Sunday, July 31, 2011

Ypres 1914-18

The Ypres salient was the scene of fighting for virtually the whole war.  The British & Commonwealth push for Passchendaale in 1917 is one of the war's many great horror stories.  My  paternal grandfather's battalion, the 12th, was there, but he had the good fortune to be seconded to a training unit in England for most of 1917 and missed out.  My other grandfather didn't get to France until the Anzac Corps had been moved south to Amien. 

I expected the countryside to be flatter, but it is generally gently rolling country. Navigation is a bit tricky. The village names on the 1917 maps have often changed out of recognition, villages don't always have name plates, the modern roads are usually not on the old maps. Many intersections are devoid of road signs. The sun doesn't shine to tell you where south is because it's Belgium in summer. The sat nav suffers because the villages are often too small for it recognise them and it doesn't know the minor roads - but it's still good in giving you a general location and as a compass. The graveyards and monuments are a great help, but the brown signs to the monuments never give distances - you never know if it's 50 m of 5 km away.

The site isn't as dramatic as Verdun.  This area is such fertile land that they generally filled in the trenches to get it back into production.  The battlefields were also much more spread out, so there is much more travelling to do.    I saw only a fraction of what there is to see, but I'm happy that I saw a good sample of it.

Messines Ridge 7th June 1917

The successful attack on Messines ridge was perhaps the first sign that the British had begun to get some clues on how to fight WWI.  Including: 1) Set limited objectives that are achievable and holdable. 2) Send in the Anzacs or Canadians.

The Anzacs attacked on the right or southen end of the sector, the British on the left. 
There is graveyard and monument for the many dead Anzacs on Messines ridge on the edge of the village. 

The 1st pic overlooking the graves looks SW towards the Anzac start line on the next ridge about 1.5km.  The 1st German line was close to our line, the 2nd was on this ridge.

The 2nd pic is taken from the start line looking back the other way but to the north.  The 2 views almost meet on the right but in opposite directions.

The 3rd pic is taken from a point SW of Messines
which is just off the left edge.  The Anzac advance was from left to right.

The 4th pic is a German pillbox of their 2nd line in the british sector just south of Wytschaete.

Polygon Wood Sept 26 1917

As part of the Passchendale offensive the 5th Australian Division attacked Polygon wood.  It was destoyed in the process, but has been replanted.  In the middle of it is a memorial to the 5th Division.

The photo only shows half the cemetary.

Passchendaale 12 Oct - 6 Nov 1917

The Canadians got to Paschendaale at enormous cost.  More VC's per sqm than anywhere. 

Pic 1 is Paschendaale church viewed over the memorial.

Pic 2 is looking the way they came - the typical rolling Ypres countryside.

Hill 60

They made movie last year about the Austalian Tunnelling Corps.  This was their finest hour.  The hill is a pretty insignificant lump - actually spoil from the adjacent railway cutting & not a natural hill.  The ground remains a mangled landscape with angled bits of concrete pillbox sticking out of it.

Yorkshire Trench

This is section of British trenches that has been excavated and restored by locals.  It's a little patch in the middle of an industrial estate near Boesinghe a few km north of Ypres.

The gravel paths on the right trace the lines of underground tunnels forward of the trench line. 

It was interesting to be able to walk along a trench line that has not been degraded by time.

The 1917 Museum at Zonnebeke

Zonnebeke is a village  a few k's short of Paschendaale.  A chateau destroyed in the war, but rebuilt has been made into a museum.  It has the usual dummies in uniform, old films running, maps and bric a brac of war, but it's best feature is a recreation of a tunnel system. 

With the sound effects of water pumps and shellfire and dummy soldiers in the rooms, it gives an impression of what it must have been like - much cleaner and safer of course. 

The stuffed rats on the floor were a nice touch.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

In Marlborough Country 2: Oudinaarde 1708

The sat nav took me straight to Oudenaarde.  Then it wasn't so easy.  None of the villages on the battle map were big enough to show up on the sat nav, if they still existed, and those that did seemed to have changed names.  I eventually found my way out of the maze that is Oudenaarde and found a road sign to Ooike which I assumed was the Oycke on my map.  From there I got my bearings and a feel for the scale of the battlefield and was able to work it out.

Both sides had divided commands, but the French Ducs du Burgogne and Verdome hated each other's guts and were alway arguing.  Marlborough & Eugene were great mates.  For once the French had outmanouvred Marlborough threatening his LOC.  He responded by forced marching around the south of the French and getting to Oudinaarde before them.  He threw his army over the Schelt east of Oudinaarde using pontoon bridges.  The French were initially deployed on some low hills about 6km north of the river, but they moved down on the plain - perhaps to try and catch the allies before they had sorted themselves out after the river crossing.  Malborough had Eugene make pinning attacks on the French left commanded by Burgogne.  Verdome moved the right forward to attack the allied deployment, but Burgogne did not make a supporting counterattack on Eugene. 

