Sunday 29 October 2017

Over the Hills (play-test) - The Afternoon Attack, Talavera

" If this does not work, it is time to give up war!" 

Marshal Victor quoted before the afternoon attack at Talavera, 28th July 1809

Note whilst presenting this game I write about FS and FH which refers to Fatigue Strength, a number that shows the strength of units and formations and FH which are Fatigue Hits, caused by combat and shooting that degrades FS over time and causes units and formations to stop fighting.

So carrying on our series of games designed to find out what we can do with the rule-set "Over the Hills" (OTH) Steve M and I proceeded to this scenario recreating the main French attack on the Anglo-Spanish line on the afternoon of the 28th July 1809; when the might of Generals, Lapisse and Rey's two divisions supported by a forty-eight gun grand-battery and the 2nd Dragoon Division under General Latour Maubourg assaulted the centre of the British held pert of the line looking to completely unhinge the whole position and open the allies up to the combined French cavalry.

The view of the French lines from behind the British position, with the range sticks indicating the perimeter of our battle

The first two pictures illustrate the specific part of the battlefield we modelled this scenario on, and a view of the two armies which, at this point, is the biggest battle we have fought using OTH.

The massed battalions of French infantry arranged behind their grand-battery

This game would see the table groaning under the weight of thirty two battalions of French infantry, twenty battalions of British infantry, twelve squadrons of French and eight squadrons of British cavalry, not to mention the seven batteries of French and two batteries of British artillery, all crammed into a mile wide sector of the British line.

The two brigades of KGL line infantry hold the forward slope of the Cerro de Medellin with Donkin's Brigade in support nearest to camera

The scenario is modelled around the historical orders of battle and is set up to follow the original plans both sides committed to, allowing the three hours the battle took to resolve itself in reality.

The might of I and IV Corps infantry await their guns to fire and soften up the British line

Suddenly the French line of guns opened up a massed forty-five minute barrage

The games we are playing are designed to allow the full OTH rule system to come into play with, in this case, a three turn grand battery barrage to open the battle that caused a bit of concern among British ranks.

In one turn alone Steve caused 5 Fatigue Hits (FH) firing across the front, and probably accruing about 8 to 10 FH across the three turns, despite the British front rank units 'Going to Ground', simulating British troops lying down when subjected to French artillery bombardment.

The French gun fire fell silent as massed infantry columns passed through their lines to be met by fire from the British guns opposite

The columns of Rey's division closes on the Portina Stream

The thing about scenario design is that you envisage a model built around the actual events and then you start to see ways of adding or changing the design to create those key decision points or capture an element you hadn't considered until you see the thing unfolding in front of you, and this game proved no different.

As the columns advanced, the French guns in this sector limbered up to move forward to support the attack

With their guns withdrawn, the British throw forward a thick screen of light bobs to fend off the voltigeur screen 

This was a full blooded French attack on a British line with all the special rules for French and British troops used that OTH has to capture the way these particular armies fought. So our French columns were making full use of their 'Dancing Officers' and 'En Avant! A la Baionette!" rules whilst the British were coming back at them with their phlegmatic ''Steady Lads, Steady' and 'British Cheer' all designed to recreate the classic line versus column encounter.

The two sides light troops dispute the French advance

All along the line the skirmish battle was fully contested 

The scenario follows the three hour long fight for the centre ground of the British line and with a forty-five minute barrage starting at 14.00 it was not until around 16.00 that the first assaults by the front columns went in having been preceded by a whithering skirmish battle beforehand.

The 60th Rifle companies bolstered the British light bobs with long range accurate sniping of the French advance troops

As the two opposing lines draw near the British reserve line is moved up in close support

Not having fought a battle of this size we were both unsure how the fatigue effects would accrue across such a large number of units facing off against each other and although the units could and did rally off successive FH, the brigades and armies could not, and the evidence of the damage started to show as red and blue d6 used to record the losses to Fatigue Strength (FS), started to be discarded on to the table.

I was keen to keep an element of 'fog of war' by having the opposing record cards keeping track of both sides fatigue out of sight of each other thus keeping the effects of our fire on each other a matter of conjecture throughout until the effects started to show.

