A BECKONING VICTORY: THE BATTLE OF MARS-LA-TOUR 1870

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    The tragedy is that, obsessed with avoiding defeat, he was blind to a beckoning victory.” – David Ascoli, author of A Day of Battle, referring to French Marshal Francois Bazaine

     

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    The Battle of Mars-la-Tour was fought on August 16th, 1870 and is considered to be one of the more remarkable battles of military history. Not only were the circumstances under which it was fought most singular, but its impact on the future of Europe was monumental. The importance of the engagement on that “day of battle” alone makes it ripe for study in the wargaming community, having had such a significant impact on the rise of the German Empire and the fall of Napoleon III’s Second French Empire. Yet, the very uniqueness and oddity of that “murderous day” make it almost impossible to simulate accurately on the game board. Such was the challenge that Fred Manzo and I decided to take on with the design of the Mars-La-Tour scenario for At Any Cost: Metz 1870. So how does At Any Cost attempt to accurately simulate such an odd and convoluted battle? Well, let me tell you ……

    The French army in the summer of 1870 was already in full retreat after its first series of engagements. A significant portion of the French Army of the Rhine was defeated at the Battle of Spicheren by parts of the Prussian First and Second Armies and being pursued, albeit loosely, to the fortress town of Metz. Without the possibility of any support, the French army huddled around the fort as it decided its next course of action. Emperor Napoleon III, pressured to return to Paris in order to deal with various defeatist political issues, turned over command of the Army of the Rhine to Marshal Achilles Bazaine. Not his first choice, Bazaine nonetheless reluctantly took the reins from Napoleon and received his final, somewhat contradictory, instructions – protect the army under all circumstances and get it to Verdun and Chalons to rejoin the Emperor to form a new army.

    These multiple and divergent goals are reflected in the game’s Victory Track mechanic. The French player must not only try to open his retreat route to Verdun by capturing key towns and map edge hexes, but he must do so without losing too many units or – even worse – being cut off from Metz. The Prussians don’t need to worry about casualties at all and simply strive to take important towns on the map that threaten the French army’s position and thwart its mission.

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    Whatever hesitation and complacency overcame Bazaine at this point was palpable to all. His instructions to his army on the night of the 14th lacked urgency and were feckless, wispy suggestions of command. With these uninspiring directions, the army stumbled out of Metz on the 15th, immediately getting clogged up by refugees, baggage and mismanagement in the town and at the bridge exits.

    The game’s overriding theme is the cloud of despondency and defeatism that prevailed in the French army. These factors are reflected in the game with the generally lower Tactical Cohesion Ratings, the need to wait two turns before French units can be rebuilt and with the “Bazaine’s Malaise” Prussian Event chit, which can freeze an entire French Corps from activating.

    The congestion leaving Metz was so bad that III and IV Corps had to move cross-country or divert to a more northerly route. The army began its retirement at such a leisurely pace that the fastest marching division covered a mere 12 miles on the first day. Formations halted, rested or were deliberately delayed to await the arrival of smaller units that fell behind in the commotion at Metz.

    The French Army’s general lethargy is also simulated in the gradual introduction of Corps Activation chits – one per turn – into the chit cup. The French begin slowly and activate like an awakening giant. The French player does have the option to divert drawn Event chits into Command Events and thereby gain a chance to move up the activation schedule for the corps. So he is not locked in by the historical French performance – if he plays skillfully and plans ahead (and is a little lucky) he can get the army moving faster and more efficiently.

    In the meantime, the Prussian First and Second armies were streaming forward from Spicheren and desperately searching out the French army. Located in and around Metz, they nonetheless were not entirely sure of the French plans. Would they stay put and fight or continue retiring on Verdun? Moltke concluded they were going to retreat and moved the majority of his corps to sweep south of Metz, cross the Moselle and try to outflank the French army.

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    Soon after dawn on the sizzling hot morning of August 16th, one of the scouting cavalry formations – Rheinbaben’s 5th Cavalry Division – came upon the lead French cavalry division outside of Vionville, just in the process of getting started for the day. The Prussians, assuming that the French were marching deliberately from Metz, thought they had encountered the French rearguard. When the Chief of Staff of X Corps, Colonel Leo Caprivi, arrived on the scene, he quickly and correctly assessed the situation – these troops were actually the vanguard of the French army!  A single division of Prussian cavalry was now facing the spear point of a 150,000-man juggernaut. Rheinbaben was hesitant to do anything but observe and report, but Caprivi compelled him into action.

    Caprivi’s incredible performance at Mars-la-Tour and the overall superior leadership of the Prussian officer corps is represented collectively by the “Prussian Officers” chit. This allows the Prussian player to select any one division to activate, even if already activated during the turn.

