Friday, December 3, 2010

Aspern-Essling: the battle

The First Day

After an initial briefing of the Austrian team we transferred to the main hall and were able to see for the first time what the French had over the river. I was immediately relieved: the French did not have all three Cuirassier divisions over the river, indeed they looked to have only one and some bits and pieces of light cavalry. Instead they had thrown the main weight of their forces onto their left to garrison Aspern and its environs. 

            The Austrian plan then unfolded. Hiller and Bellegarde began to ponderously roll onto the table and take up positions before Aspern. The assault on day one began with some hard fighting on Hiller's part as he attempted to approach the walled churchyard and the rougher ground to the south. He had a tough job here as the French defence was heavy and the fighting was intense. Bellegarde, meanwhile, was to attack Aspern's western elevation between the churchyard and the bund. It took him some time to wheel his Korps into position and prepare a division-level attack. 

            Then Hohenzollern's Kolonne came on to the table and began to cautiously maneouvre into position parallel to the bund whilst using his cavalry as a linking arm between his formation and Bellegarde. As he was undertaking this move the French launched their Cuirassier over the bund against him and, in almost a direct mirror of history, his infantry closed up their files and the cuirassier proved unable to penetrate his masses. As the cuirassier faded back over the bund, Liechtenstein was deploying his cavalry on Hohenzollern's left. A cavalry battle then began to develop as Liechtenstein's reserve covered the left of Hohenzollern's Kolonne and the right wing of IV Kolonne as it advanced against Essling.

            What was now clear was that the French had robbed Peter to pay Paul: Essling was lightly defended. The unknown figure of Brett Smith was quite clear that this gift was to be exploited and began a determined and ultimately successful, assault on Essling.

'Who are that lot?'

This was music to my ears as Rosenberg arrived with V Kolonne. Napoleon was clearly not expecting this formation and it was clear that the arrival of Rosenberg had thrown a real spanner into the works of the French plan. It was by now very clear that they had opted for plan C (see my previous post) and V Kolonne was in the way. As Rosenberg's infantry assaulted the walled garden east of Essling his cavalry faced off a growing force of French horse between Essling and the river. IV Kolonne happily transferred all its cavalry to V Kolonne's area too giving Rosenberg four big regiments to slow up the French.

            But by this time the day's assault against Aspern had not gone the way of the Austrians: Hiller was stalled and Bellegarde's assault had been repulsed.   

But the effect had been to tie down the French and stop them shuffling troops over to Essling. Hohenzollern had seen off the French cuirassier and had started rolling towards the bund. Essling, though, had seen a significant Austrian breakthrough. Brett Smith had gained control of most of the village using a combination of artillery to blast breaches and big Austrian battalions to assault. V Kolonne had not taken the walled garden, but had bounced the French out, so both sides peered at each other over the no-man's land of the place itself.

            And what had I done? Very little is the answer. The local column commanders had proved perfectly capable of running their own battles and I pretty much left them to it. Despite the odd hiccup the overall plan was working well. I had every cause to be satisfied with the day's results: Essling had effectively fallen, V Kolonne had stymied the French line of advance and the assault against Hohenzollern had failed. Even though we had not succeeded in taking Aspern, the assaults had tied down the French nicely. The only really significant thing I did was to bring up the Grenadiers behind Hohenzollern towards the end of the day. Overnight I stitched together an ad-hoc division of survivors from Hiller's and Bellegarde's lead assaulting divisions to act as a reserve to the right wing. Otherwise the line was tidied and redied for morning.

Day 2

It became obvious on the morning of day two that the French had decided to try and break through on their right as originally planned. There was really no choice now, as Hohenzollern and Liechtenstein nicely filled the gap between Essling and Aspern and looked like a formidable challenge for any French units electing to struggle over the bund. They had also erected a battery on Lobau to fire on Rosenberg's flank: Guard 12lb were going to be very uncomfortable for him. It was at this point that gamesmanship intervened...

Fate Cards and Supersulk

Now I am not a particularly impatient man, but I do get very irritated indeed by unfairness. When the game started the two commanders were given fate cards at the initial briefings. We were told by the umpire that attended our briefing that they had to be distributed by the CinC to all players before the game started: the CinC could not hold any back. So this is what I did. For day two we got another set of cards to be distributed in the same way. So far so good. But, early on day 2, an umpire spotted that the French CinC was distributing cards at need during the battle: in other words cheating. 

            The response to this was that the umpire whose idea this was decided to remove the cards from both sides. I was incandescent with anger at this. We, my entire team, were being penalised because the other side had been cheating. I was angry, more angry than I had been in years: only a game I know, but this was more about fairness and justice than actual quibbling over an angle or a dice throw. So, for the next few hours I opted out. When I am angry this is by far the best approach: I took out my little computer notebook and did some work for 3 hours until I calmed down. Liechtenstein ran the battle. 


