Behind the Lines
August 2008

In This Issue

 

Grazing Fire


"INDEGENES" and the Tarnished Glory of France

We would not ordinarily even consider opening one of these newsletters with what amounts to a truncated movie review, but in this case we all agreed that if by doing so, we could motivate even a few more open-minded wargamers to see (or at least rent, for the movie was never widely distributed in U. S. theaters), director Rachid Bouchareb's magnificent "Days of Glory", then we would have accomplished something more commensurate with the real meaning of "Independence Day" than the usual blarney that occupies this space (however charming and insightful it may otherwise be!).

The title, and consequently the movie fastened on to it, loses something in the translation. Ask for "Days of Glory" at your local Blockbuster and the clerk will probably hand you a movie about stock car racing. Indigenes in French carries some complex connotations; not just "natives" or "Indigenous people." Instead it is suggestive of the complex, nuanced relationship between France "The Mother Country" and the inhabitants of both the Indo-Chinese and North African colonies who, in theory, are entitled to the same rights of "liberty, equality and brotherhood" but who in reality were treated as second-class citizens if not as racial and mental inferiors.

So the story that unfolds in Days of Glory is seemingly a very simple one. The movie follows four young North African men (two Algerians, a Berber, and a Moroccan who, for reasons ranging from dire poverty to genuine patriotism, respond to a major recruiting drive - with its attendant promises of greater respect and improved material conditions - and enlist in the French Army. Following the classic narrative formula, Bouchareb's cameras follow them from the mountains of Tunisia to the grinding campaign in Italy, and ultimately through the campaign to liberate Alsace, in the French "fatherland" none of them have ever set foot in before.

The director knows how to stage a dramatic battle scene - no one will be disappointed in that department - but the cumulative power of the film comes through a multitude of vignettes. The deep and hypocritical prejudice against these "native" troops isn't depicted in a heavy-handed manner, but through several subtle short stories - the inferior rations, the indifferent delivery of mail, the hateful ritual of standing for inspection before high-ranking officers who barely acknowledge their existence, much less praise them for the victories they've won at such a heavy cost in blood. They are more often treated like dogs in uniform than as the tenacious and valiant French soldiers they've become. Loyalty - to an ideal, not to the reality of French mistreatment - triumphs over disillusionment, but it is clear by the last third of the picture that we are not only watching a little-known and shameful episode of World War Two, we are also watching the seeds of anti-colonial resentment being planted in the hearts of young warriors who, twenty years later, will be leading the guerrilla forces in the savage Algerian war for independence.

All that most of these indigenes wanted, aside from a decent pair of boots instead of the tropical sandals they're still forced to wear during the winter of 1944-45, is a degree of respect commensurate with their valorous service. But the French officers just don't "get it".

In one of the movie's quietest, but most powerful scenes, a hard-bitten sergeant - a non-Muslim who's fought side by side with his indigenes and borne witness to the ungrateful and demeaning treatment with which France has repaid their sacrifice -- admonishes a newly arrived superior officer to please refrain from addressing the troops as "natives", because they find the term objectionable.

“Shall I address them as ‘you Muslims’?” asks the confused and now somewhat irritated new captain.

“That would be, at the very least, inappropriate, sir. They are not here to fight a religious war, but to fight for France.”

Now the new captain is openly resentful. He glares at the grizzled non-com and snarls: “Very well, then, sergeant, you tell me. What should I call them?”

And very quietly the sergeant replies:

“The men, sir. Just call them men.”

As the final credits roll, the director reminds the audience that this story is true, and that in 1959, for no reason other than blatant favoritism, the pension of "indigenous" veterans was reduced to a fraction of that given to white European veterans. When President Jacques Chirac viewed this film, at a private showing arranged in late 2006, he was so moved by the film, and so outraged by the final information that he read on the screen, that he opened an immediate investigation and began authorizing back-pay to all those who'd had their pensions reduced. Sometimes, a movie CAN change things for the better.

Enjoy the newsletter,
The Newsletter Team

Comments? Questions? We'd love to hear from you through our general feedback contact form.



Back to Top

This Week's Historical Short: The Top Five Most Useless Weapons Ever Developed! (No. 1)

The Historical Short section is designed to provide a brief snapshot of an interesting historical event or trivia that is a little off the beaten path of regular historical discourse.

What were they thinking?

We've combed the yellowing archives, breathed the (asthma-attack-inducing) effluvia of pride and dementia the wafts from long-(and deservedly) forgotten design documents in the dankest, deepest, subterranean vaults of Imperial Germany, Edwardian England, and the "Fantasy Room" deep inside the bowels of the Pentagon, in order to bring you our nominations for…

The Top Five Most Useless Weapons Ever Developed!

You can check out the 4th and 5th most useless weapons in April's newsletter and the 2nd and 3rd place finishers in our list of shame in June's newsletter. For this month, we bring the most useless weapon ever developed!


