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Subject: Baptême du Feu – Roliça 1808 rss

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Stanislav
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"Glory is fleeting, but obscurity is forever"
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A friend of mine and I recently visited the site of the Battle of Waterloo. The same evening, we baptised each other in fire, playing our very first game of C&C: Napoleonics. Below is a rather lengthy, dramatized battle report, authored in a similar, though not identical, manner to my session report of Bagradas (C&C: Ancients). I hope you'll enjoy it. :)

* * *


In August 1808, Great Britain invaded French-occupied Portugal in order to assist the Portuguese and Spanish who sought to loosen Napoleon’s iron grip over the Iberian Peninsula. The first armed confrontation between British-Portuguese forces commanded by Sir Arthur Wellesley and French forces commanded by Henri-François Delaborde took place on the 17th of August 1808. The Battle of Roliça was fought by two relatively small armies, considering the scale of the Napoleonic Wars. The clash nevertheless proved to have important consequences for the development of the Iberian campaign.

The eyewitness report below is an excerpt from the private journal of a young French officer, Lieutenant Stanislas de Brancá, who served in General Delaborde’s 2. Régiment d’Infanterie Légère.


Baptême du Feu – Roliça 1808


By Lieutenant Stanislas de Brancá, 2nd Light Infantry Regiment

Morning, the 16th of August 1808, outside the Portugese village of Alcobaça

It is now more than two weeks since the blasted Brits landed in Portugal, about 100 miles north of Lisbon. Our scouts report that 13,000 British and 2,000 Portuguese troops are southbound from Mondego Bay. Allegedly, it is just a vanguard formation, consisting primarily of infantry, along with just 200 dragoons and two dozen artillery pieces. In the whole of Portugal, we have 25,000 experienced, eager and disciplined Frenchmen, but we are spread out. Our own formation, under General Delaborde’s command, is closest to the red devils. We number 5,000 men, including 5 guns and 280 chasseurs.

Captain Thomas Wiseau told me that the British are moving towards our position sooner than expected. Our revised plan is therefore to meet the Brits by the town of Roliça and conduct a delaying action until Loison’s 6,500 men from Santarem and Marshal Junot’s 3,000 from Lisbon can join us. Afterward, we will push the damned Brits back to the bay and drive them off of the Continent like the miserable little rats that they are. But Roliça first…

Daybreak, the 17th of August, west of the village of Roliça, 25 miles souh of Alcobaça

General Delaborde has chosen a formidable position for our defensive action. Our forces block the road to Lisbon; we have taken positions on the horseshoe-shaped hill formation by the sleepy hamlet of Roliça. We are indeed outnumbered, but the men are in good spirits. The general’s staff has devised a fall back plan if we fail to hold our ground successfully before Loison’s reinforcements arrive, with predetermined secondary defensive position further south. So the plan is sound, and we are ready.


Starting positions

The two line infantry battalions from the 70th Ligne Régiment hold the middle of the horseshoe, accompanied by our rather underwhelming artillery battery. Delaborde had ordered our two experienced light infantry battalions on both sides of the linesmen. My own unit occupies the left side, whilst Lieutenant Colonel Sesteró’s battalion from the 4th Régiment d’Infanterie Légère hold the right. Our reserves consist of two line infantry battalions, positioned behind the hill. The two squadrons of light cavalry from the 26th Régiment de Chasseurs à Cheval have taken up positions at the wings of our formation. Everyone is ready. The air is already hot and arid, and there is no wind rustling the palm trees. But all of this is probably a bigger problem for the bastards from across the Channel than for us.

As I look out on the plain in front of us, I have a somewhat clear overview of the British forces, who are assembling by the treeline. The Portuguese in their patchy uniforms and hopelessly disorganized formation hold the right of the enemy’s line (our left). I see, however, that they have brought cavalry with them, providing Wellesley with more mobility than we had anticipated. The main force of British infantrymen and artillery are in the centre. My spyglass just about lets me see the infantry, dragoon and horse artillery units that have taken up positions on the far side of the narrow river Ferñeta.

This will all be interesting. But I see Captain Wiseau approaching with his customary energetic gestures, so I better put the journal away. Hopefully, these will not be my last written words – whether we win or I survive in captivity. But if my pen is never more to touch these pages, then I want you, my lovely Isalina, to know, that I am truly, faithfully and lovingly yours until my final breath. À bientôt, mon amour. S.


The troops are mustered, the generals are rady

Dusk, the 17th of August 1808, west of the village Roliça

What a battle! I will try to summarize it as accurately as I can, while the memories are still fresh in my mind. Pardon me, dear reader, for my shaky hand.

It all commenced with manoeuvres on the flanks and a cannon demonstration from both armies in the centre. Delaborde ordered my unit to move left and backwards, sheltering us from the British artillery fire and anticipating the slow advance of the Portuguese opposite our left flank. In the middle, the extreme range meant that the deafening cannonades from both sides had little effect. Still, our gunner boys drew premier sang, and I cheered inside when I saw the first redcoats hit the ground in the smoke-covered centre of the enemy formation.


