Saturday, 6 December 2014

Why I Don’t Wargame World War One

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.


  1. Interesting post. Personally,I just can't think what makes the Somme worse than Bagration, Borodino or Cannae. It seems impossible to me to make any consistent case for why WW1 should be outside the bounds, but WW2 or the Napoleonic Wars inside them. I have to be able to 'deal with' playing all or none of them.

    1. i have been pondering this further, because i agree; I do have a follow up to this one, and I think i do have some sort of reason for rejecting playing both World War 1 and World War 2; however, I think to be consistent we have to reject both, as you suggest.

      The Napoleonic Wars I'm not so sure about. there are differences, and i suspect that they are more than just ones of scale of losses or devastation.

      But, as ever, i am probably wrong, or at least contradicting myself.

    2. I shall look forward to the follow-up, both to the inclusion of WW2 and the exclusion of the Napoleonic Wars.

    3. I shoudn't get too excited. Even after writing it I'm still confused...

  2. I have no particular compunction about playing tactically interesting games set in the Great War - though I dislike playing games which intentionally force a meatgrinder scenario.

    I'd like to draw your attention to a quote by Edmond Taylor: "The First World War killed fewer victims than the Second World War, destroyed fewer buildings, and uprooted millions instead of tens of millions - but in many ways it left even deeper scars both on the mind and on the map of Europe. The old world never recovered from the shock."

    In terms of casualty ratios, the Great War compares favourably with the Second World War, and with wars as far back as the Napoleonic Wars - but this does not tell the full story. For one thing, the armies involved were larger than in almost any previous war. For another, medicine had advanced so that the majority of deaths were no longer due to sickness (at least on the Western Front). These mean that the deaths in combat were on a new level compared to previous wars.

    Combined with a folk memory that focusses (much like modern news) on a few terrible events rather than the more moderate whole, the Great War has become synonymous with wholesale slaughter, despite laying the seeds for modern infantry tactics and having developed truly modern combined arms tactics by the end of the war. The British Army even sent out questionnaires to its troops after battles asking what should be improved for the next assault.

    Personally, I think that setting the Great War apart as a singular calamity in the history of man does a disservice not only to those who fought in it, but those who fought in any other war before or after - death, after all, is death. And there is much to learn from the lessons of 1913-1918 (Balkans included), the subtleties of which are stripped away if they are stamped flat into a stereotype of their time.

    This has turned into a much longer comment than I intended, but I would end by reminding you that a) the British Army was the only one which did not revolt during the war, which says something about their conditions compared to the popular perception, and b) thousands of WWI veterans signed up again voluntarily at the start of WWII, despite their experiences in the trenches.

    They knew what "freedom" (such as it was in those dark days) cost, and it was a price they were willing to pay - for themselves, for their families, for their counties and their king.

    God bless them every one, and you for debating this subject rather than just freezing up and dismissing it a priori.

    1. I am not entirely sure about the casualties and so forth. I think that one of the things about the Western Front was that the lines were fairly static and, from what i have read, the effects of that were fairly unimaginable. However, there is a lot of folk memory about the war, maybe becoming more entrenched as the veterans have now died off.

      I also think that there are ideological difficulties as well. What sort of freedom were WW1 soliders fighting for? After all, the British army rejected a lot of poor people on the grounds of ill health, largely due to childhood malnutrition. Freedom is a tremendously emotive word in modern politics, and it is unclear if the freedom to not be conquered by the German Empire was, really, much worse that the present regime. But that is a highly contentious point, much argued over (and with more heat than light).

      Thank you for the post; as I've mentioned, i've not really got any good conclusions yet.

    2. Certainly in areas like Verdun, there was not much to separate the horror from a field like Okinawa, and over a longer period of time. I shan't name specifics, because they are frankly horrifying.

      That is why I put it in quotation marks. But no matter what way of life or code of honour they signed up to protect, they did so in droves, in the Boer War, the Great War and in WWII as well. Quite apart from childhood illness, consider that until 1918, most men in the UK couldn't even vote!

      I can entirely sympathise with an emotive desire not to game the Great War - I refuse to play any WWII games involving the SS on purely emotional grounds. But the... statistical? quantitative? numerical? logical? factual? reasons for not playing the war unfortunately encompass most other wars within a hundred years or so of it, leading to an unfortunate slippery slope which could well engulf the entire hobby.

