Maiwand Day: Wargaming the Afghan War
An interview with Ethan Reiff
conducted by Garen Ewing.
Four months before the 130th anniversary of the battle of Maiwand, Ethan Reiff decided he would recreate the most famous battle of the Second Anglo-Afghan War as a table-top wargame. He very kindly consented to an interview to explain the background to the project, his research, and the process. I am indebted to Ethan for his highly informative and detailed replies and also for allowing me to republish some of his wonderful photographs. You can visit his Maiwand Day blog here. This interview was published online 27 July 2011 - the 131st anniversary of the battle.
All photographs courtesy Ethan Reiff, not to be reproduced without permission.
Colonel Galbraith, Bobbie, and men of the 66th Foot in the garden at Khig.
Can you give readers a little background about yourself and also how you got into tabletop wargaming?
I'm 45, married, with a son and two daughters. I’m originally from Brooklyn, New York, but have lived for the past 13 years in Los Angeles, California. I work in the movie and television business, as a screenwriter for movies and a writer and executive-producer for TV. Some movies I’ve worked on with my writing and producing partner Cyrus Voris include Kung Fu Panda and the upcoming Karate Kid 2. We also wrote an original screenplay called Nottingham which went on to become the Russell Crowe version of Robin Hood. TV shows we’ve created and run include Brimstone, Sleeper Cell, and the American version of a British television show called Eleventh Hour.
I've always been obsessed with history. My two areas of special (aka: obsessive) interest are the Hundred Years War and the Second Anglo-Afghan War. My interest in British India started with my parents. My mother is a fervent anglophile and during WWII my father served for about a year with the US Army Signal Corps in British India, before flying over “the hump” into China and on to the Pacific Islands, where he spent the rest of the war. In India his unit’s hi-tech communications equipment was protected by Gurkha sentries. He and his unit wore British uniforms, since they hadn’t brought any hot-weather clothing with them. My father had a lot of interaction with Indian and Gurkha soldiers and came away from his time in British India with a very positive impression of the Indian Army, which he passed on to me. Growing up, Rudyard Kipling was my favorite author, and The Man Who Would Be King, The Drums of the Fore And Aft and The Route of the White Hussars remain three of my all-time favorite stories.
Switching from British India to miniature wargaming, when I was about 8 years old I visited Polk’s Hobby Shop in Manhattan. Back then it was the most famous hobby store in the world, or at least in America (it’s featured in the background of a scene in The Godfather where Al Pacino and Diane Keaton are Christmas shopping). It had five floors, each devoted to a different form of hobby. One was filled with toy soldiers and books and accessories to go with them. I convinced my parents to buy me a little book called Discovering Wargames (written by an Englishman named John Tunstill). At age 8 I was already something of a collector of military miniatures -- plastic Britains, Ltd. and Swoppets, and boxes of less expensive Airfix figures -- but that little book opened the door to a new world, in which you could play games fighting historical battles on the dining room table or living room floor, not by shooting rubber-bands or flicking marbles to knock enemy figures over, but using a written set of rules.
A few years later my grandmother checked a book out of the library that she thought I’d like. It was How To Play Wargames In Miniature by Joseph Morschauser. I don't believe the book is well known in miniature wargaming circles in the UK, but here in the USA, from its publication in 1962 on, it recruited many people to the hobby. I was about 11 when my grandmother handed me that book, so it was around 1976. I hate to admit it, but the same copy is on a shelf in my home-office.
From those early childhood days until now I’ve had one very long period of hobby inactivity, which lasted through my college years, the struggle to get my career started, meeting my wife, getting married, having three children, and becoming professionally “established.” Then, about six years ago at work, I happened to cross paths with a fellow military history enthusiast who also collected miniatures in his youth. We became friends and -- with the help of eBay -- I started buying figures again.
Since then, with the grudging acquiescence of my wife, a large part of our garage has become a semi-permanent hobby/game room, where I convert figures, build terrain and, on relatively rare occasions, play historical miniature wargames on a ping-pong table I bought for that purpose, but which the rest of my family wish they could use more often to play ping-pong. Still, I’m happy to say all three of my children have enjoyed helping me build terrain, paint miniatures, and play games.
Since I was a boy, the Second Afghan War has held a particular grip on my imagination. When I was very young I remember wondering whether the Afghans referred to it as 'The Second British War'. Throughout my high school and college years Afghanistan was often in the news, due to the Soviet invasion and the war that followed. I was already interested in Afghanistan because of its historic connection to British India, and being at the center of current events increased my interest.
Another reason the Second Afghan War is so compelling to me is that it falls right on the cusp between old and new, between early Victorian campaigns fought by “horse, foot and guns” and later ones decided by the overwhelming power of magazine-fed rifles and Maxim machine-guns.
