An interesting insight into the wargames scene in the early 1970's comes from this piece by Charlie Wesencraft, and Don Featherstone's introduction to it, from Wargamer's Newsletter 133, from April 1973. The reference to the onion dome church may raise a smile with anyone who remembers Terry Wise's article on building such a church in Airfix Magazine. I think he used a less organic material.
BORODINO '73 - A Battle Report. (But not a very loud one).
by Charlie Wesencraft
(There are a number of really first-class blokes around in the wargaming world – and most of them seem to live at the other end of the country so that we meet all to rarely. Perhaps that is why we think so much of each other! Anyhow, I only see Charlie about once a year and in 1973 it was at Great Missenden where it was revealed that he has lost none of his enthusiasm, friendliness, knowledge and capacity for beer! Up in Durham, Charlie is industriously propagating wargaming by frequent talks and demonstrations in schools and clubs. Editor.)
In all its long history Great Missenden Abbey in Buckinghamshire has never witnessed such an event. Over fifty wargamers and would-be wargamers had gathered together from all parts of England - there was even one from Paris! There were seven ladies present including a grandmother who remembered p[laying wargames on the floor with her brother, using H.G. Wells’ rules and had in her time visited Custer’s Indian battlefields and the original Bucket of Blood Saloon and another lady who asked me in muted tones, at the height of the wargame "What are Infantry?" I explained that they were the ones without the horses "Well then, what are the Light Infantry ?” "The plastic figures, madam" I answered, not wishing to offend.
You may be wondering what all this has to do with the Battle of Borodino. Actually, the battle was to be merely the highlight of a very full weekend spent studying "War and Peace" as seen through the eyes of the Department of War Studies, Sandhurst. The course was directed by David Chandler, assisted by Mr. A. Brett-James; Dr. C.J.Duffy and Mr.M.J.Orr. Three of these four had been the military advisors to the recent B.B.C. series.
Throughout a weekend when the head barely touched the pillow, we were led through the 1812 Campaign, discussed Tolstoi's motives for writing his book; fought blow by blow through the actual battle; examined maps of Russia printed in 1812 and argued out the tactics with magnificent hindsight. Oh, what Napoleon could have done with us! (Shot the lot probably!)
The pièce de resistance was a wargame version of the battle itself that lasted all Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning. The Russians were led by a one-eyed Kutusov, sometimes known as Don Featherstone (the other eye was focused on the rules which one felt he never quite understood). He was ably assisted by a team, more enthusiastic than skilful, all willing to hold back the French. One stout fellow ill his early sixties, who had never seen a wargames table in his life, was promoted General on the field in honour of his fantastic dice throwing. You could tell I was on the Russian side by the snow on my boots!
The French were led by Sandhurst’s Michael Orr, who wishes to remain anonymous. Sandhurst rules were used and the Umpire was Sandhurst’s David Chandler. In spite of all this they proved to be perfect gentlemen and did not stop us winning - or perhaps it was because our team sat up most of the night plotting and planning after we had seen the Umpire and Napoleon retire with a bottle of whisky - or it may have been our six-throwing genius!
Being Sandhurst trained, the French tried to put into effect the right flanking attack as suggested to Napoleon - the real one - by Marshal Davout, but being truly British 'they didn't really press it home as we hadn't actually attacked them first. The only time the stiff upper lip slipped was when Don offered Napoleon a mint which so surprised him that he was heard to ask if it was poisoned! Don was most taken back, but it was noticeable that for the rest of the game Napoleon played with his hand inside his waistcoat, resting upon his stomach. Then Don almost blotted his copybook by firing a howitzer at Napoleon, but fortunately only threw a one, so most players failed to notice.
Apart from the mint, a glorious touch of flavour was added to the terrain by placing a peeled onion on top of the church tower in Borodino village, to make it look really Russian. This eventually caught fire - the church, not the onion, but it was never quite resolved as to whether the rules said that the French should evacuate the church or would they have been drawn back by the smell of the cooking onion.
A scale of one figure to every five-hundred - no, its not a misprint - was used and we were all most cheered when 500 Generals fell leading a massive French cavalry charge0 (This was when we promoted our stout friend).
By the end of the game the French had lost 100 points (50,000 men) whilst the Russians had lost 73 (36,000). (Real battle - French 30,000; Russians 44,000). The Russians still held their entire front, Napoleon still held his stomach, the stout fellow still held his one-sided dice and I held that it had been a tremendous week¬end .
The last I saw of Don he had his back to a wall, with a young enthusiast asking him for rules for Samurai! Again, this has nothing to do with 1812, but when wargamers gather, all history is their oyster.
Thank you Tolstoi, thank you David Chandler and team for a job well done.