Saturday, 14 July 2018

Coldingham Conflict

So, what is going on here then?



This is, of course, the mock-up for the next Abbeys Campaign battle. The government forces are advancing from the north, nearest the camera, heading south to succour the English forces opposing the Armada break-away army landed at Whitby a couple of battles ago. The Scottish Catholic ‘rebels’ are advancing from the west, that is, from the right.

The point of conflict is the bridge at Coldingham. The government forces have to exit the table, along the road on the far side, right of the bridge, heading, naturally, south. The rebel forces have to stop them and nip the intervention in the bud.

The photograph is, as I mentioned, a mock-up. I have to make a few extra road sections to ensure everything fits. I would also like to paint up the six Scottish pike and six shot bases I have (half of which are on the painting stands as I type) but reflection on my painting to playing ratio suggests that perhaps having a wargame to keep the momentum going might be an idea. After all, I have a sufficiency (if not a surfeit) of pike and shot bases for the game, even if they are not specifically Scottish.

That, of course, raises another issue, that of the army lists for Scottish forces in the later sixteenth century. This suffers from a bit of a hole in history – the Scots were not really involved in any large-scale conflicts in the period. That is, from the defeat of the French in the early 1570’s, until the first Bishop’s War in 1639, there was no large-scale military activity in Scotland.

I use the term large scale advisedly. There was a lot of small-scale activity, on the Borders and, I imagine, in the Highlands and Islands. The Scots were also peripherally involved in the Tyrone Rebellion, both as suppliers of military hardware and as mercenaries. But it is not as if specific Scottish armies were involved.

This, incidentally, raises another marginally interesting issue. The DBR army lists for the ’Scots Common Army 1513 AD – 1602 AD’ claim that the Scots had no firearms up to the terminus date of the list. My limited historical resources would beg to differ. A ‘contemporary sketch’ of Carberry Hill, 15th June 1567 seems to me to clearly show Scottish foot armed with firearms:

 http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/utk/scotland/popup/carberry.htm.

According to Wikipedia (OK, not a great source), Mary had about 200 hagbutters at Carberry.  

Looking a bit further back in time, Caldwell observes that the Scots, in the aftermath of Pinkie and the mauling given to the army then (1547, as any wargamer will know) the Scots took a serious interest in hand firearms. Arran could (or did) deploy rather few, although handguns were not unknown in Scotland. As the Scots relied on the pike, it is possible that they simply did not fit the tactical plan.

The upshot of all this is, of course, a problem for a wargamer engaged in an imaginary campaign tied to a historical context. There are other issues as well. Mention ‘Early modern Scottish army’ to most people and they will inevitably think of hordes of wild highlanders rushing down hills at people. As I mentioned in the Sherrifmuir post, while this is not entirely fictional, it is not wholly accurate either. There is thus much pondering of imponderables.

I do overthink things, I know. At some point, a plunge has to be taken, and so I can hazard a guess as to what these armies will look like. The rebels, having moved through border country, may well have an advantage in light cavalry; on the other hand, the government will probably have the edge in heavier cavalry and musketeers. The question of what the heavier cavalry might be is a bit questionable. Famously, the Scots went into the English Civil War with lancers, although they did have more conventional sword and pistol cavalry as well. It seems moderately likely that any heavier cavalry would be of the lance armed persuasion.

Therefore, the army lists will look something like this:
Scottish Government: 1 light horse; 1 demi-lancer; 5 pikes; 5 muskets.
Scottish Catholics: 2 light horse; 4 pikes; 4 muskets; 2 Highlanders.

This probably ensures that there is sufficient difference between the two sides to give an interesting game.

Tactically, the rebels have to seize the bridge at Coldingham. If they can manage that, the government forces are going to struggle, although the stream is passable. Google Maps suggests that the banks are quite steep, at least in the town, but the water is neither deep nor wide. It is also quite possible that it has been canalised in recent decades (or centuries).

The rebel advance will, therefore, have to push the light horse forwards to grab the bridge, and then hope that they can hold it long enough for the rest of the army to come up. It is always possible that the two sides will negotiate rather than shoot at each other from that point, which would probably be a winning draw for the rebels. However, the government army can try to cross the stream and then take the bridge from both sides. As I discovered in the action at Guisbrough, taking a bridge when it is actively defended, even by musketeers, is a tricky option. This one has the added complication that government forces would have to advance through the town first, which will give them a terrain disorder marker to start with.

Quite what the highlander contingent will be doing during this is anyone’s guess. They are not really adapted to urban warfare or the holding of terrain items. Perhaps the best bet is to deploy them as flank guards back from the stream, to charge any government forces that try to cross while they are still disordered from doing so.

It could be an interesting game – I hope so anyway – and the dice will, I’m sure, have something to say about the situation. Now I must paint those new road sections…..


Caldwell, D. H., 'The Battle of Pinkie', in Macdougall, N. (ed.), Scotland and War AD 79 - 1918 (Edinburgh: John Donald, 1991), 61-94.



