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The Battle of Borodino, 1812


The Napoleonic Wars, Republic to Empire, 28mm

The League of Gentlemen Wargamers’ Napoleonic games are never small affairs, but this weekend’s one – a refight of Borodino – might well have been our largest yet. it was also one of the most enjoyable. I was rather dreading the game, as Borodino is known for being a grim slugfest – a meatgrinder which ended with 80,000 casualties littering the battlefield. It didn’t promise to be much fun. However, the game was well-organised, it was sensibly divided into four 12 foot by 6 foot tables, and the 13 players (7 French, 6 Russian) all had a chance to control a sector of the battlefield. In the end there were some 3,500 French figures on the table, and 2,200 Russians, which – if we add in gun crews – means that over 6,000 figures were on the tabletop. Even then we left stuff out – the French and the Russian Guard were kept in reserve throughout the battle, while two Russian cavalry corps and at least a corps of infantry never made it onto the tabletop. The same was true of the Russian reserve artillery, although the French did start each day of our weekend’s fight with a free four turn barrage by a 100 gun battery. This was actually par for the course – the odds were stacked against the defenders in this refight, but the result was an extremely well-balanced contest. The French advantage in numbers was countered by the Russian use of fortifications, and the fact that under these rules it is a lot easier to control troops on the defensive than those on the attack.borodino-054The four tables covered the whole width of the battlefield, giving us what was effectively a 24 foot by 12 foot table to play over. Table 1 covered the area north of the Kolocha River, including the village of Borodino itself, and the New Smolensk Road. Table 2 – the north central table – was dominated by the Grand Redoubt. Table 3  was centred around the Bagration fleches and the village of Semenskoya, while Table 4 covered the area around Utitsa, on the old Smolensk Road. My sector was Table 3, where I commanded Borosdin’s VIII Corps, with the help of Dave O’Brien, who commanded Neverovski’s grenadier division. I always thought I owned a large Russian army – over 750 figures – but they didn’t even cover what was needed on this one table. That gives you an idea of just how huge these LoGW games can be!borodino-052The game started with a bombardment by the French grand battery, and the fire was split between the Grand Redoubt and the central fleches. Gaps were battered in the earthworks which the French planned to exploit using assault columns of crack infantry. And so it began. On Table 1 two battalions of Russian Guard Jaegers held Borodino against all comers, and the Italian troops of Eugene’s IV Corps made absolutely no headway against the light Russian forces facing them – a motley assortment of jaegers and Cossacks. By the end of play on Saturday the Russians still held the village, and most of the table.borodino-044Over on Table 2 the French attacks were pressed forward with more alacrity, and by Saturday afternoon Ney’s III Corps and Junot’s VIII Corps had reached the Grand Redoubt. The first assaults were repulsed, but after several hours of gaming the Russian defenders were finally overwhelmed, and the French poured into the position. The cost was high though – Marshal Ney was cut down and killed as he clambered over the parapet. Still, by the end of play on Saturday – and just before we all trooped off to an excellent but tardy Indian restaurant – the French held the redoubt, and were consolidating their position, ready to resume the attack the following morning. The day’s gaming could have been faster – the rules are complicated – see the picture below, with two players consulting the 12 page playsheet! However, at least the author was on hand to help things tick along. borodino-042Next door on Table 3 my defenders in the fleches faced Davout’s I Corps. There the French launched repeated assaults against the central and southern fleches, and their high water mark came when troops of Compans’ Division captured the southern fleche. However, next turn they were bowled out again by the Russians, whose troops were waiting in readiness to counter-attack. The fleches were designed so their rear face was open – which of course meant the Russians had an easier job of attacking them than the French did. However, late on Saturday afternoon a sneak assault from Table 2 led to the fall of the 4th Fleche on Table 3, as some of Junot’s troops joined the fight. By the end of play on Saturday the Russians were still holding the remaining central fleches – but only by the skin of their teeth.borodino-040Finally, on Table 4 Poniatowski’s Polish X Corps got off to a good start, and captured both Utitsa mound and the village. Tuchkov’s III Corps immediately counter-attacked, and after a particularly bitter fight the Poles were ejected from the village. However, the mound continued to change hands throughout the rest of the day, with neither side gaining complete control of it. So, by the end of Saturday the Russians had held their ground on three of the four tables, but had lost the Grand Redoubt. As we all trooped away for curry and beer there was still everything to play for.borodino-027We started fighting again on Sunday morning, by which time the French had been heavily