Monday, 22 May 2017

Fort Gertrude, the Final!


If asked, the great chroniclers of history no doubt would express their considerable enthusiasm for cavalry charges. In adding to a sweeping historical tableau drama, excitement, pathos, and a splendid set of sound effects, an energetic intervention by horsemen is rarely to be bettered. A lightning storm might perhaps be nearly as good; or a comet; or a wardrobe malfunction on the part of a particularly winsome heroine; or, if one were particularly lucky, some combination of all three accompanied by some unexpected bass drums and string instruments. But generally, it is always useful to have as the close to some great military encounter the thunder of hooves, the flickering of steel, and the mad cries of horsemen, as the arme blanche rides forwards, committed as the climactic act of battle. King Friedrich II's victory over the Franco-Imperial army at Rossbach in 1757, for example, was given the appropriate panache thanks to the efforts of Seydlitz's massed cavalry. The great victory over the Turks at Vienna in 1683 was elevated from a dour punch-up the highlights of which had been trenches, dysentery, and the desultory whacking of one another with blunt instruments, by the timely intervention of the splendid German, Austrian and Polish cavalry. And even further back in history, Alexander the Great's triumph at Gaugemela in 331BC would have been much less triumphant, and probably slower and a lot sweatier, without the conclusive intercession of his Companion cavalry.

No less interesting for the historian are those events that immediately precede the cavalry charge; especially the last words of the cavalry commander: the speech that sends his men into the jaws of Death; or, if not his jaws, then some other orifice that might be just as unpleasant in its own way. Seydlitz's speech, for example, was a model of its kind, conveying certainty as to the importance of what his men were about to do; specificity regarding the chances of honour, glory, and wealth; and a careful ambivalence regarding the actual danger likely to be faced. Jan Sobieski's speech at Vienna, too, generally is considered worth studying. Though often adjudged to lack something in terms of style (thanks in part to an off-colour story about a Turk, a grandmother, and a mix-up involving an aubergine) the Pole's words to his men still embodied a fine mix of poetic metaphors, classical allusions, and a bottom joke at the end to lighten the mood. Alexander's comments sadly have not been captured for posterity, since the the wailing of the Persians drowned out the voice of the King. Nevertheless, historians have marked him well for his expressive body movements, the imperious use of the single digit being accompanied by a suitably divine waggling of the torso.

'Dammit, sir: I tell you that I've had nothing
from the mini-bar.'
All of which is to indicate just how disappointed chroniclers of the battle at fort Gertrude might well be to hear the words of the Fenwickian cavalry commander, Colonel Karl Reichardt von Laud, as a messenger urgently attempts to get Laud's hussars out of their beds, into the saddle, and into the fight. Laud's reply to the urging of the Fenwickian courier indicate that the former might not fully understand the gravity of the situation facing the Imperial forces.
'But we haven't had our lunch yet,' he says to the staff officer, fiddling urgently as he tries to do up his britches.
The staff officer looks on in some discomfort. Laud looks down and realises that he isn't actually wearing any britches.
'I distinctly remember asking for a wake up call. And some croissants,' Laud says truculently.
'The enemy are everywhere!' babbles the staff officer. 'The battle is almost lost! Only your squadron of horse remain uncommitted. I am instructed to press upon you the urgent need for an immediate foray by your horsemen against the enemy holding the high ground on the crossroads.'
'And my croissants?' asks Laud.
'I received no direct orders relevant to your croissants,' admits the messenger. 'But I should surmise that, if the enemy are not driven from the crossroads, that your croissants will be taken by the Gelderland musketeers and your stay in these lodgings rendered much less agreeable to you.'
'They are not especially agreeable at the moment,' hurrumphs Laud. 'Indeed, there was not even a little chocolate on my coverlet last night. I may be a hussar, but I'm not a savage.'
Nevertheless, since it is clear that the courier will not leave until Laud obeys the orders, the colonel reluctantly has the assembly sounded and his cavalrymen begin to decamp from their beds.

