Saturday, 31 May 2014

Men with Pointy Sticks

It has been mentioned here occasionally that, firstly, history is not exact, in that we cannot know precisely what went on in a given historical era, period, year, month, day or even instant. We make some sort of models based on what we are interested in, the evidence we have to hand, what other people have said and the general biases of our time.

Secondly, it has been observed that, in general, the population overall, and wargamers in particular, are not terribly good at critically assessing the sources and secondary materials they have to hand. Often, we accept a particular secondary source as being correct, and defend that against all comers. Unfortunately, the same sorts of errors and confusions which beset us as wargamers also affect the writers of our secondary sources, with some odd results.

For example, I have before me one of those Osprey compilation books entitled Alexander the Great at War (ed Ruth Sheppard, Osprey, Oxford: 2008). Now, this is a tome aimed fairly squarely at the war and military history brigade, of whom wargamers are, a part.

As such, there is some discussion of the Macedonian long pointy stick, known as a sarissa. According to this book, the sarissa came in two parts (p 81) to allow it to be easily transported. There was a front part, with the pointy bit on the end, and a back part, with a butt spike on it to balance the weapon and also allowing the whole thing to be dropped on a prone opponent to finish them off. The two parts were joined in the middle by a ‘coupling link or collar’, to make the whole eighteen foot long pike.

Now, I confess that I read this and was a little puzzled as to how it worked. I am no expert on ancient technology, but even with fairly simple modern methods I could not fathom how this contraption worked to make a pike which at least did not droop seriously from the middle onwards, or at worst did not simply fall apart at odd and probably (for say, a front rank pikeman) embarrassing moments. Given that the whole idea of a phalanx was to present a uniform array of the business ends of pointy sticks to the enemy, this seemed a little unlikely.

But still, there the theory is, along with a nice picture of a happy phalangite marching along with the two bits of pike over his shoulder. Not being one to doubt the evidence of my eyes, I simply filed the oddity in my mental pigeonhole and read on. After all, I do not usually read Ospreys for the text but for ideas as to how to paint my tiny warriors.

Next came into my possession another book, The Army of Alexander the Great (Stephen English, Pen & Sword, Barnsley: 2009). This is based on the author’s master’s thesis and, therefore, is kind of implicitly promoted as being a cut above the run of the mill populist sort of tome. Indeed, English has a go at some of these works in his book.

So, what does he say about the sarissa and its method of being transported? Well (p 19) he describes the infantry pike as being a long pointy stick with a sharp bit at the front, a butt spike to drop on people at the back (which also, he notes somewhere, can be thrust into the ground to brace the pike against onrushing opponents) and a tube which fits over the back of the pointy bit to stop uncooperative enemy from chopping off the business end.

He also mentions the idea that the sarissa was in two parts. His interpretation seems to be that the argument is that the pike was split in two lengthways, and the point, the butt and the tube were the three points where it was drawn together. However, he then does on to talk about using only the front part on its own, in bad terrain. There is, after all, a lot of speculation that phalangites did just this. Fortunately for my sanity, however, he dismisses both of these options.

Now, unfortunately for the world of Alexandrian studies, a complete sarissa has not been discovered. However, the heads, butts and tube things have been found and so all of these ideas about how the pike was constructed are built around these items. I have yet to run across a literary reference to pikes being dismantled for transport and, to me, it does seem inherently unlikely. Pikes, to maintain their threat need to be, as noted, uniform and not to fall apart at the drop of a hat.

Another piece of information which might be useful here is the later use of the pike in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Here, presumably, with better metalworking techniques, it would have been possible to make a pike in two halves to be screwed or bolted together as necessary. It might even have been possible to introduce a thread so the two bits could be screwed directly into each other, giving a better join than any coupling collars or whatever. I can also note, in passing, that pike heads tended to be long, to prevent anyone chopping them off, as well.