The smooth bore battery in action, manned by men of the 66th Foot.
Can you give an overview of what the Maiwand Day project is? What was the inspiration?
It entailed constructing high-quality, historically-accurate 28mm scale miniature terrain, along with Anglo-Indian and Afghan armies for a wargame recreating the battle of Maiwand on its 130th anniversary, Tuesday July 27th, 2010. I’m happy to say that with a great deal of help from my 'Maiwand Day' colleagues, we were able to pull it off just in time.
Maiwand was one of the most famous engagements of the Second Afghan War, largely because it was arguably the only major battle at which the British were decisively defeated by a large Afghan army that included a combination of regular, tribal and Ghazi (Muslim religious fanatic) forces, under the command of Ayub Khan. It ended in the retreat of the surviving British and Indian troops, who marched through the rest of the day and the following night, finally crossing the Arghandab River and arriving at the city of Kandahar early the next day. There, together with the garrison, they spent the next month under siege. That siege was the genesis of General Frederick “Bobs” Roberts' legendary Kabul to Kandahar march. On September 1st 1880, the day after Roberts reached Kandahar, he led his relief force and several units of the garrison in battle against the same Afghan army which had fought at Maiwand, and decisively defeated it.
I won’t go into detail regarding the battle itself, since your site already contains a link to David Gore’s 'My God Maiwand' page at BritishEmpire.co.uk which does an excellent job telling the story in concise, accurate terms, while presenting opportunities to dig deeper and learn more about various aspects of the entire campaign. I will say that the British defeat can be ascribed to three factors:
- they were heavily outnumbered (2,500 British vs. somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 Afghans) and out-gunned in artillery (12 guns vs. 30 and those 30 included 6 rifled breech loaders which had longer range than any of the British guns);
- they were fighting over ground they did not know and had not successfully reconnoitered (and which kept the nature and number of forces opposing them hidden at the start);
- they were not well led at the highest level of command, by the overall commander, Brigadier General George Burrows, who also served as commander of the Infantry Brigade, nor by his cavalry brigade commander, Brigadier Thomas Nuttall.
Reducing the battle to its bare minimum, the British advanced onto an open plain which unbeknownst to them was flanked on both sides by a natural trench system, placing themselves in position to be surrounded and badly shot up by overwhelming forces of the enemy, until they broke and ran.
Maiwand made an impression on popular culture in Great Britain at the time. Kipling wrote a poem about it (That Day), and before serving as partner to Sherlock Holmes, Doctor Watson ended his career as an army medical officer when he was wounded there. The 'Maiwand Lion' still stands in Forbury Gardens in Reading, where it was erected in 1886 as a monument to the men of the 66th (Berkshire) Regiment who fought and died at the battle. The battle was also remembered by the other side, with a Maiwand victory monument built in the 1950’s that still stands in Kabul, as well as a Pakistani Army regiment, the 'Maiwand Rifles', named after it. But in the world of historical miniature wargaming I’d never seen the battle of Maiwand get its due.
The idea of building my own custom-made terrain set-up for 'Maiwand Day' first hit me after setting up and playing a refight of the battle of Ahmed Khel in March of 2010, a month or so before the 130th anniversary of the date that battle was fought on, April 19th 1880. In miniature wargaming terms, the terrain for Ahmed Khel is pretty easy, consisting of several rocky hills, which are a typical feature of North-West Frontier and Afghan War battlefields. While doing some research for the Ahmed Khel game, I suddenly realized that the 130th anniversary of Maiwand was coming very soon.
I’d been interested in Maiwand since first learning of the battle while reading the special 100th anniversary Second Afghan War issue of the journal of the Victorian Military Society. I had subscribed to the Journal and also to Savage & Soldier, an American magazine dedicated to colonial wargaming, which first began publication in 1965, after learning about both of them in the back of the colonial rules set The Sword and the Flame, which I purchased when it was first published in 1979. Here in the USA The Sword and the Flame has become a legendary rules set, beloved by some (including myself), dismissed by others, but known to all.
Lieutenant Hector Maclaine engages the Afghan cavalry to the north-west.
Getting back to Maiwand, after reading the article about it in the VMS journal, I ordered a copy of the newly published My God - Maiwand! by Colonel Leigh Maxwell. I loved the book when I read it as a 15 year-old in 1980, and still love it now, so it would seem refighting Maiwand in miniature would be an obvious thing for me to have done long ago. But there was always a big problem: the terrain.
