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.