Thursday, 6 August 2015

Mini-Project : Highland Regiments in "Through the Mud and the Blood"


Welcome to the next blog post in my short series featuring Highland regiments wargames from the Great War. In this post, I want to cover a couple of modifications to wargames rules which might be used to reflect the characteristics of Highland regiments in battle, and in particular “Through the Mud and the Blood”, our chosen set of wargames rules from TooFatLardies for recreating large scale skirmishes from the First World War.


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I’ll put my cards on the table straight away. I quite like tinkering with wargames rules. I think that once you’ve purchased your figures, rules and reference material, read up on the battle that you’re recreating, and painted the figures, you’re entitled to tinker with the rules a bit to fit what kind of wargame you want to stage.

Fielding a formation from a Highland regiment on a wargames table brings the attraction of trying to capture the essence of what made these troops respected and iconic. Tinkering with a set of rules to try and achieve this is a good place to start.

I’ve set out some possible areas for modification below, being pipers, close combat and leadership. We’ll hopefully be play-testing through these in a couple of games later this summer.


Pipers in Highland Regiments

A good place to start, of course, is with the pipers from Highland regiments.



 
Numbers: According to the 1914 War Establishment, battalions of Highland regiments and of the Scots Guards, were allowed one sergeant and five privates as pipers. This was in addition to their normal establishment strength. Lowland Scots and Irish regiments paid for pipers from their regimental funds, as did any Highland regiments who wanted additional pipers to add to their War Establishment complement.

The numbers of pipers fielded by the Highland regiments was often considerably in excess of the War Establishment figure. For example, in 1914 the composition of the 2nd Battalion of the Argyll & Sutherlands had 21 Pipers (although this seems to have been exceptional). The Gordons suffered 16 out of 18 pipers as casualties in France and Flanders in 1914, again showing that certain regiments had added significant numbers of additional pipers at their own cost.

Regardless of funding through the War Establishment or private contributions, pipers were a battalion rather than a company asset. Essentially, the pipers were part of the establishment for the battalion band. Pipers could be allocated to companies on the battlefield but there was no set formula for this, and the deployment and use of pipers remained very much at the discretion of the regimental and battalion commanders concerned.

Battlefield role: The image of the Highland piper going over the top and leading men forward is justifiably an iconic one. My understanding is, however, that pipers did not issue orders and were not primarily responsible for leading troops in action. The primary role of the pipers during an attack was to provide a boost to morale and, in situations like heavy fog or smoke, to provide direction. The specifics of their use depended on the individuals and units involved. Deployment of pipers would have been something which a commanding officer thought carefully about in advance of any attack. Should the piper be in the forward ranks, inspiring troops but at the risk of being a casualty? Or should the piper remain to the rear, able to move and encourage troops where the fighting was most challenging? To my mind, these are decisions that you should be free to make on the wargames table.

Above all, pipers encouraged men to stick to their mission – whether rallying shaken troops, re-orientating formations on an obscured battlefield, or accompanying an advance. As one source puts it “From a military point of view, the bagpipe has the merit of accentuating national sentiment at just those moments when the stimulus is most necessary”. One colonel of a Highland regiment stated that “The heroic and dramatic effect of a piper stoically playing his way across the ghastly modern battlefield, altogether oblivious to danger, has an extraordinary effect on the spirit and enterprise of his comrades. His example inspires all those among him”.


My own view is that piper should not be used as some kind of surrogate, replacement or de-facto leader in “Through the Mud and the Blood”. While pipers did “pipe troops forward” into action, I think that this helped rallying and enhanced morale rather than primarily being a leadership role.

 
Casualties: The first occasion I’ve found where pipers attempted to play a regiment forward into combat was on 25th January 1915, during an attack by the 1st Black Watch on Cuinchy. Thereafter pipers featured in the 1915 attacks around Hooge, Neuve Chapelle, Festubert, Aubers and Loos, and in the defence of the Ypres salient in 1915. During the 5th Camerons attack on Hohenzollern Redoubt at Loos, no fewer than 3 pipers were killed and 8 wounded. It was also at Loos that Piper Daniel Laidlaw of the 7th King’s Own Scottish Borderers was awarded the Victoria Cross and Croix de Guerre for playing “The Blue Bonnets over the Border” to pipe his battalion forward during a gas attack. 


