A Little Bit of Leipzig

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A Little Bit of Leipzig

an after action report of the game held 15th June 2002

by Peter Hunt  

The History

By the third day of the Battle of Leipzig, on 18th October 1813 the writing was on the wall for the French. Napoleon’s big opportunity had been on the 16th when he had attacked the Allies converging on the city in the hope of destroying them in detail before they could combine their full might against him.  His main offensive that day had been to the South of the city but the Allies had traded space for time and, although the French made some headway, the attack was not decisive.  The Austrian, Russian, Prussian and Swedish forces had kept the pressure up in other sectors of the battlefield and continued to reinforce until by the 18th some 157,000 Frenchmen, Italians, Wurtemburgers, Badeners, Hessians, Poles and Saxons faced 300,000 Allies.  Even with a hat that was worth 40,000 men Napoleon knew that the odds stacked against him were too long and that withdrawal was inevitable.  The question was not if, but how?


The Battle of Leipzig on the 18th can be conveniently divided into three sectors.  In the West, across the Elster River , lay the French escape route.  Here Bertrand and Mortier, with a mixture of Italians, Wurtemburgers and the Middle Guard held a half-hearted Austrian attack at bay.  In the North, Ney faced the always driving Blucher, and the usually laggard Bernadotte, at the closest approaches to the city.


In the South, Napoleon himself commanded the corps of Poniatowski, Augereau, Victor, Macdonald, Oudinot and Lauriston, backed by the Young and Old Guard, the Guard Cavalry and four cavalry corps.  To the South Napoleon was faced by three Austrian Corps under Lederer, Hessen-Homberg, and Colloredo, supported by the Austrian Reserve Cavalry, a large Prussian corps under Kleist, two Russian corps under Eugen and Gortshakov, and the Russian/Prussian Guard under Constantine , supported by the Allied Guard cavalry.  These forces were under the command of Schwarzenberg and Barclay.  If this was not enough, arriving from the East came another Austrian corps under Klenau, a Prussian Division under Zeithen, a Russian corps under Doctorow and Platov’s Cossacks, all under the direction of Bennigsen.  It is on this Southern sector that we shall concentrate.


During the morning the French were pushed slowly back, but there was little serious fighting except between the Poles and Hessen-Homberg’s Austrians.  Pushing ahead of the Allied main body the “Kaiserlicks” took Dolitz but were badly mauled by Poniatowski’s men when they tried to advance further and were obliged to wait until the rest of the Allies came up.


At 2 p.m. the battle proper began.  On the Allied left renewed attacks on Connewitz were thwarted by Poniatowski and Augereau.  In the centre Victor, supported by Lauriston, hurled back attack after attack on Probstheida by Barclay’s columns until eventually Schwarzenberg was obliged to order the Russians onto the defensive in this area.  On the Allied right however, Bennigsen’s men both outnumbered and overlapped Macdonald and, after fierce fighting the Austrians and Russians cleared Holzhausen, Zuckelhausen and Zweinaundorf, pushing the French back at right angles to their front from Connewitz to Probstheida.


It was in the North though that the battle was decided.  By 3 p.m. Bernadotte had finally brought the Swedes into line between Blucher and Bennigsen and, heralded by a massive bombardment, Ney was assailed on three sides. Napoleon withdrew the Young and Old Guard from the South and counterattacked in support of Ney.  Although the Guard retook some ground the position was untenable.  Ney was wounded and was obliged to withdraw to the suburbs of Leipzig to shorten his line.  Whilst this withdrawal was underway the Saxon infantry crossed the lines and deserted, to the cheers of the French cavalry who thought that they were attacking!  The odds were moving inexorably in favour of the Allies.


Without the Guard there was no hope of the French counterattacking in the South.  Although grim fighting at Stotteritz finally halted Bennigsen’s attack, this left the French line in this sector in a reversed “L” shape, running from Connewitz, turning at Probstheida, to Stotteritz.  The French had done well in the South to hold against the numerical superiority of the Allies but their valour had been to no avail as the Allies closed in on Leipzig behind them.  As night fell Napoleon drafted his orders for retreat.

The Alternative History


Long Ago and Far Away, in the halcyon days of Hong Kong wargaming, we had staged as a two-day bash, with a cast of thousands, (well at least 15 players and umpires,) on huge tables at Osborne Barracks using “In the Grand Manner” rules and every figure in the club.  Over about 16 hours of play I doubt if we got through more than a dozen moves but we all had a splendid time and vowed that we would do it again soon . . . well, 14 years later here we were!  For all its “get up and go” Hong Kong is a bit like that.


