By Paul Comben
In the last weeks of 1812 Napoleon had witnessed the wholesale destruction of the army he had led to the gates of Moscow. Too long a stay in that abandoned and razed city; too readily beguiled and deceived by the illusion that the Tsar might yet come to terms; too much indecision; too little supply; an abundance of Cossack raiders and the winter’s relentless cold, all had played their part in reducing La Grande Armée to nothing but the last straggling fragments of total ruin. Not too long after the desperate crossing of the Berezina, the emperor informed his marshals that he was leaving the army and hastening on to Paris. Murat was left in overall command, and whilst he falteringly went about the discharge of a duty far removed from all his customary notions of martial splendour, Napoleon raced across Europe in a small and anonymous group of vehicles, and was in the French capital a little under three weeks later.
By the commencement of the 1813 campaign season, it seemed, at least at first glance, that Napoleon had achieved the impossible. By any one of a number of measures, he had rebuilt the numerical strength of the forces he could command to the point where they outnumbered the coalition armies currently reaching across eastern and central Germany. But, to a considerable extent, this was a delusion. Many of the new formations were full of raw conscripts, not a few of whom were little more than boys – the Marie Louises as they came to be known. For a commander who had built much of his reputation on soldiers moving fast and showing plenty of battlefield savvy as and when engagements occurred, this was a major hindrance. But even more of a problem was the desperate lack of cavalry. This was more than an issue of finding trained cavalrymen to ride the horses, for in truth, there were precious few horses for them to get on. Vast numbers of horses, from those equipping the light and heavy cavalry divisions through to those employed for hauling baggage and artillery pieces had been lost in the Russian campaign, and in 1813, quite apart from a lack of riders, there was a scarcity of horses for all forms of army usage. Ever determined to be the optimist, Napoleon sought to dismiss this crippling defect in his army’s composition by saying that the forthcoming campaign, perforce, would take on the character of “an Egyptian battle” – a reference to his experience fighting around the Nile and the Levant some fifteen years earlier, when his almost entirely infantry expeditionary force had engaged the predominantly cavalry armies of the Ottoman Mamelukes.
But Germany most certainly was not Egypt, and the emperor’s army of 1813 was to be desperately handicapped by the shortcomings of its mounted arm. Reconnaissance, screening, defending lines of communication, fixing the enemy in place, shock impact on the field of battle, and pursuit from that field, all these were compromised by the simple fact that the French did not have anywhere near enough cavalry to go round. It was a weakness the last Napoleonic armies never really recovered from, for even in June 1815 the reconstituted cavalry arm of L’Armée du Nord was still short of sufficient resources to discharge the necessities of the plan the emperor was working to. This was particularly apparent during the course of June 17th, when Napoleon’s shuffling of cavalry divisions between the army’s corps left Grouchy’s wing lacking in sufficient light cavalry to efficiently seek out the Prussian formations retreating from Ligny.
One other issue needs to be mentioned, and this is something that, over the course of the Napoleonic Wars, had threatened French operations throughout Europe. As Napoleon himself said of his marshals on the eve of the 1813 campaign: “There’s not one who can command the others, and none of them knows anything but how to obey me.” In the case of someone like Davout, this was undoubtedly unfair, and with at least some of the others, it was probably an exaggeration; but overall, in terms of the efficacy of French arms when the presence of the emperor could not be felt and his will not directly exercised, it was fair comment. Relatively minor misfires had occurred throughout the course of the long war, but first in Spain, and then in Russia, and certainly through the progression of the war in Germany, where Napoleon could not directly command or could not immediately reach, French efforts tended to fall short. Later in the 1813 campaign, when Napoleon was seeking to establish a strategy working round interior lines (based largely on the road network emanating from about Dresden), he commented:
“…in the places where I will not be, my lieutenants must know to wait for me without committing anything to chance.”
So, at Ulm, Austerlitz, and Jena, where everything that mattered was largely where he was or soon could be, the enemy was broken beyond repair. But it was to be a different matter when an entire theatre had to do without him (Spain), or when a ride of a few hours duration at the very most could not bring him to the peripheries of his power (Russia), or now, in 1813, when distance and the challenge of multiple foes confounded his attention. Inevitably, he had to rely on his subordinates to do something, but as we enter this era of distant and expansive fronts, one sees the customary admonishments of the emperor becoming ever more terse. Inexplicably entrusted with a key manoeuvre early in the Russian expedition, a manoeuvre he then fundamentally but predictably mismanaged, the emperor’s brother, Jerome, received this rebuke written by Berthier at Napoleon’s behest:
“…it would be impossible to manoeuvre in a worse fashion. I am severely displeased that he (Jerome) failed to place all the light troops at Poniatowski”s disposal. He has robbed me of the fruit of my manoeuvres and of the best opportunity ever presented in war – all on account of his singular failure to appreciate the first notions about warfare.”
And in the preliminaries to the 1813 campaign, following Eugène’s withdrawal to positions west of Berlin, the emperor berated him with the following:
“Nothing is less military than the course you have pursued. An experienced general would have established a camp in front of Küstrin.”
Armed camps in front of Küstrin stood at one end of the scale of Napoleon’s fussing over the actions of his subordinates, but at the other end of that same scale he was wont to remind his generals to see that new conscripts were carrying the requisite spare footwear and regulation number of cartridges; and not only that, he was perfectly capable of remembering the identity of a battery with a “mad piece,” and of being back to inspect that same unit in short time to ensure that the defect had been addressed.
Just how much of this overt supervision was truly necessary is open to conjecture, but the irony is that for all the emperor’s dismissive opinions of at least some of his subordinates’ capabilities, many of those same lackluster types kept being trusted with the most important of functions, whilst the most capable got shunted off to areas where success or failure could have very little telling effect.
