Thursday 9 February 2023

In memoriam Geoff Coe: Ostroleka (1831)

Back in 2015, not long after BBB was first published, I somehow came into email contact with a chap called Geoff Coe. I never met or spoke with Geoff, so I only knew him through our email exchanges and his prolific postings on certain wargames sites, especially the Lead Adventure Forum. His nom de guerre on LAF was 'Shipka', a reference to the battles for the Shipka Pass in Bulgaria during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878. This was a sign of the passion Geoff shared with me for the more obscure corners of C19 military history. Geoff carried his enthusiasm to the extent of actually commissioning figure ranges to fill these historical gaps. As Helen ('The Grey Heron') said in her tribute to Geoff on LAF, he particularly patronised Steve Barber Models, creating ranges for the Greek Wars of Independence, SE Asia, Hungarian Revolution, Italian Wars of Independence, etc.

The specific corner that Geoff and I found ourselves together in was the Polish 'November Uprising' of 1830-1831. As my post from 2015 records, he got in touch to urge me to create a scenario for one of the major battles of that conflict, Ostroleka. Encouraged by his infectious enthusiasm, I did so, but never got round to playing it (and I don't think Geoff did either), and it has sat in the BBB group files ever since.

This month, our man Crispin decided to roll this scenario out for a club night at OWS. On the face of it, it's not an entirely promising situation for an interesting game, as all the action is channelled through a single bridge, which obviously limits the number of different possible plans. The battle starts with the Poles holding a bridgehead across the River Narew at Ostroleka. The Russians have to force their way across, then capture some objectives beyond it, while Polish reinforcements turn up from various directions to contest these.

The bridgehead fight was surprisingly protracted, to-and-fro, intricate, tense and absorbing. The Polish 3rd Division put up gallant resistance and repulsed several Russian assaults. Not until Turn 5 - halfway through the game - could we Russians get two divisions across, drive back the defenders, and claim the first objective. This was concerning because the scenario specified that only one unit per turn could cross the half-demolished bridge, so we were anxious that we might not get enough troops into action soon enough to reach the other objectives.

Meanwhile, Polish reinforcements had arrived and they launched a massed counter-attack. This bounced off, though the raw scythe-armed militia reaped a goodly number of Russian guardsmen before they were spent. Not bad for a 'no-shot weapon'.

The third act of the game was swift, dramatic and glorious. On Turn 7, we committed General Nostitz's 1st Guard Light Cavalry Brigade as our one unit to cross the bridge that turn. In a smart parade column, with their 36" road move, the cavalry dashed across the bridge and up the road to where a Polish battery guarded the hill objective a mile from Ostroleka, wheeled off the road and attacked the Polish guns, still in march column. This move could be either audacious or suicidal, depending on the Polish cannister fire. Phil's dice had given him a lot of 6's so far, but chose that moment to roll double 1 - a total miss - and another 1 in the ensuing assault. The guns evaporated (we interpreted that to mean they never actually stuck around to fight but just limbered up and legged it), the objective was taken, and at that point the Polish players not unreasonably threw in the towel.

A few captioned photos show the action in a little more detail. Scroll past these if you want to get straight to my reflections below.

 The battlefield. Russians attack from bottom right against the Ostroleka bridgehead across the marshy Narew. The causeway road (double line) runs diagonally across centre of pic. Polish reinforcements lurk in the forests top of pic. Another Crispin battlemat.

 Pretty in pink: Crispin's Polish Legion, actually painted up for the Hungarian War of Independence of 1848-1849, but no doubt a few of those committed revolutionaries were also at Ostroleka 18 years earlier. Apologies for the blurry photo. Hmm - is that flag upside-down??

 The first Russian assault goes in on Turn 1. The green bases are the only Poles in shot, the rest are Russians. There were a lot of Russians - half of them never managed to get across the bridge and into action.

Anyone know the Russian for 'traffic jam'? Capturing Ostroleka itself was the easy bit. Establishing a foothold across the bridge when it was guarded by a large unit of hardcore Polish veterans was harder.

 Turn 5 and we finally capture the road junction objective. The overturned base is the Polish C-in-C, General Skrzynecki, 'bumped' when our assault drove his troops back. Top of pic, Polish reinforcements form up for counterattack behind their freshly deployed guns.

 'Game over, man!' Guard cavalry on parade scorns ineffectual Polish cannister, forces Polish battery to skedaddle, and seizes the second objective required for Russian victory.


'Take the bridge': in general I'm not a fan of such apparently one-dimensional scenarios. As it turned out, though, while there wasn't much choice about 'where', both sides have a few different options about 'how' to tackle the bridgehead fight. Especially with the modified objectives (see below), the Polish defenders have some decisions to make about how far forward to defend and for how long, etc. It could have more replay value than we thought at first.

Different terrain, different geometry, different decisions. As well as the semi-demolished bridge providing focus for the fight and forcing the Russians to think about which order to send troops across it, the scenario had another unusual terrain feature: an embanked road providing combat advantage and blocking line of sight. This gave players some interesting decisions about how best to exploit/negate the resulting geometry of the battlefield.

Phased objectives: the victory conditions in the scenario weren't quite right. Having played it, it now looks inevitable that the Russians will eventually take at least the one objective they need for a draw, hence the Poles can't win. To correct this, we'll make that first one time-limited, so the Poles get rewarded if they can fend off the Russians long enough. We'll add another time-limited objective in Ostroleka itself.

Characterful units: it seems as though every wargamer loves gallant Poles! And Crispin's specially painted troops in their pink czapkas looked very smart. Also, everyone on both sides cheered when the scythe-armed militia gave such good account of themselves. Such units add important richness to a game.

Rest in peace, Geoff Coe. For all his passion for the period and efforts to create figures and terrain for neglected wars, Geoff's posts never seemed to mention games, so I do not know whether he actually wargamed much or even at all. If he did, his playing days are over, as I believe he passed away in July 2021. His contributions to the hobby - both physical (the figures) and in morale terms (his enthusiasm) - were significant and our community was the richer for his efforts. I hope our game of one of Geoff's favourite battles can serve as a small tribute to him. 


  1. In commissioning figs with Steve Barber (for the Hungarian War of Indepedenence) I became aware of Geoff Coe. The research and work he was doing to have figs done far exceeded what I was doing. I was not aware that he had passed. Sad news: RIP.

  2. What a lovely tribute Chris. Good on you (all).
    Regards, James


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