An outing with Rapid Fire rules

Our journey with 20mm WW2 games at the club continued with yet another set of rules this week. These were Rapid Fire, which have been around for quite a while. Originally published in 1994, we used the second edition published in 2005. I think another edition might be in the works. We thought they might suit our style of play on club nights. The game wasn’t that successful, though how much of that was down to scenario design and how much to the rules is hard to say.

We played an encounter game, similar to the previous week’s game of Iron Cross, with the British beefed up by the addition of three Churchills to the infantry force, and the transfer of the two M10s to support a reduce armoured force of three Shermans, to which I also added a company of armoured infantry (I was gamesmaster). The points values of both sides were identical. But the game proved one-sided. The Germans moved first. Long road movement distances (30in for faster vehicles) let them seize the village at the heart of the scenario in the first turn. To compensate I let the frustrated British have reserved fire. So the Germans lost two tanks in the first move, out of the three in their right wing forces. The British lined up their five vehicles, with a 17pdr, two 76mms and two 75mms into a formidable wall of fire, which seemed to paralyse the attack from that side. On the German left, the other force, with stronger armour (including a Panther) decided to tangle with the Churchills. This wasn’t so one-sided. Both sides lost two tanks, and the Germans their Marder tank destroyer. But when the British left’s wall of tanks moved across it was able to knock out the remaining Panther without too much difficulty, and then threaten to use its wall of fire to systematically reduce the infantry in the village. The Germans needed to be less hasty and use a concealed approach to unite in the centre before taking the strong British armour on.

So, what about the rules? They have a very old-school feel about them. The simple IGOUGO turn structure (albeit modified for reserved or overwatch fire) with no random activation, is part of this, and a heavy reliance on D6 throws. Admittedly this is not so unlike so unlike Fistful of TOWs (FFT), the system we use for micro-armour, which is rather more modern. But FFT uses more dice to resolve fire. For example, in antitank fire you typically throw three dice to see if you hit, a handful to see if you penetrate, and maybe one more for a “quality check”. In RF you throw just one die in a combined hit/penetration throw, followed by another damage throw if you hit.  And in FFT you have a concept of suppression at unit level, unlike RF, where you just kill people off until morale of bigger units is affected.

The architecture is very basic. There are just 6 grades of armour (including soft-skinned) and 6 grades of gun for antitank effect. Also just three classes of movement for most vehicles. That leads to some curiosities at the margins. The German 88mm in the Tiger I is classed the same (grade 2) as the longer 75mm weapon in the Panzer IV (though it has better HE capability). The Panther (with its grade 1 gun) is classed as a fast vehicle able to keep up with light tanks and armoured cars. Given the long standing of these rules, I’m sure all of this has been debated at great length. Incidentally there is no distinction between front and side armour.

This sets the tone. They are very simplified rules, in reaction to a trend towards mind-numbing detail when they were first written. But, unlike Crossfire, the rules are pretty comprehensive. That made them quite slow at first, as you were tempted to look things up when something unfamiliar occurred. But before long they should become very quick – much quicker for the same size of forces than Iron Cross, though not necessarily that FFT. There is no thought to produce house rules, because these rules are well-written, cover all the things they should, and have been endlessly tested in action. The only thing I’m tempted to do is to slow down the Panther. Iron Cross is very immature by comparison.

In this day and age, we find simplified mechanisms quite acceptable, so this is a feature rather than a criticism. The first thing that tends to stick in the throat with RF, though, is their basic design concept. They are meant to be brigade level rules, with whole battalions of infantry on the table, and three tank models to a company. That means a 5:1 ratio for vehicles and 15:1 for infantry. And yet it plays as a 1:1 skirmish game, with vehicles being knocked out by single shots and troops storming individual houses. One my fellow players said that the best thing to do was to play it as a 1:1 game, and forget that you are dealing with bigger scales. There is deliberately no designed distance scale (in common with most modern rules, it needs to be said), which no doubt means that shorter ranges are longer, if you see what I mean. Overall it is probably about 1mm to the metre (like Battlegroup, I think; Iron Cross is about 2.5mm to the metre; FFT is 0.25mm to the metre unless you scale it up). Of course what this scale up means is that you can have all sorts of nice toys on the table, up to artillery pieces. This is a bit of a fudge, but actually not so very different from games like Bolt Action and Battlegroup, which try to recreate the flavour of larger encounters in a 1:1 skirmish. For a club game I’m not going to stress too much.

The big problem with the game is similar to that with FFT. The sequence of shooting is critical, as your force can get  shattered in a single round depending who fires first, because you can fire all your stuff at once. Hence the effectiveness of Pete’s row of British armour. Fire is often very effective. It does not have the big problem with FFT of the move distances being too long relative to weapons ranges, though road movement is generous compared to other sets of rules. You still have the mobile ambush problem that I discuss further below. Iron Cross overcomes this by its much more interactive play, which turns encounters into duels rather than one side blasting the other to pulp before it can reply. It also limits the number of pieces you move and fire. And further, in Iron Cross there is a lot of firing and missing. The basic chance to hit is 60%, or 70% at short range (though it goes up to 74% at short range in my rules if everybody sits still), an even then it often bounces off. If you have a powerful gun in RF it is much higher than this (often 5/6 to inflict a guaranteed damage). In Battlegroup activation rules limit the number of pieces you can move and fire in one turn, so it is harder to deliver this sort of overwhelming blow, plus direct fire is subject to an “observation” test. Also the concept of suppression, much used in modern rules, allows an intermediate step, though less so in tank to tank combat. (It isn’t really fair to call suppression rules modern, since I first came across them in the Wargames Research Group rules published in 1973). There are observation rules in RF, to be fair, which we should have used more than we did.

I think a big problem with rules like FFT and RF is that they allow mobile ambushes. That is you can move a substantial force of armour out from a concealed position (or from out range in the case of FFT) and gun down an opposing force that is moving forward before it can fire back. I have a conceptual preference for rules that force you to either move or fire; or if you must allow units to do both, to do the firing first (as per the old WRG rules). Move and expose your self; or fire and never get anywhere. That, to me, is the essential choice at the heart of mid-20th Century warfare.

Still, I’m not writing off RF for club games yet. They play fast and are well-crafted in their way. What clearly doesn’t work so well is the sort of contrived scenario that we played this week. Encounter battles did happen, but it is rare for both sides to know where the other side was and was not even then. We will try an attack-defence game next time, using concealed placement tokens. Also I want to bring in indirect fire from mortars at least. But that’s not going to be for quite a few weeks now.

Iron Cross house rules – first go

Following my previous post I have been inspired to draft my first set of house rules for Iron Cross. For interest I publish them here. They are not playtested, and I expect them to throw up problems. But they might be of interest even so. I probably won’t be trying them out for a bit (my next game at the club is likely to be Rapid Fire), but while it is fresh in my mind, I want to set down what I was thinking.

These house rules are quite extensive: 8 pages of fairly small text. However, they only make sense when compared to the original booklet, though this is written in a very different style. So I think it is perfectly OK to publish without treading on the original publishers’ toes. The main changes are to the firing rules, which have been extensively rewritten, though the basic framework remains the original one. The other big change is the addition of close combat rules, based on an idea from the Iron Cross forum. Further to that there are extensions to bring in buildings, observation rules and a new mechanism for indirect fire. The classifications have been played around with too, including some ideas from the free extension sheets on the official website.

Best to start with the firing rules. These are where most of the criticisms of the original come. There are both questions about the balance (too generous to tanks vs. infantry? Or too difficult to kill infantry?), and how fiddly they are when you start to bring in all the different types of weapon, especially against infantry. The basic framework is quite simple. You throw one or two D10s to see if you hit, then there is a penetration throw and a damage throw for vehicles – or a casualty throw for infantry targets. But there’s a twist at each step. One or two D10s for the first throw? Normally one, but 2 for infantry targets at close range. Except machine guns, which have 2 dice against infantry at all ranges. If you throw two dice, and hit with both, do you get two morale markers straightaway or not? That depends. Ditto with the casualty throw. One of the tests of writing rules is the Quick Reference Sheet (QRF). Is it easy to summarise on a QRF, with a table perhaps? I have tried with the original rules, and it is a struggle.

