Friday, 25 January 2013

The Verdun Project: 50 Shades of Horizon Bleu

So here's the next group of figures for my Verdun Project, and Curt's Analogue Hobbies Challenge.

There's a group of ten attacking infantry in the late war M2 French gas mask, a group of eight casualties and (really as a Late War German addition) a Stosstruppen Command Group. The French are Old Glory figures, the Germans are Great War Miniatures. Sadly, no one else but Old Glory produces late War French in gas masks, which is odd considering the amount of gaz floating around the battlefields of Verdun and the Chemin des Dames

The Old Glory figures were a bit of a revelation when I painted them. It was a very important lesson in my book of not judging a figure at first sight. The attacking figures arrived looking very shiny (making it difficult to pick out the detail) and with the bayonets bent in weird surrealist angles. But they are a very good match size-wise and bulk-wise for the Great War Miniatures Germans I've already painted. They really came to life once the rifles and bayonets were straightened and they were undercoated. I like the dynamic pose of the attacking troops – they’ll be perfect for trench cleaners, “les nettoyeurs de tranchees”. 

As for the multiple figure bases, there's a bit of a story to that. Normally the only multiple figures for the skirmish games we play are weapons teams - so a Vickers machine gun, Lewis gun team and so on. However, when the Old Glory figures arrived their rifles and bayonets were, as I mentioned, twisted at strange angles of which Picasso or Dali would be proud. The rifles folded back fairly easily with the metal seeming quite pliable - not brittle, but just potentially prone to bending. I thought that they'd be helped by basing two to a base, with none of the rifles and bayonets extending over the circumference of the base. The more I thought about it, the more I really liked the effect. The bigger base (40mm) gives a lot more scope for modelling the ground effects. As the troops are a section of trench cleaners, it makes sense for them to be in a closer order - very L'Attaque à Outrance!

The French casualties were just terrific figures to work with. They reminded me a lot of old-style Perry figures from the Franco-Prussian War range now offered by Foundry. I added a few bedding rolls, mess tins, pinard bottles and water bottles. I also made a sack of hand grenades and mini-grenades from greystuff. No, he’s not collapsed after an energetic game of boules (as suggested by my wife!). 

I also wanted a different ground effect on the bases than I’ve gone for on my German and British troops. Although I’ve done some French figures with brickwork and rubble, I’ve also experimented with some fallen leaves. These seemed to suit the atmosphere of the late winter woods around Verdun or for the late winter battles in Champagne in 1915 – definitely not “home before the leaves have fallen”.  I quite like the contrast between the autumn colouring (Plaka Braun, Vallejo Light Brown, Vallejo Orange, Vallejo Yellow, blended) and the prevailing base colours of grey and brown.  Let me know if you like them.

You'll have seen in earlier posts that I've been working hard on Horizon Bleu as a colour. I've tried with these figures to see how it would blend with a number of shade tones. I found that the following painting formula looks reasonable, although the experimenting is far from over:

(i) a base of 50% Vallejo Neutral Grey and 50% Vallejo French Mirage Blue;

(ii) a shade tone applied on the base of Vallejo German Grey mixed with a little (say a large dab but no more) of Vallejo Neutral Grey;

(iii) a highlight of Vallejo White mixed with the base tone of 50% Vallejo Neutral Grey and 50% Vallejo French Mirage Blue (adding more white to suit the top highlights). 

Life-long Francophiles (including myself) may be horrified about using Vallejo German Grey on Great War French figures - I confess it troubled me as well, hence the dab of Vallejo Neutral Grey to the shade colour!

Still on Horizon Bleu, Curt (yes, from Analogue Hobbies) sent me this link to these stunning photos of early twentieth century Paris. You can see that the Horizon Bleu is very blue indeed. I am guessing that the colours have been enhanced by the photo processing, and that soldiers on leave may well have not worn their faded "campaign dress" in the Place Vendôme and the Bois de Boulougne. Even so, the tone looks to be significantly more blue than I have on my figures.  So I'll be adding a little more blue to the next set of figures to be painted.

