The Flare Path: Dotted Lines

No simulated war this week. In memory of my great-grandfather who died a hundred years ago last Monday, this is a Flare Path free of faux conflict.

Private Thomas Bourlet was one of around 500 men of 2nd Battalion, the Lancashire Fusiliers, tasked with taking three objectives north of the Belgian village of Poelcappelle on the morning of October 9th, 1917. The attack began in pre-dawn gloom. At 05.20, to a deafening accompaniment of Allied artillery, 2nd Battalion left the relative safety of their trenches near Imbros House and began picking their way north-eastward through a cratered hellscape glutinous after days of heavy rain.

Thomas

Thomas and his companions weren’t making for anything as tangible as a village, hill or trenchline. Their goals were three dotted lines drawn on a map of the Ypres Salient by medal-festooned Fates in a distant château.

Map by Robert Dunlop

All went well at first. In the words of one officer “for the first five or six minutes it was like a practice attack”. The Tommies were approaching the first of the three objectives, ‘The Green Dotted Line’, when the incoming fire began to intensify.

Machine guns harassed them from the south-east (The division advancing on the 2nd Battalion’s right was struggling to overcome German positions in the obliterated village of Poelcappelle). Snipers were particularly active in the north and east, enemy marksmen occupying strongpoints that had, in happier times, been pretty farmhouses.

By the time the first Fusiliers were across the bullet-lashed Poelcappelle-Houthulst Forest road the Battalion was out of step with the protective creeping barrage and facing the full wrath of the German defences. Straggling lines of steadily advancing troops had become isolated knots of mud-plastered figures desperately battling their way from one flooded shellhole to the next.

By 10.30 around 120 of the 500 men that had launched the attack were either dead or wounded. One of the two vanguard companies had lost all of its officers and the few left alive in the other were struggling to orchestrate more than half a dozen men each owing to the shattered, soggy terrain. The lack of landscape features and the confusing objective lines (unhelpfully, the linear objectives weren’t parallel to each other or the highway) meant disorientated soldiers from the neighbouring 1st Lancs, 1st King’s Own and 2nd Duke of Wellington’s were now mingling with men of the 2nd Lancs.

Aware that the advance was in trouble 2nd Battalion’s CO Major Watkins and his intelligence officer Captain S. Clarke came forward. An attack on an especially stubborn and obstructive MG nest was choreographed, “a garrison of two officers and some thirty Germans” surrendering at about 11.00 after an assault by a four-man team led by a Sergeant C.A. Watch. Other posts were rushed and overcome in the hour that followed, but by noon it was clear that the attack had “through no fault of the troops, lost its momentum”. Watkins ordered his men to halt and dig in.

During seven hours of fighting the 2nd Lancs had managed to advance about seven hundred yards. The price of this progress? 134 wounded, 36 killed, 41 ‘missing’. Private 47262 Bourlet was one of the missing.

Frederick

Unlike his brother Frederick (pictured above) who was killed the year before on the Somme, Thomas has no known grave. His remains either rest in one of the many “A Soldier of the Great War” plots that fill nearby war cemeteries or lie undiscovered somewhere in the fields that border the Poelcappelle-Houthhulst Forest road.

Of course, the bullet, bayonet, or chunk of shrapnel that killed Thomas also maimed others.

He left behind Edith, his wife of four years, two young daughters (Catherine and Dolly) a brother, two sisters, a father, a mother, and – no doubt – friends too. My Nana (the child on the left in the above photograph) was tiny when her Dad went to war but had fond memories of playing with him in the hall of their East London home.

Sometimes I wonder what Thomas would have made of his great-grandson’s penchant for play – my enthusiasm for representations of war that are both ‘realistic’ and resolutely superficial at the same time. Sometimes I wonder whether I’d happily spend so much time recreating WW2 dramas if I had ancestors who’d perished at Alamein, Arnhem, Stalingrad or St. Vith. Do I need emotional distance to wargame with an easy conscience?

If the answer’s ‘yes’ then maybe I’m closer to those medal-festooned Fates in that far-from-the-front château than I care to admit.

*       *       *

Though this week’s Flare Path is free of simulated war, it’s not, I now realise, free of the simulated products of war. Not only are the rockets that launch you into orbit in Go For Launch: Mercury ballistic missile spinoffs, the two astronauts you impersonate are decorated veterans of WW2 and the Korean War.

Joe Chisholm has been working on his simulation of NASA’s earliest manned spaceflights for some time, a fact which makes the scope and state of the £13 Early Access version released on Steam last Friday a little disappointing.

