Saturday, 9 November 2019

Battle of al-Musayfirah 1925

We felt it was time to give the "One Hour Wargame" (OHW) rules by Neil Thomas another airing, Anthony and I both like the fast moving simplicity of this game system and it works well with 54mm toy soldiers.

Looking back through old copies of Wargames Illustrated for inspiration I found a scenario for the Battle of al-Musayfirah in 1925 during the Great Syrian Revolt.   After WW1 The League of Nations had given France a mandate to govern Syria and the French promptly instituted a number of measures to control the local tribes.  This inevitably lead to a nationalist uprising  by the Druze, which spread to the other tribes.



We chose scenario 15 from OHW, Fortified Defence, as it best reflected the actual battle.  Basically, a French Foreign Legion column was ambushed and badly mauled so the survivors took refuge in an old Turkish fort at Suwayda.  A relief column was prepared and an advance party sent forward to set up a defensive position at the town of al-Musayfirah as a staging post for the main column following behind.   A traditional colonial campaign in the finest traditions of P C Wren and Beau Geste, here's how it went:

On the left is the old Turkish fort at Suwayda, the town behind it in the rear centre is  al-Musayfirah, to the right of the town is a rocky area, in the OHW scenario this should be woods but rocks are more suitable for the desert so we just gave them the same terrain effect for movement and combat as woods.

We diced to see what forces each side would get, the French got 3 Inf, 2 Arty and 1 Cav, while the Druze got 3 Inf, 1 Heavy and 2 Cav.  That seemed to represent the original forces quite well, I wasn't sure what to use for the Druze heavy unit, in reality they had some artillery but I couldn't find any references to machine guns or other heavy weapons so a little imagination was called for.

The French start with one unit in the old Turkish fort at Suwayda and one in al-Musayfirah.  The Druze opened the ball with a mass attack on the garrison in the old Turkish fort.  Victory would go to whichever side occupied both the town and fort at the end of 15 turns.

The rules give the two garrisons additional firepower, which reflects the actual battle as the French had machine guns which took a terrible tole on the attackers.   To even things up the Druze have a refit rule which allows them to create a second wave with all their original units at their starting positions, rather like the Zulu wave mechanism we used in our recent Rorke’s Drift game.

The French cavalry came from the collection of veteran wargamer John Ruddle who created them from bits and pieces of old Britains hollow cast Spahis, all repaired and repainted.  Behind them the French Command are represented by Starlux mounted FFL.

The first wave of the Druze attack succeeds in overrunning the defenders in the fort and pushing back the relief column.  At this point they invoked the refit rule, leaving the fort abandoned temporarily while the second wave formed up for a renewed attack.

In the Druze second wave one unit has reoccupied the fort while the main push is directed against the garrison at al-Musayfirah.  Here the remaining infantry and Command, with heavy unit attached, use the cover of the rocky terrain to advance for a mass attack on the town.  The camel borne gun is the handiwork of Ross Macfarlane, as are the fort and town buildings.

The all out assault goes in, Druze mounted units rush the town while the foot provide covering fire from the rocks, will the beleaguered garrison hold out?

As we reached turn 15 and the end of the game, the superior firepower of the French forces carried the day.  A bombardment of the fort drove the Druze defenders out, leaving it unoccupied, while the mounted units caught in the open were wiped out by the French mountain artillery.

Anthony insisted we take a picture of the lunch, l'd like to tell you it was something suitably North African but clearly it's traditional beer and pizza.

The game played out very similar to the real battle, in 1925 the Druze suffered heavy casualties from the French machine gun strongpoints in al-Musayfirah.  They did manage to break into the town and promptly made off with all the columns horses and donkeys, but the attack through the rocks was broken up by a continuous bombardment from French aircraft.

Wednesday, 6 November 2019

Sad news

It was indeed sad news for all of us to learn that Stuart Asquith had passed away at the weekend, he has been a such monumental presence in the hobby for as long as I can remember.

I don't recall how we were introduced but we first met about 40 years ago through the Harrow Model Shop, which at the time was a regular place of pilgrimage for modellers and wargamers across North London. Stuart invited me round to his house in Rayners Lane to see his amazing collection of 7 Years War plastic Spencer Smith figures, all meticulously organised and including lots of conversions.  I visited many times but we never got around to playing a wargame, we just talked toy soldiers, he was very keen to explore 54mm wargaming after visiting John Ruddle of the British Model Soldier Society and taking part in one of his annual garden games.

