Battle of Roliça: A most important affair

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Background:

The Battle of Roliça took place on the 17th of August 1808. It was the first battle between British and French forces of the Peninsular War. British Lieutenant General Sir Arthur Wellesley (later the Duke of Wellington) commanding a Anglo-Portuguese force met French General of Division Francois Delaborde near the village of Roliça. Anglo-Portuguese forces numbered approximately 15 000 men, including 18 guns. French forces numbered approximately 4 400 men, including 5 guns. (Jac Weller, Wellington in the Peninsula).

Historically Wellesley dispatched a flanking force on the left led by Ferguson and on the right by Trant to attempt encirclement and capture of the French force, while he himself led the bulk of the army in a slow display of force in the center. Delaborde was not distracted by the display, and withdrew behind a cloud of skirmishers to a strong 2nd position. Wellesley repeated the gambit, two wide pincers with a show of force in the center. Before the plan could reach fruition, the 29th advanced alone, resulting in confusion, befuddlement, and the majority of the British casualties of the day. In response, Wellesley ordered a general attack. Delaborde held off the British with a series of counterattacks, before starting a withdrawal. Skillful utilization of his superior cavalry ensured the French could withdraw under cover of their sabres. The British pursuit ended in the capture of 3 guns, but was eventually called off.

French casualties amounted to 600 men killed , wounded or captured, along with 3 guns lost. British casualties amounted to about 500 men killed , wounded or captured.

I started drafting a scenario for the Battle of Roliça for two reasons. First, being in that state of limbo between successive orders of my wee men, I had limited bases to work with in a test game. Second, the first British Battle of the Peninsular War under Wellesley felt oddly appropriate as an entrance to a new ruleset.

Since I am the world’s laziest painter, my British and French are as of today still a ways from completion, hence the empty bases with paper unit names. I solemnly promise to refight this battle with a painted and pretty army to redress the balance in the future.

This battle was fought with v0.2 of the rules.
My sources for this scenario drew heavily from Sir Charles Oman’s History of the Peninsular War and Jac Weller’s Wellington in the Peninsula. OOB, unit strengths, dispositions etc has been drawn from consulting these sources, with some modifications made in the name of a spirited game. Further modifications will need to be made when the ruleset grows.

This battle is fundamentally unfair. I attempted to address some of the potentially most frustrating elements in giving the French player the opportunity to win in a historical context, rather than demanding 4 000 men crush 15 000 British and Portuguese regulars. In addition, there are some good faith requirements form both sides. We played with the British and French deployments mirroring their historical counterparts, and with the British player following Wellesley’s initial battleplan. We also started with all French forces activated, and gave the French player leeway in deciding his brigade structure.

Below the battle report I am including the Scenario document I drew up, that has been edited to reflect some changes I felt necessary after playing through it. I will note here that most prominently, French Cavalry strengths have been bumped a little higher than their numbers would suggest, based on contemporary observers noting that Delaborde’s chief advantage and indeed greatest security to ensure his withdrawal in good order, was his mure numerous veteran cavalry. His infantry were all between, as the ruleset stood, strength 4 and 5, but I have assigned them strength 5 as the French troops had veterans in their ranks. Secondly, the value players want to assign to objectives certainly needs tweaking. I have attempted to give both players approximately equal points that are theoretically scoreable. In practice, casualties are almost guaranteed to be higher than historically. Though Delaborde managed to withdraw in good order (at the cost of 3 guns), there is an argument to be made that that he incurred a needless risk by standing at Roliça. But stand he did, and this reflects in the scoring I used, a player making the “better” choice and running his men for the hills and the safety of the route past Zambugeira, will lose. I intend to revisit objectives and scoring in the future to create a sandbox environment, and to tweak balance. In addition I’d like to add some scenario specific rules. Any comments or ideas in this regard will be most welcome.

It became clear in this battle that reactions are very strong. Misjudging how close you can bring cavalry can and will have the opposing infantry formed and ready in squares, and will have artillery blast infantry to mewling heaps of gore. Managing morale is incredibly important, and at this stage with frequent morale tests to be able to act, single battalions are vastly outperformed by brigades. Casualties were frequent and high, combat tended to be very bloody. Artillery were the big killers on both sides. There is a lot of tracking happening, but using a mix of pen and paper for brigades not currently in action and dice for units in the thick of the action worked fairly easily and well. Beer and impromptu history lessons certainly extend playtime significantly, but once all parties had the rules more or less in hand the game moved along more speedily than anticipated.

