They found themselves in a “wide almost circular pit, high banked from the West. It was cold and dead, and a foul sump of oily many coloured ooze lay at its bottom. In this evil hole they cowered.”
“Cold and clammy water held sway in this forsaken country. The only green was the scum of livid weeds on the dark, greasy surfaces of the sullen waters. Dead grasses and rotting weeds loomed up in the mists like ragged shadows of long forgotten summers.”
If you recognised this place, well done. I’ll wager that you’ve all been there before in your mind’s eye.
Yes, it’s not actually Flanders at all. It sounds like Passchendale, or perhaps the Somme. But its not.
It’s the Dead Marshes just near the Morannon Gate in Middle Earth. And the cowering wretches in the hole are Frodo, Sam and Gollum, and not a group of mud-drenched Tommies.
As many of you will also know, the two places – the Western Front and Middle Earth – are connected closely. J.R.R. Tolkien served in the British Army in the Great War, arriving in France in early June of 1915 and seeing combat in mid-July 1915. Tolkien lost some of his closest friends in the War, and a number of authors have made strong claims that his wartime experiences formed a turning point in his life.
My interest in the connection between the Dead Marshes of Middle Earth and the flooded lands of the Western Front came about in trying to recreate some truly abysmal terrain on a couple of terrain boards for our Great War set up. I had plenty of images of the battlefield of Passchendaele (perhaps the location most might first think of as a flooded and tortured battlefield) in Peter Barton’s outstanding book, “Passchendaele”. These often famous images conveyed a lot of the horror of the battlefield, the desolation and the unremitting grimness of having to fight through the elements and over a shattered land before finally confronting the enemy.
However, something also lingered in my mind from the Dead Marshes when I started thinking about flooded lands. Perhaps it was a memory from Sir Peter Jackson’s film of “The Two Towers” as Frodo falls into the water entranced by the haunting images of fallen soldiers and dead Kings. Perhaps it was from reading the chapter on the Dead Marshes, remembering that, in Tolkien’s own words, "My Sam Gamgee is indeed a reflexion of the English soldier, of the privates and batmen I knew in the 1914 war, and recognized as so far superior to myself".
As I read more, I realised that in Tolkien’s own words from one of his letters, “[t]he Dead marshes and the approaches to the Morannon owe something to Northern France after the Battle of the Somme”. I was also finding the connection hard to shake out of my mind.
At the same time, I was wanting to try and do something different with the next couple of terrain boards I wanted to work on. First, a few words of explanation. A couple of players at my local club have mentioned that our Great War terrain looks a little too dry, too neat, maybe even too ordered.
It’s a fair comment, as you can see from the above picture. Perhaps I need to introduce a little of the chaos of War into the terrain.
Whatever my clubmates had on their mind, it was perhaps a fortunate conversation. I’d wanted for a while to try and add a couple of No Man’s Land terrain boards featuring particularly difficult terrain. There’s a historical reason for this. Some of the terrain in No Man’s Land would have been simply abysmal, whether in Flanders, on the Somme and or elsewhere in bad weather. Bad terrain offers some interesting wargame opportunities. It might canalise an attack, impede movement, or bog down tanks. It offers challenges to the players, and that can only be a good thing in gaming terms.
The idea then took root for me to prepare a couple of terrain boards featuring bad terrain, whether flooded, broken, or otherwise marshy. I didn’t want to make a dozen of these, but I wanted enough to make a difference in a game. These boards needed to fit with the other terrain (at least plausibly). And they needed to be interesting to model.
Ah,....now you can see that this is where the Dead Marshes crept back into my mind.
I’m not at all saying that modelling a marsh or boggy ground is uninteresting by itself. Far from it. But I was wondering if there was more that I could do with that idea. I was wondering if it might be interesting to try and recreate historical terrain but inspired by a fictional setting (which was itself rooted in that historical setting). That's sort of a cross-over of a cross-over. Does that sound chaotic? If so, then perhaps I'm on the right lines.
Well, you’ll soon be able to see for yourselves whether this idea worked, won’t you....?