again. For the wash I decided to use the diluted black ink I used for the 4th – notwithstanding that these are much lighter figures (including the horses). I had learned that peat brown and white don’t go, and opted for the neutral black. I had to be careful to brush it off the white pelisses as far as I could, but overall it helped to lift the figures a lot.

You may notice that I am trying not to make the colours too bright and contrasty, in order to get a more authentic look. There is no black anywhere (except the ink washes), instead I used Payne’s Grey ( a dark blue-grey) and a more neutral mix of blue and raw umber – in ,most cases with a touch of white in there. Yellow Oxide is not a bright yellow (though better behaved than most yellow pigments, which tend to be thin and runny, like the Viridian). The red is only a bit brighter than a classic brick red. I am still developing these ideas about colour palette. In general I still have a tendency to make them a bit too dark – though in this case that only really applies to the 4th Hussars. This is all part of the adventure of mixing my own colours, rather than going for Vallejo paint-by-numbers, as most hobbyists do.

I have included the remaining eight figures from the 8th Hussars in the photos. These present an interesting contrast to my more recent work. I had only started my journey with artists paints at this point, but I think these were mainly done in Humbrol enamels. There was only one green artist pigment that I was confident with at that stage, which was a bit lighter than the one used here (I used it for my dragoons, painted at about the same time). The horses have a distinct Dark Earth hue – though I was mixing horse colours at this stage, and attempting to distinguish between bay and chestnut. The grey is very flat. My detail work is sharper than it is now, though I did not attempt the waist sashes either then or now (except one or two of the 4th). That clear detailing holds the whole composition up, though, allowing them to hold their heads high compared to my more recent work, in spite of the flatter and denser paintwork. Starting again, the main thing I would do differently (apart from the horses) would be to make the green a bit lighter and brighter. Having said that, the uniform in on display in Paris was very dark.

The Polish lancers

Polish Vistula Legion Lancers

Finally I have pictured the faithful Polish lancer unit. These are later work than my 8th Hussars. They are AB castings, which are much sharper than my OG figures. The men are probably a bit bigger (true 18mm rather than the OGs which are from the period when the 15mm was inflating to 18mm), though the horse aren’t bigger – as befits light cavalry. I much prefer the AB range to OG, though their early French figures aren’t their best (these lancers are later). All ranges tend to improve with time; they usually start wit the standard French types and as a result these tend to be their weakest. That is true of OG too; these French castings (the infantry as well as this light cavalry) are not as good as their later Prussians, which I happily mix in with the ABs. This unit was not my most successful paint job, and one day I might repaint it. The horses are a bit flat and matt; on the men I was too heavy-handed with a white dry brush. I was using a technique recommended in one of the rule books I used, but it didn’t really come off. Still they have a dusty on-campaign look, which is appropriate for the Peninsula theatre where they did their main service. The unit’s greatest triumph was at Albuera in 1811, which has been one of my favourite tabletop battles.

I have 15 OG French lancers, which I intend to bring to the table, though I want to find a way of topping them up to 16 to get two complete units. Another thought is to do a unit of Polish Guard lancers… but that would involve buying more miniatures. For now the priority is to paint what I have.

Basing

Finally came the bases. I wanted to get the bases of all seven units looking consistent. The two old units were mounted on un-flocked plaster painted in a washed-out olive green colour (Humbrol Hemp, I think). All bases are 25mm squares, and have magnetic material underneath. I cut the new bases from thick artists’ paper. This is thinner than the customary mount board or MDF, but with the magnetic material already increasing the height my recent practice is to use thinner mounting material. This means you have to be careful about warping. The gunk I use to set the miniatures in uses no water: acrylic medium mixed with some paint and some old railway ballast material (in place of the sand I usually use, which I hadn’t brought in the move). I let this mix cure with the bases placed on a metal surface, so that the magnetic material ensures they say flat.

