Monday, 3 February 2020

Paths of Glory: Wargaming the Futility

War is the stupidest of human endeavours. Not an effective type of diplomacy by other means at all. No conflict represents the futility of war better than the “Great War”. From its confused and illogical beginnings to the enormous, seemingly futile battles, with ‘industrial-scale’ killing and use of any means to gain an advantage.

Yet it fascinates at so many levels. Why, and to the blazes how, did an assassination in Sarajevo trigger a conflict that would last for four years, involve 32 countries, fought over four continents, producing some 40 million casualties, kill an estimated 8–9 million soldiers and some 10 million civilians (Nadège Mougel 2011)? (Even more difficult to fathom is that the Spanish flu, which began towards the war’s end, killed more people than the war). How did any soldier cope with the daily struggle, the horror and manage to function at any level? Why did people willingly and enthusiastically join up (initially at least)? How did it end so suddenly, yet inconclusively?

Rather than the ’war to end all wars, it was, of course, only the beginning of the most violent century of human existence with far greater devastation and death to follow a mere twenty years on. It completely changed the map not only of Europe, but of the Middle East, parts of Asia and Africa and shaped the world that we have today. Over one hundred years on, we are still living with its legacies; some good, most ‘problematic’ (to say the least).
Indeed it is worth keeping people mindful of the events leading up to the July crisis of ’14—which is now confined to written or recorded history—as in a *somewhat* similar fashion, the challenges of today seem to be leading to concerning responses of tribalism, chest-puffing and attribution of blame rather than cooperation and concerted effort to deal with them.

Staged for the camera. Not yet a game, but close to what will be my first WWI wargame. In a similar manner to that conflict, I'm still not quite sure how I got to this!

(Dear reader, what follows is quite self-indulgent, so you may wish to scroll down to the photos and move on!)

While I find the history intriguing, compelling and always moving, I never considered it to be a suitable period to wargame. I have seen it described elsewhere as ‘a war too far for the tabletop’. This was exactly the way I felt about it. Who wants to send wave on wave of infantry to their deaths in futile attacks, or have them sit in trenches and be bombarded for hours on end? Yet, late last year that all changed. I suddenly decided that I wanted, even needed to include it in the periods that I wargame. What changed?

In reality it has probably been a slow burn. Interest in the First World War began in my youth. Like many of my generation, WWII and to a lesser extent WWI were in the recent past. These were conflicts that our parents and grandparents were involved in as soldiers, civilians (some as children). They were a topic of conversation about ‘the olden days’. A source of numerous TV shows and films (more particularly WWII, of course). My first memory of appreciating some of the horrific reality of the First World War came from being taught about the war poets, particularly Owen and Sassoon. This was enhanced when I got a copy of the “How and Why Wonder Book of the First World War”^. Over the years I have read and seen much about the war, especially as our national day for commemorating fallen soldiers and others in war is on ANZAC Day, 25th April, marking the first day of the Gallipoli Campaign in 1915.

^As part of my recent plunge into the period, I re-read this book. It remains an excellent overview of the war.

I was, naturally, interested in the commemoration during the recent centenary of the war, but only caught snippets of some of the wonderful work that was produced and visited only one exhibition. Knowing that I’d want to catch up on them later, I saved many videos and audio files produced over that time.

I began re-exploring the war in detail last year when I ‘watched’ (more listened to since it was paintertainment) episodes of one that I had saved; the brilliant Channel Four series ‘The First World War’ based on the book by Hew Strachan. This fabulous production, in ten roughly hour-long parts, tells the story of the war. While I considered that I had a reasonable understanding of events, I learned much from this series about which I was previously unaware. For example, the fact that, having failed in the initial attempt by he and his co-assassins, Princip was ‘lucky’ to run into Archduke Franz Ferdinand after the latter’s car took an alternate route, the driver having gone the wrong way. The mass exodus of the Serbian people and army in November 1915 and January 1916. The fact that the Germans facilitated the return of Lenin to Russia in order to assist with the collapse of the government. As with anything to do with this conflict, the series moved me to tears on several occasions.

Relating this to Julian, he asked, “Does it pique your interest in wargaming the period?” “No way,” I said “the history is fascinating but I have no interest in wargaming it.”

Then, suddenly, I decided that I wanted to have a go at wargaming World War I, not only that but it had to be, or at least begin with, the Western Front in the late war.” Fittingly, in a similar manner to the outbreak of the war, it was a seemingly unrelated event that proved to be the catalyst. In a word: Bovington.

