Saturday, 7 July 2012

Wargames, Morale and Crowds

A few weeks ago I remarked, in passing, that I thought that morale was more of a function of officers than of the rank and file. The argument, put forward very briefly, was that in, say, a hoplite phalanx, the ordinary rank and file could not see how the overall battle was going. They were wearing helmets with restricted views, hemmed in by comrades and, above all, attempting to avoid getting killed while not being accused of cowardice. They are not going to have much time or opportunity to look around and see what else is going on on the battlefield.

The role of an officer, however, is different. Part of an officer’s job is to look around and see what is going on. At least, an officer’s job would include, for example, trying to make sure their unit is not going to be hit in the flank. That requires them to be aware of what is going on on the flank, so they have to have a broader view of the battlefield, and so they are more likely to know whether things are going well or badly.

This consideration, I submit, should probably apply throughout what is often known as the era of linear warfare, which means, I suppose, most wars to the Franco-Prussian one in Europe, maybe the American Civil War and similar sorts of times. The idea is that the rank and file are some sort of ill-informed automata who just keep shooting or charging or marching or whatever because they have no information upon which to choose to do something else, and, even if they do, discipline and fear of punishment keeps them from making such a decision.

So, as units (and entire armies) can and did run away, what sorts of things happened to make this happen?

Here, I fear, we enter into speculation, but we may manage to at least ground it in some sort of empirical behaviour. Group reactions are not well understood, I think, in psychology, but we do have a certain amount of information which suggests that some sort of model could be created.

I’m going to start in a slightly odd place, however, but hang in there. The (US) theologian Walter Wink makes, in his ‘Powers’ books, some interesting points about crowds. He was a civil rights activist, and recalls his fear when, on his way to a protest, he and a colleague were pulled over by the police. As it happened, they were pulled over for a minor motoring offence, but, Wink observes, they thought it was for being a civil rights protestor in that time and place.

Upon arrival at the protest, Wink and his, by then, thousands of colleagues did something that, on his own, he had not dared to do: defy the police and the orders they gave to disperse. There is, Wink observes, a significant difference in our behaviour when we are alone or with just a few, as oppsed to being en mass.

Wink goes on to refer to another example of the same sort of thing. A rioting football (soccer, presumably, American football fans seem to be much quieter, or rendered somnambulant by fast food) crowd is made up of individuals  who, in the normal run of the mill sort of times are law abiding, usually hard working sorts of folk.

A brief look at the histories of the recent riots in the UK suggests that, in general, the individuals in question were not particularly gang or crime related; many had already been in court for minor offences, true, but nothing like that they were accused of during the riots themselves. Thus, Wink concludes, there is a single ‘spirit’ or ‘power’ or ‘angel’ of the crowed, which gives it a ‘mood’, and overpowers the individuals own volitions.

Now, if we transfer this sort of thing to an army unit, we immediately see that, while not expressed in these terms, a lot of time in armies is spent building up this ‘power’ of a unit; often it is called ‘esprit de corps’, or tradition or something similar. In the British army, for example, battle honours, flags, formal dinners, parades, oaths and so on are all used to try to build up some sort of unit ‘power’., in Wink’s sense.

Some units go beyond this, of course, in building up a mystique. For example, the British Paratroop regiment have bright red berets, a tradition of fighting against the odds and doing what few other units could have done (most recently clearing and holding Helmand province in Afghanistan with less than half the troops it takes now). Whether you believe the story or not, that is how the unit is framed, that it its power, its spirit, its angel.

So, when a unit runs away, who has cracked? Looked at from Wink’s perspective, it is, in fact, no one individual, but the ‘angel’ of the unit, the collective will of the individuals. That is probably the case, but the question is then, how did the angel of the unit (look, I’ll drop the scare quotes, OK? Just don’t go on about incorporeal spirits, messages from God and Thomistic beatitude) get into this state?

Given the arguments deployed above, it is probably not the rank and file who have decided to give up on the battle. The most influential people on the angel of the unit are probably the officers and NCOs. The latter, in particular, would be likely to have the experience to know when to fight and when to run, when to hide and when to surrender. Therefore, in measuring the morale of a unit, we are probably, broadly speaking, measuring the morale of the officers and NCOs (in whatever guise they are).