Different people are drawn to the hobby of historical miniature wargaming for different reasons -- the history, the competition, the arts-and-crafts aspect of painting your own armies and/or creating your own terrain, the camaraderie with others interested in the exact same subject. For me it’s a mix of different things. I love the history and the research that goes with it, and I also love the miniature artistry. When I was much younger, I painted all my own figures and built all my own buildings and terrain. Since returning to the hobby after an absence of many years, I have 'outsourced' the painting of my armies and spent the time I have available on building terrain. I like for my battlefield to look as good as the figures fighting across it. And that had always been the problem with Maiwand. It was fought on very distinctive ground, ground which for me had always been impossible to recreate on the tabletop in a way that looked good. The battlefield consisted of a deep and wide ravine interconnected with three nullahs (dry water-courses). These features played a key role throughout the advance to contact, the fight, and the withdrawl and pursuit that followed, and to me it would have been pointless to fight the battle without them. The rest of the terrain was much more simple, consisting of a pair of small villages, one of which had several walled gardens just beyond its southern edge.
It’s relatively easy to create nice 'above ground' terrain for a flat tabletop -- woods, towns, fortresses, swamps, fields of crops, a river, etc., but representing “below ground” features like trenches, gullies, sunken roads, and ravines, is much more difficult.
But by March of 2010 I was familiar with a method of building terrain which could solve the Maiwand problem: carved foam insulation boards. By using high-quality polystyrene boards as the base for the entire tabletop, it would be possible to carve out the deep and wide Ravine, and the set of three interconnected nullahs, and make it look good.
(Another potential solution worth mentioning would have been a 'sand table' -- a cross between a gaming table and a sandbox, whose sand can be sculpted into any sort of landscape. The downsides of a sand-table are its great weight and inevitable mess. I admire gamers who own them, but I’ve never been a sand-table man myself.)
The moment I realized the 130th anniversary of Maiwand was 4 months away and I might be able to recreate the battlefield using insulation foam boards, despite having never done anything exactly like it before, I made a mental commitment to do so -- and raise the armies necessary -- in time to refight the battle on July 27th 2010.
I’m busy. I have a wife, 3 children and a demanding job, I volunteer for various activities my kids participate in such as Scouting and sports. But I didn’t let any of that get in the way of achieving my goal. Maiwand was an important battle in British and Afghan history, yet over the past 30+ years I had never seen a single photograph of a high-quality recreation of it in miniature. I decided to fill that gap, and over those next 4 months I did. But I couldn’t have met the very hard deadline without a great deal of help from a number of other people.
Can you tell us something about the specific research you had to do for such an ambitious project? What were your most important and useful sources?
To begin with I went back to Leigh Maxwell’s My God Maiwand! In addition to its military professionalism, it’s written with a sense of sincere respect for everyone involved on both sides of the conflict, and it has a tremendous amount of detail, though for obvious reasons the details are weighted much more on the British side.
During a “Maiwand” Google search I discovered the recently-published Maiwand: The Last Stand of the 66th (Berkshire) Regiment, Afghanistan, 1880 by Richard Stackpoole-Ryding, and ordered it immediately. It proved to be incredibly valuable for my purposes, as it is filled with first-hand accounts of the battle itself and the ground over which it was fought.
I dug around the web for more research material and found an article on the battle co-written by a former Colonel in the Afghan Army, which had appeared in the May-June 2001 issue of Military Review, the journal of the US Army Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Though it was almost 10 years old, this article -- a link to which is up on my blog -- contained interesting information on the terrain, the nullahs, the water-course, and the twin small villages of Mundabad and Khig.
Other useful resources I found online included your own Second Afghan War site and as previously mentioned, David Gore’s 'My God, Maiwand!' page up on Stephen Luscombe’s British Empire site. Last but not least, I found some important visual information by sifting through illustrations from various 1878, ’79 and ’80 editions of The Graphic and The Illustrated London News which are often up for sale on vintage art sites and for auction on eBay. I remember finding one such magazine illustration that showed British troops playing rugby in Kabul, while their British, Indian and Gurkha comrades watched, cheering and laughing, and then finding another that showed troops racing horses. This served to remind me that even back in 1880 fighting men did not spend 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, fighting.
Afghan regular infantry kick up dust on the march.
My project’s central focus was on terrain, so maps and the recollections of participants in the immediate aftermath of the battle were the key elements from all these sources. I tracked down several maps of the battlefield, which I soon realized could all be traced back as being sourced from the map drawn by the British military survey party that visited the field about a month-and-a-half after the battle. As a Boy Scout whose father was a scout before him and whose son is now a scout, a compelling detail is that Lord Baden-Powell -- at the time a junior officer with the 13th Hussars -- was part of that detail and later wrote about what he had seen there, including some interesting information regarding the appearance of some dead horses belonging to an Afghan artillery limber team. The horses were all white with their tails dyed pink. To a miniature wargamer, that kind of detail, regarding information that would otherwise be impossible to gain, is worth its weight in gold.
