Saturday, 23 March 2019

Dragon Lords

And now, long-suffering reader, for something completely different. I do not always read either ancient or early modern history. Nor do I always read military history. Occasionally I branch out, as the more astute among you might have noticed, into broader history, philosophy, philosophy of science and theology. Even so, the next work is still a bit of a departure for me, but it is good to stretch one’s horizons and ponder things anew.

The book in question is this one:

Parker, E., Dragon Lords: The History and Legends of Viking England (London: I B Taurus, 2018).

Now, Vikings are something I know little about, apart from the obvious that they came from Norway and wore helmets with horns on them. Unfortunately, neither of those two facts are actually true. Vikings have been traduced much as Boudicca’s chariot with the nice knives on the hubcaps and African history.  Vikings in England, at least, mostly came from Denmark, and the horns on the helmets are, well, shall we say the product of over-active historical imaginations and a few misreadings of the little evidence we actually have.

That said, Parker’s book has very little wargaming information, and is, I suppose, a bit more like a ‘reception history’ of the Vikings, perceptions of the Vikings and the sorts of Vikings the Middle Ages would have liked there to have been. Then as now, of course, history is hijacked (one might say kidnapped) to serve particular points of view, desires for the present and so on. Thus, for example, post-Norman Conquest Vikings could either become freedom fighters from oppression, or foreign oppressors. It depended, it would seem, on the writer.

There are a few other things in Parker’s book which are of interest. The question of sources presses. Who wrote what and why is the first one, but the complex genealogy of the later works, that is, how dependent they were on earlier chronicles and accounts, is a live and tricky question. Some authors had a good deal of information and chose to select it in ways which served their purposes, others had less information and either relied on oral sources (which may or may not be historical), legends, myths or simply made things up.

Overall, then, the book is about how historians used other historians. Its focus is on the Vikings and the perceptions of the Vikings. As England was regionalised, this, of course, depended on where you were. North and east of Watling Street, your view of Vikings might have been a bit more positive than to the south. On the other hand, your view of Vikings may well have depended on the view of your patron. After all (and this is a factoid that I was vaguely aware of, but had never come into focus), after Hastings the Normans did not have a particularly easy time, with various rebellions and or revolts (or resistance efforts), some of which were supported by Danish ships, men, and money. Hereward the Wake (of whom I had heard by dint of my grandparents living in range of Radio Hereward) was only a part of it.

The other thing that comes clear from this whole tricky historiographical mess is that there was really no such thing as a Viking, or even a Dane or Anglo-Saxon. While the languages may vary, all sorts of people got together and fought together. I, therefore, have come to doubt if a Danish army of the period, at least deployed in England, would be all that ‘Viking’, even minus the horned helmets. While an early era raiding party would, presumably be more Danish, the later armies, from before Cnut, would, it seems to me, be much more of a mix of types, arms and enthusiasm. Cnut used the rhetoric of conquest of an earlier age to legitimise Danish rule of England. So far as it can be true in any early medieval setting, not many objected to either the rule (once the opposition was deceased) or to the use of a partially imagined past.

Furthermore, England was even more parochial than it is now. Communications between the different bits was difficult and slow. The stories of different regions reflected local legends, people. places and events and were not necessarily part of any ‘national’ story. For example, the stories around (the mythical) Guy of Warwick centre on the Midlands and Winchester; such tales are not found in the north.

Incidentally, the Guy of Warwick stories solved a decade's long puzzle that the Estimable Mrs P and I had. As residents of the aforementioned burgh, on one of our walks, we passed a cliff with a ruined manor house on top of it. A perusal of the local OS map indicated that this was called ‘Guy’s Cliffe’, and much puzzlement was expressed as to whom this Guy was and why he had a cliff named after him. Parker explains that Guy of Warwick retired as a hermit to a cave in a cliff just outside Warwick after his heroic deeds had been performed. The cave was a nice little money earner for someone in the Middle Ages, even though the stories were legends.