So far as I know, no seventeenth century pikes came in two parts, and this did not stop pikemen marching to war across the whole continent of Europe. As it is a literary truism that the ancients were far brighter and far fitter than we are, if the weedy English of their Civil War could carry pikes across the country, why not the Macedonians from Greece to India?

However, and here is the point, if I had relied solely on one source, the Osprey, I would now be extolling the virtues of wonderful Macedonian engineering which allowed the construction from two bits of wood and metal collar a entirely rigid and battle ready weapon.

Now, I am not really sure about any of this, but I am now fairly convinced of two things. Firstly that the sarissa was a single bit of wood which was simply carried by soldiers on the march (or, possibly, put into waggons, probably with a yellow rag on the end to indicate a long vehicle). Secondly and more importantly, not to rely on a single secondary source. For anything.

Thursday, 29 May 2014

Out of Sequence Post: Leibster

I didn't think that I would do this, but since some have been kind enough to nominate this blog for the thing, I thought it would be courteous to respond.

But there are no startling personal revelations below. 

1.      How would you describe your blog?
A mess of random thinking about wargaming.

2.      How did you pick your blog’s name?
Pure hubris. It seemed like a good idea at the time, given what I was trying to achieve.

3.      Why did you start blogging?
To keep track of ideas I had for writing rules. It has drifted a bit since then.

4.      How do you relax (if it's not blogging)?
Walking the cat.

5.      Is figure painting a chore or pleasure?
A chore.

6.      How do you deal with burn out?
Have a wargame (no, really, I spend more time writing and painting than playing).

7.      What are the three things you cannot live without?
Oxygen, water and food.

8.      What was the last book you read and the last you bought?
Read: Epictetus: Discourses and Selected Writings.
Bought: Quintus Curtius Rufus: The History of Alexander

9.      Who is your favourite fictional character?
Mycroft Holmes.

10.   Ball point, rollerball or fountain pen?


Some blogs:

That seems like quite enough. I'm off for a quiet lie down.

Normal service will be resumed on Saturday.

Saturday, 24 May 2014

Armour and Tactics

One of the issues that has arisen recently, particularly in comments, is the utility of armour. What I mean here is exactly what use armour is at a unit or army level. I suspect that a lot of the way we look at this (guilty as charged) is from the individual’s point of view, and it might be interesting to see how that changes as we move to higher viewpoints of army organisation.

Individuals, it seems, have a bit of a love hate relationship with armour. Often soldiers are being castigated for discarding it. Armour is in its classical form anyway, hot, heavy and unwieldy. And it is not actually used that much, except in a combat situation, which was not the everyday experience of any solider through history.

Despite the propensity of role players to have their characters in full armour every moment of the playing time, this was not usual. On the march, soldiers did not usually walk along in full plate. Indeed, in medieval times, arming was one of the pre-battle rituals that the likes of Richard III made into a statement about kingliness and authority. But he did not wear his battle armour all the time. He would have been seen as very strange, let alone rather smelly.

To be fair to role players, whenever they were in a game, armour was usually a good idea, as hours of walking and riding with not much happening is rather dull to role play, and so something dangerous usually did happen, at least in my experience. But I digress.

So individuals often discarded their armour, or, in an ambush situation, were not actually wearing it anyway. But this does not seem to have affected the tactics of the unit so unarmoured. A pike unit is a pike unit whether in full panoply or not. And there are therefore a limited number of evolutions a pike unit can make, whether in armour or not. Pike in the English Civil War tended to discard armour as the war went on. The reason for this is unclear, but probably has to do with mobility, uselessness against musket fire and cost.

Before anyone raises the question of musket proof armour, which is said to exist, I think it important to note that most breast-plates which were so deemed were, in fact, claimed to be pistol proof and, as a re-enactor armourer told me once, the proofing dents were all in the same place, suggested they were made using a hammer and blunt instrument, rather than proofed by the discharge of a pistol.

