On the 20th and 21st of July a group of seven straight backed, hard-boiled gentleman gamers got together to re-fight the ultimate battle of any self-respecting historical wargamer: Waterloo. This is traditionally considered as one of, if not the greatest, battles in British military history – marking the end to over 20 years of revolutionary and Napoleonic warfare. With over 200 battalions on the table and 4,000 lovingly painted 15mm miniatures, this was sure to be a spectacle.
The battle occurred on the 18th of June 1815 some 20 kilometers south of Brussels. Napoleon Bonaparte, who had been forced to abdicate in 1814 had once again seized the French throne in a last desperate gamble. Surrounded by large coalition armies on all sides, the Emperor put all his hope in a quick decisive campaign to knock out the Prusso-British army in Belgium and thereby hopefully force the other great powers (Austria and Russia) to abandon their invasion plans.
The plan seemed to be working as a rapid forced march into Belgium took the allies by surprise. On the 16th of June the Prussians were defeated at Ligny and the British were defeated at Quatre Bras. The allied armies were forced to retreat in separate directions and Napoleon hoped to keep them apart long enough to crush them one by one.
The British army took up positions on strong defensive positions running along the Mont-Saint Jean ridge, pledging to hold their positions until the Prussian army could outmaneuver their French pursuers and come to their aid. Faced with a strong defensive position and lacking in time, Napoleon elected to go for the frontal assault and bludgeon the redcoats from their ridge.
The scenario objectives were left intentionally vague to avoid players’ fixation on very specific results. The scenario was partially umpire controlled with a CiC player on both sides allocating troops and assigning objectives to individual players. The umpires would also make any rulings and coordinate troop actions in such a way as to represent the realities of the actual battle, but without fixating on the actual chain of events (what’s the fun in following a pre-defined script?). The French objectives were as follows:
1. First and foremost to defeat the British army while suffering minimal casualties in return
2. Achieve control of the battlefield, thereby forcing the British to retreat and gaining a strong position from which to receive a potential Prussian counter-attack. This loosely translated to controlling the three fortified farmhouses anchoring the British line as well as securing the ridge.
3. Make a breakthrough towards Brussels, thereby driving a deeper wedge between the allied armies. This meant controlling the road going north.
4. Keep the imperial guard intact. These were Napoleon’s foremost troops who could easily decide the outcome of a battle, but who had a far more important role in ensuring the political stability of Napoleon’s regime back home and control over his army.
Allied objectives were of course to prevent the above from taking place.
In the actual battle the escalating arrival of the Prussian army on the French flank was of paramount importance (one could even say that the Prussians won the battle if one were not inclined to select the version offered by British historians). However due to a lack of miniatures we simply eliminated this portion of the battlefield and did not represent the Prussian nor the French troops who fought solely in this sector. This posed no problem as it simply meant that the French would have to defeat the British in the time given (14 turns) while the delaying force kept the Prussians at bay.
Order of Battle French:
We followed the actual OoB for the battle, but excluded those troops who engaged the Prussian relief army in the actual battle (Lobau’s VI Corps, the Young Guard and the cavalry divisions of Domon (3rd Div.) and Subervie (5th Div.). This left us with:
CiC: Napoleon Bonaparte
Field commander of the army: Marshal Ney
D’Erlon’s I Corps: 8 infantry brigades and the 1st Cavalry Division
Reille’s II Corps: 8 infantry brigades and the 2nd Cavalry Division
Kellermann’s III Cavalry Corps: 11th and 12th (heavy) cavalry divisions
Milhaud’s IV Cavalry Corps: 13th and 14th (heavy) cavalry divisions
Imperial Guard: 8 battalions of Old Guard and 7 battalions of Middle Guard, the Guard Heavy Cavalry Division and the Guard Light Cavalry Division
Order of Battle Allied:
Set-up and battlefield:
Our set-up followed the historical one and can be seen below.
Both armies were aligned on opposite ridges but the majority of the British force were on the reverse side of theirs. This meant that any artillery fire at them would be very ineffective. The British forces were also holding good defensive positions behind the sunken road (the road running along their ridge) and some hedges. In our game this gave them a higher morale save when fired upon and a little bonus in combat. The second dominant feature of the battlefield were the farmhouses of Hougoumont (together with its orchards), La Haye Sainte and Papelotte (actually a group of houses).
The French center can be seen below. Notice the Imperial Guard who are held in reserve.
