Thursday, October 27, 2005


I am a wargamer, have been for years. Just at the moment, I am setting up a giant Eastern Front World War I game (Germany and Austria-Hungary against Tsarist Russia). For the past several days in my hideaway office upstairs at home, I have been deploying the Imperial Russian armies, all over the huge map of the eastern Ukraine, Poland, and what is now the Baltic States and Belarus; hard on the borders of East Prussia and Austrian Galicia and the Bukovina. Quite a massive deployment, and impressive to see set out on the maps. All told, about 75 infantry and cavalry divisions, with supports and other troops coming up, (26 or so against Germany, 49 against Austria). Dwarfed by similar deployments in World War II, and later offensives in World War I of course, but no-doubt enormous for the Russian, German and Austrian officers involved, all brought up studying 19th Century wars.

I got interested in this hobby, and military history generally, I think because I enjoy geography and maps. I have always had a particular interest in the Eastern Front of World War I: a largely forgotten conflict.

It was here, in the then sleepy back-country of Eastern Europe, amid swamps, dust and poverty, from Minsk to Berlin; that the modern world was born. From 1914-1918, the great Austrian, German and Russian empires, along with the whole, laboriously built-up European state and colonial system, collectively committed suicide here; and civilization, in a sense, ended. All the crackpots and murderers of the modern age: Communists, Nazis, assorted left and right populists, Third World tinpot nationalists, Islamic religious fanatics -- all acquired their political opening right here. The cauldron brewed here threw up the repulsive nihilism of so much of what passes for culture today. On this same bloody ground, most of the Holocaust happened.

Lots of food for thought, but just at the moment, I find myself wondering what the people who worked with the original maps – in particular the Russian General Staff officers -- thought of it all, while mobilization and deployment went forward in late July-early August 1914. Setting up their own headquarters, watching the symbols appear on the maps, passing on their drives or rides to the various field headquarters the long, dusty columns snaking down the dirt roads and tracks of Poland from the railroad sidings? The clank of tons of equipment; the overpowering smell of horses, unwashed men, their wastes, gun-oil, the smell of the field-kitchens and cook-fires; burning eyes from the clouds of dust; the curses and blows of the sergeants; the wheep of the horsewhips; the inevitable confusion of transition from peacetime garrison to movements in the field; the wondering whether all the bustle was yet another Balkan crisis that would pass, or the real thing.

I am sure it all looked quite impressive on the maps, but given the normal conditions in the Imperial Russian Army, was certainly quite a mess in practice. I wonder if it occurred to any of the generals, or any of the bright whipper-snappers on the staff, watching the symbols go up on the big maps, that they were witnessing the apocalypse made flesh, the murder-suicide of their world ? What an utterly stupid and useless waste.


Andrew Scotia said...

I had a similar epiphany many years ago playing Chancellorsville as a callow junior in college well before my turn to See the Elephant and later play in the Great Game.

Now, if I play any games at all, electronic or paper board, I find that I am most interested in the tactical level.

Especially Spec Ops. Working on getting a scenario together using one of the new low yield, focused plasma jet, minimal radiation scatter, man portable weapons next to several hardened targets.

Where are you sourcing your Order of Battle?

El Jefe Maximo said...

If you're talking about OB info on the game in the post, the game in question is SPW's "Tannenberg/Galicia," the campaign scenario, designed by David Schroder, who has evidently done scads of WW I OB research. Possibly the best source for WWI Russian Army OB information in English is the British Army's "Handbook on the Russian Army" published in 1914. Mark Conrad's OB for the Imperial Russian Army online is also hand )he has a good one for the French too). Both these are useful up to mobilization, but not much beyond it.

For the Germans, the British also published an intelligence handbook, which is useful along with Hermann Cron's indispensible "Imperial German Army 1914-1918." Both Austro-Hungarian and German OB's that appear pretty complete are available online.

Andrew Scotia said...

My comment was in reference to a post at Gates of Vienna. It was an amplification of another I made there.

You don't have an email address in your profile so I thought I might expand the comment somewhat to give you an idea of a device that could be used.

Andrew Scotia said...

useful up to mobilization, but not much beyond it.

No plan ever survives first contact with the enemy.