Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Khmer Kharvings

After the last slightly depressing travelogue from our recent travels, here's something a bit more wargamer-ly.


Everyone knows about Angkor Wat, although, as is often the case, what you think you know is probably wrong. Angkor Wat is the Temple at Angkor. Angkor means "City", or can be read as "Capital City", so Angkor Wat is the "Temple of the City". The biggest collection of buildings is in an area called Angkor Thom, or "Great City". Anyway, what this means is that there's lots of buildings in the area dating from the 9th - 12th century at the height of the Khmer Empire, ruled over by a series of many multi-syllabic monikered monarchs.

Within Angkor Thom is a temple/building called the Bayon, built by King Jayavarman VII, who was one of the Great Kings of the Khmer Empire at the end of the 12th century. From a distance the Bayon is striking for its four faced towers, looking in all directions. You can just make them out in picture above. They are massive pieces of both engineering and art.


The real surprise for those unfamiliar with the period and place is the massive amount of detailed wall carvings that decorate the lower walls of the temple. Pretty much everything we know about the Khmer Empire's army (and, actually, daily life) comes from these carvings, plus those in Angkor Wat and some in a temple in the jungle up in the North West.

Here we can see an elephant full of supplies, accompanied by infantry, probably in armour. On the right you can see a group of standard bearers, lead by a chap holding a pole with an Apsara on the top. An Apsara is a female wind or sky spirit, usually depicted as a semi naked young woman with very flexible legs. They are a very common motif in both Hindu and Buddhist buildings.


Here you can see some infantry with the curious long shields, which we don't really seem to understand. The problem is that there seem to be no artefacts apart from what is on the walls. No spear points, no armour, no shields, no nothing*.

You can see people with parasols here, and someone leading a horse. Horses are problematic as it isn't clear from the carvings if they are units of cavalrymen, or just mounted officers or messengers. As the Khmer don't seem to breed horses it looks like they had to import them all from either India or China.


The carvings also show the army's commissariat, so we have supply wagons and elephants, male and female porters, people pushing carts, or chasing chickens. It's all very lively.


We've got more infantry here, although these look to be skirmishers or light infantry associated with the elephants. They have no armour (just curious rope like cross belts) and seem to have javelins. The chappy in the elephant has a big bow.


Another elephant with archer here, but there are some other interesting items to consider. The mahout on the elephant top left has a small round shield on this arm something most of them don't have. And take a close look at the infantry and cavalry figures. You can see from their facial features (including their ears) and their headdresses that they're a different racial group to the bloke on the elephant and the soldiers we've seen elsewhere. These look Chinese, so may represent mercenaries or allies as even at its greatest extent the Khmer Empire wasn't in a position to take on the Chinese.


This picture isn't really doing what I wanted, but it'll have to do. The elephant crew top right are operating a large ballista like weapon, mounted on the back of the elephant itself. Now, who wouldn't want an army with one of those in it? At least one. Mr Kay at Irregular may be getting some of my money soon.


Elsewhere there are some carvings of naval battles against the Cham, who were the dominant race in Vietnam at the time. These battles probably took place off the coast, but could have been in Tongle Sap, the big freshwater lake near Angkor.

The Cham have either a type of helmet or long hair. You'll note that there's a row of oarsmen rowing in classic galley style at the bottom of the boat. People are fighting boat to boat, and one poor fellow who has fallen in the water is being eaten by a crocodile.


This is the Cham boat again, but a full shot. You can see the Khmer marines boarding the prow. I like the dragon head carved on the front of the boat. It's difficult to guess how big the boats were, but the crew seem packed in tight.

You will note that there are no chariots in any of these carvings. That's probably because this depicts the actual army, whereas elsewhere chariots appear in scenes from Hindu mythology where the chariot is the principal force of any army.

This was a wonderful visit. The carvings are still vibrant and full of life, quite unlike anything you would see in the west of a similar period. Absolutely delightful.



* I attended a talk recently given by Thom Richardson, formerly of the Royal Armouries. You'd be amazed at how little has survived from the same period in Europe. We thinks there's loads of stuff, but really we only have a few bits here and there, and very few complete sets of armour as they were made.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

What did I forget now?

The thing with writing your own rules is that you really have no excuse for not knowing what they are or knowing what is intended. Well, not really. I quite often forget what I was thinking when I made design decisions. Plus, as I'm developing them I can forget where I've got to and revert back in my head to an earlier version.

