Monday 13 June 2022

First assault on Hougoumont, with Soldiers of Napoleon

This would be historical refight, a pre-written scenario (by me) set during the first hour or two of the attack on Hougoumont at the Battle of Waterloo (in case anybody didn’t know where it was!). One of the most famous feats of arms of the British army (conducted largely by the Guards and, ahem, German units). I did the research, made a sketch map of the battlefield and got the units and strengths sorted into playable army lists for both sides, each with their break points. It made for an interesting match-up of a small, tough force for the allies, of excellent infantry, dug-in behind good cover and with the fortified building of the gardener’s house (part of the far larger chateau complex) to defend. The French attacked with, well, lots of infantry, mostly regulars and some battalions downgraded to reserves, but hugely outnumbering the defenders. Neither side had any cavalry and the guns were mostly off-table (except a single howitzer the French pulled up in close support).

I was keen to see if the rules would reflect the actual battle well, would it be ‘game-able’ and still have any sense or feel of the reality? Could the allies replicate their heroic feat of arms or would they just get crushed by weight of numbers?

We didn’t have the perfect models to play the game, lots of French infantry was fine (got that), but for the allies, no Nassau troops (the green jackets of the rifles would stand-in for green Nassaus) and the Hannoverians/Luneberg/Grubenhagen contingents would be made-up of more red jacketed Brits, as were the Guards (which is at least right, bar fancy epaulettes).

We set-up the tabletop and sorted our forces, rolled for the reserve brigade’s arrival and noted it down, rolled command points  and did the pre-battle prep, so were ready to go. At around 11.30 am, General Rielle’s Corps (the vanguard of it, 1st and 2nd Leger)) were advancing through the woods south of the chateau.

This is popular subject for Napoleonic wargamers (naturally, it’s a very famous action), and I thought it work well (as an idea). SoN recreates a part a larger battle and this what this is, the first assault (there were several) for an hour or two over just part of the wider Waterloo battlefield. It is what the game already recreates.  Second, I didn’t want the entire chateau complex on the tabletop, it’s huge and breaks the ground scale by its size, with many buildings (which few gamers have). Instead I went for the middle of the action, focused on the attack on the formal garden with its tall walls. Could the French overcome this obstacle? (on the day they couldn’t). 

Rough map of the tabletop battlefield. Gardener's house, walled garden, great orchard, the woods and hedged paddocks.

Turn 1, and the allies started with the initiative, German skirmishers in the woods and firing at the French columns for the first few points of Disruption. The French advanced en-masse, through the difficult terrain of the woods (slowing them down), getting their own Voltiguers forward to engage those skirmishers and shoot back at the Germans. Behind the screening light infantry, the Guards and Nassua troops held the gardener’s house and deployed along the formal gardens walls (it was well loopholed and had ad hoc fire platforms of barrels and doors/planks behind it). The French advance was slowed, fighting the underbrush or, for the flanks, the big hedges of the farm’s paddocks. The French held the ‘grand assault’ battlefield objective and I felt confident I could complete it (for once). The allies held the ‘Hold the Line’ objective, which we decided only counted for the formal garden and house, they had to keep the French out of their strongpoint to claim it.

Little action but skirmishing fire and French moving up in turn 1, a quiet one, with no artillery fire at all. Turn 2, and things heated up, the Guards detachments sent forwards their skirmishers into the woods too, as did the Nassua battalion and the place was thick with allied skirmishers, all firing away and starting to hurt the French. My own fired back, doing the first Disruption to the German light troops. Behind, along the wood’s track, I brought up the limbered howitzer, set it up and started the lob shoot onto the gardener’s house - but with no hits yet. At the end of turn 2, the French suffered the first set-back, the last card play saw ‘skirmishers harass’ special event and the guards and Nassau skirmishers opened a galling fire through the trees, scoring hits that broke the 1st battalion of the 1st Leger… drat… skirmishers hitting on 2+ hurts, and multiple hits ended the turn with 6 disruption on the 1st battalion’s 5 stands (1 deployed out as voltiguers, so thy don’t count). They fell back, broken, the first loss. Nice special event to get.

