Pierre Tête-de-bois, as he was fondly known to his friends, considered himself a clever fellow. After being drafted into the French Army, he had not only managed to weasel himself into the supply service, but even got promoted to Sergeant because of his ability to read and write. However, at the moment, he felt his cleverness had abandoned him. He had followed his orders to the letter, but now his wagon was standing at the top of a hill. Squinting into the distance, he could see what looked like soldiers. Lots of them. In white uniforms. And they were approaching.
This was not a place where a supply wagon was supposed to be and, in Pierre’s opinion, this was most definitely not a place where Pierre Tête-de-bois was supposed to be. He rummaged through his pockets, finally fishing out a crumpled piece of paper. Re-reading his orders, he made a double take. “Pierre mon ami,” he said, because he was one of those people who think that addressing themselves in the third person gives them an air of witty sophistication, “those orders are not addressed to you, but to a Capitaine Camille Cruchon. But if you are here, then where is Cruchon?”
“Where are we, Cruchon?” Dr. Pincecourt asked. “Are you sure this is the right way?” Massaging his temples, Capitaine Cruchon of the 24e Légère looked at the tree-lined cart track. “I’ve got my orders, Pincecourt. Here, look,” he said and handed Pincecourt a folded piece of paper. The doctor opened it and studied it. Then he startled: “You…! Look at the address! It says Sgt. Pierre Dubois. He’s from the supply train. Those aren’t your orders, Cruchon!” “What!” Cruchon snatched the paper out of Pincecourt’s hands and read the adress. “That fool Profiterole! He must have mixed up the orders!” Cruchon closed his eyes and pinched his nose. The Austrian wine he had treated himself to yesterday evening had given him a splitting headache. Then he turned towards the men and ordered the column to counter-march, which resulted in subdued grumbling. “You might want to go a bit easier on the wine,” Pincecourt murmured, but Cruchon was already spurring his horse to get ahead of his men. In the distance, the rumble of artillery fire could be heard.
Sgt. Nonnette had led his skirmishers around the right of the village and positioned them in the bushes along the bank of a small creek. He could hear artillery and small arms firing all along the line. The long awaited battle had finally started. “Keep steady, men,” he said, “here they come.”
And indeed, a column of Grenzer was approaching the bridge he was supposed to guard. His orders were to watch the French right flank and prevent any Austrians from slipping around. When his men opened fire, the Grenzer skirmishers immediately shot back, covering their infantry line, which was moving into the orchard. “We won’t be able to hold forever,” he thought, “Where is Cruchon?”
Capitaine Charles Bénes of the 2e Ligne, Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur, watched the Austrian line approach. It sure was an impressive spectacle, seeing them advance steadily and in splendid order, like on the parade ground. The driver of the supply wagon – how did he end up here? – looked nervous, but Bénes had forbidden him from leaving, as they might need some extra ammunition before the day was over.
He had positioning his men behind the crest of the hill, something he had seen the British do when he had fought them in Portugal the year before. “What’s on your mind?”, he asked Lieutenant Bonhomme, who seemed distracted. “Isn’t the light infantry supposed to take the village?” Bonhomme asked. There had been some delay with the orders and, ten minutes after they were finally delivered by Lt. Profiterole, another ADC – this time from Division – gallopped up and brought a new set. According to those, Bénes and Cruchon were tasked to take and hold the village at all costs. Bénes had suggested that he secure the left flank and, if possible, overwhelm the Austrians there while the light infantry would storm the village and fortify themselves in the church. However, following Bonhomme’s gaze, he could see no sign of the 24e Légère. He shook his head: “Where is Cruchon?”
Lieutenant Jean-Jacques Fougasse of the 24e Légère was getting nervous. From the sound of it, it seemed the Austrians were advancing rapidly and the French far left flank was slowly being pushed back. He could see the men of Bénes’ 2e Ligne behind the hill, making themselves ready to confront a huge Austrian line. But there was no sign of his Capitaine. “We can’t wait any longer,” he said to his men, “we are going in. Remember, we are Frenchmen and we fight for the Emperor!” With that, he led his small column over the bridge and formed line. He could see a group of Austrian Jaeger darting through the street and gave the order to fire.
