Saturday, 22 April 2017

A Wargamer of Wealth and Taste

Looking back through the records of this blog it has been going an amazingly long time – who knew I could type so much?) there is a theme which keeps coming around. It is not about history, accuracy, authenticity or anything else which is, or could be, particularly objective. It is about taste.

Taste is, of course, hard to define, hard to pin down and highly personal. What is to my taste is reasonably unlikely to be yours. As, I think, W. C. Fields once said ‘Don’t do to others as you would have them do to you. Their tastes may be different.’

And so to wargaming, achieved much sooner than in the posts of late. I have, no doubt, drivelled on before rather a lot about wargames and taste. I might find a particular sort of wargaming highly acceptable. For example, a game set during the Lebanese civil war, where victory might consist of using a car bomb to assassinate my political and military rivals. That may not be to your taste. Fair enough: you do not have to play.

However, in the tradition of the blog, I have to push things a little further. Is simply refusing to play a sufficient sort of response? Your offense at my game is palpable. My reaction could be deemed to be inappropriate. Is there simply a matter of taste at stake?

I have, I think, mentioned before vaguely, that non-historical and fantasy or science fiction games might be used to explore recent or contemporary issues. In science fiction, for example, some well-known novels, such as Joe Haldane’s ‘The Forever War’ is exploring the effects of Vietnam on the United States and its soldiers. Ultimately, the latter are fighting, more or less, for themselves and each other, not to defend a home society that they can barely recognise at the end.

Similarly, fantasy role playing games could be regarded as being related to their societies and as reactions to those societies. In a world where moral certainties were unravelling, is it so surprising that role-playing games emerged which had distinct categories of good and evil, order and chaos?

Do non-historical historical wargames explore the same themes? The obvious answer is, of course, no. A matchup between medieval French and Aztecs reveals little except an overwhelming desire to have a game.  There is, at least on the surface, no commentary here. If we look a little deeper, we might find themes of colonialism and imperialism, of course, both in terms of the highly trained and armed few against the many, and also in imagining that such a wargame is at all viable anyway.

However, non-historical games, as role playing and science fiction, can be ‘based on’ a historical original. Then the resonances become, perhaps, a little more interesting. Plays, for example, can be ‘updated’. Sometimes it misfires horribly. But sometimes the resonances can work. How would Richard III work updated to the Brexit campaign? What resonances could we find between the election of Mr Trump and Macbeth?

We can, naturally, if we look hard enough, find a resonance between today’s politics and any particular part of the past. The past is a bit like that; we can read bits of the contemporary scene into it, and gain some sort of insight, understanding or, at least, parallel with it. Similarly, the reason that Shakespeare can be updated is that classics are like that. We can read and re-read them and find further resonance with our own situation.

Part of the issue is, of course, that anyone can do it. So long as the past is not a total fabrication, resonances between, say, Agincourt and Brexit can be found on both sides. One could emphasise the plucky English against the might of the European hordes of faceless bureaucrats, one the fact that Henry V and Katherine Valois got it together in the end. Of course, you could go further and note that their son was a lunatic, but that might be pushing the resonances a little far.

As with the classics, and with history, so too with wargaming. I could wargame Agincourt. Which side would you choose? The plucky Brits (I mean English, of course, and Welsh, but not the Scots, nor the Irish – resonances continue). Why would you choose that side? Are you on the side of Brussels – the European integration project? The English independence movement? Does that even inform your choice consciously?

So too with other games of course. What leads people to want to wargame the army of Nazi Germany? What sorts of motives lurk beneath those who push the SS, in their smart black uniforms around the table? I, for one, really do not know. I cannot say that it is strictly, in my view, tasteless, although it is certainly not something that floats my wargame boat. After all, the SS existed and fought. History, as with nature, cannot be gainsaid.

But there seems to be a stop sign lurking somewhere near here. A few bases of SS on the table is one thing. Having nothing but SS units is another. A group of SS re-enactors seems beyond the pale entirely. We all have, I suppose, our own lines in the sand, but there is some broad agreement as to what is acceptable and what is not. A leaflet describing the battle of Agincourt is fine. One including comment on the current turmoil in the European project might raise a few eyebrows.

Those of you who are still awake might notice the title of this piece. If you have really imbibed your coffee you might note the allusion. And so, I think, the bottom line possibly emerges. Wargaming is a hobby of personal involvement. I do things – open fire with the grand battery, order the troops over the top, turn towards the enemy and damn the torpedoes. As a commander of World War Two German armies invading, say, Russia, am I demonstrating ‘sympathy with the devil’?

Saturday, 15 April 2017

Imperialist Wargaming

Some of you, possibly, knowing my interest in the Thirty Years War may well be expecting something about that subject, but, no, that will have to wait for another occasion. I mentioned before that I had read Wolfgang Reinhard’s ‘A Short History of Colonialism’ (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2011), and that it was a fairly interesting book. I also noted that I had accused some wargaming of being neo-colonial, and so I suppose I had better at least assess what I might mean and what Reinhard, if he were interested in wargaming, might think about it.

Well, firstly, the idea of the book is to present the term ‘colonialism’ in a fairly neutral light. Some colonialism is better than other colonialism, obviously, but Reinhard’s view, I think, is that colonialism in some form is an almost inevitable fact of human existence. Far before the term was thought of, and long before it was used in a pejorative sense, the Greeks and Romans were setting up colonies. London, York and Colchester are among the colonies of Rome in the UK. Marseilles and Cadiz can trace their roots back to the Romans, Greeks and Carthaginians. Wherever international trade existed, there was the opportunity for colonialism, in the sense of what would be later termed ‘factories’, which amounted to trading stations and merchants from overseas.

As is fairly inevitable, a trading station can develop. The merchants get involved in local politics, and get involved with the population. Friction can ensure and military action follows. Further, of course, as the international scene becomes more active, rival merchants are driven out and British Empire, often said to have been acquired in a fir of absence of mind, in fact came about through a set of local initiatives seizing power in various places, and international conflict, mostly with France. It was not, in most senses, planned to become an empire on which the sun never set, it sort of happened.

Reinhard notes that the balance sheet for colonialism is mixed. Some people certainly suffered greatly from it, although some of the suffering was inadvertently inflicted, as with the epidemics that decimated the populations of the Americas in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Other suffering was, in essence, racist, although that is rather a smaller element than might be expected. Mostly the driver was money. Europeans went to their colonies to make it, and usually had to harass the locals to provide it in some form. Of course, some of the locals were pleased to do this. Much colonialism was enabled by local elites seizing more power (or, in some cases, any power) in alliance with the colonials.

Colonialism did do some good things. Ultimately, many colonies were democratised and developed. Whether this was done deliberately is a bit of a moot point, but it did happen. On the other hand, there are in the world a sufficient number of basket case former colonies to make us wonder if a different development course might not have left better legacies. The colonial powers pulled out, in some cases, far too quickly for local democracy to have had much of a chance against the local, armed, strong men. Even now, in some places, the former colonial power has some sway and has intervened in some of the internal disputes.

Imperialism, however, is a bit of a different kettle of fish. The Scramble for Africa of the late nineteenth century was caused by great power rivalry. Bismarck is quoted as saying that the map of Africa ran through Europe. There was a lot of horse trading between the powers over trade routes and colonial stations. For example, all powers wanted coaling stations to their ships could reach their colonies without having to stop at other power’s ports. Thus, otherwise commercially rather unattractive places became subject to colonial powers.

There was also the requirement to be seen to be strong. Rebellion could not be countenanced. The Germans executed what, today, would be called genocide in Southern Africa. The British invented the concentration camp in the Boer War, although the deaths were caused mainly by disease rather than deliberate extermination. Few of the other colonial powers come out of this part of the story well. Imperialism was conducted, as Bismarck implied, with one eye on the other powers. He needs of the locals were ignored.

As for wargaming, of course, there are two issues. Firstly, do we really want to wargame, say, the fighting in New Zealand against the Maori? From earlier posts on this theme, the answer of some correspondents was broadly speaking ‘no’ because the game would be one sided and hence boring. Fair enough – there are certainly more interesting wargames to be had than one side setting up some machine guns and mowing down all comers.