This time the game took place to mark the happy coincidence of Peter Munn from Japan, and Ollie from Taiwan both being in Hong Kong at the same time.  I had been toying with another two-day refight of Leipzig scaled down at 1: 400 for some time, but with the people and time available even that was too ambitious so we settled for recreating that final afternoon on the Southern sector.  The armies were scaled down at 1: 200. This being one quarter of the scale of the rules divisions roughly became brigades and corps became roughly divisions.  Some tweaking of the orders of battle was necessary to ensure that both sides had the right number of major manoeuvre units and that the organization made sense in wargames terms, rather than just be an arbitrary scaling down. 


Jeff dusted off his megalomaniac ego to reprise the role of Napoleon again, with direct command of the Guard and Oudinot’s troops.  Under him Andrzej was Poniatowski, (of course,) and Augereau, Dick was Macdonald and Peter M was Lauriston.  On the Allied side Dieter was Hessen-Homberg and Kleist, Ollie was Barclay and James was Bennigsen.  Yours truly played the dual role of umpire and Schwarzenberg, the latter not so much as the co-ordinator of the Allied effort, but more as a restraining factor trying to stop Dieter from getting too many of my beloved Austrians killed.  For game purposes the Allied commanders each commanded corps in their own right whilst the French all counted as division commanders under Napoleon.  This allowed Napoleon better command control on the units within his command span, as he could decide who got the pip dice.  Outside of Napoleon’s command radius the command advantage switched to the Allied corps which had less, but more consistent, command. In total 516 French figures faced 654 Allies, representing 60,000 men at game scale and a quarter of a million at the 1: 200 scale.  Units started the game in their historical positions.  The table was ten and a half feet wide by four and a half deep.  We used a “Near Run Thing” rules with some revisions I have been working on to allow multiple moves to contact, which considerably speeds up the action.


The game lasted for 11 turns, between 2 p.m. and 5.40 p.m.  To simulate the possible redeployment of the Guard to support Ney, Napoleon had to dice at the beginning of turns 5, 6 and 7.  On a score of 1 or 2 the Guard would have to be withdrawn off the table, a second dice throw would determine how much of it had to go.  This mechanism entailed that history was very likely to be repeated, but this was not certain.  There was an outside chance that the Guard would not be committed at all, or, if it were committed, then perhaps not all of it would have to be moved from the Southern sector.  This gave both the French and the Allies something to think about. Victory conditions were determined by how many of the nine villages on the table the French would hold as night fell.  The historical total was four, (Stotteritz, being a large place, counting as two,) which would be a draw.  The French also faced a penalty if they were unable to withdraw the required Guard units in time.


The initiative was with the Allies and their plan was Fredericken in nature with basically a massive en echelon attack.  Bennigsen, supported by the Barclay’s Allied reserve cavalry, would start in the East, Barclay would then add to the pressure in the centre whilst Kleist and Hessen-Homberg would finally join in from the West.  The French were, historically, deployed in depth, and careful attention was paid to having sufficient counterattack forces behind the villages.  However Napoleon’s plan was not defensive in nature.  Making the most of his initial cavalry superiority he planned spoiling attacks in the centre and East.  To get the most mileage out of the Guard before he faced the chance of losing it, the Young Guard were given a prominent role in holding the line between Augereau and Macdonald and the Guard cavalry supported the attack in the East.


All this French aggression came as a disconcerting surprise to the Allies.  In the centre Barclay’s Russians had plenty of time to see Pajol’s troopers coming at them but, even so, the French cavalry almost surprised one of the Russian units, catching it disordered as it formed square.  For a while it was touch and go but the leading French units were not supported by their colleagues and were soon seen off.  However this attack put the Russian offensive way behind schedule and this resulted in the village of Zuckelhausen holding out much longer than it should have.  With the Russians slowed down, Kleist’s Prussians to the West took up the attack.  The first Prussian offensive was easily beaten off but the second attack made good headway and was only halted by Napoleon committing part of the Young Guard and using the French reserves that had been kept behind Probstheida awaiting the inevitable attack on that vital village.  By the time the Prussians were stopped they had bypassed Probstheida.  That village and Zuckelhausen now constituted a salient, surrounded to the West by the Prussians; to the East by Klenau’s Austrians, who had cleared the village of Holzhausen on the extreme East of the French line; and faced to the Front by the Russian Guard who were replacing the line troops that had seen off Pajol’s horsemen.


