Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Over the Hills (Play-test) - Dawn Attack, Talavera

One of the great pleasures of historical wargaming and playing with the actual set ups, recreating some of the issues that were presented to the chaps doing it for real, is the insights it gives, that you can't always imagine from simply reading a description from the book.

One of the key sources used to put these series of Talavera games together has been Andrew W. Field's book Talavera, published in 2006 by Pen & Sword.

View of the end of the British line facing out into the northern valley - the range stick and dice towers indicate the area of the battle for this scenario, 'Dawn Attack'.

In his book, Field describes the events preceding the French attack at dawn on the 28th July and the deployments of the respective forces.

He explains that after a very unpleasant night spent by both sides following the alarms and excursions of the French night attack on the Cerro de Medellin the British troops were awakened well before day-break, in preparation for any French dawn attack; this following several French deserters coming across the line offering reports of such a plan.

The view of our table set up shows the two lines arrangements as the early light of day showed the scene to both sides and from a wargamers perspective the immediate aspects that start alarm bells, particularly if you are British is the proximity of the French lines to the forward brigades of the four battalions of Kings German Legion and the wide open space of the northern valley with the weight of Wellesley's position centred squarely behind General Sherbrooke's front line 1st Division.

The French forces of Ruffin, Lapisse and Latour-Maubourg ready themselves for the attack

Field's book has a liberal amount of maps illustrating the situation at dawn on the 28th July and even then with those and the text describing this set up, it only really strikes one on the issues this set up creates when you see it like this.

The British position is very unbalanced with the cavalry brigades covering the centre but the Medellin looking rather exposed

The description of the situation the British faced that morning continues:
"Of particular concern to the British must have been the number of guns that faced them, given the meagre means at their own disposal. This powerful artillery was well placed in a seemingly endless line across the front of their position that was not covered by olive groves. With a distance between the two protagonists of 600 to 800 yards (Nicol claims it was only 200 yards), they were well within their maximum range and the lack of cover for the British soldiers did not bode well."

Those KGL battalions just across the stream and staring down the barrels of multiple French cannon.

For those that are familiar with the French attack at dawn the whole affair seems like an exercise in arrogant disregard for the capabilities of the British soldier when Victor seemingly sent the nine battalions of Ruffin's division, already badly fatigued from the previous night's failed attempt to take the Medellin, in against General Hill's troops firmly ensconced on their hill top redoubt.

The subsequent battering of the French columns by the British infantry lines and their rapid retreat back from where they came seems to herald every other French attack on future Wellingtonian hill features from then on, and can put the Peninsular student off trying to model the situation with seemingly little learning to offer.

The Medellin defence is nowhere nearly as well formed as it would be in the afternoon.

That might be the case, however this dawn set up is not what you would expect from the future Duke and one can only surmise that the confusion and consternation caused among British ranks during the night left little time for redressing the lines prior to the French attack the next morning.

However we decided to look at the plan that Victor actually devised and not the attack that was actually delivered.

It would seem, according to Field, that Joseph and Jourdan were not convinced that an attack the next day was entirely necessary as they were of a mind that the potential of Soult coming down from the north would force the Anglo-Spanish to withdraw or face encirclement and thus avoid the need for a battle at all.

Six of Ruffin's nine battalion division lined up behind the forty gun grand battery
Field goes on to explain:
"After his check the night before, Victor had sent his chief of staff, General Chataux, to report what had happened to the King and to inform him that he planned to renew the attack the next morning if he did not receive orders to the contrary. General Chataux takes up the story: 'I arrived at midnight close to the King to give him an account of the situation of I Corps and to take his orders. I was given nothing.'"

The weight of the defence is in the centre with three British cavalry brigades
The description of the French planning continues:
"At first light Joseph and his headquarters were still not on the battlefield. Once again Victor sent General Chataux back to him, this time to explain his plan to renew the attack and to request that Sebastiani and the Reserves support him...... instead of countering Victor's plans, Joseph decided to endorse the attack but to exert a certain measure of control and authority over his difficult subordinate by refusing to commit any other troops than the I corps until there was evidence of any success."

With the KGL forward Hill's division has no reserve

With the King's somewhat less than fulsome endorsement of his plans, Victor then opted for the tactic of Alexander the Great, namely to attack the strongest part of the enemy line knowing that that is where your enemy most fears an attack.

There would be no attempt at manoeuvring his enemy out of position by feeling out the open northern valley with a strong flanking manoeuvre, no this would be an "unsophisticated frontal assault".

Donkin's brigade, part of 3rd Division (second line extreme right) would be pulled up on the Medellin in the afternoon but here seen supporting Langwerth's KGL forward of the road.

