Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Vimy Ridge Centenary Demonstration at the Canadian War Museum

Back in April, for the centenary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, I had the privilege helping put on a wargaming display of the battle at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.  Shawn Taylor, designer of the Great War Spearhead rules, and Robert Dunlop, one of the other GWSH gurus had arranged with the museum to put on the display in their front foyer on both the Saturday and Sunday (the anniversary of the start of the battle).

Shawn had flown in from Victoria BC with the figures, and Robert flew in from the UK with most of the terrain; in the days leading up to the event they carved out the underlying hills from foamboard, which they bought locally rather than fly in.  All told, it was a 10' x 6' table, representing 10km x 6km of the battlefield at GWSH's ground scale.

I showed up Saturday morning and helped set the table up, it took us most of the morning, in part because we had a fairly constant stream of visitors stopping by to take a look and ask questions.  We finally had things finished around noon, and then the visitors really started to come by.  We estimated we had 3-400 anyway just that day.

For Sunday we were able to leave every set up overnight, but by the time I arrived that morning, about 45 minutes before the museum opened, I found Shawn and Robert already swarmed by visitors.  In the end we estimated a few thousand came by to chat that day.

Funny thing is we never ended up moving any troops on the table; as originally planned we were going to step through the battle, but instead just left it set up to show the bombardment that opened the assault and the Canadians leaving their lines and tunnels.

It was a really special experience for me to help out, with some very moving moments as we met people who's great and great-great grandfathers fought there, in some cases were wounded or killed there.  We met two people, rather elderly, who's father's had fought, and one person who's uncle was killed there.  We also met one gentleman who's grandfather had fought there, in the German artillery.  In most cases we were able to find where on the battlefield they had been and show the path of their ancestor's unit.  One of my great-grandfathers was there, and I was able to do that for myself thanks to Shawn's notes.

What I found most interesting is how many people came prepared to talk about their family's involvement at Vimy with their military records on their phones, tablets, or hardcopy.  I saw several who stayed at the table for an hour or more, many came back later to see it again after being to the museum displays, from what I heard they really appreciated being able to see the entire layout and being able to pull back for a larger view after the more focused perspectives inside the museum.

I feel a bit bad for Shawn and Robert, as they would often get swarmed as the visitors realized how much knowledge they had, and they had trouble getting breaks in over the course of the days. I, on the other hand, had the luxury of being able to answer what I could and then pointing to one of them and saying "and there's the real expert if you want to know more."

Perhaps the most sobering conversation I had over the weekend was with a middle-aged man who'd grown up in Vietnam during that war, with his father and older brothers serving and his village being on the front lines (such as they were) often.  He said he always brought his Vietnamese-Canadian children to events like this to remind them war is terrible and many had made sacrifices on their behalf for their freedom and opportunities.

Some photos from the weekend, mainly of the great table Shawn and Robert put together (6mm figures):

Side view of the table layout, Canadian attack coming out of the left-most trench line (each "trench line" really represents about 200 yards of interwoven defensive terrain, not just a single trench).

Close up of some of the Canadian forces, each stand is a company of 200 men (in theory).

The German gun line, under bombardment.

Place names on the table, to help people identify landmarks.

The "clean" table, before we started placing troops on it Saturday morning.

Another side view of the action.

The "light" crowd.

The "heavy" crowd.

I also got to meet some Ottawa-area gamers who were also out helping for the weekend, which was great as I'd been planning to come to Cangames this year, and as you'll see in a couple of blog posts, I made it!


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  2. Fantastic write up Chris! Thanks for the great description and the personalizing of the whole experience!

  3. Great report Chris !! You were right it was an emotional experience talking to the museum goers. It certainly made the actual battle much more personal to me. The CWM also was impressed to see how much a miniature game can add to the Museum experience


  4. Thanks Ted, it was great meeting you at the event, and later at CanGames. Hopefully Shawn and Robert are back to Amiens next year and we get another shot at helping out.