The French canons draw first blood

Wellsley’s troops remained disciplined and advanced forward in good, methodical order. Delaborde moved our reserve battalions up the hill to the position my own unit had just vacated. On the right, Sesteró’s men moved into Roliça, taking cover from the British artillery bombardment and keeping Wellsley’s left wing in check.

Suddenly, the British infantry in the middle increased the tempo of their forward march. They sought to charge straight up the hill – without bothering to first attempt an envelopment! Incredibly bold, I thought. Still, we were ready for the inevitable storm with bayonets fixed. Just as we braced ourselves, the astonishing order came – or rather failed to come – from our general. Here we were – with a perfectly good opportunity for a first strike, and yet we were told to hold. The devil take Delaborde, I mumbled to myself through gritted teeth.


The British conduct the final manoeuvres before the bold and unexpected bayonet charge

The redcoats’ charge à la baïonnette was a bloody affair. The Brits showcased great bravery and impeccable discipline to begin with, but our terrain advantage on top of the hills proved decisive. The French line infantry distinguished themselves, suffering only minor casualties, whilst inflicting considerable losses to the enemy. For the most part, my stoic countrymen held the line, though our weakened artillery battery was forced off the hill by the only successful part of Wellsley’s thrust. Our inevitable counterattack was absolutely merciless. Especially the fine chasseurs of Thomas du Reims’ light cavalry squadron showed the British, what Frenchmen are made of! The redcoats suffered heavy losses and were pushed down from the hill. Unfortunately, however, none of their units broke entirely, and they pulled back from the slopes in good order.


The British frontal assault failed in spectacular fashion, the infantry taking heavy losses and being beaten back

Indeed, the British retreat was so orderly that the elite troops from the 71st Light Highland Infantry (at least I think it was that unit), showed great discipline and skills at arms, covering their retreating comrades with lethally accurate musket fire. One of the French line battalions that had taken light losses during the mêlée was annihilated in the process. My men and I were engulfed by a terrible rage at this tragic sight. Let us advance and avenge our brothers, I thought. Just give me the opportunity to blast some of these pigs straight to hell, I mumbled. And then our chance for vengeance came! We were ordered to move forward and fire upon the advanced Portuguese foot soldiers. It was as if we infused our musket blasts with our fury, for by the end of our volleys, the entire Portuguese line battalion lay dead or dying at the foot of the hill. Good, I calmly thought to myself, as I reloaded my musket once more.


The disciplined marksmen of the British 71st Light Highland Infantry claimed the battle’s first victory standard

Following all of this frantic action on and near the horseshoe of the hills, the British centre was close to complete and utter collapse. Panic and a general rout seemed likely. But Wellsley displayed his impressive leaderships skills, and inspired his men to rally and keep up the fight.


The British units are close to collapse, but a rallying cry from their general keeps them in the fight

A brief intermezzo ensued, where both armies manoeuvred into position. The British rallied and reformed their line, opening artillery fire upon our positions once more. Delaborde kept our own guns behind the hill, sparing them from further shock and fire, but this left our forces unable to respond to the British cannonade. Somewhat surprisingly (though perfectly fine by me!), our army adopted a more offensive posture than before. My unit had advanced just in front of the hills, ready to support one of our light cavalry squadrons that was poised to strike on the extreme left of our formation. The British line did look somewhat menacing at this point, but I roused the men under my command, “We will finish these dogs here and now!


After regrouping, the Brits get ready for another attack; the French focus their attack on the left

The British barrage in the centre continued with increased intensity, engulfing the battlefield in thick smoke, and inflicting new, painful losses on our line. The courage seemed to seep out of our comrades in the line battalions, so we moved up the hill again to provide support. On our right, things looked even bleaker. Concentrated cannon fire from the damned British gunners in the middle, as well as on their left, cost us dearly. My valiant frères d’armes in the 4th Light Infantry Regiment held their ground courageously, but in the end, they were decimated by the cannonade. Even I began to wonder how long we could endure this sustained bombardment without an answer of our own.

This answer, however, had seemingly been delegated to Lieutenant Colonel Laurent’s light cavalry squadron on our left. What a sight! While the British kept bombarding the hill, our magnificent chasseurs stormed straight ahead against the hapless Portuguese on the British right. They charged their glorious steeds up the slope! Through a hailstorm of musket fire! Fearless! The frightened Portuguese battalion hastily formed an infantry square, but their carré d’infanterie turned out to be just as inefficient as their gunfire. With its first charge, Laurent’s riders dispatched a good portion of the shaky unit without suffering notable losses.


The British cannons score a hit, but at the same time, the French cavalry distinguishes itself on the left

At this point in time, it was obvious to all of us that the battle would be decided on our left (the British right). The bleeding Portuguese in the square on the hill received much-needed reinforcements from their compatriots. The Portuguese cavalry under General Trant attacked Laurent’s stout unit, and in this very moment, Delaborde’s genius was revealed to me. The order for a Premier Coup, which did not come when the British footmen charged us up the hill, now sounded loud and clearly. The French chasseurs inflicted considerable damage on the Portuguese cavalry before they had a chance to engage. Trant’s counterattack had faltered.