Stuart (in glasses) with Steve Woods exhibits H G Wells "Little Wars" at Salute 1980.

Stuart wanted to put on a demonstration game of Little Wars at Salute but didn't have the figures for it so he wrote to Britains outlining his plan and asking if they would sell him the necessary figures at wholesale rates for the event.  He was genuinely gobsmacked when a parcel arrived containing enough infantry, cavalry and 4.7 inch guns to equip both armies, with compliments from Britains.  These were the figures illustrated on the cover of Military Modelling above, years later he swapped all those Deetail Napoleonic cavalry to me when he upgraded to metal.

Stuart demonstrated the traditional game, firing matchsticks with not a dice to be seen, this wasn't universally well received, Stuart told me that one disgruntled spectator came over and told him he had put the cause of wargaming back by 50 years!  Did he know who you were? I asked, we both found the irony amusing.  He went on to run the game at one of the early Plastic Warrior shows (the third or fourth I think, when figure displays and wargames used to be regular features) and found a much more receptive audience.

When we first met Stuart was working as a Manager for British Telecoms and writing occasional articles for Military Modelling, and later, Battle magazines.  His enthusiasm for this aspect of the hobby inspired him to greater ambition, he floated ideas for new columns and one off special editions which were taken up by the publishers.  Some years later after the state owned BT was privatised and embarked on a far reaching organisational restructure, he decided to take a redundancy package and told me this would give him more time to spend on writing for the hobby.  Today, when we have learned to live with labour mobility this move wouldn't seem such a big deal but back in the day when most workers saw themselves in a job for life such a major career change later in life was a very brave undertaking.  I thought he was crazy, giving up the security of a well paid job for an uncertain freelance future, what I didn't see was that he was following a path he loved and that his output would be prodigious.

Stuart introduced me to Frank Perry who had written the First and Second Books of Wargaming (54mm gaming), which were continuations of Little Wars, it was through this contact, and Frank's son Ross, that I became involved with the fledgling Plastic Warrior Magazine, which over the past 35 years has been a constant and major factor in my life.  And for that, Stuart, I thank you.

Monday, 28 October 2019

Plastic Warrior Show 2020 - date for your diary

 35th Plastic Warrior Toy Soldier Show
will be held on
Saturday 16th May 2020

The Plastic Warrior Show is an annual gathering held in West London, for enthusiasts who collect, model and wargame with 54mm plastic toy soldiers, and in 2020 it will be celebrating it's 35th Year.  The show is normally held on the second Saturday in May in order to avoid the May Bank Holiday weekend (disruption to public transport by engineering works) and the FA Cup Final (inexplicably, some grown men believe watching a soccer match is more important than toy soldiers!).  

However, in 2020, the powers that be have decided to move the Bank Holiday from Monday 4th May to Friday 8th May, in order to mark the 75th anniversary of VE Day.  Therefore the PW Show in 2020 is moving to the third Saturday in May, happily the Football Association will be holding their Cup Final on the following Saturday, 23rd May.

So that's all sorted, the venue remains the same, The Harlequin Suite at the Winning Post Pub & Hotel

See this previous post for directions: Plastic Warrior Show

Monday, 14 October 2019

1066 Otto Gottstein diorama discovered

On a recent visit to Hastings, land of Jack in the Green, Bonfire Boys, Grey Owl and all things 1066, I happened to mention to Mrs C that when I was a boy I regularly holidayed here with my parents and one year discovered a museum up on the cliffs which had a diorama of the Battle of Hastings. I could remember it clearly in my minds eye, it was massive, built on a table which filled the room and composed of tiny Airfix figures, the whole thing covered in a glass case.  But on subsequent visits I could never find that museum again, had I just imagined the whole thing?

And thus dear reader began the Quest!

We set off from the Pier, scaled the cliffs and with the aid of a map (a map! why didn't I think of using one of those before?) the museum was quickly found, smaller and less imposing than I remembered but it was in the right location, that was a start.  Inside.....no diorama, in fact hardly any mention of the Battle at all! (instead whole rooms devoted to Grey Owl and conservation).  As we gathered up our disappointment and made to leave I noticed a few figures behind glass, 30mm flats, not what we had come in search of and so poorly lit that you could barely make them out.

