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

Sunday, 26 June 2016

The Defence of Bassaro, December 1813

Yesterday I had a visitor here at the Chateau. My good friend Goya came, to give his Austrian army a first run out, and we took the opportunity to try the Commands & Colors Expansion #5, Generals, Marshals and Tacticians, with its amended set of Command cards, which has been sitting undisturbed since it arrived some months ago.

I have never been involved in a miniatures game involving Austrians at any time since I started wargaming 200 years ago, so I put a lot of thought into drawing up a scenario, such as would grace the auspicious occasion. Since the Austrian force, though growing quickly, is still rather small for one side of a C&CN game, we chose a format where the Kaiserlichs would be defending a strong position against a considerably larger French force, and we chose Eugène Beauharnais’ campaign in Northern Italy in 1813-14. This is suitable for Goya’s late-war uniforms, and it meant that we could use my Spanish/Italian buildings without too much embarrassment.

Research revealed that, apart from Dr GF Nafziger’s invaluable volume on this campaign, there is almost nothing in the English-language history books. David Chandler glides seamlessly from Leipzig/Hanau to Brienne, F Loraine Petre includes a single paragraph (to the effect that Eugène was pretty much banished to the Army of Italy because the Emperor had “had enough of his stepson’s incapacity”), and the Elting & Esposito atlas has an arrow pointing off the main map of 1813, indicating that Eugène was over here somewhere, facing the Austrians. The reason? – quite simple; neither Napoleon nor Wellington was present, so who could be interested?

I found some Austrian sources in Google Books, but overall was surprised at the paucity of material. I finished up with an action at the mythical village of Bassaro, not far from Ferrara (or possibly somewhere else), which apparently commanded a couple of important crossings over the River Adige. The timing, the location and the personnel are not dissimilar to the action around Castagnaro, so there is a rough whiff of authenticity about some of what we were doing. Thank you, yet again, Dr Nafziger.

So Goya’s Austrians were installed in Bassaro and its environs – there were some very important-looking generals present, one of whom had a passing resemblance to Archduke Charles, but they were there only as observers – the Austrian commander on the field was Generalmajor Sutterheim, assisted by Generals Stahremberg, Eckhardt and Wrede (no – not the Bavarian). They had available the 9th Jäger Regt, the Gradiscaner Grenzer Regt, the infantry regiments Kerpen, Bianchi and Jellachich, the Grenadier battalions Purcell and Welsperg and two 6pdr foot batteries, supported by the Radetzky Hussars and the Dragoon regiments Savoy and Hohenlohe – that’s a total of 7 battalions (two of which were light infantry), 3 cavalry units and 2 artillery.

Austrians have a few national characteristics in C&CN. The line infantry battalions are big – 5 blocks – and  have the unique ability to adopt a solid square formation (Bataillonmasse) against cavalry, which behaves like a normal square as far as the rules are concerned, but does not require a Command card to be held hostage on the Square Tracker. The line infantry and the Grenzers suffer double retreats if things go against them, otherwise things are pretty much standard C&CN – troops firing on the move have the half-effect rounded down, and there are the usual advantages for light troops and grenadiers.

Their opposition for the day came from the Division of General Marcognet, who had the French infantry brigades of De Conchy and Jeanin (both names familiar to me, as these were distinguished battalion commanders from the Peninsula) and the Italian brigade of St Paul (another old friend), with, between them, a total of 14 battalions, of which 4 were lights, and there was also a cavalry brigade comprising 2 French regiments of Chasseurs à Cheval and some Italian dragoons, and an Italian foot battery and a French horse battery.

I, of course, was Marcognet, since it was only right that Goya should command his shiny new army. Scenario specifics were that each commander had 5 Command cards and an initial hand of 3 Tactician cards, and that 7 Victory Points would decide the day. There were extra VPs available to the French for each village hex they occupied, and for each of the bridge and the 2 fords which they held. If things became too difficult to hold the position, the Austrians’ only retreat was over the river by this same bridge or the fords (the river being otherwise out of bounds), and they could reduce the French VP holding by 1 for every 2 units or leaders they retreated off the table – such units and leaders could not return, but they would not count as VPs for the French. The only other rule of the day was that any unit which spent an entire move on the road – starting and ending their move upon it, and not involved in any combat – could have an extra hex of movement. In the event neither the road nor the extra VP rules came into play.

To set up, the Austrian commander could place his units anywhere in his half of the table (including the centre line). Having seen the initial defensive position, the French commander could place his entire army within 3 hexes of his baseline – for both armies, leaders could be placed with units if desired. Thereafter, the Austrians could move 3 units or leaders, the French could then move 2, and – finally – the Austrians could move 1 – still restricted to their own half. At that point, we dealt the cards, and the French started the first turn.

My plan, such as it was, given my big superiority in infantry and the cover provided by the central ridge, was to march my main force over the ridge in as much mass as I could manage, overrun the batteries, punch through to the west (my left) of the village and attack the fords. Meanwhile, the French light infantry would advance through the woods to demonstrate against the bridge. The Italians and the cavalry were in reserve on my left, the intention being that they would pile into the attack on the fords as support for the main attack.

The tricky bit was making the extra numbers pay off before I lost enough troops to fulfill the Austrian victory requirements. It was obviously going to be messy, but it seemed possible.  A quick mass advance in the centre, shielded from artillery by the ridge, started things off well, but after that it got progressively more disastrous.