In the meantime, my own heart was pounding heavily with both pride and excitement. My unit was ordered forward to support Laurent’s heroes. Swift and mobile as we light infantrymen are, we quickly left the hills behind us and closed with the enemy. We fired a volley at the Portuguese infantry that sought to support their beleaguered comrades on the hill. I have never reloaded a musket so rapidly before! I wanted to do anything that I could to smash the blasted Portuguese, open up the British left flank and force them to retreat. No matter the cost!


The Portuguese fail in the face of the astonishing French assault in the right

Laurent’s chasseurs were unstoppable! As we traded volleys of musket fire with the Portuguese linesmen, our comrade cavalrymen finished off the embattled infantry square on the hill. No rest for the weary, however. Laurent promptly wheeled his elite horsemen around and charged the stunned Portuguese cavalry. Simultaneously, we moved forward to keep the Portuguese infantry pinned. Unfortunately, I could not witness the clash of cavalry on the other side of the hilltop, but the outcome was never in doubt. A bit later, Laurent’s unit emerged from behind the slopes and charged the last remaining Portuguese unit. The enemy’s light cavalry had fled the field of battle, and General Trant was dead. Victory was close. I could smell it.

The last remaining unit of Portuguese infantry formed a square, but it proved to be just as futile as the one their defeated comrades had attempted before. We fired one last salvo at the surrounded troops, before Laurent’s cavalry smashed their formation and killed off the rest of these patchy, pathetic and ill-equipped Portuguese. I did feel a small ounce of sympathy, for weak as they were, they still stood and fought till the end. But the end had finally come. French sabres glistening in the sun would be their last memories of this wretched world!


Laurent’s cavalry delivers the coup de grace to the Portuguese infantry, opening up the British right flank. Wellsley sounds the order to retreat shortly thereafter.

With four units killed or driven off the field along with a fallen general, the British situation looked very gloomy indeed. Their advance on our right flank had been too sluggish (perhaps held up by the river?), and thus they failed to take advantage of our weakened position in that sector of the battlefield. Demoralized and with a wide open right flank, the British soldiers looked visibly shaken. Laurent’s cavalry squadron had hardly suffered any casualties, but they had – with my unit’s indispensable support – eliminated the entirety of the Portuguese forces! Wellsley saw that he was beaten and signalled for a general retreat.

The Brits escaped, and no doubt we will face them again soon enough. But first, let the whole world know that on this day, near this quiet little town of Roliça, 5,000 Frenchmen stood firm and defeated 15,000 Englishmen and allies. I am now a tired Frenchman, but I am an immensely proud Frenchman! Ah. I hear the arrival of Loison’s reinforcements. Soon, we can snatch the initiative from the hands of our enemies and drive the British off from Iberia. I can hardly wait! But now the lads are calling on me, making fun of my relentless habit of grabbing the pen before I grab the bottle. And damn it! They have a point! A vaincre sans péril, on triomphe sans gloire! Santé!

* * *


Historians differ in their interpretations of the details of Lieutenant Stanislas de Brancá’s somewhat colourful summary of the Battle of Roliça. However, most of them agree that the main events are described truthfully and in concord with other written accounts.

The stage was set. The battle lines were drawn, and valiant men were in command. History was promptly changed!

Final Result:

First Battle of Roliça: Stanislav (FRANCE) 5 Victory Banners vs. 2 Victory Banners Mikkel (BRITAIN)

Second Battle of Roliça: Stanislav (BRITAIN) 2 Victory banners vs. 5 Victory banners Mikkel (FRANCE)

Overall result: 7-7 draw

It was two very exciting iterations of the first scenario of C&C: Napoleonics (though only the one above has been immortalized so far), and we both thoroughly enjoyed it. Somehow, it was also fitting that two seasoned C&C: Ancients generals would end their first conflict in the Napoleonic wars in a draw. Interestingly, both battles featured very different ideas and execution. Whereas the key to my own victory as the French was to exploit the mobility and shock value of my cavalry against the weaker Portuguese elements, Mikkel focused on the Frenchmen’s superior melee capabilities by charging the British centre. In the end of our second battle, I only snatched the necessary 2nd banner for the draw by using my Portuguese troops to seize one of the objective tiles.

All in all, this game is amazing, and the tactical choices and possibilities are incredibly fun and engaging, capturing the historic period in thrilling manner without being overly complex. Needless to say, I can’t wait for more!
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Ilan Muskat
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Exceptional battle report. Fantastic visuals.

And poor Captain Wiseau. He must have felt like they were tearing him apart.
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Donald G
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arrrh Fantastic report. What a great contribution. Thankyou so much!!!

Don
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Stanislav
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Thanks, guys. Glad you enjoyed it. One of the reasons I love the C&C experience is that the game is abstract enough to be quickly played and relatively easy to learn, but thoroughly grounded in history to allow a great degree of immersion and even role-playing.
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