So, for an individual, armour may be seen as important but not that important. It is kit which can be discarded if necessary or if it seems either an encumbrance or to be unusable. In battle, to the individual, it can be very useful, even a life saver. That incoming arrow with your name on it can be deflected by a helmet, particularly if it is a glancing blow, rather than aimed directly at you. So, at an individual level, armour is a good thing in battle, saving wounds and death.

However, at a unit level, as I have mentioned, the presence or absence of armour is not going to make a huge difference to tactics. True, there may be some units which organise around who has the greatest amount of armour. Hence, in Roman times, the tribal foot of many nations featured the ones with full armour in the front ranks. After all, they could take the initial damage and let the lightly armoured ones bring up the rear.  

There may also be here, of course, something to do with wealth and social ranks. The higher social rank you are, the more money you have to buy armour and the more likely you are to take the lead in a warrior situation. So the more likely you are to be at the front anyway.

However, it is also fairly clear that, for example, not all ranks in a Macedonian phalanx were armed the same. The rear ranks were more lightly arrayed, the front ranks more heavily so. Even here armour tended to be discarded to the extent that it is reported as having been re-issued when Alexander reached India and the army encountered foes who relied on firepower.

What sort of conclusions can we draw from these considerations?

Firstly, armour can be important to an individual, but does not affect the tactics or activities of the units to which those individuals belong. A pike unit is a load of soldiers armed with long, pointy sticks no matter what those individuals might be wearing.

Secondly, the impact of armour at the unit level is, presumably, to increase the ability of that unit to resist the enemy. What I mean here is that an armoured pike unit, subject to an arrow discharge, will have greater resilience to the shooting than one without armour. It is thus less likely to acquire what in modern euphemistic language is called a mission kill; by which is meant that it is more likely to carry out its task.

However, I am not convinced that the historical record actually allows us to make that big a thing about armour. The record shows that often units have operated effectively having disposed of their armour. How big an effect armour has may simply be a matter of interpretation or the records and, at the end of the day, a question of the taste of the rule designer. While for the individual soldier the possession of a bit of something between his flesh and the outside world could be of vital importance, I am not wholly convinced that we can see the effect of that in the unit as a whole.

I do wonder if the thing about armour is a legacy of older rule sets, which started out with the individual soldier and built up to an entire unit. In that case, the armour of the individual would still count, to a greater extent than, perhaps, the historical records allows.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Re-De-Kanting Wargaming

I have written before about Kant, and his effects on wargaming. However, having now read a bit more, on re-reading that post I feel that it was, probably, a bit too Kantian, in that I broadly accepted that we cannot know what is going on in a battle, we can only see what outcomes there may be, and attempt to save these phenomena in our rule sets.

It might come as a surprise to many to find out exactly how influenced by Kant modern thought is. He kind of weaves his way through a lot of recent thinking and, sadly, can even be used in a dogmatic sense. For example, I once read an article that argued that the Big Bang theory of the origins of the universe was too theistic (what started off the Big Bang opens the door to the reply ‘God’), and that science, in order to exclude this back door to theism, should return to the ideas of Kant and the infinite duration of the universe.

This is rather interesting, as it shows that atheists can be a blindly ignorant of the empirical facts as they often claim that theists are, and also that philosophers can be as silly as the rest of world when they really try. The article did not offend me as a theist, but it certainly did as a physicist. The ignoring of a huge amount of evidence and theory (you cannot really separate the two) in trying to return to a way of thought that firstly, in my view, does not rule out theism anyway (Kant was bought up in pietism, after all) and secondly does not have much in the way of evidence going for it is, well, ignorant and daft. To get it published in an academic journal is a bit worrying too.

But I digress somewhat. Kant, as I am sure you recall, argued that we can only deal with things as they are presented to our senses, the phenomena. Things as they are in themselves are not available to us. We cannot get outside our senses to observes the thing in itself. Thus, for a battle, we can only observe outcomes, as reported to use by the evidence of history. We have no access to what was ‘really’ going on in a battle.

