Welcome back to Touchstone Tuesdays. My attempt to blog consistently by writing about the objects I treasure and that I keep around me in my writing hut. Today: my Toy Soldiers
It will probably not surprise my readers to learn that I have always been keen on matters military. My passion may stem from being the child of warriors – my father was a Battle of Britain fighter pilot, my mother a Norwegian spy. It may be a past lives thing – if reincarnation is true, then I have certainly fought, perhaps in several incarnations. What I can be certain of is that I am thrilled by battle (While willing to admit that I am thankful every day that I have never had to take part in one!). This passion was initially reflected in my reading, later my writing. In my choice of sport – I was a fencer. But really it found its first full outlet in wargaming – the assembling of, and playing with, an army of miniature metal soldiers.
Here is my collection, on one shelf of my hut. Each 25mm (about one inch) tall. They are from the Napoleonic era, specifically towards the end of it, and its bloody climax at the Battle of Waterloo, probably my ‘favourite’ battle – and one I have yet to write about. I have an even number of troops on each side and of the various types one would need to wargame i.e. recreate and fight, according to written rules, a skirmish or battle of the era. So I have three regiments of infantry on each side: a line regiment, a Guard/elite regiment and a light regiment. I have two batteries of cannon per army. I have two squadrons each of dashing cavalry.
And, of course, I have the commanders, depicted here before their flags – Napoleon himself and his nemesis, the Duke of Wellington.
Each tiny figure I painted sometime between my 11th and 14th birthdays. I marvel now at my younger self’s patience. My complete absorption. (The fact that I can still see!)
In this photo you see two my of my faves: An officer of the Blues, the premier regiment of the English Household cavalry. And a man he may have faced upon that bloody Belgian battlefield: a Polish Lancer. With these two figures – and their companions – I think I reached my height as a painter.
I played wargames as a teenager. Occasionally over the years since I have encountered someone who shares the passion and have got the figurines out again – there is a huge subculture of ‘gamers’ in the original sense of the term. No screens and advanced graphics for us! A few hills carved from plaster board and painted green. A few miniature plastic trees – and these soldiers, pushed around a tabletop, their movements measured by rulers, their firing, morale, attacks and defences governed by rules that seek to replicate the period’s tactics.
The truth is, these soldiers lay in a tool box, cushioned in foam for years as I shuttled around the countries of the world. They have emigrated as much as I – which means eight times. So to finally get them out, set them up in ranks again, even if I have yet to play a wargame with them again… it’s a delight. I look at them – and marvel at the youthful me, lost in that world of war. At these tiny men in whom I poured so many of my imaginings.
And this outsize fella? He is a plaster souvenir, bought by me at the store on the actual battlefield. I was twenty years old and had hitch-hiked from Granada, in Southern Spain to Belgium. It was the Summer of ’76 and I was returning to London and college at the end of a long Summer. Waterloo was to be my lost stop in Europe. My place of pilgrimage. I’d hitched in from Germany and, as so often happened, the driver of my last ride offered me a bed for the night, in his family home. Turned out the father was the CEO of Peugeot cars, so I was wonderfully fed, offered a superb malt, breakfasted on croissants, then was dropped on the battlefield early the following morning. I had it largely to myself.
It is wonderfully preserved, and the features of landscape and the main houses – the farmhouse of La Haye Sante, the chateau of Hougement – are also still there. I wandered, a kid in a candy store, until I had to hitch my way out of there to make the night ferry from Ostend. (I marvel at that version of myself as much as I do the teenage painter – the hitchhiker, carefree and broke, accepting the kindness of strangers!) I had just enough money to see me home, precious little for food – and the little extra I needed to buy this veteran of Napoleon’s Old Guard. As content as only a 20 year old on adventure can be.