Big, Green and Bristly
Hedges are a favourite bit of scenery and terrain in wargames, probably the most popular after the ubiquitous hill and wood. They conjure up pastoral images of fields and meadows to do battle over, and they are easy enough to construct, unlike some other scenery. And they generally have a useful place in the rules, providing cover from shooting, or a defensive position in combat, or even an impediment to guard a flank.
But I wonder if we’ve got the right idea about them.
I was out for a walk one evening along a road lined with a hedge of oleanders, and paid attention to the size of the things. The average height is around three metres, with some towering up to four or even five metres tall. They are very nearly as wide as they are tall in some places. So thick are they that it is, on occasion, difficult to see the setting sun on the other side.
Now, oleanders grow not from a single trunk, but from a root bole, and tend to grow as clusters of stems over an area, and can easily leave no room between plants. You can cut your way through, but it is difficult, and you really want a natural gap, or at least a regularly pruned one.
On another evening, out walking again, I came across yet another set of trees that I hadn’t really paid much attention to in the past. This time it was a wind break of pine trees (I’m not sure of the name, but they grow roughly conically with solid branches at right angles to the trunk). They’ve been there for a few years now, and have begun to grow into each other with their lowest branches. Give them a few more years, and it will be impossible to move through them (the lowest branches are around half a metre from the ground), and also difficult to see through them.
Then there’s the traditional English hawthorn hedge, a big, thick, bristling thorny thing, which, so I am told by those living in England, bears no resemblance to the short and neatly trimmed hedges we represent on our tabletops – I have read it described as “organic barbed wire”.
And finally, the French are fond of a monster of a hedge, named bocage, which is grown on an embankment, and grows very thickly indeed, in a similar manner to the oleander, and has thorns as well. And this hedge reputedly gave the Allies and their tanks (during the Normandy campaign) some difficulty in World War Two…
My thanks to the members of the gw-warmaster e-mailing list for these last two.
And the point of all this? Well, it doesn’t seem to me that wargames represent hedges very well – or rather, they do if you assume the neat little box hedges of around chest height that we like to use as terrain pieces. With the fully developed oleander hedge I walked along, there is simply no way that you will see anyone on the other side from any sort of distance, nor will they see you. Such a hedge would completely block line of sight, and a hill won’t help you see someone lurking at its base. Supposing your scouts spot the enemy behind the hedge, you won’t be able to shoot through it because of the prolific growth inside – a hedge should not give a bit of cover from archery, it should be treated much like a brick wall. As for cavalry forcing a way through, or even vaulting gracefully over – forget it, its not going to happen. Conceivably you could hack a way through, and then walk your horse through the hole, but at the same time you present yourself as a wonderful target to the enemy (and create a bottleneck for the cavalry, which makes them useless). What cavalry need (and infantry as well) is a large break in the hedge.
The windbreak is a bit different. The thin pine needles would not block sight as well as a hedge, nor shooting (although shooting would be difficult – you certainly would not be shooting from behind it), but you would not be moving through it without bringing woodcutting tools.
I imagine that hawthorn and bocage would be similar matters.
So, my conclusion? Well…
1 – hedges should not be represented by chest-high topiary.
2 – shooting from a safe position behind a hedge should not be permitted
3 – shooting through a hedge at someone hiding on the other side should not be permitted either.
4 – movement through a hedge should be quite difficult, and available only to infantry, not cavalry.
5 – hedges should block line of sight, even from a hill (but then so should woods, and where do we see that?).
6 – in games where the proximity of the enemy matters, hedges should cause the enemy on the other side to be ignored.
7 – some allowance should be made for the destruction of sections of hedges, because it is conceivable for a commander to wish to prepare the ground in that way, even during a battle. Perhaps this could be left as part of a scenario’s special rules.
Reproduced with permission from:
Jason Job © 2003