Clash on the Ligny battlefield (1815)
This blog mainly concerns itself with wargaming in small spaces, due mainly to my own limitations on gaming space and the time that the space is actually available. A recent move has given me an opportunity for a separate but temporary playing area that is not subject to the demands on the family table and which allows for an all day game and even one that can drift into the following day.
As part of my restructuring plans for hobby time in 2018, I wanted to have some ‘wargame fest’ days during the year to use this space to get some bigger games in for a deeper level of play.
First up has been the rather splendid ‘Ligny 1815’ game from Hexasim, a two mapper, that with the historical scenario, we get three large corps on the Prussian side and three infantry plus three cavalry corps for the French.
I have already posted a detailed look at the system (see the Resource Section below), so this will just be an AAR as at how the historical battle played out, plus some notes and observations.
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This is the historical scenario, so all the forces start on the map and are known. There are two alternative scenarios, one starts the battle six hours earlier (9 AM) and the other looks at the difference that nearby reinforcements may have made, had they reached the battlefield (d ‘Erlon anyone!).
Turn 1 (3 PM).
Strategically, Napoleon’s plans relied on him defeating Blücher’s Prussian Army in detail before it could unite with Wellington’s nearby army. Today is 16th June 1815 and Marshal Ney is engaged with Wellington on a battlefield just a few miles away to prevent him reaching this battlefield.
You as Napoleon therefore have a small window of opportunity to deal decisively with the Prussian Army over the next few hours.
You as Blücher have the confidence to give battle, trusting that Wellington will shortly arrive to support you.
|The full expanse of the two mapper|
The French start at the bottom of the map, largely in and around Fleurus, Their two entry roads here are marked as Victory Point locations. They also have Gérard’s IV Corps poised to assault Ligny, with two cavalry corps to his right, covering the right flank of the army.
The Prussians control most of the upper part of the map. They have three corps that are not yet fully concentrated. Their side of the map edge also has two roads that are each Victory Point locations and additionally, across the map, there are seven ‘flagged’ locations that are Victory Point objectives. In addition to the physical locations. Destruction of the enemy forces will also yield Victory Points.
These are the seven flagged scenario objectives, each yields 10 victory points per turn and marked here with glass beads. The two beads in the centre identify the village of Ligny.
I opened the game with a face-to-face session with Mike. Set-up takes a while and we only got one turn played, the rest of the game was completed solitaire. We issued our initial orders in secret. I took the role of the French, simply because they set-up first and it allowed me to save some game time by getting the French onto the map before Mike arrived. With just 7 Game turns until the end of play (9 PM), I needed to be bold and continually seeking forward movement and engagement ...... what could possibly go wrong!
The French plan was to mask their right with cavalry, attack Ligny with Gérards’s IV Corps, attack towards St. Amand with Vandamme’s III Corps (amalgamates II Corps elements) and use the Imperial Guard to push through between Gérard and Vandamme to take the higher ground in the centre and deal with Prussians before they could concentrate against my other two corps. Milhaud’s IV Cavalry Corps start in position to the right of Fleurus, but I ultimately wanted them out on the far left (onto the Charleroi to Wavre Road), so they would spend a few hours sorting that out, but hopefully will be usefully placed for the end game.
|Gérard’s IV Corps attack Zieten’s I Corps at Ligny.|
Vandamme was slow to get going, but over the course of the hour, the French plan unfolded as intended. Gérard’s IV Corps drove into the centre of Ligny, taking both Ferme d’en Haut and the Church, as both armies closed in for a fight for the village. Vandamme took St. Amand on the left, routing most but not all of the defenders. Napoleon sent him fresh instruction to move up towards St. Amand la Haye, a settlement that Prussian II Corps were moving down towards.
Over on the Prussian far left (right in the photographs), Thielmann’s III Corps got confused orders and wasted an hour trying to sort themselves out. His Corps was spread out and co-ordinating a concentration was to prove difficult.
