Saturday, 14 July 2018

More thoughts on Why Battalions not Corps

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!


  1. I've been following your recent blog entries with great interest, in no small part because almost everything that you write chimes with my experience and outlook.

    I want to be a general commanding an army (well, at least a division or corps!) rather than a battalion commander when I fight my warganes at home. I want to be able to represent large formations on my tabletop using a reasonable number of figures that do not require me to paint figures for two or three years before I can fight a battle. This is why I enjoyed wargaming using Chris Kemp's NQM and Tim Gow's MEGABLITZ rules and why I developed my own HEXBLITZ rules.

    I'm with you and Napoleon. After all, didn't he have something to say about 'big battalions' ? (I'm sure that he actually meant big battalions = army corps on the warganes table!)

    All the best,


  2. My understanding for the rules focusing on the battalion is:-
    It allows you to show various formations, line column, square. All important for the 'look' of Napoleonic warfare in some eyes.
    After playing the usual divisional game most play with Napoleonics, I have moved up to Blucher, in 6mm, which is a different sort of game.Less about the lower formations and more corp/army orientated.

  3. Hi Bob

    Good to hear from you again.

    It’s interesting how personal experience moulds our development. For example I never used NQM nor MEGABLITZ. My main influence was WRG and then “In the Grand Manner”. I was in the army throughout the 1970s and most of 1980s and our wargame experience was either running a small club on the base, or playing with Jan at home. So we were not subject to the same degree of third party influence which you would experience if you belonged to a club.

    I suspect that Don Featherstone did not even consider orders of battle when he wrote his early Napoleonic wargame rules. I met him a few times in Southampton and I always got the impression that he regarded wargaming at a GAME. And a fun game at that.

    My recollection of those early days is that the whole thing developed in a very hit and miss sort of way. If there was a Games Workshop in those days I am sure that it would have been much more logical and with an eye to cross selling. Mind it might have been a lot less fun if that had been the case



  4. Thanks for your comments.

    I think you are quite right that most wargamers relish line, column, square and most important of all skirmishers. And I agree that is the most important aspect in giving a game a “Napoleonic feel”. But you can have all of that without also having 36 figures infantry battalions. I suspect that wargamers of “a certain age” like the 28mm 36 figure battalions because that is what was in vogue when we started in the hobby. I can well remember the huge influence of photographs in Wargames Illustrated of huge 36 figure battalions massed on Peter Guilders tables. Indeed I did the same (on a much smaller table) for more than ten years.

    However all wargaming is a compromise. If you have large infantry battalions then you have to compromise when replaying an historical battle. Or you can call your 8 or 12 figure unit a brigade, but use the same formations and deploy skirmishers. I know that most current corps sized rules abstract skirmishers. But if you prefer there is no reason why you should not include a stand of skirmishers for each brigade.

    And of course selecting smaller figures makes the whole thing that much easier. I also collected quite a large 6mm army. But I found that I just did not like playing with them. They looked good on the table, but they did not handle the same as my favourite 28mm. Of course that is just another prejudice, but it mine!



  5. I think a basis for rule design is to firstly decide who the player is. Are you the brigade commander, divisional commander, corps commander or army commander. The higher up that structure you go, your involvement in the game should be at the more strategic level, with broader decision making and assumptions must be made that the local commanders are deciding how best to deploy at the Battalion level, because that's THEIR job, so being in the shoes of a corps commander, it might be better if square, column and line should not be represented specifically at all.

    Most napoleonic boardgames are at the strategic level is this is exactly how the lower formations are treated, they simply have a combat value / morale / leadership value that reflects capability, not the mechanics to put that capability into visual representation.

    in that regard, a battalion quite easily can be represented by 12 figures …. indeed on a single base if desired.

  6. Hi Norm

    Thanks for your comment

    As always it will be a matter of choice, and when to compromise

    There is a certain logic in what you say. If you want to game the Napoleonic period at army commander level then a board game is the answer. But that overlooks the fact that model soldier wargamers first and foremost love their model soldiers. They have spent hours, days, weeks and even years painting them. For many I suspect that the wargame is secondary to the enjoyment of just seeing them on the wargames table.

    And then there is the accepted norm for what is a Napoleonic, as opposed to say 7 Year War, wargame. I would suggest that the formation choice of column, line and square is essential for most. Also most would prefer to have skirmishers represented on the table.

    It then just depends on what you prefer to sacrifice. If the enjoyment is 36 figure battalions then you will go that way no matter what is suggested. If you prefer to at least attempt large wargames with 28mm figures, then you have to go for smaller groups representing larger formations.

    There is no right or wrong answer to this question. It is just a matter of preference.

    But that is not the question I raised. I asked why the battalion was chosen in the early years as the basis of Napoleonic wargame rules. At that time there were many fewer wargamers. Most were relatively new to the hobby. Few had much knowledge of the period. Few had large existing collections. So most would be open to whatever was proposed in the early wargame rules.



  7. Paul, you've raised an interesting question - but one it may never be possible to answer! I suspect the influence of HG Wells's Little Wars on many early wargamers, such as Donald Featherstone, which treated each toy soldier as an individual and relied on their removal to represent casualties, led to a subconscious focus on lower level action and a 'bottom up' design methodology. And even the 1824 Prussian Detachments Kriegsspiel used the half-battalion as its basic unit in wargames where players commanded a Prussian brigade (equivalent to a division in other armies).