    3. On the voting thing it is a bit interesting that war widows were the first to be allowed to vote after the war - standing in for the absent men?

      Anyway, I have an inkling of one way in which post-1850 (ish) wars differ from those that went before. i don't know if it will actually give a rationale, but am trying it.

      Mind you, I am reminded of someone who told me he would never wargame after 1815 because he didn't like straight edges...

    4. Speaking as a philosophy graduate who specialised in ethics, I don't think there's anything intrinsically wrong with irrational beliefs, or ones based solely on emotions. As Hume pointed out, the heart is the start of pretty much everything - modern psychological studies have shown that both supporting and conflicting evidence causes humans to reassert the beliefs they already hold.

      So long as it only affects you, it really makes no difference why you believe something, and there is no reason for other people to force you to change your mind (or vice versa, obviously).

      I am gleefully willing to end a debate with "because", since I cannot, with any intellectual honesty, argue any of my ethical positions down to a single, unassailable "prime mover" or similar fixed premise or point.

      It seems that the same thing applies here - whether the war makes you uncomfortable "just because", or because of x, y or z makes no real difference.

      As one last bit of anecdotal evidence, I never used to play anything post the Franco Prussian War - it was all too recent. Then a friend of mine asked for assistance learning tactics for his Platoon Commander's Battle Course, so I got into modern gaming to help him out. Now I play ultra-moderns, WW2, WWI, Boer War, Vietnam - because in researching each of these wars I found that my initial objections either did not hold, or could equally be applied to other conflicts which I had no emotional problem with. All that has happened since giving up that knee-jerk "no" is that I have more toys to play with!

    5. i suppose I can just say then 'i don't play WW1 because I'm me' and leave it at that.

      Other factors do probably apply, such as I'm a solo gamer and don't fancy painting both sides, prejudice from my upbringing and so on.But as someone commented somewhere, we all have our 'no further' lines. So the general question for the individual wargamer is "why there" as opposed to anywhere else. For me the line is at 1815 or earlier, and I'm not sure why.

    6. As a frequent solo gamer (or worse yet, the only one playing in my scale in my area), I feel your pain. There are conflicts I'd love to play if I didn't need to paint the opposition.

      I was brought up (ironically) in quite an anti-war, anti-violence household. After ten years of wargaming and martial arts, I became a bouncer and now write articles on military history as well as wargaming rules - and of course painting toy soldiers is now perhaps my biggest hobby. The point here, however unclear, is that in learning about things, I have stripped away a lot of preconceptions, prejudice and other pre- s, the abandonment of which have enriched my life and experience immensely.

      Obviously, you aren't wrong to avoid conflicts which make you uncomfortable - but it is almost certainly a worthy exercise to find out what it is that makes you uncomfortable about the war (as opposed to giving the war itself the descriptor of "makes The Polemarch uncomfortable"). Then you can analyse other interactions in your life and find a state of existence with fewer contradictions, and like me, embrace the few that remain.

      Having a valid, or at least rhetorically defensible "why there" seems to be an important part of club life, and if you want to follow in the footsteps of Socrates and Freud in examining your life, it would probably help there too. I wouldn't worry about it particularly though. In a hobby that is as time-consuming and as emotively and narratively based as our own (let's face it, playing toy soldiers is no fun if they're just standing there - it might as well be a train layout), it's not worth compromising our enjoyment for the sake of pushing boundaries. There's enough of all that out there in the real world.

    7. Well, I'm not particularly worried about my lack of WW1 wargaming, but it does intrigue me. Why this war? After all, as a number of comments have pointed out, nasty things happen in any war; WW1 was not unique carnage.

      It is quite possibly true that I do not know enough about the war, or that I have been unduly influence by, say, Lynne Macdonald's oral history of the Somme and Paschendale. Perhaps from the solider's point of view there is little to be said for the war, while a general's eye view has more going for it?

      Furthermore, I think it is clear that while, say 1900 might be my own personal stop line, many wargamers do have things they won't play. It is a bit of a question as to why, given that for each conflict there seem to be few reasons which cannot apply to any other.

