Sunday, 29 March 2009

Building an Army

In 1969 I found a copy of "Charge, or how to play wargames" in my local library. I had never heard of wargaming, but was fascinated by the photographs of model soldiers, and the rules for fighting battles. I was newly married, and short of cash. Fortunately my wife Jan was also interested, and we decided to have a go. Little did we know what a huge influence it would have on our life, but that's a different story.

"Charge" is an expensive looking hard back book, with glossy pages and lots of black and white photographs. It contained two sets of rules for the "Lace War" period, and the photographs illustrated the rules. Unusual for wargaming books, it was very well written and very easy to read. The rules were explained by means of a description of a battle. I didn't know it then, but I had stumbled on what is perhaps the best wargame book ever written. It is still well known within the hobby, and has a large following amongst wargamers of a certain age!

The last chapter in the book deals with getting started in wargaming. It has a description of the current wargame figure manufacturers and their cost. There was also contact details for Wargamers Newsletter and the British Model Soldier Society.

I had never seen a wargame figure, and most of those listed in the book were far too expensive. The cheapest were by a chap called Spencer Smith who sold bags of plastic figures for the Lace Wars period, the same period covered in "Charge". I rang him to order some figures, and was greatly disappointed to discover that he had recently ceased to make the figures.

The next cheapest was a manufacturer of 20mm metal figures called Hinton Hunt. He had a shop in London, and the next weekend Jan and I paid him a visit to buy our first wargame soldiers.. He sold expensive 54mm collector figures, mostly to American visitors. But we were only interested in the much cheaper wargame figures. These were unpainted metal castings, with a lot of flash on them. There were no painted samples. He did not make any "Lace War" figures, but he did have a very large range of Napoleonic figures. They included French, British, Prussian and Russian infantry, cavalry and artillery. I just picked the ones which looked best, and came away with pockets full of French old guard infantry, Polish guard lancers, British horse artillery and British Scots Greys.

The next day we played our first wargame. We copied the battle from "Charge", which I think was called "The Battle of Blasthof Bridge". We cut some card to represent the river and used books for the hills. Our soldiers were an odd collection of cheap unpainted figures, which bore little relation to the beautifully painted expensive figures used to illustrate the book. We followed the description in the book step by step, and checked the rules as we went along. It was a very enjoyable evening, and the first of many hundreds both in UK and overseas either with just the two of us or in large club games.

Soon after our first wargame I decided to use some of the contacts in the book to find more experienced gamers. First I rang the British Model Soldier Society. At that time they had just established a wargame section, but the "real" modellers tended to look down their noses. The wargames secretary was very nice, but there were no other wargamers anywhere near us, and that was that.

Our second contact was Don Featherstone, editor of Wargamers Newsletter. He also lived at the other end of the country, but we did take out an annual subscription to the Newsletter. I was serving in the army at the time, and we moved every three years. Wargamers Newsletter was to prove a vital link with the hobby as we were posted all over the world . I well remember the excitement of opening the brown envelope with the small hand printed newsletter.

Through the Newsletter I also discovered that Don had written a hard backed book called "Wargames". I ordered a copy, and found that it contained chapters about the different types of wargames, and lots of suggestions for improving the game. Soon afterwards he wrote "Advanced Wargames", followed by a mass of wargame related books. I bought each one as they were published, and soon had the start of what would be a rapidly expanding private library.

We knew nothing of the Napoleonic period, and had no idea of uniform colours or details. However again my local library came to the rescue. I found a beautiful book called "Tradition". They were makers of expensive 54mm collector figures, and this book was like an illustrated catalogue. It covered a lot of periods, but mostly Napoleonic. I now had something I could copy. I could not of course come anywhere near the painting standards of the book, but I had hours of enjoyment trying!

A few years later I borrowed another book from the library, I think it was called "Model Soldiers" by Henry Harris. It was written for collectors of larger 54mm figures, such as Britains. However it contained chapters on how to build up an army. For example for every pretty guardsman there should be many more drab line infantry. My first, but not last, reorganisation was underway.

The next development was to another book in the library, this time it was two volumes by a French illustrator called "Armies of the Napoleonic Wars". It contained illustrations of all the troops of the period. It was, and is, one of the best reference books available to the wargamer or collector. I saved my money and soon became the proud owner of both volumes. They were in French, which I did not speak, but it didn't matter as the illustrations did not need any description.

