Saturday, 11 November 2017

Postmodern Wargame Rules

Once again I have been reading about postmodernism. My sins (in a previous life, of course) must have been really bad. Or possibly this is, in fact, purgatory. Either is possible. Douglas Adams did hypothesise that if anyone figured out what the universe was for, it would instantly be replaced by something even more bizarrely inexplicable. His second hypothesis was that this had already happened.

One of the problem that I, at least, have, is trying to get to grips with what postmodernism really is. I suspect that the true postmodernist would rule the question out of court. Even to ask the question is to be insufficiently postmodern, I suspect. On the other hand, extreme postmodernism views the entire world as a construct, mostly of human language. As Alvin Plantinga once pointed out, on this basis a roomful of people not thinking about the Moon could make it disappear. Somehow, that does not happen. He also observed that not thinking or talking about it would be a tremendous and very cheap way of curing most medical problems.

Be all that as it may, the more serious postmodern philosophers take hermeneutics seriously. By this they mean that a text can have multiple interpretations. Each interpretation cannot be ruled as being wrong. I am not mad because my interpretation differs from yours. The problem is that this can land up in both smugness and relativism. Smugness because, of course, such things as the Reformation and the murder it evoked would not have happened if everyone was as smart and as tolerant as postmodern hermeneutic philosophers. Relativism because, so far as I know, no-one has come up with criteria for deciding which of the alternative interpretations is, in any sense at all, better.

Now of course we hear the cry in the distance ‘It is all relative!’ This is one of the claims of the late modern (and whatever comes after that) world. The problem here is that the statement itself ‘it is all relative’ is not a relative statement. It is an absolute. It is really saying ‘everything is relative except this statement’. The response of most sane, non-postmodern people who stop for a moment and ponder it is to rule the statement itself out. There have to be some absolutes somewhere, otherwise nothing, including the internet, would work.

By now you are probably wondering where the wargame content is, or, probably, you have already guessed it and are about to stop reading anyway. Fair enough. I am, almost certainly, insufficiently postmodern for most postmodern tastes and not nearly modernist enough for most modernists. Mea culpa (hey, dog Latin; this is a blog of culture and taste).

Anyway, as those of you who read the blog more than once, and who are not Russian bot-nets who occasionally bombard the site with spurious hits, will know, I am attempting to perpetrate some wargame rules, both of them in areas about which I feel I know too little. This is, of course, highly postmodern. At least, most postmodern philosophers feel they can comment on anything without the need for understanding it. Hence the Sokal hoax, for example, which is one of the funniest incidents in fairly recent academic scholarship I am aware of.

My lack of knowledge apart, there is an issue of interpretation. Opinions in historiography vary, often widely. For some, the landing of Spanish troops on the shores of England would have provoked fanatic resistance from the inhabitants. There is some evidence for this. English forces were not as badly trained and organised as earlier historiography suggests. The regime did have loyal supporters, and English troops fighting on home soil might not have been as bad as their counterparts sent abroad.

On the other hand, who would really have wanted to take on the regional (or global; again, opinions differ over the might of Spain) superpower in the cause of a regime which had as its head an unmarried woman of a certain age without children? Not only that but Elizabeth was excommunicated and could appear vacillating. Furthermore, if Parma’s forces had got ashore, would the hardened professionals not have made mincemeat of the English trained bands? England was not the Netherlands. While earthworks could have been constructed, large-scale flooding as used to defend Low Country cities was not an option. The Spanish probably could not be bogged down in siege warfare until they went bankrupt again.

We thus have a problem of multiple interpretations. If the Armada landed, the English might have had a chance, or they might not. The case can be argued either way. There is no final evidence, in the form of the Armada landing, which could decide the case. We can become lost in a welter of conflicting opinion, all backed up by evidence of some form or another, all open to interpretation and re-interpretation.

As I have mentioned before, the problem confronting a wargame rule writer is that this sort of situation cannot prevail. We require greater certainty than the evidence can yield, and a more concrete basis of interpretation than historiography can give us. In short, we have to guess. We have to go way beyond the evidence and do things no historian would accept (I know there are historians who are wargamers; I guess they have to accept it was well).