Just before Maiwand Day +130 arrived, I discovered the excellent chapter on Maiwand in Colonel Mike Snook’s new book, Into the Jaws of Death: British Military Blunders 1879-1900. By then I was just about done with everything, so reading it served more as a back-stop than a source, confirming what I’d done with the terrain and forces involved was accurate, which was a great relief.
If someone now asked me to choose a single source for them to read on the battle, I would have to recommend the Maiwand chapter in Mike Snook’s book. It has more information on the Afghan side, including the most detailed order of battle I’ve ever seen for the battle (though it may be present in Hanna’s official history, which I do not own), with names for specific Afghan commanders, down to the brigade level.
One last thing to mention regarding my research for 'Maiwand Day' is the somewhat uncanny aspect that came with searching the web for information on a battle fought in the area lying between Kandahar and Helmand, Afghanistan in 1880, while a current war was being fought in exactly the same place. Many searches brought results that included images and information concerning recent operations. This had a very humbling effect on me. It also made the effort and sacrifice of those who fought at Maiwand 130 years ago feel very immediate.
I'm especially interested in your research into getting the uniforms right for both the Afghan and the British sides.
The organization, dress, equipment, and conduct of the Afghan Regular Army is one of the things that has always interested me most about the Second Afghan War. It’s true there is not much available in print, but if you delve a bit deeper there is enough solid information available to do better than “educated guess-work” with regard to Afghan regular army uniforms. The information comes from artist-correspondent sketches printed in contemporary periodicals like The Illustrated London News and The Graphic, as well as contemporary books written by military officers and civilian adventurers (mostly British and Russian) who wrote of their travels in the region and often detailed the appearance of Afghan troops they crossed paths with. Some of this information regarding Afghan army uniforms at the time of the Second Afghan War is up on my blog. I should post more. I recently had a message from another wargamer requesting more detailed information on the appearance of the Afghan regular army during the war, so it may be time for me to post all the information and artwork I have on my blog. Truth is, though it exists, it can’t be found anywhere on the web that I know of. It consists of several pages of color plates published in the British magazine Wargames Illustrated, accompanying a multi-part article on the 19th Century Afghan regular army, titled 'A Most Villainous Cavalcade', by noted military artist and writer Ian Heath. I think that article is something of the 'Holy Grail' for those interested in information and especially the uniforms and equipment of the Afghan regular army in the later 19th Century.
With regard to uniforms and equipment of the British and Indian troops present at Maiwand, there is of course a great deal more information available. The uniforms and equipment worn by the 66th (Berkshire) Regiment and also by the gunners of E/B Battery, Royal Horse Artillery, are now somewhat well-accepted matters of record, and it’s close to the same with regard to dress and equipment for soldiers of the 1st Bombay Grenadiers. But there remains some uncertainty concerning the dress of the 30th Bombay Native Infantry (Jacob’s Rifles), the 3rd Bombay Light Cavalry, and the 3rd Scinde Horse. There are some brief written descriptions, and also some contemporary sketches, and there is also the weight of evidence regarding similar units at about the same time, whose appearance was immortalized in early photographs or by artists painting in color. So it’s possible to make good educated guesses. There’s a fantastic full color painting by the military artist Chater Paul Chater of a veteran sowar (trooper) of the 3rd Bombay Light Cavalry, but it was painted ten years after the battle and the regiment had changed uniform colors in the interim, so it’s value with regard to Maiwand is negligible.
The Bombay cavalry get aggressive at Pacificon.
Where do you start with building a project as ambitious as this?
It all started with the “diamond bullet” moment when I realized that carving foam boards could enable me to make a good-looking Maiwand battlefield. Then I drew it on a whiteboard at my office, in very simple 'macro' terms. The first question was exactly how to size and combine the boards, which come 8’ x 2’. I play my games on a 9’ x 5’ ping-pong table and decided to make my Maiwand table 10’ x 6’, with a 6” overhang on each side of the table.
I then spent a long time doing R&D on how exactly to texture and color the ground cover. After about a month of experimenting I reached a decision and started carving the first big (6’ x 2’) board.
Between the first refight on July 27th and the second in September at the Pacificon Game Expo, I added one more board, stretching the table out to 12’ x 6’ and enabling me to set up the entire battlefield all at once, rather than having to 'rotate' the boards in order to lay out Mundabad and Khig -- with its walled gardens -- at the South end of the table.
So what's the process for getting it all together so it's ready to play?
