Sunday, 19 January 2014

Merxem, 13th January 1814

Our battle this week comes from 1814.  The actions on the northern front attract little attention, indeed most of the troops initially stationed there were soon moved to take part either in the battles on the approach to Paris, or, in the case of the British, the campaign in America.

The action at Merxem, near Antwerp is listed by Digby Smth ( Greenhill Napoleonic Wars data book) as a 'clash' rather than a full blown battle, but the forces involved (c10,000) per side provide sufficient units for an evening's game. For the French, commanded by General Maison, the objective is to keep the Allies away from Antwerp for as long as possible.  The Allies, (particularly Britain), would like to secure Antwerp and the river estuary as a supply base. There is a book on this campaign, but I don't have a copy.  I also came across a book by Michael Leggiere through google books. For the detail on the British forces involved the Napoleon Series provides plenty of information.  "The Memoirs of Thomas Morris" (ed Selby) also provide some information.  The terrain for the battle is not based on any actual maps, but scraps of detail gleaned from the sources I found, so my apologies to those who feel that the result is a travesty of the facts.

General Maison has 10 battalions of infantry organised into two divisions; that of General Gilly has four battalions of regulars, veterans from Spain, but all the battalions are under-strength.  General Ambert has six battalions of raw conscripts, stiffened by a battery of artillery.  General Castex commands the cavalry (Smith says it was not engaged, but I included it), which comprises two under-strength light cavalry regiments.  General Gilly's division holds a chateau and orchard across the road which is the Allied line of advance.  General Ambert is held in reserve at Merxem.  Behind the village is Castex.

The Allied forces under Bulow are  in two brigades.  Gibbs brigade of British line has three battalions (not having any British troops in my Napoleonic collection I used Prussians).  Thumen's brigade has 8 battalions of infantry, 2 of regulars and 6 of landwehr and reserve infantry.  Thumen also has an artillery battery.  The Allied light cavalry under Oppen comprises a regular Hussar regiment and two landwehr units.

The action took place in winter and contemporary accounts stress the very cold conditions, therefore the ditches are deemed to be frozen.  However, in an earlier action a French unit when forced to retreat found that the ice broke beneath their weight.  We therefore included a die roll when a unit crossed one of the ditches, a 5 or 6 meant that the unit became disordered.  This seemed to work well, causing some disruption to the Prussian attack, but not enough to unbalance the game.

Steve took the part of Bulow and decided to use Gibbs' brigade in a flanking manoeuvre whilst attacking the chateau and orchard with the Prussians.  He advanced on a broad front, taking the chance that the ice would hold and in the majority of cases it did. The skirmishers from Gibbs and Gilly's formations were soon in action, but the French were unable to old back the formed British(ie Prussians from the 1st Pomeranian regiment) battalions.  Gilly ordered the 2nd battalion of the 54th line to advance and support the skirmishers.  Doing this they found themselves faced by the Fusilier battalion of the 1st Pomeranian regiment.  After firing a volley, the 54th charged and bundled the fusiliers back over the ditch.  However, their success almost proved their undoing.  The 1st battalion of the Pomeranian regiment was now to the rear of the French.  Not pausing to fire a volley, the Prussians charged hoping to catch the Frenchmen unprepared .  Fortunately they must have spotted the Prussians because, against the odds, they won the ensuing melee and drove off their assailants. Perhaps overconfident, the Frenchmen now charged a militia battalion, only to be stopped in their tracks by a volley.  As they tried to recover, the Prussian jaeger moved round their flank and  began to snipe at the officers .  Although reduced in numbers, the major of the 54th led his men forward again, but the militia stood firm and inflicted such heavy losses that the battalion took no further part in the battle.

Thumen had deployed his artillery to fire on the chateau complex in support of an infantry attack.  However, the guns had no discernible effect on the defenders.  On the road, the 2nd Pomeranian militia regiment attacked the barricade held by 2nd battalion of the 8th Legere.  The melee was short but bloody; the French veterans, although outnumbered, drove off the Prussians with heavy losses and the militia were finished as a fighting force.  Thumen now organised a co-ordinated attack with his two regular Brandenburg battalions attacking the barricade, whilst three landwehr and reserve battalions attacked the 1st battalion of the 8th legere which was defending the orchard.  The French in the orchard fired with a will and their volleys managed to stop each of the attacking battalions before they reached the hedge bordering the orchard.  At the barricade, the French found the Brandenburgers stiffer opposition than the militia.  Ignoring the mayhem to their left, the Prussians closed up to the barricade and by sheer weight of numbers forced the French to relinquish control of the obstacle.  One backward step became two and as the Prussians broke through the barricade, those few Frenchmen who had survived ran back towards Merxem.