All we can do is to write down our pre-rule writing suppositions. I think the English trained bands may have given a good account of themselves fighting in their own counties, therefore I have decided they will not run away as soon as they are shot at by the Spanish. I have, of course, only highly indirect evidence for this; in part this supposition is based on the fact that I would like to have a worthwhile wargame at all. But at least that presupposition is clear and my lack of evidence for it is stated. Someone can, of course, come along and challenge it but then, possibly, there is no way they can confirm their assumption and we will have really boring wargames.

Somehow, in postmodernism, reality still intrudes. Derrida wrote texts and expected people would read them, even though that activity was questionable in his eyes and what the reader was doing was potentially ambiguous. Nevertheless, Derrida’s texts exist. Nevertheless my ‘Wars of the Counter Reformation’ rules exist.

Saturday, 4 November 2017

On Writing Rules

I have, it seems, somehow committed myself to writing, or helping to write, two sets of wargame rules. One is my own Wars of the Counter Reformation set, which I need for the Armada game and campaign. The other is the recently mooted Polemos: Thirty Years War rule set. I confess that I feel qualified to write neither.

Of course, if we ever felt qualified to write anything, we would never achieve much. I doubt that Tolstoy felt particularly qualified for writing War and Peace and yet, somehow, he did. There is, however, a problem, at least with the Thirty Years War: most of the information about the war is not in English. I do not read any other language and, in fact, a historian would have to master a forbidding quantity of European languages to be able to read a reasonable proportion of the available documentation.

This does not really bother most wargamers, of course. Mostly, all we want to do is bung a few (or a lot of) figures onto the table and play a game. Historical accuracy does not seem to matter that much. Indeed, it has to be said that most wargame rules exaggerate some aspects of a war or period, at the expense of others. It is the only way to make an interesting game.

I have, as most of you are probably aware, perpetrated a few sets of rules in my time. I had a hand in Polemos: English Civil War, and wrote Polemos: SPQR myself. I make non claim that these rules are accurate portrayals of the periods in question. In a sense, they cannot be. A long time ago I mentioned that a battle narrative is like describing a house – you can describe all the bits but you cannot see them all at once. Thus a rule set is going to have to try to describe a bit of the battle.

For PM: SPQR I tried to write the rule set from the perspective of the general. This led to someone commenting that the player had to ‘micromanage the big stuff’. I was quite pleased with the comment, which I think was intended as a compliment, because the general’s perspective what what I had aimed for. To some extent I suppose I succeeded.

Any piece of writing is not so much finished but abandoned by its author. Wargame rules are no exception to the rule, I think. I could have read much more, thought much more, tried out many more rule ideas and combinations, and done much more play testing. What the outcome would have been I do not know. Certainly if, now, I rewrote the rules they would be very different. I am not about to launch at that task, however.

A few things would stay the same. My ‘Wars of the Counter Reformation’ draft, which I have just typed up, retains some of the features of the Polemos series, particularly some of the bits I like, such as the order system. It also has more than a small debt to the DBR system, flawed though that rule set seems to be. A few original thoughts might even have sneaked in. If readers of the blog are fortunate (or unlucky) I might post the draft as it is.

There are, of course, many things that are problems in writing rules, especially in pinching bits which you like from other sets and cobbling them together. Firstly, of course, there are different troop types. For the English Civil War we coul deal with a very limited number of different sorts of troops. The number of interactions between arms was limited. Admittedly we had to perhaps exaggerate some differences to make an interesting wargame. There are always going to be design decisions and compromises. The main one in PM: ECW is related to cavalry and, specifically the difference between trotters and gallopers. I think I would refine that now, although I am not sure how.

Similarly, in PM: SPQR I had to design around skirmishers. Skirmishers, in the ancient records are present in sometimes vast numbers. As I was attempting to design Polemos: Age of Alexander it became clear firstly that the historians record thousands and tens of thousands of skirmishing type troops. Secondly, it became cleaer that they had very little impact on the outcome of battles. There are a few battles in the ancient world where they did have an effect, but they were mainly due to ambush, terrain and / or silly decisions by generals, such as ‘let’s march out into the desert without much water’. So skirmishers, while present, are weak, and I think they should be.

