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Monday, March 30, 2015

The Greatest Battle Ever Fought- on a Tabletop

First written in 1991
by Bruno Just
(The story so far, for those who missed the previous instalment in the old regime's DESPATCH, Vol.14, No.1. The first three parts are merely summarized).

I

ONCE upon a time, in a Senior Citizens Club, the aging head-quarters of the Sydney Wargaming Association, a gaggle of wargamers got together to think of a theme to while away the time in a pleasurable and playful way. Heads nodded and lips murmured imaginatively phrased proposals, until, as they were about to fall into a bored torpor, in their armchairs, one of their number, more ancient than most in table experience, spoke : "We shall have a mythical battle, set in 1815, involving all of my beautifully painted figures against all of Donald's miniature masterpieces. This shall take place on a 20'x 6' wargames table. We shall have a mythical battle, set in 1815, involving all of my beautifully painted figures against all of Donald's miniature masterpieces This shall take place on a 20'x 6' wargames table." Bruno paused, not only for effect, also for breath. Only the reassuring tick-tock of the grand-father clock could be heard over the breathing. "And we shall play the whole game in twenty-four,simultaneous turns with four or so players per side. And the winning side shall pay the catering costs for the other, for it shall have the pleasure of winning, while the other shall have the pleasure of being won over." A relieved silence greeted his puissant words. Then, murmurs and puzzled glances. How many figures were involved? they asked of each other, rhetorically. They knew, an awful lot! Would 120 square feet of table support circa 100 battalions, more than 50 regiments of cavalry and 65 pieces of miniature artillery, in all, 3.200, 25mm metal figures? What about the bottles of wine, mineral water and other necessary provisions, like pate de foie and crackers? “Let’s give it a go!” said Don, and we did.
***
The wargamer who generously provided the terrain for such a grandiose venture is a Southern gentleman of independent means, living in a manor of "Tara"-like proportions, with two house-sized war-games rooms. In short, a wargamer's dream. We escape to Richard's,from time to time, for a civilized series of enjoyable, almost inter-minable encounters. Having established the physical setting for our grand endeavour  we needed a pseudo-historical excuse. For this, I wrote the following scenario.
***

II

THE Congress of Vienna had treated proud France badly. She was strung up on an abattoir hook and pieces hacked off her carcass and given to the bordering nations baying and salivating like a pack of hounds. Armies of foreigners occupied her sacred soil, defiling the tombs of her heroes and trampling over her fields of glory. France was in a state of distraction. Dissatisfied and grumbling, her population was restive. Storm-clouds gathered on the historical horizon. As it was in the macrocosm so with the state of the microcosm. Crowds of citizenry came together, discussed, gesticulated, damned the government, and, having accomplished nothing but a lot of noise and bluster, as leaderless masses are wont to do, dissolved.
THE King feared the worst. He was a weak and vascillating man, given to sudden rages and fits of incapacitating depression. His ministers were pessimistic and desperate for a capable ruler to clear the floor of the political chaos which rendered good government impossible. The generals plotted his demise.
THE Paris mob, incited by the generals, ejected the multi-national garrison with the enthusiastic assistance of the Royal Guard. The cannon roared all over the country, as Allied forces beat hasty retreats in the face of Gallic fury. The Fleet took possession of the national seas. Optimism showed its grinning face in every quarter of France and a bouyancy informed all civic affairs. The ruling imperial heads of Europe disapproved and protested vigorously, threatening immediate  and irrevocable retribution. On the 1st of March, the King abdicated. His last words were to have momentous consequences :"Only a Bonaparte can save France, now!" Post haste the Fleet was despatched to Elba - and returned with Le Tondu! VIVA!
THE effect of Napoleon on French soil was galvanizing. France became an armed camp, the forge of Vulcan. By the end of April, the Emperor, naturally, had taken up the Crown which he had found lying in the gutter, and, in reforming the combat troops, found that he had in hand the best part of three corps d'armee and one corps of reserve cavalry. Flocking to the colours were many veterans of old. Marshal Berthier, of course, was Major-General, again. The Breton Bessieres commanded the Guard Cavalry and solid Soult the Guard Infantry. Rapacious Massena took command of IV Corps, after being offered a not inconsiderable sum of gold Napoleons for the honour. (Good Marshals were hard to come by in 1815). Still handsome and dashing, the Duc de Montebello arrived back on French soil on his forty-fifth birthday, the 10th of  April. Redoubtable Lannes, the Roland of the army, was limping from his six-year ordeal in the dungeons of Festung Zenda. With this fine force, the flower of what was left of French manhood, Napoleon barred the road to Paris.