For this week's entertainment I also had the challenge of not playing a game with these rules for about a month due to holidays and other commitments. Any how, notwithstanding these challenges we were back in Spain for some more Civil War action


What I was able to do for this game was debut some new forces, - namely some Italians (well, lots of Italians) and also some new AA units in the guise of truck mounted HMGs.

Also, for this game I decided to play along the table rather than across it. I did this for two reasons. Firstly I wanted to try a multiple lines of defence game. Secondly I wanted to try my off-set squares grid going along the opposite grain, which makes it perform much more like a conventional hex grid board.


Phil got the Italians and started off in a bullish fashion, advancing across the open ground (BTW these pictures are taken with my phone, so apologies for poor quality & a bit of shakiness). At this stage I was having problems ranging my guns on the targets. And I forgot to put out the Under Fire markers, which were a significant change to the rules one or two iterations back.


Phil, on the other hand, had got his guns deployed and registered on the first defensive point. To make things worse he also got one of his tankette squadrons in close. The one with the flamethrower. This is a new toy, so not too unhappy to see it deployed.


At last my guns got registered on those chaps in the open, and I started to give them a pounding.


Too late for my brave fellows in the olive grove over on the left flank, who were outflanked and subject to a tank assisted close assault. This lead to a hurried retirement on my part.


Then Phil got an airstrike, and started to plaster any of my units on the main road. Some work still to be done here on the rules as I couldn't work out what I'd written down about target observation. I do know you get a modifier if you have air identification markings on your vehicles.


Despite my best efforts Phil was able to forge forwards. A combination of massive amounts of small arms fire, tanks and artillery with a little bit of bombing is a winning combination. I did rough up some of his units quite badly (and damaged a CV35 with an HMG), but I let my units get isolated and overrun piecemeal. Alas my attempt to close assault an armoured unit did not succeed.


Finally Phil seized the last bridge with his AA truck unit.


This is a picture of the final position. Note the howitzers firing from a defiladed position. I think the Italians are a bit strung out, and if I had any forces for a counter attack I'd be well in there.

Another satisfactory run through, with a few notes taken for future modifications. And a successful first outing for the CTV. Jolly good all round, really.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

S-21 and Choeung Ek

We have been away in South East Asia recently, starting in Laos and finishing up in Cambodia. Both are lovely, beautiful countries with friendly, welcoming people. There is much to commend both of them to any traveller. We chose not to see Cambodia as an extension to our Vietnam trip a year or so ago in order to do justice to them both. This tour took us nearly three weeks.

With Cambodia there is some awkwardness to be addressed. Like a visit to Poland raises the question of visiting Auschwitz, so a visit to Cambodia raises the spectacle of the Killing Fields and how you are going to react to them.

The Holocaust perpetrated by the Nazis is history to my generation (I'm in my late 50s). I do not recall when I first learnt about it. In many ways it has always been something I've been aware of. The Killing Fields of the Khmer Rouge are something that happened in my life time, the details slowly emerging to disbelief and outrage.

The Cambodian leg of our tour ended with visits to the S-21 Interrogation Facility in Phnom Penn and the Choeung Ek Killing Fields associated with it.

Within our small group there was a discussion about whether it was appropriate to photograph either site, and whether such tourist-like acts are respectful. In the end I decided that I would take pictures, for two or three reasons.
  1. I was unlikely to be going back. If I wanted a photographic record, then it was now or never. If I changed my mind about having the pictures later I could always delete them.
  2. I was still thinking hard about it all as I was going round. I knew that I would only be fully able to get all of my thoughts straight if I wrote them down. From the minute we approached the gates of S-21, I was going to write a blog about it.
  3. Whether it is respectful or not the evidence needs to be shared, and shared regularly. If the evidence is kept in a dark, locked away place then it can be denied. Furthermore our understanding of the Cambodian Holocaust as well as the German Holocaust must be based on evidence and fact. If either become a matter of belief or faith then their existence can be denied.
S-21 was mostly used to interrogate and torture members of the Khmer Rouge who had been identified as traitors to the regime. It has to be remembered that the Khmer Rouge was not just a collection of fanatical communists, but included Cambodian nationalists who supported the King and wanted foreign intervention removed form their country. King Sihanouk backed the Khmer Rouge and became titular head of state when they seized power.  The US backing for a the Lon Nol regime who took power in  a coup, and the fall out from the way the Vietnam War was being waged drove Cambodians of a wide range of backgrounds to support the Khmer Rouge. Thus, initially, there may have been genuine reasons for suspicion, but after the initial batch of prisoners were forced to give the names of 10 collaborators then it became a terrible, deadly, macabre snowball of denunciations.


