Die Schlacht Von Bullenkopf

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Die Schlacht Von Bullenkopf

an after action report of the game held 17th - 18th November 2001

by Peter Hunt

The History

In an alternative 1813 Archduke Charles of Austria came out of retirement to lead the struggle against Napoleon.  The French Army of Germany was well dispersed but Napoleon kept under his personal command the Infantry of the Imperial Guard, a Reserve Cavalry corps, a line infantry corps of Poles and Frenchmen and the Saxon contingent with a division each of horse and foot.  Just as at Lautzen and Bautzen the Emperor was hampered by his lack of scouting cavalry and so it was to the surprise of all concerned that Napoleon and Charles blundered into each other in a meeting engagement on the rolling Saxon countryside near the small town of Bullenkopf.  Charles’ forces were of a similar size to the Emperor’s: an Austrian corps of three divisions, a Prussian corps of two divisions, a reserve cavalry division and an under strength grenadier division.

The terrain was unremarkable.  Over a space of three miles by one and a half miles a series of gentle, often wooded, hills broke the field into four main areas.  From the French right two wooded hills gave way to a wide valley on the other side of which was a series of hills, woods, ponds and villages that made up the centre of the position.  The left was dominated by a stream about a mile from the French positions with woods, hills and villages on both banks.

From 6AM both sides started warily deploying into the battle area.  Both Napoleon and Charles were concerned about their flanks and kept almost a quarter of their forces deployed outside the battlefield to prevent the other outflanking them.  The two played a cat and mouse game of bluff and counterbluff trying to get territorial advantage without committing themselves outright.  Then, just before 9AM , Napoleon quickly pulled in his Reserve Cavalry, which had been outside the field protecting his flanks, and massed them in his centre.  Thus, at one stroke, the Emperor had achieved numerical superiority on the field and the battle was on.

The Emperor had positioned the Poles on his right flank with the French infantry, and dragoons of the Reserve Cavalry covering the valley.  Opposite them were one Prussian division and the Austrian Reserve Cavalry.  Half of the Saxon foot made up the French centre with the French elite heavy cavalry behind them. Then came the Imperial Guard. One Austrian and one Prussian division faced this sector.  The remainder of the Saxon infantry and the Saxon horse covered the French left, faced by one Austrian division and a brigade from one of the Austrian divisions further out on the flank, off the battlefield.  Neither side’s deployments were perfect. The French infantry on the right was stretched out very thinly over a mile and a half, and half of the Saxons were separated from their main body.  On the Allied side although their divisions were well concentrated the corps were intermingled and the individual divisions were too far apart for the corps commanders to coordinate their actions.

The commanders’ briefings for the coming battle were both instructive, and set the tone for what was to come.  Napoleon, having pulled the Reserve Cavalry off his left flank to give him superiority in the centre succumbed to his fears of a flank attack again and ordered the best part of them, the heavies, back to that flank to support the Saxons.  He did however order the separated part of the Saxon foot to rejoin their colleagues and these, with the Imperial Guard, would allow him to attack through Bullenkopf.  The French and Polish line infantry, supported by the dragoon division was expected to hold the wooded heights on both sides of the valley and the right flank beyond.  The good part of this plan was that the Emperor had sorted out all of his corps so that they could fight together as cohesive units.  The bad part was that the Reserve Cavalry would be wasted for most of the battle whilst the line infantry on the right was perilously weak for the task allotted to it.

“On the other side of the hill” Charles immediately withdrew the units off the battlefield to his right: the grenadier division and two-thirds of another infantry division, and pulled them back behind his centre, still concealed but able to intervene at short notice.  Since Napoleon was to commit his best cavalry to meet a non-existent threat from these troops it is clear that the Archduke had pulled off a successful tactical deception.  The question was could he capitalise on it? His plan was to put pressure on the French right and centre until something cracked and then exploit with the off field forces.  The only problem with this was that nothing was done to sort out the intermingling and stretching out of the corps.  As a result the individual divisions would fight largely separate battles instead of delivering coordinated and sustained blows against the French.

The battle opened with a cavalry clash in the central valley.  To give himself room to manoeuvre the Emperor sent forward a dragoon brigade.  This was to have been met by four regiments of Austrian light cavalry.  But, it being too early in the morning and not having had their schnapps yet, half of these refused to charge and their comrades who did charge were very roughly handled, with the French dragoons breaking through to ride down some of the Austrian infantry coming up behind.  The remainder of the Austrian light horse woke up and a regiment of cuirassiers was committed to stabilize the situation.  The French threw in the second brigade of the dragoon division and by 10AM the honours were roughly equal.  The Austrian cavalry had received a bloody nose, and its pride was certainly hurt, but the regiments had not suffered major damage. French losses had been similar to the Austrians but with smaller, less robust regiments they felt the effects more.  As the dust cleared however it was clear that the leadership on both sides had been in the finest tradition of the cavalry: and that they had paid the ultimate price with one French and two Austrian brigadiers dead.  Since both the Austrians were from the Reserve Cavalry division, that unit, which should have been the Allies’ main striking force, suffered from sluggish command for the rest of the battle.

