Wednesday, October 16, 2013

October 1813: Gaming the Battle of Nations

The setup for the main battle scenario in the VASSAL module for Leipzig 20.  Notice how the French (blue) are almost completely surrounded by the Coalition (green, white, black) on the map.  This is historically accurate.  More Coalition forces will enter the top of the map as the game continues placing heavy pressure on the French to try to hold the city of Leipzig while clearing a path of retreat off the bottom of the map.  The river system around the city abets the French defense but also restricts the ability of Napoleon's forces to maneuver.
Napoleon Bonaparte is, of course, one of the great genius' of history. Not only was he a great military commander winning memorable battles such as Ulm, Austerlitz, Jena, and Wagram, but he also possessed an expansive mind in government and in economics. 200 years ago today Napoleon commanded his army in the largest battle in western history up until World War One.  Some 124,000 casualties were inflicted over four days of battle amongst two massive armies totally about 600,000 troops.

In 1812, like many other great military leaders, he overstepped his bounds with his invasion of Russia. Even though he won the Battle of Borodino and captured Moscow it was all for naught. He was forced to retreat that winter and by the end of the year his original massive invasion force (one of the largest in history) of over 450,000 troops had dwindled to a few thousand stragglers. Never had anyone suffered such a catastrophic strategic defeat and risen again to be a significant military threat.

Yet, that is precisely what happened just a few months later in the spring of 1813. That campaign took place in Germany, initially with the Russians and Prussians allied against the French forces. By summer the ever-cautious Austrians joined the allied cause against Napoleon. Though the French won the Battle of Dresden in August, they lost almost everywhere else. This is because Napoleon could not be everywhere at once and his Marshalls were not as competent without his presence. So the Coalition forces learned to press vigorously if Napoleon was not present on the field.

This strategy worked. The French, outgunned and outnumbered, were eventually hemmed in at Leipzig. Napoleon was present and in command but he was almost completely surrounded. In four days in October, 1813 Napoleon managed to work interior lines of communication and gave the Coalition forces all they could handle. For their part, the Coalition was a bumbling mass of about 300,000 men. At the time, without large staffs to plan and communication technology to assist with the execution of orders (common today and in 20th century warfare) it was noticeably impractical to handle an army that size. The Coalition force was literally too large for the military art of that time to effectively command.

The cumbersome weight of managing that many troops, combined with Napoleon's daring and ability to control his portion of the battlefield at any moment made the battle at Leipzig technically a draw. But strategically, the French we incapable of driving their united adversaries away from the battlefield. In the end, Napoleon was forced to withdraw, literally fight his way out and back to the west of Leipzig. It is a fascinating military situation and piece of history.

As with many military matters that interest me, I have several games that reflect the Battle of Nations. Nothing compares with a well-designed wargame to afford additional insight into the situation at hand as covered by various books. In my wargame collection, I own the classic Avalon Hill game, Struggle of Nations, which features much of the action of 1813 from operational perspective. It gives you a great overview of the broader situation that led to Napoleon being bottled up at Leipzig.

Napoleon (near center) prepares to command his forces against a Coalition attack near Leipzig.  This is a screen shot from the ADC version of the wargame classic, Napoleon at Leipzig.  Unlike most wargames, this second edition of the game featured diverse unit coloration.  The counter colors have a historic basis, taken from the actual color and pageantry of the various uniforms of the units depicted.  This is just a very small section of the total game map and counters.
As far as the battle itself I own another wargame classic, Napoleon at Leipzig. This game has recently been published in its fifth edition, affording some measure of its lasting interest and commercial success within the wargame marketplace. My own copy is the second edition from long ago. I saw no reason to upgrade as I have really moved on to other interests. But, my copy of NaL gets played periodically and I find both the game system and the situation depicted fascinating and fun.

There are two other games in my collection depicting this military situation. Leipzig 20 is part of the Napoleonic 20 Series which I have blogged about in the past. While more game than simulation, the system does a good job of giving the player as feel for the nature of Napoleonic warfare without a great deal of complexity. The advantage of Leipzig 20 is that the entire battle can be played in 2-3 hours. So, you can try different tactics and variations in chance several times over the course of a weekend whereas most of the other games mentioned in this post take many more hours to play through to completion. These days I rarely complete any of them at all but I might play a Napoleonic 20 series game to conclusion repeatedly over the course of a few days.

Meanwhile, I also own the computer game from John Tiller, a long-time favorite gaming developer for the digital format. As is often the case, the Tiller design is generous, featuring many of the battles of the 1813 Campaign in addition to the massive four-day battle. The battles for Dresden, Kulm, Grossbeeren, Katzbach, and several others are depicted and show the range of French mastery on the battlefield from the first-rate Old Guard to the mediocrity of the newly formed French infantry, many of which were unreliable French allied troops.

I play all these games in their various digital forms. This allows me to save by gaming table for other wargames while also affording me the opportunity to keep several games going, sometimes going months in between playing sessions. I try to keep general written notes on my thinking regarding the situation in, say, Napoleon at Leipzig, so that when I finish a playing session in the winter or spring I can pick it back up in the fall and play through a few more turns without being completely disoriented as to where my mind was when I last left off the situation.

In this way, once again, I gain a new and deeper appreciation of the situation in that October 200 years ago. The Leipzig Campaign and the Battle of Nations mark the last possibility for Napoleon to take the initiative and dictate the overall situation as he had in almost every campaign since his first great victory at the Battle of Marengo. But, despite the unruly nature of managing the number of troops aligned against him, the Coalition forces managed to retain the strategic initiative in spite of Napoleon's limited local successes.

The world had never seen a battle as grand as Leipzig and it tested the limits of the military art at that time. It took an enormous encounter of this kind to send Napoleon's far-flung plans of conquest into oblivion. The Campaign of 1814, considered by many to be Napoleon's finest, was nevertheless another strategic defeat for him. The French forces were of ever-dwindling size and quality while the Coalition forces learned from their mistakes and slowly gained ever-more strength. By 1814, the weight of numbers made Napoleon's brilliance inconsequential. Despite a display of high operational competence, Napoleon could not prevent the capture of Paris.

Unlike the fall of Moscow, which did not lead to the dissolution of the Russian threat, when the French capitol fell it was curtains for Napoleon. He abdicated shortly thereafter. French society and politics was not comparable to the Russians and, indeed, was more fragile than the greatness of Napoleon might suggest. It is fun to spend a few hours each year reviewing the situation that placed Napoleon in that difficulty. There is no better battle to observe and explore the limits of the art of war in the early 19th century than the Battle of Nations where hundreds of thousands of troops stumbled around fighting a series of battles that almost captured Napoleon's entire army and nevertheless took the strategic initiative away from the French leading ultimately to the fall of Napoleon's empire.

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