BATTLE FOR SKALITZ 1866 – A TABLETOP AAR

By Bill Gray 14 Dec 2016 0

I like hosting tabletop games at conventions, and one reason I do is because I rarely get to play them otherwise. Life gets in the way, unfortunately, and being a purebred Thomas Jefferson authenticated Renaissance Man (you know I can hear you snickering, right?) doesn’t help. That’s why I’m glad for products like GMTs Gringo boardgame, Matrix’s Pike and Shot and the upcoming but intriguing Ultimate General – Civil War PC games. They let me get my miniatures fix on without having to have an audience present, or deploying a single figure.

When I do host games at a convention, it’s usually a play-test for my latest rules or expansion module, and that relegates me to game mastering plus taking notes. It’s still an awful lot of fun, but a fascinating learning experience besides. This was particularly true of the last couple or so I’ve done concerning the battle for Skalitz out of the 1866 Austro-Prussian War, also known as the Seven Weeks War. Sounds like a good article besides, so this week’s tome is an AAR of that battle recreated for the tabletop, and dedicated to all rules authors in the hobby by reminding or educating all the would be von Moltke’s out there a little more about what it takes to get them gaming.

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First, some background on this nasty little spat. On 28 June 1866 Austrian FML (Feldmarshalleutnant) Archduke Leopold* and his VIII Corps relieved the Austrian VI Corps in place near the little town of Skalitz on the far side of the Aupa River. His boss FZM (Feldzugmeister) Ludwig von Benedek did not judge the approaching Prussians to be more than a nuisance, so ordered him to withdraw at 11:00 am. Leopold complied but sent a battalion of infantry into the Eichwald (Dubno Woods) in front of his position to clear the forest and act as a rear guard. This is what started the battle and given Leopold did not issue another order for two hours, his brigade commanders got to fight the battle themselves, completely oblivious that they were supposed to withdraw and not defend.

On the other side of the hill marched Prussian General Karl Friedrich von Steimetz with his reinforced V Corps, echeloned to his right so that he could link up with the neighboring Prussian Guard Corps to his right. With the Guard dealing with the Austrians to his north, and his own cavalry confirming no enemy to the south, at 8:30 am Steinmetz ordered his forces to deploy, reconnoiter and then take Skalitz, the 9th Division attacking the Austrian left, the 10th the center and his reserve (the 22d Brigade of VI Corps) acting on its own initiative.

The first contact was made in the Eichwald where the Prussians steamrolled the Austrians present. At that point Austrian Colonel von Fragnern launched his brigade to stem the advance and recover the survivors, only to be shot to pieces by the Needle Gun toting Prussians. At this point Major General von Kreyssern lowered bayonets and charged his brigade forward to extricate Fragnern only to meet the same fate. In fact, both commanders were shot dead and soon both their brigades broke and high tailed it thru Skalitz, covered by Brigadier Schulz’s brigade (formerly Roth; Austrian corps had four brigades, no divisions) and every piece of artillery that could be mustered.

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Finally, at 1300 hours Leopold finally ordered a retreat, and though heavy fighting continued, by 1600 hours Skalitz was firmly in Prussian hands. The Pickelhaubers were too spent to pursue, but all in all it was a fine day’s work. The Prussians lost 1400 men, the Austrians 2830, plus an additional 2750 captured. Outside the initial skirmish near Trautenau at the beginning of the war, this same process would be repeated over and over again throughout the entire campaign.

Like most designers I know, in particular Bruce Weigle who is also a fan of this period, our games are usually built to test between three and five processes to see if they work. In other words, are they simple, understandable and do they replicate history between certain, normal parameters. For Skalitz the issues I wanted to study were:

Stosstaktik (Shock Tactics) – The Austrians suffered at the hands of the French in 1859, despite having the fine Lorenz muzzle loading rifle. Alas, their troops were inadequately trained on the device, some not receiving the weapon until they were way down the road marching into battle. The rifle required careful elevation to achieve maximum range, and the French figured out a quick charge would allow their infantry to move under the arc of fire before the Austrians could readjust their sites. Give the “Furia Francaise” reputation the French already enjoyed, the Austrians came to believe the bayonet was the ultimate weapon and thus their 1866 doctrine mandated charging everything when they got the chance. In the game this means that if an Austrian unit is within 4 inches (480 yards) of an eligible target at the beginning of its turn, it must either withdraw or charge the enemy unit regardless of circumstances.

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Schnellfeur (Quick Fire) – The Prussians thought the opposite given their Zundnadelgewehr (Needle Gun) breech loading rifles. Though technically capable of the same range as the Lorenz, their infantry were taught to engage at 300 yards or less, but to fire as quickly as possible. The result was the ability to put four times more bullets down range than the Austrians, who were likely charging in with bayonets anyway. In the game this is reflected in a Fire Point allocation many times that of the Austrians, thus increasing the chances of the dreaded Suppressed fire combat result. Here the target not only suffers heavily, but is pinned and can’t move.