On the French far right their only light cavalry brigade was probing forward across a stream towards the wooded heights that formed the side of the central valley.  Here the leading regiment of Polish lancers came face to face with the last uncommitted Austrian cavalry unit: more cuirassiers!  The Emperor had made it clear that he expected the Poles to charge.  The odds of taking out the cuirassiers were indeed long, but if it could be done then the way to the Austrian rear was open.  The Polish commander assessed the task given him, no doubt he thought back to the Pass of Somosierra where, in 1808, Napoleon had sacrificed another Polish light horse regiment for no gain.  The Emperor had been wrong then, maybe this time he was right.  In circumstances like these there was only one thing for a Pole to do.  He shrugged his shoulders, then straightened his back, drew his sabre and shouted charge over his shoulder… Twenty minutes later the Poles and another chasseur regiment of the brigade were back over the French side of the stream, broken, blown and vowing never again to let a Corsican artilleryman tell Polish lancers how to do their business.  Much chastened the light cavalry withdrew behind their infantry to regroup, minus the chasseurs who arrived at Leipzig three hours later claiming that they were the only survivors of the Emperor’s defeat!

Meanwhile Charles had thrown a whole division into the wooded heights on the other side of the valley next to Bullenkopf.  This allowed the Austrians to position artillery on both sides of the valley into which the French dragoon division again came forward.  The Emperor expected the Polish infantry to support the dragoons on their right but since the Poles were already facing an equal number of Prussians, with more arriving on the flank, this was quite unrealistic.  As a result the dragoons were caught in crossfire facing a solid line of Austrian horse.  One dragoon regiment was destroyed and the others withdrew behind the French centre to lick their wounds.

At Bullenkopf the Imperial Guard and the Saxons came forward to be met by the second Prussian division in close fighting amongst the villages and woods where both sides gave as good as they got.  The French positioned “The Emperor’s beautiful daughters”, the 12 pounders of the Guard Artillery, on the open hill to the left to dominate a swath of the battlefield.  The gunners amused themselves by demolishing any enemy batteries that deployed in range and flattening some of the Prussian occupied buildings.  But although the 12 pounders’ firepower was dangerous their major effect was to create a vacuum swept by fire to the left of the Prussians that extended all of the way to the Allied right where the Saxons and the Austrians had been sparring all morning.

It was into this vacuum that, at just before noon , came the best cavalry in Europe : the Saxon light horse leading with their heavies behind, supported by dense columns of infantry.  With the Guard Artillery masked at last the Allies threw forward their only cavalry in the area, a rather mediocre Prussian brigade, to stall for time. A regiment each of Saxon and Prussian light horse met in a swirling melee of men, horses and German expletives.  The Prussians had numbers the Saxons had élan.  The whole battlefield seemed to hold its breath as the light horsemen fought each other to the finish and, at the very last moment, God sided with the big battalions.  The Saxon brigadier went down wounded and the Prussians were left very battered but still holding their ground.  With two larger and better brigades the Saxons could easily shrug off the loss of one regiment but, as the Emperor often said, you can replace men, you can recover ground, but you can never regain lost time.  As the cavalry were fighting it out the Austrians and Prussians had been able to realign their forces in the centre and their right, bringing up infantry and artillery, including the heavies from the Grenadier division.  Their job done the Prussian cavalry withdrew behind this new line.  With cannon and foot in good defensive positions to the front and either side it was clear that the Saxon cavalry would not break through.  For a while there was a disaster in the offing as the horsemen faced artillery fire from three directions at once, but the Allied gunners were off their aim and the Saxons successfully withdrew.

Meanwhile on the French right the Prussians were using their numbers to good advantage against the Poles holding the wooded heights.  Their first effort was a crude attempt to clear the hill by brute force as the Landwehr regiment sent a battalion forward in column against the Poles in line.  However the Poles were not to be intimidated by Prussians.  The line stood firm and rolling volleys stopped the column dead and then sent it reeling back into the woods.  After this setback the Prussians adopted a more scientific approach and summonsed up an Austrian cuirassier regiment and a horse battery to set about destroying the Polish infantry.  With three brigades plus cavalry support against two, it was a simple matter for the cuirassiers to force the Poles into squares which the artillery and infantry would then demolish.  Whilst this was going on the Austrian Grenadiers were brought into the central valley to take out the French centre and the final two brigades of Austrian reserves were brought on behind Bullenkopf.

