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.

Saturday, 24 August 2013

Wargames on your Doorstep

It has always been something of a mystery to me why many wargamers have developed a taste for the exotic. I suppose that as wargaming and communication technologies have developed, the opportunity to find something really off the wall has presented itself. Thus, we land up with, for example, 1920’s Chinese Warlord games, or skirmishes on the Thai frontier, or such like.

Now, I am not denigrating these sorts of wargames, although I confess that they are not for me. The thing that puzzles me slightly is that finding anything out about them is, even in the days of the Internet, really rather difficult. Part of me wants to wonder if that is not the reason why some wargamers choose to play in these eras; it makes the research so much easier if no-one actually knows.

A long time ago now, one of the wargames magazines ran an article on what to do if you feel a bit jaded with your wargaming, a bit out of sorts and out of ideas. Have a look around your local area, it suggested. You might be surprised as to what ideas lie out there.

This may well work a little better in the Old World than in the New, but it is, I think, an idea worth pursuing. History, like geography, is all around us, but often we manage to ignore it, or simply pass it by altogether. Part of being a history ‘buff’ or a wargamer is, surely, to try not to ignore the military activity on our doorstep.

On the face of it, I live in a pretty boring part of the country, militarily. Too far away from the continent to have any decent defences against invasion, probably too poor to be really interesting to anyone except other sheep farmers, and really rather out on a limb, geographically speaking. In fact, so far as I can tell, most wargamers only know where I live because the local market town is named (for reasons I cannot account for) on the Kingmaker map.

So, let me look a little closer.

In fact, my area is a wee bit more interesting that it appears at first glance. To start with, I can think of at least five medieval battles that were fought within a forty mile radius. Not all of them were the Scots against the English, either, although granted that does seem to have been a medieval hobby for the local gentry (and the Bishop of Durham). So that is something that may well take up a fair bit of a wargamer’s time.

Secondly, I live a bit south of one of the most northerly Roman villas in the UK. Oddly, there is a cluster of known villas in the sort of middle reaches of the River Tees.

Why, you might ask, were they there?

The answer, I think, is access to the sea. The river is fairly wide there, and is passable by small boats, so in terms of getting supplies in and out, for the Romans it was a simple business of loading up a few merchant ships and waiting for the right tide.

I suspect that as modern people, we forget (or at least I do) exactly how much easier sea transport was until at least the 18th Century. It was safer from bandits, for one thing, and quite a lot harder to get lost on (provided you stuck to the coastal routes). While, of course, ships were often lost at sea, they could also carry bulk cargoes more easily and cheaply than wagons, even if the wagons were on Roman built roads.

So the Tees-side Roman villas were, probably, commercial enterprises, although who exactly they were supplying is anyone’s guess. They could even have transported grain to Newcastle and the granaries there at the end of Hadrian’s Wall, but that is pure speculation on my part.

A little bit south of where I live are the ruins of a much smaller Roman villa. This was probably not a commercial enterprise, but simply supplied the local estate, maybe with a little left over for buying a few luxuries. Interestingly, the ruins are next to a modern Farm Shop, which performs a similar sort of function.

A little bit further away there are more Roman bits a pieces. There is a bridge, a town (site of another possible medieval battlefield) and a few small forts. Some of these have been investigated archaeologically, and one of the good things about the Internet is that it is possible to find the reports (although often you have to buy them). While these are frequently bogged down with detail about pots, they occasionally give interesting snippets for the wargamer’s imagination, such as destruction layers.

I have not even mentioned anything more ‘up to date’ so far, although there was certainly activity hereabouts during the English Civil War. The local history society believes that there was a firing range over the back of the village. I am, in all honesty, not sure I believe that; ECW outposts did not often have spare powder and shot to waste practicing, although I could believe pot shots at rabbits or similar game.

The point that I am trying to make is that, in parts of the world at least, there are rich layers of history just lying about, waiting for the wargamer to discover them. With a little bit of imagination an interesting back story could be created for most of them, and suddenly you have a wargame on your hands.

You do have, however, to stop, and look around, a bit more closely at some of the places which are in your local environment. As I said, often, we take these places for granted.

Also, I suspect that often we prefer the exotic to the local. If you feel that your local history has little to commend it, then consider this: If there were a large wargaming community in the Far East, they may well consider, say, the Hundred Years War as being really exotic.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

On Skirmishers

I have been reading a bit about ancient wars and battles, specifically, for those of you with long memories, those in the Greek and Classical worlds. One of the things that has struck me is the large number of light troops which are attached to the armies.

