Saturday, January 22, 2011

Of forts and time

One of the interesting features of the Schellenberg battlefield was the so-called "Fort Augustus" crowning the hill itself.

It's a throwback to the Thirty Years' War, when Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden marched across Germany like a hot knife through butter. The fort -or its daddy- are first seen in an engraving of the Swedish capture of Donauworth in 1632, the caption suggesting it was built by the Bavarian defenders of the town but abandoned to the Swedes (who are making good use of its command of the city to bomb it to bits).

Gustavus' brief campaign in Germany was methodical, and he built enough forts and outposts guarding his lines of communication that the term Schwedenschanze ("swedes' fort") almost became synonymous with "old fortification" in later years. The four-bastion style seen in the 1632 engraving is typical. Like a lot of siege and fortifying practices of the time it was probably inspired by Dutch efforts, like their little one in Pfaffenmütz dating to 1620:

The Swedes definitely followed the design, for example in Pommerania:

And the were not the only ones, as this detail from an engraving of the siege of Magdeburg in 1631 shows:

Whether Fort Augustus is the original Bavarian fortification or an improved Swedish one built in its place, this Merian engraving from the middle of the 17th century shows it's changed very little:

Moving closer to the time of the battle we are fortunate that in 1696, the Elector of Bavaria Max Emanuel had the bright idea to commission the engraver Michael Wening to produce pictures of his realm. Wening took to the task with gusto, and executed nearly 900 engravings of cities, monasteries and castles in Bavaria. And he made quite a nice one of Donauworth:

You can see that on top of the Schellenberg there are still the visible remains of Fort Augustus, somewhat worn by the passage of time:

The ditch around the fort seems to have disappeared and the bastions' centers have caved, probably the cummulative effect of rain and wind. Still, nothing a bit of work by the city's population cannot mend.
In case someone finds it hard to believe that a fort made of nothing more than packed earth could still be in good shape more than fifty years after it was built, check out this photo of one of the sights in the Rhön mountains in southern Germany:

That polygonal thing? It's the remains of another fort built in Gustavus Adolphus' time, three hundred and seventy years ago.

This is where I got the pics that accompany this little piece:
(most sites are in German) A brief description and a few more photos of the Rhön fort. Details on Michael Wening's life and work. An amazing, incredible project at the University of Augsburg, where they've digitised and placed online all 21 volumes of Theatrum Europaeum, covering European history from 1618 to 1718, and chock full of engravings, portraits and maps. The description of Donauworth in the 1644 work Topographia Bavariae.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Figuratively speaking...

The armies that fought at the Schellenberg had some interesting differences.

The Anglo-Dutch (and most of their german allies, supplying a sizable part of the total force) tended to deploy their infantry battalions in three ranks. The battalion's line was divided into platoons, and they alternated firing and reloading to provide a continuous rolling sort of fire.
One rather interesting effect of this was that the battalion commander, standing in front of the center of his unit, had to remember to get out of the way when it was time for the platoons deployed behind him to discharge their weapons- and to move back to his normal post before the platoons on either side started again.

The French and Bavarians used the more traditional system of deploying in a four-rank line, evolved form the ten- to six-deep rank battalions of the Thirty Years' War. The most common method appears to be each rank firing as one group while the ones in front would kneel down -but in those days of decentralised training regimes, platoon firing was also known and practiced. The Imperial Army also deployed in four ranks, and here also rank fire appears to have been the norm.

So we have two different army practices. The two important questions in connection with our game are: how do these differences affect game ratings, and will we reflect them in visually representing the units?

I'll start by taking a position a bit off-center. It seems (based on the research efforts of people more seriously engaged in study of the period) that there was little difference in the effect of "platoon fire" and "rank fire" under battlefield conditions. Excercises and experiments carried out at the time tend to suggest platoon fire is more destructive: apparently a steady stream of bullets killing or wounding a few men at the time without respite produces a higher casualty total than a few large, devastating volleys delivered at longish intervals. However on the battlefield it seems that in general, after the first couple of volleys order broke down and each soldier fired as fast as he could reload- at the time, not a very rapid process. So, the first decision (woohoo!) is that there is no difference between rank-firing and platoon-firing infantry in our game.