And it is at this point that Kevin Zucker’s 1981 design, “The Struggle of Nations,” (SoN) begins its full campaign story. Although not specifically stated within the game itself, this was very much part of the evolving Napoleonic Campaign Series, that, prior to SoN, had seen coverage of Napoleon’s early campaigns in Italy, followed by the sublime “Napoleon at Bay.” In many respects, SoN was a rather different entry – far bigger in scope, complexity (rules and level of decision-making), and physical size (the map area, thanks to the use of “mini hexes,” was not terribly big, but it was an awkward shape, and the organizational charts were substantial). And yet, for all the length of the rules, and the daunting level of factors in play, both military and political, in essence this was a game built upon a straightforward premise – that armies of the period had a propensity for degrading at an alarming rate unless supported by a level of supply and administration that was better than simply “adequate,” and even then losses through reasons other than battlefield casualties would still occur.
This aspect of campaigning, virtually ignored in many other designs, has been a vital feature of this series, represented by an army’s current pool of administration points; the status of the army’s centre of operations (active or in transit, and at what distance from a final source of supply); the distance from an active centre of operations to a force wishing to move; how sizeable that force is; and how far it is attempting to move. To put it plainly: too big a force attempting to do too much with too little whilst being too far away, and serious attrition will inevitably occur. On the other hand, seeking to create perfect game environments, where everything is at the right distance or keeping to the right level, is a fool’s errand. The game reality, mirroring history, makes that aim an impossibility, and for that reason, the more capable subordinate, who can frequently be relied on to move without the labour of being told (high initiative), or seeing an enemy force that is wearing itself to pieces chasing after, or getting away from you, is about as good as it is going to get.
And what about battle? Inevitably, at the scale at which this and the other series titles operate, with potentially tens of thousands of soldiers positioned in one location come the time of decision, combat is abstracted, but with an elegance designed to reward having the right “mix” in pitched battle. What does that mean? In essence, it is having not only raw numbers on your side, but the better overall commander, the better ground, at least decent army morale, a clear cavalry advantage, and a handy “reserve” of massed artillery. What arises from the interplay of these factors is a form of evolving battle narrative – the guns do damage before odds for a round of pitched battle are calculated; cavalry can help or hinder this bombardment depending on who has the advantage in the mounted arm (think of combined arms and targeted infantry having to form dense squares if cavalry is on the prowl); the commanding officer of real ability adds the bonus of his presence, and the combat is then resolved applying his modifier, the morale modifier, and anything else that might just apply. The “passive” side then counterattacks if pitched battle was chosen, and if both sides are still locked (various factors weigh on this), the process is repeated again, and that until one or other side withdraws.
Quitting the field can be hazardous, depending on how far you are compelled to go in retreat, what is on that particular retreat path (that is terrain-wise, or in the shape of other enemy formations), and how willing or capable the enemy army is to pursue you. Again, a cavalry differential can either help you get away relatively intact, or harry you with further hurt if the pursuers have the advantage. As we will see when we go to a look at the actual campaign story, Napoleon won early and notable victories at Lützen and Bautzen (the French artillery helping along the way), but through a lack of cavalry, he could not build upon the battlefield results by an effective pursuit. It should be pointed here that cavalry strengths in SoN are not finessed into light and heavy formations; you simply have an amount of cavalry and it performs the roles the player or the system (in battle) assigns it to.
Three other things need mentioning before we look at the actual campaign and the more precise aspects of simulation modeling within the game: morale, the statecraft/coalition politics of 1813, and the fog of war. Morale is represented in a basic but viable way, with a short track of modifiers denoting a combat effect based on how prior significant combats have gone. The more successful you have been, the better your modifier for all combats across the map; but if your marker goes off the “problem” end of the track, the game is lost as the will and effectiveness of your side collapses. Morale can also be affected by possession of Berlin or Dresden, but even if the French capture the Prussian capital, there is no guarantee that will end the campaign.
Statecraft and politics mean different things to the contending forces. Historically, Napoleon’s chief political concerns during the campaign were in keeping the German states (first and foremost, Bavaria and Saxony), in a state of obeisance, keeping Austria out of the war, and, however implausibly, finding some way of rekindling a rapport with Tsar Alexander. During the course of the campaign there were plenty of statements from the emperor indicating that he was willing to negotiate what he could perceive to be an honorable peace, but short of the kind of victory that would have enabled him to dictate terms, he was left relying on what were often clumsy and ham-fisted appeals to various parties, coupled with disparaging comments supposedly aimed at setting varying combinations of the allied coalition against each other. With his minor allies, whilst the French presence was in any sense close and credible, they were likely to stay in line. As for Austria, Napoleon set great store in his marriage to the daughter of the Austrian emperor, and as such, many of his affectionate letters to Marie Louise were actually meant to prompt her to write to her father, employing the familial bond to ensure something like a favourable posture towards France. Needless to say, it did not work; and the enterprise, such as it was, was in no ways helped by Napoleon’s tactless handling of his meetings with Austria’s principle intercessor, Metternich. According to Metternich, Napoleon got into such a temper that, on more than one occasion, he threw his hat across the room; but worse than this was the ill-considered jibe leveled at the Austrian at the time of his departure – its essence being that Metternich was in the pay of the English. In diplomatic terms, it was a disastrous thing to say, even if anything remotely anti-Napoleon was likely to be getting English money in some shape or form.
This aspect of campaigning, virtually ignored in many other designs, has been a vital feature of this series, represented by an army’s current pool of administration points; the status of the army’s centre of operations (active or in transit, and at what distance from a final source of supply)
This episode took place during the time of armistice in the summer of 1813, during which both sides looked to build up their forces whilst ostensibly looking for a peaceful settlement. In the actual course of events, the armistice occurred at a time when both sides were militarily “wrung out” for different reasons. The allies had yet to win a battle of any real significance, and both Lützen and Bautzen had resulted in significant losses and a withdrawal into eastern Silesia. On the other hand, Napoleon’s army was also suffering the results of an intense period of marching, manoeuvre, and fighting, to which, as is noted in Andrew Robert’s book, Napoleon the Great, the persistent lack of cavalry meant that the emperor had no clear idea as to how much difficulty the allies were in.