Napoleon Bonaparte at the center of his army and surrounded by the Imperial Guard. A man who is visibly alone in a crowd:
Hougoumont holding the British right. The farmhouse would prove a tough nut to crack with multiple sections that needed to be captured, annoying riflemen holding the orchards and tough guardsmen occupying every firing slit:
How it played:
The battle commenced at 11.30 with a massive concentration of fire on the British left around La Haye Sainte. More guns were brought up and the guns were mustered closer together so that we created an ad-hoc grande battery with its own commander. The French also started a diversionary assault on Hougoumont.
The diversionary assault was soon followed with the real deal. D’Erlon’s Corps moved to engage the British left. Schmitz’ infantry brigade (4 battalions) assaulted La Haye Sainte while Durutte’s division engaged the defenders of Papelotte on the extreme right. The artillery aimed to neutralize their British equivalent before they could do much damage on the closely pressed French attack columns.
The French plan was to engage Hougoumont mainly as a diversion while keeping the majority of Reille’s Corps ready to threaten the British center and thereby keep them from reinforcing their left where the French main thrust was taking place (d’Erlon’s attack). If there were an unexpected success at Hougoumont then this could be pursued to threaten the British right flank also. The aim was to take La Haye Sainte in the center as quickly as possible but on the French right the attack at Papelotte was not aimed at capturing the farmhouses but simply at securing the flank of the main assaulting force.
D’Erlon’s attack gets on to an acceptable start and approach the ridge in all haste. However the sub-commanders failure to give the advance command simultaneously to the whole corps with the corps commander resulted in some formations advancing faster than others. Furthermore, the approach to the ridge was getting quite congested:
The ridge was assaulted at 13.00 (turn 3) but the French advance elements fail to impress. Both the light infantry and Dutch militia perform well in combat and refuse to retire while the close range canister fire from the Royal Artillery is starting to get murderous.
The French high command suddenly became aware that the flank of d’Erlon’s corps was perilously vulnerable to a counter attack by Vivian’s 6th (light) cavalry brigade which had crept up to the gap between Papelotte and the ridge. Fortunately Milhaud’s cuirassiers were wide awake and two regiments were immediately ordered to counter-attack. The attack took the Britons by surprise, first riding down some unfortunate light infantry and then routing the British light horse.
A view of the French center-left. The defenders of La Haye Sainte refuse to budge even after protracted fighting. Reille’s corps is trying to look as imposing as possible in order to prevent the British troops from moving troops to strengthen their left:
While d’Erlon’s corps was engaging the ridge the fight for Hougoumount was becoming more and more intense. It was proving tough to weed out the Brunswick and Nassau light infantry from the gardens – a necessary prelude to assaulting the farmhouse itself. In frustration and with no other engagements the sub-commander in charge of Reille’s corps sent in more troops, leaving some of them dangerously exposed to flanking artillery fire. So much for the orders of engaging in a diversionary assault…
A view of the battlefield around 13.30 (turn 4). Notice the smart outfit of the British CiC:
The assault on Hougoumont continued in the same vein for some time. The French flanking force was ordered to retire from their perilous position after losing one battalion while Piré’s cavalry division was left in place to secure the flank from any British counter-attacks (as well as prevent relief of Hougoumont or defenders retiring).
By roughly 14.00 (turn 5) the front defenses of the British army had been overcome on d’Erlon’s sector. The assault only escalated from this as the French went “all-in” and assaulted the ridge on a broad front. The close-range first volley of the Britons was devastating and the French assault fared poorly. The thin red line held the first onslaught:
Following the collapse of Vivivan’s cavalry to the cuirassiers’ onslaught on the British flank the two regiments engaged in harassing actions. The cuirassiers assaulted several battalions forcing them into squares while simultaneously trying to push their way to the British rear and thereby cause even more mayhem. Unfortunately numerous British fire caused continuous casualties and disorder on the French attackers, before successive Dutch cavalry reinforcements finally routed them. At least they attracted much attention and reserves from the Allies before being brought to heel:
Following several rounds of intense fighting the d’Erlon’s corps was forced to retire down the slope to catch its breath. The British defenders had proved a tough nut to crack and after the initial assault had brought up more troops for support, gradually turning the tide on the French attackers. At this point the situation was perilous for the French, since many of the formations were either shaken or disordered. However the British infantry was ordered to hold their positions and the British cavalry also failed to seize the initiative, thereby giving the French time to take a few turns to rally their troops ready for another go:
There was only one counter-attack by British cavalry which routed a French battalion from the ridge in the vicinity of La Haye Sainte. However these poor sods soon paid for this by attracting the attention of the entire Grande Battérie together with two batteries of horse artillery that were brought forward to secure the flank against just such a counter-attack. Needless to say these brave fellows played no further role in this battle:
While the bulk of d’Erlon’s corps was catching its breath and readying for another go, Marshal Ney ordered the second wave in to pin down the British defenders and cover the recuperating battalions. This assault consisted of Grenier’s brigade, who had been kept in reserve, and of several regiments of cuirassiers. The maneuver had all the elements of disaster when Grenier’s brigade launched their assault but the cuirassiers failed to engage. However, Grenier’s men were ready and willing and the Britons were spent from the last outing. The assault proved a great success with the British defenders routed and the first major breach of the British line occurring. This success was enforced when the British reserve, consisting of Best’s 4 battalions of Hanoverians, rolled a blunder and disengaged from the enemy instead of assaulting as ordered!