Eventually I calmed down and returned to the table. what I saw was hardly displeasing. On the right the French had set fire to Aspern and abandoned it, the flames rather than the French were the obstacle. In the centre Hohenzollern and the remains of the reserve cavalry had closed up to the bund. Essling was now totally in Austrian hands. Rosenberg with V Kolonne had been bent back ninety degrees but was still anchored on Essling to his right. Behind him now was one of the two Grenadier reserve divisions, and he had effectively contained the French assault without collapsing. 

            Of the French, meanwhile, there was now a stream of infantry heading for the bridge over the Danube. The centre was screened by French cavalry ready to pounce on any Austrian unit trying to cross the bund with the consequent disorder. 'You could win big here, John' one of the umpires said to me, but I am too much of a Habsburg general to want to risk the army in questionable maneouvres, and crossing the bund in the face of cavalry was one of them. In fact I had achieved my own objectives as set out in the Dispositionskarte: a limited but clear victory over the French.


As Richard Shilvock commented after the battle 'It was a good, clear plan and all we had to do was follow it'. This was in response to me thanking the Austrian team for their time and skill. the key command appointments seem to have all worked well: no-one was out of their depth. Tom Burke as Rosenberg had the most difficult job, but my faith in him was well rewarded when his line bent in the face of the main French attack, but did not break. The plan, in that sense, worked pretty much as written. We had not taken Aspern, but would have occupied the smouldering ruins at a later stage. 

            Meanwhile, freed from having to command troops as at Eylau and Sacile, I was able to concentrate on actually commanding the battle. This was a big relief, especially as the commanders proved more than capable of doing their bit effectively without my intervention. The fact that I could be absent from the field for 3 hours just underlined this. A good game, but with a big speed bump in the middle.


Aspern-Essling: An overview


The next big game was going to be Aspern-Essling, a very different kettle of fish from Sacile for a whole host of reasons. It was due to be a two-day event, our first in the group. The upshot of this in my case was I volunteered to sleep in the hall at Liphook to keep an eye in the figures rather than splash out on a vast amount of insurance. With my inflatable mattress and plenty of bedding I was perfectly happy to do this. Besides, as some of the figures were going to be mine it was as much a matter of self-interest than anything.

Pre-game issues

There were, broadly, two of these. The first was the rules for Mass. The French at Sacile had been unhappy about the rules for Mass (column to solid square within a quarter move) but the use of rapidly forming solid squares was going to be critical to Aspern-Essling in my view: ask any French cuirassier...This involved a lot of to-ing and fro-ing with David Shepherd regarding how these rules were going to work. I dug my heels in on this point as I had been using Austrians for over 20 years and felt that I was right, borne out by the evidence.
The second one was with Trevor Maroney over the map. Initially Trevor had the ditch and bund curling around the outer edges of both Aspern and Essling creating a moat around both villages. Not only was this inaccurate according to all of the half dozen maps I had, it was also going to make attacking the villages almost impossible. This involved a flurry of emails including scanned maps plus evidence of my own eyes (I had walked the battlefield myself in 1994) and Trevor finally changed it.

As an aside, during the 1994 visit I had gone to the excellent museum at Deutsch-Wagram but also the Granary at Essling. In here was a large, inaccurate and confusing diorama of the battle under a perspex cover. It was staffed by an Austrian civil servant in his official long green coat. He was, however, not allowed to have the lights on except when people visited the place. Otherwise he was condemned to live a troglodyte existence in the sepulchural gloom of the Granary. Must be one of the worst jobs in the world...

The Austrian Team

I also was quite careful about the Austrian commanders. Approaching the French positions with independent columns meant that more initiative than usual was going to be required from many of the column commanders, whilst as Charles I could not spend my time running around like a wet hen if I actually wanted to control the battle. That meant a careful choice of commanders had to be made.
One of the most critical was the role of Hiller. As his column was going to be first on the scene and be on the extreme right it needed an experienced player, also it would reflect Hiller's garnered experience. This role was admirably filled by Colin Boulain. Colin is a very experienced player (he had been Eugene at Sacile and Napoleon at Friedland for example) and a safe pair of hands. I could trust him not to do anything rash, and have him act as advisor to Bellegarde: their joint task being to reduce and take Aspern. Bellegarde himself was played by Charles Morris, a young player but one who had been gaming since Austerlitz in 2005. I had no qualms about giving him a big corps, particularly as his overall task was quite clear and Colin was on hand to advise.

