Saturday 2 March 2024

Crossing of the Kolnica - Spring 1807.

This was a game played using some home-brewed rules called ‘My Napoleonic Rules’, by Dave Hedges. Played in 18mm Napoleonics, based on a fictional encounter in Eastern Europe during the Spring of 1807, during the war of the fourth coalition.

In a fog shrouded valley, a weary French division made its way slowly along the muddy track that passed for a road in those parts. Marshal Lannes found himself somewhere far to the East of where he should have been and on the south side of a river, when he most certainly should have been on the north side.

Thick fog sees all units and dummies positioned on the table using coloured counters.

Peasants in the nearby village of Kabosnik called it the River Kolnica but Lannes could not find either on any map. The capture of a lone Russian scout confirmed a very large enemy force was in the vicinity and that a rapid river crossing was of the utmost importance. Fortunately, there was a team of pontoniers on detachment with the division and they had destroyed a bridge between the two forces, which would slow the onslaught.

The destroyed bridge in front of Kabosnik

Ever a man of action Lannes passed the orders, and the race was on to get over the river as soon as
possible. The division moved at the first hint of daylight and raced for the bridge at Kabosnik and to safety.

French Order of Battle

Russian Order of Battle

First contact! Russian cavalry advance out of the fog and are met by rapidly redeploying French cuirassiers straight off the route of march.

A thick fog covered the low ground by the river and only by staying in close order could the units keep together. The cavalry Brigade led by General Trelliard followed close behind the Marshal, followed by Generals Doursenne leading the 1er and Soules the 2me brigades respectively.

As the cavalry struggle continues on the French right flank, more Russians in the form of infantry and artillery loom out of the thinning fog and the French battalions form up in readiness to guard their crossings.

The poor visibility meant that positions where only approximate and all units were presented by counters until they became visible. Additional counters represented false alarms and individual scouts.

On arrival at the village, Marshal Lannes was met by an officer of pontoniers, who somehow failed to give his name, or rank, but provided both good news and bad. They had indeed blown up a bridge; sadly it was the bridge they had intended to use to cross the river. By a miracle they had managed to set up a (first) pontoon bridge just a little further to the west and there were two more pontoons being rushed along the road to speed the crossing. 

As the French Chasseurs observe the Cossacks in the wood beyond, the heavies go to work with Klingenthals in hand and a grim determination to overcome.

Lannes positions foot artillery on the heights of the south bank to help support his hard pressed troops

With no time to debate the issue, or assign blame, the division marched west, becoming strung out as they forced their way through the village streets. As the crossing started, the first faint sounds of an army on the move drifted down from the hills to the south. The jingle of harness and the creaking of gun limbers heralded the approach of a force that had to be confronted.

French infantry attempts to withdraw as the struggle becomes general along the front.

Scouts headed south towards the sounds of the approaching Russians, and it appeared that the Russians were moving north like Polybius searching for the Argonauts, with blind groping fingers.

The brave French cavalry decided to follow their last set of orders and headed over the westernmost pontoon bridge, following after the Marshal, who had crossed at once with the divisional artillery.

A desperate fight develops in front of the pontoon bridge crossing.

The two infantry brigades prepared for battle. The 1er Brigade occupied the village and began to fortify the church at its centre. The second pontonier regiment rushed from the village centre to the nearby riverbank and began to assemble the bridge, adjacent to the recently destroyed stone bridge. The 2me Brigade headed north to the riverbank east of the village and gathered around the third pontonier regiment who were encouraged to ‘get a bloody move on’ and build yet another bridge.

More French infantry break off and head for the crossing as French cavalry wait their turn to cross

Then it all started to go (even more) wrong. The miracle bridge collapsed whilst the Artillerie a Cheval was crossing, sending the 4-pounders to the bottom of the river. While many of the gunners and their horses survived, the unit was effectively destroyed. The rest of the cavalry brigade was now trapped the wrong side of the river and were going to have to fight to survive. They became the French right flank of battle.

Massed Russian guns add to the problems of the hard pressed French rearguard.

The 21e Régt de chasseurs à cheval were the first to see battle. They scouted south towards the sounds of movement just west of the village and uncovered some cowardly Cossacks lurking in the mist. An immediate charge drove them away and uncovered a whole cavalry brigade advancing towards the trapped French Cavalry.