First thing is, these big Austrian line battalions have a lot of firepower, and the double retreats never counted for anything, since I didn’t manage to dislodge anybody. Beyond that difficulty, it’s all down to me. The advance in the centre was delayed by lack of suitable cards, true, but also because I had been too cautious with the deployment of my general officers – if I had been braver, and attached them to the leading units, a couple of cards turned up which would have used their presence to speed up my attack. I also made a mess of the placement of my light infantry, so that the attack through the woods made very little progress – I wasted a lot of time trying to pull battered units out of the way so that they could be replaced by fresh ones, and it all took too long – the bridge was never threatened. When the main attack did reach the central ridge it was disjointed and had little cohesion, the Austrian infantry were ready and used bonus cards well to maximise their fire effect.

Elsewhere – on my left – the Italians were a poor relation, since I could never spare enough orders to get them properly involved. My cavalry was outmatched by the Austrian heavies (my Italian dragoons melted away like snowballs in Hades) and, as a result of a stupid miscalculation of move distances for the cavalry, an otherwise inspired pincer attack with my mounted troops failed dismally and also cost me the Italian artillery. Drat.

In the end, I just ran out of men – the Austrians achieved their 7 VPs and the day was lost – I still had enough troops left to threaten the village, but it had all been too slow, and I had not managed to hold the line together well enough for the units to provide the mutual support which is necessary to stop them falling back.

A most enjoyable day – my compliments and thanks to my noble opponent, not least for driving an hour and a half out here to the Front of Beyond with his precious troops. After a fairly slow start we did, in fact, get the bloodbath I feared we might. The lesson was familiar, but clear – attacking in Commands & Colors is a challenge, especially if you are timid with your positioning of leaders, and if the cards refuse to co-operate with your Grand Scheme.

Great fun!

The battlefield, viewed from the northern (Austrian) side - the village of Bassaro
nestles in a bend of the River Adige - the fords can be seen on the table edge

Things get under way - French on the left, Austrian Jägers in the woods near the bridge 

French left - the cavalry promised little and delivered less, though the brigadier
led a charmed life, and they managed to leave the Italian battery exposed with predictable results

Sutterheim sorts out his defence

Marcognet makes heavy weather of his advance at the far end, while the
Italians and the cavalry wait for their moment at this end

As the Command cards played out, a couple of general officers with the French advance
would really have got things going much quicker - oh well...

Stirring sight - the Austrian cavalry performed excellently, including a couple
of successful bonus (follow-up) melées which did a lot of damage [please
ignore any Spanish unit titles on the borrowed sabots]

Grenzers in the woods - they had a fine view of the cavalry proceedings, but
otherwise were not called upon to do very much

At this point, Marcognet's attack was already going badly - the single unit on the
ridge should have been four units all supporting each other - there will be questions asked...

This was as far as the attack through the woods got - too late, and the Austrians
(noted for their famous bridge balancing act) had organised enough firepower to
prevent anyone emerging from the trees

This looks like a lot of troops, but the boys with all the casualty markers are being withdrawn

This photo captures a point at which the main, central attack has started to fizzle out,
and the cavalry scrap is about to start

...and here it begins, with the French horse outmatched and in any case unable to combine properly

So much for the cavalry - Marcognet has one last push in the centre...

...but the Kaiserlichs are ready, and Victory Points are mounting up!

Another view of the end of the day


  1. I find that my tactical errors usually have fewer consequences when playing solo.....

    Well done the Austrians on their 1st outing.

    1. With hindsight, over and above my cowardly leaders, it is possible that even a bigger French army could not have done much with such a position - we could have added more infantry, but we'd still lose an unacceptable number of troops taking the place - game design was a problem - if the situation was as unfavourable as it proved to be, and it was essential to take the crossings, then the victory conditions should be different for the two armies. I think we tried to keep it simple and failed, though for a while I was quite proud of the scope for the Austrians saving a hopeless position by retreating skilfully; since their position never became even remotely hopeless, retreating did not become an option.

      One interesting issue is the inherent artificiality of a game - if I had been one of the Austrian defenders, and I'd seen that lot heading across the valley (however falteringly...), I wouldn't be thinking "but we only have to eliminate 7 units and we've won..."

      I have deliberately camped up the gloom and the self deprecation, but the game actually was a lot of fun.

    2. Not precisely those terms but maybe "if we can give them a bloody enough nose and repulse the first attack we might be able to hold out till dark." which more or less equates to the same thing.

  2. Well now, battle results demonstrate why The Great Man relegated Eugene to the backwaters of the Empire. He did see success in 1809, though. While I have not been gaming nearly as long you (!), Austrians are a major opponent for my 15mm Napoleonic gaming. Perhaps we will see Austrians make a regular appearance on the gaming table? Splendid looking game by the way.

  3. What a spiffingly looking game!

  4. How nice to see those splendid Austrians in action - well done to their commander!

    Well done to you too of course Tony...

  5. Hurrah for the Kaiserlicks.

    Scenario design can be tricky, particularly when dealing with retreating units. There is of course the problem of the French bayonet charge, which can do some pretty grim things to allied infantry. Were you able to screen your infantry from their musketry at all?

  6. Thank you for appreciative comments, gentlemen. Since I no longer like the look of the real world, and the Pro-Brexit UK Press seems strangely quiet about what we do now that we have the prospect of unchallenged sovereignty but no money, I may be spending more time hiding in the Merit forest with my 20mm friends for a while. They are a comfort to me.

    Mr Kinch - I confess I never got close enough to the enemy for bayonets to be an issue - my intention was exactly that - to avoid the villages and push through the Austrian infantry and artillery with all those +1 bonus combat dice for being French, but no go.

    1. Tony - don't panic, I hear that Baldrick is to be appointed to a government think-tank and he has a cunning plan...

    2. Ian - you've brightened me up quite a lot - I thought we were getting that blond guy from the Muppets.


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