Saturday, 2 February 2019

A Passage to India

In my pursuit of world wargaming, we have arrived at what is often known as ‘The Subcontinent’.

Of course, the Indians include both Mughal and other Indian types, both Muslim and Hindu. If you look carefully at the rather crummy picture above, you will see camel guns, rockets, elephants and naked fanatic swordsmen as well as more conventional cavalry, musketeers and assorted hordes.

I am naturally cheating slightly because the rear ranks in the photograph are composed of Baccus Classical Indians, while the front ranks are Irregular, mostly, I think, colonial types. The purist may well shudder, but most societies are fairly traditional, and an elephant or a man with a big sword is fairly standard across the ages. Indeed, Eraly (whose book I am about to talk about) calls seventeenth century India ‘medieval’. This is not standard Western historiographical speak, of course, but then India is not a standard Western historiographical entity.

There is not a great deal written in English about sixteenth and seventeenth-century Indian warfare. That is a slightly bold statement which does need modifying by things I have not yet read (or, in truth, been able to afford) but Gommans’ 1999 article refers to

Irvine, W., The Army of the Indian Moghuls: Its Organisation and Administration (Tonbridge: Pallas Armata, 1903).
Nicolle, D., McBride, A., Mughal India 1504-1761 (London: Osprey, 1993).

Now, I hope I am the last person to detract from older works or Ospreys, and other material is available, but it does kind of indicate a bit of a paucity of available material for the wargamer.

Still, Gommans’ point is that gunpowder caused two military revolutions in India in the period 1000 – 1850. The first was artillery which changed siege warfare. Fortresses multiplied as a consequence of gunpowder artillery, rather than, as in Europe, declined. This was due to particular political and logistical circumstances, but the trace italienne was superfluous. The Mughals, famously, deployed both artillery and musket infantry on the battlefield. The artillery was even less manoeuvrable than European specimens and, probably, were less effective as Indian gunpowder does not appear to have been granulated.

Indian infantry seems to have been rather ineffective. The matchlock-men were not deployed on the European manner, but often, in the Mughal case, behind a line of chained wagons, to give protection from armoured cavalry which even muskets struggled to be effective against. Indian warfare, Gommans argues, remained a bow and heavy cavalry activity, until 1750 at least.

The article I have been referring to is this:

Gommans, J., 'Warhorse and Gunpowder in India C. 1000 - 1850', in Black, J. (ed.), War in the Early Modern World 1450 - 1815 (London: UCL Press, 1999), 105-127.

Gommans has published a book, I suspect as a development of the chapter, called ‘Mughal Warfare’ but I have not read it yet, while there is another scholarly-looking book by de la Garza called ‘The Mughal Empire at War’. However, I have not read either yet and, at academic press prices, it might be some time before I do. They are on my wishlist, but, in becoming a world wargamer, so is quite a lot else.

One of the things that are a problem with history is that often academic writings become thematic. The two works just referred to seem to be the case, interested in whether there was a military revolution in India in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and not giving the reader much of a narrative frame to hang the themes on. It is not easy to find narratives of India, at least ones that go beyond wearing colonial spectacles and interpreting everything in terms of what came later. However, I have, serendipitously, come across a useful work, referred to earlier:

Eraly, A., The Mughal Throne: The Saga of India's Great Emperors (London: Weidenfield and Nicholson, 2003).

This book is supposed to be the third of four in a series of the history of India, although the first published. It relates the history of the Mughal Emperors in India, Babur, Humayuan, Akbar, Jahangir, Shah Jahan and Aurungzeb. The early part is focussed on North India and the struggles to get the Mughal Empire established. In case you are wondering, Humayuan managed to lose most of what Babur won, but, more by luck than judgment, got it back.

The wargaming point to be made here is that, as with many empires, the Mughals had to keep expanding. They were not natural administrators and, Eraly complains, the fabulous wealth of the Mughal Emperors was built on the back of poverty-stricken Hindu peasants. Under Akbar, there was a chance of obtaining prosperous stability, but that was lost under his successors and the whole lot collapsed under Aurungzeb. There are, therefore, lots of battles which a wargame could indulge in, between some nicely exotic armies.

Perhaps the most interesting campaigns are the civil wars between an emperor’s sons. By the seventeenth century, everyone had realised that there was only one emperor, and so on the death of the last one his sons fought to work out who the successor should be. This led to enormous, destructive and debilitating civil war, most famously the one leading to the succession of Aurungzeb. It was a case of last man standing becomes the emperor properly. The other sons lost their lives one way or another.

I suspect that the Indian subcontinent is under-represented in wargaming terms, at least before the colonial era properly kicked off. Eraly notes, slightly bitterly, that the Indians had done such a good job of destroying their own political institutions by 1700 or so that the subcontinent stood wide open to an external power, which happened to be the British. That, along with the lack of documentation of the battles and campaigns in English at least, surely gives us a good opportunity for some wargames for which the firepower of disciplined colonial troops is not an issue.

There are a few issues, of course. The sheer size of Indian armies (although not necessarily their effectiveness) is a bit of an issue, and working out some proper rules without assuming that all Indian troops are colonial cannon-fodder might be a problem. But we should try.


  1. There is an active Indian wargame community. I was in contact with them though my activity with The Courier magazine years ago. I will search through my archives (read tall mounds of dusty, molding paper) and see if I can trace that contact. My point is that, if anyone, these folks may have some sources for the period of which you speak.

    1. That would be really interesting, thank you. It would be almost certainly a completely different outlook from Western historiography.