Saturday 26 May 2012

Greek Logistics

There really is not much written about logistics in the literature of classical Greece.  To be honest, there is not an awful lot written about logistics in the entire ancient world. It is not the sort of thing that chroniclers and historians were particularly interested in. On that basis, I suppose, wargamers are their heirs.

I am aware of one or two items of scholarship on the subject. The main resource, which everyone refers to, is D. W. Engels, Alexander the Great and the Logistics of the Macedonian Army (Berkeley, UCP, 1978). The problem here is that I have not read it (yet). I will get around to it; the last time I checked it was still in print.

After that, Adrian Goldsworthy has an appendix to The Roman Army at War 100 BC – 200 AD, wherein he discusses how Roman armies managed to survive in the field. I think there are a couple more scholarly (and thus hideously expensive) books available on the subject as well.

Recently, I ran across a paper by J. F. Lazenby entitled ‘Logistics in Classical Greek Warfare (War in History 1 (1) 3-18). He makes a number of interesting observations about logistics and, I suggest, his points are germane until the horse and sail became less important in the supply of armies. In that sense, we can probably treat logistics as more or less the same until, say, the American Civil War when steam power, both on railways and rivers, became useful.

Now, during the Peloponnesian wars, it seems to me, most troop transport over any distance was by ship. Greece is a fairly difficult land to move large bodies of troops across, and if you read Thucydides and Xenophon I think you will find that armies marching over distance was rather a rare thing.

As an aside, I do have a sneaking suspicion that, apart from the one or two big battles, the Peloponnesian wars were largely a process of raiding, devastating crops and nipping off home again before the enemy had time to react. Most of the actions of which so much is made seem to me to have been pointless scraps in muddy fields between a few hundred men. But perhaps Thucydides’ cynicism has infected me.

Anyway, the standard distance for a day’s march was between 10 – 20 miles, although on good roads more could be achieved. Xenophon, on his way to Cunaxa, along good Persian roads and not needing to scout or use guides, managed 18 – 25 miles a day, and could possibly do more for a short period.

Baggage, by which we mean the soldier’s kit, weapons, armour, food, bedding, tents and so on, was carried, some by the soldiers themselves, some by servants and some by pack animals or waggons. The maximum load for a porter would be about 100 pounds. Pack animals could carry about four times as much and waggons, well, it depends on the waggon, but say about 1000 pounds.

Now, of course, this gives us some problems. Firstly, all these porters, pack animals and draft animals have to be fed (and paid, too, but that is a bit of a different problem). Each man additional to the fighting force would still consume the same quantity of food, need bedding and so on. So if, as Goldsworthy suggests, the minimum feed was three pounds of bread and one of meat per day, a single porter can carry sufficient for himself for 25 days, or for himself and the soldier he serves for 12 days.

Of course, pack animals and draft animals could carry much more. A single draft horse could manage food for a man for 100 days, assuming that it could be preserved for that long, or for one hundred men for a day. A waggon, of course, could supply 250 men for a day.

Now, armies tended to be around the ten thousand mark. This would require 40 waggons, or 100 pack horses or 400 servant porters for a day, just for the food. When we look at the problem from this point of view, some of the slowness of movement and the lengthy rests start to make sense. It is, in fact, easier to supply an army in a fixed position from a magazine somewhere in the rear. Teams of 40 waggons or 100 pack horses a day are, in that case, perfectly reasonable. Armies in motion are more difficult to keep in supply.

At this level we can start to believe that, for example, at Plataea, the Spartans had 7 servants per soldier. This, of course, may be reported as it is unusual, but supplying the Greek army on station, as it were, could require significant amounts of servant, slave or helot labour.

Frequently, of course, local markets were set up where the troops could buy food. This, however, required some friendly locals with food to spare, or who were too frightened to resist. This could lead to further problems. An army on the march, or a navy passing by, could not necessarily afford the time to storm cities because they refused to sell food. Furthermore, as the Spartans used to their advantage, an enemy based in a country with no markets had to scatter over a wide area and was, therefore, vulnerable to a surprise attack. (Thucydides 8.95 for an example).

If we add up the time it takes for individuals to buy, prepare, cook and eat food, it is not that surprising that armies tended to move rather slowly. Indeed, in the English Civil War 10 miles a day was regarded as being the average; not much had changed since Xenophon’s day. Even simple breads take an hour or two to make and bake. Only so much can be prepared in advance.

So, while, yes, I am banging on again about logistics, to some extent I do not think I am emphasising them excessively. They had a massive influence on the routes armies took, the speed of movement, the security of the camps and even, as I have observed, on the chances of being surprised and defeated, all as a consequence of the basic need to feed people.

