Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Art of Command

The Two Hundreders
I have been thinking for some time about battle management, specifically in relation to the big games that we do. In many ways this is a true life test, involving various levels and types of management that are often confronted in many other environments. So I thought that a short essay describing my thoughts, now I have personally commanded several major battles and participated in more, would act as a good basis for discussion. For the record I have taken the big chair at Eylau (a catastrophe), Sacile (stumbled to victory), Aspern-Essling (a very clear victory), Auerstadt (slightly less of a catastrophe than Eylau) and Hohenlinden (a victory). In other words my efforts have veered between total disaster and outright victory.

The nature of our battles

Ours are not standard wargamers' battles, with maybe one or two players per side at corps level. We undertake very large projects, with between six and ten players per side, sometimes more, fighting very large battles on a large scale. Played with 25/28mm figures, with the figure scale at between 1:40 to 1:60, these are complex undertakings. The very scale of the things goes some way to preclude the 'helicopter General' approach, but we also always have one to three umpires, plus Trevor who builds the terrain and acts as a sort of Ringmaster, keeping us moving and trying to stop things getting bogged down.


Each battle is a stand-alone and is hedged in with restrictions. It is these restrictions that a CinC must first consider when embarking on the battle. These may be related to terrain, weather, formation arrival times or communications to name but four. In other words no CinC confronts some sort of Tabula Rasa when approaching the battle itself. In some cases these restrictions are open to adjustment, as I did at Aspern-Essling based on the terrain, in some cases they have overbalanced the game, as they did at Auerstadt. In other words a balance has to be correctly struck, and, of course, players usually want as few restrictions as possible! But these restrictions have to be incorporated in any initial thoughts about the game and really have to be nailed down before effective planning can take place.


Players map for Auerstadt
The first rule here is to have one. A bad plan is better than no plan at all. Taking a step back from the situation as it stands will provide certain parameters that give any plan its initial shape or provide a series of options. One of the first issues any general will face is considering his army's attitude: 'will this be an attacking plan, a defensive plan or a combination of the two?'  It is very rare, in my experience, for players to adopt a purely defensive stance unless the enemy is compelled to attack. In some games, such as several Peninsular games, this is the case. Far rarer in my traditional stomping ground of central Europe and Italy, but Jena was a case in point. More frequent is the plan that involves attack with pretty much everything. This was the principle I adopted at the recent Hohenlinden game. Here the Austrians had no choice but to attack, given the structure of the battle and the context it should have sat in.

More likely a general chooses to attack along some part of his line and defend somewhere else, maybe adding complications like feints and outflanking moves into the mix. This was my eventual choice at Eylau, opting for a right hook rather than defence all along the line. At Sacile my decision to attack with my right was changed due to the circumstances of the table and I started to back my victorious left: in other words do not let your plan become your gaoler.

Colin Boulain at Austerlitz
So, once you have decided on your overall attitude and taken into account objectives, timetables, the weather and a whole host of other factors you can attempt to draw up a plan that looks workable, but with enough slack in it to deal with unforseeable circumstances. In this plan you will take into account given objectives and the terms of victory. Layered on top of that is the 'art of the possible'; what you actually think is realistic. Orders should be clear and precise leaving no room for doubt. I am still developing my skills here, often using convoluted language and refusing to call a spade anything other than a broad bladed digging implement. They should be despatched, with a map, well in advance of the game to the appropriate subordinates.


Aspern-Essling underway
Unlike smaller games, larger ones involve lots of people management. Once you have hit on a plan you consider workable you then need to consider its implementation. As CinC you are not going to be doing this; your subordinates are.  In other words this is not a role that lends itself to control freakery. A lot depends on how well you know your subordinates as individuals. In a club you are far more likely to know your opponents than your historical counterparts did, and possibly less likely to know your own subordinates. Still, it is often worthwhile to look at the subordinates that you have been allocated, or have signed up for your side. I am unusual as a player as I do not play French. Even more so in that I am now almost totally socialised into thinking and behaving like an Austrian general! Most players are not that unfortunate.

