Saturday, 2 May 2015

Culture Wargames

I have mentioned before that one of the issues with wargaming is that, in essence, we expect every other culture to conduct war in a similar way to which Western European cultures. That is, if we accept some version of the ‘western way of war’, everyone else should conform to it.

Now, of course, as I am sure you can already discern, and which I have commented on before, this is deeply problematic in all sorts of ways. Firstly, it is disputable as to whether there is a western way of war at all. The expression derives from recent US historiography as is an argument that only western nations, deriving their views of warfare from the Greeks, seek decisive battles. The Greeks, the argument goes, developed this form of warfare to fit in with their agricultural year (given that most hoplites were farmers) and the relatively small cities could not sustain large numbers of troops for long periods, and so a decisive battle, the results of which were acknowledged on both sides, determined the outcome.

This view of warfare, the argument goes, was passed on through the Romans to the medieval nations (where practitioners included Edward I and Edward III) to the early modern state and hence into the western military culture. When the westerners went out into the world after 1492, they encountered different military cultures, most of which did not rate highly the decisive battle. Hence it took, say, the Aztecs a while to realise that the Conquistadors were not simply trying to gain military prowess, grab money and set themselves up as emperors. They really had come to do something else: conquer in western terms, although that entailed, of course, the other things as well.

I am fairly sure that we can see the flaws in the argument. Firstly, it was not just westerners who fought decisive battles. There were a fair number in other parts of the world such as Japan, China and India. People had been slaughtering each other quite happily for millennia in these places without so much as a by your leave from the west.

Similarly, there are parts of European history where battles were not particularly sought or, if they were, were not particularly decisive. For example, most of the battles of the English Civil War were not decisive, in that they did not determine outcomes of the war, often not even at a local level. As someone noted, the losers recruited their strength from local garrisons, the winners dissipated their strength into local garrisons, and so, with a few changes, the status quo ante was preserved. In fact, the ECW only moved to decisive status when there was an army sufficiently centrally controlled and supplied that it destroyed the opposing armies and garrisons without dissipating its strength. Even so, local histories record that the New Model Army was not the only force in the country, and local troops still played a major role.

Having digressed slightly, I will try to return to the main point. Cultures can fight wars without buying into western (Enlightenment) ways of conducting war. This does not preclude them from fighting battles, however, many of them in fact decisive. Thus we cannot simply take a model of western warfare of, say, the seventeenth century, and apply it to every other culture for which we can obtain some sort of ‘order of battle’.

However, I think I could argue that this is exactly what we do. Our models for warfare in the seventeenth century are largely based around western ways of warfare. The interactions of musket, pike and cavalry are the key elements to creating a successful set of wargame rules. And this is fine and dandy so long as we keep the rules restricted to the cultures and societies for which this was the way of war. It only becomes problematic when we extend the model to include other cultures which may have fought decisive battles, either among themselves or against ‘western’ armies, but which had a very different military culture.

These societies may not be as far away as we might think. There is a reasonable case for arguing that the societies on the Celtic fringe of Britain had a different way of way, one which lasted from the medieval period until the eighteenth century without that much change. The Irish and Scottish highland way of war was based, from sometime around the thirteenth century, on the heavy infantry with a large cutting weapon, either an axe or claymore. The charge of these infantry was the decisive point of the battle. The infantry either won big or lost big.

The point here is that the military class was not, as in most of the rest of Europe, based around the heavy cavalryman, the knight. While the battlefield power of the knight had been blunted by longbow and pike, the culture was still based around the idea of the cavalry charge. Neither Ireland nor Highland Scotland are particularly conducive to cavalry charges, and so this ideal was not part of the culture. The terrain and nature of the people were more conducive to hit and run tactics, skirmishing, and the final, decisive, charge.

