Battle of Medway 43AD

A Presentation game at Fishbourne Roman Palace in August 2005 by members of Guildford Wargames Club.

The photographs for this article are here


Like a lot of things in the world of wargaming this project started in the pub. We had received an email from a chap called Stan Kitchener who was a volunteer at Fishbourne Roman Palace; he wanted to put on a display game with a Roman theme over the August Bank Holiday weekend and had contacted various clubs but received no interest. There were enough of us interested to make it a viable project so we agreed to give it a go.

I personally have a bee in my bonnet about the quality (or lack of quality) of demonstration games at wargames shows, let alone where members of the non gaming public are going to be the main visitors, so I offered to build the terrain boards. I knew what I wanted to do as myself and a couple of friends had previously put on a demo Napoleonic game many years ago at Partisan as a support for his trade stand of AB figures. So with me building the terrain and the other merry men painting figures, compiling army lists and all such tasks associated with a demo game, we were off and running.

After much email traffic it was decided that we would put on a display of the forced crossing of the river Medway by the Roman army shortly after their landing in 43 AD. One of the group had been nominated to liase with Fishbourne regarding the set up so that they knew what we would be doing and our space requirements, etc. I think Dave was on holiday at the time of the nomination in the tradition of all good democracies !

Historical summary.

I won’t bore you all with a detailed analysis of the historical events leading up to the Medway as quite honestly there are an awful lot of books out there that can do it better than I can, and I have to say that this is not really my main period of interest, so I would only end up making myself sound stupid, easy enough at the best of times.

Fortunately other members of the group were very knowledgable in this period but my main source of reference for the battle was a book called “Conquest – The Roman Invasion of Britain” by John Peddie, this had a very detailed account of the battle which I thought was excellent, I even believed at one point that the author was going to give us a list of names for the casualties! Subsequent research confirmed that there is no substantial evidence at all in the archaeological record for if, or where, this action took place. I have now read a fantastic book that I purchased at Fishbourne over the weekend of the game (well, you have to don’t you) called “AD43 – The Roman Invasion of Britain” by John Manley. This was a real eye opener for me as it highlighted the ongoing debate amongst Archaeologists and Historians on just about every aspect of the conquest from where the Romans landed through to discussion as to whether it was conquest or a peace keeping operation, a book I thoroughly recommend and grist to the mill of us history anoraks.

This lack of clear evidence of events was obviously quite a good get out clause as it meant no one could really challenge what we had put on as a display and claim it was a heap of cack historically.

Building the terrain.

The terrain boards that I had foolishly volunteered to build were my main challenge in the project. I had done this before so I confidently (!!) knew I could handle this. The building of these boards was not a problem, it was the fact that last time I did it there were three of us in an old stable block. Building an 8’ x 6’ table single handed and in my garage was a bit more work than I had bargained for.

After discussion with the other chaps it was decided that we would depict the North bank of the Medway only and the ground rising up from it. The Medway is a wide river, even more so I suspect in the First Century AD, so to have both banks on table would have reduced it to a stream. Once I had a picture in my mind of the layout I contacted the company that supply me with High Density Polystyrene sections cut to the size I required. It is quite sobering looking at a wargames table full of virgin white polystyrene.

First task was to glue the various layers together to build up the levels that would be sculpted later, I built the table in 4’ x 2’ sections to reduce the ugly joints to a minimum. Use plenty of good quality PVA for this and allow 24 hours to dry with plenty of weight to hold it down. As this was to be a demo game I backed the boards with hardboard for further strength. When you set out the layers of terrain make sure you take into account that the slopes should not be too steep, there is nothing more irritating than figures that cannot stand up on the table! Take your time at this stage with the planning, it saves mistakes that cost time and money; after a bit of practice you soon get the hang of it.

Now the fun starts and I seriously recommend you do this next stage when the wife or girlfriend has gone shopping. If you have the space lay the entire table out (or at least as big a section of it as you can) and stare at it. Visualise how you want the terrain to roll, climb and dip and then pose dramatically with your electric sanding disc looking like something out of Judge Dredd ( AND DO WEAR A DUST MASK). The only way I can describe what happens next is that it seems like you are working in a snow drift, use the sander to sculpt the terrain to your taste bearing in mind that it has to remain playable; with a reasonable high density polystyrene the mess is contained, have a hoover to hand and stop every few minutes to clear up, it saves an awful lot of effort later. This process does sound worse than it actually is and it takes longer to clear up afterwards than to do, so don’t be disheartened. Now you should have the contours nicely sanded and the clearing up done just as the better half walks through the door; no divorce yet then!

The next stage is time consuming but quite therapeutic with a bit of good music in the background. Cover the entire board with a textured wall covering, I use “Polycell Textured Ceilings” with a bit of sharp sand added, be generous as it is false economy to scrimp at this stage. When dry this will give a nice subtle ground texture to your boards which can then be painted with an earthy colour. Highlight this with a lighter shade of the base colour. I find the colour mix paint stations at DIY stores full of useful shades for this; the colours are pretty much a matter of individual taste to a great extent.

Once the paint is dry you can start covering areas of the terrain with flock. I use Woodland Scenics from model railway suppliers normally, although in the case of Medway I used a batch of flock I had left over from an unknown source. Spend time browsing what’s available and make your choice. You can glue the flock by watering down the PVA to a porridge type consistency and spreading liberally onto the surface .