There were several major components, each of which was necessary for the project to succeed:
- THE FORCES the British brigade and the much larger Afghan army opposing it.
- THE GROUND the battlefield terrain and all it entailed. This included: the ground cover with Mundabad Ravine and the 3 connecting nullahs; Mundabad village, Khig village and its walled gardens, the karez (a traditional Afghan man-made waterway fed by an underground mountain stream) that linked the villages, and the fruit trees along it and the gardens.
- THE SCENARIO details in game terms of how the forces will be deployed, how the battle will begin, any special rules to reflect specifics of the historical conditions, and finally how victory will be determined.
I worked on all three of these simultaneously, from March through July of 2010. The most challenging by far was the battlefield terrain.
Reading your blog I see you had to do a lot of figure customization, can you tell us a little about that process?
A friend of mine described the process as “plastic surgery for miniatures” and that’s pretty accurate. Using tweezers, X-acto knives, files, jeweller’s screwdrivers, etc., I remove and replace arms, hands, heads, hats, helmets, turbans, weapons, and bits of equipment.
I use slow-drying super-glue to fasten the parts together, sometimes adding a touch of modeling putty to fill gaps, smooth rough edges, or create texture. I’m not a talented sculpter at all, but I’m obsessed enough to see these conversions through.
For use at Maiwand, on the British side I converted a pair of standard-bearers, turning one into Lieutenant Olivey of the 66th, with a bloody bandage wrapped around his bare head, and Colonel Galbraith the regimental commander, down on one knee, with his sword in his right hand and the Regimental Color of the 66th held up in his left, the way he appears on the statue raised in his memory by his siblings. I also converted a kneeling artillery crewman into Captain Beresford-Pierse, who stopped with other survivors from the regiment inside a walled garden to make a stand during the retreat, and was ordered by Colonel Galbraith to stand guard over a hole in the wall with his pistol, not to keep attacking Afghans from getting in, but to keep his less stout-hearted comrades from getting out.
On the Afghan side I converted Franco-Prussian War command figures, and Crimean War British, French, and Turkish generals into Afghan regular army commanders. I swapped French, Prussian, and British heads for Afghan ones and used modeler’s putty to convert a Turkish general’s fez into a Turcoman fur hat. I modeled one figure in particular to be Ayub Khan, the young Afghan commander at Maiwand. In my own humble opinion all these Afghan command figures turned out quite well and, like the other miniatures I’m referencing, can be found on various pages of MaiwandDay.blogspot.com
The Malalai figure:
Despite knowing a good deal about the Battle of Maiwand, I had never heard of Malalai until I discovered her on your site, Garen (article here). Since then I’ve thought of her as the Afghan equivalent of Molly Pitcher, folk heroine of the American Revolutionary War who stepped up to assist male soldiers under fire. I knew I had to find a figure to play Malalai’s part in the battle, so I searched far and wide (an easy thing to do in this era of the internet), but there were no 25mm or 28mm Afghan or Indian or even Arab female standard bearers available. Still, I needed Malalai, so I looked for a conversion prospect, a figure I could do a bit of 'micro-surgery' on to produce a stalwart Afghan woman, flying a flag to inspire the men of her village to advance into the mouth of devastating British and Indian rifle and artillery fire. Luckily enough, I found an Ancient Roman Lady, made by Wargames Foundry, who fit the bill perfectly. I ordered the pack of figures she came with but when they arrived at my Los Angeles home (from Nottingham) every figure advertised as being in the pack was there -- EXCEPT FOR HER! Thankfully I still had some time before the July 27th anniversary arrived, so I contacted Wargames Foundry, explained she was missing, and I’m happy to say without further ado, they sent her to me. I did a small amount of conversion work, cutting her right hand off at the wrist, flipping it around, and reattaching it so it could easily grasp a flagpole. We wrote a special rule giving her a chance to bolster Afghan morale, as she is said to have done during the battle. There’s a photo of her up on the homepage of my blog and I think she turned out quite nicely.
One last special Maiwand Day figure which I must mention is Bobbie, the mascot of the 66th Regiment. Long before I learned of Malalai I knew I needed to have a 28mm dog to play his part. I found an appropriate miniature and had him painted to look like Bobbie does in the paintings of The Last Stand of the 66th and the photograph of his stuffed remains.
The converted Malalai figure.
Did you have any outside help with the figure painting, scenery, or anything else? What kind of support services do you utilize for this kind of thing?