I had been watching some of the marvellous ‘Top Five Tanks’ videos on the website of the Bovington Tank Museum when I stumbled on one about the Mk IV. I knew precious little about this or any other WWI tank, so found it to be most interesting. This lead me down the rabbit-hole of further footage of this and other WWI tanks, particularly in their Tankfest videos but also those produced by others on YouTube. I was hooked.

Well, not quite hooked yet as the important topic of suitable rules came to mind. Could I find something to suit me? I began searching reviews on blogs and websites and found “H.M.G.” They sounded promising. Finding a copy on Wargame Vault lead me to other sets: “Halt The Hun”, “Tanks & Yanks” and “Westfront”. After looking through them all, it was “Westfront” that stood out as the first set to try. I liked that the rules involve ‘units’ (representing 12 to 25 men), they are designed for games up to a battalion, or perhaps a regiment, and seem to cover most of the aspects of arms and technology (with the exception of aircraft). I still like the look of “H.M.G.” and will likely give them a go later, although with the representation of units à la “Westfront”, rather than the single figures suggested in “H.M.G.”.

The next decision was the scale of figures to use. I pondered 1/32, but the ranges of weapons would make them unsuitable for anything larger than a skirmish. Added to this, there is a wider selection of figures available in 1/72. Thus settled, I purchased a few sets of figures to get me started.

I also began accumulating films. I re-watched “A Very Long Engagement”, such a strong, at times funny and in the end beautiful film. It’s similar in some respects to “'Testament Of Youth”, the story of Vera Brittain” which I saw via on-demand TV last year. I finally saw Peter Jackson’s “They Shall Not Grow Old” which I had wanted to watch last year, but it had only run for a short season. In a word, brilliant. Some other recent films that I found and watched for the first time were “The Trench”, which is up there with some of the best, as is “Journey’s End”. “Beneath Hill 60” is okay, but “Forbidden Ground” and “Poziers” were both quite disappointing. I also picked up copies of “War Horse and “The Water Diviner”, both of which I have seen previously and I definitely think that they are worth viewing again.

Like so many genres of film, the older ones are amongst the best. The original “All Quiet on the Western Front” is so powerful and poignant. I saw Kubric’s “Paths of Glory” for the first time—amazingly I was not previously aware of it.

I purchased a copy and watched it (which will be the first of many times, for sure) and can see why it has stood the test of time as a portrayal of the war, is rated highly amongst films about the war and that the wonderful Terry Gillam (R.I.P) referred to it as “The film that changed my life”. It has powerful performances, great cinematography, strong anti-war statements and a magnificent, hopeful ending—I won’t spoil it for others who have not yet seen it—making it one of those films that stays with you for years afterwards. This will be doubly so for me as the film will feature in my first wargame in this period.

“Westfront” are designed for scenarios where players select units, vehicles and the like from a list for a nation in the early-, mid- or late-war to a total number of points that is equal for both sides. I’ll use this basic approach, but prefer my games to be based on a section of an historical battle or action. For my first I have selected to do a game based on the attack on the ant hill from “Paths of Glory”. Not strictly historical, of course, unless one considers the history of cinema, but it will allow me to begin with a game that involves only a few of the possible troops/guns/vehicles.

[An aside: I have seen the trailer for the current ‘blockbuster’ “1917” and it looks like one to avoid to me. Great if you want plenty of things blowing up, lots of running and shouting, but not a patch on those that I have listed above. Of course, I should see it before making a final judgement for myself, so I guess that I will, at some stage…]

Having watched the films that I had purchased, my paintetertainment switched to listening to some podcasts. I finally caught up on “The Great War: memory, perceptions and ten contested questions”, first broadcast in 2014 on our Radio National (RN)—another that I had saved for later listening. These ten, one-hour episodes are excellent. Each deals with a different aspect of the war, such as the causes and outbreak, the performance of generals, the war in literature and medical services. Two or three guests, who had studied and written about the particular aspect under discussion join an RN presenter who leads the discussion. Edifying to the max!

As I only have two of the ten episodes to go, I searched for other, similar material and found the lectures of the National WWI Museum as well as the complete BBC series “The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century” produced in 1996 (also as a PBS version) on YouTube. These will form the basis of my paintertainment in the near future.

