Tabletop Generals – Daily Herald article, March 21, 1961
A group of men who take toy soldiers seriously prepare for a council of war – article written by Jon Akass.
Refighting a war with hindsight often plays tricks with history. Donald Featherstone recreates a battle in the American Civil War.
Mr Donald Featherstone sent his cavalry charging towards me over the creek. I was pinned down, doomed.
“This,” I said, “seems a good time to surrender.”
“I see what you mean,” says Mr Featherstone, “but it goes to prove, doesn’t it, that you are not half as good a general as Stonewall Jackson.”
It did, too. For the battle we are fighting was one of the most elegant set-pieces of the American Civil War – the Shenandoah Valley in 1862, in which Jackson pinned down a Federal army which out-numbered him three-to-one.
With me in command, this classic encounter had turned into a dog’s breakfast.
Playing with toy soldiers is a very complex business. Mr Featherstone himself says it is like playing chess with a thousand pieces – and Mr. Featherstone does not exaggerate.
There are only about 20 wargame enthusiasts in the country and next month about half of them will attend a council of war at Mr Featherstone’s home in Southampton, another ten or so will come from abroad, one from Aden, another from Chicago.
[Man of TIN Note: the one from Aden must be Carl Reavley].
The basic rules for the British school of war games are usually taken from a book written, astonishingly, by H.G. Wells.
This is called “Little Wars” and involves actual little guns which fire actual little shells knock actual little soldiers flat on their backs.
“We have dispensed with the guns,” said Mr Featherstone, “because we now go to a lot of time and trouble to get the soldiers and uniforms exactly right.”
“We don’t want to knock them about all the time.”
Mr Featherstone, a rosily-fit physiotherapist of 42 was a sergeant in the Tank Corps, during the last war, serving in North Africa and Italy.
Modern wars, though, bore him. His speciality is the period 1861 to 1890.
“This was the last time colours were carried into battle and the troops wore elaborate uniforms. Modern war is too messy and the fire-power is too great to make a game interesting.”
He makes his own soldiers, mostly out of lead, moulded in plasticine and baked in a gas cooker. In the three and a half years since he took up the wargame he has collected 7000 soldiers ranging from Spartans to commandos.
A battle often last longer than a test match – and an entire war can linger on for years.
Playing against a Southampton accountant, Mr. Featherstone fought every ditch of the American Civil war over two years. This ended with the Federal troops screaming for mercy outside Washington.
“We sometimes get results like that because we can avoid the mistakes made by the losing side. The Indian Mutimy, for instance, always ends up with the total defeat of the British. We try to be as realistic as possible, but there are limits.”
Mr Featherstones’ version of the war games works like this.
The two opposing generals work out their first manoeuvres on maps, each trying to outwit the other, until they area ready to do battle. This usually happens at the same place as the original life-size battle.
They then go upstairs where Mr Featherstone has a table laid out with wet sand. The terrain is moulded and painted and a screen put across the middle so that the generals can deploy their forces in secrecy.
The screen is taken away and … bang. Well not quite bang. A wargame, like chess, moves very slowly and the contestants are lucky if they get through five moves in an evening.
Everything is taken into account. If a general loses two battles in a row he is deposed and the morale of his army goes down appropriately.
Troops moving across rough country are put at a disadvantage and special account is taken of things like fatigue, disease, fear and panic.
Incalculable factors like accuracy of aim, alertness, courage and so forth is taken care of by the dice.
“At first I was dissatisfied with the dice,” said Mr. Featherstone. “It seemed unrealistic. Sometimes you have a run of bad luck, throwing low numbers all evening.”
“But then, as I studied the subject, I realised that this made for more realism, not less. Even the greatest generals had days when everything went wrong. Many battles have been won through sheer good luck.”
A special refinement of Mr. Featherstone’s game is that tactics employed in a later war cannot be used in an earlier one.
“If you are fighting the Marlborough campaigns, you can’t use the tactics of the Napoleonic Wars,” he explained.
This makes an already difficult game totally impossible for the beginner – unless he is prepared to spend months mugging up on military history.
For all that, Mr. Featherstone’s game is simple compared with the variations of other players.
One enthusiast, a brigadier at Sandhurst, starts from scratch. [Man of TIN Note: This suggests Peter Young?] He has invented a completely new world, divided into completely new, peaceful countries.
When these countries quarrel as they must, they have to raise armies in relation to their budgets, industrialise, build munitions factories and engage in frantic diplomatic quests for allies. All this has a direct bearing on the outcome.
The game is conducted by post, many contestants live overseas, and the rules are so fantastically complicated that they baffle even Mr. Featherstone.
Another man, who plays all by himself at Exeter, is a stickler for realism. He specialised in the Russian front of the last war and has now carried the German advance as far as Stalingrad. [Man of TIN note: this must be Lionel Tarr of Bristol].
Americans have already adopted the war game for domestic use. For around £3 you can buy the “Gettysburg” kit, which comes complete with original mapboard and markers for the actual units used at this crucial stage of the American Civil War.
Individual soldiers are not used and the units can only be bought in at the time and place they really appeared. Opposing generals tick off their moves on the time-sheet divided into hours. At night a unit’s movements are restricted.
Advertisements for this “adult game” in sophisticated magazines like The New Yorker stress that “the South can win.”
It is all good clean fun and it goes to show jolly war can be. For generals.
Tabletop Generals – Daily Herald article by Jon Akass, March 21, 1961
Transcribed from the British Newspaper Archive by Mark at the Man of TIN blog. The Daily Herald ran from 1912 to 1964. The writer on the Daily Herald was Jon Akass (1933-1990) https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Akass
I found this a fascinating account of Don Featherstone’s early battles, admittedly at second hand through the eyes and lively pen of a Fleet Street journalist like Jon Akass.
This article was written the year before War Games was published in May 1962. Written in March 1961, when there were “only about 20 wargame enthusiasts in the country,” the next month in April 1961 appears to have been the date of the proposed War Games conference in Don’s house. Pictures of his event can be seen here at http://www.tabletoptalk.com/?p=709
Some of the names of people are left out in the article such as the Southampton Accountant as Don’s early contestant, who must be Tony Bath, featured or mentioned in War Games 1962.
Blogposted by Mark, Man of TIN blog, 1st December 2017.