While the French were recuperating on the right II Corps moved towards the ridge. They were now in a position to launch an assault on the ridge as well as ready to assault La Haye Sainte and Hougoumont from additional directions in order to speed things up. Kellermann’s heavy cavalry and the Guard heavy cavalry also advanced in a threatening manner, sending a clear signal to the British that moving reserves to their threatened left carried severe risks. The downside of this maneuver was that it brought the French to within medium range of the British artillery.
It was around 15.00 (turn 7) that things started to happen fast. The defense of La Haye Sainte in the center caved in suddenly when the defenders decided to retreat, being wearied, short of ammunition and facing the threat of assault from two fronts. Reserve battalions were immediately brought forwards together with several batteries. The center of the field was now firmly in French control. Simultaneously French heavy cavalry launched assaults on both sectors of the battlefield. East of La Haye Sainte (d’Erlon’s sector) Milhaud’s cuirassiers managed to close with the wearied defenders and quickly widened the breakthrough created by Grenier’s brigade. West of La Haye Sainte Kellermann’s cuirassiers and dragoons were unable to close with the fresh British troops, but forced them into defensive squares on a wide front. This was as planned, as Reille’s infantry pounced on the now vulnerable Britons.
The French breakthrough on the eastern sector soon widened before becoming an all-out British rout. Crucially the British cavalry reserve on this sector had little impact at this critical point – the brigades either failed to interpret the charge orders, were disordered by French fire or closed with the French only to be repulsed. Additionally some Dutch Heavy cavalry had been committed to counter the few remaining cuirassiers behind Papelotte or had been kept too far back – thereby being in a poor position to react to the breakthrough.
In the heat of the battle numerous mishaps happened on both sides. For example on the extreme French left the CiC had ordered Piré’s light cavalry division to hold back and protect the flank, while the sub-commander of this sector forgot all about this and ordered them forward. At the same time British hussars on this same flank were ordered to reinforce the center but rolled a blunder and decided to charge their opposite light cavalry. Damned impetuous light cavalry!
With the British army beginning to buckle Napoleon sensed that only a little more pressure would be required to secure the victory. At 16.00 the huge Imperial Guard infantry formation was ordered to prepare for assault.
The 10ème Régiment de Cuirassiers catch their breath before plunging in for another charge:
At 16.00 (turn 10) the breakthrough on the British left had become so bad that Wellington gave the order for the remaining troops to make an ordered retreat towards the British center. The wily aristocrat calculated that the Prussian relief force would soon be arriving on the French flank and d’Erlon’s corps could better be countered by engaging them from two distinct directions rather than a wide front. This course of action had the added benefit of keeping the British forces together and securing the Brussels road running North.
A similar breakthrough was taking place on the French left in the wake of the charge by Kellermann’s heavy cavalry. The first British line caved in to the combined arms of French infantry and cavalry immediately to be followed by a cavalry charge deeper into British lines. What a spectacular sight!
At the same time the defenders of Hougoumont finally threw in the towel. The walled orchard, courtyard and southern buildings were all cleared of redcoats. However a few ragged defenders still clung to the northern buildings – probably too afraid to retreat north where the major cavalry assaults were taking place. The picture below is from just before the defenders are routed:
While the aforementioned had been developing things had not remained idle on the far eastern part of the battlefield. The French forces left to screen Papelotte had been encouraged by the success of their fire and the chaos caused by French cuirassiers in the farmhouse’s rear. These successes were enforced by the ineptitude of the British commander who failed to make any commands to rally or replace his wearied troops. This combination emboldened the French to mount an assault on the defenders around 15.00 which had brought the farmhouse under French control by 17.00 (turn 12). Things were really going the French way with major breakthroughs on both sectors of the battlefield and with all three farmhouses more or less under Imperial control!