    At about 9:00 am, four Prussian horse batteries began the Battle of Mars-la-Tour with an effective bombardment that routed the opposing French cavalry, still gathered around their breakfast tables complete with white tablecloths and fine china. They stumbled back into II Corps’ cavalry division further down the road, which then joined the rout as well.

    The scenario has a special first-turn-surprise rule that allows for the effects of the sudden Prussian bombardment on the unsuspecting French cavalry at breakfast.

    General Frossard’s II Corps was alerted by the cannon fire and started to deploy units from their encampments around Rezonville. Although unaware of exactly what they faced (as no pickets were sent out the night before), infantry brigades occupied Flavigny and Vionville while other units faced south against the Gorze roads. In the meantime, sprinting up from Gorze, were the forward elements of the Prussian III Corps. Led by their artillery batteries, in typical Prussian fashion, Stuelpnagel’s 5th Infantry Division force marched onto the field and engaged the leading elements of II Corps on the heights below Rezonville.

    Prussian units move faster tactically and strategically as well as having other advantages of independent activation.

    Bazaine, absolutely obsessed with his line of communications to the east with Metz, took the Prussian infantry deployment as an attempt to turn his left flank and separate him from his supply line. The Prussians were in no such position, but Bazaine was utterly paranoid that the enemy was threatening to interject themselves between the army and Metz. This obsession would anchor Bazaine’s command decisions through the entire battle and compromise his “beckoning victory”.

    One of the ways that the Prussian player can win the game outright is by taking the town of Gravelotte, astride the road back to Metz. This is such a tripwire position that if a Prussian unit even gets within shooting distance of the town, the French player loses Victory spaces on the Victory Track. It is an abstract way to simulate Bazaine’s obsession with Metz without a host of “dummy rules” for the French player.

    Canrobert’s VI Corps, deployed just the north of II Corps, was oblivious to all this and did not even stir from their positions. The Imperial Guard and Artillery Reserve were far off to the east around Gravelotte while the III and IV Corps staggered along to the north of these positions, detoured by the traffic jams the night before. The soldiers of the 5th Infantry Division advanced on the French II Corps all along the line south of Rezonville. More importantly, the Prussian divisional artillery began engaging the French from the front lines, a deployment so audacious that Canrobert himself referred to the Prussian tactics as “skirmisher guns”.

    The Prussian artillery was the workhorse of the Prussian order of battle and made it possible for the Prussians to prevail in this otherwise lopsided engagement. Not only do the Prussian artillery units resolve combat on the superior Combat Results Table, but there are also an abundance of “Krupp’s Guns” Event chits which allow them to fire out-of-activation-sequence and even perform artillery charges.

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    After a short while, the Prussian 6th Cavalry Division appeared from the south and rode up on the left flank of Stuelpnagel’s men, but was quickly shot up by the French artillery and Chassepot rifles. Likewise, the severely outnumbered and outgunned Prussian infantry continued its audacious advance against the French positions and suffered horrendous casualties.

    The “Auftragstaktik” Event chit allows the Prussian player to select any Prussian Infantry Division – normally two units – and lets it immediately move  up to half its movement allowance and conduct an assault with a two-column shift benefit. The event affords the Prussian player the opportunity to keep the French under constant pressure.

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    The time was ripe for a well-timed counterattack by the French – but it was not to be this day. Instead, Bazaine further surrendered the initiative by redeploying even more units on his left flank, a reinforcement of his overreaction to a non-existent threat to his communication with Metz. As the fighting raged on the eastern end of the field, two miles to the west a hard-marching Prussian 6th Infantry Division under Buddenbrock, along with the Corps Artillery batteries from III Corps, arrived at 9:45 just to the south of the village of Tronville. This column of troops was originally heading for Mars-la-Tour but General Alvensleben, commander of III Corps, heard the ongoing battle around Rezonville and (as all good Prussian commanders were wont to do) immediately headed toward the sound of the guns.  By 11:00, the Prussians had a solid, albeit extremely thin, ring of fire from the Bois de Tronville woods outside Vionville to the defile and dense woods of the Bois des Ognons – a front of about four miles in length! The Prussian infantry struggled forward all along the front under cover of the hard-working Krupp guns. One battalion made a surge toward the village of Flavigny but was mown down by the defender’s Chassepot fire, losing all its officers and 600 men in fifteen minutes.

