Friday, 4 March 2016

Representing historical terrain on the table-top

For some time I've been looking at trying a re-fight of Paltzig 1759. This is an unequal contest between the Prussians (outnumbered 2:1) attacking, over a marshy stream, with the Russians stood on commanding ground with well sighted artillery. I wondered if the reason for it not often being fought was more down to the terrain over which it was fought rather than the odds. Because of the complexity and extensiveness of the elevated terrain I was sceptical about my ability to ever do it.

My biggest mental block has always been this detailed map

I have added the three red stars marked A, B, C (see below)
This map is a belter for detail, but having virtually walked the road between A and C, using google street view, and given the place a thorough google earth mouse search, I think it gives a completely unrealistic feel to the terrain in question. 

When I first saw this map I visualised a flat marshy bottomed valley running north to south with ground rising steeply to either side and a long narrow topped, tree sided spur extending from Russian position towards Kay, south of which was a broad flat bottomed valley running east to west. The Russian hill has a saddle with two 'knolls', a small one to the south and a much larger one just to the north east of Paltzig: It all made perfect sense but looked increasingly difficult to do.

In wargames terms, the whole battlefield is two big hills facing each other over a narrow valley with an area of low ground at its southern end. As we all know, hills this extensive are always difficult (even when using a cloth over formers of one kind or another) to do, especially on a big table. I thought I could do this one without raising the drop leaf extension on my table, a straight 12 x 6, if I miss off the extreme northern sector (north of the northern knoll) and skew the table's long axis to north north east to allow deeper deployment room at the southern end - all providing, of course, that I could do the hills and they have always been the sticking point.

Then, this week, I took to google earth. The area is still largely unspoilt by human developments but the area is now more heavily wooded. As I dragged the mouse over the map I kept checking the elevation. For sure, there is high ground here. The large northern knoll, for example, is 22m (about 70 feet) above the height of the open water north of 'B' which stands at 70m above sea level (my mouse was on that stretch of water when I screen saved this shot). But this aerial shot of the ground doesn't look that hilly, does it? The resemblance of the map to the shot, for the position of stuff, is excellent but where is that steep sided spur? Where are the steeply rising hillsides?

Down to street view. There are two useful roads here. The first traverses the route between Kay and Paltzig, the second less useful one snakes out of Kay and goes up the northern side of the southern valley bottom (it's wooded for most of the useful length and without good views northwards. Presumably these woods follow the southern slopes of the spur.) I have chosen three points along the Kay Paltzig road, A, B, C to show just how un-ruggedly hilly this terrain is. I would have chosen other points off road, given a choice of anywhere, but street view has to suffice and I think it a very valued commodity much underused by gamers.

 So starting at A. On the road just outside of Paltzig there is a nice treeless spot to look from. First looking south, this track must roughly follow the Russian second line in front of Paltzig just before it angles back. I believe the trees to the left might be the start of the small knoll. However you look at it, the knoll isn't an obvious feature.
 Looking roughly NE from 'A' the ground has a definite cant to it but it doesn't look like the large very prominent feature on the map. It would however, given the height and shallowness of the slope, be an ideal position for artillery giving good LOS and allow for round shot grazing fire. 
 From 'A' looking towards 'B'. This shot is useful because it shows that any trees in the valley would block line of sight to the opposite slope. There were no trees here in 1759, but there were farther south where the Prussians attacked.  The height of the 'hills', north to south, is roughly the same along their length so this is important.
 The open water at point 'B'. I think we can safely call this impassible terrain. 
At point 'B' looking towards Paltzig. The road is slightly raised but the water level (through the trees on the right) shows by how little. This is not a steep sided valley; I can't find any sudden drops in elevation.
At point 'C' looking due north towards the Prussian batteries. The tree line marks the summit of the Prussian side of the valley. It is over 95 meters at its northernmost end, where the guns were. 

 Two final shots from Google Earth. The first is the church at Paltzig. It was built in 1735.
Secondly, the Water Mill at Kay. This might not be contemporary, but the brick arched windows are a feature of 18th century industrial buildings. If it was there, the Prussians filed past it before forming up to attack. I'm pretty sure the smaller building is later.

So where does that leave me. Well it leaves me pondering what to do about modelling the high ground. The high ground is there, but it doesn't quite have the robust look of the contour map. I have two choices.

1. Have three large two contour knolls (two on the Russian side and one on the Prussian side) for the combatants to put there artillery on, because these were the key topographical features, and represent the rest of the hills with few smaller one contour elevations. The knolls would count as high ground, the other elevations would be merely representative of generally insignificant higher ground. 

