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Imperial Prince From Brooklyn

Posted January 2nd, 2011 at 09:19 AM by chas
Updated January 2nd, 2011 at 09:53 AM by chas
"(He) was a brilliant leader of men, receiving maximum loyalty and effort from bewildered, exhausted and half-starved troops fighting in appalling conditions for survival"
--Roger Parkinson, The Fox of the North

Only a few years after the beginning of the 21st Century,the diminutive millionaire Mayor of the City of New York, Michael Bloomberg, looked up at a much taller man who had come up to the podium next to receive the Multicultural Awareness Award plaque from him before an auditorium full of City employees. Dressed in a suit, the fellow was nevertheless sporting a bushy set of the full sideburns not common in public for over a hundred years before. This hirsute appearance made the man stand out starkly in an era of fashionable short hair. With a questioning look in his eyes, His Honor shook the fellow's hand and said "Congratulations," as he did to the other hundreds of recipients that day. "Thank you," said the chap whose name and agency had just been announced over the microphone, as he took the award and moved off the stage. For the story of why this bizarre occurence took place, we travel back in time one year...

General Prince Mikhail Ilarionovich Kutuzov, Commanding the Armies of Alexander, the Czar of All the Russias, was the military hero of Tolstoy's War and Peace. He was an old bear of a man who had been in political disfavor due to military blunders made by others, but was brought back to rally and save his nation during the crisis of foreign invasion. In 1812 he fought the defensive battle of Borodino, opposing La Grand Armee--the largest army Napoleon ever assembled--to a standstill. Kutusov had kept enough of his own army intact after hundreds of thousands of men had hurled themselves upon each other in one of the greatest martial contests in history, to continue further resistance, as he fell back to let the Russian winter do its work on the advancing French. This would eventually, after they actually took Moscow, doom the invaders to annihilation in the famous Retreat From Moscow.

Prince Kutuzov. As a well known young scalawag at the court of Catherine the Great, he was the protege of the famous Marshall Suvarov. Once he performed a faithfull imitation of a commanding officer, to the great laughter of his fellow officers, and the anger of the CO who had of course come into the room behind him and seen the entire performance! The CO was not amused, and PK became a more serious fellow from then on. Wounded in the eye while bravely fighting the Turks hand to hand, he travelled abroad to get treatment. He stopped off on the way to discuss strategy with Frederick the Great, and then went on to England, where he read of the exploits of one George Washington, whose quick defeat as "The Fox" by the British was constantly predicted. Yet somehow the rebel general always got away...

Was he the beloved Old Man who saved Napoleonic Era Russia? Or the sot who dawdled well behind the lines during the battle with a pair of doxies? The cunning Fox who escaped Napoleon's plan for a decisive battle time after time on campaign? Or the sleepy old relic who had slept through staff conferences before defeat at Austerlitz? The the heroic warrior who was circled by eagles on parade as a sign of Divine Favor? Or the subordinate who had no respect for the military knowledge of his young Czar? Yes.

As a wargamer, with a Masters in History and a keen interest in military history, I've played thousands of games with either toy soldiers or board games on tabletops over many years, simulating great battles from almost every period of human endeavor, and even hypothetical fantasy and science fiction actions. I've also attended national and regional hobby conventions where hundreds gathered to participate in this activity, as well as hosted many small games at home over the years with my huge collection of toy soldiers. As a participant in a series of unusual conference weekends centering on one giant battle, I'd written an online newsletter for the events, and participated either as a player or judge in gatherings devoted to Waterloo, Gettysburg, Arnheim, and so on. Now I'd wangled a conference staff assignment as a Side Commanding General at one of these events. In some ways, it was the height of my hobby career. And as a corporate staff trainer in real life, I was prepared for it.

Serving the conference as one of only two Commanders, I would be directing the activities of an entire side of about 25 actual people playing on tables ranging around the floor of a small ballroom. Previously, I had been directing the online group planning of our side's pregame strategic deployment, now ran a final face to face briefing session for teammates playing Corps and Divisional generals, soon after they they arrived at the start of the event weekend. And because I had some acting experience, I researched my own personal role, learning about the man. As an extra prop, I grew very long full sideburns, in the Napoleonic Era fashion--hence my odd appearance on the stage that day with the Mayor of NYC. As I appeared at the hairdresser's for a final trim before the drive down to Fortress Monroe, VA, I explained what look I was going for--to a young woman hairstylist that turned out to be Russian-American, and who enjoyed working on such a "special job."

Besides trying to provide a framework for my fellow Russian generals to win the battle, I my role was helping the other players on my side to have fun, while backing them up during the pressures of the game. In many ways, this was similar to what I did as a teacher and event organizer on my real job. The conference event was held on a US Army base, the famous site of the only Union fortress held in Virginia before and during the entire American Civil War. Robert E. Lee had been stationed here once before the sectional conflict, and Jefferson Davis had been held a prisoner here after the war, and it was the site of the US Army's artillery museum. The Conference had been organized at the very top by actual serving and retired army officers in the gaming hobby, and would be a rare opportunity to play out a historical event on such a realistic scale, which would include not only tactical maneuvering, but the operational communication and real time decision making that was so crucial in real life, but so rarely offered at a learning activity. So I'd be sitting at the Headquarters Table in the rear, allowed to watch the toy troops marching and fighting on the other tables only with my binoculars! As messages came in from various Corps and Divisional generals of "my" army, I'd direct their movements and the entry of reinforcements onto the field. In opening ceremonies held on the anniversary of the actual historical battle, a Russian military attache had been scheduled to attend. Various lectures and other side activities would take place in other rooms of the hotel during the weekend. And I'd be one of only two individuals allowed to find out what it was really like in simulation to command an army in a great battle.