Terribly S-21 was set up in a school. It is hard to thing of a worse perversion of a building's intent, unless they had used a hospital.


The four school buildings were lettered A. B, C & D. The building above is building A. It contained relatively large rooms where inmates were held and tortured in order to obtain confessions and further names. Many of the camp guards were young, - probably in their late teens. Only the very young, without family ties, brought up within the Khmer Rouge could be trusted. They had no history before the revolution and so could be relied upon to show total loyalty.


This is building B, one of the detention blocks. As I understand it prisoners were not tortured in here, just held captive in their minuscule cells (see picture below). The arrangements were nothing if not practical. There was insufficient room to interrogate or torture people in these spaces, although the denial of space, light, and food and the rudimentary sanitary arrangements was all part of the process to break the prisoner's spirit.


The rooms in the lower levels have had the cells removed and now display board after board of photos of the prisoners held and tortured in S-21. These include the head shots you would expect as well as before and after photos of inmates being executed. The Khmer Rouge kept meticulous records of who was taken to S-21, including height and weight to go with the pictorial record. They had a single typewriter, I think, and one of the survivors was kept alive as he was an engineer able to repair it.

All sorts of people were detained in S-21, including a few westerners, although as I said above this was mainly for Khmer Rouge members who were suspected of betraying the revolution. The principal criteria for being held was to be denounced by someone else who had been detained. The Cambodian Genocide was not primarily racially motivated, although ethnic groups do seem to have been exterminated, as it encompassed anyone who might challenge the self-sufficient agrarian model the Khmer Rouge were intending to impose upon Cambodia (known as "Year Zero"). As such teachers, engineers, and intellectuals (such as anyone who wore glasses) were not required by the new state and so had to be weeded out. The aim was that Cambodia would only need Cambodians to run it and it would rely entirely on resources within Cambodia. Those who didn't die in the Killing Fields were sent to the countryside to grow rice or construct canals by hand.

It is a chilling vision of where such thinking goes followed to its logical conclusion. This was not done in the heat of the moment. Unlike, for example, aspects of the genocide in former-Yugoslavia, where groups of men would go somewhere, round everyone up and shoot them, this was meticulously planned and carried out over a sustained period of time.


Clearly anyone sent to S-21 would soon lose hope. The Khmer Rouge allowed no form of escape, however, using barbed wire as anti-suicide netting.


The site was liberated by the Vietnamese when they invaded in 1978/9. It is interesting that we heard the view that all of this slaughter was conducted at the instigation of Vietnamese spies. It is a view that is quite hard to credit, and is probably more rooted in the history of the area than hard evidence. Of course, once the Vietnamese invaded we had the unseemly site of the US administration backing the legitimacy of the Khmer Rouge regime as they were fighting the Vietnamese.

When the Vietnamese got to the camp the guards killed their last 14 victims and then fled. The graves of this last 14 are in the square surrounded by the school blocks, as seen in the picture above. Not everyone died. There were seven adult survivors and three children


There is also a small monument as a reminder never to forget the deeds carried out here.


On most days two or three of the seven survivors can be found in the grounds of S-21. They have each co-operated in writing a small book about their experiences which they will autograph for you, and pose for a picture either with you or for you. Bou Meng joined the Khmer Rouge with his wife but was not a party member. He wanted to help restore the King. He earned his living as a commercial artist working for cinemas mostly. He left secure employment to go into the jungle to support the revolution, before being denounced as a CIA or KGB spy. After a period of torture and interrogation he was spared in order to paint pictures of Pol Pot. He was not the only artist so saved, - there were a few others who also painted as well as a sculptor. Alas his wife did not survive. He never saw her again, live or dead, from the day they were both taken to S-21 on the pretext that Bou Meng was being taken to teach at the Fine Arts School.


