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

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Christmas Eve: Best Wishes and Battles

The bitter battle of Lund, 1757.
I was idly speculating about what game I might pull out if I had some spare time to do a little solitaire play over the holiday. I had gone a fair way down this road until I realised that, as I'm not taking any time off work for Christmas (other than the Christmas Day I am kindly granted by my employer), and since family will be in town after The Day for a visit, the chances that I'll have any such time are minimal. Still, since I'd thought about it, the brainpower might aw well not go to waste, so I thought a blog post might be in order.

The whole idea had been sparked off by a fellow wargamer asked a group devoted to games from the late, great Simulations Publications Inc. which SPI title on the Battle of the Bulge (a famous Christmas battle) had been their favourite. I started wondering about the different Bulge games that I have, which include GMT's Ardennes '44 and Tigers in the Mist, SPI's Wacht am Rhein, Avalon Hill's Bitter Woods, and the ASL modules Wacht am Rhein (Lone Canuck), Baraque de Fraiture (Front Line Productions), Battle of the Bulge (Time on Target) and Kampfgruppe Peiper I and KGP II (Avalon Hill). I could have sworn I owned 3W's Race to the Meuse, but perhaps I sold that years ago when I foolishly thinned out my collection a bit; it doesn't seem by the ratings to have been that good, so perhaps I'm not missing anything.

But what about other winter battles? There have been plenty, surely. What other titles in my collection would be suitable? (And, given the horrendously unseasonable weather we're having here in the Washington, DC, region, maybe give me a little illusory chill?)

Lund, 1676: The cold radiates off the map.
Of course, go early enough in history, and everyone had enough sense not to go out and fight when it was bloody cold and snowing. I think the battle of Lund between Sweden and Denmark was the first I could find in my collection (in GMT's Nothing To Gain But Glory) that features a frosty battlefield, the engagement taking place over the course of a very long December 4th, 1676. The map itself does a grand job of showing how miserable and cold the men must have been during what was one of Europe's most lethal battles.

Clash of Arms Leuthen: Frederick's Greatest Victory
Spin ahead eighty years, and in the midst of the Seven Years War, one finds the battle of Leuthen, fought in Silesia on 5 December 1757. At one point almost dramatically won by the Prussians' skillful pre-battle maneuvering, Leuthen eventually ground to a deadlock, as the Austrian army refused to accept that it had been defeated. I have two ways of trying out this game, either in COA's Leuthen: Frederick's Greatest Victory (a debateable title, in my opinion) or in GMT's Prussia's Glory, which includes Leuthen with Zorndorff, Torgau, and Rossbach, the latter easily beating out Leuthen for title of Frederick's greatest victory.

Move ahead to the Napoleonic era and there are two snowy battlefields that stand out boldly. One is a confused, messy, filled with glorious exploits, but overall a picture of bloody devastation, not unlike the battle of Lund on a larger scale. This was the battle of Preussisch-Eylau, fought on the 7th and 8th of February 1807. In it, two armies each of about 75,00 men traded hammerblows for two days in snow and freezing cold, each eventually losing as much as a third of their army in killed, wounded, or missing. On one side of the battle, the Russian army under Count von Bennigsen gathered together a huge battery of over 70 artillery guns to smash a French assault on his center, riposted with a massive column of infantry, and broke the center of Napoleon's army. In return, the French emperor called on the flamboyant Gascon cavalry commander Joachim Murat and flung him and a massive cavalry force of 11,000 men into the flank and center of the Russian counterattack, crushing it and scattering its men far and wide. Both French and Russian armies paused, like a boxer battered nearly into insensibility, and then, reinforced (Napoleon by more French under Marshal Michel Ney, von Bennigsen by a corps of Prussians under A.W. von L'Estocq) pounded each other for several more hours, until nearly midnight. When he surveyed the battlefield the next day, Ney said, Quel massacre! Et sans résultat ("What a massacre! And without result").

Napoleon and his Garde Imperiale in LBdP-E
Preussich-Eylau has been covered by several designers and publishers. Probably the grandest is Mattson, Spors, and Wimble's La Bataille de Preussisch-Eylau from Clash of Arm's Games. A chapter in the grand La Bataille system, it covers the battle down to the individual companies and battalions. A massive undertaking, it's detail is unmatched.

Another storied series that has covered the battle is Fréderic Bey's Eylau 1807, part of his Jours de Gloire system published by the French wargaming magazine Vae Victis: no less glorious, but somewhat more manageable than La Bataille.

The third entry in my library for this battle is Avalanche Press's Eagles of the Empire: Preussisch-Eylau. Characterized by an innovative area-movement system, this game can be played in a mere three hours, compared with Bey's four and the optimistic six predicted for La Bataille.

Napoleon at the Berezina
The other great battle in the snow from the Napoleonic period is the even more depressing and awful battle of the Berezina, where a French Grande Armée, limping shredded and starving out of Russia, turned at the last great river obstacle and fought to keep itself from being overwhelmed by the (equally battered and starving ) Russian armies that pursued it. This is depicted by the veteran game designer Rob Markham in his Napoleon at the Berezina. That unusual of beasts, a solitaire wargame, NaB challenges the player to find a way for the French to cross the river to (relative) safety before being mauled to death by three converging Russian armies. Fréderic Bey has also covered the Berezina battle in his JdG series, but I do not have a copy of that title (yet).

Of course, World War One is most famous for its Christmas Truce of 1914. I do not, I regret, have any games that depict the famous football match that took place before Germans and British were ordered back to their lines.

World War Two, besides the Bulge, has two other theatres where winter fighting was endemic. Since I'd like to finish this post and get to Christmas Eve festivities, I'll just quickly list some of the relevant titles from the famous Finnish Winter War and from the grim battles of the Eastern Front.

Finland: The earliest game I recall playing on this theatre was James Goff's excellent Winter War (SPI, 1972). Another great title is David Ritchie's Arctic Storm (GMT, 1992). A modern classic on a smaller scale is Mark Mokszycki's Red Winter: The Soviet Attack at Tolvajärvi, Finland, December 8-12, 1939 (GMT, 2012). And, of course, Advanced Squad Leader is represented by (inter alia) MMP's Hakkaa Paalle! module and Critical Hit's Jatkosota: Finland's Continuation War.

Frosty fighting in the streets of Cholm.
Russia: A quick trip to the Ostfront here for me, as my collection of Russian winter battles consists largely of a great older title, GDW's White Death: Velikiye Luki, the Stalingrad of the North and a newer one, ATO's Wintergewitter, about the attempt to break out of the Stalingrad kessel. ASL is represented here by the package Kampfgruppe Scherer: the Shield of Cholm by the talented team at Le Franc Tireur.

I'll close with one that still has not made it to my table, but that I'm interested to try one day. Into a Bear Trap: the Battle for Grozny 1995 is the brainchild of the prolific designer Perry Moore. This well-rated game from ATO depicts the modern urban combat waged over the capital of Chechnya by the Russian army and the irregular forces of the Chechen resistance.

As a wrap up, this blogpost by someone much more dedicated than I to the topic lists more than a dozen different battles (or battle-like events) that took place on or around Christmas, for your extended Christmas warfare pleasure.

Merry Christmas to everyone who celebrates it, and happy holidays to all!

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