[Notes - By the end of the turn, the French have captured two Flag locations and destroyed two Prussian artillery units. Yielding 38 VP’s for the French and 50 VP’s for the Prussians. A special rule reflects Blücher’s impetuosity by compelling the Prussian Commander to have his stack make a melee attack every turn once the first Flag is captured. Failing to do so will award the other side 50 VP’s, so there is a strong incentive to comply and also some personal risks to Blücher. When the 4th Flag is captured, this requirement to attack is removed].
Turn 2 (4 PM).
As III and IV Corps became engaged at both St. Amand la Haye and Ligny, it became obvious that both I and II Prussian Corps were concentrating with the intention of holding the French at both those two settlements. In a decisive move, Drouot pushed the Imperial Guard through the gap between Vandamme and Gérard, intending to hit the Prussians before they could organise. In an effort to make good speed, the lead units took on an isolated Prussian force that had not been able to pull back in time due to the awkward terrain of woods and a stream, terrain that now worked against the Guard, especially their cavalry, as they attempted, but failed, to surround the enemy.
The Prussian Horse artillery made a heroic stand and at short range caused carnage and high casualties amongst the confident ranks of the Guard. Despite the withering fire, they held and pressed on with their attack, but were not able to dislodge the defenders.
Dismayed by such an early set back, Napoleon admonished Drouot and directly intervened, ordering an the enlargement of the attack, but despite this renewed attention and against the odds, the little Prussian force held out.
Concerned by this development to his right, Vandamme delayed his new orders to press on to St. Amand la Haye, further allowing von Pirch’s II Corps time to consolidate their grip on the village.
Even at Ligny, the French momentum stalled as desperate street fighting drew heavy casualties from both sides and something of a stalemate developed. The church changed hands several times, but neither side could properly consolidate the ground taken before the next attack would follow.
[Notes - Both sides failed to generate any allowance for new orders this turn, so would have to rely on any new orders being given directly during play by the Army Commanders, but who in this turn would have other distractions. The Guard got the first initiative and their failure and losses ( 3rd Chasseurs and 1/1 Grenadiers took step losses) were a shock. In addition, at the end of their activation they rolled the first ‘end of turn’ result, increasing the tension on the French side to get as much done in case the turn ended prematurely on a second ‘end of turn’ result. Their fears were realised when the turn ended before Vandamme did anything. This turn VP’s were just 20 for the French and 50 for the Prussians to give a running total of French 58 and Prussian 100 VP’s.]
Turn 3 (5 PM).
Ligny was going horribly wrong for the French, casualties were mounting for little gain. Corps cavalry started to move around the shoulder of the top end of the village in an effort to unhinge the defence and Grouchy ordered Exelmans’ I Cavalry Corps to move across and support this effort.
To keep up the pressure, Gérard had brought up his guns into the village, their fire opening up the Prussian centre, followed by an infantry assault that suddenly cleared the village centre, with enemy troops routing out to the rear. This together with cavalry moving around the top of the village, had caused a complete collapse of Von Zieten’s position. I Corps was now in danger of disintegration and if this happened the gap in the line would allow the French to move in behind Von Pirch down at St. Amand la Haye, with the prospect of II Corps also being surrounded and destroyed.
Blücher who suddenly needed to be everywhere at once, was still at Ligny. He issued orders for I Corps to pull out of the village and he personally took charge of the troops at the lower end of Ligny, who were about to be enveloped by the Imperial Guard and pulled them back. He then moved down to St. Amand la Haye to Liaise with Von Pirch.
The Prussian problem was not only the potential envelopment of I and II Corps, but that Thielmann’s III Corps was still floundering up near Tongrenelle without clear orders on what to do. Some of their units started to drift to the sound of guns, but for now, this significant formation was not a threat to French intentions.
On the higher ground between St. Amand la Haye and Ligny, the left flank of Prussian II Corps had taken up positions in strength, with the Corps artillery concentrated on that wing. Fearful of that artillery, Drouot’s Imperial Guard halted while they brought their own guns up, a manoeuvre that became time consuming due to the stream and nearby woods.