No. 1: The PZKW-VIII ("Maus")

In their unceasing quest to gain tank-superiority, Hitler's engineers really out-did themselves on this one. Construction of a prototype began in late 1943, but only two working models had been produced by the war's end.

Under ideal conditions (and nobody could agree, exactly, one what those might be!), the Maus would have been truly formidable on the battlefield. Its main armament comprised a super-high-velocity 128mm cannon with a coaxial 75 mm "secondary" gun. Shielded by up to 200 mm (eight inches!) of armor, it was a true land battleship, measuring 33 feet long, and 12 feet high.

The catch was "getting it to the battlefield", for when fully loaded the Maus weighed 88 tons, and at least 90% of the existing bridges in Europe could not support its weight. Although the design specs called for a "cruising speed" of only 12 mph, the best it could ever manage - on dead-flat ground and with a stiff tail-wind - was 8 mph. Evasive action was not its strong suit. After wasting thousands of skilled man-hours and many tons of critically limited strategic metals in trying to make this behemoth into a practicable weapon, the Germans finally gave up in mid-1944 (although plans were afoot to mobilize at least one Maus to oppose the Russian attack on Berlin, not that it would have made a bit of difference).

Hitler's obsession with finding a "super-weapon" that would reverse the Third Reich's declining fortunes led to many strange, brilliant, eccentric, and sometimes incredibly advanced weapons - but the Feuhrer's chronic inability to set reasonable priorities also led him to spread his resources and technical talent very thin over a huge range of endeavors. The result may have been the world's most impressive collection of prototypes, and none was more so than this colossal tank that could not cross a single bridge in Germany. When finished, the pair of existing mice was literally unable to do anything but drive in slow circles around the proving grounds that gave birth to them.

Coolness factor (100 % being the highest possible rating): 97/100
Practicality AS a weapon: 0/100 (as "a tank") - 50/100 (as a semi-mobile pillbox)



Back to Top

Historical Perspective

The Historical Perspective section is intended to give readers the "history behind the game." This month, Will Trotter gives us the first part of a series about the evolution of military technology before during and after the American Civil War.

Crucible of Blood - The American Civil War And the Evolution of Modern Military Technology

Part 2 - An Army “Barely Sufficient”

William R. Trotter

Our preparation in material, equipment, [and] knowledge of the art of war…is as limited and inefficient as theirs [i.e., the armies of Russia, France and Great Britain] is powerful and ready…As a nation, other than in resources and the general intelligence of our people, we are without the elements of military knowledge and efficiency of sudden emergency…We possess a nucleus of military knowledge in this country barely sufficient for the wants of our army in time of peace.

-- Major Richard Delafield, in a report submitted to John B. Floyd, Secretary of War for President James Buchanan, early 1861

Well into the Nineteenth Century, the American people had deeply ambivalent feelings about the institution of a large standing army. Partly, the reason was ideological - too many citizens still thought that "Big Full-time Army" equated with "Redcoats" (after all, it seemed the British were always fighting with somebody or other, if not the French then with the indigenous inhabitants of some God-forsaken colonial dung-heap with a name like "Waaziristan", and that army hadn't been used to actually defend the British homeland since, oh, Ten-Sixty-Six A. D., so there seemed to be some kind of weird connection between having a large professional military caste and having endless, bloody troubles in far-away places no sane Yankee would care to visit, much less attempt to colonize; and the traditional American resentment of taxation generated an allergic reaction to the expense of raising, training, and maintaining an army large enough to guarantee the nation's freedom from hostile invaders.

On the other hand, most citizens were generally supportive of that freedom, which meant that some kind of ready-to-fight professional army was necessary. One of the harshest lessons we learned in the Revolutionary War was that a good army cannot be raised, supported, and commanded on-the-cheap, which was the natural corollary to our naïve assumption that a citizens' militia could beat a disciplined, cold-blooded professional army in a stand-up fight because its people were naturally gifted in the handling of firearms and would be motivated by fervent patriotism. "Fervent patriotism" had usually proved to be worth two disciplined volleys before the Redcoats got close enough for the militia to see how sharp the points of their bayonets were and how resolutely their ranks closed as they stepped over the bodies of the soldiers unlucky enough to be felled by a Kentucky long-rifle - usually not enough bodies to even the odds before the Red Coats got within charging range, at which point most of the militiamen felt their fervent patriotism melt away like snow in July.