    Perhaps there is a logic here: in real armies of the Napoleonic era, officers began their careers by learning the manoeuvres of a battalion or squadron. Some remained regimental officers; some became brigade commanders; others rose to command divisions, and a few, to command corps or armies. So there is some merit in a wargamer - particularly if 'relatively new to the hobby' and without 'much knowledge of the period' - starting with games which focus on battalions, and later progressing - if he or she wishes - to games depicting the command of higher formations. Otherwise, the newcomer is 'playing the rules, rather than the history' (to reverse the Two Fat Lardies' claims for their rules), just as I might play Cluedo with no understanding of how a real murder investigation is conducted, or Monopoly with no knowledge of property speculation.

    Personally, whilst I've played wargames at all these levels, I'm beginning to realise I really prefer the smaller engagements and forces which offer a more detailed narrative of what has happened, similar to the letters and memoirs of soldiers such as Rifleman Ben Harris, Captain John Kincaid et al., but that's just my personal choice.

    Another influence has been that the use of toy soldiers, rather than blocks or counters to portray units, meant that early rule writers tended to construct rules in terms of the toy soldiers themselves, not the units they represented. Thus, 'throw one die for shooting per five figures', rather than 'per company'. So there was always, albeit unintentionally, a focus on the individual, rather than the formation to which he belonged and hence on the battalion. I don't think this was unique to early Napoleonic wargames; it was true of all the early 'horse & musket' games, from ECW to ACW.

    Best wishes,

  8. Hi Arthur

    Thanks for your comments

    I think you may be right that the early wargamers treated each toy soldier as an individual. And also as a toy soldier. H G Wells seemed to do so, and his rules were only a better way to play with toy soldiers. So it makes sense that the early wargamers would have the same approach. In fact the early rules may well have been an attempt to improve the play element, and not an attempt to recreate battalion tactics.

    We are so used to taking the whole thing so seriously these days. The idea that it should be a fun game, let alone playing with toy soldiers, is often met with outrage.

    What a shame that it is too late to ask the man himself.

    It would be really interesting to hear what he thinks of the current approach to rule writing and wargaming in general.



  9. I agree that corps-level gaming would represent the Emperor's experience, but he was the exception rather than the rule. Most of his commanders had a corps or two at most. I am just coming to the end of Suchet's memoirs of his time in Spain (1808-1814) when his command was no more than an augmented corps and it presents plenty of examples of marching separately but uniting to fight. So you have many of the coordination problems without the mega-armies. For anyone interested Suchet's (self-serving) memoirs are on-line at the WTJ web-site.

  10. Hi Rob

    Thanks for your comments

    I take your point that there were a lot of smaller sized commands, particularly in the Peninsula. And also that the command and control problems could be similar, though on a smaller scale.

    But my point was more from a wargaming viewpoint. With 36 figure battalions and using 28mm figures most wargamers will be restricted to division sized games. I use a 6x6 foot wargames table and find that I can comfortably fit about 200 figures on each side. That would be five battalions per side, plus a few cavalry and artillery. Of course it is possible to fit a lot more figures on the table, but not with sufficient space to manoeuvre.

    That can provide an excellent and enjoyable wargame, and I have used these larger battalions for many years. But it does restrict your options for planning campaigns, which I always use to produce battles to wargame.

    I personally find multi corps battles much more challenging, particularly in a campaign context. After three or four battles each corps has to cope with campaign casualties, which add an extra flavour to the subsequent wargames.

    But, as always, it is just a matter of choice. The aim is to enjoy the experience. I would never attempt to persuade anyone either way. I found it interesting to consider what would have happened if the “founder fathers” had opted for corps based wargame rules rather than battalion based ones.



  11. Apologies for coming late to this post - for some reason I was not 'following' you blog despite doing so a while ago!

    I think it is very much a perception thing and for what its worth I believe that most wargamers like the idea of command first and foremost - regardless of whether or not it is a squad or an army. I prefer the map challenge of commanding divisions and corps and when the battle arises how the formation is represented on the tabletop is where the challenge is. At a tabletop level it should be what players are comfortable using in terms of figures scales and numbers in the unit.

    Arguably one could say that a 36 figure unit could represent a corps or 36 men or anything in between - it is the look of the thing that matters and so what works for A may not do so for B. For me this is why using a grid and stylised 'units' works so well as they can be stylised to whatever degree is required. Call it embracing the abstract if you like!

    All the best,


  12. Hi David

    Thanks for your comments

    I think you are right that wargamers like the feel of command, and the level is less important. I suspect that they prefer battalion command, they certainly prefer large battalions. And of course it will be down to what each player wants to do.

    I am less sure that many wargamers would be happy for a 36 figure unit could represent a corps. In days past I have used such a formation as an infantry brigade. But I think to believe you command a corps you have to have cavalry and artillery on the table.

    And that is when the compromise is required. As Don Featherstone remarked "back in the day" you would need a playing area the size of a football field to recreate Waterloo with 36 figure infantry battalions. You would also need a huge number of players. I find a get boggled once I have more than 20 elements to move around the table.

    Most are obviously happy to compromise by ignoring the higher command levels, and the fact that most major Napoleonic battles were multi corps. And nothing wrong with that.

    It may be for some that the more they wargame, and the more often they do so, the more inclined they are towards smaller battalions and multi corps. Simply because the tactical and strategic options are much greater when you are gaming with four corps rather than one infantry division and some cavalry.

    There is no right or wrong in this, it is all just a matter of personal preference




I have set the settings for comments to come to me before posting so that I will not miss any