Some thought has been niggling away at the edge of my consciousness for a while, now, and I have finally managed to bring it out into the open and take a look. It was originally caused by a paper of generalship I was reading, and then tucked up as an interesting thought, but it has been re-awakened by a thread on one of the mailing lists I keep an eye on (but I forget which).
The issue is this: I have covered how generals can plan, react to events in the middle of a battle and so on. But what is much more difficult to ‘model’, in I think any sense, is the fact that general can, and did make mistakes.
I dare say that we can all think of mistakes that were made by commanders. Off the top of my head, Prince Rupert is often blamed for losing control of his cavalry at both Edgehill and Naseby rather than exploiting the fact that the Parliamentary infantry had a flank exposed. At Raphia, Antiochus attempted to exploit the victory of his right flank, while Ptolemy launched a counter attack with his centre. Antiochus, on incomplete evidence, assumed that he had won, and turned out to have lost the battle.
I dare say that these sorts of accounts could be multiplied throughout history, and these are simply the tactical or grad tactical errors. Strategic mistakes are also manifold. As many of you probably know, Monty’s third law of warfare is ‘Don’t start a land war in Asia’. Both Napoleon and Hitler made this mistake, and paid for it in spades. As a matter of fact, it could be argued that Alexander of Macedon made a similar sort of error when he invaded India.
As a wargaming issue, I am sure that you can see the problem. Wargamers, standing over the table watching all the action going on, are unlikely to make these sorts of errors. The information presented to them is much more complete than any real commander and his staff could possibly have hoped for.
As mentioned in a previous post, there are some things that you can do to limit the damage. Scenarios can be disguised, so that Edgehill looks like an American Civil War battle, or Gettysburg is presented as a Franco-Prussian war clash. All this is well and good, and at least might throw the players initially as they try to match the set up with the real battle. But once the action starts, the knowledge that the players have of the status of the units and the state of the battle is far more complete than any real commander.
It is, I think, very hard to find any rule sets that tackle this as a problem. I suppose DBM, with its irregular commanders who could lose control of themselves and their troops made a stab, at least, in the direction of making sure that troops did things that generals did not expect or even, particularly, like or want.
In a similar way, older rules had some sort of ability for certain troops to run out of control. For example, the old WRG Renaissance rules by George Gush classed (some) Royalist cavalry as ‘A’ class morale, which had to check morale when, for example, they saw enemy troops for the first time. All well and good, perhaps, except that it does not really account for the times when the Royal horse did behave as their commanders wished, or, for that matter, when the Royal horse did not just charge off on a whim (which in fact was most of the time).
The normal response to this sort of problem is for wargamers to start muttering the word ‘umpire’. However, in this case, I am not at all sure that an umpire, except under special conditions where the players are given highly restricted views of the table, really solve the problem. Most wargamers are sufficiently experienced in the way of wargame to know, roughly, how things are proceeding and how they might turn out.
Only if the commanders are in a separate room, fed incomplete information from forward commanders and subject to intermittent cannon fire can we really start to ‘simulate’ the sorts of conditions where commanders make real time mistakes.
Of course, we could argue that as normal humans, we make mistakes all the time, and that would be true. Even Grand Masters make errors in chess, but I suspect that, in the cosy world of a friendly wargame, general mistakes are less common than they would be in the real world.
One way of simulating mistakes might be via a campaign game, where it is relatively easy (using a matchbox system, or an electronic equivalent thereof) to create some uncertainty in the minds of commanders, and thus create the conditions where errors due to lack of information might occur.
This is fine so far as strategic moves may go, but does not really create the battlefield conditions where tactical mistakes might happen.
I suppose the most sophisticated attempt to deal with this sort of issue is the Piquet series of games (which I have seen but not played). Here, you can see what combats are occurring but not how it is going, and thus, at least, some of the information is concealed from the player. A similar situation can arise in a role playing game where the players can see that they are inflicting damage on the enemy, but not how much damage they can take.
The problem with both of these, as compared with a conventional wargame, is that both have a fairly high threshold for preparation. In a role playing game, the game master has to set up and control the non-playing characters, and asses the state of their morale (for want of a better word). In Piquet the card deck has to be created, and a whole load of equipment is needed to run the game (at least in the demonstration games I have seen at shows).
Maybe, then, this is a problem that does not have a particularly good or elegant solution, but until it is tackled, we cannot really gain much insight into the problems of command.