The second issue, I submit, is the tendency of the opposition in colonial wargames  to be presented as some sort of sub-Europeans. By this I mean that the local population is represented by categories of troops, with outlooks, that are imposed upon them through European colonial-imperialist eyes. In a sense, it is just an extension of the dreaded ‘national characteristics’ that used to be so rife in rules. But in this context it does start to look rather like the imposition of a different standard of warfare and organisation onto a culture, rather like the imperial powers imposed on the slices of the world they acquired.

As an example, which hopefully is fairly neutral, the European settlers in North America complained about the locals, that they would not stand up and fight. They ambushed. They raided. They used cover, and essentially undertook what the Europeans called a ‘skulking way of war’. Now, I am aware that this is best covered by skirmish level wargames, but there are some “big battle” games which also cover the period. These latter make what we could call an imperialist assumption: that the locals stood up and fought in accordance with the European expectation. Actually, so far as I have read, they rarely did, at least in the seventeenth century.

I could, and I may well, go on, but I think sufficient has been said to justify a gentle accusation at wargaming: some of it is imperialist.

Saturday, 8 April 2017

Annoying Books

Often I find that reading books that I disagree with is more productive than reading ones with which I agree. I suppose that I have to take a step back and try to work out what it is that I disagree with, rather than just forge forward safe in the knowledge that I and the author are of one mind.

As a case in point, the philosopher of religion Alvin Plantinga is my favourite ‘irritating’ philosopher. The reason for this is, to me at least, a little mysterious. To some extent I do agree with some of what he says. I could, if I applied myself sufficiently, agree with quite a lot of what he says. And yet I find that something in his works annoys me. If ever I want a good intellectual work out, I read a chunk of what he has written and try to establish why I disagree. I have not really managed that yet. I suppose that if I ever do, I will have become some sort of philosopher.

This post, in initial conception, was going to be about Wolgang Reinhard’s ‘A Short History of Colonialism’. This is a tome from my winter book box which I finished a week or so ago, and rather good it is too. By ‘good’ I mean, of course, that on the whole and insofar as I know anything about colonialism, I agree with the book. Colonialism is intrinsically neither particularly good nor bad overall. It can be very good or very bad of individuals, leading to massive enrichment, slavery and death. But the overall accounting of colonialism is harder to judge.

I have, from time to time on the blog, attempted to provoke slightly by suggesting that wargaming, in some of its aspects, are neo-colonial. By this I have meant that we force non-European armies and political entities into European forms. In fact, it can be argued that this is exactly what Europeans did, for example, in some parts of Africa, where they ruled through appointing tribal chiefs, on the assumption that there must be a tribe somewhere.

However, Reinhard makes a careful distinction between colonialism in its various forms, which he wants to treat as a value neutral label, and imperialism, by which he means the projection of great power rivalry onto the world stage in such activities as the ‘Scramble for Africa’. These activities, which included the newly arrived great powers of the United States and Japan, were far more damaging to the colonised regions than the previous British trading hegemony, although that too was not without its faults.  

The accusation I can thus make to provoke has to be modified in this light to accuse some wargaming of neo-imperialism, then. I suspect that, if unpacked thoroughly, there would be some substance to the accusation, if only that wargaming, as wargaming, usually requires two enemies to be willing to stand up and fight. To that extent, given that European warfare might be described as being more about that than some other forms of warfare around the world, the accusation might stick. However, it may also be noted to be full of holes as other, non-European, armies did, from time to time, stand and fight.

Having now spent a considerable time (or number of words, at least) describing what the post was going to be about, I can now move on to what it is about. In a sense I have not gone mad (or madder than usual) because it does link up.

The other book I have just finished from my book box is Stephen R. L. Clark’s ‘Ancient Mediterranean Philosophy’. I did find this book rather annoying and, in places, rather obscure. That could be because he covers an awful lot of time and space, and large chunks are devoted to ancient authors of whom I have heard little. It is hardly an introductory work, I think, and pays little heed to the standard ‘Greek and Roman Philosophy’ of normal academic process.

Clark’s main point, as I understand it, is that ancient philosophers were not doing what we think of as philosophy. He understands the ancient authors as doing something along the lines of constructing plausible world views and ways of life, not some sort of abstract, cool, detached and analytic thought. This is not, so far as I am aware, a particularly original insight – Pierre Hadot’s ‘Philosophy as a Way of Life’ (1995) has trodden that path before. But Clark throws his net wider. He encompasses Jewish and early Christian thought as philosophy, as well as Egyptian and Babylonian thinkers and (although I suspect he would dispute the term) proto-scientists.

The point that struck me about all this is not the detail, on which I am not an expert and cannot really comment, but how alien to modern thinking ancient ways were. The world view is, in point of fact, completely different. The ideas about gods and their interaction with the world are so alien as to be almost completely incomprehensible. Even though some of the early philosophers are characterised as proto-scientists, that was not what they thought they were doing. The idea of experiment, for example, was far from their thinking.

In terms of wargaming, of course, the point is hopefully obvious to any reader who has struggled through thus far. A Roman army, for example, was doing many things, and some of them are not the sorts of things we would expect of an army. We force it into modern categories, as we force Plato, for example, into the modern conception of philosophy. We might talk about Roman tactics, or logistics, but given the foregoing, perhaps we need to reconsider these terms. Were the Romans thinking tactics, or were they doing the obvious (to them) given the circumstances, or even recreating the great Roman armies of centuries before?

I am not sure of the answers here, or whether there can, in fact, be any answers. I am fairly sure that we could not wargame without forcing the Romans into a modern framework and categorization. But whether that necessity amounts to some sort of imperialism over the past I really cannot say.

Saturday, 1 April 2017

Fake Wargaming

The world is full of fake at the moment. In particular, we have the phenomenon of ‘fake news’. We can, of course, argue that fake news is nothing new.  Disinformation has been planted as news at all times and everywhere since Adam was a lad. After all, the serpent told Eve that she would not die as God had said if she at the apple. Either God or the serpent had planted fake news; it is a bit moot as to which it was.

Nevertheless, what is, I suppose, new about the modern obsession with fake news is the speed at which it propagates. A lie, after all, can be halfway around the world before the truth has got its boots on. It is very, very hard to persuade people, who may not wish to be persuaded, that their current favourite bit of prejudice masquerading as news is false. I am sure that you can think of lots of examples of this, and I am not particularly keen on sullying the reputation of this blog (such as it is) by repeating any of them here.

The point is that most human activity proceeds by belief. We believe, to a certain extent, what we are told about something. We believe, for example, that the Battle of Britain was won by the ‘few’ who fought off the might of the Luftwaffe.  We might believe this on the basis that Churchill told us so, and that he was in a position to know. In some terms, of course, Churchill was right. But he did not have full information about the state of the Luftwaffe, and could not know that actually the RAF outnumbered it. But the point is that the picture painted is one of the few nobly defending civilisation against the foe. We all like to be on the side of the heroes, after all.

Belief is not just to be found in politics and its rhetoric. Belief is found in spades in science. I do not repeat all the experiments that have been performed over history, even those that pertain to my particular specialism. If I did, and everyone else did, scientific progress would stop. We rely on testimony. Specifically, we rely on a specific sort of rhetoric, the journal article, which reports methods and results. Occasionally, such reports are found to be inaccurate, wanting, and not backed up by further work. In such cases the results are checked, the experiments repeated, retractions and corrections issued. But mostly, scientists believe other scientists.

How does this play out in wargaming? Indeed, is there such a thing as fake wargaming, or, for the matter of that, is there such a thing as authentic wargaming? I think a few distinctions are necessary, however. Firstly, by ‘authentic’ I do not mean something like ‘accurate historical wargame’. We all know that really there is no such thing, A wargame can perfectly well be authentic, in the sense I am meaning, while having little or no bearing on real life as we know it, or history as we accept it. What I mean here is that a wargame is authentic as a wargame, not that it is authentic as a historical display, for example.

