The Napoleonic Wars, Black Powder, 28mm
Once in a while you take part in a game that simply takes your breath away. This was one of them. A few years ago, historic novelist Iain Gale told me he had some Waterloo terrain stored in a shed. Six months ago he told me he had dug it out, and was installing it in a room in Summerhall, Edinburgh’s new Art Centre.I had no idea just how good the terrain looked until Bill Gilchrist sent me photos. Then, Iain invited me to play, and to bring along my French. I only have about 350 figures at the moment – my French army is a work in progress – but while Iain had all the British and their allies, he was short of Napoleon’s troops. I happily lend this small stash of lead, and was told the game would be run over a weekend. Unfortunately I was already spoken for on the Saturday, having agreed to take part in “Lardy Day”. However, wild horses couldn’t stop me from turning up on Sunday morning, eager to cram in a few hours of gaming before I had to hit the road to Orkney.The table was about 20 feet long, and 8 feet wide, with a couple of cut-outs to let people with long arms reach the middle of the table. The buildings – I think – came mainly from Hovels, including the spectacular Hougoumont farm and chateau complex, in all its glory. The Allies deployed along the ridge running towards Papelotte on the far corner of the table, past the crossroads just above La Haie Sainte, which served as the mid-point of the table. A lot of teddy bears were culled to make the stunning terrain, which was a real pleasure to fight over. In some ways the whole look of the game was reminiscent of the pictures in Charles Grant’s Napoleonic Wargames, which first inspired my love for this period back in the 1970s. You can see the cover of that old book on my Age of Bonaparte page. That similarity is one fo the finest complements I can give to a Napoleonic game.By the time I got there on Sunday morning I had already missed the first day of fighting. I was given a French command – part of D’Erlon’s I Corps, which was already launching an attack against the ridge between La Haie Sainte. This was exactly what happened during the real battle, with the assault going in at around 1.15-1.45pm. Unfortunately Donzelot, Quiot and Marcognet’s Divisions were widely staggered, so instead of attacking in one big wave the French came on in brigade-sized groups. This time the Dutch didn’t turn tail and run, Picton’s 5th Division held its ground, and the Allied line held. What might have helped D’Erlon was the presence of the French Grand Battery, but due to “unforseen circumstances” it was somehow bogged down in the mud, somewhere off the French table edge. I think this was thanks to Iain, who was playing the part of Wellington with great aplomb. Having laid out the table and having ran out of French gun models, he simply made a virtue out of necessity, stacking the odds in the Allied favour in the process! Still, the attack lasted for much of Sunday afternoon, and only petered out after about a dozen turns of hard fighting. The Allies didn’t launch Ponsonby’s cavalry in a counter-attack – instead the Allied horse were committed in penny packets, and so acted as a fire brigade, relieving pressure on Picton’s line when it was beginning to buckle under the pressure.I had to leave before the attack reached its conclusion, but already there were signs that things were unravelling. The Prussian advanced units were making a very early appearance around Papelotte, which was held by Perponcher’s Dutch Division. The screening French cavalry lacked the support to winkle the Dutch from the farm buildings, but they managed to more than hold their own against the growing number of Prussian and Allied light cavalry in the area. Over on the French left things were going rather better around Hougoumont. When I left Reille’s II Corps had almost completely driven the Allied garrison from the chateau complex, and Wellington had been forced to divert troops from his centre to reinforce his right wing. These reinforcements thwarted Prince Jerome’s attempt to swing around the back of Hougoumont, between it and Braine l’Alleud.Strangely Lobau’s VI Corps never really launched a proper attack against the ridge between Hougoumont and La Haie Sainte. They advanced into the valley, but seemed content to hold their ground – intimidated no doubt by the massed Allied gun batteries lining the ridge ahead of them. I swear the Allies outnumbered the French in artillery in this refight, and it meant that any attempt to launch an assault against the Allied centre would have quickly turned into a refight of Pickett’s Charge. However, at around 5pm in real battle time the fall of Hougoumont paved the way for the battle’s grand finale. Bill Gilchrist – playing the part of Napoleon – launched a sweeping cavalry charge across the valley, following the historic path taken by Ney’s massed cavalry attack at around 4pm in the real battle. The British were forced into square, and now Lobau’s men advanced, only to be halted by some deadly British fire. Poor old Kellerman’s cuirassiers were also shot to bits, mostly by the fire from a couple of well-placed British squares. The dice gods were clearly on the Allied side during these crucial few turns!What was strange about the refight was the way it mirrored the timing and movements of the real thing. By that stage the Prussians were appearing in greater numbers, and Bill sent the Young Guard towards Planceloit, to hold them off. Benefiting from hindsight he sensibly kept the Old Guard in reserve around La Belle Alliance, but he sent the Guard Cavalry off to deal with the Prussians, and in a swirling cavalry battle the Prussian horse were driven back towards Papelotte. In fact this pretty much stymied the Prussian advance, as it would clearly take them time to regroup and launch a concerted attack on Planceloit. Similarly while D’Erlon’s Corps supported by Milhaud’s cavalry were forming up for another attack on the ridge east of La Haie Sainte, darkness was falling fast. So, it was decided to call a halt to the battle, which was declared a minor Allied victory. The French still had troops in play, and their capture of Hougoumont gave them a useful anchoring point for their assaults. They had also stopped the Prussian advance, but the key to the Allied victory lay in their defence of the ridge. They had thrown back all French attacks against it, and so had won the day.By this time of course I was 280 miles away to the north, having left the game at noon, and driven north to catch my ferry. Iain says the table will be staying up throughout the summer, as a piece of “interactive art”, so with luck there’ll be another chance to refight the battle. This time we’ll get those guns up, and we’ll work on our co-ordination, so all our assaults go in at the same time. Then we might have a chance of bloodying Wellington’s nose. The rules we used were Black Powder, which were the ideal set for this scale of game. Despite the huge scale of the game – with a few thousand figures on the table – the four or five players a side managed to rattle through the battle in something akin to double real time – so it took 12 hours of gaming to fight six hours of battle. That, given the sheer size of this battle was something of an accomplishment. Well done Iain for laying this on for us.You can see more pictures of the game – and better ones – on Bill Gilchrist’s site, which has a link to his Flickr gallery. Also, if you want to enjoy a rattling good read based on the battle, you can’t go far wrong reading Iain’s historic novel Four Days in June. Heck – of you buy a copy the royalties might help him flesh out his French artillery train!