Sunday, 30 June 2019

Early Doors

No, not a Jim Morrison inspired musical post. Or a quote from 'Big Ron' Atkinson. This is a self-indulgent post. A remiscence into childhood. I might make it more grandiose by describing it as a stage in the evolution of my thinking about wargames, which would be partly true.

Like most wargamers of my generation (end of the Baby Boom) I started playing with plastic toy soldiers, first Timpo cowboys and indians,  Britains (1/32nd scale) then with Airfix 1/72/76th(?). All the usual early methods* were used in games on the living room floor or dining table - toy canon firing matches, marbles, flicking coins, Subbuteo-style. Then my first ‘proper’ wargames would be when my older brother had discovered somewhere you could use dice to determine ‘hits’ and have limits on movement. There were even different ranges and different weapons had different effects (did we learn that from warfilms or had my brother read it somewhere?). Most games involved WWII, then WWI, French Foreign Legion, US Cavalry and Plains Indians. In the background there had been colourful pictures of soldiers in a compendium of fairy stories and nursery rhymes (The Tinder Box?). I’m sure this fixed the idea in my mind that proper soldiers had colourful uniforms (indeed the Guards in London wore red coats) and wore strange hats that I subsequently learned to call mitres, shakos and tricorns**.

* Later this would include a more unsusal method. My brother, by then a smoker, to the startlement of my staid friend interrupted a Pacific War game to simulate a flamethrower with his cigarette lighter and torched a Japanese sniper out of a tree. I was a bit less surprised, having on previous occasions witnessed salvoes of lit matches being fired from Britain's naval cannon. There was no saving throw for poor Sergeant Kawasaki. Thanks Mark!

** Even later I learned they were ‘cocked hats’

I think we found Airfix Waterloo figures around the same time dad took us to see Waterloo. That was it! Proper soldiers. Lined up in ranks. In colourful uniforms. And the British still won. I’d learned that their guns were single shot and slow to load and they fired in ranks, so rules were introduced that it was one dice per 6 men. I even think soldiers ran away when 1/2 of them were killed! More reading. These 'muskets' actually fired a lot further than I thought - normally under 100 yards but up to 200yards! That was 2 yards at scale, more than the length of the (6x4’) model railway board! Infantry regiments were 1000 men. I was going to need more soldiers. I was clearly never going to ‘play’ Waterloo or even some of the smaller battles I’d read about in the library book about the Penninsular War. It was only ever going to be about part of a battle or some of the actions of the Light Division units (another new term!). That was fine, I’d discovered the Carey books of Ronald Welch - Captain of Foot was explicitly about the ‘petit guerre’ of the Light Division (was it the 52nd Foot that Carey served in?).

Nevertheless, heavily choreographed, solo war-games were set-up on the chipboard my brother had bought years before for his Hornby train set. A thousand unpainted Airfix Napoleonics, with some AWI British grenadiers and Confederate infantry (as Spanish?) were thrown in for good measure.  Columns of French infantry,  each 100 strong, would pour forward and initially sweep all before them before being held in a last ditch stand by the Brits. French cuirassiers would appear and the plucky British would form square and decimate the French with their controlled volleys before the massed British hussars would sweep over the ridge and rout the French from the field. An old portable record player would be carted into the room and pressed into service, with the climax from the 1812 Overture providing a stirring backdrop!

More like this later. I promise no more toys will be hurt in the future.


  1. Excellent post! I'm always interested in the background to why (and how) other enthusiasts got into this hobby - I must say I am very much in favour of your "grand manner" [no capital letters] Airfix games. From my own viewpoint, I'm intrigued that the British obsession with WW2 when I was a kid, and for decades afterwards, come to think of it, always meant the games were often patriotically rigged. You don't have to spend very long reading Featherstone to start to wonder if his main inspiration for wargaming was to ensure that the forces of the British Empire continued to thrash Johnny Foreigner (assorted silly accents, various skin shades) in a suitable manner on tabletops throughout the foreseeable future.

    I didn't have a background of building Airfix Spitfires - I came into the hobby entirely because of an interest in history and an obsession in building mathematical models which simulated the activities of the real world (obsession, but little real talent). Painting model soldiers was something I discovered on the way.

    The key book for my wargaming was Don Featherstone's "Little Wars", which is hardly an unusual claim(!), but the book which got me interested in Napoleonic warfare was David Howarth's "A Near Run Thing", which gives an overview of the Waterloo campaign in a calm, impartial manner (for its day, anyway). I think the most thought-provoking book about British attitudes to warfare which I've read is probably Harry Pearson's "Achtung Schweinehund!", which is hilarious but possibly more scholarly than Harry intended.

    Anyway - I digress. The flamethrower trick is a bit alarming - did your brother get bored easily? :-)

    1. Thanks Tony.

      You know I've hardly ever read any Featherstone. Maybe one book 40+ years ago, and a pike and shot gaming book fairly recently. I'm not his biggest fan. Sacrilege!

      Those early Airfix games took forever. I hadn't thought of (or discovered) multiple basing. How stupid was that!

      I had 'Achtung Schweinhund'. Enjoyed it immensely. I've always enjoyed HP's work since his early days writing for When Saturday Comes (I assume it's the sme Harry Pearson). I left my copy of AS in the leaflet holder on an aircraft seat - more stupidty, but in my defence, I had just had an overnight flight ('running' Airfix ACW figures to the Caucasus for a friend).

  2. Replies
    1. Hi Steve. It might have been you that reminded me of those books in one of your posts. They were a good introduction. And very enjoyable yarns. I wonder how well they'll stack up now.

    2. Very well is the answer... one of the independent publishing houses reissued the Ronald Welch series recently which meant I was able to fill the holes I had in my collection (second hand were going for silly money before they did that).. beautiful cloth bound hard backs for only £18... Captain of Foot was one of the ones I bought (Mohawk Valley as well!).. if you fancy it, 'Slightly Foxed' is the name of the publisher..