Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Historiography of Wargame Design!

I saw this article some time ago and thought I'd share it with you all here;

The Historiography of Wargame Design

The Evolution of
French Tactics under Louis XIV
from 1772-1791

By Pat Condray

Actually the title could take us back to Creasey's DECISIVE BATTLES published in the 1850s. But for most wargamers our appreciation of tactics in the Age of Marlborough, or perhaps of Louis XIV, owes more to David Chandler, D.V.S. Fosten and other popular authors. Not that we lacked speculation from the 1960s in the pages of Don Featherstone's WARGAMERS NEWSLETTER, on the eccentricities of tactics in that distant age.

The period, which is chiefly that of The War of The Spanish Succession and The Great Northern War, is known to most of us from English language sources. We are dimly aware that England fought victoriously to save the liberties of Europe from the domination of Louis XIV. This was personified in the candidacy of Charles of Hapsburg for the Spanish throne. Marlborough fought four battles, winning all handily. Part of it was due to his brilliance as a commander, but it is also suspected that the tactical systems of the French adversary were as usual flawed. It is not clear, in light of all this, just how the King of Spain remains Bourbon.

The most famous flaw in the French tactical system lay in the habits of their horsemen. Of Blenheim we know that 5 English squadrons routed the 8 elite squadrons of the Gendarmerie de France, while at the end of the day some 80 allied squadrons crashed through 60 French, Bavarian, and Spanish squadrons who feebly met them at the halt with a discharge of firearms. Of this incident, Viscount Montgomery of Alamien in his HISTORY OF WARFARE commented that they would have lost had they not been outnumbered because they used the wrong tactics.

From these incidents most of us were inclined to believe that the French horse resorted to methodical pistol fire when dash and élan were required. This is very un French on the face of it, but the facts were clear. Or were they?

My own in depth involvement with the era aside from a smattering of SABERTACHE, WARGAMER'S NEWSLETTER and such general sources as Fortescue's HISTORY OF THE BRITISH ARMY began when Jim Brokaw approached me about assisting him in uniform research. For reasons I didn't entirely understand he was fascinated with the period, and designed his own figures. He knew I had some European contacts and he wanted me to help him research the uniforms and organization. In return he would provide me with copies of his molded figures so that I could make my own gravity molds and raise armies. At the time I had an old friend (Joe Burgess) who happened to have a casting shed. Moreover, none other than Wally Simon (in whose basement HMGS was founded) had a vulcanizer! On inspiration I formed partnership with Jim and Joe, paid Wally for use of his vulcanizer, and off we went.  

Jim's overtures came at one of our early HMGS conventions. That is, in the early to middle 1980's. This saved me the most extreme of errors. When I started looking into general works on the subject the most accessible were Fosten's BLENHEIM and Chandler's THE ART OF WAR IN THE AGE OF MARLBOROUGH. I also had access to some work done by an eccentric local wargamer William Guthrie. In his opinion Anglo-Dutch horse charged at a fast trot with cold steel, the French and their allies charged at a slow trot and fired pistols before entering the melee. This tracked with my readings in Fortescue's HISTORY OF THE BRITISH ARMY (1928 edition.)

As I said, it could have been worse. I later scanned Chandler's MARLBOROUGH AS MILITARY COMMANDER, and found that French cavalry under Louis XIV, at least up until 1772 resorted to the caracole. However this had changed by 1776 when ART OF WAR came off presses. Thereafter the French cavalry had at least kicked their mounts into some semblance of a trot and were prepared to close with the sword after discharging their pistols.

Fosten's BLENHEIM corroborated (indeed, probably heavily relied upon) Chandler. He had the Gendarmerie ponderously falling upon Cutt's shot up infantry as they retreated from their first attacks on Blenheim village. But at least they fell on them, however slowly.

In the same work I found that French and allied battalions were generally far larger than British battalions. I found this somewhat confusing when I studied Chandler's ART OF WAR. Perhaps they had been larger in 1775. But by the following year (ART OF WAR) the Anglo-Dutch units had grown to "between 780 and 930 rank and file" while the French battalions had shrunk to a paper strength of no more than 690.

Somehow it also developed that until 1776 infantry in the Age of Marlborough never closed with the bayonet, and thereafter rarely. Stuart Asquith's first cut at WARFARE IN THE AGE OF MARLBOROUGH forbade closing with the bayonet, regardless of provocation. It also required the enormous French battalions to fire only their first ranks, but to always form in two. When I finally met Stuart at FALL IN! 98. I suggested that perhaps he and Fosten had made the French battalions larger as a precaution. As we all know from 1066 AND ALL THAT, English troops are accustomed to winning against superior numbers, and may become demoralized if they outnumber the enemy. Gentleman that he is, Stuart merely smiled, and offered to send a copy of his second version WARGAME RULES FOR THE 1680-1721 PERIOD. When it arrived recently I found that it had been upgraded to the current crop of 25mm Marlborough figures-a far cry from the primitive Peter Laing 15mm types which inspired the original. While I haven't tried them out, the 1992 edition seems devoid of the extreme national characteristics which would discourage all but the most determined French players.

