Tuesday 21 November 2023

Bocage Hedges

No Normandy Wargames table seems complete without bocage hedges, even if much of the fighting by British and Canadian forces wasn't in the bocage. 

Many years ago I bought a roll of rubberised horsehair, about 2" thick, which I cut up and attached 'leaves' to. This has served as my bocage hedges ever since, even though they lacked the built up banks and took up a lot of table space. I always intended to make something better but have only just got round to it.

The first question then is what the ideal wargames bocage hedge should look like. An online search shows a wide variety of model hedges, some more satisfying looking than others.

The online Encyclop├ędie du d├ębarquement et de la bataille de Normandie makes the important point that: "The very nature of the hedges in 1944 is not the same as it is today, physiologically as well as utilitarian. At the time of the Normandy landing, the hedges are on average five meters tall, a smaller height than today. Particularly well maintained, they have an economic role predominant in the region, which has largely disappeared these days. Indeed, if the hedges serve to delimit the properties and retain the flow of water, they also serve to keep the cows or the horses. Providing non-negligible food supplements thanks to the presence of numerous apple and pear trees ... this vegetable mass bordered mostly by nettles and brambles.

I suppose this shouldn't be a surprise - field hedges today in England are no-longer as carefully (and labour-intensively) maintained as they used to be because the job of keeping stock in or out is done by fences. The implication is that we can't rely on modern photographs to show how Normandy hedges would have appeared in 1944. I therefore spent a lot of time looking for contemporary photographs.

A regular theme in these photographs was the number of trees growing in the hedges, as in this aerial view.

This diagram of a cross-section through a hedge seems to crop up on several Wargames scenery blog posts so I hope the originator won't mind me also reproducing it here. I kept the banks of my bocage hedges within this size range,

In summary then, I decided to  make my banks 25mm wide and 12mm high (though with some sections a little higher and undulating. I'm also assuming that the hedge is hiding the highest central portion of the bank) with steep sides. The hedges would add another 25 - 35mm, so a bit less in total than the average 5m in scale terms. I would also include numerous trees along the hedge sections and try to strike a balance between making them look solid and well tended enough to be effective barriers to livestock but slightly irregular - field hedges rather than an exercise in topiary at a National Trust property!

I made the banks on an MDF structure, with a base cut from 2mm sheet (the whole lot came from one 50p remnant from a local builder's merchant) and strips of narrower MDF cut from thicker pieces. I tried to make the edges of the base and the top layer slightly irregular to give a more natural look. The banks were filled in with repair plaster, with PVA applied to the dry MDF to help with adhesion. 

Once the plaster was dry, I smoothed off any obvious lumps and applied my usual basing techniques. Initially I tried applying the static grass with my new electro-static applicator but that actually looked worse than just putting it on by hand as it made the 'grass' grow out at a perfect 90° from the banks rather than vertically. I think I'll save the applicator for more horizontal surfaces! I've made a variety of straight lengths, L and T-sections. 

On a recent trip to Skye, I walked past an area with lots of uprooted heather where the leaves and flowers had come off, leaving a rather tree-like skeleton so I picked a few up for possible later scenic use. These produced some sections that were good as they were but others were a bit lacking in branches so I added these with twisted wire. I wish I'd picked much more as this was nothing like enough and I supplemented the numbers with bits of twig from the garden, again with added wire branches. I covered the wire with a couple of coats of flexible filler before painting - it didn't need to be perfect as it was mostly covered by the horsehair.

I still had some of the 2" thick rubberised horse hair left over from my earlier hedges and bought some 1" thick sheet from a local upholsterer - about 4' x 1' for £10. The 2" thick type proved much better as it was easier to get a more natural, irregular look, without pulling it to pieces and losing all cohesion.

