Background image is Les Dernières Cartouches (The Last Cartridges) by Alphonse de Neuville

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

A Brief Interlude: Waterloo's 200th

As I mentioned in an earlier post, June sees a number of exciting (to the military history-minded) anniversaries. I've been exploring the Normandy campaign of 1944, and I'll continue that shortly.

Napoleon Leaving Elba by Joseph Beaume (Wikipedia)
But first we need to take a short detour a century-plus-a-bit back wards. For yesterday (15 June) was the day that the last Grande Armée crossed the French frontier into Belgium, on its way to wreak havoc among the assembled armies of the Kingdoms of Great Britain, the Netherlands, and Prussia. Napoleon I, in a last attempt to restore himself to a stable throne in France, thrust the sword of his army towards the vitals of Allied resistance with one hand while with the other he hopefully waved the olive branch of peace towards his father in law, Kaiser Franz II of Austria. If he could crush the nearest foes and conciliate the next nearest, it might give him time to devise a strategy to deal with the furthest, Czar Aleksandr of Russia. Franz had been willing to side with Bourbon France against his erstwhile allies Aleksandr and Friederich Wilhelm of Prussia; perhaps he could be induced to from a similar alliance with a powerful Bonaparte France...if only the impression of power could be constructed.

Napoleon had an army of some 200,000 men, mostly veterans of his old campaigns, plus another 150,000 forming new units in depots and nearly 200,000 more militia, national guards, marines, and coast guards serving in static positions and freeing up regulars to fight in the field. Would it be enough to defeat his two most implacable foes--the Duke of Wellington, the calm, quick-witted Englishman whom none of his marshals had been able to best, and Prince Bluecher, the mad, wild, fierce old Prussian hussar who had come out of retirement in his Krieblowitz estates to deal a death blow to the hated Corsican.

The positions of major French and Allied Armies on 1 June 1815 (Wikipedia)
The Allied armies were distributed in their cantonments across central and eastern Belgium, waiting and watching for the Emperor's blow. It came with the sudden fire of picquets and was followed by the rumble of guns, as the advanced guards of the French army forced back the Prussian outposts on the Sambre. Falling back a short distance from the river, Prussian forces fought a delaying action and then fell back about ten miles, while couriers spurred through the dawn to reach and rouse the Prussian Army and to warn their British and Dutch allies that the enemy was now marching, straight into the strategic "joint" between the two Coalition forces.

While the Prussian advanced troops continued fighting through the day, the first contact between French troops and the forces of the Low Countries did not come until late in the afternoon. At 6 p.m., French light cavalry of General Reille's II Corps attacked and drove in the picquets of a battalion of Nassau infantry some 12 miles from the Sambre on the Brussels road. The remainder of the battalion stood to and, with the help of a battery of artillery, chased off the cavalry scouts. Although Dutch Belgian troops had at first thought that the cannon fore they heard in the distance was Prussian artillery at drill,  the gradual nearing of the fire had alerted them that war was almost certainly begun, and to the French cavalry found outposts ready for them, not soldiers slumbering in their billets. The Count de Perponcher Sedlnitsky and Prince Bernhard of Saxe Weimer had already begun moving their troops into position to hold strategic road junctions against the French advance until they should receive more specific orders.

The Duke of Wellington by Sir Thomas Lawrence: Confident or over-confident? (Wikipedia)
Wellington, in Brussels, had ignored the first reports from the Prussians of French attacks on their outposts. He had likewise ignored the Prince of Orange who, having been on horseback checking his forward lines since 5 a.m., reported at 3 in the afternoon that the Prussians were under attack. Finally, at 4.30, Wellington's Prussian liaison officer passed on a dispatch from Prince Bluecher that Wellington could not ignore. He began issuing alerts to his army, telling commanders to be ready to move once the direction of the French attack was confirmed. But it was not until 10 p.m., when a further message from Bluecher arrived saying that Napoleon himself was leading the French Army across the Sambre at Charleroi, that Wellington finally began to issue orders to his army.

There are, of course, hundreds, possibly thousands of games about the Napoleonic Wars. lists over fifty on the Waterloo campaign and its climactic battle alone. These range from serious historical studies to simplistic, fast-play treatments to the speculative (Alexander at Waterloo, which pits Wellington's army not against the Old Guard by against the Macedonian Companions), from the sublime (Wellington's Victory: 2,000 counters on a map measured in square feet) to the ridiculous (One Minute Waterloo, with eight pieces on a nine-hex map).
Since I'm going to quickly review the campaign, I'll use an old favourite, Kevin Zucker's The Emperor Returns. I will also be trying to run a semi-double-blind game of this at a local game store next weekend.

The Emperor Returns: Campaign Start Setup (OSG)
The game actually begins just before the French move across the border. The French have the initiative and must decide, as Napoleon did, whether to attack northwest towards Ghent, north towards Brussels, or northeast towards Namur. To drive towards Ghent is, in essence, to attack the Anglo-Allied army's right flank, hoping to defeat the penny packets in which it is spread out over the Belgian countryside and to draw its center of gravity away from its Prussian allies. To drive on Brussels is to attack the "seam" between the two Allied armies--often in warfare the most vulnerable point of two forces, since responsibility for defending the zone where the two meet is often confused and uncertain. To drive on Namur is to attack the Prussians, who are far more concentrated to begin with. This makes them an easier target to find and fix, but also a harder nut to crack. And the wooded, hilly banks of the Sambre will slow down the French attack, giving the British time to get their act together and come to the aid of their Prussian ally.

1 comment:

  1. A nice summary of the opening moves can be found here: