Saturday, 23 June 2018

Moving On….

Don Pedro looked gloomily at the sketch in front of him. ‘So, we have to hold this bridge, or the English will take us from the rear?’

‘Yes, sire. The Northern English and the Scottish could be moving south, and they will need to cross that bridge. It is the first one on the river from the sea.’

‘But we must take York by the autumn. I do not have sufficient troops to do both.’

‘There are reinforcements arriving at Whitby, my lord. Should they get past the English ships.’

‘What do you mean, should they?’

‘Well, the English are alerted to where we are now, my lord. They will be watching.’

*

The King looked unhappily at his council. ‘Are we sure?’

‘As certain as we can be, sire. The Spanish have landed in Yorkshire and are advancing inland.’

‘The English army?’

‘Has not managed to stop them yet, sire. The main force is marching north, aiming for York.’

‘Look, my lords, it is far too early for us to worry about. The Spanish force the English to surrender. What is that to us?’

‘My Lord Maxwell, if the English surrender, so will we. And the Inquisition will start burning us.’

‘Hardly. If Scotland returns to the true faith there will be no need for Inquisitions.’

‘Maxwell, Scotland is a land of the true faith. Mr Knox ensured that we returned to the faith of our fathers, not the corrupted Romish mumbo-jumbo of the Spanish and their allies.’

‘The faith of our fathers is the faith of Rome, my Lord! We should….’

‘Silence! This is no place for theological discussion. Our sister of England is in danger, and it is for us to aid her.’

There was an uncomfortable quiet.

‘Then you will fight for the heretic, sire?’

‘If I were not so reasonable a man, Maxwell, I could interpret that remark as treasonable. I know your views; this is not about any faith, true or not, but I will not have England in thrall to Spain if it is in my power to stop it.’

‘Very well, sire; I shall return to my lands and raise my forces.’ Maxwell stood and left. After a little hesitation, two more lords rose, bowed and left.

‘Huntley and Montrose are gone too, sire.’

‘I know. They have been in correspondence with Philip of Spain too. Raise an army, but be prepared to fight in Scotland first.’

*

‘They must be stopped. The port must be blockaded.’

‘We have little powder and fewer ships for the job.’

‘Nevertheless, you command the Queen’s ships and this is what they are for. How will our posterity judge us if we refuse to hazard our ships and our lives in this service?’

‘Captain, a Spanish fleet is heading for Whitby. They carry reinforcements for the invaders.’

‘We must intercept them, I suppose.’

‘Captain Anderson, if I did not know better I would think you were reluctant to take on the task.’

‘Not reluctant, my lord, but…. A Fleet in being is more dangerous to our enemy than a fleet at the bottom of the sea.’

‘We beat them up the Channel, captain. Can we not beat them up the North Sea?’

‘Um. Well, we did not really beat them, my lord. That is the difficulty. The Spanish got to Calais in perfect order. We expended great quantities of powder for little gain; even the ships we damaged were able to keep going.’

‘The bulk of the Armada is still at Calais, captain. We are only dealing with a break-away group and now a small number of reinforcements.’

‘Who expected the Spanish to fight their way ashore at Calais?’

‘It saved England. They have not re-embarked.’

‘Yet, my lord. We must watch them.’

‘Yes, and we are. But we must also deal with this Spanish invasion in the north. They must be cut off from reinforcement. If so, they will wither like crops in a drought. If not, then if York is lost the north will be, and if the north is lost the kingdom will be. The fleet at Calais will be an irrelevance.’

‘Captain, this is what the Queen’s ships are for. You must go forth and intercept these Spanish, and send them to the bottom or at least prevent them from landing.  If we cannot risk the Queen’s ship on such an undertaking, then what are they for?’

‘That is your clear order, my lord?’

‘It is. If any English ships under your command are still afloat and the Spanish land, do not bother returning to Her Majesty, for a place in the Tower has been reserved for those who do not hazard all for the realm.’

*

The campaign has been a bit quiet of late, but that does not mean I have not been pondering things. A look at a map of North Yorkshire will show Don Pedro’s problem. He currently has the Moors to his left and the Tees to his right. However, he has now come to the gap between the Moors and the Dales and needs to turn south, to march on York. However, he cannot assume that the rest of northern England and the Scots (who were officially Calvinist by this time) would not march south and take him in the rear, so Yarm Bridge needs to be held. Actually, he probably needs to hold Piercebridge as well, but one problem at a time.