By 1850, almost everyone who'd lived through it realized that the War of 1812 had been an almost criminally unnecessary affair, which had been ignited by some American politicians' fantasies about annexing Canada and had really not had a damned thing to do with the occasional impressment of hapless sailors into the Royal Navy. The first 18 months or so of that war had only taught us the same lesson all over again. The tiny professional army - which, in theory, was supposed to quadruple in size as soon as the militia was summoned to active duty, had put up a mostly ineffectual show and those militia troops who did bothered to show up were too confused about their country's motives and too hobbled by their woeful lack of training, obsolete equipment, and mediocre leadership to serve reliably as a force-multiplier. With a few duly noted exceptions, most militia units served as nothing more formidable than speed-bumps when ordered to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Regulars athwart the British line of advance; and even if they were too young ever to have faced a bayonet attack, they had certainly read about how terrifyingly good the enemy was at that sort of thing, and so were already primed with fear before they heard an angry shot.

Click here to continue Crucible of Blood - The American Civil War And the Evolution of Modern Military Technology.

Enjoying the article so far? Why not check out these great titles that focus on the same period?

Back to Top

Game Spotlight: World War II: Road to Victory Screenshot Gallery

World War II: Road to Victory is a turn-based grand strategy game to be released by Matrix Games shortly. More information on Road to Vicotry will be available soon so stay tuned!


Back to Top

Kharkov: Disaster on the Donets After Action Report

In this special section we offer the first part of an ongoing AAR between two developers for SSG's latest release, Kharkov: Disaster on the Donets. If you enjoy what you read here, head to the full AAR from SSG's website.

SSG men Steve Ford and Roger Keating go toe to toe in Kharkov, SSG's latest game. Who will prevail in this titanic Russian Front struggle?

Introduction

As a signatory to the Tripartite Pact, Japan was an Axis power that was not, in 1942, at war with Russia and therefore maintained embassies in both Berlin and Moscow. Military Attaches at both embassies were surprisingly well placed to gather information on pivotal battles and it is through these and other sources that we can reveal what really happened in the second battle for Kharkov.

In early May 1942 both sides were planning major offensives around Kharkov. The Russians aimed to capture Kharkov itself in a pincer movement. The northern arm would attack Kharkov from a shallow bridgehead they had carved out over the Northern Donets at Staraya Saltov. The southern arm of the attack would come from the shoulder of a large salient that extended into the German lines south of Kharkov and would also include a secondary drive westwards towards Krasnograd.

The German plan was to eliminate the Russian salient by simultaneous attacks from both the northern and southern shoulders of the salient. Both sides had assembled powerful forces, though the Germans had been much more successful at concealing their build up. The historical battle provided an explosive start to the campaign of 1942 which ended in Stalingrad and much is expected from the coming battle. Shot 0 shows the battlefield at the start of the battle.

Click here to continue the Kharkov: Disaster on the Donets After Action Report - Part 1.


Back to Top

Latest News

In this section we provide a rundown of the latest updates from Matrix Games, just in case you missed a press release or two.

  1. Great Invasions Is Now Available! - Survive the Dark Ages and Conquer Europe at the head of an army or a barbarian horde!
  2. World War II: Road to Victory is Released! - Find the Road to Victory in WW2 with this exciting new grand strategy game!
  3. Kharkov: Disaster on the Donets Is Released! - The next highly anticipated turn-based strategy hit from SSG is now available!
  4. John Tiller’s Campaign Series Gets a Mega Update! - A positively huge update now available for the WWII turn-based wargaming classic.
  5. John Tiller’s Campaign Series Gets a Mega Update! - A positively huge update now available for the WWII turn-based wargaming classic.
  6. Gary Grigsby’s War Between the States Gets an Update - The first update to this highly successful American Civil War game is now available.
  7. Matrix Servers On The Move... - A nifty new website design and brand new servers being set up at Matrix Games!
  8. Gary Grigsby’s War Between the States Now Available! - Fix the bayonets and prepare to charge, this turn-based American Civil War strategy tour-de-force is coming your way!
  9. Harpoon 3: Advanced Naval Warfare Is Updated Again! - Yet another update improving this famous naval combat simulator – the benefits of the community development initiative at work!
The latest additions to the Matrix product lineup.

Back to Top

A Parting Shot

Unless you haven't been to our website lately, you may notice that more than a few things have changed. Apart from the awesome new site design, our servers are in the process of changing to a new location and the overall Matrix back end of things is undergoing a massive improvement and augmentation. This means plenty of work for the Matrix staff (which is not really a departure from normal I suppose...) but it also means great new browsing opportunities for you and hopefully a more streamlined system for creating and marketing our products.

But hang on, that's only the tip of the Matrix iceberg. We also have two more conventions on the calender which we're also hard at work preparing for: GenCon Indy and the Heat of Battle II Wargaming Convention. Head to each con's website for a glimpse of what to expect at these great events and as we've been saying for months - definitely stop by and say "Hi!" if you're in the area!

And as always, anyone who would like to drop us a line and give us some feedback, complaints, death threats, etc., please don't hesitate to do so through our general feedback contact form.


Thanks for reading!
The Newsletter Team


Back to Top