Numbers, in the ancient world are, of course, always rather dubious. However, the normally reliable Thucydides reports 10,000 Boeotian light troops present at Delium, although they had little influence on the battle (IV.93). Sabin, in Lost Battles, represents them with one ‘token’ levy unit.

Wargame rules (and writers of history, both ancient and modern) tend to be rather dismissive of skirmishers. I myself have fallen into this: in Polemos: SPQR a base of skirmishers is set at being about 75 people running around with javelins and so forth. Now if I transferred that to Delium, I would need over 130 bases of skirmishers alone, which would fill up most people’s wargame table without any of the battle-winning troop types getting a look in.

It seems to be the case therefore that while my representational scale might be awry, the effects could be accurate. Skirmishers had very little impact on the ancient battle. I know that there are occasional exceptions, but in the ancient world they tended to be peltasts, who appear to have been more professional and capable than your average javelin chucker.

It also has to be admitted that many sets of wargame rules do not represent skirmishers terribly well. Notoriously, in one of the version of DBM, a single base of skirmishers, set at an angle to a block of advancing heavy infantry, could delay the latter hugely. Treating skirmishers as just another troop type with compatible capabilities does not seem to represent their actual activity terribly well.

The other problem, of course, is that ancient writers were not, in fact, terribly interested in skirmishers. They were not of the right class, for one thing. Battles were won and lost by the heavy infantry (I generalise, but then, so did they). Skirmishers were the necessary but uninteresting part of the army. Exceptions do, of course, occur, but in general, light troops are not discussed or reported upon. Again, peltasts may be, but the general skirmisher is not.

So, how can we handle skirmishers within our wargame rules?

In Polemos: SPQR, as I have said, a base represents about 75 men, which, I confess, is probably incorrect. However, in my defence, I have come up with a novel (to me, anyway; I don’t imagine that it is original) method of modelling the performance of skirmishers.

If you read the few accounts that there are of skirmish type tactics in the ancient world, I do not think that you find the more modern ideas of ‘clouds of skirmishers’ or skirmishers advancing in open order. The best description of skirmishing is not, in fact, from skirmishers at all (please correct me if I’m wrong), but of the Persian cavalry at Plataea. Here, they advance in groups, throw javelins at the Greek hoplites and then retire to the main body.

There is no description of the cavalry being in open order, just advancing in smaller groups from the main body, discharging missile weapons, and then retiring.

The more I thought about this, the more likely it seemed to me to be generally the case for ancient world skirmishing. In the ancient world, there was much less emphasis, in the first place, on the individual, and so individualistic activity, like skirmishing 10 feet or so from your neighbour, is less likely. Additionally, I cannot imagine that any such troops would be trained and so, as I believe it to be the case, that untrained troops tend to huddle together, it seems to me highly likely that skirmishers would too.

There are other factors at play, as well. At Caharre, as is well known, the Parthians skirmished pretty well all day. They must have had some means of relieving their front forces, if only to resupply with arrows. This is much simpler if the whole unit was not involved at a given time. If a bunch of 50 men were dispatched from a unit of 500, for, say, ten minutes skirmishing, then each batch of fifty would have about an hour and a half to rest in between such activity, while the enemy simply saw a screen of men discharging arrows at them, constantly. The rest could be seeing to their horses, restocking with arrows, having a drink and a bite to eat, and so on.

What is very wearing for one side would be a walk in the park for the other.

Of course, the commanders would need to be careful to keep their units out of harm’s way, and we do read often of the skirmishers simply being chased off by heavier troops. However, they usually did reform and return, which suggests, in my model, that the charged skirmishers simply run back to the mother unit and reform upon it.

This then, is the model I have attempted to work with in Polemos: SPQR, and intend to implement in the Greek rules when they finally get off the drawing board. Skirmisher units represent the base unit, and their range represents the distance to which the packets of men are sent out to throw their javelins (or whatever). The whole unit is not fighting at any one time, nor are the men standing at the base and shooting. Only a small proportion of them are doing that at any one time.

Of course, it is still required that the skirmisher’s action is still, mostly, disruptive, not fatal to the enemy. That can be fixed through the relevant combat factors, of course.  And the units under attack can still advance to drive off the skirmishers, although they would have to get at the mother unit to do any real damage. A failure by the skirmishers to inflict any damage  can, of course, be interpreted as a local success by the attacked base.

Finally, of course, I can now rationalise my representative scale. A base of skirmishers can represent many more than 75 individuals, but it is that 75 who are in action at any one time. The overall base would represent, say, 750 individuals, which makes it much more viable to have the whole lot on the table at any one time.