Saturday, 7 July 2018

Sheriffmuir

The regular reader of this blog will be vaguely away, as I am, that I have a passing interest in the Jacobite rebellions of the early eighteenth century. In a sense, I suppose, this is a natural progression from an interest in the seventeenth century. The Jacobites, after all, were something of a bit of leftover business from the later seventeenth century and the ‘Glorious Revolution’, of 1688. How glorious it was depends, of course, on whose side you were on.

Much of the interest of the Jacobite rebellions is focused on 1745, of course. It was, after all, bigger, better organized and had more of a chance of success than the earlier efforts. Furthermore, it was also romantic: Bonnie Prince Charlie and all that. I suppose we could also note that it was decisive: there were no more Jacobite wars after it.

Anyway, I have been reading this:

Reid, S., Sheriffmuir 1715: The Jacobite War in Scotland (London: Frontline, 2014).

This is, of course, by Stuart Reid, who is a well-known writer on Scottish military affairs. The book covers quite a lot more than the title suggests, including the Battle of Preston which, last time I looked, was in England.

Reid gives a thorough and, so far as I can tell, well-balanced account of the activities of the various sides and factions in the rising. One of his main points is that the Jacobites were not really attempting to start a war. They seem to have reckoned that they could carry out a change of government in Scotland without one. That change was, of course, to put James (the ‘Old Pretender, of James VII & III, or the Chevalier – you picks your title and takes your choice) on the throne rather than George I of Hanover (and England, Ireland and Scotland).

Presumably, the model for this revolution was the 1688 one in England. That was, within that kingdom at least, a fairly bloodless change of government. Residents of parts of Scotland and, in particular, Ireland might choose to disagree, of course. Whether the goal was even slightly achievable was somewhat moot, right from the start.

The revolution would have to be backed by force, and so recruiting was started. The Jacobites are often thought of, in popular imagination, as being highlanders, and many of them were, but the leadership, as Scottish military leaders throughout the early modern period did, preferred, if possible to arm them with conventional weapons. This was simply because, despite a load of myth and mystique, conventional fighting was a lot more effective, in most circumstances, than the highland charge.

We can reach back to at least Montrose and the Scottish Civil Wars of 1644-6 to see this. When Montrose was just starting out, the troops fired a single volley and charged with cold steel. This was very effective, admittedly, against unsteady reserve line troops, as those who faced Montrose were. However, as soon as was possible, the troops were rearmed with musket and pike and became a lot more conventional, although they did retain strategic mobility and Montrose was the master of deception, if not of scouting.

Similarly, the rebellious troops of the ’15 were armed conventionally, so far as the commanders could manage. They had a fair bit of trouble with the Royal Navy intercepting supplies, and so some troops remained under-armed by the standards of the day, but they managed. The Royal Navy also got in the way of operations. The project to land an army on the south side of the Firth of Forth was partially blocked by the arrival of warships.

The Jacobites thus landed up with two armies. One based around Fife, the other south of the Forth attempting to link up with rebels on the Border and in northern England. After a lot of wandering around, fairly optimistically, trying to recruit, the latter army landed up in Preston, where it was attacked and defeated, and surrendered to a bit of a ragtag army, which did have some regular units.

North of the border, things were fairly farcical. In fact, it seems to me that if the events had not led to tragic loss of life, it could be called a comedy. Argument, recrimination, lack of direction, failure of both political and military leadership all contributed to the government and rebel forces clashing at Sheriffmuir on 13th November 1715.

As I am fairly sure few wargamers will need reminding, Sheriffmuir is really only memorable for one fact: both armies ran away. That is, of course, a bit of an over-simplification. In fact, one wing of each army ran away, and it took a while for the other wing to work out what had happened and even longer to decide what to do about it. As it was neither side fancied their chances of a second go, the rebels, in part, because the highland charge which had been effective meant that some of their victorious men had no muskets and no cloaks, as they were discarded before the charge, of course. It was a chilly night.  

The upshot was that even, as is probable, the battle could be called a draw, the Jacobites lost because they needed a win. A draw was a perfectly good result for the government; the army was in being, Edinburgh was held and any waverers were discouraged from supporting the Jacobite cause.

The arrival of James VIII & III after the battle did not help much. The cause was shattered. Reid notes that the best thing he did was leave again quickly, allowing his supporters to make what peace they could with the government. It was notable, incidentally, that in some parts of Scotland, no matter what orders arrived from the different sides and the choices of neighbouring lairds, they had no intention of fighting each other. Some even asked permission of opposing landlords to march over their land on their way to join forces with their own army. We have to admit that it was civilized, if, as noted above, rather farcical.


Wargaming potential? Well, I am still thinking about it. Wild charges aside, finding a set of rules which permit half of each army to scarper and the rest still to be in the field might be a little tricky. It would probably make a very nice, multi-player campaign to while away a few winter afternoons, though.

