Saturday, 19 August 2017

Packing Soldiers

It might surprise some people to realize that the purpose of fighting snot to kill enemy soldiers. While soldiers are expected to fight and, in fact, to kill, that is not the main purpose of their existence and activity. The main purpose of fighting is to smash up the coherence of the enemy. Once that is done, the enemy will break and become either extremely vulnerable to further attack and slaughter, or simply run away in a confused mass.

This fairly simple fact accounts, for example, for the disparity of casualty figures in many pre-modern battles. The victors lose few men. The losers lose many. The disparity can be somewhere around 5% for the winners to 15% for the losers.  In one of Montrose’s battles the winners lost a single man, the losers hundreds. The pursuit was the main cause of the casualties.

I have been reading Bert Hall’s ‘Weapons and Warfare in Renaissance Europe’ (Johns Hopkins, 1997), as I mentioned last time. He starts, sensibly enough, with medieval warfare, and he notes, along the way, that the basic idea of most offensive warfare is to achieve the incoherence of the enemy formations. If that can be achieved, the battle is more or less won.

There are, of course, various ways to achieve incoherence. One of the main ones is to charge the enemy formation with big, scary aristocratic cavalry. If they flinch then you have won. Bodies of infantry on the defensive rely on coherence to see of cavalry commands. If only a few decide that the future looks rosier in the rear areas, then the formation can lose coherence and the battle is lost and won.

Another way to smash up the enemy formation is via archery. Longbows are the only bows to have really a sufficient rate of fire to achieve this and, famously, the English achieved this at Crecy, Poitiers and Agincourt. The point here is that the archers were deployed forward and to the flanks of a solid body of dismounted men-at-arms. The enemy, for whatever reasons, charged up the middle and were flanked by the archers and shot up. People under fire tend to flinch away from the cause of the problem, and so the French knights bunched up. The formation was disrupted. Men began to fear, at least, suffocation. By the time contact was made the coherence and energy of the assaulting formation was lost. The front might still fight bravely and destructively, but their chances of winning had gone.

Of course, the French did not take too long to hit on a solution to the problem, and spent much of the middle part of the Hundred Years War refusing to fight battles against English armies on the defensive. Given that being on the defensive was required for the English tactics to work, this was very effective. The French would not, and the English could not attack. The French could then deploy their resources in sieges and raid, exploiting the fact that the English struggled to hold the ground.

An alternative was the pike. The Low Countries guild pikemen had startling success against the French when they stood on the defensive. Again, the problem they did have was exactly that they needed to stay on the defensive to maintain coherence against the enemy. Big blocks of men are hard to move and keep in formation, and pike blocks rely on being big and in formation. As with the English this became problematic. The French refused to fight and even tried various ruses to induce the Flemish to attack. If they did, they were lost.

Finally we reach the Swiss, who both used pikes in large numbers and had a reputation for attacking at speed. This seems to have something to do with the nature of Swiss society and recruitment to the army. Villages fought together, as did urban guildsmen. Training was undertaken. The Swiss pike block was much more coherent and capable than any other infantry formation of the era, and it showed. But the point is that this depended on the social conditions in Switzerland – loyalty to canton, time to train and, in the final analysis, a lack of decent farmland for the sons of peasant farmers.

The thing is, much as I rack my brains, I cannot think of a set of wargame rules that models this lack of coherence. The older rule sets tend to focus on casualties. We can fudge that to argue that not everyone counted as a casualty was, in fact, dead, but it is exactly that, a fudge. More recent rule sets would have bases, say, of French dismounted men-at-arms recoil at an angle to the incoming archery, or, in extreme cases, be eliminated. And yet this is not what history tells us happened.

Now, you might say ‘Well, Polemos rules do not do that either’, and, indeed, you would be right. We did try to model unit disruption through the shaken system, and I think that cramping troops together as they flinched away from incoming fire was not a major part of the English Civil War, but I do not really think that Polemos, either, could cope.

Here, I think the problem is the bases we tend to use. My bases are stiff plastic card. You cannot cramp them together any more than side by side. It just does not work and anyway, would probably start to damage the bases if you tried. And yet this cramping is what we find in the medieval historical record.

Off hand, the only mechanism I can think of to model this behaviour would be for a flinching unit to move into another unit and for the effectiveness of the combined base to be reduced by, say, a half. Then when that base is his, it jumps into the next across and effectiveness is reduced again. This might model the effect we need, but could be a bit annoying.

This is not, of course, the only time when over dense formations were a problem – the French infantry in the villages at Blenheim were tightly packed and could barely raise their arms, or so I recall. So I wonder if anyone has any bright ideas for modelling the effect, or is it just one of those historical things we ignore to get a nice game?

