Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Koh Koh Mah 2009 - full report with pictures!

The 78th Frazer Highlanders on the march.

Advancing by fire. Spot the Hessian flag in the background.

The sound and fury of battle.
Credit: All photos © Cindy Matthews.

The Koh Koh Mah re-enactment event is full of things to see and do. There’s plenty for the whole family to enjoy and a wonderful opportunity to learn about a time when the American Colonies began to coalesce into the United States. There are traders a’ plenty dealing in everything of the period, from candles through woven goods to fine leather and metalwork. Entertainers sing period songs and there are numerous displays and demonstrations of 1750’s fashions and way of life, both Native American and Colonial.


Then of course there are the battle re-enactments - which y'all as wargamers really want to know about…

For Great Britain, Koh Koh Mah saw attendance by the 77th Highlanders, 78th (Frazer's) Highlanders, Colonial militia, Rangers, even a few dragoons. I was particularly impressed by the smart turn-out of the Hessian company that fought alongside us. For the French there were the marines, militia, coureurs du bois. Both sides had artillery, and each had its own contingent of Native allies.

Events begin around 10 am with the Colors parade. All the units taking part parade around the site in march-step before assembling on the central parade ground. Here they salute the flags of the United States and those of the combatant nations of Great Britain and France. A break of an hour or so follows before the units assemble again, ready to march to the scene of battle.

The battleground at Koh Koh Mah comprises a dell of about an acre of wooded, level ground through which a creek loops, all surrounded by steep wooded slopes of roughly 1-in-2 gradient. Some parts of the dell have pre-made abatis formed from plashed branches, piled debris and foliage. The slope to the north-east rises to a fortified angled spur projecting out from the line of the slopes: This is Fort Richardville. The eastern slope is given over to public seating. Three wooden bridges of varying widths cross the creek which averages ten feet wide and a foot deep, with a rocky bed.

As Martin commented on the earlier post the scarlet coats of the British infantry show up quite clearly against the greens and browns of the woodlands. This changes in the fall when red becomes an excellent camouflage color!

The battles that took place over the weekend were “opportunity” encounters. Both sides had definite objectives. Ours was to push the French back from the bridges over the creek and take the fort. The French had to defend the fort and, if possible, to push us back from the creek and prevent our return. Each side seeks to accomplish their objectives by firing then maneuvering into the safety zone of 30 feet between combatant units. Safety is paramount, so once a formed unit enters that zone the unit they’re opposing has to give ground until the safety zone has opened again. Of course, when firing muskets anywhere both sides aim high. This is crucial, as even blank charges of 71 grains black powder can seriously hurt someone and, in certain circumstances even kill.

There were two actions on Saturday, the first of which saw the flint in my Brown Bess fail twice. Lacking the means to replace it I had to ‘take a wound,’ dropping dead or wounded at the next French volley to decorate the battlefield with my handsome corpse. As luck would have it, my company of the Frazer Highlanders were pushed back a ways, and I had the unique experience of lying between the two sides as they fired volleys of musketry over me! As I was only wounded I had the pleasure of being captured by a friendly French soldat. Like many re-enactors he had come up with an interpretation of his “character’s” life, that of a French-Irish soldier seeking a new life in the French colonies in Canada.

The afternoon battle was the most intense I’d taken part in to date. By now I’d bought new flints, musket tools and topped up the cartridges in my belly-box. Eighteen rounds and boy! Was I ready to burn those suckers!

That fort still needed taking, so once more we were on the attack. This time we pressed forward hard in classic fire and maneuver fashion, and I fired off half my ammunition on the way. We forced the French back across the bridge and occupied the loop of the creek, filling the air with powder smoke and the roar of gunfire. Still the French held on, although I think we had them beat. We had just taken a line of abatis when the call for Parlay followed and the encounter was held to be a draw. I stood with my comrades, chugging down most of the contents of my canteen (water only, I hasten to add!), thinking the French had gotten away lightly.

The battle on Sunday was constrained. Due to the threat of rain the powers that be had decided the action would be a timed encounter of only thirty minutes. Whoever had achieved most of their objectives when time was called would win.

The Frazer Highlanders formed up high on the hill with a good view through the trees down into the arena, and here we awaited the call to battle. It wasn’t long coming. The guns of the Royal Artillery were lining the ridge-top on our side. They opened the action with a roaring salvo and the commanding officer gave us the order to advance.

