Saturday, 30 January 2016

Urban Warfare

I do apologise for the title. It is misleading. I am not going to start waxing lyrical about fighting in built up areas, I am afraid. It is another book review, or musing, this time the author is someone called Urban. Hence the title.

The book in question is Matchlocks to Flintlocks: Warfare in Europe and Beyond 1500 – 1700, by William Urban (2011: London, Frontline). I want to like this book, I really do.  And it has indeed grown on me, but I am a bit ambiguous about it, and unclear as to what it is trying to achieve.

I think there are two themes to the book. The first is to discuss mercenaries during the time period. This is fine but, as Urban admits, defining exactly what a mercenary is, at any period of history, is a bit tricky. Most soldiers, after all, fight for money and without money most armies disintegrate. Money is necessary to war. This does not make Roman legionaries or World War One conscripts into mercenaries.

Urban’s point seems to be that the nature of the mercenary (or even just the soldier) changed during the period. From being a sword who could choose to whom to hire it, by the end of the seventeenth century the mercenary would normally be in the pay of a national army, units of which might be rented out to other powers for political, diplomatic or even religious reasons. So a good number of the Hapsburg forces fighting the Turk after the 1680’s were Protestant Germans. Similarly, the alliance against Louis XIV was a fairly stable one of Protestant German states who hired their forces to the likes of Marlborough and Eugene. The point here is that, I suppose, they would not have fought for the French, no matter how much they were offered (although they might have opted for neutrality).

A related issue is to do with the military entrepreneur. People with a fair bit of money and a military bend could raise forces, organise them, and lead entire armies into battle on behalf of an employer. The peak of this seems to have been in the Thirty Years War, with generals like Mansfield, Tilley and, at the pinnacle, Wallenstein. The problem, of course, was that such generals did have a tendency to take policy, not just strategy, into their own hands. In such circumstance the only way of proceeding for the state was sacking the general, or assassination. No wonder, really, that rulers preferred to keep the generals on a shorter, more dependent leash.

The second point that Urban seems to be trying to make is that the European advantage, which was clearly emerging by 1700, was not strictly a technological advantage in warfare. While the technology had changed and improved (from matchlocks to flintlocks, as the title affirms), the major improvement in European warfare was in organisation. Logistically, European armies were properly supplied by the end of the period, and in this they managed to be the equals of the Ottomans. Given a better unity of purpose, and that the western powers were not too distracted by the French, the Turkish conquests of the Balkans were slowly rolled back.

In a similar vein, the Turks did have reasonable weapons, but, eventually, the Western armies worked out ways of using them better. The advantage was not in the technology per se, but in slightly better ways of using it, such as volley fire by disciplined ranks. Eastern European warfare, as practiced by Polish, Russian and Ottoman nobles, was more about chaps on horses performing feats of daring-do. Mucking about on foot with a musket was for plebs. It is notable that Russia managed to recruit suitable infantry, while Poland and the Turks did not, or at least, not consistently enough to obtain victory on the battlefield.

What then is not to like about the book?

Firstly, there are some non-sequiturs. Early on in the book Urban comments that the Pope of the day could flash the cash. The next sentence starts ‘But the pope was not the only one with serious financial problems…’  I might be paraphrasing slightly, as I cannot find the offending passage, but it gave me pause for wondering whether a decent editor might not have helped. There are other instances of similar sorts of back-flips, which a decent sort of close reading might have removed.

Another issue are the descriptions of battles. Urban spends much more time on the sack of Rome than he does on Pavia. Which was the more important? I suppose it depends on what context you are looking at the events from, but from a military point of view, I would imagine Pavia is a bit higher on your agenda. Of course, in terms of politics or religion that might not be the case. On the other hand, it does seem a little unlikely that Charles V’s army was rabidly Protestant in the mid-1520’s, to the extent of wanting to sack Rome on religious grounds. Of course, in keeping with most history books, there are no maps and just a few plates of no particular interest or unusual-ness.

Overall, it is an interesting book. If I treat it as a pointer to the debates about the gunpowder and the military revolution I think it is a useful guide. Urban, at least, does offer pointers to the major works in the field, such as Geoffrey Parker’s ‘The Military Revolution’ and some other works, the more recent of which I confess I have not read. In this light, as semi-popular or popular history, Urban’s book is a good contribution and hopefully will get amateur historians and wargamers alike engaging with some of the important literature on the subject of early modern warfare and state formation. On the other hand, I am not sure that it offers enough to wargamers, in particular, to wean them off writers such as Oman, who, while their historiography is out of date, at least tell us how many musketeers were present at Pavia.