My first WWI wargame will be a pseudo-historical affair based on the attack on the ant hill from "Paths of Glory". Ant hill at top-centre of photograph.

These Strelets French infantry in gas masks are close to being finished, needing only a wash, highlights and basing.
This Saint-Chamond tank will not feature in my first game. It is a paper model that I found on the marvellous landships website. It could probably do with a brown wash to dull it down a bit.

This MkI tank is the recent re-release of the Airfix classic. It has been brown-washed to give a muddied effect. It won't get a run on the battlefield for a while.

I’m now close to trying my first game of a World War I battle. The terrain is done, the French infantry need ‘only’ their finishing touches, while the Germans are merely undercoated. I’ll post a report here once I have played a game.
In the meantime, here’s our theme song.
Click on the link and turn the speakers up to 11!


  1. I notice you didn't mention Ian Beck's 'Trench' rules which can be played at two levels, divisional and trench raid. They have tempted me to try WW1 but the need for lots of terrain (trench systems) has always put me off.

    1. Thanks Rob, they are not a set that I found in my little trawl. I'm not intending to try a lot of rules. I may have hit the 'jackpot' with Westfront, or at least they'll do most of what I want perhaps; we'll see.
      The 'Trench' rules do not seem to be easy to find out about. I take it that they are an 'older' set circa 70s, or perhaps 80s, is that correct? My internet search only brought up quite an expensive printed copy, so I take it that they have achieved 'collectors' status?!

  2. Strelets often gets a bad rap for their sculpting, but their gas mask ranges for WWI are some of my favorite figures. Very nice looking French force you have there!

    I have and like the look of HMG as well but I had not checked out Westfront for some reason - looks like I need to add that to my shopping cart.

    1. Thank you John, most kind. I have always like Strelets' figures. As I have said a few times here and on their forum, the Early Carabiniers are one of my favourite Napoleonic sets (and sets of any period) of any manufacturer. There are plenty of others too and their offeriings over the past three of four years have been marvellous (and prolific!). I completely agree with you about the 'gas masks' range. Thanks to a tip on the forum I have been able to order a set of the now out of production Germans, so look forward to getting and painting them.
      When I play out and report on the first game, I'll try to include a bit of an overview of Westfront. I hope that you like what you get if you do rush out and buy them! I reckon that you will. They are quite informative irrespective of whether one actually uses them. I prefer the four (or so) figures to a stand to represent a squad/group of men, rather than the single figure of H.M.G. That said, I can see no reason why one could not use figures based that way with those rules. The sequence of play in H.M.G. seems really good. I especially like the idea of the aerial dominance aspect. I'm happy to tweak rules so could even see myself including something like that in Westfront. Better still would be to have one or two planes per side and include that aspect directly/actively. I'll walk before I run though...!

  3. Hi James, I saw 1917 last week. It's probably worth a look but far from the best of them. The Airfix WWI French set was the first set I owned, mum bought it for me. I must have been 6 or 7. I see a few of them among your pics.

    1. Yes, well spotted John. The Airfix WWI figures stand the test of time well (as all/most of their figures do, I reckon). I/we had the French, Germans and British as kids (my brother's originally, I think). They are 'well used'. These ones are a new set, re-released by Airfix in 2018 as part of their 'Vintage Classics'.
      Perhaps then '1917' is not as bad as I fear, but certainly not as good as the BAFTA awards would have us believe?!

  4. This is absolutely magnificent, James! I was planning to do something similar myself next year, but now I shall simply contribute to your effort. I can't wait for an invitation to storm the German trenches. We could perhaps add in some 1/72 strafing if you wish, aeroplanes at your disposal. This is all marvellous!

    1. It will be interesting to give it a go. To me wargaming is to 'learn more about the history by other means'! I have certainly begun to do that during the planning, early researching phase.
      Yeah, as I mentioned to John Y above, I'm keen to include some aerial warfare over and as part of the ground stuff. Making the Mk1 revitalised the latent kit-building of my youth, so I grabbed one of each of a few Airfix classics, chiefly of the 'Vintage Aircraft' re-release of the late 80s (the Handley Page though is from the 'red stripe' range so you'll be pleased to see that!).
      Adding the complexity of the aerial domain come in time though...

  5. Terrific post James. I love reading people’s ‘journeys’ (forgive the cliché) through the wargaming landscape. Great looking table top. Very effective muddy terrain and proper trenches!

    1. Thank you. I have nearly finished the figures ahead of a first try of the rules.

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