The Scots are also a bit divided. At least three lords were in treasonable correspondence with Philip II from 1586 or so, but James chose to turn a blind eye to it. However, it is unlikely that the lords who fought so hard twenty years previously to establish the Calvinist Kirk would let it be threatened by a Spanish conquest (or even a favourable treaty permitting Catholic toleration in England) without a fight.

Don Pedro, of course, needs reinforcements to guard the bridge so he can then strike south. The English navy is lurking at Hull to intercept the ships. As someone noted with respect to Operation Sealion on the question of whether the Royal Navy would risk its ships in the Channel if the invasion had taken place ‘That is what the RN is for.’

Things are, practically, a little tricky. I have no decent Armada era naval rules (any ideas?), and, if Maxwell is going to oppose James, then I will need to, at least, rebase some highlanders. So things might be slightly delayed…


Saturday, 16 June 2018

The Nine Years War

As threatened, or possibly promised, this is a bit more of a review type thing of

O'Neill, J., The Nine Years War 1593-1603: O'Neill, Mountjoy and the Military Revolution (Dublin: Four Courts, 2017).

I have already ruminated on the first chapter, the introduction, and why military history is regarded, at best, as an irrelevance and, at worst, with some hostility by the historical academy. This is just something that, as wargamers, amateur military historians or whatever we just have to live with. It must be a little harder if you are actually an academic military historian.

The bulk of the book is concerned with developing a narrative and explanation of the Nine Years War, or Tyrone rebellion. Quite a lot of this is a narrative of the wars, with some analysis thrown in along the way. For example, Tyrone’s strategy is both narrated and explained. Instead of seeking the glory of combat in battle (as, say, Essex did), he sought to win the war. This included misdirecting the English armies as to where he was going to strike. A minor attack was put in, the English sent a relief or punitive expedition, and Tyrone struck elsewhere with his main force. It took the English a significant amount of time to get their heads around this.

O’Neill suggests that this intellectual tardiness by the English high command was due to the fact that Tyrone was fighting a very different kind of war. Instead of a rebellion, to try to cast off the foreign yoke, obtain better conditions or settle grievances, Tyrone was trying to unite Ireland and change sovereignty from Elizabeth of England to Phillip of Spain. Therefore he needed the support of a wider section of Irish society than previous rebellions had even imagined.

As with earlier conflicts on the European scene, a lot of the subsequent action revolved around ‘good lordship’, that is, the ability of the over-lord to protect his minions. If it was shown that the English could not protect their allied Irish lords, then those lords were likely, by ‘choice’ or coercion, to defect to Tyrone. By 1599, due to a fair bit of English ineptitude, Tyrone’s strategy and cunning, and a bit of support from Spain and Scottish merchants selling gunpowder, Tyrone had control of more or less all of Ireland. English rule, or even presence, seemed to be hanging by a thread.

From Tyrone’s point of view, of course, it all went horribly wrong. By 1603 he had lost, and he was forced to submit to Elizabeth (or, fortunately for him, he in fact submitted to James, who he had never technically rebelled against. How did this happen?

The answer seems to lie in two or three factors. Firstly, English logistical might was deployed against Tyrone. England is simply a bigger country with a bigger population. Ireland was already showing the strain of a lengthy war and consequent taxation. When the English government decided to deploy more resources, the Irish had little left to answer with.

Secondly, Mountjoy was a very good viceroy of Ireland and used Irish deception strategy against them. Further, he also used English naval superiority to firstly, interdict the supply of arms and powder from Scotland and Spain, and secondly to mount seaborne operations against Tyrone’s heartlands in Ulster. Up to that point, Ulster had been a fairly secure base from which Tyrone could operate. While in previous years the English had considered and planned operations by sea, it was only in 1600 that they got around to it. Tyrone had to divert resources to defend his own lands, something which in previous years he had forced to English to do.

The third factor was Spanish support. This was often promised and even organised but had not arrived in significant quantities. While contact with Spain, initially through shipwrecked officers from Armada ships in 1588 had assisted in Tyrone’s rebellion and given modern training to Irish troops, subsequent support had been rather in dribs and drabs – gunpowder, arms, bishops and diplomacy, plus a few military officers. In 1601 the Spanish landed at Kinsale in some force and were besieged by the English. As we know, Tyrone’s relieving army was defeated, the Spanish surrendered and Tyrone’s victorious mystique was shattered.