The arrival of the armistice in the game is dependent on the date and the position of the two sides’ morale markers – this can provide a modifier for an armistice determination die roll. However, the armistice will begin arbitrarily on the June 9 – 10 turn if the roll of the die has not brought it into effect earlier. At this point Austria will be on the verge of entering the war against Napoleon – there is no facility in the game to keep the Austrians in any form of neutrality, and thus one can safely take the hat-throwing and name calling as read, with the salient historical consequences.
Fog of war is worked three ways within the design:
1) Players are not meant to go looking through their opponent’s organization displays.
2) Commanders in road column are flipped to show a generic “route of march” aspect. They are not revealed until they chose to enter line or encounter enemy forces.
3) Both sides have a number of dummy units – the allies having more facility in this, which probably reflects another consequence of the French want of cavalry.
The Campaign Profile
A good place to begin the more precise study of the 1813 campaign is with a look at the game map, and to follow that with reference to David Chandler’s preamble to his study of 1813 in The Campaigns of Napoleon.
At first glance, the map to SoN can seem a trite overwhelming. Over the territory of central and eastern Germany there is a maze of primary and secondary roads, an abundance of major and minor rivers, and a great deal of wood and forest. Furthermore, along the southern fringes of the map area there are the mountainous borders of Bohemia. However, if you concentrate on the relationship between the key depots, how they link to deployment and movement on the primary roads, and how these roads relate to objectives that have some influence on campaign victory, matters become clearer. From the French side of the map, in that spring of 1813, there are basically two potential axes of advance – the route northeast towards Berlin, and the route more or less due east, with the Bohemian border close to the south, ending at Breslau. Given that no forces, from either side, can enter Austrian territory until after the armistice (in game terms, if they “stray” they are interned), it is attractive to the French to have that border helping to restrict swarms of nuisance coalition cavalry skirting the southern French flank. Furthermore, the grain of the road network, and the position of the main coalition forces, invites a major French effort along this line. This is further stressed by the presence of two major road hubs along this axis – Leipzig and Dresden, both of which, but especially Dresden, have an importance as to the French ability to move further east and at the same time protect the crossings of the Elbe.
To a certain extent, the coalition will benefit from being wherever the French (and especially Napoleon) are not – a strategy they can augment by the fullest use of dummy counters to create as many real and potential threats to the French lines of communications as possible. This approach will mirror the actual strategy evolved by the coalition post-armistice, that both denied Napoleon the ability to seek out the decisive action himself, and overstretched the French forces as they faced a combination of enemies either retreating in the face of the emperor’s advance, or working against and around the forces of his subordinates. At this point in the campaign, as late summer moved to early autumn, Napoleon’s intention to use Dresden as a base from which he could pounce on any advancing enemy coming in on one of the roads out of the city started to fall apart. Far from dashing to various parts of his web to catch unwary foes, he ended up catching nothing, and with foes closing in on multiple fronts, he was stuck in the middle. At Dresden, at the end of August 1813, he prevailed; but at Leipzig, less than two months later, he was all but encircled and crushed.
So what did David Chandler have to say about the respective plans of the two sides that spring? To no small extent, the emperor was basing a lot of his plans on dealing with the baggage from the end of 1812. In this context, alongside seeking the defeat of the main enemy force(s), he was also very much intending an advance on Berlin, for which, alongside hoping to disjoint the Prussian war effort both militarily and economically, there was clearly a desire for revenge on Prussia and its king. Further east, and especially along the Baltic coast, there was the longer-term project of relieving the huge number of men holed up in the various fortress cities, but that could not be considered unless and until the main enemy field army had been dealt with. To achieve this Napoleon’s plan was to get his army across the Elbe and into a position where it could simultaneously threaten a march northeast on Berlin, and at the same time, by hovering over the allies’ extended lines of communication, be in position to effect a classic manoeuvre sur les derrières. Much depended on how fast his army could move, and, as related previously, how well it could pursue in the event of victory. Without effective pursuit, the logistical elastic was likely to work at least partially in the coalition’s favour the further east they went, for not only would the Russians be falling back on their own supply lines, the French would be moving progressively further from theirs, and with nothing but the enduring of battlefield loss and march attrition to show for their pains.
In many respects, the whole concept of any march on Berlin with any significant portion of their strength was a bad idea for the French, for as a range of authors have pointed out, it divided French forces at a time when the necessity was to concentrate for the decisive blow. Indeed, such a measure would only have made sense if the Prussians had clearly split from the ally to shield their capital, but whilst this might have happened after Lützen, following a period of wrangling, it did not, and as a result, it was the French who divided their force for no good reason.
This error was compounded by the emperor’s chronic underemployment of his best subordinate, Marshal Davout. In fact, over the last three years of his campaigning life, Napoleon repeatedly put this highly capable officer in a position where he could do the least good, despite his proven record of loyalty, operational and tactical skill, and utter devotion to the emperor’s cause. At Borodino, Davout’s advice to take a sizeable portion of the army on a flanking march around the open Russian left was discounted by the emperor who felt it was too risky a division of force in the face of an assembled enemy army, and on the other hand, might prompt another Russian withdrawal if they had the slightest suspicion as to what was being attempted. To no small degree, this seems utterly contradictory – if Napoleon seriously feared a Russian attack whilst Davout was still away, he could hardly have feared a Russian withdrawal at the same time. As for what he ended up with, a daylong attritional bloodbath which yielded the French a paltry number of prisoners and next to no cannon, that was hardly anything other but the predictable result of the manner of battle he plumped for.
In 1813 and right into 1814, Davout was left around Hamburg, acting solely as an effective deterrent to further mischief by the burgers of the city (they had offered a rather dubious and ill-advised welcome to marauding Cossacks in the early days of the 1813 campaign), but that mission hardly helped the emperor win success in the field, be that in central Germany or in the bitter cold of eastern France just a few months later. And then in 1815, with Napoleon relying on the talents of Ney and Grouchy to implement a plan requiring the utmost skill and verve in its execution, Davout was left as a glorified administrator in Paris, when his presence as commander of either wing of L’Armée du Nord, or even as commander of I or II Corps, could have made a massive difference to the campaign’s outcome.
