Sunday, September 10, 2017

Battle of Herdaler ca.1008 AD: Young Olaf finds trouble in Viking Age Finland

Heimskringla, the collection of Norse sagas about their kings contains an early written record of Finns at war. In the Saga of Olaf Haraldsson (St. Olaf, who is often credited for the christianization of Norway) is a tale of a raid by the vikings led by Olaf to Finland. Even though already a king, Olaf was under twenty and still a pagan when this raid took place around the year 1008. His ledung had plundered in Estonia before arriving to Finland. I'll let Heimskringla pick up the narrative from there:

After this they sailed to Finland and plundered there, and went
up the country. All the people fled to the forest, and they had
emptied their houses of all household goods. The king went far
up the country, and through some woods, and came to some
dwellings in a valley called Herdaler, -- where, however, they
made but small booty, and saw no people; and as it was getting
late in the day, the king turned back to his ships. Now when
they came into the woods again people rushed upon them from all
quarters, and made a severe attack. The king told his men to
cover themselves with their shields, but before they got out of
the woods he lost many people, and many were wounded; but at
last, late in the evening, he got to the ships. The Finlanders
conjured up in the night, by their witchcraft, a dreadful storm
and bad weather on the sea; but the king ordered the anchors to
be weighed and sail hoisted, and beat off all night to the
outside of the land. The king's luck prevailed more than the
Finlanders' witchcraft; for he had the luck to beat round the
Balagard's side in the night. and so got out to sea. But the
Finnish army proceeded on land, making the same progress as the
king made with his ships. So says Sigvat: --

"The third fight was at Herdaler, where
The men of Finland met in war
The hero of the royal race,
With ringing sword-blades face to face.
Off Balagard's shore the waves
Ran hollow; but the sea-king saves
His hard-pressed ship, and gains the lee
Of the east coast through the wild sea."
Raiding! Ambushes in the forest! Sorcerers! Good material for wargaming I say! And it so happens I've finished a whole bunch of Viking Age Finns (just generic dark age warriors really) I've been working on the past summer:
After my previous batch turned out a bit too colourful, I made the colours on this new batch a bit simpler. A lot of undyed wool and flax, and natural, earthy colours. I also didn't do decals on the shields because I was laz-- I mean because I wanted to emphasize how poor these backwater farmers and hunters are.
There's a healthy dose of archers in this group because a lot of Iron Age Finns were hunters.
Individually the figures are nothing special but I really like how these guys look like en masse. Here you see Lieto Lemminkäinen, their chieftain ordering them to form a shieldwall.

We played the scenario using the Lord of the Rings rules. I have never tried the rules before and was a bit hesitant to use them for a historical battle, but my friends assured me they should work well and they were right! The rules are a nice and simple way to play out a big skirmish battle suitable for the amount of figures me and my friends have completed for the period so far.

According to the Saga the vikings were ambushed in a forest so we set up a table with a forest and a path running through it. At the far end are the outskirts of the coastal village their ships are waiting, but the Finns led by their famous chieftain Lieto Lemminkäinen block the way out. The vikings must fight their way through and protect king Olaf in order to win. The Finns mus try to stop the vikings' escape.

The Finns' plan was to form a killzone at the head of the viking column, pepper them with arrows from the flanks and try to hinder the rear of the column from advancing to help the front. The game started off nicely with the vikings sending some of their forces to attack the Finns at their flanks. The Finnish main force converged on the head of the viking column but the archers made very few casualties against the Norse, many of whom wore armor.

At the head of the Viking column a proper battle ensued with supported ranks of warriors pushing each other. The Finns on the hill were in for a surprise though as the Vikings snatched initiative and charged the exposed archers with their berserkers before they had time to pull back! The Finnish hero leading the flank party was confronted by a bearskin-clad berserker champion and was slain.

Lemminkäinen knew he had to cut down the leader of the Norsemen to defeat them and fought his way through the Norse hirdmen to confront Olaf. The young king was not as experienced a warrior as Lemminkäinen was, but he had his hirdmen to help him and Finns were having trouble penetrating their armour.

In the end the Finns managed to completely surround Olaf's retinue and Lemminkäinen killed the young king in the middle of it all. It was starting to look like a massacre at that point so we called the game.

The scenario was very fun and had a lot of drama. The vikings made an error in letting their force become split up but I think the scenario could still be tweaked by letting the Finns have fewer troops to block Olaf's escape. As far as ambushes go, this was textbook material and a fine game to start our dark age gaming adventures.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Battle of Siikajoki 18.4.1808

Historical Background:

The Finnish army had been in a planned retreat for nearly two months since the start of the Finnish war. Several small engagements had been fought between the Finns and the Russians, including the battles of Leppävirta and Virre, in order to slow down the Russians and buy the army time. Now, the scattered Finnish army began to converge near the town of Oulu and the main army was no longer under the threat of being cut off by the Russian fifth division advancing through Savonia. The Russian supply lines were stretched out and spring was approaching. Soon, the ice covering the Gulf of Finland would melt and the Swedish navy would be able to break the siege at Viapori, the invincible bastion built on the islands near Helsinki. The situation was looking up for Sweden, but high commander Klingspor was still cautious and willing to pull the army back further north towards Tornio.