My first hint that posthumous tactical changes were being accomplished by the French
horsemen of Louis XIV came when I read the English introduction to Gunnar Arteus' STRIDSTACTIC. He had the audacity to suggest that French cavalry tactics in the period were unpredictable. He averred that they might do anything from charging at a relatively disorderly gallop to firing at the halt.

Heresy! Arteus quoted a phrase about the first charge of the Gendarmerie at Blenheim (against the retreating British foot) in French using the verb "courir," which means to run, but is subject to other interpretations. I stuck to my prejudices. However, when Brent Nosworthy came out with ANATOMY OF VICTORY in 1990 he more than corroborated Arteus. In addition he pointed out that the despairing mounted fire action at Blenheim could be attributed to something other than tactics. They had been fighting all day, and Tallard's mounted troops had suffered through an epidemic of Glanders. Some horses were probably weak and the reason for so many dismounted dragoon squadrons in Tallard's array probably had to do with promotion of the surviving dragoon nags to the rank of cavalry chargers for depleted cavalry units.

Perhaps more to the point, a careful reading of various accounts of Blenheim (or, as it is sometimes called on the continent, Second Hoechstaedt) will indicate that the masses of (outnumbered) French and Bavarian horse were engaged repeatedly. And at one point Marlborough was forced to call on Eugene of Savoy for support. Though hard pressed, Eugene sent aid in the form of a brigade of Cuirassiers (Fuggers I think.) Now a Brigade of Imperial Cuirassiers could be more numerous than the 17 squadrons of British horse reported at Blenheim. Surely if the less numerous French mounted forces had resorted to such ineffective tactics as the caracole or simple mounted fire at the halt this would hardly have been necessary.

Nosworthy makes reference to charges at the gallop "en housard" but credits the defeat of the Gendarmerie at Blenheim to pistol attacks. He even states (1). 124) "Cavalry using the carbine or pistol had to slow down immediately prior to making contact with the enemy." However Swedish horse under Gustavus Adolphus was encouraged to fire while closing at the gallop. A very confusing muddle indeed. I'm also not convinced that a galloping horseman cannot fire a pistol at close range. Certainly the later revolver armed cavalry in this country did so. Nor does Robert Parker's description of the defeat of the Gendarmerie at Blenheim, quoted by Chandler (ART OF WAR pg. 54) make mention of the use of Firearms by the French.

Curiously Foure (TROPHEES DE LA GUERRE DE SUCCESSION D'ESPAGNE) relates that the same Gendarmerie reputed to have gone hesitantly with pistols against the British squadrons at Blenheim, executed an impetuous premature charge at Speyerbach the year before. It seems, in retrospect that these elite scarlet coated maitres were prone to attack, but not always in a cohesive fashion.

Even in my second edition of WARGAMING THE AGE OF MARLBOROUGH I was committed to the classic view that French horsemen ponderously attacked with pistol fire at a slow trot. But that doesn't seem to be the case. I have become increasingly convinced of the truth of what both Arteus and Nosworthy asserted: (Nosworthy 1,.

Of late, I represent this uncertainty of French, as well as Bavarian and Spanish horse tactics by allowing a different charge morale roll to precipitate a different tactic. The charge of these forces requires an adjusted morale roll slightly higher to generate a gallop. If the charge is attempted at gallop range and trots the attackers end at trot range and will not make contact unless countercharged by horse. All the same, since it is presumed that these troopers were unable to maintain perfect order at a gallop, their "impetus bonus" is only equal to that of close order trotters. The value is 1 for slow trot, 2 for fast trot or disorderly gallop, and 3 for a cohesive (Swedish only) gallop. Following an old LE KRIEGSPIEL rule, gallopers who win have a compulsory pursuit move--no matter how much trouble it gets them into.

Beyond individual rule systems, I would suggest that gamers dealing with this period use English Civil War or Thirty Years War concepts. Most such systems allow for gallopers, trotters, shooters and hackers. And even for the stolid Anglo-Dutch, attacks on troops in disorder (road columns, routing, etc.) should be possible at the gallop. This was accomplished by the 2nd (Scots) and 5th (Irish) dragoons at Ramilles against the Regiment du Roi, which had dispersed to retrieve packs. (Please disregard my reference to 2nd and 8th in WIAM Third Edition- the 8th Dragoons were in Spain.)

