Saturday, 21 May 2022

The Roman Invasion of Britain

 We all know the narrative, do we not? Julius Caesar invaded, beat the locals and then went home again, twice. Then, after this reconnaissance in force (and a few civil wars in Rome) the Romans came back under Claudius and stayed, defeating the ungrateful locals who rebelled from time to time, including Boudicca who, in spite of being a heroic woman, was still not a Roman and hence wrong, because she did not grasp all the advantages of Roman civilisation.

Anyway, after bringing the benefits of being Roman to these shores, the country settled down to building stuff in civilised stone to permit later archaeologists to speculate them, and also constructed a wall to keep the even less civilised inhabitants of the far north out. Eventually, of course, as is the way with most civilisations except our own, the Roman Empire collapsed, the legions left to defend the metropolis, and Britain entered the Dark Ages.

Well, it is not that simple, as you probably already know. Every aspect of the above ‘normative’ narrative has been questioned, one way or another. This does not, naturally, mean that it is still not propagated, most histories of Roman Britain at the more popular end of the market spin a tale like that, one way or another.

As you may surmise, I have been reading again:

Hoffmann, B. (2013). The Roman Invasion of Britain: Archaeology versus History. Pen and Sword.

This is an interesting book, although not without caveats. The main one is that it is more tending towards an academic tome, and sometimes the assumptions that the reader knows the locations of the sites of importance and the texts is a bit overwhelming. I suppose there are so many that a location map for everything would be difficult, but I did struggle a bit. Perhaps I should have broken out my trusty OS Roman Britain maps.

Be that as it may, Hoffmann is very interesting about what, exactly we know about Roman Britain, how it came into existence, how it survived and declined. I suppose she takes a more empiricist or reductionist stance: we know very little. By what she calls a ‘journalistic’ standard of evidence, we can essentially say that Julius Caesar came twice and went home again, for example. Precisely what happened while he was here, or why he went home again is largely unknown to us, unless we are rather credulous about Caesar’s own account.

And so it goes on. We know a little bit about the Claudian invasion, but not much, including such important details as where they landed. As Hoffmann point out (she is an archaeologist) archaeology cannot really help, here. We can identify Fishbourne and Richborough as early Roman ports, but not which was first, or even if one of them was first.

At the other end of the time zone, we can identify forts of the Saxon Shore. What we cannot do is deduce whether they were build as a defensive system or were an ad hoc response to various threats and defensive needs constructed at different times, and only came to have a commander later. Archaeology cannot tells us and the chronicles which could cover it do not say.

We are thus left with a bunch of plausible scenarios, stories we can tell about how Roman Britain came and went. Deciding which is the most likely and which the least is a tricky business to say the least. While evidence is being (literally) uncovered all the time, fitting bits of pot into a chronology is difficult and even then the stones might not tell us very much.

Are these conclusions as controversial as the blurb on the book claims? Probably not so much to anyone who has read a bit about the ancient world and Roman Britain, as I have. Nevertheless it is interesting and does stimulate the wargaming taste buds. As my loyal reader might recall I have, following the man himself ‘re-fought’ Caesar’s first British campaign. Julius lost. Hoffmann’s conclusion about the actions is pretty well the same, expressing scepticism about Caesar’s claims and noting some confusion about the chronology and geography of the campaigns anyway. She ends the chapter on Caesar’s activities by quoting Lucan: Caesar Territa Quaesitis ostendit terga Britannis (Pharsalia (5.572)). ‘Caesar came looking for the British and then terrified, turned tail’ Not exactly a ringing endorsement, more along the lines of ‘He came, he saw, he scarpered’.

I suppose a recurrent theme in the book is that of the Roman historians, who tended to be based in southern Europe and have their eyes on Rome, if not residing there. Their reliability regarding activities in and the geography of Britain, not to mention other far flung reaches of the Empire, are bound to be a bit dodgy. In a couple of paragraphs Hoffmann pretty well dismantles the Elizabethan and Victorian obsession with Boudicca. Tactius’ account became widely available in Britain in 1591. Hoffmann notes that it permitted some flattering comparisons for a female monarch menaced by a continental power. Similarly, the Victorians identified Boudicca as a wronged wife and mother, a heroine fighting for British liberty and justice, and certainly better than Queen Cartimandua who surrendered Caractatus to the Romans.

