Touching History at the Military History Society of Rochester

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I have logged many, many hours over the years visiting battlefields, historical homes, living heritage sites, reenactments, roadside markers and all sorts of art, history and military museums. Near the top of these experiences was a full day I spent at the Imperial War Museum a few years back while working in London for over a month. With over two million visitors a year and some 11 millions artifacts, the IWM is hard to beat for immersing yourself in the history of warfare.

This past week I had a very different, yet truly remarkable experience in my first visit to the Military History Society of Rochester. Located up a flight of stairs in a warehouse inhabited by various artist galleries and studios, the MHSR occupies roughly 2000 square feet of space packed with all manner of historical artifacts focused on telling the story of the US military through the local lens of Rochester, NY.

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A timeline of US long arms from the American War of Independence through the Korean War at the MHSR

Founded several years ago by Chuck Baylis as the American Civil War Artillery Association, the group’s mission has since grown beyond his original collection of Civil War artifacts to encompass American wars from the Revolution to the present. The first room still focuses on the Civil War including detailed displays on artillery, uniforms and the 140th New York Volunteer Regiment formed in Rochester in 1862. A timeline of American long arms from the American War of Independence through the Korean War covers an entire wall.

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A timeline of military uniforms from the American War of Independence through the present at the MHSR

In the rear space of the museum, the focus swings to 20th-century with displays on World War I, World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam and present day wars. Uniforms, guns, swords, equipment hang from the walls, rest on shelves and lay slung over mannequins. Scale model airplanes hang from the ceiling, model vehicles rest on the floors and cases and a D-Day diorama sits nearby. Throughout the museum are some 2000 books as well as countless other letters, maps, photos, schematics, deck plans, prints, posters and other ephemera for perusal or research.

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 A US .50 caliber machine gun at the MHSR

Baylis has been joined by a number of passionate volunteers who can be found at the museum during its operating hours on Thursdays, Fridays and some Saturdays. Civil War reenactor, historian and wargamer Mike Vasile (co-author of the excellent Arena Games: Gladiatorial Combat rules) is responsible for many of the scale dioramas throughout the museum. Scale ship modeller Timothy Igoe of Historia Militaris Shipways has contributed several naval models to the collection and is currently undertaking a build of the USS Rochester (CA-2) for the museum. Retired Social Studies teacher Orton Begner rounds out the group with a deep knowledge of every object on hand.

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A US M1919 Browning machine gun at the MHSR

The one-to-one interaction with the MHSR’s members and the collection is what sets the museum apart from any other I’ve every visited. Everything has been well labeled, organized and put on display but hardly anything in the museum sits behind glass. Care to hold the various types of artillery rounds used in the Civil War? Want to feel the heft of a WWII era Thompson submachine gun or M-1 rifle? Would you like to take a look inside a pack carried by an American GI on D-Day? Want to lie down with a German MG-42? Ever wanted to hold a Japanese officer’s sword or 1913 “Patton Saber”? Just about everything in the museum, with the proper care, respect and assistance from one of the staff, can be touched, offering an incredibly rare opportunity to physically connect with past.

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 A German MG-42 and StG 44 at the MHSR

The mission to bring history alive beyond the walls of the museum also occurs with the exhibits members of the group bring to school groups and veteran events in the Rochester area. With its focus on celebrating the men and women of Western New York’s service in every branch of the military past and present, the museum is serving a unique and human mission of connecting today’s generations to a long tradition military service.

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My son gets some hands-on time with a Thompson submachine gun at the MHSR

In all my years of interest in history and military heritage, I have yet to find a museum as alive as the experience found at the Military History Society of Rochester. As a wargamer, the opportunity to see and handle so many objects up close is unparalleled. My time spent at the museum on my first visit was brief, but meeting the guys and seeing the collection at the museum will definitely bring me back my next time in Rochester.

Interview with Chuck Baylis of the MHSR

The Military History Society of Rochester is located in the Anderson Arts Building at 250 North Goodman Street on the second floor. Admission is free.

