Monday, 27 September 2010

Historical Accuracy

What do we mean, as wargamers, by the term ‘historical accuracy’? It is an expression that you hear bandied about quite frequently, so there must be some common understanding of it, but I’ve never been quite sure what it signifies.

Perhaps it is just me, and the rest of the wargaming world will laugh at me because I don’t know. But maybe it is simply because we don’t examine the basis of what we talk about in much detail. Or, possibly, I’ve been infected by the ‘turn to language’ in modern and postmodern philosophy and I’m now so sceptical of language use that I can hardly speak.

Wittgenstein taught that meaning is given by use. So how do we use ‘historical accuracy’? Generally, I suppose the usage is: ‘This is historically accurate’, or ‘That is not historically accurate’, where this or that may be rule sets, miniature figures or whatever. The hidden parts of these sentences (I hope) contain qualifiers, such as ‘in my opinion’. It is here that I think we start to have a few problems.

History, as is well known, is a matter of interpretation. We only need to look at the wrangles going on between holocaust deniers and everyone else to see that people can interpret history in very different ways, even in defiance of the evidence. Is military history, and specifically the history of individual battles open to the same interpretation? I would say that probably it is.

Take, for example, the Spanish Armada. We all know the history there, the invincible armada sails up the Channel, is beaten by the plucky Royal Navy and blown away by a storm. Is this correct? Is this a matter of interpretation? In order to ensure that Drake et al win, do we have to incorporate ‘+2 if English’ into our rules? Don’t laugh; I’ve seen it in an Armada related rule set.

Another possibility is that the Armada brushed past the RN and moored as planned, waiting for Parma’s army to embark. The fact that it couldn’t showed a flaw in Spanish planning and communication, rather than anything else. Even after the fireship attack at Gravelines, the English managed to do only a fairly small amount of damage, and were forced to shadow the reforming armada into the North Sea with little chance of stopping them, until the wind blew and they were scattered.

Which account is right? A lot of your reaction to that question might depend on your education, knowledge of the period, nationality and so on. When I was a lad, the first interpretation was widespread. The second is more recent, deriving from archaeological work on Spanish wrecks and research work in Spanish archives. The question ‘which is right?’ degenerates into ‘which do I prefer?’ In terms of historical accuracy there is no absolute answer as to which is right, at least for the individual. The facts are a matter of public knowledge. What they mean is a different thing.

So then, historical accuracy is a function of our interpretation of battle accounts, which is in turn moderated by academic history. Unfortunately, academic history ignores battles, on the whole, and so battle history is left to enthusiastic amateurs and some professional historians with an eye to the main chance (of selling books, mainly). That isn’t to say that some of this stuff is not very good and useful, but wargamers delve into areas which historians don’t, and want answers that history cannot give.

The upshot of this is that wargamers rely on some venerable accounts of battles, by such luminaries as Sir Charles Oman, A. H. Burne and Peter Young. There is nothing wrong with this, of course. All of these authors were careful, read the evidence and so on. But they supply interpretations based on their time, knowledge, outlook and culture, which may have moved on.

So what do I mean by historical accuracy? When I started ECW wargaming, I meant that the miniatures laid out on the table looked like those contemporary prints, such as the one of Naseby, or it looked like the Sealed Knot re-enactments that I saw, or Brig. Young’s diagrams of Edgehill. Was this ‘accurate’? Almost certainly not: the prints were highly stylised and probably showed far too many pikes in the infantry, for example; the Sealed Knot were not trying to kill each other; and it is unlikely that our neat diagrams of battles with arrows and phases were ever realised in reality. My historical accuracy of the ECW was not much like the reality, and was, for me, based on George Gush’s Airfix guide to the ECW.

So the next time you think ‘Gosh, that isn’t accurate’ pause again and ponder “What exactly do I mean by that?” You might find, like me, that upon analysis, you don’t mean very much except your own assumptions.


  1. "Wot, no comment?"
    I have just discovered your most excellent ruminations on wargaming and history and am currently working my way through your blog from start to finish. I suspect I may have to bookmark some of the more esoteric topics for greater examination over a nice glass of red!
    For me, historical accuracy is definitely in the eye of the beholder, for although I am a voracious collector (and reader, I might add) of books on the subject (mostly out-of-print), I freely admit that I am no 'expert' in my preferred period (invasion of France, 1940), owing to a curious inability to absorb information, it seems. An element of "knowledge one-upmanship" is often encountered at clubs and for this reason I generally content myself with merely a knowing smile and a draw on an imaginary pipe but then I am a solo gamer anyway!

    1. Welcome aboard.

      I can only say in about comments that some posts seem to fall on stony ground, and some unexpectedly flourish. I can't tell the difference in advance. the other possibility is that I simply hit the universal prejudice of the audience on the head, so no-one feels the need to say any more. But given the nature of wargamers, that seems a little unlikely.

      Historical accuracy is, I fear, one of those terms that does not stand up to scrutiny, but dissolves the closer you look at it. Something like 1940 depends, very much, on where you are looking from: BEF, French army, German army, Paris, London and Berlin, not to mention, say, Amsterdam, would all have different perspectives, different understandings of reality. and our understanding of reality is our reality, at least until we start bumping into bits we didn't think were there.

      And at least, as solo gamers, we can agree on what reality was (much of the time, anyway; I'm not a sufficiently split personality to argue with myself).