If you want to wargame Waterloo – stop reading. Don’t. Not again. Waterloo is trivial. A mythic but boring battle, the French army endlessly storming the hill until the Prussians spoilt the party. That’s Waterloo.
I of course understand why certain modern-day redcoats from that shopkeeper’s nation (as Napoleon once said) like the 1815 campaign. From a neutral wargaming point of view, 1814 is much more interesting. Why?
- Napoleon was brilliant – not slow and fat, as in 1815.
- The armies were relatively small, no Leipzig or Waterloo.
- The armies were varied – the beautiful Old Guard, Polish lancers, cossacks, Prussians, Austrians.
- The French and Allied generals were all where the action was. Here’s my favourite scene from the Battle of Arcis d’Aube, 20-21 March 1814 (found on Wikipedia)
As a mob of fleeing French cavalry galloped for the Arcis bridge, Napoleon drew his sword and rode into their path shouting, “See who will re-cross the bridge before me”. At the same time, the crack troops of Louis Friant‘s Old Guard division began crossing the bridge and took up a position to defend Arcis. Sebastiani’s badly shaken horsemen slowly began to recover from their panic and reorganize. During this crisis an Allied howitzer shell landed sputtering near the rallying troops. Seeing his soldiers flinching from the missile, Napoleon intentionally rode his horse directly over the bomb. The shell exploded and killed the horse, which went down, taking the emperor with it. Napoleon soon emerged unscathed from a cloud of smoke, mounted a fresh horse and rode off to inspect his army.
And besides to all the action, to a certain extent the February Six Day’s Campaign bears striking similarities with the 100 days campaign. Napoleon exploited the gaps left between the several opponent armies. He cornered Blücher who recklessly tried to flank him. He achieved 4 victories in 6 days, and his 30,000-man army managed to inflict 17,750 casualties on Blücher’s force of 50,000–56,000.
And just like in 1815, Blücher came back. Five days after the defeat at Vauchamps, the Army of Silesia was back on the offensive. Bonaparte should have known in 1815 that Blücher would return asap.
Researching the military history of the campaign is fun – research is an essential part of my wargaming hobby. I will share some of the highlights here.
One of the facts is the sudden weakness of the once almighty French Empire. The First Empire was in crisis after Leipzig and Napoleon tried to regain strength asap. He ordered three levies, a 160k, a 150k and a 300k in autumn/ winter 1813-1814. The last levy was a failure: the numbers revealed
a shortage of 237,000; up to then only 63,000 conscripts had been enrolled.
Even then, the army was underequipped and in a bad state.
For the training there was no time, and in January 1814 four-fifths of the men were still learning their recruits’ drill. The storehouses and arsenals of France proper did not contain sufficient material to clothe and arm them (…) There were arms at Hambourg, Stettin, Mayence, Wezel, and Magdebourg, but there were none at Metz or Paris.
Many of the soldiers were in the condition described by General Preval, commandant of the large cavalry depot at Versailles, who says, “There has just arrived here a squadron of light cavalry who are deficient of everything except waistcoats and breeches.” Only two men out of three, on an average, were dressed in uniform, and, more serious still, only one man in two was armed.
The depot of the 1st Military Division (Paris) had 9,195 men present, and 6,530 muskets, and the depot of the 16th Division 15,789 men and 9,470 muskets. At Rennes, Tours, Perpignan, and in all the garrisons in the west, the centre, and the south, the state of affairs was worse still. For instance, the 5th Light Infantry had 545 men and 150 muskets, the 153rd of the Line 1,088 men and 142 muskets, the 142nd 324 men and 41 muskets, and the 115th 2,344 men and 289 muskets.
Cavalry weapons also were deficient; the 1st Regiment of light cavalry had 202 sabres for 234 men, the 17th Dragoons 187 sabres for 349 men, and the 8th Cuirassiers 92 sabres for 154 men. There was also a shortage of horses, and in the large depot at Versailles there were 6,284 horses for 9,786 men.
(Quotes from Houssaye, Henry. Napoleon and the Campaign of 1814 . Kindle Edition. A very well written historical study, published in 1888 (!), the author is the French scholar Henry Houssaye, text translated into modern, vivid English, Kindle edition only $4,53)