Saturday, 17 June 2017

The Nomadic Wargamer

For someone who has been a wargamer since teenage years (and that is getting a fair while ago) my set up has always been rather nomadic. My first ‘proper’ wargames were fought on my parents circular dining room table.  Looking back, the geometry made for an interesting wargame, as the flanks were all fairly secure.

My gaming became slightly less nomadic when I was bought a six foot by four foot wargames table, which would sit snugly on the kitchen table. This was used for a number of years both for my fifteen millimetre English Civil War and medieval battles, and also as the main table for my A level years role playing games group. University, of course, put a stop to all that. Gaming, in particular role playing, became entirely nomadic once again.

Life went on, and ‘settling down’ occurred. However, this was in a tiny flat, and so the rekindled wargame hobby had to fit in. the armies were of six millimetre soldiers now, and small in base numbers at that. While the variety grew, the numbers of bases that could be placed on the table remained small. My foray into DBR allowed armies from around the world to be collected and painted, but the size was limited to one hundred point armies. Mostly, wargames were fought out on a two foot square coffee table.

That is not to say that wargames, and definitely enjoyable wargames, did not happen. One of my favourites was the rise of the Aztec Empire game, where the player had to go out and conquer the surrounding cities. I devised a random system, using cards, for the opposition, and a points system to see if the terror of the Aztecs made cities submit before the army got there. It worked very nicely, and I had a large number of wargames as a result. The system eventually beat me. My fear points were dropping and I needed a spectacular victory, so the emperor attached himself to a base of Jaguar knights. Unfortunately, they were taken in flank by some recalcitrant subjects, and my empire collapsed.

However, age is taking its toll, and I no longer feel able to bend over a coffee table for such lengthy periods, nor to carry boxes of soldiers and terrain up and down stairs. The desk here in my ‘study’ has been performing the work of a wargame table as well, but work (I have an unenlightened employer  whose policy on staff working from home takes some believing, especially given their loudly proclaimed green credentials, lack of car parking spaces and desperate efforts to look like a right on institution. However, in some cases, as this week when my car decided it needed a trip to the local hotel / garage, my line manager takes pity) and study sometimes covers it with books and papers to the extent that its surface vanishes and if I covered it with my wargame cloth I could be fighting in the Himalayas.
After some frustration and a real dearth of wargames, I decided a different solution was required. Now, all my more recent bases of toy soldiers have a bit of magnetic strip underneath, so they remain secure in their boxes while being sorted out and dropped. I therefore possess a fair number of bits of steel paper and a spare cork notice board. One morning, therefore, I spent some time working out if the steel paper would stick to the cork, and how many pieces I would need to cover it.

I was just wondering how I was going to cut the steel paper neatly enough for it to be acceptable as a playing surface when the Estimable Mrs P. returned. She does take an interest in what I have been doing and so, over a nice cup of coffee I explained the problem and showed her my projected solution. It has the advantage, I explained, that I could pick the board up and store it without the soldiers falling off.

Now, I should explain that we have, at least temporarily, gone up in the world since our one bedroomed flat. We currently live in a rather large four bedroom detached house in a highly desirable village location. I should add that we do not own it, just in case anyone thinks that we are worth burgling. Nevertheless, with just the two of us (and the cat) there is a fair amount of room, much of which is taken up with stuff we have not got around to throwing away.

The Estimable Mrs P was not too impressed by my solution to the wargame problem, I confess, and I was a little disappointed at that point. However, she had a far better idea. One of the downstairs rooms is hardly used, except for the storage of our collection of home-made wine and our more presentable books.  Why not, she suggested, get a table and set up the wargame operation in there?

Some head scratching and measurement ensued and despite my protestations over the expense the process of setting the room up has begun. We pondered the nature of the table for some time, and finally decided (prompted in my case by a comment in the introduction, I think, to DBA) that a card table would be just the ticket. I was told, in no uncertain terms, that it has to be a ‘nice’ one and a rickety plastic one from Amazon was not acceptable.

The question of storage was solved by moving a semi-redundant wardrobe downstairs, which has plenty of room for the boxes of soldiers and terrain, and for the cloths (I have three – green, sand and blue). An unused wall mounted bookshelf has been located for installation for the storage of rules and my small collection of directly wargame related items.

