Saturday, 7 July 2018

Why Battalions and not Corps

Paul and Jan 1970 (note stills from Waterloo on the wall)
I was pleased to receive so many comments, and such thought provoking ones, to my last post “When is a game too big”.   Indeed it was those comments which suggested the subject of this post.

I have often wondered why Napoleonic wargaming rules are designed around an infantry battalion, rather than a corps.   It seems to me that the essence of Napoleonic warfare is large formations of 20,000 men or so.   Even small Napoleonic battles are much larger than most wargamers can cope with using battalion based rules.

I suspect for most of us the glamour of the period is first and foremost the uniforms.   But a close second is the image of Napoleon or Wellington directing their corps and divisions in grand strategic and tactical manoeuvres. 

Am I alone in seeing myself as a Napoleon or Wellington when I was drawn to the concept of Napoleonic Wargaming? 

Why were the original, and subsequent, rules not written to allow the wargamer to command an army of 6 to 8 corps?  
We started wargaming in 1969, when the world (particularly of Napoleonic wargaming) was much more innocent and simple.   My inspiration was “Charge, or How to Play Wargames”.   I no longer have my copy, so I can’t check.  But I don’t remember anything in that great book which suggested scale or army organisation.   I recall that the infantry “units” were about 16 figures.

I accepted that wargaming armies were made up of “units” of infantry, cavalry and artillery.   The aim seemed to be to collect as many actual figures as possible and eventually be able to fight a large battle like Waterloo. 

But there was little, if any, reference to actual orders of battle.  And even less suggestion how to produce an historical order of battle on a wargames table.  

The 1970s and 1980s were an exciting time to be a Napoleonic Wargamer.   Gone were the simple days of Don Featherstone and his home produced Wargamers Newsletter.   Along came Peter Guilder and His Wargames Holiday Centre.   At the same time Wargames Illustrated appeared with its glossy pages and photos of large 25mm  armies marching around the 36 foot by 6 foot wargames tables of the Centre.   It was inspiring, to say the least.

But it was, for me, a disappointment to find that even the great Peter Guilder did not have detailed orders of battle.  When you fought Waterloo or Leipzig on his tables you were given an order of battle.  It included corps, but (as I recall) not divisions or brigades.  Each corps consisted of about ten 36 figure infantry units, plus cavalry and artillery.   Each French unit had 6 bases representing grenadier, voltiguer and fusilier companies, in effect an infantry battalion.   His epic “In the Grand Manner” rules were battalion based.

All of this is not to say that I did not enjoy wargaming with battalion tactics, sending out skirmishers and forming column, line and square.   But to do so I had to ignore the “elephant in the room” that what I was doing was using battalion tactics to fight battles which were historically based on divisions and corps.

With the introduction of small figures the problem was eased. But I have always favoured my 20mm, then 25mm and finally 28mm figures.   I did experiment with 6mm figures, especially after seeing photographs of the Battle of Leipzig in one of the glossy magazines.  But I have never taken to them and always revert to my first love.

Now that we live in the age of the internet little has changed.   The instant availability of information has certainly changed.  There are a mass of forum where you can get an instant response by an expert in any aspect of Napoleonic history.   You have but to ask and within minutes someone will tell you how many buttons there were on the gaiters of an Italian infantry sapper, and more than likely include a link to an illustration of the same.   People argue at length, and get very heated, about how infantry formation were directed during a battle.   They will discuss at length the relative sources available for strategy or tactics.   But at the same time they accept that their basic unit will be a 12, 24 or 36 infantry figure infantry battlaion.

I was delighted to discover Snappy Nappy rules, which does try to solve this problem.   I have never used them, but their concept helped me to develop my own wargame rules.

Would it have been different if Don Featherstone had written rules similar to Snappy Nappy back in the 1960s?  If they had formed the basis of his book “Wargaming” and all his subsequent wargaming books.   Would Peter Guilder have called his 36 figure units a brigade, and grouped them as divisions and corps?   The actual games would have looked the same, but the historical feel would have been much more accurate.

If the early rules and playing experience had been corps, rather than battalion, based would Napoleonic Wargame have developed as it did?  Perhaps specific rules for battalion tactics would have been developed anyway, much as skirmish rules are now.   But they would have fit neatly into a gaming population which accepted that the only way to fight large scale Napoleonic wargames would be with brigades, divisions and corps.