      Finally, I do think, with Socrates, that it is worth dragging these sorts of things out into the light from time to time, just to remind orselves that war, in real life, is not a game, however interesting and enjoyable a hobby wargaming is.

    8. Ponder might have been a better word for me to use than worry.

      I think from the soldier's point of view, there is little to recommend any war that isn't a complete roll-over. There is a lot of information out there about the war, from all sorts of sources and political backgrounds, and it is worth reading up on the subject - more for me as a player of 20th century games, but still.

      I mentioned in a previous comment that I refuse to play in games involving the SS. I have a hard time stomaching the Japanese Army too, and do not like playing "partizan warfare" games - whether in the Balkans, Spain or Ireland. The very nature of such missions requires a level of savagery at odds with what, at least for me, should be a relaxing past-time.

      That said, I absolutely agree with you that we should remember that. Whenever I am writing a set of rules, I find it hard not to add snide little asides here and there as to the reality of what we are modelling - I even named my modern rules "Some Corner of a Foreign Field", to hopefully remind people by association of the price paid by our soldiers out there in Afghanistan & Iraq.

    9. It is interesting where we draw the lines. I mean, was the AWI an insurrection, partizan warfare or a 'proper' war with well trained soldiers neatly lined up to die? A mixture of all three? Are some bits acceptable and some not? Or was it all so long ago that we have given up worrying about it?

      Having said that I have always fancied (I blame donald Featherstione) the French and Indian Wars, which were possibly more brutal / savage / confused and so on. Similarly, a lot of the campaigning post fall of the Persian Empire seems to have been dealing with insurrections. We don't have much detail but it seems to have been rather grim and nasty.

      I do suspect that wargamers generally prefer to have their wars 'limited', in the sense that civilians, bystanders and so on don't get involved, and everyone behaves in a gentlemanly manner, no matter what the period.

    10. I think it had elements of both, as did WWII's Eastern Front, the Mesopotamian campaign of WWI, Napoleon's wars in Spain, the Norman conquest of England, Caesar's conquest of Britain, the Varian disaster, the North West Frontier, the March of the Ten Thousand, and so on throughout history... I just don't play the "squicky" bits. As you say, I prefer to game limited engagements.

    11. I suppose no war is morally 'clean' , in the sense that most wars land up with atrocities. Nigel Biggar's book spends some time trying to balance the nastiness of war against the nastiness of peace - so, for example, civilians were killed at the Falaise Gap in a war which most people would agree was fairly moral, at least from the ally's side.

      But I suppose the overall point is that we are unsure that we want to wargame those bits of the war. After all, most wargamers game a battle to the point that one side has lost, and no further.

    12. I wonder if at the point of contact, the difference at the lower tactical levels between different 'types' of wars can be quite small. A skirmish of riflemen against voltigeurs is probably relatively little different tactically from a skirmish of guerillas against those voltiguers - the difference might be more in behaviour after the combat has ended.

    13. I think it must be true that tactics are more or less similar; there are only certain things that men with muskets can do, really. It might be the case that behaviour afterwards is different, it might not. I suspect the real difference is in 'higher order' formations and their behaviour.

  3. Reading your post, I am struck by the idea that you appear to be focusing on the Western Front in 1916-18 or thereabouts with an emphasis on trench warfare and played at an army level. From a purely wargaming perspective, there is much that is gameable about the war. The battles in 1914 and early 1915 on the Western Front, the Eastern Front throughout, and the Middle East all offer opportunities for wargaming at a level that features casualties disappearing from the table and does not require the type of abstraction you mention. Over on my blog, I have a report from a battle that my friend and I fought based on the action at Longlier in 1914. As a wargame it was very satisfying and there were many similar actions that could be gamed easily.

    Where I agree with you is on the ethics of actually wargaming WW1. It is a difficult war to consider gaming because of the mythology that has grown up around it. To game or not to game is a decision that each of us must make for ourselves, taking into account how we have engaged with the history and mythology of the war and whether we find it disrespectful to the dead to do so, among other considerations. I have chosen to game it. I play wargames up to WW2 but find that anything more modern is too recent for my sensibilities.