However, as we all know, fortune is fickle. Elements of the Prussian I Corps (in our game just a single brigade) began to arrive just north of Papelotte at 16.30 (turn 11). This force, though small in numbers, really turned the tide. Some of the French attackers were caught in the flank and routed while the majority were forced to pull back or face a similar fate. Papelotte was retaken by the allies after a brief but vicious fight. The Prussian successes were reinforced by the fact that the bulk of d’Erlon’s corps had continued pursuing the British towards the center, leaving the left flank weakened. However even before the Prussian’s arrival Marshal Ney had began to prepare for these uninvited guests. The Grande Battery had been ordered to form up on the French right while the bulk of French cavalry on this sector had also been maneuvered in anticipation of blocking the Prussians. This involved most of Milhaud’s cuirassiers retiring to face the threat and Jaquinot’s light cavalry (which had been securing the French flank throughout the battle without seeing action) being brought forwards. Though the artillery failed to deploy in time, the massive cavalry force (8 regiments) was enough to secure the flank and prevent the Prussians from getting far. By the end of the game at 18.00 (turn 14) the extreme eastern sector of the ridge was contested, though Papelotte was firmly in Prussian hands.
Meanwhile on the western sector of the battlefield the French had reinforced their success by sending in more infantry and artillery on a broader frontage. Especially the collapse of British defenses at Hougoumont had freed up men for this task, though Reille’s II infantry corps was beginning to seem a bit overstretched.
Hard pressed but not defeated, Wellington was able to muster one final furious counter-attack late in the afternoon. Adam’s and Maitland’s elite guards brigades were thrown forward with the remnants of Ompteda’s KGL brigade and Halkett’s British brigade. These were supported with what remained of British cavalry on their right (those not yet destroyed or committed in the center) – Grant’s and Dörnberg’s light brigades. The counter-attack proved enough to stem the French breakthrough and give them a bloody nose, but was not enough to dislodge them from the ridge.
At the close of the battle at 18.30 (after 14 turns) a vast portion of the ridge at the center was firmly in French control. Both the western and eastern ends of the ridge were contested. Of the farmhouses La Haye Sainte was firmly under French control while the same was true for the Prussians at Papelotte. Hougomont was virtually entirely in French hands and cut off from the ridge, which was essentially enough for full French control.
And what of the much vaunted French Imperial Guard? They had been kept back too long to have any impact upon the game. The cavalry of the guard had been kept in close reserve but were never actually committed due to the large amount of non-guard heavy cavalry around. The infantry of the guard had started their ponderous advance at 16.30 (turn 11) but had been spectacularly slow and too far back to reach the battle in time. At least they looked good in their serried ranks behind the main line.
In a most gentlemanly fashion the allied CiC conceded that French had indeed proved victorious this day. The French had accomplished most of their objectives, including inflicting punishing casualties on the British while retaining their own fighting strength. However, despite being beaten the British army was not defeated.
It is difficult to speculate what might have happened next, but most likely both the bloodied Britons and their Prussian allies (now caught between Napoleon’s and marshal Grouchy’s forces) would have found their position untenable and their armies permanently split from each other. In a classic move Napoleon might have defeated them one by one and forced them to retire along their axis of supply. This may have gained Napoleon a measure of political bargaining power and the possibility to exploit Belgian and Dutch resources to continue the fight, but in all likelihood this would have only delayed the impending doom of his regime for several months or even a year.
This was a truly awesome game of epic proportions played in a most gentlemanly and friendly spirit. What more can a gamer ask for! The scenario (including the proportions of the battlefield) worked excellently, not least because the French won. The game was fought in a relatively short time of some 14 hours over two days. Once again this goes to show that the Black Powder rules work great even with large games (though we did tweak a few things). This definitely was the high point of an intense year of gaming and building Napoleonic armies and the sweet fruit of months of planning and hype. Thanks for all those who participated and a special thanks to Juha for the nice graphics and use of pictures for the second day (more Napoleonic goodness from him on his blog)!