Saturday 26 February 2011

Territory and Battles

I made a rash statement a few weeks ago, that sieges and holding territory were more important than battles in military history. This was quite rightly challenged, and it was agreed, more or less, that occasional colonial reprisal raids were not aimed at capturing territory.

This of course could lead to arguments about what we might mean by ‘capturing territory’. Punitive raids in the North-West province of India could be regarded as a means of keeping territory by making sure the locals were overawed by the Imperial might that could be deployed against them. If the raids were not carried out, the regions would become independent, the Imperial bases would then be threatened and that is before Russian agents drifted over the Himalayas to stir up trouble. So even the colonial argument touches territory at some point, perhaps not quite as directly as some.

Turning from the 19th century to the 14th, we have another candidate for not trying to capture territory. In this case, it is one I know a little more about: the early years of the Hundred Year’s war. Now, as wargamers we know that this revolved about the battles of Poitiers and Crecy. If we are dead sophisticated we might also admit that the siege of Calais was also part of the Crecy campaign. But the battles were decisive, were they not?

To answer this question we have to look a bit harder at Edward III’s strategy. I’m stealing most of this from Clifford Rogers’ book ‘War Cruel and Sharp’. He argues that after the Weardale campaign of 1327, Edward adopted Robert the Bruce’s strategy of chevauchee, siege and battle. The idea of this strategy was to use the chevauchee to devastate the enemy’s economic base. Dead or starving peasants pay no taxes, after all. The use of siege was aimed at drawing the enemy into battle, and the use of battle was to defeat the enemy field army, make prisoners and ensure a advantageous peace.

So, Edward III set off on a number of such adventures. Firstly, he besieged Berwick which led to the disastrous (for the Scots) battle of Halidon Hill. But the Scots were forced to fight, because Berwick, which was an important place economically and strategically, had to be saved. The devastation caused by the English archers up the hill was not the Scots fault. The fact that they had to try was Edward’s strategic success, brought about by the siege.

So, one up to the siege argument, I'd claim.

How about Crecy? Well, the battle came about largely because of the chevauchee, which devastated the lands where it passed. One of the issues in medieval policy was ‘good lordship’ which meant that the feudal lords, and ultimately the king, had to protect their vassals. So, if your vassal’s fields and houses were being burnt, you had to try to do something about it. Thus, the French army shadowed the English until they clashed at Crecy. Shadowing the enemy was a good way of ensuring that less damage was done, as small groups of enemy soldiers could not be sent out to devastate the countryside for fear of being picked off. The French did not need to engage the English directly. The fact that they did would seem to speak more of French overconfidence than strategic requirement. Edward, it seems did want to fight and went out of his way to persuade the French to accept battle. Removing the enemy field army would permit him strategic freedom to carry on his campaign and secure a port. After the battle, the English restarted their devastating raids and, of course captured Calais.

How do we classify this? Possibly one up to the ‘battle’ brigade, although the upshot was, in fact, a strategic, territorial, accession to the English crown, via a siege. Maybe we ought to halve the points.

How about Poitiers? Again, a large scale chevauchee by the English and lots of problems for the French. Again, it seems that the Black Prince sought battle and the French accepted it. Again the English won and captured various important people from whom an advantageous treaty was extracted, including lots of territory for the English crown.

How do we assess Poitiers? Well, probably one to the ‘battle’ brigade. The decisive battle gave the English a distinct diplomatic advantage.

Overall, therefore, we have to say that my comment, which was designed to provoke, is only partially confirmed by the first part of the Hundred Years War. However, it is worth noting that Edward’s strategy was composed of three linked parts – raid, siege and battle. Just going out and defeating the enemy on the battlefield was insufficient to ensure success in the war as a whole. This had to be linked with the chevauchees, which undermined the enemy in terms of both lordship and income and forced them to fight or lose by default. Sieges performed the same role, as the Berwick, but also were the upshot of defeating the enemy field army. Capturing strategically important locations, like Calais, was important, and that brings us around again to territory.

As wargamers, of course, we focus on battles. How many times have you seen a wargame of Crecy or Poitiers? How many times have you seen a campaign based around a chevauchee? Do we have the balance right? Should we be doing something different? Indeed, is it possible to have a good game based around the premise of devastating enemy territory?