Marlborough was also filtering troops through Oudinaarde itself onto the French left flank.  He drew on Eugene's cavalry reserve to boost his left then attacked Vendome frontally with his horse while the infantry from Oudinaarde wrapped round his flank.  The French army fell back, then broke.  Nightfall mitigated the extent of the disaster this time.  Both sides had about 100,000 men, the French lost about 15,000, the allies 3,000.  It was a big risk for Marlborough to bring on an encounter battle with his back to a big river, but having beat the French twice already in 1704 & 1706, he must have considered it a fair risk. 

Oudinarde has grown out of where its walls were and now covers the area of swamps which the French thought was impassible for cavalry, but through which Marlborough deployed his army.  The Schelt is now canalised, but though it's a big river the allies seemed to have an adequate bridging train.

North of Oudinaarde, the country is a featureless plain.    There are creeks and villages marked on Chandler's map, but in the flesh they are pretty insignificant.  The "Heights" are low hills and are off the actual battlefield. There are some gentle undulations in ground that give random points of minor vantage and would put some troops out of sight from some viewpoints.  The main terrain issues would have been crops.  The battle was on July 11 so they would have been in a similar stage as on my visit.  At present the fields were a mix of pasture, knee high wheat or potatoes and head high corn.  It's anybody's guess what the mix was in 1708.  But the main point is that apart from the river crossing, and the town hiding the flanking force, the terrain was only a factor in that it made a perfect field for Marlborough's horse to reap the benefit of his grand tactics.

Pic taken from a spot about 2km north of Oudinaarde looking north.  It was behind the French right initially, but by evening the French were in a pocket with the allied troops that came through Oudinaarde attacking from left to right.

The "Heights of Husse" are about 3km away.  The forground is all potatoes.

Pic from the same spot but looking east across the battlefield.  All the other pics I took look much the same.

In Marlborough Country 1: Ramillies 1706

Belgium is Marlborough Country.  Three of his four big battles were here.  I got to Ramillies and Oudenaarde, but from my Brugge base Malplaquet was a battlefield too far.

Hunting battlefields in Belgium is a challenging task.  They are seldom marked in any way and the names of the villages have more often than not changed while some have disappeared and others have materialised.  It is also not uncommon for villages not to have any name signs.

Ramillies itself has not changed name and is big enough for the sat nav to know it, so for this battle getting to square one was easy.  But none of the other villages on my map (from Chandler's book on Marlborough) were on the sat nav, nor it seemed at first, were they on the road signs either.  Also Chandler's map has the north point about 30 degrees out.  But using the sat nav as a compass (it was a beautiful Belgian summer's day - I couldn't use the sun for guidance), I eventually found Autre Eglise at the north end of the line and Taviers at the south end and then it all made sense.  It's a compact little battlefield - the front is only about 5km.

Malborough first attacked Autre Eglise to draw Villeroi's reserves north.  Then he moved his cavalry on that flank south as he launched attacks on Ramillies in the centre, and on the villages on the southern end of the line - both also drawing French reserves.  Then he unleashed his massed cavalry south of Ramillies.  The French cavalry had had its reserved taken away, Malborough's had been reinforced.  Outnumbered, the cavalry on the French right broke.  Now outflanked, Ramillies fell as well.  Villeroi tried to reform a line further back but there was no respite in the allied attack and the French army was routed.  Both sides had about 60,000 men.  The French army lost 20,000 casualties and prisoners with the rest turned into a disordanised mob.  The allies had about 3,500 casualties.

The battlefield appears to have changed hardly at all, except some villages seem to have grown a bit.  Ramillies is square in the middle.  North of it on the line of the Little Geete stream there is a line of villages - Ramillies & Offus have almost merged, then there is Autre-Eglise at the end.  Along this shallow valley there are patches of woods & lines of trees as well as the stream and the villages, so on this flank both sides faced off with infantry on their side of the stream with cavalry reserves behind.  Behind both sides of the front line on this flank there are open plains, basically flat with small rises.  The rises and the trees in the valley hid the transfer of the allied cavalry to the left.

There is more closed terrain on the southern end of the battlefield around the village of Taviers.  Between Ramillies and Taviers is a sweeping plain of wheatfields.  It is perfect cavalry country.

The ground around Autre Eglise on the French left.

The tree lined Little Geete between Autre Eglise & Offus.

Taviers at the southern end of the battlefield.

The Scout Car is parked halfway between Ramillies and Taviers.  This view is to the north towards Ramillies - about 1km away.

The view south towards Taviers from the same spot - also about 1km away.

Cavalry country:  The massed allied cavalry deployed here SE of Ramillies.  The view the other way towards the French position is pretty well identical.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Waterloo Today

Unlike Quatre Bra & Ligny, Waterloo has been landmarked almost to death.  The poms just can't do enough gloating over their lucky victory.  The Lion monument not only spoils the view, but in getting the dirt for it they stuffed up the lie of the land in that part of the battlefield.  It is flanked by an ugly museum building and numerous restaurants of all sorts.  (I boycotted them all).  The field is also covered with monuments to regiments and general's legs.  Plenty of interpretation signs celebrating British heroics too - not that a serious wargamer needs them, we know Waterloo only too well.

