Saturday, 1 December 2012

Setting the Desert on Fire, The Hejaz, 1916....Game Number 25

"El Aurens, truly for some men nothing is written unless they blog it."

It is no secret that I am a great admirer of the life and times of T.E.Lawrence as the section of my library devoted to him and the Arab Revolt/War in the Middle East in WW1 will testify. Over the years I have pondered how best to wargame his exploits and have considered various scales but thus far have never gotten around to gaming it. Well, that is about to change.

I have knocked up (and that really is the best description for the process!) a 3" square grid on a spare piece of 3ft by 2ft hardboard I had lying around and so the following will be the first action to be fought on the new desert playing surface. I thought long and hard about what should feature as the first action on this board as I have a lot of ideas for desert-type battles (which will feature on the blog in due course). In the end though, Lawrence prevailed.


The early part of the Arab Revolt saw many of the various Bedu tribes fighting against the Turks with rather mixed degrees of success. With the help of the Royal Navy though, the Turkish Red Sea naval forces were defeated and the various small ports and harbours were secured one by one by a combination of land and sea attacks. The Turks attempted to rectify this situation and so forces were sent off in support of the garrisons, only to have their routes barred by marauding tribesmen. Sometimes these were easily driven off, other times fierce running battles ensued with Turkish material superiority eventually tipping the balance in the Ottoman's favour. Eventually the Turks fell back on Medina (in fact they stayed there until after the armistice) citing logistical difficulties as being the main problem as their attempts to bring the rebellious tribesmen under control only extended as far as the reach of the Turkish guns for the Bedu were seemingly able appear or disappear at will.

The tribal Arabs were usually unable to stand up to the Turkish regulars in the field and so once British and French specialists began to arrive and make their presence felt so the tribesmen were able to make more headway. Machine guns and artillery were to play their part in the fullness of time but in the early days of the revolt all that was available was the natural fighting skills of the Bedu, a smattering of allied intelligence and gold and a handful of seconded officers - including Lt. T.E. Lawrence.

The Scenario

The following action is loosely based on the early period of the Revolt, when the Turks were able to use 'flying columns' of regulars - often supported by allied tribesmen - in an attempt to crush the rebellion or to ensure that the Red Sea remained open.

In order to fight this action I am using Bob Cordery's Big Battle Portable Wargame 19th Century rules on the aforementioned 12 x 8 squared grid. As is usual I shall be making use of my own 'tweaks' in that I shall be using a set command point level for unit activations with a random element rolled for each turn. Similarly, any artillery fire costs a command point but is conducted both simultaneously and before each side carries out their normal activations.


1 x Commander (1)
4 x Infantry (4)
1 x Machine Gun (2)
1 x Cavalry (3)
1 x Artillery (2)
4 x Baggage Train (1)

28 Strength Points - Exhaustion Level 9


1 x Commander (1) - Emir Faisal, accompanied by Sherif Ali and Lt. T.E.Lawrence
6 x Infantry (3)
2 x Cavalry (3)
1 x Machine Gun (1)

26 Strength Points - Exhaustion Level 9

Note: Both sides have 4 command points with the usual d6 roll to potentially modify the total. All troops are rated as average except the Arabs are rated as poor when under artillery or machine gun fire. They are also rated as elite in close combat until they have taken a casualty. Arabs always follow up as the result of a successful close combat and will always retreat rather than take a casualty. The idea behind these rules is to simulate the brittleness of the Bedu when faced with modern weaponry and the ferociousness of their attacks when things are going their way. Arabs must also attack in close combat the enemy baggage train at every opportunity.

Somewhere in the Hejaz, near the Wadi Yemean 1916....

The heat was truly appalling. The brass-laden sun bore down on the small body of Bedu tribesmen like a molten weight; scorching the flesh and searing the soul. Truly this was life in death, mused Lawrence as his mind wandered feebly back to a conversation in Cairo some weeks beforehand. Much has happened since that fateful day, when the man of letters became a man of war and the tool of an uncertain destiny. Again, Lawrence allowed his mind to wander. There was no sound to challenge the monopoly of the senses that the heat held; no sound save the creak of the camel saddlery, the occasional bray of an agitated ship of the desert or the jingling of metal - for these men were at war and so even their silence was martial in its bearing.

There numbers were small enough for mobility but large enough to protect themselves should the need arise. That need would be soon as the Turks were their prey and known to be in the vicinity. It was a struggle, not just fighting the Turks but fighting the hostile terrain (at least hostile was how Lawrence viewed it - not that he would ever admit to the fact) and fighting to keep the various tribes from spilling their own blood rather than that of their common enemy. Emir Faisal had worked a small miracle in uniting most of the tribes for most of the time and as long as the gold did not run out then they were in with a chance of a victory of sorts.

