On November 20th 1917, one of the more important turning points in the First World War happened around Cambrai. These new fangled “landships” had their moment to shine tactically, by attacking en masse over favourable ground in a well orchestrated surprise offensive.
Since it is 100 years ago, I thought it a fitting scenario to run as my first AAR with newly released operational wargame The Operational Art of War IV.
Before I start the Mark IV tanks rolling, I thought it would be useful to set the scene for everyone and no one does it better than the Tank Museum at Bovington. Get a flavour for this much revered battle, where the tank proved itself, alongside combined arms from Artillery, Air Power and Infantry support. The video is just over 35 minutes long, but it is well worth the effort, and sets the TOAWIV scenario up in a much better way than I ever could.
The Operational Art of War (TOAW) is a long running stalwart in the computer wargamers arsenal of games spanning nearly two decades! Norm Koger basically designed an engine that was flexible enough to represent battles as tailored operational scenarios from many theatres of war. Matrix released TOAWIII in 2006 and much to everyone’s surprise and excitement have just released TOAWIV on 16th November 2017, 11 years later.
TOAWIV is a hex based chit shuffler that is deceptively simple on the surface, and lulls you into normal IGOUGO patterns of play, but the game has a plethora of complex systems underneath the surface that require some understanding to get the best from your operational actions. If you jump in and start shifting counters about, and running turns like you would almost any other operational wargame, you may find yourself hamstrung action wise, and puzzled why your usual tropes are not working as well.
Apart from the game possessing the fine grain control of a scenario editor and engine that can simulate conflict from Pre-WW1 through WWII and into Modern era warfare, the turn mechanic has a time slice or rounds based system to simulate the passage of time and how combined actions affect one another on the battlefield. This concept is difficult to explain succinctly, but is key to understanding how to play TOAWIV well and is indeed one of the main selling points of the game.
I’m going to attempt to summarise as plainly as I can:
- A player turn is split into 10 rounds (slices of time)
- Any Unit/Formation movements and/or actions can use up a round or more.
- Bringing distant units into an action, or performing multi-unit actions can take up time and thus rounds.
- If you do not execute your movements and offensives cohesively, you’ll “burn” away the rounds.
- As a round (or chunk of rounds) are “burned” when you resolve your actions, your remaining forces are adjusted to reflect that passage of time (a percentage of their movement points are lost to burnt round “time”).
- You need to optimise for the minimum “burn” of your rounds, but the maximum effects of your combat (movement for positioning and attack made and supported).
- The rounds allow you to execute several co-ordinated attacks on different fronts, within the same time frame, but there is a battle-wide cost if you want to perform overreaching actions (such as long distance movements to support, multiple offensive actions by the same unit/formation).
It sounds quite complex, but in reality you can utilise the Attack Planner to check how many rounds are burned given planned actions. In TOAWIII the round indicator was a circle of stars (10 of them) and the “lit” stars would go out as you burned through the rounds. In TOAWIV the rounds are indicated on a much more UI compact bar of 10 yellow pips. The pips greying out as you burned the rounds.
All of your actions in a turn are played out within this 10 round costing structure. And you can keep making actions until you have no rounds left or your troops have exhausted their movement points or actions. Then you end the turn, and the AI (or PBEM player) gets to burn their rounds. You start a fresh turn with 10 new glistening rounds to burn up!
Two videos I found useful in understanding this issue:
And this one, Steve Sill’s video relates to TOAWIII but the concepts he’s explaining are relevant to TOAWIV and I kind of borrowed his words of “burning the rounds” because they seemed to make most sense to me, than the other conflicting terms used around this mechanic (battlefield time stamps, time slices and impulses).
You can certainly dig deeper into this mechanic, and Bob Cross has written an in-depth analysis of it. Worth a read if you’re intrigued by this unique and novel feature. (Pssst Bob Cross created the Cambrai scenario!)
Right with that out of the way, lets get on with the setup of this scenario.
You can see this is a TOAWIII adapted scenario, which is partly the beauty of the TOAW system – your scenario base can be modified to be used within the new engine.
I opt for a Computer German player against me as the British. Who’da thunk it?
