Saturday, 13 December 2014

Neo-Colonial Wargaming

I have just finished reading ‘Empire’ by Niall Ferguson (Penguin, 2003). This is, of course, slightly outside my comfort zone as I do not, generally, wargame or read history post 1800, or even post 1700, assorted rants about World Wars One and Two aside.

Anyway, ‘Empire’ is a good read, and even rather amusing in some places, but it does make a point which had not really considered before. That point being that Africa was largely colonised at the muzzle of the Maxim machine gun. A bunch of, say, Fuzzy-Wuzzies were not going to overcome the machine gun in any sort of fair fight. The Boers only did so relatively well because they had modern weapons (the Germans sent them to cause trouble, in which they succeeded).

This got me around to thinking about the colonial period of wargaming and problems associated with it. Firstly, of course, there are all the problems of asymmetric wargaming, which can be an inspiration but can also cause problems. By asymmetric here, I do not think I am meaning quite the same as modern asymmetric warfare, where one side is a bunch of insurgents and the other is a regular army with firepower but struggling to contain civilian deaths (something which does not bother the insurgents, as all such deaths can be blamed on the regular army).

By asymmetric, therefore, I mean one, small army with high firepower against one, probably much bigger army, largely without modern weapons. Of course, scenarios can be created of ambush, or small parties of well-armed regular against ever increasing numbers of native, and so on, which can make for a balanced wargame. Similarly, inventive supply rules can keep the modern army on tenterhooks as to whether they will survive or not. Somehow, there is always the possibility of balancing up the game.

On a larger scale, of course, as already hinted, the carve up of Africa was mainly an issue of European power politics. Outside bits of the British Empire, most colonies cost the coloniser money, as well as lives and resources, and did not really produce that much. But the point of, at least the scramble for Africa was prestige, of doing down your European rivals, blocking them strategically, and so on. After all, the British were heavily involved in Egypt because, strategically, it guarded the passage to India. German policy before and during the First World War was to create sympathetic Arabs who could cause the British problems here. It more or less did not work, but it was an issue for the British.

As Bismarck once remarked, his map of Africa ran through Europe. No African was present at the Berlin conference which carved up Africa into European zones of influence and basically meant that the Scramble for Africa was on. And so our colonial wargaming, in general, springs from this sort of viewpoint. Professional armies, with the latest weapons, can simply go into some native area and seize it, mowing down anyone who objects with a machine gun. Quite often, of course, this movement into native areas was provoked by the fear that another European power was about to do the same thing.

So, colonial wargaming is predicated on European power politics, and those power politics are, in fact, the same ones that led to the outbreak of the Great War. As most wargamers are probably aware, there were, in the twenty years or so preceding the Great War, a number of colonial incidents which could have led to the outbreak of war between the colonial powers. That they did not is probably simply a matter of luck.

The issue here, then, perhaps begins to press on our ethics of wargaming. Is a colonial wargame, of spears against Maxims, as fair fight? Is it really something that we wish to reproduce in loving detail on the wargame table? At Omdurman (1898), according to Ferguson, 52,000 Dervishes took on 20,000 British, Egyptian and Sudanese soldiers. In the following five hours, around 10,000 Dervishes died; possibly ninety five per cent of the Dervish army were casualties, while around four hundred on the Anglo-Egyptian side were killed or wounded. Fourth-eight British soldiers were killed. Can we ethically reproduce this carnage?

The problem here is, in part, the motivation of the original participants. The Dervishes were brought into action, and remained there, through religious devotion. The British were there for revenge, as the expedition was at least in part a response to the death of Gordon. I think it is rather hard for us, as wargamers, to reproduce such motives on the table. The result of this is that a wargame of Omdurman becomes a clinical exercise in mowing down natives with machine guns.

Of course, with clever scenarios and rules we can change this. We can, for example, make the Dervish objectives simply to do better than the originals. We could challenge them to kill more Europeans, or to reach the river, or whatever. By doing this, of course, we could argue that we are no longer recreating Omdurman. We could also argue that we are giving the Dervishes a chance. But is that chance not one imposed by the colonial power, inviting our noble but lesser opponent to try a bit harder, safe in the knowledge that the machine gun will always win?