Time passes however. To the increasing frustration of all of the Fenwickian commanders, the hussars fail the most immediate of their challenges: an extended series of encounters with the door handles to their house. Finally, with the Imperial commanders soiling themselves with frustration, Laud manages to assemble his squadron outside of their lodgings and prepares for the assault. The colonel is well enough educated to know that now is probably the time for some suitable words; the opportunity for immortality, or at least a substantial footnote in future accounts of this combat. He turns to his men and delivers a speech that he hopes will instill the necessary ardour into them. Sadly, his disquisition falls rather flat. Laud mixes up his historical references and delivers an address that has as its general theme a grandmother's hand gestures, a Turkish aubergine, and Alexander the Great's bottom. Alienated by the evident failure of their commander to moderate his elevated speech so that it can be comprehended by ordinary soldiery, Laud's troops murmur mutinously. Deciding not to reinforce failure, Laud finishes his speech abruptly, and signals for an advance at the trot. (Below) In a rather ragged clump, the squadron of hussars begin their advance upon the hill crowned with Gelderland musketeers.

The hussars break into a canter. From their position with the Fenwickian musketeers, Colonel von Klosterfluck, Captain von Wiffel and Sergeant Merkin can see through the musket smoke the bold advance of the Fenwickian cavalry.
'Bravo!' shouts Wiffel, and his men also take up the shout. 'Bravo! Forward! Forward!'
'How I should have liked to have been a cavalryman,' shouts Merkin above the hubbub. 'The glamour, the danger, the long-lie ins.'
'It is overrated,' replies Klosterfluck. 'One gets sore in unmentionable places; and then one's unmentionable places get sores. And one spends one's life being chased by dogs.'
'Dogs?' asks Wiffel.
'Oh yes,' shouts Klosterfluck. 'My dog was always chasing men on horseback. Until I stopped him.'
'How did you stop him - did you tie him up?' responds the sergeant.
'Oh no,' answers the colonel. 'I just took away his horse.'
Merkin's brow furrows as he tries to work this through. Before he reaches a conclusion, the Imperial musketeers shout excitedly 'Here they go!' 

'I can see an "F". a "U", a "C", and then I think ...
it's a bit small ... is that an "R"?'

(Above) The key moment in the battle has arrived. With a loud 'Huzzah!', Laud's hussars spur their horses into the gallop. 'Tally ho!' they cry, 'Tally ho! Charge! Charge!' The Gelderland defenders finally espy through the smoke the rapid advance of the enemy cavalry! Uncertainty strikes them! Having already fired at the Imperial infantry, the troops are unloaded! The cavalry are upon their flank! The Gelderlanders murmur with fear, like short nuns at a penguin shoot. Surely all that is required for a crushing Imperial victory is that Laud's cavalry should make the merest contact with the Gelderland line! The watching Fenwickians groan with disappointment. The cavalry charge has been launched too soon! The long distance is compounded by the hussars' poor eye sight (by reason of which they are known in the Imperial army as 'cataract cavalry'). Laud's charge falls a mere sabre's length short!

Much to Toplitz-Hande's relief, as the Fenwickian cavalry halt in confusion his infantry prove their mettle by reloading and firing, and then reloading and firing again. (Above) The hussars are driven back in disorder.
'Are cavalry charges supposed to go in that direction?' asks Merkin.
Seeing the retreat of their cavalry, the morale of the Imperial infantry sags, and they also fall back. Though Klosterfluck still has another two companies of musketeers, Toplitz-Hande's troops now have an unassailable position. It is clear to all that the battle is now over, and that all that the Imperial troops can do is to begin a retreat. Fort Gertrude is taken, and northern Fenwick is now cut off!

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Fort Gertrude, the Third!

To the west, behind the fort, lies the second Gelderland objective: the crossroads. For this mission
the Bachscuttel and Gelderland troops under Colonel Adolphus von Toplitz-Hande have been specially chosen for the task. Of course, in the armies of Mittelheim 'specially chosen' simply means that the troops concerned didn't understand the mission quickly enough to desert beforehand. From the south arrive three companies of splendid red-coated Gelderland musketeers. They are supported by a company of jager, and (above) the three musketeer companies of Bachscuttel's newly-raised freibattalion von Goethe-Knockenshoppes. If the Gelderland regulars are the brave lions of the force, and the jagers the sly foxes; then the freibattalion are the hyenas, although hyenas would probably smell better and would certainly have superior drill and a firmer moral compass.
As the Gelderland force advances on the crossroads, from the west comes the first elements of the Fenwickian relief force (though quite what 'Fenwickian relief' actually entails is probably best left unexplored.) Two companies of Imperial Croats throw out a skirmish line, and (below) four companies of regulars follow. Their commander, Friedrich Oscar von Klosterfluck, seems rather dazed.