Now, it may well be that I am barking up the wrong tree here. A wargame is just a wargame, a bit of an expression of a hobby. It really does not need an assessment of authenticity. It is just a thing that we can treat as we like.

That may well be true, of course, but I think we do worry about authenticity in many walks of life. Politicians, for example, who are found to have paid relatives for work that was not done have doubt cast over their fitness for public office.  Aristotle argued, reasonably convincingly that our choices become habits and our habits carry over from one thing to another. A habit of being inauthentic in wargaming may carry over into inauthenticity in other areas.

On the other hand, I doubt if inauthentic wargamers would get very far in the hobby. As a teenager I did have some doubts about some of my wargaming colleagues, who seemed always to have the right roll at the right time. The answer was, of course, to take away their calculators with random number generators and to get them to roll the dice across the table. The further answer was to go and play with someone else.

But I think there are deeper or more subtle forces at play here. We all know, I dare say, reputable sets of wargame rules that include such things as ‘+3 if an English crew’. Now, at one level, we can argue that this represents the better seamanship and level of training of English (or, in the Napoleonic Wars, Royal Navy) ships. We can argue that it is entirely fair, mostly by pointing to the fact that the wargames come out with the right answer – i.e. that the English win. That is, in some senses, an empirical result that is acceptable, but it does not really wash that well, I think. The ‘national characteristic’ is a fix, a fudge, and thus can stand accused of being fake.

The answer, in this case, is to dig a bit deeper and assign value to training and experience. This, of course, has the effect of making our rule, potentially, more complex, or at least making the pre-game set up more difficult. Nevertheless, in terms of something authentic it is probably worth it. We arrive at a result where, say, RN crews are trained at the same level as French, but have more experience because of the months spent on blockade duties. We thus have embedded in our rule set the rational explanation for a given result, rather than a claim that this nation is inherently better than that nation.

While fake wargaming, then, might be something of a misnomer, I think that authentic wargaming, in the sense of a game and set of rules that give a reasonable and rational account of a game, is an important concept that, perhaps, we do not acknowledge readily enough.

Saturday, 25 March 2017

Weird Historiography

One of the strangest experiences I have ever had was, admittedly, many years ago now. I was, for no very good reason, in San Antonio in Texas (the one in the USA) and visited, on a Sunday morning, The Alamo. Granted, The Alamo is a site of some historical importance, so what, you may wonder was so odd about it.

Now I admit that I, as the author of the blog and as a general gawper at historical sites am not from the United States of America, nor, in this case perhaps more importantly, am I from Texas. However, the really odd thing about The Alamo from my point of view was firstly, the respectful crowds of people wandering around the place and secondly the attendants holding up signs saying (something along the lines of – memory is not perfect)  ‘this is a national shrine – please be silent’.

As you can tell, I have been wondering about this ever since. My own feeling, apart from the general bizarreness of the atmosphere, was that only a bunch of lunatics would have considered defending the place. The walls are low, the buildings are built into the walls and there are lots of windows. In short, against any sort of artillery and determined attackers the place was indefensible.

That led to a further thought, of course. Only a bunch of total incompetents could have taken days to capture the place. I am not aware that the Mexicans at that time were particular humanitarians, so it probably was not an effort to save lives. When the place was stormed, they did not show particular quarter to the defenders, in accordance with the laws of warfare and sieges of the time.

Nevertheless, in the USA, and in particular in Texas (despite being a state of the USA, Texas still has something of the feel of being independent, or at least semi-detached. Texans are the only people to have voted to join the Union and seem to feel that they are willing to stay so long as the Union does not upset them too much) The Alamo is a significant site. There is a lot of myth accumulated around it and the siege and the war between Texas and Mexico. I am sure that many Texans, reading the comments I made above about the defensibility of the site would feel a bit aggrieved. It is a bit like telling the British that the RAF outnumbered the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain.

The point I think I am edging towards is that, very often, our historiography is dodgy. If you visit the average historic castle in the UK, for example, in the shop you will inevitably find figures of knights in armour with lances, swords and so on. There is a great focus on the castle as defended, and so much the better if it was besieged.  Actually, the castles were built for control and as centres of justice and administration. While they were defendable, that was not their main role. Principally, it is probably true, they were symbols of prestige, demonstrations of wealth and power. If you were a peasant who had at best a scythe and a pointy stick you were going to realise, in fairly short order, that besieging the castle and getting rid of your lord was not going to be easy, or even, perhaps, possible.

Nothing historically is really that simple, of course. Cathedrals are another statement in stone about wealth and power. While a few of them look like castles, they were not designed that way. They are, however, claims about the mightiness of God and the reach, wealth and power of the church. The aim of a cathedral is different from that of a castle, but, from a peasant’s eye view, the effect might be similar.

It is also, I think, a bit of a mistake to suppose that most castles were besieged at some time. Up the road from here is the ruin of a castle built to control the road along the foot of the moors. It was not, it seems, very big, very powerful or even particularly useful. It would have been a statement of power and control. It quickly fell into disuse and then into ruin. Around the corner there is a Cistercian Abbey which is a far larger and more impressive ruin. But the shop still sells knights with lances, although it does also sell teddy bears dressed as monks.

The point is, with both The Alamo and British castles, the myth is propagated that they were viable military installations. For all I know this goes further. The Rhineland is dotted with castles, including a rather nice one built in the middle of the river. Defensible? Probably. But actually they were built as a means of controlling the river traffic and charging (extorting – you are much more likely to pay a toll if cannon might be trained on your barge) tolls. The threat of armed force is often more effective than its actuality.

And so we loop around to wargaming again. I do not know how popular the Texas-Mexico war is among wargamers. My guess is not so much. Most of the activity seems to have been one sided, one way of the other. But the myths are real enough. So too with medieval castles; their existence suggests an ongoing threat of violence. Actually, although there are notable exceptions, medieval England was a reasonably peaceable sort of place. Even the Wars of the Roses caused fairly small amounts of damage, and that was, on the whole localised. But we like our myths better.

I suppose that, underlying this, is some sort of ethical question about what we wargame. On the basis of what I have just said, a ‘real’ medieval campaign game would have years of not much happening, followed by a short, limited campaign finishing in a battle and a few executions. Everyone else then retires to their castles, taxes a few more peasants and waits to have another go.  That might be realistic, but is it not rather boring?

Saturday, 18 March 2017

Wargame Identity

As someone noted recently in a comment, identity is an interesting thing. It crops up almost everywhere. There is, for example an ‘identity politics’, and also a ‘politics of identity’. What the difference is I leave as an exercise for the reader.

Identity seems to be predicated on the assumption that there is, in fact, something irreducible to me, as a person, as an entity. I am more that my spatial-temporal activities. One of the authors I have read on this matter, Ian Ramsey, has an argument along these sorts of line. His example is, so far as I recall, this:

You meet a work colleague. ‘I’m tired’ they say.
‘Why are you so tired?’
‘Because I got up at four am’
‘Why did you do that?’
‘Because I was meeting Tom at the river bank.’
And so on, until it transpires that your colleague went to go fishing. When you ask ‘Why fishing?’ you get a different sort of answer. ‘You know what I’m like about fishing’.  There is no further question to be asked. The next question would by, again, ‘Why fishing’ and the answer would be similar. Fishing, for your colleague is irreducible. The answer to ‘Why fishing?’ is something like ‘Because I’m I’.

Ramsey, being a theologian, wants to use the argument above to show that the soul exists and that it is immortal. I’m not sure that the argument works to that end, but that is not the point here. The point is that there is something irreducible about the person. There is something that cannot be explained in terms of anything else. The man likes fishing, and there is an end to it. He orientates his life around fishing; he is prepared to sacrifice sleep for it, and so on.

I suggest, metaphysical arguments about the soul aside, that this irreducibility of activities, particularly hobby activities, is a part of what it means to have an identity. There is an irreducible ‘I’m I’ about our spatio-temporal actions, something about them that we do because we are us.

