Tuesday 30 April 2013

The Verdun Project: French Poilu

Here’s the first (of four) section of the first (of two) French infantry platoons I’ve been painting for what seems like for ever! 

In classic Poilu greatcoats, heavy beards and field-packs, the figures are from the excellent Brigade Games 28mm late Great War French range. Size-wise, the figures are a near perfect fit with Great War Miniatures, which I use for the bulk of my late Great War Germans. The figures came quickly (three weeks) and well-packaged across the Atlantic from Lon Weiss at Brigade Games (thanks again, Lon!). Very little cleaning or preparation was necessary on any of the castings, and the sculpts are just about in perfect poses for a typical section of fusiliers or voltigeurs from a French infantry regiment of around 1916-1917. 


The figures were fairly easy to paint (although slowed down by trying to do all 76 figures for the two platoons together!)  Never again! The trickiest thing, as readers of some of my previous Blog posts might guess, has been to get the colour of Horizon Bleu “just right” for the greatcoats, tunics, pants and puttees of the Poilu. I hope I’ve captured it well enough to make most people happy (at least some of the time!).

I also tried to tone down the gun-metal glint on the bayonets and the mess tins. The metal on a couple of my earlier French figures looked to be a bit too shiny for Verdun conditions. 

As ever, please do let me know what you think in the Blog comments.  Many thanks indeed to everyone who's given thoughts, suggestions and comments so far.  All errors and colour-blind misinterpretations of what you all meant when you commented remain my fault entirely!

The next three posts here on the Blog will be a three stage painting guide, similar to what I did for the Late War British and Late War Germans. Hopefully can get these published here during the course of the forthcoming Bank Holiday Weekend. 

I also thought it might be helpful to do a figure scale comparison of Late Great War French miniatures, featuring Great War Miniatures (for comparison), Brigade Games, Scarab Miniatures, Forgotten & Glorious Company of Art, Old Glory and Woodbine Miniatures. I’ll see if I can finish that in the next week or so.

Finally, the next book to be reviewed will be Henri Barbusse’s “Under Fire”, which is a very good book, if pretty stomach churning at times.

Thursday 25 April 2013

Being There

When my mind drifts back now, it is images rather than a coherent narrative which present themselves to me: mist rising from horse lines in the thin keen wind of a morning by the Danube; long marches, the men ankle-deep in mud behind creaking wagons, as the beech and ash woods of Germany enfold us; a hill-top in Northern Spain, when snow fell below us in the valleys but we lay on dry, iron-hard ground under the stars; grizzled centurions lashing at the transport horses, yelling at the legionaries to put their shoulder to a wheel that was spinning as if in mockery of their efforts; a boy with blood oozing from his mouth as I rested his dying head on my arm and watched his leg kick; my horse flinching from a bush which parted to reveal a painted warrior, himself gibbering with terror; the sigh of the wind coming off a silent sea; the tinkle of the camel bell across desert sands. Army life is a mere collection of moments.” (Augustus, Alan Massie)

How do we remember our wargames? Do we remember them as “a mere collection of moments” experienced from the eye’s view of a small metal figure? Do we remember them as a game played with friends in a social environment? Or do we remember them as a competition, consulting rules and charts to find the result?

I’d wager that each of us probably remembers all three of those, perhaps at different times or stages of our hobby. I certainly do. But the games I remember best (or, perhaps, the ones I like to remember most clearly) are the first type. These are the games which I’m immersed in the battle, thinking along the same lines as one of the combatants, measuring myself against the challenges on the table and (just possibly) gaining an insight to what it might have been like to be THERE

I can see some of you smiling and shaking your heads as you read this. You’re thinking that I’m indulging in wishful thinking. Perhaps I’m even deluding myself. Miniature wargames are governed by rules, and the gaming element of the hobby relates to the action on the tabletop. It’s certainly true that outside of the rules there doesn’t necessarily need to be an additional context or theme which influences the players. And, many of you might argue, isn’t wargaming like many other activities in this regard? For example, you can go to the theatre, watch a play, marvel at the set design, be impressed by the costumes and follow the playwright’s message – and that should be enough for a good evening out.

Yes … perhaps …

But as any stage actor will tell you, the thing which really lifts a performance is the audience and their reaction to what’s happening on the stage. It’s the “buy-in”, the participation, the energy of the audience’s involvement and reaction which drives the actors on. The two are reciprocal, but a theatre play without an audience is just – well - a rehearsal.

