Infantry unit in square formation attacking an artillery battery

This is an article about an issue raised on the forum about an infantry unit in square formation attacking a lone enemy battery.

We have been searching through previous editions and we found that this issue is not explicitly covered by the rules. We have also searched through our correspondence with Bob Coggins and it was not covered by him either. Anyway we think this issue can be solved in quite a straightforward way.

First of all, we would like to state that Bob Coggins remarked many times that the rules should punish bad decisions (or historically uncommon or unusual decisions) and not give them much chance to prevail. The reason is that the rules should prevent good players from doing so if it was not the way it was done in the era. We are not talking about the advancing “Egyptian squares” where there was virtually no enemy artillery or infantry volleys menacing them, nor the huge square at Wagram, far from the size scale of a brigade in Napoleon's Battles. We are considering an advancing infantry unit (between 2 or 4 battalions) in square formation (maybe not all of them but enough to be considered as the main formation) against an artillery battery (and remember that artillery was the most feared danger while in square formation), of which very few historical examples can be found (if any). Although some records could be found about hollow squares of the size of a battalion advancing towards combat (as an example some sources claim that, fearing a new cavalry charge, the guard battalions made their attack against the British line in battalion squares at Waterloo) it was not the way hollow squares were used on the battlefield (and when used this way, even the French Guard attack did not succeed). Generally they slightly manoeuvred to adjust their position or retreat: many examples can be found of this, Neverovski’s retreat towards Smolensk being the most notable (and in this case it is worth remembering that Murat was criticized for not firing at them with artillery before attacking).

On the other hand, the battalions could have formed individual solid squares instead of hollow squares, (there were some variants, all of them indistinguishable at this scale). They were seldom used in an offensive role (only in dire straits) and many times as multi-battalion formations even greater than the brigade scale in Napoleon's Battles (as an example, the French 20th Infantry Division under General Compans at Lutzen 1813). But these formations were an even better target than hollow squares and there are many examples (mainly in early 1813) of these formations being cut to pieces by artillery fire. So, again, it was not the way these formations were commonly used and, when used, they generally failed.

Hence, one point for the "VS OT" option in this case.

Also, one similar issue that we discussed quite thoroughly with Bob Coggins was the case of a brigade not completely in a BUA that failed to form emergency square. We asked him in the case where part of a unit was outside of a BUA, and hence unprotected, but the other part (some battalions) were within the BUA and, whether the unit could use some kind of positive bonus in this case. He answered categorically "No". In essence, he said that the whole unit should share the fate of the most damaged part of the unit. If some battalions of the brigade were destroyed outside the BUA the other battalions would become shaken and overrun with routed colleagues, and also run away, if not mauled themselves. So, the whole brigade should be out of combat for a while. In other words, the worst case scenario should be chosen when dealing this kind of situation. Applying this idea to the situation under discussion, we think that some battalions in square formation slowly advancing towards an artillery battery would receive a rain of canister against them, probably making them lose momentum or even rout, and although numbers are heavily against the battery, one or two wavering battalion squares would be enough to stop the whole brigade (remember the worst case scenario). Hence, this is a second point in favour of the "VS OT" option, because it would extremely difficult to advance slowly against a battery without losing élan. Quickness in order to avoid heavy fire (or fire at all) was the key point in these attacks against artillery.

Finally, keep in mind that the bonus system is the way (a masterly way in our opinion) in which this game simplifies the complicated probability curves developed to simulate combats or firing (you can find here an example). Basically, Napoleon's Battles uses a bonus system to decide the chances of a unit winning (or drawing) a combat, thus modelling a carefully calculated curve. In this case we think it would be a complicated affair to advance slowly towards a battery (definitively harder than advancing in a column formation, which would be faster), so a bad bonus must be used. In the case of a frontal attack the battery would fire two times in Napoleon's Battles terms (one on the firing phase while they are approaching and then during the combat phase, when it is assumed that the battery would make a point blank discharge and maybe a last stand of the artillerymen). The fire phase would be missing if the battery has been hit at the flank; this game requires the dice to decide if the battery was able to turn and fire some good discharges against the slowly advancing square, and the way the game models that the infantry is giving a lot of time to the battery to fire because of its slow advance is to give this battery more chances to win the combat; the infantry unit has some advantages (it has avoided the firing phase due to its flank attack) but their chances to win should still be lower than the same infantry unit in a faster column formation. Anyway as the bonus of the artillery typically would be -3 and the bonus of the infantry would be near 0 (assuming a numerical advantage), the infantry would still have almost a 75% chance to prevail. In case the “COL” bonus were used the probability would rise nearly to 95%. As it can be seen the difference is a 20% which is not a great difference anyway.

Also, it is stated in the rules (page 23) that:

VS OT (= Versus Other): This is the combat modifier normally used in “other” situations. This column also includes note “a,” which, in the “Notes” section, summarizes when this modifier is used.

It can be guessed that this was the aim of the original authors.

As a side note, the example of an artillery unit harassed by skirmishers (we suppose that has been discussed in reference to the historical account of one battery at Ligny 1815) raised on the forum would not be covered by the combat phase in Napoleon's Battles, it would be covered by the firing phase, in which the attacking infantry unit would have some chances to inflict damage to the artillery battery. The firing phase is where this skirmish fire/combat would be simulated.

Hence, taking into account all of these reasons, we recommend that, in the case of an infantry unit in square formation attacking a battery the "VS OT" modifier should be used. The square has probably some extra bonus for outnumbering the battery, but the artilleryman should have a fair chance to prevail in such combats and we feel it should be greater than their chances when attacked by infantry in column formation. Using the “COL” bonus does not introduce such a big difference, both results would be similar and accurate enough. Remember Bob Coggins motto, “this must be enjoyable”.