    1. I'd agree that i am focussing on the Western Front of trench warfare, but to be fair, that is the popular image of WW1. I think even early wargamers recognised the potential of the Middle East, at least, and I think Peter Laing had 15 mm Eastern Front figures in the 1970's. the war of manoeuvre in 1914 also had its Rolls Royce armoured cars.

      I am not really sure I have good ethical grounds for not playing WW1 (or, probably, any other war). The interesting thing is why I simply turn away and decide it is not for me. I'd like to think that my choices reflected at least a little rationality.

    2. Yes, trench warfare is the popular image of WW1, but that does not mean it has to be the focus of all gaming related to WW1. If you focus only on that element in making your decision not to game the war, you are not using all the evidence and material available to you to make the decision. What about WW1 air war games? Or naval games? Does your aversion to the war encompass these too?

      It is certainly interesting to consider why we find some wars unacceptable to game, while others that may have contributed more to human misery are perfectly acceptable to refight. I will not game anything in Ireland from Cromwell to the present day, largely for emotional and political reasons. It's all a little too close to home. Yet, I am happy to game battles that my ancestors fought in and to nominate units on the table as containing those ancestors, because it creates another connection to them in my mind. My ancestors were probably pretty miserable in those battles, but that does not seem to affect my decision to refight them. It seems acceptable to me to have a purely emotional reason for not gaming a period, even when I seek to be entirely rational in my actions and decisions. Does that mean I am contradicting myself? Probably, but the fun's the thing in gaming and the emotional side cannot be denied in that.

    3. Oh, yes, I do know that there are other, and much more interesting, fronts in the Great War. The whole ting just does not push my wargaming buttons, that's all, I suppose. I do have assorted ideas as to why, some of which are above, the others I'm not sure about.

      I think there is something about connection. I insist on painting all my toys - no farming out to friends or commerce. Then I remember painting them when they are on the table, even if, as with the Classical Indians, I have no connection to the period or place at all. Not being a family historian, though I can't do the 'these are my ancestors' thing, although I have a great uncle killed in WW1.

  4. I have no problem with anyone deciding to not want to game any particular war, campaign, "period" for any reason. After all, after painting figures, terrain etc for 18thC American frobtier raids and running convention games, it belatedly occurred to me that books and movies not withstanding, I actually disapproved of making a game where one side's objectives included pillaging people's homes and forcibly dragging men, women and children off to the woods whether for adoption, ransom, slaves or torture.

    Everything else I thought of has basically been said by ahistorian. I'm sometimes surprised when I realize that as staggering as the casualties were, most combatants survived unwounded, one sometimes gets the imoression that no one got out in one piece. My grandfather was one of those who served 4 years and still liked his toy soldiers and talking about battles and tried to reup in 39.

    But "you pays your money" etc.

    1. What is that proverb? One man's meat...?

      anyway, I'm sort of trying to decide if I'm being reasonable in not doing WW1 (or for that matter, WW2 or anything 19th century) or not. I certainly seem to be in a wargaming minority, but that doesn't mean I'm irrational. I hope...

    2. Sauce for the goose, and all that, just to add to the mix! :)

      Is it irrational not to game WW1? There may be an emotional element to the decision, but the decision can easily be a rational one rooted in your perception of the war and how gaming it might be perceived by outsiders. For that matter, is it actually important that the decision be wholly rational and rooted in logical argument? I don't think so. Gaming is meant to be a pleasurable hobby. If something about it makes you uncomfortable for whatever reason, then do not do that something, and focus on what you enjoy.

    3. OK, so we've got sauce, geese, ganders and meat on the menu.

      I doubt if any decision to wargame a particular period is wholly rational. if waited until we made a rational decision over everything we would never manage to do anything.

      But I'm trying to pin down why I have such an aversion. My best guess for the moment is too much Wilfred Owen at school, which is sort of rational if not necessarily factual.

    4. What would be unreasonable would be trying to study and wargame EVERY period.

    5. True, but some wargamers of my acquaintance seem to try!

  5. Got to say, great debate gents. So many good points, raised in a great spirit. I thought I knew what my view was until I started reading the comments. Now I'm not so sure but I don't feel I've taken a step back. Quite the reverse. Thanks.