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Wargame Myths Again

‘Treating Spanish musketeers as the functional equivalent of Persian archers, or Swiss pikemen as updated Greek hoplites, is commonplace among those who wish to use the richness of the past to create situations or scenarios to instruct or entertain modern students. But this way of handling the past violates something deep within the historian’s conscience, effacing all that is distinctive and unique about the early period of firearms use and imposing a certain bland uniformity on the material. In the final analysis, such pattern making is only as good as the historiography that informs it’
Hall, B. S., Weapons and Warfare in Renaissance Europe (1997: John Hopkins, Baltimore, p. 6-7)

I mentioned recently that I had been reading about warfare in Britain 1485 – 1746 – Charles Carlton’s book about which I blogged recently. I noted then that I had, and had read, a number of the works Carlton mentioned. Bert Hall’s tome is one of them. I do remember reading it, but I cannot recall its contents. And so I now have a pile of books to re-read, as well as a pile to read.  Of the buying of books, of course, there is no end. I just need another few hours a day to read them in.

So, I picked up Hall’s book and, during a lunchtime at work, started to read it. Lo and behold, I ran across the quote above in the first few pages. Now, as an exercise, try re-reading the last sentence substituting the word ‘wargaming’ for ‘pattern making’. In fact, I shall do it for you below:
‘In the final analysis, such wargaming is only as good as the historiography that informs it’

I am, of course, making a heavy handed point here. We know, because we have seen them, and played them, that there are many wargame rules out there, and many wargame periods. We also know that there are many wargame rules which, by shifting period and troop types, think that they can sell a load more copies (do any wargame rules sell a ‘load’, I wonder) and not have to do much in the way of historical research or thinking about rule mechanisms.

Despite my protestations about this issue, there do seem to be increasing numbers of said rule types around. They may well, of course, have advantages. The rules, to players familiar with another period, might be easy to pick up. The core mechanisms might be rather good, or streamlined, or whatever it is that makes a good set of rules for a wargame. They may give a good, fun game, a cliff-hanger of excitement and engagement. Nevertheless, I think the modified quote from Hall skewers them quite accurately.

A set of wargame rules is only as good as the quality of understanding of the period which has gone into it. This is, of course, jeopardized if the writer of the rules approaches with a bunch of categories from another period. This is what Hall is saying: Spanish musketeers were not just souped up Persian arches facing souped up hoplites. Hoplites are hoplites and Swiss pike are Swiss pike. They are not the same thing, and should not be considered as such.

‘Who,’ you might ask, ‘rattled your cage this time?’ I admit it, I have written on this before, and yet it still annoys me. The specific issue I have is trying to find some rule set sufficient from the wars of Elizabeth Tudor. I have a few on my shelf which might be suitable: DBR and Renaissance Principles of War. I am sure you can spot the problem I have just referred to – they derive from rule sets designed for different periods.

I wold not mind quite so much, and would be prepared to use them (as I have in the past) for some fun games if I did not have a historical quibble with both of them This is that they both regard the Spanish tercio as a battlefield unit. The classic pike block with a block of musketeers at each corner is there in the rules.

‘What is the problem with that?’ you might ask. Well, it is fine if you are trying to reproduce the artwork of the time. However, there is no evidence that tercios, thus deployed, had any presence on any battlefield. A little thought from the rule writers might have convinced them of the fact. Spanish commanders were not lacking in common sense. Deploying half your firepower to a position where they could not do anything on the battlefield is not wise. There is no evidence that Spanish commanders were stupid.

‘Wargaming is only as good as the historiography that informs it.’ Granted, if you want a fun game with huge units blundering around, then deploying tercios under the rules will deliver. But it is sadly lacking in historical verisimilitude.  Spanish tercios were administrative units, not battlefield deployments. The art of the time is fun but not accurate. Deploying a tercio is not historical wargaming; it is even closer to fantasy than normal wargaming.

There used to be a rather good web page on the subject of tercios, but I cannot find it. However, the gist of it was, I believe as above. However, the myth of the tercio continues, I suspect, in wargaming circles, along with a whole load of other myths like the mid-seventeenth century musket rest, the caracole and the effectiveness of the pilum, not to mention the greatness of Alexander III of Macedon or Frederick of Prussia.

Nevertheless, I have not solved my rules problem. I would like a set of rules specifically for the ‘Elizabethan’ period – and I do know that the English were rather bit players in the wars of the time. And I would rather some rules, or at least army lists that noticed that the bow and bill armed men were recorded as ‘unarmed’ after 1585, and that the trained bands were not totally hopeless but selected and, well, trained.