IV

"CAPTAIN-GENERAL Cuesta is retreating!" The sterness in his voice betrayed some anger, as the Duke of Wellington snapped his spy-glass shut. "We shall have to do the same,then." He spurred Copenhagen while passing the telescope to the Aide-de-Camp who also tickled his charger's flanks with his spurs. The two equestrians emerged from under the great elm at a gallop, turned toward the Craonne road and rode pell-mell down to the escort cavalry. A summer shower of shot and shell, from French advance-guard horse artillery, scourged the earth behind them where they had stood, in the shade of the tree.
COVERED by the cavalry, the British Foot Guards and the Royal Horse Artillery, the Anglo-Allies withdrew Eastwards toward a force of Royalist French gathering around the Fleur-de-Lis, at Craonne. There Bluecher and his Prussians promised to meet them, and the Austro-Hungarians and Russians, too.

V

YOUNG Lieutenant Bruno Marin, riding before his troop of Elite Chasseurs, of the 8th Chasseurs a Cheval, thought of the battle to come and wondered how he and his troopers would behave under fire. They were cantering in the darkness, a full moon above and a warm breeze in their faces, riding four abreast along a white trail lit by the silvery orb, as if in a dream. The low thunder of the many horses' hooves receded into his sub-conscious. One hundred paces further on, the Captain's troop was kicking up a dusty cloud through which they rode, before it settled. Marechal-de-Logis (sergeant) Lamiere, rode on his right, then the troop followed. A Brigadier (corporal) on the right, flanked by three troopers, followed by another equestrian quad and another ... forty horsemen. A Sub lieutenant and a Brigadier-Fourrier brought up the rear. The little, moustachioed, ball-headed Lamiere rode silently, light on the stirrup and the rein. Their two destriers seemed to take delight in their paired jaunt, and snorted and tossed their heads cheerily, as if in conversation. Marin could see Lamiere's shadow from the corner of his eye. The Marechal was only 1.5 metres in height - probably the shortest man in the Regiment. He wore breeches and Hungarian boots, as his size in riding overalls was not obtainable. Give him a pistol or a blade, though, and he seemed to grow into a giant. Unhorsed at Toulouse in 1814, Lamiere used his pistol to put his wounded horse out of its misery, before defending himself. He was attacked by a bulky, big, English Dragoon, similarly unhorsed from a mountain of a charger. (Most of the British horsemen and horses were all unseemingly tall, as the British made no physical distinction between heavy and light cavalry, having been blessed by a surplus of horseflesh and an oversupply of oversized, fox-hunting gentry -   of course, we're talking Napoleonic Period, when men were rather shorter than is now the case).1 As he stepped forward, the Briton made the mistake of raising his arm for a downward cut of the straight blade upon Lamiere, who, in a twinkling of an eye, reversed his curved blade in his right hand so that both hands gripped the hilt and the blade described a half-moon curve back below his horizontal fore-arm and elbow. As his hip and shoulder thrust forward, the blade progressed in an elliptical orbit, its equinox ending below the Englishman's ribs, in a deep, long gash. As the dragoon doubled over, Lamiere, passing under the Englishman's guard, turned on his rear heel and brought the blade down diagonally across the back of the shoulder of the unfortunate once more, finishing him off. He  was not to be taken at face value. In the interminable duels with the 6th Hussars, with whom they were brigaded, which had begun after Wagram, in 1809, Lamiere had been invincible. Lieutenant Marin was glad to have him by his side, though he found the man's penchant for drinking, gambling and whoring somewhat off-putting. No one is perfect, he rationalized.
THEY entered an open wood, with trees well apart and sparse undergrowth. Their pace had not slackened. Suddenly, shouts, clinking of steel upon steel, the drum-roll of numerous hooves was heard. Marin's breath was caught somewhere between his throat and chest as  he tensed. He could not speak. The veteran Lamiere drew and held his sword aloft, reined his horse in and to the left and called : "Halt! Left flank! Draaaw SABRES!" The troop slowed and turned to face the imminent - what? Hundreds of gigantic, galloping shadows traversing the thicket at breakneck speed, under the moonlight, in disorder. Flashes of silver as the moonlight reflected off the burnished steel of cuirasses. Marin turned to Lamiere, just as the Captain rode down from his troop, and both said simultaneously : "They're cuirassiers!" The procession lasted as long as it took for the entire Cuirassier Brigade to pass at a frenzied gallop. Then - nothing. Silence, except for the snorting of a horse, here and there. The Captain, Lieutenant and the Marechal-de-Logis were joined by the Chef d'Escadron by now. They looked at each other in the luminous light of the moon. All had a question emblazoned on their faces:"What the blazes is going on with those bastards!?" spat out the squadron leader. They looked at each other and then in the direction of the rout. Lamiere spoke with a voice of authority: "I saw this happen in Germany, once, under the same full moon, riding through a wood. They panicked, sir. There's no enemy in this wood. They just ran away in a panic." Marin looked incredulously at the Marechal and let out a low whistle.
(To be continued)..




1 At Waterloo, in 1815, the average height of French Guard Grenadiers was 5'5" and of the Chasseurs 5'3". The British Guards were 5'11" tall in the Grenadiers, 5'8" in the Light Companies and 5"7" in the Battalion companies.

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