Saturday 30 June 2018

Rescue at Cedillo

or Saving Colonel McDougall

Another Sharp Practice encounter fought last weekend, this time introducing my old wargaming partner, Stu, to the mechanics and feel of the game. Again, another Napoleonic Peninsular War fight, and again a randomly selected scenario from the rules - this time, a rescue mission. 

The farmhouse prison of the indiscreet Col. McDougall

And once more, Captain Fortier can best set the scene:

2 June 1809 - Plasencia

I have received orders from [Marshal] Victor to make haste to Cáceres where I am to be involved in the interrogation of a Scottish officer believed to be from Wellesley's staff and engaged in scouting potential lines of advance against Victor's forces in Estremadura. Colonel McDougall was apparently captured in the border village of Cedillo with his pants down (or, as a Scot, would it be his kilt?), so my guess is he was pursuing other advances! However, our Maréchal is increasingly jumpy and sees threats everywhere, so off I will go. 

I am told the good Colonel is currently being held in a small farmhouse just outside Cedillo, but the people in those parts are feared to be too pro-Portuguese, so a small detachment is being sent to bring him in to the safer territory at Cáceres. No doubt another of Victor's fantômes, but at least I will have a chance to catch up with my old friend Major Durrand, who is leading the party bringing him in. 

Capt. Fortier, dressed idiosyncratically in his Ionian Division uniform,
planning his route to

Editor's note: Fortier's hunch was correct. Colonel Dugald McDougall had been at one stage attached to Wellesley's staff, but his constant dalliances led to his reassignment back to England. So he was not on any scouting mission, but rather pursuing a last secret assignation with the beautiful wife of a local Spanish merchant. He had been discovered climbing out of a window by some patrolling French Dragoons, who had locked him up in a nearby farmhouse and sent word back to Cáceres, thus Fortier's orders.

At the same time, word of the Colonel's capture had got back to Colonel Drummond who was holding the Tagus crossing at Vila Velha de Rodão with men from the Royal Loamshire Regiment, and who immediately began organising a rescue mission.

Extracts from The Peninsular War diary of Captain Jules Fortier as edited by a spiritual descendant of the Captain.

Stuart chose the French, with a force consisting of two units of Line Infantry (conscript and volunteers), each of three groups, and each unit under a Status II leader (Lt. Roux's 104e Ligne from Burgundy and the 77e Ligne from Picardy under Lt. Bertrand, known to his friends as “Plastique”); the Status III leader Capt. Lefebvre and his single-group unit of Dragoons ("Lefebvre's Lurkers"); and the whole force under Major Durrand (Status III) with his single-group unit of skirmishers ("Durrand's Devils"). For his support, Stuart took a scout (with an additional deployment point), a marksman, and a couple of musicians. The French starting Force Morale was 10.

I had the British rescuers, made up of detachments from the Royal Loamshire's: one two-group unit of Regular Line under Capt. Bertie ffynch-Hatton (Status III and in overall command); one two-group unit of Light Co. in Line under Lt. Jerold Godolming (II); and a single group of Skirmishers under Cpl. Jones (I). There was also a single-group detachment of Rifles under Lt. Arthur Newbold (II). For my supports, I had a marksman, a hasty barricade and a Colour Party (no slinking about in the dead of night for us!). The British Force Morale started on 11.

We were fighting over largely flat farming land, with the Cedillo-Cáceres road running from West to East with a ford crossing a small stream that ran North to South about a third the way across the table. There were three small ridges either the side of the road, some fields and enclosures, and the farmhouse holding Col. McDougall in the South-East.

The Cedillo-Cáceres road, looking South-East to the farmhouse
where Col. McDougall was held captive
As a rescue mission, the British had a deployment point close to the walled farmhouse and their primary deployment point and escape route in the West on the road to Cedillo. The French had a primary deployment point in the small orchard on the South centre of the table, and their scout gave them a secondary deployment point which Stu placed opposite this on the North centre of the table, behind the small central ridge.

I had not properly read the scenario rules, and so gave myself a significant advantage by not having the non-player guard unit present at the farmhouse. Perhaps the pro-British locals had drawn them away. Instead, all I had to do on arriving was batter my way through a stout door, rescue McDougall, and high-tail it back to the primary deployment point and away. Stuart had to stop me.

The game got off to a slow start, with a few short turns seeing the arrival of one of the French line units, in line, just north of the orchard, and the British skirmishers, with a hasty barricade to the South of the road at the river-side edge of the western ridge. 