I do rather digress, however. The book is an excellent one, and the lesson of it is more general than just the Vikings or early Medieval England. All sources in history are, to some extent, secondary. It is a fairly rare early historian acknowledges their sources and distinguishes written, oral and magical information. The situation is further confused, potentially at least, by subsequent authors. For example, Parker notes that the sixteenth and seventeenth-century antiquarians and historians, who first investigated the sources and translated them, had their own slips and misinterpretations. Hence, by one misreading, the Vikings were portrayed as drinking the blood of their enemies from those enemies’ skulls (or, possibly wine – I may be misrepresenting the misrepresentation, of course).


Recent work on DNA suggests that the conquests were neither as complete nor as bloody as history usually represents them. For the state of the North of England, William the Bastard is picking up much of the blame these days. I am not entirely sure about that – deindustrialisation also has its effects. But then the histories I’ve read are dependent on their sources and they might be misrepresenting or misunderstanding. Overall, it is a bit of a wonder that we know anything about the past, or, perhaps, we don’t….

Saturday, 16 March 2019

A New Korea

One of the interesting things that can happen when the idea of world wargaming hits a research library is the unexpected. Someone, somewhere, has hit upon an idea that might just give some insight into wargaming, world history and probably a few other things which are not quite so expected.

I have just finished rebasing my old Early Modern period Koreans. Again, they are cobbled together from Irregular figures and fit the 100 AP DBR condensed scale army lists. Now, my recent interaction with said lists has been less positive than it might have been, but given that I already have the toys, and no historian will be harmed by the rebasing exercise, I went ahead and did it.

Subsequent to the rebasing activity, I read an interesting paper:

Andrade, T., Kang, H. H., Cooper, K., 'A Korean Military Revolution? Parallel Military Innovations in East Asia and Europe', Journal of World History 25, no. 1 (2014), 51-84.

As you may be aware, I am interested in the idea of a military revolution, mooted originally for Northern Europe around the end of the sixteenth century or so. Various historians are attempting to fit the story that the idea gives us around what happened in different places. Hence we obtain a Chinese military revolution, an Indian (or Mughal) revolution, and a Japanese one and so on. The key element of such debates turns on the influence and impact of gunpowder in these places, preferably before great numbers of Western ships and troops arrived.

The interest in Korea is, of course, focussed around the Japanese invasion of the 1590s.  By that time the musket was well embedded in Japanese military culture. Meanwhile, the Chinese had also been adapting to gunpowder weapons, probably for a much longer time than anyone else. Korea seems to have been a bit of a minor backwater in such things, along the same lines as England was in the middle of the sixteenth century. Korea had a mostly cavalry effective army, with part-time peasants as the rest.

The impact of the Japanese invasion was the major introduction of the musket or arquebus. There is some debate as to whether the Japanese fired the weapon en mass, as European armies were learning to, or exactly how it was used. Some argue that volley fire was used at Nagashino in 1575, others dispute it. Probably it was used in Japan by 1615. The development is intriguingly similar to that in Europe.

Of course, the use of a matchlock musket imposes certain restraints on the units using it. It is a bit slow to load, and so units are needed in depth. The Koreans developed a system of a unit five deep, and they sort of countermarched. That is, the first pair stepped beyond the sergeant, gave fire and returned to their places, and were followed by the second pair, and so on, the hope being that the first pair would have been reloaded by the time the fifth pair had discharged their weapons. This is, of course, comparable, but not exactly the same as, European countermarch systems.

The Koreans were aware of the problems with matchlock weapons systems, such as the fact that they do not work terribly well in wet weather. Thus they retained archers, to second and augment the firepower from the guns. A seventeenth-century source advises four thousand matchlock men, three thousand archers, two thousand mounted archers, one thousand heavier cavalry and a thousand sword and spearmen.

The idea here is that the musketeers open fire at about 100 paces and fire by the above-outlined method. When they have ‘exhausted’ their fire, the archers step up and deliver their fire. If the enemy get too close, the third layer of sword and spear armed troops (called in the sources ‘Kill Units’) step up and see the enemy off. Once they have done so, the musketeers and/or archer can resume their fire. The kill units, the authors argue, fulfil the role taken by pikemen in the West.

