Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Six Weeks: the Short and Gallant Life of the British Officer in the First World War

Six Weeks” is sub-titled “the Short and Gallant Life of the British Officer in the First World War”. It’s a detailed, compelling and fascinating account of the Great War from the perspective of the British junior officer - the first and second lieutenants and captains on the Western Front.

There are many books focusing on the lives of British soldiers in the War, often from the perspective of the British Tommy. But this is the officers’ story. It is a book about (to paraphrase another famous title) “the war the officers knew”.

I should start out by saying I thoroughly enjoyed the book. It’s comprehensive, following the service history of officers from school, through training, to the trenches, and into battle. The journey traces the time after combat, looking at “rest and leave” hospitalization and (all too often) death.

It is a book which is rich with period details. Some of these are from a world which has passed up by – the world of the personal servant and of utterly rigorous class divisions. Other period details are infinitely personal, including the letters written by the officers to their wives and children. There are first-hand quotations from a wide variety of sources (including letters and diaries). The photographs are of excellent quality, most of which I had not seen before. Certain sections of the book are unremittingly grim, although parts are light hearted and amusing.

In all, “Six Weeks” is an excellent read which I thoroughly recommend to anyone interested in the Great War, and anyone interested in any war from the perspective of a junior officer.

So far so good, but I was keen also to mention “Six Weeks” on this Blog because I think it would also be of great interest to anyone wanting to wargame the environment of a junior officer on the Western Front in the Great War. A number of aspects which the book highlighted, and which I think have some great gaming potential, were as follows:

1. Age: Many of the junior officers were incredibly young. Officers could be as young as seventeen years old, rising to eighteen and a half years old in 1915. I thought this was something to remember, and be inspired by, when next ordering a Second Lieutenant “big man” on the table top.

2. Loyalty: The depth of the bonds of loyalty, duty, respect and devotion of the junior officers to their men in many circumstances (which seems to have been reciprocated in many cases by the Other Ranks) led officers to remarkable feats of courage, bravery and self-sacrifice. Unsurprisingly, those bonds also could lead to injury and death. Determined actions focusing on the rescue of a friend, finding a wounded man, or recovering the dead body of a fallen comrade were not infrequent.

3. Courage was contagious: The officer with his cigarette or pipe, the epitome of grace under pressure, was indispensible in beginning and maintaining the momentum of the troops. Other ranks followed their officer over the top for many reasons, but the inspiration of his courage and daring was paramount. Such courage had a cost – the rate of “shell-shock” amongst junior officers, unable to express their emotions in front of other ranks or superior officers, was particularly high.

4. Class distinctions remained: The distinction between gentlemen officers, generally from public schools, and “temporary gentlemen”, from lower-middle or working class backgrounds, was preserved. Perhaps this is a 21st century preoccupation which many of us focus upon. However, I feel there is some mileage here to be exploited, either in the background of a wargame, or perhaps in specific scenario rules.

So where does all this fit into the rules we use for our wargames? I’m not sure that there’s an easy point at which to integrate these, and other, aspects which flow from the book. I certainly don’t think there’s a solution as simple as saying a +1 leadership (or whatever) for a public school boy who’s now a subaltern.

However, over the next month of so I’m going to try and work some these aspects into the scenarios we play using “through the Mud and the Blood”. My feeling now is that the more I try to build in some of the background from “Six Weeks”, the more this should help to set the scene for our games, and will place the players into the shoes of the historical “Big Men” – the officers and NCOs leading troops in large skirmish actions on the Western Front. I’ll let you know how we get on!

Anyway, for those of you who like a rating, I’d give “Six Weeks” 5 out of 5 star-shells.

Next up, I hope to show you the results of my camo netting experiments (with thanks to all of you who commented on my last Blog post), as well as kicking off the next terrain boards project. Catch you soon!

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Glasgow Copse - artillery emplacement insert

After the excitement of the TooFatLardies Games Day 2011 on Sunday, I had a quiet evening last night progressing the gun emplacement insert for the wooded terrain board, Glasgow Copse, I'd finished a weekend ago. I’d built this in the same way as the other inserts, starting with a Styrofoam square, mounted on a piece of 3mm marine ply of the same size. The “walls”, of the emplacements were built up with offcuts of Styrofoam, and revetted with Green Milliput sandbags, plastic corrugated iron and cardboard “planking”. In other words, exactly the same as the other inserts, with perhaps a little more in the way of sandbags to protect the gun crew.

