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Heavily Engaged: Waterloo

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Turn to page 20 of Flight Simulator X’s pathetic excuse for a printed manual and you’ll see a credits list of around 160 names. To my knowledge only one of those names belongs to a wargame design visionary. Quite what Peter Turcan contributed to the final FS isn’t made clear (‘User Experience’ covers a lot of territory). To understand what he contributed to computer wargaming, you need look no further than 21-year-old watershed Waterloo.

Waterloo and its cousins Borodino and Austerlitz didn’t just upset the wargame design apple-cart, they dismantled it, used the pieces to build a cider-press, then got royally rat-arsed on home-made scrumpy. For those of us raised on the boardgame-inspired output of studios like SSI, Waterloo’s manual preface read like the large print in a Faustian pact.

There was more.

Had Peter Turcan really fashioned a plausible command simulation rather than another counter-shuffling throwback? As the following AAR will, hopefully, testify, the answer was a resounding ‘Aye!’.

Before we get started, a few words of warning. Primitive 3D graphics, an absence of on-screen landmark labels, and a camera linked to commander position, risk making the following battle ballad bally hard to follow. In the interests of clarity, I’ll be exploiting a free-view cheat, taking all my screenshots looking North (the direction of my attack) and daubing some images with labels and shading (darker areas indicate French troop positions). I’ll also try to keep in mind that few of you are likely to have a copy of the game’s splendid blood-resistant planning map to hand.

18th June, 1815, Napoleon’s HQ, Rosomme, Belgium.

11.30. It’s a delicate situation for sure. I must hold this position for the duration of the battle, yet can see no way of doing so without sacrificing much blood. But enough about my haemorrhoids. You came to watch a diminutive Corsican win the battle of Waterloo, not listen to him grumble about his agonizing arse-grapes. To the map table mon ami!

As you can see, the redcoats occupy the high ground to the North. Three of their corps are  strung out like a whore’s laundry between Braine Laleud in the west and La Haie in the East, while the fourth – Uxbridge’s cavalry – sits behind them at Mont St.Jean. Wellington’s line looks to be weakest in the NE but I’ll not attack there as the Prussians are approaching from that quarter (my scouts report Blucher’s men will arrive in 5-7 hours).

No, I plan to use Reille and D’Erlon’s corps supported by Kellerman and Milhaud’s cavalry, to smash the enemy centre, while Lobau’s corps drives towards Braine Laleud in the west. My faithful Imperial Guards (Drouot’s corps) will be held in reserve on the right.

Pass me that keyboard, if you’d be so kind.

Reille form an attack line from the west flank to La-Belle linking with D-Erlon.
D-Erlon form an attack line from La-Belle linking with Reille, to the east flank.
Kellerman give support to Reille.
Milhaud give support to D-Erlon
Lobau move to Pospol.
Drouot move to Hubermont.

You look surprised. In a Napoleonic game surely it’s natural for orders to be hand-written? These commands that I tap out will be couriered to my corps commanders who will then pass on instructions to their subordinates in the same manner. The process is slow (several 15-minute turns are likely to pass before words become actions) and not without risk (couriers can be killed) but I would not change it. Scribed orders are rarely rash orders.

12.00. At last, my men are on the move. Not that Waterloo actually depicts that motion. Bar a few spidery cannon-fire animations, the battlefield is entirely static. When a turn ends, the sums are done and the scene is redrawn with troops in new positions. It’s like flicking through a flick-book version of the battle incredibly slowly.

12.15. I have mail. A stick horseman has just galloped up to my HQ (an HQ I’m in the process of moving North to La Belle Alliance) with a note from Reille requesting artillery support. Between 2nd Corps and the escarpment is the British-garrisoned farm of Hougoumont. Reille intends to assault this stout structure and needs or, rather, thinks he needs, extra guns to do it. I screw up the request and let it fall into the mud. If all goes to plan, Kellerman (ordered to support Reille) should offer his horse battery if things get sticky. I’m determined not to step into the micro-management mire unless I absolutely have to. Turcan put a lot of thought and work into his multi-tiered AI – it would be a terrible shame not to use it. 

  

12.30. Those little blue-and-black and blue-and-red liquorice allsorts next to Hougoumont’s eastern wall? Regiments of Foy’s division (under Reille) attempting to batter their way into the farm.

12.45. A note from D’Erlon. He’s also on the scrounge for extra cannons. After training my telescope on La Haie Saint and spotting a French regiment (one of his) already retreating in disarray, I’m forced to admit the man may have been a point. My digits drum out an order: “Drouot give support to D-Erlon”.  I’d add “And make it snappy”, if that didn’t irk Waterloo’s sophisticated yet humourless parser.

