Gaming the un-gameable…
Private Baldrick: I heard that it all started when a bloke called Archie Duke shot an ostrich ’cause he was Hungry.
Captain Blackadder: I think you mean it started when the Archduke of Austro-Hungary got shot.
Private Blackadder: Nah, there was definitely an Ostrich involved, Sir…
[from Blackadder Goes Forth]
Who on earth would want to wargame the First World War? It’s all suicidal charges, trenches and machine guns, isn’t it? Well, yes, of course it is .. if you only want to game the Somme or Verdun, but the war was also fought in modern-day Iraq, East Africa, the Balkans .. all over the place… and that’s not even adding on the Russian Civil War, which lasted six years and stretched the fighting from the Baltic to the Pacific. It all began with East Africa, when I built up a small German Schutztruppe force, using 28mm Brigade Miniatures, Foundry, Battle Honours and Copplestone Castings figures. Then came the Turks, pictured below. The idea was, I could use them against many of the British figures which people painted up for East Africa, and they could also join in the Club’s “Back of Beyond” campaign, set in Central Asia in the 1920’s. The picture above is them storming a Bolshevik trench at Baku, while the shots below show the army in the deserts of Palestine a few years earlier. Johnny Turk is nothing if not versatile…
We use Chris Peers’ Contemptible Little Armies for our WW1 and “Back of Beyond” games, and they work very well – although the results can be incredibly bloody. They always produce enjoyable games, and you can’t take the whole thing too seriously – which tends to scare off the part time DBM players! We tried the same rules for East Africa but they didn’t work so well. the preferred system is a modified version of Chris’ Heart of Africa rules, which have all the African flavour you could wish for. The pictures below are taken from a game where the Germans defended a crossing of the Pangani River (near Mount Kilimanjaro), and gave the King’s African Rifles and South Africans a bloody nose. You’ve got to love those acacia trees, and the baboons running ahead of the KAR troops!
I know I started by saying that Verdun is virtually un-gameable, but that’s exactly what I’ve been doing next. Dougie Trail painted up the French, while I opted for the Germans. My excuse is that my Uncle Rudi was killed at Verdun in 1916, so its a sort of tribute to him – I’ve even put his regimental number, the 118th Hesse on the mens’ helmet covers! How sad is that, eh?! Our battlefield terrain is particularly horrific – you feel shell-shocked just by looking at it.
Captain Blackadder: Millions have died, but our troops have advanced no further than an asthmatic ant with some heavy shopping.
Obviously gaming something like this needed a particularly special commitment. After all, the games are going to be bruising, bloody affairs, with little in the way of tactical subtlety… and therefore should suit my gaming style to a T! The catalyst was a battlefield tour of Verdun in the summer of 2005. Seeing villages like Fleury where there wasn’t anything larger than brick dust left, or crawling through the passageways of Fort Douaumont really brought home the sheer ferocity of the fighting, and the appalling loss of life.
At first glance the German uniforms of this time look rather dull, especially compared to the French who get to wear those cool “horizon bleu” outfits and blue Adrian helmets. However, for the Germans the pickelhaube was in the process of being replaced by the steel helmet, so my units were a mixture of the two – the pickelhaube troops wearing it with the spike removed, which leaves a very strange looking cloth-covered helmet. Then there’s the red trim, which brightens up an otherwise dull uniform. My figures are a mixture of Renegade and Great War Miniatures. Both companies produce excellent (and fully compatible) figures, full of animation and character. However, my favourites are those Great War trench raiders and stormtroopers, who really look tooled up
The terrain was made using 2 foot by 2 foot TSS terrain tiles. I bought their trench and no-mans land tiles, and found them pretty awful. For a start they were mainly green, the craters were far too regular, and the trenches looked like they’d been cut by a perfectionist archaeologist. Dougie Trail and I set to work, cutting new trench lines, cutting out more shell holes, and generally making the terrain look as kicked over as possible. It was then covered in glue, sand and then spray painted. As you can see, the effect isn’t too shabby. Amazingly, we managed to produce eight tiles in just one Sunday afternoon.
Once we take more photos I’ll post better pictures, including close-ups of my Germans and Dougie’s French. He’s going to work on the British next, when the same terrain will turn into the muddy fields of Passchendaele.
This game made an appearance at Targe, the small but perfectly formed Scottish wargame show up in Kirriemuir on Saturday 4th November 2006, and won a prize.