Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Battling Known Unknowns at Montebello

Over the last two Mondays, the 1859 Battle of Montebello has been raging over my gaming table.  The combatants were six members of Postie's Rejects in the UK.  Montebello represents the third remote battle hosted for these fine fellas.  Two of the participants' perspectives on the battle can be found at Lee's BatRep, Richard's BatRep Part 1, Richard's BatRep Part 2.  I suggest reading through my account before hopping over to read each of these individual accounts. 

The Rejects enjoy fighting battles with a heathy dose of fog of war.  I obliged.

Each army was provided with a briefing outlining the general situation, a map, its OB, and objectives for carrying the day.  Objectives were kept vague as were enemy dispositions and enemy objectives.  Neither army knew enemy strengths or reinforcement timetables. 
The Battlefield
General Briefing
On 9 May, Austrian FZM Gyulai’s uninspired offensive in Piedmont ground to a halt without ever contacting the enemy.  Concerned that the French would attempt to turn his left flank by advancing upon Piacenza, FML Stadion’s V Corps was ordered (20 May) across the Sesia River and move on Casteggio and Voghera.  This reconnaissance-in-force was determined to discover French dispositions, interdict the Voghera-Piacenza Road, and thwart these perceived threats.

As the Austrians approached Casteggio, they ran into Sardinian cavalry screens. The Sardinian mission, deployed east of Voghera, was to act as an early warning system to prevent surprise attacks from the Austrians.  The Sardinian light cavalry were to hinder any enemy movements westward buying time for the French army to come up, if needed.  The only means of crossing the River Coppa in this area are via two bridges: the bridge at Casteggio and the railroad bridge to the north of that town. Running from Genestrello north, the Fossa Gazzo can be crossed everywhere but with difficulty.  The railroad bridge at Casina Nuova and the bridge near Genestrello are the best places to cross the Fossa Gazzo.

Being heavily outnumbered, the Sardinians traded space for time as they slowly gave up ground to the approaching Austrians.  After reports arrived detailing the action earlier in the day and the fall of Casteggio, Forey’s division of the French 1st Corps quickly marched on Casteggio.  In the meantime, Stadion had taken first Montebello and then Genestrello as the Sardinian cavalry retired.

Austrian Briefing
It is now 2pm.  Urban occupies Genestrello, Montebello, and Casteggio with Schaafgotsche’s Brigade.  Baum advances on the rail bridge at Casina Nuova.  Hesse’s wing is marching upon Lungavilla from the north. Paumgarten’s Center Wing is spread out north of Casteggio with Bils and Gaal’s Brigades hurriedly marching to the front. Sonnaz’ Sardinian cavalry have fallen back across the River Coppa and vacated both Montebello and Genestrello.  They can be seen deployed in the vineyards and cultivated land north of the Voghera-Piacenza Road and between the River Coppa and the Fossa Gazzo.

Reports suggest that the French are rapidly bringing Forey’s Division forward to contest Austrian gains.  Forey has two brigades of infantry in route to Genestrello and Casina Nuova to secure the bridges.

FML Stadion, your objective is to hold the gains made this morning.  Deny the bridges at Casina Nuova and Genestrello to the enemy.  Hesse will be arriving from the north to threaten the French left as it drives east.  If Forey is defeated, drive on Voghera to complete the victory.  If faced with overwhelming odds, fall back slowly, challenging ever meter, to take up positions on the east bank of the River Coppa.  Do not allow the enemy to cross the River Coppa.  Allowing the French to take Casteggio opens the road to Piacenza and jeopardizes the whole army’s position in Piedmont.  Your corps must remain a viable fighting force.

French Briefing
It is now 2pm. Sonnaz’ Sardinian cavalry have fallen back across the River Coppa and vacated both Montebello and Genestrello.  They are deployed in the vineyards and cultivated land north of the Voghera-Piacenza Road and between the River Coppa and the Fossa Gazzo protecting the French left.  Sonnaz reports that the enemy occupy Genestrello and Montebello.  Estimates are that the enemy are in brigade strength to the west of the River Coppa.  Stadion appears to be commanding the Austrian Left Wing from Montebello.  An Austrian column is approaching from the north toward Lungavilla.  Reports suggest that this enemy body is the Austrian Right Wing under the command of Hesse.  Hesse has the potential to turn Forey’s flank if not countered.  Enemy are seen advancing upon Casina Nuova to the south of Sonnaz’ cavalry.