These sorts of decisions are balanced by others, of course. As I think I note in the ‘Designer’s Notes’ in PM: SPQR, ancient battles were won by men with pointy sticks. Cavalry (as Alexander demonstrated) could be effective, but mostly, they were not. Similarly, in the ECW, cavalry were more able to win battles, but still, really, needed to be part of a combined arms activity; either that or get lucky.

And so we come to the Wars of the Counter Reformation. One of the problems is, of course, that aside from the French civil wars, there were not that many battles. The wars were, with only a few exceptions, wars of siege and counter siege, naval operations, raids, and the vast drain of money and resources that these things needed. The wars were mainly won and lost by financial exhaustion and the refusal of countries to supply more men and material.

Any rule set for the period, then, has to be largely a function of the imagination, of what would, could or might have happened. Whether my ideas are right or not is impossible to say. The Armada did not land. The Dutch and Spanish armies only occasionally came to blows away from siege warfare. It could have been different, but the data as to what might have happened does not exist.

On the other hand, no-one can prove me wrong, either….

Saturday, 28 October 2017

The Scots and the English Civil War

I read, on someone’s blog that I have now forgotten the details of, a review of Alisdair McRae’s ‘How the Scots Won the English Civil War’ (History Press, Stroud, 2013). It was, I recall, largely an account of how bad the book was. Given that and the opportunity to acquire it cheaply, I was consumed by curiosity, and settled down to read it.

Recently, I supervised a final year undergraduate dissertation, which was an interesting experience. Without giving too much away, the project was the sort devised by a rather weak student who had heard the same word used in two different contexts, was thus convinced that there was a connection and pursued the said connection, in spite of all the evidence against such a link, the supervisor’s promptings that things needed thinking through differently, and so on.

Further, the execution of the project was on the lamentable side. Supervisoral suggestions and corrections to spelling, grammar and sense were ignored, and the project sailed on to submission riddled with errors and with more unreferenced quotes than you can shake a stick at. If you sense a little of the supervisor’s frustration here, you would be correct.

Of course, it all came to grief when it was marked, and the supervisor, yours truly, was called upon to second mark it. To be honest, I think that to first marker’s judgment was positively generous given the work submitted and the plagiarism detected. A shame, I think; it was a nice original idea.

Returning to the book in hand (or, in my case, on desk), I think we have a similar situation. One of the ironies here is, of course, that I was reading McRae at the same time as second marking the dissertation. It is a nice idea, but lamentably executed. I find it hard to believe that a reputable publisher let it go out into the world in such a state.

First, the good things. The idea of writing a history of the English Civil Wars from a Scottish perspective is a fine one. I am not aware of anyone who has taken this approach, but it would certainly give a different perspective to the goings on in England, and, of course, due acknowledgment of Scotland’s own, very bitter, civil strife of the time. I do, incidentally, on my ‘unread’ book shelf, have a number of other tomes on Scotland and the English Civil Wars waiting to be read, so it is possible that such a history does exist, but that I have not read it yet.

The book probably tries to do too much. A general account of the Thirty Year’s War is given, apparently to show the experience of Scottish mercenaries in Europe prior to 1640 or so. Fair enough, but the narrative gets rather clogged up by this and a lot of it adds little to any other general history of the Thirty Years War. I suspect that it is, to put it politely, derivative of readily available accounts in English of those events.

The book then moves towards accounts of the Bishop’s Wars and opening moves in the English Civil War, followed by the raising of the Scottish Army and its despatch south. This has some interesting detail on the raising of the regiments but is rather light on the political and social, let alone religious, drivers and meanings.

The best bits of the book are the descriptions of the Scottish actions at the sieges of Newcastle, Carlisle and Hereford. This includes information that I have not come across before, although it is lamentably referenced and so impossible to follow up on. The chapter on Marston Moor is all right, but the author wants to credit the Scottish infantry with saving the day and also claims that Cromwell and his cronies stole the credit (which might be true). As with most battle accounts, however, it is mostly garbled – the siege accounts are much better and even include useful maps, although the illustrations of re-enactors re-enacting are less so.

The book also includes an account of Montrose’s campaign, including detail on Phillpaugh, some of which I had not seen before, and a brief account of Preston which rather fails to give credit to Langdale’s before any Scots were in action (if, in fact, any Scots did anything much at the battle except flee).