The table itself arrived yesterday. It is about eighty centimetres square and fits in the room very nicely. After some tests, I have discovered that the width will accommodate twenty bases of my armies side by side. As even wargamers rarely line their toys up shoulder to shoulder across the board, this is fine, and of course the depth means that waggon trains and camps are required features, rather than conveniently being left off table.


And so here I am, nearly, at least, no longer a nomadic wargamer. The next week or so should see the finishing touches applied and the armies and other bits transferred. The painting operation will, I think, remain here – I don’t want to paint on a card table. But now I should be able to wargame without too much sweat and too many tears.

Saturday, 10 June 2017

The Languages of Wargaming

For my sins, which must be very many, I have been doing a little reading on deconstruction. As I am sure that you all know, deconstruction is broadly associated with the French thinker Derrida. Despite Derrida’s claims to the contrary, it is true that deconstruction has become a major tool of literary criticism, and its influence has been a bit limited elsewhere. Partly, I think, this is because Derrida was French, and therefore widely ignored in Anglo-American philosophy. Further, I think, it is because he draws on a philosophical tradition which was (at least) not widely understood (or translated) in that Anglo-American tradition. Thirdly, it seems, a common understanding of deconstruction is that it, in fact, lands you up precisely where you were before, just more confused and with no map of where to go.

Those warning shots fired, I propose to consider what a simple (and simplistic – I am trying to avoid reading Derrida) approach to the languages involved in wargaming through a form of deconstruction might look like. Of course, in the confines of a blog post I can only hint at some of the issues, but I hope it might give an interesting view on some of the knotty problems that do lie beneath the surface of wargaming.

Firstly, we have to ask what sorts of language are there being used in a ‘wargame discourse’ (an ugly term, but I cannot think of a better one)? Off hand, I can identify three main ones: history, rules and narrative. Now, even in deconstruction these language do not need to be in competition, but the aim of deconstructing them is to see what power claims might be being made through privileging one or the other.

So first, we have history. Historical wargaming, obviously, and, I submit, other forms of wargaming not so obviously, are all reliant in some form on history. As I have said endlessly here, we, as wargamers, read a historical text, and we read it in a certain way. We are not too worried if, for example, the Marquis of Montrose started to write dodgy poetry at times of stress in his generalship. We simply want to know what he did, how good he was, how many men he had and how they were armed and organised. Nevertheless, there is a way in which the historical discourse controls wargaming. We privilege the language of history, because that is what happened and, therefore, in a wargame, that is what should happen.

Secondly, we have the language of the rule set. Each is different, of course, although they tend to overlap. The rule set discourse consists of things like definitions of units, ranges, time frames and so on, and defines the interactions between these things. Thus you can get a discourse of wargaming which has almost entirely abandoned, at least on the surface, any semblance of historical discourse. Thus we can hear (and I have heard it)  “My irregular knights(I) will charge your Reg Ps(S)”. This is, of course, gibberish to anyone who does not also speak the language of the rules. It is also nonsense to anyone who is speaking a historical language. Irregular Kn(I) are, in fact, say, chariots. Within the model and discourse of the rules this nomenclature might make perfectly good sense, but not outside it. In this way we can see that different discourses within the wargame can compete. The rule set discourse language can, for some wargamers, out compete the historical discourse. Perhaps, in those circumstances, a historical wargame is no longer being played, as such.

Thirdly, there is the narrative language, that of the game itself. As I noted before, often this is formed in play by a series of speech-acts and actions – ‘My chariots will charge your skirmishers’. The outcomes, determined by the language and model of the rules, then determine the next set of speech-acts and actions. The wargame continues, with interconnected speech-acts and actions, until the end, the whole forming a narrative. The precise form of the narrative varies, of course. It can be informed by either of the other two languages. Usually they do not mix – we rarely get ‘My Kn(I) charge your skirmishers’. Perhaps our narratives actually reveal which of the other two discourses we are using, which we are thinking in terms of.

Deconstruction is not really used to make any advance. Part of its function is to reveal hidden ideological and political biases. Thus feminists can use deconstruction to reveal underlying male biases in our language and hence, since it is thought that language determines much of our thinking, underlying patriarchy in our thinking and thus in the structures of society.

