Wednesday, 23 March 2011

The Devil’s Breath

Last night’s game at the St Albans Wargames club saw us descend into one of the true horrors of industrialised warfare – a poison gas attack in 1916. Mindful of the sensitivity of the subject matter, even after almost 100 years, you can surely imagine the hallowed and respectful silences as our group of players solemnly wargamed out the grim scenario. Errr....well, not quite perhaps (there were the inevitable wisecracks and gallows-humour), but at the end of what was a tense and competitive game, I think everyone in the room felt they’d gained an insight (however small) into just how hellish war can be.

The Scenario

The scenario was fairly straightforward. I'll post the full scenario and special rules for any comments in the next day or so, but here’s the outline. The German 171st Infantry Regiment and the British 17th (Country of London) Battalion of the London Regiment have been stationed on opposite side of the front line in France for a month. There is a fierce and vicious rivalry between both regiments, with perceived atrocities on both sides. An hour ago, a late afternoon assault by the British was beaten back with heavy casualties on both sides. The survivors, under the command of an exhausted Captain Romford, are recovering in the British front line trench, short of ammunition and having exhausted their supply of bombs and rifle grenades.

Enraged by continued British “depredations”, the commander of the German regiment ordered a swift counter-stroke, a gegenangriff, against the British front line led by the regiment’s stosstruppen detachment. The stosstruppen, led by Leutnant Max “Eisen” Lehmann are a small, veteran force, supplemented by two small flammenwerfers , assigned by a pioneer regiment for the mission. The stosstruppen assault is preceded by a short barrage by German trench mortars (taking place before the start of the game). The German players also had three barrages of gas shells (filled with asphyxiate gases such as chlorine and phosgene) which could each produce a gas cloud over an area of 24” by 18” and which would moves 4” per turn with the wind. Each gas barrage dissipates after 3D4 turns.

The German forces’ mission was to occupy the British front and reserve trench lines within 10 turns. The British had to hold their front and reserve trench line positions by the end of the game.

The Battle

The German stosstruppen concentrated on their left flank and “leant into” the barrage, ignoring casualties caused by short-falling rounds. A favourable draw of cards saw Leutnant Lehmann close assaulting the British front line trench in the first turn, deploying his stormtrooper bombers and “trench cleaners” (armed with bayonets and “trench brooms” – Mauser automatic pistols) with deadly effect. The first British section was all killed in the close assault for very little loss, and the front line was breached.

German stosstruppen sections in the centre of the table had similar, if less dramatic success, piercing the British line and forcing the defenders to retire.

The second turn saw the deployment of two German gas barrages, aimed beyond the British reserve line to “box” the defenders intro the forward trench areas and impede reinforcements. In a truely chilling recreation of Wilfred Owen’s incredible poem, the remaining British defenders of the front line remained “Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind”....

Both sides immediately “masked up”....

... although the British reinforcements arriving from the rear areas were caught in the gas barrage and suffered several casualties through “shock”. As the gas shells rained down, British defenders continued to fall back in the face of German pressure, the pressure clearly growing on the face of the exhausted and battle-scarred Captain Romford (whose “Status Level” dropped from III to II as a result of the accumulated combat stress during the day’s fighting).

A German Granatenwerfer 16 was dragged forward to add to the pressure on the remaining British defenders...

....while the German stosstruppen sections consolidated their gains and brought the flammenwerfers into position in the front of the assault.

Help was at hand for the British defenders of the forward trench area as the reinforcements arrived through the gas clouds, suffering a number of casualties through the draw of a Poor Gas Discipline card.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling;
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

Amidst the chartreuse sea of chlorine gas, the German stosstruppen pressed forward, bursts of flame shooting towards Captain Romford’s section. Not content with the damage done by one of the flammenwerfer, Leutnant Lehmann orders a German machine gunner, armed with a captured Lewis gun, to scale the trench wall, get out on the parapet, and direct a withering, enfiladed fire on the approaching British reinforcements hurrying to Captain Romford’s rescue.

The pressure was too much for the gallant Captain Romford, who collapsed with nervous exhaustion and shock. Several of his section surrendered, and the others fled, while the British reinforcements edged backwards out of the inferno.

With foresight, and not a little luck, a second, pre-planned (smaller) German gas barrage landed almost directly on the British reinforcements, causing further dislocation of the pending British counter-attack. When the counter-attack was launched by Leutnant Carshalton, it was uncoordinated and overwhelmed by greater numbers of aggressive stosstruppen.

By the end of turn 8, the Germans had pushed the British back into a small area of the reserve trench line and were continuing to rain bombs and grenades on them after exhausting the liquid in the small tanks of the two flammenwerfers. The British had been beaten back, and at the end of a tough, competitive game, the honours were left with the German forces.

The Reckoning

It was a hard fought game, and one which was very close fought right up to the end. Both groups of players adapted to their roles perfectly and, while the game was played in a terrific and friendly spirit, there was no doubt that the Germans were focused on revenge for the casualties caused by the British assault earlier in the day. The Germans certainly had better luck at the start of the game with a kind draw of early cards (including a number of bonus cards of “Sturmabteiling Vor!”), and some luck with the positioning of the second gas barrage directly on the British reinforcements. Against that, the British forces were very well handled and, with better fortune, could well have held the reserve trench (and claimed victory) by inflicting disproportionately greater casualties on the German attackers. Particularly noteworthy was the German's use of the "Devil's Breath" - deploying the gas barrages to impede and dislocate British movement through the accumulation of "shock" as opposed to using it as a weapon against the British front line trench (which the German players did consider, but did not choose).

As I mentioned above, I’ll post the full scenario on this blog shortly which will set out a couple of the additional rules we’re play-testing including more detailed rules for gas attacks, gas discipline and shell-shocked Big Men.

Until then, mes braves...


  1. Interesting Battle report and great photo's. The terrain boards look amazing.

  2. Great terrain boards, lovely scenery, great batrep, loved it.

  3. Yup - excellent report, just shows that WW1 Trench warfare can be recreated on the table top although the stunning terrain boards do help!

  4. Always amazes me seeing the set up...and the troops. Great stuff.

  5. Can you do a post on how you prepare the fabulous bases for those figures. I love the red and blue shadings ... very evocative.

  6. Thanks for the comments - evry much appreciated. It was a pretty intense game, one of the toughtest I've umpired, but one I wanted to do for a while.

    @KingsleyPark - it's surprised me how much of the war we have been able to refight. We have some 10mm games planned for later in the year to try and tackle Divisional actions, although using a different set of rules.

    @Editor - yes, I'd be very pleased to do so. The light setting on my camera wasn't quite right last night - but I'd be pleased to take some new photos, and also do a quick blog post over the next few days on how the bases are put together.

  7. I'd be interested in seeing the blog post on bases.
    Brilliant use of Owen's poem in that AAR.
    I can feel myself getting sucked into this period, sure and I can.

  8. Great post, Sid, and moving use of Owen's great and awful poem.
    I'd like to see that blog post on basing as well, since it seems I'm being sucked inexorably into this period.

  9. Great work, and evocative of those horrible days in the trenches.

  10. Fantastic terrain - great report

  11. Another excellent report, I look forward to seeing the rule add ons.

  12. Fantastic terrain boards !!! Very great look !! Comliments Sidney and very great blog ..

    Best regards Carlo Antonio


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