Napoleonic Wargame Analysis #1 (Part 2)

Mar 24, 2005
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Once having engaged the units nearest to the enemy, you have to let them go without worrying too much about their good or bad fortune. Only you must be careful not to yield too easily to requests for help.

-- Napoleon [WIL39:112]

The battle templates shown above are more aggressive in nature with the attacker trying to force the opponent's actions to fit into his plan. Sometimes, due to inferiority in numbers, quality, or position, a belligerent is forced to use more reactive battle templates. In this section, three of these are shown, (1) Interior Lines, (2) Counterpunch, and (3) Fighting Withdrawal.

4.1 Interior Lines

This was another stratagem oft used by Napoleon, called Centres des Operations (center of operations). An example of this is the battles at Ligny against the Prussians and Quatre Bras against the Anglo-Allied. Here, Napoleon split the opposing forces in two and defeated each in detail. However, he was soon after defeated because his lieutenants (Grouchy) did not prevent the Prussian Army from re-uniting with the Anglo-Allied Army at Waterloo. It was a very close run, however, and given that he was greatly outnumbered it showed that Napoleon still retained great military prowess contrary to some horse-hooey bandied about his mental abilities dramatically diminishing in his later years. (Even as late as 1814, the stated Allied strategy was to always avoid a direct engagement with Napoleon himself and instead attack forces commanded by his lieutenants. Is that diminished ability?) As shown in Figure 9, the main army is placed between two opposing armies, and then in (1) it marches to defeat one and then in (2) it marches to defeat the other.

Figure 9. Interior Lines was another of Napoleon's favorites

This template requires distributing your order of battle into the following forces:

Weaker Left Holding Force
Strong Centralized Attack Force
Weaker Right Holding Force
Interior lines is used most often when an army inferior in numbers is opposed by multiple armies greatly superior. By attacking each army in turn, the numerically weaker belligerent can master another much greater in numbers. Military textbooks state that great strength of character is necessary in a general if he is to employ this desperate template because friendly forces are setup in a way that easily could allow a converging, overwhelming attack by a combined opponent.

4.2 Counterpunch

The Counterpunch is a one-two sequence of events. It is useful when the enemy is superior in numbers and over-confident. First the enemy attacks, and when the attacker begins to lose impetus through disorder, fatigue, or other, then a well placed counterattack is delivered (i.e., "The Hammer" strikes). This is illustrated in Figure 10.

Figure 10. The Counterpunch was probably Wellington's most often employed template

This ploy has a bit of subtlety, and can be very devastating. It could also be termed "Parry and Counterattack". At the tactical scale, this would be called an ambush. This template seems to have been employed by Wellington, who was often numerically inferior to his foes. The opponent is allowed or even encouraged to attack, which is absorbed, and then when his attack has spent itself -- which always at some point naturally occurs to an attack against a defense in depth -- a decisive, concentrated counterattack is launched at a critical point in the attacker's line using a centralized defending force which has been saved and hidden from enemy view.

Personally, the author favors this absorb and counterattack stratagem above the others for wargames. Though this template to some extent waits for the opponent to commit himself, the counterattack should be swift when it becomes apparent where the enemy's main attack has fallen. It has an element of ju-jitsu (throwing the other guy with his weight) in it. The key to this stratagem is to remain concentrated behind the lightly defended main battle line, defend in depth that area of the line to dilute the attacker's impetus -- refusing a flank if necessary as shown in Figure 10 (dashed lines), and then counterattacking at the right moment when the opponent is unbalanced and disorganized and at the right place where he is drawn out (not concentrated). Take special note that this template's success is highly dependent upon properly implementing a "defense in depth" and upon recognizing the decisive moment to counterattack. As such it is probably not well-suited to rookies.

This template requires distributing your order of battle into the following forces:

Right Flank (sparsely manned, defense in depth)
Center (sparsely manned, defense in depth)
Left Flank (sparsely manned, defense in depth)
The Hammer
Ready Reserve - crucial to parry attacker's initial blow, since you are ceding initial initiative to opponent
Battle Reserve
Ideally the counterattack by the hammer destroys a sizable chunk of forces netting a decisive victory. However, several steps must precede that decisive counterattack. These are: (i) set up a secure order of battle, (ii) recon in force to gain information about the opponent's abilities and force distribution, (iii) adjust forces to match opponent's maneuver, (iv) allow opponent to mount attack, (v) absorb it with solid defensive tactics and use of ready reserve if necessary, (vi) counterattack at a single concentrated location of the opponent's line using "The Hammer" to punch a hole in it and destroy a large-sized force, and finally (vii) deliver coup d'grace to the entire battle line with final reserve.

