One of the greatest experience in our beautiful hobby is amassing hundreds of painted miniatures and refight a historical battle. This is what we did at the 1st May, which is a bank holiday in Germany. We met at Neils home, who had already prepared the battlefield, and unpacked about 600 28mm figures (of which about two thirds were from my collection and another third from Norberts). Both Norbert and me had been painting and basing feverishly in the last weeks in order to field the required troops. The research has been done by Neil, who used the historical texts of Tacitus as well as the brillant books of Stephen Dando Collins to recreate both the battlefield and the order of battle as exactly as possible.
The historical event we recreated is the Battle of Bedriacum, also called the second battle of Cremona. It was fought during the civil war 69 AD in the year of the four emperors and was the decisive victory for Vespasian over Vitellius, placing the Flavians firmly on the throne.
As the battle is very well documented by Tacitus, I’ll let this great man do the talking and will only comment myself were our battle was different from the historical events. So please Cornelius, if you would be so kind…
Cornelius Tacitus (The histories, book three, 1-35): Luck and loyalty attended the leaders of the Flavian interest as they proceeded to form their plan of campaign. They had met at Poetovio, the winter-quarters of the Thirteenth Legion. There they debated [...]. The keenest advocate of war, Antonius Primus, urged that speed would be helpful to themselves and fatal to Vitellius. [...] Antonius began his lightning invasion of Italy with the help of detachments from the cohorts and a part of the cavalry. [...] These steps were taken without the knowledge of Vespasian or else against his instructions, for his orders at this time were that the advance was to be halted at Aquileia to allow Mucianus to catch up. [...] The same advice was conveyed in repeated dispatches from Mucianus, who, while ostensibly advocating a bloodless victory, the need for keeping casualties down and so on, was in fact greedy of glory and anxious to monopolize any distinction the campaign afforded. However, the great distances involved meant that official instructions arrived when events had already taken place.
[...] Vitellius had called for reinforcements from Britain, Gaul and Spain. A war of boundless havoc seemed imminent. But Antonius, anticipating this, snatched a timely victory by forcing an engagement. A two days’ march from Verona brought him to Bedriacum with the whole of his army.[...] It was approximately 11 a.m. when a rider galloped up with the news: the enemy were approaching, headed by a small advance party, and movement and tumult could be heard over a wide area.[...] Four miles from Cremona, the glint of standards marked the approach of the Hurricane and Italian Legions, which had marched out as far as this during the initial success of their cavalry. But when luck turned against them, they did nothing.[...] As the light faded, the Flavian army arrived in full strength. Once they began to march over the heaps of dead and the fresh traces of bloodshed, they thought that the fighting was over and clamoured to press on towards Cremona to receive, or enforce, the surrender of the beaten enemy. [...] At about 8.30 p.m., by which time the Flavians were ready and in position, the Vitellians hurled themselves violently on their foe.
That is the starting point of our battle. Since it was already dark, we simulated the confusion by both giving each army only a confined space to deploy and (in accordance with the night-fight rules in DBMM, the ruleset we used) limiting the visibility to 160 paces (12cm) – making both movement slow and constraining the range of fire for the artillery.
Here is the setup with a little stream(dug for the drainage of the fields) on the Vitellian side and the street to Cremona on the Flavian side.
Tacitus continues: Throughout the night, the fighting was varied, indecisive and bitter, inflicting destruction on either side in turn. Clear heads and strong arms availed nothing, and even eyes were helpless in the dark. On both sides weapons and uniform were identical, frequent challenges and replies disclosed the watchword, and flags were inextricably confused as they were captured by this group or that and carried hither and thither. The formation under heaviest pressure was the Seventh Legion recently raised by Galba. Six centurions of the leading companies were killed, and a few standards lost. Even the eagle was only saved by Atilius Varus’ desperate execution upon the enemy and at the cost, finally, of his own life.
Antonius stiffened the wavering line by bringing up the pretorians. After relieving the Seventh, they drove the enemy back, only to be driven back themselves.
The reason for this was that the Vitellians had concentrated their artillery upon the highway so as to command an unobstructed field of fire over the open ground. Their shooting had at first been sporadic, and the shots had struck the vine-props without hurting the enemy. The Sixteenth Legion had an enormous field-piece which hurled massive stones.
These were now mowing down the opposing front-line, and would have inflicted extensive havoc but for an act of heroism on the part of two soldiers. They concealed their identity by catching up shields from the fallen, and severed the tackle by which the engine was operated. They were killed immediately and so their names have perished, but that the deed was done is beyond question.
We actually replicated this event by smuggling a Psiloi behind enemy lines, and this “commando” was actually able to destroy an artillery!
Neither side had had the advantage until, in the middle of the night, the moon rose, displaying— and deceiving— the combatants. But the light favoured the Flavians, being behind them; on their side the shadows of horses and men were exaggerated, and the enemy fire fell short though the gunlayers imagined that they were on target. But the Vitellians were brilliantly illuminated by the light shining full in their faces, and so without realizing it provided an easy mark for an enemy aiming from what were virtually concealed positions.
With the rising of the moon, we had better visibility. Yet it did not change much, the hand to hand fighting was already going on. On the left Flavian flank the Vitellians didn’t have enough time to bring all their troops over the sewer, their lines were thinned, wavered and eventually collapsed.
Antonius and his men could now recognize each other. So he seized the chance of spurring them on, some by taunts and appeals to their pride, many by praise and encouragement, all by hope and promises. Why, he asked the Pannonian legions, had they taken up arms in their resentment? [...] Then he spoke with greater sharpness to the pretorian guards. ‘As for you,’ he said, ‘you are finished as soldiers unless you beat the enemy. What other emperor and what other camp is there to which you can transfer? There, among the foe, are the standards and equipment which are really yours, and for the beaten the sentence is death.
Everywhere there were cries of enthusiasm, and as the sun rose, the Third greeted it with cheers in accordance with Syrian custom. This led to a vague rumour (perhaps intentionally spread by the Flavian commander) that Mucianus had arrived and that the cries were greetings exchanged by the two armies. The men moved forward under the impression that they had been reinforced by fresh troops, the Vitellian line being now thinner than before, as one might expect of a force which in the absence of all leadership bunched and spread according to individual impulse or panic. When Antonius sensed that the enemy were reeling, he proceeded to throw them into confusion by the use of massed columns of troops. The loosely-knit ranks broke, and could not be closed again owing to the obstacles presented by vehicles and guns. Down the long straight road, drawing away from each other in the fervour of pursuit, charged the victors.
This really was the final highlight of the battle: After a given time we announced that now the sun had risen and that the third legion had started their sun-preyer that was interpreted by the Vitellians as reinforcements. To simulate this, we gave the Vitallians two additional ME casualities, which actually made the army break. Thus it was a really historical ending, even if some of our generals could not give up their loyalities, reflecting it even in their choice of beverages…
All in all, it was a great success. Neil and his wife Amanda were perfect hosts as always (many thanks!), for Norbert and me it was great to see our long prepared troops finally in action and our co-generals Arnim, Florian, Thomas and Kai were very pleased to play with 28mm figures, which all the same proved to be quite a challange since they normally play in 15mm and had thus to switch their planning to these rather different ranges and appearances. DBMM proved the right rulesystem for this battle, and we were very surprised that in spite of the massed troops and the slower movement the battle was over in less than three hours. This gave us the oppertunity to play another, more generic battle with the same armies, which also was very enjoyable. What a great day!