O’Neill considers the war in a broader context. Firstly, he notes that it was not much more ferocious than comparable European wars. The main point of reference is the Dutch revolt; after all, the Dutch were attempting to changing monarch as well, although they did not have a strong a candidate for the new monarch as Tyrone.  That war was one of small-scale actions, ambushes and raiding, as well. The damage caused and civilian casualties were comparable. O’Neill detects little in the way of religious or ethnic hatred in the Tyrone wars.

Secondly, O’Neill considers that Tyrone had militarily revolutionised to Irish troops by 1593. One or two initial actions, admittedly, involved traditional gallowglass and kern troops, but O’Neill considers that this was deception by Tyrone, to conceal how modernised his main army in fact was. Tyrone’s army was a shot heavy pike and shot army of the period, although, with reference to the enemy and terrain, there were some differences.

The main difference between the English and Irish was in terms of pike. The English used pike conventionally, and an armoured strike force. The Irish used pike defensively, in a rather looser order, to counter the English cavalry. Most of the fighting by the Irish was done by shot, skirmishing in small groups; keeping up what I suppose could be called a heavy harassing fire on English troop concentrations.

Irish horse do not seem to have been ‘modernised’, for rather unclear reasons, possibly related to their more noble status and Tyrone’s proportionately lower influence over them. They adopted pistols but were still not a match for their English counterparts. The only troops Tyrone really feared was the English demi-lancer. Hence the deployment of Irish pike.


How would I summarise this? It is a good book, and I recommend anyone interested to read it. However, be warned: for me, it took more or less everything I thought I knew about the Tyrone rebellion and turned it on its head. And now I have to find some loose order pike to create by Irish army….

Saturday, 9 June 2018

The Command of the Ocean

There are, perhaps, three villains of the second volume of Rodger’s naval history of Britain:

Rodger, N. A. M., The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain, 1649-1815 (London: Penguin, 2004).

The first of these is Napoleon Bonaparte, the second is Lord Howe and the third, perhaps surprisingly given the date range of the book, is Henry VIII.

To start in the middle with Lord Howe is probably the easiest. Howe practically destroyed the functioning of the British naval bases and supply system. For all his abilities as an admiral, he was convinced that there was extensive corruption in the naval logistics and supply system. Anywhere in early modern Europe, if you looked for corruption, you could usually find it. Howe, of course, was no exception. For example, Rodger explains how Howe demanded a certain quality of timber from suppliers and rejected shipments that did not reach that level. This was unfair, as, of course, timber comes from trees and trees grow naturally. Thus a certain quality of timber cannot be guaranteed – there is always going to be some variation. Nevertheless, Howe thought this was corrupt and rejected ‘substandard’ timber, with the result that contractors refused to supply and the naval dockyard’s careful garnering and storage of timber of repairs and shipbuilding was disrupted. It took a while to rebuild the system, during the Napoleonic wars and, as a result, the Royal Navy was always in a bit of a hand-to-mouth existence with respect to shipbuilding and repair.

Britain’s naval superiority was assured by 1815, of course. The national myth-making assumes that, in truth, naval superiority was assured by 1700 at the latest. There was a ‘tradition of victory’, after all, and ‘Rule Britannia’ was composed in 1740. Rodger, however, notes that Arne probably meant it to be aspirational. After all, Bonnie Prince Charlie was able to land in Scotland in 1745, which does not indicate a particularly secure command of the ocean. If the French had been particularly interested, they could probably have defeated Hanoverian Britain and restored the Stuarts. This, however, was not to be.

The story of how Britain did come to rule the waves is, therefore, a lot more interesting and varied than popular history would have it. The true heroes are the naval administrators, from Pepys onwards, who laid the foundations for and maintained the operations of the dockyard and supply systems. The ultimate key to British naval supremacy was to be found in the ability to keep ships at sea for long periods, to repair them quickly, even when not in home waters, and, strategically, to maintain a squadron in the Western Approaches to the Channel.

This last point was not always recognised by politicians, but it was really essential to eighteenth century naval strategy. It could only happen, of course, because the logistical bases of the navy, particularly at Plymouth, had been built up, by the heroic administrators are farsighted admirals. The Western Approaches squadron could protect British trade both to and from the Americas, Africa and India and also, when needs must, intercept other country’s trade and attack their trade protection squadrons.