Does it matter?   No.   But it would seem to have been a more logical evolution of wargaming the battles of the Napoleonic Wars.


Robert De Angelis said...

I found this and your previous post very interesting. I like yourself live in Spain , Cataluña and have done so since the early 80's. I am not as fortunate as your goodself in that my wife has no interest in wargaming whatsoever apart from my own enjoyment of the hobby. It has taken me many years to find a small but very disperse group of friends with whom I can share the occasional game. My interests are definitely at the high command levels and I have played Snappy Nappy and still play solo. I even managed to combine it in a hybrid system with the acw system "altar of freedom" yet another top end system that I highly recommend. My gaming friends are very much in the pick up game market and their game of choice in Napoleonics is Sam Mustafas "Lasalle". when his very high level game Blucher appeared I managed to get them interested and over the last 2 years we have had a lot of fun and some very large games. It's a little more generic than Blucher but worth a look with quite a few good idea's. If you aren't aware of the system you may be interested to browse my blog references to Blucher at

thistlebarrow said...

Hi Robert

Thanks for your comment

I was surprised that there is not more interest in wargaming here on the Costa Blanca. There is a large retired ex pat population, and I had hoped that we could form a club here. I put an article in the English free papers, and got some interest. But none went beyond a glass of wine and a look at the collection. So I think you have done quite well to form a group for the occasional game.

I did have a look at Blucher when it first came out. But by then I had developed my own campaign and wargame rules.

Thanks for the link to your blog, I shall certainly read through it

Only one of your two comments seems to have been posted, but I will answer the other one as well.

I agree that it must be more than just a change of name from Battalion to Corps. I keep line, column and square options, because I find like the move and counter move feel of it. But I have abstracted skirmish actions.

The important change is in command and control, and using reserves. You also need a quick combat resolution to keep the pace of the game moving.

My favour article from Wargamers Newsletter was called “At the Colonel’s Table”, which I remember fondly even after all these years.



Stu Rat said...

FYI with Charge! the 16 figure (plus a couple of command figs) were a company. Three (or four) of which made up a battalion.

I wonder if the focus on battalion sized units is that they are the limit of what we can readily visualize. Six hundred or so men formed up in ranks we can conceive. Marching bands, Changing of the Guard, our own military service all lend to us the ability to understand what's happening on that scale. But brigades and divisions are beyond our direct experience. Modern military maneuvers on that scale are beyond anyone's direct experience and are largely voices on the radio/comms.

Or maybe not.

thistlebarrow said...

Hi Stu Rat

Thanks for your comment, and particularly for the confirmation of the number of figures per unit in Charge. I had forgotten that they were company sized. 48 or 64 figures per battalion is pretty large!

You could well be right that it is quite difficult to visualize thousands of men. And many of the leading wargame figures of the late 1960s would have had military experience during WW2. I know that Don Featherstone was a sergeant in the army, and of course Brigadier Peter Young served in the commando. And quite a few of the wargaming “names” of that period were serving with Peter at Sandhurst.

But I would have thought that anyone who had studied the Napoleonic period (which I had not before I started wargaming) would have been well aware of the size and scope of the multi corps armies. Perhaps not Don, but certainly Peter would have studied military history.

It just seemed strange to me that those early wargamers decided on the battalion as the main unit. I can see the attraction of battalion tactics. But they made it pretty well impossible to ever recreate historical style battles on the size of wargames table available to most players.

Rob said...

I guess this is because the action packed and inspiring stories from battles are usually at a human level where the decisions and/or acts of an individual can directly alter an outcome. Napoleon as Emperor was undoubtedly making decisions that affected outcomes but the vast majority of these took place before the battle started. Once the battle started Napoleon (and I'm talking about his imperial career here) was largely limited to timing the commitment of formations against specified objectives. After that the wonderful Napoleonic paper, scissors, stone games (column, line, square & cavalry, infantry, artillery) was largely left to his subordinates. This is why I think the best wargaming experience is a series of (grand) tactical games set in a campaign.

thistlebarrow said...

Hi Rob

Thanks for your comments.

I agree that inspiring personal stories would add colour to the period, and make readers more interested in the history of the period. I also agree that the paper, scissors, stone element is a big draw. But I am still at a loss as to why the founder members and early rule writers opted for battalion level of command. Given that the only figures available at that time were 20mm, and that Charge had 48 figures to a battalion, it was clear that they were not suitable for anything more than a brigade sized game.