    The French infantry was equipped with the vastly superior Chassepot rifle and like the Prussian artillery, resolves combat on the superior Combat Results Table. There are also an abundance of “Beaten Zone” Event chits which allow the French infantry to fire out-of-activation-sequence and even perform “Moulin a Café” attacks, raining down a shower of bullets on the enemy ranks. This is in addition to the special “Mitrailleuse” markers that designate the deployment of these deadly machine guns with a particular French Division Artillery unit. The markers may fire separately than the Artillery unit and on the same CRT as the infantry.

    Though severely outnumbered and outranged, the Prussians actually gained ground on the Rezonville heights and then took Flavigny. All along their front, the Prussians bluffed their way into intimidating Bazaine and the French army into defensive inaction. Bazaine finally met with Canrobert (VI Corps) and LeBeouf (III Corps) and formulated some kind of coordinated effort. Canrobert established an artillery line along the Roman road (but did not otherwise move his corps from its start position) and LeBeouf began a ponderous but steady swinging movement south to come around to VI Corps’ right flank (opposite Vionville). He then hoped that Ladmirault’s IV Corps, marching in from the northeast, would further fill in his right flank opposite Mars-la-Tour.

    The French player has III Corps and IV Corps coming in from the north and has some options as far as how to deploy them. This can be critical as to how the battle will shape up and with proper handling can present the Prussian player with all sorts of problems.

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    Meanwhile, Buddenbrock’s 6th Infantry Division, in position opposite Vionville after marching for six hours straight under a relentless sun and without a break for water or food, began its assault on this vital position. Vionville was located along Bazaine’s proposed march route to Verdun and a key point – why it was only defended by a single battalion speaks to Bazaine’s confusion about the evolving situation. By 11:30, Vionville was in Prussian hands and the door to Verdun was slammed shut. All the while, Canrobert’s VI Corps stood idly by, with only his artillery hurling shells at the enemy

    Canrobert’s VI Corps is one of the last French corps scheduled for activation, despite the fact that it begins on the map right behind II Corps. However, through the use of Command Event chits (which are simply the regular Event chits re-designated for operational purposes) the French player can try to move up VI Corps’ activation in order to get them into the fight sooner.

    At 1:00, despite the ability of the Prussians to bluff the French into doing nothing of an offensive nature, the situation was actually quite grim. III Corps held Vionville and Flavigny with the Krupps guns in a giant arc protecting its few infantrymen. There was not even one battalion in reserve – every soldier was locked with the enemy. Only a small brigade had arrived from the nearest reinforcement (X Corps under Voigts-Rhetz) and that was deployed between Vionville and Mars-la-Tour in the Bois de Tronville to secure the left flank. But the French were also worn down by the constant pounding of the Prussian artillery and by 1:30 a general fatigued lull settled over the eastern end of the battlefield.

    Units in At Any Cost are very hard to eliminate. They are worn down by Elan Hits, which temporarily affect their performance, and by Casualty Hits, which are a permanent flipping of the unit to its Battleworn (reduced) side. Elan Hits can be removed by Rallying but units can never be flipped back to their Fresh sides during the day (they may only do so overnight during a Campaign scenario). So units do actually wear down and become less effective, as well as run low on ammo. It is at these times that they are vulnerable to be eliminated from the map (though they can attempt to redeploy later in the game).

    However, on the western side of the field, things were beginning to heat up dramatically. Le Beouf’s III Corps was finally taking its place on the French army’s right flank and the slackened fire coming from the Prussian side of the field apparently awakened Canrobert from his slumber. He sensed that the enemy army was spent and he began to inch his corps forward from their positions. Alvensleben also knew that his forces had no offensive capability left and his only hope was to turn to his remaining cavalry forces and attempt one last desperate and audacious martial slight-of-hand. At 2:00, he rolled the dice. His only ready force was von Bredow’s 12th Cavalry Brigade and he ordered the brigade to charge Canrobert’s artillery batteries to disrupt their murderous fire.  Von Bredow reconnoitered the ground very carefully and then with a hearty “It will cost what it will!” led his 804 troopers on one of the last great cavalry charges of history.

    Von Bredow’s exclamation is so brazenly cocky and Prussian, that I could not resist using it as the inspiration for the game’s title.

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    Following a shallow valley and obscured by dust and smoke, the charge actually surprised the French artillerists. The artillery positions were overrun by the charging Prussians and they continued on into the second line of infantry and artillery. They were finally thrown back to the Prussian lines by a French cavalry counterattack, only 400 troopers returning safely. Despite the horrific casualties, the “Deathride” accomplished its mission. It bought the beleaguered Prussian infantry and artillery some time to regroup and rearm. More importantly, the charge cowed the French forces once again. Canrobert’s VI Corps halted and took no further part in the remainder of the battle, while Le Beouf’s III Corps (now on his right) hesitated and held firm.