So I have tried to put together something that is, if not actually simpler, is at least simpler to describe. Unfortunately this simplification process runs against another one that makes things a bit more complicated: filling in the gaps. For example the treatment of vehicle-mounted machine guns, which are not mentioned in the original. We used the rules for tripod machine guns in our trial game, which made them too effective. Machine guns in tanks are not the same as tripod guns, which are geared up for sustained fire. When the targets are close, the tank is usually battened down and visibility is limited. That’s especially true of the hull gun.

I digress. The basic principle is that for all firing you use two D10s at short range (up to 12in) and one at long. Except when you don’t. Tripod MGs use 2 D10s at all ranges and all targets. Other support groups, and vehicle MGs use one D10 at all ranges and all targets. This may simulate the use of personal weapons if the main weapon (a mortar say) isn’t appropriate. There is only one morale marker for even if you score two hits, but if you get two hits on the casualty die, both stand. The dice modifier for short range is dispensed with. There is table for the casualty throw showing how the different weapons differ. This includes a reclassification of guns into light, medium and heavy HE.  And what happens for anti-vehicle fire at close range? If you get one hit, the normal rules apply (but no modifier to armour at very close range). If you score two hits though, you add two to the penetration throw. I rationalise this as being that at close ranges you are more likely to aim at and hit a weak spot, like the turret ring or track. All this feels a lot like throwing away a careful bit of play balance in the original design. Close range anti-tank fire is more deadly; but there was a lot of firing and missing in our first game, so I think this is OK.

I also played with moving and firing. Support squads (tripod machine guns, anti-tank guns, snipers, flamethrowers) cannot move and fire at all. I reason that these weapons take some careful setting up. And everybody, including infantry, suffer the deduction for moving and firing in the same activation. I didn’t really understand why infantry should have gone without the deduction. But they should still be more effective if static. What if the target moves? A deduction for this is commonplace in wargames rules. But moving means you expose yourself more, rather than lurking behind whatever cover is there. It’s dangerous, especially for infantry. So I restricted the deduction to guns, with a lower rate of fire, though I’m tempted to dispense with it altogether.

Other details are changed. There is rule that if your penetration throw is a 1, then it isn’t treated as a proper penetration. I felt this was too fiddly and didn’t make enough difference. Also a shot is treated as being on side armour on if you are more than 60 degrees of the centre line (as in Fistful of TOWs); this is quite generous to the vehicles, but there is reason that nations invested much more in frontal armour than all-round.

A further change to firing is a different mechanism for indirect fire. In the original this only applies to mortars, and the mechanism is highly abstracted. I get this if indirect fire is not meant to play a major part. But I wanted to leave scope for more. The designers suggest that at the sort of skirmish combat being recreated the only important indirect fire came from mortars. But I cannot read an account of WW2 fighting without seeing that artillery played a major role in all combat – so I wanted something which could be expanded. The new rules are still very abstracted and simplified. But there is a stronger role for spotters (which must be equipped with radios), and a mechanism for deviation of fire, which will make artillery fire more use against more densely packed formations. Like the old ones, they are quite expensive on Command Tokens, but on reflection I think that is right. Indirect fire is something you do while everything else sits still. I haven’t gone for off-table assets yet, but just for weapons that are under battalion control (so mainly mortars, but also infantry guns). We’ll see if this works.

And the next major change is the addition of close combat rules. These were left out deliberately from the original. This was considered by many as a weakness, since without it infantry combat tends to get bogged down. This may be perfectly realistic, but it makes the rules less good for infantry-heavy games. So in my version, troops cannot get closer than 3in to the enemy without a close combat action, which requires a sort of morale test before being initiated (AFVs can roll past infantry though, but not through them). For infantry the combat consists of two rounds of firing without cover (grenades and close range being assumed to negate this). If the attackers do not destroy their opponent, they retreat.  There are other rules to cater for vehicles, though soft and open-topped vehicles cannot enter close combat, while tanks may try an “overrun”. Again, we’ll see!

There are other changes. Troop quality is incorporated, mainly by consolidating rules in one of the supplementary sheets, though changing the names a bit. There are observation rules, coding what blocks views, and setting some observation distances for units that are not moving and firing.  Buildings are dealt by treating each model as one or more units, rather than as terrain areas – which I think works best in this sort of skirmish setting. High explosive fire on a building has the potential to damage all units within it. These rules will not cover fortified bunkers and the like, but these are an easy topic for special rules.

I managed to contain the QR sheet to one page (with the reverse available for data). This involves quite small text, and I had to leave bits out. I felt it wasn’t necessary to describe the basic turn mechanism, for example, since players have no difficulty in picking this up. I also left out the rules on buildings, as these should not be hard to look up if needed. As I have already said, the QR is an important part of overall rules design in my mind, and it certainly helped me pare down the rules. The number of pages is quite a decent guide to overall complexity – and the fact that I have managed to keep it to one page is encouraging – if it works!

In due course I will report back on how these rules work. Inevitably there will need to be changes!


Iron Cross WW2 rules: our first outing

One of my current quests is to find rules appropriate for a club night. I’m building my WW2 20mm partly with this in mind. And now that one of my regular gaming gang has come into a job lot of 20mm vehicles and figures (nicely painted), we are in business. I had read quite a bit about the Iron Cross rules in this context. They’re quite cheap, so I thought I would give them a try. We held a trial game last night, with two players a side.

The rules may not cost much (£12), but first sight is distinctly unimpressive. The graphic design is poor. The iconography of the German Iron Cross and ribbon is in your face, on every page. I happen to be wary of the common wargaming fashion for all things German (and especially SS units), and I found this bit much. A second design problem is the fonts chosen for headings: a heavy gothic that’s hard to read, and a rather naff stencil, though this does have a period military resonance. The main font is an inoffensive and perfectly legible Roman, with an italic, though – I’ve seen much worse in wargames publications. The pictures are pretty basic, but that doesn’t bother me. If I ever publish rules of my own I’m unlikely to go to town on pictures, as some (very expensive) sets of rules do. One touch is text boxes adorned by specially drawn pictures of Feldwebel Coburg (Cross of Iron) and Sargent Denver (Band of Brothers) offering advice on how to play. They don’t particularly talk in character, but this device is quite a nice way to break up the text and give the reader a change of angle.

The text is short, just 12 pages of core rules, 4 pages of a game demo, 7 pages of special rules and “orbats”, and 7 pages on scenario rules and design. This is too short as it leaves a lot out (nothing on line of sight, for example). As games master I was often asked things that weren’t in the rules, though at least I knew they weren’t there so didn’t waste time looking things up. However, being stripped down is selling point, as the fashion moves away from the over-complex rules, which the era invites.

How do they play? The core of the rules rests on its activation system. Each players gets command tokens (CTs) at one per unit, plus two more if the commander is still active. You spend these by activating individual units; you can activate the same unit more than once, and interrupt the opposing player, so the initiative flows between the two sides. Once all the CTs are gone, you reset for a new turn. First the downsides. It isn’t intuitive and takes getting used to. Just what is this process of CTs representing? You move some units several times and leave others untouched. Coordinated multiple unit actions are hard. A second issue is that it is serial; you move one unit at a time. This can slow things down; and we struggled a little to make it work in a multiplayer format – though the reviews all suggested that multi-player games worked fine.  Never mind, what it does do is produce a very absorbing game which involves both sides throughout.  It is this aspect that drives the rules’ popularity. Otherwise the rules proved quite easy to pick up, though, as I will come to, the rules are bit more fiddly than they need to be. I will come to various problems later. But we’ll be giving these rules further outings. Which is frankly better than I expected after a first read through.

The game? A simple meeting encounter between two 1944 period British and German forces, moving into a village – a cross between Portugal and Normandy in appearance (north or central Italy?). The British had one force of tanks (three Sherman 75s and a Firefly) and one of infantry (four half tracks with infantry squads, a mortar and two M10s to give them more AT capability). The Germans had more armour and less infantry, mainly Panzer IVs, with a Panther and a Marder SP gun, among other things. Perhaps unused to the idea of unlimited weapon ranges (these are supposed be quite localised actions), the British lost their Firefly in the first move, and things never really got much better. The Panther’s armour proved too much for the PIAT; the M10s weren’t much cop as substitute tanks, especially when they were dire on activation throws. We British gave up, having lost 4 AFVs to the German one, and an infantry squad (though we did manage to kill an over aggressive anti-tank gun). The casualties weren’t that high for the time played, because we kept missing, and infantry proved quite hard to kill anyway. But all players were drawn in, and started to get used how you are meant to play the rules. Mass charges to try and get all your weaponry into the fight at once don’t work, though it’s how our games in Fistful of TOWs play. Now in open country, like the Western Desert or the plains of Ukraine, there is quite a bit to be said for the mass charge (I remember one German account of how they overcame a Russian force with just such a tactic, properly timed). So these rules probably aren’t appropriate for a wide open table. But in bitty fights amongst lots of terrain: that’s another matter.