For the allies, with no one like Davout waiting vainly in the wings, it was pure vanity itself that proved the difficulty. With the elderly Kutuzov close to death, command of the coalition forces was conferred upon Wittgenstein…up to a point. Certainly in the earlier part of the campaign, disputes among the leading coalition generals/nobility hampered their efforts, including Alexander making clumsy interventions at both Lützen and Bautzen, and not every Russian general being ready to accept Wittgenstein as overall commander. Nevertheless, it was Wittgenstein who was in overall command as the allies moved east, and thus bumped into Ney’s corps (or visa versa) at Lützen at the beginning of May. In not a few respects, this was the very kind of engagement that Napoleon and his army was made for – each corps as a small army, and the whole operating in battalion carré (broadly speaking, a “box” of corps with the engaged face being supported by the other sides deploying to advantage). Thus, Napoleon ordered Ney’s corps to hold whilst the other formations in the vicinity moved either to support Ney directly or to flanking positions.
There were, however, several things creaking away at points around the Napoleonic model, including the fact that Ney corps was not deliberate bait but the first thing the allied main body bumped into. The ensuing battle was close, and the casualty levels more or less on a par at about twenty thousand to each side – in other words, the battle was another confirmation that the days of Napoleon leading French armies to relatively cheap victories were well and truly over. The casualty margin may have increased in favour of the French if there had been sufficient quality cavalry to harass and harry the enemy off the field, but there simply was not, and so this bloody event was entirely bereft of a finishing course.
Bautzen was a different kind of battle to Lützen, in that it saw the allies making a stand along a series of fortified positions, with Napoleon faced with the challenge of unpicking what was a formidable line. Part of understanding this battle, as well as others of the German campaign, is to acknowledge that the emperor regarded himself as up against a ticking clock of military and political imperatives, with, as he saw it in the earlier portion of the campaign, the necessity of winning by no later than May. There was thus a massive emphasis on winning quickly rather than deftly, and an onus arising from that was to bludgeon the coalition armies into a mindset where they would countenance terms. The inexperience of Napoleon’s 1813 army, and the failing of certain commanders to work with the plan given them, further exacerbated this situation. Bautzen, in basic terms, was meant to be a “pin, flank, and break the hinge” model of engagement – several French corps would pin the allies with frontal assaults, then others would manoeuvre to create a flanking threat, and then, when the battle was “ripe,” the decisive blow would be struck by elite forces striking at the hinge in the enemy line.
Up to a point this worked, in that the allied line was sufficiently compromised to effect a retreat. But with the lackluster Ney entrusted with the task of creating the flanking threat, things misfired when he became obsessed with attacking what was in front of him rather than moving further around the enemy position. And yet again, the dire want of cavalry meant that the dislodgement of the allies could not be transformed into a bloody retreat.
For SoN, these two battles show a distinct difference in the function of what we might call “game architecture.” A battle like Lützen can be recreated in the game by a combination of the inherent fog of war (flipped and/or dummy counters), coupled with use of the “Sound of the Guns” optional rule. If we imagine Ney’s command marker in its initial Lützen position, the other corps commanders, and the emperor himself, will be in the vicinity, but at varying distances from the initial clash – which will be between Wittgenstein’s main body and Ney’s substantial command. To march effectively “to the guns,” a die roll is modified by commander initiative and distance to the battle to see who turns up…and when. The only odd thing about this is that it is an optional rule, but frankly, the game will hardly seem right without it. Thus, at Lützen, in game terms, Wittgenstein will see his initial advantage worn away as successive French corps either bolster Ney directly or fold around the allied position. Wittgenstein then retreats, and the French, frustrated by their want of cavalry, more or less have to let them go.
Bautzen is a different matter: here the story of such a battle is really what you care to imagine about successive die roll results pertaining to forces already in place – the scale of the hexes and the length of a turn more or less have everything contained within themselves. Thus, the success, partial success, or failure of plans is a matter of good rolls, indifferent rolls, or disastrous accidents. What helps give this process flavour is that the rolls pertain to different battle events or aspects, and in that regard, it really does matter having the better army commander, the more abundant artillery, and cavalry whose horses were not pulling trade carts but a little while earlier.
Before proceeding to the armistice that followed the armies’ coming to a halt in the eastern reaches of Silesia, it would be best to look at how the game handles the possession of key geographical points, and especially in the context of this phase of the campaign, Dresden and Berlin. Some of the work is actually done by what is on the map – Dresden is a major road hub on the banks of the Elbe, is designated as a fortress, and will act as a supply source for the French once it is in their possession. In other words, before you have got that far into any special rules or provisions, the map, and especially the Dresden location, is acting to influence anything that comes into its ambit.
But both Dresden and Berlin also work to other effects. One way to picture these is as inviting carpet ends that can be tugged from out under the feet of whatever or whoever is presently situated on them. If the French lose Dresden, beyond a straightforward morale hit, there is the supply loss, the loss of those river crossings and the interruption of communications. And there is also the departure of the Saxon forces from the game – forces that only become active of the French side after Dresden is in Napoleon’s hands. Thus, Dresden is a major asset for the French, but with so much game engineering built around it, it not only anchors the French campaign effort, but also effectively tethers it to an increasingly short leash. I am getting a little ahead of myself here, but when Austria enters the war after the armistice, the city can become threatened on several fronts, for the roads that lead out of it, also, rather obviously, lead straight into it, and potentially the allied armies will be able to bring massive force to bear on a location the French will be very reluctant to let go of.
The capture of Berlin by the French can certainly jar the Prussian war effort as such an event will lead to a reduction of Prussian replacements – they will be halved. There are also morale effects that can seem attractive to the French player, but the real issue is just how much material effort the French might have to put into any advance towards the city. Historically, Napoleon entrusted efforts to capture Berlin to a number of subordinate generals, who all failed and thus caused more problems for the overall campaign than had they been with the main body or left watching the line of the Elbe.