I had a great deal of help indeed with the figure painting! A number of years ago, when I first started getting back into the hobby, I won some beautiful figures from a very talented painter in my hometown of Brooklyn, New York. It turned out he belongs to a wargames club located across the street from my high school and two blocks away from the house where I grew up. Since then I’ve done a lot of business with him and also stopped by the club with my children to play several times while visiting New York. His name is Igor Olshansky and I have a link to his own website -- Igwargminis.com -- on my blog.
In the heat of preparation for July 27th, 2010, when I was scrambling like mad to get everything ready in time and Igor was overwhelmed with figures to paint for me, I sent a unit of Sikhs (who ended up playing the part of the 1st Bombay Grenadiers on the day) to Joe Dunn, an excellent miniature figure painter in the UK who website can be found at grimsbypainter09.blogspot.com
On the scenery front, the wargaming friend I made at work (friendship with whom had led me to actively reenter the hobby) volunteered to scratch-build the villages of Mundabad and Khig, and Khig’s walled gardens. He doesn’t wish to be publicly identified as a miniature wargaming 'geek/nerd' so I shall refer to him as 'Rogers'. Rogers did a great job on the Afghan villages and gardens.
Several units for the big anniversary game were provided by a friend I made over the web during the lead-up to Maiwand Day, named Nick Stern. We met on TMP (TheMiniaturesPage.com) when I put up a post asking for some info on Afghan artillery. We emailed back and forth and he wound up coming to Los Angeles for the big day, bringing some troops with him to fill in for a handful of units missing from my order of battle. He helped with some last-minute finishing work on the terrain, and he also designed commemorative t-shirts for the participants at the 130th anniversary game.
My three children helped lot with carving, glueing, and painting the terrain boards, especially my at-the-time 13 year-old son. One day I had to take one of his sisters to play soccer and he and a friend of his built up the extensive banks for the karez waterway, enabling me to pour the “realistic water” just in time for it to be ready for the big day.
I also had a lot of help from a good friend named Matthew Rigdon, who lent his keen eye and excellent design sense to the work on the terrain boards. There was a lot of trial and error before I finally decided on a texture and color scheme I was happy with. Then we carved out the first full-size board. I chose to make that the most difficult one of all, the board holding Mundabad Ravine, since that way it would be “all downhill” from there, with the work getting easier as it proceeded. By the time we were done my son and I were able to brush glue and scatter pebbles and sand over an entire 6’ x 2’ board in record time. We worked in the garage, which had the lights on into the early morning hours virtually every night that May, June and July. On the day of the 130th anniversary game, my wife came to the rescue, providing food and drink for the dozen people who showed up from as far away as Vancouver and San Francisco.
I played a bit of Warhammer in the 1980s, but for those of us who are new to wargaming, can you give a brief explanation of the game mechanics how is a tabletop wargame played? What rules do you use? How many people were involved?
Great question, but kind of tricky to answer! You see, one of the great things about miniature wargaming is the incredibly wide variety of styles of play that coexist side-by-side, sometimes happily, other times a bit contentiously. Some gamers are veritable islands unto themselves, playing solo or in small groups without much if any interaction with the broader hobby community, although these days the web makes it much easier for gamers, even if they live in the middle of nowhere, to keep up with virtually everything that’s new in the hobby. Theminiaturespage.com now serves as a worldwide forum and meeting place.
Reduced to its bare essentials, historical miniature wargaming is like a combination of model railroading and chess. But the railroad layout (aka the miniature battlefield) can change for every game and the rules are usually a bit more complex. Most of the time you use rulers to measure movement and weapon ranges, though occasionally it’s done by creating the battlefield atop a grid of squares or hexagons.
Retreat across the Mundabad ravine.
Miniature wargame rules run the gamut from paperwork-intense to die-rolling and card-flipping intense. They use various systems in an attempt to recreate the flavor of particular historical periods. A key element of The Sword and the Flame (the rules we used for the refight) is the use of 'hidden movement' by native forces such as Afghans, Sudanese, Boers, Zulus, etc., but this is one aspect that doesn’t come into play much at all during the battle of Maiwand. The only place it might come into play would be the infiltration of tribal forces down the Eastern nullah towards Mundabad ravine, but during the three times we’ve played the game it hasn’t been a factor at all. Since the fundamental nature of a wargamer’s towering perspective over the battlefield instantly reveals the presence of the three nullahs, that aspect of the actual battle -- the lack of solid intelligence or reconnaissance information regarding the nullahs which crisscrossed the Maiwand plain and how they interconnected with Mundabad Ravine -- is lost. But even with the advantage of their god-like perspective, the battle remains extremely challenging for the British, and very, very difficult to win.