For the record, I doubt there is an easy answer, or indeed even a single answer, to painting Horizon Bleu. As Rusty, from Hurry Up and Wait, mentioned in one of the comments in a previous post, different supplies of cloth used different dyes, were differently aged and were used in different cuts of greatcoats. Ashley from Paint-It-Pink, in another comment, also mentioned the excellent point that on the wargames table top colours need to be accentuated so that the figures stand out on the terrain - just as I'm getting paranoid about Horizon Bleu, I'm not getting paranoid about the (admittedly colourfully painted) camouflaged stallhelm on the German Stosstruppen.

So why the discussion? Well, first, I think it's an interesting discussion about painting wargames figures and colours. Put simply, we like to try to get our figures' uniform colours right.  And second, I think that Horizon Bleu is such a distinctly French colour that in building a French army of the 1916 - 1918 period it's really one of those things I should try to get right, even if I don't manage it!

So, in conclusion, please let me know what you think of the Horizon Bleu colour I've ended up with here. And please don't worry if you don't think I'm there yet - I've very happy to read objections, criticisms and brickbats in the comments!

Also, as I mentioned above I painted up a German Stosstruppen company command group. I’ve done a couple of German command groups before, but I wanted something more “front-line” and action-focused. The Great War Miniatures German troops armed with MP18 Bergmann sub-machine guns gave me the chance. The command group will be placed on the German baseline in an up-coming game, so they gave me the chance to play around with a diorama as well. 


Book Reviews - I should also finish up this post by adding the following by way of explanation of the various reviews I've been putting on this blog about Verdun. 

When I start a new period, or a new wargames army or force, I usually have a real problem knowing what to buy in the way of books, supporting rules, army lists, and boardgames. My idea behind the book reviews here was simply to let people know what I'd read and what I'd found useful in putting together a skirmish wargames force and in playing a few games. 

In writing the reviews I've tried to think of the things that you, the readers, would find useful. And I'm guessing that while a lot of you might be looking for similar things to me (i.e. how much use is the book to a miniature wargamer), quite a few of you I'm guessing will have wider interests in history, tactics and strategy, the Great War generally, France and so on. 

With all that in mind I've tried to keep the reviews fairly general. I've also tried to have this question in mind - if I was starting from scratch, would I need to buy (or borrow) this book (or game) and/or would my wargames be a lot better for having bought it? 

There are another six books to be reviewed before 20 March 2013 (to tie in with the Analogue Hobbies Challenge), plus a film (no clues for guessing which) and a boardgame. I'll try and do at least one review each week, with a few extras over the weekends. 

I should have mentioned all this previously, so my apologies for not doing it earlier.

Have a great weekend!

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

The Verdun Project: "Verdun 1916" by Malcolm Brown (1999)

Verdun 1916” by Malcolm Brown, published in 1999, is a slightly surprising book. It’s been on my bookshelf for a while, sitting alongside other, better known, volumes on Verdun. 

At first sight it seems to offer little new regarding the history of the long battle at Verdun between February and December 1916. In many ways, it doesn’t really take the history of the battle much further forward than Sir Alistair Horne’s magisterial “The Price of Glory”. While Mr Brown mentions in his foreword that, while paying great respect to Sir Alistair’s classic account, his own book offers insights into the battle from historical sources which were not available when “The Price of Glory” was first published in 1962. However, reading through the contents page and the early chapters, its difficult to see where the additional information is located. 

The book is generally arranged chronologically, with three chapters at the end of the book dealing with the experience and legacy of the fighting at Verdun. 

On the positive side, there are lengthy and very helpful passages from contemporaries present at the battle. Many of these are remarkable and pay testament to the uniqueness of the experiences of the fighting at Verdun. The passages are lengthier than in Horne’s “The Price of Glory” and Ian Ousby’s “The Road to Verdun”. Copying some of these passages and handing them around a table before a wargame is perhaps one of the easiest ways of setting the scene for any wargame based on the battle. 

Here’s a frequently quoted passage from Lieutenant Alfred Joubaire of the French 124th Infantry Regiment, no less grim for all its familiarity:

But for how long is it going to carry on? You wonder with anguish when and how this unprecedented struggle will end. There is no solution in sight. I wonder if it will end simply for lack of fighting men. It is no longer a case of one nation struggling with another. It is two blocks of nations which are fighting, two civilizations which are in conflict with each other. People are suffering from the madness of death and destruction. Yes, humanity has gone mad. We must be mad to do what we are doing. What massacres! What scenes of horror and carnage!. I cannot find words to express my feelings. Hell cannot be so terrible. Mankind has gone mad”.

