Saturday, 28 May 2011

Wargame Mythology

One of the things that I’ve learnt over the last few years of attempting to write rules is how hard it is to shift some wargamer’s myths. Some ideas and concepts are so deeply ingrained in wargamers’ minds and hearts that they appear almost impossible to shift.

For example, I was looking at some pictures of 30 Years War and ECW figures. I don’t recall which manufacturer they were from, except they were recent releases and they were 15mm and pleasant enough figures, so far as I could tell. The problem with them that I have is that the musketeers had rests. By the time that the bulk of the conflicts in question were fought, rests had gone. Indeed, there is an open question as to whether rests were ever used, at least outside the minds of drill authors and in sieges. I suppose that at least I should be grateful that the musketeers were not wearing helmets.

This sort of thing is pernicious and very difficult to shift. Of course, if you have a lovingly constructed and painted ECW army, you don’t really want to hear that it is wrong. The problem is that the myths persist in this way. Many ECW gamers will have been bought up on George Gush’s Renaissance Rules, where firelocks are downgraded at long range because they don’t have rests. Maybe I’m a simpleton, but if a firearm is light enough to hold without needing a rest, its performance at range is not going to downgrade as a result of that fact. I’m not trying to rubbish the rules – I used them for many years – but this sort of thing does perpetuate the myth.

Another source of irritation in “Renaissance” gaming (aside from the name) is the caracole. This is one of those vanishing past type myths. Rupert’s cavalry in the ECW charged with the sword, as opposed to the earlier caracole. Pappenheim’s cuirassiers in the TYW look like earlier caracolers, but actually charged with sword and pistol. They learnt it from Gustavus’ troopers, who charged with the sword. This was a change from the Dutch cavalry, who charged with the sword, having learnt to from the Huguenot Millers, who wore corselets but had learnt to charge and not use firepower. They learnt to do this from their Catholic league opponents, who were the remnants of the French ordonnance lancers, who therefore charged. Given that the ordonnance lancers were constituted before the widespread use of the pistol, at least they cannot have changed tactics from firepower to shock. But the question arises: who actually did ever use caracole tactics? The answer seems to be ‘no-one, in open battle’.

The history of the grenade is another such item. Eighteenth century grenadiers are said not to use the device because its field use had died out and it was only occasionally useful in sieges. Late seventeenth century rules say basically the same thing. So do ECW rules. These highly dangerous looking cartoon bombs are only for sieges, but they used to be used in the field. When? I’ve never seen a shred of evidence that they were ever used in the field. I have a distinct impression that they never were. The myth of the field use of grenades vanishes into history, never to find any evidence.

‘Are you not supposed to be talking about Greeks?’ I hear you cry.

Well, yes. In the past I’ve noted that some things in ancient rules are distinctly dubious – the issue about Sarmatian and Parthian bows being a case in point. The further back in time you go, the more potent and dangerous the myths become to any attempt at ‘reality’ in rules.

Take an example that I’ve mentioned before. The Persians, according to the Greek historians, were vast hordes of reluctant levies, driven to attack the freedom loving Greeks and reduce them to subjugation. Herodotus records 1.7 million fighting men crossing the Bosporus under the eye of King Xerxes, while the Greek forces at Plataea are more modestly and carefully counted. Many people have accepted this number, despite the fact that such a vast horde would have simply starved to death on the road, let alone found sufficient water to drink. But the myth of Persian subject levies and their huge numbers lives on, perpetrated by popular histories, wargame rules and our own prejudices.

More realistically, it is unlikely that the Greeks were heavily outnumbered. If you look at the numbers in armies all the way to the end of the seventeenth century, it is highly unusual to find more than say, 70,000. The logistical difficulties in any more were simply too great. Most armies were much smaller, 20,000 or less. These sorts of sizes solved many of the logistical and command difficulties, and so make perfect sense. Our ancestors may not have had our technology, but they were not stupid. More than one general discovered that large armies starved.

The Greeks, therefore, won the battles of the Persian wars because the hoplite was better at the sort of battle that happened than the Persian foot. Indeed, after 450 BC or so, the Persians recruited numbers of Greek mercenaries and also tried to develop their own heavy foot. But there is a limit to the Greek dominance. If they were so much better, we would expect Greek armies to dominate in Asia Minor, and they didn’t. While Athens ‘freed’ the Ionian cities after Plataea, the Greeks did not penetrate inland.

Why not? Well, given the dominance on the battlefield, you might expect that they did. But in reality, logistics and the fact that the real Greek dominance was on sea after Salamis means that only the coastal cities of Ionia could be ‘freed’. The Persian Empire still had control of its heartlands, at least until Alexander came along. But that was an entirely different style of warfare.


  1. It's not just wargamers. All too often people are too heavily invested in a particular version of history, often not for any particularly logical reasons. This includes academics, re-enactors and anyone that has taken an interest. When presented with an alternative, they can be highly resistant to changing their opinion, or even wilfully ignorant because they prefer the version that they are most familiar with.

  2. I think one problem may be the considerable 'lag' between new research and ideas appearing in relatively specialist areas or foreign languages and this knowledge appearing in a relatively popular general work. I guess I'm reasonably well read on military subjects but I wouldn't have known that fact about musket rests in the Thirty Years War. In a period I'm better read in, the Napoleonic, there haas been a lot of new stuff coming out over the last 20 years in various places, but it hasn't quite penetrated into the more general and popular histories yet.


  3. Apologies for the delay in replying. Blogspot was having a fit..

    I think you are both right....

    We do get committed to particular interpretations of history, and are reluctant to let go of them. For example, who thinks the RAF was heavily outnumbered in the battle of Britain? Now go and check the numbers, and you'll find there were considerably more 'few' than you might have imagined....

    One of the things I've tried to tackle with Polemous: Imperial Rome is the disjunct between scholarly acivity and wargaming. Now, I'm not a classicist, but I do have access to a university library so I can look at the most recent stuff published, even though military history is poorly served by the academy.

    The problem does seem to be with the more popular histories, and with the inherent resistance of people generally to new ideas (there is even a name for it: homeostasis). Most of the articles I read in Miniature Wargames were, so far as accounts of battles went, rehashes of early-mid 20th Century accounts, written by retired military men, not historians. But then we're back round to the lack of academic military history again.