Thursday, 28 May 2015

Black Powder: First Polotsk

Last Saturday our 1812 campaign continued with the first battle of Polotsk. Following defeat at Klyastitsy, the French army commanded by general Oudinot had retreated south to regroup and receive reinforcements. 12.000 Bavarians were on their way to enable a renewed offensive on St. Petersburg.

The Russians struck first. Hampered by indecision and poor command and control, the Franco-Bavarian force found itself split on both banks of the Dvina river near the strategic crossroads at Polotsk. Seizing the initiative, general Wittgenstein's Russian I Corps launched an attack aimed at defeating the enemy in detail.


Although a subsidiary front, the stakes were high for both armies. Should Wittgenstein lose, St. Petersburg would be sure to fall to the French. Should Oudinot be defeated the supply line of the Grande Armée headed for Moscow would be threatened.

Both commanders' objective was to defeat their opponent by causing severe losses on their forces (33%). Neither commander desired a prolonged fight: Wittgenstein in case the French could bring up reinforcements and Oudinot in order to extricate his overwhelmed corps. In game terms, this meant that we would play a maximum of 10 turns. Finally, both sides sought to gain control of the Dvina crossing and the village of Spas that controlled the northern bank of the river.


As shown in the diagram below, the Franco-Bavarian deployment was somewhat skewed with 2/3 of the force deployed north of the river while the Bavarian division and all the French cavalry were held south of the river. The river could only be crossed in column at a solitary bridge. The Russians got to deploy after seeing the Franco-Bavarian deployment.

(We altered the historical deployment by switching Merle's and Wrede's divisions around as shown above. This was so that we could get my friend's meticulously painted Swiss right into the fray!)
Merle's Swiss division deployed its battalions in a deep formation in and near Spas; ideal to weather the prolonged assault headed their way. Legrand deployed half of his force in a two battalion deep firing line ready to advance to support Merle's left. The other half of Legrand's force was stacked in attack columns on his left, ready to either reinforce the centre or envelop the Russian line as it advanced past the forest to the north.

The Russians spread their line pretty evenly, but massing their artillery on their right. A sizeable portion of Wittgenstein's force was kept off-board in reserve, ready to enter the fight where needed.

Merle and Legrand north of the river faced by the Russian horde

Russian line infantry

French line infantry advance protected by voltigeurs

General Moreau

Wittgenstein confers with his subordinates

Swiss secure the village of Spas on Oudinot's right

Oudinot surveys the scene

Russian grenadiers

Merle's Swiss and Croat battalions deploy in a deep formation ready for prolonged action

Russian cuirassiers

Bavarian reserve ready to cross the bridge

Opening moves

The Russians began the battle by steadily advancing their line. On their right, they unlimbered several batteries and deployed several jaeger battalions in line ready for a firefight. The French responded on this flank by marching Legrand's division forward so that it was in line with Merle. Despite some brigades on both sides misinterpreting their orders, volleys were soon exchanged all along the line.

Legrand's division on the French left

The main Russian thrust was aimed at Spas. It was not long before the first Russian brigades were in a position to assault the Swiss in and around Spas, while a sizeable portion of the Russian centre began to redeploy towards Spas on their left.

Although furious, the first Russian assault by Roth's brigade was ill coordinated and premature. The lead battalions were thrown back in disarray only to be replaced by a second wave of assaulting greencoats. This second wave fared no better and, quite soon, the Russians had suffered staggering losses and Roth's brigade broke.

Russians advance upon Spas


A view of the battlefield around turn 4

As both sides were pouring more men into the line, the intensity of the battle grew. The French left was enveloped in billowing white smoke as Legrand's infantry traded volleys with the Russians. Both sides kept up a steady pressure in what was becoming an attritional contest. As battalions became spent either side would throw in troops from their second line and attempt to rally the battered battalions. Quite soon the steady advance of both sides had brought the belligerents to within 50 metres of each other, and then the casualties really begun to mount. French losses were particularly high on their extreme left flank, where the Russians had amassed no less than four batteries that were firing canister at point blank range.

Close-range firefight in the centre

Not a good place to be for the French

Legrand's division was holding it's own, but they were definitely outgunned. An alternate solution was at hand since the Russians had advanced a bit too far past the woods. Seizing the opportunity, Legrand sent Moreau's brigade to outflank the Russian position while Albert's and Maison's brigades maintained the frontal firefight. Pamplona's brigade was held in reserve to counter a possible Russian assault.