The 1/61st Foot of Cameron's Brigade move up to the edge of the olive groves in support of the skirmish screen

Despite the casualties (that little blue die) the French keep on coming

It is this fatigue modelling that for me makes OTH such a compelling set of rules for fighting these big set piece battles as that whittling away of each army's endurance adds another layer of battle simulation as each side attempts to cause the other to topple over first.

As in the real thing, you don't need to kill your way to a victory, simply destroy the other sides will to go on fighting, leaving them vulnerable to the reserves.

General Rey's division exchange one last round of skirmish fire as their columns prepare to charge

The British light bobs prepare to retire behind their supports

The fatigue element also forces the player commander to keep a larger perspective as it is easy to get involved in a particular battle within the larger battle, but it feels rather like a boxing match where multiple repeated hits eventually cause a knock down, with one and then another brigade dropping out of the fight, but with the eye on your own brigades similarly close to throwing in the towel.

The second line of French columns ready to take full advantage of any breakthrough

Six battalions led the first French assault

With the lines so close the British guns are safely withdrawn behind the reserve brigades

The crisis point of this battle came with the attack on Campbell's British Guards and Cameron's 1/61st and 2/83rd Foot when six battalions of French infantry charged home with the two Guards battalions and the 61st having to deal with two battalions of French each.

General Mackenzie oversees the deployment of his reserve 3rd Division

Charge! in goes Rey's division striking Campbell's Guards Brigade with Colonel Guards brigade, 2/24th Foot, 3rd Division, in support

The British line at crisis point as Sherbrooke's division comes under attack with the light battalions withdrawn behind the line

Needless to say British Guards are formidable in most sets of Napoleonic rules and if not I would query the rules, so Steve can be forgiven for having his fingers crossed as the 58me and 75me Ligne gave a cheer and charged forward with levelled bayonets only to be met by a thunderous volley that put 8 FS across the four French battalions in one crushing fire.

On the other end of the British line the KGL light bobs dispute the advance of the 16me Legere as French dragoons close on the extreme flank

Suddenly crashing volley fire erupts along the British line as the columns stagger under the impact

However Cameron's 61st Foot had a harder struggle taking hits as well as giving them and ending up in a three turn close combat that saw the British unit narrowly coming out on top but suffering enough FH to take the brigade over their FS allowance and cause them to have to retire from the battle, broken.

The aftermath of the British volley and charge with Belair's brigade broken and forced back behind the Portina
Not all one way traffic as Cameron's brigade is forced to withdraw broken after forcing back the French columns - note the British columns threading their way back into the reserve areas to regroup. Cotton brings up his Light Dragoons.

The retirement of Cameron's two battalions opened up a gap in the British centre that drew in the remaining reserves including the British light cavalry to prevent a serious incursion into the line, all this as both KGL brigades who bore the brunt of French artillery and a significant amount of skirmish fire found their brigade FS wobbling in single figures on 1d6 each, leaving them one combat away from breaking. 

In fact Steve didn't know it, but he could probably have just sat back and shot the KGL off the top of the Medellin without bothering to close on them.

That said I didn't know the parlous state of the French brigades that opposed them and that is what really makes this rule set such a compelling game - great fun!

The KGL brigades were just a few points from breaking as the French closed in - note the British guns deployed to help hold the French up as reserve units deploy to cover the KGL

Big games need to have an ordered way of keeping track of morale. The dice show remaining Fatigue Score (FS) on the various brigades with Cameron's already depleted and the British army FS using D10s with 72 points left from a start of over 100 FS

Sadly we had to end this test three turns short of the end and with a knife edge set up, so we turned to the pick up game rules to see how the two armies were faring in terms of victory points which at this stage with both sides having the wobbly brigades mentioned showed:

French having broken one British brigade 5 victory points
British having destroyed three French battalions (6 points), broken one French brigade (5 points) and breaking the most expensive in FS French brigades (10 points) showing a British total of 21 victory points, but with two KGL brigades each 3 FS away from braking and with French dragoons bearing down on them.

Likewise the French brigades and army were similarly monitored and their army FS at 69 points remaining with one brigade broken and two brigades on one d6 of FS left.

Despite the early finish we both felt that this scenario clearly has a lot to offer both French and British players with plenty of challenge for both sides and some extra optional additional rules that can be used to further enhance the historical narrative.

Both Steve and I had hours of fun slugging away at each other over the Portina Valley and the more we play OTH the more we are discovering and are enjoying the subtle mechanisms of the play.

