36 figure battalions in the mid 1980s
My last blog was mentioned on TMP Napoleonic Discussion forum, and resulted in some very interesting comments.
The discussion was unusually polite and covered a wide range of views. Though as often happens few seemed to have read my blog, or at least failed to understand the point I had raised. I asked why the early wargame rules concentrated on the Battalion rather than the Corps. Most replies were in favour of current favourite rules.
A lot simply confirmed that they liked the look of bigger battalions. When asked why one 36 figure infantry battalion looked better than three 12 figure infantry brigades they simply preferred flags, drummers etc.
I can understand that, because when I started wargaming I felt the same. However that was because large infantry battalions were presented as the norm. Having no previous experience of the Napoleonic period I simply accepted that. I suspect that most of my generation of wargamers did the same. And having built up wargame armies of 20-36 figure infantry battalions most would not want to change to suit a new set of rules. Any new rule set would be wise to acknowledge this.
A few remarked that many of the early rule writers would have served in the military during WW2, and would have had little experience above battalion level. I find this suggestion harder to accept.
I served in the military for 20 odd years, and found the opposite. I started wargaming accepting that infantry would be grouped in units of 20 or so, because it was a game. But my understanding of chain of command and higher formations quickly led me to question the battalion as the logical basis of rules designed to wargame Napoleonic battles.
I remember reading in one of Don Featherstone’s books that he regarded wargaming as being nothing at all like war. He firmly believed that it is an interesting game, and not a genuine attempt to recreate Napoleonic warfare. The more I wargame, the more I agree with him. I did not have his experience of total war, but I did have extensive knowledge of how the modern military works. Of course it was different in the Napoleonic period, and I would not for a moment claim that having served in the army would give me a better understanding of fighting in the Napoleonic period. But it does give me an understanding of the importance of levels of command, strategy, tactics and logistics. And you will find that modern military staff colleges study many periods, including Napoleonic, to understand these very subjects.
But that is not why I raised this question in the first place. It just seemed to me that a set of Napoleonic wargame rules based on the corps would just make a lot more sense. From what I have read Napoleon’s main innovation was the corps. It allowed him to control much larger armies, it allowed him to move on parallel lines of advance, and to concentrate for battle. It allowed him to pin parts of the enemy army and gain local superiority. Most important it gave him more flexibility than his enemies, at least until they started to copy him.
However the important thing for me was that it would allow new wargamers to collect, paint and play with model soldiers much easier. Instead of having to paint hundreds of figures before they could fight a battle, they could paint up small groups. Having painted 36 infantry they would have an infantry division of three brigades, rather than one infantry battalion. With the addition of a few horsemen and gunners they could field a small combined division.
It would also allow a logical and interesting way to build larger armies. For each division of French infantry you could paint an allied one, say Bavarian or Polish. You could represent the whole French guard infantry with only 32 figures. Two 8 figure brigades to represent the Old Guard and two more the Young Guard.
However it was not to be. I spent many years collecting ever more Napoleonic figures, without any structure or design. And when I finally decided to reorganise my collection in a logical way I found that I had far too many French Old Guard, Scots Greys and British Horse Artillery. This is because they were the very first figures I bought, because they looked so good!