Online, there are two criticisms of Iron Cross that don’t worry me much. One is that the army lists are weak. This is a whole side of gaming that I’m not into, the question about whether you buy a  Wespe battery in place of a Panzer IV, etc. Points can be used to get a general balance, but the gamesmanship over force composition I don’t get. The books and supplements provide enough, and it is quite easy to fill the gaps using systems with more detailed lists, like Battlegroup. One of the skills of gaming, as in real life< is making the best of what random availability gives you. A second issue is the absence of elite forces in in this rule book. I’m also not bothered by this – I like using mainstream forces. An obsession with SS units, visible in some places, is not something I’m comfortable with. They, and other elites like paratroops, have their place, though, and a free supplement brings them into play.

A third problem I’ve already mentioned: the missing bits. These aren’t so hard to fill in from other sets of rules, though Iron Cross would be a hard set rules to embark on wargaming in this era with. A gamesmaster helps here: but it always does. There are two more serious problems though. The weapons rules are too fiddly, and tactical balance doesn’t feel right.

Like many systems, core rules describe a basic game, with special rules to deal with further details. But Iron Cross gets the balance wrong. The special rules have to cover too much ground; almost every type of unit, other than a basic infantry squad or tank, is covered by the special rules, which then create a web of exceptions and different treatments in the various mechanisms, especially in combat against infantry. And the main rules turn out to tucked full of little exceptions here and there. The published quick reference sheets don’t cover any of this, so are pretty useless. I designed one of my own (though without flamethrowers). This is begging for a bit of redesign, and I’m not going to resist. Too much complexity is a puzzling mistake for a set of stripped down rules to make.

Tactical balance is a matter of opinion. Different players get worked up about different things. The Tiny Hordes blog thinks that Iron Cross doesn’t get infantry v. tanks balance right, with the tanks too strong, and also that infantry should get a penalty for moving and firing. So much that he fixed these with house rules before his first game. But I didn’t see these issues mentioned in other online sources. One problem does come up regularly: infantry squads are too resilient. Mostly this is in fact OK: infantry tends to get pinned down rather than wiped out. But when two squads get into base contact you expect things to happen more quickly: there are no close combat rules. In our game, a German squad went right up to a British one, and fired a set of blanks. The British calmly escaped. Well you can rationalise that, but a close combat mechanism is a common house modification, and seems to rebalance things a bit.

A couple of other points came up in our game, and in the forums. Side armour is very easy to hit compared to other sets of rules. In fact this would involve striking such armour at a very acute angle, which is not good for penetration. A 30 degree or even 45  degree rule would be better, or perhaps something even stricter. Likewise the effect of cover on fire is to reduce damage; this works fine for infantry targets, but not for anti-vehicle fire – where surely it reduces the chance of a hit capable of penetration? Mortars are very expensive on CTs to use. Actually I’m going to be patient on this. To use mortars you have to keep the rest of your activity down; that isn’t necessarily unrealistic – this underlies the point about these rules that you have to think about what you want to do, rather than just throwing in the kitchen sink every time.

The answer to so many of these problems is house rules. This is part of the hobby I enjoy I shall be developing a pretty comprehensive set. I suspect that this the way a lot of gamers have gone. The user forum is useful, but has gone very quiet. The two posts in 2018 are unanswered questions. People seem to be going there own way.

Salute 2018

The weekend before last I went to the 2018 Salute show in Excel in London. This is the only wargames show I regularly go to. I am now a member of the South London Warlords that puts the show on, though I have as yet played no part in organising it or helping on the day. Too much else going on in my life (which is also why this article is so late).

So much that I couldn’t stay long this year. I arrived at about 11am and stayed until about 1pm. It says a lot about the show that I could have stayed longer if I didn’t have other places to go! The show is big. This year it seemed bigger than ever. Certainly from the point of view of the trading stands, which increasingly seem to be the point of the show. The games did not look as numerous as previously. There were quite a few empty tables, gratefully seized by visitors as somewhere to sit down and have a rest or chat with friends. Star of the show was a replica WWI British tank, which you could peek inside of.

There was some spectacular games, which people had taken a lot of trouble to put on. But there were some rather underwhelming ones as well. Worst was a case where the intended English Civil War game could not be put on due to illness. Instead there was a WW2 demonstration that looked pretty dire even by the standards of a club night. The reason was clear enough, but I’m not sure I would have put anything on in those circumstances. I didn’t like a couple of others more due to my personal taste. One was a Battle of Tewkesbury (1471) game. The board was small but, even then the small scale figures only took up a small part of it. The terrain was an abstract expanse of pale green base, with some darker bits to represent wooded areas. As it happens I had visited the Tewkesbury battle site over Easter (on Easter Sunday in fact). It is claustrophobic, dominated hedges, rolling ground, with streams and lanes and the general shape of the ground playing an important role in how the day played out. The recreation conveyed none of that – and the armies looked much to small in relation to the ground. The lesson there: I don’t want to do a historical game that is presented so abstractly that the historical feel is completely lost. And if you are using small scale figures, the role played by terrain matters more to the overall presentation. It would, of course, have been very hard work to put together the complex system of hedges and lanes and streams that make up the Tewkesbury battlefield – but it has the potential to be visually stunning. Although the area now is currently ruined by new developments, it shouldn’t be too hard to get close to original layout. Field systems stay much the same until modern bulldozers flatten them – as can be seen from the fraction of the field that has survived, which has changed little. Besides the battle is much studied and I expect somebody else has done the hard work already.

A second battle I found underwhelming, or at any rate demonstrating a direction I don’t want to go in, was a recreation of Aspern-Essling (1809). It used hex based terrain system and 28mm figures. The villages were represented by large building models, with one model making up a small village, and units were small groups of figures in rather loose formation. This is the danger of these popular large scales. The effort goes into doing up the miniatures and buildings to look good as individuals, but the effort required for doing large numbers is too much. The effect en masse is dire. It looked nothing like a big Napoleonic battle with dense masses of troops confronting each other in villages with streets. I don’t think the hex-based system used helped either. Whether I can achieve what I want to with 15mm Napoleonic figures on a large scale remains an unanswered question.

One good-looking table was presented on a WW2 1943 theme – featuring 20mm scale figures and aircraft in a Mediterranean setting (the battle for Leros 1943). I think it was showcasing Battlegroup rules (more of which later). But after a couple of passes I realised that nothing was actually moving. It was diorama and not a game. I remember the same thing last year with a 1941 desert war “game” to coincide with Battlegroup Tobruk. I don’t really approve, but the presentation did succeed in drawing observers in, so I’m sure there’s something to be learned from it.

Part of my purpose for the day was to get inspiration. I’m afraid, though there were some attractive games, it was mostly showing me what not to do. My tastes are rather out of kilter with the rest of the wargaming community – and so far I have failed to put on anything that demonstrates the sorts of things I want to see.

Apart from inspiration there was shopping. Here things went better. I resisted the temptation to buy models or figures (there is too much unpainted stuff at home), or books on history (too many unread ones). Instead my books were squarely focused on wargames projects. First I bought the newly published Battlegroup Torch. I am less than convinced by the Battlegroup rules themselves, though they have quite bit going for them. But their author, Warwick Kinrade, does a wonderful job of historical research and works much harder than most to create an authentic feel. I have his books on Kursk and Normandy because these were the closest I could get to the 1943 Mediterranean theme. I let the 1941 Tobruk book go; this early desert war is far too far away from what I’m looking at. But this new book starts with the various battles of El Alamein in 1942, when more modern weapons started to play a role. Better still it includes Tunisia, which is one of the three campaigns that I am particularly focusing on (Tunisia, Sicily and Salerno). I have read it, and I’m not disappointed. So much better than the rather lightweight Bolt Action book I bought last year on the Mediterranean campaigns. I do hope Warwick gets on to Italy. It is promising that he says that Tunisia proved much more interesting that he thought it would be. Indeed so. The terrain is quite different form the desert, which has never attracted me for tabletop battles, and there is an interesting array of troops and weapons, with hard fighting on both sides.

