Monday, April 16, 2012

The Battle of Busaco (Neys assault)

 The Battle of Busaco by Simkin

The Battle of Busaco is not one of those Napoleonic battles that live in my imagination particularly. I have no strong feelings about, it lacks the resonance of Waterloo, the romance of Assaye, the miniature quality of Maida or the piractical flair of Vittoria. I shall give the barest of outlines and then get down to the meat of the matter. 

It is in some ways the stereotypical Peninsula battle, the British are on the defensive and deploy the majority of their force in a reverse slope defence, which was then assaulted by the French. But I am getting ahead of myself and falling into that newspapermans trick of telling the end or at least the middle of the story at the beginning. The strategic situation is as follows; it is 1810 and the French hold Spain more or less. Wellington has retreated from Spain into Portugal, where the French have far more limited options as to how they may approach. Napoleon ordered Massena, the French commander, to drive Wellington out of Portugal. This makes sense if you imagine that Spain is a square, while Portugal is a smaller square in the bottom left hand corner, the edges of which are made up of the sea and mountains. Without these mountains, there is every possibility that Portugal would simply have ended up as more Spain. 

The French advance and take after siege several forts along the border and then begin to march on Lisbon. Wellington picks a position, Busaco ridge, and meets the French upon it. The French are unable to properly scout the position or establish where the British troops are concentrated. They launch an attack in the centre under Reynier thinking they are hitting the flank of the British position. They become heavily engaged and are beaten back. Ney on the French right, hears this and believing that his comrades are winning launches another attack which is driven off in turn with a volley and a  bayonet charge.

The French then withdrew to their original positions and proceeded to attempt a flank march, while Wellington fell back towards the Lines of Torres Vedras, a huge line of fortifications. The battle described here is Ney's attack launched at the British left, an earlier scenario covers Reyniers assault. This was an unusual battle, as General Gorman and I played it after finishing a 30km trek as training for our charity Boyne walk in July. We were certainly footsore, but a certain stubbornness meant that we'd be damned before we'd let the opportunity of a game pass.

Several turns have already passed, the French centre has advanced and wiped out the Portuguese Cazadores that were occupying the woods in the foreground. My 60th Rifles have retreated to the building on the right.

The aftermath of another disaster, I had advanced my Grenadier Guards into the building, where they were wiped out by a statistically extremely improbably volley from the French. The plan been to use these titans to hold up the left. The heavy cavalry would sweep forward and pin some unfortunate Frenchmen in square, while the Grenadiers would shoot them down. Sadly, it was not to be and General Du Gormand took another victory point by wiping out the Grenadiers and then occupying the building. You can see the French general attached to the unit having a bit of a forward reconaissance.

It was all looking grim and Du Gormand was beginning to look like a man who was in for the long haul. He was hedging his bets in the centre, moving up fresh reserves while readying himself for a push on the left. In a bid to seize back the initiative, I decided that I would throw my centre off the hill and launch them in a bayonet charge towards the weakened French units in the centre. If I gave him time, he would simply pull them back and replace them with fresh ones, while getting the cavalry on his right into play.

The counterattack went well as the redcoats charged down will, knocking out two French units before General Du Gormand was able to react. Things were looking decidly dicely for General Ferey, who was struggling to rally the remnants of his force.

But too late, the Halberdiers and the Connaught Rangers crashed into him, routing the French battalion. General Ferey died at the head of the column, slain by a ball through the heart. I had played my two strongest cards and was relying on drawing anything that would allow to keep up the momentum.

Sadly, it was not to be despite having put myself within an ace of victory, General DuGormands counter attack was competant, well executed and lucky. Firstly the light infantry in the woods (right) smashed the 4th Foot.

Then the stronger units in the centre advanced and drove off the Rangers and the Halberdiers, who had just run out of puff. I had been unable to draw anything that would allow them to answer back. Crauford died, much like Ferey at the head of his men. This French counterattack equalised things on paper, but it changed the nature of the engagement.With the flower of my British infantry shot down and having to rely on my Portuguese troops, I was unlikely to be able to attack.

This left General Du Gormand sure that barring something really astonishing, he would have the time to pick and choose the place and time of his next attack. There was still a possibility that things could become unhinged but it was unlikely. He started by pulling the badly rattled French centre back and making space for his cavalry, in which he had a decisive advantage, to move forward and threaten my centre and left. He took his time and made sure to concentrate quality and numbers at the decisive point.

His cavalry, back by the Legion Irlandaise, swept forward crunching a weakened second battalion of the Fourth Foot as he did so. The Chasseurs charged the battery in classic Du Gourmand style, while the Hussars of Conflans took it in the rear.

The Chasseurs were bloodied by the Royal Artillery, who managed to rake their ranks with grape. Hope which springs eternal, made it possible to hope that if the Hussars were unsuccessful, there was every chance that I'd be able to wipe them out, surround them with infantry and squeek a victory.

Sadly, it was not to be and the last gunner died manfully, firing to the last. The scoreline was 7-5, which I think demonstrates how close the game was. There were runs of luck on both sides, with my desperate charge which brought victory within reach, being made necessary by the supernaturally good French musketry in the opening turns.

A good game, hard fought and worthy victory to General Du Gormand.


  1. Splendid report! I rather think your 30km walk added a certain...well...something akin to fatigue!

    You should make it a regular part of your engagements : )

  2. It did indeed. We were fagged out. Du Gormand barely touched his claret.

  3. Dear Joy,
    just noticed the the lack of colours/colors within your armies.

    1. Sort of - my troops are based on Charge! companies. Not because I play Charge! mark you, but just because I like the way the regiments are laid out. This means that I tend to have colour per three units. Much more than that I think is too many, with twenty man units they tend to look like colour parties.

  4. I tend to think of Busaco as the Archtype of the Peninsula battle with French columns climbing hills to be blasted.

    But heck the ringing cheer and counter attack seems to have almost worked. Reads & looks like a good game.

    1. I was playing the odds, based on the card draw there was a better than even chance I would draw something that would give me that final activation in the centre. Ah regret.

  5. What I really like about this report and the battle it relates, is that even a battle like Busaco is not a 'gimme' for the Anglo-Portuguese on the table top.

    Agree with you on the colours. I 'inherited' a friend's Napoleonic Brit 'army' - 20 figure battalions, each with the the King's and the regimental colour. It has its points, but you can have too much of a good thing, I reckon...

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