Of the six missions listed on the office-styled menu screen only two – the fifteen-minute Mercury-Redstone 3 and the five-hour Mercury-Atlas 6 – are currently playable and both lack key features like saves and splashdowns.

At present there’s little to do in the VR-compatble GfLM but undertake this pair of heavily scripted, seemingly unfailable outings over and over again. Listening to John Glenn’s conversations with CAPCOM (the sim uses lashings of period audio) is fascinating, and there are moments particularly at dawn and dusk when the views from Friendship 7 are breathtaking, but entering my second Mercury-Atlas 6 orbit I confess I found myself beginning to fidget and fiddle.

The game helpfully indicates which switches to flick prior to launch but doesn’t bother to explain why you’re flicking them (I’d love to see extensive panel tooltips). An hour into my first MA-6 recreation an alarm started bleating and an “EXCESS CABIN H20” light illuminated. Neither development altered the content or tone of the canned audio. I watched the needle on the Cabin Relative Humidity gauge steadily climb anticipating a catastrophe – or at least a little porthole condensation – which never came.

GfLM could feasibly work well as a 3D documentary – the player occupying John Glenn’s spacesuit, watching his hands manipulating controls at appropriate moments, and listening to his constant stream of often mesmerising observations…

“I am in a big mass of some very small particles, they’re brilliantly lit up like they’re luminescent. I never saw anything like it… They’re coming by the capsule and they look like little stars. A whole shower of them coming by. They swirl around the capsule and go in front of the window and they’re all brilliantly lighted.”

It could also work as a traditional sim – ‘fly’ the craft, dealing with emergent problems as they arise with help from Ground Control. Right now it seems to be adrift midway between these two destinations and feels lost as a result.

*       *       *

 

This way to the foxer

26 Comments

  1. Michael Fogg says:

    A fascinating bit of private history. Thanks!

  2. Kommissar Hedgehog says:

    My Great-grandfather would’ve been quite close to yours (well, on the edge of the zone around Zonnebeeke). He was in the same platoon as an Australian VC recipient, so its very easy to trace his movements.

    My great-grandfather himself on that day in 1917 would’ve been resting after performing an act that would see him recommended for the MM and would late one perform another attack (in 3 days time a century ago) that would see him receive a bar to that MM. The medal now hangs on my wall.

    Given the stories I heard about him from my late grandfather (my great-grandfather lived until 1971), I wonder about how he’d feel about my interest in wargames, in particular my interest in WW1 wargames… Given my grandfather’s interest in military history, one wonders.

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    Grizzly says:

    The Belgian side of my family took me to a few trips to Ieper and it’s Flanders Fields museum, both in it’s older PTSD inducing trim and it’s newer behind-the-frontlines trim. I remember that as a youngster I was overwhelmed by the sheer scale of destruction, and as an adult, visiting the later variant of the museum made me understand how personal industrial warfare ultimately still is. I’m not sure if we as human beings will ever stop being fascinated by it.

    The many names on the menin gate, and the many graves that were marked ‘Unidentified soldier #42158’ are… I don’t think I have the words.

  4. Shar_ds says:

    The wartime memories project might appreciate the addition of your forebears Tim?

    link to wartimememoriesproject.com

    • Iskandr says:

      That site looks awesome. But it seems to be lacking in content. Do you need to pay to read most of it, or what?

  5. scaresnake says:

    Great story!
    But I wonder, what wargame is that in the picture above ? The one with the tank and the Arnheim Bridge.

  6. Shiloh says:

    Thanks Tim, fascinating. My great-grandmother lost one of her two brothers in the Great War. He was from Ripon, and in the course of some research I was doing, I came across this – a wonderful and poignant little reminder of a world now long vanished.

    link to itv.com

    The full 14 minutes is available here:

    link to yorkshirefilmarchive.com

    See if you can find *anyone* in the film not wearing a hat!

  7. Stugle says:

    Thank you for sharing, Tim. I’m Dutch, so there’s no direct experience of war in World War One in my family. My grandparents (who were in their twenties during World War Two) all made it through – physically – unscathed and the topic never came up when I was growing up, so wars have always been this safely distant topic to me, something I found fascinating from a young age and could enjoy with only a token acknowledgement that “war is bad”. On my wife’s side of the family, I have a father-in-law and uncle who served in Vietnam, but again, they seem to have made it through alright. All in all, I’m in the privileged position that I can continue to treat wargames as a hypothetical setting for interesting conflicts.

