Saturday, June 30, 2007

Rommel's Route to Verdun: Recce at Cosnes

Erwin Rommel joined the 124th Württemberg Infantry Regiment in 1910. The young platoon leader first saw action on the 21st of August 1914, as Crown Prince Wilhelm's Fifth Army advanced against the French Third Army towards Verdun. On a rainy June Saturday in the Year Seven, Plynkes and Sickly decided to recreate these early days of the Great War, using the Price of Glory game system from Iron Ivan Games, and the Skirmish Campaigns book "Rommel's Route to Verdun."

(Click on pics for a bigger version)

The first scenario is called "Recon at Cosnes" which we changed to "Recce at Cosnes" because we're British, and as there are no Americans in the scenario we saw no need to use an American word. Sorry, awfully parochial of us, but there you are. With the 124th Infantry advancing against light opposition, Lieutenant Rommel is ordered forward on a scouting mission.

The German force, controlled by Plynkes, consisted of two scouting teams of five infantrymen led by a lieutenant. Lt. Rommel led the first team, an unnamed leutnant led the second.

Sickly, though young in years, has grasped many of the tactical lessons of the Great War, and has come to the conclusion that he "prefers to defend." To that end, when given the choice he opted to play the French. Their force consisted of a squad led by an NCO...

... And a two-man patrol, who would enter from the north on turn two. Knowing a little of the Price of Glory rules, I had my doubts over the French morale, as they were lesser quality troops, and crucially, had no officers, only one NCO. Would this prove critical? Time would tell...

The Germans were ordered to scout this area consisting of light woods, an orchard, wheat fields and a hill. Victory points were available to each side for killing the other's troops, and the German officers would gain points for spending stationary turns observing with their binoculars from the three waypoints on the map. The French had to prevent them from doing this, and then withdraw in good order before the time ran out. They didn't want to be caught by the German advance, as their forces were pulling back to make a stand in the town of Bleid. We decided that the German observations had to be made in a state of good order, any adverse morale effects during a turn would prevent them from concentrating on the mission.

Rommel's Lawn Cricket Screamy-Cry Rule
One other rule from the scenario book deserves a mention. Protected by Fate, the Holy Spirit, or the Force of History, Rommel is allowed to shrug off the first successful attempt at killing him. In effect, you have to kill him twice.

Both Sickly and I thought this was a silly rule. But it reminded us of something and made us laugh, so we kept it. We called it the Rommel's Lawn Cricket Screamy-Cry Rule.

"I was most certainly not out, and I respectfully insist that this decision be referred to the Third Umpire."
Lt. Erwin Rommel, August 1914.

In many family games of cricket on the lawn down the years, it has been observed that the younger members of the family, Sickly included, often errupt into tantrums when unable to face one of Plynkes' perfect Yorkers and find themselves out first ball. This invariably leads to unmanly throwing away of the bat, storming off, and sulking in the house. Or "Throwing a Screamy-Cry" as it has become known. To keep everyone happy, and maintain a quorum of players for a game, it was often deemed necessary to allow the bawling little ones another go when they were got out. So in effect, you had to get them out twice, for the sake of family peace.

Well, the comparision was obvious. The thought of Rommel storming off in a mood like a little kid, and demanding another go because he had been shot amused us greatly. So we decided to keep the rule.

For those not familiar with Cricket, Perfect Yorkers and "Getting Out", then simply use the alternative, and much more succinct name of this rule: The Zombie Rommel Rule. Kill him once, and he gets back up. Sorry chaps, gotta kill him again.

Anyway, never mind all that. The game began with the two German teams advancing onto the tabletop.

The French squad had deployed out of sight behind the hill.

Rommel led his men through the woods.

While the second team pushed forward in a skirmish line through the wheatfield.

The French, true to tradition, also advanced, climbing the hill.

Turn Two, and the French patrol entered.

Sickly advances his troops across the hill, in a rare, unposed shot. Actually, none of these shots are posed, they are all from the game, which almost never happens with a Plynkes battle report.

