Saturday 20 May 2023

The Battle of Milan

Fear not, gentle reader, if you are totally bored by this sequence of Italian Wars campaigns and battles, for this is the last of the sequence. As I might have mentioned, at the beginning of 1501 the French were within a whisker of controlling 12 cities, and in Spring of that year took Lucca. It therefore became clear to the other powers that whatever happened, if the game was to continue, someone had to stop France. This was a bit independent of their diplomatic relationship with the French, although that still bore some weight.

In the Summer 1501 turn the Neapolitan Spanish drew an initiative card, and swooped on Perugia. This was hardly designed to stop France, but I felt they needed to beef up their forces next winter and they were not strong enough to tackle the French armies in the boot of Italy.

Next turn the Holy Roman Empire drew an intitiative card, as did Naples and Venice. Neither of the latter were in any position to do anything against the French, so it was down to the Imperialists, even though the diplomatic table showed friendly relations. On the other hand, the French garrison in Milan was unsuppoted and the HRE could throw two armies at it. On a third hand, Trent was an autonomous garrison that had somehow survived this long, and that two was a tempting target.

Balancing things up I decided to go for an invasion of Milan. This is, of course, totally historically accurate: a lot of the Italian Wars were abogut the control of Milan. Thus one-and-a-half Imperialist armies faced off against one French.

When I dew up the army lists for this one I discovered a slight issue. The Imperialist list was based on the DBR list and had a lot of cheap Landsknecht pike. The French list had a lot of expensive Swiss pike. Thus a one point five Imperial army had 12 pike bases, against the French four Swiss pike. Having set the game up I spent some time pondering whether, both tactically and strategically, the French should simply withdraw.

The terrain set up encouraged me, as French commander, to persevere. The gap between the village and some enclosures was rather narrow, and I reckoned that half the Imperial foot would not get through, leaving my four elite Swiss pike against six ordinary Imperial. The cavalry battle was evenly matched, so it was, I thought, worth the risk.

As it turned out I was partially right. The Swiss landed up facing half the Imperial foot, plus a couple of skirmisher bases in the enclosures. The cavalry battle was, well, not exactly even. As the above photograph tells, the Imperial skirmishers, both foot and horse, caused a considerable amount of disruption to the French advance. Half the Swiss have been delayed, as have half the gendarmes. This latter was key, as after the usual standing and daring the enemy to charge, the Imperial cavalry did just that and hit the lead French gendarmes very hard indeed. Part of the problems, as well, was that the French had not deployed into line, so both lead bases were in jeopardy without gaining any benefit from being in column – gendarmes of the time charged en haye, as we know.

The result was a disaster. The lead French gendarmes were routed, and their general killed. The rest of the French cavalry fared no better, and the Swiss were starting to come under fire from the Imperial arquebuses, as well as the skirmishers. French morale dropped to withdraw, and so they did.

I did have a few wonderings as to whether the French should have committed to battle here. On the other hand the Swiss did not, historically, usually withdraw, as they got paid extra for battle days. The French gendarmes, too, were usually a bit gung-ho for action. Did they stand a chance?

I am sort of sure they could have done. Half of the Imperial infantry was going to find it hard to get into action. If the French had won the cavalry action they might have been able to hold the Imperial infantry with the Swiss frontally, while hitting the column from the flank with rallied gendarme bases. But we shall never know.

As count of cities at the end of the year indicated that, even though France had lost Milan, they still held twelve cities and so had won the scenario. I did wonder whether to continue. The Imperialists would have to work quite hard to keep Milan and the Neapolitan Spanish were limbering up to have a go at the French in Naples and Bari, as well as probably starting a war in the Papal States. On the other hand the Florentines had done nothing and the Venetians were still licking their wounds, so I decided to wind the game up there, at least temporarily. I have the positions noted so it can be reconstructed when and if the whim takes me.

So, what did I learn?

There was a fair bit for reflection here. Firstly, the game was as basic as it could be, with stereotyped armies and province to province movement. I could have made it more sophisticated, but I do not think that would have made the strategic decisions different. The game did not have any random events (famine, plague), financial considerations or assassination which the original has. I might well try to develop methods of solo play along those lines, but it would really involve a lot more work with personalisation.

One of the good things of the campaign was that the strategic moves were fairly short. All I had to do was turn over seven playing cards and move a few units on the board. I noted one or two of the strategic decisions along the way. Then, if there were any conflicting moves, I just worked out the forces, multiplied up the army numbers, rolled the terrain and got set up. It kept the campaign rattling along nicely.

I am fairly sure that there is more to extract from the experience, and I will probably ponder and pontificate a bit more in the coming weeks. Until then, I need to find my Thirty Years War map of Germany...


  1. Funny dynamics there - a resounding battlefield disaster to round off strategic victory!! Elements of New Orleans?!?! Still, interesting reading, many thanks for writing these up.

    1. In a sense the loss of Milan was due to the rest of the activity of the French. Even though they have the most armies on the board, they are a bit thinly stretched, and so Milan was isolated and unsupported. Of course, it could be blamed on poor strategic management by yours truly.
      It does show that simple maps and moves can lead to interesting strategic and tactical decision making, though.