The authors go on to discuss the actions in the Amur region between Manchu forces and Russian Cossacks. The Manchu had, by the 1650s taken suzerainty of Korean and added highly regarded Korean musketeers to their forces, which greatly assisted seeing off the Cossacks. The authors concede that the numbers were small and the outcome of two small battles can hardly be determinative of how Korean and European forces would have fared in action against each other, but the implication is that it would not have been a pushover for the West.

Korea was not averse to incorporating foreign ideas into its armed forces. Captured Japanese soldiers were recruited, as was a Dutchman. Where the Korean ideas about how to use muskets came from is unclear. It might have been parallel development, it might be from Ming innovation and copied during the Sine-Japanese war, it might have been from the Japanese or their own invention. History does not tell us.

We do know that Western influence, including that of the Dutchman Jan Jansoon Weltevree, or Pak Yon to the Koreans, improved Korean cannons significantly. However, the most likely influence on musket tactics is the Japanese, and this suggests something of a difference between east and west. The Korean musketeers used by the Manchu were valued for their accuracy, which indicates they were using fowling pieces. The authors suggest that the Koreans were good marksmen and drilled to deliver continuous fire, rather than the Western inaccurate fire (but lots of it).


This suggests to me that the Japanese and Korean musketeers were using weapons which were slower to reload than their Western counterparts and that again to me, suggests a reason why the Koreans retained archers to cover the gaps in musket fire. Alongside financial and logistical constraints and a cultural preference for archery (again, we could compare with England here) the use of archers to cover the problems with muskets seems logical, if not inevitable. 

Saturday, 9 March 2019

Rajput Rumblings


One of the problems with a rebasing project such as the one running at the moment is that the output of armies can outstrip my ability to play wargames. I suppose I am just that sort of person, a ‘completer’ in psychological terms. I have set my project end, which is to have rebased all my renaissance soldiers to current standards, and the project dominates my hobby time. Despite the estimable Mrs P reminding me that it is only a hobby and, in some senses, it does not matter. I agree entirely; I just cannot stop.

Still, I did manage a rebasing hiatus to put the Mughals on the table. I have no nice narrative for this; it was vaguely conceptualized as a Rajput rebellion against the local Mughal forces. The armies were put together based on what I have and on the DBR army lists, of which more is to be said later, probably.

The opening dispositions were as follows:


The Mughals are to the left, musketeers nearest the camera, followed by a base of rockets, infantry, archers and heavy cavalry on the far side, with the general and another elephant base as the reserve. The Rajputs are to the right, with a base of light cavalry, a block of archers, another block of archers and their lancer armed cavalry on the far side. The only reserve is the general’s cavalry base. The figures are a mix of Irregular colonial Indians and Baccus classical Indians. The buildings too are a mix of manufacturers, Irregular, Leven and I have forgotten what else.

Now the battle was close fought and I had to make up a fair few rules as I went along (which was part of the point). According to my reading elephants are not keen on gunpowder weapons, but that was not an issue here because the Rajputs did not have any. The rockets had to throw a six to hit anything and failed dismally. I really am not sure whether that was harsh or not.

Most of the action was on the Rajput right, where their heavy cavalry made a bit of a mess of the Mughals, but not a total one and the semi-victorious lancers were charged by the Mughal reserve elephants, partially successfully. The centre and Rajput right were confined to a long-range exchange of arrows and gunpowder, to everyone’s detriment.

The successful Rajput lancers returned and overran some Mughal archers on the central hillock while the Mughal elephants threatened the right of the Rajput centre. The lancers then charged the elephant in flank and routed it (it being the Mughal general), carried on and routed the accompanying Mughal cavalry and at that point the Mughal army broke.


In the picture, the Mughal general can be seen routing at top right, the successful Rajput cavalry just above the gun (which is my tempo marker) and the only lightly engaged centres and near wings of both armies sitting waiting just out of range of each other. The second Mughal elephant (with the shaken marker) is top centre having been brought to a standstill by the Rajput cavalry.