Fortunately for the sanity of most of us, Kant is, most likely, wrong. He was attempting, as so many philosophers do, to assimilate the science of the day to the thinking of the day, and he landed up tying himself (and most people who attempt to read him) up in knots. The results of twentieth century science imply very strongly that Kant’s views are incorrect. For example, he argued that space and time are constructs of the human mind. Relativity theories, both special and general, indicate that this is not the case. Space and time exist quite happily without an observer and, in fact, interact with each other in mind bending but understandable ways.

Of course, this is not necessarily Kant’s fault, given that he died at the start of the nineteenth century, and based his thought on science as it was then, which was essentially Newtonian. However, other developments in science indicate that his distinction between the phenomena and the things in themselves is probably incorrect as well. For example, modern quantum mechanics allows us quite happily to make statements about the internal structure of atoms and, indeed, how atoms interact with other atoms. We can predict, more or less accurately, how one atom can interact with a surface, a beam of light, or what you will. That is, we can deduce from the phenomena we observe things about the thing in itself and how it works in itself.

Now, let us apply that thought to a battle. Obviously, a battle, as a historical and social event, is a lot more complex than a couple of atoms bouncing off each other. But we can and do try to abstract rules from the reports that we have. Now, this is more or less difficult depending on the reports that we have obtained. But we can make some generalizable statements about them.

For example, I have been reading a bit about the battles of Alexander III of Macedon (sometimes called “the Great”). It seems to me, on that reading, that the key point of the battles came when the Companions charged. This timing was under Alexander’s direct control, and usually involved the Companions in a change in formation (from, say, column to line) and a change in direction.

Thus, if I were working on a rule set for the period (and I am), I would be thinking very carefully about how to write rules for the Companions. How can this difference between Alexander’s men and those of other units be incorporated in the rules?

If I were a Kantian, I would probably just try to save the phenomenon of the Companions being crucial by, say, giving them a hefty advantage in tactical factors. But I can start to deduce other things from the phenomena as we have them. The Companions, we can say, were highly trained, and so could switch formation rapidly. As Macedonian nobles fighting for and with the king, they were probably highly motivated, in a way which most other troops which were fairly reluctant levies, were not. And, of course, they were under the direct command of that king, who had a fairly short way with people who did not do exactly what he wanted.

So, as a rule writer, I can penetrate, at least some way, into the things, in this case the mind-set of a unit, as they are (or were). For the rules to yield the historical results, I need to take into account the fairly unique (can something be fairly unique?) status of the Companions in order to be able to reproduce their battle winning charges. Saving the phenomena by simply giving them +4 for being Companions is overly simplistic.

This might even point to an answer to the question of why ‘national characteristics’ tend to be a bad idea. We save the phenomena (like the Royal Navy tends to win) but at the cost of zero insight into what that might be the case.

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Covering Laws

One of the things I have learnt from my perusal of some of the philosophy of history is the influence of social scientists over historians, at least, historians of a certain outlook.

Social scientists, of course, study societies, and these societies might be modern ones, or they might be what is described as ‘primitive’, which might mean that these poor societies have to proceed without the advantages of mobile phones, Internet pornography or, of course, wargaming.

Now, I am not a sociologist, but what seems to happen is that the social scientists potter off into the jungle and observe, say, a society that looks at lot like an Iron Age one. They then go back to their desks and describe how the society works, and, in one way or another, model it. So there might be a model of the hierarchical relationships in the society, or the inter-clan ones, or something of that nature.

Historians then come along and read these, and thing something along the lines of “Oh yes, this must be how the Ancient Greeks (or Ancient Israelites, or Assyrians, or whoever) acted and thought.’ They then potter off to their desks and write about the ancient society behaving more or less in this manner, having, consciously or unconsciously, selected and interpreted their data to fit and, often, ignoring the careful caveats that the sociologists have put on their models.

One of the interesting things about this process is the evolution of what are called covering laws. The idea is that if something can be explained, it can be predicted. Therefore, if you have a sociological model of a society, you can predict how that society is going to react to, say, a new invention.

