Saturday, 22 August 2009
At the Colonel's Table, Part 4: by Don Houghton, Wargamer's Newsletter 91 October 1969
The Colonel's Heavy Cavalry continued its advance southwards, down towards the western approaches of the village - and only my totally inadequate Light Dragoon Regiment, commanding the south western approaches to the bridge, could stop them from getting in amongst the main bulk of my infantry which was still in column on the Corunna road. As for his Light Cavalry Brigade, over on the east heights, they were, quite obviously, preparing to charge my Rifle and Marine skirmishers at the fords south of Filomela. And the full weight of his infantry continued its ominous, slow advance between El Gavilan and the river, north of the village. I had the feeling of being squeezed in a vice.
As it happened, it was my gunners who fired the opening salvoes of the campaign. I had eased forward my batteries on Monte Petirrojo as the Cuirassiers and Empresses Dragoon Guards advanced slowly into range. To this day I still believe this was an oversight on the Colonel's part, although afterwards he staunchly maintained that it was a chance he had to take. The gunners sighted up on his second and closest regiment of Cuirassiers and opened fire. God bless the battery commander (I made a mental note to mention his name in my next despatch to the Commander in Chief) and the sure eyes of his gunners. The fire from the three batteries cut deep holes into the Cuirassiers neatly formed ranks, even though the range wasn't all that close. Amongst the first of the casualties was the Regiment's Colonel and, for a minute, his troopers wavered (GAME NOTE: dice for Morale here when C.O. be¬comes a casualty: usual Featherstone rules apply) but the Second in Command checked them and the Regiment quickly recuperated. I was seized by an awful temptation to send my Scots Greys, guarding the batteries, charging down into that valley to finish off that particular Regiment, but I fought back the impulse. His Heavy Brigade still had a regiment of Cuirassiers and the Empresses Dragoon Guards completely untouched. No matter how valiant my Scots Greys - they could not have stood up to odds of nearly three to one, regardless of the impetus they may have gained from a downhill charge. From my R.H.A. Batteries on Monte Petirrojo the Colonel's third Cuirassier Regiment had suffered some 20% casualties.
But things weren't going at all well to the east. His guns (two batteries) had opened fire on my Marines and Riflemen skirmishing by the fords. It pinned them down, making any further northward advance impossible. And just beyond the guns his Light Cavalry Brigade was easing itself into its final position before a charge down onto the river. I brought up another gun to the fords to help repel the imminent charge of the Lancers, Hussars and Chasseurs-a-Cheval that I knew must be coming in the next move. I nudged my Guards Battalion, the one I was supposed to be keeping in reserve, slightly to the east and formed them into a square behind the skirmishers with the Dragoon Guards and a single R.H.A. Battery ready to support them. As for the main body of my infantry, I extended them along the western side of the road, ready to meet any attack from the Colonel's Heavy Brigade. For the time being there was little else I could do. My skirmishers could not move and had already suffered 10% casualties from the guns on El Gavilan.
Yet still the Colonel's Light Cavalry did not charge the southern fords. His guns continued their fire, but now my skirmishers had taken up better positions and his batteries had ceased to bother them so much. The remainder of his troops, the Heavy Brigade and the Infantry continued a slow advance.
It was at this point that the elusive picture, the one that had escaped me at luncheon, suddenly became crystal clear. I had been concentrating too much on the village and the bridge across the Golondrina. Right from the very beginning I should have ignored it as a prime target. The village and the bridge were unimportant. What I should have done was to use it as a pivot or the axle for my advance to the north east. I should have swung my troops around in a great arc and made for the northern ford, disregarding the road altogether. It would have been a slower advance, but at least I could have concentrated my troops, instead of having them strung out all over the place, as they were at this stage. It did not matter if the Colonel hooked round and took me in the rear - as long as I cleared the path in front. I was guilty of a commander's cardinal sin. I had, very early in the piece, forgotten my prime objective - that of getting the majority of my force to Corunna! Now the question loomed in my mind: was I too late to alter my whole basic plan? (GAME NOTE: orders must be written a full game move beforehand). As things stood all the Colonel had to do was to hold his extended line and maintain his front as a wall to my advance. So this is why his Light Cavalry hadn't charged down on the southern fords. All they wanted to do was to contain my skirmishers and my reserve troops. This was the trap he had set - and I had fallen into it, boots, stirrups and all! He had successfully split my force into two - the skirmishers and reserves to the left and the remainder to the right. I had virtually nothing left in the centre.
But there was a refinement to this trap - and I was going to learn about that very, very soon!
My batteries on Monte Petirrojo opened up again on that second Cuirassier regiment and scored some hits. The Regiment’s casualties mounted to 27% (GAME NOTE: Morale must again be checked when casualties reach a third of the Regiment’s s original strength). Unfortunately, this brave body of troopers was screening the other two regiments; consequently my gunners could not sight up on the rest of the Brigade. They were advancing unhindered.
(GAME NOTE: I have hinted before that the Colonel was a resourceful man and an imaginative one. One of the refinements of his game is a simulated 'smoke of battle’ factor. We play, as I have mentioned earlier, on two stripped down billiard tables: over these are suspended three Phillips wide-beam lamps. They are strung overhead, one each illuminating the opponent’s base lines: the third lamp is situated over the dead centre of the table. As the game progresses this lamp is dimmed fractionally each game move, so that by the time the campaign is at its height there is a degree of gloom over the main battle area. You can still pick out positions and formations - but identification becomes just a little more difficult. If you are not very careful, and if your concentration lags, you can find units cut off and a degree of confusion reigning).