Beuret’s Brigade is within sight of Genestrello.  Blanchard’s Brigade is advancing eastwards to the north of Beuret toward Casina Nuova and the railroad bridge.

General Forey, your objective is to push the enemy out of Genestrello and Montebello, and advance upon Casteggio.  The bridges over the Fossa Gazzo and River Coppa should not be allowed to remain in Austrian hands.  Push the enemy back across the River Coppa.  Taking Casteggio and moving east toward Piacenza would make the Austrian position untenable.

These briefings are all that is known of enemy dispositions until battle is joined.  When battle is joined, this is the view greeting the armchair generals.
Situation at start
Let's see how the battle played out. 
Sardinian cavalry occupy the central position
between the Fossa Gazzo and River Coppa. 
Urban's Austrian wing deployed among the
 towns along the Voghera-Piacenza Road.
Skirmishing erupts near Genestrello
(background) as the French arrive.
As Blanchard's French Brigade crosses the stream
at the rail bridge at Cascina Nuova,
 Beuret attacks Genestrello.
General Forey leads the assault.
First assault repulsed!
Hesse's Austrian wing arrives at Lungavilla and
is immediately attacked by Sardinian cavalry.
Austrian reinforcements are brought up as Urban
orders Baum to advance west along the rail line.
With fighting in the north, Sardinian cavalry are sent
reeling while Austrian reinforcements stream across the Coppa.
Austrians pay a heavy price for the deep push along the rail.
Blanchard strikes quickly catching one battalion
 in column and overrunning two guns.
Austrian morale sags.
Forey and Beuret attack Genestrello a second time. 
This time, the French attempt encircling the village.
In the north (background), Hesse dispatches remaining
 Sardinian cavalry and shifts his attention toward falling
upon Blanchard's exposed left flank. 
As the Austrian center gels, the French take Genestrello.
Losses are heavy.
Austrians pour over the Coppa winding their way
 behind Montebello.
Paumgartern plans to make a stand on the heights.
With Beuret making limited progress along the main road,
 Blanchard finds himself in a bowl surrounded by the enemy
after the Sardinians have been scattered.
Blanchard (French masses along railway)
is in a precarious position.
Blanchard dispatches two cavalry squadrons
 north to stabilize the situation. 
At Genestrello, still, Beuret is having great difficulty
pushing the Austrian light infantry back.
Casualties mount and valuable time is lost.
Austrians form a solid, defensive arc
from Montebello stretching north to Lungavilla.
Situation midafternoon and at end of Session #1.
Although the Austrians facing Blanchard look heavily damaged,
the French change strategy following the one-week interlude. 
Faced with seemingly overwhelming odds,
 the French pull back to consolidate.
Having recovered from the earlier debacle in the center,
 the Austrians push out light infantry to harass the French.
  In the south, the Austrians fall back upon Montebello
 as Beuret works his way around Genestrello.
Coordinated French attacks go in against the
defenders of Montebello.
More Austrians rush up to plug any gap in the line
 and to replace wavering units.
Working around Montebello from the south
 will be a difficult challenge.
French casualties are heavy.
The French attackers at Montebello are driven back.
The Austrian defenders stand firm.
The Austrian left is solidly anchored upon Montebello.
With the attack on Montebello repulsed
and the French center under increasing pressure,
 General Forey orders a withdrawal from battle.
The battle is over.
Battles's end.
The French retire.
Victory to the Austrians!  Congratulations go out to Steve, David, and Lee as the Austrian wing commanders. Richard, Ray, and Surjit (as the French) put up the good fight and made for an enjoyable contest.  Well played by all.

While an Austrian victory may have appeared imminent at the time of French withdrawal, looks can be deceiving.  Urban's Left Wing had suffered heavy casualties and both brigades (Baum and Scaafgotsche) were each perilously close to breaking.  A hit or two here or there would have forced Urban to retire from the field.  Urban's retirement may have opened up gaps in the Austrian defenses.  Defending while simultaneously allowing friendly units to retire through, may have been a tall order for Paumgarten's wing.  That question remains unanswered.

