Saturday, 19 December 2015

Black Powder: The battle of Borodino

Last Sunday saw the climax of our 1812 campaign, as eight stalwart generals came together to "re-fight" the Battle of Borodino. As those of you who have followed this blog know, over the past eight months we have played all the major battles of the campaign in more or less chronological order. Borodino was of a whole different magnitude to our previous games and I counted that we had somewhere along the line of 5.500 - 6.000 miniatures on the table! This even tops our other big game of 2015 - the Battle of Waterloo.

6/8 of the fine gentlemen that partook in the game.

Objectives and Deployment

For months, our diligent commanders had been painting the miniatures required for this huge game. Even with the herculean efforts of certain individuals, replaying the entire battle so that every battalion was represented was a sheer impossibility. Instead, we chose to concentrate on the central sector of the battle, the span of ground between Bagration's fleches and Raevsky's redoubt, which is where most of the action happened. We followed the historical deployment, with the main catch being that the Russian guard reserve was held off-table and could be deployed later in the game to any threatened sector as the Russian CiC saw fit. The deployment and rough cropping of our gaming table can be seen in the map and pictures below.

As usual, we left the victory conditions generally vague. The French objective was to rout the Russian army and to penetrate the Russians' lines. Control of the Russian earthworks - Bagration's fleches to the south and Raevsky's redoubt to the north, was crucial. The Russians' objectives were to repulse the attack or, failing that, wear the attackers down and buy time for an ordered withdrawal.

Map copyrighted 2007 "Napoleon, His Army and Enemies". (

Battlefield as viewed from the west (French) side

French right - half of Davout's I Corps led by Davout himself

Bagration's II Army occupying the fleches opposing the French right

In front: half of Ney's III Corps holding the French centre-right. Behind: Murat's cavalry Corps held in reserve
Centre of Ney's III Corps holding the French centre

Ney's III Corps
The French Imperial Guard - held in reserve behind the French centre
French left - half of Davout's I Corps under GdD Morand

Russian jaegers deploy forward in order to waylay attacks on the French centre and left

Raievski's VII Corps holds the imposing redoubt facing the French centre-left

Early Morning: The Battle Commences

The battle begun at 6 am with the roar of hundreds of French cannon. This signal was followed by a general advance along the line. The French advanced rapidly on their right with the 5th Division of Davout's Corps. Their first objective was to throw back the skirmish screen thrown in front of the fleches, before they could attack the earthworks themselves.

The attack went in in textbook fashion and closed the distance to the Russian skirmishers relatively quickly. However, the Russian jaegers proved to be remarkably stubborn and refused to yield in front of the tightly packed French columns. This gave time for the well placed and abundant Russian batteries to bombard the French masses. Casualties began to mount and several French battalions were soon routed. Davout ordered in his reinforcements, but in the confusing smoke and aware of the terrifying carnage being meted to their brothers in arms, the Frenchmen moved forward sluggishly or misunderstood their orders altogether (blunders were made).

Bagrations men hold the fleches with strong artillery support

Davout's men charge the Russian skirmish screen

On the opposite (left) flank, across the Kolocha river, the French also moved out aggressively. Broussiere's 14th Division from Eugene IV Corps plus Grouchy's III Cavalry Corps began a rapid advance towards the small and weakly defended town of Borodino. This force's mission was to gain control of the town, counter any Russian flanking movement and if possible, use all means to tie down as much of Kaptzevich's VI Corps as possible so that they couldn't reinforce the centre.

As on the French right, Broussiere's attack advanced swiftly but then got bogged down. Way too many troops were crowded into the tightly packed village and the leading battalions attempted to cross the Kolocha along two narrow bridges defended by the Russians. These attacks got bogged down and soon a fire fight was raging across the river. Fortunately for the tightly packed and disorganized French, Kaptzevich's VI Corps was originally misaligned for this attack and its artillery was engaged elsewhere.

French light cavalry meets a hail of lead when attempting to secure the bridges over the Kolocha

Broussiere's French swamp Borodino in preparation for a crossing over the Kolocha

In the centre, the French also began their assault right on turn 1. However, unlike on the flanks, the attack in the centre was more measured. Ney had split his Corps in two and amassed most of his artillery into a grand battery in the centre. The battery began bombarding Raievski's brigades on the opposite hill, which were conveniently placed in attack columns. The bombardment started to have an immediate effect and after a few turns of concentrated fire a few Russian battalions had taken very heavy casualties. The Russian's return fire fared dismally. This was partly due to the skirmish screen thrown in front of Ney's Corps and partly thanks to consistently poor rolling on the Russian's part (bad gunpowder? badly placed guns?).

While the bombardment went on, Ney and the detachment from Davout's Corps on their left assaulted the skirmishers to their front. After a sharp fight, the Russian jaegers were routed. Ney continued the advance cautiously, pushing a skirmish screen to exchange fire with Raievski's infantry on the hill whilst regrouping the infantry that had partaken in the assault on the jaegers (rallying them to operational condition once again). The detachment led by GdD Morand advanced through the woods and engaged in a bitter fire fight with Raievski's infantry defending the redoubt and Kaptzevich's infantry on their left (which were as yet not properly tied down by the flanking operation from across the river). 