Turn 3, and the French columns pressed on, to the edge of the woods, deploying into lines at the hedgerow and opening up with volleys at the garden wall beyond. On the flanks, 2 battalions, one left, one right, closed in on the gardener’s house and into the great orchard (unoccupied) to get in and stop his objective being completed. The 3rd battalion, 1st Leger then suffered the same fate, another skirmishers harass card scored 4 hits as the French tried to scale the walls and, with no card to rally them (militia quality), that battalion also broke. Those guards were showing their excellent mettle. The 1st Leger was down to 1 battalion and its howitzer (still missing). To aid the French General Rielle did arrive to oversee General Baudin’s floundering attack. On the down side, Guard reinforcements arrived in the formal gardens. It was beginning to look very tough.

Turn 4, and the French assault, well the first wave, was approaching it’s peak. Volley smashed between the hedge line and wall and the howitzer scored its first hits on the guards in the gardener’s house. As French battalions close in for the coming ‘grand assault’, both sides needed to rally too.  Trading fire, with much skirmishing, but those walls were absorbing most of my firepower. The French had now moved all their battalions up and three were in place to charge next turn. One more was needed though to fulfill the Grand Assault, the early loss of two battalions was being felt.

Turn 5, and the French reinforcements had arrived, Soye’s brigade of 6 more infantry battalions, advancing up through the woods again (as quick as they could, taking the enforced Disruption for the full move). In went those charges, the first into German light infantry, winning and destroying the small unit that broke. At the gardener’s house only 1 of the reserve battalions charged, the other refused and volley fired instead (even with a command point re-roll). The single battalion were then in trouble, as the defending guards within re-rolled all their failed attacks, and the attackers re-rolled all their successful ones. Hammered, the guards drove the French off with 8(eek!) disruption, which had to be rallied with the loss of half the battalion as casualties. I still needed 2 more charges, and couldn’t get them. The battalions lining the hedge (base of volley fire) were just too far away to get to the wall. The grand assault hadn’t been completed.

By now, the VPs had stacked up, with the allies just ahead. But if I could somehow complete my objective, I’d be at the allied break point and win. So, to turn 6, and last chance to do it. The guards on the walls were being reinforced by more elite infantry and so, getting over that wall was looking impossible, until Soye’s many battalions took over. I did draw a new objective card, ‘advance through enemy lines’. I could go round, so did, and sent 1 battalion off past the gardener’s house, to seek another way in. But I couldn’t get the needed second battalion to them quickly enough. I failed that objective too, and the D3 penalty VPs for not completing the ‘grand assault’ pushed the French to their break point (just, rolled a max 3, of course). Drat, the allies had hung on and seen off the French first assault (just like on the day).

It felt close throughout, the allies horribly outnumbered and desperately rallying, trying not to lose some small battalions (3 stands detachments of guardsmen). The garden’s wall had been a fortress and the late (sneaky) use of the ‘skirmishers harass’ cards had been good play, breaking 2 battalions. Very happy with how it played out, a very historical result. French could have won it, but the guardsmen were just too tough in the melee and with excellent skirmishing skills. I’m thinking now to write a second scenario, for the afternoon’s main assault on the chateau, to re-jig the forces, fresh French troops (and some stragglers) and go again, over the same tabletop - Hougoumont, 2-4 pm?

From this, I can see a whole series of this re-fight scenarios, maybe 8-9 to cover the entire of the Waterloo battlefield, play them out in chronological order and you have re-fought the ‘crisis points’ of the battle. An idea of a supplement maybe, historical scenarios for Napoleon’s great battles (that can be the working title). 

Photos of the day's action...

Gardiner's house and walled garden beyond, from the 'kitchen garden' field. 

south of Hougoumont

General Baudin's columns, 1st and 2nd Leger, begin the advance. 

The single 5.5" howitzer towed up the track through the woods, just behind the infantry attack.

A battalion of the 2nd Leger cross the hedge into the kitchen garden paddock, heading for the gardener's house.

Skirmishers heavily engaged in the woods

Guardsmen and Nassua troops line the tall walls of the formal garden.

Hannoverian skirmishers at the hedge, as the French reach the edge of the woods and deploy into line.

Approaching the gardener's house, with guard skirmishers in the lane.

More guard skirmishers face the oncoming column of 3rd battalion, 1st Leger. It reached the wall, then broke under heavy, accurate, fire.

The French close in for the 'grand assault'.

Charge! the French smash the small German light infantry unit, but take heavy fire from the Nassau troops behind the wall, and fall back to rally. 

Soye's brigade arrive and begin to follow the first attack in, another struggle through the woods. Another turn and they could have taken over the assault with fresh columns.