The paint was Raw Umber mixed with a bit of white. I used the same paint mix to touch up the base edges, and also the outer parts of the bases on two old units. I then applied flock, which I mixed from a couple of sources. I decided not to try static grass at the edges, as I wanted to develop my application techniques later, and I was in a hurry (it was nearly New Year’s Eve by now). However I did feel the need to apply a further layer of diluted PVA glue to fix the flock, which otherwise leaves a trail wherever the figures go. This was very necessary, as the initial bond was weak, but it did mean that there was a lot of lumping of the flock, which became very uneven. That meant that a lot of the basing material was exposed, as you can see from the pictures. That shouldn’t matter that much as this should resemble bare earth. But the paint mix should have had more white in it, and it all looks a bit dark. The flock is also on the dark side. Overall the bases are acceptable but not great.

Conclusion

This project isn’t properly finished. The standards need flags (which I have bought) and I think the bases could do with more work. I also need to revisit my decision not to highlight and/or varnish. But this project had taken a long time and I wanted to declare victory by 31 December. I will revisit when I do my next batch of 18mm miniatures. This is likely to French Guard infantry.

As usual I wasn’t that happy when I put down the paintbrushes. By this stage in a project you are very familiar with the flaws, and have to draw a line. But, again as usual, I became progressively happier with the outcome afterwards, apart from the bases. The 4th Hussars are just a little too dark I think. But all the units will do fine on the tabletop when this resumes, and are likely to get into action quite quickly.

My main learnings:

  • This project took a long time. Partly because I was rusty and had to unpack various materials, but only partly. The horses might be a bit quicker with improved technique, but the really time-consuming bit was the detailing. I have tried to reduce this as far as possible, but the detailing left is just the sort that has a big impact on the end result. It is these high-contrast features (facings, belts and straps, and so on) that are the making of horse and musket miniatures.
  • Technique on horses needs more work. I need to rethink the approach for greys, especially the paler ones. In due course I want to do a unit of Royal Scots Greys, so this will need to come right. For the bays and chestnuts I need to work more with layers of pure pigment, including the Burnt Sienna that I lacked this time. This will be interesting in oils!
  • Don’t use Viridian again if you can help it. Perhaps tweak Sap Green with some blue, or use Pthalo Green (though this is very bright and will need quite a bit of toning down). Buying a new tube of Hooker’s Green looks a bit wasteful when I have all these other tubes of green on the go.
  • Peat Brown ink is great to use as a wash because it can be used straight from the bottle, though application needs some care to prevent pooling, but not on expanses of white or grey. Otherwise I can use diluted Daler-Rowney Black or Antelope Brown (a yellower hue) ink, which doesn’t seem to mind heavy dilution in water.
  • Basing is a bit of a headache. I need to lighten up the earth colour, but also rethink the flock mix. Static grass isn’t necessary but it may enhance the edges of the base once I’ve improved my application technique.

Nafziger’s 1813 trilogy: a useful resource but a poor history

Back to this blog’s original focus: Napoleonics! My reading about this era has focused mainly on the Waterloo campaign, the Peninsula War (1808 to 1813) and the Austrian campaign of 1809. I have dabbled in other campaigns: Napoleon in Italy 1796/7, Suvarov’s campaign 1799, Marengo 1800, Austerlitz 1805, and Russia 1812. That left a huge gap: the epic Central European campaigns of 1813 (and to a lesser extent the battles in France in 1814). I thought I needed to do something about this, saw an offer on George Nafziger’s three books on the subject, and bought them.

I started the first book, on Lutzen and Bautzen, last year, read the second, centring on the battle of Dresden, during lockdown, and have now finished the third, centring on Leipzig. I have very mixed feelings about the whole experience.

Captain Nafziger is well-known amongst wargamers for his intricate research whose main output is orders of battle for many encounters in Napoleonic and other wars, where he went much deeper than the usual British and French sources. He has also ventured into wider military history, with an account of the 1812 campaign, which I have, and others which I haven’t). Unfortunately his ability to ferret out and absorb multiple sources does not make him a great historian, and this series of books doesn’t show him at his best. His prose is leaden. His editorial choices are rather strange. No detail about which unit was to the left or right of another unit is too small for him to note down, but swathes of more strategic information get left out. His accounts include strings of place names, many of which do not appear on the (usually) sparse maps, and little geographical context is offered. It really is very hard to understand what is going on. The result is that I’m still pretty confused about how the earlier campaign, resulting in the battles of Lutzen and Bautzen, unfolded and why things happened as they did. The other books are generally a bit better, but still very hard going. Occasionally there do seem to errors. I found one case of what looked like the same episode being repeated. There are almost no eye-witness quotations to provide context and atmosphere (though in some ways this is a relief: some modern historians give too many undigested eye-witness accounts, and not enough interpretation).