As for the armistice that, historically, ran through much of the summer period, historians have long pondered whether Napoleon was right, or really had no other option, than to agree to a temporary cessation of hostilities. Through the earlier campaigning period, the prospect of such an interval had been suggested and pursued by both sides, so there is no ready determination as to which faction, at the time, saw itself as being in the more parlous condition and the more likely to benefit from a break in hostilities. Still neutral Austria was definitely instrumental in the armistice that actually came about, with Metternich (“the sinuous Metternich” as Chandler puts it), pulling most of the levers. From the allied perspective, the pause certainly gave them time to rebuild their strength after being harried through much of eastern Germany, and without doubt, the Austrians were able to continue with their own mobilization whilst wearing something like a mask of conciliation. For Napoleon, there were, within the contexts of the campaign thus far, probably as many, if not more, good reasons to put the fighting on hold as the allies had. But, within its own unfolding story, so had Lee’s army towards the end of the first day of battle at Gettysburg, and few doubt today that the Confederates’ best chance of winning that field was lost with the failure to press on towards Cemetery Hill.
Napoleon might well have thought that the advantages of an armistice outweighed the problems it would bring with it. First, he could augment his own forces, both with reinforcements and a chance to hone the skills of the thousands of conscripts in his ranks. Beyond that, he certainly considered himself to have a number of cards in play on the diplomatic front – which he did, although he played them rather badly. The emperor probably overvalued the influence he had with Austria by dint of his marriage to Francis’ daughter, Marie Louise. In addition to that, whatever the political differences between the actual and potential members of the European coalition ranged against him, they were united by the bitter experience of defeat, pillage and imposition that had been the story of much of Napoleon’s forays across the continent. And then there was the fact that the British were bankrolling so much of the anti-Bonaparte effort, to the extent that muskets and uniforms and hard cash were being provided to anyone ready to carry the fight to the French.
It was nevertheless a situation where a skillful diplomatist could have played a shrewd game to French advantage, but, as I said earlier, Napoleon was to be let down by his temper as well as by the mendacity of those playing their own “win both ways” game back in Paris – such as Fouché and Tallyrand, who were pursuing their own agendas that had little to do with the security of Napoleon’s reign. Nevertheless, terms were on the table, and Napoleon did acknowledge a need to compromise; but the pride of one whose armies had repeatedly trounced those of the coalition powers set against him was something the emperor could not put aside. Instead, he made that series of crude attempts to split the continental members of the coalition, presenting Russia as an uncouth quasi Asiatic power about to enter the European heartland, and coupling this with disdain for anyone ready to take England’s blood money
Can one say anything in defence of the emperor? If I venture to a personal opinion, although Napoleon, in the past, had enjoyed something like genuine cordiality with the likes of Tsar Alexander, he was nevertheless a product of both France’s own revolutionary chapter and his own social/political inclination that meant he was always likely to be on a short fuse with those who owed their position entirely to unearned social privilege. Yes, he did make some of his closest blood relations kings or this or that country, but Napoleonic ego aside, that could be seen as part of his own political strategy to build alliances and pacts that he could rely on. Ironically, (and I know this is highly speculative) the one country he just might have found an understanding with, or more likely, undermined to the point it lost its motive power to foment war was Britain. Napoleon in attempting this via his bar on trade with Britain (the Continental System), could be seen as having employed “the big battalions” way of breaking Britain’s will to fight. That had not worked to any appreciable extent, but there were other approaches he might have tried. Napoleon was not without admirers in Britain, including high-ranking political figures and out-and-out radicals such as the poet, Byron. In addition to which, the British army had at least some in the lower ranks who regarded the whole effort against Napoleon as of no advantage whatsoever to themselves or their families. Tim Clayton in his recent book on Waterloo cites a number of examples of articulate soldiers in the non-commissioned tiers who resented having to fight for the establishment’s agendas, including replacing Napoleon with the grotesquely obese and utterly useless Louis XVIII.
In Britain, the years immediately after Waterloo, and extending right into the reign of Victoria, were filled with riot and social discord – frustration over the want of political representation, the Corn Laws, and a host of other issues led to infamous clashes such as the Peterloo massacre and the stoning of Wellington’s London home. These matters hardly sprung out of nowhere post-1815, for one only has to look a little beyond the all-too visible hoo-hah after Waterloo to see a level of despondency that might well surprise some readers – and none was more bitter than Byron, who was to give vent to rather more than his own despair in his work The Age of Bronze. In short, there may well have been other ways of digging at the coalition’s foundations than imposing an embargo on trade with Perfidious Albion, but Napoleon made very little of whatever leverage he may have had that way.
All of this, unsurprisingly, goes beyond what was put in a wargame from 1981. In SoN the armistice will occur sooner or later, and when it does, it is merely a break between rounds of battle and manoeuvre. The game shapes the armistice purely as a period of recuperation, replenishment and reinforcement. Both sides have the opportunity to improve their logistics (gathering administration points and possibly shifting the centre of operations), as well as taking in more manpower and redeploying forces within the limits of territory currently in their possession. The most significant factor, however, is almost certainly going to be the arrival of the Austrians – which is a fixed event. This goes beyond simply adding a lot more manpower to the coalition forces; it opens up an entirely new front of considerable length.
It was generally agreed that wherever Napoleon was not would be the front(s) upon which to exert pressure, whilst wherever the emperor stood, that would be the front to avoid serious entanglements on.
If you look at the maps of the campaign as was (those found in Esposito and Elting’s Military History and Atlas of the Napoleonic Wars), you will see that the immediate post-armistice situation had the French armies extended over a seriously unhealthy length of front – three fronts to be more precise, these being the Berlin/Elbe area, the front against Blucher’s forces in Silesia, and the new front facing the Austrians in Bohemia. This was really one front more than the French could cope with, especially as wherever Napoleon was, or was in the process of travelling to, at least one other front was usually floundering. Precious few of Napoleon’s marshals distinguished themselves at this point in their careers – the Berlin front fell from opportunity to failure and then to crisis; Vandamme (admittedly not a marshal), was to fail in the brief foray into Bohemia; and Blücher was at least able to maintain a bothersome pressure on the eastern limit of French territory.