At the same time as running the battle, I was also reading Gommons’ book on Mughal Warfare (Gommans, J., Mughal Warfare (London: Routledge, 2002)). This throws up some problems with the DBR army lists for the Indian subcontinent. The main issue is that Gommons insists that the Mughal army remained, into the eighteenth century, one based on heavy cavalry and light horse archers. Now, of course, he could be wrong, and I intend to look into it, but there is very little light horse in any of the DBR Indian army lists.

Now, I do not want to be too harsh on the army lists. They were published in 1996, while Gommons’ book was published in 2002. On the other hand, in the early years of the Mughal conquest of India, the army was a more steppe one and that would be exactly a light and heavy cavalry combination. Gommons’ contention is that the military revolution in gunpowder weapons did not really happen in India until the eighteenth century, although the Mughals exercised a form of mobile power, moving the court around so the emperor could keep an eye on things and people.

There are a few other issues with the lists. Gommons observes that elephants became less used in the seventeenth century, possibly as a result of countermeasures related to gunpowder weapons. The DBR lists classifying zamindar and mansabdar cavalry also is not something that the Mughals would necessarily have recognised. Zamindars were nobles (a western term) with fixed land holdings, while mansabdars were nobles with non-fixed land holdings. These latter were often in places which had not been conquered, to encourage military activity. Gommons notes that the increasing transfer of mansabdars to zamindars meant that the Mughal Empire became increasingly localised and regionalised, which had disastrous consequences in the eighteenth century when it essentially broke up.


Overall, then, it seems that the DBR lists for India are a rather poor guide to the warfare of the era and continent. This is a pity, of course, and I shall have to look deeper into my resources to find some more horse archers to have another go. It does, of course, raise the question as a wargamer of whether it matters. If the armies are not strictly representative of sixteenth or seventeenth-century armies, the battle and the armies are fictional. The battle was fictional anyway, so why not declare the whole thing an imaginary nation with imaginary armies. I suppose the answer to that is how much emphasis we put on the word ‘historical’ in ‘historical wargaming’. We can never recreate history, of course, and anyone that wanted to exactly recreate a battle should be confined to a nice, softly furnished room, but how historical does historical have to be before were are entirely wargaming something that is fantasy, albeit with a dearth of elves, dwarves, magic and other such accoutrements. I am not sure, but I am still going to work on the army lists.

Saturday, 2 March 2019

Carthaginian Capers


Battles, Alexander thought, were not as easy as his father had claimed. ‘Just slice through them,’ Daddy had said. ‘Have the companions at your back and they’ll just melt away.’

Well, maybe the Persians and Indians had done so for him. These Punic types, with Greeks and Celts and Moors, were no pushover. Even so, he had won, and some of his father’s veterans were giving him some respect now. After all, he had been in the thick of it, Companions at his back.

The problem was really, he thought, that the Carthaginians did not just run away when they had been beaten. Clearly, they had lost some time before they actually gave up. He was sure that one of the generals had commented that the hardest part of warfare was convincing the enemy that he had lost. Still, the Senators of the city had been summoned to attend him the next day, and they should be persuadable that surrender was the best way forward. He was not exactly sure why his father had taken against the city, but he was inclined to be merciful.

On the other hand, there were now even more nations to be punished for opposing him. He could deal with the Greeks later, but these Celts and Moors were much nearer at hand. After a few days rest the army would need to pursue the Moorish forces. A tyrant’s job is never done.

*


The slightly out of focus picture above (the camera focussed on the command group in the foreground, by the sea) shows the initial disposition of the armies by the sea. The Macedonians are to the left, the Carthaginians to the right.
A slightly better picture is below.



This is from behind the Carthaginian lines and shows most of the forces. Alexander and his Companions are to the right of the phalanx, opposed by the Carthaginian chariots (of Indian origin) and Greek-style cavalry. Gallic warbands await any phalangites who break through the thin crust of hoplites forming the centre of the Carthaginian army.

The Macedonian plan was to pin the centre with the pike and then launch the classic Alexandrian cavalry charge onto its flank. The Carthaginians realised the risk and were determined to hold the line, smashing any breakthroughs with the reserve warbands and Greek cavalry, while attempting to flank the Macedonians with superior light troops.