Saturday, 16 January 2016

Religion and Wargaming

OK, a title which is guaranteed to get some negative reactions. I know that. At one level, of course, a negative reaction is at least a reaction. On the other hand, I am not talking about praying to the gods of the dice, so let me try to explain.

The title was inspired, if that is the right word, by a couple of books I have read recently, one before Christmas and one after. The latter was ‘Constantine, Unconquered Emperor, Christian Victor’ by Paul Stephenson (2011, London: Quercus). This is not an academic tome, the author argues, but something trying to popularise his academic work. Let me state upfront: it is a good book.

In describing Constantine’s life and work, Stephenson starts by describing the religious makeup of the last part of the third century and the variety of options there were for people. He is particularly interested in the army, as to control the army meant to control the Roman Empire, and to lose the support of the army meant to lose it, and probably one’s life along the way.

The point of this, of course, is that religion and politics were not separated. Belonging to a particular religion was a political act. To be a Christian was a subversive political act, at least from the point of view of the Emperor who saw worship in the emperor-cult as being vital of the cohesion of the empire. In a way which many of us struggle to comprehend, religion was politics.

The reason for my reading this book was not, in fact, for the end of wargaming, but to try to understand something which is frequently talked about, particularly in Roman Catholic theological circles. That thing is the concept of the ‘pre-Constantine’ and ‘post-Constantine’ church. I think the idea here is that pre-Constantine the church was occasionally oppressed and certainly not friendly with the state at anything other than the local level. Post-Constantine the church was, more or less, identified with the state. Certainly bishops, for example, started to become administrators. The idea here is that the church is returning to a pre-Constantine relationship with the state, at least in Western Europe.

Of course, reading a semi-popular book about Constantine was never going to resolve that argument for me, but it has nuanced it. There could be arguments about how Christian Constantine was, about his evolution as a Christian from a sun worshipper and so on. I think in terms of the original argument, however, things evolved rather than changed. After all, it was only about 60 years after Constantine’s death that Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire.

It is always nice to obtain some wargaming point from any book read, however, and the bonus for this one was that I did. In discussing the changes brought about in the religious practices of the army, Stephenson notes modern research on how units fight, that is that small units fight because their buddies are around them. This is likely to be true of the late Roman era as well, and so a change in religious practice is likely only to have a marginal effect on the effectiveness of the troops. However, having a central religious practise for all can only help to enhance troop effectiveness and morale. Constantine was careful not to deride all other forms of worship – pagans (which is originally a bit of a Christian term of abuse – the Christians were mainly sophisticated urbanites, ‘pagan’ seems to mean something like bumpkin) were still permitted to worship. Granted Constantine, being Emperor, could use a deal of persuasion that the best god to worship was the Christian one, but he did not make it happen.

Anyway, overall, a very interesting book with some unexpected insights. It almost made me want to start painting late Roman armies. Almost.

The other book I want to mention is ‘Heretic Queen: Queen Elizabeth I and the Wars of Religion’, by Susan Ronald (2012, St Martin’s: New York). The main point about this one is that it, too, wants to emphasise that in the sixteenth century politics and religion were not separated in the minds of the protagonists. This became pointed in England, of course, when Elizabeth was excommunicated. Her catholic subject were then, in principle at least, torn between loyalty to the church and the Pope, and loyalty to their queen and nation. Most chose the latter course, much, I imagine, to the chagrin of the Pope and a weary ‘I told you so’ from Philip II of Spain.

Again, the point here is that from our modern eyes it seems impossible to consider that religion could be the cause of wars, or the cause and motivation of fighting said wars. Even though, from many non-western perspectives, intervention in assorted Middle Eastern countries could be said to on the grounds of religion (also known as an extension of the crusades, pace George w Bush’s unfortunate expression), in western political rhetoric, at least, there is no such motivation. The grounds are of national security, peace, democracy, not the propagation of true religion. In sixteenth century Europe, of course, that was simply not the case.

I think that Ronald wants to make that point, and does so reasonably, and I tried to like the book. Two things bother me about it, however. The first is the claim that in the late 1560’s thirty five thousand French troops were poised on the Scottish border to invade England. This is, frankly, a hard to believe statement. An army that size might have been noticed by other writers on the subject and, to be honest, a French army that size would probably have starved before it did anything effective. The Borders were simply not rich enough to support that many troops. The second is that when Ronald describes the arguments over Holy Communion, she gets confused. She declares that Elizabeth decreed that the people should receive communion in both kinds that is ‘both Protestant and Catholic’. In this she (Ronald) is simply wrong. In both kinds means both bread and wine. Late medieval Catholicism distributed only the bread to the great unwashed. Elizabeth’s decree was Protestant and not an effort in the direction of toleration. With those niggles reported, the book is PK, but is not going to tell anyone with an interest in Elizabethan England anything they probably did not already know.

