Centennial Gaming In The Great War – The Campaigns Of 1918: Part One

April 23, 2018 by oriskany

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There’s one thing we’ll never run out of in wargaming. That, my friends, is history. For 3000 years mankind has worked tirelessly to ensure that historical wargamers are never short on material. However, to publish on a given topic on Beasts of War, one must have the armies to do it. A lack of miniatures is often the great “limiting factor.”

Great War Part One A

So you can imagine my excitement when I was contacted by Sven Desmet (BoW: neves1789) with an offer not only to provide dozens of great photos of his Great War armies in action on his 15mm tabletop, but also to help write a big, big part of what I hope will be a definitive series of articles here on Beasts of War as well.

Sven lives in Belgium, practically on some of the great battlefields of this iconic “War To End All Wars.” For years he’s been building up his 1914-18 armies in Flames of War: Great War, and playing an epic series of battles. So both on and off the table, he definitely has a lot to offer for a World War I project like this.

If There Was Ever A Time...

You know, I honestly think Warren would “fire” me as Historical Editor if we let 2018 pass and not roll out some top-notch material for the Great War. This year is obviously the centennial anniversary of the final climactic battles and campaigns of the Great War in 1918, so if there was ever a time to talk about World War I wargaming, it’s now.

Great War Part One B

In many ways, 1918 is the most interesting year of the Great War, as it’s where we see so much foreshadowing of the shape of wars to come. New armies, technologies, tactics, so much had come in during previous years. Yet only in 1918 were many new factors really making themselves felt, just in time to influence the war’s final outcome.

In this article, Sven and I will introduce the project and take an overview of wargaming in the Great War in 1918. Part Two will look at the “St. Michael Offensive” in March 1918, Imperial Germany’s crushing push to turn almost four years of misery into final victory in the West.

Great War Part One C

Part Three will look at the subsequent battles of Lys and Flanders (Fourth and Fifth Battles of Ypres) in April and May 1918. Part Four showcases one of the most iconic battles of the United States Marine Corps - Belleau Wood in June 1918. Part Five will review, and wrap up the centennial of the Great War’s last tragic summer.

Of course, we hope to come back to the Great War later in 2018, for a look at autumn battles like St. Quentin Canal, Second Battle of Cambrai, and Argonne Forest. These are battles that lead right up to the Armistice of 11th November 1918 (the mournful 11th hour or the 11th day of the 11th month).

Great War Part One D

But for now let’s see what Sven has to say about gaming in the Great War, specifically the battles of spring and summer 1918, echoing through 100 years of history as we speak.

The War Up To 1918

Sven Fills In The Background

When World War I started, the German strategic goals in 1914 were simple; the “von Schlieffen Plan” stated that they should march through neutral Belgium, crush the French in six weeks, and then redeploy to the east to take on Imperial Russia with all their strength. As we now know, a lot interfered with that plan.

Belgium didn’t stay neutral and put up a fight, Britain joined the war and landed troops on the continent, the French counterattacked successfully on the Marne and by October the race to the sea was over and everyone had dug in. The front, a network of trenches and field fortifications, reached from the North Sea to the Swiss border.

Great War Part One E

The following three years saw battles that tried to break the stalemate of trench warfare on the Western Front. Battles like the Somme, Verdun and Passchendaele are still remembered to this day from a perspective of useless sacrifice in trying to break through the enemy lines.

However, when you put these engagements into the context of the still-developing operational and tactical doctrines of the time, which we’ll attempt in this article series, they start to make a bit more sense.

On Stalemate…

Trenches and fortifications have been used in warfare throughout history. Think of Julius Caesar building a double wall around Alesia, the second Ottoman siege of Vienna, or the Russian redoubts at Borodino. With the onset of the industrial age, the firepower of the infantry had seriously increased through breech-loading rifles and artillery. This necessitated an increased use of trenches on the battlefield, not just during sieges.

Great War Part One F

The American Civil War showed on numerous occasions that troops with some form of fortification, like a stone wall or a depression in a road, had a clear advantage over formed infantry in the open. It also showed how sieges still were long and drawn out engagements with a lot of attrition despite modern medicine. These lessons were however not picked up in Europe.

There the Germans had demonstrated that superior planning and fast movement could win the day during a short campaign like in the Austro-Prussian and Franco-Prussian Wars. The British didn’t give much thought to trenches because most of their engagements were based on asymmetrical colonial warfare and the French had a doctrine that was completely focused on offensive operations.

...but not everywhere!

Great War Part One G

As much as the American Civil War showed signs that trench warfare could develop when industrialized countries got into protracted conflict with each other, this wasn't necessarily always going to happen. During the First World War, multiple fronts stayed mobile to some extent for a shorter or longer period of time, despite what popular belief might sometime suggest.