Under Klosterfluck's rather random direction, the Imperial musketeers drift into two separate forces. Whatever the officer's intent, the effect of his orders is exactly the opposite of whatever it is that is entailed by effective command and control. Two of his four companies march off confidently in a direction that may, at other times, have had some kind of sound rationale - if they were searching for an excellent site for a picnic, for example; or if they intended to avoid a particularly dangerous looking flock of geese. At this time, however, the movements of his troops are to the proper concentration of force what sanity is to the seeing of tiny invisible unicorns.
'This isn't working,' says Klosterfluck, peering blearily at the rapidly disappearing backs of half of his infantry force. 'What's happening sergeant?'

The nearby form of a Fenwickian sergeant named Merkin shrugs wearily. Merkin really hasn't that much enthusiasm for soldiering. He only joined the Imperial army in order to obtain a military rank; because in Fenwick, being known as Herr Merkin is dangerous, and probably illegal.
'Perhaps,' says Klosterfluck, 'the men don't fear me enough to execute my orders properly. I shall use my imperious, commanding voice,' he adds.
'It still seems to sound a lot like your normal voice, sir,' says Merkin.
'What about this,' says the officer, changing timbre.
'Again, sir,' says Merkin, 'like your normal voice; but perhaps just after you've sat on a snake.'
As he watches the fumbling manoeuvres of his troops, Klosterfluck holds his head in his hands. 'Tell me truthfully - am I a bad captain, Anton?' he says to the sergeant.
'My name is Walter, sir. And also, you are a colonel.'
'Dammit - really? You don't look like Walter.'
'No, sir: he probably does look different; but then again, this isn't actually your regiment, sir.'
'What? Then where am I supposed to be?'
'Well, sir. That seems to be in your hand a nearly empty bottle of absinthe. So I would say that you could be wherever you wanted to be.'
'Oh dear,' moans the colonel, and then adds, with growing trepidation, 'What time is it?'
'An hour before midday, sir.'
'Gads! I've lost eight hours!'
'On Wednesday, sir.'
'Two days and eight hours!' Klosterfluck pauses. 'And ... the year?'
'1757, sir.'
'Thank goodness!'
'Just joking, sir: it's 1759.'
'Bloody hell! My wife!'
'Expected at home, sir?'
'No, sergeant: at the church. Well,' sighs Klosterfluck, 'that was really quite some stag do.'

Trying to rescue something from the situation, Klosterfluck orders the two companies that he does have in hand to take up a position on the crossroads (right). The Croat skirmishers support them from the nearby woods. The colonel moves up and addresses the troops' commanding officer, a Captain von Wiffel.
'Captain,' says Klosterfluck, 'the plan is this - fire your muskets and defeat the enemy.'
Wiffel grimaces. 'Sir, that is a terrible plan. We're heavily outnumbered and in danger of being flanked. It isn't possible for there to be a worse plan than that plan that you've just told me.'
'Attacking them with spoons?' suggests Merkin helpfully.
Wiffel shakes he head. 'No, sergeant: that, at least, would have the benefit of surprise. This plan is madness.'
Klosterfluck looks hurt. 'Well, we could launch a bayonet charge.'
Wiffel hurrumphs. 'That's even worse, sir'.
'I return, sir,' interjects Merkin, 'to my suggestion about the spoons.'
Wiffel points to his men. 'We must retire, sir. As it stands, our chances of success are as small as a pixie's underpants; and our situation is just as tight.'

'Get on with it, captain,' growls Klosterfluck. 'I'm in no mood to be defied.'
Unwillingly, Wiffel issues the orders and his troops set to. (Above) The Imperial musketry inflicts heavy casualties upon the enemy freikorps, the lead company of which eventually is routed. However, the Gelderland commander, Colonel Adolphus von Toplitz-Hande, skilfully insinuates his regulars onto the dominating high ground, flanking the Fenwickians. From there, terrifying volleys lash the Imperial troops. Even the Croats, not known for their sensitivity, begin to feel sorry for the Imperial musketeers and shoot one of the enemy jager just to help. Still heavily outnumbered, the Imperial position seems in danger of collapse.

With the battle slipping inexorably from the Imperial grasp, messages are quickly sent to order up a squadron of von Laud's Imperial hussars. Because what situation can't be improved by the sudden application of a cavalry charge .... ?

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Fort Gertrude, the Second!