The other survivor when we visited was Chum Mey. He was the man who repaired the typewriter. I haven't read his book yet. Reading both of them back to back was a bit too much for me to stomach.

There isn't a lot else you can say, really. Most of the victims were not killed at S-21. Although they had a gallows it was for torture, not execution. Once the guards and interrogators were done with the inmates they were taken to Choeung Ek, a Killing Field outside Phnom Penn.


Choeung Ek was a  graveyard for the Chinese community, situated just outside Phnom Penn before the Khmer Rouge turned it into a place of mass execution. Prisoners were taken from S-21 at night, moved in the dark so no one, both prisoners and Phnom Penn residents, would know what was happening.


At Choeung Ek most executions were carried out by being hit by iron bars and the like, with throats being cut by rough edged palm leaves to be sure. This method saved bullets. Whilst this may have been the main reason it also had a couple of other effects. The sheer hands-on brutality of the process tied the killers even closer to the regime. There's no chance of aiming to miss, - either you are involved in the killings or it is clear you are not. It is also quieter. In any event loud music was played at the site to cover the sounds of screams. Covering gunfire is more difficult.

There are 129 mass graves, of which 86 have been excavated. From these nearly 9,000 bodies have been recovered out of probably in excess of 20,000. Buddhist beliefs make the disturbing of the dead even more problematic than would normally be the case, so the remaining graves have been left. This means that heavy rains bring new bones and clothing of the murdered to the surface every year. This makes the site even more chilling. Nothing has been neatly tidied away.

It is a place where you have no idea of how to react correctly. Lots of people leave offerings of various types. Our guide, a Buddhist, remarked that these were all pointless as they mean nothing for the spirit unless a priest has been involved. I expect that most are doing so because others have done so before them and it is doing something rather than nothing. If in anyway it assuages grief or makes the visitor feel better about themselves then it is wrong. You cannot come here and leave feeling better about yourself as a human being. This was an act of imaginable horror carried out by people like us. If you think it isn't, then you are both wrong and open to being manipulated by those who would have their way through fear and hatred. It starts with "We must/can rely on ourselves alone" and ends up with "Let's kill everyone else". This is nothing to do with the inevitable consequences of Communism or Socialism. It is all to do with hate and fear, driven by Nationalism. The Khmer Rouge regarded themselves as a National Liberation Army as well as Communist Revolutionaries.

Never were the words "No man is an island" more true. Each man's death diminishes us all, regardless of where they are from.


In the centre of the field is a monument, or as it is called locally, a stupa. It evokes the Cambodian style of temple building in its construction. The windows you can see facing you are mostly full, floor to ceiling, with skulls and other remains. I did not feel the need to go in it.

There is a museum on the site, but otherwise all the buildings have been removed. The store shed for the tools and weapons used to dispose of the prisoners and the chemical store where they kept the DDT used to mask the smell of the rotting corpses have gone.

On reflection this is even more disturbing than I imagined. I hadn't really considered that this is a horror perpetrated by my generation. As I said above many of the guards ween young, often teenagers. The same age I was when this was being done. Young people swept up in a belief at first that they were liberating their country and going on to do a greater good. Their idealism was perverted and they became trapped in a process where they had to carry out these crimes or become victims themselves. No doubt some enjoyed what they were doing, but all of them?

I was also struck by the organisation and thought that went into arranging all of this. I've suggested above that what was done here was not the work of white hot passion. Someone found a photographer. Someone found a typewriter. Someone found suitable premises. Someone had the buildings modified. Someone worked out the workflow from building to building and from room to room.

Someone arranged the transport to Choeung Ek. Someone arranged the slaughter in an efficient and effective manner. Someone ensured that neither sight, nor sound nor smell gave all of this away. The level of organisation and calculation is formidable.

As someone who has spent their life as an administration manager, who has worked and run many projects, the finger prints of someone like me are all over this. Someone was given a series of problems to solve with finite resources and did so. It is a terrible, terrible, chilling thought. Evil has to be organised.

And it wasn't just in Phnom Penn. It wasn't just a few individuals. Before coming to S-21 we had visited a Killing Field memorial near Battambang, in the grounds of a temple called Samroung Knong


This stupa-like monument was built through private donations both local and from Cambodian communities overseas. This is a minor Killing Field, and less organised than S-21 it would appear. They think about 10,000 people were killed, many pushed down a well afterwards.


