Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Drums along the Odon: Les Anglais are attacking the 'burbs!

Yesterday we ran a play-test of Kevin Smyth's latest Hundred Years' War scenario at The Game Matrix in Lakewood, WA. We used a simple home-brewed set that Kevin wrote called Arrowstorm. All the rules fit on one sheet, so it's quite a departure from other games I've played recently.

The scenario is based on an historical attack made by Edward the Black Prince on Île Saint-Jean, a suburb of the city of Caen in Normandy in 1346. The situation had a french force of dismounted knights supported by town militia defending a fortified bridge across the Odon river, with support from a couple of Genoese cogs, and also defending against an attack on the other side of the town from Sir Thomas Holland (later 1st Earl of Kent).

I played Holland making the rear attack on the town, while Adrian Nelson and Tim Barella played the Black Prince and Thomas de Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick making the attack across the river. (This game marks the first time I've seen Tim in many years, so it was a pleasant surprise to see him there—despite his wretched die-rolling.)

Defending the town were Dave Schueler, Wes Rogers, and Wes' son-in-law (whose name I forget). They had free rein to set up anywhere and chose to defend closely around the tower of the fortified bridge.

The English attack lacked siege equipment, so the initial attack across the bridge had to wait until scaling ladders and a battering ram arrived. We also had to neutralize the cogs in the Odon, who could fire crossbows and ballistae against our forces crossing the bridge.

Accordingly, Tim massed his three archer units against one of the cogs with the intent of burying it under a storm of arrows. The scenario had the English being low on arrows, so we had limited ability to shoot. Desultory skirmish fire wouldn't deplete our arrows, but massed fire and arrowstorm could run us out of arrows quickly. We had five points of massed shots available per archer unit. A simple massed fire cost one point, an arrowstorm—the medieval equivalent of FPF—cost two. Tim shot off an arrowstorm with three units against the cog with almost negligible result. In response, Dave took out several archers with his return fire. The plan was already in doubt.

On my side, I massed my two 2-figure units of archers on the right to run them past the town and into the open area facing the pallisades situated beside the tower. My other forces were a 10-figure unit of men at arms, a 20-figure unit of professional footsoldiers, and a 10-figure unit of Breton javelinmen.

The open area gave me more ability to get my bows where they could fire for best effect, even though the fire was reduced because of the pallisades. I didn't bother trying to attack through the gaps in the town; I only needed to keep enough troops in the town area to keep Wes' troops at bay. While advancing between the outer buildings, my troops were assaulted by the burghers of Saint-Jean who hurled sticks and stones from the upper floors of the buildings. I had to peel off some troops to storm the buildings and lost only one figure overall from a falling chamberpot.

Wes and his SIL, commanded the troops initially facing me and started by trying to move against my flank with crossbowmen and militia. I positioned one of my archer units to sweep the open space between the building rows and held them back. No one wanted to face annihilation by arrowstorm. My other archer unit advanced to take position against Dave's militia along the palisade.

I brought up the other archer unit and after a couple turns' shooting, the militia was decimated and ran off abandoning the palisade, which Dave refused to re-man with his men at arms. Fear of arrowstorm was a bit daunting.

Meanwhile, Adrian had been fording the Odon with his 20-figure unit of Welsh spearmen. This seemed to promise a way across the river other than the bridge, but the time spent fording enabled Wes to bring up some militia foot and a few men at arms to strike them at the river's edge.

Despite their rough handling, the Welshmen didn't run, but by standing they got surrounded and in the end only a single Welshman remained, though not for long.

The ladders and battering ram had arrived to much cheering in the English camp, but it was discovered that only one of the ladders was sufficiently tall to scale the tower (which elicited less cheering). Nevertheless, Adrian sent his footsoldiers in the van with the ladder and ram supported by his men at arms. His intention was to let the footsoldiers act as quarrel- and bolt-fodder while placing the ladder and battering the gate.

I now began my attack against the palisade in earnest. With Dave's unwillingness to re-man the pallisade, I targeted the defenders of the bridge tower and cogs with my archers and sent my footsoldiers and men at arms over the undefended palisade against Dave's defenders.

At first, I routed away the reconstituted force that had fled the palisades earlier as well as a small number of men at arms. However, Dave sent in his men at arms and suddenly the match-up wasn't exactly best suited for my continued success. My footsoldiers, hardy as they may be, were no match for Dave's men at arms and were routed away. However, I was able to move my small unit of men at arms to fighting Dave's men at arms and continue the fight.

Adrian's troops managed to get on top of the bridge tower and were chasing its defenders down into the bowels of the barbican. The troops outside were still banging away with the battering ram and having little luck.

Alas, for me. My men at arms got the worst of it and were soon clanking along in their armor trying to catch up with the running footsoldiers. The Bretons had been wiped out earlier by some crossbowmen, so all I had to keep on with were my two units of archers. Both units had depleted arrows and were facing better-armed (and armored men).

At this point, our time ran out. The game limit was ten turns and we stopped then on the verge of what may have been an English victory: We were over the palisades in the rear of the town, we had men atop the bridge tower and men in it, we had many more men on the bridge ready to burst through the gate—or be let in once our men inside the tower gained control of it.

Post mortem

The game was a lot of fun and moved very quickly. As with any Hundred Years' War game, the English archers are just atomic and any French victory is won against greater odds than the numerical disparity would indicate.

Although based on the historical attack on Caen during Edward III's initial chevauchée that started in Brittany and culminated in Picardy at the Battle of Crécy, I think Kevin made a few adjustments for play balance. Historically, the French had only some palisades and were greatly outnumbered by the English. They had abandoned the fortified bit of Caen to defend Île Saint-Jean because that was the wealthy suburb of the city and its richest burghers wanted it spared the depredations of les Anglais. The bridge tower was actually built to defend the walled city on the north side of the Odon and the Île Saint-Jean is on the south side. The sources are murky as to whether they possessed any part of the actual bridge defenses. It seems as if they built a hasty palisade on the bridge, but the fortified bridge may have had barbicans on both sides. If so, the English would have been in possession of one side and the French the other.

The two sources I have for the battle, Jonathan Sumption's The Hundred Years War I: Trial by Battle and Clifford Rogers' War Cruel and Sharp make no mention of Holland's flanking force, but I defer to Kevin's more extensive library on all things Hundred Years' War for this. The most interesting narrative of the action comes from Bernard Cornwell's novel The Archer's Tale, but it is a fictionalized account.

I have some other sources that just mention the battle in passing. It seemed to be a small affair involving about 1500 French defenders and only a portion of Edward's army under the Earl or Warwick. The English took the walled town that the French evacuated and then rushed without orders to the Île Saint-Jean where they overwhelmed a hasty defensive position, mostly by going around it, and looted the town, in the course of which they killed many of the defenders and a few thousand burghers. Generally, being a French burgher in the path of an English chevauchée during the Hundred Years' War was a bad thing. A very bad thing.

Kevin is running this game again, perhaps with some tweaking after our play test, at Dick Larsen's Drumbeat event and likely at Enfilade! in May.

1 comment:

  1. David:

    Very cool looking game; great photos and write up. Regards, Dean