The second issue is frontage. A four hundred man battalion deployed in three ranks is wider than the same battalion deployed in four ranks. An army of three-rank battalions is wider than an army of four-rank battalions. It will have an advantage in combat, as it can envelop its opponent, and it will take up more space and maneuvering room. In Volley and Bayonet, each stand/element of troops is the same size, so how will this difference be reflected?
Well, thank you for that question, it's quite interesting and totally unexpected (and in rehearsal you delivered it differently!). The rules provide a nice way out of that problem, since each stand in VnB does not represent a fixed number of troops (expressed in strength points, with 1 SP per 200 men). Having the Anglo-Dutch on stands ranging from 2-3 SPs and the French, Bavarians and Imperials on stands of 4-5 SPs effectively "crams" the deeper army on fewer stands- since the players will be army rather than battalion commanders, that's a fair enough abstraction. That's the second decision.

So that's the whole "different doctrines affecting the game ratings" bit done, how about the visual aspect? After all, that's the main reason those of us in the hobby like it so much: the games and figures look interesting, and fun, and cool, and -if done right- sometimes even beautiful.
Here...we're in trouble. The standard base size in VnB is 3"x1,5", or 8cm wide by 4cm deep (rounded up to avoid going nuts over fractions). There's just no way four ranks of 1:72 scale figures can get on a 4cm deep base. None. At. All. See? Trouble.
The next best thing, seems to be to shave the rear rank off, and have the Anglo-Dutch in two ranks of figures and everyone else on three, to at least retain that "my army is thinner than yours" feel (the editor welcomes jokes on the "Your army is so thin, ...." theme). That's a crucial issue, because the three of us working on the game are really keen to make something visually appealing. So I sat down briefly with some nice Zvezda infantry and a, base, and arranged them to see what this might look like. The appearance is marred by the figures being unpainted, parts of the sprue still being on them (handles for painting, m'lud), my crap photo skills and other assorted ills. I tried to be clever and have half the figures on the two-rank base firing and the other half loading or standing, to give a visual cue of platoon firing. We'll see what the other two participants think. Apart from "Aris, your photo skills suck" that is.

Two ranks:
Three ranks: 

Saturday, January 15, 2011

What happened at the Schellenberg anyway?

Giving the whole background to the War of the Spanish Succession is more than I can handle on a Saturday, and there's bound to be a more or less informative Wikipedia entry for it anyway.

The battle of the Schellenberg itself is rather more simple: the army composed of the Anglo-Dutch forces of John Churchill (the Duke of Marlborough, and great-great-great-great-relative of the other famous Churchill) and those of the Holy Roman Empire under Louis, Margrave of Baden, needs to get across the Danube and moves to do so at the town of Donauworth. The Bavarian army commanded by the Count d'Arco -that's a real title, despite the comic book villain overtones- wants to stop them, and decides to do that by parking itself just outside town on the Schellenberg, the tallest hill for miles.

Marlborough and Baden disagree over what to do, the englishman wanting to attack before more Bavarian reinforcements arrive, the german favouring taking things at a more measured pace. Since command is shared, there is no direct way for either of them to impose his will. However the solution comes from one of the charmingly weird practices of the time: Marlborough and Baden take turns to command the full army on alternate days. July 2nd, 1704 is Marlborough's turn in the seat, and he decides to push through with the attack. Baden goes along, presumably mumbling under his breath, and the two wings of the "Allied" army converge on Donauworth.

The Anglo-Dutch wing gets there first. Marlborough has formed an advance guard of roughly 15 battalions of infantry, and they deploy in the small valley below the Schlellenberg, while his artillery under Colonel Holcroft Blood (enough with the comic book names already) sets up outside the village of Berg and begins bombarding the Bavarian positions. Count d'Arco, who was not expecting an attack that day, hastily deploys his men behind the half-finished earthworks on the hill. A misunderstanding with the commander of the Donauworth garrison results in the fortifications between the hill and the city -and, indeed, the city's own outer fortifications- being left unoccupied (this is where an ominous chord would sound if this were an audio tape).
Marloborough's initial plan was to send half his army through the Boschberg woods and attack from two directions- a plan d'Arco's deployment suggests he expected. However the wood turns out to be too thick, and the few hours left until dusk are insufficient for the maneuver to be completed. Moving closer to Donauworth and its fortified walls is too big a risk. So, as the main body of the army begins to appear, the advance guard infantry charges up the hill and is met by a hail of fire.
 The attack falters; many of the officers, attempting to lead their men by example, are killed and wounded. After the first line is beaten back, the second line surges forward. It is also met by spirited Bavarian resistance, and d'Arco begins bringing up more troops as he recognizes there will not be an attack on his right flank. Some of the attacking soldiers are beginning to retreat- the english and dutch cavalry advances, forming a wall to keep them in their positions. Marlborough, trying to find an alternative to the slaughter, sends a lieutenant and a few men to see how strongly the outer works around the city are held.

