Monday, 25 May 2009

At the Colonel's Table, Part 2: by Don Houghton, Wargamer's Newsletter 89 July 1969

I remember the meal very well. It was the first of many memorable dinners. We started with a lobster salad (and white wine), followed this with roast beef and all the trimmings (with burgundy) and then on to a good Stilton cheese (with claret) and ended with coffee (and a couple of balloons of brandy). Now, I could be mistaken, but I rather thought the Colonel took a little too much interest in the state of my wine glass. It seemed to me that it was perpetually being filled up! I was, I suppose, an unknown factor to him at the wargame table - and he may not have been taking any chances.

By nine we were ready to move into the War Room - at least, the Colonel was. I think I floated in on a haze of good grape juice. But I had digested not only his food - but also his Wargame Rules. Late though it was I wanted to take up my Command. I felt, just then, as though I could have routed the Emperor Napoleon's Army with a single staunch English Battalion!

Prior to dinner he had outlined an Order of Battle for a 'short' game. The opposing sides would be numerically even. They would consist of two battalions of infantry of the line, two companies of skirmishers, one battalion of Guards, one Regiment of Heavy Cavalry and three batteries of Field artillery - all in prepared positions. We spun a coin - and this decided I would command the British. (GAME NOTE: This, I might point out, was the Colonel's idea of a short game. We play nine or ten men, plus an officer, to a tray and this represents a Company - not a Battal­ion! It makes for an interesting game - but never a short one!)

I was, needlessly to say, soundly thrashed. I opened up with a line of skirmish­ers, followed by a battalion of line infantry, advancing beside a road which led almost directly to his Command position. They moved forward supported by a short artillery barrage and with a Regiment of Scots Greys close behind, the Colonel feinted with a desultory counter by one of his own line infantry battalions - then quietly withdrew. I continued to advance confidently. I remember thinking that the old boy was one of those 'theory only' commanders - it was, perhaps, a different thing putting his theories into practice...

Then it happened. My fine Scots Greys were caught in enfilading artillery fire from both flanks, behind the infantry. This left an awesome gap behind my advance - a gap soon filled by exultant Cuirassiers, which he had split into two squadrons, and who came at me, seemingly, from nowhere. I couldn't disperse them with artillery, because, by then, they were already engaging my rear ranks - and my own troops pre­sented a much better target to my gunners than did his wretched cavalrymen! The only way 1 could retreat from this attack was - forward. And that shut tight the trap. My one battalion of line infantry and their two companies of skirmishers were set upon by his Guards Battalion, his cavalry and his original battalion of line infantry - the latter had merely about face and joined the Guards in the massacre. I'd had no time to form a square to hold off the Cuirassiers - I was badly extended in front to meet the infantry attack - my artillery was worse than useless - I was, in fact, in one hell of a mess. Of course, I brought up everything to try and rescue my ad­vance troops - and brought them up far too quickly. He delivered a startling left hook with his now disengaged cavalry, joined by his reserve infantry battalion and fully supported by his deadly accurate artillery, now firing canister at witheringly short range. It was a horrible sight. It was a tragic sight. I draw a veil over the rest of the battle. My casualties amounted to a staggering 62% - the Colonel had sustained a mere 11%. My advance battalion had been reduced to about Company strength. My Scots Greys - would never forgive me - they hadn't even closed with the enemy, yet his artillery had cut down their numbers by nearly 50%. As for my gunners - they had fired a sum total of only three rounds per gun! Then, to add to my misery, I discov­ered that the advance battalion - the one that got itself decimated so early in the piece - was identified as the 16th Regiment of Foot - the Bedfordshire Regiment. I fully expected black flags of mourning to be hanging from every window of every house in my village when I returned.

It was after midnight when the stragglers from my routed battalions finally made it back to their base line. I was utterly exhausted - the Colonel was in a fine mood, his eyes twinkling with happiness and jubilation. His wife brought in two enormous mugs of steaming, creamy cocoa whilst the post mortem was delivered. It was after two a.m. before I was allowed to get into my car and drive wearily home. Resting in the glove locker was the tiny fictitious Dragoon - the reason behind the whole incredible evening.

But it wasn't going to end there. The Colonel had maintained that there was some hope for me as a commander. The deceased major, his old opponent, he pointed out, had suffered much more severely than I had in their first engagement. Within the first three moves, the Colonel said, his artillery had been completely overrun - at least I'd got my gunners back safely. I didn't mention that they were about all I'd got back in safety. Anyway, he said we would meet again next Sunday - but that I was to arrive early, so that we might have a 'decent tussle' - on a Divisional basis. Furthermore, I could bring my own troops. He added that perhaps I might feel more at home with Regiments I knew and had led before. As it happened I, too, had a battal­ion of the 16th - but I made a mental note to leave them safely behind when next the Colonel and I crossed swords over his War table!

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