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The Battle of the Somme, 1916


The Great War, Black Powder (modified), 28mm 

Every year, between Christmas and New Year, the guys at the Leuchars club up in Fife lay on a big multi-player game. this year it was The Somme – the third great battle of 1916 (the others being Verdun and of course Jutland). The table was 25 feet by 6 feet, and covered the southern section of the front line, from the Willow Stream in the north down to the River Somme in the south. The game was set on 1st July – “the First Day of the Somme” – and over 50 Allied battalions were poised to go over the top, heading east through a rather green-looking no man’s land to reach the German front line. Behind the German trenches were four villages – I think they were Curlu, Hardecourt, Montauban and Mametz. These were the Allied objectives. I say Allied as while most of the attackers were British, about a third of the Allies (the ones on the southern flank) were colonial troops from the French Sixth Army. We divided into sides – I became a German for the day – determined to avenge the death of uncle Rudi Kohnstamn that April in Verdun, at the hands of the dastardly French. Unfortunately I wasn’t allocated a section of the defences facing them – instead Brian and I shared a section in front of Montauban, much further to the north. The premise at the start was that the Allies had been shelling the German front line for almost five days, and the Germans had pulled back into their deep dugouts behind the reserve trench line. So, on Turn 1, while the Allied whistles blew and the troops went over the top, the Germans had to scurry out of their bunkers and man the front line trenches again. That of course, became the big German problem. In Black Powder (and we were using a modified version of the horse & musket rules) you have to roll to activate a unit or brigade. The German line was held by just four regiments – 12 battalions. Two of them failed to come on in the first two turns. The Allies had the same problem, but with far more troops and brigades a greater momentum was maintained. Worse was to come though. For five more turns the Germans in the centre (run by Erik and Jason) kept failing their command rolls. So, in that crucial sector the British actually reached the front trench line before the Germans did! You see, there was a main trench line, which ran the length of the table. In front of the centre though, was a six foot length of forward trench, linked to the main German line by a single communication trench. That meant the Germans had to travel almost as far as the British to reach their far ends of their forward positions… and they lost the race.Actually, that wasn’t quite accurate. Our regiment was the next one to the north, and my co-commander Brian raced a unit across the intervening stretch of no man’s land to get there before the British. So, this one battalion was isolated in the forward trench, but held on for two turns, its rifle and machine gun fire keeping a British brigade at bay. Inevitably though, the British fired back, caused casualties, then stormed forward. rather strangely, battalions advancing “over the top took their machine guns with them, and these seemed to be able to fire on the move. So, sheer weight of fire gave the British the edge they needed. Just as the central defenders finally raced onto the table (a much-needed three move advance), they found themselves involved in a hard-fought trench fight, as yet more British piled in from no man’s land. Inevitably it didn’t end well for the Hun! Erik and Jason were forced back out of the forward trenched, and reformed their battered regiment in the main trench line, at the edge of the table. Further to the north, where the next two German regiments were deployed in the trenches in front of Montauban and Mametz, the British pitched brigade after brigade into the assault. After an initial delay as they fired on an unoccupied pillbox (we weren’t going to tell them it was unmanned..) they surged forward, with two main thrusts heading for gaps blown in the wire by the Allied bombardment. On my side I was faced by a ten year old kid called Archie, who proved a real pain in the backside. the little swine kept throwing his troops forward, while other units pinned down my front-line troops with long-range fire. However, he had problems co-coordinating the assault, and it went in piecemeal, giving my defenders the chance to repulse all these isolated attacks. Just as importantly the defenders managed to mow down a lot of British units, and the attack in this sector eventually fizzled out. So, age and duplicity overcame youth and enthusiasm. The same thing happened to the northernmost German regiment, defending the sector in front of Mametz. Here Dale leading the British launched a rather more coordinated series of attacks, and at one point reached the German line with a full brigade of highlanders. Somehow though, the Germans held on, and repulsed all attacks. once again, the British ability to advance firing their Vickers machine guns proved a real problem, as their fire often disordered the German defenders with close-range fire. Still, not only was Dale repulsed, he lost about four battalions in the process. So, north of the centre the Germans were doing fine, thanks very much.
Unfortunately for us though, a major German disaster was unfolding in the south. There, after an initial hesitation, the French surged forward in large numbers. the Germans tried their best, but with three battalions facing a dozen they simply couldn’t mow down enough Frenchmen to halt the advance. Here, the French reached the main trench line in a coordinated massed assault, by which time the defenders were disordered, shaken and generally laid low by heavy French fire. the fight for the trench lasted for a couple of turns, but one after the other the French broke through into the trench line, then moved up and down in to overwhelm the handful of German defenders who remained. John, our overall commander did what he could with his scanty reserves – three battalions – which were fed into the line to either plug gaps or to relieve pressure. however, it all proved too little, too late. So, at about 3.15pm, after about 5 1/2 hours of play, Jed the umpire called the game for the Allies. While the Germans still held the northern part of the line, and looked like they planned to stay there, further south, from the river Somme to just north of Hardecourt the Germans had been completely overwhelmed. In the end there was just one German battalion left there, grimly hanging on outside Hardecourt, with the British surging past and around it. The only consolation for the Germans was that the Allied salient was smaller than it had been in the real battle, thanks to the stalwart defenders of the northern sector. Small consolation  though, for what was a pretty emphatic Allied victory! Casualties of course, were heavy. The Allies lost almost 20% of their force – about 14 battalions being wiped out. this pretty much equated to the death toll in the first day of the real battle. The Germans must have lost somewhere between 40-50% – around 6 to 8 battalions, which again was similar to the historical casualty list. Appropriately enough, John the German commander laid poppies on the table at the end – a tribute to the fallen at the Somme. While I was delighted to have the chance to play the game, it was very much that – a wargame using toy soldiers, pushed around by middle-aged wargamers. At the end we got to pack up and go home – unlike the 30,000 or so young men of both sides who died on the First Day of the Somme, and who still lie buried there.It certainly was an experience though, and I tip my had to the Leuchars club for organising such a large and unusual game – and especially to Jed, organiser, umpire and all-round man behind the curtain.

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2 Responses “The Battle of the Somme, 1916”

  1. MikeH
    3rd February 2017 at 3:19 pm

    Agree with you about the Allies bringing their heavy MGs along so easily, not sure about that one. The game looked terrific though I would be loath to use Black Powder for this era. Interesting how the losses worked out though, fairly close percentage wise to the real thing.
    Oh, but really….calling a ten year old lad a “little swine”, no doubt with a twirl of your Teutonic mustache I bet. Hopefully the boy enjoyed the game, we can always use new blood in the hobby.

    • 3rd February 2017 at 5:04 pm

      Mike, the little swine’s “new blood” should have been caking the barbed wire in front of my Spandaus…!

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About Angus

Angus Konstam is an author and historian he also plays wargames with historical miniatures. Yup, that’s little toy soldiers to you!