All in all things were not looking too good for the Emperor but he had been in this position before more than once and he didn’t give in to his fears.  On his right he closed up the overextended French division to cover the valley and support the left of the Poles, who were still standing, reeling and jabbing like punch-drunk boxers.  The least battered dragoon brigade was pulled out of reserve to prop up the Poles’ right.  The struggle to oust the Austrian division from the wooded heights above Bullenkopf was taken over by the Imperial Guard where discipline, experience, firepower and exterior lines were beginning to tell.  In the woods the two brigades of the Austrian division had become inextricably mixed with their lines so closely packed that French artillery shots would scythe through several Austrian units.  On the French left the Saxons had been surprised when the Allies had not followed up their withdrawal.  But taking advantage of this Napoleon now sent all his aides de camp to the left to summons up the French Reserve heavy cavalry and their Saxon colleagues to begin a long march to the French right and centre respectively. By 2PM the battle was set for its climax.

The Austrian attack in the central valley moved forward professionally with the Grenadiers screened by light horse.  The French threw out infantry skirmishers to slow them down whilst the line infantry behind formed square.  An Austrian Hussar regiment charged the presumptuous French skirmishers and sent them racing back towards the squares.  Not fast enough however because the horseman quickly caught up with the terrified foot and looked certain to put them to the sword.  Normally skirmishing cavalry have little to fear from the reduced firepower of a square, but on this occasion both squares held their fire until the last moment and then each unleashed a devastating volley that brought the Hussars to a shocked and bloody halt.  It had been close, but the French skirmishers scrambled to safety.

For the Austrians though this was only a minor set back as the Grenadiers came up to the French line.  The stage was set for the Austrian skirmishing cavalry to charge the French batteries and keep them busy whilst at the same time unmasking the Grenadier columns which would make short work of the French infantry squares.  But it was not to be.  The Grenadiers were fresh and relatively untouched but the Austrian cavalry regiments had been in action all morning and, despite the possibility of victory in their grasp, they refused to go forward.  The attack stalled within 200 yards of the French line: the Allied high water mark.  The wily old Grenadier commander looked around him.  From the French right Saxon heavy cavalry were already arriving.  On the hill above Bullenkopf the Austrian division was falling back in disorder which meant that the French Imperial Guard would soon be behind his flank.  This was grim.  He looked behind him for reserves.  There were none.  What had happened to the promising Austrian position of less than an hour ago?

Had he not been in the valley the old Grenadier would have seen the trail of dust moving behind the French centre and would have drawn the right conclusions.  Riding Hell for leather the French heavy cavalry was moving completely across the battlefield from the extreme left to the extreme right.  The three mile march took 40 minutes, hastened as it was by Napoleon in person.  With relief on the way the Poles renewed the fight and their last remaining brigade entered the fray, catching a Prussian regiment in a defile between the stream and the wooded heights.  On the heights themselves the other Prussian line regiment and the Landwehr regiment were running out of steam.  They could hold the heights and the woods but not force the thinly held Polish line on the stream below them.  With both the Poles and the Prussians near the end of their tethers only a slight increase in force on either side could tip the balance.  The Prussians desperately rushed their cavalry brigade, still battered from its clash with the Saxons beyond Bullenkopf to support their infantry.  At the same time the commander of the Austrian reserves, an infantry brigade and a hussar brigade, did not wait for Charles’ instructions and moved on his own initiative to backstop the Prussians and secure the Allied flank.

A sort of hush descended on the battlefield as the Austrians and Prussians on the heights saw the dust cloud thrown up by 3500 horses move up on the French right.  Two heavy brigades deployed in depth, with regiments of carabiniers and cuirassiers leading, supported by another brigade of dragoons to protect their flank, thrust across the stream.  Nothing daunted the Austrian and Prussian light horse descended from the heights to meet them.  The Allies were more numerous than the two leading French regiments but were completely outclassed.  The Allied cavalry was bloodily repulsed but at least they had halted the French vanguard.  The French second line of cuirassier regiments would come up soon but by then the Austrian infantry and the Allied artillery would be firmly ensconced in the woods and on the heights so that even the best cavalry would not break through.