  8. Palindrome says:

    I personally don’t play wargames any later than the Vietnam era. I realise that is an arbitrary limit but newer conflicts are too recent to me.
    I have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I knew 2 people who were killed in those conflicts, so I will probably never be comfortable pushing little digital representations of myself around.

  9. Magus42 says:

    Thanks for the wonderfully written bit of personal history.

    My father is a big fan of games, books, and films about war, particularly WWII and the American Civil War, despite his service in Vietnam which left both physical and mental scars that he continues to struggle with today. I can’t say I’ve ever understood this, but for him it is quite normal.

  10. GrumpyCatFace says:

    Excellent telling of your story, thank you for that.

    About the Mercury game, wow… so much potential there, for a first-person Kerbal Space Program type of game. And it looks to be wasted, at the momemt. Still, I’ll be watching that one very closely.

  11. syndrome says:

    The only common good we’ll ever get from a war, are the wargames.

    It’s apparent now that if we could’ve simulated the WWI before it actually occured, we might’ve as well understood its price, and its greater purpose in the awakening of Man.

    The Great War wasn’t won by anyone, it was simply a great purge of all who seemingly had no objections to the concept of taking something from someone’s dead body — and after all the shelling and gas, airborne horrors, tracked beasts, the mud, the blood, the body parts meshed with steel, haven’t stopped them — this is when the engine of that time, the one that incessantly produced this hatred toward all of life and love, was finally struck down with an epidemy so vast, the whole of humanity simply lost. Only then it stopped.

    This is how much it costs to become only slightly more civilized. And we are nowhere near the enlightenment we need. Here’s hoping that the decendants of the graveless deceased won’t help lubricate pendulums of such an enormous scale any more.

    So, sate yourselves with the games. Be cruel to them. Learn that every war has two faces, and sometimes even thousands, and not a single one is a friendly face to you or the other souls you love. It’s all mostly rhetorical, fuelled by simple fears, that in many cases seem to be greater than the inner humanity. In retrospect, we should all be ashamed, not glorify the “heroes” who had no true honor, but suffered and killed only because of 1) having false ideas and commitments, 2) being afraid of stigmatization, excommunication, and the death penalty due to treason, 3) they had to do it, in self-defense or otherwise. All of which I find deeply ironic.

    Before arguing with me, note that I’m not trying to diminish their sacrifice, but understand that there is no honor in not having a rational, humane choice. That’s just a struggle — a dice roll mixed with a survival instinct, and above it — a strong, intimidating hierarchy which presents you with an ultimatum: kill or be killed.

    That’s the truth of any war. Anything else is sugarcoating. You’re never sure who’s getting what, and what is that you’re trying to achieve, as exemplified with the article above. You never know what the actual victory means for your children. Everything is so simplified and rhetorical, just like one of the infinitely many Battlefield 1 games, only weaved with ideological standpoints, and idiotic representations of the world, based on mindless amygdalic responses that are inspired and excited en masse.

    Before arguing with me or telling me to shut up and hug a tree, tell me do you think that present-day German children live in poverty after their grandgrandparents lost so much? Would their victory mean better lives for them? Compared to what? Could it be any better than it already is? Would Russia be even worse if it lost, because they actually won in WWII and are constantly in a far worse economical state of affairs than Germany. Absurd. Would their grandgrandparents (German and Russian) even fight if they could see the present day?

    Is it the way of life that we protect? Or our cultural heritage? Or the resources? How’s that affecting you as a person actually? We all belong to this planet, that’s all we care about. We’ll consume what we dig up this way or the another.

    • Reblosch says:

      I don’t know if German kids would be better off had the Wehrmacht won. But the Nazis had plainly planned to let Russians, Poles, Ukrainians and others get somewhat extinct through starvation and slavery after their victory.

      I was playing HOI4, earlier this day, having fun, perhaps like the “medal-festooned Fates in the Château” in Tim’s story. Still I felt more than a pinch in the heart after having won with Soviets, when I realized that the body count both on the Russian and the German sides in my game was way lower than in actual history. Few people like real war, but the way it is waged, prepared for, can make such a huge difference in the lifes of millions.

    • Kommissar Hedgehog says:

      Sorry, but this is quite disturbing revisionism, bordering on justification of Nazi actions, in particular genocide. 40 million people were to be killed in the Soviet Union. Generalplan Ost was created prior to Operation Barbarossa for precisely that purpose.

