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Lions Led By Donkeys?

Posted by Adam on January 3, 2018 at 6:35 PM


After our first try out of the modified Donnybrook rules for a game set in 1895 Heligoland, I had a think about the "feel" of the game as experienced. We had discussed right after what had worked and what had not and it was a generally positive impression. But... What niggled at me was the thought that I had, "How was this different from a WW2 or VBCW or Back of Beyond game?" Similar weaponry by the infantryman and an understandable tendency by players to use their anachronistic knowledge of later tactics. Some pondering required, that had to be postponed as work got busy and Christmas landed on me like a tonne of bricks.


A small party from the Suffolk Regiment. Unfeasibly Miniatures, which should be generally available soon.



"Helpfully", Les also sent me some chunks of information about the two Boer Wars (which bracket our 1895 conflict. First Boer War 1880-81, Second Boer War 1899-1902.) Essentially reading up a bit more on the reality of the British performance it became clear my tailoring of the British for Donnybrook 1895 was bollocks. The British seemed to learn nothing from the first war and it took the Second Boer War for them to start the process of sorting out tactics that suited the age of breech loading repeating rifles and modern artillery. My letting them fight as skirmishing marksmen with mad-minute drills was definitely not realistic in 1895.


Some Sikh veterans from an Indian regiment. Foundry figures from their Darkest Africa range.



This brings up the problem that was concerning me. How do you inflict on the players the requirement that they make the same mistakes as their historical counterparts? In larger scale games there can be compulsory formations for battalions or companies that reflect the thinking of the current battlefield tactics. For a skirmish scale game however it would be dispiriting to have to march the figures in close formation into the teeth of annihilating rifle fire, however correct that might be historically.


Seaforth Highlanders. Irregular Miniatures.



Additionally there did not seem to be a simple consensus as to which battle tactics should be used within the same armies in this period. The Prussians had the lessons of the Franco-Prussian war to draw on as well as frequent large scale manoeuvres. The British had almost continuous combat experience around the world on a generally smaller level than European army scale. Both nations (and others) quite naturally observed the ideas and methods of other armies as well. However, not only was there disagreement about what these ideas and lessons meant but there was patchy uptake amongst the generals and officers in translating new ideas into actions on the ground.


A German Navy shore party. Figures from North Star but not sure what they are meant to be...


The reasons for this were complex but from what I have read there was a strong body of opinion drawn from theoreticians such as Clausewitz and the experiences of battle going back to the Napoleonic Wars that offensive tactics were the key to victory. The morale and initiative advantages of attacking outweighed the benefits of being a defender even in prepared positions. Then there were voices that pointed to the more recent examples of the American Civil War and the Franco Prussian war where these certainties had been roughly tested upon the advent of universal usage of breech loading rifles by the common infantryman. One of the interpretation of these examples was that the frontal attack on infantry so armed was no longer a valid tactic due to the very high casualties that would be sustained by an attacking force.


But in the end it did not necessarily matter what was taught at Aldershot or the Prussian staff college. Tactical methods became enmeshed with politics in the German army and the preferences of the Kaiser became as important as those of experienced military planners. The British, who had seen committed attacking armies such as the Zulus and Ansars beaten by their own rifle fire from carefully crafted defensive positions, haughtily disdained these “natives” and many senior officers believed that a professional soldier would be able to press home such a frontal attack.


German Infantry from the 49th Regiment. More Unfeasibly Miniatures from the 2016 Kickstarter Campaign.


My approach to build in this disparity of tactical methods within the game rules is in 2 parts. Firstly I have decided that the officers and characters in the 1895 games need to have some assigned characteristics. Rather than the officer figure being the player’s representative it will be a professional military man with his own ideas on the way his men should be used in a battle. The officer’s understanding of tactics would confer upon troops acting in his command radius benefits and disadvantages. I have tried to distil the complex theorising down to two factors: The preferred formation / control system (close order, loose order or skirmish order) and Tactical school (frontal assault with the bayonet, frontal assault using firepower and standing on the defensive.) I have also tried to give all the characteristics a balance of good and bad effects, whatever history and my personal bias says the correct approach should have been for the period.


A German Officer. But will he be an advocate for the tactics of defence or attack?


The second strand of these rule changes is that units may only act upon their activation card if in the command radius of an officer or character (there is no let off by parking the officer well to the rear where he cannot interfere…;) This I think reflects well the more rigid hierarchy of command compared to the 17th Century. I have written up a draft of the rule additions here for anyone to have a look at and comment on (please!) We’ll try these out in the next opportunity we have to get some figures on a table.


Categories: Heligoland Victorian War, Painting Projects

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2 Comments

Reply Brendan Morrissey
3:09 PM on June 4, 2018 
You could do worse than adopt the assessment matrix adopted by the Prussian army during the mid-19th Century. An officer was either industrious or lazy, and either clever or stupid. Clever and industrious became staff officers (often destined to rise no higher than colonel, but with considerable influence); clever and lazy became generals (who were conisdered capable of seeing the "big picture" and not becoming bogged down with minutiae); stupid and lazy were assigned to ceremonial units; however, the worst type of officer was stupid and industrious as they could do a lot of damage - hence they were usually assigned to the colonies.
Reply Adam
4:02 PM on June 4, 2018 
Ooh I like that. I will find a way to incorporate it...