Battleshed Diaries

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Scalping Practice

Sharp Practice British FIW Relief Force

The Ohio Valley, 1758. Hordes of savage battle-frenzied Indians raging out of the dense forest on one side, opportunistic French Canadian Militia sniping from the forest on the other side, and what appeared to be a troublingly deserted forward supply base further along the rough track that passed for roads in this punishing frontier. Captain Timothy, the commander of the small British relief force, is beginning to regret this little expedition into the North American backcountry.
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As if commanding part of an Anglo-Portuguese force through guerrilla ‘infested’ woods, rough hills and a devilish ravine weren't enough Sharp Practice tribulations last week, I opted to try my luck again with another of John Ewings showcase multiplayer scenarios for the Falkirk wargames club. This time the action had stepped back a few years and moved to the North American continent during the French Indian Wars. 

There were four of us playing this time round, with the scenario author, the estimable Mr. Ewing, presiding:

1.) Myself with the British relief column - 2 groups of 8 British Regulars 1756+ (Captain Timothy L3), 1 group of 6 Light Company Skirmishers (Sergeant Ackland L1), 2 groups of 8 Grenadiers (Lieutenant Cromwell L2 & Sergeant Smyth L2) and 1 sullen muleteer and his charges.

2.) Allan HR with the garrison of Provincial troops - 1 groups of 8 Provincials (Lieutenant Adams L2 & Sergeant Angell L1), 2 groups of 6 Colonial Rangers (Sergeant Stark L2 & Corporal Hazen L1) and 1 group of 6 Settlers, irregular skirmishers (Lieutenant Suydam L2)

3.) Andy K with the French Raiding party - 2 groups of 6 Milice Canadienne (Lieutenant La Flamme L3 & Sergeant Ouimet L2), 1 group of 6 Coureur de Bois equipped with rifles (“Le Loup” Roulet L2)

4.) Finally, my good gaming buddy Jamie M gleefully welcoming an opportunity to collect a bag full of scalps with the Indian Raiding party - the Hurons with 1 group of 12 Tribesmen (Chief Magua L2) and 2 groups of 6 Huron skirmishers (Warrior Red Face L1 & Warrior Red Cloak L1) and the Oneidas with 1 group if 12 Tribesmen (Chief Abraham L2) with 2 groups of 6 Oneida skirmishers (Warrior Still Water L1 & Warrior Tall Tree L1)
Point Woebegone with Lieutenant Adams' Provincials (centre), the ambushed British Relief force (top), the Milice Canadienne (right flank) and the Huron and Oneida Warriors (left flank)

John quite rightly punctured my hyperbole last week by pointing out that the ‘many, many’ guerillas I claimed the Anglo-Portuguese force faced in the Iberian peninsular only amounted, in fact, to 24 initially with 18 turning up later. Whilst the allies had some 66 men and officers. It's clear John was under the misguided impression that I restrain from outrageously partisan and often shamefully embellished battle reports! Tempered with tongue firmly in cheek and a thick veneer of self-mockery of course. But I hope John can agree that this time the odds really were against the British in the North American backcountry and there were what Captain Timothy, with a trembling hand and fortified with a stiff drink afterwards, could fully justify in his report as being ambushed by hordes of fierce Indians.
The British Regulars Captain and Lieutenant Cromwell, from the accompanying Grenadier detachment, both agreed they barely escaped with their lives or indeed, their scalps! Which is more than could be said of some of their poor men. Both their military careers were now looking as forlorn as the miserable garrison, Point Woebegone, they were sent to relieve. The expedition should have been a simple affair.

The column stepped out in good order along the trail to Point Wobegone with a small group of Light Infantry led by the reliable Sergeant Ackland scouting ahead. Followed by Cromwell’s Grenadiers, Captain Timothy’s British Regulars and the baggage train to the rear. It was such a clear, fresh day too. The thick woods on the left full of bird-song and the creak and groan of trees rising and falling in the swell of the playful breeze. To the right, the land gave way to a low rise covered by a verdant carpet of thigh-high bracken with the dark shadowy outline of more forest beyond. The British column marched confidently, the men carefully exchanging jibes and good humoured banter just out of their officer’s earshot, muffled by the scrape of their boots. Then suddenly, a gut-wrenching scream reverberated from the forest on the left.


The column was halted with the sudden crackle of musketry somewhere up ahead. Captain Timothy could see Cromwell's Grenadiers hastily forming Line. Then the Grenadier Sergeant Smythe rushed over, sketched a salute, and informed him that Ackland’s skirmishers were engaged by Indians streaming from the woods. The British command appeared initially indecisive as more and more Indians were spotted at the forest fringes with fearsome war cries echoing amongst the trees. 