Historians, therefore, face a temptation to deduce covering laws, laws for all time and every place and society in the world, from social models. They might argue, for example,  that a society which is stable and has a growing population is going to start fighting a war with someone, as the unlanded younger sons of the elite go in search of economic resources. The Macedonian expansion into Greece and Asia could be adduced as evidence, here, or the early Crusades, which, it can easily be argued, were nothing to do with religion, really, but more about an attempt to remove younger sons of the barony in Europe which were rapidly making some parts ungovernable.

Covering laws sometimes work. Somewhere in my library I have Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. In it, he argues that in all the major warfare since the sixteenth century, victory has gone to the side (usually an alliance) which has had the greatest financial resources. The side with the last dollar wins. This is, in my view, anyway, a covering law. It explains who wins a war involving multinational alliances. However, Kennedy is careful to describe the circumstances under which it applies – wars of alliances, wars where the manufacturing base of some members of the alliance cannot be attacked by the other side, and so on. Also, the law only applies in the long run.

Covering laws, however, sometimes do not work. Again, on my shelf I have a book called ‘Gunpowder God’ by H Beam Piper (published in the US as Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen). The story is quite fun, and it is something a number of wargamers are aware of, especially if you want a sort of renaissance fantasy game. However, part of the plot is about whether a great man can change history, or whether history is in the grip of non-human forces such as economics. Covering laws or individuals rule?

Now, take wargame rules. In some sense, of course, wargamers subscribe to the covering law school of history. We take a particular period and assume that everything that happens within it are the results of overarching structures and society. We have an implicit model of how people behaved in battle situations, and write our rules to fit that.

Thus, we can, using a covering law, assume that everyone who fought in a battle between Sumer and Bosworth fought in pretty much the same, well defined, ways. At least, this is the assumption behind many mainstream rule sets. I am not wishing to criticise specific sets of wargame rules, but it strikes me as intrinsically unlikely that the assumption is valid. Romans had a different mind-set from Egyptians. They lived, worked, fought and died in different mental spaces.

Some rule sets, of course, attempt to overcome this problem by adding extra bits to model the specific attributes for a given historical people. Thus, you might find that Romans are better trained, or more steadfast, or whatever. The problem with covering laws is that these add-ons become complex and cumbersome. Often, it seems to me, the rule writer would be better off ditching the covering law and writing rules for a specific people and their enemies.

Of course, what applies over millennia also applies over centuries or decades. Societies change, as we know. The world of my youth no longer exists, except in my memory. Even that is a bit dubious, because I’m sure the sun shone all the time. But in order to wargame at all in a creative way, we have to have some sorts of covering laws, to allow, say, a barbarian army to face a Roman one. Different world views, yes, but they did meet in practice. Somehow we have to model this.

So we need a balance, a cut off, some caveats around our models and what we expect them to achieve. My Romans rule set is for the early Empire and late Republic. To be sure, it could be extended further, but I am not guaranteeing the results to be sensible if anyone does push the boundary. Similarly the Greek rules will be valid, hopefully, into the early Successor period. They might be able to go further, but do not expect Zama to work out as expected with them.

Saturday, 3 May 2014

How to Annoy Historical Wargamers

Now, I may, possibly, in the past, have made some controversial statements, created arguments which have been easily demolished, worked from my own experience which has turned out to be not the mainstream experience of the readers of the blog, and so on. I have pondered the meaning and method of history, the processes by which we attempt to transfer historical events like battles to table top and rule book, and attempted a critique of the ethics, if ethics there need be, of wargaming.

All well and good, so far, but it has all been written more or less, within the normally accepted paradigms of historical wargaming. That is, we have a table, some representative tokens of the terrain and units, a set of rules to convert from wargamer space and time to wargame space and time, and a whole load of tacit assumptions that we make about holding a wargame.

I have recently finished another book, this time entitled ‘Philosophy and Practice in Writing a History of Ancient Israel’ (M. B. Moore, T & T Clark New York (2006)). Now, before all of you with a more atheist point of view switch off, I am not attempting to proselytise here, but I would like to draw on some of the ideas presented in the work (which is, I think, a PhD thesis prepared for publication) and apply them to wargaming.