There are many examples through the Somme offensives of 1916, and Arras and Vimy Ridge in 1917 of pipers undertaking similarly notable and heroic actions, often at a high cost.  By 1917, the losses in pipers in Highland, Scottish, Canadian and other overseas regiments had become a major problem. Owing to high casualties, trained pipers were increasingly rare, with many regiments attempting to preserve pipers for ceremonial occasions. There were, however, still numerous examples where pipers would be involved in battlefield combat during late 1917 and 1918. One Canadian piper from the 16th Highlanders of Canada even played his troops into action from the top of a tank. 

I found quite a lot of useful material (including the above information) in a book called “The Pipes of War”, authored by Sir Bruce Seton and Pipe-Major John Grant and published in 1920, which is available from Project Gutenberg for free. Subtitled “A record of the Achievements of Pipers of Scottish and Overseas Regiments during the War 1914-1918”, it’s a mine of useful details ranging from the role of pipers on the battlefield, through regimental records of service, a Roll of Honour for all pipers who served in the War, and essays on (remarkably) specific tunes and the tuition of younger regimental pipers. There’s even a slightly flowery poem (“To the Lion Rampant”) extoling the virtues of the Highland regimental piper. It’s highly recommended for anyone interested and can be found HERE on Project Gutenberg.


Rule Modifications for Pipers in Through the Mud and the Blood”
  • I would only use one Piper in any game. 
  • The starting point for modifications would be add a single “Skirl of the Pipes” card into the Mud and Blood card deck and, on the card being drawn, allow the Piper’s tune to remove 1D4 points of shock from any Group he is attached to, and to remove 1 point of shock from any other Group within audible distance (which, in “Through the Mud and the Blood” is, very reasonably, the entirety of the table: Rule 4.3.1 of “Through the Mud and the Blood”). 
  • I am also keen to try the modification that any Group of Highland soldiers with a Piper attached which moves into close combat (Rule 12) with a piper attached to that Group gets a bonus in that combat. One way of doing this would be to negate the defending opponent adding 2 dice for each dice of the Highlanders’ movement in the close combat turn (Rule 12.1). This ensures that there is a strong incentive to use a piper in an attacking group of bombers or trench cleaners. I am not convinced that this was their role in most actions, but the modification might suit certain scenarios on the wargames table quite well.
  • If you like the image of a piper leading troops forward, and want to rely on the examples when contemporary accounts reported this, you might try using a Piper as a “Level Zero” Big Man whose Big Man card is placed into the pack if all other Highland NCOs and Officers on the table are killed or wounded. The Piper can use any available Level 1 Command Initiative cards to lead troops forward on the draw of the Piper’s card (in addition to any other benefits a piper brings).

Highlanders in Combat

I also like the idea of trying to add a small bonus for Highland regiments in close combat. There’s sufficient testimony from both British and German sources to be able to justify this. One way would be to ensure that the Highland troops are treated as “aggressive” in Close Combat (or that the bombers and trench cleaner sections in each platoon, at least, are treated as “aggressive”).


As a less consistent alternative, allow a re-roll of any failed Close Combat die rolls of “1” in the first round of Close Combat.

Both modifications would give a bonus to the Highlanders, and I would suggest that some form of compensation is made for this in the scenario.


Highland Regiment Leadership (the “Robert Graves Variant”)

There’s a damning quote by Robert Graves in “Goodbye to All That” regarding Highland regiments in 1915 being fast in the charge and fast in the retreat, and prone to brittleness when no officers were present. I’d personally not use Graves' comment as the basis for any characterisation of Highland regiments. It simply comes across as spiteful, and not indicative of the performance of Highland regiments in the Great War. As with all units, there would be variations in approach, characteristics and battlefield performance. In general, however, the German Army regarded the Highlanders with justifiable fear and respect.

However, if you’re a huge Robert Graves fan, or you’d like want to temper the other bonuses mentioned above in close combat or from the presence of pipers on the battlefield, you could include a modification to add a “Friction” card into the card deck at any time that no Highland officers (not just NCOs) are present on the table.  I doubt it would be valid historical modification, however - unless you're playing with Robert Graves.