So further play-tests to come with another couple of Talavera scenarios and then hopefully back to look at some of Sir Arthur Wellesley's earlier actions from 1808 and 1809.

Thursday 26 October 2017

HMS Victory - Tall Ship Modelling

Sometimes life is really funny the way it throws up ideas and so it was this week when a very good friend of mine who has a long association with the Royal Navy called in prior to his attendance at a Trafalgar Night dinner held every 21st October to celebrate one of the most decisive naval engagements in history.

As most people will be aware, the flagship of the British fleet commanded by Lord Horatio Nelson was HMS Victory and it was then that I cast my mind back to another conversation a couple of months previously at a family gathering when I was chatting to Colin the husband of my wife's cousin.

I was reminded to ask him how his retirement project turned out, with his plan to build a large wooden scale kit of the great ship decked out in her Trafalgar colours, and he confirmed that he had finished the project and that his model dominated the bookcase and room where he had set it up and I immediately asked him to let me have some pictures to share.

So with the two-hundredth and twelfth anniversary just passed this week it seemed no better time to share the pictures he sent me of the Victory together with two other models, the Clipper Thermopylae and the Brig Golden Star.

JJ's Wargames is all about celebrating modelling and I was very impressed when I saw the level of detail Colin had achieved with these models and Victory in particular.

Having walked about the great ship several times and posted here on the blog about our visits to her home in the Portsmouth Historical Dockyard I was really impressed with this model at quarters, boat deck cleared and guns bristling .

The clipper ship plays a huge part in British naval and social history and spending quite a few years living in London, I was very familiar with the Cutty Sark, preserved in Greenwich with her long slender hull and towering masts all designed to spread as much canvass as was possible to drive a hull at the greatest speed, to satisfy the empires thirst for tea, and as a tea drinker myself, I have always had a long affection for these great ships.

And finally, what I assume is the Brig, HMS Golden Star carrying about 14-16 guns and sporting an early period castle style poop deck from the 17th early 18th century.

Speaking as someone who has never built a kit out of wood I never tire of seeing modelling done this way and so well, and it always seems to capture something of the original to see a model built from the same materials, and having rigged a few 1;1200 kits in my time for the tabletop I am in awe of anyone producing this level of work on a much bigger scale.

I hope this post serves as a very appropriate salute to the senior service and Lord Nelson, God bless him.

Tuesday 24 October 2017

Haltern am See (Aliso) - Holland 2017

This year's holiday in Holland was a great opportunity to explore some of the key positions along the Roman limes that separated Germania Inferior from Germania Magna. Two of those areas were covered in my posts looking at the finds held in Noviomagus, modern-day Nijmegan and Vetera, modern-day Xanten.

Valkhof Museum Nijmegan (Noviomagus) Holland 2017
Xanten- LVR Archaeological Park & Roman Museum Xanten (Vetera) Holland 2017 Pt.1
Xanten- LVR Archaeological Park & Roman Museum Xanten (Vetera) Holland 2017 Pt.2

This map illustrating the tribal alliances post Varus' defeat in 9AD in the Teutoburg Forest, shows the locations of the fortresses visited on our trips to Noviomagus (Nijmegan), Vetera (Xanten) and here at Aliso (Haltern)
By Cristiano64 - Own work (Cassius Dio, Roman History book 56; Suetonius, Life of Tiberius), CC BY-SA 3.0,

The next place on the list meant crossing the Rhine river into Germany and following the Roman route of access into the then barbarian wilderness along the River Lippe to get to the the Roman equivalent of the forward operating base, Aliso, modern-day Haltern am See.

At least Haltern is one of the prime candidates for the fort built by Drusus the Elder around 11/10 BC to allow his soldiers to winter in the Germania heartland ready to commence operations in the following season, the other being Bergkammen-Oberaden north-east of Dortmund and forty-four miles west of Vetera.

The likelihood is that the definite article will remain lost to history but the position of Aliso at the junction of the Rivers Lupia and Eliso, with the latter name seemingly to hint at how the fort got its name is rather compelling and the reconstruction on the site of the 36 hectare fort deemed capable of holding two legions only adds to that impression.

The Roman museum alongside the site of the Roman camp 
The original marching camp come winter fort seems likely to have been a temporary structure eventually giving way to a position much more substantial and capable of being occupied in the winter close to the original course of the Lippe.