1.00. It’s no good, I couldn’t help myself. I’ve just dipped my toes in that micromanagement mire. I’ve told D’Erlon to order Marcognet (one of his divisional commanders) to occupy The Sandpit, an abandoned British position on the escarpment near La Haie Saint. For all I know, he may have already issued an identical order. I’m fussing. This is how confusion starts.

1.15. The British grip on Hougoumont is loosening. Foy’s men have breached the gates and driven the defenders back into the northern cluster of buildings. Wellington responds with hoof and sabre; two regiments of Uxbridge’s cavalry have come clattering down from the escarpment to assist  in the defence.

Allied horsemen are also counter-attacking at La Haie Saint. The red-and-black cubes scattered about the village now outnumber the red-and-blue ones of D’Erlon’s vanguard. Is our assault faltering? In another game I’d have the answer in an instant. In this one I must glean what I can from the scene or send out a battle report request and wait for news to trickle in.

1.30. Evidently, D’Erlon needed no prompting. A messenger has just arrived at my HQ bringing grave news of the fighting at La Haie Saint. One of the divisions leading the assault is withdrawing in the teeth of fierce British resistance. Once again the marshal urges me to assign extra artillery to his section of the front. The support order I sent to Drouot at 12.45 can’t have borne fruit yet. Patience D’Erlon, patience. You will get your guns.

West of La Haie Saint, in Reille’s sector, the vista is more promising. Hougomount has fallen to Foy. Further west, Pire’s cavalry (another unit under Reille) has charged neat British lines near Pospol, and Lobau’s corps is finally in position to attack Wellington’s right. Time for another batch of directions:

Lobau change your strategy to Attack.
Kellerman move to ½ mile south of Hougoumont.

1.45. Mon Dieu! I’m blind! My HQ is disorganized, possibly as a result of getting caught up in the torrent of troops streaming southward from the failed LHS assault. Until my staff can extricate itself from the rout and re-establish a functioning command centre, the French battle orchestra plays without a conductor.

2.15. This impotence is maddening. The fate of France hangs in the balance and I might as well be pacing the cliffs of Elba for all the good I’m doing.

2.45. At last. Back in business. Several weary, confused riders bring communications to my new HQ near La Caillou. It seems D’Erlon’s attack on La Haie Saint is now in serious trouble. Not only has a second division thrown in the towel but the corps commander himself is now several miles from his men having been caught up in the same pell-mell retreat that carried us south. Kellerman sends a note saying he’s transferred a division to Reille. Good. With Hougoumont the focus of a major British counter-thrust, 2nd Corps will need all the help they can get.

3.00. Another turn, another sheaf of hot-from-the-saddlebag missives screaming for my attention. Two are from Lobau. He wants additional cavalry and artillery (Join the queue, mate.). And – give me strength – he’s changing his strategy to defence after his reserves came under threat. Attack, man!  ATTACK. With so many enemy troops tied-up in the centre now is the time to hit the British in the west.

The other messages confirm what I can see with my own eyes. Kellerman and Milhaud have transferred the majority of their small corps to Reille and D’Erlon. La Belle Alliance, the site of my old HQ, is now under threat from British forces moving south from the escarpment.

3.15. While Lobau dithers in the west, Reille, still heavily engaged around Hougoumont, somehow finds the manpower to mount his own modest western sally. Near Pospol a huddle of blue-sided blocks (infantry from Jeanin’s division)  harass a hollow pink-sided block (British troops in square formation).

3.45. Several support requests arrive from La Belle Alliance. All feature the word “desperately” rather prominently. The asset-stripped Milhaud and Kellerman, are organising the defence, which might explain the thinly-veiled panic.

4.00. Waterloo’s order system is smarter than a sack of owls, but it lacks a few potentially useful instructions.  After receiving yet another begging letter from the reluctant Lobau, I’d dearly love to be able to fire back a reply along the lines of “If you need extra artillery, I suggest you capture some” or “It’s not cannons you lack, it’s balls”.

4.15. On the eastern edge of the battlefield close to Hubernot and my patient reserve corps (Drouot) a gaggle of grey blocks has appeared. It’s the first wave of Prussians. My haemorrhoids-enhanced Corsican scowl acquires a new intensity.

4.45. At-flipping-last! Over on my left, Lobau’s line is finally marching northward towards Braine Laleud and De Cambrey.  With the new Prussian presence in the east, and bloody semi-stalemate in the centre, this is the only sector where I entertain any hope of gaining ground.

