Building a Murray Semaphore

The British expedition sailing to St Domingue in 1795 brought not only more than 18.000 men, but also twenty-four modular two storey timber block houses as well as the latest invention in communication technology: a semaphore.

This was almost certainly a Murray semaphore. Its inventor, Lord George Murray, had been inspired by news of the optical telegraph system pioneered by Claude Chappe and adopted by the French government in 1793. However, while Chappe’s system was based on moveable wooden arms, Murray’s worked differently. It was based on a shutter mechanism: A wooden frame contained six ‘windows’ with moveable shutters, which could be moved by means of ropes. The code was made up of different combinations between closed and opened shutters.

Lord Murray's semaphore system.
Lord Murray’s semaphore system.

Murray’s system was adopted by the Royal Navy in 1796 and several semaphore lines were built in England as well as overseas. For example, there are still towers to be found in India. Usually, the semaphore frame was erected on a building that was situated at the top of a small hill.

Each semaphore station had a compartment of four men: one on each window and two on the ropes that moved the shutters. Signals could be transmitted at an astonishingly high speed: A message from London to Portsmouth took no more than 15 minutes.

Working the semaphore.
Working the semaphore.

Wouldn’t such a semaphore make a great objective for all kinds of scenarios? No sooner had I read about it, I immediately set myself the task of building one.

As always, I built the main structure out of balsa wood. It’s easy to work with, reasonably cheap and very lightweight. To make it easier to store, I wanted the shutter frame to be removable, so I made a small socket on the inside of one wall.

The basic body of the semaphore.
The basic body of the semaphore.

The frame was built out of matchsticks. Small holes for the pieces of wire, which serve as axles for the shutters, were drilled with the model drill. The shutters themselves were made of pieces of balsa wood.

The next step was to cover the basic building with matchsticks. I really like to work with them and they give a nice rough wooden texture. For the windows I used tiny dice frames from Minibits. The roof planking was made of small strips of balsa wood. Before painting, the cabin and the frame were copiously covered with thinned down PVA glue. This not only helps the paint to stick but also makes the structure much more robust.

The building was then painted in a dark brownish grey (Stormvermin Fur for those using Citadel paints) and drybrushed with several layers of browns and greys. After varnishing, I rigged the shutter system with black polyester yarn.

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I’m really happy with the outcome and I’m looking forward to featuring it in a scenario. Maybe a British contingent has to accompany a repair party to a broken semaphore station. Could there be an ambush? Watch this space for more…

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Furniture in 15mm

To enliven my gaming table a bit I thought about adding some miniature furniture. Nothing fancy, a couple of tables and chairs in order to make nice objectives for skirmish games. However, it proved quite difficult to find manufacturers which produce that kind of stuff. While there is lots of furniture for 28mm out there, in 15mm this seems to be a neglected area.

As I wasted some time for research, I decided I might as well share the meager results so others don’t have to waste their time. Again I have to express my thanks to the knowledgeable chaps at the WD3 forum who pointed me to some interesting stuff. So without further ado here is my list of 15mm furniture:

Historical and Fantasy

Antenocitis

Antenocitis Workshop makes the nicest set I’ve seen so far. It even includes a piano and a grandfather clock! The style is more 20th century than fantasy, so it wouldn’t work for medievals but would certainly pretty up a pulp scenario.

PeterPig

Peter Pig has a set of ‘Normandy furniture’ which includes a bed with removeable mattress, a chest of drawers and another piano. Also useful for building barricades for urban combat scenarios.

Museum Miniatures offers a set of two tables and four benches hidden in the pirates range. No image, but I guess this would be the typical outdoor tavern furnishing, ready for a hearty brawl!

Essex also offer table and four chairs in their fantasy range.

BlueMoonWestern

A more specialised offer is the Western furniture set available from Blue Moon Manufacturing. This is rather comprehensive and should cater for saloon shoot-outs and similar scenes.

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Finally, among Splintered Light Miniatures‘ dungeon crawl range you can find two book shelves and two treasure chests. Those come in two versions, a normal one and a transmuted one. I especially like the warped shelf, which would also make a nice addition to Lovecraftian games – maybe the Necronomicon is hidden somewhere between those volumes…

 

Modern and Science Fiction

Khurasan

Khurasan Miniatures have a rather nice, a bit post-modern looking set of chairs, table, couch, oven and even a small desktop computer. A great place for Redshirts to lounge and update their facebook status before heading off on their mission…

MadMechaGuy

Finally, Mad Mecha Guy offers a surprising variety of MDF furniture. Apart from the usuals such as chairs and tables, he does some nice office desks and even things like armoury racks and sun loungers!