Field describes Victor's plan thus:
"....to launch a diversionary attack with Lapisses's division supported by Latour Maubourg's cavalry, on the lower southern slopes of the Medellin, while Ruffin delivered the main attack on the heights. Villatte's division would be in reserve. Ruffin deployed his men with the 24me Ligne on the left, so that they faced Tilson's brigade, and the 9me Legere on the right opposite Stewart's. The 96me Ligne remained in reserve. In this encounter the French would have an advantage in numbers of 1,000: 4,900 Frenchmen against 3,700 British."

Latour Maubourg's Dragoons bring up the rear of Lapisse's Division
The accounts of the actual attack make it clear that following a forty-five minute barrage* (*Oman) the columns of Ruffin's division advanced briskly to press their attack.

Field takes up the account of the activities of Lapisse:
"Meanwhile just to the south of this attack, it quickly became apparent to Sherbrooke that his front, though covered by the division of Lapisse, was not in danger of attack. He therefore ordered his 5th KGL to pivot to the left and take the columns of the 96me Ligne in the flank. Had Lapisse advanced in echelon in support of the attack as we have heard was Victor's plan, Sherbrooke could not have dared do this, but now was the folly of Victor's unsupported attack  fully exposed, as the 5th KGL  opened fire on the vulnerable and already shaky flank of the 96eme. Not even the French accounts offer an explanation for Lapisse's inactivity and apparent ignoring of orders."

Lapisse's twelve battalion division were part of Victor's original plan of attack
So there we have the preamble to what proved a very interesting game to test out Victor's actual plan of attack that started with the firing of a signal gun at 5am, that heralded the three turn (forty-five minute) barrage.

The orders for the French were as envisaged, with Ruffin's division on 'Attack' orders to commence after the barrage.
General Lapisse supported by Latour Maubourg was then to move forward in echelon to Ruffin on 'Advance' orders which could be changed to attack once the first units of Ruffin's division had engaged in close combat, this in deference to King Joseph's demand to see some initial results before the committing of further troops to the attack.

The signal gun fired at 5am heralding a forty-five minute battering from Victor's massed guns
The first thing that set the character of this game was the punishing French artillery that hit the British line for the first three turns.

After fifteen minutes, Wellesley ordered the forward units to lie down (the round discs), whilst the RA guns returned the fire

We had the British and KGL on "stand to arms" as described in the accounts and that it was only after Wellesley had seen the French artillery starting to affect his forward lines that he issued the order to lie down, and thus our units only lay down on the second turn of the French fire.

Suddenly Ruffin's division were on the forward slopes of the Medellin

In addition we created the surprise effect of the French gunnery by not allowing the British to respond until the turn following the first French barrage.

Lapisse demonstrates towards Sherwood's KGL and Donkin's brigade 

As the British commander, my fears about the forward position of the KGL brigades, only two battalions strong, proved only to right as Low's brigade was rapidly reduced to half its initial Fatigue rating and Langwerth's by about a third, dramatically reducing their chances of standing up to the French voltigeur screens as the attack was pressed.

With Low's KGL battalions forced to  withdraw after the battering from the French guns, Heyse's KGL battery are caught by the 24me Ligne before they can limber and are cut down on the forward slope

If that were not bad enough, the French shot was ploughing on through my forward lines and causing multiple casualties in the rear units.

With pressure building on the Medellin, Fane's Heavy brigade of cavalry move up to support the hard pressed infantry

I had a modicum of revenge by firing, for the first time in any of our play-tests, British shrapnel rounds that caused multiple casualties to the oncoming columns.

Hill and Wellesley halt the battered KGL brigade of Baron Low, intact but out of the fight.

With this enhanced dawn attack it was obvious that the British position needed to be rebalanced towards the left and so General Payne was quickly ordering his squadrons out of the olive groves and out towards the Medellin.

The 16me Legere, part of Lapisse's division threaten the British right-centre

It seemed that in no time the columns of Ruffin's division were on the forward slopes of the Medellin and pressing the forward battalions of light troops and the flanks of Low's KGL.

This proved too much for the battered Germans and after a few rounds of skirmishing the brigade broke and fell back through the British line in full retreat.

The moment of decision as Ruffin's 9me Legere are met by Stuart's brigade as the 1st Battalion of Detachments takes fire from French horse guns on the lower slope

The rearwards move of the KGL battalions unhinged the forward British defence and exposed Heyse's KGL guns to an attack from a column of the 24me Ligne before it could limber up and get away.

The rest of Ruffin's division close on the British line with the three battalions of the 24me Ligne to the left of the 9me Legere supported by the tree battalions of the 96me Ligne

As the French pressed closer and with KGL troops destroyed or in retreat the British troops under General Stewart could only look over their shoulder for the support of the British cavalry but they were still two moves away having laboured to get clear of the olive groves.

The 1/48th and 2/48th Foot step forward to confront the 24me Ligne, with French dragoons hovering on any breakthrough

Well as any British commander knows, when it comes down to it you have to put your faith in the reliable British redcoat to pull the "proverbials" out of the fire and so the three battalions of Stewart's brigade stepped forward to contest the advance of the 9me Legere and 24me Ligne.

