War Games of the Napoleonic Period
By John Beresford Welsh, Jr.
It is said that the world of military miniatures is most often resolutely divided
between collectors, who prize their figures as pieces of art, and war-gamers who
find the art of maneuver more challenging. There is at times considerable disdain
between these two ''camps,'' collectors being inclined to regard war-gaming between
civilian generals as trivial and amateurish, while war-gamers may consider the
chaste collector as prudish and antisocial. The dichotomy is in fact a reflection
of two different forms of appreciation of military history. The collector's appreciation
is centered mostly on colortul and stylish uniforms, and the technique and skill
of the application ol fine detail to an artfully sculptured figure. The attention
of the war gamer is focused not so much on individual figures as with the use
of them, often in large masses for the purpose of simulating the fidelity of battle.
Only in moments of enlightenment, it is said, do these rivaling factions ever
consider the common identity of their causes.
The generalization of a dichotomy of military miniatures into collectors and war-gamers
is in fact contrived and illusory. For the collector, as for the war-gamer, war-games
need not be colorless, mechanical, and devoid of that special romance which collectors
are wont to possess. On the contrary, a war-game is the ultimate, exclusive indulgence
which permits the fullest realization of that romance. Colorful uniforms are but
part of the general panoply, but what emerges is a sum greater than its parts.
War-gaming represents a combination of a skillful negotiation of tactics with
the chival rous pageantry of color, romance, and style. What produces a successful
war-game- in the larger sense is not merely the victory of one opponent over another.
Like all games, it is the challenge presented between equal opponents, as well
as the tempering of that challenge with a certain style. Style is that method
of doing things which is in some way distinctive of the war-game group.
In the consideration of style, while victory remains the ultimate object, it is
not the primary purpose for the war-game. Other things, more complicated to explain,
except by example, go into a successful war-game.
The spectacle of the war-game board
to the war-gamer does not consist of lead figures mounted on placards or bases;
it does not appear as cardboard or plastic buildings, paper rivers and roads,
or plasticene hills or lichen trees however artfully conceived. From the beginning
of the game until the last volley is fired, the multiple ingredients take on a
great fantasy. In the eyes of the beholder, the square arrangement of blue figures
which appears haphazardly in the din of battle represents more than lead and paint
to the player. It is the last defiant and noble gesture of the French Garde
Impériale at Waterloo, wreathed in smoke, covering them selves with
glory and sacrificing themselves on the altar of the Empire. The single line of
red in kilts, a line which perhaps stretches two feet across the battle-board,
may represent the stub born pride of the Sutherland Highlanders containing the
Russians at Inkerman while the pipers blast the acrid air with Scotland the
Brave. The cluster of buildings at the crossroads appears as the imperial
city of Vienna to the approaching blue columns, and the blue papered river by
the forest conjures up the horrid visions of the crossing of the Beresina in 1812
in the retreat from Moscow. The versions may be different but the thoughts are
the same. The participant is re-living and identifying with the most exciting
moments of history. For that brief departure from reality, he has become a part
of the panoply of grand gestures and heroics which characterized the Napoleonic
The visions of vainglory which flash before his eyes emanate from his mind's extravagant
imagination. To the degree which a gamer can call a war-game "successful'' then,
depends to a great extent on how closely he identifies with the figures on the
board, and with the staff which commands them, and to some persons, even with
the nationalistic aspirations and political considerations which depend on the
The beauty of the formations has
as much to do with this identity as the beauty of the execution of their movement
in battle. Many war-gamers take great pride in the workmanship of the details
which appear on their game figures. Such details as straps, buttons, and shading
cannot be appreciated from an ordinary eye level and can hardly be distinguished
trom a less detailed figure at the same level. But some how it does seem to matter
to the war-gamer for he attaches a special significance to his corps d'elite.
That is, he identifies more closely with it, and its fate, or success, in the
game becomes his own. The paint work on a war-game figure is as important to the
morale of the gamer as esprit-de-corps can be to an army. This pride of
manufacture, of authenticity, is not reduced by reverses in the field. A defeat
by out maneuvering or fire power can never diminish the war-gamer's enthusiasm
for this unit.
Our group1 has been able to achieve considerable
success in adding elements of style to war-gaming; 2
the bases upon which our figures are mounted conform to certain standards by general
agreement. Firstly, the bases of the individual units are in the particular color
which identifies their nationality: khaki for the French, grey tor the Russians,
olive green for the Austrains, field green for the Prussians, and medium green
for the British. Additionally, the edges of the bases reflect the status of the
unit. The Guard regimental bases are trimmed in red, the Light Infantry in yellow,
the Reserve in white, Guard sharpshooters in red/yellow striping, and the Line
is plain. Colors also identity and differentiate heavy, light, and guard cavalry
units. In a practical sense, the color code gives quick identification to the
troops. In a larger sense, the beauty of the board is enhanced by standardization,
order, and style. The bases may also record a division or corps' identification
number, or may display battle decorations in a further effort at distinction.