My aims here are rather more modest than that, but I do think that there is an interest in stopping and considering that wargaming we see about us and the sorts of discourses involved. The discourses I have outlined are not, of course, exclusive, and the weight we give to them will, of course, very from time to time and game to game. I think, though, we can see how broadly wargames vary.

Firstly, you have the gamer that switches readily from one period to another without really worrying about any historical discourse associated with a given game. The game is the important thing. Such a player will be using the rules – narrative theme of the discourses of wargaming I have suggested above. Similarly, I suspect (although there will always be exceptions of course) tournament gamers will tend to land up in this strand.


Naturally, we can all land up as gaiter-button counters, and this might put us into the realm of the historical discourse, although often it simply lands us in a different world, that of pedantry and not being able to see the wood for the trees. Nevertheless, a second type of gamer we do see is the historical-narrative type, for whom the historical verisimilitude is more important than the exact execution of the rules. As regular readers of the blog might infer, I would tend to place myself in this category. What about you?

Saturday, 3 June 2017

The Western Design

I have just finished reading June’s History Today. I know that it is still May (or it was at time of writing), but that seems to be part and parcel of the wacky world of magazine publication. Anyway, there are a number of articles which I, at least, find interesting, although mostly they are nothing to do with wargaming or warfare. Two, however, stand out. One article is on the Spanish fiasco at Djerba in 1560. The other is on the English fiasco in the Caribbean in 1654. Perhaps it is only me that noticed the links between the two. At least, they are both related to islands and amphibious warfare.

Anyway, I might come back to Djerba, but for the moment I want to consider Cromwell’s Western Design. This, the author (Carla Gardina Pestana) has been largely forgotten. I suspect, as with the comment of Plataea a few weeks ago, the response might be ‘Not by wargamers it hasn’t.’ Perhaps. I have heard of it, but maybe that is because I have been reading about the English Civil War and its aftermath since I was a teenager, and that is a fair number of years ago now.

I am not wholly convinced that the Western Design is forgotten. Antonia Fraser’s massive ‘Cromwell, Our Chief of Men’ devotes 16 pages to the expedition’s conception, dispatch and outcome for which, in a book covering the great man’s whole life (admittedly over 700 pages long), ‘forgotten’ does not seem to be the correct adjective. S. R. Gardiner’s History of the Commonwealth and Protectorate has a chapter and a bit on it, while even Clarendon devotes a few paragraphs to the expedition.  I have on my shelf 'The Western Design: An Account of Cromwell's Expedition to the Caribbean', by S.A.G. Taylor (1965: Institute of Jamaica and Jamaica Historical Society). A bit old, but it does not suggest the Western Design is totally forgotten. That said, the author does suggest there are many reasons why the Design has been largely ignored. Firstly, it was reckoned a failure. The aim was the seizure of Hispaniola, from where it was beaten off, rather too easily, perhaps, by an outnumbered and ill-equipped Spanish force.

The seizing of Jamaica is usually viewed, therefore, as a consolation prize, and the incarceration of Penn and Venables upon their return to England in the Tower of London is regarded as just punishment from a government which expected much, much more. Further, there is the vexed question of both the guerrilla war with the remnant of the population of Jamaica and the fact that, in the next century, Jamaica turned into the major port of destination for the slave trade. The accomplishment of the Western Design is tainted by this issue, although it certainly was not on anyone’s mind at the time.

Gardiner reckons the expiation to be a significant one, on the basis that it was the first move of the British government (for it was British, even though by conquest rather than agreement) to assert, forcefully, sovereignty of the seas. It was also a double expedition against Spain. At nearly the same time Blake set off with another fleet to attack Spain itself. Given that Charles I’s government could barely sustain a few ships at sea each summer, this in itself is a remarkable achievement.

The major change that Pestana sees in the Western Design is not control of the seas, but that it was the first state sponsored attempt at colonial expansion. Previously, efforts had been carried out by private individuals, perhaps operating as a company and under licence from the government. Some plantations survived and even thrived, some did not. For the Western Design massive state resources were employed. Jamaica, the prize, was a state possession. Clarendon records that Cromwell, after the disappointment of the results, acted quickly to reinforce the island.

