The Battle that Never Was
“En avant mes braves!” Lieutenant Epinace stepped out ahead of his men, sword raised and pointing towards the lone farmhouse on the high ground ahead. Epinace was confident of victory, had not the rosbifs run before them previously at Camino Cerrado? Quite why the Capitaine had left his infantry behind when he last took on the English he could only guess at. Presumably a swift victory before unleashing his cavalry was what he had hoped for. But Capitaine Piece de la Merde he had and now Epinace was confident that his men would be the one to win the laurels. He leapt forward, whirling his sword with confidence but his landing was not what he had hoped for. “Zut alors! Who has allowed their disgusting dog to defile the landscape? These are my best boots!”
By the small field Capitaine de la Merde was watching the farmhouse with his eyeglass. To his rear a group of Dragoons sat waiting his instructions. He turned to his bugler.
“Soundez vous l’avance”
The bugler spat and raised his instrument to his lips, the well-rehearsed notes flowing freely. As one the line of horsemen moved forward, to the right the leading rider struggled to control his mount and, at the worst possible moment, the beast reared up, colliding with the Capitaine’s mount and sending the force commander sprawling into the hedge.
“What’s the state of the powder Sergeant?” Captain Richard Fondler was concerned. Since the battle yesterday the rain had fallen without cease. Lieutenant Cost reported that none of the red-coats of the West Sussex Light Company had any dry powder and the Captain was praying that the green-jacketed riflemen would be better provided for.
The big Ulsterman looked glum. “Just about enough for a single volley, but that’s it.”
It was not the answer Captain Fondler had hoped for.
“Etes vous un lunatique! When I signal you to advance I do not expect you to push me, your commander and hero of France, into ze ‘edge”. Capitaine Piece de la Merde was incensed. He had spent the morning getting soaked to the skin, waiting for the torrent to cease and now to be hurled into a filthy bush was just too much.
In truth the French commander was a worried man. He had received no news from his exploring officer, an Irishman by the name of Parnell who was able to masquerade as a British merchant but who had been an ardent supporter of Wolf Tone and his United Irishmen and now served the Emperor of the French. Parnell should by now be in Varitas de Merluza where, it was to be hoped, he would have news of the British main column. Capitaine de la Merde was certain that the rain would be delaying the British every bit as much as his small force, but at present he did not know. He could only be grateful that he had fresh supplies of powder so his men had cleaned their muskets and were ready to fight. Time, he was certain, would make the difference between success and generous rewards and failure with all of the uncertainty that accompanied that in Napoleon’s Army.
“Sacre bleu!” Lieutenant Epinace had just completed cleaning his boots when, stepping forth once again at the head of his men, another acrobatic leap saw him land badly on a rock, his ankle twisting and, sheathed as it was in leather, he could feel it swelling with what was clearly a sprain.
Using his sword as a walking stick he hobbled on, the pace of his advance slowed by his injury.
Sergeante Petain did not speak, but used his whistle to send his men scurrying forwards. On his right he had posted one group of Voltigeurs in an orchard while he led two other groups around the flank of the farmhouse into the vines there. The Sergeant had seen that the farmhouse had ample windows facing East, but to the flank, on the northern wall, there was just one aperture. Such a position would be difficult to defend. The British could allow his men to enter the farmyard and attempt to surprise them there, but that was a very risky option. If they won, the French could still push home their attack with their infantry, but if the British lost their force would be so much reduced that their ability to continue fighting had to be questioned. Sounding his whistle again he called forwards the men in the orchard to threatened the front of the farmhouse.
“Damnation!” Captain Fondler swore. Whoever was commanding the French knew what he was doing. Voltigeurs on his flank and now to his front and no powder with which to engage them. Yes, he could give them a volley and one or two would fall amid the vines, but then his bolt would have been roundly shot and the enemy would be upon him. “Lieutenant Cost, Sergeant Paisley. Get the men out of here and down the ravine. We can’t hold this position.”
It pained the Captain to give ground, especially as between him and Varitas de Merluza was just open plain, but he had to keep his force intact. It seemed unlikely that the French would be aware of the ravine which fell away from the rear of the farm and his withdrawal could be covered by the approaching darkness; shadows already lengthening as the sun dipped. Fondler would live to fight another day.
The wine flowed freely around the French camp fires that evening, the men grateful for a bloodless victory and toasting Capitaine Piece de la Merde for his valiant leadership. Lieutenant Epinace rubbed his ankle with a foul smelling liniment prepared for him by his aunt to an old Gascon recipe. Late in the evening a lone rider entered the camp and joined Capitaine de la Merde in the farmhouse.
“They are there…in Vartias de Merluza.” Parnell was breathless after his ride but forced the words out. “I watched as many hundreds of red-coats marched through the town. Apparently Crauford has pushed on with his infantry but has been obliged to leave his train back South of San Dore de Merluza as the roads were impassable due to the rain.”
“Testicules! Nous sommes trop tard”. The damned English were winning the race. Time was of the essence and the rain, combined with the defeat on the previous day, had conspired to threaten his mission. He must act now to rescue the situation.
This game does much to show both the strengths and weaknesses of playing a campaign. The game was interesting but short-lived. However, it was so important in campaign terms that we had to play it out. Dawns & Departures has an initiative system which means that even in games which they are clearly going to lose, the player always has something he can fight for. Doing some damage to your enemy before withdrawing can win you the initiative for the next turn, allowing you to influence the next game. That could be as simple as selecting the scenario type or as major as completely seizing the initiative and activating first in the campaign turn, something that can be very significant. As it was, the British had hoped to ambush the French as they advanced and cause sufficient damage to make them slow down their pursuit. However, the French players pushed up with vigour and Sergeante Petain in particular out-manoeuvred the British defenders. Knowing that this could be one of those games which is over before it begins, I was able to roll out What a Tanker, which you can literally just throw onto the table and get playing, so having a second game up your sleeve in a situation like this means you don’t waste a whole gaming session.
From the perspective of the story this campaign turn is very significant. The news received by Capitaine Piece de la Merde means that for the first time he was some idea of where his campaign objective, the British main army on its march northwards, actually is. He knows that he must push on to try to seize victory and that any further delay will greatly limit the degree of victory he can achieve. Once again, there is much here that I cannot divulge as this is a real campaign nearing its conclusion, but all will be revealed once it is over.