Tread softly here! Go reverently and slow!
Yea, let your soul go down upon its knees,
And with bowed head and heart abased strive hard
To grasp the future gain in this sore loss!
For not one foot of this dank sod but drank
Its surfeit of the blood of gallant men.
Who, for their faith, their hope,—for Life and Liberty,
Here made the sacrifice,—here gave their lives.
And gave right willingly—for you and me.

From this vast altar—pile the souls of men
Sped up to God in countless multitudes:
On this grim cratered ridge they gave their all.
And, giving, won
The peace of Heaven and Immortality.
Our hearts go out to them in boundless gratitude:
If ours—then God’s: for His vast charity
All sees, all knows, all comprehends—save bounds.
He has repaid their sacrifice:—and we—?
God help us if we fail to pay our debt
In fullest full and unstintingly!

John Oxenham (1852-1941)

-Dedication stone at the entrance to the Newfoundland Memorial Park on the Somme battlefield near Beaumont Hamel, France.

I chose to show the Newfoundland Memorial Park at Beaumont-Hamel because I think it resonates with me and how I reconcile my war gaming with what war really is—but more on that in a moment.

For those who aren’t versed in Canada’s Great War history: Newfoundland in the First World War was the Dominion of Newfoundland and not yet part of Canada, though still a member of the British Commonwealth. Despite its small population, it had managed to raise a full 1000-man battalion: the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, which was incorporated into the third of the three brigades (the 88th) in the British 29th Division.

The Newfoundland Regiment was in the 29th Division for the Gallipoli campaign (disaster). Of note: they were not only part of the initial landings in 1915, but they were also one of the last divisions to leave Gallipoli in early 1916. The Newfoundland Regiment was then moved to the Beaumont-Hamel region on the Western Front in April, 1916, where the Somme Offensive was to commence in the summer months. The Somme Offensive was a huge undertaking: it was to be a line of attack approximately forty kilometers in length and meant to ease pressure off the French army elsewhere along the front that ran contiguously from Switzerland all the way to the English Chanel in Belgium.

The Memorial Park is one of the few places where visitors can see First World War trench lines and the related terrain in its ‘natural’ state and is the largest area of the Somme battlefield that has been preserved.

On the opening morning of the Somme Offensive (July 1, 1916), after receiving their orders to move forward at 8:45, the Royal Newfoundland Regiment moved through their communications trenches towards the enemy at the front line—trenches that were fully targetable by German machine gunners. The regiment was mired, moving through trenches choked with casualties as, being some of the only fully visible British soldiers visible to the German defenders, they took the full brunt of the Germans’ defensive fire. Within fifteen-to-twenty minutes of moving out at 8:45, the Royal Newfoundland Regiment’s 22 officers and 758 soldiers were annihilated; of the 780 men who went forward only 68 were available for roll call the following day. For all intents and purposes the Newfoundland Regiment had been wiped out, the unit as a whole having suffered a casualty rate of approximately 90%.

The Memorial to the 29th Division. The divisional badge was a red triangle.

I have a friend who plays miniatures games that refuses to get into Flames of War—any war games for that matter, his reasoning being that “gaming” events and battle where real people really lost their lives is in poor taste and just generally …creepy.

Him and I differ in opinion on that.

I may play war games and be intensely interested in the military aspects, the historical aspects—heck, even the action aspects of the games we play; but I don’t think I embark in these games so lightly. Even though I may marvel at the sheer grimness of facts behind the battles and try to bring some of that into all the battle games I play, the tragedy that is war is not lost on me.

I think I’m interested in that touch or realistic war in my gaming–not because I hope to glorify battle but because it’s academically fun & interesting to see how my decisions fare when faced with similar choices that historically had to be made; and also because I do strive to understand what the soldiers (of any nationality) had gone through and empathize with them.

I think that’s part of the reason why I’m so drawn to the Great War memorials: they are solemn reminders not just of the cost of war, but I think they convey a sense of sorrow and a sense of the tragedy of war. I think they speak of grandeur and glory…but grandeur and glory accompanied by an almost unbearable cost.

For me, none do this more so than the Canadian Memorial at Vimy Ridge and the Newfoundland Memorial Park near Beaumont Hamel (which I seem to half remember that it was the wives of the Newfoundland men who died on the first day of the Somme Offensive who initiated the efforts that would later result in Newfoundland buying the 74 acres of land near Beaumont Hamel that would later become the Memorial Park).

The Canadian attack on Vimy Ridge was the first time in the First World War that all four Canadian Divisions fought together in one spot; for the first time ever, Canadians from all parts of the country fought together towards a common goal, a specific objective–but again at a tremendous cost.

A quick read on the Battle of Vimy Ridge.

The Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme is a British monument 150 feet tall. On the 16 Portland Stone piers are engraved the names of over 72,000 men lost in the Somme battles whose remains were never found.

I think I don’t shy away from emulating historic battles and war into my gaming because ultimately I want to understand and empathize with those who have been burdened by war: I may never know what it is to experience the thrill, boredom, camaraderie and absolute terror of war, but the least I can do to honour the memory of those who have suffered is understand some of the realities of battle (if not war in general) that they had to endure.

On a last note, a hobby-related note, I discovered the website DocuWatch–which has well over 2,000 streaming documentaries (400 on war alone!). Here are links to documentaries on Canada’s involvement in the Somme Offensive and Vimy Ridge.