In the game, the French player must be aware as to how the Austrian involvement will change things. Depending on how the game has progressed thus far, the player cannot afford the luxury of an overextended position, and the Austrians thus given an open invitation to get across poorly warded French lines of communication. Historically, Napoleon looked to keep the allies separated and deliver a decisive blow at one point or another – but with a series of widely separated fronts each hitting a crisis as sheer weight of numbers began to tell, delivering decisive blows was only a small step away from simply trying to keep everything propped up. For the allies, one product of the armistice beyond simply an increase in numbers was a change in overall strategy. It was generally agreed that wherever Napoleon was not would be the front(s) upon which to exert pressure, whilst wherever the emperor stood, that would be the front to avoid serious entanglements on.
Of course, that was sometimes easier said than done. At Dresden at the end of August 1813, Schwarzenberg’s army shaped for battle, only for the senior command to hesitate once it was confirmed that Napoleon and the “bearskins” were in attendance. To be present, Napoleon and the Guard, along with other formations, had forced the pace to reinforce the positions being held by St. Cyr. In the game, if anything like a widespread three front situation presents itself, the allied player should welcome Napoleon and any central command of corps hastening to reinforce this or that position – march attrition will probably follow, and French logistics will be put under further strain.
Thus, just how the French decide to sort themselves out during the armistice period is of key importance. In all probability the fog of war will increase during this period, so the player needs to be certain of real threats before committing, and it is a necessity to watch the march distances to any point that may come under threat or may need to be moved to for whatever other contingency. This design model is harsh on any form of unplanned or “mad” dashing about, and you do not want your forces worn to a frazzle prior to battle.
Two things were largely responsible for the crises that hit the emperor’s forces as the campaign moved into the autumn period. First, the allied commanders performed better than Napoleon’s subordinates on those fronts where the emperor had no choice but to leave them to their own devices; second, as would be also be the case in the 1814 and 1815 campaigns, there were just too many enemy soldiers to fight. After the failure of French efforts to take Berlin, the French sought to defend the left bank of the Elbe in the area roughly west and southwest of the Prussian capital; but by then the Austrians were compromising the entire Elbe line by an advance out of western Bohemia and thus west of the same river. Leaving a garrison force in Dresden, Napoleon shifted the gravity of his forces towards Leipzig as the various fronts began to contract about him. Again, Elting and Esposito’s maps show the situation to telling effect, with the emperor’s forces perilously close to being encircled.
The massive battle of Leipzig, the “Battle of the Nations,” lasted for three days and ended, perhaps predictably, in a constricted and ruinous retreat for the French through the city and over an entirely inadequate bridge – a bridge, furthermore, prematurely destroyed by the dolt of a soldier inexplicably given charge of the decision as to when to light the fuses. Why Napoleon ever thought to offer battle at Leipzig in the first place can only be explained by his gambling nature coupled with the belief that he may just have had time to wreck one portion of the arriving allied contingents before the balance of their forces appeared on the field. If we relate what then happened in game terms, Napoleon simply did not roll well enough on his preferred front to sway the battle, and the other allied contingents were simply too close and, hearing the sound of the guns, arrived too early for any further chances to appear.
Of course, such was the scale of Leipzig, with the battle extending over a curving front of many miles, that one opposed pairing of die rolls, and that over several rounds, will not suffice to cover the battle’s outcome. In all likelihood, the battle, or anything of its like, will be resolved as a series of engagements between discrete sets of forces, with an uneven set of results being aggregated out to present the full picture. The historical event certainly witnessed as calamitous a river crossing for the French as had been that dreadful crossing of the Berezina still less than a year earlier.
What then ensued, in terms of the French retreat to their borders and beyond, goes beyond the limits of the game – in fact, we are approaching the period of Napoleon at Bay. Not a few military historians have regarded the 1814 campaign as Napoleon’s finest, even though it eventually ended in his abdication, and if I presume to concur with that opinion, it is partly because I have come to see Napoleon and his operational “method” as working far better when his available forces were of a more limited size. That sort of scale infers more ability to control things in person over smaller frontages, and less opportunity for lackluster subordinates to muck things up. That was how it had been in Italy in the early years of his generalship, and even at Ulm, Austerlitz, Jena, and even his own involvement in Spain, where the forces he commanded were far larger than in Italy, but were still only a fraction of what he would deploy against Austria in 1809, against Russia in 1812, and in Germany in 1813.
The Struggle of Nations in Wargame History
In 1981 this was a massively ambitious project, and would be today if anything of the like, in terms of detail and scope, were attempted. The Jours de Gloire Series game, Allemagne 1813, certainly has much of the scope, but works to a lower level of complexity and detail. Kevin returned to this subject decades later with Napoleon at the Crossroads, a design which covers the post-armistice campaign, and involved a further “tweak” and evolution of the system first seen in the late 1970s. One obvious difference between his two 1813 campaign designs is that the ratings of some of the leaders were altered – usually, as far as I can tell, for the worse. That is not to say, at least as far as I am aware, that the ratings in SoN were wrong; rather, by the time in the campaign when we reach the specific focus of Napoleon at the Crossroads, commanders had failed or fallen short, had had bad battles and false frights, and thus what they might have been had given way to what they had actually proved to be – and it is also important to note that a small number of leaders in SoN change in some values as the campaign moves from spring to autumn.
In a game like this, where just about anyone who commanded a corps of infantry or cavalry has a living game presence, how those leaders are presented in game terms is obviously important. Leaders in SoN, as other games of the same basic design model, are represented in a minimum of three, and sometimes four, ratings. Three of these are numerical, and portray the leader’s initiative (a bigger or smaller die roll range to get them moving without an order “from above”), the capacity to command other units and/or leaders, and a subordination value which relates to how much numerical effort one leader will require to command whoever and whatever is put on his track. Finally, and not represented by a number but by a relevant symbol, is a battle modifier – rare in that only Napoleon and one or two of his marshals possess it, along with the likes of Blücher on the coalition side of things.