Overall, then, an interesting couple of books. The point, however, is one made in my Open University history course, that without religion we cannot understand the past. By extension, then, without some understanding of religion, we will almost certainly find wargaming the past difficult.
Tiny Galleys: painted: 15, awaiting finishing of bases: 10, under-coated 10, still grey: 115

Saturday, 9 January 2016

Those Black Ships Again

As I commented recently, Santa bought me about 150 ancient galleys. These are 1/3600 ships from Outpost Wargames Services. As they sell in packs of 25, perhaps 150 now does not sound so many. I got two packs of triremes without sails, and one pack with, for a total so far of 75 boats. Then I added a pack of merchant ships, a pack of penteconters and lembi (50 oared ships and boats) and a pack of quinquiremes, for a total of 150 or so vessels. I confess, I’ve not counted them.

Firstly, while small, the models are not tiny. You can easily see the individual ships, the triremes are about 9 mm long. The most taxing question at the ordering stage was whether to have the ships with sails or without. I got the merchants and penteconters with sails, and most of the fighting ships without, except a third of the triremes. At a first look and ponder, this seems to have been a reasonable decision.

Next up, of course, is painting them. I have written before of the aesthetic problems I find inherent in model ships. For these, I know that the hulls were coated with pitch, and therefore the outer hulls should be black. I have not started to paint them yet, but I am going to grit my teeth and go with that if I can, even though everything within says they should be brown. I shall report on progress in due course.

Thirdly, there is the issue of rules. One of the selling points of the ships this size is that you can have hundreds on the table at a time. Some ancient sea battles did include hundreds of vessels, and so this does not seem to be an unreasonable way forward (as, indeed, it seems fair enough with 6 mm and 2 mm wargame figures). You just need a different viewpoint, one which does not see, in the case of land battles, the individual soldier or the sub unit as the scaling factor of the rules, but the unit and higher formations.

As with land wargames, so with sea ones. I think I want to start off by ensuring that the vessels are in a recognised formation. I suspect that this might be true all along the line, even down to World War One, where the formations were imposed. World War Two might be a bit different, where air power required the formations to be dispersed. Nevertheless, in the ancient world, a tight formation of galleys was used to prevent the enemy closing and ramming any individual in the formation. If the formation was broken, by enemy action or by currents or shoreline, the galleys were much more vulnerable, and the battle became a bit of a ship-to-ship scrap. The implication is that the squadron with the most intact formation is likely to do best.

I can find no set of ancients wargame rules that do precisely this sort of thing. Most rules, so far as I can see, focus on the ship-to-ship action. The idea of higher level formations is ignored. I am sure that such rules are excellent, insofar as they go, and reproduce such actions very nicely. But it is not really that aspect of the action which is the determinant of a mass battle. The formations and their breaking seem to me, at least, to be the determining factor.

Thus, the first rule of my ancients wargames rules (tentatively entitled ‘Are You Sure They Should Be Black?’) is that all galleys in the fighting line start in a formation. The formation could be as big as the whole fleet, wings thereof, and individual squadrons of three vessels upwards. But they have to start in at least one formation.

The formations can be broken down. So a wing is formed of several squadrons, or even of different lines. A squadron could be a few ships in line by beam or in line ahead, as second line galleys were used for protecting the front line galleys as well. In a formation, the vessels in the squadron get some bonuses for not being able to be easily rammed from the beam, which is the most likely cause of damage, incapacitation and sinking of a galley. Once the formation is broken, the ships are more vulnerable, particularly to formed opponents who can overwhelm isolated galleys.

Aesthetically, I think I am going to mount the galleys on individual 10 mm by 20 mm bases, and so the formations will have to be indicated by sabot bases. At the moment I am thinking of pieces of thin blue card, as the actual size of a formation is indeterminate until you actually put the models on the table. So far as I am aware, ancient squadrons were formations of convenience, and often were formed around the city from which the galleys came or a particular commander. I do not think that a squadron had a fixed size.

Of course, the next stage is to come up with some combat rules. I am thinking of giving each ship a ‘seamanship’ factor, and using an average of that across the squadron (or perhaps, and more simply, the best) for the capacity of the squadron to break an enemy formation, in the same way as the Polemos ‘charge’ rules work. Once an enemy formation is broken, then the ship to ship combat can be employed, with the ships from the unbroken formation getting a bonus. Of course, the unbroken formation will be broken by the combat, so it is an ephemeral advantage.

