Lessons from the Classroom: The Battle of Gumbinnen, 1914
On Wednesday afternoon, my students got a chance to play a small engagement from the scenario book, "All Fine Men", a game supplement written by Shawn Taylor for use with Great War Spearhead II. I've found over my teaching career that games can be just as valuable as any text or video at getting a lesson across. In this case, my students got a crash course in why the first battles of WW1 were so challenging and destructive to the armies involved.
For those unfamiliar with GWSHII, it is a really elegant system originally derived from Arty Conliff's WW2 game. In the WW1 version, mechanics are kept at a minimum, and overall planning is put at a premium.
My students were divided into groups. The 10th and 11th graders were tasked with coming up with a German attack plan which was meant to seize the town of Sodinehlen, and drive the Russians out of their hasty defenses. This engagement was part of the much larger Battle of Gumbinnen, which took place in late August, 1914. I gave them a portion of the map out of the book (kudos to Robert Dunlop, who played a huge role along with Shawn in the research for these scenarios) to use for planning. The seniors would then approve the plan they thought would work the best, based on what they've learned about warfare over the course of the year (and most recently, on WW1)
Because we only would have 40 minutes to play, the game was tiny. The Germans had 3 battalions of 4 stands each, plus 3 artillery batteries and a MG. The Russians had elements of 2 battalions in the front line, with supporting MG detachments, plus 3 batteries in reserve. There were also several companies in reserve.
Thankfully, I have a free period before our class, which enabled me to set the table up. I laid out command arrows for the players, so they could understand which route they'd need to attack in. According to the GWSH rules, units must follow their command arrows very strictly, and may only change those arrows once the enemy is engaged.
We managed to get 4 turns in, and the students seemed to really enjoy it. The Germans took a cautious approach, sending a battalion and the artillery (which they chose to use in a direct fire role) to take the hill directly in front of the village. The real hammer blow would be on the right flank, with a battalion heading directly on an angle towards the goal. The idea was to use the artillery to shell the front defenses and cover the attack on the right.
With the seniors rolling for the Russians, casualties occurred almost immediately. The Germans made it up onto the hill, but were spotted quickly. During the fire phase, the Russians successfully called in indirect artillery fire and suppressed multiple battalions. They also caused casualties on both flanks.
The Germans opted to hold their positions, and began to open up on the Russians in an attempt to gain fire superiority. They managed to kill several Russian stands, but lost a gun and several stands up on the hill.
When class ended, the Germans were primed to advance on the right flank, and had a very loose hold on the center.
On the left, the Germans were being peppered and held in their positions.
During our debrief today, the students recognized so many of the issues of 1914. Despite the Russians destroying nearly a 1/3 of the German force, they rolled poorly, and struggled to give an order change to their reserves, and failed to direct their indirect artillery to a new target. The students understood how difficult it was to coordinate these battles, and could feel a sense of futility on the attack. One student noted the importance of artillery, especially in softening up a defending position. Some of the students commented on what it must have been like for commanders to see casualties on this scale. All in all, it was a rewarding experience and the students certainly know more about WW1 than they did before.