Saturday, 28 April 2012

Polotsk, Aug 1812

After a long absence the Napoleonic collection was dusted off this week as we re-acquainted ourselves with the 'big battles' version of the Shako ruleset. The action chosen was the 1st battle of Polotsk, where the northern flank force of the Grande Armee, under the command of Oudinot clashed with the Russian I Corps, commanded by Wittgenstein. Both sides fielded approximately 20-30,000 men (figures for those present vary from source to source). It may have been better to use the standard version, giving approx 30-40 battalions per side; but with only a evening to play the scenario, (the games table doubles as the kitchen table), a more streamlined ruleset was required. Also, with a large Borodino game planned for the summer an extra 'training session' with the big battles variant would be very useful.

Historically, Polotsk was a two day battle. The first day was a Russian victory, pushing back the French and allied forces. Wittgenstein then decided to wait for reinforcements before recapturing Polotsk itself. Oudinot had been wounded in the fighting and command passed to St Cyr. He decided to counterattack, using his Bavarian troops to hit the Russian left whilst the French troops pinned the centre.
Hidden by the lie of the land, the Bavarians moved into position to attack the infantry division commanded by the Prince of Siberia. Following a short artillery barrage, Leroy's division advanced and quickly pushed back the surprised Russians. However, Wrede, with the supporting division was delayed by formation changes and making room for the Bavarian artillery to redeploy after being masked by Leroy's troops. All this gave time for Wittgenstein to respond and he quickly moved forward his grenadiers and dragoons.

In the centre St Cyr ordered Legrand and Verdier to move their divisions forward against Vlatov's division. To their left, Merle's infantry also advanced, accompanied by the cavalry, Chastels's Hussars and Chasseurs, plus Doumerc's Cuirassiers. As the French infantry advanced they came under increasingly heavy artillery fire, whilst the French artllery's attempts at counter-battery fire proved ineffective. Chastel moved his light cavalry around the Russian right, only to find himself opposed by the light cavalry commanded by Repnin. Just before they charged, the French were fired on by the Russian horse artillery and the consequent disruption counted against them in the ensuing melee. Their own artillery had been firing canister at Vlastov's infantry in preparation for a joint attack by Merle and Doumerc and so the Russian light horse went into the melee at full strength.
The melee was won by the Russians and the French fell back to try and regroup. Following up, the Russians overran and captured the French horse artillery, taking the guns with them as they fell back to reform.

However, the French had a chance of a decisive breakthrough. Vlastov's infantry on the ridge were now attacked by both Doumerc and Merle; any French success would prove fatal to the Russian division. (The rules state that a division outscored by an enemy cavalry division is automatically broken, ie destroyed). The dice were rolled, with the French having a +2 advantage, but Doumerc was outscored by 1 and Merle could only draw. In the re-roll the Russians won and both French divisions had to withdraw.

To Merle's right Legrand was still advancing towards the ridge, into the teeth of the guns. The casualties were causing disruption and Wittgenstein launched Balk's dragoon division in a counter-attack. The ensuing melee would be a close run thing with the Russians having the advantage of no casualties and the French greater numbers; again, any Russian success would spell doom for the infantry division. However, this time the dice favoured the French and Balk's cavalry withdrew.

But what was happening to the Bavarians? StCyr was anxious that the flanking manouevre begin to draw troops away to aid the battered French divisions. Leroy had continued his advance, but only slowly, concerned that Wrede was too far back to protect his left should Berg's infantry division move against him. The presence of the Russian grenadier division seemed to have pinned Wrede to the spot and the repositioned Bavarian artillery was having little success in driving back the Russian infantry. After some prompting, Wrede did move forward and encouraged, so did Leroy. The latter was surprised to see the reformed division of the Prince of Siberia advancing towards him. However, the Bavarians had prevailed once, why not twice? especially as the Russian division was now weaker. Again the Bavarians had the advantage (+2), but the dice favoured the Russians and the Bavarians had to fall back. Historically Leroy was killed and Wrede took command of both divisions. In our game the beaten division refused to rally (ie failed it's morale rolls)and took no further part in the game.

 The lack of pressure on the left allowed the whole Russian gun line to concentrate on Legrand's divison. Battered in the crossfire of 7 batteries of guns the division was destroyed. A final attack by Wrede against Berg attempted to salvage something from the day for the French, but this too was beaten back and St Cyr ordered a withdrawal back into the defences of Polotsk.
Wittgenstein could visit his battered, but victorious men and encourage them with news of impending reinforcements. In several ways the game followed historic events. The initial Bavarian attack achieved surprise and some success; but the loss of key commanders caused delays. The French attack in the centre was caught in an artillery cross fire and the infantry suffered heavy losses. A Russian cavalry attack launched to relieve pressure on the Russian line was successful and bought time for a Russian withdrawal.

The scale of the game did cause problems. Having only 6 or 7 units means that the loss of 1 can have a significant effect. The Polotsk scenario is perhaps at the lower end of the range that can be used for the 'big battles' version of Shako. Also, although I followed the ratios for artillery, the number of guns did seem excessive. Perhaps instead of 1:16 a ratio of 1:24 may be better?

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