In the interests of balance, here is a view from behind the Macedonian lines.



I am sure it does not take me to tell you that neither plan worked terribly well. To start with, the Companions and phalanx advanced in step and the Companions charged at the same point that the hoplites threw themselves upon the pike and pushed them back. The chariots held the companions very nicely and it looked as if Alexander’s luck was out. Statistically, the Macedonians should have managed to win more than one of the eight combats.

Eventually, of course, statistics came through. The Macedonian breakthroughs were not terribly decisive, but they sucked the Carthaginian general into the cavalry combat which led to his demise, while Alexander survived two similar rolls.

The Carthaginian army morale only broke when they had lost ten bases plus the general. The loss of the general meant that flanking manoeuvres had to be suspended due to lack of tempo points, but this was balanced by Alexander’s involvement for most of the battle in combat, which meant that not much happened on his side either. The Companions and pike won the battle.

The end state is shown below.


In the distance on the right, the Companions are driving the rest of the Carthaginian chariots off the table, while a little nearer the pike mop up the remains of the hoplites. A quirk of the rules means that one hoplite base has driven two pikes practically across the table; the pikes are at breaking point but the hoplites just did not manage to finish them off. This is, in fact, why the late sixteenth century rules have a rule which indicates that two recoils give a shaken, which would limit this sort of thing. I think I shall implement it here.
                                                                                                                            
Overall, it was a satisfying game, with a great deal of interest in how the plans worked out and also a good deal of head scratching as to how very limited tempo points were going to be distributed. As I mentioned, the light troops saw little action as a consequence of this, something which probably benefitted the Macedonians.


It was, I suppose, something of a relief that the Macedonians won; otherwise, this would have been a one battle campaign. Next up are the Moors, but a battle of a very different sort, I think, given that the Moors are all lights. Alexander III struggled against ambush and raid. On the other hand, young Alex can always sail away to Spain to try his luck there.

Saturday, 23 February 2019

Models and Myths

Another sort of historiography that concerns Elton (see last week’s post) is ideology. We find, for example, historians that are committed to, say, a Marxist interpretation of the English Civil War, and no quantity of evidence will dissuade them from that viewpoint. Thus, the fact that a fair number of MPs ultimately supported the King cuts no ice with them as they see the victory of Parliament as the triumph of the bourgeoisie, the lawyers and merchant classes. As an interpretation, of course, this does hold some water, but it is certainly not something to die on the barricades over, to say the least.

Broad interpretations of evidence are useful but dangerous, I think. In my own, home, subject of physics a lot of effort is put into deciding where and when a model is considered accurate, when a set of approximations work and when they do not. This is a lot trickier than it sounds, and the results are often surprising. Sometimes a model breaks down before it is expected to. My minor claim to physics fame (and it is minor, believe me) is evidence that the usual models, used in the usual circumstances, do not work. On the other hand, part of that same set of models still works when it should not, by the basic approximations made in constructing the model. There are reasons for this, and I could drone on and on about it for hours, but I will spare you that. The point is that models, even of our own construction, are not quite a simple as we might like to think.

I have, on this blog, form over discussing models, as my gentle reader with a long memory (or a handy click on the archive) will recall. A set of wargame rules is, I think, in essence, a set of interacting models, in the same way that a physics theory encompassing a range of phenomena, is also a set of models. We have to make models to render any of this tractable. In physics, the models and approximations made in creating them have to be tested against experimental evidence. This, in fact, is what physicists spend much of their time doing.

A model, then, is not the original, the thing modelled. If the model were, it would be the thing modelled and not a model of it. The Bohr model of the atom is not an atom, but a tool for thinking about and working with atoms. A set of wargame rules for a battle in a given period is not a battle in a given period, but a tool for thinking about the battle. Of course, both atomic model and wargame rule set need other things to work as models, such as experimental data, historical accounts of battles in the period, mathematical paraphernalia, toy soldiers and a situation.