Reducing Essling fell to IV and V Kolonne. The overall commander of both was Rosenberg-Orsini, in effect the general commanding the left. Rosenberg historically, and in the game, spent his time exclusively with V Kolonne. I desperately wanted this command to go to Tom Burke, son of another club member (Peter Burke who was umpiring) and I had made him promise last time I saw him to take part in the Austrian team. He forgot. So I spent a little while rescuing him from the clutches of the French, eventually getting his dad to intervene and remind him of his undertakings! In the end he had a great game, was tested and came through very well. V Kolonne, meanwhile, went to a player I had not met before; Brett Smith. I would have preferred Bill Scott to fill this role; he had played Frimont at Sacile and was both a known and talented quantity. But he was playing Lannes, which had me concerned that his tactical skill combined with David Ronaldson's attacking energy would be a difficult combination to contain, never mind overcome. In the end I need not have worried, indeed Brett turned out to be a skilful and determined player whose performance was outstanding.

That left the centre, and the third key appointment: the role of Liechtenstein. Not only was he commander of the Reserve, he was also Charles' deputy and one of the few Austrian generals who historically matched Charles for aggression and energy. In the game as it unfolded the role became more critical than it would normally have been. This role was filled by another relatively new player; Richard Shilvock. I had, though, played with Richard before and was comfortable with him as 2IC. Sandwiched inbetween Richard and Charles was III Kolonne under Hohenzollern-Hechiggen. This went to Alex Shepherd. Alex as a player is also young, but because his dad, David, is also a club member (and was also umpiring) he has participated in a lot of games. He had been in charge of a division at Sacile and I wanted him to have a significant command and role at Aspern-Essling. That said I was still unsure that Alex could handle a totally independent command, so III Kolonne would be ideal, as I would also be able to readily intervene.

There were other, more junior, commands played by other players under these column commanders. But I have never been keen on using the long screwdriver, so I left the issuing of orders to junior commands to the column commanders themselves.

Thoughts and planning

Aspern-Essling is a battle 'of a type', and is remarkably similar to Dresden in initial setup: one army is emplaced with its back to a river, the other is approaching it in a series of concentric columns. There is little need for reconnaissance as the attacking army knows exactly where the enemy is. There is little room for manoeuvre either as the structure of the battlefield precludes this.
With these and other thoughts in mind I began to think about planning. One criticism often thrust at Charles is that he was drawn to the villages like magnets, whilst what he should have done was mask the villages and throw a wedge inbetween. I looked at this option and discarded it as being too risky. I did not know what the French were going to be allowed to have over the Danube on the start of the game, but I could not discount the possible presence of three cuirassier divisions under an aggressive commander (Ronaldson) carving up disordered Austrian infantry as they struggled over the bund. Another factor was that shuffling II Kolonne over to the left would take a very long time, more than enough time to allow the French to realise what the intention was and counter it with plenty of artillery and heavy cavalry.

So, it was back to the original plan of attacking the villages. But this had to be married to preventing the French from crossing the bund. That meant that the attacks on the villages had to either carry them, or be threatening enough to draw the French away from the centre. So the following nebulous plan formed: Hiller and Bellegarde would reduce Aspern. Rosenberg would reduce Essling: the assault itself being the job of IV Kolonne whilst V Kolonne worked it's way behind Essling and take the walled garden. The Granary was to be avoided. In the centre the Reserve cavalry would repel French cavalry attacks over the bund, these were anticipated and would be launched to disrupt the movement of III Kolonne. This last formation was to advance steadily to the edge of the bund and bottle the French up behind it. The Grenadiers would stay in reserve around Brietenlee to be called forward as needed.

The overall aim was to imprison the French behind the bund and wrest control of the villages from them. This would trap them in a very constrained area where they could be pummelled by artillery.


I had also tried to consider the options open to the French. Looking at things from their perspective there were only really 3 options. The first was to create a 'fortress' from the villages, along the bund and using the walled garden behind Essling as the perimeter. The problem with this was the Austrians could simply roll up the guns wheel to wheel and pound away. Besides, any army with Ronaldson and Scott in it was not going to settle for such a supine option.

The second option was the historical French one, to break out of the constraints of the position by advancing over the bund with cavalry and then as many battalions as they could lay their hands on. In other words an attack in the centre and then pivoting on Aspern whilst the cavalry covered the right.

The third option was a right hook behind Essling towards Gross Enzerdorf and then veering left to roll up Rosenberg whilst lightly holding the centre and retaining the villages.

I was not worried about option one, in fact it would have been as if I had written the French plan myself. Option two would have seen the French in a head on collision with III Kolonne and the reserve cavalry in the open. A potentially risky situation and would throw my plan out of gear, but would offer the option of destroying the French in the open. The winner of such a brawl would be the luckiest general. Option three would allow my plan in the centre to proceed relatively unmolested. But it would give Rosenberg something to think about. It would also be far more awkward to reinforce Rosenberg than it would be any developing situation in the centre.

Such were my thought processes as I prepared to fight the battle. I drew up yet another Dispositionskarte, issued it to my senior staff, and waited for the game weekend.