Monday, 11 January 2010
The Scandinavian Wells, by Harry Pearson
Thanks to Harry Pearson for writing this piece for Vintage Wargaming about a little known (take deep breath and wait for comments) Swedish wargames pioneer.
HG Wells’ classic Little Wars was the first book aimed specifically at people who wanted to fight battles with toy soldiers. The second came from a rather unusual source. Ossian J D Elgstrom (1883-1950) was a Swedish ethnologist, author and artist who may well be the only wargamer ever to have competed in the Olympics (admittedly it was in the “mixed painting” art event at the Berlin games of 1936, and he didn’t win a medal, but even so…).
Elgstrom specialised in richly illustrated books on the myths and folklore of the far north, but as the rest of Europe edged towards the catastrophe of World War One he took a break from collating the legends of Greenland and Sapmi and penned Hur Man For Krig Med Tennsoldater (A Manual For War With Tin Soldiers).
Albert Bonniers, a prestigious Stockholm publisher who might best be described as the Swedish equivalent of the UK’s Penguin, published the book in the autumn of 1914 as part of a “pocketbook” series which also included volumes of Tibet, Prince Otto fo Denmark and the childhood of Erik Menveds. The cover price was 2 krona. Two years later Elgstrom’s work was translated into German and published, as Wie man mit Zinnsoldaten Krieg Fihrt, in Liepzig. Germany’s own early wargame book, Karl Floericke’s Strategie und Taktik des Spieles mit Bleisoldaten appeared around the same time.
Some years ago I came across a rather battered and coffees-stained copy of Hur Man For Krig Med Tennsoldater in a vintage toyshop in Stockholm’s Gamla Stam. It has hard covers, is about the size and thickness of one of the old Ladybird books and is illustrated throughout with drawings and plans of what must be the most eccentric and wonderful wargames paraphernalia ever invented. Sadly my knowledge of Swedish is not sufficient to translate the main text, but the wild originality of Elgstrom’s approach can easily be gleaned from the illustration on page 11, which shows how to make a machine-gun (“kulspruter”) using 7mm hollow glass rod and a wooden box filled with dried peas.
Other fabulous devices include the “gummislang kannon”, which might best be described as a mini ballista firing rods fitted with wire heads to simulate “direct bomabardment with shell”, and the “bombkastare” a sort of tabletop siege engine made from wood, a steel strip and a jam jar lid which flings a lethal-looking missile fashioned by sticking cocktail sticks into a cork to simulate “indirect bombardment” presumably by howitzers.
Amazingly Elgstrom manages to top even this extraordinary contraption when, a few pages later in a section headed Minor I Terrangen, he demonstrates how to construct a tabletop landmine using a spring-loaded steel strip released by a fuse made from saltpetre paper (available, the text explains, in photographic shops at a cost of 25 to 30 ore per packet). Take that Lionel Tarr!
Following chapters on how to build a fort and make barbed wire and trench systems the book concludes with what appears to be an account of an action between North Army and South Army, some notes on compiling a wargame journal and an illustrated list of figures – tin flats – available from the Swedish makers Santesson and Ohlsson both of whom had shops in Stockholm at the time.
What sort of readership was Hur Man For Krig Med Tenn Soldater aimed at? My guess would be that like Wells, Elgstrom was covering the popular “children of all ages from 9-99” demographic. The model making required is certainly too complex for young children and at one point the author appears (as I say my grasp of Swedish is limited) to suggest that a suitable army might consist of 500 figures, 12 cannons and 7 machineguns, quite a collection for even the most privileged youngster.
Sadly many aspects of the book remain obscure. Did Elgstrom approach the publisher with the idea, or were Bonniers looking for a Swedish answer to Little Wars and commissioned him to do the job. Who did Elgstrom – living in Norrviken at the time he was writing Hur Man – wargame with? Did he continue with his hobby, and if so what refinements did he make to the manifold warmachines he had invented? Alas we may never know.