Pic 2 is a view to the NE on the east side of Plancenoit.  The ground there is heavily wooded and very hilly.  There seems to be much more woodland than shown on battlefield maps.  Maybe there are more trees now, but even so it must have been difficult country for the Prussians to manouvre to the battle through.

La Belle Alliance - Napoleon's HQ.

View of the British centre from La Belle Alliance (click to enlarge).

View along the British left flank looking east.  The sunken road is not so sunken now.

View from the British position about 750m left of La Haye Saint.  La Belle Alliance is on the far right. 

View of the British rear area behind their left.  Note the dip where the troops would be out of sight of the French and 2nd ridge for a second line. 

From the British position just left of La Haye Saint.  La Belle Alliance is on the right over the valley.  This is where d'Erlon attacked and where the British cavalry ran amok.  Not sure if the manure piles were there in 1815.
La Haye Saint with the main road built right up against it and no footpath.  It's still a dangerous place.

View from the British right towards La Belle Alliance.  This is the way the Cuirassiers came.  The closest rise may have been higher before they built the Lion  mound (which is off pic to the left).


This is my second visit to Waterloo.  Not much has changed in 35 years.  It is undoubtably one of the best battlefields to visit.  It is defaced, but not as much as many others and you can certainly get the feel of it despite that.  It's a battlefield where the terrain, though not dramatic, is very important.  The subtle folds in the ground were vital to the British defence.  Wellington may have been lucky and saved by the rain and bad French command dice, but it cannot be denied that he knew how to pick his ground.

Quatre Bras Today

Quatre Bras was a small battle overshadowed by the big ones either side, but even so it's surprising how totally unmarked it is today.  It remains a simple crossroads, on the 4 corners there are: a hotel (not even called anything to do with the battle), a car service shop, a derelict old building and a vacant block.  That's it.  There's not even a sign saying it's Quatre Bras - the most edifying sign being the one directing you to the Macdonald's Waterloo (I didn't think Marshall Macdonald was there).  Not that you can miss it, being the crossing of 2 major roads.

The countryside around is typically Belgian - flat and boring with no real features to make it an interesting battlefield to visit.

The 2nd pic is looking towards Ligny with the main road on the left in the line of trees.  The view in every direction is much the same.

Ligny Today

Ligny is easy to find - Fleuris, Ligny, Brye & St Armand are on modern maps as are the two main roads through the site.  But there is little in the way of monuments or info signs.  I expect the Prussians don't revere it because they lost, the Poms are obsessed by Waterloo & the French are too depressed about the big loss two days later to care.

From the sign in pic 1 where the road to Ligny leaves the main road, one can see that some re-enactors put on a show sometimes for Napoleon's last victory. 

The view beyond the sign is looking north between the main road and Ligny.  It is typical of the flat plateau that covers most of the battlefield.  Huge fields of wheat, with some corn fields and the odd patch of trees.  Some gentle undulations, but no hills.  It's a pretty featureless landscape except for the patch of villages in the middle.  Ligny, Brye & St Armond are all nondescript boring villages now and probably were then too, but the main feature is that they are in little valleys of close terrain with lots of farmyards, creeks & woods.  The extent of all these man-made features may not be the same as 1815, but the essence of the battlefield is unchanged. 

It's not  very photogenic battlefield, particularly on a typical Belgian summers day. In the second pic you can see the trees around Ligny.  The essence of the battlefield is a flat open plateau with a patch of dense terrain in the middle.

The 3rd pic is looking towards Brye from where d'Erlon should have arrived.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Area 52 Competition

The Area 52 competition was up to its usual excellent standards.  Unfortunatly, the FOW competition was down on its attendance, with only 9 signed up, and one player willing to play only if needed to round the numbers.  In the end, one player had to drop out at the last moment, removing the need for the 'bye buster', and only 8 played.  This is in marked contrast to the Warhammer rooms, which were FULL of people!!!!!

Camp Cromwell had only two representatives -- Nick and Steve.  (Munt mainly plays at Kingston, so we cant really claim him.  And Byron was going to play, but was the player that had to drop out at the last moment).

The terrain was beautiful, being set up by the Kingston bunker rats.  The terrain was deceptivly open -- the fact that walls blocked line of sight for infantry, but only concealed for tanks, meant that there were a fair few long range gun duels.  The battles were 1750 points late war, with 3 hours per game -- which should be enough for a game, but I (I being Nick) had all 4 games called for time!

The scenarios were randomly decided on the day.  They were
- Hasty Assault
- No retreat
- Fighting withdrawal
- Free for all

Steve cam away with Best General, scoring a loss, two wins, and a winning draw.  However, overall winner was Tristian, with a devestating Fallschirmjager list from Cassino.

Attached are some pictures from the army parade.