From some perfectly valid perspectives, this all makes absolute sense, and it does work with the overall game model. But there are a few things about this system that I have never felt entirely comfortable with. To begin with, the way the system works, Napoleon can subordinate himself to any leader who has a big enough span to accommodate him. What this is supposed to convey in actual historical terms has tended to elude me, as I cannot envisage the Bonaparte who was seriously running short of marshals he thought he could trust (even partially) by 1813, being ready to hitch a ride with any of them. The other aspect of this numerical presentation I do feel somewhat uneasy about is providing a strict limit on how much manpower or personality you can put the way of military mediocrity. In the game, as in the system as a whole, better commanders can command more men and fellow bigwigs; the problem is, it makes the calculation of command stray too far into a number-crunching exercise as players seek to ensure that every gold-braided fellow on the board is at their optimum loading.
The problem is, this does not strike me as Napoleonic era thinking. When The General edition specifically covering SoN appeared all those years ago, amongst its analysis was a set of directions telling players which leader should get what on the leadership/organization tracks to ensure everything in that regard was optimized. In short, you were meant to begin with some military version of swapsies. I fear I switched off at that point – it was not what I was interested in reading. For me, whether it was Napoleon you were playing, or Wittgenstein, Bennigsen, Blücher or Schwarzenberg, the issue was not “how much can I pack into this or that leader, but can I trust them with whatever I put their way.”
Despite such quibbles over certain points in how this model has been put together, for me, where the model shines is in presenting the life of an army of the period
The SoN type of system obviously has its own logic to adhere to, and principally here, it is about not giving Marshal von Huffenpuff far more force than his rank and prowess ever entitled him to historically. But it is a debatable point, given that fifty years later, command of the mortally wounded Jackson’s II corps fell on a straightforward cavalryman by name of Jeb Stuart. What I am really driving at, is maybe, just maybe, a different sort of rating could have been used here. Instead of saying x amount of units and no more, during the planning of this article I found myself wondering about a simple letter rating to denote a leader’s ability to handle a small, medium, or large force. Give a substantial force to a leader whose rating in that regard is a bit iffy, and there is a fair chance (but not an absolute certainty) that things will go awry – a die roll to ascertain if there is more march attrition, next to no initiative, or an adverse combat modifier, being obvious examples of when a supreme commander’s trust degenerates on the game board into wishful thinking.
Despite such quibbles over certain points in how this model has been put together, for me, where the model shines is in presenting the life of an army of the period, and takes us into regions filled with more than simply pushing a number of stacks towards a certain location, lining them up, and fighting a battle. And beyond such matters as I have already presented, it also includes particular accents in the overall narrative such as stressing the absolute necessity of having a bridge train, and how possession or destruction of bridges over major rivers really does bear down on the course of operations. In a vast number of Napoleonic games, or indeed anything from an era of warfare that is remotely comparable to it, it is rather rare to get any feel of the massive supply trains, the equipage of any sizeable force on the move – including not only the obvious material, such as cartridges, artillery rounds and the like, but also some sense of the depots en route, and even the mass of livestock following in the army’s wake. Not all of this, by any means, is overtly present in the model, but it is strongly intimated, given how very important the centre of operations is to keeping an army moving and fighting. Where you tend to find the military detail in this design always tends to be with the administration side of things – I have cited several examples already, but to offer just one more before moving on, the distance between an army’s centre of operations and its supply source is not only important to all forces in terms of how they can function, the amount of “elastic” in the connection also varies from army to army. What this means is that the ability of armies to maintain efficiency over distances varies from one army to the next. In this context, it is no surprise that the Army of Silesia (Blücher’s force) has some advantage with those vital administration points than others in the coalition, given that much of its strength will be fighting on home ground.
On the other hand, some other army characteristics are not so deftly portrayed. Napoleon may have had divisions full of the Marie Louise class, who were entirely unused to the pace the emperor was wont to move his armies at, and also struggled at times with all but the most basic battlefield drill; but then Blücher, home territory or no, was commanding forces that Prussia had had but little time to mobilize and get into the field. Uniforms were often a bizarre mismatch of this and that, and even basic weaponry was in short supply. The game does have some provision for this, which is again in one of the brace of optional rules. The game’s scenario book lists what might be called the predominating quality of every infantry formation in the game – from the more experienced troops through to conscripts, Landwehr, and various other types. Quality helps determine how well troops can withstand attritional determination – the problem is, the system for this added extra is rather fiddly (more die rolling and a bit of mental arithmetic for each force on the move), and the description of this or that division in terms of what it contains is often more colourful than helpful. Some divisions, for example, are described as containing both more hardened troops as well as lesser quality types – but the proportions are not given and so I have always assumed that these divisions are susceptible to attrition at the standard rate. One French division is described as consisting of “cowards and deserters,” which is fine for some colour, but is not a term relating to anything you can roll a die for in the game. One might safely assume that this division is particularly likely to melt away, but it would be nice to have it properly accommodated within the game’s definitions.
And this is where SoN does start to trip over itself. The basic system has a lot of the right stuff, but it is often surrounded, and frequently encumbered, by areas that are bereft of precision. More than thirty years ago, I had trouble trying to work out what precisely constituted a “force” at any given function point in a game turn…and all these years later, I still do. But it is not something to tie yourself up in knots about, for if your have a fair level of wargaming commonsense, nothing you decide to do is likely to be terribly wrong.
not every last piece of criticism I have heard about this particular design, or indeed the series it belongs to, is something I can wholly concur with
Then again, I suspect that unless you are a Napoleonic enthusiast who knows a few other Napoleonic enthusiasts, you will never set up this kind of design in the first place. And if you are such an enthusiast, with a decent knowledge of the function of armies in the period, and possessing at least some familiarity with the 1813 campaign, the game should work well enough. But it is one of those designs that can overwhelm with the sheer amount of detail – frankly, the organizational charts are a bewildering array of numbers, army assignments, more army assignments, and a veritable gallery of period portraits of just about anyone who commanded anything. And that is simply another problem, for in seeking to create what is, at least in some ways, an arty sort of game look, far too much paper got used up portraying the totally superfluous, as a result of which, the game is too big, one might say almost too bloated in places, for its own good.