Occasionally Captain Nafziger’s method works. His account of the prelude to Liepzig, the battle of Liebertwolkwitz, is much clearer than the two versions I had previously read (one by Digby Smith). but mostly it is thoroughly confusing. How accurate is all of this? I suspect him of giving too much credence to French accounts of their own prowess, though he does try to be objective. At Bautzen he describes dreadful execution done by French batteries firing across the river. And yet it was very hard to tally these with what he describes as happening to the Allied troops at the other end (which has a single horse battery being forced to retreat, if I remember correctly). There were other cases where praise for the conduct of French commanders is made for achievements that look quite modest. Where French sources are the main ones available, such as for many of the sieges a the end of the book, the accounts are very lopsided.

There is a lack of strategic commentary. Where he provides it, it reads more like thinking aloud than properly-developed argument. Overall there is a very 19th century feel to his commentary. In this era commentators (including military theorists) felt that Napoleon’s early campaigns (from 1796 to 1805 in particular), with their rapid manoeuvre and decisive battles were the epitome of good generalship, and the standard to which all military leaders should aspire. So they are continually critical of Napoleon’s more “lethargic” later campaigns, and have a good laugh at the floundering grand tactical leadership of the Allies. But war was changing, with massed armies, deficient training and stretched officer cadres. You had to fight wars differently. I suspect many of Napoleon’s “errors” can be explained by such considerations, which, for example, did not allow him to expose the logistical centre of Dresden. And, there is a plausible interpretation of the the Allies’ second campaign, masterminded by the Austrian Prince Schwartzenberg, as being one of the most brilliant of the era. There is a more modern flavour to these campaigns, compared to the more 18th Century earlier campaigns. It reminds me rather of the classic comparison of the generalship of Lee and grant in the American Civil War: one seems to look forward and the other back.

What are the takeaways? First I was right about 1813: this is in many ways the pinnacle of the Napoleonic Wars. In a wargamers’ terms (let’s dance lightly over the pain and suffering) this is very rich source of action – with the two sides remarkably well-matched. The sheer scale of it is clearly one of the big problems the author faced in his account. I might very well like to compare this work unfavourably with such masterpieces as Rory Muir’s book on Salamanca, or Eric Gill’s trilogy on the 1809 campaign – but these were much smaller affairs. It is very strange that these epic battles in 1813 are so weakly covered by English-language historians. Captain Nafziger is to be congratulated on taking such a challenge on. The level of detail in this book will make it a useful resource. But I badly need to read a more strategic account to get a clearer idea of what was happening (there are a couple around).

Incidentally, something rather interesting does emerge from wading through the mass of detail: it is how well the Austrians performed, right up to leadership level. I would go as far as to suggest that they were the most aggressive of the troops in the alliance in the second campaign (they were the freshest of the combatants, so this should to be too surprising). This is a far cry from the standard English language account which suggests that they performed poorly because their heart wasn’t in it. Indeed Austrian and Prussian leadership at corps level seems to be every bit as good as that of Napoleon’s veterans, and often better.

There are some mysteries to me that these books throw up, and which my further reading will address. The first is to get some kind of coherent narrative around the first campaign. I don’t buy the standard account that Napoleon outwitted the Allies and had them on the ropes when the armistice was agreed. After all, why then did Napoleon agree to the armistice? There is surely a strategic narrative that tells a rather different tale. Second is why did the Allies accept battle at Dresden when they realised that Napoleon was there in strength, especially when their deployment was so flawed? Third, was Napoleon really so close to crushing the Army of Bohemia after the Allied calamity of Dresden? And finally how close was Napoleon really to achieving victory against the Army of Bohemia on the first day of Leipzig?

That last needs to be explored in a wargame. I really don’t understand why this part of the battle isn’t attempted more often by wargamers. It’s big, but so is Borodino. And it has everything – Guard units and cuirassiers aplenty on both sides, and lots of drama. There are lots and lots of other wargames ideas to be found in these books (though I in many cases these will require the finding of much better maps). There are a couple of very interesting smaller battles that caught my eye too.

