by Martin James
The need for sensible deployment of the supply wagons before a battle – and their protection – was crucial, yet we often fail to represent this at all in our games.
It is often not clear what armies did with their wagons prior to a battle. Contemporary maps normally don’t cover such deployments, and modern ones invariably fail to do so.
Deployment of the baggage
The difficulty of disentangling troops from their baggage, and dire consequences of failing to exert control in this area is well illustrated by the following French comment on their disastrous defeat at Ramillies in 1706 (de Feuquieres, 1737):
“I shall add, to all this inconsiderate disposition of the front, a particular neglect which likewise contributed to the loss of the battle. I have already observed that Marshal Villeroi received intelligence, in the morning, that the enemy were advancing towards him; and yet in the course of time he then had to disengage his troops from the impediments of their baggage, he never thought of that precaution; so that the greatest part of it was heaped up between the two lines, and embarrassed their motions, especially to the right where the action was sustained………
…..they advanced in four lines to our right wing of cavalry, and in several lines and columns to our infantry who were posted in the village of Ramillies. As they approached our right, they advanced their second and fourth lines into the intervals of their first and second line, so that when they made their advance upon us, they formed only one front, without any intermediate spaces.
Battle of Ramilles
(Map from Wikipedia)
“This motion was performed so near us that our right had no time either to close themselves, in order to fill their intervals, by that contraction, or to supply them with the second line, which, besides their immoderate distance from the first line, were incapable of making that advance with freedom, on account of the several equipages, which, as I have already intimated, were left, through mere negligence, between the two lines.”
Moving forward one hundred years, the traditional view was that Napoleonic armies were much less encumbered with baggage, and largely lived off the land. More recently there has been recognition that this distinction is overdrawn; that all armies have lived off the land to a degree, and that Napoleon’s troops were in fact supported by large trains.
A typical Napoleonic corps would be supported by 200-300 supply wagons, in addition to ammunition wagons. Including the army ambulance train, reserve ammunition and headquarters baggage, even a medium sized army would normally have well over 1,000 wagons.
Protection of the baggage
During the 30 Year’s War and the English Civil War, the baggage trains were often protected by troops specifically earmarked for this task. Indeed in some armies, specialist regiments were raised for this purpose, and armed appropriately – ie with firelocks and no pikes.
This practice appears to have declined in the late 17th C. The main threat to the trains had been from victorious cavalry when a flank totally collapsed – a frequent feature of ECW battles – but now a comparatively rare occurrence. Perhaps this was due to the much larger armies, increased battle frontages, and availability of reserves. Ramillies shows that it could still happen, but there were not many battles like Ramillies. In all but the most catastrophic of defeats, there would normally be sufficient troops in hand to form a rearguard, to allow at least the bulk of the train to get away.
The Napoleonic Wars
By the Napoleonic Wars, there was an increasing trend towards militarising the trains, and the Emperor organised his into companies and battalions. He also expected the personal to be able to fight off Cossack raiders, but not anything stronger.
For smaller forces, less had changed. In an engagement even the defeat of one or two battalions might lead to the collapse of the whole force due to open flanks or lack of reserves. It has often been remarked that small battles were more likely to be decisive than large ones.
An example of the consequence of losing the baggage
Even if the battle was not decisive, the loss of your baggage could be disastrous. A particularly striking example of this comes from the Confederate campaign in New Mexico in early 1862.
A Confederate Texas cavalry brigade had invaded New Mexico and was threatening California and Colorado, both of which contained many southern sympathisers.
After occupying Santa Fe, the Confederates pushed eastwards through the mountains in March 1862 on the route to Fort Union and Colorado. After their advance guard was thrown back at Apache Canyon, the main rebel body met a US force of Colorado volunteers from Fort Union at Glorietta Pass. This was a very hard-fought engagement, but the outnumbered northerners were eventually forced to retreat.
The same day however, the Confederates lost their entire baggage train, which had been left for safety a few miles to the rear. About 80 wagons for well under 2,000 men, let it be noted. This fell to a Union flanking column under Colonel Chivington, who drove off the escorting troops, killed the horses and mules, and burned the wagons.
New Mexico was relatively impoverished, and the Confederates had no possibility of reconstituting their train. Within short order they were forced to commence a long retreat back to Texas. Over inhospitable terrain – and with inadequate supplies – this proved to be a nightmare. New Mexico was permanently lost, and it was several months before the survivors of the Texas brigade were again fit for use.
Baggage in a Kriegsspiel
How should we represent all this in a scenario? It is not always an issue. At Waterloo, the trains of all three armies had failed to keep up, so the soldiers fought with empty bellies. In normal circumstances however, the players should be given an idea of the amount of baggage, and asked what they propose do with it.
With small forces, it may be possible to put it for safety in some local village – under escort or not as the player decides. One downside of doing so would be the difficulty in getting it away quickly if things go badly. To squeeze even a small train into the confines of a village would probably mean that it had been parked with some care.
Such an approach would certainly not be feasible for an army of any size. In this case the players should sketch on a map where the trains will be parked. Woe betide any of their units which are forced back into these areas!