At this point, a key difference between the Royal Navy and their French and Spanish equivalents comes into play. Royal Navy captains and admirals were expected to be aggressive and attack. French and Spanish navies, strategically, were to protect trade and were, therefore, trained and ordered to be more defensive. They protected convoys. Royal Navy ships attacked the protectors of convoys and anyone who might intercept British trade. Rodgers notes that no British naval captains were court-martialled for being over aggressive against the odds, while a number were for not pressing home attacks. Incidentally, this also accounts for the much-repeated assertion that French ships fired at rigging while the British fired at the hull. The French approach was entirely logical – if you prevent the enemy from sailing at any speed by shooting away their sails, the convoy can escape.

The British did have various technical advantages over their enemies, such as copper-bottomed ships which made them faster and needing less maintenance (which could, in fact, strain the ship’s structure) but the real advantage was in the professional logistical and support structure which Howe so nearly wrecked. That he did not, and that the Royal Navy managed to recover, even in wartime, is a tribute to the resilience of the system as a whole.

The next villain is Napoleon. Rodger blames him, probably quite rightly, for bleeding France and the rest of Europe dry and thus leaving the seas to Britain. The French and Spanish navies could have taken on the Royal Navy and might have won. However, there were no resources and few trained sailors for them to do so. The infrastructure was not available. Further, Napoleon never seems to have understood how navies work and seems to have ordered naval squadrons around as he did army corps, with exact timetables and concentrations. Given the state of naval technology and the nature of seas, this was never going to, and did not, work. Towards the end, even though the French were building warships, they were (even if they had been launched) almost certainly not going to challenge the Royal Navy after 1805.

Rodgers notes that there was no assertion of the sovereignty of the seas by Britain in the post-Napoleon treaties. It was not required. Everyone could see that Britain, by 1815, did rule the waves. No-one needed to mention it; it was not disputed. Mostly, it was Napoleon’s fault.

Finally, we come to the third villain, Henry VIII. How come he gets the blame? Before him, Britain had a navy much like anyone else’s – brought into being when needed for the monarch’s wars. With Henry’s (sort of) assertion of Protestantism, Britain was left facing a hostile Channel coast. I have noted before that part of Elizabeth I’s strategy was to secure a friendly power in the Channel ports, and she managed that. But with France and Spain Roman Catholic and Catholicism resurgent across Europe, England, and then Britain, needed a navy in being. And that meant starting (admittedly rather haphazardly) the navel infrastructure which led to naval supremacy.


Without Henry VIII, therefore, Britain would not have had to professionalise naval administration and there would have been no command of the ocean, because it would not have been needed. Therefore, if anyone comes at you with the old canard that religion is not important alongside other factors in history, such as economics or technological factors, just point them to the development of the Royal Navy and Rodger’s book.

Saturday, 2 June 2018

Drums and Trumpets

One book, they say, (or at least, I do) leads to another. Now, I am quietly reading, as a further extension to my ‘Wars of the Counter-Reformation’ “project” (scare quotes are required, I think; at present, I am basing some ancient Spanish infantry)

O'Neill, J., The Nine Years War 1593-1603: O'Neill, Mountjoy and the Military Revolution (Dublin: Four Courts, 2017).

Now, this was not a cheap book (it was a gift; I don’t usually blow the book budget all at once) but it does raise some interesting questions, even though I have only read the introduction.

Firstly, O’Neill notes that one aspect of why there is no overall account of the Nine Year’s War (so named, even though it lasted rather longer) is that the works of Hays-McCoy and Falls, in particular, have said all that needs to be said on the martial aspect.  He notes that these accounts are mostly over sixty years old. The fact that they are recently republished  (1990 for my copy of Hays-McCoy’s ‘Irish Battles’, 1996 for Falls’ ‘Elizabeth’s Irish Wars’; this counts are ‘recent’ for most historical publication – I mean publication of history) suggests there is nothing much else available.

There is a fair bit of more specific stuff, but no overall revision of the military history or narrative of the war. Further, unless O’Neill had intervened, I am led to suppose (admittedly by the author himself) that no overall military narrative would have been prepared. Military history is only tenuously acceptable in the academy. Most military history is regarded as ‘old style’ drums and trumpets – accounts of campaigns and battles – which might sell large quantities but which skimp rather on the analysis and contextualisation of the war, battles, campaigns and so on.

O’Neill’s second point, therefore, is that military history needs to look beyond the wars and the outcomes of battles to that larger context. Drums and trumpets history tends to stop, at least, with the peace. It rarely puts the violence of a war into the context of the violence of a society. To choose a modern, unfortunate, issue, is the propensity of the United States in recent decades to go to war a reflection of the violence that appears to be inherent in that modern society? I am not intending to discuss or answer the question; it is one possibly to be tackled by examining attitudes to lethal weapons both within and outwith that particular state and its military system.