We also find that infantry tactics were in transition. Stuart Asquith's first Marlborough rules represented this by having British infantry fight in single ranks while continental types fought in two but fired only one. Actually the Anglo Dutch, using Platoon Fire or "The Dutch System" did normally fight in half files (3 ranks.) This seems to have been more efficient. For esthetic reasons I started by keeping other countries in single rank of figures for tire action. Dennis Shorthouse (ON MILITARY MATTERS) insisted on modifying my rules by refusing (l) lacing in a second rank) one of four French or Bavarian bases. Reluctantly I have followed suit. The refused bases only fire in the first exchange in any position, and only platoon fire infantry may advance firing. However, both Chandler (ART OF WAR) and Swiequintzov (L'ARMEE RUSSE) indicate that troops who customarily fired by rank had a procedure for a variation on platoon firing in retreat.

The most comprehensive incorporation of fire formations into wargaming for this period was attempted by Ben King in his FUSIL AND FORTRESS rules which came out in limited edition almost 20 years ago. To illustrate the different firing lines he had the figures formed in three, four, or rive actual ranks. Unfortunately the familiar problem of having one figure represent 30 or more soldiers did not work well when the battalions formed four figures deep. Later I asked Ben at one of our conventions how the system had worked out. He gave me a wry smile and admitted that it hadn't worked very smoothly. Even for Age of Marlborough games, he told me, "We use MUSKET MUSTACHE AND MITRE for open field combat." The latter are his SYW rules, which I think I saw him using at HISTORICON 97.

When it comes to gaming, there is still room for extensive research on the Age of Marlborough. The basic battlefield tactics will be recognizable to the SYW player -the order of battle is linear. There is attention to be given to regimental seniority in the formation of lines. Cavalry can sometimes break infantry in line-but it isn't usually worth it. As Chandler stated in ART OF WAR (pg. 54):

"The basic duty of the cavalry on the field of battle was to engage and defeat the enemy's horse: thereafter, if all was going well, the mounted arm would be directed to fall upon the foe's infantry, guns and trains in order to destroy them or at least induce the rival commander to abandon the engagement."

Over years of running Age of Marlborough games at conventions I've developed some techniques which may also be of use to players using other rules as well as my own, and, of course, such concepts fit any size figures.

There seems to be a general consensus that armies often approached the battlefield in field columns were possible, the unwieldy guns going on the road with the wagons. Moreover, while Nosworthy in particularly emphasizes the difficulty of moving from column to line, there is evidence that French forces charged from their approach march at Marsaglia (1693), Speyerbach (1703), and possibly other occasions. Part of this can be accounted for by the fact that armies marched semi-deployed. That is, the units in march column by field and road were positioned so that by wheeling or deploying to left of right they could sort themselves out into the traditional two lines and reserve. But instead of deploying from a single miles long column of march, approaching the battlefield often many columns were used. Therefore the deployment could proceed smoothly, but was subject to adjustment in the process.

Nosworthy is also quick to point out that the archetypical orders of battle were not ironclad. He states (ANATOMY p. 85) "It is interesting to note these tenets were not strictly followed in any of the four major battles (Blenheim, Ramillies, Oudenarde, and Malplaquet) occurring in the Flanders theatre during the War of the Spanish Succession." Also, even after deploying the army, if not under immediate attack, might be rearranged. This occurred at Almansa (1707) when Berwick redeployed to put his French and Irish opposite the British (according to legend,)

To speed things up, I try to put the armies in an approach march mode out of canon shot of each other. Center and wing commanders on each side get several free moves based on a die roll. Moreover, even before those rolls, the players, subject to the approval of the army commander, can alter their deployment. That step, however, should ideally be done on paper be each side before they see what the enemy is up to. Most recently (FALL IN! 98) the allies won an ALAMANZA game partly by shifting much of the right wing horse to the left on the free deployment moves because the ground was more favorable to cavalry action on the left flank.

I'm also not above varying the terrain from game to game. Remember, when historical commanders came on the field, it usually wasn't one they had studied in military history courses.
127) "During this period the French cavalry did not universally adhere to a single body of cavalry doctrine."


Arteus, G. KAROLfNSK OCH EURPEISK STRIDSTACTK 1700-1712 Published Thesis, Department of History, Goteborg Sweden

Chandler, David G. MARLBOROUGH AS A MILITARY COMMANDER, Hippocrene, NY 1973. and

Fosten D. S. V., BLENHEIM, Almark, London, 1975.


Montgomery, B.L., A HISTORY OF WARFARE, London, 1968. Nosworthy, Brent, THE ANATOMY OF VICTORY, Hippocrene, NY 1990