Still on the WW2 theme I bought some Iron Cross rules, which I’d been encouraged to try after a magazine article. These might well work well on a club night, where my friends have come into a stash of WW2 20mm models and are taking an interest. They are a bit simplistic in places, but actually look very interesting. Alas I can see that no WW2 rules will meet my tastes, and that I will be writing my own. Not yet though.

I also bought a couple of books for Napoleonics. I am trying to think of ways I can get my metal into club games (though the main problem for now is that the basing is all over the place and they don’t look good enough). I looked at two options. One was a new divisional game: Over the Hills. This looks quite interesting and easy to play – I saw encouraging reviews on TMP, though the reviewers also said they were poorly written. On a quick review I can see what they mean. But they are still full of a lot of the tropes that affect most wargames at this level. Built up areas are treated much like individual buildings – which fails to capture the flavour of street fighting. Squares are vulnerable to infantry attacks (more vulnerable, at first glance, than catching a line in the flank). The soldiers of Bachelu’s division at Waterloo might beg to differ. Still the treatment of skirmishers is rather better than many, and I need to give them a proper chance. I will give a proper review another time.

And finally I bought a scenario book for Chris Pringle’s Bloody Big Battles. This is post-Napoleonic but I’m thinking of trying BBB on a club night, as another option. One of the big problems with club games is creating interesting scenarios, and Chris has a gift for turning historical scenarios into interesting wargames. I’m hoping I can do something with these (and the Franco Prussian War ones in the rule book). Since BBB is the closest current system to the rules I am trying to put together myself, I’m sure there is much to learned from this. I am trying to resist the magnetic attraction of putting together yet more armies to run some of these scenarios in their intended format…

1943: the Royal Scots Greys Sherman troop

The days are getting longer and the afternoon light better. I can get back to painting and modelling, and so resume my 1943 project. When I left off last Autumn I had just started my most ambitious project to date: four tanks for the Royal Scots Greys at Salerno. I have already posted at length on my early research last Summer.

It is ambitious because it is the first, and probably only, time I am modelling a specific unit at a specific time, rather than something generic.  It involves conversion work on my models, and producing my own decals.

The first challenge was finding models. I am looking at the M4A2 (or Sherman III) in early format (especially the early mantlet – there is more flexibility on the nose ). My preferred supplier is PSC, but they did not have anything. They have the welded hull M4A1 or the long-hulled M4A4. I went as far as buying the Armourfast M4A2 after good reviews, but without understanding what options it had. There were none and it was a later war variety without any sandguards; the mantlet and nose were later war too. A lovely clean model though, that I will use for a reinforcement platoon. Then I found the Italeri kit of earlier war British configured M4A2s with sandguards. Otherwise I would have resorted to one of the more expensive 1/76 models that are on offer from Milicast.

The boxes for the Armourfast and Italeri models
The Armourfast sprue – all there is for each model!

Alas on opening the box it was not all good news. The hatch is moulded closed and in the wrong orientation. The British (and certainly the RSGs) removed the one hatch cover and oriented the other to the rear (rather than having the hatch open to the sides). Besides I want to model my tanks with the hatch open and a commander. Otherwise it is a nice model. It is a snap together wargames kit, not a proper model, but that suits me fine. But that hatch: fixing that is essential to getting the look of the model I want. I am compromising on lots of things – it’s only a wargames model after all – but I can’t on that. The shame is that this is one place that the Armourfast model is unequivocally better: the hatch and the two half-covers are moulded separately. But I can’t even swap turrets as the mantlet looks even harder to fiddle with.

One idea was to use the hatches from my old Airfix Sherman models. I had thought of using these to make up a reserve troop. But although I have some sentimental attachment to them (one of them is one my oldest models), they aren’t very good models, as well as being 1/76 rather than my preferred 1/72. They can’t even be pinned down to one type of Sherman, adopting features from various ones. So I tried prising off the hatches. Alas in only one case was this anything like feasible. The others were too well glued and were badly damaged in my attempt to prise them away. I was able to retrieve four half hatch covers – which are useful. Though it turns out I needed the other four too (more on that later).

So there was nothing for it but to get out the jewellery saw and try to take off the turret hatches. The first one was much easier than I feared, though there was some damage to the turret mouldings. The next one was much the same. But I must have got a bit complacent, because the next two did not go so well, with more damage to the turret top – though nothing that a bit of filler couldn’t sort out to the standard I need. Next came cutting out the hatch lids to leave the hatch ring. This was not easy. The plastic is quite thick and the jewellers saw only does straight lines. I used drill, saw, craft knife and files to hack out the moulded hatch. After that the hatch ring could be clued back to turret top in its new orientation, with the machine gun bracket to the left rather than the rear. In the last two cases, and especially the last one, quite a bit of filler was needed. After that the half-lid (from the Airfix models) was glued in open position to the rear.

The next operation was on the sand guards. In Italy the British generally removed the rear portion (where they had sand guards at all), and this to me was another essential part of the look. Unfortunately in the Italeri kit, the sand guard is moulded to the upper hull, rather than being a separate part as in the PSC models. One option I had considered when looking at the Armourfast model (no sandguards), was taking sand guards from a PSC model (perhaps the cast hull M4A1), which in turn could be used for the reserve troop. Sawing, cutting and filing my way through the Italeri model, in hindsight this may have been a better option. It is very hard to do this without damaging the remaining hull, and once again filler was needed to do an imperfect job of covering up the mess. For all its virtues I’m really not sure I would start with the Italeri model again.

Next came assembly of the model. Mostly I just snapped it together without glue. I did glue on the bottom hull to the top as there is an unsightly join at the front, which required filler – so it was imperative the join was solid. Given the shape, this fillering was a bit awkward, but surplus filler looks a bit like mud, so no major problem.

Next there was the matter of the tank commander. I used resin models from Milicast. These were slightly small (1/76) and some of the arms had to be glued on, which I found very tricky – but they are much cleaner cut that the PSC figures. Given the difficulties with the arms, I’m not sure I’d use these models again, but go for AB metals instead. Another problem is that the figures are wearing berets, when the pictures from Salerno show the tank commanders wearing standard steel helmets (mid war pattern) (for AB the choice would have been berets or later style helmets). I lacked the confidence to do head swaps, or filing off the top of the heads to fit helmets. Instead I put an appropriate helmet cut from plastic Airfix 8th Army figures near the hatch (following one of the later pictures). The figures are full length, so the bottom of the legs had to be cut off, and I had to jerry rig a platform inside the turret to cement them to.

Next came the aerial. I had successfully used plastic broom bristle for my German tanks, so I used this again. The aerial came either in 4ft lengths, apparently, and the crew fixed one or two together depending on circumstances. The Salerno pictures showed something that looks like more than 4ft to me, so I assumed 8ft aerials,  though this made them quite tall (I wonder of they used US aerials, which had 3ft lengths, and so total height 6ft). Using a drop of superglue to fit the aerials on my German tanks had been pretty easy – but this time it proved much harder, as there wasn’t such a good point to attach the aerials to; in the end it was a little messy.

Also the pictures showed that pennants were flown on the aerials. This is another striking part of the appearance. It isn’t clear from the pictures what the flags were. The star decals interpretation is two triangular flags, red at the top and yellow bellow. I decided on a swallow tail flag at the top of the aerial for the squadron leader, and a triangular one for the troop leader. And in the lower middle of the aerial for all four tanks a triangular pennant. Colours are pretty speculative but at the moment I’m thinking of red for the upper flags and sky blue for the lower ones. I cut these from foil and glued them on. This turned out to be very fiddly, but they add a lot to the look.

And on to the final details. The missing hatch half-cover was attached to front of the driver position, presumably as a bit of extra protection. I had to manufacture these from plastic card, using the Armourfast ones as a model. I put on various stowage boxes and tarpaulins mainly from a Milicast resin set. These were mainly on the back. Some pictures show heavily laden tanks (including the Salerno ones, which show them mainly just after being unloaded from the landing ships), but in Italy many pictures also show relatively unladen vehicles. I may have overdone it (the turret cannot be completely traversed in most cases), but it add to the in theatre look.