Before the language gives up in this area, I think this applies, without much adjustment, to our self-identity as wargamers. I could, with a little thought, come up with a similar dialogue to that above which concludes ‘Because I’m a wargamer’ as a similar sort of statement that admits few additional questions.

Of course, we could start to analyse ‘Why are you a wargamer?’ That would start to ask other sorts of questions, however. I might be a wargamer because I was traumatised by being scared by a soldier as a baby, for example, and wargaming is my way of getting revenge in the solider profession. A little far-fetched, perhaps, but it does not address the fact that, in the here and now, being a wargamer is part of my identity, part of who I am.

Further, we could ask as to what sort of wargamer you are. From the comments section even of this blog a variety can be deduced. There are ‘social’ gamers, people for whom the main reason for wargaming is the social interaction. If that is not available, no wargaming happens. There are solo wargamers, who for reasons of time, space or temperament, wargame on their own. There are role playing gamers, skirmish wargamers, ancient wargamers, World War Two wargamers, wargamers of different genres and scales, and many (if not most) who cross over between these different categories in a way that, quite likely, bewilders non-wargamers.

Any attempt at self-identification within these groups is bound to be a little difficult. After all, we can, ourselves, vary quite widely across these categories anyway, and so few wargamers are going to announce to the world ‘I am a social ancient wargamer’, or ‘I am a solo World War Two wargamer’ or whatever is floating your wargame boat at that point. Nevertheless most readers of the blog may well be fairly happy with the statement ‘I am a wargamer’, whatever the nuance on that might be.

Being a wargamer, of course, indicates that you will partake in a number of spatio-temporal activities, such as playing wargames, reading sets of rules, books, painting toy soldiers and so on. None of these are irreducible to wargaming, in the same that buying floats and untangling lines are not irreducible aspects of fishing. With the possible exception of actually playing wargames, being a wargamer does not entail painting and reading, it just tends to happen that way.

The irreducibility, therefore, is not grounded in the spatio-temporal activity. Where then can it be found? The only suggestion I can make is that it exists in the mind of the wargamer themselves. I am, indeed, I, and this is part of what it means to be ‘I’. I might be able to conceive of myself as a non-wargamer, but part of who I am is that I wargame. If I were sent to prison for twenty years and then emerged, would I still be a wargamer, as someone who had not pushed a figure or rolled a dice for that time? The answer would depend on what was going on in my mind, whether I was still interested.

We do, of course, have many other irreducible parts of ourselves. We have jobs, names, families, places where we live, even, possibly, things we do other than wargame. Our identities are complex and multi-faceted. They are also mutable. I am not exactly the same as I was twenty years ago, whether I have spent that time in prison or in a variety of more or less dead-end jobs. My wargaming self too has changed – in my case from Renaissance to Ancient wargaming. Other wargamers change as well; our interests within the hobby vary over time.

So, I think that being a wargamer is more than just the activities we associate with wargaming. You could, in principle, be a wargamer without actually wargaming, although how long the interest would last is a bit of a tricky question. As irreducible, however, wargaming is part of the identity of a wargamer. It might be a greater or lesser part thereof, but part of it it is.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Charles the What?

Sort of following up from the discussion a few weeks ago about Alexander ‘the Great’, III of Macedon, I’ve just finished Richard Vaughn’s Charles the Bold. As most of you probably know, this is the fourth and last in the series of the Dukes of Burgundy, and was published in the 1970’s. So far as I can tell there is not an awful lot more on Duke Charles published since then in English, although it would seem that the Burgundian state is an object of interest to French and German historians, and also to the more sort of ‘theoretical’ historian, the sort who is interested in why we have modern nation states at all, rather than ‘composite’ states, as Burgundy was.

Charles seems to have been, while Duke of Burgundy, neither particularly rash nor bold. He usually only went to war when he either had to or when he had diplomatically isolated his target. He was not, as most medieval rulers seem to have been, systemically broke. As most rulers, until the formation of national banks in the 1600’s, had to, he borrowed from the (mostly) Italian banks because he needed ready money. While the Burgundian court was glittering and extravagant, the lands of the Burgundian Duke could actually afford it.

If anything Charles failed the Napoleon test as a general. He was not lucky. At Grandson, his troops panicked where they saw a backward movement of part of the army, and fled. At Murat and at Nancy Charles seems to have been a bit thick and was not expecting to fight. At Nancy he did suffer some desertions, but this seems to have been experienced captains saving their own lives and those of their men from a hopeless situation.

Being not very clever as a commander in chief is not, however, the same as being bold or rash. These epithets seem to derive from translations from the French. According to Wikipaedia (OK, not a great source of knowledge, but probably OK in this case)  Charles was known as le Hardi (the Bold), le Guerrier (the Warrior), le Terrible (translation left as an exercise for the reader) and le Temeraire ( the Reckless). The latter was used by the chronicler Thomas Basin, writing in 1484. What seems to be important, therefore, is the impression, rather than the facts of the matter, at least in the case of bynames. Mostly, however, he was known as Charles of Burgundy.

As Phil Barker observes in the DBM army lists, Charles’ army, the Burgundian Ordonnance, is a favourite of wargamers, despite its 100% record of losing battles. Barker does not speculate as to why this should be, except to note that the army has a bit of everything – men at arms, archers, pikemen, artillery by the spade load and so on. That may well be part of the charm, of course. If, for example, the English longbow men were still feared (and they were), and the European man at arms was the cream of medieval fighting prowess and technology (and they were, or at least, liked to think they were) then, surely, bringing them all together would make a great army.

To an extent this is, while an unproved and unprovable hypothesis, it cannot be disproved either. Charles was outnumbered at the three battles against the Swiss, even though only part of the Swiss army was in action at Grandson. At Nancy and Murat the army didn’t stand a chance, being surprised and divided by trying to keep a siege going at the same time as fighting off the Swiss. Part of the draw of the Burgundian Ordonnance is that we might feel it should have done so much better.

I suspect too that there is a bit of the romantic draw, and also a bit of the ‘can’t do worse’ syndrome. For the former, we all love a loser. The Cavaliers (wrong but romantic) are more popular than the Roundheads (right but repulsive). So may it be too with Charles of Burgundy. Not that he was necessarily right or wrong, of course – his causes would probably make little sense in the politics and diplomacy of today. But he was Europe’s leading knight. His court was the epitome of cultured sophistication of the day. Everyone else modelled themselves on Burgundy.

In fact, the court was designed to specifically draw attention to its culture, its sophistication, and the requirement that everyone who aspired to knightly living needed to emulate it. Charles had a massive amount of pride and was determined that his honour would, at all times, be upheld and satisfied. In a sense this is what killed him. Having started a siege, he would not stop it until his honour was satisfied; that is, until he either captured the place or was given a way out through negotiation. He managed at Neuss, but failed at Nancy.

The other part of the draw I mentioned is that a wargamer, faced with a 100% failure rate of the original army, may well feel that, if  they lose then that is historical, while if they win, that is something down to the skill of the wargamer themselves. I am not really qualified to enter into the psychology of this point of view, and, of course, as a solo wargamer, I do not have to, but it does seem like a live attitude out there.

I suspect, finally, that the other draw is the large artillery park the Duke could deploy. Wargamers, it seems, like technology. Indeed, at Nancy the Swiss decided on a flank attack because the road was commanded by the Duke’s artillery. Artillery could and did have a tactical effect, even though its rate of fire in a battle situation was lamentable. But wargamers, it seems, like artillery anyway, and so did the Duke. It was, in fact, another aspect of making the claims to greatness and power in the pre-early modern state. The earlier unassailable fiefdoms based around powerful castles were being, in some cases literally, blown away by the super-powerful Kings and Dukes with modern artillery parks. ‘Don’t mess with me or your masonry will tumble’ was a decent opening gambit in centralisation of the nation state.

So there you are: an army which should have done better; a Duke who might have been a bit brighter. The Burgundian Ordonnance army is often seen as transitional, although I’m sure that Charles, his captains and his men did not see it like that at all. Worth a wargame?

