Friday, January 7, 2011

Next Game: Hohenlinden

General Moreau at Hohenlinden

The next game is to be the Battle of Hohenlinden on the 9th January 2010. This game was postponed from late December due to the bad weather, with many players coming from places like Salisbury and beyond, it was really the only option Trevor had.

The Historical Battle

The battle, on 3rd December 1800, took place against poor weather on a battlefield in southern Bavaria. It pitched one of the best French generals of his generation, Jean Moreau, against an Austrian command structure that was divided and contradictory. The French army also benefitted from excellent displays of initiative by divisional commanders, whilst their Austrian counterparts fumbled and groped around in the snow and fog.

The snowy forest

The Austrians had taken a real battering throughout 1800. This had caused some confusion as in 1799 they had been extremely successful and were at a loss to explain why 1800 had gone so badly. One historical explanation has been to point the finger at the desertion of the Russians, in a negative and a positive way. Negatively, it is argued that their deserting the second coalition reduced Austrian overall morale and robbed them of numbers of troops. Positively it is argued that the Russians were responsible for the Austrian victories and their absence was the cause of the defeats.

General Moreau

Both seem nonsensical. Most Austrian senior officers looked on their Russian counterparts with disdain, the Russians on the whole being far less professional and certainly did not behave like 'Gentlemen'. Also the burden they imposed logistically, as well as politically, indicates that this withdrawal's impact was relatively neutral operationally. In terms of them being responsible for victories (the positive argument), they were certainly fairly ineffectual in Germany, in Holland they were pretty similar (after drinking the oil from the streetlamps on the Isle of Wight) and everything seems to have been built around Suvurov. Problem here is that Kray defeated the main French Italian army at Magnano before Suvurov arrived and, sent into Switzerland on his own at the end of 1799 he lost his army in the Swiss valleys never to be seen again.

General Kray, good in Italy but a failure in Germany

Arguably the issue was senior leadership. The Austrians simply lacked Divisional and Army commanders that matched the French in ability and operational flexibility. In 1799 they hit on some combinations that clearly worked. In Italy Suvorov/Chasteler/Kray/Bagration were a formidable team that the French were not able to contain. In Germany Archduke Charles and his able Chief of Staff, Schmitt, were equally competent and had proved formidable in 1796 as well.

FzM Lauer

But by 1800 this had all changed. Suvurov and Bagration were out of the equation. Chasteler was recuperating from his wounds and would not be the same energetic figure again. Charles and Schmitt had withdrawn from service. Kray was initially sent to Germany, but proved unequal to the task, whilst Italy saw the Austrian cause go down at Marengo in June. An Armistice, from July to November saw Kray replaced, but the Austrian Chancellor Thugut struggled to find a replacement. He had gone the rounds of the Archdukes, asking Joseph and Charles (who he disliked) both of whom refused. In the end, in a decision that seems like desperation, the command was offered to the 18 year old Archduke John. But John was only to be a cypher. The real command was supposed to be in the hands of FzM Franz Lauer, a thoughtful and cautious staff officer of considerable experience. This might have worked (although a similar arrangement in 1805 with Ferdinand and Mack ended with catastrophe at Ulm) but the Chief of Staff of the Army was none other than Oberst Franz von Weyrother, he of Austerlitz fame. Aggressive, blustering and personally very brave, Weyrother and Lauer were never gong to see eye to eye and the command developed into a competition between these two very different officers for the endorsement of the 18 year old Archduke. Compared to the unified structure of the French, with a clear sighted and very competent General, it was asking for trouble.

Archduke John in later life

Initially Weyrother gained the upper hand with an aggressive plan that saw the Austrians marching off to cut the French lines of communication. After a couple of days it was clear that the Austrian army, plus the weather, made such an approach impossible and Lauer suggested a straightforward attack on Munich. This caught Moreau's forces scattered and unprepared, and the ensuing battle of Ampfing on the 1st December saw the Austrians victorious.

Weyrother then seems to have played on John's youthful aggression, arguing that the French were in retreat and that immediate pursuit would probably bundle them back over the Rhine. The two overrode Lauer, who did not fall for the 'French retreating in disarray' argument for a minute, and Weyrother prepared a plan straight from the late 18th Century rulebook.

The French were assumed (there were a lot of questions going begging with this plan) to be concentrated around Hohenlinden. They were separated from the Austrians by the large and sprawling Ebersberg Forest. The weather was poor, with snow and freezing fog. Not circumstances you would ideally attack in, especially with an army as fragile as the Austrian one of 1800, but Weyrother proposed exactly that.

Late 18th Century doctrine, as practiced by the Austrians, saw a defensive concept based on a cordon and a reserve to move to threatened points. This was not confined to the Austrians, it was a fairly widespread theory and fashionable at the time. The attacking side of the coin was equally fashionable. Gone was the idea of the army moving as a single unit, arranging itself in battle formation on contact and then an engagement. In was the notion of concentric columns advancing towards the enemy independently and coming together to offer battle, ideally with one or more columns outflanking the enemy. This notion was absorbed by late 18th century Austrian staff officers who saw it as the way forward. The problem was that the Austrian army, indeed late 18th century armies in general, were pretty much incapable of rising to the task. An obvious example is Fleurus in 1794, the plan being the brainchild of Mack, which saw a series of concentric columns engage the enemy. The problem became one of command and control. Once battle was joined the army commander, Coburg, was not able to effectively co-ordinate the battle and instead the battle was fought by the individual unit commanders. As the Austrian generals were not known for their initiative but rather tight central control, this was not an approach that played to their strengths.

Austrian Gunner 1800

Nevertheless, despite evidence to the contrary that had built up during the 1st Coalition, Weyrother drew up a plan based on these concepts. A series of columns would pass through the forest like rain through a grate, coming together on the other side to engage the (supposedly) demoralised and disorganised French. The result was catastrophic. The Austrian column commanders plunged into the gloomy, snow-encrusted woods and started to lose their nerve. Column commanders, confronting unexpected circumstances and French troops clearly prepared to fight, began to look to the Army command and each other for support. Not knowing where each other was increased the sense of isolation. Defeat under these circumstances was inevitable.

FML Kienmayer, scapegoated by John

And, naturally, so was the outpouring of recriminations on the Austrian side. The Bavarian General Zweibrucken blamed the Austrians. Archduke John blamed FML Kienmayer (whose column hard arguably performed the best) and Thugut and the Court blamed Lauer, who as Adlatus was in theory responsible for the defeat, despite having advised against the whole enterprise in the first place. Certainly John was beyond blame, being a member of the Imperial House, and Weyrother's teflon coating along with wounds inflicted during the battle effectively insulated him.

Another wintry view of the battle

In other words, those least responsible for the defeat got the blame. A not unusual situation within organisations! Indeed, this willingness to go along with plans that were unrealistic and had disaster written all over them would characterise Austrian planning in 1805 and again in 1809, when a personally reluctant Charles endorsed a campaign whose foundations were shaky from the start.


On Sunday I will be playing the 3-headed Austrian command: originally John was to be played by one of the younger lads while I took the role of Lauer. Still, the plan is submitted and all that remains is to see how it plays out. Already there is some off-table action in the woods and the results of that will be revealed to us on the day. Moreau will be played by Chaim Ben-Zion, a rather more stolid character than Moreau was, it is his first time commanding an army from start to finish. The French start the game in the open and concentrated and able to plug up the mouseholes leading out of the forest. Could be interesting. Meanwhile none of the Austrian columns can communicate with each other, again, could be interesting...


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