The squadron leader is on the right

So here they are ready for the next stage: painting:

Marshal Ney at Quatre Bras – a huge disappointment

In a recent post I complained at the poor quality of analysis in military history writing for the Napoleonic wars. That was when I was doing some earlier research into the Battle of Ligny on 16 June 1815. I have just bought a new book on the simultaneous battle of Quatre Bras: Marshal Ney at Quatre Bras by Paul Dawson, published in 2017 by Frontline Books. It is enough to drive me to despair.

There is real tragedy here. Mr Dawson is one of the few authors that does original research, and tries to bring fresh evidence into the picture. In this case it is muster returns for the French Army, which are in the French archives and have been untouched by historians to date. And if you look hard you will find the occasional fresh insight based on his voracious appetite for documentary evidence. And this easily might have been a much better book. What it needed was a robust dialogue between the author and an experienced editor to produce a book that would have been much clearer and easier to read. That is not how modern publishing works, however.

The basic style of the book the book is to present piles of evidence – eye witness accounts and (separately) data from the muster rolls – though not other evidence from maps and the ground itself. He gives primacy to the French sources, but Netherlands sources get their due, as do British sources too – though since my interest in the well-worn British sources is not great, I cannot give a view as to its completeness on that account. Like many modern authors, he seems to take the view that these accounts should speak for themselves, and he adds very little interpretation and challenge. This is a bit odd since in the introduction he explains how careful one has to be in interpreting these reports. The exception to this are the various communications between Napoleon, his chief of staff Soult, and the various field commanders, and especially Ney. Like pretty much every author covering Quatre Bras, he takes a great deal of interest in these. Which is fair enough, since these are central to the two main controversies which have raged from the day of the battle to the present. First is why Ney to did not press his attack much sooner in the day. And the second  concerns the movements of d’Erlon’s I Corps, which was diverted from Quatre Bras to Ligny and back again, managing not to play more than a minor role in either battle.

Mr Dawson ends up by saying very little new on either controversy. His writes history on the principle that it should allocate blame, and he heaps it on both Ney and d’Erlon. He gets quite outraged at times in condemning the laxity or perfidy of the various actors. I find this jarring in a modern author, though he is not unique (Digby Smith does this too). I prefer the great historian AJP Taylor on this: history should be about explaining what happened and why. Alas Mr Dawson is weak on both the what and the why. Which is a bit of a pity, because his book provides an all-too-brief peak at some rather interesting lines of enquiry on both controversies. The first is whether it actually made much military sense for Ney to press ahead with an early attack, given his relatively weak forces and lack of knowledge of the enemy dispositions. It could have led to the annihilation of II Corps for no real gain. And without II Corps, could Napoleon have taken on Wellington, even if he had been able to take the Prussians completely out of the picture? A second point presented by Mr Dawson but not followed through is that I Corps started the day very scattered (over 20 miles, he claims), and that the staff of its leading division, Durutte’s, had defected the previous night. However, when describing the corps’ movements later in the day (from about 5pm), he presents it as largely concentrated and ready to take part as a whole in either of the day’s battles. 20 miles is a long way to walk in a single day in full kit – so just how quickly the four divisions were able to concentrate near the field of battle looks like an interesting line of enquiry. If only one or two divisions were in practice available before dusk, then that would be an interesting new perspective. And if it the conventional account is in fact correct, why does he lay on the scattered nature of the d’Erlon’s corps with a trowel earlier in the book? The book is full of such inconsistencies.

While on the subject of d’Erlon and Ligny I found a couple of other points irritating. When the leading elements of the corps approached the battlefield, it threw Napoleon and his staff completely because they were approaching they were approaching from the south rather than the west. To such an extent that he halted the last phase of his attack to try an find out who the troops were because he did not think they could be d’Erlon. Mr Dawson completely fails to mention this, even though he has done a good job of laying the groundwork in explaining why Napoleon would have been so surprised. He was expecting them to come from Quatre Bras, because he did not realise that Ney had held back his attack, and that Wellington’s forces had arrived there in strength. This meant that d’Erlon’s corps was not in the right place to attack the Prussian rear. However Mr Dawson then goes on to accept at face value the claim that if Durutte’s division had pressed its advance more vigorously, it would have been catastrophic for the Prussians and stopped them taking part in Waterloo. This is exactly the sort of thing that defeated French commanders always claim in order to say that they could have saved the day if only they had been allowed to. Durutte only had one division with a bit of cavalry support; the Prussians might have had enough troops to present a rearguard long enough to allow the failing light to complete their retreat; or Drutte mat simply have been in the wrong place too late. Ligny is beyond the scope of Mr Dawson’s book perhaps. In which case the right thing to say is that he cannot offer an opinion on the claim – something he is happy enough to do elsewhere in the book. He can’t quite get the balance between being an impartial presenter of evidence and the wish to get his opinions off his chest.

What of his account of the battle itself? This is the book’s biggest failure. On the big controversies he at least presents arguments, even if he is often repetitive and laboured. For the battle itself you get a very muddled account. On the famous charge of Kellerman’s cuirassiers, for example, at one point he suggests that it might have happened much earlier in the battle than it is often supposed. This is very strange, because he has spent much of the earlier narrative telling us that it was a miracle that the troops reached the battlefield at all, let alone two hours early. In the course of his account of Kellerman’s corps he does have interesting things to say, to be fair. He highlights worries over royalist loyalties amongst the officers of the Carabiniers. He also makes it clear that three of the four brigades reached the battlefield with the battle in progress, when normally historians say just one did.

But the biggest problem concerns his new evidence, the muster rolls. Mr Dawson extracts previously unpublished casualty figures for French units from these rolls. Alas there is clearly a problem with these figures. So, for example, his reported casualties of the 2nd Leger , which led the French attack, were just 31 with 3 killed. And yet Martinien lists one officer killed and 13 wounded, which suggests a much heavier toll. For the 108 Ligne, also Bachelu’s Brigade, and heavily engaged, even he can see the records are incomplete: It records 23 killed, 5 prisoners, but no wounded. He lamely says “we cannot give any further comment”; which does not stop him adding these incomplete figures in to his overall casualties for the corps. What about extrapolating the numbers of wounded from those killed? Or comparing with Martinien’s lists of officer casualties? Another example, which he makes much more of, is that the 8th and 11th Cuirassiers suffered just 49 casualties between them. But pretty much all eye-witnesses from both sides suggest a much heavier toll (Kellerman himself estimated 200); Martinien lists 17 officers killed and wounded. In many (but not all) cases the casualties reported by the muster rolls look far to low. This would have been quite an interesting point of discussion. But instead Mr Dawsontrea treats his new evidence at face value, as a gold standard. He suggests that only one infantry brigade of the six involved was seriously engaged, that two barely took part in the battle, and that the French suffered half the casualties of the Allies. Though it is not uncommon for eye witnesses to exaggerate casualties, this all looks a little steep.

Paul Dawson is a diligent researcher, who takes more trouble with compiling evidence than most current authors. Alas he seems bereft of the analytical skills needed to interpret it. This book may have some value as a secondary source for lazy historians like me. Other than that it is a waste of time, I am afraid. It is hard to read: long tracts of direct quotation, argument that is laboured and repetitive and yet often seems to miss obvious points. And a lot of his evidences, like his casualty figures, poses questions which he makes no attempt to answer. And you have to endure him sounding off his armchair criticism of people long dead as if they were contemporary politicians. This does not bode well for Mr Dawson’s much bigger work on Waterloo, just published, which I have also acquired. But I will give it a fair crack.

Ligny 1815. The failure of English language historians

I like to focus the development of my Napoleonic rules around specific battles. Waterloo and Quatre Bras are regulars. My most recent finished rules were developed to refight Vitoria. As my latest rules stagger towards the playtest phase, I am focusing on the battle of Ligny on 16 June 1815.

This battle was fought on the same day as Quatre Bras as Napoleon attacked three out of the four corps of Blücher’s Prussian army. In spite of being outnumbered for most of the day, he scored a remarkable but costly victory – which might have been enough to win him the campaign, had not the Prussians withdrawn towards their British-led allies, instead of on their line of communication. In spite of its importance, and a scale that matches Waterloo, this last victory of Napoleon is rather neglected by historians. But it is an interesting battle nevertheless. At the heart of it is a mystery: how did the French perform so well against a numerically superior enemy?

