Saturday, 21 May 2016

The Essential Wargame

I commented a bit ago that often times, the study of war suggests that there are some invariants in its conduct. A war is undertaken in certain ways, and these ways are invariant in concept if not in execution. Of course, formations and weapons change, but, overall, the plan sis the same.

I saw a copy of Military History Monthly recently. It is a nice, glossy magazine with a range of articles on various campaigns and battles, mostly of the nineteenth and twentieth century. If it floats your boat it is a nice read, although its coverage of anything pre-Frederick III of Prussia tends towards the sketchier. The point here is that there was a nice article on the battle of Sadowa. For those of you who missed that day in school, it was the final battle of the Austro-Prussian War in 1866.

The Prussian plan was to have three armies converging on the point where the Austrian army was expected to be. Despite the inevitable hiccoughs, the plan more or less worked, and the Austrians were outflanked and retreated. The comparison here was made with Cannae, fought in 216 BC. Military History Monthly has no truck with the trendy Before Current Era, by the way, and quite right too.

The thing is, I am not entirely convinced by the comparison. Hannibal carefully planned his battle, with the centre retiring before the legions and the cavalry on the flanks disposing of the Romans and hitting the legions from the rear. The Romans were to be (and were) encircled, and destroyed. Von Moltke’s plan as I said, we to march three armies into Austria and co-ordinate them onto a point where the Austrians were to be. The scale, at least, is different.

The coordination distances are, for the Prussians, much greater. Granted, communications were significantly faster, but Hannibal commanded a single army, while von Moltke had to deal with three on this front, and a few others elsewhere. Furthermore, it could be argued that Hannibal succeeded while von Moltke failed. The Austrians, severely battered, did manage to get away. The Romans did not.

Is there a form of essentialism here? Is there a valid comparison to be made between Cannae and Sadowa, so many centuries apart? Do we just argue that the concept of surrounding the enemy and destroying them was the aim, despite the differences in size, terrain, technology and people?

The initial answer is ‘yes’, I suspect, to all these questions. I dare say that I could trace through military history the idea of surrounding the enemy and defeating them. I suspect that a fair bit of that lay behind the Blitzkrieg of the Second World War, the storm troopers of the First World War, and so on back though history to Cannae, and possibly beyond. The differences in success can simply be laid at the door of the fact that the circumstances differ. The Germans in 1918 were simply running out of men to be the second echelon behind the storm troopers. The Allies learnt how to yield ground without their formations breaking up and so could blunt the assault. The Germans found that Blitzkrieg was less successful in a defensive battle, and that their enemies used defence in depth so that even if there was a break-through, the defences did not crumble.

We can also ignore, of course, those battles where one side was surrounded by won.  In some of the colonial wars, for example, the Western power’s troops were massively outnumbered and yet, largely though deploying incredible amounts of firepower, emerged victorious. Can we discount there battles? Perhaps we can argue that the disparity of weaponry was too disproportionate for the normal laws of war to apply. Or we can suggest that the native did not deliberately surround their enemy, it just happened to be the case. Or, possibly, the Europeans and their allies deliberately formed themselves to be surrounded sake in the knowledge that they could shoot their way out.

I have spent quite a lot of time over the years on this blog arguing against a one size fits all approach to wargame rules. It is conceptually very difficult to obtain a rule set which is fair and accurate to everyone from Sumerians to Medieval French, or from the War of the Spanish Succession to American Civil War. I have suggested, fairly vigorously, that we should not pursue this path, and should write and use rules which are more narrowly focussed. The question then arises as to whether this is true also of campaigning and the sorts of tactics used at Cannae and Sadowa.

I suppose that what we have here is both continuity and change. There is continuity in that there are certain ways of tackling your enemy. An enemy who is in a defensive position and likely to say there can be defeated by envelopment. Envelopment can also be used as a tactic to defeat a larger enemy force if your troops have better flexibility. On the other hand, an enemy with better artillery than you is well advised to sit back and use it to your detriment. Some comparisons work at some levels; others start to feel like comparing apples and cartwheels.

Is there, then, an invariant essential of warfare, and is there one that can be reflected at the level of wargame rules and wargames themselves? Is there such a figure as the universal soldier, who has marched through history, with only his clothing and weapons changing? Can we compare Sadowa and Cannae?