Battlefield:
Roliça on the flank of the small central hill, Columbeira at the mouth of the horseshoe hills, Zambugeira in the valley between the exit (French line of retreat) hills

Battle

Morning Deployment:

In a move of unparalleled tactical genius, the British deployment is made in range of the French guns. At this stage, the French guns are activated but the British are still awaiting orders. The Light Brigade will bleed.

8am:
While the British wait for orders to be dispatched (Awareness points raised) to begin maneuver the French steadily inflict casualties on the Light Brigade. British Guns fire at the Line Regiments on the French 1st position, starting to drive the French to the reverse slope

8:30am:
Trant’s command on the right flank starts to move up to attempt an encirclement of the French 1st position. A squadron of French Cavalry moves to cut them off. The Squadron fails a critical charge, and subsequently get counter charged by the 50 Portuguese horse. In a feat of unbelievable heroism, the 50 Portuguese horse covers themselves in glory by utterly destroying both themselves and the 3rd Chasseurs à Cheval Squadron.

9am:
The British Left wing starts moving to turn the French position’s flank.The French commander is not having any of it, and decides to abandon the hilltop. His infantry falls back to take position on the village of Roliça and Columbeira (instead of the historical hill and flanks of the valley 2nd position). The British Light Brigade take the Hilltop 1st objective at 9:20

10 pm:
An uneasy stand-off ensues, with artillery venturing forward intermittently to punish cheeky infantry placement, while the British bring all their forces to activation and re-task their troops on pushing the French out of the two villages. Trant’s lone Portuguese Brigade start their walk around the world, moving to cut the French retreat near Zambugeira.

11pm:
The British Left wing has been looking tasty to the French Commander all game, and he finally decides to chomp down. The two remaining Chasseurs à Cheval squadrons attempts to charge the isolated Fergusons brigade and it’s 6 guns. The French cavalry overruns the flank, breaks Ferguson’s Brigade but with their horses blown they are smashed and routed by the British guns attached to the left flank. Wellesley personally rallies Ferguson’s broken brigade.

11:30:

French hold Roliça and Columbeira, drawing up a defensive line across the mouth of the hills. Trant is now deep on the right. British guns start a close range bombardment of the troops garrisoned in Roliça, who attempt to charge the guns in response. Their commanders haranguing falls on deaf ears, with the troops obstinately refusing to move.

12 pm:
Massed British guns force the French brigade garrisoned in Roliça out, inflicting heavy casualties. Wellesley initiates a general advance on the French line. French artillery reacts and inflicts devastating casualties to Crauford’s attacking brigade when it attempts to dislodge them from the Columbeira.

1pm:

2nd and 4th French Light advances and attempts to rout the vulnerable Light brigade, but fails to execute their maneuver in the face of the enemy. The massed British artillery finally push the French battalions out of Columbeira and into the waiting guns of Trant’s long walk to freedom, whose brigade now sits astride their line of retreat. Two French battalions surrender immediately. At 1:10pm the light brigade storm Columbeira and capture the French guns.

Trant holds the French line of retreat, their guns are captured and with half their forces dead or surrendered, Delaborde surrenders.

British casualties: 200 men of the 60th rifles, 50 men of the Portuguese cavalry detachment, 300 men of Craufords brigade, 350 men of Fergusons brigade, one battalion fled.
French casualties: 90 men of the Chasseurs à Cheval, dead or wounded, the rest fled. 70th line battalions (1st and 2nd) took 400 casualties, the rest captured by Trant. 4th Swiss 200 casualties, the rest fled. 2nd Light and 4th Light surrendered in entirety. 5 guns captured. General Delaborde captured. Complete British tactical and strategic victory, but at heavy cost.

Scenario:

Field of Battle:
Total Maneuver Area approx. 6km x 6km:
4’x4’ playing area.