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As I mentioned above, some of these modifications we’ve used in our games, and others are untested. Feel free to try using some, all or none of the above – and feel free to post any additional thoughts in the comments thread below. I should also add that while I’ve written the word “highland regiment” in this post, the same rule modifications might well be applicable to Canadian Highland Regiments and other comparable formations.

Finally, I would also like to thank Robert Dunlop for his great help and knowledge in talking through some of these modifications a couple of years back. Thanks Robert!


23 comments:

  1. Interesting blogpost Sidney !

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    1. Thanks Michael. It's just fun, sometimes, tinkering around with rules, changing this, tweaking that. If players don't like it, I can always change it back. One of the pleasures of the hobby!

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  2. A fascinating post. One of my grandmothers lived in Essex as a young woman during the Great War. Nearby was a barracks used by Highland regiments. She remembered the regiments getting orders to go to Flanders, and the pipers playing 'Flowers of the Forest' and other laments well into the night. Quite an evocative image.

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    1. Thanks so much, AJ ! Fascinating bit of history, and very evocative - brilliant stuff.

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  3. Some great ideas Sidney, they all sound spot on to me. It must have taken a lot of guts to charge out of a trench, but to do that and play tbe bagpipes attracting tge enemues attention.........utter madness!!

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    1. Absolutely, Ray. It must have taken unbelievable courage, in the middle of an attack, to stand up and start piping. It really demands the utmost respect. Thanks for dropping by, mate!

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  4. Some great ideas Sidney, they all sound spot on to me. It must have taken a lot of guts to charge out of a trench, but to do that and play tbe bagpipes attracting tge enemues attention.........utter madness!!

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  5. Interesting history lesson Sidney. As for the rules tweaks, they sound quite reasonable for adding flavour :)

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  6. Good ideas all, Mr Roundwood

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    1. Thanks Phil! I'm trying to remember if we played anything similar for your magnificent highlanders at OML3. And yes, I promise to post the photos!

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    1. Thanks Michael! Much appreciated, Sir!

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  8. Good looking these color uses
    I like these, like this trench arrangement...

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  9. I trained with a Highland Regiment in the early 1990s, having the pipes play when you go forward gets the blood going. Even just on exercise it can be scary for the enemy. A friend took his piper on patrol in Basra and said it was good for morale.

    I wouldn't expect pipers to act in a leadership role. Really its about boosting morale and improving cohesion. Also the tempo of the pipe tunes can have an impact on rates of advance. My aide memoire as a trainee platoon commander had pipe tunes pencilled in the orders along with the Fire plan.

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    1. Thanks very much indeed, Themself. That's a great and valuable contribution. I love the anecodte abuot the pipe tunes pencilled into the orders - that may well be appearing in one of our scenarios soon! Thanks so much again for sharing.

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  10. I trained with a Highland Regiment in the early 1990s, having the pipes play when you go forward gets the blood going. Even just on exercise it can be scary for the enemy. A friend took his piper on patrol in Basra and said it was good for morale.

    I wouldn't expect pipers to act in a leadership role. Really its about boosting morale and improving cohesion. Also the tempo of the pipe tunes can have an impact on rates of advance. My aide memoire as a trainee platoon commander had pipe tunes pencilled in the orders along with the Fire plan.

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  11. Great post Sid.
    Thinking about pinching a few of your ideas for the RJW project,
    Can the piper be targeted as a regular rifleman or are you thinking the risks the same as a bigman, sniper etc?
    Cheers
    Stu

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    1. Hi Stu! Thanks for dropping by. Please, feel very free to pinch away and take anything for your Russo-Japanese games. Although I'd not use the piper as a "big Man", I would allow him to be targeted as a "Big Man" in the game. However, I have read that it was considered by the Germans to be very unlucky to shoot a piper.... So plenty of room there for some adverse morale impact on sniping the piper encouraging his comrades forward.

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  12. Coming late to the party, some great ideas here, which would also be great for Highlanders on the North West Frontier - Findlater being the inspiration of course - consider them borrowed!

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    1. Simon, you are most welcome indeed. I think all of these would work well on the North West Frontier, where many Scottish battalions served with great distinction. Borrow away, Sir....borrow away!

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