The book finishes with a few comments on Scotland in the 1650’s and Montrose’s sticky end, as well as a lengthy and unnecessary gallop through medical ideas of the seventeenth century leading up to the death of Hugh Fraser.

The subtitle of the book, ‘The Triumph of Fraser’s Dragoons’ is the reason for this last bit. The dragoons appear briefly in the narrative but, as the author admits in the Epilogue, there is very little evidence to be found of their activities. I suspect that this could be said of most units in any army of the time, so should not have come as the surprise it seems to have done to the author. On its own terms, therefore, the book is a failure. No unit history of Fraser’s dragoons could be written, no matter how nice an idea it might have seemed at the time.

Which brings us to the lamentable state of the referencing. There is a list of references and some notes, so the work aspires to some sort of academic pretension. However, in the notes a reference is to Barratt (2002). A crosscheck with the reference list yields ‘Barratt (2002)’. Not terribly useful. In fact, it is a lot worse than the student dissertation is just dissed above. Furthermore there are copious quotes from historical sources. These are unreferenced. In my book, this is plagiarism, even though the sources are 350 years old or so. As I said, I am surprised that a reputable publisher let this through. I know that publishing is a rather cash-strapped business these days and that editors and the process of editing is expensive, but these are schoolchild mistakes. There are, out there in internet-land, various free (and paid for) reference management software products. A few clicks of the mouse button can tidy this sort of rubbish up.

So a nice idea but badly executed. A shame – I think the author has something to say, and that something is interesting. Despite the blurb proclaiming his avid historian credentials, re-enactment, television appearances and ‘numerous’ articles in the press and magazines, I suppose he won’t be the last to find that writing something book-length is a very different beast indeed.

Saturday, 21 October 2017

Armada Update

Behind the scenes here at Chateau Polemarch, all has been activity. Actually, that is not the case. All has been not-terribly good health, suffered by myself and the Estimable Mrs P. We appear to have cross infected each other with colds. She acquired one, and donated it to me. Not to be outdone, I have returned the compliment and so she is now sniffling. One of the joys of married life, I suppose.

Anyway, before this becomes a further tale of woe, I have been beavering away at the Armada project. I do not exactly recall what the state of play was when I last reported, but the Armada and elements of the English navy have been rebased. I think I might have noted before that rebasing the ships from thin card to plastic card was a lot harder than I thought, except for those ships where the glue chipped off in one go.

Beyond that, catalogues have been perused, orders dispatched and painting, and some basing has been undertaken. I am now about ten bases away from having a viable wargame of the Armada landing on the beach north of Whitby, and we shall then see what happens. I now have suitable untrained bands, as well as trained bands, Spanish infantry and, the last off the production line, naval guns and crews. There is a fair amount of evidence from the Irish wars of the sixteenth century that naval guns were landed and used, incidentally. I am having to use Napoleonic figures, however.

Firstly, of course, I shall need some wargame rules. My first response was to use the Polemos: English Civil War rules, which I had a hand. But, firstly, to do so would break the Polemos ethos, which is to treat each period on its own merits. Secondly, they would not work for the Wars of the Counter-Reformation, because the troop types are different. I have Spanish sword and buckler men to storm the beaches, for example. They did not exist in the English Civil War.

So PM: ECW are not viable. I have perused other rule sets which I have on my shelves which are not ECW-centric. I have DBR, which may well work for the period, but I am not so keen on them as I was. I have Renaissance Principles of War, which does not seem to be the sort of rule set suitable for this sort of battle. I also have, in the depths of my archive, George Gush’s WRG Renaissance Rules and also Tercio. I am afraid, however, that I lack both the time and the patience for the. I have perused the Perfect Captain’s Spanish Fury rules, but I simply cannot get the hang of them.

So I am a bit stuck. I know the sort of thing I am looking for, and the sort of battle I would like to fight, but cannot find the suitable rule set. I suppose I shall have to write my own, stealing bits from here and there that I like and might fit with my ideas and with the sort of thing I am trying to do.

