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

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Just Another Napoleon Groupie?

I've been poking about, doing some research as background for a forthcoming battle at the headquarters of the shadowy Baron Goya. Actually, "research" is a bit strong - primarily I've been browsing through lots of my old books, because that is the sort of thing I like to do.

The challenge is to find a suitable battle in which to oppose my French army to Goya's and Stryker's combined Austrians. That sounds easy enough, but we don't have any Bavarians or Wurtemburgers, and we do have Italians, so something from the eastern backwaters of 1809 or 1813 would fit the bill nicely - why, I even have a good supply of Spanish buildings, which can be transported to Italy at the drop of a cappello. 

Battle of Raab, 1809 - note that big granary building at the farm - hmmm - anyone
got a 15mm version of the very similar building at Essling...?
Good so far - the current proposal is to go for the Battle of Raab, 1809. My first discovery was that it isn't so easy to find very much about Raab; I managed to track down enough in the combined works of John Gill, George Nafziger, Scott Bowden and Professor WK Pedia to get a decent OOB drafted up, and enough of a narrative to give a context. I don't really do scenarios, as discussed before...

One of the obvious sources is Napoleon and the Archduke Charles, Francis Loraine Petre's famous book about the 1809 Danube campaign. A little disappointing, for once, in that there wasn't a lot about Raab, but also there was a bit of vitriol in the author's dismissal of Eugène de Beauharnais which surprised me. To set the context a little, for those unfamiliar (as I am) with Raab, Eugène commanded an army in Italy (and eventually, at Raab, in Hungary) against a secondary Austrian force commanded by the Archduke John. 

Now I am a convinced fan of FLP. One of my most enjoyable early experiences of what hobbyists like to think of as military history was in about 1978 or so. I spent a couple of months working my way through Petre's book about the 1813 campaign - on the No.16 bus to and from work! - initially a library book, but someone, alas, had borrowed the maps from the library book, so after a few weeks I bought my own, only to find that the maps, though present, were impossible to unfold on a bus, and almost impossible to read once you had.

No matter - the procedure was that I carried a notebook and pencil, did much scribbling on the bus, and in the evening before bedtime I would follow the action on a big wall-map and with Esposito and Elting's big red atlas. That was in the days before magnetic whiteboards - I had a big cork noticeboard, a mighty map and lots of coloured pins, and I had all sorts of detailed jottings of OOBs - who was where, and when, and who commanded them. The ultimate army roster. Fantastic - I had a terrific time. I've never quite managed to get so completely absorbed in a campaign subsequently, but I did buy four more of FLP's Napoleonic books, and became a big fan.

F Loraine Petre
I found his books easy to follow, clearly expressed, and carrying just enough military nuts and bolts to satisfy the hobby nerd, without threatening a brain haemorrhage. Everything seemed scholastically sound - why, he had even read a lot of foreign sources, which was not common for British writers at that time! It was clear from the old photograph of FLP in uniform on the back cover of the books that he had been a soldier. That's all I knew. His five "Napoleon" volumes - the campaigns of 1806 against Prussia (yellow cover), 1807 in Poland (orange), 1809 on the Danube (green), 1813 in Germany (blue) and 1814 in France (brown) were all consistent with his personal interests commencing after Austerlitz, and were written pretty much in chronological order, but the sequence seemed to imply some obvious gaps - no volumes on Spain, or Russia, or the 100 Days, for example. However, his five published volumes first appeared from 1907 to 1914, by which time the public's appetite for military writings might have waned - or maybe he became too old, or discovered darts and strong ale - who knows?

In the 1809 (green, that's right) volume, I found the following, which is interesting enough to reproduce in full:

This Italian campaign between Eugène and John is of little interest[,] for neither of the commanders possessed any great military abilities, and the whole thing was a series of blunders on both sides.

Erm - pardon? Fair enough, I suppose, but we can't deny that the campaign did take place, and the resulting casualties and political ramifications and misery were not necessarily anulled on account of FLP's lack of enthusiasm. Personally I can think of few things more interesting than a campaign fought between incompetents - we should note that historians have not used the same argument to ignore the First English Civil War, nor the exploits of the British Expeditionary Force in France. However, it is FLP's book, so if he wishes to give Eugène minimal space we can't really complain.

I believe this glossing-over is observable very commonly - general histories of the Napoleonic Wars are often very short of substance in those theatres in which Napoleon was not present. You can find this effect in the aforementioned Esposito and Elting atlas, even dear old David Chandler is guilty of averting his gaze a little when the Corsican hero leaves centre stage.

Anyway, no problem - I have found plenty of material for our battle, but I was left with a few unanswered questions about F Loraine Petre, so I did a little research on him, too. Not a lot to find, really. He was born in Aberdeenshire in 1852, descended from minor nobility, he was educated at Oscott College, became a lawyer and worked for the Colonial Civil Service in India from 1880, retiring as governor of Allahabad in 1900. At this point, as the result of his own personal interests, he became a writer of military history. He died in 1925.