I am not suggesting that all colonial wargaming should cease until these ethical problems are untangled, and nor am I claiming to have answers to these issues. But I do think it is worth acknowledging that such issues do exist, that wargaming does not exist in a ‘game bubble’ which bears no relation to the past or to its interpretation in the present. While wargaming is a leisure activity, it is not as such immune to such issues.

Those of us (and I may be alone, of course) who struggle to think that a wargame of the first day of the Somme could be in strict good taste should, perhaps, also reflect that Omdurman might also be tasteless. Just because the Victorians said they were savages does not mean that is how we should see the Dervishes. The casualty rate was appalling, just not in ‘our’ (western? colonial?) men.

And perhaps, finally, I can understand why none of my own armies are post-1713.


  1. Fascinating stuff, as ever. My immediate thought is that this would seem to argue against very unbalanced games as being z kind of murder-pinball than colonial games per se. You mentioned the Boer War as an example, I might add Adowa and Maiwand as counter-examples. On the other hand, if it is the imperialistic setting that is the objection, then that might lead to problems with using Polemos: SPQR, for instance; after all, the Roman imperial project partly inspired the later European one.

    1. Oh, indeed. I'm not claiming that any period of wargaming is or can be entirely ethically 'clean', whatever that might mean. Perhaps the Romans were a bit more honest about what they were after (slaves and gold, as opposed to the Victorian bringing civilisation), and it was a bit more difficult to create utter carnage either on the battlefield or off it.

      I do confess my knowledge of Adowa and Maiwand is sadly limited (so as to be negligible), and that there are viable games to be played which are not massacres, but I think it does worry me a little that, perhaps, we tend to identify more with the machine gun wielding colonial powers (and the Boers were, effectively, Europeans. after all, I doubt that the British would have given such generous terms to an African tribe they had beaten, albeit just).

      But yes, more or less every European colonial power thought it was the successor to the Romans. The British empire could be thought of as a slightly more successful Roman Empire, brought down by its defence of civilization against barbarians. In its destruction (by going bankrupt as a result of the two world wars) was its justification. But that is Ferrguson's argument. A colleague remarked to me that it was a very 'tory' book.

    2. I think I was trying to get at the idea that your successful defences of wargaming overall, in many previous posts on this blog, seem to me to allow very little particularist exception, because wars don't generally differ 'that' much from each other in their ill-effects, the mirror of my comment that wars don't look so different to the combatants at the sharp end being that war crimes don't look that different to the victims either.

      But back to the wargaming: was the result of Omdurman so very different from the major battles of the Roman conquest of Britain?

    3. I think i agree that there is no particular reason ethically why a give period should be anathema to a wargamer. Yet lots of wargamers have such periods, or parts of periods. I suspect that this is a personal matter, dependent on taste, rather than something strictly ethical, although I'm not sure where the line is drawn there, either.

      The results of Omdurman and, say, the suppression of the Boudicca 'rebellion' were possibly not too far apart. The tactics were different, and I suppose that probably a smaller percentage of native participants were killed or wounded, at least on the battlefield. Another way of looking at it would be that the British suffered 350 years of occupation, and the Sudanese maybe fifty (I'm not sure of the chronology here).

      But war and war crimes don't look very different through the ages, although our definition of them might. After all, the Hague conventions were an early 20th Century thing.

  2. We're back in the ethical glue-pot again. Everyone has to live with his own understanding of history, justice and so on - sometimes this will be (or will have been) compromised by having to survive in a hostile environment, full of people who are/were different in some way. I don't feel the native Americans would still be regarded as noble savages today if, for example, they had driven out or exterminated the European settlers - we can afford to get sentimental about the losers only when they are no longer a threat.