The key danger in this template is that if the opponent's initial attack is never stopped, or sufficiently slowed, or deflected, he will permanently gain -- probably decisively -- the initiative, which goes a long way in attaining victory as he sets the tone and development of battle. The way to prevent this is with a defense in depth which thwarts him from connecting with your main body and causing it mischief before the impetus of his attack degrades and disorganizes.

4.3 Fighting Withdrawal

Sometimes this is the only option available. It is not technically an attack, though since the force is not entrenched this template still qualifies as a maneuver and so is discussed here. Usually in situations where employed, there is not time to setup a Counterpunch. Or there are insufficient forces to create the decisive counterattack force. For example, the Anglo-Allied at Quatre Bras or the French initially at Marengo or Saltnovka, the only thing early in those battles was to maintain a viable defensive line. There were barely enough troops to do that. For this template, the idea is to disengage where ever possible and slowly withdraw while maintaining unit cohesion, watching flanks, and awaiting friendly reinforcements to gather sufficient mass before taking the offensive or risking a pitched, head-to-head battle.


All quiet on the Western Front.

-- Ernest Remarque

A static battle template is another name for a siege. Sieges did happen in the Napoleonic era. However, static defense was usually unsuccessful. (Or in modern combat for that matter because the advent of heavy caliber weapons -- i.e., artillery and more recently aircraft and combustion powered missiles -- and mobile armored forces have doomed static fortifications.) Therefore, we won't discuss these templates in this article. A more recommended defense template is an active in-depth approach which seeks opportunities to counterattack (see Counterpunch maneuver). And more importantly since our emphasis in this article is simulations, being time dependent (i.e., starve or bomb out your opponent) sieges make for boring wargaming.


No battle plan survives intact the first contact with the enemy main body.

-- Helmuth von Moltke [MOL]

In conclusion, before you plan your next great manuever using one of the templates shown in this article, make sure you (if playing a scenario which has limited initial engagement and visibility) find and if need be fix the enemy. If you don't know where the enemy is and prematurely try, say a flanking manuever, you'll unhappily discover your army swatting air! Remember the U.S. Army's 3F's doctrine: find 'em, fix 'em, and f**k 'em! (This is the army's unofficial slogan, and it has been handed down verbally generation to generation since the Civil War and U. S. Grant.) For example, march in three groups abreast, aiming the central fixing force at the enemy's main body. Once the enemy is found, engage him with whichever group is nearest and then using the remaining forces begin one of the battle template maneuvers described in this article. Also, don't forget that several templates may occur during the temporal progression of a battle. For example, you might start out in a Fighting Withdrawal and as reinforcements arrive end with Counterpunch. As another example, you might begin with a Single Envelopment, have things go awry (remember the Clauswitzian friction always present in war), and end up in a Fighting Withdrawal.

This brief survey of the types of templates that can be applied to your Napoleonic wargame battles is now concluded. Remember that no amount of reading will produce the ability to always create a victory; some victories depend solely on the ability of your brain to improvise and reason. However, with the above described templates, perhaps you can combine them into a new variant or use one as is. Hopefully, you've read something in this article that you can use to translate into a victory in the gaming arena in the immediate future.

Bon chance!


+ I play these Napoleonic wargames with a passion. However I now do so using an alias since by writing these analysis articles I give up a lot of my playing style to an opponent before they even begin to play against me. So regrettably, please don't send emails challenging me. I no longer play wargames with my real name. The reasons for this should be obvious.

* It should be obvious that troop frontage is not the only important thing in modern warfare. Airplanes, armor, long-range artillery, airborne infantry, minefield, fortifications, and so on make troop frontage only a rough indicator of modern combat power.