The point is that, probably, Tacitus was using his character of Boudicca more to speak about his own attitudes to women in power, particularly the mothers, sisters and wives of assorted Roman emperors. The revolt of the Iceni is visible in the archaeological record in Colchester and London. Tacitus also notes the destruction of Verulamium, but there is no archaeological evidence. Silchester, however, does yield such evidence, but is not noted by the historians. Boudicca seems to have headed west, not north.

As you might have noted, there is a lot in the book, which is of modest size for what is essentially, notwithstanding the title, a concise history of Roman Britain. I cannot cover it all here – the comments on the end of Roman Britain and the comparative uselessness of the Notitia Dignitatum are also interesting. Perhaps another time.



Saturday, 14 May 2022

How to be a Roman

My attention has slowly been turning back to the Romans in Britain. Actually, I am reading a very interesting book about the Roman invasions of Britain, and what we can actually know about it (‘not much’ seems to be the conclusion). I will almost certainly return to the tome when I have finished it, but, in the meantime, an itch for some Romans in action seemed appropriate.

As my loyal reader might recall, I have done Caesar’s first campaign in Britain, and so his second was an option. On the other hand, Jules got a bit of a pasting there (apparently, a Roman poet wrote of Caesar in Britain ‘He came, he saw, he ran away’; ho, as they say, hum). So I thought it might be a nice idea to let the Early Imperialists have a go. After all, in the Sarmatian Nation games they have received a bit of a pasting, due mainly to bad generalship than anything else. At least Jules could argue that without cavalry he did not stand much of a chance.

Anyway, I flipped through the One Hour Wargames book and found scenario ten, which seemed to fit the bill. Here, an army is advancing along a road while the opponents try to delay them until the rest of their army arrives, on turns five and ten, respectively. The objective is to take and / or hold a town.

I confess I rather prefer my own rules rather than those in the book. I am a solo gamer and like things to develop slowly, with much sitting around contemplating the situation while sipping coffee. I suppose rules reflect the writer, and so my rules have fairly slow movement by comparison with some, and combat is not that effective. In ancient warfare there does seem to have been a great deal of hanging around waiting for something to happen. The rules, should you be interested, are available from the ‘Rules’ link to the right.

I recall from reading Goldsworthy’s The Roman Army at War that what tended to happen when some uppity natives rebelled against Roman rule was that the local commander gathered what troops he could and set off immediately to nip it in the bud. Often, I surmise, this was successful and nothing more was heard of the rebels, as they had already gone home when the army arrived. Sometimes, however, the local army got itself ambushed and received a good thumping, necessitating the Romans gathering an even bigger army to go and crush the rebels. This is the sort of arc which both the Jewish revolt followed and, so far as we can tell, the Boudiccan revolt.

So, the plan for the game was the Roman army advancing along their own road to take a native British town which is the centre of a rebellion, while the Britons, of course, try to prevent this. Initially the latter had three bases of chariots, three skirmishers and one light horse on the table, reinforced on turn five by two light horse and five tribal foot, and on turn ten by six more tribal foot. The Romans, initially on the road, advanced with a light horse base up front, followed by three cavalry, five auxilia, two bows, seven legionaries and then two cavalry bases as rearguard. Both sides totalled twenty bases.

As I said, things developed slowly, so the early photographs are a bit boring. The British lights of various sorts forced the lead Roman cavalry and general to deploy, but otherwise failed to delay anyone, and the Roman column proceeded sedately up the road towards the town, probably collecting British javelins to use as firewood later.


The picture shows the situation on turn 10, when the second tranche of Celtic reinforcements have arrived. The Celtic chariots have caused a little delay now to the Roman cavalry, but the light horse and the skirmishers have managed nothing so far against the infantry column. The first tribal foot are moving towards the Roman cavalry, which may or may not be a good thing, while the rest of the tribal foot, newly arrived, and reinforcing the town defenders and about to move forward against the column.

It all went rather pear-shaped for the Romans. I really should have moved the general across to deploy the infantry, but he was tied up with winning the tempo to charge the British foot (which they refused to do). The British foot sensibly refused to charge the Roman cavalry the first time, but went in when the chariots had produced a recoil result which left one base in range and isolated. A bad Roman dice roll meant they fled.