Of course, in a wargame we are also looking at the morale of our human opponent. I’ve seen a number of wargamers get so depressed by a few bad dice rolls that they have conceded the game, even though they were not technically losing. Or, perhaps, that is simply a measure of the general’s morale on the field.


  1. Hi,

    I agree that officers and NCO are normally the driving force of morale. In ancient times this is clearly seen by all the defeats suffered when an overall commander died. The fate of individual decides the outcome.

    On the other hand, working on esprit de corps may result in much greater resistance to officer and NCO casaulities to collective morale. There comes to mind "These boys could make an attack even without an officer to lead them." (on veteran CSA soldiers at Gettysburg). I do not know if this is a true historical quote, but there are examples of units fighting on with high officer casaulties. However, if the quote is true, it was not proved right, because when close to all brigadiers and regiment commanders were made casaulties the attack finally stopped. Probably those veterans saw it was not going well anyway.

    I think it is again about troop training and experience - fresh, inexperienced units could melt away quickly after few key commanders are hit, but veterans could stay much longer. It is a kind of collective spirit which comes from individual self-confidence (which increases with one's military skills) and bonds between individuals in the unit, which grow stronger over time and mutually experienced hardships and dangers.

    So, on one hand, commanders are very important, and on the other, collective spirit of a unit has its own power and this comes mainly from a mass of soldiers.

    Best regards,

  2. Hi,

    I guess that these examples simply show the range of results that are possible outcomes of officer casualties - could be a collapse, could be a charge which sweeps all before it.

    Part of the issue, I guess, is that officers, particularly at batallion sort of level, have an idea of the bigger picture and if they are lost that idea goes too, no matter how competent the lower level commanders might be. They can hang on, but not necessarily execute the big picture plan of which they were a part.

    I do sometime wonder if the relative effectiveness of the Roman legion was due to the long service of the troops in small units (eights, I think) and the bonds that must have generated.

    So, for morale, would you say we have two bits? The officers and the esprit de corps?


  3. Hi,

    Yes, I think there are two major factors (this is surely more complex, but as a useful simplification of thinking).

    The role of officers / leaders is rather obvious - they have to command, maintain order, get their soldiers to do what is needed and lead them, preferably by personal example. One of the most important duties is making their subordinates not to flee. If they fail, soldiers become disoriented, frightened and act on instinct, which generally tells oneself to run and hide from this hell. Soldiers without commanders become just an armed mob.

    On the other hand, esprit de corps, if high, makes an officer's life much easier, as it contains individuals' instincts and turns them to thinking about their companions - to help them do the job and stay alive. Sometimes a specific bond may develop between soldiers and their commander which will drive troops to try to do more than usual.

    There are examples of good officers leading low-morale troops, which is hard for those officers. There are also examples of high esprit de corps troops being led by underqualified officers, which is usually bad for the troops.

    These two factors are interconnected, as an officer, when given proper time, can train his troops and thus increase their spirit and his bond with them. Also, if a commander has high reputation and comes to lead some troop, their esprit de corps may rise, for they will feel more confident. And on the contrary - if troops get low-value officer, they may feel down and be prone to leaving effort and sacrifice to somebody else.

    Best regards,

  4. Hi,

    I seem to recall Charles Grant's Seven Years War rules had morale factors for both officer casualties and private casualties, so both gradual loss of cohesion via general casualties and loss of officers/momentum/direction could be modeled.

    Given that grant had been a serving officer, it could well be that he has a point. His rules also allowed snipers to pick off officers and artillerymen, which sounds a bit WW3 rather than Old Fritz to me, but it might be 'accurate'.


  5. Brigadier Peter Young was of the opinion that morale rules were not necessary as morale something that generals had rather than other ranks.

  6. Hi,

    Yes, I've heard it said in a DBM context that there are no impetuous troops, just impetuous generals, which I guess amounts to the same sort of thing.