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The Battle of Mars-la-Tour, 1870


Bismarck’s Wars, Fire & Fury, 10mm

This week we sneaked an extra game into the diary by playing on a Saturday. We hired the hall of the local bowling club for the day – they even have a bar – and we used the space to refight the Battle of Mars-la-Tour. This came about because someone said we hadn’t used our 10mm Franco-Prussian kit in quite a while – since last summer in fact. So, this was the answer.  I did the planning, and while I culled the basic scenario from the Wye Forest club’s website, we modified it a fair bit.

For starters, we couldn’t be doing with all their small units of varying strengths, so where possible we made everyone full strength – nine stands for the Prussians and six stands for the French. Cavalry were grouped in brigades where each regiment was represented by two stands, and one gun model represented a dozen guns – roughly two batteries. The table was a 12 x 6 foot one, where 18 inches (45cm) represented a mile on the ground. The battlefield was fairly flat, with a few low rolling hills, although there were bigger ones on the eastern table edge around Gravelotte. The main feature was the Metz to Verdun road, which was the whole reason the battle was fought. The French planned to escape the encircling German armies by heading along it, but Marshal Bazaine prevaricated, and so his advanced guard was still encamped between Vionville and Gravelotte when the Prussians turned up at Tronville and effectively blocked the road. to win, the French had to open the road to Verdun, and hold the four villages along its route, plus the two to the south – Flavigny and Tronville.  The Prussians won by holding the three villages of Mars-la-Tour, Vionville and Flavigny at game’s end.We set out the table the night before, so on Saturday morning there wasn’t much to do apart from put the troops out and start playing. In fact there wasn’t that much to set out. The Prussians began the game with just a cavalry division on the table near Tronville, while the French were strung out in their overnight encampments between Vionville and Gravelotte. The game began with the French advanced guard – the 3rd Reserve Cavalry Division – getting shelled by German artillery.The first brigade saddled up and  retired in haste, taking the rest of the  division with it. The Germans followed up this success by riding through Vionville and charging the remains of the French cavalry. this worked well for a turn or two, until the French infantry camped around Rezonville got their act together and began firing back.By then the Prussian infantry had arrived – elements of III Corps. it marched up from the south, and occupied a line facing the French, stretching from Vionville to Flavigny and on to the fields south of Rezonville. Soon the two sides were locked in a battle for this ground, with the Prussian sending attacks in against the south of Rezonville, and  consolidating their hold around Vionville. Over to the west more Prussian troops marched through Mars-la-Tour and on to size the ground to the north, where it blocked any French move on the town from St. Marcel.The first decent bunch of Frnehc reinforcements were the 2nd Division of the Imperial Guard. In the real battle they were fed into the line near Rezonville, but in our game Gerry who commanded them bypassed the front line completely, and instead he marched them up the line of the old Roman road, picking up the tardy division of Canrobert’s VI Corps on the way.  Nothing would come of this move for a while, but it would soon have an important impact on the battle. Down around Rezonville the battle was getting pretty fraught. Neil, Jack and Bill put up a spirited French defence, and Neil’s division actually went onto the offensive for a bit, until his attackers were chopped up and beaten back by Donald’s Prussians of 6th Division. In the Prussian centre around Flavigny a large battery had been formed, and it pretty much dominated the middle of the battlefield. Every time Jack or Gerry stuck guns on the ridge to the north – the one above the Roman road – their batteries were silenced within a turn, thanks to the sheer weight of Prussian firepower. this also stopped any attempt at launching an attack on Vionville from the direction of Rezonville. By now it was mid-afternoon  – (or 2pm on the tabletop) – we’d been gaming for five hours – and it looked like a clear-cut Prussian victory. All three of their victory condition villages were held, while the fields around Mars-la-Tour were filling up with Prussian reinforcements from X Corps. The French were also hindered by their command – some of their units had a limited mobility, thanks to activation restrictions which recreated Marshal Bazaine’s tardiness on the day. Then, Gerry made his move. His Guard divison was now just to the east of the Bois de Tronville, on the Roman road. At 2.30pm he attacked over the ridge and into Vionville. Campbell’s 5th Division was still in march column when it was hit, and two of his regiments were either routed or pushed back through the village with heavy casualties. He counter-attacked, driving the Guard Zouaves back up the ridge a bit, but eventually he was repulsed. Vionville was now in French hands. The French attack was momentarily confounded by the appearance of Von Bredow and his 12th Cavalry Brigade. It launched its famous “death ride” against the Guard artillery, but the attack was a bit of a damp squib, and eventually the brigade withdrew after running into the massed firepower of the French VI Corps, who were moving up behind the Guards. The game could have gone on longer, but it was now 5pm in real time, and people had to start heading home. So, we called it a day, even though we could have played the game for another dozen turns, until nightfall. It probably wouldn’t have made much of a difference though. the French were now in Vionville, which meant they’d turned a loss into a draw. The Prussians might well have been able to recapture the village again, but that would have meant using most of X Corps to do it, supported by the massed guns around Tronville. All that would have taken quite a few turn, and there was no guarantee it would have worked. So, the game was duly declared a draw. The main thing though, was that the game looked terrific, despite using puny little 10mm figures, and it was fun to play. Actually, that doesn’t really do it justice. It was one of those games you’ll probably remember years later as being something of a classic. We used Fire & Fury – the original American Civil War brigade-level set – augmented by the Fire & Furia Francese amendments you find online on the Wye Valley Wargamers website. I’m not saying the rules were perfect – in fact there were a few times when they throew up problems – but generally they worked very well indeed.  The game also captured a flavour of the period, which is exactly what you want. All in all it was a Saturday well spent! 

 

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One Response “The Battle of Mars-la-Tour, 1870”

  1. MikeH
    1st April 2017 at 5:43 am

    Great looking battle and very close too. Any time the French can even get a draw in the FPW I think is pretty good. That Prussian artillery can really dominate at times.
    Looks like it was indeed a good time!

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About Angus

Angus Konstam is an author and historian he also plays wargames with historical miniatures. Yup, that’s little toy soldiers to you!