Saturday, 25 February 2017

Outside the Wargame Wall

All of them are in tears,
The ones who really love you,
Walk up and down,
Outside the Wall.
Some hand in hand,
Some gathered together in bands,
The bleeding hearts and the artistes,
Make their stand.
And when they’ve given you their all,
Some stagger and fall, after all,
It’s not easy, banging your heart
Against some mad buggers wall.
                                                Roger Waters, Pink Floyd: The Wall (1979)

There is a certain amount of peace which is available once you have admitted that you have hit the wargame wall. Admitting there is a problem is, perhaps, part of the solution. I have given up worrying about hitting a wall, but that does not mean that the wall has vanished. I think it is still there, I am just trying to stop it having any power over me.

The estimable Mrs P has, in fact, banned me from wargaming, unless I really want to, until the end of the month. This might seem a very odd thing to do, but it does have its advantages, namely in stopping me worrying about it. If I’m not allowed to wargame, then the Wall has no power. I’m sure there is an interesting study in psychology going on there somewhere, but I’ve no idea as to what it might be.

I think part of the problem here for me is that of identity. Life is hard enough, perhaps, without having to shed part of who I am. I have been, one way or another, playing with toy soldiers since, ooh, well, pretty well as long as I can remember. It is a part of who I am. If someone said to me ‘who are you?’ part of my reply would probably include that I am a wargamer. It is not the whole story, of course, but it is a part of my identity.

One of the problems with the Wall, then, is that hitting it throws my identity as a wargamer into doubt. A wargamer is someone who wargames, paints figures, reads rule sets and so on. If some or all of these activities are in question or doubt, then my identity as a wargamer is in question. The answer to ‘who are you?’ becomes more problematic.

Of course, I have not always been a wargamer. I mean, when I started playing with toy soldiers that is what I did. I think I started with the Airfix ‘Beachhead Assault’ - German infantry, British paratroopers and a command post and gun emplacement. The gun fired matchsticks, as I recall. Somehow the British always ‘won’, although I cannot recall what winning consisted of.

As with many of my friends we progressed through various sets of Airfix soldiers. Extensive collections of plastic warriors paraded their way across our floors. Somehow history and contemporary events got muddled up. The Russians, as I remember, usually got brigaded with the Germans (no doubt to the chagrin of the originals, the Molotov – Ribbentrop pact notwithstanding). I also remember energetic discussions as to whether the Ancient Britons or the Romans were the good guys or the bad guys. Mind you, that is something that continues to some extent in modern historiography.

I found, as did most of the rest of the wargaming world, books by Charles Grant and Donald Featherstone in the library, and devoured them. The world of my imagination expanded to include 15 mm figures; much was the family hilarity when it was discovered that the Miniature Figurines shop in Southampton was on the edge of the city’s red light district. I was warned to be careful about what models I brought back (I was far too young and naïve to know what that meant).

And so things progressed. I played role playing games at college and university – they were smaller than wargames, after all. But I returned to figure wargaming, perhaps via the Flashing Blades route, which I mentioned a while ago here (OK game, great setting).  I re-arrived in wargaming with the English Civil War.

The point of this ramble through memory lane is not any claim to interest or uniqueness of experience or route, but simply that wargaming is part of my identity. It is not just a hobby, I submit, but it is part of who I am. For example, I quoted Santa Anna to the estimable Mrs P last night (something like ‘poor Mexico, so far from heaven and so close to the United States). ‘How did you know that? Are you an expert on that too?’ No, I am not. But it happens that I read it while I was reading about the war. I don’t remember when that was: probably around the time I visited Texas, and went to the Alamo. My visit there was one of the oddest I have experienced at a historic site, but to explain why would be to digress too far.

Anyway, I do not think that I can just stop wargaming, or being a wargamer. Perhaps you can never stop being a wargamer, you are just an active one or a passive one. If you hit the wall, you do wonder what happens next but, I suspect, for many for whom wargaming is a primary hobby, there is no way of becoming a non-wargamer. It is always there, dormant, like a volcano, ready to erupt at the slightest provocation.

Of course, this is all subjective. It is my experience, my way of dealing with the wargame wall (or of not dealing with it, we shall see).  I have these experiences, this view on my identity and how I might or might not be willing to change it. There are very likely other ways of dealing with it, although the experience of hitting a wall seems to be more widespread than just me.

I have a few days left of my enforced sabbatical. After that I am supposed to do something, wargame wise. I’m not sure what it will be, but I am starting to form a few ideas, incoherent as they may be. I am still thinking about Hussites, but I am not sure that creating a completely new army without foes is a great idea. I am reading Richard Vaughn’s Charles the Bold, and that is another army of interest. I might go back to the Spanish doubling project, and I did discover a box of GNW Poles in the cupboard as well. The future lies open; I wonder if I can grasp it.

Saturday, 18 February 2017

The Wargame Wall

As I peruse the blog sphere and ponder the meaning of wargames, it seems to me that there is always something lurking in the background. Sometimes bloggers just disappear, perhaps for a while, perhaps for ever. Sometimes they admit that there is a problem and absent themselves from wargaming for a while. Some take refuge in Featherstone books, returning to declare themselves cured. But most of us, sometime, suffer from it.

I’m talking about the wargame wall: that moment when you hit the edge of your wargaming horizon, the end of your current wargame rope. When you cannot be bothered to get the toys out and paint them, or place them on the table. Even the idea of thinking about a wargame fills you with a curious feeling of dread.

The reasons for hitting the wall are probably as many and various as there are wargamers. Similarly, I suppose that the experience of the wall, and any strategy for getting over, around or through it are varied and multiple. Nevertheless, I think that acknowledging that the wall exists and that we sometimes hit it. Naming something somehow makes it less scary.

For me, I am currently, I think, en-walled. I have a game in my campaign to play out, but have not managed to get around to it. I have a Spanish army to paint, with the first few troops undercoated, but in the box they remain. I even have a stack of nice looking books about history to read, yet I have tended to choose something else. Somehow, wargaming seems a bit too much of an effort at the moment.

Seasonal effect of course can have an impact. Traditionally, as I understand it, in the UK the winter has been the wargame season. Most of the shows are between September and April, after all. When summer beckons so do holidays, trips out and gardening. That is not to say that wargaming does not happen, but that the time available is less. However, winter has its wargame problems. In my case, my study / wargames room is cold, unless I heat it, and if I heat it, then the family room is cold. To paint would involve moving the painting operation to the family room, and that seems a lot of effort for something I’m not that keen on doing at the moment.

Seasonal effects are, of course, seasonal. There are underlying issues at stake as well. Perhaps it is recent political events, but my reading of history recently has tended to suggest that most world leaders in history are rather stupid, definitely ill-advised, grasping and do not act with the best interests of the ruled at heart. A wargame, therefore, of, say Agincourt, is the upshot of a decade or so of real princely treachery, mistrust and power and money grabbing on one side, and arrant opportunism on the other. Similarly, seventeenth century Europe (and, in fact, the wider world) was led to disaster by princes who thought their honour and glory were worth much more than the lives of their subjects.

On that theme, I have just read a book on the Siege of Vienna in 1683. The remarkable fact is that swathes of Europe, notably some of Germany, Austria and Poland, came together to beat off a threat to Vienna, the heart of Europe. That this campaign was launched by the Ottomans for their own reasons – namely that foreign success staves off internal dissent – is somewhat beside the point. The fact is that Louis XIV and his allies saw it as a marvellous opportunity to chomp up bits of the west while the Hapsburgs were occupied in the east. And many people think that Christendom only collapsed with the French Revolution….

People are, of course, people. Louis XIV, for all his pride, honour and assumed glory, was probably no smarter than anyone else. He just happened to be a king, and to believe his own propaganda and the sycophancy of his courtiers. Thus central Europe nearly fell to the Ottoman Empire. Short term goals and ambitions sacrifice longer terms security all through history.

