Friday, 1 May 2009

At the Colonel's Table, Part 1: by Don Houghton, Wargamer's Newsletter 81 December 1968

(The author of this amusing piece is connected with a well-known Commercial T.V. series in Great Britain. He has promised to let further gems fall our way so that "At the Colonel's Table" is going to run as a regular feature for a while).

Like so many other serious addicts, I became a wargame enthusiast fairly late in life. Of course, 'things military’ had always fascinated me - the pomp and colour of ancient armies, the enthralling theories surrounding tactics and strategy, these had always commanded my deepest interest. And, again like so many others, I had the facetious knowledge, bordering on the absolute certainty, that if only the War Office had contacted me early in the Second World War I could have routed our enemies in a matter of weeks. This would have been achieved by a series of brilliantly conceived manoeuvres designed to strike utter fear into the Nazis, the Japanese, the Italians and any other foe who might dare to challenge our arms. It was all perfectly splen­did in theory. In the field it would have been total disaster. I have subsequently proved this by putting those theories into practice on the wargame table. I am probably one of the unluckiest Wargamers who ever rolled a dice.

Anyway, my introduction to bargaining began when I bought an Avalon Hill game asa present for a young nephew. I made the terrible mistake of opening the box tocheck its contents and make sure the game was suitable for him. He never did get hishands on it. I bought him a racing car construction kit instead. The game subse­quently became the first occupant of my Wargames Room, a room now overflowing with militaria of all sorts. The next stage of my addiction I blame entirely on DonaldFeatherstone - and his habit-forming book, 'Wargames'. I might have been able to resist the Avalon Hill temptation - but the book was my downfall.After reading it
once I was hopelessly hooked.

So I began to build up a collection of miniature armies. I think my name is emblazoned over the moulds of Neville Dickinson of Miniature Figurines. Evenings which should have been spent working on urgent television scripts (I'm a scriptwriter by profession) were eaten away painting 20mm high warriors and soldiers. Days were spent touring model and toyshops searching out tins of paint and new sets of Airfix figures. As for the latter, God only knows what will happen to my bank account if they ever do issue Napoleonic sets!

Finally the day arrived when I could field a fairly respectable army. I had what I thought were some pretty splendid brigades of infantry and cavalry, enough batteries of artillery to strike real fear into the heart of any opponent, plus waggon trains of supplies, some reserves and enough replacements to keep a battle going indefinitely.

Because I am a Writer and therefore supposed to be a Romantic (this is an utter fallacy, ' of course) the majority of my troops were Napo­leonic. Nevertheless, I also had a secret hoard of ACW and WW I regiments hidden away for opponents who might specialise in those specific wars.

But opponents were something of a problem. Where on earth was I going to find them? As readers very well know, finding a compatible Wargame opponent is rather like searching for the ideal wife. I mean, after all, you've got to live with these people most weekends, haven't you? Ideally they should be spiced with a love of adventure, possess a modi­cum of dash and elan, be sweetly reasonable (especially when arguing the finer pointsof some rule), and never, never be infallible (there's nothing more boring than anopponent who has a counter to your every move). I live in a small Bedfordshirevillage - and I very much doubted if any of the local farmers wanted to mess aboutwith the Imperial Guard or the 11th Hussars after a hard days grind in the cowshed.

And so it came about that I met the Colonel. (Readers, I hope, will forgive me if I refrain from using his name. He is a man who jealously guards his privacy.) I had just bought a batch of fully painted, second hand cavalrymen from one of the 'Newsletter's' advertisers. Amongst them there were a dozen Light Dragoon-type troopers whose uniforms I couldn't identify. I phoned through to several military historians and experts - but no one could help me. Finally, a Regimental Librarian gave me the Colonel's phone number. He said there was very little the Colonel didn't know about Napoleonic uniforms - or any military uniforms, come to that. As it happened his home was in Northamptonshire - not all that far from my own. I rang through and told him my problem. His voice was gruff and formidable - and it scared the living daylights out of me. He gave me his address, told me to come around to his place at teatime the following Sunday - and to bring the cavalryman with me. It wasn't really an invitation - it was more of an order.

So I went, clutching the unfortunate lead Dragoon tightly in my hot little hand. The Colonel's house was a delightful place, a period home set amongst rolling lawns and roses. As for the Colonel's wife, she was a kind, petite and gentle lady. Her voice was as soft and lyrical - as the Colonel's was hard and militant. I was usher­ed into the 'War Room'. Here two formidable billiard tables had been stripped down, placed side by side, and upon them was arrayed the finest battle terrain I had yet seen. There were hills, rivers, villages, swamps, forests - the lot. And all in meticulous detail. Deployed over this countryside were two opposing armies - the redcoats of the British facing the blue uniformed French of Napoleon's guards. Scow­ling above them was the Colonel, a tall, lean seventy year old. He was busy organis­ing the charge of a regiment of Cuirassiers into a British square. I waited till the last of the troop trays had been placed in position. He stood back and surveyed the coming slaughter. "Damn1 fools," he grunted. "They should have softened up the square with some artillery before committing themselves to a charge." He shrugged. "The square will hold. Bloody good regiment in a tight spot," he added. Then he looked at me. He growled an introduction and said: "Where's that Dragoon?" I handed him the offending cavalryman. He took a magnifying glass from a small bench behind him and studied the tiny figure. I stood at ease - and waited, stealing a glance now and again at the wonderful battlefield.

The Colonel straightened up and handed me back the Dragoon. "No such animal," he snorted. "Fictitious uniform. And bloody badly painted, too. Damn' chocolate soldier." (He was quite right, I learnt later. The man I'd bought the Dragoons from admitted that the troop had got into my package by mistake. It was part of the cavalry of a fictitious European state he had created some time ago.) The Colonel pointed to his table. "You indulge in this?" He asked. I admitted I did. Then the Colonel smiled. He went to a cabinet under the bench, took a whisky bottle and two glasses from it, poured a couple of liberal tots - and I was in.

I discovered that some two or three months previously the Colonel's Wargame opponent had died. He'd been a retired Major and, at some stage, had served in the Colonel's battalion in Ceylon. Now the Colonel was without a permanent opponent - and here I'd walked in, out of the blue, like a sheep to the slaughter. But I was a willing sheep right from the start. And the slaughter was always relatively painless - physically.

For the next three hours he delivered a detailed dissertation on the theory and practice of Wargaming. He went over every facet of strategy and tactics, as applied to the battlefield. He explained his rules (which he said were his own invention, although I'm certain they are, nonetheless, modified Featherstone rules) and hammered me with facts and figures. By then it was seven thirty - and I was invited to dine with him. I might add that his wife had already anticipated this. In the elegant dining room the table was laid for three. After we had eaten, the Colonel said, we would play out a small brigade skirmish.


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