Monday, 10 August 2015

Montebello 1859 – The Refight As A “Bloody Big Battle“

The first clash of arms between the Allies (Sardinia and France) and the Habsburg Empire during the Italian War of 1859 took place on 20th May near the town of Montebello in Lombardy. An Austrian corps under Count Stadion conducted a reconnaissance in force and clashed with an aggressively led French division under General Forey.

Historically the French captured Montebello and the numerically superior Austrians, led to believe they had encountered the French main force by their adversaries’ aggression, retreated from the field.

As a “Bloody Big Battles” game the Montebello scenario is set for 7 game turns, each representing 30 minutes in a battle that lasted from 14:30 to 18:00. The scenario features some interesting special rules to simulate the historical situation and still provide for a balanced game. Due to the decidedly passive, if not lethargic, behaviour of several Austrian commanders in the vicinity, the Allies could drive away a much larger force. However, this was only possible because the aggressive French advance and determined attack overwhelmed and bluffed the Austrians. At a ratio of 500 men/12 guns per base the scenario places a high quality force of 18 allied bases (including 2 cavalry and 1 artillery) against a numerically superior Austrian force of 25 Bases (including 1 artillery), who are more mixed in terms of quality and morale. But, importantly, the Austrians can receive potential reinforcements of a further 23 bases, which would boost their numbers to become virtually unstoppable. This can however be prevented by the French player, who denies the Austrian player to dice for reinforcements in any turn that he attacks at least one Austrian unit. This puts pressure on the French player to behave historically aggressive.

The French troops are all classed as “aggressive” and the Austrians are all “passive” in rules terms.

The victory conditions are very straightforward, the 4 towns Montebello, Cascina Nuova, Genestrello and Foliarina must be occupied. If the Allied player holds at least 3 of these objectives after Turn 7 he wins, if he holds less than 2, the Austrian player wins. If the Allies hold 2 objectives by the end, the game is a draw.

Scenario Map
The Battlefield

The Austrians are coming

Close-up infantry and artillery approaching Montebello

We used historical deployment as given in the scenario for our game. The Austrians got to deploy first, the French got the first move.

The French player placed a small force of Italian cavalry on the Casteggio Road a short distance behind Montebello and advanced a brigade of French infantry, the 84th Ligne, quickly in road column towards Montebello, deploying in line after crossing the river.

The Austrian division Schaafsgottsche entered the board at the beginning of Turn 1 in column along the Casteggio road and diced for half moves. The Austrian player used this result to advance on the road towards Montebello for half a turn and then deploy the troops into line.  Since there were no French attacks in the first round, the Austrian player could dice for reinforcements and an additional artillery smoothbore battery arrived in the Casteggio road, joining Schaafsgottsche.

Names and victory Points
The second round started with the arrival of the French C-in-C, Gen. Forey, accompanied by a subordinate commander, gen. Beuret, and a second French infantry brigade (74th Ligne) as well as a rifled battery on the Casteggio Road on the French table edge. These troops advanced in march column towards Montebello. Then followed a valiant, or rather reckless, frontal assault by the Italian cavalry on the Austrian lines, which ended in disaster, as the Italians took crippling casualties in close combat, removing them from play.

The Austrians received numerous reinforcements in the shape of division Paumgarten, entering the board also on the Casteggio road, but for dicing only half moves a “traffic jam” prevented Paumgartens second unit (3rd Regt.) from entering the table. The Austrians also could not dice for further reinforcements, due to the sacrificial Italian cavalry charge. The Austrian player deployed his now very numerous force in echelon, taking Montebello (and the first Austrian victory point) and advancing on the French north of the town.

In Turn 3 the final French reinforcements arrived, once again in march columns on the Casteggio road: the subordinate commander Gen. Blanchard with two units of French infantry, the 98th and 91st Ligne. The French player once again resumed the offensive. The 84th Ligne charged Schaafsgottsches lines, pushing back the 39th Regt. and accompanying Jägers. Both sides were disrupted by this. The 74th Ligne crossed the river and deployed in line of battle, while the French battery unlimbered on their bank of the river. The 98th Ligne advanced in column up to the bridge, securing Genestrello and the first allied victory point in the process, while the 91st left the Casteggio road and took Cascina Nuova, collecting another victory point for the allies.