    It is a perennial device to make killing more acceptable if we somehow dehumanise the enemy - racial or religious characteristics come in very handy here - if the enemy can somehow be shown to be evil, or maybe even subhuman on some absolute scale, then we can get on with the job of disposing of the threat they present with less interference from our conscience.

    I can't claim to have much of a grip on how this works, but it seems just to be about making ourselves feel better about things. Some of these things are compulsory, and inescapable - such as recorded history, for instance. An old friend of mine in California, now dead - a lovely guy, but a standard-issue thicko Christian Republican - used to maintain that the outrages committed by the Conquistadors in the territories which eventually became his own doorstep were brutal and awful - I guess he was taught that at infant school. Yet he had all sorts of justifications for the subsequent things which Anglo-Saxon settlers had done in the name of civilisation. I can't really attack his views, since my own probably don't stand up to scrutiny under too bright a light, but he once produced an interesting (Freudian?) slip when discussing the Spanish mission stations which are among the oldest preserved buildings in that part of the world - "of course, he said, we have to remember that the Spaniards were here long before the white man..."

    Erm? Is it possible that he was able to remove a little collective blame from his own lot if the Spaniards were somehow racially different from them?- less "human", maybe? Much of the modern presentation of the ACW makes a lot of the central role of slavery, and obviously there is a lot in that, but I feel that the real causes of the ACW were political/economic, and it was far more about keeping the Union intact than about slavery; is it possible that Unionists can feel better about that dreadful conflict if it is seen as a righteous war on people who carried out the evil business of slavery - i.e. the Rebs had some characteristics which were worth fighting against.

    That was a digression. When it comes to making myself feel better about something which is not compulsory at all - such as playing a game for recreation with toy soldiers - then I have to decide for myself just how uncomfortable it makes me feel, and whether I wish to be involved. I can watch a WW2 wargame as an educational experience, as a little more light on something which fascinates me but of which I have little intuitive understanding - I do not necessarily feel that I am glorifying or approving of any evil doctrines as a result, but I would get very worried if I were required to dress up as an SS officer as part of this. Someone would speak of fetishism, and we might actually be in trouble.

  3. Sorry - this comment is such a ramble that I have to do it in two slices to get past the Blogger rules....

    To Continue...

    Not sure where this is going - I think maybe that as well as personal views on this, there are also official and fashionable versions, and these change over time. To adapt a cliché, it is the winners who decide what is right and fair. It is only fairly recently that I begin to get a slight whiff that maybe the guys who wiped out General Custer's boys at the Little Big Horn were not entirely Bad People.

    My own rather primitive efforts at assymetric wargames (years ago) tried to balance things by giving Celtic tribesmen huge numerical superiority, which set up exactly the sort of butcher's yard game you describe - ultimately the game failed because in that context there is a physical limit to how many tribesmen you can bring into contact with the Romans, and just setting up hordes of reserves to follow up didn't make for much of a game the way I played it.

    Great post - sorry this comment is probably not up to the same standard!

    1. There is an awful lot in that post (or those posts, depending on how you look at them). A lot of history is about identifying the 'other', and how we defeated them, preferably against the odds, or with divine vindication or whatever.

      Of course, our identification of the 'other' tends to change with time as well. Thus the Old Enemy France in 1815 took a turn for the better by the Crimean War. The Russians went from good to bad to OK to bad again between World war 1 and the start of the Cold War. And so on.

      The issue is, I guess, about how much wargames, and wargame rules, buy into this sort of historiography. Do we regard Devishes as some sort of other, simply targets to be shot down, or do we try to understand their motives and the reasons for what they did. After all, it is possible that, while the Western mind does not understand, the death in battle against infidels could be a victory for the individual Dervish, or his community.

      I do seem, to be, however, in the habit of asking more questions than I have answers for, which isn't a bad thing, but while I learn stuff, I sometimes feel I'm not making much progress.