I do have a problem with this approach, however. No rule set I have ever written survives first contact. Some drafts did not, indeed, survive putting the soldiers on the table, let alone fighting a wargame. This is not, or, I feel, should not be a major problem, but I find it to be so. I ought, I know, to have a more lassiez-fare attitude to this. What happens on the table happens, even though a subsequent rule change would make it impossible. After all, apparently impossible things do happen in warfare. Rules do not cover everything.

I am occasionally accused of being a perfectionist. That might be a charge that would stick, although it is strenuously denied. But I do admit to liking to be at least consistent, which is difficult if the rules, the very framework of the battles I fight, keep changing around me. Inconsistencies will abound, and as I am hoping to turn this into a campaign game (I am not painting all these peasants, guns and crews and rebasing entire navies for just one game. Even if the Spanish fail to take Whitby, they will try again somewhere else). Adjusting, say, the effectiveness of a 9 pounder between one game and the next could raise objections from my little lead slaves, at least, that they are dragging these dead weights over the Yorkshire Moors to no avail. I would have no answer to them, except to remove their straw and tell them to get the guns to Pickering and back by daybreak.

I probably need to re-educate myself, along the lines of ‘if you take that attitude you’ll never get anywhere’. Like Alice, I often give myself good advice, although I do not always take it. For some reason, probably due to my tendency for perfectionism at least with fairly abstract things, I do like them to be right. I can live with poorly painted soldiers (and, in this project, I am doing so), but inconsistent rules freak me out a bit.

I suspect that what will happen will be something like that. I will jot some rules down, pinching bits from DBR and PM: ECW (and even Polemos: SPQR, because I write it and so I quite like it (even if no-one else does, so there)) and give the game a go. The rules will morph at the latest at the point where my shiny new rowing boats with Spanish assault troops hit the beach. I will reach a conclusion of some description, but feel vaguely unsatisfied. A week or so later I will have re-written the rules and have another go. Something similar will happen. This may cycle on for a bit before I give up in frustration, and most of the planning and painting will be wasted.

I will then move on to the next project. Fortunately, I know what that will be: rebasing the Tibetans.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

Method in Wargaming

I am sure I have mentioned before my sins, which must be manifold and are, I dare say, still racking up nicely on the heavenly mileometer associated with my name. For them, as hopefully some sort of penance, I have been reading about method. This started off as reading about theological method but has kind of broadened. Now, I am thinking about method in general and whether there might be such a beast as a method in wargaming. If there is I shall consider that there might also be a method in theology.

I shall now issue my standard disclaimer for these musings triggered off by half of my occupation at present: no Bible bashing will occur in the words below, nor indeed in the thinking, as hopefully will be explained in the next paragraph or so.

About half of my occupation is doing fairly silly things with reading stuff around education, theology, science and philosophy. I am not going to explain why here (I give myself 1000 words, give or take, and it would take too many of them), but I do, and I drop across stuff which I think is interesting to wargaming from time to time. One such was, for those of you with long memories, a canter through the ethics of wargaming. The present issue is concerned with method.

The case in point, which has issued in this wail of despair, is a book called ‘Method in Theology’ by a Canadian chap called Bernard Lonergan. Lonergan details how he thinks theology should be done. there is little or no theological content in the book, just a method. He divides theological method into eight ‘functional specialties’, namely Research, Interpretation, History, Dialectic, Foundations, Doctrines, Systematics and Communications. Each, he suggests, is a necessary component of the doing of theology, rather than the content thereof.

Now, one of the criticisms of Lonergan’s method is that is far too general. Most subjects, it is suggested, could have their methods divided into the same eight specialties. This is not, perhaps, entirely surprising, as Lonergan seems to have based his ideas about theological method on an analogy with scientific method. As Alan Chalmers remarks towards the beginning of ‘What is this thing called science?’, every other subject seems to want to describe itself as a science – hence we obtain social science, historical science and of course economics, the dismal science.

Given this generality, I started to wonder whether wargaming, which after all sits somewhere between history, politics and social science, so it might be fair game for a method. On the other hand, not all that many practicing scientists or theologians actually worry about whether they have a worked out, explicit method at all. They are too busy doing stuff to bother. The same could well be the case for wargamers.