Ney's Corps, headed by the Württembergers, assaults the Russian jaegers

After eliminating the jaegers, Ney continues his advance under the cover of a screen of skirmishers

View of the central sector

Ney's skirmishers close with Raievski's battalions

GdD Morand's men clear the woods of Russian jaegers on the French left

Morand's detachment exchange fire with Kaptzevich's vanguard (note the batteries rolled to within point-blank range)

Late Morning: Assault on the Russian Earthworks Begins

Although the cost was high, Davout's Corps on the French right finally managed to clear the Russian skirmish line and launch an assault on the main position. Thing's didn't get any better, for not only had the French taken significant losses from the jaegers and artillery, their formations were now disjointed. The command structure failed yet again and some brigades failed to move whilst others assaulted the strong position without proper support. A few French battalions were thrown back with heavy losses. Others deployed in firing lines to exchange shots with the defenders. The attack was losing momentum and cohesion whilst the Russian artillery continued to pour its deadly fire. Things were not looking good.

Davout's Corps clears the jaeger screen and assaults the fleches

On the left, Broussiere's attack managed to gain a foothold on the opposite bank of the river. This was partly due to the Division's relentless assault and partly thanks to pressure exerted by GdD Morand's detachment on the opposite bank. With a combination of infantry and artillery firing close-range grapeshot, Morand managed to rout a brigade of Russians and push his forces right up to the base of the Raievski redoubt. 

Despite these French gains on the left, the situation on the flank remained confused. The bulk of Kaptzevich's Division were on the way to stem the tide of bluecoats and the Russians managed to throw together a second, more formidable line of defences along the crest of the next hill.

On the left, Broussiere gains a tenuous foothold on the opposite bank of the river

Morand's French advance  towards the great redoubt

In the centre, the French attack unfolded slowly but surely. Ney's Corps readied itself for an assault on the Russian's main position under the cover of their skirmish screens. French skirmishers and the massive artillery bombardment were taking a toll on Raievski's centre, which was beginning to look weak and ripe for an assault.

The cavalry of both Raievski and Ney began hedging forward. Raievski sent his cavalry to chase off Ney's skirmishers. Ney's Hussars, under the command of GdB Beurmann, were ordered to counter-attack but ignobly they retired instead (a blunder)! Fortunately, a brigade of Chasseurs à Cheval from Murat's reserve cavalry were on hand to drive off the Russians.  

Ney's skirmishers and artillery trade shots with Raievski's Corps while the French line infantry ready themselves for an assault

Cavalry mêlee in the French centre

Situation around turn 4-5 on the French left

Early Afternoon: Russian Reinforcements Are Committed 

At this point, Napoleon was most displeased with the way things were going on his right. Davout, his most trusted and competent marshal, had made a mess of things. To force the issue and give his beleaguered marshal time to regroup, Napoleon ordered Murat to charge Bagration's position. The charge was aimed at a weak point between the Corps of Borosdin and Raievski and met with some initial success. The Russians managed to form squares and although this lessened the fire raining down on Davout's infantry and allowed the French to move up their guns, the effects were far from remarkable.

As the cavalry assault went in, Davout brought forward more reinforcements and regrouped his brigades ready for the next assault. All the while, both parties were trading shots, which caused more casualties to the French than to the Russians. Crucially, Davout was not well placed to follow up on the success of the cavalry charge by charging the weak Russian squares.

Murat's cavalry charge Bagration's positions while Davout's infantry prepare for another assault

French cuirassiers on the go

On the left, the French pressed their advantage. More Frenchmen poured across the bridges and continued pushing at Kaptzevich's Corps. The Russians raced in more men from Kaptzevich's Corps as well as the first elements of the Russian guard's strategic reserve. With too many men and guns from both sides squeezing into a tiny area, casualties quickly started to mount. The situation remained confused and unresolved.

Morand's Swiss advance on the left of the great redoubt (the Swiss were not actually present at Borodino, but we needed the minis)

Confusion on the French left

Grouchy's cavalry start to cross the Kolocha

The main development in the battle at this point was the all-out French attack on Raievski's Corps holding the Russian centre. Morand launched the first co-ordinated assault on Raievski redoubt, managing to clear the lower level of infantry but getting pinned down by the Russian guns firing point blank. The Russians counter-attacked and the lower levels and ground around the redoubt changed hands several times in quick succession.

French assault the great redoubt, routing some of the defenders

Russians counter-attack against the great redoubt

Ney's charge to the right of the redoubt met initially with strong resistance. The Russians resisted more stubbornly than had been expected and the French attacks either bogged down or were thrown back. However, the Russians finally yielded after Ney threw in more troops. This was the segment of the Russian line that had suffered the worst of the grand battery's bombardment and now it was time to cash in on these efforts. The Russians simply ran out of steam and one by one their battalions routed.