Pestana also notes that the seizure of Jamaicia, and the attempt on Hispaniola, marked a change in geo-politics. A wider war with Spain was prosecuted and shifted its focus from the West Indies to Europe. This continued in the Caribbean until 1670 when a peace was signed whereby Spain recognised the English colonies in the Americas. Further, of course, other foreign powers followed, including France. Pestana observes that the Caribbean could be termed the cockpit of Europe as a result of this. European wars were fought out there, as well as in the manoeuvring of armies on the Continent.

Aside from the fact that Pestana ignores Blake’s fleet, she does raise some interesting views about the Western Design and its aftermath. From a wargaming point of view, of course, it presents a wonderful opportunity to employ often under used forces from the ‘New Model Army’ in an unusual and unfamiliar place. It also should focus our interest on logistics and on the often under-valued role of the Navy in early modern warfare.

After 1655 warfare in the Caribbean became much more complex as state fought state. Often, due to communication delays wars were fought there after peace in Europe, or before war officially broke out anywhere. Again, as I think Tony Bath suggests in setting up a Wargame Campaign the possibilities are large in this area. Future governments might have been less interested in foreign escapades and not sent reinforcements. Ships might be deployed to the Caribbean and then sent on elsewhere. The possibilities for an astute wargamer to run an unusual campaign are great.

Finally, of course, there are significant opportunities for a degree of role playing. As with many early modern (and, for that matter, more recent) colonial adventures, the decisions that mattered were the people on the ground. If it was convenient to them, they could claim that there was ‘No Peace beyond the Line’ and carry on raiding. Further there were also significant ‘irregular’ forces around, in the shape of buccaneer (or pirate – it depends on your point of view) forces who lived off prizes and illegal trading with the Spanish (this could be illegal on both sides, of course). While fiction, Dudley Pope’s ‘Corsair’ series sets up some nice small scale actions for us.

So: Forgotten? Not by wargamers or, at least, upon reading this post, hopefully someone will decide that it is interesting. Pestana, incidentally, as a book entitled The English Conquest of Jamaica: Cromwell’s Bid for Empire (Belknap) out this year. Mr Amazon says it was published in April.



Saturday, 27 May 2017

Giving the Past Its Due

History is in a constant state of revision. One of the things I try to explain to people is that if they read a text, firstly, that text remains and can be re-read, and secondly, that when they do re-read the text, they will approach it with different questions and, thus, find different things in that text.

History is similar, I think. A historian, whether amateur or professional, approaches the subject of interest with a set of questions. These questions are framed by the current context of the historian. Thus, for example, there is far more interest in Greek homosexuality now than there was in, say, the Victorian era. This is not because the nature of ancient Greek sex and sexuality has changed over the past century or so. How could it? But our perceptions, our questions have altered. Homosexuality is now much more visible in society and thus a historian is more likely to approach an ancient society with a modern concern in mind.

I have noted before that wargamers approach history with a set of questions in mind. They want to know about units, tactics, generals, strength and make up of forces and so on. I have also noted that often a wargamer has to turn away from the historical sources disappointed. The required information simply does not exist. The wargamer is reduced to plausible guess work and, possibly, imagination. Where historians can stop and admit ignorance, the placing of wargame figures on a table requires something definite.

I suppose the key word is ‘plausible’. What actually counts is what was likely. How many hoplites was such and such a city likely to be able to deploy? What was the likely role of twenty-thousand lightly armed Arucarians? And so on. Even modern warfare is not immune from that sort of question. Often the much lauded tables of organisation are ideal, the hopes and dreams of administrators, rather than relating in any but a general way to boots on the ground.

History, of course, takes its twists and turns. We know, for example, in general turns of the relationship between England and Scotland from, say, medieval times. We can find in the reigns of Edward I, Edward II and Edward III various relations of power between the two nations, including military power. We can trace this further through history, via the Auld Alliance of France and Scotland and the vary relations between the three nations, to the Scottish Reformation and, perhaps, the only really welcome intervention of the English north of the border (at least by part of the nation).

History, however, has a habit of not stopping. We can describe the state of the border in Elizabethan times, and how it was fairly brutally pacified under James VI and I, although that bit is usually relegated to a foot note in history. We can also regard the intertwined political, national and religious webs of the British Civil Wars of mid-century, which led to the military defeat of the Scots. Interestingly, the concept of the Scottish nation was not defeated in anyone’s head. Various local, national and international states of affairs had combined to bring about, say Dunbar.