So, there you are: a model of skirmishing in the ancient world. I wonder how much it leaks…

Saturday, 10 August 2013

The Battles of Marathon

It was mentioned, I think, on the Joy and Forgetfulness blog recently, that we have, as wargamers, our key battles. These are the actions that interest us, that we keep coming back to and having another go at, or, perhaps, we have never tried but are our goals or aim, when we get the right figures painted, or the right terrain constructed, or the right rules, or some combination of all three.

For me, this battle is Marathon, and this arises because one of the first reports of a wargame I ever read was by Charles Grant in ‘Military Modelling’, and was of this battle. It was a long time ago and I was very, very young, but it made a lasting impression on me. For years, at the back of my mind was the idea that someday, I would refight on the wargame table, the battle of Marathon.

For many years, of course, I did not even try to refight it. I have a limited time budget, and even more limited resources for buying, painting and researching figures. However, after a major effort in the last few weeks, I am now the proud possessor of a 21 base Persian army, suitable, so far as I can tell, for being the opposition to my Greeks at Marathon.

Now, of course, I should be rushing off in glee and be rolling dice. Perhaps, however, I have become too cautious, or elderly, in just plain suspicious of the historical accounts of battles to do so. I need some sort of idea as to what Marathon was about, how it happened, before setting figure to table.

This is, of course, where the fun starts. Herodotus’ account of the actual battle of Marathon is four paragraphs (6:112 – 115), just about a page in my Landmark edition. This is not really very much, although of course the build-up to the battle is much longer. The brevity has both upsides and downsides.

On the up-side, it does mean that, as a wargamer, I do not actually have to read very much before I have an idea of the action, its deployments, movements and outcome. It really is very simple. The Athenians and Plataeans lined up, charged the Persians, broke their wings and turned in on the hitherto successful centre, capturing a few ships on the way. What could be simpler?

On the downside, the record does not really tell us enough about the action. Lots of questions remain unanswered. For example, where were the Persian cavalry? The Persians landed at Marathon, we are told, because it was good cavalry country (6:102). But mounted activity is not recorded in the battle account itself. A puzzle, then.

Not only that, but the number of Persians in the army is not really recorded at all. Herodotus records 600 triremes in the Persian fleet, including horse transports. This might give some sort of figure for the maximum number of people in the force, but helps very little in determining the number of soldiers on the battlefield. Herodotus’ claim that there were 6,400 Persian casualties may, or may not, be correct. Even if it is correct, it does not help an awful lot. It gives a lower limit for how many Persians there were in total (6400, plus at least 1 trireme crew?), but that is really of little use.

From the information we have to hand, then, we can say that there were 10,000, or 11,000 Greeks, and some Persians. It is usually assumed that the Persians outnumbered the Greeks, but this is by no means certain. It is quite possible that there were fewer Persians on the field than Greeks.

There are further problems with the terrain of Marathon. While the general layout is well known, a plain with the sea on one side, hills on the other, and marshes at both ends, it is not actually recorded at what angle the Persians deployed to the beach. Some modern accounts have them with their backs to the sea, with their ships behind them. Some have them deployed at right angles to the sea, with the ships behind their left wing.

Neither of these accounts is wholly satisfactory. Only an idiot, perhaps, would fight with their backs to the sea. The advantage of this deployment, however, is that it is clear how the routing Persians could then attempt to launch their ships. In the other scenario, with their wings broken first, it seems a bit unlikely that the Persians would have all streamed to their left rear to get away. As Terry Pratchett once remarked, the whole idea of running away is to get away; routing troops are unlikely to think that the best result would be obtained by running through a bunch of disorganised but victorious hoplites.

So, even with such a simple appearing account of a fairly straightforward battle, we have some seemingly unsolvable problems. The size of at least one of the armies; the composition of that force itself. Even the deployment of the forces is by no means obvious.

In fact, were it not the case that it is impossible to read the account of the battle without trying to reconstruct it in some way, I would argue that we face an insurmountable obstacle. The account of Herodotus has sufficient detail to constrain what we can do in reconstruction, but insufficient to tell us exactly how the action happened.

Perhaps, at this point, turning to Phil Sabin’s Lost Battles might help. There are a large number of modern accounts of Marathon, all differing in detail. Sabin’s modelling for the battle suggests that the key factor is, in fact, the number of Persian infantry, not the location and actions of the cavalry or the angle between the armies and the sea. As he notes, the triumph of the Persian centre indicates that the Greeks had no unqualified superiority over their enemy (p 95).

So, in summary, we have not just a refight of Marathon, but a whole slew of considerations, estimates, guesswork and prejudice to work through before we can come to something that could even slightly be called a historical battle. That should not, of course, stop of from trying, but we do have to admit that the relation to history is, at best, irrecoverable.