Players may be good or bad, be aggressive or defensive, thoughtful or rash, willing to exceed their orders or rigidly obey them. Trying to fit round pegs into round holes is quite important and can give your plan a better chance of success. I have never been keen on the long screwdriver, so I like to issue mission or objective related orders and leave it to the players to carry them out. I have seen plans that specify the disposition of individual battalions, robbing players of their initiative, something I categorically refuse to do.


It is important not to get too bound up in this. While it is clearly of value to put yourself in the opposing general's shoes and try to consider what options are open to him, it is an approach that has clear weaknesses. The more options your opponent has the less valuable this exercise will be. If you know where your enemy will be, and that he has a limited range of opportunities, counter-intuition can yield positive dividends. A good example is the plan I wrote for Aspern-Essling; I knew exactly where the French were due to be and that they had three effective options. But at the opposite end of the spectrum would be Hohenlinden; I had no idea where the French were, what freedom of redeployment they had been allowed and what restrictions they were operating under. The only things I did know was that I was looking for 5 divisions and that in order to win they needed to seriously maul me. The only response here, given the other restrictions and expectations, was to draw up a plan that attacked everywhere in the hope that enough attacking formations would succeed to bring victory. Both approaches were successful in their given context. The trap that you must never fall into is to allow this process to paralyse you into 'what if he does this? What if he does that?' and use it as an excuse for inactivity. 

Archduke Charles and staff
Objectives and Intelligence

Some battles we play have clearly defined pre-game objectives, such as towns, villages or geographical features. These would have been taken into account when drawing up the battle plan. Beyond this there will be objectives that may reveal themselves during the game, such as enemy lines of communication or objectives which unhinge an enemy position.

As well as what may look like obvious positions for the enemy to be, or head for, the pre-game emails may reveal additional intelligence. This may be incorporated into the plan, or may be unveiled during the 'approach' to the table itself. For Hohenlinden we were all mystified by sounds in the forest, tracks in the snow and various ambuscades along the line of march. Potentially more reliable than counter-intuition, the bumping in to real enemies may build on growing doubts, could be wholly misleading and rob the CinC of common sense in favour of firefighting.


Sometimes we hold pre-game briefings. This very much depends on the nature of the game itself. These are very useful insofar as they allow players to clarify their individual orders and understand how they fit into the greater whole. These must not, however, dissolve into a discussion of the validity of the plan itself: this is not a Council of War. You cannot expect to rewrite a whole battle plan in the 5 minutes before a game starts.

In-game intervention

I managed to create a traffic jam at Eylau
You can generally tell how well a game is going, as CinC, dependant on how many orders you issue. If your plan is going smoothly then your need to intervene should be limited. If, however, things start going off the rails then you need to start despatching orders redeploying and realigning as well as using the potential of the CinC to give direct orders to formations. By far the worst defeats I have seen is when the loser moves in an apparent fog of battle, seemingly unaware of an impending catastrophe, intervening far too late or not at all. On the other side is the habit of creating traffic jams, especially at the point of attack. My own personal weakness, demonstrated at Eylau, Sacile and Auerstadt, is the ability to overload an area with troops who simply get in the way of each other. This, in my case, is where I really have to sit on my hands in a big way. The concept of reinforcing victory, not defeat, is a principle that can be taken too far.

So, to sum up:

  • Be clear about restrictions and on-map objectives
  • Decide on the overall attitude your force will adopt
  • Draw up a plan reflecting that attitude
  • Fill roles as best you can with players that fit the plan
  • Be counter-intuitive if possible, but do not become its prisoner
  • Be aware that pre-game intelligence is only a snapshot of the true situation
  • Use briefings to illuminate the orders and the overall plan
  • Do not intervene in-game unless you have to


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