So, to begin at the beginning, with Research. Lonergan has in mind here the sorts of academic research, perhaps archaeology, which goes alongside learning in seminars and lectures. But I do not think we need to be limited to that. After all, a good deal of research revolves around what other people write. Thus reading a magazine, blog or book would count. The wargamer has a bright idea: I shall create a sixteenth century Tibetan army. (The example is so bizarre that I suspect that no-one, except me, has one. I was, in all honesty, slightly surprised that I had one as well).

Having decided on that, the wargamer then has to do some more digging around suitable figures, rules and, possibly, the history of Tibet. Then the stage of interpretation looms. ‘Given what I have found out, what does it mean?’ Will this figure be suitable for a sixteenth century Tibetan cavalryman? Which rules should I use? Who did the Tibetans fight? (For any period of history before the formation of the modern nation state, the answer to that question is usually ‘themselves, mostly’).

History might then come into play, as the wargamer’s analysis spreads to the formation of Tibetan armies, their enemies, how the Mongolian hordes and Chinese interacted with them and so on. As I mentioned recently, wargaming can take one into some odd corners. What did Tibetan houses look like? How did the Temples function? When did prayer flags come in? The methodical wargamer may well pose these questions and many more.

Next up is dialectics, or arguing. It is quite likely that at least two different interpretations will have been found. Perhaps, in my case, two entirely different histories of Tibet have been found, one maybe more Chinese influence, the other by the ‘free Tibet’ sorts of people. The wargamer has to decide which strand they will come down upon.We also note that wargaming can lead the wargamer into some modern politically sensitive areas.  For a less contentious dialectic, two manufacturers might have totally opposing views as to the nature of Tibetan super-heavy cavalry.

The decisions made at the dialectic stage will inform the rest of the project, and thus constitute the foundations specialty. The wargamer convinces themselves of the correctness of their interpretation, model choice and so on. The doctrines stage is, of course, related to the choice of rules, and that is informed by the assumed tactics and army make up that the wargamer has chosen. This, we decide, is how these wargames will be fought.

Next up is the systematic stage. This involves solving any confusion and dispute that the different doctrines decided upon will throw us. The decisions might be around, say, the effectiveness of Chinese musketry in the sixteenth century as opposed to Tibetan foot archery and horse archers. This is a synthesis that only the wargamer (or rules writer, if any rule writer has actually considered this place and period specifically) can decide upon. Similarly (or, rather, differently) these is that sinking moment when you realise that your chosen models and chosen base size do not fit together. Not for nothing is systematics linked back to interpretation.

Finally, there is communications. You take photographs of your shiny new army and post them.  You post blog reports of your victories over the enemy. You analyse your mistakes, or the limitations of the rules.

And finally, of course, you read about another period / place / battle / army, and the whole cycle kicks off again….

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Bias and Scale Prejudice

I am, as most of you that read the blog will be aware, a 6 mm wargamer, on the whole. I do have a whole stack of 28 (or so) mm figures, bought at various times with various projects in mind, but mostly they remain even more unpainted than my 6 mm figures. This idea of a skirmish game sometimes appeals, and I also have a few figures suitable for ‘Flashing Blades’ should I ever decide to revive my solo role playing game career.

On occasion I also go to wargame shows. There, I sometimes stand behind the Baccus 6 mm stand and watch the punters. Some, perhaps most, do come in and look at the wares and are engaged in conversation by Mr. Berry, who usually manages to sell them something (he is very good at it). Nevertheless I do also stand there by the painted figures stand and listen to passing wargamers sneer or laugh at the 6 mm figures on display.

It has often puzzled me as to why this should be. I dare say that I have written about it before here. There are issues of ‘othering’ going on, for example. Non-conformists often land up the butt of ignorant sneering and, sadly, that is what seems to happen sometimes. There is, in wargaming as in everything else, a group think of conformity. Thirty-odd millimetre figures are the norm, that is where wargamers, perhaps, feel safe, and so on.

You might wonder what has provoked these comments. Mr Berry has an interesting post on the News section of the Baccus web site (Google for it like I had to) entitled ‘Historical Gaming – the Times They are a Changin’. It is not a rant about how unfair the 32 mm wargame world is to the rest of the hobby (although that might be a legitimate grumble) but a wonder as to why this should be the case. Hence this post, by way of a ‘good question, glad you asked…’ comment.

