Wednesday 14 May 2014

Memories, Tangents and the Power of the Pastoral

 Charles Stadden 30mm BEF released fifty(ish) years ago

It occurs to me that wargaming the Great War is not going to be a straight forward thing. 
Let me elaborate. If  decide I would like a nice new unit  for the Peninsular War then I can choose a regiment and some figures and just paint them. I may have visited the Regimental Museum, or read a few histories or even had a drink on the Battlefield, but its not going to awaken much in the way of personal memories or provoke thoughts on art or music.
But so far almost every bit of pondering and background reading that I have done has set me thinking and remembering.  Even the figures take one back fifty years in a second. I vividly remember getting a flyer from Norman Newton of London drawing my attention to the new release of Stadden 30mm WW1 for 1914.  They were sure I would be as impressed with them as they were.  Well they were right and I still am but I still haven't bought any,is now the time?  But no machine guns or cavalry, perhaps better stick to 20mm.

Always something new in Woolworths!

I started my reading reading with Max Hastings new book on the first months of the war, 'Catastrophe'.  Quite good, I certainly enjoyed it though I have no very firm views on who wasto blame for the war itself.  One change I certainly noted was that the Serbs are rather less popular than they were 50 years ago. 

Next to an old favourite.

The Penguin edition I read then,
 now I have a first edition with an annotated cast list. Plus la Change
I enjoyed it as much as ever, though once again it reminded me of how close we are to the events. Robert Graves was still very much alive and living in Majorca in the late seventies when I used to walk around the beautiful mountains of Deya were he lived.  Of course, although his house was pointed out I would never have dreamt of bothering him, we are both British after all.
I hope Graves achieved the peace that he sought in his remote rural isolation. Which got me thinking about the way in the twenties and thirties many ex soldiers sought a return to the countryside in some form or other. Whether as tramps or living Rogue Male style in isolated shelters the most damaged withdrew from contact.  For others a study of ornithology, fishing or folk music connected to some  link in nature that gave comfort, and led to expressions as diverse as   A G MacDonald's 'England their England'  or Vaughan Williams 5th symphony.
First printed 1933 and read to destruction by me
 Sadly, I notice that once more their are ex servicemen  unable to cope with return to family and the 'normal' world living rough in the mountains around here. Often only noticed after their eventual suicide.  Only a very few, but far too many.

The Complete Angler 1653
Which made me check some rough figures, in WW1, counting the Spanish flu epidemic 2.6% of the population died.  During the English Civil Wars 3.6%  are guessed to have perished. Now I am not interested enough to research the numbers of homeless and vagrant persons recorded in the restoration. But I do remember that greatest of all nature books Izaak Waltons 'Complete Angler' written by an ex soldier and published in 1653.   As they say in Faltenland, "Plus la Change".
All that and still no real choices about rules and type of game. But lots of ideas and next time I shall get down to some wargaming nitty gritty.

A Napoleonic Ramble round Welshpool

As may become clear in the next post, (I was employed as a journalist once upon a time, so I know the merit of a snappy intro or even in this case A Snappy Nappy intro.) I have been pondering upon those occasions where through contact with an artefact, a battle field visit, or a work of art one brushes against the past in an almost tangible form.
I'm sorry, I'll start again.
Most of my wargaming life has been taken up with the Napoleonic Wars through reading, painting and playing games. As a result I have a strong though possibly slanted perception of that period, but I have been trying to lay that aside and consider in what ways that history impinged on me as a child living in a small Welsh market town. In effect, pre wargaming.
 Surprisingly I have three quite strong memories.  The first two concern the French Prisoners of war that were imprisoned around the area. In the local museum was the rather splendid guillotine above.
It is constructed entirely from carved mutton bones presumably retrieved from the soup or stew.  It is a working model and as soon as I grasped its purpose I was  fascinated by it. What the unknown prisoner was thinking when he spent so many hours carving it is not recorded. Possibly he was dreaming of the day when the real thing would be set up on the square outside the Royal Oak and bring Equality, Liberty and Fraternity to Mid Wales.

Much more civilised is the next, a story told to me by my Grandmother. How the French Officers were allowed to wonder about the town having given their parole, the only stipulation was that they had to swear not to pass beyond the parish boundary marker. They resolved this by walking freely where they wished but they were always preceeded by a hired local carrying the uprooted  boundary maker in a wheel barrow. I suspect this story is so good that it is told about other parts of the UK Nevertheless it was told me by Gran who was not a lady widely read in Napoleonic memoirs.
Then there was the Sergeants Row, these canal side cottages were still standing in my infancy. They were made available by public subscription as housing for NCO's who were present at the Battle of Waterloo. This was spoken matter of factly as if the Sergeants had just slipped out for a pint and would soon be back home.
Then in 1968 two things arrived, the Wargamers Newsletter articles of Fred H. Vietmeyer and his giant wargames and the wonderful vision of what a battle should be  in David Howarth's beautifully illustrated  'A Near Run Thing'.    The Napoleonic Wars had changed for ever.