Again, history was it is known about today can focus in. there has been a fair fuss recently over the discovery of a load of bodies in Durham which have been identified as Scots, prisoners of war after the defeat at Dunbar. They were being moved south; the war, after all, was still going. Things being as it were they were interred in Durham where cold, poor food and disease killed many. They were buried.

Recently, the location of the burials was discovered, although my colleague, who was brought up around Durham observed that most of the locals knew they were there.  But, to me somewhat bizarrely, an argument started as to where they should be re-interred. Some argued for Durham, where they had died. Some, however, wanted the bones returned to Scotland. I think this really was rejected on practical grounds. Where in Scotland would the bones be returned to? After all, Leslie’s army at Dunbar was national.

The interest is, of course, in the mere fact of the argument at all. Somehow this discovery matters, and it must matter on the grounds of what is happening now. That is recent political developments makes an argument over 350 (or so) year old skeletons viable, and it can be undertaken by serious people. Somehow, we find in this, that history does matter, even though most people (including my colleague) express bafflement as to why this particular argument is being had.

And so it loops around to wargaming, historical wargaming in particular, but not exclusively. We represent something, say from the past. And yet that representation of the past is framed by our understanding of the present, by the questions we ask. Those questions are, perhaps, answered by history as it is written now, and also maybe by history as it was written then. There is not, cannot be, a complete answer, however. The written history of now and the history of then cannot completely overlap. Our knowledge is always incomplete; our worldview is always rather different.

I do not exempt science fiction or fantasy games from the above, because they are still representations of something framed by the present. Often, if you dig deeply enough, you will find issues of the present embedded in science fiction and fantasy. Lord of the Rings and A Canticle for Leibowitz , for example, probably would not have been written but for the experience of World War Two. Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy is an interesting pivot between the fall of the Roman Empire and the concerns of post-war America. And so on.

Our wargames, with their emphasis on facts and knowledge of the numbers, arms and organisations of the armies of the past, present or future (or some completely different place and time) do show, therefore, some of the issues which our culture – technological, bureaucratic, controlling, deterministic with acknowledged limits – has.


Maybe an interesting question is whether we could imagine a different sort of wargaming, freed from some of these concerns.

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Honourable War


‘In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab with his officers and all Israel with him; they ravaged the Ammonites and besieged Rabbah. But David remained at Jerusalem’
2 Samuel 11:1 (NRSV)

King David is, of course, the hero of the Old Testament (or Hebrew Bible, depending on taste and political correctness). And yet, somehow, in those two sentences, there is a mood of criticism. Even more so, in fact, when one reads the rest of that chapter and the next one. But I will leave that as an exercise for the reader.

The point here, is that the king was expected to go to war, in the springtime, presumably after the planting had been done for the growing season and men were available for warfare. In the world view of 2 Samuel, whenever it was written, edited, polished and finalised, kings go to war.  In that, it seems, they are a little like wargamers. The rationality of the battle does not matter. The point is to have a battle.

I mentioned last time that I was rereading, a bit, a book about the origins of war in early modern Europe. I have actually started on a chapter, specifically Steven Gunn’s ‘The French Wars of Henry VIII (p. 28-51). I have not finished it yet (that would be expecting too much, especially for an amateur commentator to actually finish reading something) but it has thrown up a number of interesting things.

As a wargamer, I sometimes think that Henry VIII is a bit underrated, a bit under used. His was an interesting reign for all sorts of reasons, both militarily and otherwise. Normally, of course, he is seem as something of a transition figure, between the medieval world of his father and the end of the Wars of the Roses and the modern world of the England of the Protestant reformation and beyond, with exciting things like the Armada and the beginnings of Empire.

Another view places Henry and England on the periphery, a bit player and observer in the Hapsburg-Valois wars of the early sixteenth century. The main issues were Milan, Naples and the expansion of France to the north and east. This was only going to bring conflict with the Hapsburgs, and that intensified when Charles V ascended the throne of Spain as well as the Holy Roman Empire. England did not have to participate in these wars, and yet she did.

We can of course adduce evidence of economic ties between England and the Low Countries to suggest that Henry made war in the best interests of the country. Customs duties relied heavily on the sale of cloth at Antwerp, and Henry’s revenue relied heavily on customs dues. It has to be said that, while these links rather tied Henry’s hands internationally, they did not determine his policy.