Now there are the normal comments about painting and unit recognition. They can easily be dismissed, of course. Anyone, of whatever eyesight, who can paint a 34 mm figure can paint 6 mm. It really is not difficult. Similarly, if you can identify a unit of any scale from 3 feet away, you can identify a base of 6 mm figures. There is an inherent bias, I think, that small figures must be difficult to paint. It just happens to be untrue.

Mr Berry identifies a further problem, in that the magazines show mostly 33 mm figures painted to the level that would not disgrace an art exhibition. This, it seems to be the case, is part of the prejudice which can build up in the hobby. 29 mm figures are the gold standard, the norm. It is compounded by the fact that they are relatively easy to photograph. 6 mm figures, at least on their own, are not that easy to take pictures of. Further, pictures can show up imperfections in painting that the eye does not see. So most articles are illustrated with 31 mm figures, whatever the original scale was suggested.

There have been some thoughtful replies from members of the editorial teams of various wargame magazines on the Baccus forum. These essentially make the arguments noted above. The magazines can, after all, only work with articles people send them and with pictures they can generate. It is a lot easier to create another picture with a few stock gendarmes in 30 mm than it is to photograph a 6 mm army from scratch. Further, I would submit that most articles submitted to a magazine is in a generic scale. Over the years the stuff I have submitted was worked out and play tested in 6 mm, and illustrated in the article in 35 mm. It is just the way it is.

Mr Berry wonders about the effect of all this on historical wargaming. The hobby, or this aspect of it, seems to be being reduced to skirmish games. This seems to be happening in two ways, in my view. Firstly, big battles (whatever they may be) are reduced in a historical wargame refight, to something that looks like a skirmish. Thus, as, I think, Peter Gilder commented many moons ago, Naseby can be refought with 100 figures on one side and 50 on the other. It just does not look like a big battle. But when the aspiration is to paint 29 mm figures to work of art standard, 150 figures is a fair old target and the temptation is to cut the numbers.

Secondly, there is much more focus on ‘real’ skirmishes. Campaigns are created around a few figures and their adventures. I have no problem with that, except that this is not the only way of wargaming. Big battles do have a different dynamic to skirmishes. But to create a big battle in 26 mm figures, and to make it look like a bit battle, is a very expensive and time consuming process. Thus imagined historically set skirmishes seem to be becoming another norm.

Now, I am not about to start bemoaning the terrible state of the world, the end of wargaming as we know it or any of these things. Everyone develops, over time, the wargaming that they are comfortable with, I imagine. If that is done with thought and care, who am I to sneer or ‘other’ them? It is not as though 6 mm figures are the only ones to be looked down upon by the 27 mm devotees – 42 mm, 54 mm and 15 mm also come in for some distain. But maybe those of us who do carry the flame for 32 mm figures might like to ponder exactly what form of wargaming they are advocating.

I am sure I have mentioned before a very nice 26 mm game I saw at a show. It looked like a lovely skirmish game was being conducted. It was a bit of a shock to discover that it was supposed to be the Battle of Lutzen (1632). It did not look like it is all I can really say.

Anyway, I don’t want anyone to get upset, call me a heretic or hurl any teddies out of their pram over this, but it is a bit of a conundrum to me. I wonder if anyone can throw any more light on the matter.

Saturday, 30 September 2017

Decisive Battles of the English Civil War

One of the subtitles of this blog should, perhaps, be ‘I read the books so you don’t have to.’ I have, indeed, recently finished ‘Decisive Battles of the English Civil War’, by Malcolm Wanklyn (Pen & Sword, Barnsley: 2014), which is, apparently, a revised edition of a tome of 2004. It is a book that I really rather wanted to like and enjoy, but I am not wholly sure that I did.

The first issue is, perhaps, with the title. Now, often enough, titles are not the fault of the author, but, so far as I can see, Wanklyn equates ‘decisive’ with ‘significant’. The two battles of Newbury, which feature in the book, were, perhaps, significant, as victory in the first for the Royalists and in the second for Parliament, could well have decisively changed the course of the war. But significant is not the same as decisive, although I suppose a book entitled ‘Significant Battles of the ECW’ would probably be deemed to be boring.