Sometime in the early 1970s I discovered Airfix toy soldiers. They were relatively cheap boxes of toy soldiers which included WWII British and Germans, cowboys and indians, romans and ancient britons and a modern day British guards marching and a band. But more importantly they also had Napoleonic British line and highland infantry, French infantry and artillery. Each box contained a variety of poses, and I had to buy a lot of boxes to get enough in one position to make a infantry unit. My wargames soon included masses of these plastic figures.

During the early 1970s Airfix expanded their range of Napoleonic figures. There was a French Guard Infantry, a French heavy cavalry, a British hussar set, and a British Royal Horse artillery box. Each new box was eagerly awaited, and a lot of conversion took place. This usually consisted of cutting a head off one figure and sticking in on another to produce a type not included in the Airfix selection.

Because we moved around so often, we could not rely on a friendly club to provide opponents with their own wargame armies. So, right from the start, I collected armies to represent both friend and foe. We dabbled with Airfix Romans and Ancient Britons, but our only real love was the Napoleonic period.

Also about this time Wargame Research Group produced their first Napoleonic Rule set. They were already famous for their Ancient Rules, which were used extensively in the new wargame competitions to be found at wargame shows in London, such as Salute. WRG were the first "scientific rules". They contained a lot of charts and, for the time, very complicated rules. Unlike "Charge" they were not easy to read. Indeed they were not meant to be read, they were more a reference to resolve wargame combats. Many, many hours were spent reading through them to resolve a tabletop disagreement.

Although pleased with my large Airfix army, they did have an annoying habit of flaking. The muskets and the legs would bend, and the paint would fly off. Unfortunately I could not afford the more expensive metal figures. So I tried my hand at making my own. I bought a large tin of silicone rubber and made moulds of basic Austrian, British, French, Prussian and Russian infantrymen. I soon had hundreds of each, more than enough for my needs. Unfortunately my mould making left a lot to be desired, and most of my figures had an extra nose where the mould met in the middle of their heads. Worse still, they had masses and masses of flash. It was a major job cleaning the figures before I could think of painting them

By the late 1970s I had a little more money, and I made the decision to replace my Airfix, and home made, figures with the much more expensive Minifigs 25mm metal figures. They were produced by a company called Miniature Figurines which was based in Southampton. They had a huge catalogue covering the whole of the Napoleonic period. I sold my Airfix figures to help pay for the beautiful new figures. It would take about 3 years to recruit and paint my new reinforcement.

Soon after I started on replacing my 25mm figures I joined the Devizes wargame club. They used the new Minifigs 15mm figures. This was a similar range to the larger 20mm, but was cheaper to collect. I decided to duplicate my 25mm with 15mm figures. This was mainly so that I could put an army on the table at the club. In retrospect it was not my best decision, as it doubled my collection without adding anything to the existing one! However I love painting figures, and welcomed the challenge. I told myself that I could use the 15mm figures for larger battles, but in fact this never seemed to happen. I usually played 15mm games at the club, and 20mm at home.

In the early 1980s I went to Peter Guilders Wargame Centre for a week. This was to have a huge effect on my wargames. Like so many other wargamers I was hugely impressed with his large games on four 30 foot long tables using what seemed like thousands of metal soldiers. Many were the new 25mm figures, and all were organised in huge regiments of 36 figures. They fought over his beautiful terrain just like the photos which appeared in the new wargame magazine "Wargames Illustrated". I came away determined to make my own version of the Wargames Centre.

About this time I saw an article in WI about the new 6mm figures. I think it was the battle of Leipzig, and it looked fantastic. At our next visit to Salute, I visited the Heroics and Ros stand and came home with about a hundred bags of 6mm figures. I determined that I would have replicate my collection in 25mm, 15mm and 6mm. It was to take many years, and the figures would change again, but eventually I achieved my dream.

In 1984 I left the army, and we bought our first house. The most important consideration was it must have space for a wargame table. We were very fortunate to find a house with a large detached garage. It was a free standing oblong building, rather like a small house. My first job was to dry line the walls, my second to commission my first custom made wargames table. It was 12 foot long and 6 foot wide. For the next 20 years we would run weekly wargames on this table, with a constantly changing group of friends. There would often be 10 players crowded around the table. Needless to say, we both have many very happy memories of happy nights spent playing on that table.

