Of Crusaders and Flashing Blades

It’s sometimes relatively easy to trace at least some of the childhood influences that led to taking up a hobby like wargaming. I was reminded about a couple of mine, recently, when a discussion cropped up in the pub (as it will) about remembering old television programmes.

I don’t know why English television during the late1960s and early 1970s imported so many French series aimed at children, dubbed them badly into English, and then broadcast them during every school holiday, over and over again. I’ll say now that one exception to the bad dubbing,The Magic Roundabout, was blessed with a splendidly surreal narration by Eric Thompson, but that stands out because it really was the exception to a rule.

The same few French (and I may be wrong here, but I am pretty sure they were all French) serials came back again and again. Belle and Sebastian, White Horses, and Robinson Crusoe were all school holiday staples – although the first two were commonly regarded as being “for girls” – to the point that, even now, I can clearly recall their theme tunes and even some of the lyrics that accompanied those tunes. This is not necessarily a good thing.

There were two other French serials that really stood out for me, though, and which I loved, and could watch however often they were broadcast – which, in the case of the second one, was I believe only once.

The Flashing Blade was a historical adventure set during a war between France and Spain in 1530. With the French-held fortress of Casal besieged by Spanish forces, the Chevalier Recci and his faithful servant, Guillot, set out to fetch help for the beleaguered French garrison, their adventures stretching across twelve episodes. Actually, thirteen episodes, as for some reason the last of them was never shown on British television.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z-ZEDNkZ2L4

That wasn’t the only issue. At the time, of course, I had no idea that The Flashing Blade was set during the Second Mantuan War (1528-30), or that the Siege of Casal was a real historical event. Therefore it slipped my notice that while the story was set during 1530, the real-life Casal had been relieved from the Spanish siege in 1529. But I’m sure that, even if I had known, such historical inaccuracy wouldn’t have spoiled my enjoyment at the time. After all, how many children’s television programmes have landsknechts appearing in them?

Another French series that popped up on our television, and that I think had an influence on my evolution into becoming a wargamer, was Thibaud ou les Croisades, or in its slightly more prosaic dubbed-into-English form, Desert Crusader. As far as I know, this was only broadcast once, unlike those recycled holiday shows. Perhaps that has made it seem all the more precious in my memory, a dash of colourful mediaeval romanticism sandwiched between the other post-schoolday teatime children’s television shows like Blue Peter and The Doubledeckers, which seemed to me rather grey programmes in a grey world.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q22FxOdEYLc

I am reaching back through the haze of memory to write this, so I may be wrong, but as I recall the eponymous Thibaud was half-Saracen, which suggests there may have been some wider liberal message about race and religion, though frankly at the age of around twelve (I think) I was too taken with the aforementioned colourful mediaeval romanticism to notice.

It set my imagination afire, anyway. For some time, a lot of my games after watching Desert Crusader centred on the Airfix model of Fort Sahara, with a mix of Airfix plastic miniatures that could vaguely represent (to me, at the time, at least) the period of the Third Crusade; the Sheriff of Nottingham, Robin Hood, and Arabs sets. It so happened that the Arabs contained one figure that I always thought particularly looked like Thibaud himself, in his flowing white robes, and that’s the role it took in my games. In more recent times I re-acquired an Airfix Fort Sahara playset, including sprues of Foreign Legion and Arab miniatures, and was genuinely cheered to find that same “Thibaud” figure still included, even if he is now cast in orange rather than in his original white plastic form. 

Fort Sahara basic

I’m pretty sure that both programmes could even now provide inspiration for wargaming. The Flashing Blade is available on a DVD (and yes, I do own a copy) that even includes the “missing” thirteenth episode. Sadly, I can’t find an English-language version of Desert Crusader, although all the episodes appear to be available on YouTube in the original, undubbed, French and under the original French title. I just wish my grasp of the French language was good enough to follow it!

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Down among the modelmakers

A couple of Saturdays ago I paid a visit to the Royal Engineers Museum in Brompton, enticed there by news of an exhibition of automata (rather off-topic for this blog, but something that fascinates me), and a modelmakers’ show.

I was a little pressed for time on the day, so I didn’t really look much at the general museum displays – I’ll have to go again to do that.  Which will be made easier by the entrance ticket being turned into an annual pass through the simple trick of gift-aiding it.  Nice idea.  So, anyway, I had a quick dash through the various galleries to get where I needed to be, checked out the automata (and yes, I played with all of them),  then found the modelling show.