  1. There's a HYW campaign for the Impetus rules based on the chevauchee. It is in Extra Impetus 1. I have not played it but it looks like the English could, in theory, win it without actually fighting a battle. Of course, the French player will be doing their darndest to bring the English to battle and defeat them, but like I wrote, in theory ... Anyway, it looks like fun to play, so yes, it should be possible to have a fun game based on devastating enemy territory.

    I had wondered about doing something similar for a Viking raid game as it looked like that might work too.

    While we might well focus on the battles as miniatures gamers, that is a function of the nature of the beast itself. We are miniatures gamers and we want to use the figures we have spent ages painting. Campaign games are a means to produce battles for us to use our figures with. If we focus solely or predominantly on larger strategic objectives then we are moving into board wargame territory and are potentially going to use our figures less, which, given the time and effort associated with building a wargames army, would be less desirable for most miniatures gamers.

  2. Interesting, but slightly contradictory, perhaps?

    The fun HYW campaign can be won without a battle, but battles are what wargames are about.

    I'm not actually sure about the campaign as described, because my view is that it is in the French best interests to shadow the English picking off their raiding parties, rather than fight (and lose) a pitched battle. Of course, a considerable number of the French nobility disagreed, and found out the hard way.

    Thinking about it further, didn't de Guesculin manage to recapture most of France while positively avoiding battle?

    But yes, we do focus on battle, because that is what wargaming is. On the other hand, I've seen a few campaign games which started off as excuses for battles and finished up as something much more. Nothing is ever simple.

  3. Well, I never said wargames and wargamers were consistent! :-)

    I did write that it could be won "in theory". Whether this is actually practically possible is a different question, especially given the nature of wargamers. Given that Impetus is a massed battles rules set, there is little room for picking off the raiding parties though. That may be a limitation of the campaign, but it is a function of the rules set for which it is written.

    I could certainly see some interest in a game that has you running the army and assigning troops to raid the enemy. It could be a little like my favourite ever computer game (the X-Com series) which has both resource management and skirmish gaming as elements of the game.

    My own Talomir Tales campaign started with the campaign system from Warrior Heroes and Warrior Heroes: Armies and Adventures, which permitted us to run both massed battles and skirmish games in the same fantasy world. Although the campaign systems are solely about generating table-top games, the campaign has a life of its own because we inject storytelling into the mix that explains the events and often leads us to ignore the actual campaign system in favour of creating games that draw on what has gone before. If you put the effort in, any campaign can become much more than a series of battles.

  4. I seem to recall that Tony Bath's Hyboria game started as an excuse to play battles with his extensive ancients collection. Indeed, my own venture into running and internet wargame campaign was based on Machiavelli and was supposed to be a very simple way of generating battles. Soon people started demanding trade, investment and so on, mainly to improve their revenues so they buy more armies. But then recent theories of state formation suggest that this is mainly why states formed, anyway.

    So yes, somehow, these things take on a life of their own, linked to narrative and in some sense storytelling, but not, I think, directly so.

  5. I think the life comes from the players. If they want to add the detail, the campaign will take off. In our case, it is the storytelling that directly influences the life of the campaign because that is how we like to play. Others will adopt different approaches, like the more detailed trade rules you mentioned. A wargames campaign does not need much to be successful: just a basic battle generation system and players that are interested enough to invest of themselves in the campaign. One the players' imagination has been captured the campaign could go anywhere.

  6. In general, I guess this is why wargames campaigns are so different from a wargames and perhaps why many 'war' boardgames are very different from wargames - the perspective on these aspects is so different. I'm sure wargames by their very nature are 'Napoleonic'.


  7. Hi,

    Could you unpack that a little: 'Napoleonic'?

    I think I can guess what you might mean, but I'm not sure.


  8. 'Napoleonic' in the sense of what it has come to mean to strategic historians - that the most important object of all military activity is the decisive encounter on the battlefield, victory in which will lead to the reaping of all the political/territorial rewards that previously generals had been trying to gain piecemeal (seizing a bit of territory rather than defeating the enemies army decisively and then just occupying it as you like). I summarize but you get what I was driving at?


  9. and also in the sense that traditional tabletop wargames seem to me be to reasonably good at capturing the spirit of Napoleonic, or at least horse and musket, warfare, compared to some other periods.

  10. I do see what you mean, and I think you could be right. Certainly 'Old School' gaming seems to work nicely for our conception of, say, Seven Years War gaming. And isn't there some military historiography about the search for a decisive battle, leading up to Napoleon?