The march column incautiously moved within charge range of both the town garrison and the newly arrived tribal foot. Furthermore, the column started to take disruption from the British skirmishers and light horse. The head of the column stood no chance against the chargers, and fled, this causing a domino effect down the column until the first point where the skirmishers had achieved a halt result, there being a gap in the lines there.


The picture shows the end result. The front nine Roman foot bases are routing. Added to the one cavalry base routing off picture to the left, and the Romans are ten bases down, leading to an army rout result.

I suspect the Roman debacle was probably my fault. I was concentrating on getting the Roman cavalry into a position to charge the chariots, but the tempo point never let me and the Britons always managed to skip away out of range. The result was that I was unable to deploy the infantry, with predictable, disastrous, results. The front of the column, incidentally, was auxilia and so did not benefit from the legionarie’s extra tempo point.

I seem to have got the British tactics worked out, but this is not the first time that the Romans have struggled against tribal armies (there was a Dacian action as well). Skirmishing tactics can be very slow, but the disruption they can cause can matter. Interesting….






Saturday, 7 May 2022

The Battle for England

 As you might have noted over the years, my aspirations and efforts have tended towards the more megalomaniac. At least I stick to wargaming rather than moving real soldiers around the place. Anyway, after the success of the GNW in an afternoon a while ago, I thought it was time for another go, especially as I had a bit time for a major wargame.

It did take a bit of thinking about. Originally I was planning to include Scotland and Ireland as well but, fortunately for my sanity, I realised that was not going to work. Eventually I opted for four armies a side. The Royalists had Oxford, Cornwall, York and Chester based armies, while the Parliamentarians had London, Bristol, the Eastern Association and a north-west army. Each army consisted of six infantry bases, six cavalry, one dragoon and one artillery base.

The set up was fairly simple. The Pennines were represented, as were the Chilterns, Cotswolds and Welsh hills (just). A few wooded areas were scattered about the place as well. The Parliamentarians had an extra three infantry bases in London, representing the trained bands. The Royalists had an extra general, representing Prince Rupert who often acted as a sort of general-without-portfolio, it seems to me. If I deemed it necessary (i.e. if things lagged a bit) the Parliamentarians could introduce the Scots marching south, while the Royalists could land Irish foot at Chester.

It is a bit difficult to get the whole set-up into a photograph, but here goes.


This shot shows London in the near right hand corner, Oxford in the middle and Bristol on the left. The Cornish army is lurking on the extreme left. Further north in the middle distance you can see the Parliamentary midlands force with Chester and the north-western Royalists behind them. On the right north of London is the army of the Eastern Association with the northern Royalist army beyond them around York.

I confess to making at least one conceptual mistake with this game. When I did the GNW I fought it as a single battle, not as the whole war really. Here I could not decide whether I was doing the war as a whole or the whole was a single battle. Also with the GNW I had a points system for who won, whereas here I just vaguely had the idea that the Royalists had to capture London and the Parliamentarians to capture the King.

I also had a few problems with the command system. Originally I rolled for tempo points for each army, but that was a bit confusing with eight of them. Then I combined the rolls into one, did the bidding and used the rest for orders. That meant, for the Royalists especially, a feast of tempo for ordering units around which was a bit of a problem. So I had to abandon that and just roll for who got the tempo. This clearly needs a bit more thinking about for big battles.

I also vaguely had the idea that in order to capture a garrisoned city the besiegers would need to bring up their siege gun. I also abandoned that as an idea. As the game progressed there was also less involvement from the field artillery and dragoon elements. Perhaps in a wargame this size these aspects just would not work usefully. Again, some further thought is necessary before having another go.

Anyway, doubts, conceptual infelicities and errors on my part aside, it was very interesting. Just setting the game up brought home just how vulnerable Oxford was strategically, more or less surrounded by enemy forces. I did a lot of pondering as the Royalist general as to how to break out, and as the Parliamentarian as to how to exploit the position. The aim of the Royalists was to break out in one direction or the other. As Parliamentarian I focussed on capturing Oxford (after all, the King was there) while simply holding off the York and Chester Royalists.