Descending the cliffs we returned to the Old Town and resumed our holiday, sampling local ales and poking around in the myriad junk shops until we entered what appeared to be a second hand book shop and in a corner at the back we found this:

In a large glass case but looking rather dull and dusty was this diorama of the Battle of Hastings, much smaller than I remembered and comprising 30mm German tin flats not 20mm plastic Airfix figures, sadly this couldn't be the diorama from my childhood.

But it was!  I enquired about it's origin from an elderly gentleman who seemed to be in charge of the shop (sadly I didn't get his name) and he told me that it was indeed the diorama which had originally been housed in Hastings Museum up on the hill, the local borough Council had revamped the museum to make it a more interactive educational resource (oh, and also a venue for weddings and social events) for the community.  In this bright new vision there was no place for a big old box full of tiny tin soldiers so the diorama was broken up and put into storage, in due course the storage area was to be cleared out and the gentleman I was talking to had saved what was left from going in the skip. 

What remains is less than half, probably about a third of the original model, and without the centrepiece vignette of King Harold being shot in the eye by an arrow, which was retained by the museum and was the group of figures mentioned above that I had seen there.  Okay I can see that an old careworn exhibit isn't going to fit in with the needs of the modern world but I still felt it was an act of institutional vandalism, similar to what's been done at the National Army Museum (don't get me started on that)

I went back to take a longer look at the diorama to see how my memory could have been so misplaced, and then in the corner I noticed a small plastic plaque simply engraved D Stokes, London WC1 and I realised I was looking at one of the fifteen famous dioramas commissioned by the legendary collector, Otto Gottstein, for display in 1937 at the Royal United Services Museum in Whitehall.

 I didn't get a photo of the death of King Harold when I was at Hastings Museum, the display was just too dark, fortunately there is a monochrome pic of it in the 1937 catalogue for the RUSI museum exhibition.  And here it is, Harold is centre stage about to throw a spear and with a rather overscale arrow in the eye.

Above, the catalogue for the 1937 exhibition at the Royal United Services Museum in Whitehall together with the biography of Otto Gottstein and his collection (published by edition Krannich 2000, ISBN 3-933124-06-9, text mostly in German) well worth a read, Gottstein was the President of the British Model Soldier Society and also financed Roy Selwyn-Smiths first venture, Selwyn Miniatures, which went on to become the Britains Knights of Agincourt series.

If you happen to be in Hastings do pop into Hastings History House at 21 Courthouse Street, it's the current home of this venerable old diorama as well as the HQ of Old Hastings Preservation Society.  I started to write this post some time ago then realised that as today is the anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, I really ought to get it posted.

Postscript.
After the RUSI Museum exhibition was broken up, the 15 dioramas were distributed to new homes far and wide, mostly military museums in the UK, one went to the Royal Military School of Music at Kneller Hall and has subsequently been lost, while no less than four went to the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, Canada - someone in Canada please tell us that they are still there!

Friday, 20 September 2019

Vive la Commune!

The Funny Little Wars Group recently gathered together in a dank, foreboding, cobbled courtyard, in a long forgotten corner of old London town. The cries of cutpurses, ne'er do wells and an angry mob echoed in the surrounding alleyways and rookeries........ you couldn't ask for a better setting in which to recreate Paris of the Communards in1871.

 The western suburbs, from the gateways in the crumbling ancient walls, wide boulevards run through to the heart of the City.  The boulevards are denoted by chalked lines, the areas between the boulevards are a congested warren of houses and narrow alleyways (you have to use a bit of imagination here!)

The National Government has fallen after embarking on a disastrous war against Germany which saw the City subject to a six month siege and the humiliating capture of Emperor Napoleon III at Sedan.  A new Government of National Defence has been established at Versailles, troops are sent to recover all the artillery from Paris but they are opposed by a popular uprising of the workers at Montmartre, backed by the Paris National Guard

The view from the South Gateway, the red flags of the Revolutionaries fly from all the major buildings seized by the National Guard, the artillery park at Montmartre is in the left background.  Prominent supporters of the Versailles government, the clergy and Archbishop Darboy have been rounded up and imprisoned.  Elections are held and a Commune Council is installed to run the City.

