A discursive look at Napoleonic & ECW wargaming, plus a load of old Hooptedoodle on this & that

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Bordering on Command

This is a figure I've had lying around, undercoated, for years. Enthusiasts may recognise another vintage Alberken/Minifigs20mm OPC commander - this one starting life as the casting for Lt.Gen "Daddy" Hill. I have now painted him up as a senior field officer of the Royal Artillery. One issue I had with the casting was that there is a very prominent shoulder belt, over the LEFT shoulder - for which I could find no use. Given this fellow's map (no, it's not a towel), and the artillery role I've given him, the rogue shoulder belt became a leather strap for his map case. Of course, I hear you say. What else could it be?

I'll come back to this figure in a while - for the moment, observe that his base has a black border.

I've been asked a few times in the past, what is the significance of the coloured borders around the edges of the bases of the senior officers in my armies? Primarily, it makes them easy to spot, but occasionally I myself have questioned this system - house rules can sometimes live on as tradition long after the original reasoning is lost. For my ECW armies, for example, I dropped the coloured borders; I don't think I will, but just occasionally I have wondered if it might be a good idea to retrofit them, after all.

It all dates back to 1970-something, when I was using Don Featherstone's rules (gradually replaced by Charlie Wesencraft, then - later - by the WRG, which was the beginning of a period which I refer to vaguely as The Disillusionment...). In these rules, a simple morale test made use of whether a unit still had its officer present - fellow veterans and game historians will probably be able to identify just which rules these might have been. To help with this rule, I made sure that all unit officers were based on their own, and - to make it easier to spot them in moments of crisis - I painted a dark green rim around the edge of the base. This worked pretty well. I extended this to brown for brigade commanders, white for division commanders and yellow ochre (?) for army commanders. Yellow ochre? - well, the original idea was that I should use vaguely earth-type colours, which would not be too offensive against the house pea-soup green bases and tabletop.

Yes - I know, I know. The pea-soup is already something of an affront to the visual side of things, so picking colours which blended with it seems odd. It's OK - you just mutter the words "Old School" under your breath, and everything is fine. In fact, if I work at it, I can even dredge up a little genial ridicule of other people's armies, where the soldiers carefully drag a lovingly-prepared hearthrug of flock and cat-litter around with them - even along roads and into rivers. I am, of course, jesting. The point is, it's OK.

In a spasm of commonsense, I eventually replaced the unimpressive yellow ochre with a distinctive colour for the army, so that the Anglo-Portuguese army had a red border for its commander, the French blue, and - later - the Spanish had yellow. Yes - all right - yellow isn't great for Spain, but it isn't red or blue and it hadn't already been given a reserved meaning.

Righto. Time passed (that was the easy bit) and I was no longer using regimental officers for this morale rule - though it's always tempting to retain the coding system just in case I wish to use it again in the future. The result was that, long after it had ceased to have any significance, I was still devoutly painting up my units with dark green borders around the regimental officers. A major rebasing project eventually put a stop to that for the infantry and artillery - all command figures are now just glued onto a multiple base, with some of their subordinates, and no bordering colour is added. My regiments still have some way to go with liberté and fraternité, but we have at least made a start with egalité.

However, for the cavalry it persists. Now I would really be pushed to come up with a sensible justification for it, but any new cavalry units I add still have the officer on his own individual base, bordered in good old dark green. The only reason this still makes any sense at all is that - especially in campaigns - it is a commonplace for cavalry colonels to have to take over a brigade, particularly given the horrifying casualty rates in the cavalry arm in my battles. So, just occasionally, a colonel with a green border has been a useful addition to a battlefield, when acting up as a brigadier. I think that one day I shall probably get rid of the green borders on the cavalry, but I'm currently in that twilight, it's-a-tradition-no-it-isn't phase.

I am now slowly moving onto a Creeping Elegance project to change the basing standard for field officers - division commanders are to have an attached ADC, army commanders to have 2 supporting staff - so this gives me an opportunity to reconsider the coloured borders. I think I'll probably keep them.

Fine. Now, if I go right back to 1970-something, I did have an additional classification of field officers. I was aware that proper historical OOBs would identify an overall commander for the artillery, and maybe for the engineers. Since I wasn't sure whether such a fellow would equate to a brigade or division commander in my army organisation, I took an escape route and came up with a separate border colour - black - for officers of what I grouped as "service arms". Thus all commanders of artillery and engineering get a black rim around the base.