In atomic physics, the situation is usually a set of boundary conditions which, once you have solved the differential equations, specify that solution to the physical conditions. In wargaming, the situation is given by a scenario, even if the wargame is a ‘pick up’ game, in that the two sides are placed on the table and the generals merely try to defeat each other. This is a scenario, albeit a very simple one; its physics parallel would be something like a single isolated hydrogen atom. This is something easy to understand (insofar as quantum mechanics is ever easy) but rather more difficult to find in real life (which, if you think about it, is probably a good thing).

Now, you may well be starting to think ‘Hang on a minute, I’m not a modeller and definitely not a physicist. What has this to do with me?’ I hope that the point is fairly clear, but if it is not I will labour it here. The point is that our language and the way that we approach solving problems is mediated by models and their linguistic cousins metaphors. I am not saying, although some people do come close to claiming, that language consists of metaphors in various states of decay, but I am claiming that models and metaphors are an important part of how we approach (let alone solve) problems.

A non-wargaming example of this is my car. A while ago, it developed the modern engine management system equivalent of a misfire. When I got the bill (a painful event) the readout of the exhaust reading had four dots on it, written by hand in biro. I puzzled over this and then realised what it was. The engineer had been working out the order of the piston firing. The four dots were his model of it. Through this, and sophisticated electronics, the problem was solved.

The problem is that within physics (and, I dare say, the other sciences) the limitations of models are known. People still use the Bohr model even though it is known not to be particularly accurate. Electrons do not jump from orbit to orbit. Nevertheless, in some circumstances, it is a handy model to keep in mind, even though other, more accurate models are available. In historical wargaming, the limits of the models are probably not known, or at least, not known terribly well. Thus we can and do run into problems.

For example, I am considering what to do about the Mughal army pictured a week or two ago. I, as a Westerner, know comparatively little about Indian warfare in the era of interest. I could simply pick up a set of rules that cover the period and place and use that – DBR for example. The rules would work, but here we come back to the ideological problem I started with. The issue is that Mughal warfare may not fit into the set of models the rules create.

I do know, for example, that the DBR model set does not work for seventeenth-century warfare because of the arrangement of pike and shot bases which is permitted but unhistorical. I can modify that, of course (and did, mentally at least) and carry on. But do the rules work for Mughal warfare? I have little idea (although I will try to find out). But the model set is in some ways an ideology, suggesting that all early modern warfare fits into this box, even the bits that don’t.


 Lopping off bits of reality that don’t fit is exactly what Marxist historians of the ECW stand accused of doing. I am fairly sure that as wargamers it is something we should avoid.

Saturday, 16 February 2019

Two Sorts of Historical Distortion

I vaguely mentioned before the break that G. R. Elton had some fairly swingeing things to say about historiographical distortion. In fact, he had about seven groups of people from whom, he thought, historical study must be rescued. Rather than just list all seven, most of which do not apply, I think, to wargamers in general, I thought I would concentrate on the two which could. I have not read Elton, you understand. The information here comes from this very useful book; the section on Elton is to be found on pages 68 – 76.

Hughes-Warrington, M., Fifty Key Thinkers on History (Abingdon: Routledge, 2015).

The first group Elton thinks create problematic historiography are amateurs. These view the past from the outside, as something strange and wonderful. They struggle to separate the extraordinary and the ordinary and so struggle to formulate appropriate historical questions, judge history on its own terms, and are prone to sentimentalise the whole thing. This, it seems to me, is a lot of where wargaming is at present, and it works two ways.

The first way is that wargamers, by their very nature, are amateur historians. I am aware, I think, of two professional historians who are wargamers, but mostly wargamers are not historians and their interests, in fact, diverge from historiography. Wargamers want details about weapons, units, deployment and numbers. Historians want to know what armies and their uses tell us about the past. These two aims might run in parallel but wargamers, in fact, want information that history cannot (and methodologically, will not) supply.