Of course, for modern and sci-fi there is always the possibility to get some H0 railroad stuff. Companies such as Preiser have all kinds of furniture sets available. For my taste, most of it looks like it was purchased at the local IKEA (or worse), but this might be just the thing you are looking for in your zombie games…

And that’s all I could find! If you come across other 15mm furniture, just drop me a line and I will amend the list for future reference.

EDIT: Splintered Light dungeon furniture added. Thanks Dagger&Brush!

Viking Warrior Women

Logo_small“There were once women in Denmark who dressed themselves to look like men and spent almost every minute cultivating soldier’s skills; they did not want the sinews of their valour to lose tautness and be infected by self-indulgence.” – Saxo Grammaticus, History of the Danes, around 1200

Old Norse sagas and chronicles are full of warlike women. The oldest of them is Hervǫr, who led an army against a Hunnish invasion in the 4th or 5th century. Her saga was reworked several times and she became a model for other warrior women. One of them was Queen Thornbjǫrg, who ruled Sweden and performed astonishing feats of arms. Another one, Freydís Eiríksdóttir, is featured in two sagas as the sister of Leif Erikson and as his companion on the expedition to Vinland, where she fought the fierce Skrælingjar.

Broche depicting a Valkyrie from 9th century Denmark.
Broche depicting a Valkyrie from 9th century Denmark.

Warrior women also turn up in chronicles. There is the ‘Red Maiden’ who commanded a fleet against her enemies in the 11th century. William of Jumiège mentions women fighting among the Vikings in France. The most copious amount of examples has been collected by Saxo Grammaticus. In his History of the Danes, he tells of the women Hetha, Visna and Vebiorg, who fought for the Danish king Harald War-tooth at the battle of Brávellir. Another warrior woman, Rusila, fought her brother Thrond for the throne of Norway and led her army to victory in a number of battles before succumbing to the Danish king.

But are those stories based on reality? Experts are still divided. Thanks to archaeology, we now know that Viking women had a much more active role in society than traditionally believed and that they participated in expeditions. To which extent they took part in combat however is still open to debate. Unfortunately, archaeology is a muddy business and often poses more questions than it delivers answers. Do grave goods tell us something about the people buried or do they rather expose the beliefs and customs of the undertakers? If we find a sword with a female corpse, does that mean the woman was a warrior or could it just have been a symbol for her status?

In a cautious and thoughtful overview of Scandinavian findings, archaeologist Leszek Gardela records several graves where weapons have been found buried besides women. Unfortunately (and in contrast to the remains of Scythian warrior women), there is no indication of battle damage (or no investigations have been conducted in this direction), so we can’t know if and how the deceased used those weapons. However, most experts concur that, if nothing else, women would have been fighting when the occasion demanded it, such as on expeditions or when defending their homes in the absence of men.

Female figure with Sword from Hårby in Denmark.
Female figure with Sword from Hårby in Denmark.

How would they have been equipped? Basically in the same way as men. Most of the weapons found in graves were knifes or spears. Freydís is depicted as using an axe, while women with swords feature in several sagas. They would also have had similar armament. This is illustrated by a passage from the Saga of King Hrolf Kraki:

“Facing him stood a man in full armour and battle ready. When the man lifted up his helmet and pushed it back, Hrolfr realized it was Queen Thornbjǫrg.”

Chain mail was worn over a thick padded garment, so the body shape would have been largely obscured. Incidentally, this applies to warrior women throughout the ages – skimpy armour emphasising body shape belongs to the realm of fantasy!

Gardela ends his research article on an inconclusive note: He states that it is too early for a definite judgement, but voices the hope that archaeology might “perhaps even sooner than we might expect” surprise us with new evidence for female Viking warriors.

Fortunately, as wargamers we don’t have to yield to the cautious rhetorics of academic safeguarding. Warrior women are certainly plausible – in fact, they are more plausible than other conventions of Dark Ages wargaming, such as units of Berserkers or Jomsvikings! So why not include some in your SAGA warband, or even field Freydís Eiríksdóttir or Queen Thornbjǫrg as female Warlords?

But which figures to use? In 15mm, there are the splendid female Vikings by Peter Pig. Splintered Light has recently presented greens of shield maidens that will soon be available for purchase.

In 28mm, Bad Squiddo Games has recently launched a new miniatures range with an awesome Viking warrior woman. More will follow, so watch the homepage!

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Bibliography

Jansone, Santa: “Ladies with axes and spears. Female Viking warriors around the Baltic Sea,” Medieval Warfare IV.2 (2014), 9-12.

Jesch, Judith: Women in the Viking Age, Woodbridge: Boydell Press 1994.

Jochens, Jenny: Old Norse Images of Women, Philadelphia: Penn. University of Pennsylvania Press 1996.