Henry spent quite a lot of his reign at war with France, and there were reasons for this. Firstly, it was because it was rather easy to motivate the English into fighting the French. In a world of generally little travel, strangers were treated with deep suspicion and the French were historical enemies. Poems about Agincourt were written; chronicles of the Hundred Years War were translated. The French were a ‘natural’ enemy.

The King also liked war. He liked the gadgets, and spent on artillery and fortifications. More than that, he liked the honour of war. Honour was interpreted in martial terms. The rhetoric of foreign policy war suffused with war. It has to be noted that honour rarely was found to conflict with common sense, but honouring oneself was pride. Honour had to be validated by others, and in this case Henry’s honour was dependent on the views of other monarchs and princes in Europe.

Battle was the ultimate test of honour and chivalry. Indeed, it has been argued that chivalry was the greatest cause of pitched battles between 1450 and 1530. English armies in France appeared to be rather aimless, wandering the countryside seeking to bring the French to battle. While defying the enemy without riposte was a reasonable way of obtaining honour, it was not the same as winning a battle. A siege was better, but Henry never managed to be present at a major battle and, by some measures, was inclined to be a little unhappy with subordinated who won major victories while he was otherwise occupied.

Policy was generally aligned towards the king’s honour. When it was not, the king was a bit uncomfortable. Handing a propaganda coup to an enemy by breaking an oath was not a great idea, of course. On the other hand, various claims could be ignored until they were found to be useful. The historic claim of the English crown upon the French was along these lines. To modern eyes the claim looks flexible, or a diplomatic ploy. It would seem that Henry did take it more seriously, at least when it suited him. He was not, for example, going to give it up. The French paid him a pension over it; he viewed this as a sort of rent for his rightful inheritance until he saw fit to claim it.

Such claims meant that attention had to be paid to the past. Henry VIII seems to have paid a great deal of attention to the activities of Henry V. There were lots of parallels, even if some of them, for instance being the son of a usurper, would not have pleased either monarch if it had been pointed out. The claim to the French crown was based on both honour and history. Henry v was moved by justice and right. Henry VIII was not going to do less, even if the claims were not pressed for the moment.


While, at some level, therefore, kings simply go to war, the reality is a lot more complex. Revenue, history, honour, justice and the inclination of both nobility and commoner as to their enemies also play a part. The inclinations of the monarch are significant, but not to the point of overriding everything else. Elizabeth I, after all, was a fairly pacific monarch, but towards the end of her reign was involved in a rather wide-ranging war. For the early modern state, forming as it was during the sixteenth century, war was the most complex and expensive activity it engaged in. 

Saturday, 6 May 2017

Ideas and Wars

I suspect it may be true that underlying a lot of what I write here is that warfare, and hence wargaming in different eras, is at least in part a function of the ideas which are prevalent in the era we are attempting to represent. Thus, for example, what we might call geometric war, a warfare dominated by fortifications of a given type, is a function, in part, of the rise of geometry and mathematics generally associated with the renaissance. The sort of thing that could be undertaken by someone with an understanding of abstract geometry was not the same as that of someone who worked with pieces of charcoal and string. The idea gave a different form of warfare.

This is not to say, of course, that the ideas dominated warfare. There were plenty of hold-outs, as it were. Henry VIII’s fortifications on the south coast of England were not geometric. The towers were round and, as packed with earth, probably would have been fairly effective. Again, a lot depends on function. As costal forts they were conceived to be artillery platforms, not to stand sieges necessarily. Nevertheless, Henry’s daughter Elizabeth had Berwick upon Tweed fortified in the continental manner, and, of course, moaned about the cost.

Beyond this form of reasonably practical response, warfare is a bit about ideas, at least. I have mentioned the effect of religion on the ways in which people and nations go to war. It is often said that religions cause wars, and this is rather unfair. Religion is often viewed by its protagonists and propagandists as being the reason for war. Thus, to quote Jeremy Black ‘The Seven Years’ War was widely portrayed in propaganda as a religious conflict, a development that was in keeping with the stress on religious animosity in the domestic publications of several states.’ (Black, J., ‘Introduction’, in Black, J., (ed) The Origins of War in Early Modern Europe, (1987, Edinburgh, John Donald) p 6). Immediately, however, he notes that alliances did not conform to confessional lines. Religious animosity should not be exaggerated to be the causus belli.

