Thursday, February 24, 2011

Refight of Fuentes de Onoro

Fuentes de Onoro

Another holiday in Spain

This is just a brief summary of the latest 200-ers battle, Fuentes de Onoro, that took place on the 20th February. As it was a Peninsular game, and the Peninsular bores me to tears, I was umpiring. In fact, we were so short of players (and one did not turn up on the day either) that I was the only umpire, although two other players were designated player umpires, and one (David) was commanding the British cavalry. He managed to get virtually all of it destroyed within the first 90 minutes of play and reverted to a full umpiring role.

The opposing plans

The British plan was a classic Peninsular one: stand on the defensive. Indeed, given that they were supposed to be covering the siege of Almeida, it made perfect sense in the context of the game. The overall command was taken by Haim, his first time in overall command, and it was a big ask. Basically the French had an overall superiority of 5000 infantry and 2000 cavalry.

The French plan was considerably more complex and comprehensive. The sheaf of orders was considerable, primarily because the French CinC was Peter, an ex-Gunner and staff officer so it was all very Nato-inspired. You can get a flavour of this from his Jena orders back in 1806 that are on this blog for that year. The French plan, in essence, was to use their numerical superiority to 'fix' the British in the centre, while enveloping the flanks. Particularly important was the considerable French advantage in cavalry: 2000 does not sound like that much, but at our ratio that is an extra 40 figures, maybe half a dozen units.

The battle

The battle very quickly broke down into three separate combats. The first was around Fuentes itself, the second in the centre, and the third being the envelopment around the British right flank and the Almeida road.

The Centre battle initially was where the action was. The French looked very threatening as the bulk of 9th Corps plunged quickly towards the isolated 7th Division along with the single division 8th Corps. To stave off this rapid advance the British sacrificed their cavalry, and this bought some time for 7th Division to gradually withdraw, although they lost one isolated battalion and the vast majority of Wellington's slender cavalry force had gone. Meanwhile, the remainder of 7th Division pulled back and anchored itself on 1st Division with the Light Division on its right. Left behind in the woods near Pocovelho were the Brunswick-Oels Jager. With no orders to do anything (even general ones) they confined themselves to roadwatching and hiding in the woods. The Centre then became more static as the French 9th Corps faced off against the British, who put in a couple of sharp charges in line to spoil the French deployments. Despite this neither side looked like making a breakthrough here: although it must be remembered that the French were not tasked to do so.

Then the French triggered their next move: the march of 8th Corps' single division and the Army of the North's cavalry around the British right flank. This was partially disrupted by some irregular Spanish cavalry under Sanchez above the Almeida road, but this was really just an irritant. By launching this left hook the French forced the British to deploy their sole remaining reserve, Pack's Portuguese, to extend their line. Wellington was now committed to his uttermost limit, with no reserves left.  Meanwhile the French cavalry superiority now came wholly into its own as Marshal Bessieres led his cavalry along the Almeida road towards Villa Formosa, deep in the British rear and their supply nexus. Along with the cutting of the road to Almeida this would leave one remaining road open to the British.

Over in Fuentes de Onoro the French 6th Corps under Richard Shilvock faced off against Asher Ben-Zion, Haim's son and on his second game. Richard had been told to hold until the British were wholly committed. Once this had happened he launched a division-level attack north of Fuentes de Onoro against a scanty British defence. The British had five battalions tied up in Fuentes itself, which could have been successfully held by two, and as the British started running out of men to stop Richard's attack they eventually started pulling them out. This was helped by a sharp attack that Asher had put in against a French division south of Fuentes which had been very successful. With no pressure on that road at least they could withdraw in safety. Equally, Asher's defence around the walled area immediately to the north of the village was trenchant and held off the French. But Richard's attack on the heights north of the village had swept aside the British, and one French brigade and the 6th corps cavalry plunged towards the last remaining British escape route, cutting it and sealing Wellington in. At this stage the British capitulated. The only non-prisoners were the Brunswick-Oels Jager, who slipped away quietly to join the partisans.

Post battle analysis

This had been a pretty one-sided affair. The overall French superiority of numbers, a highly experienced French CinC versus a tyro British one and a Peninsular battlefield where cavalry were actually useful made it a bit of a walk in the park for the French. The first thing to note, and as I said to Haim, is that a good catastrophe is always instructive and best to get out of the way early. My first time in the big chair was Eylau and I was captured by turn 10. Ideally the British needed at least another division in order to hold their position, and Haim was right when he put his finger on the British lack of cavalry as a main reason for his defeat. But there were others, smaller factors, that contributed too. One was the understandable draw of being bogged down in the tactical, rather than looking 'up from the mud' and seeing the bigger picture. Haim, like many others, was guilty of this, but that is a matter of experience. His decision to defend all of Fuentes how he did with the numbers that he did is also open to question. A more economical defence would have been to abandon most of the town and pull back to the churchyard, and defend the walled area to the north only along the exit side rather than man the garden itself like a redoubt. This could have freed up three or four battalions, enough maybe to stop Richard's attack to the north of the village.

Personally, and I mentioned this to Trevor, the two commanders should have been swapped over, giving the veteran Peter the far harder challenge. But, again, like Hohenlinden everyone ended up doing something, rolling dice and moving troops. This level of activity is good in a big game, where often one sector stays pretty quiet. A comprehensive French victory, and the capture of Wellington and his entire army.

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