Confronted with a handful of known unknowns, each army was forced into making decisions based upon incomplete information.  Had the French known how close Urban's wing was to collapse, they likely would have pressed on from their early success along the railway.  For their part, the Austrians did not know the strength of the enemy they faced nor its combat effectiveness.  In response to early attacks against Urban, the Austrians made haste in bringing up reinforcements to screen and protect Urban from catastrophic harm.  The Austrians never knew how close Urban was to breaking until the game ended.  There was a collective sigh of relief.  Were more French reinforcements on the way to the battlefield?  Yes!

For me, this produced a very interesting battle to watch unfold.  This result did not match the historical account but the Austrians were not saddled with their historical counterparts' command lethargy.  Also, Austrian reinforcement arrival was compressed to allow all three Austrian commands to have meaningful forces on table at the start.

Would I have fought the same way?  Perhaps not but I am viewing this action with 20/20 hindsight and face my own preconceptions.  I reckon I will give this battle a try on my own while still set out on the table.  Will my results differ?  Possibly.  For me, the unknowns are now known. 

Besides enjoying stage-managing half-dozen gamers in a large battle, one of the benefits of these repeated, multi-player games is to see the rules in action.  Many times, odd situations arise that catch me off balance.  Situations not seen before or not remembered.  When you have six players, each with their own ideas and tactics, unexpected combinations surface.  Following each game, I take my notes, carefully review the situations, and then adjust the rules as needed.  This game was no exception.  Every playing advances the rules, sometimes only marginally, but always with benefit.  Well, sometimes it is two steps forward and one step back.  Repetition brings clarity too.

The participants play a big role in this process.  I thank them.

Now, please go read Lee and Richard's battle accounts.


  1. Super report and analysis.
    We had reinforcements on the way! That's news to me. Fog of war strikes again!
    But, I'm glad I didn't know. How would I have known about their precise time of arrival in combat conditions. This doesn't change my view about withdrawing when we did. Excellent game.

    1. Thanks, Richard. I like the calm manner in which you all play. Very low key and without stress.

      Forey received a dispatch from Bazaine informing him of a regiment of Zouaves marching to your position. ETA was one or two turns from play stoppage.

  2. Enjoyable battle report, nothing like a bit of fog of war to add an extra dimension to a game

    1. Glad you enjoyed the report! Yes, adding in a bit of fog of war added something extra to the contest. It was good fun.

  3. It is interesting reading your account after having read Richard's. It looks like you applied the perfect amount of fog of war to make things palpably exciting without players being at a loss as to what was going on. The Austrian wing being close to collapse presents a very interesting "what if".

    1. Lawrence, one more push against Urban would have likely sent Urban's wing reeling back, broken. The Austrians did a good job of screening Urban with reinforcing formations once Urban saw heavy fighting. The Austrians played it very well.

  4. Good briefing to the players - the fog of war must have provided equal intrigue for both players and umpire. Did either side have a notable advantage in reserves or were both stretched almost immediately to meet their brief?

    1. Thanks, Norm. Hopefully, the briefings provided just enough information to set the stage for the players. This is the classic match-up between a smaller, better quality army pitted against a larger, lesser quality army.

  5. Thanks again for the game Jon, I really enjoyed it and as ever you were masterful in your handling of us the payers and the developing scenario. Steve

    1. You are welcome, Steve! Happy to have you taking a command in the game. You have proven time and again that you are a formidable and thoughtful adversary. I know from personal experience having fallen to your sword in games past.

  6. Excellent battle report Jonathan. Good to read your briefings for both sides and your analysis of the action. This was an enjoyable game, with what felt like considerable logistical considerations for the austrians (i.e. how to get everything across the river Coppa and not get stuck in a traffic jam!).

    1. Thank you, Lee! Glad you enjoyed the game.

      Had Urban collapsed, the Austrians may have faced an even bigger traffic jam at the bridges.

      I like giving each army a bit of a puzzle to solve in addition to wrestling with an enemy.

  7. Lovely look at those uniforms! What's not to love?

    1. Thanks, Matt! What is not to love, indeed! One of my favorite periods and favorite uniforms.

  8. A great run through of the game Jonathan. In hindsight now we know how close the Austrian's were to breaking is a bitter pill to swallow. Still, it was a great game to take part in, perhaps one day I might win?