Maybe I set the bar too high for a wargaming backwater period. I shall probably have to write my own.

Saturday, 5 August 2017


I have, as some of you might know by now, obtained a small wargaming table. Now, I imagine that most tables are probably six feet by four feet, or even bigger. Certainly most pictures I see of people’s set ups suggests that size, as they say, is important. Some, of course, have bigger tables; I believe that someone once said that perhaps ten feet by six was the biggest practical, at least n one table.

I have no problem with this, of course. I used to have a six by four, which did sterling service for a number of years. The problem that I do have is with the numbers of toy soldiers that are placed upon said tables. I may well have moaned about this before in passing, and I may well, of course, contradict myself, but let’s see.

The issue at stake is, of course, the wargamer’s view that a wargame is not a wargame unless the table is full of troops. There are, of course, honourable exceptions to this general rule, but a brief investigation of some wargame blogs will probably affirm my assertion. Wargamers, in general, deploy everything they have across the whole width of the table.

Naturally, this is understandable. For one thing, most battles were straight on affairs. Most generals in his they could, attempted to secure their flanks by using impassable, or at least, difficult to pass terrain. Rivers, hedgerows, towns and castles have all been used to secure an army’s flanks. For another thing, sending a whole load of soldiers on a flank march is the luxury of an army that heavily outnumbers its opponents. After all, if the numbers are fairly even and a significant chunk of one army disappears, there is a risk that one or both bits will be defeated in detail before the others appear. For both these reasons, then, wargamers have it roughly right.

However, I do think that there are two things that do demand consideration. Firstly, flanks do not magically secure themselves. The choice of battlefield is significant in these circumstances, and is an important part of generalship. A general who is forced to fight with one flank ‘up in the air’ has to deploy forces to secure that flank, and this reduces the numbers available for the front  line. Thus it seems to me that wargamers who do not engage in pre-battle manoeuvring are missing a significant chance to show off their abilities (or lack of them, of course. I know where I would fall on this spectrum, at least) at forcing their opponents to fight at a disadvantage.

The second aspect is, of course, that in real life no-one wants a fair fight. The aim of generals is to win battles, achieve campaign objectives and win wars. The aim of wargamers is to enjoy a good game. This tends to entail filling the table with pretty toys and slugging it out. The relative unpopularity of campaign games is testament to that, as is the relative paucity of naval games. One of the writers on naval games noted that a naval wargame without the campaign context is a lot more pointless that land based wargames. In the latter, a crossroads or town can be declared strategically important and fought for. There is a lack of that sort of objective in naval games. Even in my recent ancient naval effort there was a non-naval objective, that of getting the transports to the island intact. While such scenarios do exist on land (think of the Wagon Train scenario, for example) they do tend to arise more naturally at sea.

Once the table is filled, of course, the opportunities for manoeuver are limited. Most troops can only really advance straight ahead and attempt to clobber the enemy. We aim to make a breakthrough. The chances of flanking anything except the odd unit are limited. In this sense most wargames, it seems to me, land up a bit like the Western Front in World War One where the strategic flanks were, ultimately, secured on the Channel coast and Switzerland respectively. The only way was to break through to the green fields beyond, to coin a phrase.

I have mentioned that, in my new regime of wargaming, I have stopped worrying about filling the table, and this is, I think, a good thing. Firstly, I can avoid the drudgery of painting, for drudgery it is to me (although, over all, I spend most of my hobby time doing it). Secondly, I can now deploy small forces and still not have the flanks covered. I have, I think, always wargamed like this. On my tables, of whatever size, the flanks have been open to anyone who cares to wander into them. It probably says a lot about my strategic or grand tactical vision that this tends not to happen. Or it might simply reflect on my aversion to painting figures.

On the whole, though, I do think that flanks should get more attention from wargamers than they usually seem to. I have to admit, however, that I struggle to think of more than a few battles where a classical flank march, along the lines of that advocated in DBM, made a difference. I am not that well versed in military history through the ages, of course, but in my periods I can really only think of the Second Battle of Newbury, where the Parliamentary armies squandered a 2:1 outnumbering position and a few strategic cards by engaging in a risky flank march and then not really performing on the battlefield. The most recent thing I have seen about this, however, is that it might have been done deliberately, so a faction (including Cromwell) in Parliament could get rid of what they regarded as the dead wood generals, who may well achieve a compromise peace with the king if they emerged as the victors.

That is historical speculation, perhaps. But perhaps we, as wargamers, had better watch our flanks. After all, we never know what might be approaching ut of left field…..