Certainly, some people who I have read suggest that society in the United States suffers from what Walter Wink called ‘the myth of redemptive violence’. He cited the Popeye cartoons as examples. The trajectory of the narrative is that Popeye is duffed up by Pluto, Olive Oyl is kidnapped, but Popeye saves the day by eating spinach and becoming super-powerful so that he can out-duff up Pluto, rescue Olive and win the day. Wink notes somewhere, I think, that the history of the two world wars could be summed up in a Popeye cartoon, at least from the US point of view.

As a second witness, I heard Stanley Hauerwas give a lecture in which he asserted that the US Civil War came to an end in 1917 when the US joined World War One. Confederate flags in Southern churches, he claimed, were replaced by the Stars and Stripes. As a Texan, he argued that this was because Texans like to kill people and had not had much chance since the end of the Civil War but now did as paid agents of government.

As I say, not being from the United States I am certainly not qualified to comment on wither assertion, except to suggest that they might, firstly, lend some credence to an affirmative answer to the original question and, secondly, they might also suggest reasons as to why military history is not popular in the academy, while being fairly popular outside it.

The problem is that so many drums and trumpets publications are of dubious quality anyway. O’Neill notes (p. 16) that circumspection is warranted. Popular publications do lionize particular leaders (Alexander III of Macedon springs to mind – someone commented here that he was certainly ‘great’ because he conquered the known world; his victims might disagree), and, in a comment I rather like, some popular literature ‘sought to hypnotize their readers with military hardware pornography’.

Academic history, therefore, quarantines the actual execution of war. Indeed, I did an Open University history course a few years ago (before they put the prices up to lunatic levels and scared off people like me) which stated that the Treaty of Troyes was more important than the battle of Agincourt. The implication was that Troyes merited serious historical study while Agincourt did not. But, I thought, without Agincourt, there would have been no Troyes. Who wins battles does actually matter to history, however much we might try to brush over campaigns, battles and violence.

O’Neill concedes that traditional military history, of the drum and trumpet kind, has probably had its day. There is only so much you can get from an account of troop movements, decisions by generals and detailing battles. Lack of higher level analysis reduces military history to historical voyeurism. Historical voyeurism of this nature is, of course, related to the pornography of violence rife in our societies and, also it seems to me, Wink’s myth of redemptive violence. Military history which concludes with victory misses out the most troublesome part of victory – winning the peace. The examples are too numerous for me to give any.

As wargamers, of course, this tends to leave us with a particular set of texts which we use for our military history background to wargames. While often the narratives are sound, the interpretations and, possibly worse, the unstated assumptions of the original authors give us, as readers, a level of bias which is appropriate to the age of writing, perhaps, but not so much for today.


The out of date material is, however, all that we have, except for endless rewriting of those original authors. Yet there are lessons which history can learn, about both itself and processes within history from military history. Warfare did (and does) transform societies. Winning and losing battles and wars matters to those societies engaged in them. Armies are cross-sections of the societies that produce them. As with many things, the devil is in the detail, and the details are the decisions, manoeuvers and battles that were engaged in.

Saturday, 26 May 2018

The Collection

Strictly speaking, I am not reviewing the following book:

Stewart, S., On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993).

It only looks like it.

What I do want to talk about is the view of collections expressed in the book. Wargamers, aside from everything else, are collectors.  We have to admit it. We might even be hoarders, some of us. I really will get around to painting that army. Someday. Most of us, I imagine, have been there, thought that, however little our nearest and dearest might believe us.

Stewart argues that there is a difference between a collection and a souvenir. A souvenir is designed to transport us back to the place it signifies. She quotes Marx (which is not quite the alarm bell that might have been a few decades ago). The souvenir is a commodity made by labour. The souvenir spans the gap between the produced object and the origin. It reconstitutes the scene of acquisition.

The collection (or strictly, the objects in the collection) further alienate from production. We collect, but we do not ‘earn’ the item in the way that we obtain a souvenir, by actually visiting somewhere. As collectors we are consumers. The objects in a collection, therefore, signify money. Collected objects, such as coins or old bottles, are abstracted from their original use.