    2. Again, sorry - it may seem unlikely that I would have anything more to say, or have the brass neck to do so...

      I guess the entire history of mankind is filled with the gross inhumanity with which successive waves drove out, enslaved or otherwise eliminated some previous lot - we tend to get emotionally involved only with the more recent bits of the recorded stuff (which is not a big subset), and our views are conditioned by where we are, who we are, what we have been told. If this butcher's yard is a biological process - part of evolution? - them maybe the people who were cut down to make way for - well, for something else - are ultimately as insignificant as a field of wheat standing up to a combine harvester. In the end they are gone, and we can consider their motives or their feelings as much as we wish - it alters nothing, though it might be interesting.

      As for making progress, what the blazes will you have left to do once you know everything? No - put off that day - put it off! Knowing everything, almost by definition, puts a stop to the processes by which we recognise (and maybe celebrate) our humanity.

    3. Mr Foy, please stop apologising for your contributions, they are valued.

      I think history only really tells us directly that dead is dead, and that is where we all land up. The progress we make is perhaps technical, perhaps moral, and always contingent. I think that, certainly in modern western thought the individual is important. Possibly in different places, at different times, this could/ would / was not the case. Certainly the extreme individuality we see around us here is historically usual. Maybe in wondering about colonial casualties I am simply representing that view.

      I confess that the more i know, the more there is to find out. I am certainly not going to run out of stuff soon. I already have on my list to do more about the first world war. It seems I need to add some colonial era knowledge as well!

  4. " Thak God we have the Maxim gun and they do not" Hardly a novel thought. I haven't read the book but since I have done my share of Colonial wargaming I feel I should express a few thoughts.

    The first is a minor detail, the Maxim gun was first used by British troops in the 1890s by which time much of the important Colonial conquests around the world were done. India. South Africa & Natal being conquered at the barrel of a muzzle loading musket.

    As far as wargaming ethics, I've never met a thinking Colonial gamer who hasn't considered various aspects of the question and reached their own settlement. FWIW the question is sometimes raised in notes to rules, something I don't recall in other "periods".

    From a practice POV most Colonial gamers tend to shy away from the one sided game and often prefer the "native" side. The big battles tend to be eschewed in favour of generic petit guerre of raids and ambushes which made up so much of frontier warfare. When they do go for recreating battles, they tend to look for the gard fought ones, esp the ones where the Imperial powers lost or at least. Taking the Zulu war, Ulundi (the final British victory and a 1 sided slaughter) is very rare, Islandwhana (sp!) a Zulu victory much more common and the cinema version of the successful last stand at Rorkes Drift even more common.

    In Egypt /Sudan, most gamers can't be bothered pitting a deteriorated Sudanese force against Maxims and magazine rifles but instead go for the 1880s where the Egyptian weapons were as good as the British and when the Sudanese were at their peak, the gatling always seemed to jam at the crucial moment, single shot breechloaders couldn't always stop a spearcharge from brwakinfa square and the bayonet had to be used to drive the enemy from entrenchments.

    In all these cases I believe the choices are driven by the desire for balanced games without resorting to the "gamers vs the game/gm" approach.

    Back to Colonial Africa, apart from the middle 2 of the 5 Boer Wars, WW1, and the Zulu wars, most of the wargaming seems to be of tge semi role playing adventure story sort, not my thing so I can't comment.

    As a last comment, in many Colonial campaigns, native troops played a big part, indeed in wwi East Africa by the end both sides were mostly black. Such sepoys, askari etc are popular with gamers, probably for no reason beyond the look.

    1. As I wrote the post, i remembered some poetry along the lines of 'the gatling's jammed and the colonel's dead...' but I can't identify it. It sounds vaguely Kipling-esque, but it has been a long time since I Kipppled.

      I'm not saying that colonial gaming is unethical or invalid, but it does throw up some of the issues relating to ethics in, perhaps, starker relief than some other period, perhaps because it is reasonably well documented. And I suspect mostly that colonial wargamers are well aware of the issues raised. The best sort of colonial games I have seen are those that take the competition between European states seriously, in a campaign which allows the natives, at least, to play one off against another.

      But I think there is a hint of danger, as well in either RPG or wargame, of it being all right because the Europeans won anyway and brought civilisation to the Africans, which is a sort of neo-colonialism, I suspect.