After cutting the sheet to an approximate size, I sprayed it black and stuck it to the top of the banks with tacky glue. I tried various methods of holding it in place whilst the glue set but the best was to thread short (3 or 4") lengths of florists wire through the hedge and fold it around the underside of the bank - this held it firmly without squashing the upper parts of the hedges. It also made it possible to get some bits to overlap down the sides of the banks. Once the glue was set, I pulled and cut the horsehair to a final shape and dry-brushed it brown.

The foliage was the cork granules that I'd coloured with acrylic paint - half with Hooker's Green and half with paler Chromium Green. I did some tress or lengths of hedge with one, some the other and some with a mix to try to get variety - where I used the mix, I applied the Chromium Green from the top as a highlight. 

Another question was what to do about gates. John Boadle of the Hand-Built History blog had pointed out that I couldn't just assume these would look like the typical English country 5-bar gate, so I spent some time 'driving around' Normandy in Google Street View and looking for contemporary photographs or art work. I wasn't able to find as many contemporary references as I would have liked but a common theme of Northern French wooden gates seems to be a high vertical post on the hinge-side of the gate and more vertical strips of wood than we normally see on UK gates. I was also struck that a lot of field openings appeared to have no gate at all.

This is a modern photograph but variations on this theme (some with 4 or 5 horizontal pieces, fewer vertical stakes or an offset V rather than simple diagonal brace) cropped up in street view, old paintings and even a sketch in the Imperial War Museum collection from the first world war.

So far, I have scratch built 5 different gates out of plastic strip. With the aid of a simple jig, this was nothing like as fiddly as one might expect and I plan to do a few more, and some gate-free but muddy openings, but this will do for now. 

I'm very pleased with how the trees have turned out - better, I think than than the commercial bottle-brush trees I currently use for my woods - so I guess replacing those with the twig and horsehair method (or possibly wire armatures) has to go on my jobs to do list. Not too near the top though - I have neglected the figure painting side of things for too long as it is!

So that's my first 22 feet of bocage. I will make some more gateways and field openings and some curved sections, possible double pieces with a road curve running between them but the latter will have to wait for another project to make some new metalled roads. I also plan to make some non-bocage hedges using the same horsehair and cork granules method.


  1. Really nice work as usual you can never have too many hedges. Particularly like the gates. Useful to find a local source for rubberised horsehair as I will need to get some more myself

    1. Thanks Gary. I think another 10-15' of hedges should just about be enough!

  2. I made 14' of hedges a while back in 28mm mainly for 17th century England, I used wire wool glued to wooden strips and sprayed black and then liberaly coated with a variety of basing materials, it works surprisingly well from a distance less so close up ! Yours are as always on another level of finish lovely work and great research !
    Best Iain

    1. Thanks Iain. I just looked at your hedges and they looked really good - I like the more open/looser look. I ended up with a much denser underlying structure than I really wanted because I was trying to balance durability with initial appearance and the 1" rubberised horsehair was especially prone to just falling apart if I pulled it too much.

  3. Looks good. As Garry says, you have done well to find a local source for rubberised horsehair (and very reasonably priced too). I had to go to a place in Nuneaton to get mine, many years ago, and you wouldn't think such an old-fashioned material would get easier to find. By the way, you've got my name as John Bond in your comments about the gates. But "The name's Boadle. John Boadle"!

    1. Sorry John, obviously I know that. Either auto-correct or (I fear) a senior moment because I also know a John Bond. :-)

  4. Nice one! My bocage is also rubberised horse hair with flock on top of banks made from one or more layers cut from thick cork tiles. I struggle with flock shedding - I've tried varnish to fix it but it still seem to moult.

    1. Thanks Rob. With my previous attempt I used Woodland Scenics' Scenic Cement as a final fixative but that didn't work too well - lots of shedding. This time I've tried 'Ultra Firm Hold' hair spray - £2.50 per can from Superdrug. That seems better and certainly cheaper but there's still some shedding.

      I'm wondering now whether spray glue would have been better than PVA to glue the granules on in the first place but its a bit late for that.