Gardela, Leszek: “‘Warrior-women’ in Viking Age Scandinavia? A preliminary archaeological study,” Analecta Archaeologica Ressoviensia 8 (2013), 273-309 (available online)

 

Beach Assault – Another Sharp Practice AAR

After finishing the beach mat, I couldn’t wait to break it in. Last weekend the time had finally come: We decided to play an amphibious assault scenario with Sharp Practice set during the Haitian Revolution.

"Pull, lads!"
“Pull, lads!”

To make things more interesting, we decided to use our ‘secret objective’ mechanics. We have used this extensively for games of Flashing Steel, but never for Sharp Practice. Basically, the idea is that there are three cards with different objectives. The attacker draws one card and has to fulfil this objective without the defender knowing what it is. The defender’s aim is simply to stop the attacker achieving the objective. To keep things going there is also a turn limit of 8 turns.

The three objectives were: 1. Hit them hard! The attacker has to rout at least two enemy groups. 2. Break through! The attacker has to get at least two of his units off the opposite table edge. 3. Free the prisoner! The attacker has to free the prisoner kept in the hut.

Having recently finished painting the long boats, I was keen to use them and decided to play the British. K. played the French defenders.

I drew the Free the prisoner! card and knew I had to move fast to get the job done in eight turns. During the set up phase, the boats landed and my troops deployed. Two groups of regulars took position on my right flank, commanded by Captain Rupert Pirbright, the leading Big Man, while one group of Chasseurs and one of sailors positioned themselves on the left flank.

Landing troops deploy.
Landing troops deploy.

The regulars immediately formed line and wheeled to cover the open ground to the right of the hut. My idea was to advance swiftly, clear the area from enemies and then break up the line and get the prisoner out. As you can see, this was to be a matter of precise timing – always a dangerous plan in a game of Sharp Practice.

The French hurry to meet the British landing force...
The French hurry to meet the British landing force…

However, at first everything worked smoothly. The line advanced while keeping up a smart fire, causing significant distress to the French regulars and militia, which were hurrying towards the front and trying to deploy.

 ... and deploy to counter the attack.
… and deploy to counter the attack.

On my right flank, the sailors also charged forward and rushed into K.’s militia without even bothering to shoot. I hit the first snag when my chasseurs threw themselves at the advance guard of K.’s maroons, which had hidden itself in the jungle. The chasseurs were thrown back with some casualties and severe shock from which they never really recovered for the rest of the game. This really spelled trouble for my left flank.

Sailors charge into the fray.
Sailors charge into the fray.

Still, so far I was in good heart, even if the clock was ticking. I finally decided I had to dissolve the line to get one group of regulars to break open the hut and free the prisoner.

British dissolve the line.
British dissolve the line.

Unfortunately, there my plan started to unravel. First, a spark caused by all the shooting set fire to the hut, causing the poor prisoner to cry for help and making it even more important to get him out immediately (this random event caused a lot of laughter). Secondly, my regulars were quite happy blasting away and not to keen to get going, so the first group didn’t even make it to the hut’s door.

French counter attack.
French counter attack.

Now K. started her counter attack. She remorselessly charged with her regulars and militia, causing considerable shock to the British group that was supposed to cover the prison break. Then she took advantage of my weak left flank and charged the sailors with another group of militia.

British are being pushed back.
British are being pushed back.

It became clear that I made a big tactical mistake: After the abortive assault by the Chasseurs, I just ignored her group of maroons hidden in the jungle. This provided her with a fresh reserve that now rolled up my flank, driving away the chasseurs. In another wild charge, her militia finally broke the British group intended on freeing the prisoner. This brought Captain Pirbright’s group of British regulars into a rather tight spot, as they were now surrounded by the enemy.

British regulars in a tight spot.
British regulars in a tight spot.

Everything was ready for the final blow, and when K. charged her regulars into my last intact group of line infantry, gallant Captain Pribright decided he’d had enough. Seeing his other groups retreating in disorder towards the boat and himself surrounded, he took his sword by the blade and extending it towards his French counterpart, mumbling: “Je suis votre prisonnier.”

Maroons cheer as the British retreat towards the boats.
Maroons cheer as the British retreat towards the boats.

Another utterly exciting game! Sometimes, because of the rather tight turn limit, our games can be a bit indecisive. This time however K. managed an outstanding victory one turn before the limit was reached. It was also a very elegant victory: Surrounding the group where my leading Big Man was located and forcing him to surrender (by having 4 times as many dice in melee than my poor shaken group!) made for a dramatic finale to the narrative.

Sharp Practice continues to deliver outstanding games. We also seem to develop tactics appropriate to the period. At least K. commented dryly: “I think I’ve now got the hang of it.” Furthermore, the new gaming mat really made the game come alive – it made a bigger difference than I thought and greatly contributed to our the enjoyment.