Saturday, 1 July 2017

Battles I Have Known

It has recently been a little quiet around here. This is for two reasons, at least, two that I am prepared to admit publicly. Firstly, as I mentioned, I now have a semi-permanent wargame set-up, and have, therefore, been playing a few wargames. One of these has been the first outing for my ancient galleys and, hence, the first outing for my ancient naval rules. They worked quite nicely, if rather bloodily. Or at least, lots of rowers got wet. Ancient galleys tended not to sink, just fill up with water, so ancient rowers, who were not slaves in general, but well paid professionals at least in Athens, and could swim, generally survived unless the seas were rough. This of course was assisted by the fact that most naval battles took place fairly close to land.

An interesting aspect of this is that the sea battle was fought in the context of my 360 BC campaign, and the fleets were the Persians against a bunch of pirates, with a couple of Athenian galleys supporting them. This is a bit awkward in context, because the Athenians have just agreed to a treaty with the Persians, and used their army to bully the Corinthians into repudiating their newly signed treaty with the Persians. It could all get a bit interesting. Furthermore, I now have a campaign within my campaign as the Persians, having achieved their aim in the sea battle of being able to land their expeditionary force on the island, now face a land battle.

The second reason for the relative silence on the blog is that I have been on a road trip. As we chose one of the hottest days in decades to start this, it had its moments of considering that we were mad. Of wargaming relevance, however, was the number of battle sites we drove past. I have probably missed a few along the way, but these are the ones I noted along the way or just off:

The Battle of the Standard
Halidon Hill
Flodden
Doon Hill
Pinkie
Prestonpans

The interested reader can, of course, take note of where I started to take records, and, roughly speaking, where we were going.

The point I want to make is that history is all around us, if we only stop and take note. Stopping to take note is not something that modern society is particularly good at. It takes time, effort, knowledge, understanding and interest, all of which seem to be in short supply these days. It is far easier to rush on, to take in the next sight, or look at the next army in the lists and by the relevant Osprey.

In wargaming too we hurry along, for the next fad is waiting. We slosh the coffee in, not waiting to smell it. This presumably is how coffee shops can get away with selling such terrible coffee. The world waits for us, but it has to be mediated by a screen. I do see students doing the cartoon thing of walking into stuff and people because their attention is no their phones.

The problem here, in terms of wargaming, is that we only paddle in the shallow end of history. Yet interpretation is vital. After all, if Scotland were not Scotland with its history and culture, there would be no independence issue. That there is an issue is because over the centuries Scotland has been framed as an idea, a construct, a meaning, a nation. It is, to pinch Benedict Anderson’s phrase, an imagined community.

Granted the border is marked, but actually the grass is no different on either side. Nothing changes but everything changes; the change is in our heads. So, for example, I might paint the most wonderfully accurate figures for Thai armies of the 1490’s, and I might fight wargame after wargame with them, against historic foes with historic outcomes, and I will probably enjoy them, as I like wargaming. But for me the battles have little meaning. In context, this does not matter. I can create the meaning for myself – a narrative, an account of winning and losing. Is this not enough?

I suspect a Thai would attach different and perhaps deeper meanings to the wargames and armies. After all, Australia attaches a rather different meaning to Gallipoli than historians of the First World War do, or historians of, say, Canada. Foundational myths (in the technical sense of myth) are important.

Historiography gives interpretations of events. These are meanings of which the actors may well have been ignorant. Some actors do act self-consciously, of course, and attempt, in a sense, to impose their own interpretations on events. But history has the last word, or, at least, a series of last words.

Except in wargames, battles are rarely simple in start or end. The meaning of a battle is freighted with context, fraught with issues other than winning or losing. The English won at Pinkie but did not win the war. Anglo-Scottish hostility only really assuaged after the Scottish reformation, although English damage and destruction to the Scottish church and polity has some influence over events. However, the Scots becoming Protestant was the catalyst for improving relations.


I can, and have, wargamed Pinkie. It is an interesting battle. It has a naval contingent, a still largely medieval army facing a semi-modernised one, and desperate charges of men-at-arms against pike blocks. Its meanings are multiple, of course. There are questions of modernisation, nationality, state building, international relations and power, religion, winning and losing, chance, necessity and all manner of other factors. But which do we own? Which do we care about? And if we do, why do we care about them?

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