The Russians failed to react to the threat in time and soon received the full brunt of Moreau's attack in their flank. The assault proved devastating, routing two Russian batteries and leaving a third one disordered and in a bad position.

Moreau outflanks the Russian right

The first line of Russian artillery is taken in the flank

Meanwhile, a brutal melee was taking place on the French right. Before breaking, Roth's brigade had inflicted some losses on Merle's Swiss. The Swiss had no time to recover before a third, better coordinated assault hit them. This time the assault was headed by Baumgarten's brigade of grenadiers, which was well supported by Balk's brigade.

Despite a devastating volley by the Swiss defenders, the Russian grenadiers struck hard. Casualties were heavy on both sides and the first Swiss battalions broke from the fight in a rout. This assault was almost immediately followed by a second assault by Sazonov's brigade aimed at Spas. The defenders of the village put up a spirited resistance and inflicted heavy losses on the Russians.

Furious combat on the French right

Spas is assaulted


A view of the battlefield around turn 6

With both sides heavily engaged and casualties beginning to mount on both sides, the climax of the battle was at hand. Wrede's Bavarians and Corbineau's cavalry reserve were rushing to the rescue, but the bridge was proving to be a serious bottleneck and it would still be some time before this force, comprising a third of the Franco-Bavarian army, could be brought to bear.

Bavarians scurry across the river

French cavalry secures the rear

On the French left, the Russians frantically sought to recover the situation and counter the outflanking French. Kozakovski's brigade was thrown forward to halt the French advance, which was soon supported by a counter-attack by Sibirsky's brigade. In turn, the French threw in Pamplona's brigade which had been kept in reserve just for this moment. Soon a furious melee had engulfed this entire flank, with several Russian battalions and another battery routing, while a single French brigade was also routed. French losses were relatively light on this flank due to their advantageous positioning and the fact that their exhausted battalions could be withdrawn from the fighting to regroup behind the freshly engaged brigades. 

Confused fighting on the French left (Legrand)

On the French right, the brutal melee continued unabated. Both sides were stretched near breaking point, yet were unwilling to yield. However, the stalemate could not last forever and after several turns of brutal combat, the battalions started routing. Several of Baumgarten's battalions broke, which prompted the remainder of the Russian grenadier brigade to rout. The Swiss had also lost several battalions and the remainder were in poor state.

Large melee taking place on the French right

It was at this point that disaster stuck the Swiss. After heroically fending off one assault after another, the defenders of Spas were finally forced to retire due to mounting casualties and depleting ammunition. The burning village was immediately occupied by the elated Russians, who were now in an excellent position to enfilade the Swiss on either side of the village or even to cut off the line of retreat of the Swiss positioned on the riverbank.

Spas is finally captured

The Swiss had no time to recover from this blow before hit by another. The remaining battalions on the riverbank were assaulted by Russian infantry and cuirassiers. The infantry failed to form square and were promptly cut to pieces, routing several battalions in quick succession.

Russian cuirassiers mop up the Swiss on the French right

With that, the game came to a close. Both sides had suffered appalling losses (33%) and essentially "broke" at the same time. The fighting had been most severe on the French right, where the Russians had had roughly 8 battalions broken and the Franco-Bavarians some 5 battalions. In the centre, the Russians suffered no losses whereas the Franco-Bavarians lost some 3 battalions. On the left, the Russians lost 2-3 battalions and 3 batteries while the French only lost a single battalion.

With both sides depleted and eager to disengage, the battle came to an end. The Russians emerged as the victors since they had gained control of the village of Spas. However, the margin of victory was very slight and the hard fought victory could easily have been Franco-Bavarian, if only the village could have held on for another turn. In fact, the Bavarians were in a position to make a counter-attack on the village and in the centre on the last turn, yet failed to react as promptly as the situation warranted (three successful commands would have seen them assaulting the Russians).

Final position of the forces. The Bavarians are poised to strike.

A hard fought and great game. This battle did not see any grand manoeuvres or brilliant generalship and was much more an attritional slogging match between the two sides. Perhaps both sides would have benefited more from a "rotation" of units in order to withdraw brigades near breaking point and rally them before they could break. However, this is often easier said than done in the heat of battle.

Another exceptional hallmark of this game was that we failed to roll any blunders. We have a system that a player is entitled to a glass of fine cognac (vodka for the Russians!) to recover their nerve after each blunder. It is most unfortunate that we didn't get a chance to honour this great tradition!

The blunder bottle remained untapped throughout the game

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