The second way is that wargamers, often, sentimentalise both history and their own memories of wargames. I am sure you have encountered the things I am talking about here. For example, the Armada Campaign I occasionally get around to running a bit of consciously ignores all of the general nastiness associated with sixteenth-century warfare: disease, casual cruelty, religious conflict, famine and the general nastiness of individuals and countries fighting for their existence. Most wargames ignore these sorts of things: I have never heard of a World War Two game depicting an SS unit desperately holding off advancing allies in 1945 so their engineers can blow up the ovens in the local concentration camp. We tend to gloss over this sort of thing, and a good job too for the general sanity of the wargaming community.

So history is coloured into a rather more attractive pastel shade of nicer history, but so too are those games in the past. We might look in awe (as I do) at those games shown in Grant’s The Wargame, or be amazed at the detail and scale of Tony Bath’s wargames campaigns, and we may well come to the conclusion that wargames in the past were better than those in the present. Further, our own wargames in the past may well assume a similar tinge. I recall, very fondly, a campaign set in Lincolnshire in the English Civil War where I did the whole recruitment, deployment and map movement thing, fought out the battles and even had a handwritten campaign newspaper – in fact, I think there were two, one for each side. Years later, I tried it again and it really didn’t work. Was it better? I am not sure that the earlier one was, but I did have a bit more time to play it out. Perhaps that counts.

The second sort of historiography that Elton is concerned about that I think might apply to wargaming, is those who support their own myths with history. Myths (in their technical sense of providing a narrative to agree on) are comforting, but they are not history. A recent example would be the arguments over the First World War, in the British case the ‘lions led by donkeys’ myth. Elton notes that the revisions of, for example, Irish and Nazi history are dangerous, both in terms of promoting terrorism and also in perpetuating ideologies which are repugnant.  There are too many people around, Elton suggests, who use history to justify their own views and the present situation (or their desired changes thereto) for historians to be comfortable with simply doing history for its own sake. Historians need to seek the truth, even if there is no solace from doing so.

Wargamers have a peculiar predilection for holding on to myths. Of course, most of their myths are not politically dangerous; the view that Alexander the Great was great because he conquered the whole of the known world is unlikely to promote an ideology that invading Turkey and then Afghanistan is a great foreign policy for Greece to follow. But even assuming that Alexander the Great was great because he conquered the known world is to beg rather a lot of questions relating to our views about warfare, conquest, colonialism and so on. Never questioning these assumptions might be dangerous.

These myths, of course, are part of the wider culture that the societies which wargamers live in put forward. I noted last time our tendency to view the history of China through the lens of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: all Chinese governments are corrupt, weak and ineffective. In fact this is a colonialist view, if not downright imperialist. Viewed from a Chinese perspective, things look rather different. The myths persist, however, and can inform our wargaming as well as our countries’ foreign and economic policies.

What, then, can be done? I am not thinking that all wargamers should become qualified historians (perish the thought) but that some critical reflection is appropriate to the wargamer. This perhaps applies more specifically to rule writers and scenario creators who want to claim some historical verisimilitude. The question should arise, for example, of what did Rourke’s Drift look like to the Zulus? What choices did the high command of the British army face in early 1916 while the battle of the Somme was being planned?


Many wargamers, of course, do take these broader approaches, which I think is a good thing. But the myths persist, and it is surely our role as responsible citizens to keep on challenging them.

Saturday, 9 February 2019

Go East Young Man

As I mentioned, the striving at present is based around a quest for world wargaming in the early modern period. The reason for this is the rise of world history, which gives us some interesting comparisons to the rather well-worn topics in European history of the period, particularly, in military history that of the gunpowder revolution (or not).

The quest has been much aided by my former self, who created armies for most of the major protagonists in the DBR army lists before he learnt better. These were based around 100 AP ‘condensed scale’ forces, although it is admitted in one of the lists that a 100 AP Inca army cannot be described as small. In fact, I seem to recall that painting a seemingly interminable tide of Inca ‘hordes’ was what finished the project finally anyway.

Still, the project requires rebasing my armies from the original thin (and now, after two house moves, bent) card to more substantial plastic card bases. Neatly, this avoids repainting the armies, on the whole, although last week’s Mughals had to have their infantry redone. I think that I was rapidly expanding them to fight a 1618-Something battle, and a goodly number of infantry had been based without trousers (oo-er missus) or at least with metallic trews. That took a bit of rectifying as there are, as the photograph last week might have suggested, a lot of Indian infantry.