Moving on with regard to game mechanics, TSATF utilizes a card-driven movement system, red cards signifying a British unit gets to move, black cards an Afghan unit. The rules have a very dice-intensive system for firing, rolling a single 20-sided die for every figure shooting. This allows for a wide range of factors to be taken into account when determining the chance of any single figure to hit a particular type of target, say a figure in close or mass formation or a figure taking cover behind rough terrain, as well as a vast array of different quality weapons and troop types doing the firing.
For close combat TSATF uses a simple system that lends itself to high drama, with moments of player triumph and despair. Both sides roll a 6-sided die per figure and the high die wins, but there are many potential modifiers which can load the dice one way or the other. For instance, a British or Indian army unit defending in square formation will receive a “+2” on all its die rolls, while a unit of Ghazi fanatics charging into combat will receive a “+1” and also win ties.
On Maiwand Day we had two British players -- myself and “Rogers” -- and a rather vast array of Afghan players. My brother, Myles, served as overall Afghan commander with anywhere from three to six sub-commanders at various times during the day, including my son and my older daughter.
At Pacificon we employed a much newer set of rules, from the UK, called Black Powder, written to cover the entire expanse of the Horse-&-Musket -- or 'black powder' -- period, rather than the colonial period in particular. Myself and Rogers reprised our roles as British commanders, joined by an extremely high-spirited and aggressive cavalry sub-commander, versus about six Afghan players, my son included. I served as overall commander of the British on both occasions. The Afghan command on Maiwand Day did a slow but sure solid job of coordinating the advance of their vast number of forces. But at Pacificon the Afghan command structure suffered a bit from independent-minded sub-commanders, which helped make possible the against-all-odds British upset victory we achieved there.
The forces for the game were 144 British and Indian troops with 6 guns, versus 548 Afghan troops with 12 guns, so nearly 4-1 odds stacked against the British. In fact, this slightly under-represented the Afghan forces present on the day.
I understand you've played the Maiwand battle three times so far, including once at the Pacificon Game Expo. How accurately do you stick to the tactics of the actual historical battle? As you just mentioned, at Pacificon the British won the day! Can you give some details of how this played out? Is it possible that the same situation could have reversed the outcome back in 1880?
'Maiwand Day' was not about achieving a moment-by-moment recreation of the battle as it was fought on July 27th, 1880. It was -- and remains -- about starting the battle the way it started on that day, and then seeing what can happen from there, be it similar or different from what historically occurred.
During our first refight the game progressed very similarly to the historic battle, with the British cavalry attempting to charge but failing to do so, the RHA guns being ordered to withdraw from supporting the British firing line in order to retreat across Mundabad Ravine, just in time to escape being overrun by charging Ghazis who wiped out the Bombay Grenadiers left behind to hold the center nullah. Without being in any way 'scripted' to do so, the game reproduced so many of the famous moments from the real battle it was somewhat shocking.
Tabletop overview of the British in retreat.
The most striking thing I took from playing the part of the overall British commander of the first refight was the inexorable power of the Afghan regular artillery, which dramatically outmatched and outnumbered their British counterparts.
Usually, in the miniature wargaming version of frontier warfare, the British will have the advantage of outranging their opponents, so at worst they will be able to effect an orderly retreat to a defensive position under the protection of their guns. At Maiwand the British were faced with a perfect storm of longer-range enemy artillery and overwhelming numbers of enemy troops, and they were caught almost entirely out in the open, where they were simultaneously targeted by both.
I’d always thought that the answer for the British was to have simply fallen back straight away to Mundabad Ravine, a strong defensive position where they might have held out and perhaps even achieved victory against Ayub Khan’s overwhelmingly strong force. This of course is nothing new, hindsight being twenty-twenty, it’s been the standard line repeated by commentators from the days immediately following the battle to recent history books. But the fact remains that without advancing onto the Maiwand plain to engage Ayub’s army as it marched past, Brigadier Burrows would not have been able to keep him from reaching Kandahar. It’s possible, with the full compliment of his forces available before the battle of Maiwand, that Ayub could have taken Kandahar.
When we refought the battle for the second time, over Labor Day weekend at the Pacificon Game Expo in Santa Clara, California, the British indeed won a major upset victory. This was due to a combination of three factors:
First, as British overall commander I was blessed with an extremely aggressive cavalry sub-commander who did everything possible to make the presence of the 3rd Bombay Light Cavalry and 3rd Scinde Horse felt by the enemy from the very start of the battle until the very end. This was in diametric opposition to the manner in which these two cavalry units were mishandled during the actual battle of Maiwand. All he wanted to do was charge the enemy from the first turn until the last, and I encouraged him to do so. Throughout the course of the game he took substantial casualties, but he succeeded in breaking not just several units but several brigades of enemy cavalry and infantry, more than making up for the loss of his two cavalry units.