There is thus a difference between craft and mass production. A craft is a pre-industrial mode of production. The collection replaces craft activity in late modernity, Stewart suggests. A collection is a consumer activity. It links a pre-industrial aesthetic – that of the hand-made and one off – with a consumer society mode of production, that is mass-production, and mode of acquisition. We collect the ready-made.

The quality of a single collected object is negligible. What is important is the relation of an item in the collection to the others. In a coin collection each item matters, but in relation to the other coins. The value of a collection is not the sum of its parts, but the overall aesthetic, which is given by the position of the object and its manipulation within the collection.

So far, so abstract, I concede. But how does this apply to a collection of wargame figures?

Well, the last point I think can be agreed. A single wargame figure (as opposed to a model not intended to be used for a game) has very little use or value outside its army. The value of the single cavalry trooper is negligible without the rest of the squad, regiment or whatever. Even if the wargame is to be played at the lowest level of skirmish, the single figure is of comparatively little use.

What of the value (for the wargamer) of the model? Well, I suppose that this might vary. I recall from the old DBM-list (which was a fairly scary place for a newly returning wargamer) there was, on occasion, great glee or massive despair when new versions of the rules were released which made this or that troop type better or worse than before. Did the value of the soldiers change?

I suspect the answer is ‘sort of’. The intrinsic value might not have varied, but the use within the collection, the army, might have done. However, this must be limited by the fact that the troop type is still required, or at least permitted, in the army. The particular value of the troops might have changed, but their overall use value has not.

We could, I suppose, argue over whether wargame figure production is a craft or mass production. I have to say I could argue it either way. It seems to depend on whether you think spinning a mould of 24 figures or so is sufficiently ‘mass’ for mass production. Of course, I know that some wargamers cast their own figures or even make their own moulds, but this is not behaviour I see at many wargame shows. So far as the consumer goes, in many cases, the receipt of, say, 144 identical infantrymen counts as mass consumption, if not strictly mass production.

However, that said, a craft element is to be found in a wargame collection. Many wargamers paint their own figures, make the terrain and so on. Some, admittedly, do not, but the majority, I’d say, do their own painting of at least some of their figures. This, surely, is a craft, a throwback to a pre-industrial way of proceeding. Interestingly, I recall that a lot of model railway figures come pre-painted, which might cast a different light on the craft of making model railways. But I digress.

Stewart argues that the combination of pre-industrial content and post-industrial form is a contradiction in a collection. Forming the collection is aesthetic consumption. Creating the collection is functional consumption. The collection ‘marks out the space of the ornament and the superfluous’ (p. 166). Further, she suggests that purchasing a collection all at once is not acceptable.

So, is a wargame army a contradiction? I think that some of us, at least, would feel a little uncomfortable (for want of a better word) if someone bought a pre-painted, ready-made army. How, after all, can you love them if you have not painted or based them? Part of the discomfort might be along the lines of worrying that our fellow wargamer might simply be a munchkin (to borrow a role-playing term) and have simply bought the powerful army. Not necessarily, I will concede, but there is something about it which does not make us altogether happy.

Is a wargame army superfluous, an ornament? In all likelihood it is. We do not strictly speaking need wargame figures to survive. Their resale value is fairly negligible. These days the lead content of figures has dropped to the extent that a wargame collection (or collection of collections) would probably be of little use in a nuclear holocaust. Wargames are a product of late modernity, of a consumer society and of the emergence of a moneyed class with leisure time.   


The collection of wargame soldiers is something which can never have an end. So the next time you feel guilty at having acquired another load of figures what it is doubtful that you will ever paint (let alone play a wargame with) just remember that you are doing your bit for the post-industrial economy.

Saturday, 19 May 2018

In The Frame

A long, long time ago, I wrote something about how wargames are framed. As I recall, this was based around some comments by Gadmaer which focussed on how paintings and plays, in particular, ‘frame’ the action. That is, there is on stage action, and off stage. Until recently, for example, most rapes and murders in plays were committed off stage. On stage we see the consequences of the activities both on and off stage.

All of this is, I think, still true. In film and television programmes too, much activity takes place off screen. It might be represented in flash-back in some examples, and of course the late modern fascination with the pornography of violence, let alone plain pornography, means that often the rapes and murders, sex scenes and so on are presented to us in glorious technicolour.

The second point therefore is that the framing is done in both space and time, and is informed by the culture of the day. The murders in Shakespeare, for example, are usually off stage. In the average cop film, they are in frame. We might consider that this is something to do with the technical ability to show someone being killed who isn’t being killed, but it is also to do with the acceptability of the scene in the first place. Culture ultimately, I think, trumps what is technically feasible.

