29 April 2023
Words and pictures by Jon Sutherland.
We can make some basic assumptions. Some armies were specifically drilled to march at a certain rate: a rate that (under normal circumstances) would not exhaust the troops or lead to excessive straggling. Other armies pretty much took their own time, turned up when they could, probably in dribs and drabs and in various states of exhaustion and disorganisation. As wargamers, we tend to assume that our armies are more like the drilled force and not so much like the second one. Having said that, what a fantastic set of variables and challenges would you face if the army was not deployed on the battlefield in parade order?
ROLE & COMMAND
On the tabletop, we are acutely aware of “overusing” units: making them charge too often and allowing them to get disorganised or trampling over rough ground. We make the assumption that they start the battle fresh, willing (probably) and able to cope (within reason) with what we want them to do. But what if they weren’t ready? What if they weren’t rested? What if only some of the army had got to the battlefield? What if the rest of the force was on its way up the road somewhere, but heaven knows in what state?
Let’s look at an example of a result of this. Roll a d6 with each player rolling for the impact on their own forces:
This is precisely what I use for my border clashes between the Assyrians and Sumerians; it would work well for semi-organised forces in quite inhospitable terrain with dirt track roads and a lack of water.
What would the tables look like if we started to consider some specific characteristics and perhaps created one for each army type? Let’s have a look at some examples:
Nomadic force: such as Huns or Mongols. These are fast moving and not overly affected by terrain, carries its own water and provisions, travels in large clusters. They would need to be moving in very poor terrain to be impacted by a forced march.
Tribal force: such as Celts, Germans or Ancient British. These are – effectively – a moving town with lots of straggling, and reasonably slow moving. They would move from water source to water source and need plentiful grazing. They would be decimated in poor terrain trying to move quickly.
HORSE & MUSKET
Let’s move away from ancients and look at a period that had clearly defined rates of movement, the Napoleonic period. There are plenty of references to three rates of marching. What is not so clear is how, adopting these in the longer term (rather than just on the battlefield) would have an impact on the troops.
This gives us a good start. We know that infantry can move at 75 paces per minute for relatively long periods of time. We could expect them to move at 108 paces for short periods on good ground, but if we were to expect them to move at 120 paces a minute, pretty soon, the units would start disintegrating.
IN THEIR STRIDE
For Napoleonic armies, there is some degree of standardisation of pace. We know that the British, Austrian, Prussian and Russian armies all counted a “pace” at 30” (about 76cm) which is striding step considering most men were shorter in those days. The French were slightly less demanding with 26.5” (67cm).
It would seem that the British Light Division’s forced march to Talavera in 1809, alternated the Quick March and Double. Due to their training and expertise, they avoided disorganisation, but the men were exhausted and there were stragglers.
There are some rule sets that do have variable movement speeds, but many of them seem to make the same basic mistakes in assuming, for example, that a column can move faster than a line. That needs clarification. Yes, a column can probably move faster and maintain unit integrity over flat-ish terrain as opposed to when in line, but the reverse might be true over rough terrain (at least a looser line formation would). In dealing with light troops, riflemen or skirmishers, they should be able to move at faster speeds, but just more frequently and will be unlikely to be affected by terrain.
FORCED MARCH SIMULATION
Let’s simulate a march to the battlefield first. We need to assume that the artillery and the cavalry are moving at the same pace to ensure some kind of cohesion. We should also assume that cavalry could move faster, but instead they will be less affected by forced marches.
It is 1706 and Marlborough is looking for a decisive encounter in the Spanish Netherlands, the French and their allies under Marshal Villeroi need a victory to give them leverage when peace terms are thrashed out. Marlborough has set off from Maastricht and is making for Namur (96km or 60 miles). Meanwhile, Villeroi marched south from Louvain to intercept (60km 37 miles). Ramillies lies to the north of Namur, barely 40km from Louvain, assuming Marlborough only heard of the French move south part way through his march to Namur, Ramillies is 85km from Maastricht still twice the distance.
We’ll focus Marlborough’s Dutch under Schultz and Villeroi’s French under Guiscard:
The following table outlines the impact of forced marches on your force. The Quick March Modifier is only added if your force is expected to cover twice the distance in one day:
The French got to Ramillies first, adopting a defensive position behind a boggy river and occupying two villages. Marlborough attacked, so we must assume that his men were relatively fresh (there had been delays in the march due the Danish units not having been paid). It is interesting to try this exercise a couple of times and see how different approaches impact on the forces.
The movement rates assume that both sides used roads rather than traipsing across country. Camps would be temporary; probably the day’s march would start early and finish well before dusk to allow the men to forage.
FORCED MARCHING ON THE BATTLEFIELD
One of my early favourites was the On To Richmond ACW set that appeared in The Courier about forty years ago, it was very similar to the set used by Peter Gilder when we played ACW. Both sets allowed units to “double” on the battlefield although there were some restrictions to this:
- The movement had to be on a road or turnpike.
- The unit could not be within charge distance of an enemy unit.
- The unit could not be a target for enemy fire.
- The unit could only do this once, then move normally for one or two turns and then could double again.
In the context of the ACW this makes perfect sense: there are numerous instances of filling, extending or reinforcing the line at speed. Many of the basic mechanisms are common to sets such as In the Grand Manner (Napoleonic) and variants I have not seen, for the Franco-Prussian War and the Crimean War.
FORCED MARCHES: FACT CHECK
We are incredibly fortunate that Brigadier Richard Kane (in 1757) compiled a table showing the movement (and otherwise) of the British army during the War of the Spanish Succession (1702-1712). We can use this as the basis of our map movements. According to Kane, British infantry would spend on average 175 days a year on garrison duties, 190 days on campaign and – of those campaign days – nearly 40 would involve marching. These figures mean that – even during a war that was fought across a fairly large area – only 20% of the days on campaign duty involved marching.
What does this mean in practical terms? One day’s marching in every five days, with an average distance covered of about 16km (10 miles). This gives us a pretty slow marching rate given that traders expected their wagons to cover up to 29 miles (46km) a day and packhorses 32 miles (51km) a day.
A hundred years later, in Russia, Napoleon’s Grand Armee, during their advance on Moscow, was covering about the same distance per day. The big difference was that they marched for upwards of a month, in fact around four days a week. This was achieved by reducing baggage, encouraging foraging and moving the men on different routes to avoid hold-ups and congestion at choke points.
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