I have four English language books focusing substantially on the battle. There is Andrew Uffindel’s The Eagle’s Last Triumph, my edition published in 1994, though I think there is a later version out there. Then there is Peter Hofschröer’s 1815, the Waterloo Campaign, the first in a two part account of the Waterloo campaign published 1998. Next is John Franklin’s Osprey: Waterloo 1815 volume 2, published 2015. Lastly, relatively fresh off the press, is Andrew Field’s Grouchy’s Waterloo, published 2017. Alas all these accounts are deeply flawed. There is a further important resource: Pierre de Wit’s website, The Waterloo Campaign.

I am at the beginning of my study of this battle, and I have focused mainly on is opening stages. But it is enough to  confirm the usual flaws in Napoleonic military history in the English language. Actually these flaws are almost certainly not confined to the Napoleonic era, and not tot he English language either; it just what I know. There are three problems: “lamppost syndrome”, a lack of forensic analysis, and poor maps.

By lamppost syndrome, I am referring to the story of the drunk found at night scrabbling around under a street lamp. “What are you doing?” he is asked; “Looking for my keys,” he replies. “Did you drop them there?”; “No, but I can see here”. Historical writing concentrates too much on where the evidence is, and especially if there are first hand accounts. And yet important things happen in places where these accounts do not exist, and you can’t understand what is going on until you try to work out what happened where the evidence is thin. The second problem I have called lack of forensic analysis. The word “forensic” really means associated with criminal justice, but it has now assumed a wider meaning that I am using here. And that is a careful piecing together of the witness evidence with other evidence, and an understanding of what is physically feasible. In the history of this era this  evidence includes the lie of the land, casualty figures, and an understanding of the technology and human capabilities. On top of this must come the persistent examination of motive: why did somebody do that? All this is familiar enough to viewers of television crime dramas or readers of detective fiction. Given the popularity of these genres, it is very surprising that so few modern military historians want to turn detective. Not all writers are as bad as each other. For an example of how it should be, there is  Rory Muir’s masterpiece on the battle of Salamanca, though even this lacks a decent map, a problem I will come to.

But what we usually get is mistakes by one author being repeated by the next uncritically, and very little in way of genuinely new perspectives. There is one interesting example in the early stages of Ligny: the defence of the village of St Armand, where the battle started. The normal story is that the village was defended by three battalions of Jagow’s brigade, and the French attack encountered bitter resistance. In fact a careful study of the evidence (as Mr de Wit makes clear) shows conclusively that these three battalions were in the nearby village of St Armand la Haye (or Longpré), which was more defensible and closer to the Prussian positions. And all the other Prussian infantry is accounted for. In fact the French faced artillery fire from the hill behind the village, and few skirmishers, and that was all. They quickly took the village, but found it impossible to move beyond it. The Prussians (Steinmetz’s brigade) then counterattacked.

So how do our four accounts handle the episode? Mr Uffindel gives us a lot of drama (“corpses littered the streets”) and sticks to the story that they had to fight hard to push out the unidentified Prussians. Overall his account is extremely thin on this stage of the battle. Mr Hofshröer, a German speaker, makes much more use of Prussian sources. He initially says that Jagow’s three battalions were in St Armand, he then goes on the say that the French found the village largely unoccupied, and then gives a very muddled account, including quotations from officers of those three battalions. At various points he suggests the fighting was in St Armand, St Armand la Haye, and then the neighbouring St Armand le Hameau (or Beurrre). Mr Hofshröer is a controversial author and in my view completely unable to tackle his subject forensically. His value is in his extensive quotation of German language sources. Mr Franklin is a more careful author, but tends to focus on French sources. He suggests that the French had to fight hard to capture the village, with the first brigade of Lefol’s division having to call in the second. Again there is extraneous detail (“the front files were decimated”) . Finally Mr Field: he is explicitly majoring on the French sources, and he likes to quote at length; there are two accounts of this episode: one from General Lefol, and one from Captain Gerbet of the 37 Ligne. This reveals the source of  a lot of the colourful detail of Messrs Uffindel and Franklin. After these extensive quotes Mr Field says that the village (though a strong position, he says) was lightly held and the French did not face determined resistance. But he makes no attempt to reconcile this with Gerbet’s account of a rather fierce struggle. I suspect it conflates episodes from later in the battle. Incidentally the statement that St Armand was a strong position is not my view, and that is one reason why the Prussians decided not to hold it strongly. As with other works, Mr Field is unwilling to pull apart his witness statements, but at least he is more transparent than other authors, and he is careful with his facts.

And the maps? Wargamers love a good map, from which they can create a decent table. 19th Century historians did too, but they generally compiled them without properly surveying the ground, and with only a schematic representation of relief. A simple matter, surely, to take modern contour maps, and use these as a basis for updated maps? Alas, far too often not. For Vitoria I had to do this for myself, and the two maps I did are now nearly top of the Google ratings for maps of the battle. All the offerings on Ligny are flawed.

Mr Uffindel doesn’t try. He illustrates his work with schematic diagrams that do not attempt to give a feel for the terrain. Mr Hofshroer gives us two detailed maps. One gives us a representation of relief, but taken from Ferraris map of the 1760s, and with no detail of the extent of the villages, and with a later highway missing; this is not actually all that helpful: what you need is a contour map. There is then a reproduction of a Prussian military map, with lots of detail, including the initial troop dispositions. But no contours. The Prussian dispositions look accurate to the battalion – but it shows Jagow’s three battalions in St Armand and not la Haye. This may be the source of the error in other accounts; perhaps these battalions went there first but were moved to somewhere less exposed. Hofshröer does have a proper modern map showing both Quatre Bras and Ligny, which is decent enough but lacks detail for the individual battles, though it illustrates what Napoleon intended with d’Erlon’s corps very well. Franklin has only Osprey’s 3-D maps, which promise more than they deliver. You can’t see the folds of the ground. He has Habert’s division of Vandamme’s corps in a different place to everybody else, interestingly enough. This is clearly wrong in my view. It is shown on the right of the corps, in a position that looks exposed to artillery fire; it came into action on the left. Of course it may have started out on the right.

And what of Mr de Wit? This is a very valuable resource, as he squeezes as much as he can from from the evidence. It is pretty heavy going, though. He can be quite forensic, but he suffers severely from lamppost syndrome. This is less a defect for Ligny, so far, than it is for the Prussian advance at Waterloo, which has big gaps. There are no maps. He does include some very nice surveys of the terrain, mentioning anything from the era that has survived, and including some old photographs of various features.

And so, like Vitoria, I am going to have to piece together my own account, and map. This will take a while, but it is a part of the hobby I love.

1871 – a lesson in the art of wargames design

As winter draws on and daylight vanishes, my pursuit of the 1943 project has come to a halt. The next step involves a lot of painting, and daylight is a big help. Also I need 2-3 hour sessions, and these have been in shorter supply over the last couple of months. Instead I have returned to my original project: writing rules for army-level Napoleonic games. After so many false starts, I have had a bit of a breakthrough on this, and I am closing in on a prototype version that I can try out solo on the tabletop. It has been my main activity of the quiet Christmas period. Alas this is fast drawing to a close, and progress may halt again.

I have allowed myself one diversion, however. I bought a copy of Bruce Weigle’s latest rules: 1871. Bruce’s rules cover a later period than the one that I am interested in, but they have intrigued me. I have bought them all, apart from the original 1870 rules (apart from 1871, these are 1866 and 1859). These are fascinating wars, which I would take to the table if I had time. The evolution from Napoleonic times is interesting, and the struggle to adapt tactics to changes in technology is of real interest. I have not been very interested in the contemporaneous American Civil War, but these battles between the professional armies of old opponents in the Napoleonic wars seems to offer something that conflict doesn’t. One of the many aspects that makes it so interesting is that the armies were deeply interested in what actually happened so that they could develop tactics. That has left historians with a lot of detailed accounts of what happened; and the wars were short, which meant that fewer participants were killed before they could describe what they had seen (though the battles were often very bloody). No doubt it helps that standards of literacy had advanced too.