Act II

The assault column breaks into three elements. Orders are shouted, and the grenadiers wheel to the right. To cries of 'Attack!' and 'What did he say? Does anyone here speak German?'' the Bachscuttelers reach into their haversacks and hurl their grenades, and many also their bagged lunch. (Below) Then, with bayonets fixed, they assault the bastion to their front. In the meantime, the musketeers divide into two columns and attempt to cross the Fenwickian earthworks further along the line. The grenadiers initially are driven back, but their superior quality allows them to reform and attack again. In the fort itself, Captain Dreihumpe attempts to get his artillery crew to man their piece, on the reasonable basis that the lack of a cannon is likely to reduce the damage caused by the fort's artillery fire. Grumbling, the artillerymen shuffle forwards with all the enthusiasm of men invited to sit upon an exploding commode.

'Bah - they're throwing grenades; and also, who has
gherkins with their lunch?'

(Below) After a desperate fight, the Bachscuttel grenadiers drive back the defending Fenwickians. The latter fall back, yielding the bastion to the attackers. The attackers haul themselves over the undulating bulk of the bastion, a task as exhausting as trying to turn over King Wilhelm in bed when he's snoring. The Fenwickian artillerymen have continued their excruciatingly slow journey to their gun, slowed, no doubt, by discussion of vexing philosophical questions and also by their pathological fear of violence (especially when it looks like it's going to be inflicted upon them.)

(Below) The grenadiers maintain their momentum and charge again, driving their adversaries into the fort. Meanwhile, the columns of Gelderland musketeers swarm across the walls. One lead company makes a daring attack on the artillerymen. The artillerymen make an attempt to withdraw but, in keeping with the general tone of the Fenwickian performance thus far, Lady Luck not only laughs at them, but also gives them a particularly painful wedgie. The artillerymen are caught fleeing, and, without their cannon, are forced to try and hold off the Gelderland bayonets with whatever weapons are to hand. An exploding commode actually would likely be more dangerous to the enemy than the bratwursts that they wave timidly at the advancing Gelderland infantry. The one-sided nature of the ensuing combat demonstrates conclusively why it is that artillery perform best when they are actually equipped with cannon.

(Below) After another vigorous bout of fisticuffs, the grenadiers succeed yet again in defeating the garrison musketeers. The Fenwickians retire in a state of dazed confusion as serious as if they had been subject to some variety of surprise trigonometry examination. The callow fellows rout  into another bastion, seeking the nearest sedan chair that will take them away from this battle. The exhausted grenadiers give a rousing cheer, surveying that particular kind of military aftermath that comes when tightly packed enemy bodies are subjected to an attack by sharp bayonets, exploding grenades, and unadventurous packed lunches. The grenadiers have covered themselves in glory - if glory, that is, is made up primarily of intestines, brain matter, and exploded cheese sandwiches.

(Below) Now, only Captain Dreihumpe remains to resist the Gelderland interlopers, and the latter push forwards intent upon laying their hands upon him. Dreihumpe, though, is no mewling poltroon; honour, bravery, and and a large measure of really poor judgement cause him to continue his resistance to the last. Calmly, he targets the approaching mass of enemy musketeers and fires: a musketeer spins to the ground with a groan. The Gelderlanders halt, unsure. The shot, bizarrely, appears to have emanated from the area of the captain's groin. The troops waver, their limited imaginations conjuring all kinds of unpleasantness - what if all of the captain's appendages are as deadly accurate with a firearm? And, given that he appears to be deadly with unexpectedly random parts of his anatomy, what might happen when he actually fires a pistol with his hands?

'An excellent weapon, captain.'

One of the musketeers, braver than most (and also consequently the least popular), stands forth and challenges Dreihumpe.
'Come not between a Gelderland soldier and his prey,' he says, 'or he will take thee in thy place and carry thee to the houses of lamentation which, if they aren't quite as frightening on the name suggests, are still enough to put the willies up you. Sorry, I mean "thee"; or "thy." Or whatever.'
'No,' replies Dreihumpe, stoutly. 'Here I stand and here I shall remain - none shall pass!'
The musketeer looks confused. 'But there are no nuns here. Why the special focus on nuns?'
'I don't know,' says another. 'Perhaps he had a bad experience with one?'
'Or perhaps, ' adds another, 'it's actually penguins that he doesn't like but he just confuses them with nuns?'
'That's probably it,' they nod. Ignoring Dreihumpe's protests, they surge forwards. Before the captain can reload whatever part of his body he intends to fire next, he is bundled the ground and captured. The fort is taken!

At this point, dear reader, it is as well to shift our contemplation of the battle from the fort towards the nearby crossroads: there, the Empire of Fenwick's schitzkrieg reaches new lows ...