The scenario briefing is epic in scale, and is really worth a read, because quite a lot of the scenario is configured to react to events and conditions that happen throughout the course of the battle. This ability for the TOAWIV to follow history with its configuration and not just drop you onto a plain map of the area and let you shuffle some counters around, is one of its finest selling points.
“TO THE GREEN FIELDS BEYOND”
The Battle of Cambrai
Scenario design by Bob Cross
TOAW-3 ver 3.2.29.x
:: Both sides PO programmed ::
Date: November 20, 1917
Location: Northern France
Map scale: 2.5km per hex
Time scale: 1 day turns
Unit scale: Regiments/Brigades
Length: 17 turns
British – Dk Blue on Brown
French – White on Blue
German – White on Gray
In 1917, both sides had begun to falter under the strain of prolonged and bloody war. There was revolution in Russia. Italy’s armies had been defeated at Caporetto. The French Army had mutinied. In the five-month long Third Battle of Ypres the British and Germans bled each other white.
The British had the one weapon that had the potential to break through the stalemates: the tank. Throughout the spring and summer of 1917, the plans for a surprise attack using tanks “en masse” were developed. The Cambrai sector, with its flat, open terrain, un-cratered by previous artillery bombardments, seemed to offer the best chance for such an attack.
The Germans considered Cambrai a quiet sector, and it was thinly held, often by weak or understrength units. But a few things were in their favor. The sector had no less than four trench lines. The artillery of one of the front-line divisions had been specially trained in anti-tank tactics. And the 107th Division had just arrived from Russia.
At 0610 hours on 20 November, 1917, over 1000 British guns opened fire. Minutes later, the tanks in the first wave went forward, supported by the infantry. The German front collapsed under the weight of the combined-arms assault. Only at Flesquires and Lateau Wood did the Germans hold out.
The German 107th Division was hurried to the front and field guns were sited for direct fire on the onrushing tanks. By late afternoon, the British 29th Division had forced a crossing over the canal at Masnieres. The way to the “green fields beyond” was open. But the roads were jammed. The British 62nd Division stopped short of its objective of Bourlon. German reinforcements were on their way throughout the Reich. By nightfall, the golden moment had passed.
The battle for Bourlon began on the 23rd. In three seesaw days, the British managed to gain much of the woods, but the town remained in German hands. Most of the surviving tanks and heavy artillery were pulled out. Supplies had also run low.
With supplies and fresh divisions pouring in, the Germans were now ready to take the offensive. They intended to pocket the entire British advance, and force the cut-off divisions to surrender due to lack of supplies. To spearhead this ambitious plan, the specially trained “Stosstruppen” would employ the infiltration tactics that had proven so successful in Russia and Italy. This would be their first use on the Western Front.
The German barrage began at 0600 on 30th November. At 0700, the Stosstruppen started their advance. The southern pincer broke through into the British rear. The German advance penetrated the original British trenches. But the northern pincer was stopped in its tracks.
The British quickly reacted. Their successful counterattack blunted the German spearpoint. The double envelopment had failed. The British, like the Germans before, were now rushing reinforcements, including a French Corps, to the front.
After three more days of heavy fighting, the British decided to withdraw from Bourlon, where a precarious salient had formed. On the 6th of December, exhaustion, lack of supplies and bad weather brought the battle to a close.
Cambrai was history’s first blitzkrieg. The British were to use its tactics effectively at Amiens in 1918. The Germans had to wait until 1939 to show the world what they had learned at Cambrai.
On game turn one, due to the surprise their attack achieved, the British have a 20% shock bonus. Their shock value returns to neutral on game turn two.
On game turn eleven, due to the even greater surprise their counterattack achieved, the Germans have a 40% shock bonus. Their shock value returns to neutral on turn twelve. They also have a 40% air shock bonus due to their use of new ground-attack aircraft. Their air shock value returns to neutral on turn twelve.
British supply stockpiles start at 35%, drop to 30% on turn four, drop to 25% on turn five, drop to 20% on turn six, drop to 15% on turn seven, rise to 20% on turn twelve, and finally drop to (and remain at) 15% on turn thirteen. However, note the effect of British triggered withdrawals, below.