Then, suddenly, my pulse was racing and the adrenalin started pumping into my veins. I peered at the Colonel's approaching infantry. On the eastern side of the extended line, his right flank, had closed up a little on the road. It was a battalion of Chasseurs de Montagne and it had been hugging the lower slope of El Gavilan. But now, between it and the lower slopes there developed a great gaping hole and the battalions flank was in the air! There was a breach in the wall big enough to allow my reserve formations through - and, beyond the breach, there was nothing to halt a fast advance to the Corunna road and the north east! If I was threatened at all by the enemy's infantry - I could attack it in the flank and still continue my forward move. At least I could ensure that some of my troops - including the Coldstream Battalion - might reach safety. (GAME NOTE: Points are awarded for each unit, dependant on its casualties, which achieves its objective. Similarly, the opponent receives points for every unit stopped. To these points are added the opponents total casualties. The sum is added, the victor, naturally enough, is the one scoring the most total points). Could I draft orders in time to utilise the situation to my advantage?
I reformed the Coldstreamers into a column and advanced the Marines so that they joined the Riflemen at the ford nearest the bridge. The escorting Dragoon Guards would peel off and cross the river at the southernmost ford, ready to attack any flanking Regiment of the Light Cavalry Brigade should it threaten my guardsmen. My Hussars in the southern outskirts of Filomela would move down and support the main crossing.
The Colonel grunted. I thought that was a good sign. He did not move his Light Cavalry, but his gunners up on the heights opened up with some desultory fire.
Over to the west his Cuirassiers and Dragoon Guards were forming up to charge my infantry now extended on the northern side of the road. My own gunners, up on Monte Petirrojo, had become too sure of themselves. The range on that Cuirassier Regimentwas shorter now, yet they failed to inflict more than a meagre 2% casualties. In the meantime, my Highlanders had time to form a square and thus make a bastion of them¬selves before the onslaught which I knew must be coming.
The excitement mounted. The tea the Colonel's wife had brought us lay untouched in its delicate china cups.
For a while luck seemed to be favouring me. My Dragoon Guards and Coldstreamers began crossing the river. Some casualties fell as the Colonel's gunners opened up again, but not enough to cause me any concern.
It was when the last Company of Coldstrearners, escorted by the Marines and Riflemen, cleared the ford that all hell broke loose. The Chasseurs de Montague swung round to meet the threat - they and the Voltigeurs and the Imperial Guard Battalion. It was a beautifully executed move,. The Colonel must have gauged the distance to a millimetre. The Voltigeurs and the Guards crossed swiftly over the road and swept down on my hapless Coldstreamers. There had been a token exchange of musket shot a little earlier but very few hits had registered - the enemy was almost at full strength. The Coldstreamers held and took the full impact of the charging Frenchmen - two and a half battalions to one. The Dragoon Guards hastened to help - but as they moved up the Colonel's Light Cavalry made their charge. His Lancers and Chasseurs a Cheval engaged them and forced a wedge between the Dragoons and my Coldstreamers. His remaining Light Cavalrymen, the Hussars, took my guardsmen in their left flank. I might have made a better showing if I could have brought my own Hussars into the fray - but they were still on the other side of the river, too far from the ford to cross and come to the rescue. They could only watch the awful slaughter of their countrymen. The conflict raged, with artillery batteries from both sides adding ball, canister and grapeshot into the melee. The Coldstreamers were locked in that one position. They could not retreat because of the enemy's cavalry in the rear. They could not advance because the enemy's infantry was massed in .front of them. They could not break out to the west because the river was a natural barrier, neither could they turn to the east for escape because of the Heights of El Gavilan. They could only stand and slog it out - and hope that the Dragoon Guards might break out and reach them.
And if I wasn't careful the whole sickening process might repeat itself over on the western side. For as the Colonel's Guards and Voltigeurs swung on to my Coldstreamers, his two Line Battalions rushed through Filomela and over the bridge, taking up a position in the rear of my Light Dragoon Regiment. This was the extent of his second trap. His Heavy Cavalry would charge down on my infantry whilst his Line Regiments would deliver an uppercut behind them.
I was prepared for the worst. Already my Light Dragoons were falling from musket fire delivered by the battalion of the Colonel's 42nd Regiment of the Line. They could either turn and engage the infantrymen, or sit there and take it and wait for the Heavy Cavalry charge. My 22nd moved behind the Highland square and engaged his 42nd with their muskets at maximum range. It was pretty ineffectual, but at least it diverted their attention from my luckless troopers.
Now came the final crisis of the battle. The Colonel's Heavy Cavalry made its spectacular charge. My gunners got one good volley into them as they galloped forward - and the green of the Empresses Dragoon Guards fell alongside the silver of the Cuirassiers. The Highlanders bore the brunt of the attack - and the square held!
My Light Dragoons flung themselves at the enemy cavalry's flank and my 22nd Regiment closed with the Colonel's 42nd. His 49th charged home on my 55th - and soon every single soldier on the battlefield was fighting for his life. That is - all except my Scots Greys guarding the R.H.A. batteries. They were chomping at the bit -they badly wanted to get down into the fight. But I had to hold them in reserve -they might end up by being the only ones to get to Corunna.
Over to the east, the situation was worse than grim. The Coldstreamers were a dying battalion - and my Dragoon Guards were little better off. My guns were lost and my Hussars arrived far too late to alter the course of the battle. The latter did manage to break through a line of Voltigeurs, but they could not get near enough the beleaguered Coldstreamers to be of any help. Instead they were ordered to make an attempt to escape to the Corunna road and eventually rejoin my survivors up by the French base line. But as soon as they cleared the Voltigeurs, they came under the direct fire of the Colonel's batteries on El Gavilan.