Saturday 6 August 2022

Dealing in Death

It is a truism that wargamers tend to be uninterested in logistics. We are, on the whole, interested in the drama and excitement of the battle, not the long slog to bring weapons and munitions to the units that do the fighting. You can see why: an interest in wargame campaign logistics threatens to turn the hobby, usually tied up in the glamour and heroism of the sharp end, into an accountant’s nightmare.

That is not to say that there are not some honourable mentions along the way. A variety of scenarios, for example, have a supply train at their heart. The sides attack or defend some valuable cargo, be it gunpowder, attractive princesses or large sums of money. Siege wargames (another neglected area of wargaming and warfare over the centuries) also make reference, of necessity, to the problems of supply (which, after all, affected both sides). But, on the whole, wargames are fought without great attention being paid to how the sides came to obtain the wherewithal to enter combat in the first place.

I count myself as guilty as charged here. My wargames devolve all such considerations to an imaginary commissary officer, who makes sure that all units are fed, watered, and issued with copious stocks of ammunition, clothing and fodder for their horses. Real-life is not like that, of course. All of the items an army needs for fighting, moving, and simply existing, have to come from somewhere, and that somewhere is usually not particularly close to the area of operations, at least as far as munitions go. Food is probably a different issue, at least some of the time.

Anyway, as you can probably discern, I have been reading again, this time a book I think I must have read before but have no memory of:

Edwards, P. Dealing in Death: The Arms Trade and the British Civil Wars, 1638-1653. Stroud: Sutton, 2000.

This turned out to be a fascinating read ranging from the Bishop’s Wars through to the expeditions to Ireland and Scotland that finished the civil wars, at least in the sense of fighting.

It turns out that the supply of munitions and weapons is a tricky thing. For the Bishop’s Wars Charles I could call on the Ordinance Office at the Tower, but that was small, underfunded and the king’s timescales were unrealistic. Thus the English armies were ill-equipped. The Scots did better, relying on massive imports from Sweden and Denmark, most of which were not intercepted by the royal navy.

The next challenge was the Irish rebellion. The rebels failed to capture the arsenal at Dublin Castle, but the defending royalist forces quickly ran out of weapons and munitions. They were starting to be supplied by Parliament (there was very little sympathy for the rebels on either side of the political divide in England or Scotland), but when the fighting was threatened and broke out in England supply dried up almost totally. The 1643 Cessation between the royalist and Irish Confederates was a relief to both sides, as the Irish were almost entirely dependent on imports. The English royalists then started to request munitions from Ireland.

There was, of course, a domestic arms industry. This was mainly centred on London and the south-east and so was under the control of Parliament. They also had the main horse market at Smithfield, which helped considerably. On the other hand, the principal officers of the Ordinance Office fled to the king and used their expertise to start manufacturing at Oxford. When Bristol fell to the royalists in 1643 manufacturing was set up there as well.

Things evolved over the war. Initially, the main royal centres of importing goods were in the northeast – Newcastle and Sunderland. Queen Henrietta Maria landed herself and her munitions at Bridlington, under gunfire from a Parliamentary squadron. The capture of the south-west and subsequent fall of the north led to the south-western ports such as Dartmouth becoming important. The stubborn resistance of Plymouth and Lyme increased the inconvenience, of course, but so long as they were blockaded the royalists could import good fairly straightforwardly.

The domestic industry increased to meet the demand. By the late 1640s, Edwards reckons that England was self-sufficient in most things needed to make war, except saltpetre and sulphur. Certainly, Cromwell’s expeditions to Ireland and Scotland had none of the logistical problems which had bedevilled the first civil war.

There were still, of course, transport difficulties. The roads were not great and while waterborne traffic could move goods in bulk, rivers were not always convenient, and a well-placed enemy garrison, such as Gloucester or Reading could limit use even more. Large numbers of draft horses were also required to move an army, and these were not always forthcoming. In Ireland the problem was acute. For those of you interested in the Irish armies of the time, the draught problem was solved by using oxen. I knew I had got those ox carts and limbers for a reason.

The real wargame interest here for those of us who are not accountants is surely in the import trade. All sides imported arms and munitions. All sides employed privateers to disrupt enemy shipping. And all sides attempted to blockade enemy ports. The logistical reason for the downfall of the English royalist cause was the loss of the southwestern ports, and also the shrinking of the areas of control which diminished the supply and manufacturing base. You might have expected Charles’ royal relations (his uncle was King of Denmark, his father-in-law King of France) to help, but both were at best lukewarm.

The possibility for small-scale wargaming and campaigns is almost endless. Collecting possibly contraband cargos from unfriendly or neutral ports, evading privateers and patrolling warships, delivering the cargo and then embarking on the return ship with a new load of exports might not sound that exciting, but I think a decent skirmish or role-playing game or campaign could be made out of it.

As an alternative, another approach could be to play out the naval part I have just suggested and determine the supply of the armies on the table by who has or captures the supply ships. The possibilities are endless.  


  1. An interesting post. As an accountant I confirm I find the supply issues interesting - but not enough to game with - except when it is part of a board game such as SPI's WW11 and WW111.

    But reading the post, how did the English pay for the imports? I assume with gold and silver. So that maybe an interesting campaign issue. The privateers may find it more profitable to take the ship on its way home as the gold will be easier to shift than 20 tons of guns or other cargo. Of course the ship itself is worth quite a bit.

    Also, as the manufacture of weapons was decentralised across Britain, I wonder if the skills learnt had any impact on the subsequent industrialisation 100 years or so later.

    Thanks for posting.

    1. Thank you. To work backwards - probably the skills were disseminated and were present for the industrial revolution. I seem to remember Birmingham was a centre for nail production.
      Payment was via coins or produce, I think. The Royalists made extensive use of Cornish tin, for example, as payment for munitions. Parliament had the muscle, both financial and industrial to raise loans for payment, although that did lead to a financial crisis in 1644.
      I think that logistics can be made interesting, it just needs a different approach from counting how many barrels of gunpowder a unit has.