A promising gap appeared in the Russian centre after several of Raievski's brigades routed in quick succession. However, Ney was unable to capitalize on this success since the Russians still had a great many guns on the hill and the retreating Russian battalions cluttered the way. By the time these had been cleared, Kutuzov had sent forth several fresh guard brigades from the central reserve. The way forward was barred once again.
Ney's centre assaults Raievski's positions next to the great redoubt

Further assaults by Ney's infantry (French centre-right) at Raievski's positions. The cavalry of both sides edges forward.

Württemberg infantry lead the way!

The hill is reinforced with a full division of Russian guardsmen before Ney has the chance to make a breakthrough

Ney attempted to widen the breach with a combined infantry - cavalry charge in the vicinity of the village of Semenovskaia on the French centre-right. The light cavalry division of Beurmann was once again ordered to attack but again the craven Hussars withdrew (another blunder)! This was beginning to feel like treason. Fortunately Murat's light cavalry once again stepped in. The combined arms attack succeeded in breaking another of Raievksi's brigades, though sufficient Russians remained to prevent a breakthrough.

Murats Chasseurs à Cheval charge Raievski's battalions

Beurmann's light cavalry division withdraws when ordered to attack. The cowards!

Late Afternoon: Final Assault

By late afternoon, the battle hung in the balance. The Russians had taken heavy losses in the centre and on the French left, yet hung grimly on. Raievski's Corps had been destroyed and Kaptzevich's Corps was about to be routed also. This had forced the Russians to commit all of their reserves to bolster their centre and right. The Russians were fortunate that the attack on their left by Davout on the fleches had been repelled, and that this had happened early enough that the Russians didn't have to worry about leaving reserves to assist this sector. Davout and Murat's cavalry made one last dash at capturing the fleches, but the attack had little hope of succeeding. Warily, Davout withdrew his men and although the fire fight on this flank continued until dusk, it was clear to all that the Russians had won on this flank.

Davout makes one last assault on the fleches

Davout is repelled and, after a prolonged fire fight, withdraws

The battle would be resolved in the centre and on the French left. On these flanks the Russians launched a counter-attack spearheaded by the 1st Cuirassier Division of the Russian Imperial Guard and 4th Cavalry Corps (Sievers). The cavalry was followed by the huge contingent (22 battalions) of Guard infantry led by GL Lavrov.

On the French left, the Russian Guard's attack stabilized the situation. The tightly packed and confused French ranks were vulnerable to the attack of the Russian cavalry and to the fire of the Guard artillery, which deployed on the crest of the hill. The French were repulsed and though they got their ranks back in order, the battle ended with the French facing a difficult to assault Russian position bristling with artillery.

French left around turn 8

Russian reserves stabilize the situation

Situation on the French left at the end of the game

In the centre, Ney's Corps renewed their offensive after a brief hiatus. First the Russian guns had to be eliminated or masked, after which the attack was held up by a Russian cavalry counter-attack. These were quickly repelled by the Württemberg infantry under his command and Beurmann's hussars, who finally chose to act. Ashamed of their previous blundering, the hussars atoned for this by defeating the Russian cavalry and even charging a Russian battery through a hail of grapeshot! Though these attacks cost the hussars dearly, they were enough to allow Ney's infantry to press on with the attack.

Ney's charge, headed by his trusty Württembergers, fared remarkably well. Two battalions of elite Russian Grenadier Guards were routed, and another brigade of Russian line infantry broke as well. However, the most important fight was that which took place around the great redoubt. Morand's infantry had managed to gain control of the redoubt but had been unable to push past this position when the Russian guard attacked them. After some brutal fighting, the Russians managed to wrest control of the redoubt once again! Although the French were well poised to retake the redoubt with an attack from three sides, this was simply too late. We decided to call it a game.

Ney's Corps has defeated Raievski's Corps and now prepares to assault the Russian Imperial Guard. The French Imperial Guard move forward to deliver the final blow.

Charge of the light brigade! Beurmann's hussars charge the Russian artillery and expunge the stain on their name.

Analysis and closing thoughts

After some deliberation, a great deal of nodding heads and the grumblings of a few gruff grognards, our gentleman gamers agreed that the battle had resulted in a minor tactical victory for the Russians. The French had almost penetrated the Russian centre and were well positioned to continue the fight here - especially since the French Imperial Guard had moved to within striking range of this crucial point. However, the French attacks on either flank had been checked and the fortifications (fleches and great redoubt) were in Russian control. The Russians had suffered significantly greater casualties than the French with almost two Corps destroyed, although the poor performance of Davout had gone some way to even the tally. To be fair, we should have played perhaps 4 more turns, but it was too late in the (real life) day for us to continue much further. All of the Russian reserves had been committed, so the position would probably have been better for the French had we continued a few more turns.

Once again, an awesome game of truly epic proportions.