Saturday, 9 December 2017

Sandwich Anyone?

Sometimes, when you are a bit of an omni-reader, as you have probably guessed I am, synthesis appears, as if sprung to life as smoothly as the meshing of gears on an Austin Riley. One such meshing has just happened, and so I am dashing along here to tell you all about it.

Of course, it being about matters maritime I very much doubt if anyone is going to be particularly interested. There is something very odd about naval wargaming, in that very few people actually seem to be interested in it at all. Given that Britain has a ‘great naval tradition’ and that the Unite States still has, I believe the biggest and most powerful navy in the world, this seems a little strange. Various navies and nations, over the years, have taught us that geo-political and strategic power is often most usefully and easily projected by naval forces. In short, the dictum of the British Empire still applied: If in doubt, send a gunboat.

Yet I can verify, in my own blog statistics that if I write a post about matters naval, the number of hits (which is never great at the best of times) crashes. For example, whereas a post titled ‘Project Wargame’ got over 230 hits, one updating the world on my Armada project got about 80. I admit that this is neither a scientific sample nor a statistically convincing one, but it does strike me as being a little, well, odd. Are naval wargames so unpopular?

Out there in the blogosphere of wargame matters things seem to be similar. Few posts on blogs that I occasionally look at seem to mention matters maritime. It is, of course, entirely possible that naval wargamers have better things to do than blog about their projects, rules and battles, but it does seem a bit weird, not to say, landlubberish (if that is a word).

Now, each wargamer to their own, I concede. But I did, a few years ago, have terrible trouble establishing anything very much about the navy in the English Civil War. There was, at that time, one book on the subject I believe, and it spent most of its time proving that the navy had won the war for Parliament. I suppose that you need a radical hypothesis like that when you are attempting to show that something largely un-regarded in fact mattered.

The navy did matter in the ECW, as I am sure that some of you are aware. Without it being in Parliamentary control the Royalists could probably have made a better fist of the war than they did, with increased access to foreign imports of, say, gunpowder (which they often seem to have been short of) and mercenaries. Some supplies did get through, of course, especially after Rupert captured Bristol. Henrietta Maria, of course, is famously the only British Queen to have landed in the country under naval bombardment (and she went back to find her dog, as well). But have you ever tried to find wargame models of naval vessels of the 1630’s? I do not believe they exist.

Now, the symbiosis of my reading matter came about in this wise. I read History Today magazine and, in November’s issue there was an article on the Battle of Sandwich. I am sure that you all know that this was fought in 1217 between the English and the French. William Marshall, the English Protector of the infant Henry, was struggling to contain a French invasion and baron’s rebellion.

The English had made a fairly good start in defeating the French and others at Lincoln, and so, in order to carry on the fight, the French needed some reinforcement. This was collected by the French Queen (I don’t think she did it personally, mind you) and dispatched. The English got wind of this and intercepted the French fleet, somewhere off Sandwich and Dover. Either good fortune or a nifty bit of sailing gave the English the upper hand (or the weather guage)and the invasion fleet was defeated. The French already in England were thus left with little option except to return home.

On my shelf I have a book by Susan Rose called ‘England’s Medieval Navy’. It is a nice book, with plenty of colour illustrations giving a good impression of the very little that is really known of medieval ships, shipping, mariners and naval warfare. Having the book available was a happy accident and I have just finished it. The point she makes is that naval operations in the medieval period were, largely, logistical, in support of or, in fact, landing armies. Thus Berwick Upon Tweed was an important harbour for invading Scotland, and the Channel ports, on both sides, could be vital targets for raids and jumping off points for invasions. Only a few full blown naval battles occurred, of which Sandwich / Dover was one.

Whether Sandwich was a battle ‘more important than the Armada’ is a judgement I do not feel qualified to make. The author of the article was fairly sure that it was, claiming that if the French had succeeded, England would have been a fief of the French crown and history would have been different. Possibly, but the English barons were a fairly fractious lot at the time and France itself was the victim of a fair number of collapses of Royal authority through the medieval period. History would have been a bit different, perhaps, but it is a bit hard to see Sandwich as being that decisive.

From a wargamer’s point of view, it would be a nice battle to fight. It would be different, visually stunning if you can get the heraldry right, as the ships were brightly painted and bedecked with banners, and even the rules would be reasonably straightforward, as the fighting was similar to that on land. The only drawback that I can see is that there are few, if any, suitable wargame models available.

I did once, a long time ago, read an article on medieval naval wargaming advocating using half-walnuts for the cogs. I have no idea if it would work and my modelling skills are not up to it. But it would, at least, be something different to try out.

Sandwich anyone?


  1. My only (small) venture into my own naval gaming collection came when I was a young man far from home and was based on the Valiant 1:900 Armada range and was spurred primarily by stumbling across a selection of the kits while looking for some miniatures to paint. It eventually grew to about dozen galleons and galiots etc not all in scale or accurate and I doubt there saw action more than half a dozen times. The rest has always been happily playing in some one else's naval game usually Napoleonic, WW1 & 2 using their fiddly little models all very neatly assembled and painted.

    I was initially surprised at the number of naval games offered up at American gaming conventions, usually fulled packed with gamers. The % is low compared to land games but they are always there. I'm struggling to remember the last medieval one though. I wouldn't imagine it would be as interesting in small scale as either ancient galleys operating in formation or 17thC on with lines of ships packed with guns pounding away. The few medieval games I've seen were all large scale 'skirmish' style games, sometimes with ship templates rather than actual models with the focus on the hand to hand fighting between individual figures.

    Anyway, after an enjoyable e-hunt I have found only a very few commercial model medieval ships, no wargaming ranges, a few biggish model kits, a few game pieces, not all in production. The 1:900 Cog model in the Valiant Armada range might serve.

    1. I think there are a few medieval ships around - Outland Wargame Services spring to mind. But there is not much.

      To be fair, outside the few big battles, a lot of medieval naval warfare was skirmishing - pirates, basically.

      Even Napoleonic and WW1 / 2 naval wargaming seems fairly unpopular. OK, in the latter the sheer ranges can be daunting (but not much more than land warfare of the period, I suppose). And you need fewer models.

  2. In Wargames Illustrated in the vert late 70s were published rules for Medieval Warfare in the Channel. I bought some Bill Lammings 1/3000 cogs, splashed on a bit of paint and played it a few times. Then I put them away.

    Flash forward to 2016 and I tried streamlining the rules and played again with the ships. It was fun but not that impressed with my rules. I have it on my list to play it again, but using a different set of rules that seem a streamlined version of the WI rules (actually written prior to the WI rules) and better than mine!
    I do discuss a couple of the rules out there, and have a battle report on my blog:

    Io answer you question: I would play a games on the Battle of Sandwich except it does have more ships than I have -
    I think I only have 30 cogs.

    1. Good to see someone as off beat as I am....

      Funny thing, naval wargaming. I mean, we happily use 1:20 or 1:100 figure: solider ration in figures. Why not in navies? I think one of the Anglo-Dutch Wars rule sets does that, but it doesn't seem to have caught on.