Meanwhile Versailles builds an army, calling in troops from regional garrisons, gendarmes, firemen, naval and foreign legion units.  Marshal MacMahon is ordered to retake Paris, he occupies the surrounding forts and opens a bombardment of the City.

MacMahon marches on Paris but his way is blocked by Fort Issy which is still held by the Communards.  The garrison Commander, Leon Megy, has taken the precaution of barricading himself in the forts deep wine cellar, several hours later a runner is sent back to Paris to inform the Council that he is in no fit state to command.  A company of National Guard are sent to assess the situation, and stiffen resolve in the fort, they have secret orders to spike the guns and escape if resistance looks untenable.

MacMahon's columns suffer heavy casualties from Fort Issy as they advance but eventually they surround the Fort and overwhelm it.  The garrison manage to spike the guns before they surrender, they are then executed by the victorious Versailles troops.   This sets an ugly precedent which will have unfortunate consequences for the hostages under arrest in Paris.

The indiscriminate bombardment of  Paris has continued daily and turned much of the suburbs to rubble but caused relatively few casualties.  Rather than cower the Communards it has strengthened their resolve to fight to the end.

Meanwhile the Revolutionaries have not been idle, barricades are thrown up, buildings booby-trapped with explosives and incendiaries.  The newly formed Committee of Public Safety have ordered more arrests of anyone suspected of supporting Versailles.  A sweep of the suburbs uncovers a counter-revolutionary plot to rescue the hostages and the traitors (seen here in prison with Archbishop Darboy) face the firing squad.

The biggest problem for the Communards is that they don't have enough men to hold all the strongpoints in the City, also they have an abundance of artillery and shells but few artillery crews trained to use them.

As MacMahon's troops forced their way into the City, my character, Gustave Cluseret, was arrested by the Committee of Public Safety and accused of leaving the gates open, I was to be tried for Incompetence.....or Treason.......or Both! (don't you just love committees?).  News that I would face the firing squad when found guilty drew rapturous applause from my fellow players! (steady on lads, it's only a game).

Happily a favourable roll of the dice saved me from the firing squad!  A desperate struggle begins in the streets and alleyways as the Communards struggled to withstand the steady disciplined advance of the regular troops, canister shot rips gaping holes in their ranks but there are just too many to stop and the revolutionaries are continually forced to fall back from one strongpoint to the next.

As the fainter hearts among the workers begin to drift away the fervent hard core revolutionaries dig in and prepare to sell their lives dearly as the fighting grinds down into a struggle from house to house.  There are also a few surprises held in reserve, as the regulars seek cover in unoccupied houses they set off the infernal traps, the air is rent with explosions and fire sweeps through the district, although the actual casualties are light.  The regulars must now face the fury of the Petroleuses, emotionally patriotic women (seen here in front of the buildings left and right) who launch themselves suicidally at the invaders, bombs in hand, this time the casualties are much heavier.

As the ranks manning the barricades get thinner and thinner, only the fanatics remain and the inevitable end is in sight.  A massive quantity of partypoppers were expended simulating the effect of canister shot, booby traps and the bombs of the Petroleuses.  Great fun!

While all this has been going on, the Versailles Government has been negotiating with the German Army, who still occupy the eastern approaches to Paris, to be allowed to pass a another column of troops through their lines and attack the undefended eastern suburbs of the City.  this new column races through the streets brushing aside the light defences, as news of the impending collapse reaches the Central Committee there is just enough time for me to give the orders for Archbishop Darboy and the hostages to be executed while all the prominent buildings are put to the torch.  The new attack quickly reached the central redoubt but we didn't hang around to take any pictures of their triumph.  My comrade Louis Delescluze (played by Graham A.) donned his red sash of office and honourably climbed onto the barricade, pour encourager les autres, where he was promptly shot dead.  I decided that discretion was the better part of valour and made my escape during all the confusion dressed as a nun.

And thus ended the Paris Commune of 1871.

Okay it didn't all happen quite like that but my rendition of events is closer to the truth than some of the more spurious Versailles sponsored propaganda you are likely to see appearing in other parts of the blogosphere.  A nasty, vicious little campaign, as the quelling of civil insurrections so often are, but also an interesting and unusual one which throws up a lot of fascinating personalities and is so often overlooked by the enthusiasts of military history.