Religious belief, however, can determine to some extent, how states interfere with other states internal issues (think the Protestant minority in early modern France, for example; cases can be multiplied) and also how the wars were fought. While, often, Thucydides’ dictum that things in war go from bad to worse (I paraphrase wildly) it is also true that religion can mitigate the worst effects of warfare and, of course, provide some comfort for those whose lives are on the line. Religious propaganda and activities can also be used. In the years of the American Revolutionary Wars Britain held days of national fast and humiliation because of the ‘just and necessary Measure of Force which we are obliged to use against our rebellious subjects’. There is not much ‘holy Jesus meek and mild’ going on here, admittedly.

The point with the days of fast, of course, is that we see an alignment of the religious and the political. I am not too well up in the history of the later eighteenth century, but the language is that of the divine right of kings, and also of the ideas of just war that were floating around. As any rebellion against duly appointed authority was also a sin, then the war, provided the force used was proportionate, was just. I dare say propaganda on the other side was just as infused with religion, no matter exactly what the religious beliefs of the founding fathers was.

It is, then, I think, as mistake to suppose that the ideas around in society did not have an impact on warfare. It would be a similar sort of error to imagine that the converse was not true. For example, the horrors of trench warfare in 1914-18 led to a major rethink of, at least, Protestant theology, through the work of Karl Barth. These ideas, this rethinking, is still being argued over in theological circles today, and have some resonances with debates over warfare and society even now. Similarly, I think we could argue, the philosophy of Heidegger was, in part, a response to the First World War and the turmoil in Germany which followed it. I am not meaning to get involved in the ‘was Heidegger a Nazi’ debate, just suggesting that the context of the thinking going on was important.

There is, of course, as Terry Pratchett put it, a rake lurking in the grass here. That rake is our own context, that of us as amateur historians and wargamers. We interpret the past in a particular way. It, of us, is not imbued with the Spirit of God, of divine providence or similar things, as it would have been for most of the participants and early interpreters.  We live in an age of ‘scientific’, or at least, critical history. Things happen for, we argue, human reasons and, as such, they should be understandable and interpretable by human reason. Stuff was going on which the participants may have had little or no idea about; they may have associated that with divine providence or whatever, but we, we suppose, can know better. The point is that doing that is disrespectful to that past and those people. We rip their ideas and views out of context and disregard some of them.


Thus, I think, that while we can and do wargame while disregarding the views and opinions of the past, we really should not. Motives are, and were always, mixed, of course. We can say that the Romans were a very religious people, so long as the gods did what they wanted. That may be true, at least in part, put it does suggest a rather later, Enlightenment level categorization. The Romans, so far as I know, did not really draw a distinction between the gods and what they want and the people of Rome and what was best for them. It is simply a different view of religion from that of today. To force the Romans into post-Enlightenment categories is, at least, to distort and misrepresent the past in some way. We can and should not rule out self-interest, of course, but that is not separated from the religious world view and context of the time.

Saturday, 29 April 2017

After Thermopylae

I have often thought that wargamers are something of a race apart, a bit different from the rest of humanity. I have a suspicion that this can be proved in a fairly simple way. In his book ‘After Thermopylae’ (Oxford:  OUP, 2013) Paul Cartledge suggests that most of the population have never heard of Plataea. Most people, he thinks, have heard of Marathon, Thermopylae, and Salamis, but the fourth battle is a Cinderella.

Even as I read that comment, I had a mental reservation. I reckon, with a reasonable degree of certainty that most wargamers will have heard of Plataea. After all, as I recall, it is a battle discussed in Charles Grant’s The Ancient Wargame, and I recall some rather nice pictures of hoplites in the book. Cartledge also commends the Osprey on Plataea as been a good, popular, military history book, based on decent scholarship. Again, if I am any sort of judge, quite a lot of wargamers will be aware of that item.

So what is the point of Cartledge’s book? It is subtitled ‘The Oath of Plataea and the End of the Persian Wars’. The Oath of Plataea, for those of you who, like me, had not encountered it before, is found as an inscription on an ancient Greek monument dug up in the 1930’s. It purports to be an oath, sworn by the Hellene alliance before the battle of Plataea, that they will live in peace and harmony together afterwards and not go to war with each other. This, of course, refers specifically to Athens and Sparta, but includes other states, and specifically excludes Greek cities like Thebes which Medeized.