I need to paint some of these models, and I also think I need some sunk galley markers. Outpost doesn’t make them, unfortunately, but I am thinking. Triremes did not sink to the bottom when holed, but sunk until they were approximately flush with the sea. They could be recovered and repaired, so long as the sea was fairly calm. But that will probably overtax my modelling skills.

Saturday, 2 January 2016

Existential Threats

I wrote a while ago regarding Operation Sealion, the planned invasion of the United Kingdom by German forces in 1940. Most of the post was devoted to trying to explain how even the most optimistic accepted that Sealion was never going to work.  There are, in summary, a variety of reasons. Firstly, of course, the Luftwaffe would have to establish at least local air superiority. Secondly, something would have to be done about the Royal Navy and, given that the purpose for the existence of the Royal Navy is to stop the UK being invaded, that plan would need to encompass sinking, or at least mission killing all RN units above, say, corvette size. Thirdly, the Luftwaffe would be seriously over stretched, having to provide combat air patrol over the beaches, the artillery for the land forces (no heavy weapons were really envisaged as being landed on the beaches) and the ability to sink the RN. And so it goes on. Invading Britain is no easy task.

There is, however, a strategic problem lurking in the plans for Sealion, which the British government was well aware of. The fact is that with the whole of the southern coast of the Channel being held by hostile forces, defending the south of England becomes rather difficult. There is quite a lot of it, for one thing, and the invaders can choose from a variety of jumping off ports and land anywhere from East Anglia to Cornwall. As a worst case scenario, of course, the invaders could land at two or three points and working out which is the main thrust could be quite a lot harder. Defending Britain is no easy task.

I am currently reading the third volume of Jonathon Sumption’s history of the Hundred Years War. If you have not dropped across this, and the first two volumes, you are missing a wargamer’s feast, even if you are not a medieval wargamer. The ideas and detail are such that if your imagination is not reeling with the possibilities after a few pages, you should call your doctor. The third volume deals with a bit of English history which we do not major on, from 1369 – 1399, when the English lost most of what they had gained between 1346 and 1360.

By 1386, the English faced the familiar strategic problem described above: the coastline of Europe was firmly held by a hostile power. The coast from Brest (held by the English) to Holland was dominated by France, except for Cherbourg and Calais. Not only that, but the French were determined to invade England and dictate peace terms. Furthermore, the Scots, having been under truce for a fair number of years, were raiding again. Finally, the English crown had terminally run out of money and, as representative assemblies are wont to do under these circumstances, Parliament did not believe that the money already voted had been spent, a refused to saddle the nation with any more tax demands.

The French war aims were clear. They wanted to get rid of the English enclaves in France, which were the result of the English ‘bastide’ policy. The English idea was that, with command of the sea, expeditionary forces could enter France at will. The bulk of the Hundred Years war was fought in France, after all. It had already been pointed out that the English were unlikely to win the war, because the most they could do was to send smaller forces, while the French could, ultimately, concentrate against the English enclaves. The fact that this did not happen for another fifty years or so speaks more to the disunity of the French body politic than the resilience of the English bastides. The other aim that the French had was that the English crown should pay homage for Gascony.

With all this at stake, and a full war treasury, the French decided to invade, via East Anglia, using Sluys, the newly acquired port of the French King’s uncle as the embarkation point. This policy proved to be extremely popular among French subjects and nobility. Firstly, there was some patriotism there, and the idea of taking to war to the English did appeal. Secondly, there was the prospect of pay, as the French taxation system was functioning quite nicely again. Thirdly, there was the prospect of plunder among towns and villages that had not been endlessly fought over for years. French troops flocked to the Low Countries.

The English government was not really in a fit position to do anything. There was no money, for a start. They had little idea where the invasion might come, and not too many means of discerning that. England did not have command of the seas, quite the opposite. While invasion fleets could be gathered and land their troops, much of the raiding was by French and Castilian ships against south coast communities. As Sumption says, this was the gravest existential threat to medieval England before the Armada.

How, then, did Richard II and England survive? The answer says a lot about both invasion plans and logistics. The fact is that the idea of invading England was so popular that the army gathered was much larger than expected and planned for, and hence got through its supplies before anyone embarked. Extra shipping had to be acquired as well, and the men paid. Even the renewed French treasury became exhausted. The army was dispersed when the autumn storms set in.

Sumption observes that, perhaps with a smaller, or more tightly controlled army, England could have been knocked out of the war at this point. Even if you are not a medievalist, surely your wargaming juices are churning at this point. If you even managed to get the French vanguard ashore, all they will face initially are local forces. Could the English gather up enough force to prevent the landing or take out the vanguard before the rest arrive? The French had even built a prefabricated timber fought for their protection.

So, over to you. Can you turn the Hundred Years war is the Fifty Years war?