The picture shows the developing strategies. The Cornwall Royalists are advancing to support Oxford. Rupert has taken some Oxford cavalry to try to break out to the north-west. The North-west Parliamentary army has split, half to delay to Chester Royalists, the rest moving south. The Eastern Association is similarly splitting, half to oppose the York Royalist, the rest moving into the Midlands around Newark. The London army is moving forward to threaten Oxford from the east and south.

It went a bit pear-shaped for the Royalists. Rupert’s cavalry were destroyed by a cavalry charge by the Bristol Parliamentarians. The Eastern Association cavalry administered a mauling to the York Royalist cavalry, forcing them onto the defensive. In the North-West, the Royalists were on the whole successful but they were delayed by the half army deployed against them.


The end of the game is above. The Cornwall Royalist cavalry has been half-destroyed by the Bristol forces, forcing the reinforcing Cornish infantry (white coats) to move back to cover the hole. The London army is administering a bit of a bashing south of Oxford, while a combined infantry and cavalry attack over the Chiltons is pushing the Royalists back into the city. To the north another infantry attack has got into Oxford itself. To the north the York Royalists are on the back foot having had most of their cavalry defeated. The victorious Parliamentarian cavalry can be seen in the Midlands moving towards the north-west, which is the only place where the Royalists have been at all successful.

In spite of the problems I outlined above, it was a fun and interesting game. I am considering another go, with a bit more parochialism for the armies built in and a different command and control system (or, maybe, spend the time trying to streamline what I already have). After all, the Parliamentarian cavalry reinforcing the north-west came, originally, from London and the Eastern Association. “New Model Army? We don’t need no steeking New Model Army….”

Perhaps the size of the battle is just too big and I should have resorted to map moves and narrative. Or perhaps I should have called to cities different things and just abstracted everything else away. I am not sure.

It was, as I said, fun, and kept me occupied over three wargaming sessions. The Royalist cavalry was unlucky, going down to two separate 6-1 rolls west of Oxford. It was also nice to get more or less every ECW figure I possess out – I think there are 114 bases on the table, plus eight generals. It is a bit crowded in the south, admittedly. As I said, it probably needs a bit more thinking about.





Saturday, 30 April 2022

To the Hills!

‘Cowards!’

‘Jaz, that’s us you’re shouting at.’

‘We are. Why are we running away from those heretics.’

‘Um, probably because there are a lot more of them than us.’

‘With the help of my God I can leap over a wall!’

‘Right. Right. Can you leap over squadrons of knights who are all out to kill you?’

‘My Lord is my strength and my shield.’

‘Good. Now, we can do the strength and shield thing from the heights over there. Plus we can roll things down on the, um, heretic knights and throw things at them. From our advantage.’

‘With the Lord on our side we need not the advantage.’

‘Well, lets not tempt the Lord too much, hey? I mean, he might have put that hill there just for us, you know?’


*

It became evident that a wargame was becoming necessary. The Estimable Mrs P can observe that the painting mojo is slowly diminishing, and I have enough experience in wargaming life to know that the way to cure that is to have a wargame, which is, after all, the reason I do the painting after all.

So I stuck a few more sails on the Anglo-Dutch wars ship and left them to dry, while I consulted Mr Thomas’ book for a scenario. I mused that I had not had the Hussites out for a while. As the regular reader of the blog will be aware, I like the Hussites. They are such a different experience of an army. They also give me the opportunity to make complex theological jokes which will, no doubt, pass the loyal reader by, theology not being a medium which lends itself easily to jokes, although a few brave souls do attempt humour in the subject.

Anyway, a quick search turned up a range of Hussite battles. While they won most of the early actions, largely due to the ‘heretic knights’ not really believing that the peasants would do them in, the later actions were a lot more difficult. This is partly because the Hussites split into factions, like any decent victorious revolutionary organisation. It is also partly because of the strategic situation – the Hussite started raiding the surrounding lands and, as with most raiding expeditions, found themselves either pursued or blocked off from returning home by an irate army.

Bearing that in mind I perused One Hour Wargames and came up with the scenario whereby one army has to cross a river a seize a hill to resist their pursuers, who outnumber them, from. This seemed to be tailor made for a Hussite raiding party.