Clearly they did not intend their rules to be used to fight multi corps battles.



Rob said...

The ‘founders’ writings were coloured by their personal experience and this wasn’t at the operational level - besides it’s commonly said that amateurs study tactics while professionals study logistics and hobby wargamers are amateurs. This why no-one makes films about logistics, when was the hero ever a quartermaster or purser? Combat always attracts the attention, even now you can see the cachet afforded to combat arms in the armed forces, maybe that’s why the defence budget is such a mess.

Ross Mac said...

I have seen a few sets of practical rules over the years aimed at refighting full Napoleonic battles, Volley & Bayonet was one of the first that I have personal experience of, published back in the 90's I believe, so not old school by any means. Each stand was a Brigade. I think both Charlie Wesencraft and Jack Scruby had rules designed to handle such things in the early days but I don't have personal knowledge or experience and do not swear to it. In any case designing games for battalions then pretending that you are refighting the great battles of history has always struck me as odd, right back to my WRG ancients days in the 70's.

I am no where near knowing the answer but here are some of my thoughts anyway.

First as mentioned the tactical level is easier to relate to for most of us, its easy to find both first hand memoirs and history books at this level. Look at Napier and Oman for the Peninsular War. Both often dabble in small actions or of details within larger actions as well as the overall picture. Its also easier to picture when looking at the table. A division commander is on the spot and can see or get quick news of what is happening and can see if his orders are being followed. A corps commanders and above can only see a small part and is relying primarily on messages and cannot be issuing orders and counter orders to fine tune, he must trust his subordinates otherwise all descends to chaos.

For me, large battles are perhaps most accurately represented by having a team of subordinate players commanding their corps and divisions on table while the commanding general sits on a high stool 10 feet back, peering over their shoulders and sending messages. That's not something one would want to do every week though and as you have shown there are perfectly good ways to handle these battles in a practical yet enjoyable and challenging fashion.

Secondly, with the prevalence of British wargamers in those early days, many if not most Napoleonic wargamers focused quite a bit in the Peninsula and Waterloo, mostly because they could find detailed English sources which were rare for other European campaigns then but also I suspect because many if not most of us cherish our own history and its connection with us. In addition to the low level detail available though, many of the most famous Peninsula battles were not the large, multi-corps, battles that Napoleon was famous for, so lend themselves to a lower level though to do the larger ones at the battalion level is still a major undertaking best done as a multi-player game in a hall. Using brigades as units (or fielding one model battalion to represent a brigade) as many rules have done from at least the 80's on is often a reasonable compromise.

Lastly, many of the early wargaming pioneers started with Well's Littlewars. It would be natural to avoid carrying over that attention to the frontline toy soldier when they turned from Wargaming to Historical Wargaming.

Just some thoughts. I'm lucky since I've tended to focus on Canadian history where many of the most famous battles and campaigns were fought with very small forces.

thistlebarrow said...

Hi Ross

My experience was as a UK based wargamer, so Featherstone was my main influence in the early years. I subscribed to his Wargamers Newsletter and bought each of his wargame books as they were published. But I don’t remember much, if anything, about organising your army in brigades, divisions and corps.

My first serious rules were WRG, which I used for many years. Again there was information about how many figures there should be in an infantry unit, but again I can remember nothing about higher formations.

It was only when I read Henry Harris “Collecting Model Soldiers” in 1969 that I first thought about organising them in higher formations. That book was about collecting 54mm figures, but he did discuss balance between elite and line, infantry and cavalry and artillery. It was the first time that I considered putting any balance into my collection.

I don’t see why there should not be a Napoleonic flavour just because your basic manoeuvre unit is a brigade rather than a battalion. I don’t see why your brigade should not be able to deploy skirmishers, or form line column or square. If you can accept that 10 36 figure infantry battalions are a corps (as Peter Guilder did), why should you not accept that a brigade can use battalion tactics?

The overall look and feel of the game would be the same. But you would be able to build up your army in a logical and historical manner



Ross Mac said...

Paul I don't disagree, I was merely speculating about why most wargaming authors in the 60's stuck to the regiment, including attachment to particular regiments.

Our local group in the 90's went to brigades as units using home rules based on the Fire & Fury American Civil War rules though we did try Avalon Hill's Napoleon's Battles as well.