There are a number of useful references to terrain (Mort-Homme being “originally partly wooded but now no more than a few blackened trunks are left visible, and there isn’t a green leaf or a blade of grass”, from the account of Leutnant Christian Bordeching). To James Rogers McConnell, one of the American airmen of the Lafayette Escadrille, the battlefield was reduced to a “sinister brown belt, a strip of murdered nature…The woods and roads have vanished like chalk wiped from a blackboard; of the villages nothing remains but grey smears” (page 240). Unfortunately, these graphic images stop short of describing the micro-terrain features which both sides exploited vigorously throughout the fighting.

Also on the positive side, the book is elegantly written in a very professional manner. Mr Brown is clearly a fine writer and organizes his material carefully, albeit with an eye on the general reader. 

But there are few revelations in the main part of the book. 

The chronological stages of the battle, the opposing generals, their strategy and their forces are covered in a professional and workmanlike manner. As with Horne and Ousby (and some of the other Verdun-themed books to be reviewed here shortly), there is next to nothing about small unit tactics or a description of exactly what the junior and brigade commanders thought they were doing in the battle. While the predominant artillery conflict is well documented, almost no attention is given to how attacks were arranged, mounted and consolidated by either side. This is not really a criticism – the book is pitched at a general level, and that type of detail (useful to wargamers) isn’t the author’s focus. 

I felt that the book did not really stand out and grab my attention for most of the chapters. At least, that is, until near the end. Chapters 18 (The Closedown), 19 (The Experience) and 20 (The Legacy) are the best in the book in my view by a long way. With extensive extracts from contemporaries, Mr Brown positions Verdun as a battle set apart – a war within the larger War. There’s less focus on the symbolism of the battle for France than in Ian Ousby’s “The Road to Verdun”, and more focus on the nature of the battle as an experience - horrific, dehumanizing and, ultimately, totally alienating. 

Brown’s argument, cogently threaded through his narrative, is that neither the Germans nor the French fully recovered from Verdun before the end of the War owing to the uniqueness of the battle’s intensity and heavy casualties. “One element that marked out Verdun as being exceptional was the sense of impotence felt by the soldiers out in the mud and squalor under the endless fury of the guns” (page 238). The nature of Verdun is explored as a perverse baptism (“He who has not seen Verdun has not seen this War”, Soldat Jean Ayon, 119th Regiment of Infantry) with religious anointing being replaced with expiatory suffering and sacrifice. Brown memorably concludes one chapter saying “It could be said that this was not so much a battle between victors and vanquished – such terms rapidly lost all meaning in so attritional an encounter – as between victims”(233).

Thoughtfully and calmly deployed, these insights were, for me, worth the price of the book itself. I am not sure I agree with the author’s overall arguments regarding the place of the battle of Verdun in the Great War, which fuse almost too conveniently with positioning Verdun as a colossal sacrifice devoid of any real achievement. To my mind, the fighting at Verdun was far too complex, intricate and militarily important to be reduced to a mere symbol of two nations’ sacrifice. But I felt that my coming to a different view on the battle did nothing to lessen the calm elegance of Mr Brown’s writing. 

So, another difficult book to assign a rating to. There’s not much here for the wargamer interested in tactical developments – perhaps 2 star-shells out of 5. For a general reader, the book is accessible, well-written and thoughtful – so 3 star-shells out of 5. 

In summary, an enjoyable read overall and it is hard not to be moved by the closing chapters of the book, which linger a long time in the memory.

Friday, 11 January 2013

The Verdun Project : “The Road to Verdun” by Ian Ousby (2001)

The Road to Verdun: France, Nationalism and the First World War” focuses more on why French and German armies fought at Verdun, and why the battle continued so relentlessly for so long, rather than how it was fought. The book deepens the reader’s understanding of the social and political situation in France before the Great War, and characterises the determination of the French army to hold on at Verdun as being closely associated with the pain felt in France through the humiliations of the Franco-Prussian War. It’s a beautifully written book and the late Mr Ousby has a style which is perceptive and at times entrancing. But it’s also a book which is far from straightforward and in which the arguments deployed can be complex and sometimes unwieldy. 