Second, the Afghan command was not coordinated enough. More specifically, their overall commander knew what he wanted to do, but did not strenuously enough enforce his instructions onto two of his five subordinates who were very independent-minded, both of whom, unfortunately for him, occupied key front-line positions.
The third factor was luck. At Pacificon the British rolled very well when they had to, while the Afghans did not. Generally the results of die-rolls even out over the course of a game, but sometimes chance favors one side or the other, and it somewhat favored the British in this game. Still, at Maiwand the odds are always strongly stacked against the British, so strongly that luck alone is not enough to overthrow the results of history.
Without going into more excrutiating detail, the third refight ended in an Afghan victory and British defeat even more total than at the historical battle. 'After Action Reports' with tons of photos can be found on my blog for all three games.
Jacob's Rifles and the 66th Foot man the centre nullah at Pacificon.
A 'Maiwand Day' highlight:
While preparing the model battlefield I was having some difficulty nailing down the exact nature of the man-made watercourse that ran roughly east to west, parallel to Mundabad Ravine, from the village of Khig to the village of Mundabad. I did some research into traditional Afghan agriculture and irrigation and learned of the existence of 'karez' -- tunnels, canals, narrow man-made waterways used for centuries to provide fresh water for purposes of drinking, bathing, and irrigating crops and fruit trees. I realized that the water-course at Maiwand was probably a karez, fed by an underground stream originating in the nearby mountains to the south-east. I gathered as much visual reference as I could online and proceeded to design and build the waterway as such. Weeks later I was reading a portion of one of the officer’s narratives of the battle, towards the end of Richard J. Stackpoole-Ryding’s incredibly well-researched book, Maiwand: The Last Stand of the 66th (Berkshire) Regiment, Afghanistan 1880. In this particular passage, Captain Beresford-Peirse recalled:
“The retreat was continued through the gardens till a small enclosure was reached. Major Blackwood entered this enclosure with me, where was also Colonel Mainwaring, commanding Jacob’s Rifles, and Colonel Galbraith was also with us at the entrance, but I think he must have gone back to the karez...”
Seeing that terrain feature which I had never seen referred to as a karez in all the literature devoted to the battle, but through my own research surmised probably was one, called a karez by someone present at the battle who had fought his way across it, was an amazing moment.
What lies in the future for the Maiwand battlefield and its little participants?
Even though it’s been more than a year since I started, I still have a couple of things to finish up before I can truly say I have covered every aspect of the battle of Maiwand -- that I know of -- in miniature.
On the British side all that’s left is to paint up a unit of British regular infantry to perfectly represent the 66th (Berkshire) Regiment at the battle. The khaki-coated British regulars I used as the 66th in all three refights are beautifully painted and wear the proper equipment (though they have white ammunition pouches while the 66th had black ones), but are not wearing puttees, just loose pants legs, since they were sculpted to represent British troops in Egypt or the early Sudan campaign. The company that makes them makes other British infantry that do wear puttees -- but they also wear older style equipment, rather than the more modern “Valise” pattern which the 66th had been issued with and wore into battle at Maiwand. I’ve finally managed to track down British infantry figures wearing valise equipment and puttees, and carrying Martini-Henry rifles (made by Pontoonier Miniatures). These are obviously very esoteric details but as you can probably tell by now, they do interest me! I may finally get back to painting figures and paint them myself.
On the Afghan side, there’s one big job left to do. I need to convert a dozen Prussian variety Franco-Prussian War limber crews (5 figures each, for a total of 60 figures) to serve as Afghan limber crews. This is a somewhat major undertaking. As I said above, I’ve converted entire units of 20 infantry, 12 cavalry, and 15 British limber crewmen for use at Maiwand, but nothing as big as 60 figures.
I also want to convert some Franco-Prussian and American Civil War military doctors, along with some Arab and Indian civilian figures, all to serve as Afghan medical staff.
After that I will truly be able to say I have everything needed to recreate the battle of Maiwand in 28mm scale, to the best of my knowledge. When that day comes I plan to take a series of staged photos showing the progress of the battle from start to finish and post them on my blog, with special attention to the cast of historical characters on both sides. After that I’ll continue to use my 'Maiwand Day' troops and terrain to just plain game with. I’ve begun work on a selection of hills and mountains to match the terrain boards, so I can rearrange them and refight some other major battles of the war -- like Peiwar Kotal, Ali Masjid, Charasiab, and Kandahar. As my wife says of my hobby, it never ends!
Thank you very much indeed for your time, Ethan, and for a detailed and fascinating interview. Readers can visit the Maiwand Day blog for further information and more great photos.
Ayub Khan confers with his generals.