German supply stockpiles start at 15%, rise to 20% on turn six, rise to 25% on turn eight, rise to 30% on turn nine, drop to 25% on turn twelve, drop to 20% on turn fourteen, and finally drop to (and remain at) 15% on turn fifteen.
Both sides have supply radii of three hexes.
Both sides are using chemical weapons.
Most supply points represent indestructible supply terminals, but each side has a few supply depots that can be destroyed. The three British supply points near Havrincourt Wood and the German supply points in Bourlon and Cambrai are destroyed if occupied by the enemy.
British theater recon is 20%. German theater recon starts at 10% and rises to 20% on turn four.
There are both mandatory withdrawals (both sides) and triggered withdrawals (British only).
One German infantry division is automatically withdrawn on each of turns five and six. One British infantry division is automatically withdrawn on each of turns six and eight.
Further British withdrawals are triggered by failure to capture either Bourlon (10,6) or Cambrai (14,8). Starting on turn four, there is a 20% chance that the withdrawals will be triggered if neither hex has been captured. This same chance continues each turn until either the withdrawals are triggered, one of the city hexes is captured, or the German counterattack begins (turn eleven).
Once the withdrawals have been triggered, 21 companies of tanks, five artillery brigades, three cavalry divisions, and two supply units are withdrawn. In addition to the above withdrawals, British supply stockpiles are reduced by 5%.
If withdrawn, all the cavalry, most of the artillery, and two companies of tanks, are returned after the German counterattack begins. (Note that the returned units are actually duplicate units. The duplicate units have a “+” appended to their names.) The returned units are returned at 50% equipment, 50% supply, and 50% readiness (exception – 4th Cavalry Division returns at full strength).
As soon as either city hex is captured, or the game reaches turn eleven, the risk of withdrawal ends, if it hasn’t already occurred.
After the German counterattack starts (turn eleven), there is a possibility of French participation. If the Germans ever capture any of the original British trench hexes, the French forces will be triggered. If this occurs after the counterattack begins, the French will arrive the next game turn on the south map edge. If it has occurred before the counterattack begins, the French will arrive on the turn after the counterattack begins (turn 12).
The original British trench hexes are the hexes just west of the starting line. This line has been marked by a boundary line so that players can easily remember where the starting line was.
The British cavalry divisions start in reserve. On turn one each division has a 33% chance that it will be released. On turn two each division has a 67% chance that it will be released. Finally, on turn three, all remaining unreleased cavalry divisions are released.
The British 3rd Cavalry Division’s arrival is triggered only by British capture of either Bourlon or Cambrai.
It is critical for the German player to hold on to Bourlon and Cambrai. If the British triggered withdrawals do not occur it will be unlikely that the German player will be able to launch his counterattack. It would be preferable to allow his lines to rupture elsewhere than to allow Bourlon to fall.
Therefore, it is just as critical for the British player to take Bourlon and thereby solidify his gains. Thus, the battle for Bourlon will most likely decide the battle’s outcome.
The German 54th Division’s artillery brigade has been equipped with anti-tank guns, to represent that unit’s anti-tank training.
The British 51st Division has been given an “internal support” rating. Its commander didn’t think much of the new tanks and refused to cooperate with them.
The Stosstruppen divisions have an “(S)” appended to their formation names. Note that those units are not just stronger and better equipped than regular divisions, they also have “special forces” unit-types. This will better enable them to perform their characteristic infiltration tactics.
The British Corps Artillery units each start at 150% unit supply levels. They will benefit from these oversupply values if they are used in attacks before they are moved.
Despite modeling the battle with the smallest hex-scale allowed in TOAW, less than 30 hexes changed hands historically – and those only temporarily. No penetration was deeper than four hexes. Yet those gains were considered astounding at the time. Such was the magnitude of the stalemate on the Western Front in World War I. Players used to World War II scenarios will have to adjust their expectations.
Players should be aware that most artillery units have a mix of gun-types, with a mix of ranges. The unit’s range (shown in the unit display) will be the range of the longest-range gun-type. But many (even most) of the unit’s guns may not be able to reach this range. Players should check the ranges of all the gun-types in the unit before planning any attacks with the unit.