The Road to Verdun” is divided into three parts. The first part, “Friction at Verdun, February 1916” was probably the most use to me as a wargamer. The initial German assault of February 1916, the iconic fighting in the Bois des Caures and the fall of Fort Douaumont are thoughtfully covered. There is very little detail on the military tactics employed, at least nothing which isn’t well known from other more operationally-focused books. There are, however, a plenty of details about the intensity of the fighting, with the perspective being mainly that of soldiers and junior officers. This is history from the Poilu’s viewpoint. The emerging themes are skilfully set out: devastation, endurance and sacrifice. The sections I enjoyed most in this part were the references Mr Ousby made to the importance of ground and earth (as sacred ground) at Verdun and his insights into the religious symbolism used by French propagandists relating to the battle. These were very insightful, but sadly short, passages.

The second part, “The Endless Crisis, 1870 – 1914” is the most thematic section of the book. It is very difficult to reduce Mr Ousby’s detailed and thoughtful arguments to a single summary sentence. His arguments weave through sociology, politics, nationalism, racism, Aryanism, anthropology and religion. Its heavyweight material. Some of the arguments, especially those in the chapter entitled “What is a Nation”, are theoretical and, to my mind, perhaps even convoluted. There are times when the focus of the book, the battle of Verdun, appear to be diminishing into discussions of precisely what is France. It’s entrancing, fascinating and, for the most part, readable. But this section it is not easy going. Temptations emerge about page 160 to turn to another book, the television or paintbrushes. 

Assuming you stick with it, the main thesis emerging is that France was, in the late 19th century, not just a nation but a collection of ideas and principles and symbolized in the minds of the leading French thinkers of the time as a person: “a living being with a head and a heart, a temperament and a character. As such it could be at odds with itself without ceasing to be one” (page 148). For this symbolic person, the loss of Alsace and Lorraine in 1871 was not just the loss of land and people, but a wound – la plaie saignante, the wound that always bleeds. The author’s argument is that the dislocation, pain and shock of that loss formed a context to the determination of the French army not to yield at Verdun. 

The third part of the book, and the shortest, is “The Mill on the Meuse, March – December 1916”. This section brings us back to Verdun, but remains far from a study of how the battle was fought. There is no detailed description of tactics, or logistics. What Mr Ousby does set out are a number of vivid, and utterly horrifying, eye-witness accounts of the battle. The psychological shock of the battle is addressed. “What Verdun did to men was a masonic rite, fierce and exclusive” he states, in one memorable sentence (page 205). The quotations Mr Ousby gives from French soldiers present at Verdun – of the battle being a furnace, a slaughterhouse, a holocaust – are as moving as they are dramatic. The sheer determination and resilience of the French army to hang on to Verdun is well covered, focusing on Verdun as as symbol of, and for, France.  

The sections in which comparisons are drawn between Verdun, and Fort Douaumont in particular, and the occupied provinces of Alsace and Lorraine in the Franco-Prussian War are well judged. “Sullen lump of concrete and metal and earth though it might be, Douaumont was spoken of as if it were a living thing: a hostage, a captive taken by the enemy and suffering at their hands. Above all, Douaumont was a woman: a beautiful French woman, another Daughter of France, abused and defiled” (p. 213). 

In short, I very much enjoyed the book, despite it being a difficult and sometimes frustrating read. I’d recommend it to anyone wanting to know more about France in the late 19th Century, and about why the French army fought at Verdun so hard and for so long. As military history, while there are some very good passages, there are also many sections which (in the light of French scholarship since 2001) look slightly outdated – although the same can be said of other books I want to review on Verdun in the coming months. As a historical thesis, I think the book is compelling but without being, ultimately, completely persuasive. 

While it’s difficult to give a book like this a rating, I’d give it 4 out of 5 star-shells as a history text, but probably 3 out of 4 star-shells if you’re looking for an operational-level study of the battle.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

German Stosstruppen and French Casualties

Just a quick update of my first tranche of figures for Curt’s AnalogueHobbies 2013 Painting Challenge for anyone who missed them when Curt posted them on his excellent blog.