So without banging on about Methodism or free trade laws or God forbid, demographics, it is surprising that these little contacts still existed 150 years later.  Which will bring me on to what I am really thinking about currently,  wargaming the Great War.

Sunday 4 May 2014

A Small Digression

 The Serjeant freely admits to being a man of narrow horizons, and nowhere more so than the question of figure size if its not between 20 and 30mm then its damned as contemptible nonsense.
So it was with some surprise that I accepted a commission to paint a 54mm figure.
 Mr Peter Johnston of the excellent Spencer Smith Miniatures had arranged  the figure on behalf of a friend who wanted it for a present for his wife. Well I owed Peter a few favours and the money is always nice, anyway how difficult could it be. So I embarked on the first 54mm figure of my life.
The customer wanted a figure that displayed a hare as its heraldic symbol and had Parsifal in mind as an inspiration. So Knight as idealised hero, no rusty armour or stained clothing but also he did not want it to look like a toy,  and it had to have green in the colour scheme. Peter had sorted him a very nice Tradition figure of a knight in high Gothic armour then it had gone to a figure sculptor to be customised with the stunning Hare added to the shield in Milliput.  Then finally on to me for painting
and the chance to ruin all of the skilful work and money invested so far. No pressure.

 I wont go through all of the work in the two months I had it. We decided on white trappings for the horse which I knew was best but desperately hoped to avoid as the most difficult thing I know to paint. In the end the horse trappings had 16 thin coats just to look white. The other challenge was to reproduce the shield four times each one looking the same. After several grotesque attempts I gave up and photo copied the shield onto thin paper which I soaked in pva and stuck to the casting. I just hope they don't peel off in time. More pva and then paint over to blend in.

The base and lettering needed a new skill set. I found that I used much finer brushes than on 25mm figures and that my Vallejo paints stepped up to the challenge while those of Games Workshop were simply not good enough. The internet was a Godsend especially the National Armouries website, the Saddle is a direct copy of the war saddle of Henry V.

 Overall I enjoyed the experience but I certainly will not be starting a collection of my own anytime soon. Of course I can see things that could be improved but overall I am happy and the customer was delighted and I even finished it in time for him to give it as a gift.

Thursday 1 May 2014

What did you do for the Great War anniversary, Daddy?

Like the Gentleman above, The Serjeant is pondering his next move.  How to respond to the waves of war anniversary fever that are sweeping the country.

It seems impossible to turn on the TV without Michael Gove or Max Hastings popping up to tell you how beastly the Hun are, and while common sense might insist that it will all be over by Christmas it is hard not to get swept along to the wargames recruiting office by the cheering crowds.

It is not that I am indifferent to the war, far from It like most of my age it was Grandfathers war and seemed at once very real and impossibly far away. One Grandfather served in the pre war Yeomanry as a trumpeter and survived unscathed till the last day of the war when a sniper blew his jaw away, the other lost both legs to a mine in Palestine and worked for the rest of his life squatting on the table as a tailor.  Uncle Jack was a Sergeant who lost an eye when a disgruntled soldier paid off a grudge by using an inspection of rifle barrels to thrust the muzzle into his eye. These were people I knew and talked to.

My main childhood recollection though is of the hordes of little black coated old ladies all spinsters who my mother invariably whispered had  lost their sweetheart in the Great War. Yet none of this seemed to have much to do with the Charlie Chaplin like figures who jerked and jumped about to comical effect on the Great War TV series.

For many years the view was that the War was just too horrible to be turned into a game. But times change and just as people who experienced the siege of Jerusalem or the sack of Magdeburg could be forgiven for overlooking the gaming potential involved so with the passage of time we too are now shaking off the old prejudices.

Now I yield to no man in my admiration of the Olympian disdain of the National Army Museum who finding this and next years Waterloo celebrations simply too vulgar to cope with are shutting down for two years.  Yet I do not think I have the style to carry it off, protestations that I am really much more interested in Montmirail will only result in a regular receipt  of white feathers.

So what to do, well it has to be 1914 and it has to be plastic, after all it is only two more years to the 50th anniversary of the release of the Airfix WW1 set.  And here all the hifaluting ideas come crashing to the ground. We currently have a nation wide shortage of plastic figures for the Great War, or at least Hat's versions.  

Well you would wouldn't you? If you were a major manufacturer and WW1 was one of your flagship lines you would think now was the obvious time to remove them from production and leave your retailers with no idea of when they may be re issued.  After scouring the net I have bought what may be the last three boxes of WW1 French in the UK.  If all goes well I shall return with more of he next of the project (assuming I can find some Germans to oppose them).

In the meantime I want to say a personal thank you to every one of my 22 followers who turn in each year for my annual post.