So he was not an academic nor a soldier - he was a time-served diplomatic administrator turned amateur historian, who had the time and the money to indulge his interests, and - don't get me wrong here - he did a damned fine job, too. I wouldn't be without his books for anything, but I suddenly get a little suspicion about why those three campaigns are absent from his catalogue - Napoleon didn't do so well in those, did he...?

Most unfair, I know. I have to say it was not easy to get any useful information on Petre at all - if anyone knows a little more, I'd be delighted to be put right. In the meantime, I shall just nod smugly and mark him down as yet another Napoleon groupie, and he is, let's face it, in some excellent company.


  1. Raab did seem to be a backwater especially since THE GREAT ONE was not present. How could anything be of consequence if N is not present?

    If you are interested in seeing my interpretation of Raab, see https://palousewargamingjournal.blogspot.com/p/battle-of-raab.html

    1. Thanks Jon - you were one of my sources!

    2. I should say that your series on Raab is just about as good as blogging gets - a terrific and informative read. Our game isn't going to be as thorough as that, and the report on it is certainly going to be minor league in comparison - if I am the author, you may depend upon it.

      I received an email from one of my Google-free correspondents, Martin, who protests that David Chandler was not a blind devotee of the Emperor, and that I am out of order to suggest such a thing - his criticism of Napoleon's personality and strategic approach frequently got him into good-natured bantering sessions with (e.g.) J David Markham (who is definitely a complete groupie). It doesn't matter - the point stands - love him or hate him, discussion of any aspect of Napoleonic history drops off as the inverse square of how far away he was at the time. This may be another of Foy's Laws, though it needs work.

      Thanks again for your work in 2015!

    3. Tony, you are most kind!

      As for ranking N groupies, where to you place Bowden?

      Your latest Foy's Law is a good one and likely not too difficult to prove. May I suggest,
      1/sqrt(distance from N) to add into your study?

  2. I will confess that I once read one of Petre's books, possibly 'At Bay' and it ALMOST got me interested in Napoleonic Warfare. The first three volumes of Oman (all I had) did slightly better by getting me briefly interested in early Peninsular Battles. I suspect by mind ans spirit are just too small for such grand campaigns.

    1. I found that my early involvement with the 1813 Petre book (the Blue One) produced a wild fantasy that one day I could have armies to fight Leipzig - nothing small spirited about that, you will agree, but crazy. My late friend Allan Gallacher brought some realism by snorting loudly whenever I mentioned the subject - it passed off, though I was still finding odd S-Range Bavarian artillerymen and so on in the spares box as recently as last year.

      Different approaches for different folks, I guess. I always did far better getting very involved in a very small number of periods (well, for many years, after I sold my ancients and dumped my failed ACW, it was exactly one period). Occasionally I have a great idea that I would like to try something new, but mostly I get turned off by the time and effort it would take to get to cope with the Big Battles fixation I seem to have.

      I am still considering some form of skirmish games, I have, of course, branched out into the ECW, but in the time-tested, juggernaut style I seem to prefer. My earliest days in wargaming turned me against Napoleonics, because everyone was doing it and everyone knew more about it than me (and everyone was basically George Jeffrey and his pals), and against the SYW period, which is a big regret now, but the period also seemed to attract a lot of rather superior people who were queuing up to talk about how only they were doing this correctly, with the True Flavour etc. I had to deal with more than enough pedants, bores and trumpet-blowers in my working life, so i went away and did my own thing, quietly (and often incorrectly etc...).

      It wasn't until I did some wider historical reading that I realised that Napoleonics were actually right up my street, as long as I swerved the mainstream. That's still about where I am, which maybe doesn't feel like a lot of progress when I look at it like that...

    2. Sounds like a Calling rather than a Whim. Stability and continuity are frowned upon these days but in truth they are not bad things.

  3. I'm finding Wallmoden's campaign in North Germany to be similarly clouded in obscurity, Foy - despite the presence of a few British troops. One gains the impression (from Clausewitz in particular) that Wallmoden's men were only too aware how far they were away from the real scene of the action and thus weren't going to get a decent write up!

    1. We may imagine them protesting to the sergeant when they were told where they were going - WHERE? - Bloody hell, we'll never get in the big history books there...

  4. Interesting. I have one of his books on my shelf, but haven't read it yet. The one on Poland. I understand the natural temptation for historians to identify with particular historical figures - it seems to be ultimately the motivation for a great deal of historical work.

    An interesting piece there Foy.

    1. I think you are right - the energy and gestalt needed to organise a piece of writing on such a scale needs a flame that burns very brightly - devotion and admiration to an individual (or a cause of some sort) are just the thing.

      If/when you read the Polish book, recommend you set up your own map or a big boardgame to follow the action - Petre's maps are iffy (and that's not just me being sniffy).