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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New Game Weekend: Fire In The Lake

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I sometimes forget that I was born during the Vietnam War, one of the more complicated military conflicts in American history. In April 2015 we’ll be sitting 40 years after the fall of Saigon and the pullout of American involvement in the region’s conflict which began in the mid-1950s. To mark the occasion, the US government has quietly launched a special 50th anniversary Vietnam War Commemoration website this past year. Decades later, the complicated legacy of Vietnam continues to reverberate as even the website has proven to be controversial.

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Game set-up for the Fire In The Lake 1965-67 beginner’s scenario

Having played a few games of Cuba Libre over the past year, I’ve finally had a chance to dive into another in the COIN Series from GMT Games this fall with the Vietnam War themed Fire In The Lake. The counterinsurgency (COIN) games focusing on modern conflicts have fast become new favorites among a lot of us at Metropolitan Wargamers in Brooklyn, NY, and since the summer a core group at the club have been working through multiple games of FITL and getting a decent handle of this richly complex game.

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Sample cards from Fire In The Lake

Like other games in the series, FITL uses a card-activation mechanic to drive the game among the competing factions of US forces and US-allied South Vietnamese ARVN counterinsurgency and the insurgent northern NVA and Viet Cong guerrillas and regulars. Cards provide turn order at the top of each with a symbol for each faction. Each player chooses to use the Event on a drawn active card, conduct an Operation and/or possibly also conduct a Special Activity related to the Operation. Operations include such things as Rally or Train (recruiting troops, irregulars and/or building bases); March, Patrol or Sweep (to move and expose and/or remove guerillas), Assault or Attack (to remove enemies); and, Terror (to effect support and opposition). Adding in Special Activities such as the VC’s Tax and Subvert, the devastating Air Strike from the US, Ambush and Infiltrate from the NVA and the ARVN’s Govern and Raid makes for a powerful set of player actions.

The card text contains effects beneficial to the US and ARVN COIN players at the top and NVA and VC events in a shaded box at the bottom. Events can produce either immediate benefit to the player using the card or a negative result to another player, so a player might choose to act on a card’s Event merely to prevent another player from using the Event. Keeping an eye on turn order and the next available card also drives decisions, as one player’s choice can limit or enable the next choice available to the following players. Every nine cards contains a random Coup card which pauses play for a round of faction-specific series of phases whereby resources are gained, troops are redeployed, pieces are reset and victory conditions are checked.
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FITL Support/Opposition, Control and US, NVA, ARVN and VC Victory track markers

Each of the four groups has their own path to winning the game with victory points scored at the edges of the board on a track that also marks Resources, Aid and Patronage levels. The VC score by shifting the population of provinces toward opposition and constructing bases while the somewhat allied NVA win through gaining population control and creating bases. The ARVN player gains points through population control and earning patronage from the population of the cities and provinces. The United States wins through shifting support and building up the number of available bases and troops (reflecting a victorious withdrawal of the military from Vietnam).

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Another FITL game in progress this week

The combination of random turn order, Events, Operations and Special Activities creates a dizzying amount of variation to how a FITL game plays out over a few hours. With many interdependent actions and victory conditions, an unpredictable stack of Event cards and uncertainly timed Coup scoring rounds, Fire In The Lake makes returning to Vietnam again and again a most worthy choice.
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New Game Weekend: Force On Force

Enduring FreedomFor a person who spends an outsized amount of time reading about, researching, modelling historic soldiers and playing wars of the past, I have pretty much ignored the wars of my own lifetime from the late 1960s to present. Born during the Vietnam War, I grew up in the last two decades of the Cold War. From there, the protracted engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan and the ever-shifting nation-less “War On Terror” have occupied my adult years. The United States has been at war for most of my life and all that of my two sons. For a whole host of reasons, I prefer to set my wargaming in the comfortable distance of the past.