The infantry battle under way, Retteburg's battery is withdrawn to the rear along with the KGL infantry 

Just when it couldn't get worse it got worse. The 1st Battalion of Detachments took a combined total of four hits from French horse guns and the two columns bearing down on it.

The British heavy cavalry were pulling out the stops to get into position

This was unfortunate as their firing was very good but the effect of the four hits reduced what could have been punishing volley fire into something the French columns could manage.

The two battalions of the 48th Foot present arms

Oh well lets see if the veteran fresh 29th and 1/48th Foot can make up for the disappointment, but sadly not, only inflicting two hits between them, my firing dice were pathetic and now the situation was getting a bit desperate.

With four fatigue hits on the 1st Detachments the writing was on the wall as the 9me Legere moves in

With nothing else to do I waved my hat, getting a cheer from Stewart's men, and in they went with the bayonet.

The 1st Detachments fought heroically driving off one of the Legere  battalions before succumbing to too many hits in three rounds of close combat with the 1/9me Legere.

The poor old Detachments fought like lions but, despite winning two rounds of combat, their previous hits caused the unit to break leaving a hole in the middle of Stewart's brigade and a battering to the brigade morale.

It wasn't all bad for Hills division, managing to drive back the 24me Ligne before the French infantry were struck by a charge from Anson's 23rd Light Dragoons here seen pulled back after cutting down the 1/24me Ligne

On the plus side, Tilson's brigade together with the 1/48th easily drove off the 24me Ligne happily seeing the 23rd Light Dragoons finish off their efforts by barrelling through their lines and cutting down the 1/24me Ligne.

The aftermath of Ruffin's attack on the right of picture with the battered 9me Legere atop the Medellin alongside the equally battered battalions of Stuart's brigade. The rest of Ruffin's battalions have been driven back, but at high cost

With the first attack having gone in from Ruffin's troops and now with Lapisse's division successfully changed to attack orders I conceded the game.

With General Stuart forced to prepare to withdraw his brigade only Fane's heavy cavalry can hope to cover his movement

The wash-up session revealed the battered state Wellesley's army was in with both KGL brigades and Stewart's brigade almost or definitely out of the fight.

With Ruffin's first attack stopped, Lapisse's division moves from advance to attack orders and the situation just got a lot worse for Wellesley's troops.

Even with Payne's cavalry now up on the Medellin and threatening a counter-attack on the 9me Legere, there was no British infantry to support them and they would be forced back by ever more French infantry and with Latour Maubourg's Dragoons and Beaumont's light cavalry coming up, the British were only going to be fighting a rearguard action as they were levered off their key position.

The Force-morale cards tell the story of how battered the British brigades were after the first French attack and in no state to contest another

British army morale now into double figures

Some of the French brigades, equally battered, but with more in reserve

The French army morale ahead on points to the British
This scenario offers lots of options, either to fight the battle as it happened or as it was planned, 
with a distinct contrast between the British defence in this and the later afternoon attack where Wellesley had had time to address the weaknesses that are all to apparent here.

If you fight both in close succession you get an immediate impression of Wellesley's developing skill at organising a defence that would only get better with time and experience.

As always OTH produced a thrilling game with lots of drama and worked well with multiple brigades on the table.

I write this AAR with a tinge of sadness as after this game the Talavera table is done and consigned to the history of JJ's Wargames. The next round of OTH play tests will be looking at earlier Anglo-French encounters in the Peninsular War and the table will be realigned accordingly.

I hope you have enjoyed all the Talavera encounters we have played and reported on as much as we have had playing them and I look forward to bringing you reports of new games as we approach a new year.


  1. Superb AAR and very nice figures and terrain. Love the force morale cards

  2. This,for me, is wargaming at its best. Excellent research and a great game. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

  3. Great stuff, here and before. At least you can revisit your Talavera travels here anytime in the future (as can everyone else)!

  4. Wow, what a spectacular table...sounds great!

  5. I just picked up the rules and can not find stats for the Dutch? what did you uses for your Dutch Brigade.

  6. Thanks for your comments chaps, much appreciated. The table has been cleared and is set up ready for 1808 and a look at some earlier scenarios.

    Comdotski - Yes I still have the real Talavera on my bucket list and plan to take a long drive down to Murcia to check it out and a few other places in sunny Spain and Portugal.

    K-Ten - The lists in the rule book are not exhaustive and there will be more to come but frankly I tend to use my own stats based on what I know in terms of unit strengths and performance. The Dutch battalions were only about 400 men strong at Talavera and wouldn't rate any better than the Nassau 5th Coalition Line Infantry who they were in the German Division with, something like a 5C on recollection, if you deduct the voltigeur companies into a combined battalion you are looking at 4D.
    Hope that helps

  7. Great AAR that JJ and great looking table