Conclusion. 1813 is where I need to be directing my future energies on Napoleonic wargames, following the realisation of my Ligny project for 1815.

Albuera 1811: refight for BNB

Another week , another outing for my Big Napoleonic Battles rules at the club. This time I wanted to try something historical. I had already worked out a scenario for the epic Pensinsular battle of Albuera in 1811, so I dusted it down. Unfortunately I brought the wrong box of French, so the French army looked very scrappy, including some ancient Minifigs Old Guard and Union ACW troops in skirmish order. So no pictures.

The scenario was quite stylised. I am avoiding close adherence to the historical terrain and orders of battle. This makes the games quicker to set up and play. The terrain is simplified to essentials, and the units mostly of standard size. However the overall number of bases was close to historical for each side. Apart from the French infantry (using my usual four bases) the unit sizes were smaller than I have used for 1815: three bases. The figure ratio was set at 1,000 infantry per base, less than the 1,250 I am using for 1815, but this reflects the toll the Peninsula took on grand tactical formations. Each of the two British divisions were represented by two units (allowing the Portuguese to be separated in Cole’s division). There was one four-base Spanish unit: Zayas’s division. Not too much distortion was needed with these unit sizes. The French got an extra unit, attributed to the reserves. Alten’s KGL light infantry was merged with Collins’s independent Portuguese brigade.

All the British and French infantry was classed as Veteran, including the KGL/Portuguese unit, and the British (but not the merged unit) were also classed as Aggressive. The two Portuguese units and Zayas were classed as Trained. The other Spanish units were Raw and Fragile, along with the Spanish and Portuguese cavalry. The British cavalry unit was Trained and Aggressive. The French light cavalry units were classed as Veteran, with one (the Polish lancers and 2nd Hussars) also as Aggressive. The two French dragoon units were classed as Trained – the French dragoon arm seems to have had problems in 1811/12 in the Pensinsula. To mimic the command problems on the Allied side, they were given no generals, and the Spanish were additionally classed as Passive. The French had two generals.

As with the original battle the French pushed most of their infantry into a left flank attack, with the lead unit feinting on Albuera village in the centre. Unlike the day the main French attack the Allies had more time to respond, notwithstanding command issues, so the flank was not fully turned, and all the cavalry was thrown into the attack in the centre. This succeeded drawing in British infantry to the centre, where the French held their own, though the sight of two French cavalry units scrapping for the village jarred a bit (the village wasn’t treated as a dense built-up area, so cavalry could operate in it). The Spanish were left holding off the main French onslaught, but were helped by cavalry superiority. By the time we called it a day, the Spanish were holding on, though the fight had lasted only two moves: a longer battle would have been uglier for the Spanish. The French had started to relocate some of their cavalry from the centre to counter the Allied cavalry superiority.

So how did the rules do? Such historical refights need to be judged on three aspects. Scenario design, player performance and the rules themselves. The scenario had one major weakness: it allowed the Allies to react to the French battle plan at least one move earlier than they did historically. Their ability to react needs to be constrained. Also I think Coles’s division is available too early. I was playing closer attention to the French, and their their use of generals and the veteran status meant that the army didn’t suffer too much friction in the early stages. The Allies suffered more, but I’m not sure if it was enough to reflect the historical situation. Perhaps they should all be Passive (with maybe a British general to compensate). I am broadly happy with the troop classifications: if the Spanish were too effective that is a rules problem, as they had nearly the lowest grade possible. On terrain I think it was broadly OK except I don’t think the hills on the Allied side were right, and could do with another look – but the restraint is using club terrain, which does not allow relief to be represented exactly right. I think some way of showing a watershed on the table might be worth considering.