To some extent, then, as wargamers, we ignore logistics at the peril of  making our armies live in fantasy worlds where no-one eats.

Saturday 19 May 2012

Control Engineering and Wargaming

A recent post on the Lost Battles email list got me thinking a bit. In essence, the post suggested two things. The first was that a wargame army, or indeed a real one, could be regarded as a system engineering problem and modelled as such. The second point was that the number of hits on an opposing army is less important than the distribution of hits. If I clobber an opponent hard at a critical point, this does more damage than distributing more clobbering over the whole army.

I might come back to the issue of the distributions of hits on an enemy force later, but for the moment I would like to focus on the idea of an army as a control system engineering problem.

We can match up the components of an army to those of a system. The troops, in their units (whatever that may be) are the parts we need to control. To do this we have a command structure, which is controlled by a general. The general wishes to make the system achieve his ends; in this case, the end is victory over the opposition.

Within this model there is also feedback, damping and noise.

Feedback is the observation or reporting of the outcome of activity. For example, the battalion you send to capture the village can report success, failure or being bogged down in a fire fight.
Noise is the plethora of unexpected or unplanned events that can knock a system out of joint, or at least impede to some extent the easy functioning of your army. So, for example, enemy actions could be noise. The unexpected arrival of a flank march could seriously disrupt the smooth stroll to victory that you were expecting.

Damping is the delay and inertia in the system responding to new orders. For example, a delay would be found in sending and receiving (and deciphering) a message. Inertia may well be found in, for example, the difficulty of the brigade you want to exploit a gap in the enemy line has in disengaging, changing front and charging.

There would also be delays in, for example, the generals responding to reports from their units and, of course, some circumstances where a unit would simply not report at all. For instance, notoriously, on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916 the commanders lost contact with their troops and had no idea what was going on, where their units were or even if they still existed at all.

Sadly, many of the units no longer did exist, at least as fighting units, but even those gaps which had been created in the German lines could not be exploited due to the absence of information. This was not really solved until all units were equipped with radio; communication was still a problem the next year at Cambari, and was not really solved until World War Two.

I think, as a model of an army and its command and control structures this stands up reasonably well. We can, at least, identify the bits of the system with real world entities and decision making. I suspect, however, that there are two problems inherent within the model; the first is that the battlefield is a much more dynamic place than a control system and that which it controls, and the second is that the decision making function is distributed in an army, rather than centralised.

The first issue is that, as I think I have noted before, an army is a collection if individuals. Now, the individuals may be capable of acting as a coherent whole; indeed, we hope that they manage that. Even a modern platoon with is much greater distribution of soldiers than, say, a phalanx, has to operate as a unit in order to achieve anything. But the fact is that at some point the individuals will react as individuals, not as some nicely painted and firmly based wargame unit. 

As a slight aside on this, I am starting to suspect that what is important, at least up to modern warfare, is the morale of the officers rather than the troops themselves. After all, in a phalanx you have a large helmet on, a big shield and you are surrounded by colleagues, many of whom you are related to or have grown up with. You cannot see much of what is going on around you. What you do not know about is not going to crumble your morale.

On the other hand we hope that officers do have a bigger and wider view. They, therefore, are the ones who will spot the outflanking movement or incoming rear attack and, if they are not heroes, will probably run. Seeing the officer run would encourage the rear ranks of the phalanx to do likewise, and so the whole unit can collapse.

As I say, I digress, but the point is that army units are made up of normal, fairly rational humans who do not respond like automata, so that part of this model might need a little finessing.

Secondly, in a control engineering system, control is exhibited at one point. Now, you can argue that that is a relevant model, and in part it might be, but certainly throughout history there is a record of lesser commanders taking action – think Nelson at Copenhagen. I have raised the question before of who ordered the Greek wings to turn in at Marathon; it probably was not the Polemarch, who was the (nominal) overall commander.

So, again, we have a slight issue with our original model. Command functions are distributed throughout the system, at least down to the lowest level which we actually model. Actually, of course, it goes further than that: Private Smith can decide to run away, but if we do not choose to model Private Smith, we cannot account for his decision making in the model.

The problem with this, of course, is that it makes a nice, clean, intelligible model much more complex. On the other hand, as a model, it does throw some of the dynamics of an army into relief.

Saturday 12 May 2012

The Western Way of War?