The starting positions from my interpretation of the scenario are below.


The Hussite aim is to cross the river and set up defensive positions on the hill on the far side. The Imperialists arrive on turn two and their aim is to capture the hill. The Hussites have 12 bases, the Imperialists 16. The rules are my own (from the link on the right, if you are interested), and the figures are mostly Irregular, although I think the Imperialist crossbowmen are Heroics and Ros.

There were some critical incidents in the battle, and it was rather close. The Hussite general was deployed with their light horse which got charged by two bases of German knights. That was the end of the general and the mounted crossbowmen, and I thought the Hussites were toast too. However, given it was the Hussites and they had clear orders, they continued with the plan, just a bit less flexibly. The charge of the knights probably assisted them, as it delayed the pursuit for the Hussite left hand column.


Mid game is shown above. The rearguard for the Hussite right hand column is under intense pressure, and the Hussite knights are about to be routed. However, the German knights will charge off in pursuit, and a base of Hussite flailmen will then seal off the bridge and defy the German spears. On the left the Hussite flailmen are successfully defying the German knights, having recoiled one base, the other refused to charge.

The situation continued. The German knights on the right got hit quite hard by fire from the Hussite warwagons and failed to rally, while eventually the German spearmen on the bridge managed to force back the Hussites sufficiently to start to deploy.

By then it was too late, the warwagons were deploying on the crest of the hill. The Hussites had reached safety. With the heavy fire the warwagons can put down, plus the advantage of the slope, it is unlikely that the Imperialists will get much further.


The Hussites were not unscathed, of course, having lost two bases and the general, while the rearguard base might struggle to regain the wagon lines.

The result seems to be fairly historical. The Hussites usually seem to have got away, but with quite heavy casualties. The problem with war wagons is that they are excellent in defence, but much harder to use in attack. That seems to be reasonable. For the Imperialists, the knights are very powerful but not unconquerable. The infantry rarely seems to get a look in.

I admit to some rule mistakes here. The Imperial cavalry hit the Hussites at the bridge at full force; they should have been shaken by the terrain. Similarly both sides crossed the ford and bridge with no disruption. On the other hand, the Germans formed into column for passing the river without penalty. I am still not sure if I treated the leaderless Hussites properly, either. They did have clear orders and I stuck to them. The counterattack at the bridge was very limited and local, so it seemed reasonable (and the Hussites had the tempo for it). Lots to ponder.

*

‘Phew, we made it, Jaz.’

‘We soared on the wings of eagles.’

‘It was a tough pull up that slope, I can tell you.’

‘Our Lord is a mighty fortress, our rock on whom we stand firm.’

‘I think we’re safe now...’



Saturday, 23 April 2022

A Long, Long Time Ago…

 … I can still remember the way the music used to play….

Well, a long time ago I can remember finding Don Featherstone’s Solo Wargaming book, and the validation it gave to me as a, well, solo wargamer. I was but a lad at the time, maybe thirteen or fourteen and I had discovered the wargaming section of my local public library. However, none of my friends were interested in wargaming, and there was no club in the town I lived in. Most of the books assumed a live opponent, and the occasional copies of Battle magazine and Military Modelling I saw had a similar tone.

Thus Don’s solo tome spoke to me in volumes. I was a wargamer even though I had no opponent. My wargames were as valid as anyone else’s. I was not a sad and lonely oddity (as I said, I did have friends, they just were not interested in wargaming) and my wargaming was just as good as the next teenager’s. I must have read it several times before it was due to be returned to the library, and I borrowed it several times more, I am sure.

The book was crammed full of ideas. I suppose on reflection it was not particularly systematically done (why should it be?) but I remember writing out chance cards, and drawing up tactical cards, and, mostly, daydreaming about battles and campaigns for which I had no resources of either time or money. The enthusiasm of the work was clear; perhaps that was the key point for me then.

Fast forward (mumble) years and, as I noted a few weeks ago Henry Hyde’s Wargaming Compendium is, in some senses, mostly the enthusiasm bit, similar. It also makes an attempt (almost certainly doomed, of course) to be comprehensive. It is not a book about solo wargaming, and so there is no reason why it should be brim full of ideas for that activity, although it does have some. Ideas for how to play a solo wargame, mostly by automating one side, are there, and the enthusiasm runs through the pages.