Cpl. Jones' Loamshire skirmishers warily defend the ford,
and in the distance Lt. Roux's Line Infantry.
The next unit to arrive was the British commander's line infantry, which immediately assailed the farmhouse door to break McDougall free. Unfortunately, their eagerness backfired (aka "random event") and they added to the requirements of the task at hand (pushing the required 10 points to achieve the task up to 14!).

The Rescuers arrive!

The second unit of French line (Bertrand's) then arrived and lined the northern base of the central ridge. This was followed by the Rifles, putting themselves in a defensive position to the north of the Cedillo road exit and immediately laying down an effective fire on the flank of the newly arrived French.

The Rifles' fire immediately starts to tell.
Roux's Line unit sent one group into the enclosed field overlooking the stream to face off the British skirmishers. The next to arrive where the French Dragoons on the left flank of Betrand's line, and then the last British unit, the Loamshire's Light Company in line, arrived across the top of the Western ridge facing down the Dragoons.

The last British unit arrives.
There was still no sign of the last French unit (the single skirmish group, "Durrand's Devils"), while "Lefebvre's Lurkers" (the French Dragoons) lived up to their name, holding off from advancing and preferring to stand back to threaten the British flank and rear once the rescue party was underway. 

Finally, ffynch-Hatton's men broke down the farmhouse door, dragging the chastened McDougall free of his temporary prison and started on their return journey.

"Free at last!"
At first, this proved to be almost as slow as their jailbreak. As they changed formation to column and headed for the road, they were exposed to light flanking fire from Roux's Line infantry which had by this time occupied the stone barn across from the farmhouse.

French fire from the barn adds some light shock to the Loamshires.
To help cover the British rescue party's flank, the Light Company advanced to pour a heavy fire into the French Dragoons.

Lefebvre's Lurkers taking casualties and shock.
I was lucky to have Godolming's Lights come up again early next turn, and with the help of some sharp practice, Lefebvre and the Lurkers were broken and fled the table, causing a hefty drop in the French Force Morale. 

Finally, Major Durrand's skirmishers arrived. Stuart decided to deploy them on the Cedillo side of the stream and aggressively pushed them forward to threaten Cpl. Jones' flank and the British primary deployment point. 

Durrand's Devils rush the British flank.
With their blood up, the Devils used their next turn to rush the British Light Co. skirmishers flank, driving them back with significant damage and shock, and leaving the British primary deployment point exposed.
The Devils victorious!
By now, the Loamshires with the freed Col. McDougall had made the road and were starting to move with greater speed towards their exit. Roux had two separated groups of Line available to pour in flanking fire as they passed, and although the British were taking heavy shock, they continued to press on. "Plastique" Betrand's forces were making heavy weather as they attempted to cross the stream, advancing now in column against the British Rifles but carrying an almost crippling level of shock.

The French slowly advance against the British left flank, while
(in the centre) the British rescue party start to wind-up their escape march.

With some helpful command cards, I was able to push the rescue party across the stream, but this then exposed them to some fairly shattering fire from Durrand's Devils.

The British Lights now started their exit run too, bringing some fire onto Roux's group in the enclosure.

Durrand's skirmishers got in another round of fire, killing a few, putting on a load of shock, and breaking the Loamshire's formation, causing a drop in British Force Morale. But in the follow up ffynch-Hatton was able to turn his most solid group and unleash their first fire back at the Devils, causing them to break and flee.

The battered Loamshire line infantry turn to fire their
first round for the game at Durrand's Devils.

The results: the Devils broken and fleeing.
With the French Force Morale now down to 4 and Col. McDougall and the main rescue party with an open road to Cedillo, Stu decided to concede and we called it a day.

It was a great afternoon of wargaming, and as an introduction for Stu, I think the game worked well. He got a sense of the mechanics of the game, and by about half-way our management of turns, choices and consequences were flowing freely. I think he also appreciated the narrative feel of the play, compared to two forces lined up against each other and battering away.

We were both surprised at the way our cruciform deployment points ended up playing out. I think we had both started thinking that I was likely to be the first exposed to French flanking fire, but it turned out more of an initial risk for the French. By the time it was an issue for me, Stu had suffered some significant losses that made it harder for such fire to tell. In hindsight, we reflected that it may have been better for him to hold off deployment until later, even using opportunities for ambuscade, especially with his dragoons, or alternatively, pushing his deployment away from the centre. Certainly, Lefebvre's Lurkers might have more usefully moved East to put more pressure on the British flank and rear, and keeping the Light infantry facing in the wrong direction to help the main rescue party.