Now, of course, most of you will have spotted the mealy mouthed word ‘purports’ in the paragraph above. The question has to be asked about the authenticity of the item. That it is old, ancient Greek and of interest is not in dispute. What is in dispute is its relation to the battle of Plataea. That is, there is no account of an oath taken before Plataea in the written records. While there are two references to such an oath, they date from the 330’s BC, not from 480 / 479 BC. The question is, therefore, around the context of the writing of such an oath.

Hence we land up with a bit of an excursion into Greek history. What had happened between the defeat of the Persian army in 479 BC and the 330’s? Quite a lot, of course. The Athenian-Spartan war, known as the Peloponnesian war, was fought in the end of the fifth century, for one thing, leading to the defeat of Athens and the dismantling of the Delian league. Further wars occurred in the early part of the next century, with Athens, Sparta and Thebes disputing hegemony over the Greek world. There was, of course, always Persian money at the disposal of one side of another. In fact, the victor of the war was usually the one subsidised by the Persians. In this sense we can argue that, military results to the contrary, the Persians won the Greek and Persian Wars.

So, what happened in the immediate context of the stone with the oath inscribed? At Chaeronea in 338 BC the forces of Phillip of Macedon defeated the Greek alliance. Athens was among the defeated, although Phillip did not, at least immediately and in principle, dismantle the Athenian democracy.  The oath, viewed in this context, is a hearkening back to the glory days of Hellenism (itself an invented concept; Greeks did not usually view themselves as Hellenes but as Athenians, Spartans, Thebans and so on) when everyone was united against a common foe. We all do it – the Battle of Britain, Waterloo, and so on are pointed to as important parts of who a nation ‘is’.

Further to that context, there is another one, which Cartledge suggests is the reason that Plataea is less well known than the other battles. Plataea was, on the whole, a Spartan victory. The overall commander of the alliance was Spartan, and the biggest number of hoplites at the battle were Spartans. Thermopylae was, of course, a glorious defeat of the Spartans, and that could be accepted within Athenians historiography, such as it was at the time. Salamis and Marathon were, of course, Athenian victories. At Marathon the Spartans, as is well known, turned up late. Salamis was the vindication of the new Athenian policy of creating a trireme navy. The Athenians were less keen on Plataea because the Spartans won it, although to be fair to Herodotus, he did admit the fact.

The point, of course, should be becoming fairly familiar to regular readers of this blog. History is what we make of it, and what we want to make of it. The Athenians used the history of the Greek and Persian Wars to make a point around 150 years later. That point was that the Athenians and Spartans, if they had remained united, would have seen off the Macedonians. Further points are also made, about the Spartan destruction of Plataea the city, which went against a treaty, and the Thebans relationship with Sparta, Plataea (which they persuaded the Spartans to destroy) and the Persians. The fact that the Macedonians also destroyed Thebes is part of this narrative as well.

There is a further point, of course, in that the Plataeans provided around 1000 hoplites to the Athenians at Marathon. Once Plataea was destroyed, the Athenians in fact created a special class of citizen for them. Again, this is a reference point within the inscription on the oath of Plataea. Again it is something to do with rubbing everyone else’s nose in breaking oaths.

As a final point, we should not ignore the religious aspects. This was an oath, and it was sworn on the gods. Oath breakers would be punished by the gods. That punishment would be destructive; Greek gods were not, so far as I can tell, particularly subtle creatures, and oath breakers who had sworn that if they broke the oath they would be smitten were, usually, smitten. The oath, at the end of the day, was a religious document. The modern idea of separating the realm of the gods and the realm of men and nature would have been incomprehensible to the Greeks.


I hope that I have done a degree of justice to Cartledge’s book, which I enjoyed and found most interesting. But I think the point to take from it is two-fold. Firstly, historical documents need to be read in context, and it takes some detective work to find that context. Secondly, as I have just mentioned, and as I have been banging on about here a bit, even though our culture would discount the religious aspects (as I nearly did above – did you notice?) such an approach simply would not have made sense in the historical context. In short, if we disregard religion in history we will never make sense of it.

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.’
‘Why….?’
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?