Many wargamers, I suspect, are solo some of the time. Perhaps, like me, they have just got used to it and never sought a club. Perhaps they have lost their normal opponent though moving. Perhaps they just cannot get sufficient wargaming and launch forth solo as well as face-to-face. There are probably as many reasons for solo wargaming as there are solo wargamers.

The thing I find I need most as a solo wargamer is ideas. This is, of course, where the books come in. I can remember reading in fascination Charles Grant’s Table Top Teasers – one month the scenario was described, the next a description of the game was published. I even managed to try a few of them out myself. But there were never enough; my wargame sessions were weekly.

Still, it did set me thinking: if I were to write a book on solo wargaming what would be in it? What sorts of things would I like to see? Now, to be honest, there is an outside chance of me writing such a tome, but at the moment it is just a thought.

This blog, of course, has outlined a fair bit of my approaches to solo wargaming, but without really nailing things down too much. I like flexibility – rules are a matter of taste. Some people prefer everything to be a bit more free-flowing, others like everything to be nailed down. As a solo wargamer you can try to do both. One of the lessons of that is that you cannot write a rule for everything.

Anyway, what would I like to see?

Firstly, I would like a consideration of the different ways of running the sides in a battle or campaign. That is, do I divide myself as the general, or do I attempt to automate the opponent? Allied to this are considerations of ‘fairness’, that is not making your (implied) opponent a walk-over if you automate them, but on the other hand you do need a chance of winning. For the divided self as two generals there is the problme of too much knowledge, of course.

I think a section on battles and scenarios would be good. There are a number of different levels here, from the historical re-fight to entirely fictitious actions, via historical and semi-historical match ups. There are also questions of the scale of the wargame, from role playing through skirmishes to battles small and large.

Many of the solo wargame publications suggest campaigns are the way to sustain the solo wargamer’s interest, and they are probably right. The problem here is, firstly, that for the general in a scenario – knowing too much – and secondly that map based campaigns have a nasty tendency to get utterly bogged down in details. Hence, over the years, I have developed the ‘narrative’ campaign, which is achieved using the armies I have, a map and some imagination. There are limitations, of course. Attrition is one of them.

Moving on, I think some bits on idea generation would be good. Again, reading books, blogs, magazines and so on are a start. The Armada Abbeys campaign started by rereading Geoffrey Parker’s chapter on ‘what if the Armada had landed’ and a couple of books on the Elizabethan military. But there would be a lot more to it, and I think one under-exploited idea is taking a historical situation, such as the ECW siege of York, and re-working it in a different period. My vague idea here is Susa in Alexander’s invasion of the Persian Empire.

One of the things you can do (I try to) as a solo wargamer is aim at some sort of completeness. Included in this are ideas of naval and air operations, which are always related to land warfare, possibly logistics (although that tends to land up in accountancy) and siege operations. In a campaign these sorts of things are essential to reproducing in some form what was going on.

I have not managed to squeeze into this post other ideas – randomization, chance cards, campaign events, personalisation and so on, nor a consideration of which period to play in, or science fiction or fantasy games.

I only allow myself so many words in one of these posts, and I am already over that, but over to you, my loyal reader. What would you like in a book on solo wargaming?

Saturday, 16 April 2022

Hannibal’s Oath

It is a well know story, of course: Hannibal Barca, leader of Carthage, stormed across the Alps and into Italy, sweeping all before him with a series of stunning victories and bringing the fledgling Roman state to its knees. The slow recovery of the Romans and their eventual victory over Hannibal is, perhaps, one of the greatest comeback stories of the ancient world, possibly of all history.

As you might imagine, I have been reading again:

Prevas, J. (2017). Hannibal’s Oath: The Life and Wars of Rome’s Greatest Enemy. Da Capo.

This is not an academic text, but really a history of Hannibal’s adventures from the beginning as the son of Hamilcar Barca, who thought that with a bit more support he might have won, or at least drawn, the First Punic War, to Hannibal’s suicide just before being taken by the Romans in Bithynia.