The Austrian player received the unit from Paumgarten’s division that had been stuck off-table on the blocked road. These troops were sent to Foliarina, which they reached still in march column, giving the second victory point to the Austrians. Meanwhile Schaafsgottsche’s reserves, a big unit of raw troops (40th Regt.), were sent in with Schaafsgottsche’s first line to counter-attack the French in depth, succeeding in driving back the French in disruption and securing their original position. Now Paumgarten’s remaining troops were deployed in line as reserves. The artillery unit that had been diced on the table was brought up the hill next to the town of Montebello and took a suitable firing position to support the Austrians below in the valley.

In Turn 4 both sides aimed for a consolidation; the French once again resumed the offensive. The French infantry at Montebello formed in depth and attacked unsuccessfully, only the troops still in column on the bridge received heavy casualties through defensive fire from the Austrian artillery on the hill and were stopped in their tracks. The 91st Ligne left Cascina Nuova and advanced towards the river.

The Austrians brought their reserves forward and had now everything apart from 1 unit aligned in two “wings” and two lines next to Montebello. The troops in Foliarina diced for half a move only and used it to deploy in line of battle.

In Turn 5 the 91st Ligne crossed the river and joined a massed French attack, which pushed back the first line of the Austrian right wing at Montebello.

An Austrian counter-attack took massive casualties and was thrown back almost to their table edge. The break-through move by the victorious French against the second Austrian line was however  pushed back with heavy loss.

Finally the battered Austrian troops thrown back earlier in the battle rallied and marched into Montebello, as everything was now in place for an all-out attack by the French.

Now events quickly became increasingly dramatic. The sixth round started with the French attacking the massed Austrian center. This proved to be almost fateful, as the effective offensive fire in combination with the dispersed and fragile as well as low on ammunition status of some of the units in the massed Austrian left wing entirely routed both lines on the Austrian left and created a huge gap through which the victorious French promptly struck in their breakthrough move, took Montebello and destroyed its garrison as well as the guns next to the town. As things stood right then, the French had won the battle.

The Austrians desperately rallied and re-aligned their remaining troops for a counter-attack. The Austrian right wing attacked and gained some ground, while the troops at Foliarina were sent across the river with a full move in the direction of Cascina Nuova. These troops faced no French opposition, the victory point there could only be defended by potentially unfriendly movement dice on Turn 7.

In the last turn the French player prepared to defend what had been won the previous turn. And according to French philosophy in this game, attack is always the best means of defense. The troops from Montebello charged downhill, where the rallied Austrians were aligned for a last-ditch effort to win back the town and the decisive victory point. This time, however, the French were forced back by heavy defensive fire. Throughout the battle, the Austrian infantry had successfully simulated their historical counterparts by “shooting like pigs” (as a contemporary stereotype went), but now they made up for it. Another French attack on what remained of the Austrian right wing north of the town also failed. The French player knew that he was helpless regarding the victory point at stake in Cascina Nuova.

The Austrian player rolled for movement- and indeed, Paumgarten’s troops reached Cascina Nuova, making sure that the outcome of the game would be at least a draw. Suddenly the situation had turned completely around and victory was possible for the Austrians- if Montebello could be re-taken. Schaafsgottsche’s raw troops, who had just before discovered their marksmanship, attacked, but this time they shot badly. There were no more massive casualties on either side, but they were beaten back. Montebello remained in French hands and the game ended after Turn 7 as a draw.

Our game was actually a lot bloodier than the historical battle, in which a few hundred French and ca. 1,500 Austrian casualties occurred. In our refight each player lost 8 bases (each including 1 artillery), which means both sides lost each around 3,500 troops and a dozen guns.  

I would like to thank my worthy opponent for a friendly, fair and fun game. He played the French with unfaltering optimism in the face of superior numbers and in a fittingly aggressive style. Our conclusions after the game are that in this era, before the use of modern breechloaders, the decision must be sought in close combat, ideally prepared by “softening up” the opponent in one spot with artillery and rifle fire. Lucky and unlucky dice did play their part, but the decisive results always occurred when factors were stacked significantly in one side’s favour (fragile, low on ammunition, disrupted etc.).

Situation at the end of the game



  1. What a beautiful layout, and a great report of what sounds like a really exciting game! Thanks so much for posting!
    Bloody Big BATTLES!

  2. Love the layout and the almost aerial photos, cool presentation.

  3. Hello!
    Thank you very much for the positive Feedback! I am glad you enjoyed the Report and photos. It really was a very exciting game, an evening well spent.