For those of you interested, January 30th also marked the anniversary of the execution of King Charles I. The Church of England regards him as a martyr, and some bits of it venerate him as a saint. On the other hand, recent historiography regards the Civil Wars as being largely his fault. I hope I do have a bit of a balanced view on this, but I probably do not. C. V. Wedgewood remarked that he might have been a wonderfully cultured figure as a noble, but he was a bit of a disaster as a king (or words to that effect). The C of E rather glosses over the fact that he was executed not for starting the first civil war, but for starting the second – the epithet ‘that man of blood’ referred to (mostly) scattered, bloody fighting in 1648. But we rarely use history in this sort of balanced way.

All of this has, perhaps, impacted on my wargaming. Perhaps I could be accused of overthinking it. It is a hobby. It is not meant to reproduce history. Historical events have happened and we cannot unpick them. Perhaps all we can do is remember them and work to prevent them happening again in our time. Maybe part of my wall is that, in certain interpretations and certain respects, I do see history repeating itself.

In all probability I need a game to cure my blues. As I said, I have one on the books, but have not got to it. Maybe I need to rev the heating up and get the toys out and chase away the dark clouds. But it would be interesting to know, from my loyal reader, if you have found a wargame wall and, if so, what you did about it. Maybe you are much better than I at separating current events, history and wargaming. 

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Reasonable Wargames

As I have noted before, it would be quite easy to lapse from being a wargamer interested in the history of the world’s conflicts, to being a cynic about politics and international diplomacy. Perhaps this is as a result of reading too much, or, indeed, of modern historiography (or at least, popular versions thereof) being too much of a surface reading. Often, it seems reasons for a ruler or country going to war seem too unimportant to justify the action.

As a slight aside, I recall doing, as many of us might have done, the Tony Bath thing and setting up a mythical continent in which to conduct our battles and campaigns. My continent was a small island, upon which ECW Royalists, Parliamentarians, Covenanters and Montrose Scots each had a country, with a capital, cities, towns and economies. There were, as I recall trade relations between them. After a lot of work, including drawing maps and creating characters for the leaders, I sat back and examined my creation. It seemed a happy little world. No country had a reason to make war upon another. The leaders all seemed like nice and reasonable people.

I rolled the map up and put it away. Clearly my imagination was too limited to start a war, there anyway.

Now, of course, I have learnt a bit of sense. My campaigns do not have such a level of detail. Indeed, they have more or less no detail at all. The maps are just blobs. There are no towns, no trade, and no economy. Rulers simply rule and direct their armies. International relations are determined by a chart with numbers from one to six indicating war to peace. Occasionally I might have a personality or two around the place, but mostly the people, from the poorest landless peasant to the Emperor are helpless pawns in the hands of an implacable fate, and a bunch of dice rolls.

It seems easier this way.

That does not mean, of course, that the destruction is any less. A unit that runs away in battle is likely to be lost totally. One of the notable things about ancient warfare, anyway, is that a campaign rarely lasted for more than a single battle. The losers lost, the winners won, and there was an end. Any further dispute usually was held over to the next campaigning season.

On this basis a lot of pfaff is saved in investing time and energy in maps and manoeuver. Ancient armies, particularly non-Roman forces, did not go in for grand tactical moves, feints and shimmies.  I dare say there were some, but mostly it was a case of getting forces to the battlefield (itself something of a major achievement), lining them up and charging the enemy. The outcome was in the lap of the gods, and depended on the bravery, or otherwise, of the warriors.

Thus, my ancient campaign system, such as it is, does not deal with the minutiae of scouting to find the enemy, logistics, flank marching and so on. It focusses on the day of battle, and what each side has in its forces. Recruitment, desertion and losses are abstracted but present. Thus, one of the Spartan King’s forces deserted in my 360 BC campaign when he joined forces with the Thebans against his co-ruler. No Spartan would countenance that.

As I noted recently, what is important in this is a sense of the logic of events, of the reasonableness, or at least explanatory intelligibility of them. Things do happen at random, granted. Auguries and events can change a general’s view of the world and how it will develop. But there is a reason for that, even if it a reason from a totally different world view from our own. A battle not happening on a give day because of a flight of birds is a reason, even if it is not one which yields to our present logic and understanding of the world.

Perhaps, then, to have a reasonably authentic feel to a wargame, the narrative intelligibility of the battle needs to remain largely intact. Generals may well have bad days at the office. Indeed, an innovative general, like Hannibal, Marlborough or Napoleon can become rather predicable and hence be out thought at the last by a rival who has studied their methods. Even so, this needs to be accounted for in the logic of the game.

The upshot seems to be something like this, a wargame, to ‘feel’ authentic, needs to be intelligible, in the sense that we, as the wargamers, can see what has happened and give an account of why it happened. This is a privilege which is probably not available to the participants in a battle. As wargamers we hold an overview of the battle which is not even available to the generals on the ground, no matter how good their communications, at least until post-WW2 battles (and even not then, mostly).

 A historian, too, wishes to give an account of a battle (at least, those who might be interested in battles do) but historians can simply claim lacunae in their sources and erect mystery barriers if they do not wish to advance reasons or guesses as to why the Tenth Foot ran away. Historiography tries to remain within the ambit of its sources. Wargames, of course, are expected to be completely explained within the game and the rules. Cause and effect here is necessary, within the limits set by dice rolls. History is rarely quite so cut and dried.

Thus for my island continent, the logic of the countries seemed to be against war. A rational mind could not find a reason for causing the chaos of conflict. I dare say that my fictitious politicians and generals felt very differently about it. As we found out again last year, politics and international relations are, in fact, rarely guided by logic and reason, or, at least, not by those human traits alone. Putting those into my campaign world proved rather more difficult than I expected. Fortunately these days I simply declare that a war is going on and have the battles (with full reasonableness, logic and intelligibility, of course) anyway.

Saturday, 4 February 2017

All At Sea Again

The devoted reader of this blog might have noticed that I have an interest in matters naval. After all, only an idiot or a devotee would paint 150 ancient galleys with only a vague idea of how to use or what they were for. I have to also admit to further offences which should be taken into account by the court. A load of renaissance galleys, for example, and a whole pile of seventeenth century ships, augmented by occasional Napoleonic era warships and merchantmen. Oh yes, and some ‘armada’ ships, too.

I throw myself on the mercy of the court.

All this introspection was sparked by an article in History Today (Vol 27, Issue 2, February 2017) on the British Civil Wars at Sea. The BCW did, of course, have a naval element. Anyone who has read anything about it must have noticed that, if only the story of Queen Henrietta Maria landing at Bridlington under fire and going back to collect her dog. You might also have read that Plymouth and Lyme were sustained in sieges by the navy, and that Hull, too, was relieved by warships.

That, however, is about it. In fact, there is only one book, as I recall, about the navy in the Civil Wars. I have read it, and I don’t recall its name or the author, and it is somewhat hard to find, but, among all the literature about the Civil Wars, one book is about it. It is not even, as I recall, a particularly good book. It works from the assumption that the King had a strategy of a three pronged attack on London, by the northern army, the south western army and the Oxford army, and, somewhat gleefully, describes how the navy bent back the first two prongs, by relieving Plymouth, Lyme and Hull.

Whether the Royalists ever seriously had such a strategy is rather moot, I believe. It is, first of all, a bit of a simple minded plan. Secondly, it rather ignores the distances involved, and the likely forces of opposition. After all, it is unlikely that the Eastern Association would have simply roiled over and let Newcastle’s army pass through, even if the EA army had been defeated somewhere in Lincolnshire. Finally, as both sides seem to have known from the outset, the Civil War was decided on the battlefield, not by besieging and capturing the enemy capital. As some contemporaries observed, this set the conflict apart from the European wars of the period, where sieges were more decisive.

What role, then, did the navy have? Firstly, we note that most of the navy, in the first Civil War, was Parliamentary. This led the Royalists into a problem, in that they could not, as a general rule, rely on imports of arms and personnel from Europe. Further, the merchants, of course, were mainly based in London and needed the access to European markets which was protected by the navy. Thus, their loans to Parliament were self-interested. The mere existence of the navy on the Parliamentary side had an immediate, if indirect, effect.

