“At five o’clock a fearful din of guns broke out and heavy shells struck with reverberating crash on Ypres and many villages rarely or never touched before; and to the nostrils of men nearer the front came the smell of devilish incense. Those nearer still to the trenches north of Ypres saw two curious wraiths of greenish-yellow fog creep forward, spread until they became one and then, moving forward, change to a blue-white mist. It hung, as it had come, over the front...” Sir Basil Liddel Hart. History of the First World War.
On Saturday we took a break from our usual AD&D game and played something else. A quick, one shot adventure, that allowed me to get a break from being the DM and being able to play. I was under the impression that it was going to be Twilight 2000 but Nick sprang something else on us entirely. He had pre-rolled all the characters, we had to roll highest to lowest to see who got what. There was a Captain in the 9th Highland Division, a Grenadier from the South African 1st Infantry, as well as two Privates from the same regiment. The Captain was a Scot, the grenadier an English speaking South African and the two privates were both Afrikaans speaking who shared the surname of Van Tonder. Nick told us we were playing in WW1 and going to be using the GURPS Lite rules. I have never used them before and to be honest, I don’t really mind what system I play, just as long as it doesn’t choke the game play. I got the Grenadier. A sergeant called, Tom Cullen.
Anyway, it was the evening before the third offensive on the Somme. The South Africans were tasked with the taking then holding of Delville wood on the outskirts of a German held town called Longueval. We were to go over the top that evening and make our way to a châteaux about a two miles outside the town. Once there, we were to gather any and all information on it, and make our way back to our HQ. Sounded simple enough, but hey, this is role-playing, so nothing is ever that straight forward.
We waited for true darkness before heading over the wire and down No-Mans-Land to the east of the Allied lines. There were Whizz-Bangs and machine guns going off all around us, not to mention flares and shouts from both sides, but we made it in one piece to our jump off position. We formed up and headed over a field toward our target. After about an hour we came across a small river and heard a German foot-patrol approaching. We ducked and waited as they passed us by. Van Tonder (1) and I drew our batons, and crept after them. We clubbed two of them, Van Tonder (2) inexplicably shot one of them and the Captain subdued the last one. We thought the shot would have given us away, but luckily because of the shelling etc, going on to our left, no one paid it any attention. We tied them up, took their uniforms, buried ours at our first fall back point (an old oak tree) and interrogated the youngest. We questioned him about everything else first, before casually slipping in fairly innocuous questions about the châteaux and its contents. We figured it would be used by officers as a HQ position, but we just wanted to make sure. It turns out that the châteaux was off-limits to everyone, except some Elite Division the young lad didn’t really know much about anyway. We tied them up, and headed off to the châteaux to complete the mission. It was still a few miles away, so we tabbed (ran) the distance as the clock was ticking.
About two hundred metres in front of us it rose out of the gloom. From what we could make out in the darkness, it was a two story building flanked by two single story buildings to the east of it. One was an obvious stable so we dispatched Van Tonder (1) to have a look as he had Animal Skills and would stand less of a chance of spooking the horses. We needn’t have bothered. What was left of the horses was just so much mincemeat all over the walls, roof and floor. It was if someone had thrown a bomb in here and the horses had evaporated into a red, meaty, mist.
We scoped out the other building. It was filled with machine parts and strange bits of equipment we knew nothing about that looked to be more scientific than agrarian, so we noted what we could and headed to the main building. All the windows were boarded up so we couldn’t get a look inside. We checked the servant’s entrance at the back and found the door unlocked. Van Tonder (2) checked for obvious I.E.Ds and declared it clear, so we breached and began to clear the bottom floor. It was pitch black so we got a lantern going and began to investigate. The downstairs appeared to be normal, with a pantry, kitchen, cellar and living area in some disarray, but nothing too serious. There were bloodstains on the walls that had dried out but nothing fresh. Van Tonder (2) took this time to see if he could find any silverware and I kept an eye out for pocketable art works. In the study, the Stiff-Upper-Lipped officer found some ‘Papers’, in German. Being a toff, he of course spoke the lingo and deduced that they had been working on some sort of gas, called, ‘Dead Mind’. The player in you goes, fuck, we ALL know what that means but the characters wouldn’t have a clue.
Anyway, we headed up the stairs to clear the second floor. At the top of the landing, I noticed a thin strip of light coming from beneath the furthest door at the end of a long hallway. I put the lantern halfway down the hall to better illuminate our surrounds. As I did this, a horrible shrill scream came from the room with the light. It got higher and higher until you could only imagine the voice box would tear itself apart. Then something started banging on the door. Because we knew that somehow gas was involved, we slipped on our gas masks and waited. The door gave way, and a German officer, frothing at the mouth like a rabid dog, came stumbling toward us. I panicked and thought, fuck this, and lobbed a Mills Bomb down the hall before ushering everyone down the stairs and out the way. It went off and ripped the officer in two. I went back up the steps and saw through the smoke that the top half was clawing its way toward us. I shot him in the head and waited. The explosion had blown the doors open on the rest of that wing, so when nothing came out to get us, we went to investigate. There were several bedrooms, water closets, and the last room that had held the German had been converted into a laboratory of sorts.
