A discursive look at Napoleonic & ECW wargaming, plus a load of old Hooptedoodle on this & that


Monday, 10 January 2011

Sapeurs and Baron Thiébault


A while ago, I was discussing with Clive a Minifigs S-Range Old Guard band which I've had, unpainted, for donkeys' years. Like any non-combat unit, the band have suffered from always being a secondary priority in the painting queue. If it is a choice between painting a fighting battalion or a soppy band, I will pick the fighters every time. Result? - 25 years later, they are still only partly painted. We joked that, to make the band more useful, and raise their ranking in the paint queue, it would be possible to introduce a new rule, such that all units within earshot would get bonuses for morale and so forth.

Now I come to think about it, and joking aside, that sort of thing has been going on in my wargames since I started. I once was out running in the Queen's Park, Edinburgh, when Her Majesty was in residence at Holyrood Palace, and a troop of the Royal Horse Guards were drawn up in line, in the park, in such a way that I had to run along behind the complete line of great, towering, black horses’ backsides to continue my jog. I was so impressed by the experience that when I got home I amended my rules for the effect of cavalry on infantry.

Recently I have added various siege-type units to my Peninsular armies, since I am working to develop rules for sieges. I have some small units of French sappers in full siege gear, with round helmets and cuirasses, and the siege rules will have to give these guys special skills and duties. I also recruited a bunch of French line infantry sapeurs (Falcata and Kennington), which are pleasing, and I have been gently looking for clues as to what such chaps might do, and how they might be organised.

I realise, for example, that your battalion sapeurs would be just the fellows for smashing down doors, or maybe corduroying rough roads, and they could, I guess, be provisionally grouped at brigade or division level for special duties. Looking at various historic OOBs, it is clear that each French division had units of pioneers - i.e. men from the engineering branch of the army - so I assume that if you wanted to construct a bridge or something these would be the people to do it. What role, then, did the regimental sapeurs have? I had a look at various rules, to see how engineering is addressed, and I found that it is pretty haphazard. Some rule writers have dismissed engineering as an aspect of warfare which is too slow and too tedious to take into account. Some - the old WRG and Big Battalions rules among them - have a fair amount of detailed stuff, but it all looks a bit like something borrowed from a scenario.

Interesting. Does anyone have any ideas about obvious, no-brainer duties which sapeurs could carry out on the battlefield? Are there any sets of rules which address this in a particularly coherent way?

As with the band, it would be silly to distort the game just to give my new unit a job to do, but it has made me realise that I have very little idea what they did. All clues welcome.


Completely separate subject. Just before Christmas I managed to obtain a good copy of the 2-volume Memoirs of Baron Thiébault, which, though I owned it in a former life, I never actually read. Officially, I am currently having an 1814 (Defence of France) period, and have the appropriate works by Petre, Houssaye and Uffindell lined up for study, along with the trusty (but very heavy) Elting & Esposito atlas. I had a quick squint at Thiébault, and the 1814 plans are now on hold as a result.

I am aware that the baron does not get a very good press, and I can see why. This is something a bit different. Thiébault was present at some important episodes of the Napoleonic Wars, so he is a major witness anyway, but his personality is unusual. He writes well, with a great eye for detail and excellent recall, even humour, but he is vain, permanently offended, always the victim of injustice, and always the hero of everything he describes. He never loses a witty exchange, his only fault, he believes, has always been excessive humility and honesty. He is, in short, a horror. If you want to know what a complete waste of space all the celebrity generals were, this is where to find your information. Soult, Darmagnac, Dorsenne, Solignac, you-name-it all got a roasting in last night's session. Dreadful people. D'Erlon, it seems, was not completely hopeless, but was ineffective unless Thiébault was around to support him. Anyway, it's been hugely entertaining. There are moments when I wish I had a time machine, to travel back to give him a resounding slap, but it’s a highly recommended read overall.

5 comments:

  1. Many of the tasks of regimental sappers are too mundane and low level to bother with in a game but their duties could include such things as fixing roads,mending bridges, making gates through hedges etc, usually off the battlefield but possibly on it. Of more immediate use, they would help to prepare a village (or walled farm) for defense, loopholing walls etc. They might also be used to break down gates of a waled farm etc when attacking such places. The problem is, whether you have painted some or not, every battalion had some so not really fair to just let those unit with 1 painted derive the benefits. (Not that war is fair)

    Bands biggest use seems to have been keep morale up on the march or in camp (or on the shelf) but I have read one or 2 accounts of shaky troops being cheered by the sound of a band playing, presumably somewhere towards the rear. In some armies though bandsmen doubled as stretcher bearers.

    -Ross

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  2. Thanks for that. Useful. At my normal (non-grand tactical) figure scale, a single sapper figure can represent the sappers of a complete division. If I adjust the numbers of sapper figures available in an action to suit the OOB, then they could be pooled off-table, and any specific sapper duties (yet to be defined) could require the deployment of a number of the figures (union rates?), which would place a limit on how much engineering can be done on the fly. I used to wargame with a guy who had grandiose schemes, such as entrenching/fortifying an entire river bank during a battle, and we never had rules to stop him suggesting it.

    I guess the band, when it is finished, will just be ceremonial, to entertain the troops in The Cupboard and to grace the occasional tabletop Champs de Mars audit photos. The sapeurs could be ceremonial, too, of course, but some of them are definitely chopping something.

    Tony

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  3. Sappers are a bit like drummers, damned useful in real life but very few rules actually give you a reason to paint 'em up, we just do.

    -Ross

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  4. Sapeurs were with the tete de column and so in at least one account I've read (if I could only remember which of the numerous books it was) a sapeur helped fight off an attack on an standard bearer with an eagle. I imagine such an axe that could split wood would be horrifying in close combat. A musketoon, although ineffective at long range, is essentially a shotgun up close. Too few in a unit for rules I would think, but I have several mixed in with my command stands.

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  5. Gary - thanks for comment. When I was adding mounted colonels to my infantry units a while ago, I also added one or two pioneers. Quickly realised that I would struggle to get hold of enough figures the correct size, and that they served no particular purpose on the tabletop anyway, so decided to just assume that each unit included some invisible pioneers, along with the pay clerks and farriers and other guys who keep things working. I think my little pool of infantry sapeurs can help out the official Engineers if need be!

    Tony

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