Monday 12 February 2024

The Race for Thrace: Kirkkilise (1912)

Battle #2 in our Balkan Wars campaign is Kirkkilise. In #1, Sarantaporo, we saw the Greeks attack the Ottomans on the southern front in an attempt to reach Thessaloniki ahead of the Bulgarian army coming from the north. Now we visit the eastern front, where the Bulgarians were attacking into eastern Thracia (that corner of Europe that is still part of modern Turkey).

No fewer than nine of us convened in my war room - fortunately the rest of the guys couldn't make it! Luckily, the scenario lends itself reasonably well to four a side, since it starts with nearly all the forces on both sides deployed on-table on a broad front. A very broad front, in fact: the battlefield is 60km across (one 12" grid square = 10x10km), with ~150,000-200,000 men a side engaged.

Plan A

This shows the entire battlefield. The Ottoman army is in the southern half of the table (top half of pic). Its left flank rests on the extensive and well-armed Entrenchments around Adrianople, the right on the somewhat weaker fortifications around Kirkkilise. The Bulgarians have a significant quality advantage (about half the Ottomans being raw, fragile Redif reserve units), but they have to attack against well dug-in defenders. I have called this pic 'Plan A' because we managed two goes at the game. Red and white counters are objective markers. In the first attempt, Dave T, Bob, Mike and John tried to focus on taking Kirkkilise, with a secondary attack to secure the two villages on their right, hoping then to wheel right from Kirkkilise and roll up the Ottoman centre.

In executing this plan, they discovered just how hideous 1912 firepower was against 19th-century formations and tactics. From the comfort of their fortifications, solid lines of Ottoman riflemen and guns were able to concentrate their fire and blow away the Bulgarians as they came forward in a rather piecemeal fashion. The Bulgarian guards arrived as reinforcements from the bottom right corner and fought their way forward far enough to attempt a bayonet charge against the defenders of Adrianople, but this stalled under withering fire. Credit to the plucky Bulgarian players, they persevered for another turn, but it was clear that they were bound to lose.

We therefore reset the table and the teams swapped sides. With the advantage of having seen Plan A fail, Anton, Crispin, Phil and Bruce changed headgear and took up the challenge of commanding the Bulgarians.

Plan B

This time, the Bulgarians tried to avoid the fortress artillery, aiming instead for the soft centre: not so many Ottoman guns, little cover for the defenders, and plenty of rubbish redifs to bully. Far from being overawed, the Ottomans responded by pushing forward I & IV Corps to confront the Bulgarian advance. As the battle progressed, III Corps and Shukru Pasha's force also sallied from their entrenchments to capture the objective villages on each flank (representing threats to the Bulgarian line of communications). This was much less one-sided than the first game, as the Bulgarians made the Ottomans pay a much heavier price in terms of casualties. Nevertheless, it still ended in Bulgarian defeat as the Bulgars ran out of steam and troops.

Bulgarian high water mark as the guards assault the entrenchments outside Adrianople. (Bulgarian figures are proxied by my Russo-Turkish War Russians - actually Prussian Napoleonic Landwehr. The Ottomans are Anton's WWI Turkish army, hence the particularly arid bases. He got these painted in 2020, then didn't have a chance to use them for years because of COVID - this was not only the first time they saw action, they'd never even come out of the box they arrived in before.)


Modern weapons change the rules! Most of our BBB games are nineteenth-century battles with muskets or single-shot rifles. The arrival of magazine rifles and plentiful machine-guns makes fire more deadly and manoeuvre consequently more difficult and dangerous. Whole units were swept away much more quickly than we are used to. You can see why by 1915 everyone was soon deeply dug in and bringing up ever more artillery. Illuminating.

Overstretched elastic? This scenario stretches BBB's elastic scale to its limits. That's OK, but I should really have limited ranges to maybe 12" for artillery and 9" for infantry: the guns being able to reach 20km were too much like airpower and it was too easy for defenders to concentrate firepower and kill manoeuvre.

Virtue of replaying scenarios I wrote a whole 'Reflections' essay on the pros and cons of replaying scenarios. As I said there, "if the scenario itself is unbalanced, playing it from both ends evens that out in a way". That was certainly true on this occasion. If we'd just played it once, I think we'd have left feeling a bit flat. Swapping sides meant both teams got to dish it out as well as take it and marvel at how bloody it all was but without feeling unfairly battered.

Importance of the reorg phase The luxury of a Sunday game meant we could then all adjourn to our favourite local curry house for a post-battle social. Good friends, good gaming, good times!