Friday, 24 January 2014

Not a Batrep! - Champaubert 200th at the Uni

I have been following my ambition of replaying at least some of the major actions of the Napoleonic wars over the period of their 200th anniversaries, to get some perspective of how the various battles would have seemed to stretch out over time to contemporaries. For example, I vividly remember playing a massive Borodino game back in 2012, and it seems not too long ago...So its seems incredible that since that time, 200 years ago, Napoleon has already lost and raised two entire armies!
Victrix French Infantry and Perry Dragoons - I wish I could create armies as quickly as Napoleon!
 Now my mate Alan has already posted a great Batrep about this game: 
which gives a great account of the wargaming action, and, incidentally, shows some great photos taken with a camera literally 1/10th the size of mine. Then again he's a (semi) professional photographer you know:

From Alan's blog - Champaubert from the SW
So this is not another Batrep! I shall confine my post to a little about the history of the actual battle, and some of the scenario wrinkles we used to stage it, and what we might do to improve the scenario, just in case you decide to recreate Champaubert 1814. As I hope to explain, if you can only do one battle of the amazing 1814 campaign, for my money this is the one to do...

Some potted history:

Map from Napoleon 1er Atlas Napoleon magazine - Jacques Garnier
Champaubert, 10th Feb 1814, was not  actually the opening battle of the campaign. Brienne was a French victory  on the 29th January 1814, then on the 1st of February the Allies successfully attacked at La Rothiere. But Champaubert was in many respects the key to the amazing series of stunning victories that Napoleon then fought, winning five battles in nine days!

Champaubert, the first of these, placed him squarely in the centre of the allied positions and enabled him to do what he had always done best, manoeuvre from a central position to defeat his massed enemies in detail...

But that's not the only reason to pick Champaubert as the easiest battle to recreate from targuably Napoleon's best campaign. Its also a very manageable battle in terms of troop numbers. The Russians, under General Olsouviev, numbered only 4,000 men, and 24 guns, but had no cavalry.

Numbers for the French vary according to source. Loraine Petre, whose 'Napoleon at Bay 1814; remains to my mind the best English source for this campaign, speaks of Marmont and Ney's Corps, as well as the Guard Cavalry (p.59 of the 1977 Arms and Armour ed.) Chandler gives Olsouviev 5,000, and the French approx. 24,000. (Campaigns, p.970) Suffice it to say the Russians were severely outnumbered.

Precious French Cav. and Dragoons
Its also a good pick, if, like most wargamers I know, myself included, you have stacks of lovely French and Polish cav, but precious little Russian or Allied cav. Obviously you don't
need any Russian cavalry for this battle, not even the usual light sprinkling of Cossacks...But its a great excuse to dust off those beaut French Imperial Guard horsemen, including all the various exotic types Napoleon dreamt up for this campaign, the Gardes d'Honneur, Eclaireurs, etc.

Perry Gardes d'Honneur, painted by Mabuhay Military Painting Services
So how did such a mis-matched battle come to be fought? Well Olsouviev was smarting from being reprimanded for his inactivity earlier in the campaign, so was spoiling for a fight. He had interpreted some rather vague staffwork from Blucher to mean that the latter would march to his support at the key Champaubert crossroads, to reach him by noon. So he initially decided to make a stand....

However, as Ney's Corps hove into view to the South, coming on strong, our gallant General Olsouviev paused for thought...Surely a tactical withdrawal East on Blucher might be a wise precaution? Or would he get slated for timidity again? By the time he had made up his mind and the Russian staff work for a withdrawal was complete, to his horror, he saw the Eastern horizon full of troops - and they weren't Prussians - it was the French Guard Cavalry and Marmont's Corps...

Champaubert viewed from the West - retreat back to Blucher seems blocked?

Oh Bugger! Needless to say our good general and his command all went into the bag, and allowed Napoleon to position himself at the crossroads right at the heart of the Allied centre of gravity, from whence he wrought alarm and despondency in the allied camp...

Turning history into a workable scenario:

If the usual constraints for designing a scenario are space, time and figure resources I was really only under the pump for one of these - I wanted to play the game out at the Uni in the space of one evening. Between us we have stacks of lovely Russian and French 28mm figures,

and there is no practical limit to the size of the table we can set up at the Uni other than the length of our arms...