And the players? You can bring a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink. If wargamers behave unhistorically on the tabletop there nothing much that rules and scenarios can do about it except nudge them in the right direction. The first unhistorical thing was the way the French threw their cavalry into the centre, leaving the left unsupported against three Allied cavalry units. This followed the way I split the commands, giving both the advance guard and the cavalry to one player, and the rest of the infantry to the other. Each player then focused on their own personal battle rather than the battle as a whole. Historically the French had a strong overall commander, Marshal Soult, and this strong unified command showed in a coherent battle plan. A second issue was that the French threw all their infantry in at once on the left, leaving no reserve. Soult left a substantial reserve which he threw in at the critical point once the initial attack got bogged down. This is a classic wargames issue, exacerbated by the fact it was an evening game with a maximum of five moves. The Allies were no better. A further wargamer issue is that the players are much more aggressive with cavalry than historically. On the Allied side this meant moving units far out to each flank in the hope of taking the attacking units in the rear. This isn’t historical, though the natural response – for the attacker to cover flanks with cavalry certainly is historical, and this would be an effective way of neutralising the tactic. I have noticed the very aggressive cavalry before and I’m not sure what, if anything, to do about it.

And the rules themselves? In terms of the broad sweep my chief concern is that battles don’t evolve quickly enough: each turn is meant to represent an hour, and the battle seems to develop more slowly. In this case I don’t think it was because the players were hesitant. There are two possible culprits: slow movement and combat mechanisms. The move distances are already uncomfortably long for the simplest moves, especially where roads are involved. Of course terrain and command friction can slow things down a lot, but that wasn’t the issue in this game. The big infantry battles perhaps take too many moves to resolve. But given that they are already very dice-heavy you need to resolve in several rounds to the dice a chance to balance out. In an earlier incarnation I added to the losses on both sides in close combats – that might be worth looking at again, so that units are worn down faster (allowing multiple combat rounds may be the best way of doing this). The jury remains out. It is hard to draw out where the rules are at fault rather than the scenarios or players. A key learning from Chris Pringle (author of Bloody Big Battles) is not to rush in to fiddle with the rules to fix every problem.

There are some lesser points that I will add to my list of ongoing issues and modifications. The cavalry had it too easy in the village – and indeed I worry a bit about the way “open villages” work. I think they need to be disadvantaged in this type of terrain (and open woods too). Also what happens when two cavalry units hit an infantry unit? Simultaneous combat , as the rules imply, or sequential, which I think makes more sense? The second unit would benefit form disruption in the infantry (+2), but it will be in square (-2). A more radical thought on combat is to make all multiple attacks sequential – this might help make combats more decisive, but creates problems if units are of different sizes (three and six bases for example). That’s much too radical for now, of course.

Life away from the hobby is going through a busy patch, so I will have limited opportunity to develop further scenarios. But I’m keen to get going. Something that helps is that I have bought some lovely British infantry from another club member, which means that doing Pensinsula scenarios is a more realistic proposition. It is much easier to use Prussians as a stand-in for Portuguese and Spanish rather than British redcoats.

Big Napoleonic Battles – prototype rules published

Our latest game reaches its climax.

Since my last report we have played two more short games at the club with my new rules, Big Napoleonic Battles (loosely based on Bloody Big Battles). They have settled down enough for me to publish them on the Rules page of this website in pdf.

These rules are a working prototype, which I am calling V0. They should be all you need to play, but there are no pictures or diagrams, and very few examples. While these rules will never be published in the mainstream way, with lots of eye-candy and glossy paper, I might aspire to something with more explanation and perhaps even some scenarios. The model here is again Bloody Big Battles, though I can’t see that I will ever get the rules actually printed and sold for money.

Instead of updating these rules as I think of changes, which I have done a couple of times already, I propose to publish a separate sheet of updates and clarifications, which I can update regularly. That will make things easier for people who have printed the current version, as some of my club colleagues have. These will be consolidated into V1 in due course. At that point I will attempt examples and diagrams.

These rules are by no means perfect, but they give a good club game. My fellow gamers like them – something I take as a considerable complement: we often let go of rules that we find don’t quite work. That has happened with Fistful of TOWs, Battlefront, Rapid Fire and Iron Cross for WW2/Modern, and Altar of Freedom ACW. My next project indeed will be to develop something for my WW2 models! Foe us the rules have to play quickly in a multi-player format, and conform to some degree with how they expect wargames to work.