We dropped down the steep slope in column of fours, skidding in the deep layers of dust that covered the hard ground. Our shoes rolled on fragments of twigs and many a fallen chestnut yet somehow we kept our footing in spite of the weight of man, musket and accoutrements. Before long we were closing on the level ground at the bottom of the dell. The French fusiliers de la marine were waiting for us inside the loop formed by the creek, aided and abetted by militia scouts. It appeared their commander’s plan was to straight-arm us and prevent our nearing the palisades of the fort.

Ahead of me the front ranks of the Frazer’s and our Ranger flank guards began exchanging shots with the enemy. Before the battle our Captain had given the order – bring as much fire to bear as often as possible and this we did. The Frazer’s began to advance by fire, pressing forward under command. I was in the forth rank and soon found myself advancing to the line of an abatis where we gave fire at the dimly-seen white figures across the creek. We kept up a hot fire, some five or six shots as I recall, and then advanced from our position. Shot up by us and the Rangers the French began to give ground, falling back from the bridge they had been defending, and the Frazer’s pressed them closely.

Then a hissing noise made itself heard high in the trees above, the sound audible over the rattle of musketry, the booming of cannon and the war-whoops of native allies. Someone shouted “here it comes!” and within a second a downpour descended on our heads!

We were soon struggling to keep our powder dry! Our lieutenant shouted “get those muskets good and hot, gentlemen!” He had a point. Firing a dozen rounds in quick succession renders a musket barrel hot enough to evaporate rainwater in moments. Unfortunately my musket was nowhere near hot enough yet. Soon a nasty black sludge of burnt gunpowder began to clog frizzen-pan and touchhole in spite of my best efforts to cover the pan during the loading process. I reached for my whisk-and-pick hanging on a button of my coat, only to discover the copper pick had disappeared! Without it I could no longer clear the touch-hole of my musket and had to drop out of the line.

Technically I should have ‘taken a wound’ and dropped, or borrowed a whisk-and-pick off one of the ‘dead’ men now littering the trail so I could get back into action. Taking stock I saw the action had moved on, the French were giving ground, so since I was wet through and feeling pretty fed-up, I decided to drop back and watch as your war correspondent.

That first shower lasted a few minutes, but although we left some dead on the ground they indicated a clear advance upon the enemy. Our fire was as brisk as ever in spite of the rain. I watched through the drifting powder-smoke as the Frazer’s marched forward again and again, keeping up a heavy fire in spite of another brief downpour. On crossing the bridge they formed up three-deep, executed a wheel to the left and lined an abatis facing the French. From here Frazer’s and Rangers began to unleash rolling volleys that lit up the darkness under the trees to eerie effect. The Royal Artillery seemed unaffected by the rain too, as the fire from the ridge never wavered. In the confines of the dell the noise was incredible!

The firefight continued longer than I would have expected. Our French opponents could not match the sheer volume of fire we gave them, but then we heard them shout for a parlay. Ceasefire was called and the commanding officers advanced to discuss terms. There was little to debate. We held the field, the fort was directly threatened and the French no longer in good enough shape to dispute matters. With courteous bows on both sides they withdrew, allowing us uncontested entry to the fort. The grenadiers marched up and into the fort compound, British ‘Huzzahs!’ rang out, and with the traditional cry of ‘the dead shall rise!’ the battle was over.


So what did I learn from this that would be of use in understanding more of what our ancestors may have experienced? What did I pick up that could be used in gaming?


Firstly, I learned just how limited a view the average soldier had of his surroundings, especially in wooded terrain. For instance, at one point during the Saturday afternoon action the Hessian company was moving up to the left of the Frazer Highlanders. I know this as Cindy took a photo that clearly shows their standard not far from where I stood; yet I don’t remember them being there! All I was concerned with was hearing and following the orders shouted by my section commander over the roar of battle, looking to my firelock and keeping in step with my comrades. Very occasionally there was a pause where I was able to look around and take in the wider picture, but even then I could only see so far. I could see formed bodies of French marines and scouts and militia over the way; I could see the dead of both sides, the Highlanders clear in their scarlet coats. I could hear musketry, cannon fire and the war-whoops of natives on both sides. It was very hard to make out the course of battle outside our immediate area.

