Saturday, 15 July 2017

Danger! Books at Work

Many wargamers, I should think, realise that reading books is dangerous. Not, I suppose, dangerous per se. There are more dangerous hobbies than wargaming or reading, or even reading and wargaming together. Base jumping, I believe, has the highest fatality rate of any hobby. Similarly, sky diving, parascending, white water swimming and all of these things are fairly risky to life and limb. Wargaming risks are trivial by comparison.

Nevertheless, reading books is, I submit, dangerous to wargamers, or at least their mental health, bank balances and the size of their unpainted lead mountain. I have just encountered a case in point. For me, the trigger was Charles Carlton’s This Seat of Mars (Yale, YUP, 2011). This is a discussion of war and the British Isles 1485 – 1746.

Those of you who are avid readers of this blog (are there any of you?) will recognise that I have a split wargaming personality. Part of me is an ancients wargamer, never happier than when flinging a pike phalanx against the bunch of legionaries to see what happens. Part of me also is a ‘renaissance’ wargamer, which is a terrible term for the period in question, but which happens, roughly, to be covered by Carlton’s book.

I have read another of Carlton’s works, a long time ago, ‘Going to the Wars’, which was about the experience of war in the English Civil Wars. Historiographically, Carlton is following John Keegan’s ‘Face of Battle’ lead, and trying to understand, from the evidence, what it was like to go to war at a given time. Adrian Goldsworthy does a similar sort of thing for the Romans in ‘The Roman Army at War 100 BC – 200 AD’ (Oxford, Clarendon, 1996). In fact, it is rather hard to find in military history at the moment, a historian who is not doing something like that.

Going to the Wars, however, was not my favourite book on the ECW, and I do not have a copy. This is probably a bit unfortunate, but the problem I have with Carlton’s work is that there are occasional mistakes and errors in it, which bother me. These are not typos or grammatical errors, but mistakes of fact, and it seems to me that if errors of this kind are made in areas which I do know about, then what errors in areas I do not know about are getting past me?

I cannot recall the particular problem in Going to the Wars, but I do have an example from This Seat of Mars. On page 126 Carlton states ‘Charles dispatched Prince Rupert to capture Newark so as to secure his lines of communication with his northern army under the earl of Newcastle’. This, of course, is referring to the situation in early 1644. The problem I have with this is that it is incorrect: Newark was already held by the Royalists, and was under siege. Rupert was dispatched to raise the siege to secure the line of communication north, and even then, he did not use it to raise the siege of York but went via Lancashire.

Now, I am probably being pedantic and picky, and certainly should not write the whole book off because of one, probably fairly minor, error of fact. But the problem is that I find them fairly consistently in Carlton’s books, or at least the two I have read. It undermines my confidence in what I read, which is a pity.

That said, I do like Carlton’s book, although some of the things he tries to do are, he admits, speculative at best and pure guesswork at worst. Such activities, like trying to estimate the number of dead in the various wars in the time frame, are worthy but unlikely to be anywhere near to right ball park. The point he makes, however, is that the number of dead in the British Civil Wars was almost certainly higher as a proportion of the population, that in the First World War. Yes, you read that right: the ECW (and the other bits) was more traumatic to the population than WW1.

This was particularly true in Scotland, and even more so in Ireland. The extremely rough estimates of the dead from 1641 – 1660 in Ireland are truly alarming. Mind you, the estimates from the Williamite wars are fairly eye-watering as well. Of course, many of the casualties are from disease and starvation, but even so, the depopulation of all three countries (and one principality) is shocking.

The thing that caught my imagination, however, was not the ECW and its colleague wars, but the wars of Elizabeth I. These are not usually particularly noticed by, well, anyone, really. We know a bit about the Armada, and possibly we are aware of Elizabeth’s Irish Wars, but overall, as Oman says somewhere, the second half of the sixteenth century was boring for warfare in England. Not much happened, there was little innovation and hardly any action.

Carlton demurs, and points to a range of evidence that Oman was wrong. Actually, he tries to overturn a range of historiography (mostly from the 1950’s and 1960’s) which pointed to Elizabethan armies being corrupt, inefficient and ineffective. He argues that, in fact, the Elizabethan militias were a lot more effective than they are usually given credit for, and the armies were not corrupt and inefficient. The Elizabethan state was poor and debt ridden. Elizabeth’s policies had to take account of this. For the Armada, for example, the trained bands (an Elizabethan innovation) were raised and then dismissed as the fleet passed their counties by. This saved a lot of money, but also still provided for a coastal defence force which would have been reinforced by the trained bands from neighbouring counties if the Armada had landed.

So, now I am interested. It helped, of course, that I could find a number of the works that Carlton refers to already on my shelves. I also have a range of already painted figures for the period. They need rebasing, admittedly, but they are extant, and chopping bases up and gluing them on has already started. Like I really need another project….


  1. As you say I also find reading books perilous , Tony

  2. The most dangerous hobby I ever heard about is Shark wrestling! I am an avid reader of you essays and in fact when you don't post one, 2 or 3 days go by when I realize I shouldn't be waiting for Saturday any longer. Your postings are my calendar clock!

    1. Hm. Shark wrestling? where do I sign up....?

      Sometimes the muse just does not strike, or life gets in the way of hobbies. Work, as they say, is the curse of the playing classes.

  3. Books are very dangerous and can lead to a lot of expenditure. Mind you, so is going on holiday. I've lost count of the holidays that lead to starting new armies.

    1. I solve the latter problem by not going on holiday. Mind you, I spend the residue on books, so it isn't really a solution.