I have mixed feelings about modelling shows in general.  On the one hand, I admire the skill that goes into creating such miniature masterpieces.  Don’t be fooled into thinking that it’s a simple matter of gluing a few bits of plastic together.  These people are really, really good at what they do.  On the other hand, that leaves me feeling a bit of a failure when I compare what they are capable of with what I can manage in terms of modelmaking.  As usual, I came away from this show with the distinct impression that I definitely need to up my game, so to speak.

I wandered around the tables for about half an hour, even admiring the model cars (definitely not my thing, but…), and managed not to buy anything from the handful of trade stands present.

Then, tucked away in a corner of the hall, I found the wargamers.  Just the one game, a WW2 Eastern Front scenario being run by a few members of Medway Wargames Society.  It was well done, was modelled skilfully enough to avoid any sniffy remarks (I would hope) from the modelmakers, and MWS seem a friendly bunch.  Apparently they were planning to play an Ancients game on the Sunday.  Keeping things varied, there!

A few photos, here, of the WW2 game in progress…

The gods intervene

I’ve had a prolonged absence from much practical gaming activity – and hence from this blog – for several weeks due to work and family commitments. But I have still been trawling charity shops, and doing a little rule writing and planning, so things have not been entirely stationary. And I’m back, in any case.

Best secondhand find of the past month has to be these two old boardgames, both fondly remembered from playing them in the early 1970s – Buccaneer and 4000AD.Buccaneer

Weird thing. It’s been in my mind for a while that I’d like to track down these two. I’ve checked Ebay from time to time to look at copies, and pondered putting in a bid on a couple of occasions. When I found these copies, they were next to one another on the same shelf; almost as though they’d been put there for me to find! Maybe I should offer up my thanks to the gaming gods…

A drizzly day at Lunt

The Roman fort at Lunt was quiet, the day we visited. Very quiet. Actually, me and Diane were the only visitors on a damp and drizzly weekday afternoon. Possibly for that reason, the staff were very friendly and eager to chat.

We paid our £3.50 admission charge each, and avoided a spell of rain by walking around the visitor centre, which has been set up in the reconstructed granary store on site. To a large extent, this has been set up to accomodate groups of children, which is fair enough as they apparently get a lot of school parties and families turning up. Don’t be put off by that. There’s an array of (reproduced) Roman armour, shields, weapons and other equipment to examine, including a lifesize mannequin of an auxiliary cavalryman mounted on a lifesize mannequin horse.

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What is that instrument called?  And what does it sound like?

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There’s a good reason for having him there. The thinking is that Lunt, during the latter part of the 1st century BCE, served as headquarters for the cavalry element of a cohors quingenaria equitata (a mixed unit of foot and mounted auxiliary troops). The strong evidence for this is the finding, at Lunt, of a gyrus – a circular paddock in which horses could be trained. We were told that only one other gyrus has so far been found as part of a Roman fort in Europe.

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The gyrus – 34.06m in diameter, apparently.

The gyrus has been rebuilt on site. Inside it, there’s a wooden post set up for training with the gladius. And yes, I did want to have a go at that, but regrettably no wooden training gladius was available…

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Entering the gyrus.
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Inside the gates of the gyrus, with Diane helpfully providing a sense of scale (she’s about 5’8″).

Also reconstructed, there’s one of the fort gates, now serving as entrance to the site, and a small section of the wooden walls. Parts of the walls have seen better days and look as if they’re on the verge of collapse as brambles and other shrubs are pushing them over, but at least you can get some impression of how things must have appeared in Lunt’s heyday.

Other than that, there isn’t much outside the granary store besides foundations and some information boards (oh, and a toilet block, which was appreciated!). If you want to visit, it may be worth keeping an eye on Lunt’s website at http://www.luntromanfort.org/ for one of their events involving re-enactors, talks and workshops, which seem to be held periodically. The site is only opened during school holidays, by the way, which is also something to bear in mind if planning to drop by.

Back in the visitor centre, there’s quite a large diorama showing the fort as it may have appeared when in use. It contains plenty of interest, and staff claimed that every member of the Roman garrison is represented on there somewhere (I can’t verify this, I didn’t count!) but for some reason it’s been taken from its original (and logical) horizontal position and upended onto one edge, so that as an observer you’re given a sort of bird’s eye view. I don’t really know why this has been done. I’d much prefer to see it laid flat and in a space where I could walk around and look at it from various angles, and not be given the impression that the whole thing is liable to fall off the wall at any moment. A couple of miniature Romans have, in fact, fallen off and lie forlornly at the bottom of the glass case. As a side note, I’m pretty sure that the wagons on the diorama are yet another iteration of that Airix ‘Wagon Train’, only this time converted from their Wild West origins into two-wheeled Roman wagons.