[Notes - What a turn! it started with me wondering how the French could win without another corps to assist (d’Erlon - where are you) and ended with the entire Prussian army compromised. The French were lucky and got two orders in the Order Phase, while the Prussians for the third time received nothing! A situation that made it difficult to get Prussian III Corps (Thielmann) to get moving. Their arrival at Ligny would have probably have been fatal for Gérard’s IV Corps. Instead they have had to rely upon independent movement (i.e. inefficient movement without orders) and some of those low Quality Factors of 6 had made that really difficult. French Victory Points were 30 for flags and 84 for casualties inflicted, while the Prussians got 40 for flags and just 5 for casualties. The rolling VP total is French 172 and Prussian 145. This really felt like the turn that was deciding the Battle in favour of the French, perhaps helped by the fact that the turn did not end early this time and all the French forces managed to activate and manoeuvre].
Turn 4 (6 PM)
At last orders came through for Thielmann. He was to take III Corps and concentrate around Tongrenelle. The position was central to either moving onto Ligny, moving towards Sombreffe to join the rest of the army or staying put to guard the Namur Road, particularly from Pajol’s I Cavalry Corps that had been resting at Ferme le Garion for most of the afternoon.
Blücher ordered Pirch (at St. Amand la Haye) to pull back to Brye, which was flanked by a difficult wooded area that would be a useful barrier to enemy movement.
At Ligny, IV Corps cavalry attempted to shut the door on those Prussian I Corps elements that had failed to get out of the village fast enough. I Corps was in a right mess! with heavy casualties and a stream of routing units heading to the rear. After visiting Pirch, Blücher rode back to try to stem this tide of fleeing soldiers and was partly successful, creating a hub for the rest of the Corps to fall back on.
I Corps, significantly weakened and trying to regroup, now lay in the path of Exelmans’ II Cavalry Corps, that had been ordered to take the ground behind Brye to cut the Prussian II Corps path of retreat. Exelmans would need to strike quickly while Zieten’s I Corps was so disorganised.
On the French left, Milhaud’s IV Cavalry Corps was to press on beyond Wagnelée and up the sunken road, passing the left side of Brye. The French net was set to close on II Corps.
Napoleon had ordered the Guard to advance on Moulin de Bussy, from where Brye could be out-flanked, but little progress was made as the artillery from each side were still engaged, each trying to get an advantage.
[Notes - The Prussians were fortunate enough to get an allowance of one order this turn, while French did not get any. The Prussians are on the back foot with a French plan of envelopment developing very nicely. Grouchy was now the danger, as a Commander, he is in position to be able to order both Exelmans and Gérard to advance from Ligny and close the trap on the Prussians. Victory Points this turn saw the French with 40 for flags and 49 for destroyed enemy units. The Prussians just got 30 points for flags. The rolling total in the game saw the French out in front with 261 VP’s and the Prussians with 175].
Turn 5 (7 PM)
Thielmann at last got the decisive orders that he wanted ..... ‘advance on Ligny and pin IV Corps’. Concerned that his abandonment of positions around the Namur Road would be exploited by Pajol’s cavalry, out on the French right. He decided to leave a division in the local vicinity and press on to Ligny with the rest of the Corps.
Grouchy, obsessed with closing the trap on Pirch and smashing the remains of Zieten’s I Corps, directly ordered Gérard’s IV Corps out of Ligny to make for the Nivelles to Namur Road. This coincided with Blücher doing a remarkable job in stemming the rout of Zietan’s I Corps and concentrating them in the path of Grouchy’s advance. The first clash was a big set-back for the French, first Gérard had troops rout from the initial attack and then Exelmans’ cavalry just stalled against Zietan’s increasingly organised troops. Breakthrough was essential to the French plan and so a second wave of attacks was ordered almost immediately. These failed to make any impression, except where Exelmans himself led an attack and that put a regiment to flight, leaving Zietan unhorsed and slightly bruised.
It was at this point that Grouchy became aware of the sound of cannon behind him and he knew that the Prussians must be pressing on Ligny. He had been caught on the hop, was fully engaged to his front and yet had nothing to show for his daring advance. However, unknown to him at the time, his last attacks had pushed Zietan’s Corp over the edge and they had become demoralised, the usefulness of this Corps was probably limited to just blocking the way to the lateral Namur road.
