EXCERPT FROM APPENDIX 1 from Don Featherstone's Battles With Model Soldiers
(The book that got me started.)

"Nothing in these pages is a dictate, no word says you must or you shall do it this way. On the contrary, the book sets out from the very beginning to stimulate the reader to think for himself, and to use what he has read merely as a foundation for efforts and ideas which reflect his own temperament and character. Only in this way will he obtain maximum satisfaction from the hobby of battling with model soldiers."

-Don Featherstone 1918 - 2013

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Slip Sliding Down the Slippery Slope or imagining armies and uniforms

It was probably inevitable that I would end up here since the day the package arrived containing Little Wars and Charge! with their fictional countries and armies.

It was while clearing the table after the last game that I found myself contemplating HG Well's Red and Blue armies and looking at the mix of uniforms on my table. To the uninitiated, one might well expect the red coated cavalry to be on the same side as the red infantry and the artillery in dark blue jackets and light blue pants to be on the same side as the cavalry and infantry in dark blue jackets and light blue pants. Well enough for historical games or even fictional games where one has selected  a particular historical army as a model and such diversity is found in the historical prototype. It can also be useful, even in a fictional setting, to have a unit or 2 that one can trot out on occasion, especially where one wants to introduce the possibility of mistaken identity. For fictional toy soldier armies, however, there is a lot to be said for a strong national identity so that anyone looking at the game can easily tell which side is which. For this the 19thC French, Prussian, Russian or Federal American armies provide a better model than the British Army, especially if the various Volunteer and Yeoman units are considered. In HG Well's case, its hard to be sure by looking at somewhat blurry B&W   pictures, but he seems to have pitted Household Cavalry, Heavy Dragoons, Guards, Fusiliers, Highlanders and Line infantry in serge  vs Horse Guards, Lancers, Hussars, khaki  clad infantry, marines and all manner of foreigners to form 2 distinct Red and Blue (or Not Red to be more accurate) Armies..
A scene from last winter's Portable Wargame refight of Hook's Farm

To date, whether I have been dabbling my toes in plausible Alternate History such as the Oregon Crisis gone hot or fiddling with imaginary countries, the armies have been essentially  contemporary British and US troops, with the odd unit out of place. As long as this remains the case, I fear that the armies will remain stand-ins rather than taking on their own character and that it will be impossible to separate Faraway from the British Empire which will complicate matters and hamper my freedom of imagination.

It seems to me that if I were to break up the historical national armies, add more non-British  and non-American uniforms and even some made up ones, then it might be easier for the armies to begin to develop their own identities. In the unlikely case that I introduce a non-historical or at least non-horse and musket wargamer  to my game, it will also be easier for them to grasp the two armies. With the decision to stay with individual figures, it will also be easy enough to provide alternate colour parties with either fictional or historical flags so that units could be borrowed for a public historical game if needs be. There are a few units, such as the Director General's Body Guard, which have developed a history over the last 4 years and thus will have to be retained as is or else be subjected to that common historical ritual, the issue of new pattern uniforms but by and large its mostly about going forward. I think I will also indulge myself and use this major shake up and expansion to jump forward to October 1851.  This is around the era that I was originally planning to set the campaign (based then on the 3 Years or Schlieswig Holstein War). This will allow me to  choose to introduce more rifles if desired as well as make increased use of technology, such as steam engines, more plausible.
Mark I Prototype Oberhilse Army

I haven't made a final decision on the as yet unnamed Northern Native Kingdom but regulars are likely to use unbleached/white cotton  uniforms in the field, with or without a poncho. Dress uniforms might be a dark yellow or a yellowy-brown with guards possibly in pale purple. The style of these uniforms has not been determined, possibly a zouave style jacket or vest,. we'll see, A high percentage of the army will be non-uniformed irregulars.

Oberhilse .is as it always has been, the Blue army with Infantry, cavalry and artillery all in Dark Blue coatees  and shakos for Full Dress, bearskins for the Grenadier Guards, but with light blue or grey shell jackets and caps in the field when appropriate. Tunics and spiked hats have been introduced into the guard and may spread. The Red Coated Peipur "Tiger" Dragoons will probably be retired to the War of 1812 where they came from but kept as an optional Volunteer Unit if a surprise/confusion unit is needed. Oberhilse is most likely to include contingents of non-uniformed "European" volunteers.
A 2008 shot of Red Army artillery and cavalry. The only thing Red about them is the General's coatee , the lancers penents and the Horse Artillery plumes and facings!