** This recurrent turning action brings up the author's all-time favorite military story. I don't know why, perhaps being an American by many generations and being from the North with ancestors who served in the Michigan and Indiana volunteers, but this story nearly brings tears to my eyes. In many ways it was the turning point of the war since the Northern soldiers now knew they had a general who had mettle equal to Lee. It had been a long, long, long wait. Rather than paraphrase it, I will quote it directly from a very admirable author, Fletcher Pratt, in the book A Short History of the Civil War, page 311. [PRA48:311]

[After The Battle of the Wilderness, May 8, 1864.] ... and the fight went on.
On into the dark when the armies halted to take count of their loss. The Army of the Potomac had suffered frightfully, 17000 men down, more than twice as many as the rebels had lost. The new general from the West had fared no better than the others against Lee, the war would never end, and the Union troops crawled out of their lines and began to head away eastward along the dark roads.
"Licked again, by crackey!"
At Chancellorsville House there is a three-corner. The road to the left led back across the Rappahannock, back to the Potomac, out of that grim wood to fortifications, comfort and safety; that on the right led past the rebel front, deeper than ever into the perilous and uncertain Wilderness. As the defeated troops came slogging down to the turn, the dispirited soldiers saw dimly a solitary man in an old blue coat sitting horseback at the cross-roads with a cigar in his mouth. He silently motioned the guides of each regiment down the right-hand road. Grant.
They stared a moment -- and then the slanting lines of steel took the road to terror and death, upborne on an uncontrollable wave of cheering. "That night the men were happy."
They could never be beaten now.


[BRA99] Omar N. Bradley, A Soldier's Story, Modern Library, 1999.

[CHA63] David Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon, Scribner, 1963.

[CLA12] Carl von Clauswitz, Principles of War, 1812. on-line

[CLA32] Carl von Clauswitz, On War, 1832. on-line on-line

[DUP87] Trevor N. Dupuy, Understanding War, Paragon House, 1987.

[DUP90] Trevor N. Dupuy, Understanding Defeat, Paragon House, 1990.

[FRE47] Frederick the Great, Military Instructions for His Generals, 1747,

[FRO] Sextus Julius Frontinus, The Strategemata, 1st Century A.D. on-line

[JOM38] Antoine Jomini, The Art of War, 1838.

[HAR67] B H Liddell Hart, Strategy: The Indirect Approach, 2 ed., Meridian, 1967.

[HPS] HPS Simulation's Napoleonic games: Napoleon's Russian Campaign (NRC), Wagram, Jena-Auerstadt, and Waterloo.

[LIN85] William S. Lind, Maneuver Warfare Handbook, 1985.

[LUT01] Edward N. Luttwak, Strategy The Logic of War and Peace, Belknap Press, 2001.

[MAC21] Nicollo Machiavelli, The Art of War, 1521.

[MEL56] Maj Gen F. W. von Mellenthin, Panzer Battles, Univ Oklahoma Press, 1956.

[MG] Matrix Games: soon to re-release the Talonsoft (out of business) company's game titles. There is disagreement between gamers as to which system is better TS vs HPS.

[MOL93] Helmuth von Moltke, Moltke on the Art of War, edited by Daniel J Hughes, Presidio, 1993.

[MON70] Raimondo Montecuccoli, Concerning Battle, 1670.

[MUR] Anonymous, Murphy's Laws of War. on-line

[NAP21] Napoleon, The Maxims of Napoleon, 1821. These maxims were not actually written directly by Napoleon but were instead recorded by those around him while at St Helena island. on-line

[PRA48] Fletcher Pratt, A Short History of the Civil War, 1948, Dover reprint 1997.

[ROG57] Major Robert Rogers, Roger's Rangers Rules or Plans of Discipline, 1757. on-line

[SAX57] Maurice de Saxe, My Reveries on the Art of War, 1657.

[SHE12] Captain C.O.Sherrill, Military Topography for the Mobile Forces, Menasha, Wisconsin: George Banta Publishing Co., 1912. on-line

[TS] Talonsoft's Napoleonic Battleground series games: Napoleon in Russia (NiR), Prelude to Waterloo (PTW), and Battleground Waterloo (BGW). Alas, the Talonsoft software company is now defunct, though recently Matrix Games has expressed interest in updating and re-releasing these three titles. You may obtain copies of these CDs through eBay for example.

[TZU] Sun Tzu, The Art of War, 6th century B.C.

[USMC89] "Distributed" by USMC General Gray, Warfighting, 1989.

[VEG] Flavius Vegetius Renatus, De Re Militari (The Military Institutions of the Romans), 4th Century A.D. on-line

[WIL397] Charles Willoughby, Maneuver in War, Military Service Publishing Co, 1939.