And there, effectively, the battle ended.  As the heat of the Saxon afternoon bore down, men and horses who had been fighting since dawn could give no more.  The intervention of the Cavalry Reserve had saved the French right and pulled off the Allied reserves that could have made the Austrian Grenadier attack in the central valley decisive.  The corps of Polish and French infantry had been wreaked, but in return the Prussian line division had been badly battered and the Austrian division in the woods above Bullenkopf was in dire straits as the Imperial Guard closed in for the kill.  In this situation withdrawing the Grenadiers from the valley would be difficult, but not impossible.  Although the Austrian cavalry there had little offensive punch left they could still cover a rearguard competently.  The Austrians still had two large divisions untouched, one of which even included a fresh dragoon brigade, but these were now stretched literally right across the battlefield.  Spread out like this they could hold out in advantageous terrain indefinitely but they had little offensive value.  The Saxons had handled themselves well and were still largely untouched.  Some units had been knocked about but both the Saxon divisions were still functioning.

And thus it was that Archduke Charles found himself pulling back before Napoleon again.  In 1809 he had run the Emperor very close but had been defeated in the end.  In 1813 what the soldiers came to call “the slaughter of Bullenkopf”, where 70,000 men fought by accident and achieved no decisive result, had shown was that the days when the French could hold the rest of Europe in contempt had passed.  Soon it would be Germans: Austrians, Prussians, maybe even Saxons who would stand on the blood soaked field as the French withdrew.

“Saxons”, thought Charles, “ Saxons… Yes maybe I should get in touch with those chaps.  They should be able to see the writing on the wall as well as anyone.”

The Game

The game was set up on a Friday night and played out over the Saturday and Sunday in Ngau Tau Kok: hence “Bullenkopf”.  The sides were exactly equal in points at 720.5 each.  Over 1400 figures were used. The French had quality the Allies quantity, 34,000 men against 42,000, a total of 292 hits against 317.  The table was 12 foot by six foot.

Jeff was the Emperor, aided by Adrian (pun intended) leading the Saxons.  The Poles were handled by Andrzej (naturally) on the first day and Dick on the second.  Neil was the Archduke, Dieter controlled the Prussians, (and he is bonkers enough to make a credible Blucher,) whilst James commanded two of the Austrian infantry divisions.  The wily old Grenadier was yours truly.

The set up was kriegspieled by using an abstract system to represent the approaches to the battlefield through which the two commanders deployed their brigades.  This was great fun for me as the umpire as Jeff and Neil tried feint and counter-feint to seize vital bits of ground and bamboozle each other.  But they largely succeeded in confusing themselves.  If I did this again I would have them deploy by division, not brigade.  It would be quicker, neater and more historical.  However the system worked well, both commanders liked it and we ended up with a deployment that was a far cry from the normal “12 inches in” line ups that we so often see.  It also meant that the troops were deployed in their fighting positions so that when the rest of the guys arrived on Saturday they were straight into combat … no time consuming approach marches.

Once the game got going we averaged one move every 45minutes of play.  Not too bad considering the amount of lead that had to be humped about the battlefield.  Another player on each side to move toys and make decisions might have speeded things up a bit but then again the tendency for multiplayer games to degenerate into agonies of indecision and endless discussion might have been exacerbated.

Jeff did his best to role-play the Emperor with his powers declining.  He blamed his allies for his setbacks:  “I gave him nine pips and he didn’t support me!”  Maintained the myth of his own infallibility: “I was not hoodwinked!” And was suitably imperious to both subordinates and opponents alike.  Andrzej for one will not take tactical advice from him again.  James and Adrian maintained a gentlemanly professionalism throughout the proceedings.  Dieter drove Neil to distraction but such are the perils of coalition warfare.  However, my vote for “man of the match” goes to Dick who was dealt a very weak hand when he took over his command on the Sunday but played it with consummate skill.  I of course helped him a bit when I put the pox on the Austrian offensive by saying, with only a hint of pity, “Well the only thing that will save those light infantry is two sixes from those squares.” But the look on his face when the dice obliged made the whole game worthwhile!

Given the completely equal points values and command this game was always likely to end in some kind of draw but I must admit I was surprised, and very pleased, at the shifts and changes that took place.  With attacks, counterattacks, withdrawals and realignments there was a dynamic and fluid quality about the game that seemed very Napoleonic.  For most of the game it seemed that the allies had the upper hand but their command and control problems prevented them from exploiting the advantages that came their way.  The French on the other hand kept their corps together.  Therefore they were better able to recover quickly from setbacks and take advantage of the opportunities that came up.  Thus what looked like being a winning draw for the Allies ended up as a winning draw for the French.  In a moment of unbecoming humility the Emperor summed up The Slaughter of Bullenkopf as: “Not so much a tale of a battle won. More a tale of a battle lost.”

Finally, a very, very big thank you goes to Jeff and Amy for their superb hospitality.  Alfresco champagne lunches should be a feature of all wargames and Jeff’s efforts in feeding and watering the combatants over the weekend were unstinting.  Although for some reason Bullenkopf never got into the history books, for the participants the catering alone will make it a battle to remember! 

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