In the Battle of Tannenberg of 1914, the Second Russian Army of the Northwestern Front got surrounded by the German Eight Army under Paul von Hindenburg. The Germans cleverly used the railway to move troops around and encircle the Russian army which was marching into East-Prussia.

Quickly thereafter followed the First Battle of the Masurian Lakes where the Russian First Army got an almost equal treatment, the Germans again using speed and surprise to their advantage.

Great War Part One H

Another relatively mobile campaign took place in the Middle-East, where the British invaded the Ottoman Empire through modern-day Kuwait. After an unsuccessful march on Baghdad, British general Townshend and the 6th Poona Division of the British Indian Army retreated and were surrounded by Ottoman colonel Nureddin Pasha’s forces near the town of Kut.

This resulted in a months-long siege that only ended in 1916. It had taken almost two years for a stalemate to set in on the Middle-Eastern front. After the fall of Kut, mobile operations would continue, most famously with the offensive of General Maude and the operations of T.E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”).

Lions Led By Donkeys

"Lions led by donkeys”, is a typical statement that is associated with the Western Front and WWI in general. Although the origin of the quote is debatable, the sentiment is one that is felt and shared up to this day. It evokes the image of young men going ‘over the wire’ only to be mown down by a predetermined hail of bullets and the ‘chateau generals’ already sending in the next wave in a futile exercise of military might.

Great War Part One I

This view of the Western Front certainly holds up in certain cases. The continued push during the Battle of Passchendaele or the numerous Battles of Caporetto are decisions that are still debated. So too are the multiple battles around Verdun and German Chief of Staff Falkenhayn’s “bleed France white” quote, with that quote in itself being debatable.

However, to start understanding these sometimes controversial decisions better, you have to look at the information and options available to those in command at the time. The years of stalemate saw a constant development of new tactics and technology which led some commanders to believe that ‘this time’ they might just break through the lines and return to mobile operations.

Great War Part One J

When the use of one of these novelties would not secure the breakthrough as anticipated, it would be put into the ‘pool’ of usable tactics and equipment that might work next time when combined with something new. The battles through the years 1915 to the beginning of 1918 all show some sign of this search for innovation that could secure breakthrough of the stalemate.

Needless to say, not all of this was as streamlined as can be presented in a text like this one. Good history is written in varying shades of grey, not black and white. It tells the story of people whom we all know can be stubborn, clever, quick, foolish, etc. People that were in command (and in the trenches) during WWI were no different. In the following articles, we’ll start exploring more in detail how they dealt with the military challenges of 1918.

On The Table Top

As much as we can discuss history, we are at heart all gamers. This is no different when it comes to World War I. Although Flames of War is most well known for its main World War II setting, the game also contains a Great War expansion with a focus on the 1918 battles. The stats of the various equipment and a number of special rules give the game a proper World War I feel.

Great War Part One K

A couple of quick examples are the preliminary bombardment rule (pinning all defending platoons), cratered ground (giving infantry a lot of cover and protection) and overwhelming force (the attacker can recycle his regular infantry platoons). Tanks also benefit from extra rules to bring them in line with how they performed historically.

Oriskany Wraps it Up

To summarize, the spring of 1918 presented one overarching problem to military commanders and soldiers alike, as well as wargamers of the period. How could the stalemate of the trenches, which had been locked more or less in place since the winter of 1914, finally be broken?

So far everything had failed: tactics like massed infantry assaults and million-shell artillery barrages, technology like tanks and poison gas. “War winning” strategies like a southerly invasion at Gallipoli, the collapse of Imperial Russia, and the entry of the US into the war, hadn’t worked. Now, in March 1918, the Germans would make one more try…

Great War Part One L

Of course, we’re just getting started here with gaming in the Great War: 1918. Please make sure to come back next week, when we really “sink our boots in the mud” and look at the St. Michael Offensive, as well as table top tactics, weapons, rules, and features specific to the challenges confronted during these Great War battles.

In the meantime, post your comments below! Have you tried World War I in a wargame setting, either Battlefront or PSC or some other system? What are your tips for overcoming the tremendous obstacles endemic to this period? Tanks, aircraft, stormtroopers, more accurate artillery...

...how would you break the deadlock of the trenches?

"This year is obviously the centennial anniversary of the final climactic battles and campaigns of the Great War in 1918, so if there was ever a time to talk about World War I wargaming, it’s now..."

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"Although Flames of War is most well known for its main World War II setting, the game also contains a Great War expansion with a focus on the 1918 battles..."

Supported by (Turn Off)

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