Pirch concluded his withdrawal from the streams above St. Amand la Haye, falling back on Brye. The large heavy woods that sat to the right of Brye significantly shielded this withdrawal from the attentions of the Imperial Guard, though some of Pirch’s cavalry and artillery units got caught out, trapped against the far side of the woods. As some Guard units tried to move through the woods, the dangers of fighting up the narrow lane in the wood became evident as 2/1 Grenadiers took heavy casualties and fell back. A more co-ordinated movement through the woods would take time to organise.
At Ligny, the first clashes opened as lead Prussian elements from Thielmann’s III Corps attacked the artillery positions at the the top end of the village, while at the lower end, routing infantry and cavalry from Gérard’s and Exelmans’ failed attacks had entered the village from the rear and were now streaming down the lower end of the main road, heading down to Fleurus.
[Notes - The Prussians were lucky to receive 3 orders in the Order Phase, this allowed each of the corps to get the sort of orders that that might stay relevant to the end of the game. Playing solitaire, I knew that Thielmann had his orders changed to attack Ligny in the Orders Phase, so I rolled a die to see what the French would do, based on Grouchy getting carried away attacking beyond Ligny to trap II Corps. 1-2 meant 2 infantry steps and 1 artillery unit would stay in Ligny as a Garrison, 3-4 meant that 4 infantry steps and 1 artillery unit would stay behind and 5+ meant that 6 infantry steps but no artillery would remain. I rolled a ‘1’, so this would be a weak garrison. From this turn onwards the die roll needed to get the second ‘end of turn’ result is lowered to 9. In Exelmans’ second attack, he rolled 11 modified to 12 which would have been a disaster for his attack force, reluctantly the French side played the re-roll card which for which the new dice roll instead inflicted casualties on the Prussians and called for a leader check, which Zietan survived! At the end of the turn the Prussian I Corps had lost 18 units out of their 35, so became demoralised for the rest of the game. This turn French Victory Points grew by 40 points for flags and 188 for casualties inflicted. The Prussians took 30 for flags and just 12 for casualties (though flipped Imperial Guard units will yield casualties at the end of the game). Running totals are French 379 and Prussians 220 ].
Turn 6 (8 PM)
Thielmann’s III Corps put in a significant assault against Ligny, destroying the garrison that Gérard had left behind and brushing with the routing formations passing through in the main street.
With resistance before him solidifying and the dangers of having Thielmann in his rear at Ligny, Grouchy called off his attacks and ordered IV Corps to return to the village. Over on the French right, Pajol’s rested and fresh I Cavalry Corps had been screening the road to Fleurus, while being well positioned to advance towards the Prussian supply lines on the Namur road. However, due to the urgent situation emerging at Ligny and the lateness of the hour, Pajol was released to move on Ligny to help deal with the Thielmann threat.
The arrival of these two forces at Ligny from two different directions caught Thielmann by surprise and several of his units routed away from the village, leaving the village in Gérard’s control once again. In truth, Thielmann had attacked with too few troops, due to not only leaving a division worth of troops behind, but also for dropping of some units along the way to cover key crossings at the stream behind him, fearful of leaving his supply line open. He was forced into making a hasty attack without proper forward support and now it would be at least a couple of hours before his corps could reorganise.
Milhaud (IV Cavalry Corps) on the French left had been having difficulty getting behind the flank of II Corps, as Pirch was slowly and continually pulling back. Both Vandamme and the Guard, for reasons that could only disappoint Napoleon, had broken contact with Pirch and were struggling to catch up.
The mood at Napoleon’s headquarters was sombre as the opportunity to smash the Prussian II Corps was slipping away. Napoleon demanded to know the whereabouts d’Erlon, who had been ordered to the battlefield several hours earlier, but there was still ‘no show’. The Guard, Vandamme and Milhaud were to be told in no uncertain terms to get moving and get the job against II Corps ‘done’, before daylight was lost.