The Irish and Highlanders chalked up a significant number of victories using these tactics. The whole of the Elizabethan Irish Wars were tied up in the English attempting to figure out how to deal with them. Similarly, Montrose’s campaigns in Scotland were successful, at least up until he was confronted with large numbers of professional soldiers. Bonnie Dundee’s charge, as well as those of the highlanders in the ’45 can be seen as the inheritors of the tradition. We can suggest that, as an alternative to western mainstream tactics, the “Highland Charge” was only superseded when the socket bayonet, mobile artillery and large scale logistics came into play, or (more contentiously) when the Irish and Highlanders attempted to adopt mainstream tactics.

The point here is that, at least on these views, the Celtic fringe armies cannot be subsumed within the mainstream western tradition, and hence need a model of their own. Most rule sets attempt to do this by adding bits to represent the armies, but this might be a ‘neo-colonialism’ of itself. To represent the logic of the Celtic armies, we need to develop specific models for them.


  1. But if you have to develop specific models for every different style of fighting then you end up with a lot of different rules and no point of intersection between them. I think the test must be twofold: a) is the 'highland charge' (or whatever specific cultural tactic is on the table) a tactic encouraged under the rules, and b) can the tactic succeed (and army win) in situations where it might have been expected to historically.

    1. i think that that is precisely the difficulty. We need models for these troop types within our overall models for the 'period', or we need something most specific.

      It is interesting, but most wargamers are happy with specific rule sets for Samurai, but not for the Celtic fringe. Perhaps it is just that the latter was not so isolated?

      But yes, the integration of non-standard military activity, such as the highland charge, is a substantial test of the models in a rule set and their integration.

  2. I almost hate myself for saying this, but I think in the case of the Celtic fringe, it wasn't so much the culture as a fact of military necessity - a lack of military resources - that made them fight as they did. With a recognised leader and (dare I say it) a cause, they certainly did aim for decisive battle.
    In Ireland, Tyrone equipped his galloglaich and kern as 'proper' pike and shot at the first possible opportunity, and the jacobites in Scotland were always desperate to equip the clans with proper weapons, courtesy of the French or Spanish, so they could fight in the customary manner for the day.
    The highland charge is predicated on having a thin crust of duine uasal who are armed to the teeth backed up by a crowd with agricultural implements or bare hands. How else could they fight but rush in with fingers crossed before these shortcomings become obvious to the enemy?

    Not that I disagree with the main point of your piece, mind. It is a problem of 'one size fits all' wargames rules that crowd out encounters which are outside the norm. Thus a set of 18th century rules written to fight Malplaquet or Rossbach will struggle with recreating Glenshiel, with armies of 2000 men or less.

    1. I fear it is a bit of a chicken and egg situation. Was the Celtic way of war a cultural one, environmental one, or simply a way of life? While Tyrone and the Jacobite generals (who were brought up and trained in the 'proper' western way of war) might have wanted pikes and muskets, the performance of the troops so equipped was not that stunning. This could be down to poor training, poor understanding of the 'new' tactics, or simply being unable to assimilate the new culture of doing war.

      I think this is a horribly complex and probably undecidable question historically.

  3. Too complicated a subject for a blog comment but 3 thoughts.
    1. one must distinguish between tactics once you are on the battlefield and strategy which leads you to seek a battle or seek to avoid it. Some cultures like Scythians were quite happy to raid and skirmish without ever fighting a battle, others liked to fight with varying degrees of ceremony or serious violence.

    2. Sun Tzu was all in favour of winning wars without ever fighting battles. The fact that he felt the need to explain and advocate this suggests dome contemporary generals liked to fight battles

    3. Medieval añd 18th C generals seemed very fond of fortresses and sieges, another antithesis to decisive battles so the tradition is spotty even in the west.

    1. Yes, agreed, too complex, but:
      1. Yes, but we need to be able to model those occasions when they did come to combat, and so the models need to fit together somehow.
      2. I suspect everyone loves a battle, especially those less likely to die in one. We've got an army, so we should have a battle. I guess often the objectives of the campaign are forgotten - did Rupert forget that relieving York was his main objective before Marston Moor?
      3. Well, there were some decisive battles (or at least, battles that were locally decisive even if they did not win the war). I'm not sure we talk of decisive sieges, though; maybe that is a trick of the glamour of battles.