At this time we used In the Grand Manner rules, the ones I had played at Peter Guilders Wargame Centre. They require large battalions of 30-36 figures. We now had armies of Austrian, Bavarian, British, 3 French, Prussian, Russian, Westphalian, Spanish and even Swedish. There were about 300 figures in each, and of course all in 25mm, 15mm and 6mm. A lot of figures.

During my visit to the Wargames Holiday Centre I had been very impressed with Peter Guilders new Connoisseur Range of 28mm figures. Unfortunately they did not fit in with the much smaller Minifigs 25mm. So I determined to replace the Minifigs. I worked on this throughout the 1990s. There were considerable gaps in the Connoisseur Range, and I filled these with Bicorne and Redoubt figures.

By the mid 1990s my collection was nearing completion. Each time I started on a new manufacturer I had expanded the range to include any nationalities not previously available. In particular I now had most of Napoleon's German allies. I also had a range of Spanish guerrillas. And I found that I had far too many figures to ever use them on my 12'x6' table.

There had been a lot of improvement in the production of wargame figures. I decided that I would keep the Heroics and Ros for the 6mm. But I would replace the 28mm with Front Rank and Elite figures. This would be a huge painting task, but there was no hurry as I would not sell off the older figures until their replacements were ready for the table. To make the whole project manageable I also decided to reduce the number of figures in each army.

By this time I had abandoned professional rule sets, and had developed my own. I had always had a problem with rules that were usually designed for a division, or at most a corps, per side. I wanted to fight multi corps battles.

I had also become disillusioned with running a wargames club in my garage. We had made a lot of friends, and their imput had greatly added to our enjoyment of the games. But I found that with more than 4 players you needed an umpire. Most of our players did not have armies of their own. They usually only played once per week, and certainly lacked our knowledge and dedication. So I was the natural umpire. We had got to the stage where neither Jan nor I actually played in the game. We presented games for other people to enjoy. It was time for a change.

I decided that I would design the replacement collection for smaller games, involving just Jan and I. We would still have enough figures to put on large games when required. In our club games we usually fought 3 or 4 players a side. This meant that each player had only 4 or 3 foot to deploy his part of the army on. This seemed to be quite sufficient. I also found that on the rare occasions when Jan and I played on our own, we tended to use no more than 6 or the 12 foot table. I planned to replace the wargames table anyway, and I now decided that I would settle for one 6 foot by 6 foot. On this size table I found that you could deploy about 300 28mm figures per side. Therefore I would plan to fight corps sized battles in 28mm with 300 figures. For slightly larger battles I would field 2 or 3 corps in 15mm, each 300 figures. For the largest battles I would use 6mm, also 300 figures per corps.

For the next 4 or 5 years I painted happily, and my new 28mm legions took their place on the shelves. As I completed each army, I sold off the older one on Ebay. In this way the sale of older figures pretty well paid for their replacement. I have never been sentimental about figures, and I would rather that they went to a new home where they would be appreciated, rather than collect dust on the shelves. I was particularly pleased that many went to my wargame friends who had played with them in my garage.

As we entered the 2000s I was again approaching the end of a phase. By now my 15mm Minifigs were looking a little tired. I had long admired the new much praised AB 18mm range. They were expensive, but acknowledged to be the best available in that range. Despite the cost, they would replace my 15mm Minifigs.

In 2006 we moved to Spain on early retirement. A major part of the move was boxing and wrapping a lot of model soldiers and scenery. When I had first moved I could carry all of my wargames kit in a small suitcase. This time it took a considerable part of the removal truck. When we choose the house we made sure that it would have a suitable wargames room, not just a table but also sufficient storage for all the scenery. My first job on arrival was to commission another, smaller, wargames table and plenty of shelves. It would take a little longer to unpack, and touch up, all the figures.

After more than 30 years of painting model soldiers pretty well every evening and most weekends, it is ironic that now I am retired I no longer paint. On the other hand Jan and I now have all the time we could wish to wargame. We still have the occasional large game with wargame friends, but mostly it is just the two of us - just like it was when we started all those years ago.

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