Wednesday, 25 May 2011

"Only the Dead Have Seen the End of War"

Lard Island was plunged into pitch darkness last night as we play-tested some new night fighting rules for “Through the Mud and the Blood”. I’m very keen to try and add a couple of night actions to the Mud and Blood supplement I’m writing and while the night fighting section in the main rules is a great start, I feel they’re the start of the journey and not the final word.

I was also keen to try out some ideas which have been floating around on the Blogosphere for a few months, courtesy of the hugely prolific Porky. I was particularly interested in his post from 22 February 2011 in which he discussed adding uncertainty and random elements into a wargame.

In that (really excellent) post, he wrote : “What we need is more shock, more horror, more blind terror. I'll bet you haven't felt much of that rolling dice. I haven't. It might do us all good.” His idea of a challenging game is a focus on an “almost total random determination of set-ups and appearances, with a lack of information on as much as possible.”

This sounded about the right tone for a frantic, desperate night fight in the Ypres Salient. There were a number of elements in his blogpost that I felt came close to the chaos of night actions in the Great War - the uncertainty of where the enemy was (or even where your own side was), the difficulty of rallying troops and locating your objective in darkness and while under fire (random or otherwise). A random, chaotic, disorientating environment in which the participant’s nerves were on edge.
With that in mind, here’s what I came up with......

Somewhere in the Ypres Salient, Night (9pm), September 1917

An attack across No Man’s Land by “A” Company of the 17th (County of London) Battalion of the London Regiment (Poplar & Stepney Rifles) 30 minutes ago to capture Glasgow Copse has broken down. German defenders on the outskirts of the Copse have held on despite heavy casualties. The initial British barrage on the German wire and trench saps has not fully neutralised German defenders. “A” Company’s attack has stalled, and the surviving troops of the 17th (County of London) Battalion of the London Regiment (Poplar & Stepney Rifles) have fallen back in disarray. Several sections are rumoured to be pinned down under fire in No Man’s Land. Here’s the view from the German saps just in front of Glasgow Copse...

The commander of “A” Company, Captain Jasper Limehouse, is missing after leading the attack. Most of the junior officers and NCOs in “A” Company have been killed or wounded in the action. Making this difficult situation far worse has been the shelling of the area in front of Glasgow Copse by gas munitions fired from both sides. As the rain starts to fall again over a sodden Flanders, the unmistakeable smell of mustard and fresh hay (from mustard and phosgene gas) lingers over the shattered battlefield.
This was the situation confronting the British players (Rob, Elton and Panda). Each player controlled a junior officer or NCO and would use that figure to move forward in the darkness to locate pinned down British soldiers, collecting any stragglers along the way, and attempt to lead those troops forward in a night attack on two German saps leading out of Glasgow Copse. Rather than knowing what troops they commanded, each player had to locate troops on the battlefield, rally them, form a coherent plan of attack and lead his men forward. From my reading of “Six Weeks” and a few other Great War books, this sort of chaotic battlefield – where officers had to rally troops and lead them forwards - was far from unknown.

As a secondary mission, the British players needed to find Captain Limehouse, who had been lightly wounded and (unknown to them) was pinned down somewhere in No Man’s Land by a German sniper.

The German players (BA and Biffo) had the task of defending their saps and also repairing the barbed wire in front of their positions during what they were (falsely) told was a lull in the fighting. The Germans had fewer troops than the British, but they did at least have the luxury of knowing where those troops were to start with.

How random is “random”?

All units, regardless of being British or German, were rolled up randomly (producing between 6 to 8 figures, with varying weapons and ammunition, and with varying amounts of “shock”). Officers on both sides had a variable number of flares for a flare pistol (1D4) and the German Fahnrich had two large flare rockets which could be fired. Each of the three British Big Men (Second Lieutenant Charles Whitechapel, Sergeant Alf Blackwall and Corporal Vincent Shadwell) needed to search for their troops in No Man’s Land. The precise location of the leaderless British units in No Man’s Land was entirely randomised. Each crater searched would yield a card (randomly drawn). The cards stated the contents of each crater – these totalled four leaderless British units in various states of “shock”, a variety of wounded British and German soldiers, the lightly wounded Captain Limehouse, a variety of abandoned weaponry (some useable – determined randomly), a lingering cloud of phosgene or mustard gas resting in the crater (determined randomly), some very large rats and some hideous corpses (the last two of no effect).

I was hoping what while the players would construct a rough plan of attack, the random element of the game would add a lot of unpredictability. For example, here Second Lieutenant Whitechapel leads two sections forward, a far larger formation than he would normally personally command himself in “Through the Mud and the Blood”...

During the game we also worked on some specific night fighting modifications to “Through the Mud and the Blood”, which I shall post later this week on this Blog. Huge thanks here for all of the players and particularly our great friend, Rob, who was visiting for the evening from his local club and supplied some first-class suggestions.

The Game

In many ways the game was a successful recreation of night fighting. It was a fumbling, unpredictable, frustrating stumble though gas drenched craters coupled with a series of incredibly savage close assaults between the two sides in which the opposing sides’ bombers were clearly in the ascendance. Any co-ordination of the British side was very difficult owing to British players battling to find their troops (I rationalised that the multiple officers’ whistles up and down No Man’s Land were confusing the location of the officer’s for the leaderless groups of stragglers to find). The Germans attempted, logically, to funnel the British into the centre of the table and protect their own flanks – a tactic which was proved possible on one side where the Germans were more numerous but not the other (where the British were stronger by pure happenstance).

There were a number of very cinematic moments – British troops stumbling into craters filled with mustard gas; Captain Limehouse being first found and then wounded again leading an assault against the Germans and eventually captured, a lone German sniper calmly picking off British troops illuminated in the white ghostly light from a flare pistol....

Here are some more of the images from the action:

A ligtly wounded Captain Limehouse is located and brings forward a group of stragglers...

German sections prepare to ambush Captain Limehouse in a crater...

Germans stalking, a sniper on their left flank ...

Crater fighting as two opposing sections fight it out. The British make their advantage in bombers count....

On their right flank, Germans drive some of the British back to their lines, carrying the position and capturing Captain Limehouse...

...while on the German’s left flank, the British advance...

In fact the action was so chaotic and uncoordinated that creating a logical narrative out of the game would be very difficult. In that regard I’ve come to the conclusion that the game was a success – even if it lacked the grand narrative sweep of some of the other games.

What next for Glasgow Copse?

I’ll post the scenario and play-test night fighting rules over the next few days. The new terrain for Glasgow Copse is almost finished.... you can all expect to see another game of “Through the Mud and the Blood” here in June as the British attempt to push into the Copse during the night.


  1. Very nice, I then to run my night games, with empty tables and map moves. Less Cinematic, but very nerve racking for the players.

  2. Can't wait to see your night rules variation!

  3. Good batrep, interesting, dark and random?

  4. Great post and battle report, Porky does come up with some good ideas, I like the way you used them, I've been writing down loads myself for my FIW skirmish, bears, wolves and other nasty stuff!

  5. Looks a very interesting sub-game for Mud & Blood. Are you planning to publis something in the Summer Special? Your last contributions have been really good (night raids and tanks) and we have enjoyed a lot playing them

  6. Very good read. I enjoyed that and look forward to seeing your suggestions for the night fighting rules

  7. As great a read and sight as ever. I love the way you went about the whole thing, and the idea of using craters as entry points is something I certainly hadn't thought of.

    I'm really very happy you saw something worthwhile in the post, and reading such a positive reaction and seeing how the thoughts get woven into something bigger is very inspiring. Thanks very much for doing me the honour!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...