The column was passing a long and low series of ridges and Lawrence was relieved that they would soon be halting for a rest from the glare of the sun. Suddenly, a commotion broke out at the head of the caravan. Lawrence shook off his heat induced lethargy and urged his mount onward with a sharp crack of his whip and a loud 'Hut, hut, hut!' Something was happening and he desperately wanted to know what it was. When he arrived at the head of the column Emir Faisal was deep in conversation with Sherif Ali and a small gathering of sweating and obviously travel worn riders. Lawrence did not recognise them and, as was his custom, waited patiently to be spoken to. Emir Faisal turned away from Sherif Ali and faced the small, dusty and travel weary Englishman. "Ah Lt. Lawrence, it seems that our prayer that there be Turks nearer to us than Damascus has been answered. Over the other side of these hills a small body of Turks has been reported, no doubt attempting to reach the coast. Alas, they will not reach it, for I given orders for them to be taken." Lawrence could see an unusual longing in the face of Faisal, a longing that he was struggling to control; a longing to spill the blood of his enemies at last. Inwardly, Lawrence was both thrilled and repelled at the prospect of action. "They may have the guns, and modern explosives but they do not have the will for a close fight" Faisall's voice was strained as memories of the slaughter before the walls of Medina under Turkish artillery fire washed over him. He stared, unblinking, at a distant and unseen horizon, his thoughts his own. An angrily braying camel disturbed his reverie and so he shook his head to clear his thoughts and to focus on the task in hand. He straightened himself fully, his control and composure regained. He then allowed himself the luxury of a grim half smile. "Come Lt. Lawrence, come and see how the Bedu fight, and how they have always fought!' The words were quietly spoken with no bombast or bravado - just with a determined clarity of purpose. For that reason and despite the energy-sapping heat, Lawrence suddenly felt the familiar chill of fear coursing through his veins.

The initial dispositions. The Arabs are lurking along the other side of the series of ridges - Emir Faisal is in the centre with his captured machine gun. Lt. T.E. Lawrence is no doubt staring enigmatically into the middle distance....

Faisal's plan is allow the Turks to reach the head of the ridge and then overwhelm them along their exposed flank.

The Turks deploy in a loose square formation with the cavalry scouting ahead.

Turn 1. With no great urgency the Turks plod on with the cavalry in the van. The Arabs, sit tight.

Turn 2. The Turks continue on with their artillery battery crossing the top of a small hill and the machine guns advancing in support. The Arabs, sit tight.

Turn 3. The Turkish formation closes up whilst their commander joins the artillery on the hill to survey the area. The Arabs, sit tight.

Turn 4. Still the Turks push on, trying all the while to keep the formation as compact as possible. The Arabs, sit tight.

Turn 5. At last the Turkish infantry have cleared the small hill so their formation can realign itself. The commander and the artillery prepare to move off whilst the baggage train closes up. The Arabs, sit tight.

Turn 6. Contact! The Turkish cavalry spies a motley collection of assorted Arabs, armed to the teeth and meaning business!

Turn 7. With a blood-curdling cry the Arab cavalry charge headlong into the surprised Turks. The ensuing melee is evenly contested but Arab infantry are on hand in support but taking casualties from Turkish long range Mauser fire.

Turn 8. The Arab cavalry succumbs to their opposite number and are given the coup de grace from the supporting Turkish infantry. Without a moment to lose though, the Arab foot soldiers charge in, wielding razor sharp scimitars and hurling insults at the startled Turks. Meanwhile, the entire ridge line erupts with the sound of rifle fire and demonic yells as the Arabs pour over the crest!

Turn 9. The central Turkish infantry, supported by machine guns and artillery manages to hold its own as the first Arab charges are beaten off. The remaining Turkish cavalry unit is hard-pressed at the foot of a hill facing both cavalry and infantry. Desperately it manages to hang on!

Turn 10. The Arab cavalry on the hill manages to lose its fight with the beleaguered Turkish horsemen below them and then gets  hammered by the Ottoman artillery. Meanwhile the Turkish force falls back to dress their ranks and reform.

Turn 11. The two units of Arab infantry on the hills charge into the Turks in the centre but the heart has gone out of their fight. They inflict some casualties but the Ottoman's mutually supporting and flanking rifle fire proves to be too much and so they break off the action.

The final score - Arabs 9, Turks 6 so a Turkish victory of sorts.