How realistic are they? I get fed up with claims made by rules promoters that are both simple to pick up and realistic, when they obviously have not been tested against historical reality. The original BBB has been extensively used for historical refights, though typically for battles later in the 19th Century, so it has a fair claim to realism. I can’t yet make the same claim for BNB, as the sort of quick scenarios we can do on club night are rarely historical. I might try out an Albuera game next week, though.

What I can say, as I said last time, there is high variability based on dice throws, making outcomes very unpredictable. I don’t think that is unrealistic, given the vast number of factors that have been abstracted away, but it will irritate some players just as it entertains others.

Do try them out and let me know how you get on!

Big Napoleonic Battles – nearly there!

Our club game on Monday night

A couple of weeks ago I reported I had taken the radical step of creating a set of standalone Napoleonic rules, based on our house rules for Bloody Big Battles. For the time being I have christened these rules as Big Napoleonic Battles, until I can think of something better. At our club game this week we used the next iteration of these rules. And the verdict from my club colleagues is that they are nearly there. After the next series of tweaks I will post a copy here.

The scenario was one I put together in a hurry, and wasn’t helped by being caught in a horrendous traffic jam on the South Circular on the way. With five players (including one brand new one), each with two or three units plus artillery, we completed five moves, which was the limit I placed on the scenario. I am understanding how to design games that can be completed comfortably on a club evening, where we are limited to two and a half hours. The multiplayer aspect doesn’t speed things up as much as it might, since there is still a tendency for players on the same side to wait for each other. It also helped that I limited unit size to four bases. I hope that can I increase to four units per player, so that we can get bigger games, but the five move limit feels right. It is meant to represent 5 hours of real time, which in 1815 was the length of both Ligny and Quatre Bras – as well as the Prussian involvement in Waterloo.

Now that I have a game that my colleagues like, I am going to put my Napoleonic rule-writing on hold. Doubtless I will want to make small tweaks to BNB, or write some special rules to cover particular situations, such as strongholds (i.e. farmhouses, churches, etc turned into defensive structures). Perhaps extra rules on generals would add appeal. But my more ambitious thoughts on a new turn and movement mechanism will wait. I will switch my rule-writing to another era: WW2 probably.

The scenario had two Prussian corps, each one regular infantry, one landwehr and one cavalry unit and two artillery bases, defending a town, in a position with flanks anchored by a river and village on one side and a dense wood on the other. Attacking them where two French corps, each with two infantry units and two artillery bases, one with a cavalry unit. In addition there was a reserve cavalry corps with one unit of cuirassiers and one of dragoons, both classed as veteran (all other French were trained) and the cuirassiers classed as aggressive. The objective was to take the town in five moves.

The Prussians took a bit of a battering but held out pretty well. The town changed hands several times. I was a bit worried that French cavalry superiority would dominate, and indeed gave the Prussians their second cavalry unit at the last minute in order balance things better. But the cuirassiers performed poorly, in spite of having a +2 advantage on close combat. The Prussian artillery kept stopping them, and they threw badly in combat. The extra Prussian cavalry unit, on the other flank, contributed very little except as an artillery target.

The main rule feature on trial were rules on town combat. Each town block can only be occupied by a single infantry unit (and only attackable by one infantry unit at a time), and any loss on close combat would result in the attacker capturing it. The town provided good cover against fire, but only -1 in close combat. Though some details need to be tweaked, this worked very well. It changed hands on most attacks, with the attackers only to be turned out by an immediate counterattack. This is pretty realistic – historically this would only be complicated by the presence of a strongpoint. But rules to cater for such things would not be simple, and I am leaving it until later.

I have still have questions over the treatment of elite formations. The +2 for the cuirassiers looked a bit rich. That isn’t a problem with the rules as much as one of scenario design. In fact the indifferent performance of that unit showed that I may be worrying too much.

Which leads to the observation that there’s no getting away from the fact that these rules are very dice-heavy, even though they don’t take the fistful of dice approach (you never throw more than two at a time). The same scenario is likely to play very differently if repeated. Personally I don’t mind this: historians are too quick to suggest that historical outcomes are inevitable. Surprising events often happened. But tastes vary. Some of my colleagues loved it when their cunning plan failed because they threw a double one; others were frustrated when a blast on canister fire completely failed to register.

The game went so well that my friends asked for another game next week. I can’t ask for a stronger endorsement that that!