For example, the British heavy artillery units have a range of 9 hexes. But only two of their 48 guns can reach that range. The other 46 guns have ranges of five or less.
Both sides have several supply units. Players need to be aware of the characteristics of supply units. In particular, supply units must be kept one supply radius away from other supply units to remain active. If two supply units are within three hexes of each other, one will be disabled. This can be a problem with so many supply units in this scenario.
The British have separate bridging units but the Germans do not. However, the German Kampfgruppen contain bridging squads. Division HQs contain engineer squads if bridges need to be repaired.
Luc = Lucknow
Sia = Sialkot
Mho = Mhow
Amb = Ambala
Can = Canadian
Sec = Secunderabad
SA = South African
K.E.H. = King Edward’s Horse
N.Huss = Northumberland Hussars
RHA = Royal Horse Artillery
HA = Heavy Artillery
CaP = Cuirassier a Pied (dismounted cavalry)
Ch = Chasseur
Dr = Dragoon
Lg = Legere (light)
Cu = Cuirassier
Br & Bav = Bavarian
R & Res = Reserve
Lw = Landwehr (second-line troops)
Sx = Saxon
GF = Guards Fusiliers
Lhr = Lehr
Gr = Grenadiers
ER = Ersatz (Replacement)
F = Fusiliers
GGr = Guards Grenadier
LGr = Leib Grenadier
S.Q.KG = St. Quentin Kampfgruppe
vR = von Richthofen’s Flying Circus (the Red Baron)
SS = Schutzstaffel
What a situation! The first mass use of tanks. The first use of Stosstruppen on the Western Front. The Red Baron (he scored one of his 84 victories here). Masses of heavy artillery. Both sides get to take the offensive. Play balance. All it lacks is a formerly unemployed Austrian house painter (he wasn’t present).
This scenario is my adaptation of SPI’s 1978 wargame “To the Green Fields Beyond”. That game was used as the source for the map, OOB, TO&E, events, historical briefing, and VPs.
The map of that game was at a hex scale of 1250 yards per hex. Since that scale is not supported by TOAW, I chose to compress it down to 2.5km/hex. Otherwise, bombardment, unit density, and movement would be miss-scaled.
Also note that a dry canal was represented by a row of double escarpment hexes. Finally, note that the map’s North-South axis is tilted 30 degrees clockwise from vertical, as represented in the top-right corner.
The British have Force Communication of 80% and the Germans have Force Communication of 67%. The British were unveiling a revolutionary artillery fire control system at Cambrai and this has been reflected in this force factor. The French did not benefit from this so their artillery units have had their proficiencies reduced to 84% of their formation proficiencies, to reflect this.
The Attrition Divider has been increased from the default 10 to 14.
Both sides have a force movement bias of 60% of nominal to reflect the slower World War I movement rates.
Finally, both side’s formation supply distribution efficiencies have been halved from World War II levels. Units will be much slower to recover from heavy combat.
Here is a run down of the settings I used.
For clarity, Fog of War off, so we can see everything, Environmental effects off, High Supply and Trusted PBEM off by default and I turn the new Mud and Snow rules off. I want a cleanish slate as I progress through the game and learn its complexities and subtleties.
The Advanced Options
All defaults, except I change the Programmed Opponent (PO) to Moderate. Go easy on me soldier. I left the Detailed Combat Reports on from an earlier play, but later on turned them off. They are useful when you start to learn the game, but there is still quite a lot of information available to you without being stopped or bombarded with information.
Finally the game loads, and we begin Turn 1
The game presents itself very well, has rounded 3d tiles, using NATO military symbols, and the interface is much more “open” compared to TOAWIII, with the button panel being subdivided into tabs and most windows being floating and moveable.
So we’re set. Hopefully this has provided you with enough information and background to appreciate the rest of the battle.
If you want more flavour, check out the following The Great War videos:
and this accompanying feature in Bovington..
Thanks to Matrix for allowing me to request a press copy of the game, so I could explore the mechanics and joys of this battle. I’m looking forward to seeing how these Mark IVs can affect the early stages of this WWI war of attrition.
See you on the other side of the barbed wire..