Adlercreutz at Siikajoki (Albert Edelfeldt, 1897-1900)

The army retreated again but hot on its heels, the tenacious cavalry commander Kulnev posed a serious threat to the Finnish baggage train. Von Döbeln and his Pori (Björneborg) infantry regiment took up position at the southern side of river Siikajoki to allow the baggage train to cross. The third brigade, led by Gripenberg and consisting of the Häme (Tavastehus) infantry who fought at Viirre, would cover Von Döbeln's retreat to the northern bank of the river. Then, Kulnev attacked the Finnish rearguard.

The Historical Battle:

Von Döbeln fought an exemplary rearguard action, stalling Kulnev's forces and feeding his men into the line sparingly. Kulnev sent a detachment of cavalry under the command of major Silin to flank the Finns via the frozen sea. Döbeln held his position near Siikajoki church until half past five in the afternoon. At this point his troops were wavering and he received orders to pull back on the northern side of the river. This was the moment Silin had been waiting for and he attacked with his cavalry. Adlercreutz sent reinforcements to counter the cavalry but nevertheless they struck a weak point in the Finnish positions, at one point threatening to overrun the Finnish command post with Klingspor himself there! The dragoons of Uusimaa drove away Silin's cossacks but Klingspor prudently relocated his command post from Pietola farm towards Liminka, ordering Adlercreutz to withdraw from the field.

The Russians took the southern bank of the river after Von Döbeln withdrew and artillery on both sides began to exchange fire. The Russians made a weak attempt to cross the river but were repulsed by the Finns who were preparing to pull back from the battle. At this point, Adlercreutz marked that the Russian army was spread out too thinly. Acting against his orders, Adlercreutz ordered elements from Gripenberg's third brigade to assault and retake the Siikajoki church. This was achieved by a bayonet charge as darkness fell over the snowy landscape. The Russians withdrew from the field but it was too late in the day for Adlercreutz to pursue.

The battle of Siikajoki was the first proper Swedish victory in the war, but Klingspor did not take advantage of it, ordering his army to withdraw from the field and resume marching north. Still, it was a vital morale boost for the army and a very auspicious beginning for the pushback that was to come.

The refight:

We fought the battle using Heroics and Ros 6mm and General De Brigade 2nd edition rules. The goal of the Russians is to push back the Swedish defenders from the southern bank of the river, cross over if possible and hold position if not possible. The Swedes should stall the Russian advance until reinforcements arrive and retreat in an orderly fashion without heavy losses. Note that we accidentally reversed Kulnev's and Turtschaninov's positions in our game. Commentary embedded in the images.

Wounded warrior on the snow (Helene Schjerfbeck, 1880)

The game took 21 turns and the entire day to play. It was a long scenario starting with the Russian attack after which the Finns got their chance to counterattack. This made for a varied scenario even if it took a long time to play. The game went pretty much according to history up until the counterattack of the Swedish army. That attack went terribly wrong and the Finns, who had been taking a lot more punishment than the Russians throughout the game, ended up losing almost triple the number of men than the Swedes. Losses-wise the battle was also much bloodier than the real thing (again, usual in wargames). The "figure losses" in GdB were 81 lost by the Finns against just 29 lost by the Russians. As one figure equals 20 men, that's bloody for this small war. I'll have to say this result didn't owe as much to my tactical brilliance as Kulnev as it did to my excellent dice rolling!

In the end we ruled that the end result would still be the same: The Russians would have to retreat as they couldn't possibly hold the field, but the Finns' morale and fighting capabilities would be hurt in the grand scheme of things.

Battlefield visit:

While going to my friends' wedding in Oulu this spring, I made a detour to Siikajoki with my wife onboard (bless her). The battlefield hasn't seen much development and all the fields, woods and roads are pretty much where they were two hundred years ago. The church is the same one too. As usual, it's very interesting to visit the battle site you wargame and to be able to see the distances in proper 1:1 scale. I think we did ok in our wargame. The only differences are that the terrain was pretty much totally flat aside from the banks of the river and the river itself was perhaps a bit too wide considering the groundscale of our wargame.

The first thing I noticed is that the Siikajoki church, depicted as being on a hill on the maps, isn't on a hill.

View to the east from the church. The field and the woods beyond are pretty much as they were back in 1808.

The woods south of the church. Here the Pori infantry skirmished against the Russians. You can imagine the benefits of maintaining a loose formation, especially in deep snow.

The church is still the same building as it was 200 years ago.
Behind the church lies the river. The banks of the river are steep and worthy of a good "defended obstacle" modifier. It's hard to see the river from the trees. I wonder if the backs were this wooded in 1808..
A better shot of the river a few kilometers upstream. It's wide and shallow, but perhaps not as wide as we made it out to be in our scenario.
"For the soldiers who fell in the battle of Siikajoki 1808"