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The diorama.  Notice the irregular shape of the boundary, unusual for a Roman fort.

Nearby, there’s a full sized and functional scorpio, a Roman bolt-shooting engine. Quite impressive it is, too. While we were stood looking at it, one of the two women on duty wandered over to join us. I made some comment about it being a shame the scorpio was festooned with DO NOT TOUCH notices, as I’ve always wanted to shoot a bolt from one.

“The thing is”, said the woman sadly, “we’re not allowed to do that anymore”.

“How come?”

“We did use it to actually shoot a bolt, once”, she said, “but missed the target completely. The bolt went flying through the open window of a nearby bungalow, passed right through the house, and came out of another open window on the other side. Nobody was hurt, though”, she added hastily.

As we were leaving, I noticed a signpost indicating an Air Museum somewhere down the road nearby, but we didn’t have time to check that out. Maybe we’ll look on another occasion. It stopped raining, too.

Tewkesbury: “such evil lanes”.

There’s been a slight pause in both gaming and blogging, while I’ve been away on a family visit to Leamington Spa. While there, however, I did have opportunities for a few related activities. The obligatory trawl of local charity shops turned up a couple of board games; and I was able to visit both the site of the Battle of Tewkesbury, and the Roman fort at Lunt.

For now, Tewkesbury. As it happens, we’d picked a day of heavy showers, which is probably not ideal for tramping across boggy fields. In fact it was raining so hard when we arrived at the town that we spent our first half hour in Tewkesbury sitting in the car, in the car park, eating sandwiches while the weather took its time to settle down a bit.

Not the most auspicious of beginnings. But the rain eventually cleared, and we walked into town along Gloucester Road, taking our time to check out the heraldic banners – belonging to various noblemen who fought at the Battle of Tewkesbury – festooning the houses along the route and, in fact, pretty much every building in the town centre. The banners are apparently a regular feature over the summer months, organised by the Tewkesbury Battlefield Society (a fine example of what such a local society can bring to a town) and you can read a little more about them at http://tewkesbury.org.uk/projects/.  Actually, not all necessarily belonged to noblemen.  We did notice the banner of the memorably-named Doctor Mackerel, who apparently was among those Lancastrians captured after their defeat, but whose lives were spared.

At this point, to save me repeating (and probably not so well) an account of the battle that has been written over and over elsewhere, here’s a handy link to a brief description of what actually happened in 1471:  http://www.battlefieldsofbritain.co.uk/battle_tewkesbury_1471.html

A quick visit to the Tourist Information Centre, then we located the Tewkesbury Museum. Which is tiny, and really is like a local museum for local people, the kind that is generally staffed by friendly if eccentric volunteers, and is irredeemably disorganised. The point of interest here, for anyone exploring the 1471 battle, is a large diorama that was built in 1971 to mark the 500th anniversary. Given its date of construction, it’s hardly surprising that this is populated with Airfix plastic figures from the same venerable ‘Sheriff of Nottingham’ and ‘Robin Hood’ sets that supplied most wargamers’ mediaeval armies at the time, along with a few wagons that I recognised from the Airfix ‘Wagon Train’ turned onto their sides as a makeshift barricade on the left of the Lancastrian line.

Diorama 1
The Lancastrian army is on the left, here, with the Yorkists advancing from the right.
Diorama 2
Yorkist horse charge down from their hiding place on the wooded hill, to attack the Lancastrian right flank.
Diorama 3
View (albeit a blurry one) from behind the Yorkist centre.  The building in the background is Gupshill Manor – the queue for the bar must have been long, that day…
Diorama 4
Yorkists on the left, Lancastrians on the right.  The River Swilgate is in the foreground.

I don’t mean to sound dismissive. As it happens, I think the diorama is quite well done, and rather evocative. And luckily it’s avoided the sort of dire fate that notoriously befell the 1966 diorama of the Battle of Hastings once Hastings Council laid hands on that…*

On, at last, to the battlefield itself. There’s an official Battle Trail very helpfully signposted from the centre of Tewkesbury. Wait, did I just type “helpfully”? Let me put it this way. If the idea is to confuse would-be battlefield walkers, this has been successfully achieved. One end of the trail is indicated, but not the other. The path, once you’ve gone across the Gaston Field (now playing fields) behind the abbey and climbed the hill, comes to a fork where there is no signpost to indicate whether it continues down a narrow and overgrown pathway skirting the cemetery, through the cemetery itself, or through the housing estate (for the record, it turned out to be the alleyway). Emerging back onto the main Gloucester Road, it then takes you back towards the town, avoiding what would have been a very welcome break at Gupshill Manor, which was a feature on the 1471 battlefield – it’s that half-timbered building on the diorama – and is now a pub, perversely left off the Battle Trail by several hundred yards. My recommendation, for anyone trying this walk, is to turn left on the Gloucester Road at this point and head to the Gupshill Manor for a drink or two before going any further!