Somehow the urgency behind that instruction did not reach either Vandamme or Drouot. III corps was very tardy in reorganising itself after capturing St. Amand la Haye and Drouot had a large wood between his lead formations and Brye, into which he had sent troops in to probe a way forward.
[Notes - The second ‘end of turn’ dice roll gets reduced to just 8 from now on, so both sides will be concentrating on ensuring that the important activations happen early in the turn. In the Order Phase, the Prussians do not win any orders, but the French got 1, which became important for activating Pajol’s cavalry, allowing him to move on Ligny, without that order, Pajol would not have been able to respond as his Corps was too far away from either Napoleon or Grouchy to be directed by them. At the end of the turn, French Victory Points were Flag 40, enemy casualties 6 for a total of 46 and Prussian points were Flag 30 and enemy casualties 42 for a total of 72. Total points to date are French 425 and Prussians 292].
Turn 7 (9 PM)
With darkness approaching, Thielmann’s III Corps were ordered to fall back on Tongrenolle, a retreat that generally went smoothly and unhindered by any enemy, but there were contingents that had become cut off at the lower end of town that would not escape.
On the French far left, Milhaud had been trying to turn the Prussian right flank as part of the entrapment of von Pirch and to bring the important crossroad at Trois Barettes under French control. His brigades of heavy cuirassiers charged forwards and smashed through the Prussian cavalry wing, pursuing them up towards the crossroads, but stopping short as 2 Elbe Landwehr moved into position to defend the road junction itself.
The squeeze that Milhaud was putting on the Prussian right might have been more effective had Vandamme done a better job of keeping up the pressure against Pirch’s retreating corps, instead, he had lagged behind and had not even brought his guns up to positions of any value. Likewise, Drouot, who in his defence, had to contend with difficult wooded terrain, had failed to get the Guard into positions that would compromise Pirch’s left flank and with darkness approaching it may have been better to re-task the Guard with by-passing the woods altogether and instead move directly to the Neville - Charleroi road to ensure the total destruction of Zieten’s recovering I Corps.
By the time Vandamme got his lead units into attacking positions, he faced mostly units that had already suffered heavy casualties and consequently, his few attacks were significantly successful, while his own forces remained well ordered and intact. Though Pirch’s II Corps still remained a formidable presence, it was obvious that the attrition of battle was having a telling effect and that the approach of night was probably the only thing that was going to save them from disintegration.
As darkness descended, Exelmans’ cavalry put in the last significant attack of the day. His light cavalry charged against Zieten’s left wing, but Prussian Horse Artillery opened up at short range and put the horsemen to flight and with that, the noise of gunfire slowly gave way to the cries of the wounded and dying across the battlefield and exhausted armies went about the business of post battle security and standing down.
|Milhaud works towards the Wavre - Charleroi / Neville - Namur |
road junction. The wooden peg is just marking that this hex is flagged.
[Notes - The end of turn die roll scores are reduced further on this final turn as darkness descends, so there is a sense of urgency to get things done before that happens. The Prussians got 2 orders, but the French did not receive any this turn, which helped Thielmann pull back out of Ligny before getting totally snarled up. Victory points this turn also include those factors that are only added in the final turn. For the French, they got 40 for flags (they just missed out on getting the crossroads) 130 for inflicting casualties and 100 points for holding their two supply / exit hexes to give 270 points. The Prussians got 30 for flags, 10 for inflicted casualties, plus 40 for flipped Guard units still on the table and they also got 100 points for holding their supply hexes. The rolling total for the entire game being French 695 and Prussian 472, which translates into a French victory - but see discussion below].
Conclusion. As part of my involvement with this game, I have started to read John Franklin’s Ligny book from the Osprey Campaign Series (number 277), which has a good overview as to the historical direction that the battle took, as well as having a useful detailed order-of-battle list to reference. It is interesting to compare that narrative to the one that came out of my game, there are several moments when I can say, ‘yes, that’s what the game gave’.