I’ve been long tempted to try and built a more substantial gun position, with more of a wooden bunker look – and that may well be one of my next projects. However, here I was looking for a hastily constructed gun position, providing rudimentary cover for an artillery crew who would have manhandled a field gun into the front line to take on allied tanks advancing in the open.

I wanted to try and make the new gun emplacement insert as consistent with the other inserts and wood bases in the Copse. I used the same paints and also the same effects. As before, I used some very hand leaf scatter from Antenociti’s Workshop, really to try and “set a time and a place” – being an Autumn setting for the Wood, perfect for Cambrai and Bourlon Wood in November 1917.

The leaf scatter was glued in with PVA glue, each leaf being lifted into place. I’d thought of truly scattering the leaves, but somehow that didn’t look quite right. I was very much aware that there is no foliage on the trees (having been shredded by shellfire), and part of me is still nervous that a large dump of leaves on the ground might look a bit incongruous. Maybe the single leaves look a little strange – but on balance I thought they looked OK. Comments welcomed if you think otherwise !

When the glue had set I dry-brushed the leaves with some highlighted orange and ochre, and gave the leaves a wash with some dirty water from my brush-cleaning pot to dull the colours down slightly.

Next, I cut some brass rod for use as discarded shell cases, filing down the rough edges, and gluing these onto the edge of the base. I put the artillery base in position to check I wasn’t gluing the shell cases where they would be placed. Keen eyed readers may notice that I’ve tried, but not quite succeeded in getting the base of the artillery team to be quite the same as the base of the gun emplacement insert. Some re-painting of the artillery base to come later, perhaps !

Finally, I prepared some camo netting which I’d bought a while back. I usually like to make this a bit more “used” and dirty looking than the neat stuff which comes out of the pack.

I filled an old plastic take-away food tub with some more of the dirty brush water and diluted dark brown paint and gave the netting a good soaking, before stretching it out to dry overnight.

I’d be interested if you have any readers of this Blog have experiences with camo netting for 28mm figures. I have to say that this netting, when stretched out, looked a little fragile for club use and regular play – any comments and thoughts are very welcome !

Next stage, I’ll try and finish off the gun emplacement and the artillery piece, ready for a game in a few weeks.

Monday, 13 June 2011

ToofFatLardies Games Day 2011 – Tobruk 1941

St Albans, England was the venue for the 2011 TooFatLardies Games Day yesterday as Lard Island welcomed over 20 gamers, friends old and new, for a series of games set in North Africa, January 1941.

In previous games days we have played Calais, 1940, Crete 1941, Stalingrad 1942 (a grind-fest which still makes me shudder 6 years later), Malaya 1942, Trafalgar 1805, Austerlitz 1805, Vietnam 1969 and D-Day 1944. This time it was the turn of Tobruk, 1941, with the British and Commonwealth assault on the Italian defences surrounding the town. The scale used was 15mm, the rules used being “I Ain’t Been Shot Mum” by TooFatLardies (of course!).

We had about 20 or so players for the day, with three umpires (Rich, Panda and myself) to ensure that the games linked in with each other and that they all moved along at the same rate. There were separate briefings for the Italian and the British/ Commonwealth teams, with the Umpires being given a brief note relating to how the morning’s game was to be arranged.

There was a wonderful bit of scene-setting courtesy of Panda bringing in his Grandfather’s pith helmet and official training manuals from 1941.

Panda's Grandfather had served in the Eighth Army in North Africa and was at Tobruk at the same action we were gaming. My photos can’t quite convey the excitement of having such a great piece of family history there on the day we were recreating the action.

The main aim for the morning’s session was to fight three sector actions on the same “L” shaped table, with the results of the actions affecting the lunchtime and afternoon games and even, perhaps, the results on other sectors.

For the British, the main aim was to engage the Italians and ensure that their defensive forces could not prevent the British armoured thrust from piercing through the defensive lines. The Italians had to slow the British armoured forces if possible, and if not to at least ensure that the British tanks suffered some casualties once they engaged the Italian anti-tank line to the rear of the Italian trenches on the “L” shaped table.