While at the more popular level, the book is not devoid of analysis. I think that books aimed at the more popular level are, in general, improving a bit in their ability both to reference the source material and provide a bit of ‘well, this is what the sources say but they might be wrong, biased or simply making things up to be a good story.’ This sort of issue is particularly acute with sources from the ancient world, of course.

That is not to underplay Hannibal’s achievements, of course. He did lead an army over the Alps and run rampant in Italy for a few years. If things had turned out slightly differently – if reinforcements had got through to him (and they nearly did) – then Rome might well have been reduced from nascent superpower to another city state in the middle of Italy. World history might have looked a little different.

While to book focusses on Hannibal, of course, the sources are Roman and so a fair bit of Roman reaction enters the sources. The early commanders against Hannibal in Italy mostly come across as overconfident and incompetent. It was only when the Roman strategy shifted from avoiding direct contact with Hannibal and his army, and undermining his strategy elsewhere that things began to turn.

For example, Hannibal’s hope was to get Italian and Italian-Greek cities onto his side. This sort of worked, but of course they needed protection and for Hannibal to continue to be seen as a winner. However, he did not have the resources to lay siege to anywhere, really, and certainly not Rome. Whether he could have successfully moved on Rome in the panic after Cannae is a moot question, of course. It is possible that given reasonable terms the Romans, or at least some of them, would have favoured surrender. Whether such terms would have been offered, and whether a faction of the Senate would have held out anyway, reasoning that Hannibal could not besiege the city, we will never know.

The ensuing long war in Italy was rather devoid of battles – the Romans learnt to avoid them and to shadow Hannibal while preventing their own allies from defecting. The rest of the war was fought out in Spain, where eventually the Carthaginians were defeated. This left North Africa vulnerable, of course, and so Hannibal and the remnants of his army were summoned to Carthage to defend the city.

The result, as any wargamer will know, was Zama and the clash between Scipio Africanus and Hannibal himself. As Prevas notes, however, Hannibal’s army was not the one he crossed the Alps with, while Scipio’s was much more experienced and had come from a string of victories in Spain. No wonder Hannibal negotiated before accepting battle.

One of the interesting things, which I did not know (I have not read much about the (Punic Wars) was that Hannibal’s third line included a Macedonian phalanx. I am not sure I was aware of that before. Sabin, in Lost Battles refers to ‘Livy’s propagandist tale’ of their being Macedonians present, and that it is almost universally disbelieved. It does go to show the risks of believing the sources too much, although I am not exactly sure why Livy should have included Macedonians for propaganda, although it would have justified the next Roman war against the Greeks.

With the defeat at Zama, Hannibal eventually fled east and tried his hand at being a military advisor with various potentates against Rome. These did not work out too well, as the Romans had the organisation and manpower to overcome pretty well any foe of the time. Eventually, Roman threats (thinly disguised as diplomacy) tracked Hannibal down.

An interesting book about a period about which I know relatively little. I do recall Terry Wise’s Introduction to Battle Gaming (I think it was) had a refight of Zama in its pages, part of the interest of which was spotting the Airfix figures used in the photographs – I recall the North American Indian mounted chief being one of them, as a Numidian light cavalryman.

I confess, I do not feel too attracted to the Punic Wars as a period, and I am not all that sure why. The battles in which Hannibal participated are not without interest, although they did tend to be a bit one-sided. The battles in Spain are probably the more interesting, while Zama, as noted, was probably a victory for quality. I am sure there are decent wargames to be had, but they do not feel ‘right’ for me.

It is odd how the choice of period works, or maybe it is just that I do not want to paint another load of Romans and various random bits which constituted Carthage’s armies of the time. Mind you, I do already have armies of Moors and Numidians and Spanish, so that might not be too bad. The Romans would be a bit more of a challenge.

Overall a decent book, then, especially if read with care. Prevas does not entirely subscribe to the ‘Hannibal was a genius’ school, and that, in my view, is a jolly good thing.

Saturday, 9 April 2022

The Anglo-Dutch Naval Wars

 It is the case that the painting of the Anglo-Dutch Wars ships is a bit stalled – fixing the sails has been a great deal more challenging than I expected, although I seem to have got four models ready for undercoating. Only another eight to go.

Still, stalled (or, perhaps, that should be becalmed) painting does not stop me reading stuff, and the latest tome is one that has been on my shelf for some years, which does seem to show the positive advantages of being interested in the same periods of history over more than twenty years.