The rapidly receding early morning mist started to reveal the extent of the opposing force as the heights to the south became blanketed from east to west in a solid line of Russian troops. Their simple faces, uncomprehending of the danger they faced, driven forward by the whips of their officers, they prepared to sell their lives to bring down the eagles of the mighty French army.

On the French right, the treacherous Russian cavalry charged forward as soon as they had sight of the French cavalry. The Russians charged without any preparation and paid the price. The caution of the French Cavalry commander was well served as the chasseurs evaded the clumsy thrust and two regiments of cuirassiers held and threw back the surprised Russians. The Russian cavalry withdrew and played no further part in the battle, deciding that hiding behind their guns was a much better way to face the French cuirassiers. This allowed much of the French cavalry to cross over the river, without interference.

The French rearguard around the left flank pontoon starts to give way after an heroic stand

In the centre the village acted as a fortress against the Russian masses and the first Russian regiment to march on the village was utterly destroyed in a single volley from the 2/28em Régiment de Legere. On the left flank to the East, the Russian forces threw themselves against the tough 2me Brigade defending the third regiment of pontonniers. Serried ranks of infantry and cavalry surged forwards. The 12-pounders of the 2me Brigade wreaked a terrible slaughter against the hordes from the steppes. Cannister ripped through them, bullets slew more and yet, despite terrible losses, the stubborn Russians pushed forwards. 

The fortress of Kabosnik

The French soldiers reloaded and prepared to shoot again. Several Russian regiments were driven back by the guns, and massed volleys, their courage failed in the face of French steadfastness. One lone infantry regiment managed to reach the French gunners and the cries of victory could be heard from the Russian staff officers as they relished the thought of their sharp massed bayonets in amongst the poorly armed gunners. They were unprepared for the fighting spirit of the French gunners. Grabbing ramrods, picks, and shovels, the gunners fought like Corinthians of legend. The Russians, expecting an easy victory against mere gunners, were shocked by the elan of the emperor’s finest troops and fell back in disarray.

The French cavalry, bowed but not beaten are taunted by Cossacks.

In the centre the battle for the village raged, as the Russians threw multiple divisions against the single brigade, holding steady in the ruins of the splintered wooden buildings. Supported by massed cannons the Russians were convinced they were headed for a quick victory.

Despite severe losses in the centre and the East, the Russians simply threw more troops into the attack. Their endless numbers replaced skill or tactics. The French cannons on the left, spoke again and drove off another attempt to rush them, but the injuries dealt the far-left flank regiments of the second brigade was enough to cause some troops to break and run. Fresh Russian brigades advanced on the far left of the French position and started to unleash a terrible volume of fire.

In the centre the Russians charged into the village and were repeatedly driven back by incredible courage. General Doursenne himself led a bayonet charge to drive back some Russians occupying the edges of the village and, as luck would have it, was struck down by a stray cannonball. In the following confusion the 1/64em Regiment de Ligne fell back to save the body of their commander and, with no further orders, withdrew from the battle.

While the battle raged French troops had been withdrawing over the newly erected pontoon bridges. While sometimes in good order, some units were rushing over without waiting for the command, leaving weapons and equipment behind.

Marshal Lannes seeing that defeat was inevitable sounded the general retreat and, though many troops were lost, all the eagles were retrieved. The sad sight of 12 pounders spiked and abandoned was a pitiful sight after so many soldiers died to protect them. As the last of the troops crossed over the river, covered by the divisional artillery, the pontoons were cut free and the remaining forces withdrew with heavy hearts; leaving the Russians to claim a temporary victory, little knowing that their defeat lay ahead of them on the battlefield of Friedland. One of the last to cross the river was an exploring officer who had become lost in the thick forest south of the first pontoon bridge. He had some fanciful story that he was chased by a whole brigade led by Barclay de Tolly himself. If true, that lone officer was responsible for saving all the cavalry. If only there was some other proof. We will never know.

This (possibly biased) report was Translated by Ian Macdonald.

This was a very enjoyable game. David’s games are always unpredictable with surprise events on both sides, and they create a marvellous narrative, as well as being a delight to fight. The French definitely lost the battle, but the story makes it a victory. Thanks to JJ Mike and Nathan for making defeat so entertaining.

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