Back to the Boer War
Back being the operative word. Much to the amusement of my chums, I did my back in whilst carrying the Christmas tree into the house in early December, something which has stopped me sitting at my desk for any length of time for the past month. As a result, despite being able to stand and build my Afghan village, I’ve been unable to sit and paint my modern figures. An immensely frustrating experience when I am ready to get cracking on the modern playtesting.
Anyway, rather than suit here twiddling my fingers, I thought it would be an opportunity to crack on with a long standing project; our Boer War rules. The net result has been that we have played a couple of games since Christmas, Colenso last Tuesday and the attack on the Rangeworthy Heights yesterday. What I’ve also been able to do is get the rules out to public playtest, something which is a key step towards getting the rules into print.
The experience at Colenso was an interesting one, and one which really got to the nub of the issue for the British. The game we played focussed on the 2nd and 6th Brigades attacking towards Hlangwane and the road bridge north of the town. I fail to see the point in including Hart’s 5th Brigade in a wargame, as expecting a player to replicate that very particular cock-up is just not fair. We, therefore, assume that the disaster on the left is happening on auto-pilot, so to speak, while we focus on the battle proper.
For the British player, the use of formations to minimise casualties a key factor in the game. However, what is required is a matter of balance. If the British wish to move effectively across the veldt, they need to be prepared to sacrifice the safety of extended order formations and their command and control problems and adopt more pragmatic formations which allow them to move efficiently until they reach the point where they can at least trade fire with the enemy. Once that is achieved, an extended formation, advancing in short rushes and supported by fresh troops ready to take up the attack when the initial wave flounders (as it surely will) is the way forward.
In fact what we saw was a situation very similar to what actually occurred at Paardeburg. The British deployed their first Brigade onto the table with two battalions entirely in extended formation, as we see here.
It looks pretty enough, the front battalion, the Royal West Surreys, has four companies in the front line and four in the second. To their rear, the 2nd West Yorkshires have adopted the same formation, whilst in their centre in Major General Hildyard. This photos was taken on the first turn of the game and was their initial deployment onto the table. Note the distance from the stream to their left front.
In this second photo, we can see the same units after three hours play. This is taken from the opposite angle and, as we can see, the force has changed formation somewhat to form an even longer front line, but the location of the stream confirms that they ave advanced less than 12″ all evening whilst under the fire of Boers at extreme artillery range and largely out of rifle range.
It’s worth considering ground scale for a moment in order to realise that the lead battalion of 800 men is spread over a mile and a half frontage. When one realises that, it is not surprising that the realities of commanding such a dispersed body means that movement has been so slow as to completely scupper any hopes of achieving the objectives. In the end, Lord Dundonald’s colonials on the right stormed onto the slopes of Hlwangane, clearing the Boers from their trenches, but lack of progress in the centre meant they were obliged to withdraw and abandon their gains.
Fair enough. This was the first outing with the Grand Tactical version of the rules we’d had, so errors are to be expected. What it did do was provide a very telling lesson and one which the British players this week were keen to learn from.
The attack on the Rangeworthy Heights is an interesting action. The British under Buller had made a ponderous flank march in the hope of outflanking the Boer positions and breaking through to Ladysmith. So slow had they been, and so well telegraphed was the punch, that the Boers has a week in which they set the local labour to chipping trenches into the rocky mountains. By the time the British crossed the Tugela, the defensive position was ready and waiting for them. The table looked like this.
Obviously, I have added on contour lines to give a feel for the terrain! The Boers began with deployment points on Three Tree Hill and Bastion Hill. The British then placed their three Deployment Points on their base line before the Boers placed two more on the Plateau. These would define both their deployment during the game and the layout of their defences.
Here’s a silly shot from the British lines to give an infantryman’s view of what lay ahead.
The British plan was simple enough. Major General Woodgate’s Brigade, the 11th, would demonstrate before the Boer positions, pushing forward to oblige the enemy to show themselves. With that achieved, Major General Hart would advance with his Brigade in a right hook attack. Hart is an interesting character and I felt it important to reflect this. He was a great exponent of “keeping his men well in hand”, shunning extended order as he believed, not entirely incorrectly, that an extended line was impossible to command effectively (as, indeed, we saw at Colenso). As a result we limit Harts Brigade to open order at best, so extended order is not on. This plan played to his strengths, allowing him to launch the well-coordinated attack whilst the Boers were busy engaging Woodgate’s man.
All began well, with a neat advance in open order, but then, with the lead elements wavering under fire, an attempted passage of lines went disastrously wrong for the Lancashire Fusiliers, the two waves becoming muddled up and allowing the Boers a dense target.
By now the Boers were coming to life, with Three Trees Hill and Bastion Hill occupied, whilst on the plateau four guns were adding their fire. Woodgate pushed up with the 1st South Lancashires to try to regain the initiative in the centre.
Here we see the Boer positions and, in the distance, the arrival of Hart’s lead battalion
Hart’s arrival certainly caused the Boers some grief. On Piquet Hill a lone Boer gun faced the advance without support…
…and soon paid the price.
Here’s a “naked” picture in which you can clearly see how Woodgate’s Brigade is engaging frontally, its fourth battalion, the 1st York and Lancs, just arriving in battalion column. Meanwhile, Hart’s Brigade is now pushing forward, flushed by its initial success. The full range of formations can be seen here, from dense almost Napoleonic columns, to open lines and fully extended lines. Nearest the camera, the 1st South Lancs have pushed through the stalled Lancs Fusiliers, but they too have bunched up under fire. It was here that Woodgate rode forward to rally and reform his battalion under fire, allowing it to continue the advance.
On the right, Hart’s Brigade continued to push forward. The Dublins received a nasty shock as they advanced from Piquet hill, with the Heilbron Commando revelaing its positions with withering fire. Losses were slight, but the first was was driven to ground by weight of fire. However, this was not to stop the Inniskilling Fusiliers who stormed Three Trees Hill in short order, routing the Krugersdoorp men. However, consolidation on the hill they too found themselves drive to ground by fire from the Heilbron Commando. On the right, Hart, refusing to allow his men to shake out into more open formations, was finding that progress was impossible.
On the left, Woodgate’s intervention saw the 1st South Lances shake out, four companies advancing in echelon to the right towards the Heilbron flank, while four more companies swung to the left to face the small German contingent on Bastion Hill. It was to be a key move, as we see below.
With Bastion Hill falling and the looming body of Lord Dundonald’s colonial horse sweeping up to the West, the Boers, all the time under heavy artillery fire, decided to quit the field. The route to Ladysmith was open.
A British win, albeit with just two turns of daylight left. It was a close run thing. All the more close when it turned out that the Boers had forgotten to deploy the Boksburg Command, a sizeable force which, it turned out, was overlooked as Sidney decided to go to the chip shop while I did the briefing. A foolish error which, without a shadow of a doubt cost the Boers the game. However, in fairness, they were very nice chips.
As a playtest game, this was the first time we had used the prototype Force Morale rules and also the clock mechanism. What was very pleasing was that we managed to play a full 12 hour day on a club evening. There were aspects of the Force Morale system which I felt penalised the Boers in this scenario, but then that’s why we playtest stuff. All grist to the mill.
We’ve already had some great feedback from playtesters so far. One of the nicest comments came from a gamer in the North East of England. He said “after a few turns I was there on the veldt, trudging forward and getting shot to pieces”. As a game designer, that for me is all the praise I could ever ask for.