Those were the days… I zoned on this in 2012, but I had an anniversary of sorts. 22 years ago, roughly, I attended what ended up being a formative event in my participating with miniature wargaming. The year was 1992, I was working for Booz, Allen and Hamilton. One of my work colleagues was Patrick Berkebile. Pat was interested in miniatures, just like I was, but we were both kind of still on the outside looking in. Patrick approached me about participating in a project he had heard about– recreating the Battle of Borodino (1812) in grand tactical scale . This was the project of Mr. Tony Figlia and the late Wally Simon. They wanted to create a gigantic gaming experience that would simulate the Battle from the “thousand foot up” vantage point. This was a project most hobby players couldn’t hope to emulate on their own; the amount of figures and terrain required spiraled way out of control. So Simon and Figlia quickly built French and Russian teams, built around the order of battle as we knew it, working from public sources, especially David Chandlers’ Campaigns of Napoleon and Dictionary of the Napoleonic Wars. Patrick, his brother (whose name I have forgotten, alas) and myself signed up and were assigned to the French team. In the order of Battle, we were assigned IV Corps, Commander-in-Chief: Prince Eugene de Beauharnais, Viceroy of Italy (Napoleon’s stepson, who ended up commanding the entire Grande Armee on the retreat to France). I recall that the Corps were divided into Divisions, and I ended up with the supporting cavalry corps (which was divisional sized):
My Unit: Corps Cavalry : Général de division Ornano
12th Light Cavalry Brigade: Général de brigade Guyon – 6 squadrons (~800 men)
– 9th Chasseurs a Cheval: Colonel de Bruneteau de Sainte-Suzanne (3 Squadrons)
– 19th Chasseurs a Cheval: Colonel Vincent (3 Squadrons)
13th Light Cavalry Brigade: Général de brigade Villata – 8 squadrons (949 men) — 2nd Italian Chasseurs a Cheval: Colonel Banko (4 Squadrons)
– 3rd Italian Chasseurs a Cheval: Colonel Rambourgt (4 Squadrons)
Bavarian Cavalry Division: Major Général von Preysing-Moos
21st Light Cavalry Brigade: Major Général von Seydewitz
– 3rd Bavarian Chevau-Légers Kron-prinz: Colonel Elbracht (4 squadrons)
– 6th Bavarian Chevau-Légers Bubenhofen: Colonel von Dietz (4 squadrons)
22nd Light Cavalry Brigade: Major Général von Preysing-Moos
– 4th Bavarian Chevau-Légers: Colonel Seyssel (4 squadrons)
– 5th Bavarian Chevau-Légers: Colonel Gaddum (4 squadrons)
I’m not sure what my “Cavalry Corps” represented in terms of actual men per figure, but I do recall that I purchased one large bag of 15mm Old Glory Chaseurs A Cheval to represent all of them– all the Italians and all the Bavarians. AND I had lots of figures left over! This is what they looked like:
I gave away those figures years ago since I have never really collected 15mm Nappys. Even for such an early effort, and my dubious painting skills, they really didn’t look too bad. Of course 15mm usually does from 3 feet away. I took my time and tried to paint scientifically but fell behind, so the night before, my girlfriend (and later bride) jumped in to mass paint horses for me, grumbling good-naturedly.
Day of Battle
The Battle of Borodino 1992 game took place in a giant field house located on Fort Meade, Maryland. The initial battlefield looked like this:
There were tons of gamers present– almost 100% men in those days. I didn’t know it, then, but I was encountering a lot of people I would come to know in the years to come as my participation in the Historical Miniatures Gaming Society (East) grew. My troops came on the blue table and my general position for the next two days of the game was generally in the area of the red spot in the picture above.
Randy Meyers and Wally Simon played Napoleon and Kutuzov (respectively) and assumed positions on elevated chairs some distance away from the setup tables. During the course of the battle, their only communication to the 0battlefield was by written order via paper, carried to the corps commander the supreme commander wished to influence. I remember that Randy was using binoculars to determine what was happening on the field (as his historical counterpart would have used a spyglass).