2. Ignore the evidence of Google Earth and go for terrain that feels more like the map. I have plenty of blue insulation board sitting idle and I could do some simple 45 degree slope 2" contours to represent the hills (including the spur) either side of the stream then use my hill stock for the knolls.

I know, let's have a poll. We have not done one of them for a while. It's in the side bar, at the top.

I love Google Earth, and street view is fabulous for taking a look at at stuff you can't just pop out and see. Have a look and wander at Zorndorf  52 39 27.44 N 14 40 32.88 E. Next time I visit a battlefield I'm going to take notes of the photos I take and I'll try to attach them (if possible).


AJ (Allan) Wright said...

Very interesting approach. I look forward to seeing photos of the tabletop that this research helps you create.


Jonathan Freitag said...

An excellent scientific approach, James! Reminds me of a Marx Brothers quote, "Who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes!"

More than 250 years of erosion and agriculture can change the landscape perceptively. Year after year of plowing could certainly flatten out many of the higher elevations. A 70 foot difference in elevation should be perceptible to the eye. From the main road to my house, the road climbs about the same elevation in a short distance. That change is definitely noticeable.

On Google Earth, these elevation changes are still in place. As I roamed over the Google Earth battlefield, many of the elevations on the map could be identified. One question to consider is measurement error and the interval between elevations on the old battlefield map. Small intervals in the contours can make a slight rise look quite steep on a topo map.

Very interesting analysis! I have used this technique in attempting to make sense on battlefield topography myself.


The point about slopes being ploughed out is a very valid one. The woods are industrial pine forestry and given their location might well be part of military planting by Warsaw Pact strategists (after WW2 the WP countries planted thousands of miles of the stuff as 'dragon's teeth', because trees are cheaper than concrete, and cover for troop concentrations) so they've probably only been there for the last 60 years or so, but in this case I doubt it. I now suspect the contours are at a ridiculously close intervals. Did the Prussians do land maps in fathoms (six feet) or something nautically similar, that would make some kind of sense, given the Germanic quest for rationalisation (grin).

Der Alte Fritz said...

I had not realized that Google Maps had a street view. This is really useful. But Paltzig? Man that is a tough one to turn into a game scenario, although sometimes the point of the game is to recreate a battle and see if the historical loser can have better success ( kind of like fighting Rossbach or Leuthen)


pancerni said...

So maybe the contours were the three meter variety? This reminds me of the look of the Liebetrwolkvitz (spelilng) terrain in the area of the big cavalry charge in the 1813 campaign.

The slogging through the wet ground and the slight elevation are enough to moke life miserable, but not the cliffs of Dover, to be sure.

Ray Rousell said...

Persobally I'd use No 2. You've got all the terrain already and waiting. I thought i knew a fair bit aboutthe SYW but I've never heard of Paltzig before.


The other side (the Prussians, I think) called it Kay, if that helps. The battle was incredibly one sided. The Prussians attacked in waves and each one was repulsed with heavy loss.

This is where (IMHO) the Russian army turned its corner. After this battle I don't think Frederick would have ever been able to beat it. It was too big, too well organised and too robust and confident for his dwindling resources to take on (see Kunnersdorf) after this. Only the slowness of strategic decision, timidity, and Peter III saved Prussia from the Russians in the end. If they had pressed after Kunnersdorf the continental war would be called the Three Years War 1756 - 1759. Or is that a 4 year war?


Sun of York said...

Excellent bit of research. I'm impressed and inspired (currently struggling with maps for Austerlitz and Vimeiro). In the past (well, for Waterloo) I have gone with printed contour maps. However I'm always looking for options.

Gonsalvo said...

Really interesting post and analysis, James.

carojon said...

Hi James,
I can see you are grappling with the age old issue of ground scale compromise that for those of us who want to fight historical games can cause a bit of a conundrum.

I had a similar issue when planning my Talavera layout, although the scaling with 18mm figures is a little more forgiving on a 9' x 5' table that gives me a 2+ mile frontage by 1+mile width to play with.

I used a combination of the ground scale (1" to about 38 yards) to work out my contour heights together with historical accounts describing how influential the terrain was to the combat and then threw in a bit of "what looked right" for good measure. Even then the Pajar Vergara redoubt is just a 'pimple' on the ground using scaling, but I wanted it to be a more significant feature on the table and my compromise is that it is, but without any detriment to the play tests.

I have to say that based on the Google Earth shots, the map appears somewhat stylised and probably can't be taken too literally. Those open areas look perfect for artillery and putting in tabletop slopes might alter things dramatically.

I look forward to your compromise