Saturday, 31 August 2013

Texts for Wargamers

I do not know if this is a general feeling among the readers of this blog or not, but I found the discussions around John Lynn’s book ‘Battle’ helpful and illuminating. While I do not think that Lynn has completely proved his case, I think that it has opened up, for me at least, an interesting line of thinking about wargaming.

If you recall, Lynn’s case was that there is a discourse of war that goes along with the reality of war, and that the two interact with each other. Changes in the reality of war, such as the massed death meted out at the start of the First World War impacted on the discourse. From being heroic in 1914,  warfare became much grimmer and, by the early 1930’s, say, an English University Union could vote that it would not fight for its country.

That change in discourse, arguably, interacted at least with the political process of going to war. The British policy of appeasement was motivated, in part, by the desire of the political elite to avoid another Great War. This is not unusual in history. For example, it is arguable that James II fled London and England in 1688 to avoid another English Civil War, which had seen so much destruction and, of course, the execution of his father.

So the discourse of war, the expectations of war which the political and military classes have, and the reality of war, interact. Lynn tries to get a handle on these discourses by looking at the war literature of the periods he chooses for case studies. It is here, it seems, that his thesis becomes a little unstuck. The claim, for example, that it is only with Napoleon that the idea of a decisive battle emerged, was shown not to be the case. Previous generals could and did seek decisive battles; the true innovation of the Napoleonic era was, probably, simply the size of the battles in terms of combatants.

So the problem that Lynn’s thesis seems to run into is that which in fact he predicts in the introduction to his book. In detail, his thesis fails, at least insofar as it is focussed on decisive battles. However, he does do a valuable service, I think, for us as wargamers, in that he draws our attention towards the discourse of warfare in the different periods he covers. It is this aspect that I would like to try to focus upon.

One consequence of the discussions around Lynn’s book was that my attention was drawn to du Picq’s book ‘Battle Studies’, in that, as opposed to Lynn, du Picq emphasises the continuities of warfare. By this I mean that, to some extent (and du Picq brackets out ‘modern warfare’ by which he presumably means that of the mid-nineteenth century), the over-riding issue is the morale and moral fibre of the troops. Now, it is possible that this should be read against the background of nineteenth century society, where, for example, it was said that Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, and that one was expected to “play up and play the game”, even when walking wounded. But it is also possible that du Picq has something important to say about warfare generally, and to us as historical wargamers in particular.

So, the idea I have for the next few weeks is to try to read some of the more important texts of warfare that I can find, and to try to draw out from them interesting and useful things for us as wargamers. I am trying to find texts which are available free on the internet, in the hope that I will not have to do this alone, but some of you will be able to read along and participate. Indeed, if you let me know (via the comments), you can write blog articles about them as well, and I will post them.

One of the potential issues with doing this, of course, is that I am not an expert on all of the eras covered, or indeed, any of them. So I will need some help, particularly for anything after the end of the seventeenth century.

So, which texts?

Obviously, I have not created an exhaustive list, and I am conscious of having missed some, either because I forgot at the time, or have not found a free copy of item. At present, the list is:

The Art of War                               Sun Tzu
De Re Militari                                 Vegetius
The Art of War                               Machiavelli
Concerning Battle                            Montecuccoli
Reveries on the Art of War              de Saxe
Military Instructions                        Frederick of Prussia
The Art of War                               Jomini
Battle Studies                                  du Picq
On War                                          Clausewitz

All of these, except Montecuccoli, are freely available in PDF of Kindle (or other) format. Montecuccoli appears in the list because I happen to have a copy of his work.

The ordering is a bit interesting, as well. I am actually going to start with Vegetius, because he had huge influence over the medieval military mind. I suppose that it could be argued that I should start with Su Tzu, but I am a westerner, living in the west and wargaming western subjects. So far as I am aware, Sun Tzu was not translated into a western language before the late eighteenth century, and so had little influence on western military thinking before then.

Now, the above list seems to me to be a little daunting, so I am not promising that this idea will be done quickly, or indeed that it will ever be finished. However, I do think that it might be interesting, and even getting started might shine some light on our discourses as wargaming.

As I said above, I do need some help, not just encouragement, in reading the texts listed above. Also, I need some help in identifying the gaps in the above list. I am conscious, for example, that Arrian is not there. If you do know of texts missing, especially of freely available texts online, the do please let me know, and I will add them to the list.

And so to the first of the texts – De Re Militari, and the late Roman Empire.


  1. I guess that Napoleon's Maxims and Archduke Karl's treatise (if I can just find what it's called) might be worthwhile.

    I am struggling a bit with this vision vs reality bit - I may well be fumbling my way down the same path you have already been along, so bear with me while I find my bearings.