When the smoke cleared, he watched the Jaeger scramble for cover. “So far, so good,” he thought, “but where is Cruchon?”
“This wasn’t here before!” Cruchon cursed as the column halted at a stream of languid brown water. “Looks like an arm of the Danube,” Pincecourt thoughtfully added. “You sure it ain’t an arm of the Seine, Doctor Obvious?” Cruchon snapped back. “We must have missed a turning.” The order to turn around again was greeted by more grumbling from the men. Cruchon wiped the sweat from his brow and turned to Pincecourt: “Doctor, I know you have…” “No chance, Cruchon,” came the firm answer, “the brandy is for medical purposes only.”
“Forward march!” Bénes coolly gave the order and his line crested the hill. The Austrians seemed surprised to be suddenly confronted with a long line of blue-frocked soldiers and halted. Bénes made the most of their momentary confusion and ordered a controlled volley.
The musket balls tore into the Austrian ranks, causing casualties and confusion. Before they could even react, the French delivered another volley. Bénes knew that it was vital to stop the Austrian advance in his sector. The French battle line to his left had fallen back, and from the looks of it, the village was still not under French control. Through gritted teeth, he muttered: “Where is Cruchon?”
Fougasse had driven the Austrian skirmishers out of the village street and used the short respite to send one group of his men into the church, telling them to barricade themselves as well as possible.
He knew that, with his few men, he could not hold against a determined Austrian counter-attack. “Damn it!” he shouted, throwing his hands into the air, “Where is Cruchon?”
Nonnette nodded at Sous-Lieutenant Picrate, who had just arrived with his skirmishers and taken position to the left of his own men. “Good to see you, Sous-Lieutenant. The situation is getting a bit dicey, as you can see.” He waved his hand in the direction of the orchard, where a line of Grenzer was keeping up a continous fire at the French skirmishers.
Another Grenzer line was forming behind the church. When they also opened fire, the French casualties started to mount. “We can’t hold any longer,” Picrate nervously said. “We can’t abandon our position,” Nonnette indignantly replied, “we have to hold the flank so Cruchon can secure the village.” Picrate, who looked almost panicky, answered in a high-pitched whine: “But where is Cruchon?”
Cruchon took a large sip of brandy while Pincecourt bandaged his right leg. “Stupid skittish horse,” he spat, “Why did I have to fall off now?” The doctor looked as if he had an opinion on that, but was unwilling to share it, which made Cruchon even angrier. He took another sip, just out of spite. Then he handed the bottle back and said: “Help me mount the horse, doctor, and let’s hurry up before this bloody battle is over.”
Capt. Bénes saw the Austrian line waver under the volume of French fire. He had also taken casualties, but nothing compared to the Austrian, who looked close to breaking.
“Beat the pas de charge,” he calmly ordered. Then, with a shout of “Vive la France!” he spurred his horse. The shout was taken up all along the line as the Frenchmen rushed upon the hapless Austrians. Already shaken and disordered, many threw down their weapons and surrendered themselves.
However, to his right, Bénes could see the Austrian commander rallying a couple of men around his flag, aided by a priest waving a cross. This handful of Austrians rushed forward and overwhelmed a group of French soldiers, who took to their heels. The small groups of fighting men, the smoke and the noise rendered the situation chaotic. In the distance, Bénes could see a group of Austrian hussars approaching. He knew that the moment of crisis had come. “Follow me!” he shouted and rushed towards the Austrian flag. Suddenly, out of the smoke, an Austrian officer on a large brown horse appeared. “Frenchman!” he shouted, “You remember Major von Eynhuf? Today, I will avenge the death of my dear second cousin’s spouse!” Raising his new sword in a gesture of mocking greeting, Bénes retorted: “Eynhuf was a soundrel, and so are you! Let’s end this here and now!” Then he made his horse rear and charged forward.
