Tuesday 7 February 2023

The Battle of Montebello 1859

Over the last couple of Monday Evenings, the Rejects have been kindly hosted by Jonathan Freitag in the US for a remote (zoom) game of Fields of Honor. Once again we were playing a historical encounter from the 2nd Italian War of Independence. Myself, Steve and David would be taking the Austrian side and Surjit, Ray and Richard would be the French players. Plans were hatched, ordered prepared and last week we all gathered at Jon's place (via the magic of Zoom) for a much-anticipated game. 

The following is an abridged version of the detailed briefing that Jon sent to the Austrian Players. 

Gyulai’s uninspired offensive in Piedmont ground to a halt without ever contacting the enemy. Concerned that the French would attempt to turn his left flank Stadion’s V Corps was ordered across the Sesia River to move on Casteggio and Voghera. This was a reconnaissance-in-force and was determined to discover French dispositions, interdict the Voghera-Piacenza Road, and thwart these perceived threats.

As the Austrians approached Casteggio, they ran into Sardinian cavalry screens positioned to prevent surprise attacks from the Austrians. The only means of crossing the River Coppa in this area are via two bridges: the bridge at Casteggio and the railroad bridge to the north of that town. 

Being heavily outnumbered, the Sardinians traded space for time as they slowly gave up ground to the approaching Austrians. Meanwhile, Forey’s division of the French 1st Corps quickly marched on Casteggio. By the time they arrived in the area, Stadion had already taken first Montebello and then Genestrello as the Sardinian cavalry retired.

It is now 2pm and the Austrians occupy Genestrello, Montebello, and Casteggio with Schaafgotsche’s Brigade. Hesse’s right wing is marching upon Lungavilla from the north but all of Paumgarten’s Center Wing is East of the River Coppa. Reports suggest that the French are rapidly bringing Forey’s Division forward to contest the Austrian gains. 

I'll leave the full detail for Jon to include in his battle report, but you get the picture. At the start of the game the Austrians control most of the table, but all their reserves are on the wrong side of the River Coppa with Fore's French Corp advancing rapidly to recover the ground only recently captured by the Austrians. 

Steve took the lead as Stadion and controlled the Left Wing of the army. He would be guarding the captured towns and the bridge at Casteggio. David took the right wing and would be entering the battle from the North, so he would initially face the Sardinians. I took the reserves in the center and it was my job to get everything over the coppa in good order. As Brigades came on in different turns this was no easy feat, trying to ensure the roads and crucial bridges remained clear. 

Most of the first day of gaming saw first Steve and then David in tough fighting on both flanks as the French corps barrelled (seemingly unstoppable) into the center of the table. Steve, controlling Scaffgotche's Brigade on the left flank was almost immediately under attack from a coordinated and concerted attack by Surjit. Somehow he clung on, holding back the French assault for several turns. Way at the back of the table, I breathed a sigh of relief because this was buying time for me to get my troops over the bridges. 

That relief was short-lived because almost as soon as I got my lead elements across the railway bridge I made a mistake... a big mistake. I moved a column of infantry forward to make space behind for more units crossing the river and presented a tempting target for the French. Ray's infantry punched forward and attacked my column, destroying it entirely in the ensuing melee! At this point in the battle, I was convinced we had lost the game. Most of our reserves were still struggling to cross the river and Steve's flank was being whittled down by Surjit's relentless attack. The only bright side was that the Sardinians at the Northern end of the battlefield (on the French left) were fast becoming non-existent with a series of painfully poor dice rolls. However we all felt there was still a lot to play for, so we agreed to continue the following week. 

Part two of the game and the Austrians under Steve had a plan. Basically, keep doing what we had been doing and hope I could get the reserves across the river Coppa and into play. I'll be honest, I wasn't hopeful (I was still smarting from the last game). Steve, on the left flank, continued his fighting retreat. We had lost control of Genestrello but were trying to form a second line anchored on Montebello. Meanwhile in the North David's Hesse Brigade was mopping up the remaining Sardinains and pushing in on the French in the center. My troops were largely still in a huge traffic jam on the wrong side of the river! 

Then the French started falling back. It was clear (with cooler heads prevailing) that they didn't have the reserves for an all-out assault on our position and were in danger of overextending themselves. However, if Surjit's attack in the south, along the heights, could make headway, then the French still had a chance. But in pulling back they also gave the Austrians just a little bit of legroom. I was able to get one reserve Brigade under Gaal, across the Casteggio bridge and up onto the heights to support the line on Montebello. Then I was able to get Bills Brigade across the bridge and started feeding units forward to press the French in the center and relieve Steve's weary troops.

I think Surjit knew he had to make one more attack now, while he still could. I had moved infantry, guns, and some hussars onto the high ground behind Montebello but I didn't really have anywhere to retreat to if they were thrown back. Surjit threw everything he could muster at my infantry south of Montebello. Thankfully I'd put an Artillery piece in that hex so that evened up the melee dice, and my leader added a moral bonus to the subsequent saving rolls. It was a draw, meaning the French, as the attackers, were thrown back, and the crisis was averted. I didn't know this at the time but that was pretty much it for Surjit's command. Maybe he could have mustered another assault, but by this point, fighting through first Steve's troops and now mine, he was pretty mauled. 

Shortly after that, the French decided to withdraw. They had seriously damaged the Austrians (we were within one unit of breaking and falling back!) but were now outnumbered and penned in from all sides. Withdrawl in the fog of war was the sensible option, and save their remaining troops for the next battle. 

As with previous games with Jonathan, I urge you to check out his blog Palouse Wargaming Journal for the full write-up of this and other battles. I'm sure he will have a lot of excellent pictures and a more reserved, impassionate observer's perspective, of the game than this biased version could present. Also, check out Richard's post on the game on his blog My Wargaming Habit


  1. Good report Lee, and well played.

    1. Thank you. Steve did most of the fighting and his defence of the heights between Genestrello and Montebello was crucial.

  2. Excellent recap of the battle, Lee! Once again, it was a real pleasure hosting you guys in a remote game. Gentlemen one and all. Both you and Richard beat me to the battle report. Good to see reports from each side. Maybe I can get my version of the battle drafted soon.

  3. Thanks Lee, I have read Jonathan’s AAR - a nice way to experience the command perspective of the battle, which of course only happens from a ton of work and enthusiasm from all involved … especially then writing it up to share.


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