    1. Glad you enjoyed both battle report and game. Steve teetered on the brink of collapse. Had you followed up your early success along the railway, Steve's command would have broken since the three units nearest you had heavy casualties.

      Perhaps, one day you can win? I say, keep trying!

  9. There is a lot happening on a great looking table. I don't know how you manage to keep six players moving in the right direction - but it seems to work well.


    1. Quite a lot going on, no doubt. As for managing a large number of players, the answer is that it gets easier with repetition. Helps to have a reasonable and jovial group of participants.

  10. Good report, great set up and briefings that quite set the situations. I would agree the uniforms are splendid, I have several units from an aborted foray into the period.
    I skipped the discussion on reality in wargames in your earlier post. This AAR is as close a realization of command and intell problems that table top games get...using human imagination and not overly cute mechanics.

    1. Thank you, Joe! If the uniforms of the period attract you, why not give it another go?

      Very pleased to see that you find value in this type of wargame and battle report. For me, wargaming is about decision-making.

  11. Another great looking battle report Jonathan!

  12. A most entertaining read and a splendid scenario with an unexpected twist at the end to cap it all in fine style. Bravo Sir!

    1. Thank you, Phil! Your comments provide encouragement to create these reports.

  13. Not only time to play games but time to put together an excellent report. Great.

    1. Time is squeezed but chronicling these efforts is worthwhile especially for the players involved. Thank you!

  14. A great game and the scenario worked really well. I agree with Joe, one if the real problems in creating any kind idpof reality in wargaming is hiding from the enemy, the morale status of the troops he is facing, due to the fact most rule sets employ markers etc to indicate casualties or current morale rating. One might occasionally be able to see that the guys seventy yards away have had a bad day at the office, but no one could ever know with certainty that they had an enormous advantage and now was EXACTLY the best time to charge in with the bayonet! Sounds like you solved this problem and that's what made the game such a many rule sets, the French WOULD have known how shaky the Austrians were, and woukd have adjusted their plans accordingly, which a general on a hill a mile away without means of instant communication, would have been unable to do until the mid twentieth century!

    1. Thanks, Keith! As I mentioned to Joe, wargaming is all about decision-making. I strive and encourage participants to assess the situation, formulate a plan, and then carry it out. Of course, making adjustments along the way as new information arrives and situations change.

  15. A fine scenario indeed Jon, with the players briefings and different objectives really making a great fog of war for both sides. Not knowing how close the enemy was to breaking made the game more 'realistic' in my view as, as others have said, the French would have attacked the weakened Austrian wing otherwise.

    Now you know the unknowns, it will be interesting to see how you approach the battle and what result it will produce.

    1. Thanks, Steve! I hope the players appreciated the limited intelligence and the asymmetric objectives and goals. From an umpire's viewpoint, it makes for a fuller gaming experience.

      If I play this scenario as a solo contest, the French may know that crippling one Austrian wing is important, the Austrians on the other side of the table will know how to avoid that.

  16. Sounds like a great game, always difficult to factor in Austrian lethargy and give a decent game!
    Best Iain

    1. I thought it a good game too. Seeing the French make more progress would have introduced more challenges for both armies. I would have enjoyed seeing those adaptations.

  17. Bravo Jon, impressive collections and no doubt a huge effort to bring the battle to the table with the detailed planning, set up etc…..👍 what next I wonder ?

    1. Thanks much, Matt! What next? I reckon Montebello will linger a while longer to capitalize on the effort.

  18. Very nice table set up and scenario. Makes me realize that I don’t play nearly enough games with a Fog component. Probably bc it’s really only possible with an umpire. It’s a whole vein of decision making that I probably have very little skill at. So really no much different than anything else I do. 😀

    1. Thanks, Stew! I wager you have plenty of skill in plenty of fields. I would not rule out a career in stand up comedy.

  19. What a splendid game Jonathan…
    The fog of war certainly makes a difference in your decision making…
    We have just started a Peninsular War campaign and it has been very foggy indeed 😁

    All the best. Aly

    1. Thanks, Aly! Adding a little fog helps put players into a haze. I will be on the lookout for your foggy campaign.