In the East Sebastiani ’s cavalry quickly drove off Platov’s Cossacks, leaving Bennigsen’s forces without cavalry support and forced back onto the defensive. Latour-Mauberg’s cavalry similarly neutralised Zeithen’s Prussians.  This led to a sort of stalemate as Bennigsen’s infantry, supported by artillery could make no headway against the French cavalry, but, by the same token, the French had little chance of cracking the firm Allied front in this sector.  However, a gap of about half a mile had opened up between the end of Zeithen’s line and the Russians, behind and to the North of them.  If the French could exploit this, the day might still be theirs.  The French Guard cavalry went at the front of the Prussian line whilst Sebastiani was sent around it to take it from the flank and rear. 


As Sebastiani’s cavalry groped into the space beyond Zeithen’s line they discerned before them line upon line of Allied cavalry troopers, well mounted, armoured and still fresh: the Allied Reserve Cavalry: Russian Guard and Austrian Cuirassiers, had arrived in the nick of time. Instead of wreaking havoc in the rear of the Prussian line Sebastian’s troopers were faced with the task of putting the champagne cork back in the bottle as the Allied heavies came straight for them. Likewise the French Guard cavalry, who’s task of breaching the Prussian line if it was simultaneously assailed from flank and rear too would have been hard enough, now had to do the job alone.


The day had reached its crisis, and the fate of the battle, maybe of the Empire, depended on what happened in the next few minutes.  As the French horsemen accelerated from walk to trot to gallop maybe they thought back to the glory days, to Austerlitz or Jena where they had been decisive.  Maybe they thought of Eylau where their sacrifice had saved the army.  Or maybe they thought of Russia, where too much had been asked of man and beast.  This time too, too much had been asked of them.  Sebastiani’s line cavalry were no match for the best in the Allied army and although the Guard cavalry came bravely on the Prussian squares and batteries did not finch and horses and men were mown down by rippling volleys of musketry and blasts of canister.  Devastated the French cavalry withdrew.


Twenty minutes after this charge Ney sent a desperate plea for help from the North, (Jeff failed the third of his three throws.)  Napoleon assessed the situation and decided that only the whole of the Guard would save the day in the North, (Jeff was unlucky with this throw too).  Engaged and somewhat mangled, the Young Guard and the Guard cavalry took a long time to withdraw and the French situation outside Leipzig would be desperate before they intervened.


With the French Guard gone the odds against Napoleon lengthened from 4:5 to 2:3 and the Allies piled on the pressure.  In the West Hessen-Homberg made little headway against the Poles in Connewitz but an assault by Colloredo’s Austrians against Augereau’s front almost succeeded, being pushed back only at the last moment by a spirited Polish counterattack.  In desperation, and to Schwarzenberg’s considerable disgust, Hessen-Homberg sent the unscathed Austrian line cavalry reserve unsupported against the Connewitz position and Poniatowski quickly saw it off.


In the centre the first attack by the Russian Guard on Probstheida was beaten off by the confident garrison.  A massive artillery bombardment presaged the second attack and this time the Sons of Holy Mother Russia took the village at bayonet point.  Whilst the Russians were still sorting themselves out of their disorder in the village the last reserve French battalion counterattacked them.  At first the French made good headway, but Russian morale held and the French too became disordered in the bloody chaos of street fighting through the burning village.  Isolated and disorientated the French eventually gave way, leaving the Russian Guard in sole possession of the charred ruins of the little village of Probstheida and masters of the centre of the battlefield.


Thus as night fell the French held a diagonal line from Connewitz, firmly held by Poniatowski, to Lauriston on the heights above Stotteritz.  The remnants of Macdonald’s corps were falling back in between them.  Since they were holding three villages the game was a marginal French defeat, and this was made one level worse because of the delay in redeploying the Guard.  The conservative French strategy would have been to fight a delaying action until the fate of the Guard was known and then, if it remained on the field, to use it for a counterattack.  Such a strategy offered the French little hope of a victory, but a good chance of a draw.  Instead Napoleon went for a more aggressive strategy that gave a good chance of victory if he was lucky with the Guard.


Jeff wasn’t lucky with the Guard and he paid the price.  But he did make a fun game of it and that was the main purpose of the day.  Jeff’s hospitality was of the very high standard we, spoiled gamers that we are, have come to expect.  One of his home cooked hams and a turkey gave lunch a very Christmassy feel about it, and a very, merry time was had by all the gentlemen there present.

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