Creating a theme and a context in a wargame, whether within or alongside the rules, is a bit like trying to get the theatre audience to become drawn into the drama of a play. I thought about these sort of ideas a lot last year. In particular, I tried to think of different ways I could, when running a club wargame or helping to run a participation game at a show, try and immerse the players in the context and theme of a game.

The route to immersion in a wargame, the road to “being THERE”, starts with the rules and the parameters of the game you’re playing. It’s here that the roleplaying hobby has a head start on wargaming. Roleplaying games are strong on theme and setting. They have to focus on world-building and setting because the visual aspects of terrain, scenery and miniatures are very often absent. The setting created in the roleplaying game is a key element of the fun and enjoyment – a strong theme really helps when the only other items you may have as a player are pens, paper, dice and imagination.

And for this reason, some of what follows originates from the roleplaying side of the gaming hobby. Some …. but definitely not all. I don’t want to turn the wargames I play into a roleplaying game – the colour of Centurion Valerian’s eyes (hazel), or OberGefreiter Zeigler’s dexterity at leaping from high walls (not the best since he was wounded on the Somme) isn’t going to matter at all. For much of what follows, less is definitely more.

The intention and hope is to try and capture the essence of a wargame’s theme, or to highlight some aspects of the setting which possibly, just possibly, might change the course of a raid, an assault or even a bigger moment of military history. 

Of course, all of this is very, very personal. I am definitely not saying that consciously and deliberately trying to create a particular context, theme, and a sense of a particular time and place is necessary in a wargame. Nor am I suggesting that the ways I’ve used are in anyway a blueprint for you should do it. So much is dependent on you – as a player or as a gaming umpire. What you think is enjoyable and fun and what your players want are the most important issues to focus on in this journey.

But with that caveat aside, here’s my own (very personal) list in seventeen easy steps, of what we’ve tried in our club and what’s worked for us: 

Monday 22 April 2013

Salute 2013: A remarkable day out

Another year, another Salute over. But somehow, this one was different. The venue at Excel Docklands seemed busier than ever, the games ranged from universally excellent to astonishing and the quality of painting and modelling on display was at times breath-taking. As I walked around, I was rather in awe of the time hobbyists had collectively devoted to their hobby, and to each game, to get them to the standard seen on the day.

But yet, there was something more. For me, and I suspect a lot of people, this was almost certainly one of the most social wargames shows I’d ever been to. Perhaps it’s the fact that I was helping out with the TooFatLardies participation game (more of that in a moment). Or perhaps it was the Bloggers Meet Up on Saturday lunchtime which gave me the chance to meet so many people who, until Saturday, I’d only met online. I think that’s at least part of the answer. 

But I think it’s also in the fact that the internet has been drawing hobbyists, wargamers and the hobby together for years. We chat in forums, through blogs, or online through email with people all over the world, as well as in our local clubs and communities. I think that’s revolutionised the hobby, giving us all the chance to get inspired, try new periods, different paints or new figures and generally swap news, rumours and fanciful, elaborate plans in different periods of history. And a big show like Salute gives people chances to catch up, to talk, to get inspired all over again. It’s a social hobby, and now more than ever. I came away with a terrific feeling on Saturday evening. Exhausted yes, but really proud of my hobby, the people in it, and the place we’d arrived at together.

Anyway, I’m guessing you want to see some pictures!! So….here goes….

Saturday 13 April 2013

The Verdun Project: "The Price of Glory" by Sir Alistair Horne

The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916” is Sir Alistair Horne’s magisterial account of the battle of Verdun in 1916. Published in 1962 it remains one of the leading English language books on the battle and campaign, being widely read and almost invariably cited extensively in Verdun-related bibliographies. It was the first book I read which covered the battle of Verdun in any detail, and may also have been yours.

Having re-read it over the past few weeks, I’ve also found it a more difficult book to review than I first thought it would be. Hopefully the reasons for this will become clear in this post. But first, let me start with what is excellent about Sir Alistair’s book.

I mentioned in the first sentence that “The Price of Glory” is a “magisterial account”. It’s hard to think of another book on the Great War which reads quite as well, and certainly (at least to my mind) none which were published in the 1960s. Sir Alistair’s style is effortlessly readable. It’s intelligent and thoughtful without being overly academic. The book is meticulously organized and comprehensive and wears its considerable scholarship lightly. The text benefits from the author’s clearly excellent linguistic skills, enabling him to create a cogent and consistent narrative of the critical events of the battle throughout 1916.

