Saturday, 8 February 2014

History and Wargaming

I think it is probably an unassailable fact that history and, at least, historical wargaming are linked. But what is this link, exactly? Why, for example, should people get hot under the collar (even just mildly) over the representation of the First World War? After all, we do not need to take a position on whether the British Army consisted of Lions Lead by Donkeys, or upper class twits cheering the plebeians on to slaughter, or whatever in order to represent the tactics adopted on the Western Front.

Nevertheless, the fact that such arguments can happen suggests that history, or at least perceived historical memory and understanding, does make a difference. World War One is a political hot potato at present, in the UK at least, because it is the centenary, and because it has become a bone of contention about the teaching and interpretation of history. Whether the political and elite classes in Britain were as stupid as portrayed in, say, Blackadder Goes Forth or not seems to be important, not least to the current political elite.

Obviously, this does have an impact on wargaming, albeit an indirect one. But how this comes about is an interesting question. We can all be amateur historians, and, perhaps, some of us are professional ones. We can all read the original sources and make interpretations of them. We can also read secondary sources and agree with them, or not, as the case may be. It is not usually the “facts” which are disputed here, but it is the interpretations of those facts which are argued over.

As I have probably mentioned before, as wargamers we cannot just leave the disputes to one side and carry on. If I were writing a set of wargame rules for the First World War (and, let me hasten to add, I am not), then the issue of command and control would inevitably arise. How is this to be represented? Were the Germans at a tactical level better and more flexible? Were the British really lions lead by donkeys, in which case they fight bravely but are badly directed? Are these just stereotypes, driven by, say, the poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon? How heavily influenced is the rule writer by Oh What a Lovely War! Goodbye to All That and All Quiet on the Western Front?

The problem seems to be that when a historical spat gets going, the two sides get entrenched (no pun intended) and that leaves us, poor wargamers and rule writers, with a problem. Do we self-consciously come down on one side (described in WW1 spat terms as ‘the left’, meaning the lions led by donkeys team) or the other (the right, meaning the jolly well done all round because we won). And, anyway, how much of the spat is related to present day politics. Education, after all, has become a political football, and teaching history even more so, largely, I suspect, because it is regarded as being a subject which does little for the economy.

But before I digress too far, or start to turn this into a political blog post, the problem for the wargamer is, I suspect, similar to the problem for a historian writing a book. What are we actually trying to do?

A wargamer, perhaps, would have a satisfactory game if they enjoyed it. A reader of a history book would have a similar experience. But what if you then read another book, or played another game (under different rules) which contradicted the first experience. Would you feel short changed?

This sort of dialectic is fairly normal in history. Someone says something, which is contradicted by someone else, to which a counter-argument is presented, to which a reply is given, and so on. There is, in the military history literature at present (and for the last few years) such an argument going on about whether the Schlieffen Plan was, in fact, a plan, or a series of ideas knocked together by the German supreme command, or something retrospectively invented to give the initial German moves in 1914 a degree of respectability.

This sort of thing is how the academy proceeds. A lot of work is actually done in putting together these arguments. For example, the status of Schlieffen Plan affects your view of the entry of the British Empire into the war. If the Schlieffen Plan was a plan, then the German High Command should have figured out that violating Belgian neutrality would have brought the British into the fight. If it was cobbled together at the last minute to try to create a knock-out blow before Christmas on the French, the detail of the 1830 treaty might have been missed.

So the interpretation of a “plan”, whatever its status, has a knock on effect on our understanding of the war. The documents, assuming nothing new is discovered, are the same; I doubt if any archive has ‘Schlieffen Plan’ written on a box-file, but the documents being argued about are known. What is at doubt is the interpretation of those documents as a coherent plan or not. And, in part, that interpretation depends on the interpreter’s location in time and space.

For example, at school I was told, quite clearly, that the Schlieffen Plan existed, that it had such and such characteristics. That it failed because the BEF fought so hard at Mons and the Parisian taxi drivers transferred the French army to the Marne before the Germans could get there, and so on. That is one interpretation, of course, but it is not the only one. It was probably given by the time of the teaching and the location: what interpretations were available in a former great power that had lost its empire and sense of direction?

But still, as wargamers, we need answers to the question of, as I suggested above, the utility of the British command and control personnel and structures. In the absence of us being able and willing to delve into the archives and make our own minds up, what do we do?

I suppose the answer, as a rule writer, is to write our rules to try to encompass both camps, but that may not always be possible. Otherwise, we may simply have to choose one alternative and stick to it. But at least we could make that decision consciously and explicitly.


  1. As always, these are stimulating and well judged questions, and I can't really add very much anywhere rather then, "Yes, what indeed?"