There’s a 1918-vintage polygot selection of German Stosstruppen with MP18 Bergmann sub-machine guns, a German sniper, a couple of German Mauser Tankgewehr M1918 13.2mm anti-tank rifles and part of a “ditched” crew of an A7V tank, all in 25/28mm. These are effectively some of the “odds and ends” I’ve had around which I just wanted to get done before the main event. Think of them as a canapé with light champagne before the French arrive proper!

I played around with a couple of things here. The green-stuff German camouflage cloak on the spotter for the double-based anti-tank rifle is improvised, but not completely unrealistic I hope. I used something similar on some German snipers in 2012, and I thought it fairly likely that the Mauser Tankgewehr M1918 would have selected their targets with similar sniper-like stalking skills – at least as far as their huge weapon would have allowed them.

The camouflage cape on the sniper matches the terrain colours of our gaming boards and the improvised painted-on camouflage on German helmets in 1918.

The German tank crew figures are from Old Glory. This is the only manufacturer (to my knowledge) making 25/28mm German tank crews with their distinctive overalls. As sculpts go they fit size and dimensions-wise perfectly with Great War Miniatures figures. They’re quite reasonable sculpts and the images on the Old Glory site don’t really do the figures justice. They paint up very easily, and the officer has some super facial details. As many of the A7V tank crews transferred from other units, I’ve painted him in the uniform of a JägerSturmBataillon officer in some rather jazzy regimentals.

Et les Francais? Ah, well, I wanted to test Horizon Bleu on a couple of casualty figures first – mixing Vallejo Neutral Gray with Vallejo Mirage Blue seems to give a reasonable result, adding black and white to shade and highlight. So there are a couple of fallen Poilu on the bases as well, each scratch-built from a generic casualty figure.

Let me know what you think to my attempts at Horizon Bleu! I have already tinkered around with what you see here to add a little more highlighting. 

More, later in the week.....

Monday, 7 January 2013

Wargaming, Theme and Physical Terrain

While painting furiously for Curt’s Analogue Hobbies Painting Challenge 2013, I’ve been thinking a lot about focusing my wargaming on creating a specific context and theme. I’ve blogged about this before, but not with any real clarity.

In a way, the background materials and after-action-reports from Bovington 2012 and from our Dux Britanniarum games last year were trying to help create a particular context among the players in those games. During this year, I want to really concentrate on doing this a great deal more and with greater clarity.

I’ve written a blog post for later in the month which looks at attempting to create theme and context in wargaming, drawing on particular location settings and the passing of time as tools which can be inserted into wargames to help create that context. I also want to follow through this approach in a couple of Verdun-related scenarios I’ve been working on which, I’ll post here when they’ve been play-tested.

But as in so many things, it helps to stand on the shoulders of pioneers who’ve travelled along these roads before.

Within this in mind, may I please direct you to a short series of truly outstanding posts by Rusty, from the blog “Hurry up and Wait”. His blog focuses on wargaming the 1982 Falklands War. All of the posts are well worth reading, and Rusty’s write ups of his games and his overall campaign go a long way to creating a verisimilitude that what you’re reading could be placed easily alongside actual battle reports.

I think that the jewel in his blog’s crown are his recent two posts (Method Wargaming and Longdon Preparation for Battle, 1-11 June 82) which take wargaming into a physical context in a real world setting. I won’t spoil your enjoyment by saying too much about the posts here, save as to mention that they create a link between wargaming and physical terrain. I greatly enjoyed them, and as I mentioned in the comments on Rusty’s blog, I thought they contain some of the most original ideas in wargaming I’ve seen.

I’m thinking of how I can try and mirror and reflect Rusty’s own approaches to a physical setting into the wargaming at my wargames club in St Albans. As often happens, reading something as innovative as Rusty’s blog has sparked all kinds of ideas in my own head. It’s remarkable how the blogosphere can stimulate thinking across all sorts of approaches and directions. That’s one of the reasons I’ve enjoyed blogging so much over the last few years.

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Happy New Year 2013!

Happy New Year Everyone! May you all have a terrific and most excellent 2013. 