Faraway of course, is the Red Army. The infantry will remain Red with rifle units in dark green, coatees and shakos for full dress, shell jackets and caps sometimes worn in the field. The artillery however, is about to abandon dark blue and adopt red or possibly green jackets. except for the FTC Horse Artillery Rocket Battery. This unit's historical uniforms are so unlikely that I think they would loose all credibility if repainted red or green so their red plumes will have to proclaim their allegiance. At least they are unlikely to be confused with any enemy unit. Depending on how painting goes over the future, the full dress Horse Artillery uniforms may be saved for special occasions and a more modern service dress adopted in the field. For some years now, I have been planning to add red coated, helmeted dragoons and they are next on my list. For now the DGBG will keep their dark blue uniforms but they may be issued red jackets at some point in thr future. More light cavalry in green are also planned, maintaining the "light troops in green" motif set by the Rifles and Larsen's Lancers.  Non-uniformed units in the Faraway  army are most likely to be native allies.  .

2008 Mark II Oberhilse Army.


  1. It sounds good to me, Ross. It certainly would make making sense of photos much easier.

    -- Jeff

  2. I've tried doing the Red v Blue thing off and on over the years without ever quite pulling it off. Red-coated infantry always look at least a bit British and gunners seem more plausible in blue whichever side they're meant to be on.

    I suspect my problem might be that I never start with a blank sheet of paper, so to speak, and it is the effort to incorporate pre-existing painted regiments which inevitably muddies the waters. Perhaps I need to be more ruthless but it's hard to ignore what is already available.

  3. Hi Ross,

    An interesting and thought-provoking post about an age-old dilemma! I dont know why but it always seems easier to design uniforms for imagi nations in the tricorne era - perhaps because the similarities between armies appeared to be less. For my money I think adopting the purely fictional approach and starting from the ground up would be far more liberating and far less restrictive than tweaking existing historical armies.

    Interested to see how you develop this idea further.

    All the best,


  4. To 'logically' design your own uniforms adds an enjoyable facet to the creative process involved in creating an Imagi-Nation. Actually it's complementary of writing the historical background of your 'brainchild': past and current alliances / influence are likely to be reflected in the uniforms colors and cut.

    It's true that, at least for the 'uninitiated', the 'generic' look of 18th C. uniforms is more propitious.
    By Napoleonic times each major Power had its own, characteristic, 'hat' (flowerpot, frying pan, stovepipe...) military hat and cut of uniform. Thus commercially available minis painted in fictional colors tend to be identified as "soldiers of *this* nationality in odd uniforms". For the uninitiated, because such did exist: Napoleonic Italians and some troops of the Confederacy of the Rhine looked 'French' by the style of their uniform, but not its colors. I believe there was a Prussian unit in uniform of Russian cut; the 'new' Spanish army and some Dutch troops really looked 'British in not-red uniforms'...
    Later in the 19th C. the 'difficulty' is lightened because some country became worldwide 'military fashion leaders', uniforms are again less 'country specific': zouaves and men in kepi can be French as well as American (North and South), the pickelhaube was adopted by many countries after the FPW...

    Looking forward to enjoy your 'creations'!

  5. Welcome to the 'Imagi-Native' (creative?) Dark Side!

  6. I've always believed that cavalry. infantry and artillery wore different uniform colors to make it easier to identify their *real* enemy.

  7. I tend to start from scratch, take (in my case
    1870 German troops and put them Legion Kepi Blance )Blue Gray Tunics light gray trousers
    and arm of service color trim....Then just go from there.

  8. Dave, I've been there myself. Possibly an anglo-centric view? It was intriguing painting a sample Dane in Red tunic and light blue trousers. Oddly while I sometimes feel like all artillery wore blue, it seems that by the 19thC, like the British, Austrians and Saxons were the only ones whose artillery didn't wear the same colour coats as the infantry and of them, only the British went with blue. So red arty might feel quite Danish to me.

  9. DC, that is a common view but one I've never understood. Give me a black and white line drawing of British, French, Austrian and Prussian infantryman from 1757 and I can label them all without blinking. Give me the same but from 1820 and I'd at a loss as to which was which. Tight long tailed coatee, long trousers, bell shako, like peas in a pod.

    Starting from the ground up would be a great idea. Just a couple of years late!

  10. Don, Grey is an excellent colour for this, in the 19thC typical of volunteer and similar units so real but not as well known.

  11. hmm "the real enemy" perhaps this bespeaks a reason behind the superior all arms co-ordination of the Napoleonic French?

  12. Ross,

    I fear that you may be straying very near to George IV territory. A fine monarch in his way no doubt - but one who insisted on the cavalry wearing red on the grounds that the navy wore blue and the mounted arm were soldiers rather than sailors.

    While this was thankfully only a temporary enthusiasm - that it flies in the face of reason, tradition and common sense is so self evident as to require no further elucidation.

  13. Conrad, Oddly enough King Billy 4 came to mind this morning while working on transcribing an old battle report. But after all, the Light Cavalry wore red from their inception till the French Revolution so he was restoring tradition really.
    and where would the 16th Lancers be without their red coats?
    Still, point taken. I still think the light blue trousers have to go.