Champaubert from the SE - Ney's Corps coming on nearest the camera, Marmont in the distance...
But even with the fast play qualities of Black Powder, we needed to limit the size of the game, whilst reflecting the overall relative force ratios. I decided to settle on 2 Russian Infantry Brigades and 4 French Infantry Brigades, and represent the French Cav with 2 Bdes. Olsouviev's 24 guns were translated into 3 batteries, with the French having 5, including 2 x 12 Pounder batteries.

It was clear that the Russian player was in for a torrid time if his roles was merely to surrender! So the victory conditions were set that he had to break out with half his force intact. I may or may not have specified that he should escape down either of the roads to the North or West, rather than across country....

I also dreamt up another factor, in no way influenced by what I had read of the battle. In 1814 French horseflesh was a rare and precious commodity, after leaving so much of it dead in Russia in 1812 and Germany in 1813. Whilst trained troopers were in abundance at this battle, to give the Russian player a break, I imposed some limitations on the French cavalry commander, Alan. Unbeknownst to the Russian player, Bryan, and not as reflected on the circulated stat sheet, for this game all French Cavalry would have their stamina reduced from 3 to 2. Alan was told that the Emperor had decided that the cavalry was to precious to waste at this early stage of the campaign, so he was to use it wisely to bluff the Russians into square, rather than 'charging at everything' in the usual Alan styley...

Speaking of squares, in Black Powder, a square can only move 6 inches towards the rear, and cannot repeat the move no matter how well the player rolls his command dice. For the purposes of this game, we waived that rule. We also changed our default Russian Brigadier Command Value from 7 to 8, but naturally removed the corresponding '1 move on failed order' attribute.

How to improve the scenario:

As you may have read from Alan's excellent batrep linked above, in our game Bryan as the
Russian player gave a virtuoso demonstration of an orderly retirement, sacrificing only his guns and two battalions to march off the rest of his army. In some aspects he was helped by an unusual degree of poor French Command rolling, including at least one blunder!
Nevertheless, I think giving the Russians the improved command value of 8 was a mistake. I would also perhaps set the town and Russian initial dispositions further away from their escape routes, and make it crystal clear that they have to travel down the roads in order to get their baggage and loot away...

I think the trick with surreptiously reducing the French Cavalry's Stamina worked well however, although of course toward the game's end Alan just could not resist launching a charge 'a l'outrance' - but did he have to choose an artillery battery as his target?

So there it is - an enjoyable game and one that should be fairly easy to lay on if you fancy a token 1814 battle to recreate this fascinating campaign.

Alan checking my waffle against the actual rules - with good reason as it turns out!
I would like to finish this non-batrep (so really just a ramble then!)by thanking my long suffering and good natured comrades in this endeavour to continue my pet project of commemorating the 200th of Napoleonic battles: Bryan in the demanding and perhaps intimidating role of being the only Russian player, Caesar as Marmont and overall French commander, Alan as the French Cavalry commander. (I took on Ney's role, with considerable less drive and aplomb!)


  1. "make it crystal clear that they have to travel down the roads in order to get their baggage and loot away.."

    Some elements of unwieldy zero-combat value baggage could be in order for a scenario like this, forcing the retreating player to cover its withdrawal and/or protect it.

    Loved reading your design notes - it's always useful to see the thought processes behind a scenario, the design of which is always a compromise which never survives contact with actual players :)

    1. Thanks Kaptain - after your succinct report I wondered whether to bother, but thought some folk might be interested in the scenario thinking, such as it is, that led to the game.

      Love the idea of 'unwieldy baggage'! Its a great excuse to pick up some of the rather exotic carriage and waggonage being produced by the likes of the Perrys and Westfalia miniatures...hmm...

  2. Great pics and great post! We'll refight this battle this year, so thanks for sharing this experience...You've done a fantastic work with the photos, really nice!

  3. Great photos of an interesting battle!

  4. Great pics indeed ! this is real eyecandy. thank you.
    interesting battle also.
    i have seen the batrep of Alan and asked him about the scenario used with it.
    he gave me this adress.
    so the question is: Is the Scenario available for third party´s ? Me in this case :-)

    1. Thanks Patrick! Well the only thing missing regarding the scenario from my post is the troop stats. Pass me your email address and I will gladly send these on!

  5. Thanks for you kind comments Phil and Cyrus, its all very encouraging!

  6. Excellent report and pictures thank you

  7. Such lovely pictures. That is Napoleonics gaming as I see it in my had, a mass of exotic and beautiful figures. Thanks for a short brief on a very interesting and obscure battle.