We played through another of our trench raiding “Winter Sports” games last night, this one being “The Wiring Party”. Unlike the other trench raids over Christmas, this game was not part of the original “Winter Sports” article but was one of a number of new scenarios we are play-testing which I’m hoping to make into a mini-campaign focusing on some of the minor actions of a battalion on the front line in the Great War. I also tried to include a “game within a game”, focusing on the search for a wounded officer led by an inspirational Anglican Chaplain, but more of that in a minute!
First, a little by way of introduction. Wiring duties were probably one of the least popular tasks for troops in the trenches. Barbed wire defences needed to be maintained constantly, whether from shelling, attempts of the enemy to damage or destroy the wire at night, or just to keep the wire clear of any bodies. A wiring party would be formed under the command of an NCO and, under the cover of darkness, would leave the trenches to perform maintenance on their wires, as well as investigation of the status of the enemy's own wire. From time to time, these wiring parties might be accompanied by an attempt to rescue wounded survivors from a recent attack. It was far from unusual for wiring parties to meet their enemy counterparts in no man’s land and for fierce hand-to-hand fighting to take place, accompanied by machine gun fire, flares, star shells and sometimes trench mortar or artillery barrages.
The game started at the end of a tough days fighting. A British Division’s attack on strongly held German lines had not gone as well as expected. While the British assault battalions had carried the first line of German trenches, the second line has remained in German hands. The German second line is protected by a belt of wire which has been damaged in the initial British barrage. The new “No Man’s Land” between the first and second German lines is now littered with the bodies of both the British and German fallen.
The picture below shows the table I came up with. The paper squares indicate the location of wounded soldiers in No Man’s land who need rescuing.
The primary mission for the British commander, Second Lieutenant Jasper Whitechapel (played by Elton), was to discover the strength of the German wire and prevent the enemy’s wiring parties from effecting repairs. The British player also was aware that his inspirational company commander, Captain Rupert Romford, was missing after the attack earlier in the day. The British player was told that, if at all possible, Lieutenant Whitechapel and his troops would want to rescue their commander from a grim fate in No Man’s Land. In that mission, the British player could call on a very special Big Man, The Reverend Charles Upton-Park better known as “Capstan Charlie”, and two RAMC stretcher bearers.
The German commander, Feldwebel Lothar Schmidt (played by Big Al), was tasked with leading a small team of pioneers into No Man’s Land to repair the wire, under the protection of a platoon of grenadiers.
Both players were told that once fighting hard started and once the alarm was raised, they could call on the support of a machine gun firing on a fixed line and, for the German player, a Granatenwerfer 16.
The game opened with two British sections, including one Lewis gun, moving swiftly forward on “blinds”, quickly occupying Camden Copse.
A section of engineers and trench raiders advanced to try and scout the enemy wire....
....while a section of bombers advanced to the right of the wood under Corporal Vince Shadwell, feeling for further gaps in the wire in the darkness.
The German defenders quickly opened up with rifle fire on Corporal Shadwell’s position, although a supporting party of German soldiers under Gefreiter Johann Kleist was quickly pinned down the Lewis gun firing from Camden Copse.
On the German right, Gefreiter Rudi Vogel had pushed forward with a group of pioneers into Crow Wood aiming, optimistically considering the carnage unfolding, to commence re-wiring across the German front line.
In amidst the chaos of starshells and flares being fired into the night sky, Gefreiter Vogel stumbled across a badly wounded British Officer in Crow Wood. It was Captain Romford. The Captain was quickly escorted, minus pocket-watch, to the German trench line. As the identities of the wounded soldiers were randomised in the scenario, the fact that Captain Romford appeared across the German wire and in Crow Wood made the British task of capturing him pretty much impossible. Mea culpa, on my part – well, I did mention this was a play test!
On the British side of the battlefield, great and noble things were being done by “Capstan Charlie”. The first “wounded soldier” he attended to was, sadly, already dead. The second, Private Alf Bethnal, was badly wounded and was taken by the stretcher bearers back to the British lines. At this point, “Capstan Charlie” proceeded under fire to attend upon a mortally wounded German soldier in an exposed area of No Man’s Land in an attempt to administer the Last Sacrament.
While the brave Chaplain went about his business, both British and German machine guns firing in a sustained fire role were deployed (the German in their trench, the British off-table but marked with a model). While neither fired many times owing to the need to avoid hitting their own troops, the fire power they deployed neatly bisected the table, pinning down a number of opposing groups. The deployment of the German Granatenwerfer 16 also added to the discomfort of a couple of British sections sheltering in shell craters.
With casualties amongst the sections closest to each other mounting, both a British and a German section lost their “bottle” after loosing their junior NCOs, and both sides started to disengage from the vicious fire-fight. As “Capstan Charlie” administered the Last Sacrament and cast his eyes around the battlefield for other soldiers to help, the game drew to a close with growing casualties on all sides.
So, an enjoyable game, played in a great spirit by Big AL and Elton, but one which needs a little tinkering with as regards a number of scenario features. I felt that expecting the German player to fight forward to repair the wire was very challenging. The game would be better started with the German pioneers working on the wire, under cover of their platoon or sections, and being disturbed by the British. The sustained fire machine guns would have totally dominated the later stages of the game had it not been for intervening friendly forces, and this probably contributed to the final stalemate.
Finally, I was pleased with the introduction of “Capstan Charlie” into the game. While the rules need a bit of work, I liked the addition of a non-combatant into the game, particularly where he might be able to commandeer a couple of otherwise-fighting troops to help him recover wounded from the battlefield. For those interested, “Capstan Charlie” is modelled (with great respect) on the historical figure of "Woodbine Willie". More details of some of the remarkable chaplains of the Great War are available here.