This changed somewhat when the Royalists captured Bristol, a viable mercantile port. Bristol ships could then compete with London, and an armed navy, of a sort, could be put forth. Of course, any ‘blockade’ by either side was as full of holes as a fisherman’s net, and ships had always got through, but the major ports could, naturally, handle much larger vessels and quantities of cargo. The Royalists always seem to have been a bit on the edge of a logistical crisis – at First Newbury they more or less ran out of gunpowder – and this was in part because of the lack of port facilities, and in part because of distribution problems: Gloucester was a nuisance, to say the least.

Parliament always had an Irish Sea squadron, as well. Partly this was to block supplies to the Irish Confederates, but it was also to interdict communications between Irish Royalists (and pro-Royal Confederates) and the Royalist port of Chester. Again, some troops got through, most notably Colonel Monk and his men. It could have been a lot worse for Parliament if the squadron had not been there.

The problem with all this, as a wargamer, of course, is that there are no decent fleet actions to be had. Even in the Second Civil War, when the Royalists had a decent navy under an active commander, they achieved little, and were basically shadowed to death by Parliamentary squadrons. Even though the strategic options were much wider – Rupert got to the Caribbean – there was not a lot of actual action. The wars were sets of ship to ship, privateer on merchant, small group fighting, rather than big pounding matches.

This is, of course, an area largely ignored by both historians and wargamers. There was nothing particularly exciting about it. There are, as noted, few books on the subject, although there is, according to the article, a forthcoming tome ’The British Civil Wars at Sea’. Unfortunately it is to be published by Boydell and Brewer, which means that us ordinary mortals will have to extend the mortgage to acquire a copy. That is a shame because most available sources have a distinctly Whig history approach to the subject – Parliament represented progress, the future, industrial revolution and empire, while the Royalists were backward looking, sentimental, feudal and so on. That does not, of course, explain why the navy mutinied in 1648….

Wargames at sea, in fact, seem to benefit from a small number of vessels being employed. Most write ups of naval games I have seen are of a few vessels, with different aims and missions. I could easily imagine a few Royal armed merchants attempting to get through to a Cornish port, harried by an even smaller Parliamentary squadron. Three to five vessels a side would seem to do the trick. Integrated into a land campaign the success, or not, of each side could be reflected in ammunition levels and weaponry of the armies. At least it would make the point that the Civil Wars did not all take place on dry land.

Saturday, 28 January 2017


I fear that I am becoming a bit of a one dead horse beater, having written far too much this month about text, interpretation, authority and all that stuff. Important though I think it is, it is not the be all and the end all of the wargame world, even of my wargame world. I suppose, therefore, it is high time to find something else to talk about.

To start with, I could review my wargaming 2016. It did not go all that well. While a played a few games and ditched major parts of the rules, progress was limited. On the painting side I was decidedly hampered by an eye problem in the summer, but I did manage to finish my doubled Moorish army. Actually, I cheated a bit. My first aim was to finish by the end of November, and then I could justify obtaining more shiny metal at Battleground. I think Mr Berry was a bit surprised when I demurred from any purchase there. I was 24 figures from finishing. I actually completed the painting on New Year’s Eve, but basing took into January. Still, they are finished now.

The major project of the year was 150 tiny, tiny galleys. They were done by the middle of the year (I think) but for all my efforts, the campaign has yet to yield a naval encounter, so they remain in the box. But it is nice to know they are there. In fact, I think most of my painting effort is directed at knowing that I could field x army or navy at a moment’s notice, but that I rarely, in fact, do.

Along the way I somehow also managed to paint five houses, or, rather, four hovels and a house. These were Leven Miniatures Arab / Mediterranean range, I think and they painted up quite well, even given my limited abilities. They, at least, have been in action, masquerading as Asiatic Thracian homes in one of the main battles of the year.

I started to paint some of Irregular’s big classical buildings as well, but somehow they dropped off the road map after being partially undercoated and stuck on bases. The reason for this, if I recall, was that I noticed after having started that the insides needed painting as well as the outsides. As it has been snowing here as I write, I could be quite envious of a Mediterranean climate.

As far as the blog goes, discounting the hiatus in the summer, a lot of the recent posting has been about how to read ancient texts. I guess that this is something of a niche activity for most wargamers, even those of a historical bent. We prefer our history processed and dished up for us, I think, rather than having to chew on the raw data and interpret it for ourselves.  But I have been writing about that far too much recently, as I said above, so enough, and move on.

Reading has continued, and there have been some fine works consumed over the year, including Mary Beard’s SPQR and Geoffrey Parker’s Global Crisis.  As I said at the time, and in the Christmas Eve post, the latter is an amazing work of historical synthesis and unutterably depressing. I followed this up with a stab at the fourth volume of Sumption’s Hundred Years War series. I only made it half way through before the greed, stupidity and playground politics approach of most of the participants annoyed and depressed me so much that I had to give up. I fear that the resonances between both Parker and Sumption and contemporary politics were part of the mix as well. I will return to it, sometime.

Enough, I hear you cry! What of the future? A new-ish year beckons, vistas lie open before you. What are you going to do?

Well, next up on the painting table is another Spanish army. This is part of my doubling project, of course, and I am hoping that it will not take all year, this time. I have already undercoated a large number of skirmisher type figures, so the intent is there, even if the execution is a bit lacking. I also have the aforementioned classical buildings to finish (or, viewed from another perspective, properly start) and a few bits of a Roman marching fort to complete as well.  Having entirely failed to acquire any more figures or buildings in 2016, everything this year is eroding the unpainted figure pile, which has to be a good thing.

In case you are wondering whether there is a plan here, the answer is, inevitably, vaguely, sort of. I have noted that a certain Mr Hannibal used a fair number of both Spanish and Moorish troops and so my ‘master’ plan is to complete them and then I might have less to do if I ever decide to go for some Punic War activity. I am not holding my breath for that, however. Maybe when I retire….

In terms of reading stuff, I shall certainly continue doing that. I really ought to get around to Livy and Polybius, Xenophon (his other writings, not the historical ones) and Plutarch, but I doubt that will be this year. I have a fair pile from my winter reading box and a few Christmas present books to wade through (no, that is the wrong term – I enjoy them). I have a few of wargaming interest, such as Plataea, the Siege of Vienna and a biography of Cato. Interestingly, one of the selling points of the latter was George Washington’s use of Cato in the Valley Forge. Either that is an unlikely historical link or a cunning marketing ploy by the publishers, given that most people’s reaction to ‘Cato’ is ‘who?’

I will of course, continue to blog about the failure to achieve most of the above, and report on the very occasional success. As to what will appear on the blog aside from that, I have no real idea. I tend to blog, these days, from week to week, and it depends on what I have been reading, thinking about or trying out. We shall, hopefully, see.

Saturday, 21 January 2017

Amateur Historians

The problem, as I have tried to state it, is something like this: historical wargamers, as wargamers, read the historical texts in a certain way, which is not the way that most historians read them. Thus, a wargamer reading a secondary text, assuming that that text is not a wargaming text, is unlikely to find the answer to the questions they would like answered.

The upshot of this is that wargamers, not being, in general, professional historians, will read texts, and generate answers to their questions, which might raise the eyebrows, somewhat at least, of a trained historian. As a wargamer, I want to know, for example, the effective range of a Greek bow.  A historian is more likely to want to know the social class of an Athenian bow wielder. To some extent, at least, the two will rarely meet.

As an example, I am currently reading ‘Democracy: A Lifer’ by Paul Cartledge (Oxford: OUP, 2016).  Cartledge is a bona fide classical historian, and does know a fair bit about classical warfare, given that a number of his works relate to it. But battles are not his real interest. The focus in Democracy is, naturally, the rise of Greek democracy, particularly in Athens (because that is where a lot of the evidence comes from). As it happens, a fair bit of Athenian democracy was related to the rise of the hoplite class, at least initially, and then to the requirement of the Athenian Empire (Delian League) for manpower for the trireme fleet. The need for large numbers of free men to man the triremes led to political power being, in part, relocated to the poorest citizens. If they withdrew their labour, the state was imperilled.