Morning game – Eastern Sector

I was umpiring the Eastern sector in the morning, with Rob and Elton fighting the Italians and Edward, Zippee and Gerard fighting the British. This was not the main British line of attack, but it was crucial for the British to tie down as many Italians as possible and prevent the Italians reinforcing other sectors through interior lines.

In this regard, the British forces scored a strategic victory, but at a heavy tactical cost as the well sited Italian defensive trenches and fortifications provided a very tough challenge for the British to assault. With supporting artillery and mortar fire being hard to come by for the British, the three platoons of the British company in the sector quick came under heavy fire and went to ground, a substantial number being pinned down in the desert with little sign of support of reinforcements.

Despite the casualties, the resilience of the British troops drew considerable admiration, as did the professionalism of a clearly tough detachment of Italian troops. I chalked up a fine tactical win for Rob and Elton, but a strategic win for the plucky British team.

Morning Game - Western Sector

Elsewhere on the front lines the British were having more success, particularly in the West where an outflanking manoeuvre had seen British and Australian troops penetrating the Italian trenches and driving the enemy back.

The Italian forces, heavily engaged by aggressive British commanders in the West and Central Sectors, could do little to prevent the British armoured thrust piercing the defensive line and driving hard against the Italian second line forces.

Lunchtime Game – “The Tobruk 2,000 Guineas”

Lunchtime saw a fun, quick game in which the British armoured column ran the gauntlet of a massed battery of Italian anti-tank guns.

In the end the British armoured forces managed to crunch the Italian guns......

...but at a cost. The results of the British cavalry charge were to have a significant impact on the afternoon’s games, as four Matildas were either destroyed or immobilised with a variety of mechanical problems.

It was fantastic to see our old chum Martin Kay skilfully managing the Italians in this game – a very welcome sight for all gamers after Martin’s bad car crash earlier this year. Continue getting back to full health, mate!

Afternoon Games – Around Tobruk

The afternoon games were a series of very hard fought engagements around Tobruk taken from Rob Avery’s top-notch “Operation Compass” supplement for IABSM. I umpired an engagement on 21 January 1941 in which the Australians were forced to defend against a well organised Italian counter-attack of nine medium tanks (M13/40s), backed up by a company sized force of hesitant Italian infantry. Egg and Joe joined me as the Italian players, with Gerard, Edward and Zippee returning as the British.

In a swirling dust storm and with smoke wreathing the field, visibility was low, allowing the Italian armoured thrust to advance significantly on the Australian line before being spotted. Once identified, a variety of anti-tank weapons, including a captured Italian 47/32 ATG, took a toll on the advancing Italian armour, aided by a single Matilda which had been allocated after the lunchtime game.

The game swung either way before ending in a stalemate as the Italian troops found it hard to press forward as, one after another their tank support was knocked out, immobilised or otherwise badly damaged. However, the Italians were also unable to claim the field, their own ability to advance being constrained by their single Matilda bogging in soft sand. The loss of the British tanks in the lunchtime game against the Italian guns was keenly felt.


In all, a fantastic days gaming played in a wonderful spirit and with some great moments. My only disappointment was not being able to keep a better track of what was happening on other tables, owing to being pretty busy umpiring on my own. There certainly seemed to be some hard fighting taking place, with Australians ripping into Italian L3 tankettes as if they were sardine cans....

My thanks to everyone taking part, old and new, and a very warm welcome to Joe Legan of Platoon Forward fame, playing his first game in England after being posted with the USAF for three years.

First of many, we hope, Joe!

Sunday, 5 June 2011

No Man's Land Terrain: Free-Standing Trenches - Project Finished

I finished off the "Winter Sports"/ No Man's Land free-standing trench terrain board late last night, after what seemed like an eternity of dry-brushing! I found it very difficult to get the board finished quite as I wanted, and I thought I’d pass on a few of the (hard and bitter) lessons I have learnt!

To start off with, here’s the finished board...

That doesn’t seem too difficult, does it – “how on earth was that so difficult”, I hear you ask. Well, I don’t quite know what went wrong, but here’s some clues.