    One point (I almost said "the point"...) is that the works on war address the concept and the role of war, but also get into contemporary practical issues about how best to conduct an actual war. Initially, my thought was that we need to somehow separate these, but now I see that they are essentially joined at the hip.

    The entire French defence and military policy in 1940 was impaired by their (understandable) reaction to what had happened in 1914-18 - i.e. the practice was hamstrung by a flawed conceptual view, which was a direct result of practical experience in the previous war.

    References? I haven't got anything academic, but James Holland's splendid "The Battle of Britain" is illuminating.

    1. Yes, I don't think we can really separate concepts of war and the reality and practicalities. But conceptually we probably can do some separation.

      For example, Vegetius is rated as influential in the medieval period. But no-one organised as legions. How was he influential, then? Maybe because he showed that warfare can be conducted rationally?

  2. Apologies - I also meant to say...

    At the start of the ACW, best practice, as taught at the military colleges, was the Napoleonic Wars. The first combats of the ACW reflect the fact that contemporary thought had been rendered dangerously obsolete by changes in weaponry, something which presumably had not been shown up by the Mexican war.

    The first line in any work on warfare should maybe be something along the lines of "Learn from the past, but don't get stuck in it."

    1. I suppose the thing is that the last war is the best evidence that we have for the next one, even if stuff has changed.

      I think that the discourse of war does change - war is cultural and based in societies, after all. Perhaps part of its interest is that it is an extreme version of testing societies assumptions about itself. That does seem to be true of, say, the outbreak of WW1, which seems to have come as a nasty shock to all participants.

  3. Sounds like an interesting undertaking. Looks like a good solid starting point. I've never had a chance to read Montecuccoli so I'll be looking forward to reading your comments on his work.

    I'm guessing you're aware on the page which has some interesting discussion of issues with [ast translations and common misunderstandings and 2 of his campaign studies?

    One last thought thus far, there are some worthwhile books which are not presented as studies but which contain a lot of various generals thoughts and analysis on the strategy and politics of their campaigns including why this or that worked or didn't. One set of these which was quite influential centuries later were Caesar's Commentaries on the Gallic wars and especially on the Civil Wars.

    Sherman's memoirs, or at least the military parts, are also an interesting look at applying theory to practice and at linking political and military considerations in practice as well. It also contains the why's of his actions and often analysis of why this or that worked or didn't. Maybe something for later.

    Meantime I may reread some of your list as well, never hurts.

    1. I think the list as it stands will take months, but you are right. I did consider Thucydides, Caesar, Josephus and so on. maybe, if I ever get through that lot I'll consider some of the other stuff as well.

      I have had a quick look at the Clauswitz site, and it does seem very interesting. I might have to get a real recent translation of C., just to try to avoid some of the pitfalls.

      I've also run across Maurice's 'Stratekon' (mis-spelt, that, I'm sure) which I might have to buy as well. It possibly should be on the list too.

  4. If you would like to try something more modern, for the bigger picture:

    (maybe from the library!)

    and for the detail:



    1. Thanks for those tips... so many books, so little time!

      It would be interesting to try to retro-fit those ideas onto historical (pre-20th C perhaps) wars and see how they work.

      Some of the ideas are very modern, some are very old. It is interesting that Aristotle rears his head in Storr's book, as well.

      Food for thought, definitely.

    2. In the 'Brains and Bullets...' book, the author does examine some of the concepts in a pre-C20 environment, looking at how the psychology of phalanx-type formations differs from modern dispersed formations, and also what remains similar (but, crucially, is applied at different ranges). Broadly the emphasis is on how coherence and supervision work, although it would be interesting to examine further the effect of the perception of weapon superiority and inferiority in a pre-C20 context too.

      There is a chapter based on the insights of Du Picq as well.



    3. OK, you've persuaded me; I'll add it to my book list, but don't expect any progress until about 2017!

  5. Modern writers are noticeably absent from your list. Not really my area but one I would strongly recommend is Patterns of Conflict by John Boyd (notes of a lecture are available in PDF and PPT here:

    Brief enough to read in an hour but very powerful. I think he avoids the trap of "fighting the last war" and comes up with what I think is a truly universal theory of winning at war. He seems to have come up with a "meta-theory" (if that's the right word) that most of the classic thinkers from Sun Tzu to Lidell Hart and beyond fit into.

    Fascinating bloke and, IMO, a true genius and has influenced the military from the 70s on.

    1. Thank you for the tip, I'll have a look.

      I'm slightly surprised that no-one has suggested Liddel Hart or Guderein yet; my excuse is that I've never seriously wargamed anything post-Napoleon....