By many measures, of course, Austin Woolrych’s assessment in ‘Battles of the English Civil War’ that the three decisive battles were Marston Moor, Naseby and Preston still stands. Marston Moor cost the Royalists the north, Naseby cost the King his throne and Preston cost him his life. Wanklyn observes that this can be nuanced, in that the Royalists still drew resources from the north after the middle of 1644, and that the King was still king after the middle of 1645 and was dealt with as such. However, that is the fate of most broad brush-strokes of history.

Wanklyn does agree with Woolrych, however, that the battles and their outcomes do need to be made more central to historiography. Historians have a terrible tendency to be interested in stuff like treaties and agreements. Woolrych noted that if one side or the other had not won the battle, there would have been no need for the treaty. In ignoring battles historians give a one sided view of the world. Battles, of course, have only been disregarded in historiography since, roughly, the end of the Second World War. This was coupled with the rise of Marxist interpretations of history where, for example, the ECW is the result of the rise of the gentry (or the fall of the gentry, or the rise of the merchant class, or whatever). The brush-strokes are drawn more broadly. The result of a war is inevitable because the economic factors make it so.

Thus, in seventeenth century Britain, Parliament was inevitable going to win the English Civil Wars. If the participants had known that, of course, they could all have stayed at home. Wanklyn disputes that this is the case. Wars, campaigns and battles are contingent and, therefore, the outcome can never be a result of simple economic balance. Yes, Parliament had the bult of the economic resource, and, in fact, the bulk of the population, to draw on. Possibly this had an effect, in that the troops of Parliament tended to be slightly better equipped, paid and, perhaps most decisively, present in higher number of infantry on the battlefield. Nevertheless, in battle numbers and equipment are not decisive.

Wanklyn sees the need for narratives of what happened on the battlefield to explain the outcomes of the battles. However, he also argues that most of the narratives that we have are, in part, made up. Some accounts simply assume that, say, the left wing of the cavalry were in a certain place because that is what military theory says should have happened. However, if this cannot be ascertained from historical sources, it should not be assumed. He wants, in a sense, to produce a minimal narrative, acknowledging the things that we cannot know because the sources do not tell us.

Battles are, of course, complex things. Participants, on the whole, cannot tell us very much, except that which they themselves experienced. Putting the fragments of battle narrative together is fraught with difficulty over geography and timing. Even more recent developments, such as re-enacting and battlefield archaeology can only tell us so much. Reenactors are not fighting battles, nor are they present in the numbers (particularly of cavalry) that the originals had. Archaeology can only tell us what evidence has survived. A concentration of musket balls may imply a fierce fire-fight, or it may be where an ammunition waggon turned over. Nothing can really be decisive in counting, at least as a single piece of evidence.

We might consider that Wanklyn is impossibly post-modern in his approach, but in fact he would have an ally in Whatley ('On the Possibility of Reconstructing Marathon and Other Ancient Battles', The Journal of Hellenic Studies 84 (1964), 119-139.). The point is that we cannot ‘reconstruct’ battles. We simply do not have the evidence.

So what, you might ask, is the problem with Wanklyn’s book? I think there are two. Firstly, there is the structure, which takes each battle in two chapters. The first is on the context, sources and landscape for the action, the second on a construction of what can be known. Fair enough, but I found it a bit tricky to keep the balance between what I read about the sources and what was accepted as evidence in the narrative. Perhaps intermeshing the two would have made the battle narrative a lot more broken up and difficult to follow, but at least it would have been obvious to the reader why a piece of established historiography was being rejected at a particular point. Maybe there is just no good way of doing this.

The second problem is with the maps. Now, I accept that there is a great deal of uncertainty about locations, geography, unit identity and so on, and that this has to be reflected in the maps. The problem I have is that often geographical features are mentioned in the text but are not on the map, leaving the reader confused as to what is going on. A few more maps, for example of the route of the flank march of Waller’s troops at Second Newbury, would have been helpful.

Overall this is an interesting but slightly frustrating book. It is causing me to ponder afresh ECW fighting. Wanklyn’s point is that ECW armies, when they functioned properly, we combined arms forces. Cavalry needed infantry to operate properly and vice versa. Similarly he argues that the forces were a lot more flexible in use that we might have been led to believe from our, somewhat flawed, historiography to date.