Chestnut Lodge Wargames Group

Island Fortress 1

Island Fortress Concept

I’ve always had a bit of a blind spot around the Seven Years War (1756-63). Though I loved the Last of the Mohicans, set to the backdrop of the savage struggle between France and Great Britain for control of North America, I found the scope of the war intimidating and overwhelming. Following a planning game at CLWG (by Jim Wallman on Operation Market Garden) and some wikipedia rabbit-holes, I came up with a design challenge for myself which would finally give me a way to start understanding this conflict – the real first world war with battles in both western and eastern Europe, North America, the Caribbean and India – which was the key to Britain’s world dominance and empire.

My idea was to run two parallel planning games for the proposed (but never executed) French invasion of the British Isles in 1759, followed by a separate game of the invasion itself, should a credible plan emerge. This also gave me the opportunity to fulfil another CLWG ambition: to run a “campaign” where decisions in one session carried over to the next, which I’d had since (also Jim Wallman’s) eighteenth century Colonels game in the late 1990s. This was to be informed by internet research but also the excellent 1759 pop history by Frank McLynn, which covers all the main theatres but helpfully focuses on this key year in the conflict.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Context

I wanted to simulate the interaction between the British defenders and the potential French invaders – historically the British fleet had carried out a doubly aggressive strategy. To blockade the French ships in their two major bases of Brest and Toulon, whilst continuing their descents onto French harbours such as Cherbourg, destroying naval facilities and transports. The French tried a range of diplomatic overtures, including the Jacobites (Bonnie Prince Charlie being still at large), the Dutch, the Danes and the Swedes. They also constructed a large number of barges, at great expense, though many were burnt at Le Havre by a British attack.

Whilst the planned invasion may seem in hindsight to be implausible or even impossible, the French and British preparations during 1758 and 1759 show that both sides regarded it as a serious possibility. The French only called off the attack after two devastating naval defeats, at Lagos (Feb) and Quiberon (Nov) where the Toulon and Brest fleets were crushed in failed attempts to break out from their respective blockades. British politicians passed a series of laws to assist with raising both regular and miitia forces, not only to serve in the campaigns to defend Hanover, but also to protect Britain itself from French attack and possible further Jacobite uprisings (remember this is only 13 years after Culloden, before which the Scots rebels reached Derby as part of the ’45 rebellion).

Prime Minister Pitt’s relentless focus on colonial campaigns meant that the home army only numbered around 10,00 troops, most not of the highest quality, so if substantial French forces could get ashore then Britain might be knocked out of the war. France was desperate, as it was losing ground in Flanders, Britain’s key ally Prussia was managing to hold off the larger Austrian and Russian forces to stay in the war, in India French campaigns were faltering badly and in both the Caribbean and Canada British naval superiority was pushing French resistance to the brink. So the invasion was a final throw of the dice – probably the only way they could win the war and save their colonies and prestige.

Campaign

So I launched into research and game design. One of the joys of planning games is that they require far less preparation, knowledge and detailed systems than most strategy games. Basically you only really need a map (or two), a basic bit of information on starting forces and resources, plus an ability to judge outcomes and progress on the fly. I did build a very simply monthly action-based system for the planning games, in order to give players choices between moving/attacking, building, recruiting, spying and diplomacy. The players were divided into Army, Navy and Diplomats, with some minor restrictions on what actions they could carry out. The core idea was 3-6 players per side, with the monthly turns being played simultaneously and hidden (e.g. the players sitting on separate tables).

As it turned out, there were only 6 players available on the day at CLWG so I made the difficult (but retrospectively correct) decision to only run the French planning game, hoping to possibly run the British counterpart another time. This was frustrating, but one of the most frequent problems in CLWG and megagame design is dealing with an uncertain number of players!

So Brian, as the Duc du Choiseul, started to plan the invasion, starting at the end of 1758. The key decision was taken to follow the original plan (e.g. for the invasion barges to proceed without the fleet) but with the key twist of focusing efforts (via Nick and Pickles) on persuading the Dutch to join the invasion, whilst Jaap and Marlene distracted the British with the navy and Dave began building barges (and defensive batteries to protect them) across the eastern part of the Channel. Cherbourg was fortified as a distraction, whilst the barges were concentrated in Ostend, Dunkirk and Boulogne. French naval breakouts repeatedly failed, though no decisive engagement took part. Thurot’s pirates raided Suffolk, Sussex and Kent successfully.

I played a cautious counter-game as the British, continuing their historic policy of descents, which inflicted damage on Le Havre and Ostend (drawing ire from France’s Austrian allies), but failed to discover French plans. With good tactics and some lukcy dice rolls, the Dutch were brought into the scheme with the promise of British possessions in India. Several key pro-British Dutch politicians were assassinated as the Republic found the prospect of a globally dominant Britain sufficiently worrying to risk their fleet to help their old foes, the French.

This element is the one I feel most queasy about, looking back on the game. Was it really possible the Dutch could have joined the war? Two thoughts comforted me: 1) the French had historically thought this could work and 2) the Dutch had been Britain’s great trading rivals before and would be so again not long after this war finished. So perhaps not as illogical or impossible as one might fear.

After Dave’s well-sited artillery deterred further British attacks, the French finally had to be reminded they needed to load the troops onto the ships! They did so by the end of July 1759, setting the scene for the invasion. I won’t reveal their plan now – they decided to keep it secret from the Dutch (probably wise given the likelihood of leaks to the Brits) until they were at sea.

Next time: the British planning game

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