Warriors wage Battle of Borodino for fun Lilliputian troops take over Fort Meade

September 07, 1992|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,Staff Writer

Half a million soldiers are fighting a historic battle at Fort Meade this holiday weekend.

The troops are strictly 19th-century cavalry and artillery men from France and Russia, but their commanders come from places like Baltimore, Columbia, Silver Spring, Georgia and even England.

War game strategists gathered Saturday at Fort Meade and are still joined today in a tabletop war with miniatures -- on the anniversary of the Battle of Borodino, a major fight in Napoleon's drive on Moscow 180 years ago.

The outcome this time doesn't appear to be much different from what it was on Sept. 7, 1812, when Napoleon drove the Russians from Borodino, a town near Gorki. Even new strategies can't rewrite history -- despite planning that began two years ago.

But that was just fine for the 150 people who turned out for the battle over the weekend, commanding miniature soldiers on a huge tabletop while reliving one of the Napoleonic wars' key battles.

"People look at some of the famous wars and the generals and say, 'I think I could win if I did this,' " said Tony Figlia, a Fort Meade worker who started coordinating the event in 1990.

"Borodino '92" was billed as the largest miniature war game in the United States.

More than 500,000 hand-painted figures, three-quarters of an inch tall, representing the French and Russian armies, were spread over four tables making up a battlefield that measured 48 feet by 18 feet.

Detailed terrain features included cut-out paper rivers flowing through towns such as Maslova and Semenovska. A fortified hill overlooked Borodino. Forests sprang from outlying regions where peripheral battles were joined. Homes, churches and farms dotted the countryside, making up central and more distant villages.

And everywhere, there were troops and people to lead them. As seen from bleachers near the huge table, chaos seems to reign at times. But this is war. Masses of players armed with rule books and tape measurers huddle over different sections, taking orders from their leaders and positioning figures for the fight.

"I love it," said Michael Graziano of Columbus, Ga.

"This is the cream of the war-players' crop," he said. "All the best guys are here."

Even David G. Chandler, a renowned Napoleonic historian who heads the Department of War Studies at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, England, came.

A brigadier general in the Royal Army, Mr. Chandler passed up an opportunity to watch a re-enactment of the battle in Russia to come to Fort Meade.

"I've never seen such an accurate re-creation," he said.

To others, the game was more personal.

Ancestors of Anne Arundel County police Sgt. Dennis O'Toole fought in the Napoleonic wars for France. While none of the 18 relatives was at Borodino, 14 died in other battles.

In the game, Mr. O'Toole and his 14-year-old son, David, commanded a regiment that supported the main assault on Borodino.

"We're not very high on the totem pole, but we're moving troops and having fun," he said.

Players used complex rules that spell out everything from fatigue of combat units, to how far muskets can fire, to how fast soldiers can walk.

To determine combat losses, players roll dice and consult complex charts that take into account troop strength, terrain and weapon sophistication.

The battle is divided into turns, each represents 20 minutes of actual time. It took more than 20 hours over three days to complete the battle. Though it is not expected to be over until this morning, the general agreement yesterday was that the French had victory in hand.

"It all comes down to who has the guts to go for it," said Richard Crouch of Virginia Beach, Va.

"You would be amazed, even though these figures are just lead, people don't want to get them killed," he said.

Just before the battle commenced on Saturday, Mr. Crouch, who commanded a regiment near the main village, handed his subordinate Russian troops a simple hand-written message: "Hold Borodino."

In the real war, Napoleon's troops overran Borodino, but lost 75,000 men during the 1812 battle. When the French reached Moscow, which had been burned to the ground, there was little sense of victory.

Two months later, the French left, only to suffer many more casualties while retreating in the harsh Russian winter. Out of an original army of 550,000, only 20,000 survived the Russian campaign. Two years later, Napoleon was exiled to Elba and in 1815, Napoleon's army was defeated at Waterloo.

The real Battle of Borodino was basically two armies lining up against each other and fighting to the death.

"It was very bloody -- there wasn't much subtlety to it," said Michael D. Montemarano, a Baltimore attorney who did some research for the Fort Meade game.

Randy Meyers, a Columbia resident who played the part of Napoleon, wasn't about to fight the way his namesake did. Instead of barging straight ahead for Borodino, he faked an attack on the village, trying to draw Russian troops to the outskirts.

"Before I get to the Russians in the center, I have to get them on the flanks," he explained while sitting at the commanders' table overlooking the sprawling game board. He used binoculars to view the action and sent messengers down with instructions.

Across the room sat Wally Simon, a Silver Spring resident who played Russian Field Marshal Mikhail Hilarionovitch Kutuzov. He set up a second line of defense, which he said the real Russian leader failed to do.

"The rules put us at a disadvantage," Mr. Simon said. "We fire less effectively. We move slower. We have little choice but to go on the defensive, which is what the Russians did. There is no way we can attack."

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