reinforced. First, they got another four turns of fire by the Grand Battery, all of which fell on the Russians who still held held the line between the redoubt and Semonskaya village. On Table 1 both sides got a few reinforcements, especially the French, as Grouchy’s cavalry were thrown into the fight. On Table 2 a mass of French cavalry appeared – the bulk of I, II and IV Cavalry Corps, while the Russians were given a division of cuirassiers. On Table 3 the French didn’t get much to help them, save for artillery, which they concentrated in front of the central fleche. Over on Table 4 the French also gained extra guns, but essentially the bulk of the reinforcements were concentrated on Table 2. This is where the French planned to launch their decisive blow.borodino-025This meant that throughout Sunday poor Adrian and Andrew commanding the Russian forces on Table 2 were under intense pressure, as wave after wave of French poured up the hill and past the redoubt. As Andrew’s XII Corps collapsed it looked like it was all over in the Russian centre, but somehow they held on, helped by the timely arrival of the Russian cuirassiers. They bought enough time for Dokhtorov’s VI Corps to the battle. As the day wore on this contest continued to rage, with both the Russian and the French cuirassiers locking horns, and largely annihilating each other. While the Russian defenders were largely shredded, so too were the attackers. I looked over at around 1pm, and the table there was a mass of figures. An hour later it was strangely empty, as both sides had lost so many units. As the battle ended the Russians there were down to their last few units, but they still held the table edge, and so prevented the French from sweeping through the Russian centre. Of course, in reality the Russians still had the best part of two cavalry corps just off table, and a corps of infantry plus all of the reserve artillery, so this gap was largely an illusory one.borodino-025Over on Table 1 Borodino fell at last, but the Italians were unable to make any more headway. Grouchy’s cavalry were unwilling to risk an all-out assault against the Russian reinforcements – Uvarov’s Light Cavalry of the Guard, and the fighting slowly died down, as both sides realised they had reached a stalemate there. Over on Table 3 my Russians had a relatively easy time of it, as they were able to repulse two more assaults on the fleches, and held their ground throughout the day. In fact, we were about to send 12 battalions to join the counter-attack in front of the Grand Redoubt, but a lunchtime ruling that an “Iron Curtain” had now descended between Tables 2 and 3 meant that these grenadiers had to remain where they were. Instead we launched them in a bid to recapture the 4th fleche, but we ran out of time just before the assault went in. Then, over on Table 4 where Dale’s Poles and Peter’s Russians continued their private struggle, all Polish attempts to capture Utitsa were foiled, but they did manage to gain undisputed control of Utitsa Mound.borodino-007Play ended at 3.30pm on Sunday. The French had captured Borodino, the Grand Redoubt, the 4th Fleche and Utitsa Mound, but the Russians held everywhere else, including in all the other fleches, and Utitsa village. While the carnage had been extremely high on both sides, neither commander had committed their Imperial Guard to the fight, while the Russians still had all their cavalry in reserve, minus a division of cuirassiers and the light horse of the Guard. They also had two uncommitted infantry corps under Baggovut and Tolstoy. As well as playing the part of Marshal Ney, Barry Hilton was also the unbiased umpire. Even he declared the result to be a draw in favour of the Russians, although he also claimed that he’d blown a hole in the Russian centre, and thus could claim a moral victory! In reality the Russians still controlled both roads to Moscow, and still had plenty of reserves. We knew that whatever the little Emperor might claim in the Gallic press, this particular refight of Borodino had ended with the French stopped dead in their tracks. As we all packed our toys away, the Russian players were the ones with smiles on their faces!featureThis was the second refight of Borodino I’ve taken part in within the last year. This was a much prettier affair – the first was fought out on lurid green felt – but the size of the two games were roughly the same. The first was fought in one day, while this latest refight took place over two days. The first used General de Brigade, and this game used Republic to Empire. Both rules sets did the job well enough, and while my own personal preference is for GdeB, R2E produces a similar type of game, albeit a slower-moving one. However, the outcomes of these two refights were very different. In the game fought out in Leuchars last December, the French concentrated their attack on the fleches, and blew a huge hole in the Russian line. It was an undoubted French victory. The Grand Redoubt was ignored. In this refight played in Kirriemuir the French directed their main attack against the redoubt, and officially the battle ended in a draw – or more accurately a Russian defensive victory. The two outcomes may have been the result of the different approach of the two sets of French commanders, or a result of differences in the two sets of rules. We’ll just have to fight it out all over again to find out!

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