Second, I learned the impact a dysfunctional firelock can have. I’m not that experienced at firearms, being equivalent to a fairly recent recruit; so the wonky flint of Saturday and Sunday’s heavy rain put me out of commission quite quickly. A much more experienced soldier such as our own Captain can do much better. On one occasion he fired seventeen rounds in succession using a Brown Bess during a heavy downpour. ‘Get those muskets hot, gentlemen!’ and the problem of wet powder is much reduced. Something to ponder on when writing those rules covering the effect of rain in horse and musket era wargames.

The third phenomenon I encountered was the treacherous ground underfoot in the battle arena. As it’s a demonstration area the undergrowth is kept clear so the public can view the re-enactments unhindered. Perhaps it would be typical of the terrain found in the vicinity of forts and settlements in the historical locales fought over during the French-Indian War rather than the deep forests. In any case, the ground is littered with broken twigs and small branches, some as thick as a thumb; in some places there are fallen chestnuts (similar to the British conker or horse chestnut). The gradient is roughly 1-in-2 over much of the sides. Add to that a layer of dust one or two inches deep, often over hard-packed ground, dust that developed a layer of mud after the rain, and you can see it can be a hazard to cross. Dust, twigs, chestnuts like big ball bearings; all of these are murderous to step on, especially in military shoes with hard leather soles. And yet, we moved and operated as a unit over those slopes. Our only casualty was our piper, who had to retire after spraining his ankle.

Fourthly, there’s thirst. Since we were fighting for only short periods of time we weren’t burdened with packs containing rations, but no-one, no-one goes out onto a re-enactment field without a canteen full of water. That’s the rule and it’s a necessary one. The greater part of the weekend was fine, really pleasant weather, yet after carrying 10-11 lbs of musket plus kit over difficult terrain while wearing a red coat I was quite happy to swallow down a pint or two of cool-ish water. Think on what it would’ve been like at the height of summer for those soldiers of long ago.

Fifth, and certainly not last, there’s the comradeship found in a unit, even one that only meets for re-enactments at certain times during the year. You’re with a bunch of guys who know what they’re doing, led by competent officers. Look to your fellows and follow orders and you can’t go wrong.

So that’s our first experience of Koh Koh Mah, and Cindy's first experience at re-enacting. I believe she's going to post something of her experiences on her blog, so I'll leave that to her. Due to leave constraints Cindy and I won’t be fielding again until the Massac event at Paducah, TN next May, but we’ll be up at Koh Koh Mah again for the tenth anniversary, I’m sure. Maybe we’ll see you there.


Bluebear Jeff said...

Thanks for the fine report and commentary. You might want to post a link to Cindy's blog so that we can check it out.

-- Jeff

A J said...

Thanks, Jeff. The link is already up, it can be found on the left as "Confessions of a blond writer." Cindy says she'll write something on Koh Koh Mah from her point of view as soon as she can. =)

Martin said...

'Twas a famous victory! I'll have to pay closer attention to the maneuvers next time. From up in the stands, it looked like both sides were thundering away until local "fire superiority" was achieved, then a slow advance to engage again.

Much like Benard Cornwall said in his "Sharpe" Series, "You don't see a battle as much as you hear it." An experienced veteran could judge how a battle was proceeding by the ebb and swell of the vollies and cannonades.

The Perfect Captain (at www.theperfectcaptain.com) has a set of rules called John Bull/Patriots that deals with actions that are "above skirmish, yet below battles". Cracklin' little dust ups at the company level, and the rules are free for the printing.

Thanks A.J. for the After Action Report!


P.S. I particularly enjoyed the fact that Lord Loudon, the Public Address Battle Narrator, said that the Hessian company had recruited in Heidleberg (The capital of my imagi-nation of Raubenstadt) It was like watching the Trampsfar Musketeers come to life!

Fitz-Badger said...

Excellent report and pictures! Sounds like a lot of fun and a great experience of what things might've been like "back in the day".

Frankfurter said...

thanks for the pictures and the account!
Sounds like you had fun.

tradgardmastare said...

Really interesting report with thoughtful reflections which have given me much to ponder.
many thanks

David said...

A very good, informative and atmospheric read - thanks. Nearly as good as the Hetzenberg Chronicles themselves! :-)