Tuesday 24 March 2020

The Battle Of Maida, July 1806

Historical battles are extremely useful for the playtesting of rules, as they mean we can see just how well the rules allow the historical events to unfold. One has to be careful of course - for example, just because the wargame goes a different way to the original battle, it doesn't mean the rules are wrong. But players have to sense that the historical events are at least possible.

As Napoleonic battles go, Maida is a very playable one - only about 5,000 troops a side, on a flat plain, and where the course of the battle is reasonably well known. Plus it has the classic match-up (for British players at least) of French vs. British. Indeed, not that long ago it was touted by senior historians (Sir Charles Oman, no less, being among them) as a classic contest of British line against French column. More recently, historians (including Oman) have come to agree that both sides fought in line at this predominantly infantry battle, but that hardly makes it less interesting for the wargamer.

The battle was fought in Calabria, in southern Italy, at that time occupied by the French (though in no great strength). The French were planning an invasion of Sicily, held by the British, in pursuit of greater dominance of the Mediterranean. The British sought to frustrate these plans by means of a pre-emptive spoiling action, in which the French forces across the Straits of Messina would be attacked by a force landed from Sicily. And indeed, only 3 days after the British landing, the Battle of Maida took place, and was a resounding British victory.

Easily the best source for the battle is Richard Hopton's The Battle of Maida 1806: Fifteen Minutes of Glory. The 'fifteen minutes' refers to the dramatic events at the start of the battle, when two French regiments on their left wing attacked the English right, to be decisively seen off by the classic British tactic of two carefully timed volleys followed up by a spirited bayonet charge. The battle went on to last about 3 hours, from 09.00 to 12.00 - and the British remained victorious at the end.

Once again I was lucky enough to take advantage of Roy's lovely collection of 20mm Hinton Hunt figures. Readers can look up the details of the battle for themselves, but for the record the forces in our wargame were as below:

British (right to left)

Kempt’s converged light battalion - including some ‘Corsican Rangers’ and Sicilians.

Acland’s Brigade - 81st Foot and the 78th Highlanders.

Cole’s Brigade - Converged Grenadier battalion and the 27th Foot.

Oswald’s Brigade (reserve) - 58th Foot and de Watteville’s Swiss battalion.

There was also the 20th Foot, coming up from the beach independently. There were 10 4pdrs, which I represented by 3 batteries of light guns. These seem to have been distributed amongst the 3 leading brigades.

Total 5,300 infantry, 10 light guns.

French (left to right)

Compere's Brigade - 1st Legere and 42nd Line, with 2 battalions each. Some separate voltigeurs are needed to fight south of the river.

Peyri's Brigade - Polish regiment of 2 battalions, plus a Swiss battalion.

Digonnet's Brigade - 23rd Legere (2 battalions).

Artillery (independent) - 1 light horse battery.    

Cavalry (independent) - 9th Regiment Chasseurs à Cheval.

Total 5,100 infantry, 300 cavalry, 4 light guns.

As my rules have standard sized units, I decided to only have 1 battalion of Poles on the French side to give 8 battalions each, reflecting the pretty equal numbers of infantry on each side.

I relied on Richard Hopton's book for the final decisions regarding the forces on each side. His work is detailed and well researched. All infantry battalions had 24 figures, with 12 cavalry figures in the Chasseurs à Cheval.

Playing The Game
Deploying the forces on Roy's table turned out to be an interesting challenge. I was using three different maps to guide me - David Chandler's map in On The Napoleonic Wars, the map from Hopton's book, and the map from Bataille Empire. All differed, especially regarding the position of the French cavalry and the artillery on both sides. The potential weaknesses of the account in the recently released Bataille Empire have been discussed in a previous post reviewing those rules.

Map from Chandler.
Map from Hopton. A really bad publishing decision to use 'portrait' for this map.

Deploying the forces on a 6' x 4' table soon proved impossible, and the deployment extended into a space around 8' x 4". As usual, I went with Hopton when in doubt. Some shots of the resulting action are given below.

The troops deployed ready for action. British nearer the camera.
French voltigeurs on the south bank of the Amato river.
The 2 battalions of the 1st Legere are matched against Kempt's light battalion,
supported by a battery of light guns and the guns from Acland's brigade.
The 1st Legere gain the initiative over a series of moves, and turn the historical tables
on the Brits by delivering a series of deadly volleys to Kempt's unit.
And there they are gone. The French are also driven off by casualties received during their advance.
A serious slogging match in the centre also favours the French.
The arrival of the 20th Foot was delayed by dice roll. They finally entered the table on move 5,
on the left of the British forces, but it was too late. The British right and centre had already collapsed.
The skirmishing between light troops on the other side of the Amato was indecisive.

And so a resounding French victory resulted. Was there anything wrong with the rules? Firstly, I had not properly insisted that the 1st Legere divide their fire between Kempt's battalion and its supporting guns, which the rules require (and which would have made sense). However, it was also obvious that the initiative system needed revising. The French won the fire initiative 4 turns in a row, and managed to advance whilst at the same time issuing crushing volleys which overwhelmed the British in a rather non-historical way. As a result, I have changed the rules so that firing is always simultaneous.

This was a very useful (and enjoyable) game in 2 respects. Firstly, deploying the various units on-table showed up inconsistencies in the maps contained in the various books, and threw up questions of which units faced each other in the actual battle. It struck me in particular that the support of the British artillery would have been vital to Kempt's battalion in the original battle, an issue which only Hopton properly brings out.

Secondly, the question of fire initiative was brought to the fore by re-fighting a battle where British volley fire was so decisive. One always has to be careful to avoid making big rule changes as a result of one game, but here some nagging doubts from previous games were thrown into sharp focus.

Covid 19 Stops Play
Thanks for hosting Roy - as usual a great pleasure to use the facilities of your gaming room. It looks like this will be my last game against a live opponent for a while. Very best wishes to all readers for a safe and healthy time over the coming months. Maybe our hobby will provide a good way to pass the time for anyone staying at home. Bon Chance!


lewisgunner said...

If the Coronavirus gets me will I be a dead opponent then? Perhaps I could be strapped in the saddle like ElCid in the film.

Keith Flint said...

I think playing against dead opponents is taking the Dunkirk spirit a bit too far.

Bluewillow said...

Nice one guys, a great looking battle

French Wargame Holidays

Keith Flint said...

Thanks Matt. All the best for your business in the months to come.

Jim Walkley said...

Another intersting read Keith but I really should spend more time playing than just reading about other people's games. I couldn't find 8 feet width so would have to adjust the set up a bit. I know some people heartily disapprove of this but to me the original battle is just a hook on which to hang a game - players soon depart from the original anyway I think. I have noted the change to the rules which would have a big effect on the game. Although, referring to my ancient copy of 'The Wargame', I see that DF has this initiative rule in both ancient and horse and musket versions, this has disappeared by the time he sold the series of rules through the Wargamer's Newsletter. Just an aside.
Stay healthy.

Steve J. said...

A fine looking game and good to see that it provided food for thought on the rules.

Keith Flint said...

Jim, on re-reading your comment I find the point about DF very telling. It seems it took me a few decades to work out issues which The Don had already encountered and fixed.

The old initiative process was there as a 'gamey' bit of fun, and had become a familiar aspect of play, but in the end it had to go as it allowed chance too great a role, which could then overturn historical probabilities.