Almost at the same time as the lieutenant returns to report there's hardly any soldiers between the city and the Schellenberg, Louis of Baden arrives with his wing of the army. The Bavarians are still heavily engaged with the Anglo-Dutch wing, so d'Arco can spare only a few dragoons to shore up his exposed left. The commander at Donauworth appears to wake up to the situation, but the force he sends to defend the outer works is weak- the battalions have to deploy in two rather than the customary four ranks to cover the whole frontage.
Baden's troops surge forward against the hasty works between Donauworth the hill, while at the same time Marlborough leads part of his reserve and the remnants of the advance guard against the Bavarian works once more.
The Bavarians on the hill hold the Anglo-Dutch at bay, even as the troops of the Holy Roman Empire steamroller through the weak French battalions near the city. Baden sends a few of his battalions to assist the hard-pressed Marlborough.
On the top of the Schellenberg Lt.Col. de Colonnie, the sole officer left uninjured, sees the Imperials approaching and realises the battle is lost. He attempts a slow, deliberate retreat back to the Danube and the bridge leading to the other side and safety. However, as Baden's troops get closer and the Anglo-Dutch finally enter the fortified perimeter, order breaks down. The retreat becomes a rout, and the fleeing soldiers are cut down or captured in their hundreds. The battle of Schellenberg is a glorious victory for Marlborough and Baden.
The battle has a considerable aftermath. Not only is a great part of the Bavarian army gone, their campaign plan is totally disrupted. The garrison commander of Donauworth crowns his lacklustre performance during the battle with a hasty retreat from the city, abandoning considerable stores of ammunition and supplies intact. Marlborough and Baden (engaged in a slowly burning but bitter rivalry over who made the greatest contribution to the victory) have won the initiative, and their army will subsequently join more of the Imperial army under Eugene of Savoy and trounce the French and Bavarian forces at Blenheim a month later.

What's not to like?

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Disrupting a Bavarian summer: The assault on the Schellenberg

The first thing that's going onto the blog is the grandiosely named Project 2011.
It's held at the Guild, probably the most friendly and cheerful assembly of wargaming crazies you could ever imagine (there's a link below if you want to check it out). Along with two other gamers, we've undertaken to set up a complete game of the 1704 battle at the Schellenberg, with 1:72 scale figures.

I'll be tracking the progress of this megalomaniac idea, and the blog will also show our discussion of ideas and concepts for the game. Don't be surprised if you see strange characters on your screen...some of our communications will be in greek. Like the fellow said "there is nothing wrong with your set".

We have already settled on the rules, Frank Chadwick's "Volley and Bayonet", an old favourite of two of us (hey, democracy in action!). Right now we're discussing the scale we will use- the original rules are written on a scale of 1 "strength point"= 500 men or 6 guns, but versions with 1 SP =200 or even 100 men have been successfully playtested, with attendant changes in the ground and time scales.
The driving force here is not the size of the forces so much as the size of the table: we want something big and impressive, yet manageable. Coupled with a desire to properly reflect the colourful variety of military
uniforms during the early 18th century, we're leaning towards 1 SP = 200 men, which very nicely makes each base of troops a battalion.

At this scale, the game board will be 160x120cm, and cover this area:

(the ticks are at 10cms, the grid is 20x20cm, and the numbers show the elevation). The base sizes for various troop types are on the right, to give a sense of the size of the game.
The light grey traces the fortifications built by the Bavarian and French army, however those tiny little bastions are probably below the "grain" of the rules. The thin black line marks where the fortifications will run for the game (we can still dress them up, of course).

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Ouverture new blog.
My first blog!
And only a few years after blogging revolutionised online publishing. Let's see if the laziness that has stalled all my attempts at creating a website has met its match in the easy interface of this little corner.

(frantic whispering from stage left)

Oh yes, I suppose it would be appropriate to actually mention what this blog will be all about. It was going to be filled with exposés that would bring down the edifices of modern worldwide government, but it seems much more fun to instead cover my somewhat more risqué hobby of wargaming (hence the "war" in the title). After all, the web is all about having fun, and communicating our little pleasures in life, is it not?