This week we move a bit north and rather east, to Tibet and China. First, the Tibetans; I confess I had forgotten that I had these until I started going through the storage containers. The figures are Irregular and are, I suspect, based around earlier figures for the period when Tibet was a bit of a local power and not formed of competing states. I also have a complimentary batch of Mongols, but no photograph.



The main Tibetan strength is in their cavalry, aided and abetted by some archers, slingers and hordes. I have no idea how they actually perform in action.

Next up, or rather across, are the Ming. Again, Irregular figures; I cannot say that I am that much of a fan of them, but there is nothing else for the period that is even close. Even then, the array here is rather cobbled together from Colonial and Medieval or Ancient ranges. I have, in most cases, forgotten which specific figures go for what. Still, any army with rocket launchers is a fun army to me, and this one packs two such fearsome beasts.



While the Ming deploy more gunpowder firepower, the main infantry strength seems to be in bows. This adds grist to the idea that the only advantage muskets have over bows is that the former requires less training initially before sending the solider out with a potentially deadly weapon.

I mentioned before the problem in historiography of assuming the answer and then looking for evidence for it. The Ming, and China generally, is a good case in point. Our views of the history of the place are rather constrained by the spectacles we view it through, and that tends to be the colonial defeats inflicted on the state in the late nineteenth century and the collapse of the government in the early to mid-twentieth. In fact, occasional disasters notwithstanding, the Manchu state of the later seventeenth century and into the eighteenth was an effective and expansionist one.

The collapse of the Ming state, as well as the collapse of the nineteenth century Manchu state, were largely due to what I suppose can be described as ‘imperial overstretch’. The Ming were dealing with the Manchu invasion as well as a peasant insurrection, and these were, more or less, at opposite sides of the country. China is big. The threats could not be contained by the government and it collapsed, fairly slowly, as generals and officials had to choose which side had the mandate of heaven.

In a similar way, the colonial demands and forces were matched by those internal stresses within China known as the Boxer rebellions. The state could not simply deal with both at the same time, and the result was the collapse of the government. Given this sort of history, perhaps the current attitude of China to both its coast and internal dissent is hardly surprising. We could, incidentally, also argue that current US policy (such as it is) is that of a cultural and economic (although not territorial) empire attempting to protect an overstretched domain.

Anyway, the history of China does give wargamers a nice leg up, because the Boxers were traditionalists and so the colonial ranges have, in their Boxer troops, suitable figures for earlier times. The Boxers, of course, had the misfortune of coming up against regular Western troops with modern firepower. I won’t go into details but they did not win.

Anyway, last up for cobbled together Eastern armies are the Manchu.


These are slightly more cavalry heavy than the Ming, and deploy some light horse, but they are basically similar with bows and muskets deploying the firepower. After not very long in China, the Manchu started to assimilate Chinese troops into their armies as technologists and specialists and, ultimately I suppose, became more Chinese than the Chinese.

Again, the troops in the picture are Irregular, cobbled together from various ranges. The original Manchu seem to have been sort of Mongols, so some of the horse archers are Mongol figures. One of the light horse bases also seems to a Mongols, while the others are, as I recall, Manchu light cavalry from the colonial range. Again, I have little idea which figure codes are which.

You might notice that there are no heavier weapons in the above armies. This was entirely deliberate. 100 AP in DBR does not give a lot of wriggle room when it comes to artillery, so there were none in the armies. As this was a campaign game, rulers could elect to raise a train of 100 AP of heavy weapons and guards, basically the non-compulsory troops from the lists. As I recall, a siege train could also be raised, and for an army in an adjoining territory, an extra 50 AP was added for the first, 25 for the second and so on. Thus I landed up with a rather large battle in India and had to rapidly expand the army.


Anyway, next up in my world expansion are the Koreans and Samurai, of whom (the Samurai) I seem to have vast numbers.