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.


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