Each team arrived, checked in at both the hotel and event admissions desks. They received and donned their new custom polo shirts in green or navy blue, the historical uniform colors of the Russian and French armies, respectively. A third smaller team of Game Officials were off to the side, running laptop computers that catalogued our maneuvers and read out the results for casualties, level of formation exhaustion, length of advances and retreats, and other chaotic happenings that came about through the combined efforts of the two armies on perhaps two dozen large tables, where tiny meticulously painted uniformed figures mounted on their bases faced each other in sham battle. The gaily colored Napoleonic miniatures showed off the painting and organizing skills of dozens of owners who had contributed their own armies to this Great Battle.

Being relatively new to the period, I had done a lot of research on the battle, and discovered that the most famous "what-if" was the plan of Napoleon's redoubtable Marshal Davout to concentrate the army on the Southern Flank and push through that way. (By coincidence, he was the commander of that sector. Its amazing how often a military figure submits a plan whereby his own troops are made the main effort of the army. Think about the more modern World War II rivalry between Montgomery and Patton, for example, and you'll get the idea). So I predicted that our opponents would Go For It. But wanting everyone to have a piece of the action, I also allowed for a large contingent for the central sector, where the back and forth fighting over the famous Great Redoubt showcased the renowned Russian stubbornness in defense that was the most memorable hallmark of the entire historical battle.

I will now assume the false and satirical modesty of pacifist H.G. Wells, OUR FOUNDER in military gaming, in his book Little Wars, where one can see pictures of him in his straw Edwardian boater lying amidst the formations of his toy army. You may think that such a wargame would make one into a militarist, but the opposite is true. If one becomes familiar with the hardships and craziness of a military conflict, one can only want to avoid that kind of thing in real life! Why, just put your name on the bottom of any figure at random, and note that at the end you are probably--dead).

I will therefore say that if the following commentary showcases my genius as a mock Great Man of History, it is only coincidence, and reported in a totally neutral and professional voice! My Chief of Staff (organizational general top aide) was an army officer in real life and expert in the period. This was a mock historical pairing one often sees in actual military history--a popular and inspirational general backed up by a Chief with the needed technical expertise, such as for example, the Germans Hindenburg and Ludendorff in World War I. At any rate, in the online months before the actual event, we had planned to put most of our Russian army in the south and center, with only a covering force in the north. This took some daring, as the main road to Moscow behind us was in the north sector! This was why Napoleon had actually ignored Davout's suggestion--the roads in the South lead only to a thick block of even more units in the Russian Center!

To make a long story short, in the event the French did indeed go for Davout's Plan, and messed us up tactically in the South, due to their superior concentration there. In the North we had by strange happenstance a Turkish player visiting who spoke only rudimentary English, but was an expert in the historical light horse tactics which had been a hallmark of his country's own history. We gave him our Cossacks and other light cavalry, and he played havoc with the advancing French there for quite a while! This was definitely a case of the Right Man being in the Right Place at the Right Time. Meanwhile in the South, Cousin Jim and his peasant militia and other troops held his woods area so doggedly that he was later to be elected Most Valuable Russian Player. He was the only Russian whose troops were able to hold some of the positions where he had started the game right to the end. Not a step back! They shall not pass! Cue the 1812 Overture for Jim! He even got his picture in the local Virginia newspaper.

So although we took some lickings in the South, their concentration there, combined with a pressured but competent play on our part, meant that the French were eventually halted before they could destroy our army. Like George Washington in the American Revolution, just keeping our army in being so that the fight would continue meant eventual victory for us when combined with 'General Winter' later in the year, as it had in real life.

When toward the end, the gaming pal playing Napoleon invited up to his hotel room for a cognac and a very ahistorical commander's conversation, we agreed that we were having a fun time and that things had gone pretty well. If you serve on jury duty, you may see, after the case is over, the judge and attorneys making farewell remarks and patting themselves on the back for a long job well done. At the farewell JodieCon Borodino dinner, the battle was judged a historical result, in that the French had won many tactical victories, but our army was still intact and blocking the road to Moscow, so we had won strategically.

That was good enough for me. Prizes were given out and final comments made. I was called upon for brief remarks. Death to the Corsican Monster! Triumph for Holy Mother Rossiya! Both sides felt they had won, which would mean good feeling on everyone's parts, and arguing rights that would continue into the future for all participants!

And I travelled home to shave.
Total Comments 1


kolakoski's Avatar

Extremely Belated Congratulations on Your Triumph!

Well met!

As I sit here listening to a Billy Taylor memorial broadcast, here's hoping that all our Triumphs aren't in the past. Congratulations again!
Posted January 2nd, 2011 at 07:18 PM by kolakoski kolakoski is offline
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