The book in question is this:

Hainsworth, R., and C. Churches. The Anglo-Dutch Naval Wars 1652 - 1674. Stroud: Sutton, 1998.

As the title implies this is an overview of the entire naval warfare between the English and Dutch navies from the Commonwealth to the semi-fiasco of the third war. As a slightly older book, of course, it does not benefit from colour pictures except on the cover, but it does make up for that by having a plethora of black and white images throughout.

Nearly half of the book is based around the first war, 1652-4. It is, I think, probably the most interesting for a variety of reasons, but it also is the one which the English really won, which might add to its interest in Anglophone nations and among those with a Whig view of history and the inexorable rise of the British Empire. Wargamers, I am sure, would never fall into either of those traps.

Still, as the book observes, there was a rather halting start to the war by the English. The Dutch were a great deal more experienced in naval warfare and command, as well as seamanship. On the other hand, the English had most of the strategic advantages. A Dutch politician observed that the English would be attacking a mountain of gold while the Dutch had a mountain of iron to attack. Most of the Dutch trade routes necessarily pass within naval strike range of English ports and anchorages.   

Leadership was another issue. The English admirals were generals, unused to handling naval vessels, unfamiliar with naval strategy and tactics. They were, however, brave, used to winning, and could learn from experience. Hence, it would appear that after the first few encounters, the fighting instructions were issued which included the directive to fight in line, rather than in groups.

This was largely a result of the different vessels that the English and Dutch used. While both resorted to armed merchantmen, the English ships were more heavily gunned and fought to batter Dutch vessels with cannonry to the hulls. The Dutch, being lighter and shallower drafted could not carry the same weight of cannon, and therefore shot to disable the masts and rigging of the English ships, close and board them, or destroy them with fireships.

To anyone who has even a passing interest in later naval warfare of the Nelson era, this probably sound familiar. The British and French navies of that era had the same sort of tactics. Even so, it was a bit difficult for the tactics to be pure: the Dutch had to shoot and the English, in order to actually win anything, had to get close up. The main difference across the hundred years or so between the Anglo-Dutch and Anglo-French wars was in the number of ships involved in a battle (which decreased) and the size of vessel involved, which increased. Hence by the mid-Eighteenth Century the line of battle did not usually involve anything less than a 74-gun ship, while in the 1650s 36-gun ships were perfectly adequate ships of the line.

The second and third wars were, relatively speaking, humiliations for the English. The Dutch ‘raid’ on the Medway was a disaster and much of the blame for that could be laid at the feet of Charles II, at least according to Hainsworth and Churches. Mind you, the earlier battles of Lowestoft and the Four Days Fight were hardly triumphs of English naval intelligence and command. Dutch naval command was consistently good, although many of the captains on both sides (more often reported by the Dutch, at least) failed to second the admirals and had a tendency to hide at the back of the formations and not engage (and, occasionally, shoot through their leaders….).

During the second war the Dutch built heavier gunned ships, even though some of their anchorages and ports might be denied to the deeper draft vessels. The alternative, of wider shallow draft vessels to carry bigger guns, was ruled out because the ships would have been slower. By the third war the difference in gunnery was much narrower, although the strategic position was very different.

The Third Anglo-Dutch naval war was really the project of Charles II in cahoots with Louis XIV to eliminate the Dutch. At sea, all the Dutch really needed to do was retain a fleet in being. Any projected naval landing of an army would be impossible if the Dutch fleet remained in the offing. As such the actions of the war were, from a tactical view, fairly inconclusive, although the French naval squadron’s behaviour was, at time, amounting to the treacherous, albeit with a degree of plausible deniability. As the authors point out, there was little that Rupert and his admirals could do to defeat the Dutch navy so long as they remained in the shallows and shoals off the Dutch coast. Getting at them was difficult, defeating them almost impossible.

An upshot of the Third War was the growing public distrust of the French and the Stuart monarchy. This was to have important consequences in the medium and longer terms, of course. Fourteen years after the end of the Third Anglo-Dutch War a Dutch naval fleet landed a Dutch army at Torbay while the English fleet and British army looked on. The die was cast for over a century of warfare between the British and French polities.