Only problem now is - I've never had one! I was never sure what I would use him for (my crass ignorance of how real armies worked is a major contributor to this), and other types of painting jobs always took priority.

Which - at long last - brings me back to the photo at the beginning of this post - long, long ago. I have painted up the old Alberken Hill figure to represent a senior officer of British artillery. I was going to make him Lt.Col Hoylett Framingham in my Peninsular army, but I find that Framingham was in any case a RHA officer, and was absent after being wounded at Talavera, so I'm still pondering his identity. I intend also to add Alex Dickson (a man from Kelso, as it happens) to look after the siege train and all that - Dickson will be in Portuguese uniform, I think. I should also have a commander of engineering. I think it might be appropriate for him to be on foot, and he will have the earlier (blue) uniform. I still haven't really got a clue how these fellows will be used on the toy battlefield (a puzzle with which some real generals of history might empathise, come to think of it), but here, gentlemen, after only some 40-odd years, is my first field officer with a black border.

I shall now, for shame's sake, dig out SGP Ward's Wellington's Headquarters to remind myself how this stuff worked...

***** Very Late Edit *****

I found some old pics of the Picton and Napoleon Alberken figures mentioned in this post and the comments, so here they are again...

I'm also reminded that, though Napoleon came in an eBay job lot, Picton was very kindly given to me by the Old Metal Detector - apologies for my error - one of wargaming's true gentlemen. Thanks yet again, Clive!

Napoleon playing the part of someone else


  1. These are the kinds of wargaming stories I like best. Nice looking figure too.

    Best Regards,


  2. Excellent post! You had me smiling and nodding in agreement (not necessarily at the same point in your essay) frequently. Fun to get a brief peek behind the curtain of your hobby inner thoughts.

  3. Thanks to you both, Stokes and Jonanathan.

    I had an email from Prof De Vries (the man who will not have a Google account of any type - I bet he's got one somewhere he doesn't even know about...).

    The Professor asks me to enlarge on the lack of a defined role (or my own lack of understanding of such a role) for a commander of artillery. I can best express it thus:

    Imagine the British army in Spain circa 1811 (my usual context). The Portuguese artillery battery of Major Arriaga is attached the British 3rd Division, the command of which has ordered it to support Col. Wallace (commanding one of the constituent brigades) throughout the day. At any given time, this battery may receive orders from Col. Wallace, from the commander of 3rd Divn, from the staff of the army C-in-C, from the senior artillery officer present with 3rd Divn, from the commander of artillery for the whole army, from the senior ranking Portuguese artillery officer present, and probably a number of other luminaries. This is not a comfortable situation - how do they prioritise these chains of command, and how do they resolve any conflicts?

    I must add that I hope to get some answers to this lot from my revision of Ward's book, and I think there is stuff on this in Rory Muir's Salamanca book and the one on battlefield experience. It is not primarily a wargame problem, but it looks like a management nightmare - it may also be a clue to why Wellington was always so dismissive of the efforts of his gunners.

  4. Replies
    1. Me too, but it's not suitable when entertaining royalty. Bad for the ozone layer, too, I'm told.

  5. Another top post, Foy, and I have to say that you are doing an absolutely champion job with these Alberkens. Have you got Uxbridge too?

    1. Nay, lad - never even seen Uxbridge or Eugene in the metal. I have the Picton (serving as Picton in my armies) and Napoleon (who is pretending to be Brother Joe, though the "family resemblance" thing wore a bit thin ages ago, and I am looking for a more suitable figure). I have had a series of Pictons - I started off with a Hinton Hunt in 1970-something, which I replaced with a modern square-ass Minifig in a moment of insanity; that didn't last long - then I had an S-Range Picton for years, but when the Alberken one came up on eBay some years ago I liked him better.

      I have to add that for a while I thought it would be amusing to have Picton dressed in official general's uniform - presumably he wore one occasionally - I could always claim that his Waterloo Outfit was at the cleaners. The joke lasted about 10 seconds - you can see why. Sometimes it's good to remember these low points, to keep a sense of proportion.

    2. Just saw Boney and Picton. I am smitten!