    My humble tuppence worth is only that war-games (sorry, my bloody spell checker insists on war-games as two words with a hyphen - there - it's done it again) can have an educational side too. It would be fatuous to say that I have learned a lot about the Peninsular War by playing with toy soldiers for 40 years, but episodes in my games have most certainly caused me to think further about the historical precedent - is this how case shot really worked? - what did cavalry actually do in this situation?

    The effect can be even more noticeable when someone with no previous experience of the games or of a particular period is introduced to them - I don't recall anyone ever finding the experience trivial, or anything other than absorbing. I can even think of a number of visiting players who have gone away fired up with the need to do further reading on the period.

    This, of course, adds nothing to your post beyond reminding myself that it is possible to look through the telescope both ways.

    1. There used to be a bit of a fad for using wargames (I just ignore my spell checker) for education. I think it probably does work, but there has been a reaction against discussing any sort of war or violence in the classroom. I've just got Nigel Biggar's new book "In defence of war", in which he seems to argue that war, on occasion, is a good or at least acceptable thing (I've not read it yet), but that pacifism is rampant in our society. I'll report when I have actually read it.

      I think the point has to be that wars are quite interesting, and wargames engage both the historical narrative bits and the imagination bits of the human psyche. Honour, courage and integrity are virtues which war can bring to the fore, as opposed to, say, working in major banks.

      But now I have to do some more reading, and, possibly, htinking (the horror!).

  2. I think history is the major component of national identity and it's governed by what those in authority wish the population to believe. The Argentinians were all cowards (I know a few Royal Marines and Matelots who'll dispute that); the French simply collapsed in 1940; British lions and all that. As such, it's a ticklish subject. When we do our research and write our rules are we simply going to perpetuate the accepted dogma or challenge it?

    For ages now I've been in the process or knocking out my own set of Napoleonic rules which satisfy my own take on how best to reflect that period of warfare. I was discussing national characteristics with a friend who asked the killer question: will the national characteristics be based on historical evidence or what wargamers take as being historical fact? I think if we base such things on fact (as far as we have evidence) there will be very few rules in that section. However, if we can reproduce actual command structures and mechanisms, we have a better chance of recreating the warfare of a period.

    1. I think you have hit the nail on the head. History is dangerous because it might question our own national identity.

      I was recently involved in a conversation which observed that the Scottish government had done nothing to commemorate Flodden last year, but was pouring money in the Bannockburn celebrations this year, the difference being, presumably, who won. Those who hold to national myths can be a bit touchy when these things are pointed out. The British, after all, do not often play wargames about, say, Burma 1941 - 2, or the siege of Singapore. The English might focus on Crecy or Poitiers, but do not bother explaining why they did it all again in the early 15th century....

      And so on.

      As to national characteristics, I suspect that they are often fudges to get the 'right' result, covering over failures in command and control rules. But whether we can do that is a moot point....

  3. I think some aspects of these views or camps can sometimes be put aside depending on what sort of game we are designing. (I put some related ideas in a rather long comment last week that disappeared and I hadn't the heart to recompose it.)

    If the game is a tactical one, the question of why the Germans are marching through Belgium doesn't really matter. What matters is what weapons, tactics, training etc we have, the state of the men, the terrain and the situation so we can decide how to fulfill the mission we've beeen given. Why doesn't come in to it. On the other hand if we are playing a high level war game with divisions as units and a concern for strategic resources. The why might matter but we don't necessarily have to know or see how an attack is conducted, we just to analyze as many ad possible such events to determine the probability of various outcomes.

    To go back to the Napoleonic cavalry vs square, if we look at the dizen or so successful ones that we have details on we can see that they are usually the result of local accidents or particular situations that could not be predicted specifically by the general who ordered the charge. But if we read the thoughts of some experienced cavalry commanders we find thst what they tended to take away from this is that one couldn't force these things to happen but you could create a situstion where it might, but that there was risk associated with it. On the table, you need very detailed information, beyond what can usually be grasped, especially if the game consists of more than 1 unit on each side with 10 second turns to try and recreate a specific charge but one can look at 20 years of warfare, identify a few key factors and come up with a probability of success and base the rules on that generality bssed on empirical data without worrying about the particulars which will include too many unknowns and unknowables (what exactly was that Major thinking while he tried to judge the right moment to fire? What inspired that 1 rider out of 150 to make a suicidal jump into the square? Etc.