Seeing the pressure Gilly was under, Maison ordered Castex to advance with his cavalry and threaten the Prussian flank.  As he advanced, Castex became aware of Oppen's cavalry, which had previously been screened by the Prussian infantry.  He decided to attack before the Prussians could deploy their superior numbers. The French 2nd Hussars clashed with the Prussian Hussars and came off worst. Perhaps they had too many raw recruits in their ranks, perhaps they could not match the elan of their opponents, or perhaps Maison's die roll could have been higher?  In the end, the French hussars were driven from the field.  Their less flashy comrades, the 4 th Chassuers quickly overcame their landwehr opponents, but did not rein in to recover their order (unlike the Prussian Hussars) and instead charged a supporting landwehr cavalry unit.  The melee was much more even, but eventually, the French had to retire to reform and give time for their blown mounts to recover. 

With no active cavalry remaining to threaten his attack, Thumen ordered a second advance on the orchard.  Maison,for his part, ordered Ambert to support Gilly.  Ambert sent two battalions of the 2nd Line forward on his right and two of the 23rd Line on his left, retaining the two battalions of the 3rd (Irish) Etranger in Merxem.  The second assault on the orchard was no more successful than the first, the volleys from the 1st battalion 8th legere again stopping all three Prussian battalions.  An attack on the chateau also failed to gain any ground.  With time passing, Thumen organised a third attack on the orchard.  This time it was led by the 2nd battalion of the Brandenburg Infantry regiment.  These more experienced troops ignored the losses from the defenders' volleys and charged home.  Driven back by the impetus of the Prussian charge, the French infantry relinquished the line of the hedge and this allowed more Prussians into the orchard.    Heavily outnumbered, the French broke and the survivors ran towards Merxem.

Gilly's sole remaining battalion, the 1st 54th Line was in danger of being surrounded and reluctantly abandoned the chateau and fell back toward Merxem.  This sudden collapse of the forward position caught Ambert's advancing battalions in 'no mans land'.  As the fugitives from the chateau and orchard headed for Merxem, the battalions of the 2nd line formed square, wary of the advancing Prussian cavalry.  On the left the 23rd formed line supporting the artillery and facing Gibbs Pomeranian infantry.
Ambert recognised he needed all the troops he could muster to hold Merxem against the advancing Allies.  He therefore ordered the battalions of the 2nd and 23rd to fall back.  The 23rd managed to do this, but the 4th battalion of the 2nd line was too close to the enemy cavalry and had to stay in square. the 3rd battalion was able to obey their orders and left their comrades to their fate.


Pinned in square by the Prussian cavalry and with their own cavalry too weak to intervene the conscripts awaited the Prussian infantry.  Thumen deployed two battalions of the 4th Reserve Infantry and they poured volleys into the huddled French conscripts.  As the square dwindled the commander of the 3rd battalion of the 2nd Line felt he had to do something and ordered his men to advance to the aid of their comrades. Before the furious Ambert could send a counter order the advance began.  Their prayers answered, the waiting landwehr cavalry swept down on the hapless French.   The French officers desperately shouted for their men to form square.  Before that could be achieved, the Prussians were on them, their lances doing deadly work.  The battalion disintegrated and its eagle was carried back in triumph by the jubilant Prussians.  All this had been in vain, as, whilst the 3rd battalion was being butchered, the remains of the 4th battalion were overrun by the Prussian infantry.

On the left, the 23rd was holding the line and even counter attacked.  Driving off the 1st battalion of the Pomeranian infantry.  This stalled Gibbs whole brigade and they had to fall back to reform.  However, this French success was short lived.  Thumen's advancing battalions raked the conscripts with volleys and then charged.  The French left disintegrated, fleeing for Antwerp.

Led again by the Brandenburg infantry, the Prussians closed on Merxem.  The Irish, who formed the garrison saw the mayhem around them and decided that they too would head for Antwerp.  All Maison could do was request that Castex use his remaining cavalry to cover the rout.  Merxem had fallen, but too little daylight remained for an Allied advance on Antwerp.

The battle followed historical events.  The Allied attack was successful, but, fire from the guns of Antwerp disuaded the Allies from any further advance.  Over night Bulow pulled Thumen's men back, anxious that his lines of supply were threatened by MacDonalds forces.  Merxem was therefore abandoned and had to be attacked again a few weeks later. 


  1. You clearly had a lot of fun with this. Castex's Cavalry was in fact a division of Imperial Guard cavalry and quite a bit of the French Infantry was Young Guard from either 4th or 6th YoungGd Div. George Nafziger's new book on 1814 has quite a bit of detail and orbats for Maison's force as a whole though it isn't clear exactly which French units were engaged. Leggiere's book is also of some use. Both are very informative. Thanks for posting the battle report!

    1. Thanks very much for the feedback. I will follow up the sources you mentioned.