    Cavalry units in At Any Cost are fairly weak and very vulnerable to enemy firepower. But they have one major advantage in that they may conduct a Cavalry Charge attack. This increases their combat strength by a factor dependent on their weight – light, medium or heavy – and if victorious, they can exploit that success with a breakthrough move. In addition, the “Battlefield Conditions” Event chit accounts for things like obscuring smoke on the field, undulating terrain hiding unit movement, misidentified units, etc. and can be used offensively or defensively for a bonus. When used in unison with a Cavalry Charge move, players can recreate the actual Deathride.

    Although the charge bought Alvensleben’s men time, it could not entirely stop the inevitable. Soon afterwards, Ladmirault’s IV Corps arrived and began taking its position to the right of the cautious III Corps. The French forces on the western sector of the battlefield now outnumbered the Prussians almost 10:1. Around 3:00 that afternoon, both Le Beouf and Ladmirault finally summoned enough courage and ordered their formations forward. They advanced together toward Mars-la-Tour and the Verdun road west of Vionville – over 30,000 men crammed into a battle line of about two miles cascading down on a patchwork force of about 4,000 hot, tired and worn out Prussians. They were forced back to Tronville, Mars-la-Tour was burning and abandoned and a mere two companies remained north of the Verdun road, clinging bravely to the southwest corner of the Bois de Tronville.

    A distinct crisis now existed on the Prussian left flank, it was turned and there was apparently nothing that could stop the French onslaught. Nothing, that is, but the French commanders themselves. The leading French division of IV Corps (under Grenier) was about 1000 yards from the Verdun road when – they halted. Unbelievably, Grenier and Ladmirault debated the feasibility of an advance, suspecting that the Prussians had regrouped and that perhaps they should wait for Cissey’s Division of IV Corps to first get into a supporting position.

    This kind of inexplicable command hesitation is represented in the game not only with the “Bazaine’s Malaise” Event chit, but also with the “Leader Initiative” Event chit. This allows the opponent to make a die roll against an activated enemy formation in an effort to change its assigned Order. So even though the owning player may have the “perfect” plan, it can get altered by the play of this chit as his subordinates see things a little differently.

    This short delay was enough to allow the remaining Prussian units of X Corps to arrive piecemeal onto the battlefield. They force marched with an incredible urgency and stamina (20th Division covered 25 miles in 8 hours in the horrific heat with almost no rest).  By 3:30, these forces began taking positions around Tronville and the artillery of X Corps bombarded the French advance. This further display of unrelenting resolve by the Prussians was enough to cause Grenier to stop his advance entirely and recall his division north back to their starting positions. Lebeouf, seeing the withdrawal of Grenier, than halted the advance of III Corps as well. Yet another opportunity for total French victory had gone by the wayside.

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    Alvensleben now sensed another change of momentum in the battle and took advantage of the French hesitancy. Various disparate detachments of hard-marching Prussian units were now arriving on the field. At 4:00, the Dragoon brigade of the Prussian Guard arrived to the west of Mars-la-Tour and at around 4:30 the exhausted 38th Brigade also appeared there. It was now the Prussian general’s turn to misjudge the situation. Alvensleben felt that an offensive now against the reeling French wing would be decisive and ordered an attack by 20th Division against the French IIIrd Corps and by Wedell’s 38th Brigade against IV Corps. As happens in warfare of any era, the fortunes of war did not smile upon the Prussians – the 20th Division never received its order and the Wedell’s men went into their attack unsupported.

    The game includes a “Fortunes of War” Chit that can randomize the next pulled chit, enhancing its normal effects or degrading them. It can also cause a leader casualty and reduce an HQ unit’s command effects. This chit allows for flurries of unexpectedly better or worse performances from the normal chit effects and adds further dynamics and choices to player decisions.  

    To make matters even more disastrous, Ladmirault’s IV Corps had deployed on a ridge opposite a particularly severe ravine called the Fond de la Cuve – a feature that was unknown to the Prussians. The 38th Brigade attacked through this defile directly into the middle of the French line of battle. The Prussians were massacred – the brigade lost two-thirds of its officers and over 2500 of its 4500 men. The crisis on the left had been reborn.

    The unbelievable aggressiveness of the Prussian infantry is reflected in the “Prussian Aggressiveness” Event chit, which allows the French player to move a Prussian infantry unit forward to assault a French position of his choosing.  A potentially very powerful chit under the right – or wrong, if you are the Prussian player – circumstances. If the Prussian player is particularly concerned with the play of this chit, he can deploy Command Event Chits to the Prussian Aggressiveness Track to have a chance to cancel the chit.  