      Would the Soviet people fight if they saw the consequences of it today? Of course they would. They would see that their country is not wiped from the earth. They would see that their country was a superpower for the next 40 years and arguably is returning to second rate power status today. And they would see that their people are not slaves, or extinct – like they would be if they’d not fought. Its easy enough to tell if they would not have fought, because you can go and ask the old veterans today. I’ve read many accounts and recollections by these veterans. Not a single one said that they regretted fighting.

      Sir, you are the most dangerous type of person, one who turns ignorance through pretty words into what others might construe as knowledge. Read a book.

    • punkass says:

      Mate, you may well have a decent idea hidden in here, that we should be ashamed of war rather than celebrating it.

      However, in an attempt to be clever, not only have you played very loosely with the facts, but you’ve been grossly offensive as well.

      The Great War wasn’t won by anyone, it was simply a great purge of all who seemingly had no objections to the concept of taking something from someone’s dead body

      Do you honestly think that everyone who died in WWI looted corpses? Yes, it was much more common practice back then, but this is both a ludicrous assertion and one you might have the decency not to make under an article where someone describes their Great-Grandfather’s experience in the war.

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    Skabooga says:

    Thanks for thoughtful recounting and reflections, Tim.

  13. Vinas_Solamnus says:

    Tim, was hoping to see it this week, but hope you cover new game Heliborne. Interested on your view of it. IMO great gem from a small team of devs.

  14. mariandavid says:

    Very well written Tim: It is telling that this story could be repeated over and over again by relatives of every single nation that took part in World War One. It is a peculiar view of Anglo-Saxons to regard that war as being somehow more terrible than others before, whereas of course in reality its impact on draftees and civilians alike was no different (except for the sheer scale of the population and armies in 1914) than in the Napoleonic Wars or back through several “world wars” to the Thirty Years War. I suppose it is because it was only in 1915 on for the British Empire and Dominions and only in 1918 for the United States that they came for the first time to be part of wars in which conscription was the norm and that therefore involved entire populations. The other differing viewpoint is that for the survivors in both the UK and US service in the Western Front and elsewhere was for many, many years a great triumph of which they were proud to have participated, while saddened by loss: It was only in the early 1930’s that the anti-war movement that led to Munich started to question if the war was worthwhile and the 1960’s before the now utterly discarded ‘lions led by donkeys’ concept was invented.

    • SuddenSight says:

      Public perception of past wars is definitely an interesting topic. However, I don’t think that all wars have the same impact on everyone. World War I and II are an excellent example – in the West WWI is remembered as a tragedy while WWII is remembered as a triumph over evil. The casualties reflect this – the Western Front powers suffered less than a third the rate of battle deaths in WWII as they did in WWI. Meanwhile the total number of soldiers serving was comparable (about 50% larger in WWI). So it is not wrong to say that the western front of WWI was in a sense “worse” than the western front of WWII.

      That said, this comparison definitely does not extrapolate to all fronts. The Eastern front was extremely bloody in WWII – perhaps worse than WWI.

  15. heretic says:

    Thank you for sharing!

  16. Captain Narol says:

    Not related, but for the record, FIELD OF GLORY II, seriously praised in one of the last Flare Paths, was released this Thursday.

    First reviews are very positive, and some even say that the AI is better than in any other strategy games.

    link to store.steampowered.com

  17. Vurten says:

    Thank you for this Tim. A grand read.

  18. floogles says:

    Thanks for sharing this, and for the thoughtful reflections of everyone else in the comments.

    I appreciate the life I have now, and hope that all of your families have recovered as well as mine has from the wars they have fought in.

  19. wombat191 says:

    Looking at the photos of the Western front it dumbfounds me that they expected men to actually fight across that mud

  20. Dogshevik says:

    It that loam soil near Ypres? Telling from the pictures, it sure looks like it.

    I came to know such ground. I distinctly remember trying to move a diesel generator up a slight slope of perhaps only 7-10 degree inclination. The generator had a handy rail cage, so several people could grab it easily. I´d say it weighted about 60 kg. The day was overcast and there was only a soft, hardly noticeable drizzle.

    It took the three of us 17 minutes to move that bloody thing 100 meters.

    For the modern city dweller it is simply !inconceivable! (exclamation mark) how tiring, slow and often simply impossible any task under such conditions is. How your boots get heavier with every step. How cleaning them with a stick only produces narrow furrows in the clingy lumps. How often you stumble or even loose your boots alltogether. How often tools and machines don´t work because the moving parts got clogged up. How easily you loose things because they sink into the ground. How the most simple of things become near impossible because you are staggering about like clumsy, helpless idiots.

    It is absolutely true what they say. You really can´t fight in mud.
    Because you can´t do shit in mud.