Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Battle of the Somme 1916

To help year 9 at my school with their history lessons, I offered to put
on a wargame of the first day of the Battle of the Somme. I already had
some polystyrene hexagonal tiles which I made myself a few years ago
back in England. I decided to add trench sides to the slopes and after 2
 or 3 weeks of gluing and painting , I came up with a passable trench
system that could be changed into numerous variations. Like the English
Civil War game I did for year 8 over a month ago, I would have to work
out a rules system that 23 pupils would be able to activily participate
and be interested in, for an hour and a half.

The Finished table before the game begins.
  16 pupils were asked to put themselves into 4 groups. Each group became a British Company and each pupil was an officer in charge of a platoon, each platoon had four bases. All these were clearly labelled and colour coded so we were able to identify whose unit was whose in the heat of the battle. There were also four platoons of German infantry that were starting in their dugouts. Two pupils were picked to be the British and German commanders they were in charge of their artillery fire and helping out in rallying supressed sections.
Potter's Pals C and D Company advancing slowly across no mans land.

    I based the British Battalion on a Pals Battalion, originally I was going to use the Accrington Pals, but I couldn`t find all the information I needed about them on the internet and so I chose to do a fictious Battalion based on my home town of Stoke-on-Trent. Each pupil had a identifying card hung around their neck with an officers name and which platoon and company they belonged to. For  the officers names I used Stoke City Football Players surnames.

The all girl German team breathe a collective sigh of relief as the British Artillery fails to block their Dugouts.  

The game started with the British artillery barrage, the British commander threw for each German dugout to see if any were blocked. Unfortunately for his battalion he needed to throw sixes and he threw well below.

The whole of the British line advances into no mans land.

Next was the dice off between the British and German Commanders to see who had the initiative. The Germans won and so this meant that the British artillery in this area finished firing 5 minutes before zero hour. The Potter's Pals waited as orders stated until Zero hour, whilst the Germans were rushing out of their dugouts to man the machine gun posts.

The centre Companies move slowly forward

The Off board German Artillery began to fire. This was worked out by the German Commander throwing six twelve sided dice in one go. There was twelve numbered craters spread evenly apart in no mans land. The commander shouted out the numbers and I placed two smoke markers in each of the corresponding hexes. Then the commander threw a eight sided dice to see if it landed in the actual hex or an adjacent hex. The pupils really enjoyed this part of the game, with cheers or howls of anguish depending where the shells landed. Finally if a platoon's hex was underfire. Four six sided dice (colour coded for each different section) were thrown to see if the were unharmed, Supressed or Destroyed.

A close up of the empty trenches.
   When the German machine gunners reached their machine gun posts, the British Commander threw one six sided die again to see if the posts were destroyed and unusable. Once again he failed to get the required number. At the end of each turn there was a rally phase where the platoon commanders with supressed sections can throw to see if they could remove their supress markers so they could advance again. If the Company or battalion commander was in the same hex, there was more chance of success.

Birdseye view of the action as the British begin to reach the barbed wire.

At the start of a new turn after artillery fire, there was small arms fire. The British weren't allowed to fire until they passed over the wire and got into close range. The Germans were able to fire if in a machine gun post basically at any hexes to their front. Other units or machine guns not in a machine gun post can only fire at a hex directly in front. All sections and officers in a hex were diced for to see if they were hit in the same procedure as artillery fire. A heavy machine gun could either fire at three hexes or three times at one hex. A light machine gun could fire at two hexes or twice at one hex. Any other section could only fire at one hex.

The British Commander looks on whilst some of his platoons attempt to rally.

     About six platoons have reached the barbed wire so the British commander throws again to see if the artillery has blown away the obstruction. In two places the wire is breached, in the other hexes the platoon commanders have to throw for each section attempting to cross. If they are successful they  cross into the adjacent hex, if they fail they are stuck on the wire and must throw again  next turn.

D and C companies finding out who has actually crossed the wire.

 When a section has crossed the wire, they are in close range and so next turn as long as they aren't supressed (Germans always fire first) they can at last fire at the Germans in the trenches.

The British Battalion Commander crosses the wire but is soon killed by the machineguns.

The Rifle-grenade section get a bonus firing into cover and if the British get into close combat then the bomber section has a bonus. However in this actual game nobody  reaches the trenches before the lesson finishes.

D company manages to get a lewis gun section over the wire but is supressed by German fire.

The time flew past and I had a couple of minutes to recap on what had happened and explain about some of the new tactics used by the British to improve their results when attacking in the coming months. The pupils seemed to have enjoyed themselves and hopefully learn't a little history along the way

This was the second attempt at this game the first was with the other year 9 class last Thursday. In that game D company actually captured a machine gun post. However the rules although simple and what I would use normally at home still needed refining to be played as a large participation game. One of the things was I had another status which was classed as pinned (can't move but able to fire). Cutting this status out made the shooting easier and in general faster and more bloody.

Pvt James Hackney

This game is dedicated to my Great Grand Father James Hackney who died in October 1916 at the Battle of the Somme.


  1. Great to see youngsters taking an interest in both the game and history behind it.

    Great work Phil.

    All the best,

  2. That's brilliant - I always love to see wargaming in schools. Never happened in my day (maybe I would have actually done history past the compulsory level if it had).

    The players all look well-behaved and engaged as well.

  3. Nicely done.

    Have to add that I am rather glad you didn't go with the Accrington Pals - my great-uncle was killed at 0730 on 1st July 1916 serving with them...
    CHAPMAN, L/Cpl. William Edward, 27255 1/11th East Lancashire Regiment (Accrington Pals), (formerly 883 10th Bn., East Yorks. Regt. and 10075 Army Cycl. Corps); b. South Newington, Hull; k.i.a. 1st July 1916; comm. Thiepval Memorial. [2, 4, 111]

  4. Thanks for the comments, yes Tony even though the Somme will be having its 100th anniversary in a few years time, it still personally remembered by thousands of people who have lost someone during the war and this was also one of the reasons I went with the ficticous Pals Battalion.