A wargame table obviously operates as a frame. I was reminded of this when taking photographs of the end of the Guisbrough battle. As I mentioned when I wrote about setting the battle field up, it is framed in space, and consciously so. The ruined Priory is off the field. The hills and woods to the south of the battle field are off table. Partly this is because I could not find a suitable representation of the Priory. If I could, I probably would have given it a go. Partly, in the case of the hills and woods, it was because I did not want to clutter the actual battlefield any more. The hills and wood would, I think, not have added much to the action.

Perhaps a little more subtle than the geographical framing is the temporal. A wargame is, by necessity, a linear time frame. One thing happens and then the next thing. Cause and effect are firmly entrenched. I have not hear of too many wargames which play with the linear nature of time. Modern novels, of course, do so from time to time. For example, Penelope Fitzgerald’s Gate of Angels starts in the middle and works both backwards and forwards. I have not heard of any wargames that do so.

Nevertheless, a wargame does frame the time. We focus on the battle. We might pay lip service to what has gone before. Articles in wargame magazines often frame the battle in this way – starting from the political situation, the war, the campaign and the moves leading up to the action. But the bulk of the article, the bulk of what we, as wargamers, are interested in is the battle itself – the orders of battle, terrain, deployment, plans and movements. We, therefore, frame the battle in a certain way.

My narrative style of wargame campaigns is, of course, doing the same thing. I have given up on the idea of plotting map moves in detail, and of keeping track of logistics and reinforcements. These things can, of course, add a great deal to the game, but I have opted to frame my wargames in a certain way, skipping over the detail and focussing on the battle field activities. This might, of course, offend the purist but, I suspect, most honest reflection by wargamers would admit that this is more or less what everyone does. A pick up scenario is but one manifestation of the same thing; I’m just trying to connect mine a little bit.

The third thing we do, of course, is miniaturise the whole thing. As mentioned in my discussion of Yarwood’s paper a few weeks ago, miniaturisation enables us to overlook the whole battlefield. In fact, of course, looking at a map of a campaign is doing the same thing. Most generals do not have this advantage. I believe it was General Slim who remarked that the British army fought its battles on the side of a hill, in the pouring rain, at a point where two maps met. As wargamers, and, for that matter, consumers of military history, we get an overview of a miniaturised world.

As I think I noted before, there is also surely an effect of the degree of miniaturisation. While all wargame rules in fact distort the figure to ground scale, there is a limit to what we can get away with before it starts to look a bit silly. A representation of, say, Waterloo on a six foot by four foot table with 54 mm toy soldiers might push credibility for some people. Similarly, a representation of Kursk with 15 mm tanks on an eight by four table might strain some credibility in some quarters. There are limits to what we seem to be able to get away with, and I am starting to think that those limits are aesthetic rather than anything else.

Normally, of course, we get away with the credulity strain by scenario-ising the action, making it part of the whole. Our 54 mm game becomes the defence of Hougoumont. This fits into the overall narrative of the battle of Waterloo. Our level of miniaturisation has led us to frame the wargame temporally and spatially in a certain way. In fact, we have given up the advantage of miniaturisation, to some extent, as we can no longer gain an overview of the whole battle, just this part of it. But this yielding of overview is to make a playable game which we can believe.


There are, then, lots of interacting factors which go together to make up a wargame. Miniaturisation is but one of them. Temporal and spatial framing are others. Even though for most people most of the time these factors are not explicitly considered (‘Just put the stuff on the table and play!’) the look and feel of the wargame is, at the end of the day, what counts. 

Saturday, 12 May 2018

Elizabeth’s Wars


One of the books on my ‘to be written about’ pile is:

Hammer, P. E. J., Elizabeth's Wars (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).

I got this because, as you may have noticed, I am trying to update my historiography of the sixteenth century. On the other hand, the book does not really contain any of the descriptions of battles, weapons, uniforms and campaigns which wargamers so frequently hanker after.

You get quite a lot more in the book than just wars from 1558. Elizabeth’s reign was constrained significantly by the activities of her father and siblings. Henry VIII managed spectacular diplomatic isolation in the 1540’s and spent vast sums of money on defending England, invading Scotland and also invading France. He also managed to upset a fair number of people along the way, including the Scots, French and Imperial Emperor. The fact that he was a Protestant (sort of) in an increasingly aggressive Catholic Europe also did not help; nor did the rather ambivalent point of view of some of his subject to the matter of religion, on both sides.