As with the stupa at Choeung-Ek the monument has windows filled with skulls and other skeletal remains.


The monument stands on a base where concrete cast reliefs show what happened, from the rounding up, the sorting, the executions and the mass forced marriages. These type of reliefs are very much a Cambodian architectural feature, as the famous Wats and buildings at Angkor are covered in them.

A friend of mine who went to Bosnia with IFOR once remarked of the people that he had met, who had done terrible things, that "They had colour TVs and washing machines. They were just like us." In a few years they had reduced themselves to living in squalor, killing their neighbours. Whilst Cambodia in the 1970s was a poorer country than former Yugoslavia in the 1980s and 1990s they were still people with hopes and aspirations who lived in well ordered civilized communities.

Anyone who ever says "it couldn't happen here" is ignoring the world around them and has no imagination.

So that's why I took my pictures, and those are my thoughts, properly organised, for now.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

WMMS Alumwell 12th March

Last Sunday saw me and Phil heading off to Wolverhampton for the West Midlands Military Show, now in its 41st year.

This was my first chance to take "Northampton 1460" to a show since we published in January.
We were representing the Northampton Battlefields Society, the Society if Ancients and the Battlefields Trust, so quite a tall order for just the two of us.

We thought we were there in good time but others were up before us. We were at the far end of the hall (someone has to be) wedged in between a Bolt Action game featuring aliens (I might have dreamt this as I'm a bit out of touch) and a WW2 memorabilia group who were doing their best to fill as much space as they could with their two jeeps and arsenal of weapons. It was a bit tight and by the time we'd got our tables sorted and our banners up we barely had room to breathe and the Warlords man behind us looked less than happy at his none too prominent pitch, which our banners seemed to be conspiring to conceal. Sorry.

The show was busy if not spectacular. It was good to catch up with Martin and Nigel at Peter Pig and sort through their stuff to find what I needed for my SCW game. Sometimes photos on the web just aren't good enough, or you just can't find what you need by browsing. A brief chat with Nigel outlining the sort of thing you want leads to him pulling a few packets out from the racks and you can eventually narrow things down to a suitable alternative. So, anyway I've got some AA MGs to go in the back if a few Zvezda trucks and some mortars and some Isabelino caps for head swaps.

Otherwise the retailers were a good mix, although no Dave Lanchester and no Ian Kay, both of whom I'd have liked to have given money to.

Most of the display games were big 28mm jobs, a 54mm game or two and some WW1 air war so nothing stunningly original although all well executed. I'd have liked to have tried Martin Goddard's new version of his Vietnam game "Men of Company B", but I never get enough time if I'm on a stand.

We ran the game half a dozen or so times and sold 4 copies to players. Everyone who played it enjoyed it, so that was positive. We also did a deal with Dave Ryan who took a number of copies, so you will be able to buy through Caliver Books at shows we can't get too.

The nice thing about doing a stand like the SoA is that eventually everyone you know who comes to the show will walk past and say hello. It was lovely to catch up with Jim, who I last met nearly three years ago when he came for a visit and gave me a load of plastic El Cid figures. Alas for me he had to move for work and he is the other side of Wolverhampton, so this was a half-way-between-us show. Then Tim Cockitt and other ex-WDers stopped by and one or two I met at the Guild of Battlefield Guides. The latter were really useful as it meant that Malcolm Wanklyn stopped by as well, so I was able to thank him for the pleasure I've got out of his ECW books.

The show started to wind down half an hour before official closing, so we were away at a reasonable time, only to be surprised by the M54/M6 traffic.I drove this road through rush hour for nearly six months and the traffic was very nearly as bad as then. 

Then we got held up for nearly an hour on the M6 because someone had flipped their car over.

Apart from that a satisfactory day out.

Next up, Campaign at Milton Keynes 6th/7th May.




Thursday, 9 March 2017

Northampton 1460 on Boardgame Geek

I have an approved page on BGG for the game now. You can find it here: link.

I will be adding more information and links as time goes by, but there's a place for you to record your comments and ownership now, should you wish to.

The FAQ page has been updated recently too: link.

More recently the press release was printed in the Battlefield Trust magazine, which has generated some interest.

This weekend - 12th March - I shall be at the Alumwell WMMS show with the game and copies for sale. Perhaps I'll see you there.