A long time ago I wrote a bit about orientalism, on a post that I cannot even find now. Mind you, that may just be advancing years, not that it was chronologically a long time ago. Anyway, as you hopefully recall better than I, the basic idea was that the “west” looks at the orient through a strange and rather inconsistent lens, regarding the east as decadent, wealthy, cruel, enslaved and all sorts of other negative things. The west also regards the east as being a threat, and as being rather exciting.

This attitude can, in fact, be traced back no earlier than the Persian Wars of Greece. I have just been reading Harry Sidebottom’s “Ancient Warfare, A Very Short Introduction” (Oxford: 2004), and he observes in it that in the Iliad there is no anti-eastern bias. Both Greeks and Trojans are, more or less equally, good and bad, heroic and cowardly, and the gods intervene on both sides.
The shift comes, to some extent, with Herodotus’ account of why the Greeks won the Persian wars. In Herodotus the Persians are equal in bravery to the Greeks but untrained, unarmoured  and unskilled.

A more complete shift is to be found in The Persians, a play byAeschylus, set at the Persian court awaiting news of Salamis. Asia is rich, fertile and essentially female, Greece is rugged and masculine. The Persian king has an enslaved population and is cruel and cowardly. Greeks are not named, they fight as a commune, while many Persians are and do not. And so on.

The upshot of this, for some scholars of the classics, is that the Greeks formed the ideal of the western way of war. Looking at the Persian wars, they saw the four battles of Marathon, Salamis, Plataea and Artemisium as typical of the way the west fought. While, the argument seems to go, the Persian approach was characterised by huge, slow armies, hesitancy and sloth, the Greeks sought out and fought decisive battles.

Furthermore, it was argued, the Greeks fought for their freedom. The citizen soldiers who formed the hoplites were fighting for their polis, their city state, while the Persians were enslaved, fighting, (unenthusiastically, it is implied) for their king who embodied their state. So the Greeks won because they fought for freedom and sought a decisive knockout blow.

Now, I’m sure you can imagine that there are various holes in these arguments. The extent to which the Greeks were free, as opposed to the Persians can, in fact, be disputed. Further, the extent to which the Greeks could differentiate themselves from Persians, at least those in Asia Minor, is also problematic, although that fact may well have caused a more self-conscious differentiation. There is also the awkward fact that some Greek cities allied themselves with the Persians, and, also, that those darned easterners also, from time to time, sought their own decisive battles.

This last fact is used only to underline the inconsistency of the east’s response to the west. Oddly, it never seems to have occurred to those who promote this viewpoint that it counted against their overall thesis.

The main problem with the western way of war approach, however, seems to me to be the fact that it can be refuted in detail. For example, the Persian strategy after Salamis seems to have been one of hesitancy and defeatism. Xerxes went home, leaving a force in northern Greece. Hopeless inconsistency, we think showing a complete lack of commitment to the cause of conquering all of Greece.

Other options do exist, however. Greece was a bit of a sideshow to the Persians. Xerxes had a whole rest of an empire to rule, and could not spend all that time in the far west. Just because the Greek historians make a big thing of it, it does not mean that, to Persia, they were that important.
Secondly, it seems like that the Persian manoeuvers before Plataea were designed to ensure the Greek alliance (specifically the Spartans and Athenians) collapsed. One or the other would then go over to the Persians and the one left would be toast. Herodotus documents how closely this, in fact, came to pass.

Thirdly, the express intention of Xerxes (at least, according to Herodotus) was to punish the Athenians for Marathon – all that having a servant whisper ‘remember Athens’ into his ear at mealtimes and so on. Having razed the city to the ground he could, quite legitimately, declare ‘job done’ and go and do important things elsewhere.

The problem with the idea of the Greek ‘western way of war’ is that it is a nice, simple idea which people can readily grasp, and which, rather more scarily, can be applied to other wars and even modern military geo-politics. We still here echoes of it today, in the ideas of fighting for freedom (usually dressed up in terms of democracy) and even the idea that the west wins wars, but then struggles with insurgency because these easterners will not stand up and be beaten like proper armies.

Finally, the whole idea ignores the problem of contingency in warfare. The sort of thing I mean is that ‘this army lost because this general was killed at this point’. There is an idea around that warfare pits state against state and the strongest wins, in a form of international neo-Darwinism.
In a sense, that argument is provably true: Paul Kennedy’s ‘The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers’ documents this extensively, especially for the alliance warfare of the eighteenth to the twentieth century. The side with the last dollar wins.

Even so, the problem is that the idea does not work with smaller scale wars. A war between Greek city states, for example, does not go to the side with the most gold. Small scale warfare has a much higher contingency factor. What might be acceptable across an alliance is not so in a small polis. Chance, or the intervention of the gods, has a much higher role to play here.