5.15.  I’ve tried to keep this account relatively free of the names of divisional commanders (the numerous chaps under corps COs like Reille, D’Erlon and Lobau) but with Alphonse I feel I must make an exception. Since Milhaud transferred this man and his gallopers over to D’Erlon, they’ve been making regular charges up the escarpment towards La Haie Saint. Though it’s hard to assess the tactical impact of these death-or-glory rides without requesting a report, the sight of them has been a real tonic. Sad then that this turn their shrinking blocks finally fragmented and fled south. If we lose today, then the cuirassieurs of the XIIIth Cavalry will bear no blame.


5.45. The nervous waiting is over for Drouot’s imperial guards. As the foot-sore Prussian vanguard edges south, Blucher’s men run into a wall of steel, lead, and patriotism. Hubernot, with the river transecting its northern approaches, is as defensible in its own way as La Haie Saint.

6.00. It’s taken some prodding but Lobau finally seems to have stopped whining and started winning. Joined on his right by elements of Reille’s cavalry, my VIth Corps is now battling its way into De Cambrey. This one-horse hamlet is a mere mile-and-a-half, as the French eagle flies, from Welly’s HQ at Mont St.Jean.

6.30.  If I wasn’t playing with an untethered camera, the message that has just arrived at my HQ  would be the first I knew of our capture of De Cambrey. I’d also be blissfully ignorant of the size of the Prussian juggernaut now moving south-west towards Plancenoit. As it is, I’ve seen enough to order D’Erlon to abandon his increasingly futile attacks on La Haie Saint and form a defence line just south of the settlement.

7.00. A mystifying missive from Monsieur Lobau: “I am unable to maintain a defensive line and have ordered a retreat.”. I can only assume this was sent some time ago in a moment of panic. Lobau is still pushing on the British right. His troops are now further north than any other French forces.

Almost any other French forces. Showing spirit worthy of Alphonse’s brigades, a division of Reille’s cavalry under a commander called Pire has sabre-slashed its way to Le Mesnil, a settlement right on the northern edge of the battlefield. Incredibly, Reille, the corps commander, seems to have accompanied them on this reckless endeavour. I’d order a daring right-turn towards Wellington’s HQ if this was any other wargame. Because it’s Waterloo, where such a message would take ages to cross the map and probably get intercepted en-route, I opt to let my gallant band conclude their chevauchee however they see fit.

7.30. My right flank seems to be holding despite the landslide of grey blocks colliding with it. 

8.00. With darkness and the final turn fast approaching, I’m sorely tempted to type “points” into the parser and see how I’m doing. One of Waterloo’s most unnerving yet resonant qualities is the opacity of its outcomes. I can (and have) requested battle assessments from all my corps – tallies of men lost and enemies slain – but even with these butcher’s bills in my hands, it’s difficult to gauge performance. Just as in real Napoleonic engagements there are no convenient battle balance meters or victory flags to indicate victory or defeat. How do I think I’m doing? If I had to put money on it, I’d say I was limping towards the first Heavily Engaged draw.

8.30. Blunted in the SE by the sterling defensive efforts of D’Erlon and Drouot, the Allied attack seems to have run out of steam in much the same way as mine has in the NW (counter-attacked from Braine Laleud, Lobau’s appetite for advance seems to have left him as quickly as it arrived). Like two exhausted pugilists we grimace at each other across the ring.

Or maybe I’m misreading my opponent. Is the Iron Duke sitting back because he senses he’s sneaked a close victory?

8.45. With the Prussians recoiling from Plancenoit, I decide to issue one last attack order:

Hardly the most inspired of battlefield directions, but as D’Erlon and the objective are close, it does at least have some small chance of being executed before we all slink away to snatch some fretful sleep in hovels, barns, and hedgerows.

9.30.  Fin.

Without fanfare, the guns fall silent. The liquorice allsorts cease their scuffling.  I click through terse casualty statements:

Napoleon, your divisions claim 19200 enemy casualties, 12700 prisoners, and 8 artillery pieces destroyed.

Wellington, your divisions claim 17700 casualties, 2900 prisoners, and 8 artillery pieces destroyed.

until I reach…

Napoleon has totalled 553 points. Wellington has totalled 382 points. Blucher has totalled 9 points.

This is a decisive victory for Napoleon. Well done Sir. All France will be proud of you.

Incroyable. We did it! I think a final order is in order.

D-Erlon, Reille, Lobau, Milhaud, Kellerman, Turcan, change your strategy to Champagne Quaff.

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