But, at least for me, not every last piece of criticism I have heard about this particular design, or indeed the series it belongs to, is something I can wholly concur with. As I write this, one of our community is playing the Avalon Hill version of Napoleon at Bay on YouTube; among his observations thus far is a sense of unease that this family of titles never makes it clear what you should be doing in order to progress your cause. For me, however, this is not a fault; rather, it is part of the attraction. Sometimes wargames can spoil us by indulging our desire for complete conquests through indicating that you wipe out x amount of enemies and/or capture this point or that in order to gain your victory. But when Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812, the only campaign from that long war of comparable size to events in Germany the following year, it was not with any absolute idea that destroying x amount of anything would bring matters to an end. He initially aimed to destroy the main Russian armies close to the border, but when they got away from him, the subsequent game of chase eventually put him into a mindset that capturing Moscow might compel the Tsar to come to terms – only that did not work either.
It is a simple fact of military life that no campaign ever really begins with an absolutely clear and totally fixed set of objectives that will spell victory if taken. At least a couple of Lee’s campaigns can look like periods of wandering around waiting for something to happen, and there is nothing wrong with a bit of “wait and see” if you are ready to move once you are certain your enemy has made the first crucial mistake. Thus, as far as I am concerned, the model does tell you what to do, which is basically “do not get too fixed on anything.” Napoleon got rather fixed on taking Berlin in 1813, and that did him no favours at all, as did actually taking Moscow a few months earlier. But more than this, winning in this system is usually about fatally disrupting the foe’s ability to fight…and then fighting. You aim to cut communications, choke the road network, degrade the opponent’s options, make him do the long marches to no good effect, “bewilder” him in the Stonewall Jackson style, and then deliver your main battle. That, of course, is not the same as saying: “march here” or “fight there,” but it is about taking the life out of an enemy army fixed in an environment of horses, muck and mud.
And yet, look on BGG and you see the game presented there with what can only be described as a subpar rating. Whatever I see and enjoy in the design in terms of its fundamental concept, there can be no getting away from the fact that SoN is procedurally and physically flawed. The game belongs to one of those series that never quite settled down – reading the rules to one would give you some intimation as to what to expect in others, but certainly not everything. And too many people have had issues with the rules for SoN for me to gainsay such opinion. The giveaway in that regard is the lengthy and odd Q&A section at the back of the rules – page after page of it. It is hard to get away from the sentiment that what is presented there, obvious questions answered in what is more direct language, and that in addition to the straightforward errata also included in the same section, was all matter that should have been included in a clearer body of rules. As it is, it is all included at the back – and by the time you reach that part, your head may well be spinning somewhat.
But more than defects in the rules, for me the main issue was in the game’s components. Minute hexes and leader counters with stray bits of column arrow on their reverse side were not going to up the visual appeal of the game for anyone – and of course, the micro hex came and went with this game, and was then consigned to the locked draw of bad ideas. And yet far worse was Avalon Hill’s way with mapboards of the era – those ones with the yellow backs that would not, and still do not lie flat, and which have a propensity for falling to pieces after a modest amount of use. I must admit that the physical quality of a number of Avalon Hill games I bought in the first half of the 1980s was not all it could have been – quite apart from uneven boards that fell to pieces, I also recall from personal experience “glossy” counters that rubbed and faded at an alarming rate (e.g. “Storm Over Arnhem”), counters with wonky die cuts, and over inked and blotted rulebooks (my copy of the company’s version of Trireme being a case in point).
Overall, my enduring passion for Napoleonic history meant that I had to have this game, because, even with all its flaws, it is still a remarkable piece of work by a designer who has devoted so many years to creating an incredible library of titles depicting the emperor’s battles and campaigns. And whatever I or others might think of pages in the scenario book filled with the writings of Tolstoy and reflections on the culture of the Elbe region, I can appreciate the efforts of a designer trying something different by way of rounding-off his work and giving it a context. There was even a discography included of a number of Bach’s works (1981, so no CDs!), and a laudable dedication “to peace.” And following that example, I will conclude this article with a musical reference (and indulgence) of my own, recalling two British composers (one little known and the other almost entirely lost) whose brilliant compositions just touch upon the era of Dresden and Leipzig…and Waterloo – William Sterndale Bennett and Cipriani Potter. After the real or the imagined sound of cannon, I can think of nothing better, nothing more apt, to listen to.
The Campaigns of Napoleon by David Chandler
For fifty years, students of military history have regarded this book as an absolute must. Here and there, more recent accounts do offer a fresh and perhaps more valid interpretation of events, but this is still a work of real authority. The section on the 1813 is substantial, and remains one of the best “shorter” narratives of the entire campaign.
Napoleon the Great by Andrew Roberts
This much more recent work can almost be seen as a companion to Chandler’s study. However, although the martial career of Napoleon is given due weight, first and foremost this is a book, and a very substantial one, of Napoleon as a personality, a politician, a reformer, and, at least in some ways, a revolutionary.
A great read.
A Military History and Atlas of the Napoleonic Wars by Brigadier General Vincent Esposito and Colonel John Elting
Another absolute essential, with the abundant, detailed, and high quality maps accompanied by an informative commentary on every campaign where Napoleon led an army.
Other Books Worthy of Consideration:
Imperial Sunset by R F Delderfield
Covers the 1813 and 1814 campaigns.
Napoleon And The Struggle For Germany by Michael V Leggiere
A detailed two volume study of the 1813 campaign.
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About the Author
Paul has been involved in the hobby since the early 1970s. Of largely Belgian ancestry on his father’s side, and English (Yorkshire) on his mother’s, after finishing his education he worked in tourism and student services, and also spent some time in the former West Germany. He met his wife Boo in 1990, and they married a couple of years later.
Paul hails from a long line of former servicemen – one grandfather was a sergeant in the BEF of 1914, whilst two of his great grandfathers were killed serving with the Royal Navy. His own father, who was born in Britain, served with the army in Malaya in the early 1950s.