As I type this at home on a beautifully sunny New Year’s Day (following what seems like a week of constant rain), I’ve a steaming mug of coffee by the laptop, just next to the box of paracetamols. 

Yes, the festive season draws to a close at Roundwood Towers with the last of the relatives and friends finally having departed at 09:58 hours this morning. For the last week it’s been like a hotel here. As chief flunkey, doorman, Maitre ‘D, chauffeur, groundskeeper, sommelier, logistics supremo and handyman I can confess that the week since Christmas Eve morning has been a little fraught. My lovely children soon tired of acting as bellhops and scullery maids, despite Mrs Roundwood’s repeated watching of episodes of “Downton Abbey” spliced with various comments to the children that “this is the sort of thing you should be doing to earn some pocket money”. 

All this has meant that, Christmas Eve aside, there has been little hobbying done so far this holiday. However, like wargamers the world over I’ve been making elaborate and completely unfeasible plans about what I want to do in the next 12 months while vaccuuming the stairs, fetching logs from the garden, cleaning the kitchen floor, going out for yet MORE food, and so on. 

I rashly looked back to last year’s New Year predictions earlier this morning. Suffice to say that not all of the grand plans I mentioned last year actually happened.

Great War German Trench Raiders – they are now undercoated (Cue the sound of a single half-hearted party-popper in the distant background)

Troop of Lord Strathcona’s Horse from Moreuil Wood in March, 1918 – aarrggghh, they’re still not done. Another year goes by without them being painted. How can I walk in the street in daylight I hear you cry. Disgraceful…. 

Rattenkeller or Rattenloch – a happier tale. I finished the intact and the destroyed version. it would have been the pearl handled revolver in the study desk drawer if I’d not got this squared away, dear friends.

Dark Age Saxons – yes, done, dipped and deployed. It’s odd how I managed to get these chaps done in less than a month. OK, so they didn’t look great, but they got done. There’s a moral there for me, somewhere. 

Jetty Wood Campaign Diaries – aha, another minor success. I did get the campaign diaries posted from the games in December 2011. Not as quick as I promised, but they finally got there (on the right hand side-bar of the Blog) 

Great War Amercians and Whippets – you need to ask, mes braves? No, sadly not even out of the box. 

In my own defence I did do other things during the year. There were articles on Great War characters and backgrounds and German Stosstruppen, creation of Roman villas, painting of casualties and stretcher bearers and quite a few other Great War figures behind the scenes. As for figures painted – 138 in 28mm. Not a vintage year, but I enjoyed all of them (yes, even the dipped ones). 

And wargames played? A very low 22 – rather far from magnifique. 2012 was the year in which I really wanted to get out and hobby, but everything seemed to conspire against me getting there whether it was the ‘flu, work commitments, travel or (on one memorable occasion) the wargame club venue flooding on club night. I must try harder in 2013 – perhaps I should transition wargaming skills into plumbing know-how… 

So, what were my hobby highlights for 2012? 

Top of the list was attending the wargaming shows at Salute, Triples and Bovington in the Spring and Summer. It’s great to get to wargames shows, and even better to run participation games there. Along with Richard, Panda and Al, we met so many terrific people at those shows and I only hope you all enjoyed the participation games we played as much as I did. 

Close behind was the outstanding Dragonmeet show in December, which really inspired me to try and think of wargaming in a wider context and ‘outside the box’ I sometimes place it in.

The games we played of Dux Britanniarum, mainly in the first part of the year, were terrific – a real atmosphere pervaded these games, stalking the table, hands on our shoulders in the dark of an empty room. And yes, my very dodgy attempts at Anglo-Saxon poetry.

And then there was “Night’s Black Agents”. Vampires and spies? Whoever would have thought it. While beautifully presented and wonderfully written the obvious physical qualities of the rulebook pale, however, alongside the insights crafted into every single page of the text. Inspiring and a true masterwork it was, without any doubt, my hobby book of the year. Ostensibly nothing to do with tabletop wargaming but in creating setting, pace and theme, absolutely everything to do with it. 

So there you go. 2012. What a great year. Things achieved, things not started, but overall, a whole heap of fun and gaming friendship. Happy New Year everyone!
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