FOFRulesForce On Force rule books from Ambush Alley Games

This past weekend at Metropolitan Wargamers in Brooklyn, NY, I took a rare trip to a modern tabletop battlefield with my first play through a couple of scenarios using the Force On Force rules system. Published in 2009 by Ambush Alley Games and distributed by Osprey Publishing since 2011, FOF has become the go-to rule set for miniatures gamers focused on modern conflict. The rules provide elegant gaming mechanics for asymmetric warfare between elite regular units and irregular forces. Using this, the FOF system accounts for the more advanced tactics, leadership, communications and equipment of US and NATO forces against the highly motivated yet less professional and poorly equipped irregular Taliban forces.

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The Afghanistan battlefield for our Force On Force scenarios

Our two scenarios presented a generic engagement between US Marines and Taliban forces in and around two typical walled compounds in rural Afghanistan in 2010. Amid the arid trees, hills and fields, the table was set with a hefty collection of 25mm Middle East structures from the Miniature Building Authority. The eight-turn scenario involved two four-man Marine squads attempting to hold a walled compound against the encroaching Taliban forces.

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As elite forces in FOF, the US Marines carry initiative and announce two actions  at the beginning of the turn. Actions include combinations of such things as shooting, remaining on overwatch, hiding, tactical movement of up to 6″ or rapid movement up to 12″ with a subsequent penalty for firing. The elite nature of American Marine regulars allows the unit to function without a troop quality check. Shooting for the US is achieved with D8s, one for each figure in the squad, with additional dice thrown into the mix for special or heavier weapons. For the Taliban without leaders present, movement must first be determined with a troop quality check with one D12 per each figure in the squad, and shooting is done using D6s. With their local knowledge, Taliban forces can also choose to move anywhere at any distance on the table provided they do not cross line of sight of any US forces.

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Thus the differing size of the dice thrown for each squad type — US regulars and Taliban irregulars — is used to determine all the variations in asymmetric troop quality. In FOF, any rolls of 4+ are considered successes, so the relatively easy D12 motivation tests for the Taliban account for their zealous dedication while their weaker D6 combat rolls mimic their relatively untrained fighters and poor weaponry with only a 50/50 chance of hitting anything. In addition, a Taliban figure firing a rocket-propelled grenade RPG gains two extra D6 but hits must be re-rolled with results of a 1 indicating a dud rocket and no effect to the target. On the other hand, US forces hit 2/3rds of the time using their D8s. Hits are applied randomly to figures in the unit, except for successful hits from US snipers which allows for a choice of targets.

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Second US Marines squad with sniper advances

In our game, the first US Marine squad began in a field adjacent to the objective compound with a single Taliban unit perched on an adjacent rooftop. The Marines chose to remain in cover on overwatch, allowing the Taliban a first ineffective round of fire. The Marines returned fire killing one of the Taliban fighters. Turn two saw the entry of the second US Marines team, including a sniper, while the first team scooted into the compound at a full 12″ of rapid movement through two open doors. The Taliban’s second unit, including an RPG, entered the table with a lucky roll of 6 which allowed them to deploy at the corner near the second US unit and the compound.

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Second US Marine squad takes heavy fire from two Taliban units

Over the next two turns, the first US team remained within the compound guarding the objective while the second US squad crept to a copse of trees just outside the compound’s walls. At the wall, the Taliban fired their RPG to open a hole in the wall to expose the US Marines inside. Another Taliban unit with two RPGs and a leader rolled another 6 to also deploy near the compound, moving close to their nearby allies to give the other unit the benefit of the leader.

Along the way, “fog of war” event cards were drawn on rolls of 1 during reactive fire. These cards add an extra element of randomness to a FOF game. The first card eliminated the Taliban’s ability to move anywhere on the table out of line of sight due to an US drone launching overhead. The second card drawn allowed the Taliban to set an improvised explosive device (IED) between the second US squad and the compound, effectively eliminating a direct path to the objective. The final card was pulled by the Americans an allowed for an “excellent position” to be created to protect the second team at the trees.