1. Don’t just have a starting Plan – remember to make notes as you go along.

One of my big problems in painting the free-standing trench board was that I’d finished the Glasgow Copse/ Wood board the weekend before without making any notes about which paints I’d used. This shouldn’t have been a problem, except that I had about three different grey paints and two different brown paints and I tend to mix them all together to get the right shade. I thought the Wood looked about right, but (DOH!) I had forgotten to note down how I had got the colours I aws happy with. For a good couple of hours on Friday evening and yesterday morning, nothing I mixed was looking right.

I’d started from this point...

..and finally got to about this point after much bad language, bitter regret and bashing of my head against an invisible wall.

So, Lesson Number 1 for me to take away is – don’t just make a starting plan – remember to make a few notes as I go along.

2. Try something different now and again

These were the 17th and 18th terrain boards I’ve done for the St Albans TooFatLardies’ Great War project. So I should have a clue what I am doing by now. However, I’d noticed in some of the other trench boards that the corners of the trenches and the base of the trench walls were not – how can I say this – grubby enough. They looked a bit clean. I’d had no success trying to paint a water-based dark brown or black into the nooks, crannies, crevises, gaps of the trenches. The paint just didn’t seem to flow into the spaces until I switched to a very dark brown enamel paint/ white spirit mix, which flowed in nicely.

It’s the first time I’ve used spirit based paints on a terrain board and I liked the result. Lesson Number 2 for me to try and remember - Try something different now and again: Don’t just stick to what’s worked before.

3. See the world from a different angle

After what seemed like hours of dry-brushing of the trenches and surrounding ground, I wanted to try and paint some of the detail in the trenches like the corrugated iron (made out of corrugated card), broken duckboards (made out of artists mounting boards) and old ammunition boxes. This called for a much more delicate approach than I like to use for terrain, and was well-nigh impossible until I tilted the base completely on it’s side allowing me to get to the details I wanted. Lesson Number 3 – I need to remember to see the terrain from a different angle if I get stuck.

Here’s a picture, taken from one of those odd angles made possible by the terrain board being at a 90 degree angle.

4. Black(Dark)water

Finally, late last night (and after three bottles of Hoegaarden and a pretty good episode of Wallander on BBC3), I decided to add in some water effects. The product I like to use is called Solid Water, a two part clear exopy (two parts resin, one part hardener) which dries rock hard and is very durable. It looks good when it’s dried, although it does take a considerable time to dry or “cure” – I’m not sure what the right phrase is.

I’ve used it before, no problem, but last night it just seemed to be a lot more tricky to use. I blame the Hoegaarden! The Solid Water has to be mixed, and the syringes which come with the product only allow you mix quite small amounts. I seemed to managed to get as much of the resin and hardener on my hands as in the tiny mixing dish which comes in the box. When I finally got the resin and hardener mixed, I dropped and lost the syringe with which the water can be placed precisely on the terrain - and had to hunt for an old one.

Anyway, I finally got to the point of mixing the “water” with some dark, smoky Vallejo paint (Vallejo Black/Russian Green/ Green-Brown mix), stirring the paint slowly into the mixed “water”. Another helpful tip for me to remember – never, never, never use a brush for this which you love and treasure, as the mixed “water” will utterly destroy it. How many decent brushes did I ruin last night thinking I could clean them perfectly later? Only three, thanks for asking!

The mixture, looking suitably dark and muddy with the Vallejo paint added, is then slowly injected (trying to avoid air bubbles) into anywhere you want the water to be on the terrain board – shell craters, broken parts of the trench where the duckboards have come away, or by the side of the duckboards. This was actually a fun part of the terrain finishing, working out where the “water” looked best.

Each packet of Solid Water gives you enough for about 80-100ml of mixed “water”, so there should be more than enough for a 2 x 2 foot terrain board, unless you’re trying to model the Pripet Marshes or the Grimpen Mire. One handy tip to remember is to keep a spirit measure handy. My guess was that the table I use for modelling was dead level, but it was good to have a spirit measure to hand to prove this. When the Solid Water dries/ cures, it really isn’t coming off, so its best to check everything is level first. It’s then best left for 24 – 48 hours to set hard.

So, here’s the final free-standing terrain base taken from directly above so you can see the trench layout, with another photo of the Glasgow Copse base along-side. In the end, I thought that the bases when placed together looked OK – not ideal, but passable.

All that’s left is to finish the inserts for Glasgow Copse and paint up some of the detritus and paraphernalia for the trenches generally. Oh, and of course to take them to the club for a game on Tuesday night!

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