On Tuesday night, we played through the first of a brace of games set in and around Polygon Wood in the Ypres Salient in early October 1917.
For a while I‘ve been thinking of ways in which to add a bit more background and context to the evening games I play at my local wargames club in St Albans. I was hoping to immerse the players a little more into the history behind the games and develop further the themes which seem to me to be characteristic of the Third Battle of Ypres: immense battles, difficult and even abysmal terrain, dominant artillery, rapidly evolving tactics and weather.
In Blog posts later this month I’ll describe in more detail the way I went about trying to create this background through a series of pre-game emails sent to the players, each of which was focused on different levels of command. On replying to these emails, the decisions made by the players then influenced the forces available and the artillery tactics used by the German and British sides during the Tuesday night club wargame and also the precise terrain over which the game was to be fought.
If people are interested, I’d also be happy to post the full umpire’s notes for the mini-campaign, and also the email exchanges and game briefings once we’ve played the final game on Tuesday 13th December.
Enough of future plans, and on with the action from the first of the two games…
The German Objectives
The game featured a German spoiling attack on British positions on the east side of Polygon Wood. The German commander (Elton) had been told by email that his forces had been pushed out of Polygon Wood in late September 1917, retreating to the east in the face of a colossal “bite and hold” operation by the Australian Divisions within the British Second Army. Casualties amongst the German defenders had been heavy. It was imperative that the remaining German forces prevented further British advances which could threaten the Gheluvelt Plateau, Broodseinde Ridge and further eastwards towards railheads at Roulers and the captured Channel ports of Ostend and Zeebrugge.
The German commander had, by email, chosen to forestall the next British attack by launching a series of spoiling attacks on the British and Imperial forces reforming in Polygon Wood. His tactics, while aggressive, we completely in line with the summary prepared by the German Fourth Army in late September 1917 of how the rest of the Flandernschlact should be fought:
“In order to wear down and destroy the enemy [British] infantry in the same way as the enemy attempts to do to our infantry, there is to be an increased concentration on the engagement of the enemy infantry. Most of the field artillery is to be used I this way…..Large amounts of gas [shells] are to be used against enemy [battery] positions and the enemy forward battle zone. Army headquarters will issue orders separately for these “Major Gas Engagements”. Each of the Groups will also direct smaller scale gas shoots against the infantry whenever the wind is favourable. Extensive use is to be made of gas-filled mortar bombs…we have to force the enemy, therefore, constantly to maintain larger forces in their forward battle zone and to place their reserves further forward, so that our artillery has worthwhile infantry targets to engage. This can only be done if we launch attacks ourselves, preferably during the intervals between their attacks, so that we can disrupt their plans. This will force the enemy, if they are to be able to hold on to the ground which they have won, to launch costly counter-attacks against which we can deploy maximum firepower” (“The German Army at Passchendaele”, Jack Sheldon, pp 186-188)
The Terrain, the Weather and the Opposing Forces
I warned the players that they should consider the whole of the board to be covered with the stumps of shell shattered trees.
Lieutenant Cyril Lawrence described the appearance of the wood after the battles of August 1917:
“on our left, the shattered remains of Polygon Wood – gone – absolutely wiped out – simply a mass of huge splintered trunks and matchwood lying everywhere. In front, two or three pill boxes stand up like warts … and everywhere, everywhere the sea of great shell holes, lip to lip – not a trace of grass, of the forms of the hedges or the fields remains – just one heaved up mass of turned up earth”.
I randomly allocated movement penalties to each terrain board as everything I’d read about Polygon Wood in early October 1917 seemed to suggest it was an exhausting, challenging place to move or deploy through. I randomly determined the weather (light rain and mist) and the scene was set for a dawn attack by Germans Stosstruppen on the British lines.
The German Commander had access to a depleted company of Stosstruppen from 3rd Battalion, 229th Reserve Infantry Regiment, led by Fahnrich Joachim Vogel. This unit had historically been in action in an earlier spoiling attack in Polygon Wood on 23 September 1917. While it had suffered casualties, I reasoned it would still (just) be a first-rate fighting unit, albeit with its fighting value significantly depleted. To reflect the quality of troops and leadership of this formation, the German players on the night (Richard and Elton) were given a “German Dynamic Commander” card and two “Sturmabteilung Vor!” cards. In the end, these cards were to be crucial. I also gave Fahnrich Joachim Vogel a devil’s luck card, thematically entitled (in my dodgy German) “das Glück des Teufels”.
Opposing them were Major Jasper Whitechapel of “A” Company of 1/Middlesex with a small force of exhausted troops ready for relief from the front line. The last couple of days had been extremely difficult for this formation, with constant German shelling both along the line and across the rear areas of the battalion (the latter resulting from the German Commander’s email instructions focusing on artillery interdiction on British rear areas and supporting formations). Accordingly, the formation was barely more than half strength. Despite this, Major Whitechapel’s orders were to hold his Company headquarters position at all costs.