The Captain snagged some more ‘Papers’ and notes, and two small canisters of the gas. I took one, he took the other. They went into our backpacks along with all the other intel. By reading what we found, we discovered that there was an artillery position not far from here, that was going to shell this gas onto our lines before tomorrow’s invasion. This did not bode well for anyone. The gun emplacement was one of three. The second one was in the occupied town of Longueval, with the third, west of that, a stone’s throw from the German lines. We were running out of time, both in real time and game time, so the Captain came up with a plan.
We would overrun Gun #1, turn it toward Gun #2 and fire the gas at them instead. Then, if we could, head to Gun #2 and do the same to destroy Gun #3. We all agreed, because if you’re gonna die, might as well do it with your boots on.
We were ordered to secure the ground floor while the Captain finished up in the lab. We lit more lanterns and went downstairs to the drawing room. I smoked a cigarette and snuck a wee sip of whiskey while the rest lounged around waiting for the Captain. Van Tonder (2) was rewarded by some silverware that went into his backpack, and all was well, for a second at least. The drawing room window exploded in a hail of glass, bits of wood, and frenzied frothing Germans like the one we had seen up stairs. We fought a running retreat through the downstairs section, while the front door was ripped off by these bizarre invaders. There was no way out. We got trapped in a narrow corridor and Van Tonder (1) went crazy and threw himself into their lines, swinging his entrenching tool as swiftly as he could. He killed two or three of them, while our Sharpshooter did for the rest. I threw a lantern, and when the flames didn’t work, I backed everyone up and began lobbing grenades.
We made it up the stairs to the second-floor as fire broke out down below. There was no escape out the way we had come in.
The crazed soldiers were gnashing and chomping up the stairs toward us. We headed into a bedroom, barricaded the door, bust open the window, and began fashioning primitive ropes from bed-sheets and blankets. As the door gave in, the last of us were down the rope and running for it. The châteaux was ablaze behind us, letting every German in the world now that all was not well in their area. Luckily we were in German uniform.
We made it to Gun#1 and scoped out the situation. There was an ammunition tent behind us with some gunners inside as well as the gas shells. Then there were three gunners and a bombardier in the gun entrenchment standing guard over the gun. Everyone was looking at the huge gout of flame on the horizon from the burning châteaux. We came up with a plan to subdue the three in the hole, and then we would take out the rest in the tent. We wanted to keep the gunplay to an absolute minimum, as we didn’t want to risk setting off any of the gas shells prematurely. We had the plan, but somehow in its execution, the fog of war crept in, and we wound up blowing it. The Captain, who had approached the emplacement, was now being dragged off for questioning instead. Screw it, we thought, and opened up. We took hits, twisted some ankles, and the Captain broke free, but not before a bullet entered his backpack and pierced the small gas canister he had inside. He got his mask on in time (we all did) and we watched in horror as scores of our attackers reverted to brain dead animals that sought to rip us limb from limb. I headed to the gun, and began adjusting the coordinates toward Gun#2. I was on my own and it was taking an age. Van Tonder (1) went to get me some of the ammo as none was stored near the gun. He made it back, but not before one of the shells was pierced by a stray round, thus bellowing white smoke everywhere. Luckily, the wind was blowing it toward their lines and not us. I only had two shells to work with. No pressure, hey? Plus there were a horde of Germans stumbling toward me. No one could help, we were all tied up surviving.
The first shell went long, the second went short, but owing to the wind, the gas was going where it was supposed to. We could hear the chaos it was causing. But then six enemy were on me. Between intermittent rifle fire and some lucky dice, I made it out the hole. I lobbed a grenade in that took care of the enemy but unfortunately damaged the aiming sight of the gun. Dawn was rising and in the distance we heard Gun#3 open up as the whistles sounded for the Allies to go over the top.
We had dispatched our immediate threat, so we sat down, dejected, smoke a cigarette, passed the bottle around, and decided there was nothing for it but to go back, get our uniforms, and head to what may have been left of the line. It took us an hour to do so, fighting the enemy the entire way. When we made it to our side, the place was in serious disarray. I decided I was going to get myself a Vickers machine gun and some ammunition, and try and hold the line where it was in threat of being overrun by Dead Brain, Allies and Germans.
We went at it for hours but it seemed our shells had the desired effect and sewed much chaos amongst the enemy. With shouts of ‘aim for the head’, we managed to bolster the flagging defences and win the day. Not what we had aimed for, but better than being completely routed. And that’s how it ended. Victory, was ours, and I was knee deep in a machine gun nest lighting a cigarette off the barrel of the machine gun surrounded by hordes of dead, dead things.
Great game all round.