We were using a set of rules called EMPIRE 2 by Scott Bowden. The only Napoleonic miniatures game I was familiar with (then) was Napoleon’s Battles by Avalon Hill, and Empire was very, very different.
I certainly wasn’t a seasoned veteran or anything, but I got the sense (then and now) that Empire 2 was a compromise candidate for a rule system. It was dense, chart heavy and there were some rules that made little or no sense to me. There were also rules, as we will see, that contributed to a memorable event in wargaming for me.
I roleplayed the Corsican General Phillipe Ornano to some extent, and was essentially attached to Eugene de Beauharnais’ IV Corps on paper and at the outset of the battle. That meant I was theoretically under Patrick Berkebile’s orders, but he was involved in heavy infantry fighting the first and second days so there really was nothing for the cavalry corps to do. IV corps was left of the Fleches (the center of the battlefield in our setup)– very hilly terrain and not ideal for cavalry fighting. I was new to all this, but I didnt’ need an expert to tell me that. So by mutual agreement, I detached from IV Corps and was stationed to the right of Davout’s I Corps slightly to the right of the Great Redoubt. The player running Davout’s role was also very distracted by the largely infantry and artillery fight around the Redoubt on the first day, but he did take the time to assign me to something to do– and it turned out to be pretty valuable, as things fell out. To the right (South) of the Redoubt from the French perspective was a largely flat area with few terrain breaks, just some marsh in areas. As I and IV corps were concentrating on the attack, they didn’t have sufficient frontage to extend far down before connecting to the Corps on our right, which was Poniatowski’s V corps if memory serves. Into that flat, somewhat marshy gap he placed me. That is, Ornano’s Cavalry “Corps”, which really was a smallish Division. I had another unit of “Lithuanian Cossacks” attached to me as skirmishers and scouts. Not much of anything happened during the early half of the first day from my perspective. My Lithuanians skirmished with some proper Russian Cossacks from the Hetman Platov, run by none other than Pete Panzeri, future HMGS President. The Russians had the better of my Lithuanians, to my chagrin, and they were pretty badly cut up– at least I think so, I had to have an Empire 2 translator (referee) talk me through the complicated charge/countercharge process using their rules.
Later in the day, I noticed that the good Hetman was emboldened by his earlier skirmishes and was massing a very large cavalry attack; first a line of Cossacks, then a line of Hussars, then another line of Lancers of some kind. The big advantage to being outnumbered in this situation is that it gives you plenty of time to get ready while the other guy is getting his big, dramatic charge ready. So I put my tiny division in a line to receive and poked Davout in the shoulder, nodding towards the disturbing development with cavalry. He was concerned, but also had most of his assets committed to the ongoing battle around the Redoubt. His comment was the kind of supervision junior commanders the world over revel in: “Yikes! Improvise and do the best you can to hold those guys off– if they get in on my right flank, I’m in deep trouble here!”
The Russian cavalry flanking move began late in the first day, and as the three lines moved forward, I noticed something. They were on the edge of a marsh that edged firm ground from the rise where my small line was located. If I acted promptly, I could have the advantage on them. So once again with the assitance of a very patient referee, General Ornano sounded the charge and the Cavalry Corps tore across the field to hit first edge of Cossacks as they were just coming out of the swamp. And here is where the confusion of Empire 2 parted, and I could see, for an instant, how brilliant those rules were. I charged HOME on the first line and due to a fortuitious roll, totally ROUTED them. But this was only light cavalry. The fun really started when they retreated away from me at high speed. They collided with and dashed through the line of Hussars behind them. Due to some obscure rule about broken units passing through formations, the line BEHIND them broke, and ran for the rear. Now the last line did not break, but seeing the bulk of the attack heading for the horizon, Platov turned his Lancers around and adopted a covering position, and thus the threat of the first day was over. Davout, looking on from my left, was astonished. “You’ll remember that“, he said. “That was a once in a lifetime thing that just happened“… and he was right.