Gaston Field 1
A view across the Gaston Field towards Tewkesbury Abbey.
Gaston Field 2
As above.  The monument to the left memorialises the battle.
Gaston Field 3
These information boards have been placed at a few points along the route of the Battle Trail.

Back towards the town, past the Aldi supermarket, the Trail cuts to the left across another open field to Bloody Meadow. At this point, we were both in need of refreshments, and were a bit put off in any case by the gathering of fresh rain clouds and the idea of wallowing through the mud, so instead of following the route any further we just kept on walking back into town and to a debriefing session at the Berkeley Arms. Where the discovery of a very nice rum-infused ale called Swordfish, and the pub’s handy 2-pint-takeout service, did help to compensate for any disappointments along the walk.

To Bloody Meadow
Bloody meadow is over there, across this field…

In summary, then, not the most successful expedition that we’ve ever set out upon. But it has at least served to rekindle my interest in the Wars of the Roses. And the book of British battlefield walks has subsequently been taken down from its place gathering dust on my bookshelves.

Note on the title: The phrase, “such evil lanes”, is a quote from a contemporary description of the battle and the ground over which it was fought.  Modern Tewkesbury seems quite a pleasant little town.

Note on the *: In case anyone doesn’t already know the story, apparently (as it was told to me) Tony Bath was commissioned to build a diorama representing the Battle of Hastings, to commemorate the 900th anniversary.  He built a proper reconstruction of the battle using large numbers of 30mm “flat” figures.  Unfortunately, after a while, Hastings Council chose to rip this apart and replace it with a scene of 14th Century armoured knights galloping around on horseback in front of some gaudily coloured tents.  So much for history.

Campaign chance cards

Given that my existing campaign rules have been in use for several decades, I’ve decided it’s past time that they were revamped. For a start, I’ve taken a look at the system of chance cards. As I mentioned previously, said rules are largely based on Tony Bath’s venerable book, Setting Up a Wargames Campaign, and so inevitably the core of the chance cards are the ones mentioned in that book. However, I’ve been adding to them.

I’ve also decided that I actually need two sets of chance cards – one tactical, for use on the tabletop, the other a strategic set for use at the campaign level. More on the tactical chance cards later, as I’m still working on those. Really, I’m still working on the campaign cards too, but at least I’ve progressed further with those, to the point that I can actually make a set to play with.

The rule for the campaign cards is simple enough – one card to be drawn at the beginning of each campaign month. Dice rolls add some random detail to whatever event transpires, and also decide where and exactly when it does so (I’ve drawn up a chart for that – wargamers are fond of charts – though it’s a roughly sketched one as yet and largely unreadable in my handwriting).

Anyway, here’s a list of the campaign chance cards as they stand right now.

Border raids.

Coastal raids.

Migration/refugee crisis.

Minstrel spreading tales.

Bandit attacks.

Disaster at sea.

Flooding.

Earthquake.

Plague.

Drought.

Heavy rains.

Peasant revolt.

Urban riots.

Mutiny.

Storms.

Bumper crops.

Religious revelation.

Crop damage.

Efficiency in the treasury.

Corruption.

Discovery of new resource.

Treachery in high places.

Forest fire.

Sex scandal.

Assassination.

Sudden unexpected death.

Religious riots.

Enemy spies uncovered.

Fraudulent quartermaster.

Intelligence network success.

King Vajnayar’s dream

“I saw two great golden serpents that rose up before me, and between them stood Utila the Many-Breasted. She drew me into Her embrace, and then She carried me up into the sky.

As we flew high above the sacred earth of Uttara, She gestured towards the blue expanse of Gargolis Bay, and She said to me, ‘The waters of the bay belong to Uttara, for all time, from the eastern cliffs to the western marshes, from the river’s mouth to the open sea. All belongs to Uttara and to the Kings of Uttara, as does all the land around, by my gift and thus by divine right’.

Then a ray of golden light struck from behind me and, piercing my heart, shone forth from there to cast itself like a spear against the walls of Marash.

And thus I awoke, radiant with the promise and the duty laid upon me by Utila the Many-Breasted, Herself”.

Recorded by the King’s own hand, on the 2nd day in the Month of the Boar, the year 335.