1814 Campaign – The Strategic Statistics
by Paddy Griffith
The following analysis of the activities of the armies involved in the 1814 campaign in France was written by Paddy Griffith in the early 1980’s. It was originally published in the EEL a now defunct hobby magazine.
The 1814 campaign in the Champagne area of France has fascinated me for a long time, as a wargamer, because it has a reputation for tactical brilliance on the part of Napoleon – and yet it is littleknown. For some reason the majority of wargamers prefer the turgid massacres of the 1813 operations in Germany to the witty counter-marching of the following year. There is a feeling that Leipzig was “the” decisive battle of the Napoleonic Wars. In fact, of course, it was Craonne.
1814 has other points of interest. The battles were of “wargame”size, at around 10-20,000 men per side. In some of them (wonder of wonders) that famous wargamers’ myth the “all-guard army” actually appeared in reality. Also the area itself is delightful to walk over. The wine and cheese are, quite literally, the best in the world.
On the other hand the area was NOT in any way delightful in the winter of 1814. a lot of awkward factors which are conventionally left out of wargames intruded massively into the evolutions of the assembled armies. The weather was so bad that the men were literally up to their knees in mud. Guerrilla warfare was practiced by both sides against the lines of communication of their enemy. The passage of information – particularly on the allied side – seems to have been uniquely bad. Food was short. On the French side there was a shortage of basic equipment such as greatcoats. And as a final unfairness, the French were desperately outnumbered. This campaign was therefore quite different from a wargame, because wargames are supposed to be fair. War in reality is never fair – especially when, as Metternich put it “one makes it with 50,000 Bashkirs and Kalmuks”.
To get a flavour of this campaign, I felt I had to make a strategic map game out of it. I therefore conducted some simple research to find out what sort of things might be expected to happen. The results are presented here, and they seen to alter a few of the assumptions (usually based on pure guesswork) which wargamers seem to make.
Orders and administration
As an example, Napoleon did not spend about a minute or less writing each message to his subordinate generals. Instead, he would sit down at about 3 a.m. each morning to write his orders, and on some occasions he would still be there seven hours later. Out of five occasions for which I have full details, the spread was between one and seven hours, and the average was four hours. Assuming that he had to write to five Corps commanders and two or three dozen administrators, that does not add up to very long for each letter; but the fact is surely significant that his last letter to a Corps commander might be written seven hours after the first. That also makes an average for every important letter.
Obviously as one goes down the hierarchy this ”administration” time for each commander becomes less – but from what evidence I have it does seem that the average time for a Corps commander to reply to Napoleon was about two hours, and could be as long as six. If there was nothing particular to report, on the other hand, three days could easily pass before any news was sent. Thus both sides were frequently very much in the dark about what was going on. To make up for this, of course, there was also a vast amount of low level information coming in all the time, so although Napoleon might not know what a quarter of his army was up to, he would know a great deal about what the local peasants thought the enemy was doing. The difficulty with this was that their reports might exaggerate, not by 50%, as many wargame campaigners might think but by 2000% or more. Even trained cavalry scouts brought back errors of 2000% in this way; apparently the only way to avoid it was to stand side on to an enemy column and count them over a bridge over a long period of time.
Messages and couriers
How long did it take for these messages to be transmitted once they had been written? I suspect that most wargamers give their couriers ideal strings of post-horses, or even semaphores, plus maps, up-to-date information about where the recipient could be found, and a hot dinner. None of this necessarily applied in reality, and there were even cases of couriers who deserted to the enemy with their message. It was true that posts were frequently used, and that when Napoleon foresaw action in a particular direction he would have the posts in that direction specially reinforced. Equally, the more important a message, the more riders would be sent, by different routes. Total non-arrival of messages was therefore rare, though it did happen for some of the less vital items. It was far more likely that the enemy would intercept a courier or that a courier would be late. The average times for couriers were as follows:
Up to 20 km 6.5 Km per hour
Further than 20 km 4 km per hour
There were, however, wide variations in this; sometimes a message went at 1.3 Km per hour, and sometimes at 12 km per hour. This seems to have been the spread, from 52 examples studied. It would appear that a wargame should allow for such variations, with perhaps an enemy interception for a double six (roll a dice for each rider – i.e. with multiple riders the chance of interception increases).
