Friday, 10 June 2016

Black Powder: The Battle of Narva 1700

The battle of Narva in 1700 has been hailed as Sweden's greatest victory. A small Swedish army under the dynamic Charles XII managed to surprise and outmanoeuvre a much larger Russian force besieging Narva-Ivangorod. Under the cover of a blizzard, the Swedes launched a concentrated assault against the Russian centre. Historically the Russian positions were overwhelmed and a large portion of their army was either killed trying to flee across the only bridge over the Narva-river, or forced to surrender. Hundreds of cannons and standards were captured and the 18-year old Swedish monarch's reputation was made.

Yesterday we re-fought this legendary battle using Black Powder rules and a scenario I had written (which is made available on this same blog). I acted as the (very pro-Russian) umpire whilst two players commanded both the Swedish and Russian armies. The Swedish objective was to rout the Russian army and/or gain control of the terrain behind the siege works on either the left or right flank. The Russian army was strung out across the length of the table, but there was a very strong fortified camp filled with Russians in the centre. The Swedes were divided into two columns, with General Rehnskiold's division on the left and General Vellingk's division on the right.


The Swedes are eager to get to grips

Russian defenders of the fortified camp

More Russians (Veyde's division) ready to take on the Swedes

Swedish generals looking thoughtful

Russian generals playing with their artillery

Under the cover of the snowstorm, the Swedes started their assault. The left wing under Rehnskiold advanced rapidly under the competent general, with morale and discipline further buoyed by the presence of Charles XII nearby. Rehnskiold placed his men in a deep column, with one regiment after the other, which assaulted the fortifications in front of them. Unfortunately, the assault was poorly coordinated. The brave Swedes took lethal fire to their front and flank, which disrupted the assault and forced them to retire.

Rehnskiold's assault goes in, taking fire from left, right and centre

Rehnskiold would not leave it at that however, and a second assault was planned more carefully. This time the elite Dal regiment would launch the assault supported by grenadiers. The other regiments would fan out more in order to tie down more Russian defenders and support the assault. The plan worked, and with a terrifying scream the Swedes scaled the ramparts and overwhelmed the defenders. Several Russian regiments broke and a breach had been made!

Rehnskiold's second assault is better coordinated and led by his elite troops

The Dal regiment make a breach!

Meanwhile, things were not going as planned on the right wing. Vellingk was having trouble coordinating his regiments in the howling blizzard, which reduced his advance to a crawl. All the while Russian cannonballs kept hammering the Swedes, although the blizzard shielded the Swedes from the worst of the barrage.

Finally, much later than the left flank, the right managed to close with the enemy. Led by the King's Lifeguard, Vellingk's division assaulted the fortified camp in the centre. This assault was intended to support Rehnskiold on the left whilst minimizing the incoming fire from the right. However, this was also the strongest position of the Russian line. The Russians were definitely willing to fight dearly for this piece of ground, which they proved by giving the Lifeguard a thrashing (some pretty lucky dice rolling here!). The Lifeguard held, and with pure tenacity forced the Russians back. Another breach had been made and several batteries of Russian guns were captured!

Vellingk's division advances cautiously

View around turn 4

Vellingk finally manages to get his men to assault the Russian positions

After humiliating setbacks, the Swedish Lifeguard regiment breach the fortified camp

Swedish cavalry meant to tie down the Russians on either flank (off-board) were obviously faring badly, as the Russians managed to bring in four new regiments (four rolls of 6 on six dice!). This allowed the Russians to begin redeploying some of their forces from both the left and right to counter the breach in the centre. The blizzard also started to quieten down and, by turn 6, the skies were clear and the full lethality of Russian fire could be unleashed on the Swedes.

On the left, Rehnskiold pushed his advantage and continued the assault with the elated Dal regiment. The assault hit the Russians hard, but they held. Swedish reinforcements were direly needed in the breach and Rehnskiold ordered his reinforcements forward. This is when disaster struck!

Vellingk had failed to sufficiently tie down the garrison of the fortified camp (due to his delayed advance and some miscommunication between the commanders), which enabled the garrison to fire withering traversing fire at the Swedes trying to push through. This was enough to send one of the Swedish regiments back in disarray. Almost at the same moment, a second Swedish regiment routed after heavy pummelling from Russian canister and volley fire. 

Reinforcements were not forthcoming and Dal regiment was left stranded deep behind the Russian lines. The elite unit certainly gave everything they got, but there were simply too many Russian reserves and eventually the boys in blue were routed. Rehnskiold's division was now broken. The Russians had managed to contain the breach on this sector.

Russian left wing (Veyde) forces redeploy to the centre

Dal regiment push on

Where are the reinforcements!? Dal regiment gets cut off and overwhelmed.

Rehnskiold's reinforcements are obliterated by Russian fire.

Meanwhile, the slogging match in the centre continued. Västmanland infantry regiment also assaulted the Russians whilst the Lifeguard traded volleys with the Novgorod infantry regiment. Vellingk attempted to rally the shaken Lifeguard, who took affront at some of the generals cajoling and assaulted the Novgorodians (a blunder!). This Swedish Fury was too much for the battered defenders of the fortified camp. The Novgorodians routed and the brigade broke (4/6 units destroyed), leaving the position in Swedish hands. However, the cost had been great for the Swedes as well, and Vellingk's division broke at the same time (3/4 units shaken).

With Russian reserves pouring in and their infantry in tatters, the Swedes had little choice but to abandon the positions which had been so dearly won. Under the cover of their cavalry screen the Swedes would begin their inevitable and gruelling retreat across the frozen and ravaged countryside to Reval. With no hope of succour, the garrison of Narva would capitulate as well.

The Lifeguard launch one final assault to secure the fortification, but the cost is high and the Swedish division becomes broken as well

Russian reinforcements have bolstered the defences beyond hope of capture

Final positions

Closing thoughts

In my mind, there were two main reasons for the Swedish loss in this game. The first was the devastating fire borne particularly by the Swedes' left wing (Rehnskiold), which was a result of being stuck for too long in front of the fortifications and passing too close to the fortified camp (more guns to bear + lethal traversing fire). A better organized assault further from the fortified camp could have succeeded better.

The other mistake was assaulting the fortified camp in the first place. This was the strongest division the Russians fielded. The rules for movement in the fortified camp (rough going, -1 command if trying to move out of the camp) also meant that it was unlikely the Russian garrison could move out to support the flanks and that any Swedish success in capturing the fortified position would conversely have a hard time pushing past the camp to the objectives.

The Russians had around 7 regiments broken or shaken at the end of the game, but these were mostly from the large garrison in the fortified camp. Had these been inflicted on the flanking divisions and the assaults aimed further at the camp, there would have been more likelihood of the Swedes being victorious (capturing even one of the flanks or routing 2/3 divisions would have been sufficient).

This was also the first time we tried this scenario. Based on this test I adapted the scenario a bit to make it easier for the Swedes. The fortifications yielded +2 morale in our game but I changes this to only +1 in combat. I also made it less likely for the blizzard to end, reducing the roll from 4+ to 5+. We'll see how these changes impact the scenario the next time we try it. If anyone is encouraged to try it out, please let me know how it goes!


  1. Also check out my mates' blogs for reports and further pics:

  2. Thanks for umpiring Jaakko! Great report as well!

  3. Great report, thanks for posting

  4. Thanks Will! I'm glad you liked it.