The French took up position on the hill, clinging to the meagre cover offered to them by the stacked oat bundles.

Meanwhile, Rommel had reached the first waypoint (marked by the apple barrel), and got his binoculars out.

But just as he did, the patrol opened up on him with some speculative fire. They had no chance of doing any harm...

But Rommel's first taste of fire was enough to suppress him and his team. Panicking at the thought of flying lead, he forgot his scouting and flung himself on the ground. Unbelievable. Plynkes rolled a 10, the only number that would make that happen. Grrr...

But he soon realised the long-range fire was harmless, and pulled himself together. While he observed the area, his men engaged the French on the hill with fire. They in turn returned the compliment.

A couple of turns of fire resulted in four dead Frenchmen and one dead German. Despite greater volume of fire, the French were unlucky with the dice today. In addition, this punishing fire suppressed them. They clung to their cover, desperately looking to their NCO for a lead. He, however, had no clue how to extricate them from this tight spot.

The second German team had hesitated at the edge of the wheatfield, not wanting to leave cover and face the French fire. But with the French being suppressed, the opportunity for a gallant bayonet charge presented itself. It was the Teutonic thing to do, and would probably be the decisive move of the engagement, but Plynkes hesitated. It would take two moves to get there. What if the French rallied? The Germans might be mown down in the open. Plynkes is usually a cautious player, and had seen before what defensive rifle fire could do... Oooh, what to do? What to do?

At this point Sickly began taunting Plynkes, encouraging him to advance, and questioning his mettle. Well, that decided the matter. "Fix Bayonets!"

Luckily, due to superior German leadership influencing the iniative roll, the advancing Germans got to go first next turn, and made it across the empty space and charged before the French could rally from their suppression. The startled Frenchmen looked up in time to see the cold steel of the Württemburger bayonets speeding towards them.

The initial charge had little impact, and the fight dissolved into a confused pell-mell affair.

But before long the Germans gained the upper hand...

...And then in a devastating display of dice-rolling, massacred the French defenders to the last man, at the cost of only one of their own.

Seeing that the game was up, the remaining French decided to scarper. Unfortunately for them, Rommel decided to pursue, as he was unhappy with his fellow officer stealing all the glory and wanted some for himself. The fleeing Frenchmen were shot down like dogs.

Thus with several turns left, the Germans were now able to carry out the reconnaissance at their leisure, and romped home to a handsome victory. It had all been decided by the plucky bayonet charge.

So ended the first scenario. It may appear to have been one-sided, and the superior German morale was certainly a factor. Had the French had an officer to hand, the likelihood would have been that the German bayonet charge would not have been against a frightened and panicking suppressed squad, but into the teeth of vicious rifle fire. It may not have even been attempted. Having said that, it was a close affair that really all hinged on the melee.

The first rush of the German charge made little impact, but then the French retaliation was even worse. As the brutal melee continued, the Germans then proceeded to roll the flukiest dice I have ever seen, hitting and wounding with every roll, which just wiped the French out. Had the French not rolled so poorly, and the Germans not rolled so well, it could have been very different, as both sides were equal in hand-to-hand skill. But I suppose fortune favours the brave. Though if the Boche think they have learned valuable tactical lessons for the rest of the conflict I fear they will be sadly disillusioned in the months to come.

Butcher's Bill
Germans: 2 killed
French: 12 killed

The scenario was fun, and both players had a good time. A nice short little fight to ease us into the campaign. The next one involves more troops on both sides as Rommel and his platoon push forward as part of the attack against the French defenders. The French get some officers in that one, Sickly will be pleased to know. Can't wait.


'I am the enemy you killed, my friend.

I knew you in this dark: for you so frowned

Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed,

I parried; but my hands weare loath and cold.

Let us sleep now...'

From 'Strange Meeting' by Wilfred Edward Salter Owen, 1918.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Plynkes in the Land of Lead Adventure

Having been given the opportunity to accompany two friends on a short trip across the water, Plynkes jumped at the chance. It would be perfect cover for his latest mission for the Admiralty. But more on that later. For now, Plynkes would have to do his best to look like a typical tourist. After a trip through an England shrouded in darkness, and a short journey across the water. The party reached France.