 There is also a quite definite and deliberate flourish about the book. “The Price of Glory” forms Sir Alistair’s central pillar of his fine trilogy of books about modern France, preceded by his account of the Paris Commune (“The Fall of Paris: The Siege and the Commune, 1870-1”) and followed by his account of the fall of France in 1940 (“To Lose a Battle: France 1940”). Its been a while since I read the other two books in the trilogy, but my recollection is that, taken together, they are a deeply impressive achievement, and one of which any writer would be justifiably proud. The sheer scale of the historical events being confronted does not overwhelm Horne. His written style and command of his material is deployed in a vivid, striking style. This is history as grand theatre, with France as the stage and her survival against terrible circumstances as the main act.

Being aware of the context of “The Price of Glory” as a historical account is important. It is impossible to read the book and not be impressed by the scale of the history Horne has created. The fine and careful balance between a broad sweep of strategy, grand-operational details and human stories create the feel that the battle has been explored in all of its features.

And, taken on its own terms, as history and historiography, I think the book is terrific. If you are at all interested in the battle of Verdun, the fairly modest cover price of the book is well worth paying.

So, you might be wondering why this is a difficult book to review.  

A lot has happened in Great War studies since the book was written in 1962. Revisionist accounts have been published of many Great War battles. It’s now possible to advance many arguments surrounding the course of the fighting in titanic battles such as Passchendaele which are far removed from the “Lions led by Donkeys” approach taken by authors such as Alan Clark and Bill Laffin in the 1970s. Of course, the revisionist accounts do not, taken by themselves, automatically negate all earlier works. But the historical revisionism focused on the Great War of the past 15 years or so does force a reader to think about the content, scope and depth of earlier works, and encourages the reader to view earlier historical works critically, while remaining respectful regarding the achievements of earlier writers. Once this approach is adopted, re-reading “The Price of Glory” starts to be a difficult process.  

I found myself on most pages, and in every chapter, finding a sentence, an example or an argument which I suspect may be ripe for reappraisal or further research. The context in which these examples arise seemed difficult to reconcile with other circumstances I’d read in other, more recent, French and English-language accounts. Taking Horne’s history at face value lead a reader to thinking that the command, operational and tactical problems in the French army of 1916 were uniquely pronounced. And that seems, at least to me, to be unlikely.

As an example, take the descriptions of the fighting around Le Mort Homme and Cote 304 in April 1916 in Chapter Fourteen of “The Price of Glory”. This was a critical part of the battle, and was by any judgment a battlefield environment which both sides struggled to maintain control of their forces and achieve their operational objectives.

There are some very brief references in the book to the careful siting of defensive machine gun sections, and of the importance of French batteries located to the rear of the Cote 304 ridge line. But the details of micro-terrain, and the tactical developments which both sides used to try and achieve success in the fighting on and around them, is not clearly set out. While heavily wooded today, Cote 304 is deceptively steep, with its sides set at a steeper angle than comes across in many photographs of the terrain in 1916 or later years before re-forestation. Stripped of cover by constant artillery barrages, any attack to take Cote 304 had limited cover and advancing troops were exposed under heavy fire. Siting of defensive positions and machine guns in this environment was therefore essential. None of these details of the micro-terrain (which are invaluable to wargamers) really flow from Sir Alistair’s book.

Horne addresses the tactical elements of the fighting in outline only. By contrast, he is far more interested in reflecting the dramatic elements of the fighting. He references a contemporary cartoon entitled “Verdun: Storming the Mort Homme” depicting the Kaiser and Crown Prince flogging German soldiers into the arms of Death. He describes the exhaustion of the German troops in the area, which he ascribes to the “German command’s ruthless system of keeping divisions in the line over lengthy periods” (page 164). And he recites the accounts of Le Mort Homme and Cote 304 smoking like volcanos, obscured by clouds of dust and smoke churned by constant bombardment. Reading his account becomes at times an assault on your own senses as a reader. It is certainly magisterial, but there’s an overload of the dramatic sense of the battle. At times it becomes history as grand-guignol; an element of the cold forensic analysis of the revisionist military historian is lacking.

Of course, all of this is my very subjective view. At all times Horne is an entrancing writer. You simply want to read to the next page, and the narrative carried me away to the end of the book pretty much effortlessly. But time and again I was hoping for more detail, more analysis and more depth, not least regarding the French command system and French tactical and operational doctrines at the key stages of the battle.

These absences do not impair the pleasure of reading “The Price of Glory”, or diminish the respect I have for what Sir Alistair achieved in his account. They do, however, possibly leave the book as less authoritative than it might first appear, although another way of interpreting this would be to consider the book as the starting point for further reading.