Two things drew me to Bruce’s rules. First was the simply wonderful presentation of his games, with huge trouble taken over terrain boards, for his 6mm figures. These look, much, much better than the fashion for 28mm miniatures allows; the pictures of these in wargames magazines leave me cold, in a way that I find pictures of bruce’s games inspiring. Even though I struggle on with my 15mm figures (20mm for WW2), there are many lessons to be had from his terrain boards. The second interesting thing is the rules themselves. They have been carefully calibrated against the course of historical battles, move by move. At the same time Bruce tries to make them as playable as possible. This is a struggle that I deeply appreciate, when so many rules focus on playability and half-baked ideas of historical authenticity. There is much to learn from this. I have played a few games of 1870 and 1866 with my friend George, who built up 6mm armies for the games, which has given me a better understanding of the system.

These new rules are particularly interesting. Not so much for the period covered – I’m less interested in the Franco-Prussian war than in the other conflicts – but for how the rules have been developed. Bruce’s mission is radical simplification. He says that they are much faster to play, while leading to similar results. That looks evident. The quick reference sheets are down to two sides from four. This means chucking a lot of detail and nuance overboard – things that historians may say were important, but which turn out not be. For instance: there is little distinction between different types of artillery. The Germans get a longer maximum range and a dice advantage. The French mitrailleuse is simply treated as an artillery piece with a shorter maximum range. This is ruthless, given how much ink has been spilt on this early machine gun. There is much to learn from how Bruce has achieved his stripping down. Incidentally, I see a similar ruthlessness in Chris Pringle’s Bloody Big Battles (BBB), though the choices are different. It covers the same period, but it is a very different game. My aim is to achieve something between the two for the Napoleonic era.

There was an unexpected bonus to 1871. At the back there is familiar section on how Bruce builds his boards (there are delicious examples in the book – including a table for Sedan with its city defences). He says little about these exhibition boards in this publication, but he does describe a much quicker way of creating quite respectable “test” boards. There may be some answers here for the creation of my tabletops, though these will never be in Bruce’s league. He uses a cloth pinned over polystyrene formers, with tape roads and acetate rivers pinned on top.

What of the rules themselves? They are what I describe as Corps-level rules. A single player will struggle to control more than one large army corps, though multi corps games feature in the scenarios, these will work best with more than one player per side. The ground scale is 1 inch to 100m (or 4m per mm). The basic playing piece is a stand with 30mm frontage which is nominally a battalion, organised in regiments of three. In common with earlier rules the 1871 rules give a “half-scale” and “quarter scale” variants. Both use the same distance scale, but the main units are battalions of two or four bases respectively. More interesting perhaps is the “two-thirds” variant, in which the main unit is a brigade of four bases, losing the correspondence of playing pieces with individual battalions. This is to allow bigger battles, like Sedan. There are a couple of interesting issues raised by this. First is whether the number of playing pieces should be based on army organisation (i.e. battalions), or on the numbers of men. Bruce has gone heavily for the former, as has David Ensteness his Napoleonic system Et sans Résultat. The argument is that the organisation structure drove the way battles were fought, and were written about. I’m not persuaded, and I would prefer to see the number of bases based on the number of men, setting the ratio to approximate to a battalion. Still, Bruce has made his system work, albeit he allows for a difference in average battalion size between the French and Prussian armies. How this works amongst the depleted formations of the later battles in 1871 I would be interested to know. A second issue is how well a rules system translates between different levels – how well does 1871 work at army and division levels? I suspect this is harder the more streamlined you make the rules, because different aspects are important at different levels. My view (following the world’s leading games designer, Sam Mustafa) is that different levels need different designs.

A further point about 1871 is its simultaneous move structure. When I started wargaming in the 1970s this was very fashionable. But since then (as indeed before then too), games have usually been based on alternate moves. I don’t want to develop the arguments here: but Bruce’s simultaneous system helps give the rules a simulation flavour, which is a nice contrast to the fashion the very “gamey” fashion of modern rules, such as Sam Mustafa’s. But it comes at a cost. It does require a certain standard of gentlemanliness  between the players (which, to be fair, I haven’t found lacking in my games) – and quite a lot of if-you-do-that-I-will-do this discussion. In fact quite a lot depends on who gets their move in first on the table. While playing I it did yearn for a bit more structure. But that’s just a quibble. I haven’t played them, but these new rules look a real advance on the previous versions, and they are better written too (the earlier ones left us with quite few “what does he mean?” puzzles and gaps), though the proof of that pudding is in the eating.

Could 1871 be used for Napoleonic battles? I’m tempted to try, especially when and if Bruce publishes his adaptation of the 1859 system to the new approach – the Sardinian army is pretty close to the Napoleonic smoothbore standard. Still, reading the book (which has welcome levels of explanation and historical illustration, I am very struck by how different the Franco-Prussian War is from was Napoleonic predecessor. At the moment I think David Ensteness’s system is the best for Napoleonic corps level games (to be clear, they are meant for army games, but with one player per corps). The 1871 system offers the potential for something more streamlined.

It is worth contrasting these rules with the other I have been studying for this period, if only for lessons in game design, which is BBB. BBB is an uncompromising Army-level game, though it is based on the Fire and Fury system for ACW, which is a corps-level game. By comparison, this feels much more gamey, with a less precise correspondence to historical reality. In particular the move distances look a bit low if the average turn is supposed to represent one hour. I have used the system in a full scale game only once, for Waterloo, and it was impossible for the Prussian advance on Plancenoit to be accomplished in the historical time. But its advocates use it to refight historical battles, and claim that it works well enough in general; I can’t dispute that.

If I ever do start wargaming this period (I fancy building an Austrian army), I will look no further than the 1871 system for gaming, with BBB as a backup.



Can WWI be a wargame?

Newfoundland Park, Beaumont-Hamel, Somme valley, France

On 1st July 1916, the Newfoundland Regiment, part of the second wave of assault, crossed from the second line of trenches, in the foreground of the picture,  to the first line, which you can see in the middle distance, over the top because the communication trenches were clogged with wounded from the first wave attack. They did so under fire from the German positions, in front of the main line of trees, and suffered heavy casualties. They then went over the the top again to attack the German positions. They only got as far the small group of trees you can see between the positions. They suffered 85% casualties from their 780 men, including all the officers: the highest ratio of a dreadful day.

Last week I went with my wife and a friend on a battlefield tour of the Western Front to WW1, conducted by Tim Wright (his company is Lost Generation – and I can heartily recommend, including the bed and breakfast managed by Tim’s wife Gill). The scale of the loss of life is completely breathtaking, and made so visible in the graveyards and memorials. Moving as that was, I am also a wargamer with an interest in military history. The experience made me reflect on the nature of the war, and how it compares with what came before and after. And always the question: how do you wargame it? And as this is  wargaming blog, it is these reflections that I am going to concentrate on in this post.

WW1 (1914-1918) forms one of the two main links between the two periods that I have been studying in particular: the Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815) and WW2 (1939-1945). The other link are the wars fought in Europe and America in the 1860s or thereabouts – which I am also taking a growing interest in. What struck me on this tour was the similarity between WW1 and the Napoleonic era in one special respect: the compactness of the battlefields. The British Somme theatre was a matter of a dozen kilometres; this compares with the larger Napoleonic battlefields, and the density of men to frontage occupied wasn’t much less. The gap between the two sides at the art of the battle was if anything even closer than in Napoleon’s time, as the picture shows. WW1 battlefields were deeper though – as artillery ranges were so much longer, and the artillery lines were a few kilometres back from the front. This is in contrast to WW2, where the densities were quite low, and a large part of the task of field commanders was finding out where the enemy was. Reconnaissance forces played a critical role, and patrolling became an important task for most troops, instead of being reserved for specialist forces like light cavalry. In WW1 troops had to stay under cover for as much time as possible, or suffer devastating casualties from artillery – but you would hardly describe the battlefields as “empty” in the way of WW2 ones.

