Saturday, 1 August 2015

The Jacobite Campaigns

I have been reading, not for any good reason at all, a book about the Jacobite campaigns, the ’15, ’19, and ’45. I have little or no intention of actually wargaming the period, but it came to pass that I felt I needed to read something that was not aimed at doing something specifically from the period, just to read some history for pleasure.

The book in question is by Jonathon Oates, and is about the response of the British government to the threats, or perceived threats from the Jacobites and their allies. For example, he comments on the deployment of the British army, noting that a fair quantity of its strength was around London and on the south coast. The reasons for this were firstly, it was perceived that any government that lost control of the capital had lost the war. Charles I quit London in the 1640’s and only returned as a prisoner. James II lost control of the capital and the army defending it, and so had to leave the city, the throne and the country.

Secondly, of course, there was the anxiety about the French, which is a perennial bit of British (or, at least, English) strategic thinking. There is always a problem, given the location of the British Isles that just as your army is defeating the rebels in the north or the west, the French will arrive on the south coast and cause you a good degree of embarrassment. Thus, for the Jacobite campaigns, a fair bit of the strength of the British army was tied down in the south.

There were, of course, further complications. In the ’45, at least, the British army was also fighting on continental Europe. This had a number of consequences, mostly along the lines of an inability to shuffle troops around as might have been desired. On the other hand, troops were borrowed from allies. This had some irritating aspects, of course, like the Dutch troops sent because they could not fight the French (having been besieged and surrendered to them) who had to be withdrawn as soon as the Jacobite – French alliance was confirmed. There was also the fact that it took time to withdraw troops from the Continent, even though with the Royal Nay’s command of the sea they could be moved close to the actual war zone. Several battalions sailed straight into Newcastle, for example.

There is also some information about the strategy and tactics of the various sides. Obviously, given the book’s focus, there is not much about the Jacobite strategy, but there are one or two sidelights. The main, somewhat amusing, observation is that the Jacobites would never have wasted men, time and material besieging Fort William unsuccessfully if they had not had a couple of siege guns. Having the equipment dictated the strategy and, quite possibly, cost the campaign more than it gained.

The second main idea lying behind the book is the activity of militia and volunteer units. These are often disparaged by historians, who observe, quite correctly, that they achieved little and were no match for the Jacobite army in the field. Oates’ response to this is to admit it, but to go further and observe that the volunteers were never meant to match the Jacobites in the field. Their role was to dissuade risings in other parts of the country and so let the regular army dealt with Prince Charles and his troops. Granted, if there were serious signs of an uprising, the volunteers and militia needed some assistance from the regulars, but in the main they were there simply to hold the land, protect their homes, cities and people.

If the militia or volunteer forces had met the Jacobite field army in battle, the result would almost certainly have been very messy for the former. And historians and, no doubt, wargamers, would have been lining up to say ‘I told you so.’ But that is not exactly the point. If we subtract the volunteers and militias from the loyalist account, we probably get a much larger number of pro-Jacobite uprisings in the country, a situation which the regular army would have found much harder to deal with.

Now, as I said above, I am not intending to rush into yet another period, but the whole did get me thinking a bit. Firstly, of course, there is the question of how one could wargame such a campaign. It would be quite possible to track the main armies, even down to the battalion level. But what about the activities of the volunteers and militias? Could that be abstracted away; indeed, should it? The problem is that at a low-ish level, there were skirmishes, night marches and general confusion and misinformation flying about which led to a few clashes, but mostly to volunteer units racing around the country and nipping rebellion in the bud. Not much in terms of wargamable action, but plenty of military activity.

Secondly, of course, there is the problem that the Jacobites are unlikely to actually win the war. Of course, they had a chance but, given the strategic and tactical options available in 1745, they were not that likely to win. But as wargamers, unless we are solo players who want to simply follow history, would like something that is a bit more evenly matched. This might mean adding in the continental context, in which case a rebellion in part of the British Isles suddenly becomes a major European campaign, or at least adding in a bit of something extra. The obvious point of departure here is a French landing in Southern England.

Of course, purists might throw up their hands in horror and argue that the French were never that interested in invasion. The true historical wargamer might object to an Anglo-French battle somewhere near Sittingbourne, and ask how close our scenario might be to history. One answer is to shrug and get on with it; another might be to observe that this is what the contemporary scene was concerned about.

A final response might be simply to change the game period. Take it away from the Eighteenth Century and make it, say, a game where the Romans were the British, the Picts the Jacobites and the French a rebels Roman Emperor.

Then, perhaps, we could have a wargame without worrying about historical accuracy.


  1. Not a period for which I can claim any great expertise, but if I recall correctly the Jacobite effort depended a lot on promised French support. When the French support turned out to be almost non-existent, Charlie seems to have chosen to just crack on anyway, since God was on his side and he couldn't lose.

    1. I think that in the '45 Frecnch assistance was expected, but when it didn't materialise, things were so far advanced that they carried on anyway. I suppose that if you've already revolted, you can't just turn around and say 'Oh, sorry, didn't mean it just yet. Can you wait until the French arrive...?' It probably wouldn't cut it in a treason trial as a defence.

      The '15 and '19 I'm not so sure about because Britain was at peace, then.

  2. It's one of the reasons campaign games are very different from single games played in isolation. If you have to guard supply lines, cover open flanks and pacify a population there comes a point where an the elite, unstoppable army of veteran troops beloved of wargamers simply will not do the job.

    1. Absolutely. You suddenly realise why the E or D class, inferior, untrained troops exist at all. And it isn't because they are in the front line. veteran elites are all very well, but not much use when hungry and without ammunition.