In addition to paint work and base ornamentation, each army displays on special
bases (which might be termed pedestals), a general staff, which may vary from
a diorama of four figures to a suite of twelve. These prizes, as objects in a
war-game, also represent symbolically the pride of an army. The individual war
gamer competes for the envious glances of his companions-in-arms for the most
beautiful display. Line staff are also represented on bases which identify, either
by color or number, the organization of the corps d'armée.
Procedurely, prior to the actual war-game, diplomatic correspondance between participants
is generally exchanged: proposing alliances, negotiating secret convenants, dividing
spoils, or issuing ultimatums. Acts of diplomacy give some theoretical element
to the game and make the battle relevant to a political situation, as every historian
must realize it was. Then a geographical focus is chosen on a map where the battle
is eventually to be engaged. The battle-board is carefully arranged to fit the
topography of the map and each adversary care fully prepares a plan of strategy
reducing it to writing without being aware of his enemy's intentions. The plan
is based largely on the ability to take advantage of prominent features in the
terrain (where flanks can be protected by rivers, forests, or hills), as well
as the ability to anticipate where the foe will be. The adversaries are held to
their plan in the initial disposition of troops, for good or no. After that, they
are left to make the best of a bad situation or to exploit an oversight on the
part of their opponent. Victory in a war-game can often be predicted in the first
move, and many a player has discovered that his magnificent strategem for throwing
his adversary off-balance in an offensive has rendered his position untenable
in a defense. And as a consequence, hours have been employed with forced marches
by troops left on the perimeter without a thing to do, while the objective is
in peril of capture.
The use of dice may be decried by some as the dethroning of skill for chance,
but skill in battle, as history so often discloses, is little more than the ability
to profit from chance or opportunity. Dice presents the chance, general ship produces
the opportunities for victory. Regardless, the war-gamer more often teels that
he is left ultimately in the hand of fate than the Firing Table. But viewed as
a more-or-less helpless pawn of the gods, war-gamers are less apt to involve their
egos and injure their pride brought on by a too-close identification with history,
personalities, and the course of the battle on the board. Style, itself, can both
produce the identification essential to the success of the war-game, and prevent
its abuse by over-involvement.
During the engagement, and in keeping with diplomatic convention, the host often
serves "liquorous libations" of drink representative of the various nationalities
present. At tlmes, unfortunately, certain individuals have in the past neglected
their duties in the field showing instead a preference for the satisfaction of
their thirst, with consequent results. But I have never known a war-game dispute,
no matter how bitter, that wasn't settled over a good glass of Port. This little
refreshment, even aside from its initial pleasantness, is a great tranquilizer
tor the jagged nerves, and seems to put everything in the correct perspective,
especially when war gamers are most apt to identity too closely with their causes.
The strong fellowship among war-gamers which results from a mutual recognizance
of a special and common interest in war-gaming should be at its closest bond at
the end of the battle.
The war-game is generally conducted along the most professional lines similar
to the diplomatic courtesies displayed between the warring monarchs in the past.
Insults, of course, are exchanged. Toasts are often made to uncommon valor and
splendid successes of particular units in the field. As a supreme grand geste,
foreign units have been decorated by grateful allies for meritorious service.
Applause frequently rings the excited air of conviviality. At times, fine cigars
have been passed out atter a particular ''good show," and on at least one occasion
atter a splendid French cavalry charge which reversed an impossible situation,
cognac was served, even though the battle was still in doubt.
At all times, as a backdrop to the
battle, appropriate thematic music lends itself to this atmosphere of controlled
conflict. Be it pipes and drums, Napoleonic marches, or the sound track from War
and Peace. in all cases the music is relevant to the instant proceding. Far
from dominating, it becomes stylistically just one more component part of a larger
context. I believe it was Voltaire who said. ''Style make the man." What I have
said so far is that "style makes the game.'' Style, that distinctive concern with
manner that tempers and polishes our indulgences, adds appreciably to the success
of war-games, Where some war-gamers are frought with ''combat fatigue'' and give
way to the license of argument and conflict among themselves, the interjection
of style smooths over these differences. and war-games become an excellent exercise
in friendly challenge. For the war-gamer, the ''journey through the looking glass''
is not eftortless. But once achieved, stylistically through the development of
skill, color, and an affinity tor people,. it becomes the most pleasant of pastimes.
As each war-game group has essentially a different view of what is important to
a war game, the results, the ingredients, and the rules will vary between them.
What should not be missed, though, is the real opponunity present to exploit our
imaginations to the fullest with what is in fact and tancy, an exceptionally envigorating
hobby. If I have persuaded the purest collector to dabble or experiment in the
excitement and enthusiasm of a war-game, I hope also to have reminded the maneuver-minded
war-gamer of an appreciation for color and style, in mobilizing the component
parts of his game in a form which greets all the senses in unfolding a faithful
drama of military romance.
2 The Society restricts its war-games rather
exclusively to the Napoleonic Wars, and to the use of "flats." As a rule, a regiment
is made up of approximately eighteen men, mounted on three 1" x 3" bases, being
six men per base. Cavalry regiments are composed of two bases of five men each.
This article was originally published in Campaigns magazine no. 10 (1977)
as "Wargaming Can be Fun".
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