A second observation from the tour was how terrain dominated the fighting. The ground around the Somme could not truly be described as hilly, but it definitely rolls. In England the closest comparison is probably Salisbury Plain (where my father lives, and which I have just returned from) – which is where the British forces trained. There is quite significant relief, fairly frequent villages and farms and lots of woods; the field boundaries are minimal (unlike the Wiltshire countryside off the Plain); there are hollow roads and ravines that can provide important cover. One point of interest is how well the Germans selected their ground; that takes a good eye, since the differences between the strong and not so strong positions are often quite subtle. As they were retreating from the Marne, they did have the luxury of choosing the ground – but our guide Tim wonders whether they had developed ideas on this before the campaign was even opened – a Plan B. Moving north from the Albert region, the northern Somme valley, where the British fought, to Arras and Ypres, the main other regions of the fighting for the Commonwealth troops, the ground flattens out considerably – it becomes more like East Anglia or Lincolnshire in British terms. But there is still relief, and the same principles apply. The hardest fighting was over positions which offered better visibility, such as Vimy Ridge near Arras, and Passchendaele near Ypres. This is something WW1 shares with earlier and later periods. There is an obvious reason for this in WW1 and WW2 – the provision of positions for observe and direct artillery fire. But it is more than that. It matters for shorter range weapons too, like machine guns – or smoothbore artillery come to that. And there is the psychological effect of being able to  seem more or less; this was very apparent from our walking of the fields. We might add that soldiers before the era of motorised transport (and often after) tended to be heavily-laden. Walking up slopes takes its physical toll (a fact mentioned by the French at Bussaco, for example – the slope was steep but distance quite short). Wargamers struggle to do the effects of relief justice, though. It is often very hard to represent accurately on a tabletop, never mind reflecting it in the rules. The ground around Ypres shows that even subtle slopes can matter a lot.

My third big observation from our tour is the issue of command and control. WW1 is an important moment of transition. Before then men and junior officers were supposed to follow orders to the letter regardless of how stupid they looked. Relatively few men were allowed, and mentally equipped, to take big command decisions. In the 18th Century, when armies coordinated through forming great battle lines, this mattered little. In the Napoleonic era there became a  pressing need to articulate armies with corps and divisional levels of command, and also to develop greater tactical initiative in light troops. But by the start of WW1 things seem to have moved on little. At the Somme this took the form of detailed plans of attack, which were supposed to be followed regardless of local glitches (like not having knocked out the enemy machine gun posts). The men were not briefed at all; which was a problem given the rate at which officers became casualties. The Somme showed how disastrous this approach was, and new methods were developed – and not just by the British; the Germans had their own problems, even though their thinking was already ahead. Clearly there were similar issues in the French army too, from some of the fictional dramas I have seen – though I know a lot less about them. It became crucial that battalion, company and even platoon commanders could take decisions based on what the enemy actually was and what he was doing.

And so what does all this all mean for wargaming? The main lesson that I took away was not even to try. WW2 is hard enough, but at least you can create interesting skirmish games which are not so unrepresentative of the fighting, since the troops were so dispersed. But it is very hard to see how you get a decent game out WW1 battles – at least on the Western Front in 1915-1917. The openness of warfare on other fronts and at the beginning or the end of the war may offer fewer problems, and offer a clearer idea of what the point of a game is. One of the issues with the type of fighting in these mid-war battles is working out who won; people still argue over it. So much of it was about the relative expenditure of resources. That is not a promising basis for a game.

I have already taken on too much with WW2; I will not be tempted into WW1, even though the era has its own very special fascination.

Barossa and Bussaco: unsatisfactory histories

Back to the Napoleonic Wars. I have been doing a little steady reading of accounts of the Peninsular War. English-language histories of battles between the British and French are very stereotyped – one of my ambitions is to develop an alternative narrative of the infantry tactics in particular. My hope is that my reading will shed some light on. This time there was less light than I hoped.

The first book was The Battle of Barossa 1811 by John Grehan and Martin Mace, published in 2012 by Pen & Sword. This battle near Cadiz was dramatic and historically important – though often overlooked by historians, because it was away from Wellington’s main army. Though the book centres on the battle, it takes on the whole siege of Cadiz – which is interesting enough. But the book is a big disappointment. Though quite well written it is little more than a rehash of British accounts of the affair, with no attempt to extend the usual sources; all the (limited) primary sources are British, as were the overwhelming majority of secondary sources. If recent Napoleonic history teaches us anything, it is that new insights are likely to come from overlooked foreign sources. Since this particular campaign is neglected, that would be particularly the case. So far as the main historical narrative is concerned, the main feature is the tense relations between the British and the Spanish, and between various Spanish factions. This very nearly led to disaster in the battle itself, where the British contingent ran into a superior force of French, with the Spanish failing to come to their aid – they nevertheless secured a remarkable victory. Alas this book throws no new light on proceedings, and contents itself with condemning the Spanish inconstancy. 200 years on we really should do better than that. And as for the battle itself, the narrative is the familiar one. There are no new insights, and no attempt to pull the usual accounts apart and put them back together again. Tactically it is an interesting battle, but I’m going to have to do that pulling apart myself if I want to get to the bottom of what happened and why.

My reading on Bussaco, the main battle during Masséna’s invasion of Portugal in 1810 is a bit different. This is an important battle, and much has been written about it. It is usually characterised as a standard French column versus British line encounter – but I wanted to understand how much that was based on actual evidence, and how much people were filling in the blanks with how they think it must have happened. It started when I picked up a translation of Colonel Pelet’s account of the campaign. Pelet was a senior aide to Masséna. I was drawn to this book because it contained a very interesting account of Ney’s attack, describing an intense skirmish duel between the French troops and the Light Division. This account is widely quoted in forums and such. It is an interesting and colourful account of the campaign from the French perspective. It was translated by the American academic Donald Horward. This drew me to Horward’s account of the battle: The Battle of Bussaco, published in 1965; I managed to find a second-hand copy, formerly belonging to the late Paddy Griffiths.

Horward’s book is quite slim but interesting. This is proper history, unlike so much of the amateur stuff published these days (including that book on Barossa). The sources have been properly compared, and the disagreements and controversies tackled head-on. It is quite interesting because it is written mainly from the French perspective; and in fact there seem to be a lot of French sources. His account of the battle itself has a very different feel to the normal ones based mainly on British sources. I only wish that more history of this quality was written today. For comparison I read the relevant chapter of David Buttery’s 2007 work Wellington against Massena, which I had bought but not read, and René Chartrand’s Campaign Osprey, which I had read before.

Chartrand and Buttery do not see the need to pick apart the standard British account, nor refer to controversies – but prefer to dramatise things a bit. For the former, that rather goes with the Osprey format, which allows little space for analysis. Buttery can’t resist filling in the blanks a bit – though Horward does that a bit too. Horward always describes the British artillery as raking the French with “grape and canister”; in the same cases Buttery says they fired shot. (This was also the first battle in which shrapnel was used, though Wellington was unimpressed). In one passage Buttery describes the British using rapid fire tactics – even though this was against British doctrine at the time. And I’m afraid that reveals a major limitation in all three works. They aren’t actually interested in the French and British tactics, and so they don’t press the evidence very hard.

My working hypothesis on Bussaco was that French tried to use heavy skirmish tactics to beat the enemy, but were thwarted by the superior skirmishing ability of the Light Division. The evidence doesn’t really hold up for this. There was indeed a lot of heavy skirmishing (in contrast to Vimiero and Talavera), but the most important encounters were between denser bodies of men. And the French suffered a clear disadvantage from exposed flanks, even though they had superior numbers. This fits the column and line thesis – but that doesn’t quite work either. The terrain was very broken, by steep slopes, crags and gorse. It was very difficult for either side to hold formation. Descriptions come through as disorderly melees. The tiredness of the French advancing up steep slopes with packs may have been a factor, as well the momentum of the fierce Anglo-Portuguese counterattacks. And the Allies did not have it all their own way. Foy was able brush aside the Portuguese 8th and 9th Regiments (probably only one battalion of the 9th); Buttery and Chartrand dismiss this as being down to overwhelming strength but that looks far too glib in view of how the French struggled to use numerical superiority elsewhere (Foy outnumbered the Portuguese by about 2:1).

Foy’s attack, effectively the third and last wave of Reynier’s corps was actually remarkably successful, capturing the plateau at the top of the ridge. It looks to me that at this point Reynier had Picton beaten. It required well-time reinforcements from neighbouring divisions (especially Leith) to restore the situation. If the French had reinforcements at the ready, perhaps the outcome would have been different. But Junot’s corps was in completely the wrong place. And that leads me to an observation relevant to the grand tactical level, and more relevant to my rules project. The Anglo-Portuguese were able to beat off the French easily enough, but at the cost of considerable disorganisation. If there were French reserves ready to exploit this disorganisation, then they had an opportunity. That’s how Foy’s brigade captured the summit at Bussaco – though by then the French were themselves disorganised.

I have less to say on Ney’s attack. It strikes me that the terrain here was much more complex, and that I need to look at it again to get any new insights.