The British players were told that “A” Company of 1/Middlesex were due to be relieved by First Lieutenant Jackie Shearer of 2nd Platoon, “B” Company, 12/13 Northumberland Fusiliers, part of 62nd Brigade, 21st Division which would be taking its position for the forthcoming offensive. Once the German Stosstruppen commenced their spoiling attack, would the Northumberland Fusiliers arrive in time?
The game opened with a vicious fight between the lead assault sections of the Stosstruppen force, led by the dynamic Fahnrich Joachim Vogel and Feldwebel Max Schrek and the most advanced section of the 1/Middlesex.
Despite the ground in the first terrain board being determined as abysmal, and substantially retarding German movement, the shock and surprise of the Stosstruppen engaging the lead British rifle section in close combat was devastating. The remnants of the first British section withdrew in disorder as German artillery started to flay the British base terrain boards and rear areas.
While German movement was slowed by the abysmal terrain and some very poor movement dice rolls, the presence of a “German Dynamic Commander” card and two “Sturmabteilung Vor!” cards managed to drive the Stosstruppen forward.
Two German Granatenwerfer 16s added to the onslaught, peppering the British defenders with grenades whenever they appeared, directed by German front line troops shouting back locations to which their “pigeons” could be aimed.
A British Lewis gun section threatened to stem the assault, but Fahnrich Joachim Vogel continued to drive his men forward in repeated close assaults. The “trench brooms” of the lead Stosstruppen section (automatic C96 Mausers and Luger machine pistols with snail magazines), supplemented by a number Stosstruppen with bayonets and trench knives, clawed through the British defending sections, although at a cost.
By now the German forces had broken into the second terrain board, and found the going slightly better. More of the German Blinds were moved forward, allowing fresh German sections to fight off a flank attack by a section of British bombers as the struggle became more desperate on both sides.
By now the German artillery bombardment had lifted. The German artillery strikes had succeeded in killing all of the 1/ Middlesex’s Company headquarters section except for Major Whitechapel who seemed to be living a charmed life. Importantly, the British forward artillery liaison subaltern had been killed and his telephone cables to British SOS artillery batteries were now severed. (I let the British players know at the end of the game that the German Commander had, by email, informed me that his artillery forces would concentrate on counter-battery fire during the assault as well as bombarding British rear areas.) Major Whitechapel’s frantic signalling with the artillery liaison flags (collected, bloodstained, from a dying signaller's hands) was to no avail. On this part of the battlefield, the British SOS artillery barrage never arrived.
However, the German barrage had been too short in duration to catch the leading platoon of the 12/13 Northumberland Fusiliers as they made their exhausting progress through the ruins of Polygon Wood. Halfway through the game, the first sections of the Northumberland Fusiliers' lead platoon could be seen advancing onto the British baseline.
Spurred by the sight of fresh British blinds appearing on the table as the early morning mist dissipated, the Germans pressed their attack with renewed force. Support and inspiration came in the form of a Hannover CL.III from SchlactStaffeln 21, flying at less than 100 feet, strafing the already shocked British troops and with the observer shouting encouragement to the advancing Stosstruppen.
Despite the aerial support, Fahnrich Vogel was leading a much diminished force forward. The troops of his leading assault sections had been either killed or shocked in the remorseless attack through Polygon Wood on the British positions. He had one last card to play. He ordered up a two-man flammenwerfer to lead the final assault into a half-flooded broken entrenched position where he suspected the British Company headquarters was located. As the German players swiftly advanced the flammenwerfer on a Blind with judicious use of the two “Sturmabteilung Vor!” cards, the first of the sections of Lieutenant Shearer’s platoon from “B” Company, 12/13 Northumberland Fusiliers had made its way forward to face the Stosstruppen.
The club fell silent as Richard rolled the dice for the effect of the German flammenwerfer’s attack. With two searing darts of flame, the flammenwerfer turned the British position into an inferno of burning destruction, the shock effect of the nightmarish attack only too apparent as the Geordies recoiled back in horror.
Dredging the last of his force forward Fahnrich Vogel prepared to assault the final British position. He was sure he could see Major Whitechapel still frantically flapping his signalling flags to attract attention of anyone with a field telephone to call down SOS fire.
Everything rested on the turn of the cards.
In the end, it was the British Blinds card which trumped the various cards in the Stosstruppen deck which would have propelled the remnants of Fahnrich Vogel’s brave force into the British positions. With ample additional sections of the Northumberland Fusiliers arriving on the table, the German players decided that the spoiling attack had done enough … just.
So, a tense, unpredictable and intermittently horrifying game found over the shattered ruins of Polygon Wood drew to an end. Played in a great spirit, I’m hopeful that the pre-game emails helped to deepen the context of the game for the players and provide an insight (however small) into the desperate conditions of the fighting in and around Polygon Wood in August and September 1917.
I’ll post the game briefings which I provided to the players over the next day or so. These contain some notes about a number of elements in the game, including British battlefield fatigue (affecting the 12/13 Northumberland Fusiliers as they battled forward from the British rear lines, the working (or not) of the British SOS fire.
I’ll Blog the second of the two games next week, after we’ve played it.