Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Thoughts on gaming in Darkest Africa

I've been reading Lieut-General Sir William Heneker's fascinating work, Bush Warfare when I can find time. Heneker wrote it as a means of passing on the experience he earned in various campaigns in West Africa during the 1890's-early 1900's. It served as the British Army's standard treatise on bush warfare up to 1938, and is full of useful ideas for gamers.

One tactic Heneker mentions being employed previous to his time in the West African theater was that of clearing or covering volleys. The British column commanders were loathe to send troops into the bush to cover the flanks and to scout ahead, for fear they would be cut to pieces by local warriors with superior bush skills.

Essentially, when on a mission, native troops in British service kept to jungle trails, stopping at intervals to line up and fire a full volley into the vegetation ahead in the hope of wrecking any potential native ambush. Often, the native warriors cannily kept well to the sides of the advancing column, from where they were able to fire into the flanks. This ambush tactic was especially effective against the bearers, the logistical tail of the column, who might equal or even exceed the numbers of riflemen.

Incidentaly the natives weapons were referred to as Dane guns, so called for firearms acquired from Danish traders, although other sources sold weapons too.   

Needless to say, covering volleys wasted a lot of ammunition. Heneker records several instances where a force had to turn back before completing a mission due to lack of ammunition, to the extent some soldiers had only a handful of rounds left when they reached base. 

Now, I've come across some rule sets that expressly forbid speculative fire of this nature. It seems to me that any rules set covering West Africa in particular during the 1860's-80's would have to make it compulsory.

Another phenomena of the area lies in the experience gained in the almost interminable bush warfare in West Africa. Native troops were often drawn from the very area the uprisings occurred. When they mustered-out of service, the men went back to their villages. Heneker states that there didn't seem much dissemination of the veterans' military knowledge through their community, which was probably a good thing from the British point of view!

Even so, native tactics changed by Heneker's time. Instead of melting away from in front of an advancing column to ambush it from the flanks, the natives built stockades across the line of march. These palisades were augmented by well-constructed trenches out to the flanks, and a covered line of retreat in case events should turn bad. The stockades had firing loops cut into the timbers, some loops being carved from wood to make a kind of tube. Natural features such as swampy ground were used to add to the defenses. 

Such a barrier, manned by warriors armed with (relatively) modern firearms, made a formidable obstacle. Heneker states the weak explosive shells of the 7-pounder and 75mm guns of the British force proved of only limited use in tackling them, although they served to keep the native force's attention whilst an outflanking party turned the defensive line. Incidentally, does anyone know what type of weapon the 75mm referred to was? Was it a British design, or one obtained from elsewhere?  

British tactics evolved too. The practice of covering volleys fell out of use by the 1890's. Commanders now sent a section out ahead and to either flank of the line of march, the section dividing into parties of two men each, with up to two pairs to either side and the section commander in the center. From this position he was able to give orders through voice alone, the sound carrying to his men but no further, thus avoiding giving warning to the enemy. Maxim guns had come into use, and proved very effective in suppressing fire against palisades.

There's a lot more for me to read from Heneker's work. Even the themes I've managed to cover so far have given me food for thought. Such a heavy use of ammo in a column's advance could lead to it finding itself short of ammunition at a crucial moment. Thankfully, The Too Fat Lardies included the potential shortage of ammo in their Sharp Practice rules. 

With luck and a following wind I'll be able to play out my planned scenario involving the Yabhouti garrison sometime this week. Watch this space...         


Bluebear Jeff said...

Interesting stuff, AJ.

-- Jeff

Pete said...

It seems that the 75mm gun might be this Vickers 75mm: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/QF_2.95_inch_Mountain_Gun and the 7-pdr could perhaps be this fella: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RML_2.5_inch_Mountain_Gun

A J said...

Thanks for the info, Pete. I was under the impression the British army only began rating guns in millimeters just before WW2, so Heneker's mention of the 75mm had me puzzled. It looks like it'll make a nice model for the tabletop, and useful for anything from the 1890's through WW1 to WW2.

Pete said...

Glad I could be of help! I never got taught the Metric or Imperial systems properly back in the day, as 'twas a time of flux, so I peer at systems and calibres occasionally, and make remarks that worry or amuse my mates: "So that's why it's 7.62mm!" :-D On the topic of the 7-pdr, I just saw that Warlord's/Empress's Zulu War range includes just such a gun. I wonder if Heneker was happier with Metric as a result of being Canadian, or simply because he knew the gun's original designation. I forgot to say the other day that this is a grand little article, by the way!

C. said...

I'm in the same boat, Pete. I attended school during the transition, and never did get to grips with metric - nor, to be quite honest - do I want to. I think Canada went metric relatively recently, but Heneker knew his way around the system.

I'll take a look at Warlord/Empress. I hear good things about them.


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