Moore identifies three sorts of historical writing about ancient Israel. Broadly speaking these are the “early” school, from the earliest archaeology through to somewhere around the 1960’s, the minimalist school, which argues that the text used (the Hebrew Bible, usually known as the Old Testament, at least in the west) and the non-minimalists.

If I sweep away most of the arguments and nuances, I would describe the minimalist school as the one of the postmodern sceptics. They do not believe that the text can be used in any straightforward manner, to give a historical framework for a history of ‘ancient Israel’. In fact, the scare quotes are apposite, because some minimalists argue that there is little overlap between the scholarly construction that is ancient Israel, and the historical reality that was historical Israel. The texts, they argue, are too freighted with theology, ideology and myth (in its technical sense – origin stories which tell us about the world view, but not the history, of a people) to be of any use, except in incidental fragments, in reconstructing the history of the Near East.

The minimalists also argue that the text should be treated in its historical context, that is, the time in which it was written and first circulated, not the time about which it was written. Thus, given that most minimalist scholars, at least, date the Hebrew Bible from the Persian or Hellenistic periods, nothing much can be said about, say, pre-exile Israel and Judah. There may be a few hints and scraps in the archaeological record, but that too is rather problematical on the same basis as the Hebrew Bible; texts are texts, after all, and an inscription to the effect that ‘I defeated Omri of the House of David’ could also refer to mythical or ideological (or, indeed, theological, in the sense of “my god is better than yours”) world views rather than straightforward historical reporting.

Now, consider this. The Campaigns of Alexander the Great were reported by Arrian, mainly, in the second century AD. Alexander died in 323 BC, somewhere around four hundred hears before Arrian set quill to papyrus. Other accounts of Alexander are similarly late and some, while they main contain some genuine material, are the accumulation of fiction, myth and story over centuries.

In the spirit of the ancient Israel minimalists, therefore, I would like to ask the question, when we reconstruct, say, the army of Alexander the Great, what, exactly, are we reconstructing?

A minimalist Alexandrian would argue, presumably (if such a creature existed) that when we reconstruct Alexander’s army, we are, in fact, reconstructing an Early Roman Empire view of that army. For all the fact that Arrian appears to have drawn on earlier sources, he nevertheless was a senior Roman official and, presumably have the world view associated with Rome, which was certainly not that of a Macedonian king of 400 years earlier. Thus, when we reconstruct an Alexandrian army, we are not doing anything of the sort. We are constructing a Fiction, something that might look like a Alexandrian army, but is not. It is a ‘ancient Macedonian’ outfit, not a ‘historical Macedonian’ one. At best, it is our interpretation of a Roman interpretation of Alexander’s army.

Now, of course, it may be that you, as, say, a Napoleonic wargamer, are simply sitting there smugly and thinking that, while this is very interesting, it has nothing to do with you.  I am afraid, however, that when this sort of scepticism gets going, there is really little to stop it. As I have written before, history is, at least in part, about selecting the information and evidence you are going to use. It is quite possible, I am sure, to write a history of the Napoleonic wars such that the Imperial Guard are supermen who never lost a battle. This is then a myth of ‘Napoleonic France’ in the same way as ‘ancient Macedon’ and ‘ancient Israel’ are myths. There need be no relationship between this story and history and the past which happened.

I could multiply such ideas across every wargame period. Every period suffers from the same selectivity of evidence, and, of course, the biases and interests of the historian. As wargamers, we have our own biases and interests, which are then applied to the books of history (whether secondary or primary sources) that we read. Thus, what we recreate in our armies and our games are really only loosely connected with history as it happened.

So, if you really want to annoy a historical gamer who is more worried about the number of buttons on the gaiter of the 23rd line regiment, tell him that it really does not matter, as the unit bears only a superficial resemblance to anything historical anyway.