For myself, I would like to have had some artillery, but was worried it may have tied me down, though as it was my Rifles and Skirmishers hardly moved. The game also reinforced for me the risk of small single-group units quickly taking shock and ending up in trouble with only a few casualties.

As always, it is best to leave the last word to Fortier:

4 June 1809 - Cáceres

No sooner had I arrived in Cáceres than I discovered that the purpose of my visit had evaporated! Colonel McDougall was rescued yesterday by a small party of British infantry, giving my poor friend Durrand a bloody nose while they were at it!  Henri did however confirm my suspicion that this was more an affair du coeur than affaires militaires.

Of course, news of McDougall's rescue has been received by Victor with even greater alarm than his capture, confirming for our Maréchal the value of his lost prize and exaggerating the size and immediacy of the imagined British forces bearing down on him. No doubt we will shortly abandon Estremadura all because a French general could not keep his spirits up when a Scotsman was caught with his kilt down!

Extracts from The Peninsular War diary of Captain Jules Fortier as edited by a spiritual descendant of the Captain.

Friday 8 June 2018

Encounter at Villar de Ciervo

  or an indecisive biff on the plains of Salamanca

Last weekend saw our first friendly competitive game of Sharp Practice - albeit still very much with our learner's plates on! Michael, a friend from work, came around for the afternoon to get a feel for the rules and mechanics and for his first foray into historical wargaming (he is otherwise steeped in Warhammer 40K experience).

Given this, we kept it reasonably simple: French vs British in the Peninsular War (c.1810); and randomly selected the Mission scenario from the core rules. We used the Dawns & Departures rules for determining terrain, giving us a fight on the Spanish plains, with a small walled Inn at a road intersection towards the centre of the table, a good scattering of fields, and a walled farmhouse and small outbuilding on the left.
 The Sánchez farm and the Hostal de Viajeros 
on the outskirts of Villar de Ciervo (from the east)

Captain Fortier's diary helps set the scene: 

Late afternoon, 10 July 1810, outside Serranillo, North-west of Ciudad Rodrigo

With the surrender of the town and citadel of Ciudad Rodrigo last night, I advised the Marshal’s headquarters that, over the next few days, I would join one of our foraging parties to get a better sense of the country between there and Almeida and of the British forces operating out of Fort Concepcion, just beyond the Dos Cases River. This morning I heard that some units from Junot’s Corps were operating in and around Barquilla, and as I knew some of Junot’s officers, I felt this could be a perfect opportunity. 

After attending to my morning rituals [Fortier’s moustaches notoriously required significant daily attention which he described as his “rituals”], I mounted my trusty Hecate and headed out on the road to San Felices el Grande, with my servant Rodriguez following by mule. My intention was to strike north first – I had heard told the morcón [sausage] at Castillejo was well worth a visit, and a rare instance of a Spanish rumor that turned out to be true – then cross the River Águeda to the west of Serranillo and from there to Barquilla. 

At Serranillo I came across a detachment of the 22e Ligne who had been ordered further north to secure some supplies near Villar de Ciervo, in expectation that some of our troops would use that northern route to Almeida. Hearing of my interest in catching sight of any British troops in the vicinity, they invited me to join them on the morrow. I felt it was less likely the British would stray that far north, and in any case, the detachment's commander was a rather priggish fellow, and a tea-drinker to boot (d_____d suspicious if you ask me), so I begged off, saying I thought Barquilla would be better hunting, and I also hoped to find there Capt. Gouache, who owed me 10 Gold Napoleons! 

Extracts from The Peninsular War diary of Captain Jules Fortier as edited by a spiritual descendant of the Captain.

The French detachment that Fortier mentions above were approaching Villar de Ciervo from the west, with their primary deployment on the road entry and a secondary fixed deployment point just short of some trees and covered by a ridge to its front. They had three sets of supplies to secure: one close to their entry point in the west; one at the centre of the table near the Inn, and one near the farm closer to the British entry point. The British primary deployment was on the road entrance in the east, and a secondary fixed deployment point to the left of the road in a hedged orchard. [Only in preparing to write up this AAR have I recognised that we placed the secondary deployment points incorrectly.]

The battlefield, showing deployment points and French objectives

Michael had chosen the French, with a Regular force of two units of line infantry, each of two groups, and a unit of Voltigeur skirmishers, also of two groups. The skirmishers were under the command of Lt. Bastien (II); one of the line units was under Lt. Michelle (II); and the final line unit and overall command was with Capt. Jean Luc Picard (III), supported by Sgt. Remy (I). He had a starting Force Morale of 11, and 6 points of support, with which he took a secondary fixed deployment point, a physic, and two musicians.