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Models and Rumours of Models

I have written a lot over time, and quite recently, about models and how we use them in wargaming. It is worth considering, I think, because wargaming, and writing wargme rules are essentially modelling activities. There is no getting away from the concepts of models at all.

Models, of course, come in various shapes and sizes. There are scale models, representational models, computational models and so on, all of which, I think, appear in most wargames. But it is also worth taking a bit of a step back and considering exactly what the models are, and what they can do.

In Chapter 3 of Ian Barbour’s Models, Myths and Paradigms (London, SCM, 1974), there is a list of four ways of understanding models in science. These are naïve realism, positivism, instrumentalism and critical realism. I will have a go at describing how these models might fit into a set of wargame rules, and which interpretations of our models we might choose.

Firstly, then, naïve realism. In this case we assume that our models give us direct access to the world. The entities we postulate in our models are those which ‘really’ exist, even if they are not directly observable. For wargaming, this means, for example, that we would have to claim that the factors we use to calculate a wargame unit’s morale were really existing factors, and that they can be summed up and reach a given outcome of ‘hold’ or ‘rout’. This is really rather, um, naïve, as the name of this view suggests. Morale calculation is a computational model, and bears little relationship to the real world.

Naïve realism corresponds to a literal view of models, that is, that the model is a replica of the world. While some of the bits of a wargame might correspond to bits of the world, for example our soldiers are scale models of real soldiers, I do not think that many wargamers would fall into the trap that our wargames are one to one readings of the real world, although some wargamers do seem to sometimes speak or write as if they are. Literalism, however, runs the risk of pushing the model too hard, of expecting, in the morale example, soldiers too be looking around and thinking ‘enemy on flank, that’s bad, taking casualties, that’s bad, rear support, that’s good. Hmm, two bads and one good, and a roll of two on the dice. That’s it, I’m running away.’ This is not a realistic model of morale in the real world.

Secondly, we have positivism. This argues that all a model is is a representation of experience, a convenient way of classifying empirical data. This claims that all we have is a means of correlating data. In wargame terms, this suggests that all we can do is give a relationship between a cause and an effect. Thus, if the effect is ‘the infantry run away’, the cause ‘the cavalry charged’ is correlated with it. Those who have good memories, or who know something about empiricism will observe the hand of David Hume sitting on this idea.

So far was wargaming goes, I think, positivism is not terribly helpful. A positivist will claim that a model has no real use, and is simply a means of abstracting from data. Thus, in this concept, we would be unable to wargame anything except historical battles. In science terms, positivism means that theories are stripped of their predictive ability. In wargame terms, then, we are limited to the strict data of history. This seems unlikely to produce a satisfactory wargame.

Thirdly, there is the idea of instrumentalism. This is similar to positivism in that the claim is made that our models are not representations of the world, are not true or false, but techniques for creating inferences. The argument here is that the terms of a model cannot be translated into observational terms, at least directly. Again, using wargame morale as an example, we can see that this might well be the case. We can assess, as a wargamer, the morale of a unit, but that assessment is not translatable into the real world directly, as I argued above. Instrumentalism, however, allows that our concepts and models may have results that are discernible in the real world. Real army units do, from time to time, run away, and the outcome of our models can predict that, even though the computational aspect of has no real world equivalent.

A model, then, in this view, is neither true nor false, neither accurate nor not. It is simply a useful way of giving us mental devices for thinking about things.  Once we understand the data and the theory behind the model, the claim is, we can discard the model; it has outlived its usefulness. In the case of, for example, wargame morale, this seems unlikely to be the case.

Finally, we have critical realism. Here, theories are representations of the world; theories are true and useful,, but incomplete and selective. Models are abstract systems, representative of some bits of the real world, created in our imaginations for a given purpose. A model, then, is an inexact account of the world, missing out huge chunks in an effort to provide something that is intelligible and tractable. Thus, a model will need validating against real world data. This, in science, is the role of experiment, while in wargaming is the role of historical accounts of battles.

It seems to me that models in wargame ruleas are something of a mix of instrumentalist models, such as calculations of morale, and critically realist models, such as combat rules. In the first, the calculation bears no relationship to the actual real world process of how units ‘decide’ to stand or run. Thus all we can do is make the calculation and compare it with empirical outcomes.

In the second case, we can actually see the process of combat in some sort of detail, and, in a highly selective manner, model it, comparing the model and its stages with the real world and its outcomes.

But, at the end of the day, we do seem to need both concepts of models to create a wargame rule set.