I also thought about how helpful the book was to me as a wargamer. As with other books I’ve reviewed, the scale of Horne’s history is strategic and operational. Tactical themes are subordinated into the narrative, and perhaps this is indicative of the historical approach of a generation of historians from the 1960s who interpreted the Great War in the context of grand strategic themes, nationalism and anonymous social and industrial forces. In this regard, Horne was not alone, but the absence of tactical details in the book, of how the German and French infantry fought in detail at different stages of the battle, and how their tactics evolved, is a notable omission. For these details, you have to look to other books.

In summary then, I would strongly recommend “The Price of Glory”. It’s accessible, comprehensive and deeply impressive. It has some significant problems, and these make it difficult to see the book as being the single authoritative text on the battle. However, in my view these are problems which have been exposed through the course of time and through the development of further historical studies after the book was written.

For the general wargaming reader, five out of five star shells and a strong recommendation. For the wargamer looking for platoon-level tactical details on the battle, perhaps only three out of five star shells, with the caveat that the focus of the book is on higher-command levels, regardless of the battle being a classic “soldier’s battle”.

Friday 12 April 2013

The Verdun Project: Echos of Revolution

I’m making a small detour in this post from the battle of Verdun to bring you some stunning images from a game at my local wargames club this week. The action being fought was a brigade-scale Napoleonic engagement in 28mm from Napoleon’s Italian campaign of 1796, with French demi-brigades being pitched against lines of Austrian battalions.

It was an incredible spectacle, with almost all of the figures having been painted over the last couple of years by Dr Daz, one of the long term club members. I can’t remember a game I enjoyed more for a long time, not only because of the spectacle of a table filled with dazzling uniforms but also because the rules fairly smoothly reflected the tactics and “feel” of the period and theatre.

For Napoleonic experts (of whom I am certainly not one), Daz will be well known as the author of Le Feu Sacre, his set of rules for Napoleonic Divisional games. The action on the wargames table this week, however, was an evolution from the mechanics developed by TooFatLardies’ supremos Richard Clarke and Nick Skinner in their forthcoming Chain of Command rules for World War Two. Daz has skilfully pinched (or perhaps I should say foraged….) the terrific command, control and movement features in Chain of Command and adapted them to the Revolutionary Wars.

It’s always enjoyable when a rule set you enjoy (Chain of Command, still in playtest but due for release this spring) is adapted to encompass a period you’ve always loved (Napoleon’s campaigns in Italy).

So here we had the Austrians (Al and myself) manoeuvring our forces to cross a fast flowing and deep river close to a small Italian town close to Legnano. Substantial French forces (commanded by Elton) were arrayed against us, but were arriving later to the field than our Austrians, allowing us to marshal our forces and press to the bridges before a river crossing became impossible. 

A thoroughly enjoyable game developed with our Austrians feinting on the left, while advancing in strength on the right. Highlights of the game included a storming assault by an unsupported, and rash, French battalion over one of the bridges into the mouths of an Austrian 12 pdr battery, and the latter assembly of an impressive line of Austrian battalions facing off against French attack columns. 

By the end of the game, honours had very gracefully been ceded by Elton, as the French Commander, to the Austrians. but as ever, it was the fine spirit in which the game was played, the smooth rules adaptations and Daz’s umpiring and informed commentary which linger in the memory. 

So what on earth has this to do with Verdun and the Great War? Well, possibly not a huge amount at first sight. But there are some connections......

First, I’ve been looking through the internet for some French propaganda posters from the Great War with a view to using them in some resources which I want to post here on the Blog. Its struck me how much of the French propaganda imagery looked back to the glory of the revolution, and the fighting spirit of the first citizen army. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the collective memory of the revolution for the French people was being drawn on to encourage recruitment and contributions to war loans in a later, though equally desperate, conflict. In the two phenomenal posters below, the connection is drawn in the clearest way possible. 

Second, its strange how the site of a miniature army and a wargame can be inspirational for whatever project you’re working on. Daz had introduced in his rules an advantage of inflicting “double shock” for a French attack column contacting their enemy in the first round of combat. His name for that special rule was “La Marseillaise”. As a lifelong Francophile, I have always loved rules like that.  Some players might call it “chrome”, or perhaps even “fluff”, but for me it’s the sort of rule which brings a wargame to life and makes me feel as if I'm playing a French army, not just any army from the period.   I hoping that I’m getting  close to deploying the Great War poilu on the wargames table for the first time next month. As I do so, the thought what additional rule tweaks might be useful in that later period is just as enjoyable.

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