Randy Meyers and the Napoleonic Command team (if memory serves, Neil Brennan was Berthier) implemented a nice touch for French commanders. If they did something pretty spectacular, they would dispatch a staff runner with a piece of paper, which represented the award of the “Legion D’Honor” on the battlefield. In some cases (Bob Giglio, for one, playing Latour-Marbourg) battlefiled promotions ensued. It was only a little piece of playacting, but I remember feeling kind of proud of myself for getting a “Legion D’Honor” award for my defense of Davout’s right flank at Borodino, and having these crusty wargaming veterans clap for the newbie.
I had taken some losses, which has an impact on your formation. There may or may not have been some house rule about reorganzing units with losses in effect, but in any event I didn’t do much else for the rest of the day, just moved my guys back to a covering spot and reorganized.
The second day dawned with us present and ready to fight but the Russians were in even less shape to go on the offensive than they had been on the first day. I patroled my area of the field, but Platov had moved off during the night and was now plaguing another sector of the field. The Austrian Duke Schwarzenburg’s corps was to our right, to the right of Poniatowski. On the second day, the Austrians got stuck into it with the Russians as the Russians attempted to flank to the left of the line. The entire Austrian corps refused the right and didn’t allow it. This created a comical situation where the Austrians were running out of room to maneuver as the Russian attack bent around them. To compensate, they kept relocating tables to extend the action to the Southwest, creating a kind of sharp bend in our lines.
About midday the Corps Commanders in the Center had been fighting a largely infantry action for almost two days and the casualties were piling up. Napoleon decided to go for plan B. Murat moved his cavalry corps in besides Davout, to my left. Looking for something to do, I asked the player running Murat if I could tag along. He didn’t mind. So the gigantic charge around the back of the Fleches and Redbouts began. It achieved great results, getting in behind the line in the center and causing a regular smash up. My guys just went along for the show and because I was getting bored just watching everyone else.
The impact on the larger battlefield appeared to be to draw the entire event to a close. That suited me fine; I had been playing for a day, almost two, and for much of that time I did nothing but watch over a field.
David Chandler himself was present, dressed as a French Marshall. He was much impressed with the effort and consulted on the victory conditions at the end of the second day. It was agreed, by gentleman’s agreement, that the French had indeed won this thing, mostly through NOT emulating the historical French disposition and tactics. Three cheers were heard for both sides, then the French side launched into Le Marseilles. The Russians counted with “Winter is coming! Winter is coming! Winter is coming!!!!“
And so we headed home. That was my first really big wargame event. I had been to Historicon before this, and had played miniatures games before, but nothing on this scale before that, and only very rarely since.
This epic miniatures battle has become something of a legend for many who were there or wish they were. Yet, it took place at the dawn of the Internet age. There are surprisingly few references to the 1992 Borodino game anywhere on the Internet except a small snippet in the Baltimore Sun HERE. I recall the old extinct Courier wargaming magazine published a small piece on the game with one blurry halftone photograph. I remember taking pictures.. lots of guys took pictures. But this was in the days just before the advent of cheap digital photography, and if I have the film pictures of this event in a shoebox somewhere, I lost track of them years ago. I have only found a few blurry scanned pictures on a website called Small Wars, which recounts the 1992, 2002 and 2012 Borodino games– the organizers of the 1992 game have continued the tradition every ten years since then.
As a player, this game did have a big impact on me.. as a player and a designer. I knew I liked historical wargaming and still do. I also knew I didn’t have any love for those Empire 2 rules, or really games at this level. I admired the huge aspect of the game simply from the logistical end of things, but had no wish to emulate a game at that scale again. Without a doubt, I had a great time and that countercharge against Mr. Panzeri’s Cossacks is one of those golden moments that keep you in wargaming forever. My largest miniatures game became the game that really got me involved in the hobby, at the end of the day.