I had a British Regular force: a three-group unit of Regular line under Major Denis Bloodnok (III); a two-group unit of Light Company in line under Lt. Frogmore (II); and a small detachment of KGL Light Infantry skirmishers under Lt. Von Klappers (I). Apparently Bloodnok had heard that the Inn had a wishing well full of coins, which was why he had strayed from the main British force further south! I had a starting Force Morale of 9 and 4 points of support, so took a fixed deployment point, a physic and a musician.

The scenario has a delayed start for the British, which the French took good advantage of, getting fully deployed, securing the first objective, and advancing well towards the second before the first British forces entered.

French Voltigeurs cover the advancing columns
The French poised to capture their second objective

The British start to arrive and deploy

At this point, Michael pushed his front line unit ahead to delay the British advance in preference to securing his second objective. Lt. Michelle's unit opened fire at long range on the Light Company forming up in the orchard, inflicting some light shock.

The first shots of the day

The British then had a run of lucky cards, allowing them to advance their main striking force while the French forces stalled. 

The British Regulars advance in column up the road

The British advanced up the road and then deployed in line without any response from the French. Bloodnok's luck continued, allowing his unit to present and deliver a directed crashing volley at short range with their first fire. The French unit took three casualties, and a massive amount of shock, with its first group breaking and fleeing to the rear.

The aftermath of the British crashing volley

Michael was able to bring Bastien's Voltigeurs forward to relieve pressure on the remnants of his Line unit, and together these started to pour some effective fire into the British line.

Voltigeurs Up!

At the same time, I was struggling to get my other units up to support Bloodnok's Line, which was starting to see casualties and shock starting to build up, including a light wound to the Major causing him to drop a status level.

Trading fire while the British Light troops skulk at the rear

 British casualties and shock mounting

It wasn't long before the remaining group of Michelle's unit also broke and headed for the rear.

 French Voltigeurs cover Lt. Michelle's broken column

By this stage, the French had secured the second set of stores and Picard's unit of Line - still in column - opened fire on Bloodnok's troops.

The second objective secured, Picard's Line unit opens fire

A fire broke out in the farmhouse on the British right, and the Voltigeurs' fire had been so heavy that their front was covered by a thick smoke reducing their effectiveness. With Bloodnok's line starting to look fragile and the other British units hedging around at the rear, Michael decided to take advantage of the lowering sun to launch a charge with his remaining line unit. It was a bold gamble, with bloody results for both sides, but unfortunately for Michael the British came out just in front (7 kills to 6). One French group was wiped out and the other thrown back. The British formation was also broken, with one group reduced to 2 men fleeing to the rear.

 The aftermath of fisticuffs

Although Lt. Frogmore's British Lights had finally started to advance, we were out of time and decided to call it a draw. Although it had come at some cost, Michael's French had secured two of their three objectives and had largely shattered my main British unit. We were both sitting on a Force Morale of 6.

Bastien with his Voltigeurs picked up the "Man of the match" award for their steadiness and reliability, with Bloodnok's Regulars getting an honorable mention for their first crashing volley. Frogmore's Light Company won a dishonorable mention for their reluctance to move!

Final Dispositions

After a number of solo games it was great experience to play a game against a real opponent - it adds a real fog of war and certainly adds tension to the turn of the cards - and we are definitely starting to get a better sense of the rules and mechanics. I know we made a number of mistakes, but that is also part of our learning process. I'm sure there are mistakes we've not yet uncovered but which will come out in future games.

It has also been a good experience to put together this, my first After Action Report. However, I will leave the last words to the good Captain: 

11 July 1810, Cismeiro, North-east of Ciudad Rodrigo 
[Following a dramatic account of Fortier's time with Captain Gouache at Barquilla and the latter's formation of a square to fight off repeated charges by British cavalry under Major-General Robert Crauford...]

 ...We have also heard that Picard's little detachment also had a run-in with the British further north, though, in keeping with that gentleman's rather buttoned-up demeanor, I dare say not with the same dash and drama as Gouache. I understand he had managed to secure most of the supplies in the area when he was challenged by a British force of similar size. By all accounts they fair bloodied each other's noses - and again by all accounts fair-sized noses to bloody! - but perhaps there was more fight in the man than I earlier gave him credit... 

Extracts from The Peninsular War diary of Captain Jules Fortier as edited by a spiritual descendant of the Captain.