    The French forces pursued the routing Prussians and were once again in a position to roll up the flank. Alvensleben returned to his bag of tricks and procured another, less famous, “Deathride”. At around 5:30, the Prussian Guard Dragoon Brigade, in a similar desperate effort, was launched to stem the French tidal wave. And once again, the charge accomplished its mission with the loss of half the attacking troopers. As before, Ladmirault recalled the soldiers of Grenier and Cissey to their safer positions on the northern ridge line and by 6:00 the French were back where they started.

    At this point, Bazaine totally lost his nerve to press the issue and began preparing the army for a night withdrawal to the Amanvillers line, west of Metz. To make matters seemingly even more desperate for the French, further Prussian reinforcements from VIII and IX Corps began hustling onto the southern portion of the battlefield. To add to the tragedy of the day and the long tally of errors by both sides, these two late-arriving formations were haphazardly thrown against the French line in an effort to take Rezonville before dark. They were bloodily repulsed. But their efforts again convinced Bazaine that his left flank, and thus his life line to Metz, was threatened.

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    The final great drama of the day is an event that had no real effect on the battle but is nonetheless one of its most famous events. Out on the furthest western reaches of the battle were assembled large groups of cavalry from both sides. At 6:45, Ladmirault launched his troopers against the Prussian left flank at the same time that Voigts-Rhetz ordered his own cavalry attack against the French right wing! Outside the village of Ville-sur-Yron the two huge cavalry hosts met – a clash of 5,000 troopers that produced the last great cavalry melee battle on European soil. When the clouds of dust receded, the Prussians held the field with the French once again failing to exploit potential success by not committing five fresh regiments that were held back, sitting and observing the mighty cloud of battle before them.

    The Prussian’s incredible performance on this day was the stuff of legend. They fought off a French foe that severely outnumbered them the entire day. Their tenacious stand not only caused the retreat of the French Army of the Rhine but further demoralized a force already running short on esprit de corps.

    The Battle of Mars-la-Tour represents one of the most inept performances by a vastly superior force on any battlefield in history, but the French player in At Any Cost does not have to follow suit. It is the game design’s responsibility to accurately recreate the conditions that existed at the battle. But it is not the game’s purpose to generate the same result. The French player has numerous opportunities, through the game’s available mechanics, to overcome the Army of the Rhine’s shortcomings and instead utilize its many advantages. This is something that Bazaine and his generals did not do that day, but it is something that the French game player can do to try and change history.

    During the evening hours, Bazaine retired his army back towards Metz. He eventually redeployed them on the strong Amanvillers line to the west of Metz and two days later there was fought another battle of even greater proportions than Mars-la-Tour. That story will be taken up in another article.

    – Hermann Luttmann

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    8 thoughts on “A BECKONING VICTORY: THE BATTLE OF MARS-LA-TOUR 1870

      • Thanks Doc Y! I only have a playtest map at this time and you can check it out on the last batch of pictures I posted from the FATDOG convention on the game’s CSW forum and on the GMT company forum on CSW.
        Hermann

      • Thanks Stefanos! It is such an interesting battle, isn’t it? When I first learned of the battle I was compelled to design a game on it and came up with Duel of Eagles. Then I read further about the entire campaign and really thought the whole story needed to be told. And thus was born At Any Cost. I certainly hope gamers will enjoy it and find it just as intriguing.
        Hermann

        • I’m so glad that you brought this forgotten jewel of the european military history to the light, Hermann!
          Just a question about the game. I see at the P500 game page that the solitaire suitability is rated 7/9. Is it going to be played just good with 1 as with 2 players? Is there any chance of improving its suitability to a rate 9/9?

          • Well, 9/9 would involve an actual independent solitaire system and the game won’t have that. However, the nature of any chit-pull system, and this one in particular, lends itself very nicely to solo play. Sorry, but that’s the best I can do! ; )
            Thanks!
            Hermann

    1. The absolute passion Hermann has for this subject is well known to me, and should be apparent to anyone reading his first-rate analysis of the campaign. At the risk of sounding like I’m writing in clichés, war-gaming is very much about enabling us to understand why things happened the way they did, alongside presenting us with the scope of what might have gone differently at near every turn. From what I know of the design (and designer) this game promises to be something very special.
      Good Luck!

      • Wow – thanks Paul! I’m blushing.
        Coming from you, this is indeed something special. Not only because I know what a great writer you are yourself – you guys should check out his articles for The Boardgaming Way and The Boardgaming Life websites – but also because I know that the Franco-Prussian War is not one of your favorite topics! ; )
        I appreciate the post and well wishes – thanks so much!
        Hermann