Emir Faisal was aghast at the casualties he had suffered; grief-stricken at the loss of so many good men and raging with impotence at the apparent ease with which the Turks had defeated him. The Turks would not follow but clearly they would have to be fought in a different way as they could not match those dreadful guns and modern rifles. Yenbo, they must fall back to Yenbo, to reorganise and, with the help of the British, reequip. Defeat was a bitter pill to swallow.

Lawrence was mortified by what he had seen. Men cut down with almost casual indifference, men horribly wounded and for what? The Bedu must fight as they know how because at this point in time they would lose if they continued to try to fight as the Turk. Small groups of men, raiding, striking out of nowhere and disappearing as quickly as they came. This was the way the Bedu fought - not with artillery, machine guns and generals and discipline; this was the way the Bedu must fight, with stealth and ferocity. With this idea burning brightly in his mind, Lawrence sought the Emir.


Loved it, loved it, loved it! I even had the soundtrack to Lawrence of Arabia playing in the background. Seriously though, the game ran very well indeed and was remarkable in one respect - during the entire action the Turks only won the initiative on one game turn! Despite the differences in the final score the Turks would certainly have much to consider. They had lost a quarter of their strength so in real terms had only just managed to hang on. The baggage was safe but with the cavalry ruined and a quarter of the infantry down any further advance would be fraught with peril.

In many respects this felt like a Colonial action and so the only thing I would like to do would be to think a little deeper as to how best to game using irregulars.

It was great fun and that is what it is all about.


Robert (Bob) Cordery said...


Wow! I was wrong about the location, but not about the fact that it would be a great battle report!

I will interested to see how you decide to deal with Irregulars. They should be more 'fragile' than Regulars in Fire Combat, but I would be tempted to give them a +1 in Close Combat to compensate for that.

I look forward to reading the next installment!

All the best,


David Crook said...

Hi Bob,

I was really pleased with the whole thing about this - the look, the feel and the rules so it was a win, win, win!

I will give the whole irregular thing some thought in more detail although changing the hit resolution to suit the tactical situation seemed to work for reaction but it did not seem to tackle the initial 'oomph!' factor that any self-respecting irregular should have in spades!

For me though, the real beauty of all this Portable Wargame stuff is the sheer robustness of it in the face of any amount of tinkering.

Roll on the next installment I say!

All the best,


Kaptain Kobold said...

A great report. This is really a battle report that would have benefited from figures though - camels, desperate tribesmen and modern artillery; it would have looked wonderful :)

Beccas said...

David. What is this game system your playing? I am very interested. Looks good.

David Crook said...

Hi Kaptain,

All of my block based games would benefit from using figures but for my immediate needs the blocks will suffice. I am a notoriously slow figures painter so using such blocks has the big advantage of enabling me to flit up and down the historical time scale with relative ease.

You are right about this particular campaign though, with its mix of the almost medieval and modern troop types.

Ironically I am planning on painting some figures in the not too distant future.

All the best,


David Crook said...

Hi Beccas,

I am using Bob Cordery's Big Battle Portable Wargame 19th century rules with a few home grown tweaks. Check out his blog for details and the rules are available to download.

They are enormous fun to use and I, and others, have had some very entertaining games using them.

Wargaming miscellany is the name of his blog and it is very interesting and inspiring read!

All the best,


Beccas said...

Thanks David. I will check the blog out.

David Crook said...

Hi Beccas,

No problem old chap - you will certainly not be disappointed!

All the best,


Ken said...

Very well written account. I like the idea of blocks as a stopgap (or for doing secondary periods on a budget). There's a blog out there that had good descriptions of "matchstick" figures that made nice 3-D blocks for horse & musket gaming (would work well for pike & shot or ancients, too). I'll try to find it.

David Crook said...

Hi Ken,

Many thanks old chap! As a stopgap the blocks have worked out really well for me although I would like to get 'into' some figures again at some point. My problem is that I am such a s-l-o-w painter!

I would be very interested in the matchstick blog so if you could find it and let me know I would appreciate it very much.

All the best,


littlejohn said...

Nice game and the blocks work great for your purposes...I just got a copy of the Old Columbia games Napoleon block game and it's really a refreshing change to invigorate the gaming table here...

David Crook said...

Hi Littlejohn,

Thank you sir for the kind comments! Using the blocks as I have done has given my entire outlook on our hobby a massive boost as I have been able to indulge in numerous flights of fancy relatively quickly - certainly far sooner than raising the armies using figures!

Napoleon is a truly classic game and is one of my all time favourites. If I ever get around to refighting the 1815 campaign then I will be using the map as the basis for the strategic side.

All the best,