Primary Terrain Features:
Horseshoe hills: 1’wide, 2’deep
Rolica village in between the wings of the hills
Hills well wooded

British set out from Obidas at dawn (06:24) on the 17th August 1808. Approximately 6km’s to the french first positions. Marching in column at British quick step, covering the ground in minimum 73 minutes. Anticipated British arrival therefore at 07:33. 30 minutes to account for delays, dispatching of orders. Battle commences at deployment zones at 08:00. Sundown at 20:28. Approx 75 turns until darkness falls.

Order of Battle:

French: General of Division Henri François Delaborde
70éme Régiment d’Infanterie de Ligne (2 Battalions)
4éme Régiment Suisse d’Infanterie (1 Battalion)
2éme Régiment Légère (1 Battalion)
4éme Régiment Légère (1 Battalion)
26éme Bataillon de Chasseurs (3 squadrons)
5 guns

British: Lieutenant General Sir Arthur Wellesley
Left:
Ferguson’s Brigade: 36th, 40th, 71st
Bowes Brigade: 6th, 32nd
6 guns
Centre:
Fane’s (Light) Brigade: 60th, 95th (4 companies) (on the left)
Nightingale’s Brigade: 29th, 82nd (in the centre)
Hill’s Brigade: 5th , 9th, 38th (on the right)
Caitlin Craufurd’s Brigade: 45th, 50th, 91st (in reserve)
6th Cacadores (in reserve) approx 750 men
6th & 12th Portuguese Cavalry (200 men)
20th Light Dragoons detachment (200 men)
12 guns
Right:
Trant:
12th, 21st & 24th Infantry Regiments (approx 850 men)
11th Cavalry Regiment (50 men)

*numbers approximated based on A History of the Peninsular War Volume 1 – Charles Oman & Wellington in the Peninsula – Jac Weller

Order of Battle: (Strength)

French:Delaborde
70th 1st battalion (5)
70th 2nd battalion (5)
2nd Light (5)
4th Light (5)
4th Swiss (5)
26th Chasseurs 1st squadron (3)
26th Chasseurs 2nd squadron (3)
26th Chasseurs 3rd squadron (3)
Artillery contigent (5)

British: Lieutenant General Sir Arthur Wellesley
Left:
Ferguson’s Brigade: 36th (5), 40th (5), 71st (5)
Bowes Brigade: 6th (5), 32nd (5)
6 guns (6)
Centre:
Fane’s (Light) Brigade: 60th (5), 95th (2)
Nightingale’s Brigade: 29th (5), 82nd (5)
Hill’s Brigade: 5th (5), 9th (5), 38th (5)
Caitlin Craufurd’s Brigade: 45th (5), 50th (5), 91st (5)
6th Cacadores (3)
6th & 12th Portuguese Cavalry (2)
20th Light Dragoons detachment (2)
12 guns (12)
Right:
Trant:
12th, 21st & 24th Infantry Regiments (5)
11th Cavalry Regiment (1)

Objectives:

British Strategic Objectives:
Take the field
Drive the enemy to Zambugeira
Attempt encirclement and capture of the French Forces

British Primary Objectives:
Capture French First position before 11am (2)
Capture French Second position before 4am (2)

British Secondary Objectives:
Capture French Guns (1)
Destroy/capture French Regiments (1 each)

French Strategic Objectives:
Delay the British Advance
Evade encirclement and capture and escape to Zambugeira
Inflict significant casualties

French Primary Objectives:
Hold First position until 11am (2)
Hold Second position until 4am (2)

French Secondary Objectives:
50 casualties inflicted more than historical (1 each)
50 casualties taken less than historical (1 each)
Artillery escaped (1)

Final thoughts

This battle was heaps of fun to play, even though the odds were rather one-sided. I felt that Delaborde’s skillful handling of the withdrawal is significantly easier to appreciate than to pull off, and that the French position is actually very precarious if their resources are not very carefully husbanded. Lastly, I realised that one always scoffs at the adage, “human waves don’t work on machinegun nests”, thinking surely I could never be that stupid. And one keeps scoffing right up until you charge a brigade headfirst into a storm of cannon. In the immortal words of Boney, “To cannon, all men are equal”.

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