Ackland’s small group of 6 skirmishers fired off a couple of uncoordinated volleys but their musketry was mostly ineffective as the Indians expertly used the forest for cover. With thick powder smoke obscuring the trail, Chief Magua, accompanied by Red Cloak and Red Face leading his scouts, took the opportunity to rush the British skirmishers whilst they were occupied by the business of reloading their muskets. They swiftly broke from the tree line and were soon closing on the enemy, whooping and hurling their tomahawks as they closed. Ackland’s men fought a desperate, vicious melee with the Indians, both sides taking injuries and some killed. The Indians briefly retreated after the initial onslaught, Ackland misinterpreting this as an opportunity to order his stalwart troops to chase down the fleeing natives in the nearby forest. It was a big mistake.
Sharp Practice! Detachment from the Virginia Provincial Regiment



Meanwhile, whilst the British were dithering, Lieutenant La Flamme, the Commander of the Canadian Militia, shrewdly used the cover of half cleared woods near the outskirts of the Colonial outpost to probe his men forward. It wasn’t until they were almost upon the first buildings that shots reverberated from somewhere further inside Point Woebegone. Luckily, some of the sentries up in the Woebegone’s watchtower were awake or sober enough to spot the approaching Canadians. They are part of Lieutenant Adams small detachment from the Virginia Provincial Regiment and irregular Settler skirmishers, left in charge of the valuable outpost supplies whilst Sergeant Stark’s Colonial Rangers are away scouting enemy territory. With their musket barrels poking from the tower’s loopholes they opened fire, halting the cautious Canadians. More of Adam’s men tumbled out in alarm from the cosy warmth of nearby rough timber buildings.

Lieutenant La Flamme pulled most of his command back into the relative safety of the forest. He’s unsure of the Colonial's disposition within the outpost and is unaware that it is, in fact, lightly defended, with Stark’s Rangers still away. Instead, he sends “Le Loup” Roulet's rifle equipped Coureur de Bois to help keep the British pinned whilst Magua and Abraham’s Warriors deal with the Imperials. The British column was caught in a well executed, pincered ambush.
Sharp Practice Coureurs de Bois


Back with the British, Ackland’s skirmishers were cunningly lured further into the woods. Then they were completely surprised by another band of Indians rising unseen from their flanks. The British hardly had time to squeeze their musket triggers before the Indians were amongst them. It was a slaughter. The outnumbered skirmishers panicking, their incongruous red jackets falling like outsized autumn leaves in the thick forest undergrowth.

The screams of Ackland's men went unheard as Cromwell and Smythe’s Grenadiers steadfastly endured repeated charges from more Huron and Oneida Indians. Their training and discipline stood them in good stead, steadfastly withstanding the first few fierce attacks, firing disciplined volleys, their thin line just about holding. But the Indians just kept on coming. Captain Timothy, now aware of an unknown force sighted over the slight rise towards the forest on the right flank, had a key decision to make. He could join formation with the Grenadiers to use their superior firepower to try and scatter the Indians, or he could hope Cromwell’s lads could keep the natives at bay enough for him to turn and face whatever force he thought was approaching from the right. 

Sharp Practice Bristish Grenadiers
Back in Point Woebegone, Adams’s Virginia Provincials were also fighting on two fronts. A contingent of Red Cloak and Red Face’s scouts had moved up through the forest and were now threatening to hit the outpost from the Provincial's right flank. It was a precarious position for the Provincial commander. With a large force of Canadian Militia on their right and no sign of Starks’s returning Rangers, it was all his men could do to risk exchanging sporadic fire with both enemy forces. The buildings and wooden fences their only advantage. Adams could hear the sound of heavy fighting way back along the trail, assuming it was the British relief column fighting their way through. But they hadn’t approached as expected and time was running out. He feared the worst.

Captain Timothy decided to reform his Regulars, berating his men into a rough open column to quickly take the nearby rise and meet the other enemy force – now identified as Canadian Militia – whilst simultaneously protecting the Grenadiers flanks. The baggage driver struggled to get his stricken mules to follow the British soldiers. Unfortunately, upon reaching the bracken covered rise, the Captain was dismayed to discover the enemy force contained a group of independent French-Canadian woodsmen known as the 'Coureurs des bois' (runner of the woods) which had halted on the fringes of the forest and evidently were using their rifles to unsportingly use the red coats on the hill for target practice. The Captain was about to order his men to retreat a few paces behind the rise when one of his men urgently got his attention. There were more Indians surging from the forest behind them, back down the rise, threatening to surround the Grenadiers.


Both Cromwell and Smythe, their jaws set and standing firm, calmly orchestrated their shaken commands. Forcefully pushing men to fill gaps in their rapidly diminishing line, not allowing them time to heed the pitiful cries of fallen comrades at their feet. Neither officer had time to think of anything other than the brutal fighting to hand. There were no thoughts of glory or sentimental endeavours. Just the immediacy of their fear and wretched survival. Cromwell spared a quick glance back towards Captain Timothy’s fusiliers. Incredibly, they were a few hundred paces away backing away from the hill behind them. Then his attention was snatched away by an Indian Warrior whooping towards him, a long knife glistening in the sunlight.