My two companions had already pretty-much settled upon their itinerary, and there wouldn't be time for much deviation from it. This was hard going for me, as our route took us straight across the front lines of the Great War, and we passed many signposts to places with evocative names that I would have liked to stop at and visit. Ypres, Arras, Cambrai, Mons, and the Argonne all passed me by, and I became increasingly irritable and fidgety.

It was then that we noticed that we were making good time, and the journey to our first night's stop in Metz took us pretty near to Verdun. So after much whining, screaming, holding my breath until I passed out, and promising to be good and not stop for long, my friends gave in and we took the slight detour in that direction...

Ils Ne Passeront Pas!

The memorial at the Tranchée des Baïonnettes.

It is built over a trench from the 1916 battle. The remnants of the 3rd Company of the 137th Infantry regiment had vanished after taking heavy artillery fire. Only after the war was their fate discovered. Their trench had been totally filled in. Only the bayonets of their rifles protruded above the soil. They had been buried where they stood. It was decided to leave them where they were and build a memorial over them.


Fort Douaumont. The forts of Verdun have always held a fascination for my brother and me, after reading about them in the war comic strip "Charley's War" as little kids. He was dead jealous when he found out I had been there. Vaux was the one in the comic, but we didn't have time to go there.

View of the surrounding countryside, from the roof of Douaumont.

Some of the surviving turrets:

My friend Ivor was looking at his watch and tutting by this point, so we didn't go inside the fort.

A Jerry Minenwerfer. I have several of these in 25mm, courtesy of Foundry. Bought them on a whim, and will probably never use them in a game.


Would have liked to spend much longer here, but I'm glad I got the chance to linger even for a short time.

Carve Their Names With Pride

Next we came to Natzweiler, a concentration camp in Alsace. My friend Ivor is somewhat obsessed with the SOE, and has dragged me to countless corners of France in pursuit of his fascination with the subject. Most of them are just empty fields, which he will photograph (after hours of searching many other identical fields for the right one) and say with satisfaction "So-and-so landed here."

This time there was something to see. The camp has been maintained as a museum and memorial. On July 6th 1944, four female SOE agents were brought here and then killed by the Nazis.

This place was tiny in the scheme of things. Like a tiny model village compared with the vast industrial-scale killing camps further east. But still thousands died here.

Most of the huts are gone, only their footprints remain, each one with a stone plinth remembering one of the other camps of the Nazi system.

The crematorium.

Here the the bodies were disposed of, and the Nazi Doctors performed their grisly experiments on the prisoners.

The SOE prisoners, Andrée Borrel, Vera Leigh, Sonia Olschanezky and Diana Rowden, were brought to the Crematorium/medical hut, supposedly for Typhus inoculations. But they were injected with Phenol, and then tossed into the oven once unconscious. At least one of them partially regained consciousness, and struggled as she was shoved into the fire.

It's strange, but when faced with the countless victims of the Nazi camp system, it can all become a question of numbers. Pure mathematics that the mind cannot comprehend, and one cannot get to grips with, emotionally. But this small, almost intimate place, with its story of individuals who have faces and names, somehow brings that horror home in a way that a list of camps with astronomical statistics of deaths cannot. It was a very emotional experience to visit this place.

Well, I can't say I enjoyed my visit, but I'm glad I came here, and saw this place. But I have no desire to "collect the whole set" and go to the others. One's enough.

One cannot possibly imagine what kind of hell it must have been to end up in this place, and what courage those agents must have had to volunteer for duties that might lead them to this. Did they know? I suppose they must have done.

The life that I have
Is all that I have
And the life that I have
Is yours

The love that I have
Of the life that I have
Is yours and yours and yours.

A sleep I shall have
A rest I shall have
Yet death will be but a pause
For the peace of my years
In the long green grass
Will be yours and yours and yours.

"The Life that I Have" by Leo Marks. SOE Code-Poem.