Saturday, 30 June 2018

Fire As You Bear

It is a funny thing, but the more I read about something the less I know, except that what I thought I knew I did not, or at least, what I thought I knew needs nuancing, if not discarding and starting again. A recent example would be Tyrone’s Rebellion, as I have commented. However, these things come thick and fast at times.

Those of you who have read about my ‘The Armada Lands’ campaign will have noticed that a naval battle is in the offing. I have already complained about my lack of suitable rules for such a battle. Nothing I have on my shelf seems to do the job. As with the ‘renaissance’ period generally, rules tend to be either modified ancient rules or modified horse and musket (Napoleonic) rules. As with land warfare, so with naval warfare, except that every ship is assumed to be a late eighteenth-century ship of the line. Recent reading suggests that this is massively untrue.

I have, as I mentioned a while ago, read:

Rodger, N. A. M., The Safeguard of the Sea: A Naval History of Britain, 660-1649 (London: Penguin, 2004).

Being of a vaguely academic (or masochistic) turn of mind, I read some of the footnotes (endnote, actually; publishers are annoying about that), particularly when Rodger was discussing the development of English naval vessels before 1588. There was, he agrees, a naval military revolution in ship design, but it was not quite as decisive, nor of the nature that, as I as a wargamer might have thought

For further detail, Rodger refers to one of his papers:

Rodger, N. A. M., 'The Development of Broadside Gunnery, 1450–1650', The Mariner's Mirror 82, no. 3 (1996), 301-324.

Of course, self-referencing is no recommendation, but as I could, I read the paper and have pondered its implications for my non-existent rule set for naval wargames of the counter-reformation.

The first thing, a myth which apparently arose from a mistranslation from the Spanish, is that the English ships fired broadsides. This is untrue. The reasons for this are a bit complex, and I am not wholly sure I understand them, but I will try to summarise here.

Shipboard guns were first developed on Mediterranean galleys, where they started off as one big gun mounted on the bow. Galleys had long since stopped ramming, but closed to board (I presume; I’m not sure Rodger spells out what they did) and a heavy gun shooting just before contact would have been considered a good thing, particularly as mounted on the bow was the least strain on the hull possible, and also aided aiming. You just point the boat in the direction you wish to shoot in.

This, however, caused a problem in northern waters, as sailing ships had initially no response to shipborne heavy cannon. Where previously sailing ships, with high freeboards and fore and stern castles, were fairly impervious to boarding attacks from low lying galleys, now the galleys could just stand off and knock the sailing ships to bits. A response was necessary and developed over a few decades in the early sixteenth century.

The first response was to mount cannon in the stern. This was the easiest thing to do, it seems (although it is unclear – ships had to have a flat transom (I think that is the technical term for the bit at the back) – and this emerged at about the same time). Thus, when attacked by a galley, a sailing ship could turn away and engage with its own heavy cannon. A draw, at least, could be obtained and, in fact, this was the tactic for merchant ships for decades; you can both shoot back and sail away, after all.

Next up, of course, came cannons in the bow. This needed a bit more tinkering with ship design, but did not take that long, and soon warships had bow chasers as well, enabling engagement from both fore and aft. Thus, to a greater or lesser extent, the threat from galleys was met. There were other issues, such as the difficulty of operating galleys in the rougher northern waters, but even as late as 1601 a Spanish squadron operating in the Channel caused ructions and a flurry of oared vessels being built.

The presumed tactics seem to have been to engage with bow chasers and then lay alongside. However, this still required the use of missile weapons and, of course, smaller cannon mounted in the ship's waist. It did not take long for these cannot to be made bigger and placed on the lower decks. This was more or less the case by the time the Mary Rose sank, of course.

The English ship design changed somewhere around 1570, with the race built Queen’s ships, starting with Dreadnought. These had more broadside cannon but, Rodger points out, the guns could be traversed over a wide angle. The cannon were on truckle carriages, and these were short enough to permit traversing. Spanish ships of the Armada, as is well known, had cannon but they were mounted on normal artillery carriages, thus being longer and hence were unable to traverse as much as English guns.

The tactics of English ships during the Armada campaign seems, then, to have been like this. The leader (with the advantage of the wind, of course) approached, fired their heavy bow chasers and then a broadside. They then either tacked or weared, bringing the stern chasers (again, heavier cannon) or the other broadside into action, and then retired to a safe distance to reload while the next English ship did the same thing. Rodger points out that this was not a line of battle as understood by the later seventeenth century.

The numbers of shot consumed by English ships suggests that they fired one to two rounds per gun per hour. Rodger observes that they had far smaller gun crews than later centuries, and so internally the ships approached with all guns loaded and the crews moved from forecastle to broadside as each gun came to bear. They did not stand in line of battle shooting and reloading like Nelson’s ships at Trafalgar.

There is more to come, but I have never seen a set of rules that permits this manoeuvring. Maybe you can inform me differently…





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.