Captain Timothy just managed to get his men turned about face Tall Tree and Still Water’s Scout's came hurtling towards them. With half his men formed into a ragged line, some further up the hill, they managed a single uncontrolled volley which sent the terrified muleteer diving for cover as the muskets blasted just above his head. The mules bucked and screeched in their traces, verging on a panicked stampede. Then there was an audible crump and clang of bladed weapons. He and his men were caught in a whirlwind of vicious hand-to-hand fighting with the ferocious natives. Now the captain fully comprehended what Cromwell’s Grenadiers had been dealing with.
The remnants of the British column were besieged in a tumultuous melee. They struggled to retain their formations and defend the flanks, both groups fearing total encirclement. Captain Timothy urged his men to hold the line, whilst he roared at the muleteer to get his animals under control and through to the rear. As his men desperately fought the Indians to the fore the nagging thought that the Canadians could be storming up the lee of the hill behind them at any moment flashed incessantly in his mind. Then, the sound of battle subtly shifted. Captain Timothy’s resolve shattered as he saw wild-eyed Grenadiers, some painfully stumbling others dashing in blind panic back along the trail. Both Grenadier groups under Cromwell and Sergeant Smythe had finally broken and routed. Captain Timothy’s Regulars were alone and almost surrounded by the Huron and Oneida gleefully sensing imminent victory.

Whilst the British Regulars were making their last stand, Stark’s Colonial Rangers had finally returned to Point Woebegone in the nick of time, much to the relief of Lieutenant Adams overextended Provincial detachment. The Rangers soon pushed through the outpost, taking up defensive positions to try and repel both La Flamme’s Milice Canadienne and elements of the Indian Raiding party. The small outpost reverberated with the crackle of sporadic musketry as the defenders sought to repel the attack and protect vital supplies.

But it was too late for the forlorn British relief column. Captain Timothy and his men - outnumbered, bloodied and broken – inevitably followed what remained of Cromwell’s Grenadiers, fleeing back along the trail, the sounds of their fallen screaming as their prize scalps were taken by triumphant Huron and Oneida warriors.

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Game Summary: Phew! This was one tough scenario! Played out with the advantage of the Falkirk clubs fourth Sunday of the month all day opening. It was great fun and a thrilling wargame, even playing the British! And I got to use my 44th Regiment of Foot on the table. Although a decidedly inauspicious start to their Sharp Practice career!

In retrospect, I think my best hope would have been just keeping the column moving, even under fire if possible so at least one of the regular groups reached Point Woebegone. Instead, I struggled to get things moving quickly enough (a lesson I should have learnt from last week!), although some of that is due to the random Leader activation. Jamie M, in particular, was barely concealing his delight on the way home. Just as well, since I was driving!

I was fortunate, too, that Andy K’s Canadian Militia, especially his rifle equipped Coureurs de Bois, didn’t push their advantage over on my right flank. Whether that was his conscious decision or not I’ll never know, but if he did I expect they would've bought the final Tiffin for the British even sooner!

In Point Woebegone, a continuous war of attrition on the overextended Provincials was being played put, but any hopes of the British Relief Force reaching the ‘second fenceline’ – apparently the furthest anyone has got with the British for this scenario according to John – was dashed with the Indian hordes taking advantage of my dithering. Not only did I end up with all my units routed, apart from the mule train (which was butchered along with the muleteer), the final Britsh Force Morale ended up at -4! And they didn't even make the first fence line! But the Indian Warriors had plenty of souvenir scalps. Just be thankful I’m not in charge of any real troops!

Finally, here a response from our host and scenario author, John Ewing;

There certainly seemed like "hordes" of Indians, at least 2 groups of skirmishers more than I normally use and, probably more significantly 6 Indian Leaders rather than 4, all purposefully wielded by a single player determined to have your scalp. I'd expanded them to accommodate a second Indian player and given both slightly different briefings which should have seen Magua's Hurons concentrating on you while Abraham's Oneida should have been hunting for supplies in the settlement. Unfortunately, I forgot to bring my box of supply crates so the only visible supplies were your mule train! Clearly the Fates were conspiring against you.

That's actually the largest game of Sharp Practice I've ever run and it may have pushed the rules a bit far. I realised later that there were 18 Leaders on the table rather than the 10-12 in most games. So turns were longer and there was a greater tendency for some players not to have a useful Leader chip drawn. Especially for Andy who had only 3 Leaders to Jamie's 6. Mea Culpa! I'll know better next time.

At least everyone enjoyed themselves.