The position of the original marching camp, the later wintering camp and the triangular fort built close to the Lippe, likely used as a stores compound and tentatively dated to the Drusus campaign 

The small museum close by to the site holds some interesting artefacts from across the period of Roman occupation but the collection held nothing in comparison to those at Xanten or Nijmegan which was good as the museum has a ridiculous and annoying policy of not allowing photography.

So after a swift look round at the exhibits I was keen to vacate the place and focus my attention on the really interesting recreation of a part of the fort wall that has been built using materials and techniques common at the time that really helps to bring this important site alive to the modern viewer and is open to photography - I could go on about this but I will resist the temptation!

As you can see the attention to detail and the layout corresponding to the original foundation posts together with the reconstructed section of double ditches create a vivid impression of the original structure even with just this relatively small part of it and for the wargamer interested in these aspects from a tabletop perspective a real delight to wonder around and share with fellow aficionados of the hobby.

The west gate reconstruction of Aliso

The fort was built somewhat provocatively in the territory of the Bructeri and would have been very much in hostile territory at the time with the garrison having to be ready to deal with any local threats as well as to protect the river access and supply lines for Roman forces operating within the German hinterland.

Will and Tom stand in for the gate guard, about the right age and with a suitable growth of facial hair to suggest a long winter in the wilderness, if  slightly under-dressed and armed

Ah that must be the wife of the Legatus admiring the view of Germania Magna

The interior view of the wooden wall creates a sense of security 

As well as incorporating Roman building techniques the reconstruction includes over 2,000 wooden nails, 14,000 forged iron nails and 2,000 cubic metres of local oak wood.

One of those 2,000 wooden nails

The view from the ramparts towards the German wald helps give a feel for things 2,000 years ago

Having visited Xanten a few days prior to coming here, I had in mind the picture of the monument to Centurion Marcus Caelius in part two of my post about that visit, who probably marched out of these gates down to the river to board a transport along with others of Varus' army or perhaps he led his cohort off along the banks of the Lippe on their mission to flaunt Roman military power in the faces of the tribes not knowing the fate that awaited them.

Ah there goes the guard 

The ditch viewed from the ramparts would certainly disrupt any attacks with likely stakes or 'lillys' adding to the mayhem whilst the defenders added in a few pila and scorpio bolts

The Varus campaign also gives this place added interest to the wargamer in me as, like in other military disasters where the impossible has just happened, it is the actions of the smaller garrisons that give rise to interesting scenarios.

I really feel that the wars of conquest carried out in the early Imperial period have a lot to compare with the colonial wars of the British Empire and the asymmetry between the contending forces lends scenarios between the two different periods.

As with the defence of Rorkes Drift where the impossible had just happened and the main force had suffered a disastrous defeat leaving the small garrison to decide whether to hold or retreat. The British in 1879 were forced to fight on the ground they held as they were the last line of defence for Natal and the British colony.

The Roman garrison at Aliso threatened with annihilation after another similarly impossible defeat were forced to make similar choices to hold and eventually break out in a daring night march and fall back to the defences on the Rhine at Vetera and Noviomagus.

The picture of the model housed in the museum helps to illustrate the latter fort with more substantial buildings designed to house the troops.

These actions throw up heroes of the hour, not Bromhead and Chard in this case but Prefect Lucius Caedicius who held his command together and got them to safety in the ruins of the Varian disaster.

To quote Cassius Dio
"The valour of Lucius Caedicius, prefect of the camp, deserves praise, and of those who, pent up with him at Aliso, were besieged by an immense force of Germans. For, overcoming all their difficulties which want rendered unendurable and the forces of the enemy almost insurmountable, following a design that was carefully considered, and using a vigilance that was ever on the alert, they watched their chance, and with sword won their way back to their friends."

Much of the ground covered by the fort is now built over by modern housing that is Haltern today but it was great to be able to see the work continuing to reveal more about this important place in the history of Germany and the Roman history of the western empire.

Next up more from Talavera using Over the Hills rules as the play-testing continues.

Other sources referred to in this post:
Eagle for Glory, The Untold Story of Drusus the Elder - Lindsay Powell
Teutoburg Forest AD 9 - Michael McNally & Peter Dennis, Osprey Campaign