So the western way of war is an interesting idea, but it cannot really be supported by the facts and, to be slightly unfair to it, it is a dangerous idea for us to apply to the twenty-first century.

Saturday 5 May 2012

De-Kant-ing Wargames

It would seem that my view of wargaming is heading is a rather alarming direction. I have argued that we cannot know battles as themselves, battles qua battles. In fact, I would go a little further than that, and argue, pace the Duke of Wellington, that no-one can have a full view of a battle. There is no such object as a single, objective, view of a battle.

Furthermore, I have argued that we base our wargames, and in particular, our wargame rules on both empirical data, that is accounts of battles weather first hand or second, and some sort of a priori rational argument.

Now this, to me, is starting to sound a bit like Immanuel Kant’s arguments about the world. I have, I admit, been reading a bit about Kant recently, but I have not read the man himself, for the simple reason that everyone says he is very difficult. Even Roger Scruton’s Very Short Introduction to Kant suggests that the reader would do well the read that twice.

Fortunately, I do not think I have to do the whole Kant thing, but I can proceed analogously to try to see if this view works for wargames. What I do not want to get into is whether wargames are a category in Kant’s thought, and so on, so proper Kant scholars might like to look away now.

Now, I think we can argue, and possibly agree, that there is no one view of a battle. The various participants, from camp follower up to general, have various observations to make about how the battle developed, what happened and even who won. Bear in mind that even that last point could be disputed between the sides, after all. So, by analogy with Kant, we can argue that we have no access to the ‘battle in itself’.

What we do have is access to one or more accounts of a battle – in Kant’s terminology, we have some phenomena, but they do not give us access to the noumena, the battle in itself (Kant uses the term ‘ding an sach’).

So, empirically, we have some phenomenal accounts of what happened at this particular event – a battle.

Now, of course, those people writing the account will have had their own viewpoint, their own categories of interpretation of the events they witnessed, and will have told their stories in accordance with this. So, for example, Xenophon tells us that in one incident, only a few Greeks got back to their camp unscathed. This might indicate to the unwary reader that the force was nearly annihilated, until one realises that the force was ordered to recover the bodies of the fallen, and only a few did so. The rest fled, and so had their honour damaged, and so did not escape unscathed. That sort of thing was obvious to Xenophon and his readers (or listeners), but is not for us.

So, then, we have a set of accounts of a battle, and a formidable battery of interpretation of those accounts, if we care to do a bit of digging into the culture of the time they were written. What we also have is our own viewpoint, which, Kant tells us, is also driven by our senses and our own a priori intuitions.

The sort of thing Kant has in mind here are things like space and time. We cannot make sense of things that happen without some sense of these ideas. Kant argues that we impose these ideas on our senses in order to interpret them; we have no choice, because otherwise we simply land up with sense impressions running past us and no means of interpreting them. As such we would not be able to function.

It is worth noting, in passing, that some of Kant’s thought was directed against David Hume’s ideas, some of which I mentioned recently. Hume argued that all the contents of our minds were in fact sense impressions, and memories of sense impressions. According to Hume, for example, we think that things have cause and effect because the sense impressions appear one after another. In fact, Hume claims, there need be no such linkage. These sorts of idea so appalled Kant when he came across them that it stimulated him into creating his own, complex system of philosophy.

Anyway, the upshot of this for writing wargame rules is that, alongside the empirical data that we may glean from eye witness accounts, synthesised later history and the experience of re-enactors, we have our own, a priori ideas or intuitions. I may think that an English Civil War battle should go in such and such a way. I might have my empirical reasons (‘evidence’) for so believing, but they cannot be untangled from my a priori ideas as to how the battle should go.

At a slightly more prosaic level, I might believe, for example, that having the toy soldiers based on rectangular bases is a good way of simulating a block of troops. My empirical evidence for this might be the diagrams of ECW battles that you see in books and on contemporary etchings. However, the base is an a priori construct which I have imposed, to enable me to think about troop movements and deployment. It is not there in the battle, because the blocks were formed of people who could and did break that formation.

So I seem to left in a slightly dodgy situation. I cannot access the battle as it was, because no-one, not even the participants, can do that. The accounts I have are a mix of the empirical evidence and the interpretation the writers put on them. Furthermore, while I might, as a writer, regard this or that account as being evidence, that is automatically charged with my own a priori intuitions about what could, should, or might have happened, which arise though my own reading, thinking,

And that seems to me to be fairly close to the reason we will never get a good set of wargame rules. As a rule writer, I suppose I should be relieved about that, really.