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World War I: The Battle of Vimy Ridge 1917 with Price of Glory

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The Battle of Vimy Ridge, France over four days in early April 1917 was not just a victory for the Allies during World War I. The battle also served as a shining example of Canadian national pride as the overwhelming Canadian-led force was able to stand on its own for the first time without British leadership on the field against Germany. The decisive capture of the German lines at the ridge would hold this section of the Western Front for the Allies until the end of the war.

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This past weekend at Metropolitan Wargamers we finally got some WWI gaming in with a quick scenario modelled on the Canadian exploits at Vimy Ridge with the Price of Glory rules from Iron Ivan Games. We unpacked over six feet of beautifully modelled trench works that had laid too long in storage and set up a gorgeous collection of 28mm WWI German and Canadian troops from Great War Miniatures. The three of us new to the rules divided the Canadians among ourselves with four rifle and machine gun squads, a grenade-armed bombing party and a Vickers machine gun to our right. Facing us across the cratered and barb-wired field was two lines of German trenches initially defended by two teams of Germans and a MG 08 on their right flank. The level of Canadian victory would be measured by the capture of the German front line, rear set of trenches or the treeline beyond in a ten-turn game.

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Canadian troops advance on the German lines at Vimy Ridge

The Canadians initially plotted four artillery targets along the front and rear trench lines. After the starting German deployment, we rolled off for the artillery bombardment which we had luckily ranged-in directly on the German rifles and machine gun on the front line. Unfortunately the dice were not with the Canadians, and all four artillery shots missed. From there, the Price of Glory rules progressed simple enough with a D10 roll-off for initiative which the Canadians won and began their advance. Teams alternate on each side of the table taking move, fire or melee actions with short movement of 3″ allowing for a full rate of fire, 6″ at fire at half-rate and a 9″ sprint allowing for now firing.

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Germans hold the front line in the trenches

As the first few turns elapsed, the Canadians at the right slowly advanced from crater to crater as they took heavy fire from the German rifles and machine gun. Defending from the trenches, the Germans were a hard target with only a “1” result counting as a hit on the fistfuls of D10s being thrown. In the rules, a team taking fire must also roll a D10 morale check or become suppressed. Morale rating is based on the command strength of the squad, with squads on both sides initially beginning with two officers each at a “7” and “8” rating. A morale check equal to or less than the command rating for the squad passes and may take an action on their turn. A squad losing their morale check must use their next activation to rally.

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Canadians advance through a gap in the wire

By mid-game, one Canadian squad had met their doom in the open wasteland in front of the German line and a second was torn in half as they limped to the trench line at the German left. At the center, a full Canadian squad made their way through a center gap followed by the bomb team. On the German right, the machine gun was eliminated and a final squad of fresh Canadians made way for the trenches. The Canadians continued to win initiative roll-offs which were modified at -1 on each side for lost squads or squads failing morale checks.

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Germans flee the front line to defend from the next line of trenches

As the remnants of one surviving squad of Germans fled the first line of defense after losing two morale checks against the encroaching Canadians, two reserve units of Germans emerged from the woods to the rear and ran to defend the secondary line of trenches. From there, the final turns of the game became a shoot-out between the two trenches with the Canadian bomb crew and a German rifle squad being nearly eliminated in the firefight. At the final turn, the Canadians had scored a minor yet costly victory by securing the first line of the German trenches for the Allies.

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The Canadian bombing party occupies the first line of trenches

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Germans hold the second line at Vimy Ridge

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Canadians hold the first line for victory

I hadn’t played a WWI game in a couple of years, and the figures and terrain at the club hadn’t hit the table in quite some time either. The Price of Glory rules ran fast, and we were all generally of the opinion it captured the combined fire and morale effects found during the conflict. We also agreed another larger game with a bit more complexity and perhaps some artillery, armor and cavalry would be in order. With many worldwide commemorations this year of the Great War’s 100th anniversary (including an excellent site from the Imperial War Museum), is was good to make time for our own journey back to the Western Front.