Time seemed to stand still and all eyes were on them as the two officers started to duel. The Austrian, Bénes quickly realised, was no beginner and fought with skill and determination. For a time, the duel went back and forth, with both combatants drawing blood and taking slashes. But then, Bénes’ superiour technique and his impressive sword combined to drive the Austrian to the defensive. “I’ll never surrender,” he cried. “So be it,” Bénes replied and drove his sword into the Austrian’s chest. Grabbing the flag with his left, he turned towards his men: “Victory is ours!” “And look,” Bonhomme suddenly shouted, “there is Cruchon!”
At the head of his men, Cruchon charged into the village. Out of the corner of his eyes, he saw the back of the Grenzer line which had almost overwhelmed the French right flank. “Charge!, “he cried, “Vive l’Empereur!”
The Grenzer, hearing a column of Frenchmen charging them from behind, fell back rapidly. When their commander heard that Hauptmann von Ankenreutter was dead and the Austrians on his left flank retreating, he recalled his men and abandoned the position at the village, which was finally in French hands.
When the sun set, the battle slowly subsided. It was, Cruchon heard from a passing ADC, a close-run thing. The French had been driven back to the Danube on the left flank, but because the 2e Ligne and the 24e Légère managed to hold the village, the Austrians could not break the army’s line. However, the position had become untenable and, during the night, Napoleon ordered the withdrawal of the French troops. Columns of dejected men, horses, artillery and wagons crossed the pontoon bridge back to the southern side of the Danube. In the midst of all this commotion, Cruchon wearily rode up to Bénes. Reaching out his hand, he said: “Capitaine, my congratulations. You saved the army! I am inconsolable that I could not contribute more.” “Mon cher ami,” Bénes answered, grasping Cruchon’s hand, “do not despair. The battle is over, but the war will go on. There is still work to be done and glory to be won.” Looking at the disheveld figure before him, he added: “But for now, we shall rest.”
I have played many games of Sharp Practice, but I don’t think I ever had one as crazy as this. It started with two chapter ends before we were even properly deployed and continued with the utter refusal of Cruchon’s card to come up. It came up early, but for reasons that made sense at the time I didn’t want to deploy him then. And that was it, turn after turn no Leader 4 card. In between, we even checked the deck to make sure the card was acutally inside, because we couldn’t believe it. I didn’t even get 3 command cards!
Despite the absent Cruchon, it was a cracking game. It was the largest game of Sharp Practice I have ever played, with about 200 figures on the table (well, at least when Cruchon was finally deployed). Sigur and I played together against K., who kindly took the role of the Austrians – a difficult taks, as she had to manage twice as many units and leaders as each of us.
I had also added some battle-specific random events, which caused the supply wagon to turn up right at the beginning and, near the end, an Austrian hussar group, which boosted K.’s morale but was too late to contribute to the fight. The random events also caused new orders to arrive for our side, changing our objective from reducing the enemy’s force morale to taking the church, which we managed without problems. Achieving an objective did not necessarily end the game, but provide us with “battle fortune”. Each side tracked their battle fortune, something the players did not have much influence on (apart from getting points for archieving the objective). The idea behind all this was to give the players the impression that they were part of a larger struggle beyond their control.
Bénes’ duel against the Austrian commander (the replacement for Major von Eynhuf, who was killed in Episode 8) was a fitting high point of the game and a great finale for the campaign.
The campaign is now at an end. Bénes has established himself as the clear winner and hero of the story, with a net total of 60 honour points, membership in the Legion of Honour, a new impressive sword and a sweetheart. Cruchon, on the other hand, has a meagre 27 honour points, was betrayed by the woman he was smitten with and lost his best friend to an Austrian prison camp – no wonder he has acquired a bit of an alcohol problem.
But who knows? As Bénes said, the war is going on. Perhaps, one day, we will play a season 2. For now, I want to thank Sigur for playing the campaign with me, K. for joining us for the finale and all of my readers for staying with us and especially for the numerous comments – I was humbled by your kind words!
And as always, don’t forget to read Sigur’s account of the game: https://www.tabletopstories.net/language/en/2021/09/sharp-practice-campaign-finale/