Movement and resting
When we come to troop movement rates, I suspect that most wargames campaign rules are rather nearer the mark, especially for infantry. In 1814 an infantry Corps (which was nearer a Division in strength) would average 21 km in a day, marching for about 8 hours with an hour or two”s stop at three-quarter time. In this campaign the artillery would normally lag behind.
Out of 70 examples, some Corps” marches were as little as 8 km. This does not include forced marches and night marches, which took perhaps 10% of the total, but no more. Forced marches would be called olnly when there was a very urgent crisis. It should also be noted that none of these marches could be ordered at once, but required notice of between 30 minutes and two hours in normal circumstances. Also, and of particular interest to the wargamer, there were frequently stops of entire days, to rest. A rest would be called perhaps every four days.
In the case of cavalry the marching day appears to have been one or two hours shorter than for infantry, again with one or two hours for lunch. The average distance covered was 26 km, out of 11 samples, with a variation between 16 and 35 km. Thus cavalry did move faster – but not by all that much – than the infantry. Of course most of the scouting was done by cavalry, and this took up a lot of extra time and effort which does not show up in these figures. It was not exceptional to spend the whole morning on this task and march only in the afternoon.
I looked at seven examples of movement by Napoleon”s own staff, which itself must have been quite a sizeable unit. It moved in the same time as cavalry formations, but covered an average of 32 km per in a day, varying between 24 km and 55 km. One should note that this movement was very different from that of couriers or of detached staff officers sent out on a scouting mission.
One or two other statistics may be of interest. A broken bridge was normally repaired in 36 hours, though out of 10 examples I found a spread between 8 and 96 hours. Once repaired, however, a bridge might break again unless it was made with a proper bridging train, which few were. Destroying a bridge might take only half an hour of so, either with gunpowder charges or, for a wooden bridge, with burning bundles of sticks. In either case, however, the destruction might well be incomplete, leaving an easier task for the repairer. Equally, of course, the destruction might not be commanded at all when it was needed, or it might be rushed through too soon.
Towns and Forts
Open towns, when summoned, would usually fall if they were held only by National Guards. Sometimes, however, they might hold out for as much as 12 hours, which could considerably delay an advancing army. The average would be perhaps be about an hour. If properly defended and fortified, of course, they could hold out a lot longer provided the commander did not lose his nerve, as Moreau did at Soissons. He capitulated after about 30 hours when he might have held out for three times as long. Again, a full-scale fortress would be able to hold out for weeks on end, but there were none in the campaign of 1814.
Finally, certain statistics can be assembled from the battles themselves, which may give wargamers food to thought. In my experience most Napoleonic wargames are encounter battles in which one side sweeps the board only after about one major offensive act. This type of fight was very rare in most Napoleonic warfare, and most battles were fought over prepared positions which could sustain resistance for days on end. Far from being carried in one rush, half a dozen distinct offensives might be needed before progress was made. In 1814, by contrast, things were rather different. There was a two day battle at Laon and another at Arcis; but most actions were short, sharp encounter battles of the type beloved by wargamers.
I have looked at five encounter battles of 1814, which were all rearguard actions with an inferior force defending itself against a bigger enemy. A total of 19 positions were occupied and carried in the course of these, as the inferior forces retired. In all cases the battles were brought to a close at nightfall when the pursuer could go no further, although at Fere Champenoise this coincided with the enemy”s surrender. Overall I have found that each of the 19 positions was held for an average of 2 ½ hour, with the next fall-back position an average of 3 ½ km to the rear. Thus each of the five battles consisted of a short fight over a defended line – lasting perhaps an hour – and then a scramble back to the next position followed by enemy scouts, his artillery and other troops following in the course of the following 1 ½ hours. The average speed of at which the pursuit advanced would be 1 ½ km per hour.
Statistics like this are indispensable for the accurate design of a wargame campaign, and have an enormous significance for the table-top as well.
Derniers Victoires 1814,
Paris 1964 Mme.Mathieu Veuve is a charming and exceptionally generous old lady who lives in Montmirail where her husband had been Maire. Her book originally was conceived as local history, which explains its prodigious and meticulous documentation – so rare in modern military history. But the book succeeds as military as well as local history. It is highly recommended, and covers all the fighting around Montmirail plus a good deal else besides.
1814, Paris 1888 and many reissues An unbeatable general account of the campaign. Its only a pity that the military part isn”t longer.
F. Lorraine Petre,
Napoleon at Bay,
London 1914 and 1994 I suppose I should mention him, too.