Somehow the realm survived, made peace in Europe and struggled on with an ultimately unsuccessful war against the Scots. Quite what was to be achieved by fighting in Scotland was a bit of a mystery by Edward’s reign. Certainly, Scotland’s alliance with France was a problem for the security of the realm, but there was no way that, after being invaded, the Scots were going to allow Mary Stuart to marry Edward. Still, fighting continued until the English regime fell and a series of revolts, partly about religion and partly about taxation paralysed England and forced some sort of peace.

It did not last all that long of course. Peace in Early Modern Europe rarely did. Mary Tudor married Phillip of Span and England was again embroiled in continental war, albeit with a more reliable partner. However, the loss of Calais in 1558 had rather wider implications for England than the humiliation and loss of the entry port into Europe (much used of course, by Henry – if Edward III had not captured Calais, England’s involvement in continental wars would have been much lower – discuss). Calais and its garrison provided England with a cadre of trained professional soldiers. The royal garrison of Berwick was too small and remote (not to mention in too peaceable part of the realm, as it turned out) to replace it.

The problems facing Elizabeth when she came to the throne were manifold: religion, foreign affairs, the nature of the Scottish settlement (or lack of it), her own marriage and the succession and, above all money. These would have tested most monarchs of that or any other age. Above that Elizabeth had another issue that of her sex. This influenced many of the others – if she married she would lose power to her husband ad Mary Tudor had, and possibly have her realm dragged into wars which were not in its best interests. But beyond that she could not, by the mores of the day, command armies. The problem was that men, aristocratic men with an inflated idea of their own importance as it was, would command her armies and, if successful could threaten her throne.

Hammer takes us through the wars Elizabeth had to fight. The early interventions convinced her that wars were expensive, costly in the lives of her subjects and rather pointless. The assistance to the Protestants in Scotland was vaguely successful but the military aspects bordered on fiasco. The intervention in France was worse. The Tyrone rebellion in Ireland was both bloody and expensive, and the outcome was not the subjection of the island that might have engendered security. Against this background was the rising threat of Spain, chaos, from time to time, in France and the revolt of the Netherlands.

As an additional complication, the more Protestant elements of the kingdom, who often happened to be West Country sailors, wanted to expand their trade and piracy, at the expense of the nearest thing to a regional superpower there was at the time, Spain. The raids they launched were, mostly, irritants to the Spanish Empire, but did not help diplomatic relations at all, especially as the Queen and her council, desperate for money, had a tendency to take profit from the attacks (when they were profitable).

Elizabeth’s government did not wander blindly into war with Spain. They were, so far as it was possible, prepared, but money was always a constraint. English armies in the Low Countries were under-supplied, under-equipped and under-manned. The navy was better prepared but still the government had a tendency to not pay the seamen. The Armada was fought off by a combination of good fortune and strategic error by the Spanish high command.

The Elizabethan regime counter-attacked, of course. The 1595 Cadiz expedition is described as one showing a high degree of coordination by navy and army, and was carried out with a great deal of success. After a decade of war lessons had been learnt although it does have to be remembered that the Elizabethan strategy was always ultimately defensive. Elizabeth aimed for a draw in the war, while some of the aristocrats seem to have seriously thought they could win.

The exception is, of course, Ireland. The Tyrone rebellion had to be won. Strategy and religion combined here in a lethal cocktail that sucked men and money from England and left Ireland itself devastated and depopulated. But Elizabeth’s government could do no other – a Spanish base in Ireland would leave the whole of the west of England (to say nothing of Scotland) exposed to invasion. Further, despite the navy which defended against the Armada being based in Plymouth, there was no viable naval base to control the Irish Sea – logistically, London was the key.
                                         
Of course, the paradox of all this is that from historiographical viewpoints, Elizabeth and her government just about hung on. In myth and propaganda things are rather different. The cover of the book shows ‘The Armada Portrait’ of Elizabeth, serene with imperial crown (Henry VIII had declared England an empire, by the way), her victorious navy in the background and her hand resting on a globe. Later generations looked back to the tradition of the Elizabethan sea dog and contrasted their own age unfavourably with it – this was particularly true of the run in to the English Civil War, but not exclusive to it. It is also possible that this requirement for image making and propaganda stimulated the cultural golden age that did flourish – Shakespeare, Spenser and all that. If you want propaganda, you need someone to write it, but now I am speculating.