Artillery - Here the Prussians had yet another advantage, except they didn’t. Both sides used rifled artillery, but Austrian guns were muzzle and ramrod loaded, while the Prussians used the fancy new Krupp breech loaders. Yet the Austrians continually outshot the Prussians everywhere, every time. Why? By doctrine the Prussians were mortified at losing a single gun (while one Austrian battery was nicknamed the “Battery of the Dead,” if you get the picture) and displaced at the slightest sight of danger. Further, this same doctrine had ammunition resupply well to the rear, requiring the guns to leave the firing line and come back to get replenished. In the game this is represented by having a Prussian battery go into “Out of Ammo” status on a specific die roll, mandating it fire at half Fire Points for the rest of the game. Similarly, Austrian units firing at Prussian artillery receive a positive die roll modifier, increasing the chances of a Silenced result which forces the battery to limber and withdraw at least one half move.

With that said, what follows is a compilation of three games fought on this battle as all turned out very similar, but the first engagement in particular.

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The game was set up based on the historical deployment though a few extra units were tossed in for extra players. These units were actually un-engaged and nearby, and the Austrians needed a lift besides. The Austrians got a brigade from VI Corps, which was actually requested by Leopold, but refused, while the Prussians got an extra brigade of Guard cavalry. It mattered not for the latter as the two sides’ troopers fought inconclusively on the flanks all three contests, though the Austrians got the worst of it.

Otherwise Prussian operations seemed to mirror historical movements in all the games played, likely due to the historical deployment used pushing them in that operational direction. Thus the Prussian infantry, duly NOT supported by the artillery (more on that later), stormed straight ahead on the first turn against the Austrian center near the Eichwald and the Austrian left. When they got to within four inches of the enemy, the advancing Austrian infantry had to either withdraw or lower bayonets and charge into 60+ Zundnadelgewehr Fire Points. However, Leopold, like all his family never the brightest button on the tunic, had deployed his troops with their backs to the river so they could only retrograde so far. Eventually the Prussians caught them and the Austrians charged, and they got shot to splinters. The deadly Suppressed result occurred four times in the first game, five in the second but only two in the third. It was a deliberate tactic and it worked. Thus, in two games the first Prussian infantry entered the town of Skalitz during the 3:30 pm game turn and controlled at least half the town a turn later. This was precisely when the same event occurred historically. The third game was a little different and it took the Prussians substantially longer. Here the culprit was some bad command and control die rolls by player Steinmetz at game’s start which forced some units to sit and do nothing, and allowed others to move no more than half their allotment. In fact, many players present thought the Austrians had fought well enough to claim victory.

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In all three games the total Prussian loss was between five and seven infantry stands lost. As a stand loss it defined as 75% killed, captured and wounded and 25% lost effectiveness, this means the Prussians lost between 1350 and 1890 men. The historical loss was 1400. Austrian losses were between 19 and 23 stands, or between 5130 and 6210. Historical loss was 5580.

To me the most fascinating part of all three games was the duel between the Austrian artillery and their Prussian counterparts. The Austrians used their guns as the primary counter-force against the Prussians. Getting pounded by Austrian artillery was one of the reasons why Steinmetz’s infantry tried to close so quickly with the bayonet happy Kaiserlicks. Prussian artillery was far less effective. First, its deployment in the rear made it difficult for them to move between units to displace forward for support. Second, even when the unlimbered guns got a hot die roll of 10, it also threw that battery into an Out of Ammo state for the rest of the game along with the half Fire Point penalty that came with it. Third, when Prussian guns were properly deployed, they immediately came under fire from Austrian guns. The bombardment didn’t destroy or damage a lot of batteries, but the extra die roll modifier for shooting at Prussian guns really caused a substantial increase in Silenced results which, of course, mandates the battery limber and retreat at least one half a move.

Now here is the interesting part. The Austrian guns were so effective it actually convinced the Prussian players in two of the three games to VOLUNTARILY remove their guns from the front before they got bracketed for fire. In many respects the rules had actually modified the mindset of the players to think exactly like many a Prussian commander back in 1866, bound and determined to keep those guns safe. Yes, this also happened in a couple of other game processes, but this was the most striking example.

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So, Prussian Needle Gun firepower OK – check. Austrian shock tactics look right (not that the Austrian players appreciated the realism, mind you) – check. Prussian and Austrian artillery doctrine work well – check. At the end I can truly say I was pleased, and oddly enough a catch phrase from Hollywood came to mind. No, it wasn’t “it’s a wrap!” I’m talking about that resident philosopher of the A-Team, John “Hannibal” Smith who often noted, “I love it when a plan comes together.”

Yeah, I’m lovin’ it.

*The Archduke’s (or Erherzog) actual name wasLeopold Ludwig Maria Franz Julius Estorgius Gerhard Erzherzog von Ósterreich, which one supposes partially explains the lack of orders. It likely took the old bean an hour just to sign off on any document his chief of staff presented him.

Main Image: The Skalitz battlefield in miniature as recreated by Bruce Weigle for his popular 1866 wargame rules.

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