But enough rambling from me.

A relatively new tradition among Ottawa residents: the crowds place their poppy pins on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier following the closing of the Remembrance Day ceremony.

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7 Responses to Reconciling War Gaming

  1. That’s a very fine post. I think you have addressed some complicated themes skilfully, and with great respect. I have a great deal of understanding for the gamer who declines to play a historical wargame because it’s too close to reality, to real suffering and loss. I think there is a place, however, for historical wargaming to attempt to recreate some of the aspects of war from history. As you say, no one would ever suggest after playing a historical wargame that “it was the same as being there”. But if the wargame gives an insight you did not have before, makes you think about what happened, and (as you say) empathize with the actual participants in that battle, then I would submit that is a worthy and respectful end in itself.

    No-one has the final say, or the “right answer” on the topic of your post. Reconciling wargaming will always promote different challenges for each one of us. But that challenge is not something we should be embarrassed or nervous about facing. In itself, it is part of remembrance – which is perhaps the untitled subject matter of your very fine post.

    Sidney Roundwood

    • imaginarywars says:

      Thanks for the insightful response, Sidney!

      Definitely the post was being done as my own personal act of remembrance; and though I have no problem playing historicals, when I over-think it, I have self doubts every time I say how cool this tank was or that gun was or how neat-o the German gear was or marvel at the carnage of the battles..those are the times I think my friend may be on to something with gaming NO period pieces at all. But, like I answered to Scott, I’ve been so immersed in this stuff for so long (and not in a “Rambo” neo-con kind of way), that the gravity of war has not escaped me.

      (I still remember the moment when it all changed: I was in grade 8 and I used to think war and battle were “cool” and I was even, in my youthful ignorance, putting swastikas on my binder to get a rise out of my school teachers. At the same time I had just discovered The World at War documentary series and was watching every week’s episode religiously. Within 1-2 months of the start of all my now-embarrassing jack-assery, I saw one of the WaW episodes focusing on the holocaust. Watching that footage and seeing the interviews of Holocaust survivors who were all around the age of my Junior high school teachers was–rightfully–like a punch in the gut and made SUCH an impression on me. I stopped treating war like it was a joke instantly.)

      ….kind of an embarrassing story to recollect now, but such is penance…I guess.

  2. scott bowman says:

    Good post. Personally I havent any real ‘issues’ in terms of ethics in wargaming, although I havent found any interest in gaming anything nearer in history than WWII, with Flames fo War, and I guess the ruleset could easily cover the Korean war if you so chose, and obviously now also covers Vietnam… But the more I think about it, not sure I’d be comfortable bringing things closer and say gaming the Falklands…perhaps doesnt seem right somehow???

    Back to your post and pictures, I travelled the area back in summer of ’98 (I think it was) on a motorcycle camping tour of the region. I found it very interesting, incredibly moving and quite profound.

    • imaginarywars says:

      You know, I don’t really have any real issues with the war gaming either…much. I have a friend who took this position, which caught me off guard and then this year on Remembrance Day, I was struck with the feeling that if I’m not playing wargames to cartoonize the violence/suffering/history, I really owed it to myself to use the blog to commemorate that special day. It was only when I was researching some images and quarter-way into writing the post that all the serious introspection (perhaps defensiveness or self doubt?) came into the open for me–which in retrospect, totally caught me off guard; and suddenly I was reevaluating why I war game. Huh.

      I think I was caught off guard because I’ve essentially been immersing myself in war history movies, books, (some) games and documentaries for the better part of my life (since I was in junior high school;so…25+ years now?) and to suddenly be wondering if I’m gaming for the right reason…well, I truly didn’t see that coming.

      As a personal travel goal, I would like to visit some of the war graves sites in Europe. Never mind, honouring those that died for my freedom (being in North America, that’s a hard one to fully buy–the freedom of europe and MANY other places in the world, YES. The freedom of Canada and the USA…ummm while I think there’s undoubtedly some truth in there, it’s a bit of a trickier call, considering the Germans couldn’t even cross the english channel).

      HOWEVER–before I get too side-tracked again–I would very much like to visit, just to pay my respects to BOTH sides’ soldiers and the terrible things they had to endure.

  3. Oliver says:

    That’s a very fine post. I think you have addressed some complicated themes skilfully, and with great respect. I have a great deal of understanding for the gamer who declines to play a historical wargame because it’s too close to reality, to real suffering and loss. I think there is a place, however, for historical wargaming to attempt to recreate some of the aspects of war from history. As you say, no one would ever suggest after playing a historical wargame that “it was the same as being there”. But if the wargame gives an insight you did not have before, makes you think about what happened, and (as you say) empathize with the actual participants in that battle, then I would submit that is a worthy and respectful end in itself.
    +1

    • imaginarywars says:

      Thanks for the reply! I think I play the wargames to facilitate my understanding of how and why things happened on battlefields, and I watch the (better) movies to get a glimpse into what the soldiers went through (which I think Band of Brothers, The Pacific, Stalingrad and the first 30 minutes of Saving Private Ryan all did rather well–at least to my uneducated eyes). That said, the BEST thing I’ve seen that’s helped me understand what the common soldier went through is the classic Word at War documentary series.

  4. […] up for November 11 this year, I’ve decided to take the coward’s way out and link to the older Remembrance Day post where I did just that. I feel i should tackle this topic anew each year …but I always skip […]

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