    Admitedly it is not always easy to separate theory from actual evidence when researching, esp as a hobbyist far away in time and space. (Btw we have our own version of ww1 so far without an opposing school of thought and thus easier to work from, basically it says when we were under the command of the hide bound socially constrained Brits (Donkeys), the suggestions of our commanders based on observation and experience were ignored and we got slaughtered on the Somme but once our politicians got us our own corps we did it our way with Vimy Ridge etc as a result. Nice to have National myths with foreign bad guys.)

    1. Oh, I agree; it would be nice if theory and fact were separated, but they are not. Similarly, I suppose that it would be nice if strategy and tactics were separate, but they do interact, Even a tactical scenario might require some thought as to whether the officer in command is just out of Eton because daddy bought him a commission, or a grizzled veteran who rose through the ranks.

      I guess another issue is even if we can separate facts from interpretation, we still have to find an interpretation of some sort. How did the Major know when to charge? Did the opposing infantry flinch when threatened? Was that something specific which he was trained or experienced for, or did he just noitce something and shout 'charge'?

      All these are imponderables, which we have to subsume into some sort of dice roll or other resolution method. But that raises again the historical question - was it so?

      As to Vimy Ridge and so on, well, I'm not a WW1 wargame, but the casualty list of even successful actions on the Western Front are enough to make most people turn pale. But it is always nice to have someone to blame, and the British upper classes fit the bill nicely. Maybe that is why Downton Abbey is so popular.

    2. It may make a difference as to whether the commander is competent or not but the aim of the High Command is not likely to influence which regimental commander is where and in any case one does have to be careful though of how deterministic one is in setting up the situation or it ceases to be a warGAME and becomes an interpretive exercise.

    3. Oh, yes, agreed. but often we can only make decisions about the competence of the command by looking at the whole thing. For instance, how competent were Alexander's sub-commanders? Under Alex, good. When commanding for themselves, well, maybe not quite as good.

      Mind you, some wargamers I know think that the game is an interpretative exercise. Even if that exercise is in interpreting the rules, rather than the history.

  4. You are right to point out that the war gamer must be aware that history is encrusted by myths. In the case of WW1, these myths can be regularly revisited depending on time and agenda - as you say, with the centenary in view, the Donkeys Led By Lions view that was popular in the 60s is now being revisited by a conservative government with a different agenda. As Ross M points out, in a tactical game, some of these myths are not terribly applicable or relevant, except as they filter down to the level of "National Characteristics", which as you've pointed out here before, can be locii of myths. For example, it might be standard to assume that a platoon of BEF regulars in 1914 were superior to German reservists due to their better training, musketry, experience in colonial warfare, etc. However, Max Hastings makes a compelling case in his Catastrophe 1914 that the BEF's performance in the Mons campaign has become enshrined in regimental hagiography and national myth, that they were poorly led at senior levels, had their own proportion of reservists per battalion, and maybe weren't the supermen we commonly think they were.

    It's also worth nothing that there is no one World War One. Like any sustained conflict, it changed and adapted as new tactics and technologies were introduced and adapted to, and as new commanders emerged. The British Army in 1916 at the Somme was not the same army of the Hundred Days in 1918, nor was it fighting the same opponent. By the end of the war, aerial observers with wireless sets were coordinating artillery fire - hardly the mark of an army led by donkeys. The British army made huge strides in its doctrine for artillery and machine gun support.
    A war gamer needs to model these factors while at the same time realizing that the problem was always the same - a mass of men without good methods of command and control attacking static defences where the defender can call on reserves using interior lines will always face heavy going and take heavy casualties. In that respect, maybe Haig, the supposed arch-donkey, was like Grant in the US ACW, in that he knew he could only destroy his opponent through attrition and not by manoeuvre. Grant is seen as a good general, Haig not so much. Why is that?

    1. Yes, i think that often our wargames rules get encrusted by the myths, and suffer for that. I guess there is increasing balance in some areas, though. It has been a while since I've seen rules with +1 if English in the combat factors.

      As to the BEF, there just were not enough of them to make a difference. They had to retreat, after all; even Wikipaedia regards the status of the battle as tending to the mythical.

      And yes, all wars are dynamic, but we often do not recognise that in our rules. I suspect that to do modern wars properly, you would need a rule set for each year and for each front. Anything else seems to assume that there is an 'essence' of the war that can be abstracted.

      i imagine that the difference between Haig and Grant is that Grant was seen to have won decisively, while Haig is, less so. and, even though the ACW was bloody enough, the western front was worse, for smaller gains in territory, and larger impacts on British and Western European society, at least (I'm not sure about US society in either the ACW or WW1 cases, so admit my ignorance).

  5. In the above, in sentence 3 I meant to say Lions Led By Donkeys, obviously. I can't blame blogger or spell-check for that one. :)