Many people would like to answer yes. Military history, and in many soldiers, like to think that they can learn from the past. They study the campaigns of Hannibal and Napoleon to learn what they can from them, to be able to apply the lessons from them to their problems of today. At a certain level this can work. But at the level of a more detailed plan and its execution, each general is presented, surely, with a set of problems and opportunities all his own.


  1. It is essentially the difference between Strategy and Tactics or Concept and Execution.

    So "I will distract and hold him with part of my force while using the rest to get around his flanks and attack causing his force to compress and panic" is the same concept regardless of of weapon ranges and numbers. Executing the plan however is a question of tactics including firepower, discipline, morale, command structure etc etc. These change with all the usual technical and cultural factors.

    Part of the seeming universality may be that we live in a culture that has developed from the Classical ages that we read about so our Generals have read of Cannae and analysed it and subsequent attempts to recreate the effect. It is interesting though that the "Pin and Envelop" strategy is how the Zulu Buffalo chest, horns and loins worked, notably at Islandwana where the British made enough strategic and tactical errors (by their own doctrine) to negate their technical advantage. It was also used on the North Plains by metis and native tribes who learned it from hunting buffalo rather than from books. When the European general and his troops reacted like mad buffalo it worked well, less so when they used some of the strategies designed to counter the envelopment strategy. Then numbers, discipline and technological force multipliers tended to win.

    1. i suppose that the worst things to have in warfare are an assumption of superiority and ignorance about the intentions of the enemy. All the neat strategy and tactics in the world won't help stupidity, nor will technological advantage.

      i think that the execution of the plan does depend on firepower, discipline and so on, and that hatching the plan doesn't depend on a classical education. On the other hand, does a classical education make generals more susceptible to attempting to recreate Cannae?

      But I'm probably pondering imponderables again. Anyone know if Napoleon had read Polybius?

    2. "Anyone know if Napoleon has read Polybius?"

      -Apparently yes:

    3. Good heavens!

      I suppose that I shouldn't be surprised that
      a. Napoleon had read it.
      b. Someone has documented the fact
      c. that it is on the internet.

      Still, it might tell us something about Napoleon's aspirations in battle?

  2. My take on Liddell Hart is that the invariant essential of successful commanders is the strike at the mind of the enemy commander. His emphasis was on the unbalancing effect of the indirect approach, but really anything that takes the enemy commander off-guard, from the unexpected charge of dozens of chariots to being enveloped by starship troopers, would apply. Finding his forces fighting at a disadvantage due to being outmaneuvered; in effect, him being out-thought; the enemy commander must at least spend part of his efforts and resources in countering his opponents movements, at least surrendering the initiative, and at worst finding himself in a situation with no options and an inevitable conclusion -- as at Cannae.
    I guess sometimes the inevitable conclusion isn't, as at Dunkirk; but there were no such unforeseen variables at Cannae or Carrhae, just a lot of one-sided death.
    That strike at the mind of the enemy commander is especially difficult for solo wargamers, unless they are completely schizo, in which case the main problem is the arguments.
    At least, that is what I have heard. ahem.

    1. I seem to remember someone saying, a propos of DBM, that to be successful you have to strike at the enemy's PiPs. While that might be rule set specific, I think that many rule sets do allow you to present overwhelming threats to the enemy forces.

      And thus, as a solo gamer, I preserve myself from schizophrenia. In fact, all of us do.

      In fact, I have a sneaking suspicion that face to face gamers often just perform a 'hey diddle diddle, straight up the middle' sort of strategy. Just to get into battle.

      Solo gamers might occasionally be a bit more subtle.

  3. I do exactly that: my basic paradigm for playing solo wargames set pre C20 is for each side to try and set-up an unbeatable situation in that very way: to create situations where the other side won't have enough tempo/PIP points (I play your SPQR and ECW sets, plus the Polemos Napoleonic sets and DBA/HF&G) to be able to cope with the amount of damage/threat that it faces.

    1. My image for that is 'pulling the opponent apart' - multiple threats which cannot all be faced.

      The be fair, the same thing can happen in chess, although via a different mechanism.

  4. I have personally heard a modern British brigade commander compare his plan for a certain series of operations to a historical precedent: the "chevauchée" of HYW fame. He meant in the tactical raiding sense rather than the pillaging one!

    1. Of course, in the British army, things are 'liberated', as in 'I liberated these eggs and this bacon and a couple of bottles du vin from that chateau over there'.

      At least, according to my granddad, that's what happened. :)