Friday, September 5, 2014

Sharpe's Classroom

One of the cool innovations at my school in recent years has been the way summer reading assignments have been handled.  In the past, every kid read the same book, usually something supposed to be inspirational.  Given that we read two books by narcissistic frauds within the space of three years (Three Cups of Tea and Twelve by Twelve), I looked forward to these assignments even less than my students did.

Then, an administrator had a brilliant idea: why not encourage students to read books that they might find engaging. Forty faculty members each chose a book that they would like to read themselves, then students signed up for the books they were interested in.  Some teachers chose books on science and the environment, a few chose science fiction novels. There were two this year who chose Christian-themed books and several books that centered around sports. It should come as a surprise to no-one that I usually choose a book about military history. Last year it was Ambrose's Pegasus Bridge, this year I chose Cornwell's Sharpe's Eagle. While hardcore Napoleonic fans will scoff and roll their eyes whenever they catch the scent of Sharpe, I honestly can't think of a better introduction to the period for young adults. Cornwell's books move quickly, they have an engaging central character, and they have plenty of historical data that is approachable.

Then, on the day after registration day, our Upper School dedicates a whole day to summer reading. We are meant to have a short discussion, followed by fun activities for the rest of the day.  I led off with the BBC production of Sharpe's Eagle, warning them in advance about the limitations of a BBC budget. Then, for kicks, we watched the Sean Bean death reel. If nothing else, the Sharpe TV series does an admirable job of keeping an actor alive who is usually killed off by the second reel.

Students who know me could predict what came next: a miniatures-based simulation of the Battle of Talavera.  While I adhered more to my historical model more closely than the BBC did, I must confess I took several shortcuts, including adding my beloved Bavarians to Spain and having Napoleon's Old Guard pop up.

The rules were based off of Black Powder, but I took a few shortcuts (like dropping rules for disorder) and simplifying rules for formations.  I also used the activation system used in our Ambler Gamers club games--for most units, roll 3 dice and get one action for every 4+ rolled.

First: the setup:
Looking south towards Talavera.  My daughter insisted that the town play host to a London Police Call Box.

Looking north along the British lines.

The northern end of the British lines. Please note my careful initial placement on the reverse slope of the hill. Cornwell made a big deal of this tactic, as Wellington later claimed that he had perfected his use of it in the 1809 battle.

The whole battlefield. For the sake of this simulation, I was happy to embrace the old myth of massed French battering ram columns against British firepower in line.  There's my daughter in the right background.

Et voila les Francais!

Monsieur l'Empereur, you do realize that you are facing in the wrong direction?

Merci, mon ami!

The north end of the French lines, looking towards my daughter. I really love my oval Harkness table. Great for classroom discussions, great for holding toy soldiers.

A large gap between the English and their Spanish allies. Might the French exploit it?

And then the students arrive. Here are the Anglo-Spanish generals. Poor Shayne was the only girl among a group of ten rowdy boys.  I think she had chosen the book because she had enjoyed the freshman history course I had taught her two years before.  I knew that she was plucky enough to stand her ground.

The French generals. They had a lot of fun saying the word "dragoon" over and over again.

After the first turn.  The French took a long time to advance.  Not only did they get crap command rolls, but they seemed terrified of the English guns all out of proportion to the threat they posed.  With only three batteries, the guns along could not hope to do much to stem a determined advance.

After turn two. The French are starting to get over their hesitancy. Note that many of the English battalions have crept over the crest of the hill to get a better look at the French.  Did these kids even read the freakin' book?

The British have advanced to the narrow stream, which was not a major obstacle to movement, but it did prevent charges across it. In the center of the table, a fierce firefight erupted over the stream.   Note that two English battalions in the center have actually crossed, exposing themselves to the dragoons (DRAGOOOONS!) on the French side. In the distance, some French columns have charged the Spanish.  One Spanish battalion took a beating and retreated, but the other two held on.

Pinned by British muskets, the French light horse finds itself flanked by the British light dragoons and hussars.  A back and forth cavalry battle erupts, with neither side conceding defeat until the last turn.

The dragoons (DRAGOOOONS!) rout one British battalion.  The other gets lucky, and their defensive volley causes the charge of the French horse to come up short.

meanwhile, on the French left, the attacking columns shake out of their initial formations and form line.  Again, there is a fierce exchange of musketry. Both sides find a majority of their units at the breaking point.

We call it quits around 2:00 in the afternoon.  Other reading groups had ended, and we had about six spectators for the finale.  The Brits clearly had an advantage on their left flank, where they had repulsed the french and were in pursuit.  However, the units around Talavera  had collapsed, and the French were able to take the town. The center fought to a draw across the streambed.  Overall, I called it a draw. 

Nous avons Le TARDIS!

The victorious Light Brigade...but alas both units are shaken and will have to retire.
 All in all, it was a fun day. The kids had a blast with the game, and they learned a lot in the process. Sharpe got good reviews and at least one kid said he picked up other titles. I also got a few inquiries about the Military History course I teach (and a possible new recruit or two for my simulation games club).

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