Basically that’s the main work done, you can then spend as much or as little time as you like on what I call the top dressing i.e. clump foliage, long grass, marshy areas, whatever takes your fancy. On and off I guess the complete table took about six weeks, but this was a fairly easy pace, it could have been worse, I could have volunteered to paint hundreds of Celts !

Compiling the armies

We wouldn’t have volunteered to put on this show in the first place if one of our number hadn’t already possessed the two relevant armies, Early Imperial Roman and Ancient British. Even so, we thought that the demo would need more figures than the average collection, so several of us agreed to paint up some more (including me; I’ve ( I being Dave) always fancied a Roman army in lorica segmentata. Every wargamer should have one.)

We had already agreed that 28mm was the scale to go for, because of the visual impact upon the spectators. Smaller scales are fine, but not so easy to see, and less likely to impress people who are not familiar with the hobby. The existing collection was from Wargames Foundry, and they also provided the majority of the extra figures, but some of the recent Gripping Beast Romans also appeared (they are compatible.) This was my chance to use the shield transfers from Littlebigmen BTW, and they are excellent. Loads of hand painted shields! I think some other manufactuers Celts crept into the show somewhere, but I’m not sure of that.

The ancient sources tell us that the Romans attacked the British position by sending a force of Batavian auxiliaries across the river unseen to get behind the British left, where they caused great confusion, in particular beating up the Britons’ chariots. While this was happening the Second legion, under its Legate the future emperor Vespasian was sent a long way up stream to cross the river and come in behind the British right. This sounded to us like an infantry action, so we decided not to give Roman cavalry a role in the game, and hence we didn’t need to paint any extra.

The reference to chariots though gave us the opening to find a role for these much loved wargames accessories. We assumed that some of the old rattlers would have regrouped after being bounced by the Batavians, and added a few more of them.

When everybody’s contribution was laid out on the table they made a fine sight. See the photos!

The games.

We decided to use Warhammer Ancient rules for the game. This was because we anticipated a number of younger visitors, many of whom would have been familiar with the Warhammer fantasy sets, and would therefore quickly catch on the what was happening with our game. None of us are especially convinced about the historical attributes of Warhammer, but we know it gives a good fun game, and we thought that was the aspect of the hobby that we would wish to emphasis as much as anything.

In game points terms the British were heavily outpointed, but we thought the advantage of position, the piecemeal Roman attacks, and some defensive stakes judiciously placed, would even things up. Besides, the Brits lost didn’t they.

We started the game with the brits deployed on the high ground above the ford, their chariots and light horse at the rear (rallying after their earlier fight.) The Romans started with the Batavians already on table on the British left (in some suitable scrubby ground where the British panzer chariots wouldn’t go in after them. On turn one a column of legionnaries would advance across the ford, while Vespasian started to dice for his force to come in on the British right.

We had originally thought that we would play two games on each of the two days we were present, but that was hopelessly optimistic. We were so busy talking to spectators that the rate of play was very slow, and we only got through one game on each day. This was no bad thing, of course. Engagement with the public was what we wanted. We had nominated one of our number as host and compere, but in practice there was so much talk that all the players got involved as well.

So, what was the score? Well Aulus Plautius’ tourists were as well beaten as the recent Australian ones. Two – nil to Caratacus Flintoff (This article was written a while ago now as I am sure cricket fans will deduce).

We were surprised by the result of the first game, in view of the points disparity. What made the difference was:

  • British slingers pelted the legionnaries as the struggled across the river. Several cohorts were in bad shape when they got onto dry land.
  • The Romans were in smaller units than the barbarians, typically a 16 strong cohort. Warhammer rewards deep formations, but you need a minimum four figures in a rank for it to provide you with the rank bonus. Everybody was fighting four deep because of this rule. This meant that the loss of a single Roman figure deprived them of a rank immediately, whereas the Brits could absorb a lot of hits.
  • The Brits were uphill, even Vespasian’s flanking force coming in by the river bank to join the frontal assault force. Warhammer gives another bonus to a unit uphill of its enemy. With all the other things, this prevented quick Roman victories, and got them into a slogging match that suited the Brits perfectly. Their greater numbers duly told.

After the first game we decided the Romans needed some help, so we strengthened both Vespasian’s flanking force with some Roman cavalry, and strengthened the frontal attack with a couple of bolt shooters and some auxiliary archers. The Romans still lost, and for much the same reasons.

So, history was changed. No central heating in Britain for another 1900 years!


To conclude I think we can happily say that the weekend was a big success both for us and Fishbourne. The team who were present over the weekend had a great time chatting to visitors about the history and the gaming aspects of the display, the staff and volunteers of the Palace also seemed impressed with the display (some, if not a little mystified) and the Director David Rudling was very complimentary when he visited us and had a chat on the first morning. Our initial contact point Stan Kitchener also put on an excellent display around the game, he is a member of the re-enactment group Legio II Agusta and had a very good presentation of equipment, armour and domestic items, which set off the entire presentation.

Members of the non gaming public who visited us were also very interested in our activities, one mother commenting that she was concerned at her son painting strange blood thirsty figures (Games Workshop I suspect) and that she would encourage him to move into the historical side of the hobby. Kind of sums up the object of the exercise really doesn’t it.

John Rich.