I got to turn three in this game and thought, ‘how do the French win?’ and I really got a sense of that ‘where is d’Erlon’ sentiment, because the absence of an extra corps means that the Imperial Guard are engaged from the get-go. Then suddenly on turn four, Gérard had broken the I Corps resistance at Ligny and it looked like pending disaster awaited the Prussians. Had they lingered too long at Ligny, not appreciating how brittle they were, or too long at St. Amand la Haye, not appreciating the potential for being enveloped, or too long guarding their lines of communication (III Corps), dithering and perhaps having a too greater regard for the threat of Pajol’s Cavalry Corps.
For the French did they under-estimate Thielmann’s ability to fall on Ligny so quickly, or were they right to make the bold move and advance out of Ligny for the prospect of trapping most of I and II Prussian Corps. They certainly got roughly handled in their opening and intense attacks - but there was nothing untoward in the actual attacks themselves and perhaps on more favourable die rolls, rather than a collection of bad ones, they would have broken through into the Prussian rear and caused devastation - though had they been so successful, they would have been too far away from Ligny to return there and fight. All of this thinking played into my game and made for absorbing play.
At the conclusion of play, we do get a French victory, but as in reality, the French did not get their ultimate goal of smashing the Prussian army, it is still there to fight another day, which of course it did. Prussian I and II Corps both became demoralised, but this really only affects their movement and ability to attack in melee. It does not really diminish their ability to remain formidable on defence. Where it does matter is that demoralised units suffer a +3 penalty when trying to rally and so having got a formation to be demoralised, the other player needs to really prosecute attacks to tip the other side over the edge with increasing losses and routs, that is, a demoralised corps invites being destroyed .... if only the other player has the capacity / capability to do that.
In our game, this was the case with Zieten’s I Corps, but with Gérard redirected back to Ligny and the tardiness of the Guard, it was a task left to Exelmans’ cavalry alone and so for a critical part of the game the demoralised I Corps was not put to test.
The random end of turn mechanic brings a fascinating dynamic to play. Not only does it allow the end turns a chance to increasingly end sooner, to reflect exhaustion, confusion and approaching darkness, but during play it diverts the players attention to the immediately urgent matters. For the French, I found that this meant that the frantic activity needed in turns 5 and 6 to get IV Corps attacking out of Ligny with Exelman to try and surround II Corps and then returning to join Pajol to save Lignny, meant that this business was conducted at the expense of activating Napoleon to issue new orders - which at some key moments did matter.
It was also nice to see that when the Guards came up against the concentrated artillery presence of II Corps, they had to halt their advance to bring up their own guns. I thought that this was a nice touch that had great narrative to it. Also it seemed that the Guard never really seemed to get their momentum going again.
Moving up a level to a two mapper game and gaming over roughly 11 hours spread over a few days was a really enjoyable experience and for me, a treat that is worthy of the tag of wargame fest. The system does put you in the seat of commander by including an order system for each formation and reducing the ability to micro-manage by bringing a level of chaos and independence to some of the things going on at unit level, just by ensuring that some results remove certainty. The simple notion that a 3-1 attack is something to aim for to bring fairly certain results is not going to happen here. A melee attack rolling a double one is going to put some serious harm on the enemy, but rolling double six will likely see the attacker rout away, no matter how pretty their uniform or powerful their attack factor. The apparent randomness of this can frustrate (in a good way) and I feel is not something to question, it is simply the system putting some things beyond ‘your’ control as Army Commander.
That early bloody nose received by the Guard is just indicative of the changes of fortune that can suddenly turn events locally and draws players in to having to deal with the unforeseen.
The operation of formations, realistically limited by orders and the time needed to change orders and plans, brings an enjoyable level of engagement with this system, making players work hard with what they have at hand and not being able to choreograph the perfect manoeuvres and attacks that many wargames allow us to do without even a consideration to this aspect of warfare. Perhaps wargames in general, if they are indeed to simulate battle, need to have a greater preponderance to sub-systems that reduce a players absolute control over the game play.
Playing this game has just strengthened my admiration of the series. I must do this again!
Thank you to the designer ( Walter Vejdovsky ) and all the team behind this game.
A look at the system using the Streets of Ligny scenario to demonstrate various features. LINK