One of the problems with the discussion of Greek democracy, of course, is that our sources (Thucydides and Xenophon, mostly) were not keen on the idea of the masses (even the masses of citizens) having any say in affairs. Thus their accounts of Athenian 9and other) democracies are rather biased against it. So too, roughly, with Aristotle. People who come from the educated elite tend to rather look down on the uneducated masses.

Be that as it may, the issue is that Cartledge is not particularly interested in the details of Athenian fleets or the machinations of campaigns, alliances and international politics, at least in this book. That is not to say it is not a good book (it is good book) but to admit that the focus is not where most wargamers would want it to be.

That said, of course, most of the historical texts do not focus on what wargamers are interested in. While there is a reasonable amount of information around on some of the bigger battles, it is often not cast in a form the wargamer needs to answer their questions. As I noted before, a wargamer really wants answers in the form of ‘there were X thousand hoplites, Y hundred cavalry and Z thousand light troops present’. While this does happen, it is rarely the focus of either original historian of secondary work author.

Wargamers, thus, are forced to make their own interpretations of historical texts, and it is here that the incautious can make mistakes. It is very easy to read an ancient text as if we were reading a newspaper report. We can and, I suspect, often do, simply flip through the pages until we find something interesting, like an order of battle or an account of a skirmish, and ignore the rest. After all, as a wargamer, we want the armies and the battles. Give us the numbers and array, and we will be happy.

Unfortunately, textual interpretation is rarely that easy. The author almost certainly has some sort of agenda. We also forget that history, as a subject for academic study, was a nineteenth century invention. Prior to that, it was relatively rare for someone to questions the sources accuracy or consider the inherent bias of the author. A naïve reading of the text is often nearly as bad as no reading at all.

For a made up example, it is possible that an ancient author, opposed to the idea of democracy, would inflate the size of ‘democratic’ armies over oligarchic ones, and accuse the former of being undisciplined and hence lucky to win a battle over the latter. This has little or nothing to do with history, and a lot to do with ideology. If we do not read the rest of the author, we might land up considering that democratic armies were fairly useless but, as democratic, simply big enough to win.

We therefore land up, if we read a text with sufficient suspicion, presenting ourselves with, perhaps a range of possibilities. Within these we have to make decisions about army size, quality of generals, discipline, training and so on. The text might present us with a ball park, but only our interpretation can decide where within the field the historical army was to be found.

As another example, if you read Tacitus (and I hope you do) one of the things that frequently happens is that a Roman army on the frontier becomes lax and ill-disciplined because the general is more interested in a life of luxury or political scheming. A new general is sent out and makes the soldiers do dawn marches and plenty of battle practice (which they love) and then leads them, in the next campaigning season, into a successful, victorious, battle. Everyone is happy. The soldiers get pay and loot, the general kudos and promotion and so on. But this happens again and again in Tacitus, leading us to suspect that other motives are afoot in the writing, more to do with the politicians and generals Tacitus liked and disliked than any real difference in the efficiency of the army.

The upshot of this is, of course, that textual interpretation is tricky. I do not mean that we should not do it, or that we should leave the interpretation to the experts and rely on those who have material we need (largely because they tend to be Dead White Males of a previous age and outlook), but that we need a sufficient dose of caution in our interpretation, a dash of suspicion before we try to reconstruct what might have been going on.

Saturday, 14 January 2017

Wargamer’s Readings of History

I have noted before that wargamers have, in all likelihood, a particular view of history, and a particular use for the texts thereof. Wander around the book stalls of your local wargaming show and, I suspect, two things will become clear to you. Firstly, wargamers are, even in these days of the Internet, a fairly book-ish tribe. Secondly, they are interested in politics, campaigns, battles and military dress, and very little more.

History, of course, encompasses much more than this list of what, I think, historians would conceive of as fairly minor sorts of interests. I once read that professional historians were little interested in the battle of Agincourt and its outcome, but much more interested in the Treaty of Troyes and what it tells us about medieval kingship. This always struck me as slightly odd, partly because I had just read an article by Austin Woolrych bemoaning this attitude among historians, and secondly because Troyes would not have happened if Henry V had gone down under the weight for the French attack in 1415.

Woolrych observed that, when he started being a historian, it struck him that some idea of how things turned out, of who won the battles, for example, was quite important. Professional historians, he discovered, did not really agree, which he found very strange. For myself, I do find that historiography’s focus on thematic analysis is only of any use when you have a firm understanding of the chronology of the period in question. Otherwise it just gets confusing. That chronology is often not present in academic historiography, and thus it seems, at least, to split itself off from events. Sometimes, it seems, history can spend its time examining the lichen on the bark of a tree, and forget that the wood exists.

In spite of all this, of course, the spate of respectable history books by professional historians published about Agincourt around 2015 was rather large. Whether or not the main focus of the profession is on the Treaty of Troyes, some historians clearly have an eye to the popular history main chance, and what the book-buying public might be interested in. Battles are, if nothing else, high drama which even Eastenders or similar soap operas find it hard to compete against. When it comes to conflict, battles are hard to beat.

Nevertheless, it is true that wargamers, as a community, have a different set of interests, and a different set of readings, from people who are following, say, church history, or medical history, or the social history of dustmen, or whatever. We read the same texts, perhaps – in ancient history particularly there are only a limited number of texts to read – but we read them in a different way, asking different questions and finding answers that satisfy those, in whole or part. A medical historian reading Arrian might be interested in Alexander’s wounds, their treatment and his final illness. A wargamer would be interested in the numbers of troops in the armies.
In terms of the authority to interpret, what we have here is a diverse set of interpretative communities. The medical historians and the military ones, let alone the wargamers, probably have little to talk about beyond the interpretation of certain words. This is not strictly because they talk past each other (although that happens) it is just an indication of diverse interests. The secondary literatures that build up around these topics are usually only of interest to the members (more or less peripheral to them) of that community of interest. Interpretations are then relative to that community.

Thus, for the wargaming community, the interpretations we seek are those which aid the community in the fulfilment of its aims. The aim of the wargaming community is, of course, to play wargames, and to enjoy them. As has been noted a few times here, while that aim is not incompatible with having an interpretation of history which is acceptable in a wider historiographical community, such as professional historians, it does not entail that a wargame is historical. A wargame may be a reasonable and acceptable interpretation of a historical event, but it does not have to be.

The acceptability of a wargame, therefore, is not a simply function of its historicity, nor is it one of the fun of the game. It is, rather, a complex function of the two, plus a few other aspects, such as aesthetic appeal, playability of the rules, sociability and so on. But it is, I think, a mistake to suppose that a ‘good’ wargame is a historical wargame, or a wargame played strictly for fun. As with so many things, the truth of what a good wargame is lies between these poles.

Interpretations of history of interest to wargamers thus tend to evolve. Wargaming started, perhaps, with the view of the activity of the individual solider, what he could do in a certain time. As understanding of battles and their concomitant activities evolved, some aspects of wargames became more unit based, and the interest switched to what a unit could achieve in a certain amount of time. Of course, there was a backlash to this as, perhaps, a more ‘romantic’ view of the soldier as hero reasserted itself. History as written and interpreted is an aspect of this, but only one of the inputs to the debate.

Who, then, has authority of interpretation in wargaming? The answer is, perhaps inevitably, no one. But the reasons for making that the answer are at least a little interesting. There are active debates in wargaming between the unit and the individual, and that debate is articulated through big battle and skirmish type rules and games. What we actually think are important aspects of military conflicts is shown though our activities. Not that, of course, our opinions do not shift, but consider this: if you fight a wargame with a set of skirmish rules, and the same wargame with a set of big battle rules, you are almost certain to get a different outcome.

Nevertheless, Einstein encouraged sociologists of science not to listen to what scientists said they do, but to watch what they do. How much, I wonder, of wargamer’s commitments to interpretations of history can be seen in the games that we play?