In the meantime, combined fire from the Taliban eliminated the US sniper in the trees and injured the other three members of the squad, effectively pinning them for the remainder of the game with no friendly force nearby to attempt a first aid check. With one American squad left and the Taliban poised to close in on the compound from multiple directions, the game went to the Taliban.

We switched sides for the second game with one US Marine unit immediately taking up position within the compound and the second unit moving under cover through the nearby ruins and trees. The Taliban reinforcements were not as lucky with their placement, and all entered at the far end of the table with stalled movement due to a lack of leadership. Again, a fog of war card eliminated the Taliban’s free movement on the table. A RPG shot blew up one building in the target compound, but the Marines survived and pulled back to another building. By turn six, the second US squad most moving to protect the compound and the Taliban forces, while great in number, had failed to advance far enough to prove a threat. A final fog of war card brought in a sandstorm, effectively shutting down shooting and movement for the remainder of the game. The US Marines had done their job and held the objective and the day.

One of the benefits of gaming modern war is the wealth of immediate information available in refighting actual engagements or creating other realistic scenarios. For our battle, some of the excellent coverage from National Geographic’s documentary Inside The Afghanistan War was used, and countless books, articles, photos, videos and websites provide further information and inspiration. The Force On Force rules do a masterful job at representing small engagements between regular and irregular forces, and I look forward to another series of games bringing in additional types of weapons, support and vehicles to the mix. Yes, our modern wars are still unfolding immediately in real-time, but with FOF a better appreciation of the tactics and challenges of today’s soldier is well represented for the interested wargamer.

Downloading: A Century of British Pathé Newsreels

pathe_6da6dceb176b5785e86615b8619ffb28With today’s constant digital feed of news both major and minor, it’s fascinating to think back to an era where newsreels supplied much of the world’s news in motion. In an era still ruled by newspapers and radio, newsreel series from The March of Time, Fox Movietone News, Universal Newsreels, British Pathé and others brought events from far corners of the world to local movie house audiences. Presenting news in motion with dramatic music, voiceovers, selective edits and even reenactments, newsreels provided important foundations for how people would eventually consume video news via television in the latter half of the 20th-century and online in the 21st-century.

British Pathé announced this past week the availability of much of its archive of some 85,000+ HD videos available via YouTube. Some videos appear in their original full newsreels including iconic opening titles, graphics and voiceovers. The A Day That Shook The World series offers more modern edits of pivotal world events from a UK perspective. Other videos are mere snippets, often presented without sound or much context.

Topics covered in the British Pathé newsreels range from celebrity, politics and British royalty to industry, disasters, contemporary slices of life and news from the British Empire worldwide. From the historical to the humorous to the downright bizarre, the newsreel collection paints a wide picture of nearly 100 years of life on Earth.

For people with an interest in armed conflict of the 20th-century, the British Pathé collection has some gems. The Second Boer War gets a little coverage in some amazing footage from the years around the turn of the 20th-century. World War I is covered in major battles such as the Somme and Verdun, but also short features on new technologies like tanks and news from the home front.

Second Boer War

World War I

World War II coincided with the peak era of newsreels, and the British Pathé collection provides an amazing document. There are full newsreels covering the Battle of Dunkirk and the Battle of Arnhem from Operation Market Garden. The brutal siege and liberation of Stalingrad gets a lot of coverage, as does the major battles of the Pacific like Iwo Jima. Nail-biting aerial and naval combat from throughout the war is also documented in some stellar footage.

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There’s a ton of additional military-themed footage in the post-WWII era covering the Cold War events, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Six Day War and the Falkands War. Seeing history come alive in video vignettes from British Pathé, often with more than a glint of heroic propagandist presentation, is just another opportunity to view history as contemporary audiences once saw it. With more and more archives enabling wide distribution of their photo, film, map and document collections online, armchair historians everywhere can tap into a wealth of information painting an ever-widening picture of our past.