      One of the odd things about the whole colonial enterprise is the use of native troops. The British Empire would probably have collapsed (or even not got going) without, say, the army of India. The situation on the ground was much more complex than it appears, I imagine. The natives were not homogeneous, however much we lump them all together. Which itself brings out a lot more issues...

    2. The poem is by Henry Newbolt:

    3. The much used Maxim quote is from the probably little read (I lacked the iron willl to force myself to read the whole lengthy poem) Modern Traveler by Bellac.

      You may have noted my use of the term "thinking wargamer" I suspect for too many wargamers its all about the movies and the look and the game. Zulus, Romans, Orcs, SS what shall we play today? Or maybe I'm just grumpy today.

    4. Thank you (both Ross and JWH) for the literature.

      I do worry that there are not many thinking wargamers left. Or perhaps I just like to self-identify and 'thinking' and also like to self dramatize?

    5. I have heard that there are people who don't share those qualities.

      2 additional points to ponder about Colonial wargaming.

      1st there is good evidence in wargaming literature that even for most thinking war gamers, their initial interest in colonial wargames was sparked by movies and it is easy to match rules and figure ranges for modellers and toy soldier collectors as well as wargamers to movies from the 30's and 60's esp. Gunga Din(indis), 4 Feathers (Sudan), Zulu etc. It is also not uncommon for gamers to prefer games that evoke those movies than the reality even or perhaps especially if they have studied the history. Probabl not unique to colonial gamers though.

      2ndly and not relatedm there is a very strong resemblance between Xenephon's Anabasis and various Colonial era memoirs, esp from the 1st Afghan war. The same sense of technical and cultural superiority of the travelling soldier, the same distrust, the same disdain for an "inferior" enemy who could be easily beaten if they could just be made to stand and fight.

      You don't need to game the 19th C to fight "Colonial" wars.

    6. I confess to not being a great fan of movies, but I have seen Zulu. It didn't inspire me to play colonial wargames, although I do think that films do have more influence over our culture than we would care to admit. The reality of colonial life was, as you suggest, probably very different from the film version.

      I think it is a fair point about non C19 colonial games. Geoffrey Parker raised the point that the interesting question is not really how Europe got to go from 30 - 90% control over the globe, but how it got to the first 30%. And just about everyone seems to think their way of life is superior to someone elses, and are willing to prove it a weapon point.

      Which might be a slightly depressing thought in Advent, really.

  5. Good post. Blogger appears to have eat a partially written longer response. In short I came to colonials through VSF which avoids the problem of slaughtering historical poorly armed native. As others have said, the appeal oft lies in the native side. How one defeats a technologically superior enemy is an intellectually interesting problem.

    Finally what we do is war-gaming not reality. I expect that most wargamers have a better understanding of the nature of war and its horrors than the general public even if we choose to ignore it on the table.

    1. Ah, VSF; didn't it used to be called 'steampunk'?

      But agreed, wargames are not reality, and wargamers tend to be sensitive to the horrors of war. But the interesting question is then 'why do we want to reproduce them?' or do we simply make do with abstracting the horrors away? is a wargame an exercise in imagination, problem solving or the glamour of exciting events?

      I'm not sure I know; it could be all of the above and more.

    2. It appears to be part of the human condition (apart from a relative handful of exceptional societies ) not something special about wargamers. Homer is laced with blood and guts, failure and death yet still it glories in the exploits of war. From scalps and shrunken heads to etched jewelry, to books to the latest blockbuster movie, computer game or miniatures game we have celebrated war while acknowledging its horror for milliania. Who knows how far back?

    3. i think that there is a lot of glamour and excitement about battles which are simply not present in, say, the details of the economic decisions of Charles I's government in the 1630's. Edgehill is far more interesting as an event.

      Modern historiography, of course, rather ignores battles. i read one account of agincourt which reduced the battle to a paragraph, and then went on for pages about the treaty of (?) Troyes, almost as if the latter was not dependent on the former.