Well, ‘tis the season of something or another. Actually, it is Advent, or near enough, which does raise the question of why the world, in its commercial aspects at least, has been doing Christmas since early September. I did see some research which suggested that Christmas now started in mid-August, having moved back a month since 2007. Mind you, this did depend on, I think, twitter feeds and statistics. Which either means that the world has gone Christmas mad, or that Twitter is unreliable, or that there are lies, damn lies and statistics. Or some combination of these, of course.
Anyway, I digress only to raise the question of when to break out my ‘Keep Calm, its Only Christmas’ mug. It would appear that I am some months too late. And I would also like to point out that Advent is actually a fast, like Lent, and is not supposed to be a months long knees up. Someone told me the other day that people she knew put their trees up so early they took them down before Christmas Day, because they were fed up with them. Sad, but let it be a warning to us all.
Anyway, the other season has been the season of Remembrance. I thought it was a day (or possibly two, since they moved it to the nearest Sunday and then moved it back), but apparently it is now officially a season. And, it being the centenary of the First World War breaking out, there has been a lot of First World War about. Indeed, one commentator I read (I forget whom) noted that all conflicts seemed to have been conflated into the First World War. Perhaps that is a uniquely British thing.
The centenary has also influenced the wargaming world. Around the shows, on blogs and manufacturers web sites, World War One has been popping up all over. Refights of the battles and new figure line are, so far as I can tell, all over the place. This strikes me as slightly odd, as for years, when I was a lad, World War One, at least on the Western Front, was deemed to be unplayable.
Now, of course, things have moved on. Rule sets have been written to enable the gamer to play out some of the big battles of the Western Front. Innovative techniques in rule creation, in assessing the effects of barrages and so on have been used. The scale of the figures has been shrunk, so that a base might represent a battalion. The level of abstraction has been increased beyond the imagination of a 1970’s gamer (at least, beyond my imagination; that may not be very hard). The games can be played. So why do I not like them?
I suspect that part (but only part) of my problem is the ‘Oh what a lovely war’ syndrome. By this I mean that the historiography of the Great War that I was bought up with was that it was a war fired by nationalism and jingoism (with a dash of social Darwinism thrown in), that the battles were pointless wastes of blood, and that the whole thing was a disaster fuelled by idiot politicians and incompetent diplomats, an international treaty system which ensured a Europe-wide conflagration, and an utter failure by the armed forces leadership to recognise the realities of warfare.
Even though this picture may well have been nuanced over the years, it is still clear that it does hold a lot of historical weight. There might be arguments over the ‘lions led by donkeys’ thesis, which argues that any officer over the rank of captain was incompetent, or whether the Allied armies were actually really good by the end of the war, and so on, but it is clear that as the first really modern war, the mass slaughter, howsoever it occurred, was exactly that.
And so, I return to the level of abstraction that World War One requires on the wargames table. As far as I can see, casualties are not inflicted. Units might be disrupted, supressed, or to have gone to ground. Artillery barrages might devalue the defence. Machine gun emplacements might degrade the opposition. But the men are not blown to bits; they do not have no known resting place because the ground upon which they fell has entirely removed any trace of them. The wargame table fields are not filled with stones engraved ‘A Soldier of the Great War Known Only to God’. In short, the necessary level of abstraction removes us, as wargamers, from the individual experience of the carnage of the First World War battles.
Now, of course, it can be argued that any wargame does exactly that. We rely, as I have probably repeatedly mentioned on this blog over the years, on a degree of abstraction, otherwise we could not wargame at all, either practically or emotionally. All wargames are, to some extent, sanitised, of course, and much of the violence is abstracted away. So what, for me, makes World War One an no-no?
I am not sure that there is a single answer, and nor am I sure that I have a consistent one. For me, the historiography of the war is about the horror and intensity of the fighting. Replacing that with nice markers for ’suppressed’ on a battalion caught by artillery in an open field is pushing the bounds a bit too far. I think also that the season of Remembrance also focusses on that carnage and, for me, makes it harder to play a game without imagining the effects of my barrage on the ground. Earlier wars may have had their share of horrors and outrages, but the battle lines did not spread over hundreds of miles.
Finally, perhaps I have been too influenced by the poetry and prose in response to the war. Siegfried Sassoon and, in particular, Wilfred Owen portrayed the war as a senseless slaughter of ordinary men. Even more so, Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That showed the perceived disaster of the war, and is engrained in my interpretation of it. Finally, and most devastating, ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ simply makes the battles unplayable. When the book ends with the statement ‘He died on a day that the high command simply reported at it was all quiet on the western front’, what can a wargamer do? In my case, I simply don’t go there.